Chapter 2 What Is Western Esotericism?

In order to understand the Golden Dawn as a form of western esotericism and its relationship to other esoteric thought, it is necessary to define western esotericism and to give an overview of it as a current field of study. The study of western esotericism is an area of academic work that has made great advances during the last two decades as a new discipline from relatively neglected origins. It focuses on currents of thought that have been outside the mainstream view of philosophy and theology but which have informed aspects of western cultural development. One of the key problems in studying western esotericism and its role is defining what is meant by the term and its core components. In order to facilitate further work within its boundaries, this chapter will focus on what western esotericism is and how key scholars have defined it.

A problem encountered in defining western esotericism is the view of esoteric topics held traditionally by both scholars and non-scholars. These views are rooted in the development of both Religious Studies and Anthropology as academic disciplines since the 19th century. During this development, there have been strict definitions of what constitutes “religion” and of what constitutes “magic.” Most scholars have accepted these and these definitions have often been seen as mutually exclusive. Religion has been an acceptable topic of study, but magic and traditions concerning it have not received the same degree of respectability and have been considered to be something separate from religious thought. In the era following World War II, the definitions of religion and magic have seen a great amount of stress as non-monotheistic, non-Western, and indigenous faiths have received more scholastic attention. The rise of cultural critiques has also led to a general questioning of pre-War culture and beliefs. It can be argued that the early definitions of both are arbitrary and only work within the specific cultural framework of 19th and early 20thcentury European and American scholastic and religious sensibilities. These definitions serve, among other purposes, to reinforce existing beliefs and prejudices concerning religion. The question of whether these definitions can even apply strictly to European and American (the “West”) spiritual beliefs and practices can also be raised. For example, into which category do the 19th century movement of Spiritualism and the later Spiritualist Churches fall? The question then becomes: is this divide between religion and magic and their associated definitions simply the products of the 19th century and its colonial era?

In raising these questions, forgotten and ignored philosophies, beliefs, and practices within Western culture have been rediscovered within academia. Their influence on the development of modern culture has also come to be recognized. Through the pioneering work of Dame Frances Yates, in her works, such as The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, the serious examination of beliefs outside of the current mainstream of the West was rehabilitated as an acceptable (or at least semi-acceptable) object of academic inquiry and their impact noted (Bogdan 11). On the basis of her work and that of following scholars, there has been a revitalization of the examination of certain facets of Western beliefs through interdisciplinary work. This is the developing field focused on the “esoteric” beliefs and practices of the West, which are now termed “western esotericism” within academia (Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism 7). Over the last twenty years, a growing number of studies have been written by scholars, peer-reviewed journals have been created, and conferences held to examine these beliefs and their relationship to both the roots of Western culture and also to current spiritual movements. This western esotericism is a distinctive and useful categorization of beliefs and practices and deserves to be the object of serious scholastic study, which is now being recognized (Bogdan 7-8). The question of how to define esotericism has been a key point of discussion and debate by those scholars who have been working in this area over the last few decades.

Antoine Faivre is one of the leading scholars of western esotericism. He held the chair of the “History of Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe” within the Religious Studies section at École Pratique des Hautes Études in France for two decades. This was the first academic position focused primarily on the study of esotericism and its influence. In examining the problem of crafting a definition for western esotericism, Dr. Faivre states that “esotericism” has multiple meanings that only intersect at certain points. In Access to Western Esotericism, he says that esotericism “conjures up chiefly the idea of something ‘secret,’ of a ‘discipline of the arcane,’ of a restricted realm of knowledge” (5). It also has a second meaning where it “serves to designate a type of knowledge, emanating from a spiritual center to be attained after transcending the prescribed ways and techniques… that can lead to it” (Faivre, Access 5). These are the common definitions used by its adherents. Faivre is a proponent of a third definition which defines esotericism as an independent “body of knowledge, increasingly considered ‘exoteric’ in relation to the official religion” and that esotericism “became the object of a body of knowledge where access no longer happened by itself, but needed specific new approaches” as it was divorced from traditional theology (7). These approaches were outside the traditional means of the common religion in Europe. Faivre states that this body of knowledge was focused “essentially on the articulation between metaphysical principles and cosmology” once the “sciences of Nature freed themselves from theology” to be cultivated for their own sake (8). This freeing is an event which happened specifically in the “West,” by which Faivre means the “vast Greco-Roman ensemble, both medieval and modern in which the Jewish and Christian religions have cohabited with Islam…” (7). This creates a specific “western esotericism” which can be examined and discussed in the history and cultural development of the West.

