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Esotericism Review Essay

Esotericism Review Essay

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Western esotericism has at last found a thriving toehold in academia. After years of scorn and neglect, a marginalization where scholars from a variety of disciplines explained the behavior and ideation of cults and magical fashions based on the premises of the academic discipline in favor. The esoteric viewpoint thrived on the margins of the institutionally recognized religions and sciences.  It’s own perspectives and raison d’être ignored and mocked by commonsense culture.

Visionary histories and traditions of occult knowledge and theory flourished without any official recognition from the academic powers of mainline science or religious studies. Now with the recent maturation of religious studies, weaned from the stranglehold of seminary and church, and seeking a more empirical and phenomenological sophisticated model upon which to mold interdependent and interdisciplinary descriptions and explanations of the esoteric aspects religious experience and cosmological vision into a reasonably coherent and historically informed picture.

Esotericism is a cultural construct of the nature of consciousness that is intricately interwoven with the vision of human becoming that is inclusive of science, religion, art, and cosmology. As a folk psychology the esoteric can include various forms of meditation and inner experience as they develop in self-consciousness.

The New Age is an accommodation of American marketing and commodity reductionism, where visionary experience and understanding is packaged to be purchased as a experience or a product such as a book, DVD or audio disc. Beside the adroit use of consumer culture to promulgate and profit from the perennial curiosity people have about the nature of their own awareness, there is little new in the New Age.

A recent book by Kocku von Stuckrad, Western Esotericism, A Brief History of Secret Knowledge (Equinox) provides a useful introduction to the history of esotericism in Western history. The book should serve as a handy orientation to newcomers to the vast field of esoteric studies. Even though the academic study in recognition of esotericism is well underway, the field has always been fraught with controversy. Stuckrad attempts in good measure offer of an outline of the main trends in traditions of esotericism from ancient times until the near present. By keeping in mind that “secret knowledge” and its revelation is a hallmark of the traditions that support what we would nowadays call “consciousness studies,” Stuckrad traces out the historical reach of Gnosticism, hermeticism, alchemy, Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, Rosicrucians, Freemasonry and Theosophy into the modern world. Like any book that is introductory, it manages to not falsify the data it looks at.

The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times by Florian Ebeling (Cornell University Press) covers of some of the same ground but with a more narrow focus. Hermeticism is one of the traditions of Western esotericism that has thrived under varying guises since its inception in late antiquity. Ostensibly Hermes Trismegistus antedated Christ, being identified with the man-God, Thoth, a Promethean figure who taught Egyptians to write, and whose revelations supposedly foretold the coming of Jesus and the essential tenets of the New Testament. This mythical formulation was accepted by Renaissance scholars in their early synthesizing of Christian scholasticism with the revival of classical learning especially with the completion of the Platonic dialogues as interpreted by the late antique Neoplatonic thinking. Ficino, the Medici’s house philosopher was instrumental in propagating this view. Ebeling’s unique twist to his history is his concentration on the German Renaissance, especially the hermeticism as it was developed by Paracelsus, which did not follow in the humanism of Ficino, but rather took up the alchemical understanding of hermeticism. Sebastian Frank’s hermetic theology is also discussed, as is the pietistic rejection of the hermetic and the adoption of hermetic symbolism in Freemasonry. Neither Stuckrad or Ebeling show the nuanced complexity of the esoteric traditions, in their history as well as in their ideology, as the works approach modernity.

Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esoteric Traditions by Arthur Versluis (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) is a concise overview, from antiquity to the present, of many of the major Western religious esoteric movements. Topics covered include alchemy, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy and the recent development of academic study of esotericism itself as distinct from marginalized religion or science. Until comparatively recently, there was very little scholarship on Western es­otericism as a field. There were, of course, various articles and books on as­pects of Western esotericism like alchemy or Rosicrucianism, but there was virtually no sense in the scholarly world that these disparate tributaries of thought formed a larger current of Western esotericism as such. Landmark studies in the mid-twentieth century by Frances Yates began to demarcate “Western esotericism” as a field for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary study. More than anyone else, though, it was Antoine Faivre (1934-) who, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with numerous major books and ar­ticles defined the field as an academic area. 

