The Path of Initiation: Spiritual Evolution and the Restoration of the Western Mystery Tradition. J.S. Gordon. Inner Traditions, 2013. 589 pages. $29.95 USD.
review by J.S. Kupperman
In some ways, Paths of Initiation is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, it gets many of the “facts” it presents about the western mysteries, and western philosophy, wrong. Either his interpretation is flawed, or more rarely the information itself is innacurate. Sometimes, though not often, both of these is true. However, in many ways this isn’t really the point. I will get to this at the end of the review.
In writing about the western mysteries, and attendant philosophies, often Platonism, Path of Initiation is often severely flawed. For instance, in his discussion of the allegory of the sun in Plato’s Republic, Gordon says it is an “an esoteric metaphor describing internal enclosure of the terrestrial soul organism within which the human experience takes place” (54). Which it is not, although it is perhaps a discussion of ontological levels and the nature of “reality” within each. Nor is the idea that one ontological level contains the next ontological idea within it found in Platonism. In fact the opposite is true. In the Timaeus, the circuits of Sameness and Differences are not synonyms for spirit and matter as they are for Gordon (65).
Sometimes Gordon presents general ideas, such as the idea of moving from the universal to particular, which is common Platonic motif. However, what Gordon ultimately describes does not represent any particular historical idea fully. Instead, he appears to take bits and pieces from various ancient philosophies and use them to show Theosophical ideas are in line with the ancient ideas. This is despite that what Gordon presents are their own thing possibly developed within Theosophy in the 1800s by doing what exactly Gordon does in the 21st century.
That said, Gordon clearly has an understanding of many of the subjects about which he writes. Again, that understanding often seems flawed or superficial. Sometimes it seems spot on but subject to Theosophical reinterpretation. There are many areas where we may see something Gordon describes as being similar to what is found, for instance, in Neoplatonism. But in order for the ideas to be identical, we either have to decontextualize the Neoplatonic thought or drastically edit it. A good example of this is Gordon’s description of how the terrestrial and Causal souls are created (66). The idea Godron presents is similar to what is seen in the Timaeus, a fact Gordon does not state, but it is still not the same, and his terrestrial and Causal souls, so similar to the irrational and rational souls of late Platonism, are not quite either of those souls.
What we do not see are concepts from Plotinus, Pythagoras, Plato, Iamblichus, etc., presented in such a way that it appears as though the author is trying to understand those writers on their own terms, rather than through a Theosophical lens. He does this very well, and with great craft, often presenting a Pythagorean and Platonic idea in a limited enough way that it appears to correspond to the Theosophical or by interjecting a Theosophical reinterpretation in the middle of his discussion, thereby skewing the meaning of the original thought.
This is not, in and of itself, necessarily a bad thing. It is a book on Theosophy, and the works of Madame Blavatsky do the same thing. We can argue this is the standard model upon which Gordon can, and perhaps should, base his Theosophical writing. What he presents is excellent Theosophy. However, the book’s overall claim that Theosophical thought, as presented by Madame Blavatsky and Alice A. Bailey, is in line with the "western mysteries," by which he appears to mean writers such as those above, various kabbalists, and so on, is deeply problematic, if not outright flawed and misleading. His writing certainly does not support the claim. Instead, it supports the idea that the "western mysteries" can be successfully reinterpreted to represent and demonstrate Theosophical ideas. As a tool for understanding Theosophy, I cannot recommend The Path of Initiation enough. As a tool for understanding the western mysteries, I cannot recommend The Path of Initiation.