Bringing the ‘Secret Teachings’ Into the 21st Century


The-Secret-Teachings-mediumThe following article appeared in Fall 2003 in Lapis magazine.

Bringing the ‘Secret Teachings’ Into the 21st Century

The New Life of a Great Book

By Mitch Horowitz

In the past century, religion and academia have been on uneasy terms – to put it mildly. The philosopher Jacob Needleman once wryly noted that when he was coming up through university, one could study myth, religion, and symbol – but “any possibility that the ideas in religion were true was brushed aside.”

Even one of the 20th century’s most influential studies of symbolist religions and tradition, The Golden Bough, disparaged the meaning of its own subject matter: “In short, magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”

It was in this atmosphere that a young investment banker named Manly P. Hall made a startling departure from the traditional scholarship of his day. In 1928 – at the unthinkably young age of 27 – Hall self-published one of the most reverent and thorough works ever to catalogue the esoteric wisdom of antiquity: The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hall’s Secret Teachings became a one-of-a-kind codex to the ancient occult and esoteric traditions of the world. Its hundreds of entries shone a rare light on some of the most fascinating and closely held aspects of myth, religion, and philosophy. Seventy-five years after its initial publication, the book’s range of material remains astounding: 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 Hall’s topics.

Hall wrote in an era immediately preceding the Great Depression. He 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 Hall worrying whether the fading Gilded Age-frenzy that gripped our culture would spell ultimate decline for our fluency in myth, symbol, and the love of learning that characterized the voices and figures who populate his volume. Where, the young man wondered, were we headed?

“With very few exceptions,” he 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…and scholarship was based largely upon the acceptance of a sterile materialism.”

To signal how his approach would differ from the prevailing mood, Hall quoted his philosophic hero, Francis Bacon, early in the book: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

A Classic, Old and New

In 1934, Hall founded the Philosophical Research Society ( in Los Angeles, which has published sumptuous, coffee-table sized editions of his volume ever since. But many readers have also found the book expensive, sometimes cumbersome in size, and often difficult to read on account of small typefaces and occasionally arcane fonts and page design. In an historic first in spiritual publishing, my colleagues and I at Tarcher/Penguin (where I am executive editor) have partnered with PRS to produce a new “Reader’s Edition” ofThe Secret Teachings of All Ages. Available in Fall 2003, this reset, reformatted, compact-sized, and affordably priced trade paperback makes the Secret Teachings available to a large general audience for the first time.

Packaging a new edition of the Secret Teachings is like trying to sculpt a rare and precious stone – one serious slip, and its splendor and luminescence are lost. What are the demands of preparing the first mass edition of a work that has previously been the closely held – if deeply influential – treasure of a relative handful among the reading public?

Back to the Reading Room

While the Canadian-born Hall lived and worked in Los Angeles for much of his adult life, he actually toiled over the Secret Teachings in perhaps the greatest citadel to public education our nation has: The beaux-arts Reading Room of the New York Public Library. Entering this magnificent, cavernous space today, it is not difficult to picture the large-framed, young Manly P. Hall surrounded by books of myth and symbol at one of the room’s huge oaken tables. Like a monk of the middle ages, Hall copiously, almost superhumanly, pored over hundreds of the great works of antiquity, distilling their esoteric lore into his volume. The scale of his bibliography 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. 

In creating his record of the ancient mysteries, Hall also meticulously selected drawings – more than 200 of them – illustrating the meaning and ideas embedded within man’s oldest symbols and figures. He worked closely with artist J. Augustus Knapp who created an additional 54 color paintings boldly recreating scenes from the past whose shape we can only speculate upon at the outer reaches of our learning. To publish the new, reader-friendly version of the Secret Teachings that we had in mind, it would be necessary to abridge Hall’s selected illustrations. Could this be done without detracting from the book’s majesty?

This task was too important to be performed without the greatest intimacy with the text. In what seemed akin to reading the Encyclopedia Britannica of the esoteric, I returned to Hall’s old haunt: the cathedral-sized Reading Room of the New York Public Library and, seated day upon day in one its hundreds of wooden chairs, pored over every word, caption, index note, and bibliographic entry in the great work. Which illustrations were imperative and which could be sacrificed? The key was to retain those illustrations – eventually about 125 in all – that worked in concert with – and, hence, were necessary to understanding – the ideas in the text. Making these choices was slightly eased by the knowledge that PRS would continue to publish its own complete edition of the Secret Teachings, so that no visual matter would be lost to time. 

Above all, however, I set forth the principle that we would not abridge the narrative itself. The full text of the Secret Teachings appears in the “Reader’s Edition” – including Hall’s original – and extraordinarily detailed – index and bibliography. All that is missing is one of several short prefaces, which remains available in the PRS edition.

