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“Muggle Jobs” and the Prosperity Theology of Occultism

Occult blogger (and fellow Minneapolitan) Scott Stenwick recently posted an article weighing in on the curious disdain that some people in the esoteric community seem to have toward magicians holding down day jobs.  For those who haven’t encountered this phenomenon, the argument goes that if a person were really a good magician, they would be able to magic themselves into enough riches that they don’t need to work for a living.

As Scott points out, the idea that an author can make a full-time living from publishing in a niche market such as esotericism is a relatively naive one.  Since he skillfully debunks the idea from a feasibility standpoint, I’d like to focus instead on where the idea comes from in the first place and why it’s wrong-headed in its foundational assumptions.

The core feature of this viewpoint appears to be that a good magician should be able to focus on his or her magic, make a living at it, and not have to work a boring “muggle job” in the mundane world.  But as Scott observes in his post, “Promoting magical products like books is a job.”  The underlying assumption of the position is that spending eight or more hours a day at a day job is a distraction from one’s spiritual work, and that making a living from one’s magic enables the magician to concentrate on the Work of inner development.  I suspect that none of the people who espouse this viewpoint have ever worked in a “creative profession,” since they seem to lack any concept of how difficult it is to make a living in one.  That said, trying to make a full-time living from one’s writing or other esoteric work does allow a person to develop a great many skills.  Those skills cover a wide diversity of areas such as writing, marketing, networking, and sales.

Notice that the above list does not include “actually doing magic.”

If anything, I would tend to argue that trying to make a living from one’s magic runs the risk of severely detracting from one’s magical work.  I grew up in a generation that was very much sold on the idea that when it comes to career, you should do something you love.  What I’ve instead discovered in my own life is that there is no quicker way to kill your love of something than to do it for a living.  When what you love becomes tied to your livelihood, when it becomes a requirement for your sustenance, it becomes a chore.  And few people enjoy doing chores.  (Those that do, please contact me–you can come over and clean my house, it’ll be a great time for us both.)

Moreover, while I certainly don’t think it’s vulgar or inappropriate for a person to make money in the esoteric field from writing, teaching classes, performing services, or what have you, when you try to turn that into a full-time venture it necessarily means that the focus is no longer primarily on the quality and intrinsic value of the material being offered.  You’ve got to sell something to pay the bills, which means that money takes the front seat.  And when that happens, when spirituality becomes commodified–that’s when things take a turn for the vulgar.  Frankly, I trust a magician who has a day job a lot more than one whose livelihood depends on selling me something.

The idea that a successful magician shouldn’t need to hold down a mundane job also runs counter to centuries of history.  Within the Golden Dawn, William Wynn Westcott was a coroner and Robert Woodman was a surgeon.  Samuel Mathers was the only one of the three who didn’t consistently hold down a day job, but he managed this by living off of Annie Horniman’s generosity–a situation that ended up creating a great deal of acrimony in their relationship when he kept continually squeezing her for funds while seemingly disinterested in producing any of his own.  Let’s keep in mind as well that while Mathers was undoubtedly a brilliant magician, he was also arguably a narcissistic autocrat who was largely responsible for tearing the original Order apart.  Somehow I don’t think his is the example we should be emulating.  Stretching back to earlier history, although magic and science commingled during the Renaissance in ways that are foreign to contemporary western culture, even the luminaries of that era held down mundane jobs to pay the bills.  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was a soldier, a university lecturer, and a physician.  John Dee was a scientist and mathematician.  Robert Fludd was a medical doctor.  The same trend exists into the modern day, for magicians both within and outside the narrow province of Hermeticism.  Aleister Crowley represents one of the very few exceptions to the rule, but he was independently wealthy–and much like Mathers, while Crowley was certainly a magical genius, he didn’t exactly set a great example for others.

So where does this idea come from, then?  Though he doesn’t explore the concept further, I think Scott hits the nail on the head when he says, “It’s not necessarily the case that a successful magician has to be rich. I’m not pitching some sort of twisted Prosperity Gospel here.”  While most people who espouse a disdain for magicians holding down day jobs would probably consider themselves far removed from the likes of Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, I think this idea comes out of the exact same roots that spawned the prosperity theology found in certain modes of evangelical Christianity.

The idea that spiritual devotion should translate into material success is hardly new, though it is almost a uniquely modern and American phenomenon.  Rising out of the 1890s and hitting its stride in the early 20th century, the same “New Thought” movement that spun off into Christian Science and the more materialistically-inclined Christian prosperity gospel also insinuated its way into certain forms of occult thought–thanks in large part to The Kybalion, which found more purchase in Hermetic circles than it ever had a right to.  While the intellectual legacy of The Kybalion exists most clearly these days in vaguely new-agey self help books like The Secret and The Law of Attraction, its subtle tendrils still surface in attitudes such as the one currently under discussion.

In the end, the view that a “successful” magician shouldn’t need to hold down a day job succumbs to the same foibles of prosperity theology, by virtue of the fact that both ideas share a common root.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to my day job.

3 Comments

  1. Unknown

    They might have disdain for it, but how many occultists don't have a day job? The Kybalion is nothing to do with magic or occultism. It is new thought from the 19th century (a precursor to the new age movement) . If anyone expects real magicians to work along those bogus beliefs then it is not surprising. But there are similar concepts that a magician has to be benign, loving and saint-like.

  2. Spencer M. Graves

    And this is why I think you really only find that attitude among the sort of "armchair occultists" who make a hobby out of setting themselves up as experts, criticizing the work of others when it doesn't conform to their assumptions, and never actually getting around to doing the Work themselves. Ditto with the expectation that magicians will be fluffy bunnies. In the end I think it comes down to a really pernicious tendency to overlook (or outright erase) the fact that magicians are human. What's even worse is when the magicians themselves start to drink the kool-aid.

  3. Anonymous

    If anything, shouldn't it be the case that a magician ought to be *remarkably adept* at their day job? I mean, if magic makes it possible for a magician to be more skilled and more capable, and served by crews of spirits, elementals, and assorted powers — then shouldn't it follow that a magician does amazing things, not *for* magic, but *with* magic? I mean, the magicians of the past whose names we know… John Dee was an astrologer and spy and philosopher-scientist for Queen Elizabeth, Fludd was an important physician, Newton's early career in alchemy in part prepped him for his later gravitational-mathematical work; and might not his magic have helped him land a job at the Royal Mint much later? Apollonius and Ficino and others — I mean it's hard to know if they were AMAZING, because "even great deeds done by magic can be forgotten utterly" — but their stories come down to us even now as Amazing people who did great things because they were out to do great things, not necessarily for themselves but for the whole world as they knew it — advance knowledge, find medicines, restore the knowledge of ancient Rome, find the elixir of everlasting life, build a globe-spanning empire (For someone else), understand the secret motion of the heavens…

    I mean, great things are possible if you don't worry too much about the credit. And the credit usually winds up on the wrong head, anyway.

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