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January 15, 2014 By davidjones
By MITCH HOROWITZ — The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an explosion of spiritual teachers and impresarios dealing in “secret wisdom.” Their ranks included hacks and frauds – as well as more than a few genuine scholars of esoteric traditions. Most have vanished from memory, their writings a historical footnote. There exists one distinct figure, though, whose movement and teachings not only survived his passing but are even experiencing a revival in our day. His name is Manly P. Hall. While few academicians will ever know of him, Hall was among the twentieth century’s – and perhaps any century’s – most commanding and unusual scholars of esoteric and mythological lore. Yet the source of his knowledge and the extent of his virtuosity can justly be called a mystery. While working as a clerk at a Wall Street banking firm – the “outstanding event” of which involved “witnessing a man depressed over investment losses take his life” – the 28year-old Hall self-published one of the most complex and thoroughgoing works ever to catalogue the esoteric wisdom of antiquity, The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hall’s Secret Teachings is almost impossible to classify. Written and compiled on an
China. and the secrets of alchemy. alchemical formulae. the uses of cryptograms. More often they read like prosaic. in 1901 to parents who would shortly divorce. one is astounded to discover a short work of immense power from the young Hall – a book that seems to prefigure that which would come.Alexandrian scale. Arthurian myths. and philosophy. Manly moved on his own to Los Angeles where he began a precocious career in public speaking – first giving an address on reincarnation in a small room above a bank in Santa Monica. its hundreds of entries shine a rare light on some of the most fascinating and little-understood aspects of myth. which his grandmother tried to nurture in trips to museums in Chicago and New York. Like a bolt from the blue. Hall wrote a luminescent gem on the mystery schools of antiquity. Word spread of the boy wonder’s mastery of arcane and metaphysical subject matter. at the age of 21. the geometry of Ancient Egypt. On its frontispiece. and soon rising to the rank of minister at a liberal evangelical congregation called The Church of the People. Initiates of the Flame. Initiates of the Flame boldly announces: “He who lives the Life shall know the Doctrine. however. Hermetic doctrine. Ontario. Feeling the power . the symbols of Rosicrucianism. Yet Hall’s early letters from Japan. A Man Unknown Hall was born in Peterborough. Though brief. Today. He attracted benefactors and eventually began travelling the world in search of hidden wisdom. In 1922. the Native American myths. South Dakota. But there was a spark of some indefinable brilliance in the young man. a selfstyled Rosicrucian community in California took him in. At age 19. He had little formal schooling. and India are. Afterward. the esotericism of the Shakespearean dramas – these are just a few of Hall’s topics. Yet his background betrays little clue to his virtuosity. more than seventy-five years after its initial publication. Tragedy struck early. if somewhat sensitive. fairly ordinary: They contain little of the eye-opening detail or wonder of discovery that one finds in the writings of other early twentieth-century seekers encountering the East for the first time. Egypt. the book’s range of material astonishes: Pythagorean mathematics. when his grandmother died when he was 16. one sees in it the outline of what would become The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” The short book goes on to expound passionately and in detail on Egyptian rites. religion. in many respects. leaving the young Manly in the care of a grandmother who raised him in Sioux Falls. among other subjects. suspicious of the community’s claims to ancient wisdom. linear travelogues of their day. the workings of Kabala. an analysis of the Tarot.
