Why The Kybalion Matters

The following is Mitch Horowitz’s introduction to his new audio condensation of  The Kybalion.


The short book called The Kybalion, published in 1908, is probably the most popular and, in my estimation, most important occult work of the twentieth century.

The book is rivaled in significance only by a much longer and very different work, Manly P. Hall’s magisterial encyclopedia arcana, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, which appeared twenty years later. The landscape of mythical and esoteric philosophies that the scholar Hall curated, illustrated, and documented in his volume are, in a sense, distilled into their practical philosophical essentials in the precise guidebook The Kybalion, written under the pseudonymous byline of Three Initiates.

As I’ve written elsewhere, and will not cover in any great detail here, Three Initiates was one of several pseudonyms used by Chicago publisher, lawyer, and New Thought philosopher, William Walker Atkinson, whom historical and documentary sources have identified as the book’s sole author. Atkinson was also its publisher at his Yogi Publication Society, a longtime and widely loved occult press. But unveiling the mystery of the book’s authorship in no way detracts from its scope and achievement.

Artist J. Augustus Knapp’s rendition of Hermes Trismegistus from Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1928.

The greatness of The Kybalion is that Atkinson successfully captures—and makes relevant for modern seekers—elements of the late-ancient Greek-Egyptian philosophy called Hermeticism. Hermeticism grew out of the intellectual ferment of the city of Alexandria in the decades immediately following Christ. In the closing generations of Egyptian antiquity, a diffuse collection of Greek writers—who were part of the Hellenic ruling class that presided over the fading empire—encountered the priesthoods, temple orders, and initiatory religions of Egypt’s dissipating spiritual culture. Using Greek literary form, these scribes produced a variety of dialogues attributed to the man-god Hermes Trismegistus—the honorific title of “thrice-greatest Hermes,” which the Greeks bestowed upon the Egyptian god of intellect Thoth, whom they venerated above their own Hermes.

These unsigned tracts became broadly known as the Hermetica. When rediscovered and translated by Renaissance scholars, the Hermetic texts, covering philosophic, magical, alchemical, and occult ideas, formed an essential part of the Renaissance outlook, and shaped elements of scientific and rational thought associated with the Age of Enlightenment—an era that would soon relegate Hermeticism to the fringes of history, treating it as little more than a curio of late-Greek mystical thought.

But the Hermetica represents far more than that, a fact Atkinson understood and placed on display in The Kybalion. History, especially religious history, is an admixture of crosscurrents, frictions, and influences. The value of the Hermetica is that it preserves a sample of Egyptian thought, enfolded within Greek literary style and intermingled with Neo-Platonic and Hellenic philosophy. This is of immense importance, since our insight into Ancient Egyptian thought, which was often passed on through oral tradition or encoded in hieroglyphs and myths, is limited. Indeed, until very recently, we possessed few serviceable translations of the Hermetic literature, which was neglected after the Renaissance.

In The Kybalion, Atkinson expertly and artfully, using the few Victorian-era translations available to him, summarized the metaphysical psychology of the Hermetica, and combined it with his own insights into New Thought, or what William James termed “the religion of healthy mindedness.” The occult revival of the late-nineteenth century and the New Thought flowering of Atkinson’s own era, provided the writer-publisher a perfect moment to reinterpret Hermetic ideas for a popular audience.

Hermeticism is not exactly the religious ancestor to New Thought. The paucity of translations and the rural surroundings of most of America’s New Thought pioneers placed these ideas off their path. Early New Thoughters were largely independent investigators and reached their insights about the mind’s causative abilities chiefly through self-experiment. But aspects of Hermeticism do represent a distant historical parallel to New Thought, especially Hermeticism’s core idea that a Great Mind of Creation brought all things into being, and that this same creative mental faculty dwells in all men, beings the Higher Mind created not only in its own image but to function in its own likeness.

“…your mind is god the father; they are not divided from one another for their union is life,” says the Hermetica. This statement would be at home in any New Thought book.

Atkinson brilliantly surmises the possibilities—and limits—of the mind’s power for earthbound men and women. If it were somehow possible for contemporary metaphysical seekers to reach back in time and have an exchange with the ancient Hermeticists, something like The Kybalion is probably as good an estimation as we can venture of what would appear.

I have reread The Kybalion many times, and encourage all who encounter these words to do so. But I have created this shortened version for several reasons: Brief as the original book is, its opening chapters present a detailed casebook in the nature of mental causation and the immaterial basis of reality—ideas that are perhaps more readily accepted today than in Atkinson’s generation, and some readers may find his lawyerly style of argumentation a barrier to entry. That barrier has been somewhat eased in this abridgement, but without sacrificing any of his ideas. I have also shortened some of Atkinson’s more speculative investigations—and I think he would have agreed that they were such—into the figurative nature of various corresponding planes of reality. I have also reduced the verbiage of certain arguments, in which he restated, as any good lawyer would, certain key premises.

The result, I hope, is an abridgement that retains the overall mission and, above all, the practicality of Atkinson’s original. This digest-sized edition is not a substitute for the original, but it is an excellent entry point for the newcomer and, perhaps most importantly, a way for longtime readers and lovers of the book to re-experience or remind themselves of key points.

Most importantly, it falls to you, the reader and listener, to enact and experience these ideas in your life. “For otherwise,” the book counsels, “the Hermetic Teachings will be as ‘words, words, words’ to you.”

Mitch Horowitz is a widely known writer and speaker on esoteric themes. His new book, The Miracle Club: How Thoughts Become Reality, comes out in October 2018 from Inner Traditions. Follow him @MitchHorowitz.

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