Esoteric grade systems


A short word on the subject of the degrees or grades of accomplishment within the western mystery tradition.

There is much dispute, today, amongst the various factions of the western tradition esoteric schools as to what, exactly, one considers to be an adept or master. It is interesting that it seems that one of the conditions that supports the confusion that surrounds this subject is the lack of written material available describing what exactly such degrees of accomplishment are or should be. Of the written material available to us much is inconclusive or based on misunderstanding or pure fantasy. I thought, therefore, that it might be helpful to, if not clear up this matter entirely, to lay a foundation upon which some same consideration might build a more reasonable understanding.

Although there exist a few variations on the theme of graded advancement in the western tradition it might be argued that they all are founded upon and evolved from a Masonic-Rosicrucian system that in turn had its basis in the ancient mysteries.

Originally, in the ancient mystery schools, from which the western tradition developed, there were (generally) recognized three grades or 'orders' of accomplishment. These grades were used to provide a method of decompartmentalising teachings about spiritual progress, or providing a rough estimate of the amount of soul development an initiate had succeeded in attaining. The craft guilds of the middle ages used a system of grading that was similar to the mystery tradition graded system, and is today recognized as being a relatively universally recognized system. These three grades are commonly referred to as:

(1) Apprentice
(2) Journeyman (or adept)
(3) Master

Freemasonry, which some consider the mother-system which gave birth to the greater portion of modern esoteric school structures, uses a slight variation upon these titles:

(1) Entered Apprentice
(2) Fellow craft
(3) Master Mason

The next primary development made a considerable elaboration upon this system, and was developed by the Rosicrucian fraternity. Firstly these three grades or degrees of attainment became referred to as 'Orders', after the monastic model, thus:

(1) Novice (outer Order)
(2) Adept (inner or second Order)
(3) Master (third Order)

And each Order had within it several degrees of accomplishment, the original modern model, used by the Society of Rosicrucians In England, looked something like this:

Outer Order


Inner Order

Adeptus Minor
Adeptus Major
Adeptus Exemptus

Third Order

Master of the Temple

The last development of this system was designed to be used within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which grew out of the previous system:

The Golden Dawn (Outer Order)


The Red Rose and the Cross of Gold (Inner Order)

Adeptus Minor
Adeptus Major
Adeptus Exemptus

The Silver Star (Third Order)

Master of the Temple

This system has become the fundamental model for many modern esoteric schools.

Because this last system is so well known amongst contemporary western schools, I will refer to it as the basis of my considerations, as to just what, exactly, an individual at each level of attainment, should have accomplished as far as spiritual progress is concerned. I have decided to use the G:.D:. here for two reasons. Firstly, because the G:.D:. clearly is a school designed to aid the aspirant to gain serious spiritual development, and secondly, because this system, possibly more than any other, is today the basis for much abuse as far as claims of attainment are concerned.

The G:.D:. grade system is based on the qabalistic tree of life. That is, the mystic tree of life diagram is used as a measuring stick of progress made upon the path of spiritual development.

A consideration, here, before we start, might be given to the twofold aspect of the grades systems in modern esoteric schools. One aspect of this measuring system says that each grade is a rung on a ladder that stretches from the spiritual ignorance of the average man or woman up to the exalted heights of unity with the Lord of the Universe. The final grade or rung of the ladder representing the individual’s total mastery of being. The intervening rungs measure each necessary step on the journey from ignorance to total mastery.

The second aspect of  these grades is that they are honorary. That is, that they do not describe actual spiritual progress of the individual, but are, rather, administrative in purpose, the acquisition of any particular title describing the aspirants right to fill a certain office or rank in the school’s hierarchy of administration.

The point here, to remember, is that these two aspects often become confused, and certain individuals play on novitiates ignorance by encouraging them to believe that administrative titles also represent spiritual accomplishment.

The Outer Order
The degree of neophyte is ideally one of probation, or novitiate. It is an introduction to the occult system the new initiate is entering into. Nevertheless the G:.D:. neophyte degree is not really a probationary degree as it should have probably been designed to be. There is no gentle introduction giving the aspirant time to get used to the concepts used by the school. There is no time of test to ensure the worthiness of the applicant. Instead the initiate is thrown head long, 'right off the street' (as it has been said) into a serious grade ceremony and the standard study program.

The next four degrees, zelator, theoricus, practicus, philosophus, are referred to as elemental degrees. That is, the magick work in those degrees should have the effect of introducing the student to elementary magickal concepts and practices, and of purifying and harmonizing the elemental aspects of the initiates being. In layman's terms the elemental portion of any individual’s being represents their temporal psycho-physical self. What we might call their incarnate lower self/personality.