Wouter Hanegraaff is another leading scholar of western esotericism who has published extensively on it. He builds on Faivre’s definition in his work. Hanegraaff states that there are two primary events that led to the emergence of western esotericism as its own domain of thought. In New Age Religion and Western Culture, Hanegraaff says that with emergence of the natural sciences from the liberal arts in the 14th century, there was a secularization of the world or nature which made it “an organic and lawful domain worthy of attention in its own right” (386). This led to two results, first, “a secularization of the cosmos at the expense of the sacred” and, second, to “a revival of magia in the sense of a participatory philosophy of nature” (Hanegraaff 386). Hanegraaff states that in both a secular and religious context, the triumph of Aristotelian philosophy “destroyed the intermediate angelic realms of Neoplatonic cosmology” and broke the belief in the “continuity between a spiritually structured universe, on the one hand, and physical self-sufficient laws, on the other” (386-387). By this occurrence, the Neoplatonic realm of thought with its angels and other intermediaries was cast aside as unnecessary in favor of a simpler view of the universe. Once this had occurred and theologians were no longer concerned with it, this body of thought and its associated traditions became available for others to reinterpret and work with as they pleased. During the Renaissance, this is exactly what occurred with the rediscovery of Plato, the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, and the development of humanism (Hanegraaff 392-393).

All of this leads to western esotericism as an object of study in a history but does not define its components or inherent attributes, which is necessary in order for it to be studied. To this end, Hanegraaff states that in the composition of western esotericism “one may roughly distinguish two philosophical traditions (Neoplatonism and hermeticism), three ‘traditional sciences’ (astrology, magia, and alchemy), and one current of theosophical speculation (Cabala)” (388). This Cabala is the Christian Cabala that flowered during the Renaissance and the period following it to the present day.

Examining these components in turn, he points out that the “influence of Neoplatonism on the esoteric tradition is so pervasive that it is often not explicitly mentioned” (388). In Modern Esoteric Spirituality, Faivre states that Neoplatonism is pervasive as an inheritance from both the classical world by means of the Roman Catholic Church, with its theology of angels derived from Pseudo-Dionysus and others, and from the various magical traditions that were associated with Catholicism through the medieval period (19-20). Of the philosophy of hermeticism, Hanegraaff says that it is rooted in the text of the Corpus Hermeticum (390). This is a discrete collection of smaller texts dating from the first few centuries of the Common Era that was believed, during most of the Renaissance, to date from the time of Moses. Its author was known as “Hermes Trismegistus’ from which the name is derived. The most important aspect of the Corpus Hermeticum is “its combination of an emphasis on intuitive gnosis and a positive attitude towards the cosmos and to man’s role in it” (Hanegraaff 390-391). Deriving from this basis in the Corpus Hermeticum, “western esotericism has tended to hold the principle of the divine origin of the human mens” or mind (Faivre, Access 26). These two philosophies of Neoplatonism and hermeticism combined into a single whole within the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino. This was a union of philosophy and theology which were seen to be one as “both were expressions of the primordial wisdom tradition known as the prisca theology, which derived from Hermes and Zoroaster and led up to Plato” (Hanegraaff 390).

The three sciences of western esotericism are magia, astrology, and alchemy. Of these three sciences of western esotericism, magia is the least known today. It has slipped out of the public eye though it still appears, in some sense, in the incantations and spells seen in popular movies and fiction as well as alternative spiritualities such as those of the Golden Dawn or the modern religion of Wicca. Faivre states that “magia naturals is the knowledge and use of occult powers and properties that are considered ‘natural’ because they are objectively present in nature” (Access 66). He adds that “to Magia belongs white magic or theurgy, which uses names, rites, and incantations with the aim of establishing a personal link with entities that are not part of this world of physical creation” (Access 66). In regards to astrology, Hanegraaff says that it “is implicit in the very concept…of magia” (394). The theurgy practiced by Marsilio Ficino and espoused in his De Triplici Vita was specifically based on astrology and “can only be understood within an astrological context” (Hanegraaff 393). The belief in the influence of the stars was pervasive throughout his work and those of his successors, such as Cornelius Agrippa in his De Occulta Philosophia. This work contains an extensive compendium of astrological lore along with practices more properly belonging to magia. These two sciences of magia and astrology were intertwined in practice (Hanegraaff 393).

Faivre states in Modern Esoteric Spirituality, that alchemy is “a ritual or magical act aimed at giving back to a particle of matter a little of the original glory from which the entire world benefited before the fall…with the alchemist himself being included in this transmutation” (32). Alchemy is focused on the perfection of creation through the skillful interaction of the alchemist. By assisting nature and bringing it to perfection, the alchemist hopes to do the same for himself. The alchemical obsessions with turning lead into gold, which is known on a popular level, is an example of this very act of perfection with gold being seen as the perfect metal developed from the dull base of lead.

