A review article based on Western Esotericism by Kocku von Stuckrad and The Western Esoteric Traditions by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke.
Western esotericism is a two millennium-old intellectual and religious tradition encompassing alternative philosophy and spirituality, astrology, numerology, alchemy and ritual magic. After some years of neglect in intellectual circles, the tradition has in recent times reclaimed its rightful place as an object of academic study. There are professorial chairs in the subject at the Sorbonne, Amsterdam and Exeter, and both of these books contain brief histories of the treatment of the subject in academia by previous scholars, including Frances Yates, Antoine Faivre, Wouter Hanegraaff and Gershom Scholem.
What is esotericism?
Goodrick-Clarke, following Antoine Faivre, posits the following common characteristics of the tradition:
- "correspondences between a higher divine reality, the universe, the earthly realm, and human beings" - In other words, everything is invisibly connected to everything else. If, say, patterns in the heavenly bodies can be connected with patterns in human affairs, then astrology becomes a useful endeavour. This is where the well-known principle of "as above, so below" comes in: the macrocosm is linked to the microcosm.
- "the idea of a living, ensouled or animated universe"
- "notions of spiritual intermediaries in the form of hierarchies, planes, and angels acting as a ladder of descent and ascent between the higher and lower worlds" - As noted below, it is in this concentration on spiritual intermediaries that esotericism differs from mysticism.
- "the idea of the human soul's transmutation through reawakening and returning to these higher worlds" - This transmutation may be connected with the quest of the alchemists to transmute base metals into gold.
Whereas the mystic typically seeks a direct and immediate unio mystica with God without any intervening images or intermediaries, the esotericist tends to focus on the intermediaries (angels, devas, sephiroth, hypostases) that extend up and down the ladder of spiritual ascent as a preferred form of contemplation.
The origins of the tradition
The Western esoteric tradition was born in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD in the eastern Mediterranean out of the religious and philosophical movements known as Hermeticism, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. The ancient Mediterranean was, in the title of Keith Hopkins' unforgettable book, A World Full of Gods, and the esoteric tradition has always borne the imprint of this cosmopolitan origin.
If any body of texts can be regarded as the foundation charter of Western esotericism, it is the Corpus Hermeticum or Hermetic Corpus. This is a collection of 17 tracts which emerged from a wider tradition of "Hermetic" writing. The name comes from Hermes Trismegistus, a figure derived from the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian deity Thoth who appears as a teacher in the works.
The ideas of the Hermetic Corpus are eclectic but distinctive. The texts affirm that spirit is superior to matter, that the soul is reincarnated, and that the soul can be liberated from the body through the knowledge (gnósis, a key concept) of its condition. The goal was for the individual to achieve equality with God. Patterns on a human level (the microcosm) were connected with patterns on a cosmic level (the macrocosm). These teachings were not novel. The idea of the body as the tomb of the soul (sóma séma) went back as far as Plato, and appears to have originated in Greek culture with Pythagoras and the Orphics, who also believed in reincarnation. The notion of the macrocosm and the microcosm, and the idea of the interconnectedness of everything, can be traced back to Plato as well, and also, more immediately, to the intellectual culture of Hellenistic Egypt and the Stoic movement.
As for Gnosticism, quite what "Gnosticism" was is still a subject of scholarly debate, as is the question of whether the term is useful at all. We know of the Gnostic movement primarily from texts written by orthodox Christians who were opposed to it. Gnostics - who, yet again, were influenced by the philosophy of Plato - seem to have believed in an ultimate transcendent deity who was separated from human beings by intermediary entities. Matter was evil, and it was important for the believer to attain gnósis, knowledge, of the truth of the human condition. The Gnostic attitude to the material world was more radical than that of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism, which taught that spirit was ultimately superior to matter but did not hold the material world in contempt.
The Kabbalah was born in southern France and Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was influenced by Neoplatonism, and also drew on a pre-existing tradition of Jewish mysticism and esotericism, which included (amongst other things) numerology. It began with the Book of Bahir (c.1180), and reached its culmination in the enormous Zohar, which stands together with the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud as one of the three pillars of Jewish religious thought.
Kabbalistic writers posited a transcendent God (Ein Sof, the endless), from which 10 divine powers (sephiroth) emanated. The sephiroth were in turn interlinked by 22 pathways. This model was linked with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the numbers 1 to 10, and also with the observations that the phrase "God said" is used 10 times in the opening sections of the Book of Genesis and that God is said to have undertaken 22 other creative actions.
The Kabbalah had influence well beyond the boundaries of Europe's oppressed Jewish minority. With the coming of the Renaissance, there rapidly developed a tradition of Christianised Kabbalah, led by the German humanist Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), who wrote the first complete Christian text on the Kabbalah, and the Italian Wunderkind Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494).
Renaissance and early modern esotericism
The Renaissance saw a revival of interest in astrology, alchemy, magic, Kabbalah and the other esoteric arts. It marked a turning away from the Aristotelian philosophy of the high Middle Ages to the Platonic tradition, and specifically to Neoplatonism. Scholars discovered similarities between Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and Kabbalah, and they developed the idea of an essential core of philosophical and religious truth which represented the common denominator of all religions, or the basis from which all religions derived. This was known as the prisca theologia or philosophia perennis.
