Book Review: 'Heinrich Tränker' by Volker Lechler - Part 2
3. On the Pansophic ideal
In order to understand the Pansophic ideal Tränker was promoting throughout most of his lifetime we need to go back all the way to the 17th century. Here we come across a now famous scholar and teacher who by many was perceived as a madman during his own time: Johann Amos Comenius (1592 - 1670).
Without exaggeration Comenius today is called the father of our modern education, pedagogy and didactics. He had learned from the direct mentorship of Johannes Valentinus Andreae - a critical link in the Rosicrucian lineage - who also recognised Comenius as his intellectual heir (source 1 / source 2). Thus in understanding Comenius’ attempts to radically reform the educative system of his time we need also need to be conscious of the Rosicrucian agenda he maintained throughout this lifetime:
“Andreae was inspired by their correspondence to pass the torch to Comenius, whom he entrusted with the task of promoting the ‘General Reformation of the Whole World’, as it is called in the Fama. The passionate Comenius hardly needed encouragement in this respect. From then on, his life was devoted to developing the high ideals of the Rosicrucians and other kindred spirits into a method which everyone might practise, irrespective of his or her individual background, and which would lead step by step to God, the source of Light itself.” (Rachel Ritman, The College of Light)
Or in Comenius' on words:
“ (…) we may hope that 'an Art of Arts, a Science of Sciences, a Wisdom of Wisdom, a Light of Light' shall at length be possessed. The inventions of previous ages, navigation and printing, have opened a way for the spread of light. We may expect that we stand on the threshold of yet greater advances. (…) There should be a College, or a sacred society, devoted to the common welfare of mankind, and held together by some laws and rules. A great need for the spread of light is that there should be a universal language which all can understand. The learned men of the new order will devote themselves to this problem. So will the light of the Gospel, as well as the light of learning, be spread throughout the world.” (— Via Lucis, published 1648 and 1668, source)
Comenius translated the Rosicrucian ideals into practice in the most radical way: he aimed at nothing less but at the root of every society, its educative system. Thus his goal was to completely revolutionise the philosophy, framework and premises of the education system of the 17th century in Europe. At later stages in his life Comenius summarised his particularly approach in the ideal of ‘Pansophia’; a term derived from the greek roots of ‘pan’ (all) and ‘sophia’ (wisdom) which is best translated as omniscience or universal wisdom. Comenius’ goal of a pansophic approach to education was nothing less but to create an educative system that was able to teach everything to everyone in a truly holistic manner („Omnes omnia omnino excoli“).
Now, such a goal might seem straight forward today, yet even still during Tränker’s times it was hugely aspirational. Just pause for a moment and reflect: the European witch-hunts were still at its peak during the beginning of the 17th century, the Thirty Year’s War had devastated vast parts of Europe and the bubonic plague - often called the Black Death - had been slashing cities, communities and whole countries for more than 250 years already and would continue to do so for another 150 at least. I guess it’s fair to say that surviving during these times wasn’t exactly a smooth ride. Average life expectancy in e.g. England during these days hovered somewhere between 25 and 40 years. Take all of these tolls into account that people were wrestling with in their everyday lives - and here comes a clergyman from extremely poor family conditions somewhere from the middle of nowhere in Moravia without even a doctor’s degree and challenges potentates across Europe to do nothing less but:
- open all schools for children from any social background
- provide particular support for impoverished children
- introduce mixed gender classes across the country
- spent huge amounts of money to write and print schoolbooks for all pupils
- combine text and pictures in all of these textbooks in a completely unknown way at the time
- sub-divide and arrange all content in gradual increase of complexity class by class
- rethink each lesson’s teaching concept to appeal to as many senses of the pupils as possible
- completely redesign the way priests were trained to become teachers in such schools
- and adopt and embrace the concept of life-long learning for anyone who left school.
"Everything wherever possible should be presented to the senses, what is visible to the face, what is audible to the ear, what is smelling to the odor, what is tasteful to the taste, what is tactile to the touch. And if something can be picked up by different senses at once it should be presented to all of these at once.” (Comenius , cit. n Flitner 1954, p.135; source wikipedia)
It’s easy to understand Comenius was no man of few enemies. Which is also why he traveled a lot throughout his life - including Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Transylvania, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the Netherlands and Royal Hungary - always on the lookout for support from wealthy people to fund and foster his educative revolution.
Ultimately, however, Comenius succeeded: He was given permission to establish a school in a town in Northern Hungary that would take a completely revolutionary approach to teaching and follow his suggestions in practice. Despite a vast amount of challenges and constant attacks by local reactionaries he succeeded in setting up the first three of seven classes planned. However, in addition this school also gave Comenius a laboratory environment to test many of his new ideas in practice. As a result his influence across Europe continued to grow, his highly influential book ’Janua Linguarum Reserata’ (The Door of Languages Unlocked) was ultimately translated into twelve European and several Asian languages and an illustrated version of the book published in 1658 became the first ever picture book as well as full cyclopaedia for children. Comenius’ collective works until the present day not only provide the beginning and much of the backbone of Western pedagogy and didactics; they also mark the fulminant origin story of the concept of Pansophia.
