Western esotericism refers to a broad spectrum of spiritual traditions found in Western society. The precise definition of Western esotericism remains an area of continual debate, although it is generally accepted that it contains spiritual movements which focus on the pursuit of gnosis, and which are distinct from both mainstream religion and scientific rationality.
The earliest Western esoteric movements emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean during Late Antiquity, as Hermetism, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism developed as schools of thought distinct from mainstream Christianity. In Renaissance Europe, interest in many of these older ideas increased, with various intellectuals seeking to combine "pagan" philosophies with the Kabbalah and Christian philosophy, resulting in the emergence of esoteric movements like Christian theosophy. The 17th century saw the development of initiatory societies professing esoteric knowledge such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, while the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century led to the development of new forms of esoteric thought.
The 19th-century saw the emergence of new trends of esoteric thought that have come to be known as occultism. Prominent groups in this century included the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which influenced the development of Thelema. Another development within occultism was modern paganism, which included religious movements such as Wicca. Esoteric ideas permeated the counterculture of the 1960s, from which emerged the New Age movement in the 1970s.
The academic study of Western esotericism emerged in the latter 20th century, pioneered by scholars like Frances Yates and Antoine Faivre. There are now several peer-reviewed journals and university departments devoted to this field.
The concept of Western esotericism is a modern scholarly construct rather than a pre-existing, self-defined tradition of thought. Scholars constructed this category in the late 18th century after identifying "structural similarities" between "the ideas and world-views of a wide variety of thinkers and movements" which prior to this had not been placed in the same analytical category. Academic scholar of Western esotericism Wouter Hanegraaff has characterised these as "recognisable world-views and approaches to knowledge that have played an important although always controversial role in the history of Western culture." Historian of religion Henrik Bogdan asserted that Western esotericism constituted "a third pillar of Western culture" alongside "doctrinal faith and rationality", being deemed heretical by the former and irrational by the latter. Faivre and Voss stated that Western esotericism consists of "a vast spectrum of authors, trends, works of philosophy, religion, art, literature, and music."
As a category, Western esotericism has been defined in various ways. One of these has been by identifying certain criteria which are common to all Western esoteric traditions. An early exponent of this idea was the historian of Renaissance thought Frances Yates. However, the primary exponent of this view was Antoine Faivre, who published a series of criteria for how to define "Western esotericism" in 1992. Faivre's form of categorisation has been championed by scholars like Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. Bogdan noted that by 2007, Faivre's had become "the standard definition" of Western esotericism among scholars. Hanegraaff however criticised this approach, arguing that it was "reasoning by prototype", thereby already having a "best example" of what Western esotericism should look like, and then comparing other phenomenon to that one.
A second definition uses "occultism" as an element of modernity.
A third definition used in scholarship has used "Western esotericism" to refer to "inner traditions".
A fourth definition was proposed by Hanegraaff, and holds that "Western esotericism" is a category representing "the academy's dustbin of rejected knowledge." In this respect, it contains all of the theories and world views that have been rejected by the mainstream intellectual community because they do not accord with "normative conceptions of religion, rationality and science". Goodrick-Clarke was critical of this approach, believing that it relegated Western esotericism to the position of "a casualty of positivist and materialist perspectives in the nineteenth-century" and thus reinforces the idea that it Western esoteric schools of thought were of little historical importance. Bogdan similarly expressed concern regarding Hanegraaff's definition, believing that it made the category of Western esotericism "all inclusive" and thus analytically useless.
The origins of Western esotericism are in the Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean, then part of the Roman Empire, during Late Antiquity, a period encompassing the first centuries of the Common Era. This was a milieu in which there was a mix of religious and intellectual traditions from Greece, Egypt, the Levant, Babylon, and Persia, and in which globalisation, urbanisation, and multiculturalism were bringing about socio-cultural change.
