following article appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Atlantis Rising magazine (www.atlantisrising.com).
The Inscrutable Manly P.
The Author of The
Secret Teachings of All Ages Remains an Enigma
By Mitch Horowitz
To speak of special gifts or powers
possessed by contemporary spiritual teachers is to enter risky territory. Charlatanism and
chicanery are wearily familiar among messengers who claim to possess
clairvoyant perception, channeled wisdom, or supernormal abilities. Yet once in a great
while a man or woman produces an achievement that eludes easy explanation something
that strains the bounds of our ordinary efforts at evaluation.
In the case of Canadian-born spiritual
scholar Manly P. Hall, such an achievement came in the form of a single book, though Hall
would write many in a career that spanned much of the last century. In 1928, Hall self-published what may be the most
thorough, learned, and variegated codex to the esoteric wisdom and mysteries of antiquity:
The Secret Teachings of All Ages completed before he had turned 28 years
Originally published in an oversized,
coffee-table format, the Secret Teachings was expensive, hefty, and sometimes
cumbersome to read. As a result, the book spent much of its seventy-five year life as the
closely held though widely venerated treasure of students of ancient
mysteries and the occult. Late last year, however, the Secret Teachings was made
broadly available for the first time in an affordable and compact edition. Yet even in its
new reader-friendly format, the books sheer depth of material retains its ability to
astound: Pythagorean mathematics; alchemical formulae; Hermetic doctrine; the workings of
the Kabala; the geometry of Ancient Egypt; the Native American myths; the uses of
cryptograms; an analysis of the Tarot; the symbols of Rosicrucianism; the esotericism of
the Shakespearean dramas these are just a few of Halls topics.
The scale of his bibliography alone is
extraordinary. Its nearly 1,000 entries range from the core works of Plato, Aristotle, and
Augustine, to translations of the Gnostic, Nicene, and Hermetic literature, to the
writings of Paracelsus, Ptolmey, Bacon, Basil Valentine, and Cornelius Argippa, to works
of every variety on the ancient and esoteric philosophies religious, mythic, or
metaphysical that have expressed themselves in symbol or ceremony.
Who was this great and gifted master of
ancient wisdom? His early life provides few clues to his virtuosity: Hall attended no
formal university, his roots in Canada and the American West were comfortable if ordinary,
his youthful letters betray no special fluency with the complexities of the ancient world,
and one of his first forays into professional life was as a clerk at a Wall Street banking
firm. Can we
simply conclude that the Secret Teachings was the effort of a precocious and
preternaturally gifted young man? One is tempted to say so, and yet: the sheer volume and
depth of understanding presented in his book it would seem to be the product of a
whole lifetime, and a worthy one at that; his having written it before age 28 with none of
the resources we take for granted today; his mastery of subjects ranging from Egyptian
geometry to Greek philosophy to the complexities of Kabala, are nothing less than jaw
dropping. The question reasserts itself on nearly every page: How did this large-framed
young man with little formal education produce the last centurys most unusual and
masterly book on the esoteric wisdom of antiquity?
Hall was born in Ontario on March 18th,
1901 to a father who was, according to one close admirer, a dentist by profession and a
mother who was a chiropractor. One scholar of Halls work reports that his parents
later divorced and young Manly was raised by his maternal grandmother. In 1985, Hall wrote
Growing Up With Grandmother, a tribute to the woman he called Mrs. Arthur
Whitney Palmer. The short book is notable, in a sense, for what it reveals about
Halls reticence to broach virtually any personal aspect of his childhood or
adolescence. Born at the close of the Victorian Era, here was a man perhaps marked by a
period in which the details of private life were not easily shared.
While Hall had little traditional
schooling, one can follow a beeline through his early twenties that suggests a burgeoning
interest in foreign travel and esoteric traditions: He wrote letters from Japan, Egypt,
China, and India; he gave public lectures on arcane topics; he was reported to have
studied for a time with Houdini; and he was named a minister by a
liberal metaphysical congregation in Los Angeles called the
Church of the People. For all his growing
achievements, Halls literary output in those early years could be called uneven. His
published letters contain little of the eye-opening detail or wonder of discovery that one
finds in the writings of other early 20th century seekers encountering the East for the
first time. Sometimes his letters from abroad read like little more than prosaic, if
sensitive, linear travel diaries of their day.
