From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Esoteric)
Jump to: navigation, search
"Arcane" and "Esoteric" redirect here. For other uses, see Arcane (disambiguation) and Esoteric (disambiguation).

Esotericism (or esoterism) is a "generic label for a large and complicated group of historical phenomena" which share an air de famille.[1]

Esoteric traditions search for hidden ("esoteric") meanings and symbolism in exoterically accessible philosophical, historical, and religious texts.[2] Defining characteristics are theories of correspondences between all parts of the invisible and the visible cosmos, the conviction that nature is a living entity owing to a divine presence or life-force, the need for mediating elements (such as symbols, rituals, angels, visions) in order to access spiritual knowledge, and an experience of personal and spiritual transmutation when arriving at this knowledge.[3][4]

The term derives from the Greek, either from the comparative ἐσώτερος (esôteros), "inner", or from its derived adjective ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos), "pertaining to the innermost".[5]

Examples of esoteric religious movements and philosophies include Alchemy, Christian mysticism,[6] Gnosticism, Hermetism, Kabbalah, Magic, Neoplatonism, Swedenborgianism, and the Theosophist movement associated with Helena Blavatsky.


Greek philosophy[edit]

The term derives from the Greek, either from the comparative ἐσώτερος (esôteros), "inner", or from its derived adjective ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos), "pertaining to the innermost," both compounds of ἔσω (esô), "within", thus pertaining to interiority, the initiatic or mysticism, all these terms relating to what lies within a sacred enclosure. Its antonym is "exoteric" or "profane".

Plato, in his dialogue Alcibíades (circa 390 BC), uses the expression ta esô meaning "the inner things", and in his dialogue Theaetetus (circa 360 BC) he uses ta exô meaning "the outside things". Aristotle applied this distinction to his own writings. The probable first appearance of the Greek adjective esôterikos is in Lucian of Samosata's "The Auction of Lives", § 26, written around AD 166.[7]

Western esotericism[edit]

The term esoteric first appeared in English in the 1660 History of Philosophy by Thomas Stanley, in his description of the mystery-school of Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans were divided into "exoteric" (under training), and "esoteric" (admitted into the "inner" circle).[citation needed]

Jacques Matter used the term "l'ésotérisme" in his Histoire du gnosticisme in 1828.[8] It was popularized by Eliphas Levi in the 1850s, and introduced into the English language by the Theosophist A.D. Sinnet in 1883.[8] Levi also intriduced the term l'occoltisme, which is often used synonymous with esotericism, but, according to Hanegraaf, may better be used to denote a specific development within esotericism.[1]


According to Hanegraaf, four distinct definitions of "esotericism can be found: "esotericism" as a generic label; as a body of secret doctrines; as the common or perennial center of all religions; and as New Age parlance for innerly experienced spirituality.[9]

Generic label[edit]

According to Hanegraaff, "Esotericism" is a "generic label for a large and complicated group of historical phenomena" which share an air de famille.[1] According to Bland, esotericism refers to an exploration of the hidden meanings and symbolism in various philosophical, historical, and religious texts.[10]

Antoine Faivre has identified several essential characteristics of esoteric thought. His definition is based on the presence in the esoteric currents of four essential characteristics, to which are added two non-intrinsic characteristics:[3][4]

  1. theory of correspondences between all parts of the invisible and the visible cosmos,
  2. the conviction that nature is a living entity owing to a divine presence or life-force,
  3. the need for mediating elements (such as symbols, rituals, angels, visions) in order to access spiritual knowledge,
  4. an experience of personal and spiritual transmutation when arriving at this knowledge.
  5. Esotericists frequently suggest that there is a concordance between different religious traditions: best example is the belief in prisca theologia (ancient theology) or in philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy).
  6. Finally, esotericism sometimes suggests the idea of a secret transmission of spiritual teachings, through initiation from master to disciple.

