June 13, 2018

Initiation, the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, and You

digital theft pirate piracy
You're a spoiled brat.
via Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
For better and for worse, the information age and the advent of the Internet have totally -- and probably irreversibly -- changed the world in which we live. There are many luxuries that I enjoy, not the least of which is the ability for me to share my thoughts here on my blog, but more generally the ability to by-pass jealous gatekeepers and seek out whatsoever knowledge and information I desire. I will be the first to tell you that if not for the Internet I wouldn't be as accomplished or successful of a Tarot reader (or as insufferable of a Satanist?) as I am today.

The Internet has surely also been a big help for the occult community as well as practitioners and scholars of new and marginalized religions. But you know, the Internet gives with one hand and takes with the other. I myself don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but in terms of the occult community one of the things that's been taken is formal initiations. Me being who I am, I think that in practice initiations are largely unnecessary and only a means for vested interests to selfishly and sometimes counter-productively decide who gets to join the inner circle, but me being who I am, I also think that initiations are meaningful and capable of validating experience.

Fortunately or unfortunately -- depending on your viewpoint -- the Internet has by and large eliminated the power of gatekeepers and neutered the power of formal initiations to control an initiate's access to information (as well as manage the risk of the initiate stealing the information.) This has led to a broader occult community -- if such a thing can even be defined? -- in which formal initiations are the exception and not the rule, and like it or not but each individual is in almost all circumstances now responsible for initiating him or herself into the mysteries of his or her school of thought. 

Whether this process of self-initiation is overt and ritually performed, or whether it's largely unobserved and unrecognized, I believe that the end result of initiation (formal or informal) is the confidence and competence of the initiate. In formal initiations, whether or not a fee is explicitly paid, there is always an expression of gratitude, respect, recognition, and praise given to the master who made the initiate's ascension possible. But in self-initiations, where is this principle of reciprocity? Has the initiate consumed the knowledge of the master and figuratively kowtowed before him or her who deserves it? Or did the initiate consume the knowledge of the master and not even bother to credit the master for his or her contributions?

To give you an idea why this matters to me, I want to talk about a legal doctrine called the fruit of the poisonous tree which basically states that evidence illegally obtained cannot be used against the defendant. The way I see it, when an initiate is formally or self recognized, the defining principle at play is whether or not the initiate compensates the master in the manner specified by the master. I believe that when an initiate chooses to not recognize the master, this is the same as the fruit of the poisonous tree, and until such time as the initiate pays the immaterial or material price, the initiate's lineage is poisoned and should not be considered valid.

So what, then, does initiation cost? Well, it depends on the master.

If the master in question is another person offering formal initiation, then this may resemble the initiatory structure of a Wiccan coven which requires aspirants to spend a year and a day studying and practicing with the coven's leadership before being welcomed into the mysteries. Although I'm surely no scholar of Wicca, I'm pretty confident in saying that covens typically don't charge fees or even collect tithes of any kind except to cover incidental expenses. Wicca as a religion and Wiccans as people tend to have a sour attitude about money as a precondition for anything, so consequently the price of initiation is measured in terms of consistent participation and the aspirant's willingness to be respectful to him, her, or them showing the way.

It could also resemble the initiatory structure of the Freemasons in which aspirants are required to pay an initiation fee plus annual dues. Given the Freemasons' history of being an exclusive club for rich men, it's no surprise that this tradition continues to the present day, but then how else will the Freemasons keep their lodges standing if not for the dues paid by those initiated into their mysteries? Even if the Freemasons are using very nearly all of the money they collect for charitable purposes, and even if today the price of initiation has a mysterious way of changing relative to the aspirant's wealth and social station, there's still a price tag involved. It's understood among the Freemasons that although spiritual or intellectual devotion to the literature is important, initiates are also required to demonstrate their commitment to the figurative master through money.

It could also resemble the initiatory structure of a Reiki instructor who's willing to teach a two-day crash-course in the mysteries of spirit and "energy" manipulation: all the initiate need do is sign up for the course, pay the specified fee, and it's showtime, baby! In this case, the literal master is willing to impart all the necessary knowledge including a lineage noting every instructor who came before back to the first master -- although nobody can explain who initiated the first master? -- and the new initiate can now show his or her bona fides to anybody who asks.