One component of this was Hermetism, an Egyptian Hellenistic school of thought that takes its name from the legendary Egyptian wise man, Hermes Trismegistus. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, a number of texts appeared which were attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, including the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, and the Treatise of the Eighth and Ninth. Although it is still debated as to whether Hermetism was a purely literary phenomenon, or whether there were communities of practitioners who acted on these ideas, it has been established that these texts discuss the true nature of God, emphasising that humans must transcend rational thought and worldly desires in order to find salvation and be reborn into a spiritual body of immaterial light, thereby achieving spiritual unity with divinity.
Another tradition of esoteric thought in Late Antiquity was Gnosticism, which had a complex relationship with Christianity. Various Gnostic sects existed, and they broadly believed that the divine light had been imprisoned within the material world by a malevolent entity known as the Demiurge, who was served by demonic helpers, the Archons. It was the Gnostic belief that humans, who were imbued with the divine light, should seek to attain gnosis and thus escape from the world of matter and rejoin the divine source.
A third form of esotericism in Late Antiquity was Neoplatonism, a school of thought influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Plato. Advocated by such figures as Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus, Neoplatonism held that the human soul had fallen from its divine origins into the material world, but that it could progress, through a number of hierarchical spheres of being, to return to its divine origins once more. The later Neoplatonists performed theurgy, a ritual practice attested in such sources as the Chaldean Oracles. Scholars are still unsure of precisely what theurgy involved, although it is known that it involved a practice designed to make gods appear, who could then raise the theurgist's mind to the reality of the divine.
After the fall of Rome, alchemy and philosophy and other aspects of the tradition were largely preserved in the Arab and Near Eastern world and introduced into Western Europe by Jews and by the cultural contact between Christians and Muslims that occurred due to the Crusades and the Reconquista. The 12th century saw the development of the Kabbalah in medieval Spain. The medieval period also saw the publication of grimoires which offered often elaborate formulas for theurgy and thaumaturgy. Many of the grimoires seem to have kabbalistic influence. Figures in alchemy from this period seem to also have authored or used grimoires.
Renaissance and Early Modern period
During the Renaissance, a number of European thinkers began to synthesize "pagan" philosophies which were then being made available through Arabic translations with Christian thought and the Jewish kabbalah. The earliest of these individuals was the Byzantine philosopher Plethon (1355/60–1452?), who argued that the Chaldean Oracles represented an example of a superior religion of ancient humanity which had been passed down by the Platonists. Plethon's ideas interested the ruler of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, who employed Florentine thinker Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) to translate Plato's works into Latin. Ficino went on to translate and publish the works of various Platonic figures, arguing that their philosophies were compatible with Christianity, and allowing for the emergence of a wider movement in Renaissance Platonism, or Platonic Orientalism. Ficino also translated part of the Corpus Hermeticum, although the rest would be translated by his contemporary, Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500). Another core figure in this intellectual milieu was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), who achieved notability in 1486 by inviting scholars from across Europe to come and debate the 900 theses that he had written with him. Mirandola argued that all of these philosophies reflected a grand universal wisdom, however Pope Innocent VIII condemned these actions, criticising him for attempting to mix pagan and Jewish ideas with Christianity.
Pico's increased interest in Jewish kabbalah led to his development of a distinct form of Christian Kabbalah. His work was built on by the German Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) who authored a prominent text on the subject, De arte cabalistica. Christian Kabbalah was expanded in the work of the German Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535/36), who used it as a framework through which to explore the philosophical and scientific traditions of Antiquity in his work De occulta philosophia libri tres. The work of Agrippa and other esoteric philosophers had been based in a pre-Copernican worldview, but following the arguments of Copernicus, a more accurate understanding of the cosmos was established. Copernicus' theories were adopted into esoteric strains of thought by Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), whose ideas would be deemed heresy by the Roman Catholic Church, eventually resulting in his public execution.