Pierre A. Riffard mentions the followng characteristics:[11]

  1. Mythological origins: the esotericists trace the origins of their doctrine or practice to an extremely distant past. They situate the life of Hermes in times immemorial.
  2. Cosmic cycles: for Gaston Georgel, “history is governed by cycles of 540, 1080 and 2160 years”.
  3. The chains of initiation: some Rosicrucians include Francis Bacon among their masters and trace their origins back to the time of Thutmosis III.
  4. The secret books: esotericists prefer to base their beliefs on secret writings, unknown to the majority of people and inaccessible to the uninitiated: for instance, among the Theosophists, The Book of Dzyan.
  5. Spiritual interpretations: the esotericists are able to endow the most profane texts with an occult meaning. The alchemists discover within the Greek and Roman myths the Great Work of alchemy.
  6. Magical uses: a book can be used as a talisman, a divinatory machine... The Sortes Sanctorum (Lots of the saints) were, in early Christianity, a divination which consists in taking passages of the Bible at chance, and drawing conclusions from them concerning future.

Secret doctrines[edit]

Several dictionary definitions refer to esotericism as the holding of esoteric opinions or beliefs,[12] that is, ideas preserved or understood by a small group of those specially initiated, or of rare or unusual interest.[13]

Hanegraaf notes that this is an overly restrictive definition, since "many manifestations of alchemy or Christian Theosophy, for instance, have never been secret byt widely disseminated."[14] Bland also notes that the texts which are interpreted for their esoteric meaning are often central to mainstream religions. For example, the Bible and the Torah are considered esoteric material.[10]


In perennialist usage, esotericism is a metaphysical concept referring to a supposed "transcendent unity" of all great religious traditions. Esotericism is the metaphysical point of unity where exoteric religions are believed to converge:[15][note 1]

The "perennialist" approach is notably represented by Alan Watts and by the Traditionalist School, a modern school of esotericism represented by authors like the French René Guénon (1886–1951).[note 2] They postulate that there exists a Primordial Tradition of non-human origin.[17][note 3]

According to Hanegraaff, the Perennialist definition "implies that one subscribes to a religious doctrine" which is itself an object of study.[14]

New Age[edit]

In New Age parlance, esotericism does not refer to the traditions historically denoted with this term, but is

... first and foremost a concept referring to Individualkultur according to the motto: "You have it all inside yourself, check it out!"... Thus Esotericism changed ... from a special tradition of knowledge into a special type of "religion", the "journey within". ... Similar to the word "spirituality", "Esotericism" thus became a surrogate for "religion", which accentuates its subjective element focused on inner experience.[18][note 4]

Esoteric traditions[edit]

Examples of esoteric religious movements and philosophies include Alchemy, Druze, the Alawites,[19] Anthroposophy, early Christian mysticism,[6] The Fourth Way, Freemasonry, Gnosticism, Hermetism, Kabbalah, Magic, Neoplatonism, Numerology, Perennialism, Rosicrucianism, Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, Tantra, the Theosophy of Jacob Böhme and his followers, the Theosophist movement associated with Helena Blavatsky.

Academic research[edit]

Hanegraaff follows a distinction between an “emic” and an “etic” approach to religious studies. The emic approach is that of the alchemist or theosopher as an alchemist or theosopher. The etic approach is that of the scholar as an historian, a researcher, with a critical look. An empirical study of esotericism needs “emic material and etic interpretation”:

Emic denotes the believer’s point of view. On the part of the researcher, the reconstruction of this emic perspective requires an attitude of empathy which excludes personal biases as far as possible. Scholarly discourse about religion, on the other hand, is not emic but etic. Scholars may introduce their own terminology and make theoretical distinctions which are different from those of the believers themselves.[20]

Arthur Versluis proposes approaching esotericism through a “sympathetic empiricism”:

