Today is the birthday (1810) of Éliphas Lévi Zahed, born Alphonse Louis Constant, French occult author and ceremonial magician. “Éliphas Lévi”, the name under which he published his books, was his attempt to translate or transliterate his given names “Alphonse Louis” into classical Hebrew. Constant was the son of a shoemaker in Paris. He attended the seminary of Saint Sulpice from 1830, studying to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. However, while at the seminary he fell in love and left in 1836 without being ordained. He spent the following years among his socialist and Romantic friends, including Henri-François-Alphonse Esquiros and so-called petits romantiques such as Gérard de Nerval and Théophile Gautier. During this time, he turned to a radical socialism that was decisively inspired by the writings of Félicité de Lamennais, the former leader of the influential neo-Catholic movement who had recently broken with Rome and propagated a Christian socialism. When Constant published his first radical writing, La Bible de la liberté (1841, The Bible of Liberty), he was sentenced to an eight-month prison term and a heavy fine. Contemporaries saw in him the most notorious “disciple” of Lamennais, although the two men do not seem to have established a personal contact. In the following years, Constant described his ideology as communisme néo-catholique and published a number of socialist books and pamphlets. Like many socialists, he propagated socialism as “true Christianity” and denounced the various denominations as corruptors of the teachings of Christ.
Key friends at that time include, next to Esquiros, the feminist Flora Tristan, the eccentric socialist mystic Simon Ganneau, and the socialist Charley Fauvety. In the course of the 1840s, Constant developed close ties to the Fourierist movement, publishing in Fourierist publications and praising Fourierism as the “true Christianity” (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/charles-fourier/ ). Several of his books were published by the Fourierist Librairie phalanstérienne. He also embraced the Catholic traditionalist Joseph de Maistre, whose works were popular in socialist circles. An especially radical pamphlet, “La voix de la famine” (1846, The Voice of Famine), earned Constant another prison sentence that was significantly shortened at the request of his pregnant second wife, Marie-Noémi Cadiot.
In his “Testament de la liberté” (1848), Constant reacted to the atmosphere that produced the February Revolution. In 1848, he was the leader of an especially notorious Montagnard club known for its radicalism. Although it has been claimed that the Testament marked the end of Constant’s socialist ambitions, it has been argued that its content is in fact highly euphoric, announcing the end of the people’s martyrdom and the “resurrection” of Liberty: the perfect universal, socialist order. Like many other socialists, the course of events, especially the massacres of the June Uprising in 1849, left him devastated and disillusioned. As his friend Esquiros recounted, their belief in the peaceful realization of a harmonious universal society had been shattered.
In December 1851, Napoleon III organized a coup that ended the Second Republic and gave rise to the Second Empire. Similar to many other socialists at the time, Constant saw the emperor as the defender of the people and the restorer of public order. In the Moniteur parisien of 1852, Constant praised the new government’s actions as “veritably socialist,” but he soon became disillusioned with the rigid dictatorship and was eventually imprisoned in 1855 for publishing a polemical chanson against the Emperor. What had changed, however, was Constant’s attitude towards “the people.” As early as in La Fête-Dieu and Le livre des larmes from 1845, he had been skeptical of the uneducated people’s ability to emancipate themselves. Similar to the Saint-Simonians, he had adopted the theocratical ideas of Joseph de Maistre in order to call for the establishment of a “spiritual authority” led by an élite class of priests. After the disaster of 1849, he was completely convinced that the “masses” were not able to establish an harmonious order and needed instruction.
Constant’s activities reflect the socialist struggle to come to terms both with the failure of 1848 and the tough repressions by the new government. He contributed to the socialist Revue philosophique et religieuse, founded by his old friend Fauvety, wherein he propagated his “Kabbalistic” ideas, for the first time in public, in 1855-1856 (notably using his civil name). The debates in the Revue do not only show the tensions between the old “Romantic Socialism” of the Saint-Simonians and Fourierists, they also demonstrate how natural it was for a socialist writer to discuss topics like magic, the Kabbalah, or the occult sciences in a socialist journal. Constant developed his ideas about magic in a specific milieu that was marked by the confluence of socialist and magnetistic ideas. Influential authors included Henri Delaage (1825–1882) and Jean du Potet de Sennevoy (1796–1881), who were, to different extents, propagating magnetistic, magical, and kabbalistic ideas as the foundation of a superior form of socialism.