A distinct strain of esoteric thought developed in Germany, where it came to be known as Naturphilosophie; although influenced by traditions from Late Antiquity and Medieval Kabbalah, it only acknowledged two main sources of authority: Biblical scripture and the natural world. The primary exponent of this approach was Paracelsus (1493/94–1541), who took inspiration from alchemy and folk magic to argue against the mainstream medical establishment, which based its approach on the ideas of Galen. Instead, Paracelsus urged doctors to learn medicine through an observation of the natural world, although in later work he also began to focus on overtly religious questions. His work would gain significant support in both areas over the following centuries. One of those influenced by Paracelsus was German cobbler Jacob Böhme (1575–1624), who sparked the Christian theosophy movement through his attempts to solve the problem of evil. Böhme argued that God had been created out of an unfathomable mystery, the Ungrud, and that God himself composed of a wrathful core, surrounded by the forces of light and love. Although condemned by Germany's Lutheran authorities, Böhme's ideas spread and formed the basis for a number of small religious communities, such as Johann Georg Gichtel's Angelic Brethren in Amsterdam, and John Pordage and Jane Leade's Philadelphian Society in England.
From 1614 to 1616, the three Rosicrucian Manifestos were published in Germany; these texts purporting to represent a secret initiatory brotherhood which had been founded centuries before by a German adept named Christian Rosenkreutz. There is no evidence that Rosenkreutz was a genuine historical figure, or that a Rosicrucian Order had ever existed, and instead the manifestos are likely literary creations of Lutheran theologian Johann Valentin Andreae (1586–1654). However, they inspired much public interest, with various individuals coming to describe themselves as "Rosicrucian" and asserting that they had access to secret esoteric knowledge as a result. A real iniatory brotherhood was established in late 16th-century Scotland through the transformation of Medieval stonemason guilds to include non-craftsman: Freemasonry. Soon spreading into other parts of Europe, in England it largely rejected its esoteric character and embraced humanism and rationalism, while in France it embraced new esoteric concepts, particularly those from Christian theosophy.
18th, 19th and early 20th centuries
The Age of Enlightenment witnessed a process of increasing secularisation of European governments and an embrace of modern science and rationality within intellectual circles. In turn, a "modernist occult" emerged that reflected varied ways in which esoteric thinkers came to terms with these developments. One of the most prominent esotericists of this period was the Swedish naturalist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), who attempted to reconcile science and religion after experiencing a vision of Jesus Christ. His writings focused on his visionary travels to heaven and hell and his communications with angels, claiming that the visible, materialist world parallels an invisible spiritual world, with correspondences between the two that do not reflect causal relations. Following his death, followers would found the Swedenborgian New Church, although his writings would influence a far wider array of esoteric philosophies. Another major figure within the esoteric movement of this period was the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1814), who developed the theory of Animal Magnetism, which later came to be known more commonly as "Mesmerism". Mesmer claimed that a universal life force permeated everything, including the human body, and that illnesses were caused by a disturbance or block in this force's flow; he developed techniques which he claimed cleansed such blockages and restored the patient to full health. One of Mesmer's followers, the Marquis de Puységur, discovered that mesmeric treatment could induce a state of somnumbulic trance in which they claimed to enter visionary states and communicate with spirit beings.
These somnumbulic trance-states would heavily influence the esoteric religion of Spiritualism, which emerged from the United States in the 1840s and spread throughout North American and Europe. Spiritualism was based on the concept that individuals could communicate with spirits of the deceased during séances. Although most forms of Spiritualism had little theoretical depth, being largely practical affairs, full theological worldviews based on the movement would be articulated by Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910) and Allan Kardec (1804–1869). Scientific interest in the claims of Spiritualism resulted in the development of the field of psychical research. Somnambulism also exerted a strong influence on the early disciplines of psychology and psychiatry; esoteric ideas purvey the work of many early figures in this field, most notably Carl Gustav Jung, although with the rise of psychoanalysis and behaviourism in the 20th century, these disciplines distanced themselves from esotericism. Also influenced by artificial somnambulism was the religion of New Thought, founded by the American Mesmerist Phineas P. Quimby (1802–1866) and which revolved around the concept of "mind over matter", believing that illness and other negative conditions could be cured through the power of belief.
