A Useless Tool: Peter Carroll on Neo-Platonism

An article on Peter J. Carroll’s website, “The Neo-Platonic Chocolate Screwdriver” (2014), sets out to examine why so many magickians and mystics “seem quite unaccomplished or dysfunctional on the material plane and so frequently penniless”. Carroll’s answer lies not in anything obvious, such as inequality of opportunity, or persons having different criteria for accomplishment from his own, but in the adoption of the neo-platonic worldview.

He characterises Neo-Platonism as:

positing the separate existence of the ‘essences’ of phenomena […] Basically in Platonism ‘whatever you can think of’ acquires some sort of a transcendental reality as an ‘essence’, and sometimes as a ‘sentient essence’ as well.

The problem with this worldview, according to Carroll, is its “insufficient reference to observed reality”. Essences cannot be sensed, and thus Neo-Platonism has “very low predictive power”, losing out to mechanistic thinking, which by focusing instead on what things do and how they work (rather than on pointless abstract speculation about what they somehow really are) is able to engage with reality more effectively.

Already we have arrived at the central issue: the assumption that to know how to work a thing is to know it fully. But in his rush to have “strangled the last astrologer with the guts of the last spiritual master” (2000: 46), Carroll never properly investigated what the latter might have offered: an actual means of knowing things as they really are.

Suppose I sit and stare at a blank wall. I experience the whiteness of the wall, its granularity, its undulations and cracks and scars. The details of the wall are endless, inexhaustible, revealing newer facets in each moment; indeed, what sense does it make to say this wall has some kind of singular “essence”? “Phenomena remain mutable, not fixed by essence”, Carroll asserts. “[P]henomena consist just of what they actually do, they don’t also have a separate abstract form of ‘being’, except in our minds […] phenomena lack any form of ‘otherness’”.

But what he overlooks is that we also have the experience of our experience of the blank wall. This has none of the attributes of the blank wall (whiteness, crackedness, lumpiness, etc.); all of those are within the experience of the blank wall. The level of experience I am pointing to is the shape taken by experience itself; not anything in experience.

A cartoon rainbow with a face, hard-hat and screwdriver.
Let’s go to work, with Neo-Platonism!

It usually takes considerable time and effort to develop awareness of this level of experience. Carroll’s talents are considerable, but a flair for meditation seems not to be among them. His meditative exercises for novices in Liber MMM (Carroll 1987: 14-16) are not suitable for developing this level of insight. Other forms of contemplation, however, can cultivate this level of experience that is the experience itself, from where it can be seen how any experience is the same as any other experience, regardless of its contents, or of who is having it. This provides access to a level of awareness that is universal, and casts an interesting and (at first) unexpected light on who can be said to be “having” this awareness, and on what its supposed object is.

The biggest problem with “essence” is understanding what the word means. It is from the Greek, ousia. This may come as a surprise, but the level of experience I described above is what the neo-platonists actually meant by it, rather than what is understood by the terms it is usually translated into: “essence”, “substance” (ouch), or (slightly better) “being”.

Here is how the philosopher Pierre Grimes describes ousia:

[T]o understand the forces and ideas that operate in our problems, we must turn our attention around and reflect on those things that escaped our notice. This turning about of our very being is what is called in Greek ousia, and in that motion there is a turning about of the mind toward a reality beyond mere existence. […] For Plato this reflective turning about is inherent in the very nature of Being, and when this feature is stressed it is called ousia. Thus, through our existence we can touch upon Being and participate in Being as ousia. (Grimes 1998: 50)

As Carroll suggests, essence (ousia) is not “observable” or “testable” but, as Grimes asserts, it may be grasped through becoming it. To do this, we turn the mind about upon itself, through contemplation, transcending sensory appearances to participate in Being directly. Essence (ousia) is not simply a concept or supposition, but a direct understanding attained through a practice.

The idea that Neo-Platonism tried to set itself apart from questions later raised by psychology or phenomenology is mostly a product of the mistranslation and misunderstanding of ousia. Consider the following proposition as another route into Neo-Platonism: the thing we know the least about is matter.

Why does an atomic particle act the way it does? We can perceive it, observe it, learn to predict its attributes and behaviours, but we cannot comprehend it “from the inside” in the same way as when we ask of another person: Why did he say that? We cannot predict with certainty the behaviours of even those closest to us, yet nevertheless we understand them deeply. Like us, they are a being, and so we can participate in their being; from the inside we grasp their “essence”. But the essence arises from our participation; it is not a separable thing “in” something.

Carroll writes that for nineteenth century occultism, when it became apparent that “the adept can more or less manufacture gods and spirits to order”, this was another “crack” in the edifice of neo-platonic thinking, but hopefully it is clear by this point how it was nothing of the sort. Would the great minds of the Platonic tradition really have concerned themselves with a worldview so patently broken as the one Carroll describes?