Like a bolt from the blue, however, one
is astounded to suddenly discover a short work of immense power from the young Hall
a book that seems to prefigure that which would come. In 1922, at the age of 21, Hall
wrote a luminescent gem on the mystery schools of antiquity, Initiates of the Flame.
Though brief, one sees in it the outlines of what would become The Secret Teachings of
All Ages. On its frontispiece, Initiates of the Flame boldly announces:
He who lives the Life shall know the Doctrine. The short book goes on to
expound passionately and in detail on Egyptian rites, Arthurian myths, and the secrets of
alchemy, among other subjects. Feeling the power and ease in its pages, one can almost
sense the seeds of greatness that were beginning to take hold in Halls grasp of
esoteric subjects. Hall collaborated on the work with artist J. Augustus Knapp, with whom
he would later design a Tarot deck and whose paintings grand re-imaginings of
ancient events would later run throughout the Secret Teachings.
Another factor behind the birth of the Secret
Teachings may have been the young Halls reaction to the times he lived in: the
Roaring Twenties. Hall was alarmed by the materialism of the day, which he encountered
firsthand in his brief career at a Wall Street brokerage firm just before the Great
Depression. In one preface to the Secret Teachings, Hall described the
outstanding event of his Wall Street career as witnessing a man
depressed over investment losses take his life. One could imagine the young,
spiritually minded Hall worrying whether the fading Jazz Age-frenzy that gripped our
culture would spell ultimate decline for our fluency in ethics, religion, myth, symbol,
and the love of learning that characterized his later work.
Hall was working in an age that tended
to marginalize native religious traditions or the newly discovered philosophies of the
East. Even great spiritual studies of his day, such as The Golden Bough,
characterized primeval religions as museum pieces, not living philosophies possessed of
ideas still awaiting discovery. With very few exceptions, Hall wrote,
modern authorities downgraded all systems of idealistic philosophy and the deeper
aspects of comparative religion. Translations of classical authors could differ greatly,
but in most cases the noblest thoughts were eliminated or denigrated
was based largely upon the acceptance of a sterile materialism.
To signal how his approach differed
from the prevailing mood, Hall would quote his philosophic hero, Francis Bacon, early in
the great book that was now taking shape: A little philosophy inclineth mans
mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth mens minds about to
By 1928, Hall succeed in
publishing his completed opus in a self-financed first printing of 2,200 copies, and the
work called The Great Book by its admirers would never be out of
The New Life of
The Great Book
In 1934, Hall founded the Philosophical
Research Society (www.prs.org) in Los
Angeles, which has published sumptuous, oversized editions of his volume ever since. In an
historic first in spiritual publishing, my colleagues and I at Tarcher/Penguin (where I am
executive editor) recently partnered with PRS to produce an alternate Readers
Edition of The Secret Teachings of All Ages. While existing editions remain
in print, this reset, reformatted, compact-sized, and affordably priced trade paperback
makes the complete text of the Secret Teachings available to a large general
audience for the first time.
Halls original volume is composed
of varying columns, captions, and inset text sometimes as jarring to the Western
eye as a page of Babylonian Talmud. Hence, the task of newly formatting the work into a
faithful, but reader-friendly, edition was ambitious and arduous. At expenses that
ran into many thousands of dollars and amid surprising complexities we began
the process by electronically scanning the full text.
When an entirely new manuscript of more
than 1,400 pages landed on my desk in a pile about 8-inches high as though it had
just rolled off of Halls Edwardian-era typewriter it was a shocking
experience: here was the freshly minted manuscript of a work that had stood largely
unaltered for a lifetime. It was, however, revealing, in one of many senses, to dissect
and reassemble the text of the Secret Teachings. Like a literal translation of
the endlessly fascinating Chinese wisdom book the Tao Te Ching, one can take
apart and scrutinize a whole work, put it back together again, and realize that
youve come no closer to solving its mystery.
A Man Known and
It would be asking too much of Hall
or any great teacher to suggest that he always found his mark. His literary
or religious essays sometimes dwell on narrow points, such as a 1946 consideration of
Ralph Waldo Emersons meditation on spiritual laws, Compensation, in which
Hall appears to miss the works full scope. Nor was Hall always judicious. In the
first issue of his quarterly journal Horizon in 1941, he published an
astoundingly insensitive essay entitled, The Jew Does Not Fit In, in which he
postulated that Jewish business practices were Oriental in nature and therefore
chaffed at contemporary Western sensibilities. Measured against more
than half a century's public output - in which Hall pled for a human
family that transcends religion or nation - the essay appears a stark
Hence, in the figure of Manly Hall, we
find remarkable powers of discernment mixed with the profound flaws of
the most ordinary person.