Esotericism, given all its varied forms and its inherently multidimensional nature, cannot be conveyed without going beyond purely historical information: at minimum, the study of esotericism, and in particular mysticism, requires some degree of imaginative participation in what one is studying.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schuon: "Our starting point is the acknowledgment of the fact that there are diverse religions which exclude each other. This could mean that one religion is right and that all the others are false; it could mean also that all are false. In reality, it means that all are right, not in their dogmatic exclusivism, but in their unanimous inner signification, which coincides with pure metaphysics, or in other terms, with the philosophia perennis.[16]
  2. ^ Other authors include the Indian Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), the Swiss Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998), the Italian Julius Evola (1898–1974), the Iranian Seyyed Hossein Nasr (born in 1933).
  3. ^ Guénon: "We say that it [the origin of the traditions] is polar, and the pole is nomore Western than it is Eastern. It is only in a later epoch that the seat of the primordial tradition, transferred to other regions, was able to become either Western or Eastern. We consider the origin of the traditions to be Nordic, and even more to be polar, since this is expressly affirmed in the Veda as well as in other sacred books."[17]
  4. ^ Christopher Bochinger (1994), "New Age" und moderne religion: Religionswissenschaftliche Untersuchungen, as cited by Hanegraaff.


  1. ^ a b c Hanegraaff 1996, p. 385.
  2. ^ Bland 1996.
  3. ^ a b Faivre 1994, p. 10-15.
  4. ^ a b Hanegraaff 2005, p. 340.
  5. ^ Cf. the relevant entries in the The Online Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon.
  6. ^ a b Stroumsa, G. (2005). Hidden wisdom: esoteric traditions and the roots of Christian mysticism. Leiden: Brill. 
  7. ^ Lucian of Samosata, The Auction of Lives (also called The Auction of the Philosophical Schools), § 26. Pierre A. Riffard, L’ésotérisme. Qu’est-ce que l’ésotérisme?, Paris: Robert Laffont, coll. “Bouquins”, 1990, 65. "O que é o Esoterismo". Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  8. ^ a b Hanegraaff 1996, p. 384.
  9. ^ Hanegraaff 1996, p. 385-386.
  10. ^ a b Bland, Professor Kalman (1996). Jewish Mysticism (Audiobook). The Teaching Company. 
  11. ^ Pierre A. Riffard, “The Esoteric Method”, in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Leuven: Peeters, coll. “Gnostica”, 1998, 63-74.
  12. ^ Chambers 20thC dictionary, 1972.
  13. ^ "Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: esoteric". 2007-04-25. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  14. ^ a b Hanegraaf 1996, p. 385.
  15. ^ Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (1948), London: Faber and Faber, 1953.
  16. ^ F. Schuon, 1995
  17. ^ a b Guénon 2003, p. 16.
  18. ^ Hanegraaf 1996, p. 385-386.
  19. ^ Historical dictionary of Syria by David Dean Commins, Scarecrow Press, 2004, page 29
  20. ^ Wouter J. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture. Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, 6.
  21. ^ Arthur Versluis, “Methods in the Study of Esotericism, Part II: Mysticism and the Study of Esotericism”, in Esoterica, Michigan State University, V, 2003, 27-40.


  • Faivre, Antoine (1994), Access to Western Esotericism ("SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions"), Albany: State University of New York Press 
  • Guénon, René (2003), Traditional forms and cosmic cycles (1925-1949, first published in 1970), New York: Sophia perennis 
  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J., ed. (2005), Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism I, Leiden / Boston: Brill 
  • Michelis, Elizabeth De (2005), A History of Modern Yoga, Continuum 

Further reading[edit]

Traditionalist School
  • Benjamin Walker, Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man: The Hidden Side of the Human Entity, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977, 353 p. ISBN 0-7100-8479-X. New title: Body Magic, London: Granada Publishing, “Paladin Books”, 1979, 478 p. ISBN 0-586-08323-5. Arranged alphabetically.
  • Benjamin Walker, Man and the Beasts Within: The Encyclopedia of the Occult, the Esoteric, and the Supernatural, New York: Stein and Day, 1978, 343 p. ISBN 0-8128-1900-4
  • Kerber, Hannes. "Strauss and Schleiermacher. An Introduction to 'Exoteric Teaching". In Reorientation: Leo Strauss in the 1930s. Ed. Yaffe/Ruderman. New York: Palgrave, 2014, pp. 203–214.

External links[edit]