The earliest known analogue computer is the Antikythera mechanism, which has been dated (at the latest) to around the time of the destruction of Plato’s original academy (86 BC); in other words about 500 years before Neo-Platonism. Mechanistic thinking was already fully available to Greek civilization and its predictive power was well-understood; the Antikythera mechanism was an astronomical calculator. Yet by this time Plato’s ideas had already flourished for 400 years at the original academy, and would return again as Neo-Platonism (410-529AD). Why would the Greeks retain this so-called “chocolate screwdriver” if, apparently, they had a perfectly fine set of metal ones?

A corroded, rusty mass of cogs and metal.
The Antikythera Mechanism: the predictive power of mechanistic thinking, five centuries before Neo-Platonism.

Rather than providing understanding through participation in being, for Carroll Neo-Platonism is “a set of unfalsifiable ideas that have very low predictive power”. Regarding the hapless mages who lend credence to these useless ideas, “the more they let the Neoplatonic style influence their everyday activities the more of a mess they seem to get into”.

Carroll was one of the figures responsible for re-inventing magick based on the concept of paradigm-shifting. He would not claim that the neo-platonic paradigm is wrong (because that would be a backdoor through which a notion of “truth” could creep in), but that the “mess” is caused because Neo-Platonism is a less useful way of negotiating the world.

Yet seeking a useful paradigm is nevertheless to act on a basis of opinion and belief, because our choices are then guided by what we want. What is right and what is adventitious are not necessarily the same, but, as Socrates says: “what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good” (Plato 1997: 1131 [VI, 508d]). In other words, understanding is aided by the greatest possible good. But where we are guided by want, rather than goodness, then what we merely believe to be best can come to stand in place of what is genuinely good. Mechanistic thinking delivers predictable outcomes, within its paradigm, but buying into the paradigm itself can confuse predictability with goodness.

“We obviously don’t actually have fixed selves or souls or ‘essences’”, Carroll declares. “Watch a child grow, or more disturbingly, watch dementia take an elderly person.” But the neo-platonists watched children grow, and dementia was not unknown to them. These were as great a joy and tragedy to them as to us. Nevertheless they adhered to a meticulously reasoned and developed notion of the soul. Perhaps Carroll believes they were breathtakingly more stupid than he, or maybe he prefers the predictability of his own paradigm to the idea that, just perhaps, by “soul” is meant something different from what he has understood.

Replacing truth with utility, and dismissing understanding for observation, has led to a “mess” that is, unfortunately, at the very heart of chaos magick in its present form. Carroll’s half-baked views on Neo-Platonism cast little light on his odd non-question about why others make less money than he, but perhaps some light on himself: he seems to regard the measure of a mage as his or her bank balance, and he is maybe projecting inferiority onto others.

Other writings on his website suggest he will be joining, in spirit at least, the knees-up at the Brexit after-party, with Farage, Rees-Mogg, BoJo and company (Carroll, 2016). Their superior mechanistic reasoning renders their motivation inscrutable to the neo-platonic hoi polloi, but I would hazard a wild guess it might be, perhaps: stay rich, and get richer.


All quotations in this article are from Carroll 2014, unless otherwise indicated.

Peter J. Carroll (2014). “The Neo-Platonic Chocolate Screwdriver” (specularium.org).

Peter J. Carroll (2016). “Keep Calm and Carry On” (specularium.org).

Peter J. Carroll (2000). PsyberMagick: Advanced Ideas in Chaos Magick, revised second edition (Tempe, AZ: New Falcon).

Peter J. Carroll (1987). Liber Null & Psychonaut (York Beach, ME: Weiser).

Pierre Grimes (1998). Philosophical Midwifery (Costa Mesa, CA: Hyparxis Press).

Plato (1997). The Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube & C.D.C. Reeve. In: Complete Works (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett).

Our Fundamental Mode of Being

The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram
The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram.

In The Spell of the Sensuous (1997) ecologist and philosopher David Abram examines how our minds have become severed from sensory experience, and – consequently – our bodies disconnected from the natural world.

The blame for our current ecological plight he allocates predominantly to alphabetic writing, which destroyed the link between meaning and its basis in our physical participation in the processes and qualities of the natural world.