Lévi began to write Histoire de la magie in 1860. The following year, in 1861, he published a sequel to Dogme et rituel, La clef des grands mystères (“The Key to the Great Mysteries”). In 1861 Lévi revisited London. Further magical works by Lévi include Fables et symboles (Stories and Symbols), 1862, Le sorcier de Meudon (The Wizard of Meudon, an extended edition of two novels originally published in 1847) 1861, and La science des esprits (The Science of Spirits), 1865. In 1868, he wrote Le grand arcane, ou l’occultisme Dévoilé (The Great Secret, or Occultism Unveiled),published posthumously in 1898.
Constant resumed the use of openly socialist language after the government had loosened the restrictions against socialist doctrines in 1859. From La clef on, he extensively cited his radical writings, even his infamous Bible de la liberté. He continued to develop his idea of an élite of initiates that would lead the people to its final emancipation. In several passages he explicitly conflated socialism, Catholicism, and occultism.
The magic propagated by Éliphas Lévi became a great success, especially after his death. Spiritualism being popular on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1850s contributed to this success. His magical teachings were free from obvious fanaticisms, even if they remained rather murky; he had nothing to sell, and did not pretend to be the initiate of some ancient or fictitious secret society. He incorporated the Tarot cards into his magical system, and as a result the Tarot has been an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians. He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later on the ex-Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley. He was also the first to declare that a pentagram or five-pointed star with one point down and two points up represents evil, while a pentagram with one point up and two points down represents good. It was largely through the occultists inspired by him that Lévi is remembered as one of the key founders of the 20th-century revival of magic.
Constant not only developed his “occultism” as a direct consequence of his socialist and neo-Catholic ideas, but he continued to propagate the realization of “true socialism” throughout his life. According to the narrative developed by the occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse) and cemented by the occultist biographer Paul Chacornac, Constant’s turn to occultism was the result of an “initiation” by the eccentric Polish expatriate Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński. However, this narrative had been developed before Papus and his companions had any access to reliable information about Constant’s life. Also, a journey to London that Constant made in May 1854 did not cause his preoccupation with magic, although he seems to have been involved in practical magic for the first time. Instead, it was the aforementioned socialist-magnetistic context that formed the background of Constant’s interest in magic. It should also be noted that the relationship between Constant and the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton was not as intimate as it is often claimed. In fact, Bulwer-Lytton’s famous novel A Strange Story (1862) includes a rather unflattering remark about Constant’s Dogme et ritual.
Lévi’s works are filled with various definitions for magic and the magician. They are also replete with general wisdom which should see great light in my neverendingly humble opinion:
To practice magic is to be a quack; to know magic is to be a sage.
Magic is the divinity of man conquered by science in union with faith; the true Magi are Men-Gods, in virtue of their intimate union with the divine principle.
To be rich is to give; to give nothing is to be poor; to live is to love; to love nothing is to be dead; to be happy is to devote oneself; to exist only for oneself is to damn oneself, and to exile oneself to hell.
He looks on the wicked as invalids whom one must pity and cure; the world, with its errors and vices, is to him God’s hospital, and he wishes to serve in it.
When we love, we see the infinite in the finite. We find the Creator in the creation.
A good teacher must be able to put himself in the place of those who find learning hard.
Judge not; speak hardly at all; love and act.
There is nothing more to controlling demons than to do good and fear nothing.
Lévi believed that physical preparation for deep ritual was vital and diet was a key component. During the process he abstained from meat and ate simply. Being a vegetarian in France or England in the mid-nineteenth century was no easy task. There were, however, advocates of a diet that was supposedly healthier than normal. By modern standards the health benefits are questionable. This recipe is for a vegetarian version of British steamed pudding using mushrooms in place of meat. It comes from the Vegetarian Society of London which was founded in 1847.
One pint of mushrooms, half a pound of bread crumbs, and two ounces of butter. Put the butter in the bread crumbs, adding pepper and salt, and as much water as will moisten the bread; add the mushrooms cut in pieces; line a basin with paste, put in the mixture, cover with paste, tie a cloth over, and boil an hour and a-half. It is equally good baked.