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"Arcane" and "Esoteric" redirect here. For other uses, see Arcane (disambiguation) and Esoteric (disambiguation).

Esotericism (or esoterism) signifies the holding of esoteric opinions or beliefs,[1] that is, ideas preserved or understood by a small group of those specially initiated, or of rare or unusual interest.[2] The term derives from the Greek, either from the comparative ἐσώτερος (esôteros), "inner", or from its derived adjective ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos), "pertaining to the innermost".[3]

The term can also refer to the academic study of esoteric religious movements and philosophies, or to the study of those religious movements and philosophies whose proponents distinguish their beliefs, practices, and experiences from mainstream exoteric and more dogmatic institutionalized traditions.[4]

Examples of esoteric religious movements and philosophies include Alchemy, Druze, the Alawites,[5] 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.

Although esotericism refers to an exploration of the hidden meanings and symbolism in various philosophical, historical, and religious texts, the texts themselves are often central to mainstream religions. For example, the Bible and the Torah are considered esoteric material.[7]


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.[8]

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). A corresponding Gallicism, "ésotérisme", was coined in French by Jacques Matter in 1828, it is first recorded by the OED in 1835, and it was popularized by Eliphas Levi in the 1850s.[9] [1]. It was notably given currency in the English language in the 1880s via the works of theosophist Alfred Sinnett.[citation needed]


Among the competing understandings of what unites the various currents designated by "Esotericism" in the scholarly sense, perhaps the most influential has been proposed by Antoine Faivre. His definition is based on the presence in the esoteric currents of four essential characteristics: a theory 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, fourthly, an experience of personal and spiritual transmutation when arriving at this knowledge. To this are added two non-intrinsic characteristics. 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). Finally, esotericism sometimes suggests the idea of a secret transmission of spiritual teachings, through initiation from master to disciple.[10] It should, however, be emphasized that Faivre's definition is one of several divergent understandings of the most appropriate use of the term.

The “perennialist” or “traditionalist” school is represented by authors like the French René Guénon (1886–1951), 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), both scholars and esotericists. They postulate that there exists a Primordial Tradition of non-human origin.

“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.” [11] [2]

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.[12] [3]

“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.” (F. Schuon, 1995).

After all, the esoteric tradition may be recovered if the seeker undergoes initiation.

“Initiation is essentially the transmission of a spiritual influence, a transmission that can only take place through a regular, traditional organization, so that one cannot speak of initiation outside of an affiliation with an organization of this kind. We have explained that 'regularity' must be understood to exclude all pseudo-initiatic organizations, which, regardless of pretention and outward appearance, in no way possess any spiritual influence and thus are incapable of transmitting anything.” [13]


Since the field of esotericism is not a single tradition but a vast array of often unrelated figures and movements, there is no single historical thread underlying them all.[14]


Wouter J. Hanegraaff is Professor of “History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents” at the University of Amsterdam (1999). The Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA) is the world's first academic institution to have created a complete program for research and teaching in the field of Western Esotericism.[4] He is also president of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism. Essential to Hanegraaff’s methodology is what he calls an “empirical” approach, with an informed, open, and, so much as possible, neutral mind. He makes a sharp division between a “religionist” perspective and an “empiricist” one.

“Empirical research must be based on methodological agnosticism with regard to religious and philosophical ‘first principles’, and must fully recognize the historicity of religious phenomena. This empirical perspective is applied to the newly emerging academic field of esotericism.” [15]

Secondly, 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”.

“The principal theoretical tool to safeguard scientific legitimity in this situation is the distinction between emic and etic. 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.” [16]

Pierre A. Riffard (Ph.D., University of the French West Indies) studies the method used by esotericists themselves (alchemists, magicians, Rosicrucians, Anthroposophists...).[17] He examines some of their procedures. 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. Arthur Versluis (Professor, Ph.D., Michigan State University) proposes the term “sympathetic empiricism” as the approach that he finds most amenable in the study of Western Esotericism.

