Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 16, Vol. 2. Vernal Equinox 2009

The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice, Christopher I. Lehrich.
Cornell University Press; Ithaca, NY, 2007. 246 pages. $19.95 USD.

review by J. S. Kupperman

The Occult Mind is Christopher Lehrich’s second major contribution to the study of the history of Western occultism. Like his previous endeavor, Occult Mind focuses on early modern magical thought, this time focusing primarily on Giordano Bruno, John Dee and Athanasius Kircher. Make no mistake about Lehrich’s work, it is scholarly in nature and in language and though certainly readable by the lay practitioner, said practitioner should keep a dictionary at hand.

The goal of the book is perhaps as mysterious as the subject. Lehrich does not, ultimately, attempt to define magic, though he discusses definitional approaches that have been made. He does not, ultimately, tell us how these early modern thinkers thought, though he does discuss how others have said they’ve thought. It is arguable that he does not tell us much by way of concrete fact at all, and this is, ultimately, quite refreshing. Instead Lehrich’s goal appears to be one of beginnings rather than ends. To this, well, end, Lerhich begins by deconstructing what has been done before in this field.

In some ways this makes Occult Mind two books. One book is about these early modern occultists, as well as some importantly related ideas such as the archetypal Ægypt and the development of tarot into an occult tool. This book delves into the thought processes of the people involved in an attempt to understand them, as much as possible, as a way to understand what their own goals, occult, political, intellectual, etc., might have been and how they were to be accomplished via their occult endeavors.

The second book is a thorough critic of both historians of science in their dealing with the occult and with the methodologies and theories of said historians and other scholars who have dealt with the subject. In this book Lehrich shows or suggests frequently fundamental mistakes in understanding other scholars have made in attempting to understand thinking done as such a far remove from our own.

These two books are, of course, the same book and must be read as a single unit; one part is not only unintelligible without the other, it is largely irrelevant. The weaving of history and comparison, to of Lehrich’s greatest theoretical, and seemingly antithetical, concerns, is masterfully done, bringing the reader back and forth between “then” and “now,” and how both of these mediate the mythological then of Ægypt is not only informative and insightful, but necessary for a new understanding of the history of the occult and its influence on later thinkers.

In the end, though, Occult Mind does not come to concrete conclusions. In Lehrich’s own words he does not conclude, he ceases. This is because Lehrich sees Occult Mind as a starting point, a new methodological approach for the study of early modern magic, one that, in his opinion, is greatly needed. He clearly recognizes the difficulty of the endeavor. The approach of the historian and the approach of the comparative scholar of religion, for example, are in opposition; synchrony and diachrony do not play well together. Yet these opposing strategies are found to be brought together by occult thinkers, causing one who approaches the subject from one or the other to, ultimately, and perhaps sadly, misread the mind of the magus.