Each and every person we know in life is a sentient being made up of four psycho-physical functions which are dysfunctional (in relation to spiritual life) to a greater degree. The tension that exists between these four (elemental) functions makes up our personality, our identity, and ... our 'normality'. The first task in occult training, that is geared towards attaining enlightenment (or mastery over self), is to accurately define, purify and re-harmonize these four elemental aspects of being. Ideally, this is the task of the training provided in the Outer Order of schools like the G:.D:. .

This means that a person who claims to have spiritually attained to the grade of philosophus, the last grade in the Outer Order, should have complete (or near complete) control over their physical organism (fitness and health), over their emotions, over their ability to think clearly and accurately, over their abstract mind - that is over their ability to conceive of deep symbolic and abstract concepts. Generally, such a person would seem to be relatively intelligent (knowledgeable), emotionally balanced, physically healthy and an altogether well adjusted human.

This is not a person who bitches and gripes about life. He has the ability to solve problems relatively easily, partly because he focuses on solutions rather than complaining. Therefore he possesses a positive outlook on life and generally most things he sets his mind to he accomplishes, gaining far more headway in life than mistakes.

Because the Outer Order (or apprenticeship) focuses primarily in teaching the fundamentals of occultism, an accomplished member of such a body should have a relatively good working knowledge of many esoteric subjects such as astrology, divination, ritual, basic use of imagination, tarot, etc, etc.

The Inner Order
There generally is not much argument about what constitutes an 'apprentice' or accomplished member of an Outer Order. But there is a good deal of confusion, discussion and argument about what constitutes an actual adept.

I think in order to get to the root of the meaning of adept we have to go back to the exoteric craft guilds and consider what a journeyman really was. An apprentice craftsman was someone who had little say in things and was under the heavy yoke of discipline which issued from his tutor, who was usually a journeyman or adept.

On the other hand a journeyman had become skilled enough at his craft that he was capable, without the need for guidance, to carry out his duties with relative skill. A journeyman stonemason, then, was someone who was capable of working at a building site where he could carry out his daily duties as a mason without question. He could cut stone skilfully and probably had a degree of artistic expertise with carving patterns or images in stone.

Esoterically, then, we would expect that an Adept in a school like the G:.D:. was capable of actually performing magickal feats with skill. He would easily compose ritual, manufacture talismata, demonstrate expert knowledge of qabala and astrology, have the ability to work some system of divination with accuracy and display skill with knowledge and ability in the astral (skrying and traveling). An adept is a person whose familiarity with occultism is such that he can do these things without to much effort.

A minor adept (the first degree of adeptship in the G:.D:. ) is not necessarily an expert in all of these things, but maybe in one or two areas, with a good working knowledge of the other aspects of his vocation.

The important factor in defining an accomplished minor adept, though, is found in his internal degree of accomplishment ... of spiritual growth. As the elemental degrees are attributed to the four aspects of the lower nature the degree of minor adept is attributed to the fifth state of human accomplishment. The accomplished minor adept is an individual who has harmonized his four lower attributes to such a degree that they begin to merge into one super-function, which the alchemists call the Quintessence (spirit).

This new state of consciousness is technically not human. It does not belong to Malkuth (normality) on the Tree of Life, as do the elemental aspects of self. The Quintessence belongs to Yesod, the lowest Sephiroth of the World of Yetzirah, or formation, the Angelic kingdom. Angelic consciousness is that which has the function or task of governing all the four lower aspects that compose our humanness in its completeness.

Therefore, an individual who has accomplished the work of the grade of adeptus minor is one who has attained what is commonly called 'knowledge and conversation with the holy guardian angel'. Technically this refers to the establishment of an open communication with a rapidly quickening state of consciousness that controls (and is above) our physical (organic) mechanisms, our emotions and our thoughts. Access to this Quintessential consciousness, then, gives us almost total control over ourselves, the ability to alter anything unproductive about ourselves and to turn everything towards productive manifestations.

Here we have a person that is not only well adjusted, but who also seems to have an uncanny knack of making everything work for him. He is not perfect, or totally 'together'. But he his life has reached a point where it is constantly more productive (spiritually/holistically) than unproductive. He has gained a small degree of momentum that is pushing him onwards and upwards.

This condition moves him into the next level of attainment, adeptus major. An increasing degree of skill in his chosen spiritual vocation, takes him from being a simple stonemason that can skilfully carry out the basic requirements of his trade. Now he has got to the point where his degree of skill has allowed him to develop a certain knack, a certain artistic flare, in some particular chosen area. He is not just good at what he does, he is becoming an expert in his field. We might call this mastery of some specific aspect of occultism. This state of affairs might be said to be possible because he has obtained an uncanny degree of skill in making accurate judgments and of executing them in a productive way.