Faivre’s typology describes well what we may call the cosmological do­main to which many currents of Western esotericism do belong, incorporat­ing as it does such disciplines as practical alchemy, astrology, geomancy, and other forms of divination, as well as secret or semisecret societies as found in Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, various magical lodges or orders, and so forth. All of these draw on the doctrine of correspondences. What is more, a signif­icant part of Bohmean theosophy belongs to the cosmological domain—one thinks of the doctrine of signatures, the triadic nature of the Bohmean cos­mos, and so forth. Bohme too offers a profoundly esoteric view of nature. But to acknowledge the primacy of the cosmological dimension in what has come to be known as Western esotericism must not entail denying the presence of a metaphysical gnostic dimension at least in some of the same currents of thought. This said, the basic principle behind Faivre’s methodology—a strictly historicist approach seeking primary definitive characteristics of esotericism—is a necessary one. We need definitions of terminology and of primary concepts, and the conceptual and historicist framework informing Faivre’s perspective is of great value in construing the new field.The contemporary academic study of esotericism began with Antoine Faivre, as cited below from his pioneering study and manifesto Access to Western Esotericism (State University of New York Press), who works historically and typologically. He defines six basic characteristics of modern Western esoteric thought (i.e., from the seventeenth century to the present), these being: 

  1. Correspondences. As the Hermetic dictum has it, “as above, so below,” meaning that there are precise correspondences between all aspects of the universe, including between the human microcosm and the macrocosm. 
  2. Living Nature. Nature is not a collection of objects to he manipulated, but alive and connected via hidden, subtle forces that can he awakened and drawn upon through magia naturalis, natural magic. 
  3. Imagination and Mediations. Here imagination refers not to wild fantasy, but to a means of spiritual perception, insight into the mundus imaginalis or spiritual realm(s) that can he seen only by those with purified vision. 
  4. Experience of Transmutation. Transmutation here refers to metamorpho­sis, sometimes of natural substances (as of lead into gold via alchemical work) and sometimes of the individual (from ignorance to illumination). 
  5. Praxis of the Concordance. Essentially, Faivre refers here to the tendency of esotericists to see the parallels between various traditions, as when in antiquity one finds Hermetists who are also Gnostic Christians. It is very close to syncretism or syncrasis— the joining of various traditions in prac­tice. 
  6. Transmission. An emphasis on the importance of the initiatic chain—the transmission of secret knowledge from master to disciple—a tendency found in traditions as disparate as alchemy and magic. 

Faivre’s typology emphasizes the cosmological dimensions of esotericism and focuses on the early modern and modern periods, whereas other scholars have sought to widen the scope of the field. Dutch scholar Wouter Hanegraaff argues, in a whole series of articles, for an empiricohistorical approach to a field that de facto ranges from antiquity to the New Age. 

A German scholar as we made note of above, Kocku von Stuckrad, argues even more broadly from a perspective of dis­course analysis that Western esotericism has two primary characteristics: claims to higher knowledge, and means of access to that higher knowledge. “Higher knowledge” is “a vision of truth as a master key for answering all questions of humankind,” and the means to higher knowledge include pri­marily the mediation of revelatory beings like Hermes, and direct individual experience.” My own approach here is a new, inclusive one that incorporates many aspects of these other perspectives and draws from a range of disciplines while remaining historically grounded. 

One of the most striking future areas for investigation lies in comparative religious studies. Many Western esoteric traditions parallel Asian religious traditions in various ways—there are, for instance, Asian alchemical traditions that correspond strikingly to some forms of European alchemy; just as there are some interesting parallels between Vajrayana Buddhism and Chris­tian theosophy, or between Asian and European astrological or magical traditions. These are all comparative fields that remain largely unexamined and that could shed much light on the traditions concerned. But investigations of this nature require great sophistication of knowledge in a range of fields and languages, as well as extensive general knowledge of various eras. In many respects, only now are such comparisons even possible. 