The important thing to remember is that in all three of the above examples, the initiate figuratively or literally compensates the instructor. Whether it's respect and recognition, or good, old-fashioned money, the aspirant accepts that the "master" (whatever form he or she takes) was necessary for his or her initiation and in one way or another thanks, recognizes, praises, or even pays the master. That is the price for a formal initiation.

But what about self-initiation? In this example, the aspirant guides him or herself toward initiation through the study and application of the works of the master, and for many aspirants this usually means reading lots of books. As for the literal or figurative price of self-initiation, this largely depends on the master in question. 

If the master is long dead and gone, and especially his or her work can be considered part of the public domain, then the price is figurative and requires only that the student devote him or herself to really understanding the work of the master and give credit to the master for the knowledge consumed (instead of intellectually plagiarizing the work of the master and pretending that he or she has just always known these things.) Perhaps the work in question is still being published and may be purchased in a store? Or maybe the work long went out of publication and now exist only in digital format in the furthest recesses of the Internet? I accept that as a result of the passage of years, the widespread accumulation of initiates, or falling into obscurity that a time or circumstance may come when a master can no longer claim his or her work as his or her own exclusively.

Speaking for myself, I prefer books I can touch and hold, but I accept that in the example of books which have been digitized or which are borrowed from a public library (or another person who already paid the material cost of the book) that the aspirant may offer no material payment since there is no longer any master to benefit from such payment, or the knowledge of the master is so widespread as to make material payment irrelevant. In this case, the cost of initiation is figurative and looks like a strong degree of intellectual honesty on the part of the initiate to acknowledge and to speak fairly of the source of his or her knowledge. 

Or, if the master is alive and well, then the price for initiation is to access the work in question according to the master's preferences for how that work should be accessed. If the master has offered his or her book for commercial publication, then the price is quite literal and the aspirant should pay the specified price. If the master has offered the book free of charge, then the price is figurative and requires that the aspirant should give credit to the master for his her creation and not deceive others as to whence came the knowledge.

Do you get what I'm saying? Whether the book is exists in physical or digital form is unimportant. What matters is the preference of the master who created the work so desired by the aspirant.

There are opponents to the monetization of knowledge, and at least in terms of the writing produced by academics and scholars whose work is supported by public research grants, or who are employed by institutions of higher education, I agree with them. When the work of a master is only possible through the financial underwriting of the public, then the public has a right to access to fruit of that tree. But when the master in question is an author who financially supports him or herself (or his or her family) through his or her work, then not paying the literal price of initiation is equivalent to theft.

If you know damn well that the author of a work is alive and well, and intended his or her work to be accessed only on the condition of monetary compensation, then the aspirant who chooses to consume his or her work through an unlicensed digital source or download is a thief whose desired lineage is a poisonous tree that will never be clean until he or she satisfies the demands of the master. The price of self-initiation is to satisfy the conditions set by the master, and if the master has specified the price of initiation to be paying for the book, then the aspirant should just fucking pay for the god-damned book already.

"But James," I can hear you say, "What about masters who charge a price so high that nobody can benefit from their work? If nobody can afford to read their work, then the work will disappear into the sands of time, and there'll be nothing to inspire the future generations. We have a moral obligation to pirate authors' work!"

I'm going to skip over the suggestion that people are too stupid to think for themselves because I'd rather discuss the apologetic that without the efforts of thieves to digitize and disseminate an infinite number of stolen books that the work of the master might be lost forever. To that I say, So what? How do you know the intentions of the master who created the work? There are people who might find this difficult to believe, but there are still some masters who are elitists and who don't want their books given to the masses. "Pearls before swine," they say, and though I can't really know sure if this is so, I would bet any amount of money that there are masters who would rather their work faded into obscurity than be rendered as disgusting slop for indiscriminate and inconsiderate consumers. Or, if a master is insufficiently enlightened that he or she suffers counter-productive pride and prices him or herself into oblivion, that's his or her own consequence to endure and should serve as a lesson to other masters as to what literal or figurative price their initiates must pay.