The final degree of attainment for an adept is referred to as an adeptus exemptus. There is a serious and deep change which the student shifting from the elemental work towards the quintessential consciousness experiences. A similar state of affairs is the primary concern for the exempt adept. As the apprentice becomes an adept he moves away from humanity towards angelic(type) consciousness. As the exempt adept succeeds in the shift he must make he moves away from temporal being to conscious immortality.

Once a person reaches adeptus minor he no longer questions the validity of his spiritual quest. He has seen enough and understood enough to realize the path must be walked. This creates, as I have said, a degree of momentum that carries him forward. This momentum is given direction at adeptus major and pressed hard till it becomes a habit. The adeptus major realizes he has moved towards the final adept grade when he knows, internally, with great surety, that the vocation he discovered at adeptus minor, and which he played out at adeptus major, has in fact 'undone' him. He knows that he has aligned himself with the Will of the Divine so well and for so long that almost everything that he recognized as being himself has been left behind somewhere upon the path.

Slowly he recognizes a force inside of him that moves him towards what is commonly called 'the abyss' ... a division that exists between the temporal universe and the eternal. This awareness causes him to need to drop everything he is doing in order to focus on the rapidly approaching task at hand, that is, in stripping away the last vestiges of his personality, his human I-dentity, so that when the momentum of his journey throws him across that abyss he does not pollute the transmutation of his soul through not being pure enough.

Technically, the human personality, our identity of our limited human individuality, is maintained through a tension that exists within our Soul. This tension is brought about through our past actions. The measure of the degree of tension we encompass is commonly called 'karma'. The task of the adeptus exemptus, then, is to balance as much of his negative karma as he is capable of. Already, at adeptus exemptus level he does not have enough negative karma left to keep him fully incarnate, he knows that because he feels himself, with increasing rapidity, moving towards the abyss. But there still may be enough to 'spoil' a complete transmutation from temporal existence to eternality. If he has too much of a taint left on his soul he will not succeed in crossing over 'cleanly' in full consciousness, instead he will become distorted to some degree and eventually die a natural death, re-entering the cycle of reincarnation to make another attempt.

With the huge responsibility the adeptus exemptus is facing, an attempt to move, fully, aware, into the afterlife (in a manner) would naturally cause a huge impact on his life. It is hard to imagine, for example, that a person who actually held this degree of spiritual attainment would be able to live a normal human life. It is very likely that the things such a person considered the major focus of his life would to a 'normal' human make him look like a freak. The kind of knowledge such a person would have reaped from his experiences, the quality of his consciousness and the personal philosophy he lived would cause him to be seen as nothing less than a serious oddity by lesser beings. A good example of what it might be like to hold a conversation with such a person is the condition we experience in a person who is living into their last days of life, and knows they are about to die. It would be hard to share a house with such a person and not notice that something unusual is happening to them. An exempt adept might exist in such a condition for many weeks or even months or years.

The importance of his personal task, in my opinion. would unlikely find him publishing books and sending months on the road doing the lecture circuit.

The Third Order
Now we come to the grade of mastery. The last condition that I feel it is worth commenting upon.

What does crossing the abyss actually involve then? First we must remember that the force that keeps us incarnating (in general) and in an incarnation (specifically) is negative karma - which is a conflict or tension existing between the various components of our being. This tension causes our Soul to be attracted back to the physical realm from the afterlife to reincarnate time after time. Once in incarnation this tension creates the events and conditions of our lives.

Therefore if we discover the source of this tension, and ease it off, the forces that hold us in incarnation also ease off. Our soul thereafter is no longer attracted to the temporal universe, but re-orientates itself towards eternity. Since the transition is an organic process it is unlikely to happen in the snap of a switch. It may take up weeks or months or even years to complete fully. Some time during that transition the exempt adept is going to find himself more on the other side of the abyss than here. At this point he is, then, technically, a master of the temple, as the grade is called.

This grade is referred to as ‘master’ because it donates that the accomplishment of the grade requires the individual to have mastered the forces of the temporal universe. Such a mastery is necessary in order to escape the attraction of incarnation. This means that to the master of the temple there is nothing in the physical universe that he cannot control. He has access to all human knowledge without learning. He has full control over the organic mechanisms of his body. He can do amazing things by controlling his mental functions. He can even rise above the common laws of physics thereby performing what seem like miracles with matter itself.

At the extreme end of his mastery over physical matter it should be considered that a master of the temple, logically, would have a hard time staying in physical manifestation, as not only his mind, but also the forces holding the atoms of his physical body, shift from the temporal universe to the eternal. To put it simply, he would probably find himself increasingly shifting in and out of physical existence either spontaneously or at will, until the full transition is complete.

Indeed, such conditions are often found as part of legends concerning spiritual masters, and are rarely, if ever, recognised or even suspected as being in possession of individuals claiming in the public eye today to have claimed these degrees of accomplishment.

Copyright © Parush 1997
All rights reserved - last update 21 july 2001

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