"The Great Work"A magnificent phrase, eh? I've been through so many online debates and discussions about what the Great Work "means" that it isn't even funny anymore. There are those who say it is "attaining unity with the Divine." Others say it is becoming the best that you can. Others believe that every person has their own Great Work to do, that it represents the climactic culmination of all their efforts in life.
In tracking back the phrase in the esoteric community, I ended up back with the Alchemists. I'm sure it goes back further, but I'll be damned if I can find it quickly enough to suit my purposes. If anyone has any input, let me know. :)
Briefly (there's never enough space), the alchemists saw the Great Work as the accomplishment of a spiritual transformation. It was also seen as the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, a stone with the ability to turn base materials into finer materials, like lead into gold. One couldn't create the Philosopher's Stone (in my opinion) without being spiritually "advanced." The process of creating the Stone resulted in perfection of the person, and the perfection of the person resulted in the ability to create the Philosopher's Stone. There's a marriage here of physical and spiritual elements that I think cannot be stressed enough.
In the NP context, the goal of man is to return to the Source of all that is. The Philosophers saw this as a process of training the mind to think like a God without becoming falsely proud. Plotinus speaks of the process as "reclaiming" our race and value. I love that concept.
It isn't becoming a God. (You're already a manifestation of "the good," "the One,", the "Primum Mobile.) It's a process of remembering where you came from. The reason we forget is detailed in the Enneads of Plotinus, and they're an interesting read. Here's an excerpt that pertains:
The souls peering forth from the Intellectual Realm descend first to the heavens and there put on a body; this becomes at once the medium by which as they reach out more and more towards magnitude [physical extension] they proceed to bodies progressively more earthy. Some even plunge from heaven to the very lowest of corporeal forms; others pass, stage by stage, too feeble to lift towards the higher the burden they carry, weighed downwards by their heaviness and forgetfulness.
It must be noted, however, that the process of reclaiming your race and value did not result in anything spectacularly fabulous. No lightning from the fingertips, or flaming balls of fire. What it did result in was a change in the person you are. It changed the way you acted and interacted with everything else. You remember you're here, and what your purpose in life is, and you're suddenly happy. You see things as a whole complete process, and the painfulness of the moments of sadness are gone, and the moments of joy are magnified. It was a philosophical change, a change of Mind that brought satiety, the sense of being completely fulfilled. And if you weren't feeling that way, you had forgotten, and needed to remember where you were from again.
So Plotinus said there's two ways to remember your race and value. You honor the things of the higher realms, and dishonor the things of the lower realm. I've turned this into contemplative method of getting rid of the horrors of embarrassing moments that haunt you through your life. I broke it into steps at this link.
Asceticism blossomed under this philosophy. Lots of Gnostics took up the mantra of "all things material are evil and to be avoided at all costs." This view influenced a lot of the early Christians too. Paul, for instance, expresses a lot of ascetic notions in his writings in the New Testament.
Iamblichus, meanwhile, took things down a different route. He was a "wee bit" more into the Hellenised Egyptian mythology. As a result of his initiations into the Egyptian mystery cults, he participated in the Theurgic rituals of his day. I'm intensely jealous. In the Theurgia, his reply to a letter written by Porphyry criticising Theurgy, he explains how working with the spirits of the higher realms results in getting you closer to God. He also talks about our role in this realm of matter.
Each level of emanation from the higher realms, each entity that inhabits the realms between the material and the Source of Everything has a purpose. We are also manifestations, and our greatest goal as magicians is to remember that we are emanations of God, and that we are here to do something specific. The Work is a process of learning what that purpose is, and how we're supposed to accomplish that purpose while we're here. We work with the spirits to learn, and to be raised higher and closer to God, but at the same time, we guide them in their ministrations here in the realm of matter, because that's where we fit into the hierarchy of things. We're the part of God that came to matter (Nature) out of love for matter to care for the matter and minister to it through the actions of the spirits on the higher levels. The trick is to remember what we're here for, and then to learn to do it the right way.