When linguistic signs become based on arbitrary vocal sounds (in contrast to pictographic symbols), then: “the larger, more-than-human life-world is no longer a part of the semiotic, no longer a necessary part of the system” (1997: 101). Consequently,

our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs […] Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses […] become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (1997: 267)

Specifically, it was the ancient Greeks who led us into this sorry state. “Socrates forced his interlocutors to separate themselves, for the first time, from their own words” (1997: 109). Myths and stories formerly provided a union with nature, which Plato’s writings undermined and destroyed. In an oral culture, a term such as “Justice” always has a context: it is expressed in stories as a specific occurrence, as an event that actually took place. Yet “Socrates attempts to induce a reflection upon the quality as it exists in itself” (1997: 111), and so we arrive – via Plato – at the sense of Justice as a thing-in-itself, an abstract entity with an existence somehow independent from the physical world. There is now scope for belief in a realm of ideas separate from nature, and Abram’s complaint is that we have become increasingly lost in this Platonic invention.

Abram’s book has been influential. His evocation of the role of sensation and perception in human cognition is powerful and compelling. He offers a philosophical foundation for shamanistic and ecological magicks. Yet I am troubled by his demonisation of Platonism, and his privileging of the body and nature above soul and intellect.

If, as Abram suggests, the invention of phonetic writing sealed us within a world of human signs, excluding the other in the body, in non-human species and the natural environment, then our conception of soul or spirit is a harmful, autistic delusion.

However, surely by coincidence, the very next book I read after Abram’s makes a similar but opposite argument. In The Primitive Edge of Experience (2004), psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden writes of a basic mode of human experiencing that he names “the autistic-contiguous position”:

Sequences, symmetries, periodicity, skin-to-skin “molding” are all examples of contiguities that are the ingredients out of which the beginnings of rudimentary self-experience arise. (2004: 32)

The elements of this level of experience, which first appears in early infancy, are perceptual sensations of bodily contact, hardness or softness, being rocked, rhythms of appearances and disappearances, all of which: “have nothing to do with the representation of one’s affective states, either idiographically or fully symbolically. The sensory experience is the infant” (2004: 35).

The Primitive Edge of Experience, by Thomas Ogden
The Primitive Edge of Experience, by Thomas Ogden.

Yet whereas Ogden concurs with Abram that the use of language or symbolisation detracts from experience at this autistic-contiguous level, in Ogden it lacks the Edenic quality evoked by Abram’s writing. For Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is “preparatory for the creation of symbols” (2004: 59), and to dwell exclusively within it presents a dilemma of becoming “entrapped in sensory experience” (2004: 78). For Abram, the sensory is primary and language is an autistic detraction. For Ogden, sensation attracts the label of “autism”, yet without any sense of pathology, because this type of non-reflective experience provides an essential “bounded sensory ‘floor’ […] of experience” (2004: 45), “the beginnings of qualities of who one is” (2004: 54).

For Abram, the turning in upon human signs results in alienation from the body. But for Ogden, the turning in upon sensory experience results in a basic sense of self on top of which further maturational developments may accrue. Both writers are exploring similar territory, but from opposing points of view. Placing these authors beside one another, perhaps we start to see how this “autism”, the reflexive turning in upon oneself, is perhaps not by definition detrimental. And perhaps neither is sensation or symbolisation necessarily malign or benign. Increasingly, it may seem that we are labouring beneath a false opposition between the body and spirit.

Abram himself recognises a flaw in his privileging of the sensory and those indigenous means of apprehending the world that are deeply rooted in it. “If our primordial experience is inherently animistic,” he wonders, “how can we ever account for the loss of such animateness from the world around us?” (1997: 90). The argument that x is our primary mode of being, but that x has been forgotten, contains a glaring contradiction that the forgetting of x is evidently more primary than x itself. In that case, perhaps the ecological crisis is not a consequence of the invention of writing so much as the forgetting of nature because our (even more) primary mode of being is, perhaps, forgetfulness. Indeed, for Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is a “position” (2004: 11), a kind of stance or attitude that may be lost, or into which we may fall at any time, if more sophisticated levels of being are placed under stress. Our fundamental mode of being is maybe neither sensory nor cognitive, neither bodily nor spiritual. Perhaps our fundamental mode of being consists in not having a fundamental mode of being.

Enlightenment traditions present themselves as the antidote to habitual forgetfulness. Techniques for realising the absence of a fundamental self rely on cultivating a turning inwards, a kind of intentional autism that contrasts with the reactive type that both Abram and Ogden evoke. Within enlightenment traditions, it does not appear to matter what the objects of that turning inwards might be, whether sensations, thoughts or meritorious actions. The intention is to realise how whatever fills experience is not fundamentally what we are, because it is not invulnerable to forgetting.

Applying this to magickal practice, my view is that magick is wherever we find it. There are body magicks and shamanistic nature magicks. But there are also word and number magicks, and magicks of abstract contemplation. They are not of equal value, but neither is one of them necessarily of greater value than all the rest.


Abram, D. (1997) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage.

Ogden, T.H. (2004) The Primitive Edge of Experience. London: Karnac.