The great events that lay behind what would academically be termed “Western Esotericism” took place during the 1400s, with the latter half as the most eventful. This period was the colorful era of the Renaissance, which in many ways was a time characterized by a strong fascination, reverence and interest in the wisdom, cultures, governments of the civilizations of the classical era. These Renaissance thinkers with prominent figures such as Gemistos Plethon, Marsilius Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola were on the forefront when it came to esoteric thinking in the West.
Concerning the universe, first that this universe is eternal.
Gemistus Plethon (Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato)
Now this was a dynamic period where translations of a wide variety of older philosophical, spiritual and mystical texts took place. These texts in turn inspired and affected the worldviews of many leading Renaissance thinkers, poets and artists. Many attempts were made, both individually and collectively, to integrate and synchronize the wisdom of the classical world with the Christian worldview which dominated large parts of Europe.
One of the earliest and most prominent translators of classical texts was the Italian philosopher Marsilius Ficino. It was during the second half of the 15th century that Ficino’s attempts to revive the Platonic and Neo-platonic philosophy gained momentum, when he undertook an enormous project to translate all of Plato’s dialogues into Latin. Ficino got this assignment from the influential politician and banker Cosimo de Medici, who himself was inspired and influenced by the charismatic Gemistos Plethon and his lectures.
Whatever subject he (Plato) deals with, he quickly brings it round, in a spirit of utmost piety, to the contemplation and worship of God.
Marsilio Ficino (Platonic Theology, 1474)
A well-known anecdote in the history of Western esotericism was when Cosimo de Medici ordered Ficino to put the translation of Plato’s dialogues on hold in order to focus on translating the texts authored by the mythical Hermes Trismegistus instead. This revealing historical anecdote, whether its true or not, demonstrates the power and influence the Hermetic corpus had on many Renaissance thinkers.
The people who have discovered something important in any of the more noble arts have principally done so when they have abandoned the body and taken refuge in the citadel of the soul.
Marsilius Ficino (Platonic Theology – Book 13, Chapter 2, 1474)
Another important component of the early history of Western esotericism is the Jewish mystical sect of Kabbalah and its influence on Renaissance thinkers. The Jewish Kabbalah was adopted, reformed and “baptized” to fit into a more Christian yet universal worldview that Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, among others, sought to propagate through his theses. This further led to the to dissemination of mystical and esoteric ideas originating from Platonic, Neo-platonic, Kabbalistic and Hermetic texts.
Wise men know that God is in things and that divinity is latent in nature.
Giordano Bruno (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584)
From Giordano Bruno’s varying contemplations on the universe and infinity to Jakob Böhme’s profound ideas about God as “Unground” can with all probability be said to have been influenced by the esoteric ideas propagated by the Renaissance thinkers.
In Germany, during the 16th and 17th centuries, a variety of esoteric tendencies was developing with notable movements such as the Rosicrucians and Paracelsus and his followers.
During the Enlightenment and onward, esoteric ideas, paradoxically, became even more prominent as they served as a kind of opposition and contrast to the mechanistic worldview that came to dominate the academic circles and many parts of society during that time. Interesting figures such as the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg became influential in the European intellectual world, which strengthens the argument that esoteric ideas were still going strong during the 17-18th century.
What a man thinks in his spirit in the world, that he does after his departure from the world when he becomes a spirit.
Emanuel Swedenborg (Divine Providence)
Another relevant development that took place during the Enlightenment and the Romantic era were the theories and ideas that emphasized invisible forces and agencies in contrast to the merely visible and material. An example of this is “animal magnetism” which as a theory and practice became rather popular in Germany and France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Animal magnetism was primarily about how the body could be affected in various ways, mainly for healing purposes, by manipulating invisible magnetic fluids in the body. The most famous proponents of animal magnetism were Franz Anton Mesmer and Marquis de Puysegur.
A responsive influence exists between the heavenly bodies, the earth, and animated bodies.
Franz Anton Mesmer (Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism, 1779)
The latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th saw the emergence of larger official religious organizations such as the Theosophical Society, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Thelema who sought to establish and spread their esoteric teachings and understandings.
For example one of the founders of the Theosophical Society was Helena Blavatsky, who sought to revive what she called “occult science”, which would serve as an alternative to the dominant paradigm of Christianity and positivist science. According to Blavatsky, this occult science consisted of universal spiritual teachings and insights found in older wisdom cultures to the East. This form of knowledge was, according to Blavatsky, superior to the strictly rational positivist science.
When science shall have effectually demonstrated to us the origin of matter, and proved the fallacy of the occultists and old philosophers who held (as their descendants now hold) that matter is but one of the correlations of spirit, then will the world of skeptics have a right to reject the old Wisdom, or throw the charge of obscenity in the teeth of the old religions.
Helena Blavatsky (Isis Unveiled – Vol I: Chapter XV, 1877)
What is Western Esotericism?
Now that we’ve discussed western esotericism and its capricious history in a nutshell, what is western esotericism precisely? You might have gotten a feel of what it might be as you read through the historical overview of the different thinkers and events, but lets clarify. For a good definition of Western Esotericism, Antoine Faivre’s model of Western esotericism is a good choice. In this model one finds a “enchanted” or mystified world that was radically opposed to the strictly rational scientific paradigm that grew strong after René Descartes and Isaac Newton. For Faivre, Western esotericism represented the individuals, movements and disciplines who studied and devoted themselves to attaining higher states of spiritual perfection. In particular, the individuals, such as Ficino, Mirandola, Agrippa who were active during the latter part of the 15th century and the early 16th century.