In short, it appears we stand on the brink of a new era for scholarship in esotericism. The aim of Versluis’  Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esoteric Traditions  is to orient readers and potential scholars to this particular field and to its possibilities, but also to provide a new, more integrative approach. Some authors have warned against bringing esotericism into the academy, and there are indeed dangers in doing so. However, by approaching these esoteric figures and traditions historically and empirically, working integrative rather than by approaching them with any particular ideological axe to grind, we may well discover much of value that had too hastily been jettisoned or ignored in the past several centuries. What follows is a new, historically grounded approach to esotericism that focuses on the twin themes of magic and mysticism, of cosmological and metaphysical gnosis. One enters into the field with a sense of adventure, and that this sense of adventure both pervades this study and will continue in the future, for that above all is the sign under which investigation in this field necessarily proceeds. This theoretical enthusiasm offers more insight into the deeper rationale for the esoteric that does Florian Ebeling’s study or Kocku von Stuckradsurvey.

Versluis asserts that as we look over Western esotericism from antiquity to the present, we can discern one characteristic that emerges as central throughout the entire period: gnosis. The word gnosis here refers to assertions of direct spiritual in­sight into the nature of the cosmos and of oneself, and thus may be taken as having both a cosmological and a metaphysical import. Indeed, one may speak of these as two fundamental but related kinds of gnosis: under the heading of cosmological gnosis we may list such traditions as astrology and the various forms of -mancies such as geomancy, cartomancy, and so forth, as well as numeric, geometric, and alphabetic traditions of correspondences and analogical interpretations, traditions of natural magic based on these correspondences, and so forth. Cosmological gnosis illuminates the hidden pat­terns of nature as expressing spiritual or magical truths; it corresponds, more or less, to the via positiva of Dionysius the Areopagite. Metaphysical gnosis, on the other hand, represents assertions of direct insight into the transcendent; it corresponds, more or less, to the via negativa of Dionysius the Areopagite and is represented by gnostic figures like Meister Eckhart and Franklin Merrell-Wolff, to offer two historically disparate examples. 

Versluis chooses to define esotericism primarily in terms of gnosis because gnosis, of whatever kind, is precisely what is esoteric within esotericism. Esotericism describes the historical phenomena to be studied; gnosis describes that which is esoteric, hidden, protected, and transmitted within these historical phenomena. Without hidden (or semihidden) knowledge to be transmitted in one fashion or another, one does not have esotericism. Alchemy, astrology, various kinds of magical traditions, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Jewish or Christian visionary or apophatic gnosis—under the rubric of Western esotericism are a whole range of disparate phenomena connected primarily by one thing: that to enter into the particular arcane discipline is to come to realize for oneself secret knowledge about the cosmos and its transcendence. This secret or hidden knowledge is not a product of reason alone, but of gnosis—it is held to derive from a suprarational source. 

Gilles Quispel, the scholar of ancient Gnosticism, has argued that Euro­pean tradition may be demarcated into a triad of faith, reason, and gnosis, with gnosis being the third and hidden current of Western thought. While Versluis does not agree with some of Quispel’s Jungian premises, he seems fun­damentally right in proposing this triad, and further think that we cannot in­vestigate European, American, or other categories of comparatively recent es­otericisms without reference to their historical antecedents at least as far back as late antiquity. One cannot fully understand the triad of faith, reason, and gnosis without considering the full range of European history in which it manifests itself. What is more, we cannot adequately investigate, singly or comparatively, variants of esotericism without an awareness from the outset that we are entering into unfamiliar territory for the strictly rationalist or sci­entific mind, and that in order to understand it in any genuine way, we will have to learn at least imaginatively to enter into it. 

There have already been some limited or preliminary efforts by a few scholars to begin a comparison of Gnosticism in late antiquity with Vajrayana Buddhism, with Bohmean theosophy, or with Persian Sufism, to give several examples. And such efforts are bound to suggest new insights into these disparate but sometimes apparently parallel traditions or spiritual currents. But what we are discussing here is no simple matter. For while the conventional historian must work with rather straightforward historical data—dates, events, major figures—to this the historian of esotericism must also confront an entirely new additional dimension that we may as well describe from the outset as gnosis. This dimension cannot be addressed by conventional history alone, precisely because gnosis represents insight into that which is held to transcend history. A visionary revelation, for instance, occurs in time, but ac­cording to the visionary that which is revealed does not belong to time alone. As eighteenth-century visionary Jane Leade wrote, to enter into the visionary realm, one must cast off from the “shoar of time.” So must the historian of esotericism attempt to do, at least imaginatively if not in fact, or his or her his­tory may well devolve into mere reductionism and even denigration due to a failure of understanding. And this imaginative effort is all the more difficult if one is attempting to deal with not one but two culturally disparate forms of esotericism. 