The Christian Cabala is derived from the Jewish mystical tradition that preceded it of the same name and which continued to coexist with it (Hanegraaff 395). Pico della Mirandola, who was an associate of Marsilio Ficino, is known as one of the first Christian practitioners of the Cabala. Mirandola and others were primarily concerned with the use of the Cabala as the confirmation of the truth of their Christian heritage but they found that “the study of cabalistic sources provided western esotericism with a rich reservoir of theosophical speculations which…could be syncretized with hermeticism and the occult sciences” (Hanegraaff 396). This ultimately divorced Christian Cabala from its Jewish origins as western esotericism developed as an independent body of knowledge outside of any orthodoxy. This Cabala formed an important component in providing a specific theological direction to its practice.

In this current of speculation, the two philosophies and the three sciences are identified as key components of western esotericism, but neither Faivre nor Hanegraaff sees them as the essential characteristics which define this term. They are examples of western esotericism in practice. Shifting his focus from these in defining western esotericism, Faivre states that “none of the signs or components…is doctrinal” and that “if we approach esotericism phenomenologically as a form of thought, an ensemble of tendencies to be described, we can avoid doing violence to historical data” (Access 9). To this end, Faivre has created a standard definition of the characteristics or tendencies for western esotericism as a form of thought. His definition is the standard one used for this field of study and has been used in most of the current academic work. No conflicting definition is widely accepted in the current studies. Instead, others elaborate on Faivre’s definition given in Access to Western Esotericism and may make minor adjustments in emphasis but his approach is the foundation.

This definition recognizes four required features and two optional ones necessary for something to be considered a part of western esotericism. Faivre lists the four required features as: (1) Correspondences; (2) Living Nature; (3) Imagination and Mediations; (4) The Experience of Transmutation. The two non-essential but common components are (5) The Praxis of the Concordance; (6) Transmission (Access 10-14). A body of material or worldview which contains the four required components in practice, and ideally all six, is deemed to be “esoteric” by this definition. Reemphasizing that these are not doctrinal but phenomenological, Faivre further tells us that “far from sending us to doctrinal contents, the six components serve as receptacles into which various types of experiences or imaginaries are distributed” (Access 15). Each of these components needs to be examined in turn in order to be understood:

Correspondences: According to Faivre, this is the belief that there are both symbolic and concrete correspondences “among all parts of the universe, both seen and unseen” (Access 10). These correspondences come in two forms. The first are those that exist in nature, such as between the seven planets and the seven metals or between the various parts of the human body and the planets. An example of this is when the Sun is said to correspond to the human heart or Mars to anger. This belief is the basis of astrology and of the magia based on the sympathy between two objects. The often quoted maxim, “As Above, So Below,” reflects the belief in correspondences.

The second form of this belief is concerning those correspondences that are “between Nature (the cosmos) or even history and revealed texts” (Faivre, Access 11). This is at the root of Cabalistic practices which relate the contents of sacred texts, such as the books of Genesis or Revelations, with either natural phenomena or history. Through the study of a specific sacred text, insight is gained into the nature of the cosmos or history by this belief.

Living Nature: This belief that the “cosmos is complex, plural, hierarchical” and that “Nature occupies an essential place” in this cosmos making it “multilayered, rich in potential revelations of every kind” (Faivre, Access 11). This results in magia being “simultaneously the knowledge of the networks of sympathies or antipathies that link the things of Nature and the concrete operation of these bodies of knowledge” (Faivre, Access 11). This is an awareness of the nature of the universe, which Faivre calls “knowledge — in the sense of ‘gnosis’” (Access 11). With this intimate knowledge of the true nature of the universe, combined with other components of esotericism such as correspondences, the esotericist is able to practice alchemy or the other esoteric arts. Hanegraaff also makes the point that “since it is the force of divinity which ‘enlivens’ Nature, the concept is most properly described as a form of panentheism” (398).

Imagination and Mediations: These are two complementary notions, regarding both sensing the unseen and a mechanism for interacting with it, that form one complex component. The first portion is that imagination or the “mind’s eye” allows the esotericist to perceive those previously mentioned correspondences in living nature. The imagination allows the access to spiritual or non-physical truths. This is based on the idea that the imagination, rather than simply being a subjective aspect of a person’s mental processes, is a “kind of organ of the soul” (Faivre, Access 12). Faivre beautifully illustrates this idea by saying that “the eye of fire pierces the bark of appearances to call forth significations, ‘rapports’ to render the invisible visible, the ‘mundus imaginalis’ to which the eyes of the flesh alone cannot provide access, and to retrieve there a treasure contributing to an enlargement of our prosaic vision” (Faivre, Access 13).