Faivre presented six criteria for what might represent the Western esoteric phenomenon,
- Symbolic and concrete correspondences in the universe and being,
- The living nature, the universe is alive in the form of spiritual forces,
- Transmutational experiences or spiritual exaltation and refinement
- Conceptions and mediations in the form of rituals, spiritual beings, symbolism.
- Consistency between different or all esoteric teachings
- Transfers of esoteric knowledge between master and disciple
Wouter J. Hanegraaf’s view of Western esotericism has, of course, borrowed many elements from Faivre and other prominent scholars in the subject, such as Francis Yates, but the most striking aspects of Hanegraaf’s views on Western esotericism is the emphasis on how leading academic circles and university students have downgraded and overlooked the relevance of many different esoteric currents and movements from the Renaissance to the present. Hanegraaf’s thus paints a picture of Western esotericism as an area of ”neglected knowledge”. This neglected knowledge simply did not fit into the mechanistic rational worldview that became the dominant paradigm in the upper and educated strata of society.
In one way or another, all historical currents that fall within the purview of Western esotericism are concerned with asking and answering questions about the nature of the world, its relation to the divine and the role of humanity in between. Strict philosophical argumentation can be part of such discussions; but the underlying motivation is primarily religious, in the sense of a deep concern with the true meaning of life and the ultimate spiritual destiny of human beings in the universe.
Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed – Chapter 4, 2013)
Esotericism vs. Occulture
Some confuse esotericism with occulture, though they intersect at crucial points, they are not identical. For example, occulture, according to Christopher Partridge, is more focused on the broader dynamics and role that spiritual, esoteric, supernatural ideas and phenomena have had in creating different ways of perceiving and relating to reality within society and the population. Occulture, according to Partridge, cannot be separated from “culture” which the term clearly demonstrates, and in so doing this also means occulture is considered to be “ordinary”. Culture, after all, is participated by everyone who lives in a civilization. The title of the article by Partridge, “Occulture is Ordinary,” confirms this view.
Unlike this “democratic” view of esoteric ideas and their influence on society, Faivre’s image of esotericism is reserved for a more or less elite group that exercised their ideas and practices in secrecy.
With that said, occulture tends to slip more into the sociological effects and consequences that esoteric ideas have had in shaping different worldviews to the present, while Western esotericism for Faivre and Hanegraaf (to some degree) is more about the unfolding of the historical process, i.e. they place more emphasis on specificity and they make clear boundaries in history that constitutes the earliest examples of esoteric movements, individuals and phenomena.
Faivre and Hanegraaf are certainly aware that these movements and phenomena in Western history have been the breeding ground for many of the ideas circulated today in popular culture, although this isn’t emphasized too much by them.
Rosicrucianism as Example
The Rosicrucian Brotherhood was the mysterious fraternity created by the legendary figure Christian Rosenkreuz according to the followers and members of the Order Society. The Rosicrucians came to prominence in the year 1614 when the first of the three manifestos was published.
It was one and still is in our own time an influential organization with a background in Christian mysticism and Protestantism, they were a movement that attempted to reform society through the use of esoteric ideas derived from, among other things, hermetic and kabbalistic origins.
Based on Faivre’s definition of Western esotericism, the Rosicrucians can be viewed as a pretty good example of a movement that can be classified as esoteric. The Rosicrucians were known for their elitist and secretive activities. As mentioned, one of their goals was to reform the turbulent society they lived in by combining different esoteric teachings into a unified teaching. They highlighted the universal truth that existed in various esoteric traditions throughout history and also placed great emphasis on the spiritual process that man could go through using these teachings to attain a higher state of spiritual perfection.
According to the Rosicrucians themselves, their leader Christian Rosenkreuz had become a disciple of various spiritual masters during his travels around the world, especially in the Middle East and Egypt.
That being said, the Rosicrucian Society checks of many if not all of the criteria postulated by Faivre as necessary to be classified as Western esotericism.
So when the universe was quickened with soul, God was well pleased; and he bethought him to make it yet more like its type. And whereas the type is eternal and nought that is created can be eternal, he devised for it a moving image of abiding eternity, which we call time. And he made days and months and years, which are portions of time; and past and future are forms of time, though we wrongly attribute them also to eternity. For of eternal Being we ought not to say ‘it was’, ‘it shall be’, but ‘it is’ alone: and in like manner we are wrong in saying ‘it is’ of sensible things which become and perish; for these are ever fleeting and changing, having their existence in time.
Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.
Jesus of Nazareth (The Gospel of Thomas – Saying 1)
All teems with symbol; the wise man is the man who in any one thing can read another.
Plotinus (The Enneads, 270)
The excellence of the soul is understanding; for the man who understands is conscious, devoted, and already godlike.
Only for you, children of doctrine and learning, have we written this work. Examine this book, ponder the meaning we have dispersed in various places and gathered again; what we have concealed in one place we have disclosed in another, that it may be understood by your wisdom.
Cornelius Agrippa (De Occulta Philosophia)
- Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed by Wouter J. Hanegraaff (2013)
- Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates (1964)
Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish and lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel currently studies history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s also currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.