Now, let’s look at Comenius’ achievements in an occult light and explore the significance they might have had for Tränker - and could still have for any practicing magician today?
In order to do this we need to understand what fuelled Comenius’ activism and ideas? We need to understand what the ideal or vision was that made him ruin his life several times, risk everything, leave his wife and children behind and propagate concepts that challenged most of the established authorities of his time? What this truly was, was a very simple realisation. It was the insight that nothing would change for the better, unless people would become more educated. It was the understanding that ‘not loving wisdom would be foolish’ and not allowing people to access the necessary knowledge would be preparing one’s own ruin - one generation at a time.
This is the Pansophic ideal: ‘Omnes omnia omnino excoli.’ To teach everything to everyone in a holistic manner. To open the gates of knowledge to all people and to all of their senses. To make exploration, learning and the search for wisdom a choice of life for everyone. This is the shape the Rosicrucian heritage took under Comenius - and while making its way into our public education system was overlooked and forgotten by most magicians ever since.
With the exception of Heinrich Tränker. He genuinely related to Comenius' Pansophic vision of teaching everything to everyone in a holistic manner. Rather than talking about ‘armchair magicians’ like many of us to today, Tränker just as Comenius understood the privilege of being able to study and practice. They knew about the luxury of being able to engage with the world both through books as well as sensual experience. They valued the depth and continuity such an approach to learning provided for everyone, just as the sharpness of tools that would shape one’s own mind and perceptions. In essence this is what most of our magical ancestors fought for for centuries: having such vast, unfiltered access to knowledge and learning, free of social ranks, gender confinements or other conditions.
"If there were no books we would all be completely raw and uneducated, as we possessed no knowledge of the past, nor of divine or human things. Even if we had any knowledge, it resembled the legends which have been changed a thousand times by the constant instability of oral tradition. What a divine gift these books are for the human spirit! No greater could you want for a life of memory and judgment. Not loving them means not to love wisdom. But not to love wisdom means to be a fool. Which is an insult to the divine Creator, who wants us to be his own image." (Comenius : About the right use of books, the main tools of education. 28 November 1650; source wikipedia)
4. Tränker’s biography as lessons from a magical life
“Pansophy has and knows no limits, is also never finished nor complete.” (Heinrich Tränker, quoted after Lechler, p.199)
It is in light of such Rosicrucian heritage that we need to look at the work of Heinrich Tränker. At least that is how he himself seemed to have looked at it: as someone aiming to form another link from the past into the present in the long chain of Rosicrucian lineage. Tränker’s goals essentially were no different from Comenius’; however, his approach to bringing them to life was very different as was his focus on the particular occult or magico-mystical aspects of teaching and learning.
“The teachers of Pansophy send their students on the practical occult path and are free from anxiety psychosis of a left-hand or right-hand path. All paths sooner or later will lead to the goal as long as we aim to assume unity or consciousness of unity within the evolutionary process. Every path is the right one if it leads to inner self-absorption, to realisation of the all underlying unity and self-knowledge.” (Lechler, p.199)
The beginnings of Tränker’s attempts to establish a Pansophic organisation reach back as far as 1917. What originally began with evening lectures in private living rooms during the First World War turned into a life-long journey of trying to marry an ancient, yet revolutionary concept of wisdom-seeking with a world caught in upheaval between two world wars and their destructive consequences.
By the late 1920s Tränker had founded more than half a dozen Pansophic lodges across Germany. He had established a designated publishing house which printed and distributed occult studying materials for his students as well as one of the first schools of magic based upon a full correspondence course system. However, none of these achievements were financially successful nor managed to become self-sustaining entities that could run independent of Tränker’s guidance, input and energy. By the late 1930s Tränker’s vision of establishing a system of lodges and teaching curriculum that fostered the attainment of gnosis through ‘all-wisdom’ had turned into a machinery that soaked all life out of him. By the time Tränker died in the 1950s he had failed to build a successor committed to his vision, most of the lodges he once had established had been closed down during WWII and power fights within the remaining arms of the O.T.O. overshadowed the actual work he had been trying to initiate all his life.
Structure in magic has a funny way of ruining the people trying to uphold it. It seems the forces we deal with as magicians are so ancient and powerful, so beyond human control that they don’t accept being locked up in directions and patterns controlled by humans for a very long time. Equally it could be that magic just has a tendency to bring out the worst in people - as its history is so closely interconnected with the search and strive for personal power. The life of Heinrich Tränker is no exception to this rule; in fact it is one of the best examples I have ever come across to highlight and teach us these principles and dangers of engaging with magic?