In Europe, a movement usually termed "occultism" emerged as various figures attempted to find a "third way" between Christianity and positivist science while building on the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance traditions of esoteric thought. In France, following the social upheaval of the 1789 Revolution, various figures emerged in this occultist milieu who were heavily influenced by traditional Catholicism, the most notable of whom were Eliphas Lévi (1810–1875) and Papus (1865–1916). Also significant was René Guénon (1886–1951), whose concern with tradition led him to develop an occult viewpoint termed Traditionalism; it espoused the idea of an original, universal tradition, and thus a rejection of modernity. His Traditionalist ideas would have a strong influence on later esotericists like Julius Evola (1898–1974) and Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998).
In the Anglophone world, the burgeoning occult movement owed more to Enlightenment libertines, and thus was more often of an anti-Christian bent that saw wisdom as eminating from the pre-Christian pagan religions of Europe. Various Spiritualist mediums came to be disillusioned with the esoteric thought available, and sought inspiration in pre-Swedenborgian currents; the most prominent of these were Emma Hardinge Britten (1823–1899) and Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), the latter of whom called for the revival of the "occult science" of the ancients, which could be found in both the East and West. Authoring the influential Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), she co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Subsequent leaders of the Society, namely Annie Besant (1847–1933) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934) interpreted modern theosophy as a form of ecumenical esoteric Christianity, resulting in their proclamation of Indian Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) as world messiah. In rejection of this was the breakaway Anthroposophical Society founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925).
New esoteric understandings of magic also developed in the latter part of the 19th century. One of the pioneers of this was American Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875), who argued that sexual energy and psychoative drugs could be used for magical purposes. In England, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an initiatory order devoted to magic which based itself on an understanding of kabbalah, was founded in the latter years of the century. One of the most prominent members of that order was Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), who went on to proclaim the religion of Thelema and become a prominent member of the Ordo Templi Orientis. Some of their contemporaries developed esoteric schools of thought that did not entail magic, namely the Greco-Armenian teacher George Gurdjieff (1866–1949) and his Russian pupul P. D. Ouspensky (1878–1947).
Emergent occult and esoteric systems found increasing popularity in the early 20th century, especially in Western Europe. Occult lodges and secret societies flowered among European intellectuals of this era who had largely abandoned traditional forms of Christianity. The spreading of secret teachings and magic practices found enthusiastic adherents in the chaos of Germany during the interwar years. Many influential and wealthy Germans were drawn to secret societies such as the Thule Society. Thule Society activist Karl Harrer was one of the founders of the German Workers' Party, which later became the Nazi Party; some Nazi Party members like Alfred Rosenberg and Rudolf Hess were listed as "guests" of the Thule Society, as was Adolf Hitler's mentor Dietrich Eckart. After their rise to power, the Nazis persecuted occultists. While many Nazi Party leaders like Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were hostile to occultism, Heinrich Himmler used Karl Maria Wiligut as a clairvoyant "and was regularly consulting for help in setting up the symbolic and ceremonial aspects of the SS" but not for important political decisions. By 1939, Wiligut was "forcibly retired from the SS" due to being institutionalised for insanity.
Later 20th century
In the 1960s and 1970s, esotericism came to be increasingly associated with the growing counter-culture in the West, whose adherents understood themselves in participating in a spiritual revolution that would mark the Age of Aquarius. By the 1980s, these currents of millenarian currents had come to be widely known as the New Age movement, and it became increasingly commercialised as business entrepreneurs exploited a growth in the spiritual market. Conversely, other forms of esoteric thought retained the anti-commercial and counter-cultural sentiment of the 1960s and 1970s, namely the techno-shamanic movement promoted by figures such as Terence McKenna and Daniel Pinchbeck which built on the work of anthropologist Carlos Castenada.
This trend was accompanied by the increased growth of modern paganism, a movement initially dominated by Wicca, the religion propagated by Gerald Gardner. Wicca was adopted by members of the second-wave feminist movement, most notably Starhawk, and developing into the Goddess movement. Wicca also greatly influenced the development of Pagan Druidry and other forms of Celtic revivalism.
The academic study of Western esotericism was pioneered in the early 20th century by historians of the ancient world and the European Renaissance, who came to recognise the impact of pre-Christian and non-rational schools of thought on European society and culture that had been widely ignored by previous scholarship. One of the key centres for this was the Warburg Institute in London, where scholars like Frances Yates, Edgar Wind, Ernst Cassier, and D.P. Walker began arguing that esoteric thought had had a greater impact on Renaissance culture than had been previously accepted.