A self-contained property designed in a pastiche of Mayan.lapismagazine. Hall copiously. In its day. and amassing a remarkable library of esoterica. Like a monk of the Middle Ages. After publishing his magnum opus. the reader can almost sense the seeds of greatness that were beginning to take hold in Hall’s grasp of esoteric subjects.(For further details. hefty. has also been recently reissued. Following Hall’s death in 1990. see “Bringing the Secret Teachings Into the 21st Century” by Mitch Horowitz at www. who claimed the group owed her money. and art deco styles.000 copies (and printing 1. pored over hundreds of the great works of antiquity. had befriended an ailing. Egyptian. Hall is an exception to most of his contemporaries as someone whose work is actually building in influence today. where he spent the rest of his life teaching. Hall published what would become known as “The Great Book” – and it has never gone out of print since. Secret Wisdom. distilling their esoteric lore into his volume. octogenarian Hall to pilfer his assets. where he tried his hand at banking – though he found his true path in the beaux arts Reading Room of the New York Public Library.200 more). the book spent much of its existence as an underground classic. Entering this cavernous space today. In late 2003. By the age of 28. almost superhumanly.” which has sold a remarkable 40. His most lasting record is a frequently trite. PRS barely survived simultaneous legal battles – one with Hall’s widow.000 copies in less than three years. and another with a bizarre father-son team of con artists who. and cumbersome. in the estimation of a civil court judge. Indeed. having pre-sold subscriptions for nearly 1. The Secret Teachings Born Hall soon returned to America. the Secret Teachings was expensive. writing. called Lectures on Ancient Philosophy. The Los Angeles Police Department considered Hall’s death sufficiently suspicious to keep it under investigation for several years. Practical Wisdom For all his literary output. As a result. however. young Manly P.org). PRS remains a popular destination for LA’s spiritually curious. it is not difficult to picture the large-framed. Hall opened a campus in 1934 in the Griffith Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles called The Philosophical Research Society (PRS).and ease in its pages. unrevealing childhood memoir called Growing Up with . the Secret Teachings found new life in a reset and redesigned “reader’s edition. Hall revealed little about his private life. A little-known 1929 companion volume by Hall. Hall surrounded by books of myth and symbol at one of the room’s huge oaken tables.
Rather. Hall told of “a personal philosophy with which to handle immediate situations. It was very different when the masters of science sought immortality and power. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. but not as unsympathetic as one might suppose – of the European occult in the Enlightenment era. As an adult.” Here was someone with a tremendous interest in the arcane philosophies of the world. Hence. such as the Renaissance-era magus Cornelius Agrippa. and visions. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth. Manly P. Victor confides his interest in the great alchemists and occult philosophers. in the occult and metaphysical philosophies.” After Hall’s death. while hopeless. in a union some surmise was never consummated. He did not marry until well into middle age. Arthur Whitney Palmer”). The work has many facets. Victor spoke for generations of occultists when describing his ideal of boundless grandeur. or a will to power. such views. . among them a portrait – not sympathetic. but now the scene was changed. exist on a grand scale – versus the certainties of his crusty professors?) An occult scholar born at the cusp of the twentieth century. Hall signalled a different kind of ideal. Victor ponders the unbridgeable gap between his magical visions and the scholasticism of his peers: I had a contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. How. In a sense. he wondered. Hall’s close relations were few. it was necessary for me to formulate a personal philosophy with which to handle immediate situations. could such ideas lend clarity to daily life? We’ll take a byroad that steers us in another direction before returning to this point. Our byroad involves one of the most famous novels in history. when Hall disclosed something about his background. The portrait comes in the character of a young Victor von Frankenstein. or on discovering keys that unlock the universe. He wrote this in a PRS newsletter in 1959: “As a result of a confused and insecure childhood. but his professors dismiss him with complete condescension.Grandmother (in which he refers to his guardian as “Mrs. power. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. immortality. were grand. (And who wouldn’t sympathise with the rebellious young Victor – whose dreams and ambitions. it was purposeful. a reporter in the Los Angeles Times noted. but he wasn’t fixated on immortality. One day in his room. a budding scientist torn between the occult teachings that drew him to science as a child and the prevailing rationalism of his teachers. he was focused on harnessing inner truths in a very practical way. although futile.
” For Hall. felt himself on a mission to re-establish a connection to the mystery traditions at a time when America. had given itself over to the Jazz-Age materialism he witnessed at his banking job.“Followers say he believed in reincarnation and in a mixture of the Golden Rule and living in moderation. such as The Golden Bough. on the other hand. Hall. . “After I thought the matter over. While the book is at times speculative and some of its sources are limited by the constraints of their era.” he wrote a few years before his death. regarded indigenous religious traditions as superstition – interesting museum pieces worthy of anthropological study but of no direct relevance to our current lives. the very act of writing The Secret Teachings of All Ages was an attempt at formulating an ethical response to the age he lived in. as he saw it. Contemporaneous works. “it seemed necessary to establish some kind of firm ground upon which personal idealism could mingle its hopes and aspirations with the wisdom of the ages. it is the only codex to esoteric ideas that treats its subject with total seriousness.” In this sense. the prodigious scholar achieved more than a cataloguing of esoteric truths. He turned the study of occult ideas into an ethical cause.
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