The central figures of early Renaissance occultism were the Florentine scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), the inventor of the term prisca theologia, and Pico, who was Ficino's student. Like other Renaissance esotericists, Ficino believed in working a magia naturalis or natural magic. This was influenced by the practical magical operations (theurgy) of the later Neoplatonists. Von Stuckrad writes:
This 'natural magic' assumes that the cosmos is permeated with an energy integral to nature itself. As human beings are embedded in the energetic field of the universe, they can investigate this energy and use it to understand God's dominion.The Swiss doctor and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) put it more succinctly: "Magic is natural, because nature itself is magical".
As for Pico, his major contribution to esoteric scholarship was his famous 900 Theses. These derived from a mixture of Christian theology, Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, and other influences which included Aristotle, Zoroastrianism and mediaeval Islamic thought. Pico planned to debate his theses in Rome with experts from all over Europe, but Pope Innocent VIII drew the line at this and he had to content himself with publishing them in written form.
Ficino and Pico directly influenced the German writer Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535). Other prominent Renaissance esotericists included John Dee (1527-1608/09), Sir Edward Kelley (1555-1597), Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) and Athanasius Kircher (1601/02-1680). Esoteric ideas were linked with what would today be classed as secular science, so occult ideas were found also among the likes of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton.
A seminal moment in Renaissance esotericism was the rediscovery of the Hermetic Corpus in 1460. The ancient texts - which at this point were thought to be at least as old as Moses - were translated into Latin by Ficino, who also found time to translate the works of the Neoplatonists and those of Plato himself. The Corpus, however, was proven in 1614 not to be older than the early Christian era.
The same year, 1614, saw the publication of the first manifesto of the Rosicrucian movement, Fama Fraternitatis, in Cassel. This was followed by further Rosicrucian texts over the succeeding years. The Rosicrucian literature purported to tell of a secret order of mystical adepts stemming from the legendary Christian Rosenkreuz. It incorporated familiar esoteric themes, such as alchemy and the invisible correspondences within the universe, within a utopian Christian framework. Von Stuckrad says of the Rosicrucians:
The combination of Hermetic tradition, Paracelsian medicine and the philosophy of nature, alchemical symbolism, reformed Protestantism, apocalypticism and social utopianism matched the spirit of the age.Inevitably, real-life Rosicrucian groups came into existence, some of which still exist. They were bound up with the growing Masonic movement.
The Enlightenment, the 19th century and beyond
From the 17th century onwards, the network of fraternal lodges and orders known collectively as Freemasonry played a pivotal role in preserving and transmitting the esoteric tradition. Freemasonry was a new movement in educated European society, though it apparently had its roots in the mediaeval craft guilds of "operative" stonemasons. At once a social, religious, political and philanthropic movement, it developed numerous branches and offshoots, ranging from the somewhat staid English Grand Lodge to various exotic Continental varieties of the "Craft".
The coming of the Enlightenment, however, spelt the beginning of the end for esotericism as a part of mainstream European culture - though some scholars continued to combine occult interests with interests in "real" science, including G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716), who saw creation as a single large organism, and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who inspired a tradition of Christian esotericism which is still going today. On the other hand, Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), the godfather of hypnotism, had a more ambiguous relationship with respectable scientific opinion. Swedenborg and Mesmer would both later influence the spiritualist movement, which began in America in the late 1840s and reached Britain the following decade.
One of the key figures of 19th century occultism was Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875), the French scholar of ritual magic. Lévi was a prolific writer, and his work influenced generations of modern esotericists on both sides of the Channel. He both recapitulated the themes of the historical tradition and introduced developments of his own - raising the status of the tarot deck, for example, and making creative use of the pentagram symbol. It was Lévi who penned the famous and lapidary words:
Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practised at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed....The Victorian occult scene was dominated by two enormously influential organisations. The first of these was the Theosophical Society of Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) and Colonel H.S. Olcott (1832-1907). The Theosophical movement did a great deal to shape modern esotericism, as well as Indian nationalism and the careers of Nehru and Gandhi. In Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), Blavatsky blended Western esotericism with Hindu and Buddhist teachings drawn from Britain's expanding colonial empire. Like the Renaissance esotericists, she taught the existence of a universal religion from which all other religions descended. The influence of Theosophy, which continues in existence as a movement, was carried on into the 20th century by figures including Annie Besant (1847-1933), Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who founded a Christian variant of Theosophy known as Anthroposophy, and Bishop Charles Leadbeater (1854-1934).
The second great Victorian esoteric organisation was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (1888), which was itself influenced by Theosophy. It emerged from Freemasonry, via a Rosicrucian society called the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, and its moving spirits included W.W.Westcott (1848-1925), S.L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) and A.E.Waite (1857-1942). The Golden Dawn and its successor organisations played a huge role in the development of the ritual magic tradition, with their alumni including figures as diverse as the Irish poet W.B.Yates, the Christian esotericist Dion Fortune (1890-1946), and the infamous Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), who caused a split in the movement and ended up founding his own religion, known as Thelema.
The esoteric tradition subsequently found its way into 20th century theories of mythology and psychology, including those of Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade and Carl Jung. The philosophia perennis discourse also took a rather alarming turn into extreme right-wing antimodernist politics. Most famously, however, Western occultism has come down to our own time in the form of the New Age movement and the neopagan revival. It arguably even inspired Star Wars, which in von Stuckrad's view is "best interpreted as a 'gnostic' drama that revolves around the ideas of good and evil, the demiurge, archons, the fall and self-redemption". May the force be with you.