Initially, the study of Western esotericism had been divided among different disciplines. However, Hanegraaff asserted that Western esotericism had to be studied as a separate field to religion, philosophy, science, and the arts, because while it "participates in all these fields" it does not squarely fit into any of them. It was Antoine Faivre, operating at the Sorbonne, who developed the study of Western esotericism into a formalised field.
In 1980, the Hermetic Academy was founded in the United States as an outlet for scholars interested in Western esotericism. From 1986 to 1990 members of the Hermetic Academy participated in panels at the annual meeting of the AAR under the rubric of the "Esotericism and Perennialism Group". By 2008, there were three dedicated university chairs in the subject, at the University of Sorbonne, University of Amsterdam, and the University of Exeter, with the latter two institutions also offering master's degree programs in it.
On the basis of the fact that "English culture and literature have been traditional strongholds of Western esotericism", in 2011 Pia Brînzeu and György Szönyi urged that English studies also have a role in this interdisciplinary field.
Kennet Granholm has argued that there are problems with the field in that it draws a difference between esotericism and non-esoteric elements of culture which draw on esotericism; citing the example of extreme metal, he noted that it was incredibly difficult to differentiate between those artists who were "properly occult" and those who simply utilised occult themes and aesthetics in "a superficial way".
Writers interested in occult themes have adopted three different strategies for dealing with the subject: those who are knowledgeable on the subject including attractive images of the occult and occultists in their work, those who disguise occultism within "a web of intertextuality", and those who oppose it and seek to deconstruct it.
- Bogdan 2007, p. 5.
- Bogdan 2007, p. 6; Hanegraaff 2013, p. 3.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 3.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 13.
- Bogdan 2007, p. 7.
- Faivre & Voss 1995, pp. 48–49.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 6–7.
- Bogdan 2007, p. 10; Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 3–4.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 7–10.
- Bogdan 2007, p. 10.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 4–14.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 9–10.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 10–12.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 4.
- Bogdan 2007, p. 15.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 3, 15; Hanegraaff 2013, p. 18.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 13; Hanegraaff 2013, p. 18.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 16–20; Hanegraaff 2013, p. 19.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 27–29; Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 19–20.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 20–27.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 25; Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 20–21.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 25.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 26.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 26–27.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 27.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 27–28.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 28–29.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 29.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 30.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 31.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 30–31.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 32.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 32–33.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 33–34.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 35–36.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 36.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 37.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 37–38.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 38.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 38–39.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 39.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 39–40.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 40.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 40–41.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 41.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 41–42.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 42.
- Hermann Gilbhard: Thule-Gesellschaft.
- Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke: The Occult Roots of Nazism. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks 2005, p. 149.
- Corinna Treitel: A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press 2004, p. 220.
- Corinna Treitel: A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press 2004, p. 215f.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 43.
- Hanegraaff 2013, p. 44.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 4–5.
- Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 1–2.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 5.
- Faivre & Voss 1995, p. 59.
- Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 3.
- Brînzeu & Szönyi 2011, p. 184.
- Granholm 2013, pp. 8–9.
- Brînzeu & Szönyi 2011, p. 185.
- Asprem, Egil (2014). "Beyond the West: Towards a New Comparativism in the Study of Esotericism". Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism 2 (1): 3–33.
- Bogdan, Henrik (2007). Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0791470701.
- Brînzeu, Pia; Szönyi, György (2011). "The Esoteric in Postmodernism". European Journal of English Studies (Routledge) 15 (3): 183–188.
- Faivre, Antoine (1994). Access to Western Esotericism. New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0791421789.
- Faivre, Antoine (2010). Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Christine Rhone (translator). New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1438433776.
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- Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas (2008). The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195320992.
- Granholm, Kennet (2013). "Ritual Black Metal: Popular Music as Occult Mediation and Practice". Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism 1 (1): 5–33.
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- An Esoteric Archive
- Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands
- The Western Esoteric Tradition Research Site