“While I am convinced of the critical importance of historiography in the study of esotericism (and for this reason all of my academic books are firmly grounded in historical method) I do not believe that historiography is adequate in itself to convey the complex, multivalent nature of esoteric thought, traditions, or most of all, experience. 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.”[18]

Esotericism in philosophy[edit]

Leo Strauss[edit]

Leo Strauss's study of philosophy and political discourses produced by Islamic civilization, above all those of Al-Farabi, and Maimonides, was instrumental in the development of his theory of reading.

In the late 1930s, Leo Strauss called for a reconsideration of the "distinction between exoteric (or public) and esoteric (or secret) teaching".[19] He argued that serious writers write esoterically, that is, with multiple or layered meanings, often disguised within irony or paradox, obscure references, even deliberate self-contradiction.[20] They do this to accomplish various purposes: to protect the writer from the retribution of the regime, and to protect the regime from the corrosion of philosophy; to attract the right kind and repel the wrong kind of reader; and because the process of searching for the inner layers of meaning is itself an exercise of philosophic reasoning.[21][22][23]

Explicitly following G. E. Lessing's lead, Strauss indicates that medieval political philosophers, no less than their ancient counterparts, carefully adapted their wording to the dominant moral views of their time, lest their writings be condemned as heretical or unjust, not by "the many" (who did not read), but by those "few" whom the many regarded as the most righteous guardians of morality. It was precisely these righteous personalities who would be most inclined to persecute/ostracize anyone who was in the business of exposing the noble or great lie upon which the authority of the few over the many stands or falls.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chambers 20thC dictionary, 1972.
  2. ^ "Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: esoteric". 2007-04-25. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  3. ^ Cf. the relevant entries in the The Online Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon.
  4. ^ "What is Esotericism?". 
  5. ^ Historical dictionary of Syria by David Dean Commins, Scarecrow Press, 2004, page 29
  6. ^ Stroumsa, G. (2005). Hidden wisdom: esoteric traditions and the roots of Christian mysticism. Leiden: Brill. 
  7. ^ Bland, Professor Kalman (1996). Jewish Mysticism (Audiobook). The Teaching Company. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ Jacques Matter, Histoire critique du gnosticisme, Paris: Levrault, 1928, 83 (Jean-Pierre Laurant, L’ésotérisme chrétien en France au XIX° siècle, Lausanne: L’Âge d’homme, 1992, 13-48 ; L’ésotérisme, Paris: Cerf, 1993, 40-41.)
  10. ^ Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, Albany: State University of New York Press (“SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions”), 1994, 10-15. Wouter J. Hanegraaff (ed.), Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2005, I, 340.
  11. ^ René Guénon, Traditional forms and cosmic cycles (1925-1949, first published in 1970), New York: Sophia perennis, 2003, 16.
  12. ^ Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (1948), London: Faber and Faber, 1953.
  13. ^ René Guénon, Perspectives on initiation (1946), New York: Sophia perennis, 2001, 48.
  14. ^ Jean-Paul Corsetti, Histoire de l’ésotérisme et des sciences occultes, Paris: Larousse, coll. “Références”, 1992, 17-319. Kocku von Struckrad, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge (2004), London / Oakville: Equinox Publishing, 2005, 12-145. Arthur Versluis, Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism, Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, 11-264.
  15. ^ Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “Empirical Method in the Study of Esotericism”, in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Florida State University, 7:2 (1995), 99-129.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Pierre A. Riffard, “The Esoteric Method”, in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Leuven: Peeters, coll. “Gnostica”, 1998, 63-74.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "Exoteric Teaching" (Critical Edition by Hannes Kerber). In Reorientation: Leo Strauss in the 1930s. Edited by Martin D. Yaffe and Richard S. Ruderman. New York: Palgrave, 2014, p. 275.
  20. ^ Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 1952
  21. ^ Smith, Steven (2007). Reading Leo Strauss. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226763897. excerpt entitled "Why Strauss, Why Now?" 
  22. ^ Mansfield, Harvey (1975). "Strauss's Machiavelli". Political Theory. Retrieved 2013-05-10. . . . a book containing much that is appreciably esoteric to any reader stated in a manner either so elusive or so challenging as to cause him to give up trying to understand it. 
  23. ^ Damon Linker (October 31, 2014). "What if Leo Strauss was Right?". The Week. Retrieved 2014-11-04. 
  24. ^ Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss p. 25

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]