But still the question remains: How did a modest, solidly built young man craft what can
be considered a one-of-a-kind codex to the ancient occult and esoteric traditions of the
world all before his 28th birthday? To read Halls work is to experience a readerly joy rarely associated with ordinary compendiums of wisdom its depth,
breadth, and detail are, simply put, not ordinary, and not easily understood.
In an obscure astrology magazine of the
1940s, a biographer of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote a profile of Hall,
which holds an interesting passage:
The question is constantly asked on all
sides as to how Mr. Hall can know and remember so much on so many different and difficult
Perhaps a direct answer to this constant question may be discovered in the
following episode in the life of Mr. Hall himself: The first question Mr. Claude Bragdon,
American mystic, asked Mr. Hall after their first meeting in New York in 1937 was:
Mr. Hall, how do you know so much
more about the mathematics of Pythagoras than even the authorities on the subject?
Standing beside both these dear
American friends of mine, I was wondering with trepidation in my heart what reply Mr. Hall
Bragdon, answered Mr. Hall quickly,
unhesitatingly, and with a simultaneous flash of smile in his eyes and on his lips, you are an occult philosopher. You know that it is
easier to know things than to know how one knows those things.
Value of The Secret Teachings
To the question of how Hall achieved
what he did, some of his admirers suggest that he was born with knowledge from other
lifetimes; others that he had a photographic memory. In the end, perhaps one can only
conclude such a question with still more questions. But this much is clear: Readers who
discover The Secret Teachings of All Ages for the first time today will encounter
a book probably unlike any they have seen before. The accomplishment of the Secret
Teachings, in part, is that it may be the only serious compendium of the last several
hundred years that takes the world of myth and symbol on its own terms.
Hall realized, perhaps more deeply than
any other scholar of his time, that the ancients possessed extraordinary powers of
observation ways of understanding the correspondences between the outer natural
world and mans inner state that were equally potent, and equally worthy of
study, as their gifts for calendars, architecture, reason, and agriculture. One can read,
for example, his masterly twelfth chapter, Wonders of Antiquity, and learn
something about what was experienced at least so far as we can venture in
the consultation of the oracle at Delphi. Perhaps speculative at times, his seventh
chapter, The Initiation of the Pyramid, conveys something of the marvel of
Egypts priestly rites, from an age when the rise of monotheism was as distant to the
Egyptian adept as he is to us.
Hall would observe the workings of
esoteric cultures with the same passion and awe that one finds in historians who were a
living part of the history they wrote about. In the darkening night of the decayed Mayan
empire, the late-18th century Mayan historian known as Chilam Balam of Chumayel, looked at
the culture that had very nearly slipped away at its calendars, its mathematical
skills, its astrology, and lamented:
They knew how to count time,
Even within themselves.
The moon, the wind, the year, the day,
They all move, but also pass on.
All blood reaches its place of rest,
As all power reaches its throne
This, in a sense, is the universal
voice that finds its way into each century to tell of the wonders of the past. It found
its way to the 20th and now the 21st century through Manly P. Hall. His is
the voice that runs like a luminescent thread through history telling the stories of those
who have passed, not as a distant judge, but as a lover of the knowledge embodied in the
* * *
Sources Quoted in this Article
Manly P. Hall; The Secret Teachings
of All Ages: Readers Edition; Tarcher/Penguin; 2003; Philosophical Research
___________; Initiates of the
Flame; Collected Writings, Vol. 1; Philosophical Research Society; 1958.
___________; The Jew Does Not Fit
In; Horizon; volume 1; number 1; August 1941.
___________; Emersons Essay
on the Law of Compenstation; Horizon; volume 6; number 1, Summer 1946.
Demetrio Sodi Morales; The Maya
World; Minutiae Mexicano; 1976.
Basanta Koomar Roy;
Americas Timeless Philosopher; reprinted from Wynns Astrology
Magazine; Horizon; vol. one; number 4; Nov.-Dec. 1941.