Even though flawed by my own limitations let me try to pull out a few of these lessons. They might be helpful in avoiding some of the traps Tränker fell into, while not giving up on the journey altogether:
- Don’t seek to control. — Tränker just as many magical students and teachers struggled with this one throughout his life. While always distancing himself from the role of a ‘master’ he never let go of the idea it would take a structured organisation to propagate and foster the study of the Pansophic path. A great example is his ‘Tatbund Pansophia’ (‘League of Pansophic Action’, see Lechler, p.496ff) which he founded in the 1930s. In the charter of this organisation Tränker lays out so much structure and detail on a few pages only, it is immediately obvious that it would kill any living spirit amongst its members right off the get go… Whenever we come up with a new project, a new shiny idea to impose on the world, I wonder how much time we take to reflect on wether it is actually necessary? Or wether our obsession with anything new and within our own control, might outshine the actual need for it? Rather than trying to fulfil our desire to be creators, we could ask what needs mediating through us?
- Don’t try to predict the journey. — As we have seen during the review of the events at the ‘Weida Conference’ Tränker just as Crowley weren’t ready to let go of any of their convictions how the magical work in question should be approached. Both of them were fundamentally convinced they knew how to advance the Great Work. However, as a result of their rigid approaches both of them stalled their own progress in the long run and thus significantly limited their work… Whenever we hit a brick wall and feel life is hitting us real hard, maybe it is time to let go of the plans we created for ourselves? Adopting the idea that life knows what it does to us in order to get us to a certain place can help overcome so much suffering. If all it takes is to admit that we were actually wrong, it seems a reasonable price to pay?
- Don’t seek to create a legacy. — This one is so obvious it is painful to see it being repeated over and over again in magical currents. Teachers see students as mediums of transportations for their personal legacy, they see them as the stone into which they carve their images to be maintained for the future. Of course creating a legacy in such way has never worked and will never do so. Leaving a legacy behind doesn’t mean our name or our actions will be remembered; it means the spirit to which we contributed can continue to express itself and will find new forms and shapes to come to life within. Tränker did a huge service to maintain the spirit Comenius and many other of his ancestors had paid service to before. He truly did become a link in the invisible chain - and he passed on the work to others following him. Yet, I doubt if he ever felt such pride or satisfaction or fulfilment in his own lifetime? Maybe that is because he needed his legacy to assume a certain form or else he failed to recognise it?
- Don't force your life to fit the mysteries. — The chapter in Lechler’s book on Tränker’s attempts to teach sex-magic is a wonderful example of this premise. In painstaking detail Tränker is instructing one of his students, Soror Jehewida on how to grow her sexual powers, how and when to touch herself, how to extract certain fluids from her own body and how to capture these - all in service of the Great Work. In his instructions he is following what he believes to be ancient mysteries of sex-magic, derived from Indian and Asian sources predominantly. Unfortunately, many of the documents he drew his ‘knowledge’ from were spoiled with translation errors, incomplete or simply spurious. Also, of course none of these documents knew about the times Tränker was living in - the rigid and abusive relation to anything bodily embedded into everyone growing up in the early 20th century - and thus couldn’t take these into account in their teachings. Whatever the shape of these mysteries was in the past it doesn’t seem Tränker paused to ask what it should be in his present age? Instead he blindly trusted the books and conversations he had on the topic and passed them on as the seemingly infallible teachings of sex-magic.
As a result he not only ruined the life of one of his students, but in having sex with her while still being married and covering his actions under the banner of the ‘Great Work’ he also disrespected his wife and completely compromised his own Pansophic values (see image on the left)… Whenever the price we pay in order to bring certain mysteries to life begins to ruin our lives - or even worse: the ones of our loved ones - it might be a good moment to pause? Just because a mystery was approached and practiced in a certain shape or form in the old days, it doesn’t mean this shape is still appropriate today? Maybe it is exactly this what defines our role in ensuring the mysteries stay alive: Finding expressions for their truth that enrich our present age rather than destroy it? Orthodoxy thus would turn into an engine of innovation itself, for maintaining a mystery would require to constantly reinvent its expression.
Volker Lechler’s biography of Heinrich Tränker opens a profound new perspective on our magical past as it emerged in the early 20th century. Based on the life and work of Tränker as its central hub the book paints an equally broad and incredibly accurate and detailed picture of the origin stories of many of our current magical orders and how they were formed by the personalities and human weaknesses of their founders.
Acquiring such knowledge and understanding of one’s own tradition’s history is so much more than satisfying academic or historic curiosity. It enables today’s students of magic to consciously realise the human errors woven into the tapestry of tradition they learn from. In fact, it is fundamental to learning how to distinguish between the tools that teach us - and the flaws these will always come with - and the actual work we aim to achieve as magicians.
Tradition is a garment that we need to learn how to wear. It is a necessary evil that at the same time empowers us as well as confines us. It empowers us to change and adjust it as soon as we learned how to wear it. And it equally confines us - should we fall to the misperception of identifying ourselves with the clothes we have donned.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
the proper study of mankind is man.
(Alexander Pope, 1688-1744)