Éliphas Lévi Zahed, born Alphonse Louis Constant (8 February 1810 – 31 May 1875), was a French esotericist, poet, and author of more than twenty books about magic, Kabbalah, alchemical studies, and occultism. He pursued an ecclesiastical career in the Catholic Church until, after great personal struggle, at the age of 26, he abandoned the Roman Catholic priesthood. At the age of 40 he started to profess a knowledge of the occult, also becoming a reputed ceremonial magician.
The pen name "Éliphas Lévi", was a transliteration of his given names "Alphonse Louis" into the Hebrew. Levi gained renown as an original thinker and writer. His works attracted the attention of the heterogeneous ambiences of the era in Paris and London; from esotericists to artists of romantic or symbolist inspiration. He also expressed his independence by leaving the Masonic lodge of the "Great Orient", believing that it was a form of modern secularization, where knowledge of the original meanings of symbols and rituals was lost. "I ceased being a freemason, at once, because the Freemasons, excommunicated by the Pope, did not believe in tolerating Catholicism."
Constant was the son of a shoemaker in Paris. In 1832 he entered the seminary of Saint Sulpice to study to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood, as a sub-deacon he was responsible for catechism, later he was ordained a deacon, remaining a cleric to the rest of his life. One week before being ordained to the priesthood, he decided to leave the priestly path, however the spirit of charity and the life he had in the seminary stayed with him through the rest of his life, later he wrote that he had acquired an understanding of faith and science without conflicts.
In 1836, on leaving the priestly path, he provoked his superiors' anger. He had committed to permanent vows of chastity and obedience as a sub-deacon and deacon, returning to civil life was particularly painful for him; he continued to wear the clerical clothes, the cassocks, until 1844.
He had to obviate extreme poverty by working as a tutor in Paris. Around 1838, he met and was influenced by the views of the mystic Simon Ganneau, and it may have been through Ganneau's meetings that he also met Flora Tristan. In 1839 he entered the monastic life in the Abbey of Solesmes, he could not maintain the discipline so he quit the monastery.
Unexpectedly, in 1850, at the age of forty, Levi succumbed to a period of heightened financial and spiritual crisis - Leading him, more profoundly, to find refuge in the mileiu of mid-19th-century esotericism and the occult.
In December 1851, Napoleon III organized a coup that would end the Second Republic and give rise to the Second Empire. Constant saw the emperor as the defender of the people and the restorer of public order. In the Moniteur parisien of 1852, Constant praised the new government's actions, but he soon became disillusioned with the rigid dictatorship and was eventually imprisoned in 1855 for publishing a polemical chanson against the Emperor. What had changed, however, was Constant's attitude towards "the people." As early as in La Fête-Dieu and Le livre des larmes from 1845, he had been skeptical of the uneducated people's ability to emancipate themselves. Similar to the Saint-Simonians, he had adopted the theocratic ideas of Joseph de Maistre in order to call for the establishment of a "spiritual authority" led by an élite class of priests. After the disaster of 1849, he was completely convinced that the "masses" were not able to establish a harmonious order and needed instruction.
Constant's activities reflect the struggle to come to terms, both with the failure of 1848 and the tough repressions by the new government. He participated on the Revue philosophique et religieuse, founded by his old friend Fauvety, wherein he propagated his "Kabbalistic" ideas, for the first time in public, in 1855-1856 (notably using his civil name).
Lévi began to write Histoire de la magie in 1860. The following year, in 1861, he published a sequel to Dogme et rituel, La clef des grands mystères ("The Key to the Great Mysteries"). In 1861 Lévi revisited London. In 1868, he wrote Le grand arcane, ou l'occultisme Dévoilé ("The Great Secret, or Occultism Unveiled"); this, however, was only published posthumously in 1898.
The thesis of magic propagated by Éliphas Lévi was of significant renown, especially after his death. That Spiritualism was popular on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1850s contributed to this success. However, Lévi diverged from spiritualism and criticized it, because he believed only mental images and "astral forces" persisted after an individual died, which could be freely manipulated by skilled magicians, unlike the autonomous spirits that Spiritualism posited.
He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later on the ex–Golden Dawn members Aleister Crowley and Papus. He was also the first to declare that a pentagram or five-pointed star with one point down and two points up represents evil, while a pentagram with one point up and two points down represents good. Lévi's ideas also influenced Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society.
Theory of magic
The three chief components of Levi's magical thesis were: Astral Light, the Will and the Imagination. Levi did not originate any of these as occult concepts.
Concerning the "Astral Light", Waite noted: "the Astral Light, which is neither more nor less than the odylic force of Baron Carl Reichenbach, as the French writer [Levi] himself admits substantially, [...]" and: "This force he [Levi] usually terms the Astral Light, a name which is borrowed from Saint-Martin and the French mystics of the eighteenth century."
Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, had used the term "astral" to mean "psychic force."
"Astral Light" was also indebted to the ideas of 18th-century proto-hypnotist, Franz Mesmer: "[Mesmer] evolved the theory of “ animal magnetism.” This he held to be a fluid which pervades the universe, but is most active in the human nervous organization, and enables one man, charged with the fluid, to exert a powerful influence over another."
Astral is an adjective meaning: "Connected to, consisting of, stars." Levi used the term "Astral," not only as a synonym for "psychic force," but because he believed in the ancient and medieval superstition of astrology. As Levi wrote himself: "Nothing is indifferent in Nature, a pebble more or less upon a road may crush or profoundly alter the fortunes of the greatest men and even of the greatest empires, much more then the position of a particular star can not be indifferent to the destinies of the child who is being, and who enters by the fact of his birth into the universal harmony of the sidereal astrological world."