The second portion of this component is the concept of mediation. Faivre states that the esotericist can “use mediations of all kinds, such as rituals, symbolic images, mandalas, intermediary spirits” to act in the world or on others (Access 12). The use of imagination to perceive symbolically “allows the use of these intermediaries, symbols, and images to develop a gnosis” (or intimate knowledge) and “to put the theory of correspondences into active practice, and to uncover, to see, and to know the mediating entities between Nature and the divine world” (Faivre, Access 12). The combination of imagination and mediation as a unified component gives both a means of sensing and a mechanism for influencing the invisible undercurrents of the world in western esoteric thought.

The Experience of Transmutation: Faivre states that the belief in transmutation is the key component that takes western esotericism beyond the limits of simply being “speculative spirituality” (Access 13). It can be used as synonymous with metamorphosis. It is the modification or transmutation of the basic nature of a thing being acted upon, whether that is a person being initiated through rituals into a new and better life or the transmutation of lead into gold. It is the ability to alter the intrinsic nature of the substance being acted upon into something else. Hanegraaff notes that alchemical terminology, from which “transmutation” is borrowed, is “used here to convey the notion of an inner processes or mystical ‘path’ of regeneration and purification” (399). This gives the concept of transmutation a soteriological value in which humanity can be perfected or rescued from its current state into a better one. Hanegraaff believes that “the principle tool to this end is the imagination, which gives access to the intermediate realms between spirit and matter” (400).

The Praxis of the Concordance: This is a tendency to see the existence of a unifying philosophy or theology that provides the basis for the apparent theologies or philosophies of different traditions. Faivre states that “this shows up in a consistent tendency to try to establish common denominators between two different traditions or even more, among all traditions, in the hope of obtaining an illumination, a gnosis, of superior quality” (Access 14). This is the drawing of meaningful identifications between separate ideas or activities in different traditions on the basis of a belief in an underlying philosophy. Through this identification, disparate concepts or practices are unified into a single whole within the context of this belief. An example of this is the belief in a unifying esoteric philosophy from which all religions are derived and which serves to unite them if it can be ascertained and examined.

Transmission: This the specific transfer between individuals of some spiritual element, knowledge, or energy in a direct fashion. Faivre states that it “implies that an esoteric teaching can or must be transmitted from master to disciple following a reestablished channel…” (Access 13). Deriving from this belief, there are also often secondary beliefs that valid knowledge is passed through a lineage which gives it authenticity (and knowledge outside of this transmission is inauthentic) and that this passing is done by some means of initiation (which may related to the previous component of “transmutation”) (Faivre, Access 13-14).

Together, the first four components discussed above provide the core, required portions for defining something as a part of western esotericism. The last two components are optional, but are often present with the first four. When they are present, they make the identification of a specific body of thought or practice as part of western esotericism more explicitly clear. There are many phenomena, such as aspects of Christian mysticism, which display one, two, or even three of the four core components listed above. The value of Faivre’s definition using these four or six components is that it allows the essence of a wide variety of phenomena in the period following the Renaissance to be seen as part of a larger current of thought and to be examined as such. This also allows for the examination of the relationship between phenomena identified as part of western esotericism as well. Those that do not have the four main components may be considered “mystical” forms of thoughts in some sense or otherwise labeled but they are not part of the western esoteric tradition. This gives a boundary and criteria for examining a discrete body of knowledge or practices based on an essential viewpoint and its impact culturally and historically.

Faivre does make an important point that this definition is a methodological distinction and does not impute that there is an actual unified tradition of western esotericism. There is no single school of thought that is the “Western Esoteric School.” Western esotericism is an abstract construction created for methodological purposes to enable the study of certain currents of thought and practice across disciplines that have affected Western culture over time. This definition identifies the key features in order to demarcate this group. Faivre states that “the question is not what esotericism would be ‘in itself.’ No doubt esotericism is not even a domain in the sense in which one speaks of the domains of painting, or philosophy, or chemistry. It is, rather, a form of thought, and the point is to identify its nature, on the basis of those currents of forms of spirituality which appear to illustrate it” (Modern xi). Elaborating on a similar point, Hanegraaff is quoted by Bogdan as stating that “it is on the basis of its ideas that esotericism becomes visible to the historian as a separate field of study, and it is their development over time which enables the historian to speak of a ‘tradition’ of esotericism” (28).

The study of western esotericism is a field that is developing and gradually attaining a higher degree of respectability as the influence of western esoteric thought on the Western world is recognized. In relation to its importance in Western culture, Hanegraaff states that “esotericism formed a counter-force against a mechanistic worldview and against a science based on wholly secular principles; its alternative was an ‘organic’ worldview, and a science based on religious assumptions” (388). As scholars continue to try to ascertain the influences that went into making the current world as well as historical events, this counter-force can be an important area of study. Its influence is felt still today and even informs modern movements, such as popular neopaganism and the New Age movement of the 1970s through today.

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