All of which is a very long way of saying that I think it's the absolute worst kind of hypocrisy for an aspirant to claim that the work of a master is so sufficiently valuable that he or she is entitled to have it for free no matter the preference of the master, but that the same work of the same master is also so insufficiently valuable that the aspirant shouldn't be obligated to pay anything for the privilege of consuming it.

If you are such an aspirant who thinks that you can initiate yourself into the mysteries of an admired author without paying the specified price for initiation, then by all means you go ahead and do what you think is right. I have neither the time nor the means to evaluate your initiation, and so long as you never confess to your thievery then I'll never know one way or the other how you came by your knowledge and competence in your chosen interests. But if you open your mouth and tell me about all the fruit you ate from the poisonous tree, then you can be sure I'll tell you that you're unworthy of the knowledge you claim to revere. No matter what else you prove with your words, you have proven by your actions that you believe the fruit of your master is worthless, and in my eyes so are you.


  1. There is an issue with the foundation of your argument, and it's that you've based it on an obsolete epistemology. Lineage based epistemology has been replaced by the more effective darwinistic epistemology in nearly every facet of life save for some of the oldest and most well entrenched religious organizations such as the catholic church (as it is the bedrock on which they built the authority they still enjoy, good old peter). Darwinistic epistemology in essence views ideas as being separate from their speaker, or practices as separate from their masters, and pits them against one another to select the most meritorious of the presented ideas. The best ones continue on and influence the world in which we live, the worst are forgotten in the trash bin of history. This is the system which is used by modern occultism, and has already produced a blurring of the traditions into one another. Ineffective rites are replaced by stronger ones, destructive philosophies are replaced with constructive ones, and the result is a series of new and more potent magickal traditions residing atop a mountain of failed experiments.

    It is a beautiful and recursive system, but one that leaves little room for the aggrandizement of experts. Masters come and go with the lunar phases in this new age, and those with egos too swollen to allow their personal gnosis into the fray are quite simply not fit to participate in our new age of enlightenment. Unless a good Samaritan where to lend them a helping hand, and just help them get out of their head a little bit. That kind of charity is admirable, no?

    1. The whole point of my argument which I summarized in the concluding paragraphs is that I believe it's intellectually dishonest to claim that something is valuable enough to be worth a place in one's mind (or heart, if you prefer), but not valuable enough to pay for (materially or immaterially.)

      I absolutely agree with you that weak, ineffective, or simply dated practices and customs are and will be replaced by ever stronger, more effective, and more progressive practices and customs, and I'm not at all opposed to that.

      The point I'm making is that if a an aspirant who would be initiated by a master, or into a master's work, then he or she should pay the figurative or literal price which may or may not include money, but I think absolutely includes recognizing and, in the way most reasonable, giving the literal, figurative, material, or immaterial nod which the master is owed.

      If, as you say, the master has a swollen ego, then as you also say he or she will become acquainted with the trash bin of history. But even if he or she is just the guru of the hour, I still think that it's intellectually dishonest for whosoever may find value in such a flash-pan guru's work to say that even if it's rubbish, it should be free. If it's worthy enough for somebody to act entitled to possess it, then it's worthy enough for the creator to be appropriately acknowledged.

      As for the "new age," I generally agree with you -- judging at least by habits, preferences, and customs among occultists today -- that what has worked in the past does not work in the present. For my own preferences, I would rather create fewer barriers to knowledge -- opinion? -- instead of more, and that's one of the reasons that I released the 2nd edition of my book under a Creative Commons license. I favor the wider, freer flow of information because I value the way that it can spark discussion and encourage evolution of thought.

      But that's just me, and the "price" that I charge for aspirants who want to be initiated into my mysteries -- if you'll forgive me the poetic use of these words -- is that they apply themselves to the task and give credit where credit is due. However, I'm not doing that because I think that's the way things must be for everybody who would contribute something of potential value. This isn't a "universal" rule, but a "personal" rule that applies to only me, and I think that every "master" who would offer something must choose for him or herself what barriers, conditions, or at least strongly-worded hopes he or she would put upon his or her aspirants...

      .. and that every aspirant should acknowledge that if something is valuable to him or her, there is a price to be paid.


Freedom of Expression =/= Freedom from Consequences