But this imaginative effort is critical if one is to truly begin to understand one’s esoteric subject from within as well as from without. It is here that the work of Henry Corbin reveals its importance. Here Versluis not referring to the accuracy or lack thereof of Corbin’s work— Versluis is not a scholar of Persian spirituality—but to the effort to enter into the perspective one is studying. This is the adventure the study of esotericism offers the scholar that few other fields can present. In the future, comparative esotericism will take its place as a subspecialty, but for now the field as a whole is in its infancy, with vast pri­mary research yet to be done, whole histories yet to be written. Before we can compare European alchemy with that of South India, we must first have a firm grasp of European alchemy itself! And that is a goal as yet not attained; one that will require not only a wide range of knowledge, but also the imag­inative capacity to interpret it. 

While it may not always be easy to chart a course between the extremes of wholly embracing and wholly rejecting esotericism, this is what is necessary if we are to come to understand this complex and subtle field. An investiga­tor must attempt to understand the world in almost certainly unfamiliar ways, and this requires a sympathetic approach to various figures, writings, and works of art, open to the unexpected, yet also retaining some sense of critical distance. Western esotericism as it is outlined in this book is a vast and profound area for research, one that could perhaps best be characterized as a long series of different investigations into the nature of consciousness itself. It is entirely possible that an investigation into it will discover in its various forms of cosmological or metaphysical gnoses unexpected insights into hidden as­pects of nature, of humanity, and of spirituality.

Central to these insights is the relationship between self and other, or subject and object. In an article published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Versluis argues that Western esotericism tends to see and use language in a fundamentally different way than many of us are familiar with—here, language is used not for conven­tional designation in a subject-object relationship, but in order to transmute con­sciousness or to point toward the transmutation of consciousness through what we may term hieroeidetic knowledge. Be it Kabbalism or alchemy, troubadours and chivalry, the Lullian art, magic or theosophy, pansophy or esoteric Rosicru­cianism or Freemasonry, one finds a consistently recurrent theme of transmut­ing consciousness, which is to say, of awakening latent, profound connections between humanity, nature, and the divine, and of restoring a paradisal union be­tween them. Hieroeidetic knowledge can be understood in terms of a shift from an objectifying view of language based on self and other to a view of language as revelatory, as a via positiva leading toward transcendence of self-other divi­sions. It is here, in their emphasis on the initiatory, hieroeidetic power of language to reveal what transcends language, that the unique contribution of Western esoteric traditions to consciousness studies may well be found.Near the end of this article, Versluis’ remarks that “The massive edifice of the modern technological, consumerist state was built from a materialist, secular, and objectified worldview, and the participatory, transformative, and gnostic perspectives characterizing Western esotericism seem far removed from and incompatible with that edifice. Still, for the first time now there are numerous scholars examining both Western esotericism as a general concept, and particular currents within esotericism, and it may well be that such studies will eventually offer unexpected insights into the historical origins of the modern era, as well as further insight into the relationships between Western esoteric traditions and consciousness.”

It is important to recognize how different are the premises of Western esoteric traditions from modern ways of thinking and understanding, and how by en­tering into these currents of thought we may indeed see our own world in new ways. 

If Western esotericism is to fully develop as a field of scholarly inquiry, its unique nature must be recognized. Most unique about it is not its transdisciplinary nature alone, but the fact that its manifold currents are each concerned with new ways of knowing, with the transcendence of the self-other dichotomy, be it through initiatory literature, alchemical or magical work, vi­sionary experience, or apophatic gnosis. While purely historical research ob­viously has its place in this field, the most important works may be those that suggest new ways of seeing and knowing. Perhaps some of the most vital and profound contributions of this fascinating field will be in areas like con­sciousness studies, but in any case, we can be sure that there is much more yet to be discovered.


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