Bringing the Mountain to Mohammad

Perhaps the greatest of challenges was how to reset and reformat the text itself. The original edition is composed of varying columns, captions, and inset text – sometimes as jarring to the Western eye as a page of Babylonian Talmud. In its original trim size, the book’s dimensions are usually large: 12 x 18 inches. It has color plates, foldouts, and an overlay. The small size of its text is sometimes a strain on the eye. Our “Reader’s Edition” demanded a typestyle, format, and layout that was, well, readable – yet loyal to the vibration of the original work. This would be no simple task: Until today, none of Hall’s 1928 text has been available electronically; PRS, in its many reprints over the years, has used the original plates on which the book is based. In the information age, we are all-too-accustomed to text that can be easily manipulated. The Secret Teachingswould give itself over with no such ease.

At expenses that ran into many thousands of dollars, we delivered an edition of the book to NK Graphics in New Hampshire, which was capable of scanning text. The book, however, was too large for their scanner beds, requiring the material at the bottom of its pages to be hand-typed. Then the scanned data was submitted to a computer program that – imperfectly – recognizes the symbols of letters and transforms the material into a new manuscript. Alas, such methods are never quite as advanced as we believe them to be, and a professional proofreader had to read the entire text of the Secret Teachings against the scanned material to ensure accuracy. Nor could the scanning technology pick up the many Greek and Hebrew characters spread throughout the book; this required us to insert each such character as an original piece of art.

In April 2003, 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 newly rolled off of Hall’s Edwardian-era typewriter. It was rather shocking to look at a fresh manuscript of a book that has stood largely unaltered for a lifetime. The task, however, wasnot to do something new with it – it was to keep something new from being done. We had to reset, reformat, and redesign the text so that it could be published in a standard size, at a standard price – but without “correcting” it. I implored our excellent copyediting and production staff to treat this like an ancient papyrus – arcane spellings, references, and language were to be left absolutely untouched. (For instance, Hall spells Shakespeare as  “Shakspere,” following the only known signatures in the Bard’s own hand.) More than a few times I had to intercede to keep modern forms and styles of usage from disrupting the earlier perfection of Hall’s work.

Meanwhile, our design staff set about crafting a page design that would echo the hallowed feel of the original, while framing the text and illustrations within the trim size of a slightly larger-than-normal trade paperback. The words of this article cannot fully capture their success. My colleagues created a page design of classic beauty – one that set the columns in an imposing but inviting way, and that allowed ample space for the crucial illustrations to breathe, yet to be sized in such a manner that the book would be newly wieldy and manageable. When I saw how the text would appear on the printed page, I knew we were very close to success. 

An eleventh-hour challenge emerged concerning Hall’s extensive index – itself a document of more than 6,700 entries. While we had assumed that a computerized word-search program would be sufficient to recalibrate Hall’s index to the newly numbered pages, again we discovered the Secret Teachings would not give itself over so easily. In a feature of the book that astounded the professional typesetters, proofreaders, and indexers working on the volume, they discovered that Hall had not necessarily organized his index by terms alone, but often by concept. Hence, the word “sun” in the index might correspond to the term “orb of the day” in the text. So, the indexer herself had to become fully versed in the narrative before the newly formatted index could be complete.

There were other considerations: The original edition uses Roman numerals throughout for page numbers.  Also, the chapters themselves were unnumbered. We decided to use easier-to-follow Arabic, or contemporary, numerals to number the pages, while the chapters are newly numbered according to Roman style.

These and other measures drew us closer to publication. Our publisher, Joel Fotinos – perhaps the most spiritually committed executive in publishing today – worked heroically to hold our price down, so that the “Reader’s Edition” could be widely available. Obadiah Harris, the scholarly president of PRS today, pitched in to help, as well – and, with meticulous budgeting and cooperation on royalty rates and other matters, we managed to take a book that had been priced at $54.95 in its least-expensive edition, and make it available at $24.95. This, it seemed, was the final step we needed to make this new edition a reality.  

A Work Enduring, A Work Reborn

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 this: It may be the only such compendium of the last several hundred years that takes the world of myth and symbol on its own terms.

Books such as The Golden Bough viewed the ancient past as we would look at items in a museum: interesting and worthy of study, even important, but never broaching the idea that things we read about in the annals of antiquity could be true for us today – true, if not in fact, than, more importantly, in what they whisper about the workings of the cosmos and man’s place within it.

We read Thucydides today and marvel at the Greeks’ gifts for oration, strategy, historiography, and at the drama of human events that marked the ancient world. How easy it is, though, to simply breeze past those passages in which great statesmen traveled to Delphi to consult the oracle. Contemporary readers rarely pause to notice such events – nor are they encouraged to – as if such episodes can be understood simply as interludes between the true lessons of the work.

For Manly Hall, however, there was no such casual bypassing. One can read 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 an oracle.

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 man’s inner state – that were equally potent, and equally worthy of study, as their gifts for calendars, architecture, reason, and agriculture.

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 ancient ways.

* * *

Sources Quoted in this Article:

The Golden Bough by James Frazer; Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics; 1999; original abridgement published 1922.

The Secret Teachings of All Ages: Reader’s Edition by Manly P. Hall; Tarcher/Penguin; 2003; Philosophical Research Society; 1928.

The Maya World by Demetrio Sodi Morales; Minutiae Mexicano; 1976.

Jacob Needleman, lecture, Atlantic University, May 31st, 2002.


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