What is it?
The purpose of any spiritual practice is to gain insights into aspects of life that are otherwise unclear or confusing. Astrology provides a consistent set of insights for specific situations based on the time and place of occurrence. Divination practices on the other hand, provide dynamic guidance based on interpretation of symbols at a particular moment. While these two practices can provide input for decision making, they do not provide knowledge or principles that can help orient life in a particular way. Esotericism, on the other hand, can provide those answers.
The word “esoteric” simply means that which is inner, contrasted with that which is outer or “exoteric”. More specifically, the exoteric is the openly professed and taught to the world. Esoteric, on the other hand, has historically been confined to a small number of chosen disciples. The use of the term esoteric thus references phenomena that are hidden, secretive, under the surface or out of normal view.
Esotericism is therefore the body of knowledge of alternative movements whose proponents generally distinguish their own beliefs from institutionalized religious traditions. Among the fields of esotericism are alchemy, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, magic, Neoplatonism, Rosicrucianism among others. Esotericism is a rather artificial category, applied retroactively to a range of currents and ideas that were public but didn’t necessarily belong together. In other words, it is an attempt to present these ideas in a coherent field or domain.
Western esotericism is another term for esotericism. This term should not elicit inferences of “Eastern” esotericism. Rather, it is indicative of the fact that this field has become more heavily discussed in the Western world. While Western esotericism has become the label of preference, it evokes associations with terms that tend to be more confusing or intimidating, such as “New Age” or “occultism”. The consensus among contemporary specialists is to stick to “Western esotericism”.
Esotericism and healing
As it relates to the concept of alternative medicine, Jeff Levin, from Baylor University explains in a review article that esoteric healing is one category in a broader universe of non-mainstream therapeutic systems. Given that there is no one thing universally recognized as esoteric healing, per se, it is not a simple matter to parse it out in more tangible categories. Rather, esoteric healing includes a variety of principles (karma, reincarnation), anatomical features (chakras, subtle bodies), spiritual practices (astral projection, meditation) and absent healing methods (focused intention, visualization).
The knowledge underlying esoteric healing thus derives from an intellectual space that is outside of the typical standards of alternative medicine. The questions to answer are: what is the source of this knowledge? What makes therapeutic knowledge “esoteric”? Where does it come from? How to access it? This is key to differentiating types of healing traditions within the esoteric context.
Commonalities in esoteric practices
The concept of esotericism is relatively recent. The noun esotericism, in its French usage – l’ésotérisme – was first used in 1828 at a time when alternative religious currents had already detached themselves from their Christian setting. Up until the 1950s, mainly scholars undertook research into esotericism. These scholars had specialized in mysticism and Gnosticism and presented them as a counterpart to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Antoine Faivre played a decisive part in defining the underlying principles of esotericism. Since the 1980s, he worked intensively on the religious history of the Renaissance and early modern period, and developed an interpretive model of the esoteric. Out of these traditions, Faivre developed a systematic model that characterized esotericism as a “pattern of thought” and described four of its core characteristics:
- Correspondence: In Faivre’s view, thinking in correspondences must be regarded as a basic component of all esotericism. Namely the assumption that the various “classes” of reality (plants, humans, planets, minerals as well as visible and invisible parts of the universe), link to each other through a series of correspondences. This connection is not causal, but symbolical.
- Living nature: this idea comprehends the cosmos as a complex entity, permeated by the flow of a living energy.
- Imagination and mediations: these terms indicate that esoteric knowledge of correspondences demand great power of symbolic imagination. Moreover, spiritual authorities reveal (mediate) this knowledge.
- The experience of transmutation: it posits a parallel between outer action and inner experience. Esotericism seeks to refine the human being upon a spiritual path and so enable an inner metamorphosis.
In addition, these four components come along with two further elements:
- The practice of concordance: which strives to find a common denominator or “fundament” among the various teachings.
- Transmission or initiation through masters: teaching is frequently transmitted by spiritual authorities.
The last 15 years have shown that one can arrive at very fruitful analyses with the aid of the “Faivre paradigm”. However, critics have also pointed to the weakness of the theory, indicating that because Faivre mainly drew from just a few esoteric practices, it excludes some areas as a result.
While different, esoteric traditions can be akin to religions in the sense that their followers deeply assimilate and use their principles. They present different sets of beliefs to live by. In fact, in modern times individuals do not “box” themselves to one religion, the same way Christians who practice Zen meditation do not lose their Christian identity. The formation of identity stems from having discourses and evaluations of different traditional doctrines in light of current circumstances. This is precisely how esoteric beliefs evolved over time – through continuity – and it depicts the dynamics of forming identities.
The origins of esotericism are in the Hellenistic period, marked by complicated mixtures between Greek philosophy and indigenous religious traditions, especially those of the Egyptians. In the writings of many authors during the late Hellenistic period, Platonism evolved into a religious worldview with its own mythologies and ritual practices, focused on the attainment of a salvational gnōsis (“knowledge”). Through knowledge, the human soul could be liberated and retain its unity with the divine. The general assumption is that Plato’s philosophy has roots in the much more ancient religious wisdom traditions of the Persians, the Egyptians or the Hebrews.
The concern for a salvational gnōsis was common among thinkers who are classified as Middle Platonists. From this, the Egyptian Hellenistic tradition known as Hermetism arised. The most important of the texts related to Hermetism are the so-called Corpus Hermeticum; a larger work that has survived only in Latin under the title Asclepius and an initiatic text known as the Treatise of the Eight and the Ninth, discovered only as recently as 1945. These texts contain technical discussions about the true nature of God, the world and man, but point out that philosophical discourse is just a preparation for religious salvation. Hermetism emphasized 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 was Gnosticism, which had a complex relationship with Chiristianity. Various Gnostic sects existed, and they broadly believed that the divine light had been imprisoned within the material world. It was the Gnostic belief that humans should seek to attain gnōsis and thus escape from the world of matter and rejoin the divine source. Another form of esotericism was Neoplatonism, which held that the human soul had fallen from its divine origins into the material world. It could progress through a number of hierarchical spheres of being to return to its divine origins.
Middle Ages And Renaissance
After the fall of Rome, alchemy and philosophy remained in the Arab and Near Eastern world. They were reintroduced into Western Europe by Jews and by the cultural contact between Christians and Muslims in Sicily and southern Italy.
An 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 evolved to fit into a more Christian yet universal worldview that Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, among others, sought to propagate through his theses. 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.
18th century and beyond
During the Enlightenment and onward, esoteric ideas, paradoxically, became even more prominent. They served as a kind of opposition and contrast to the mechanistic worldview that came to dominate the academic circles. Interesting figures such as the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg became influential in the European intellectual world. This strengthened the argument that esoteric ideas were still going strong during the 17-18th century.
Another relevant development that took place during the Enlightenment and the Romantic era were the theories and ideas that emphasized invisible forces. 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 to affect the body in various ways, mainly for healing purposes, by manipulating invisible magnetic fluids in the body. 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.
Contemporary esotericism is very much alive in popular culture. Its basic concepts, ideas or terminologies are now no longer tied to any specific religious or intellectual tradition but can be freely recycled and reinterpreted by anybody, without regard for their original meaning or context. The overwhelming presence of esoteric motifs in popular novels, comics, music, film, art or video-gaming has hardly yet been researched at all. Nor do we have any idea of what this wealth of references could teach us about the “subzeitgeist” of contemporary culture and society.
The most well-known esoteric traditions through history include:
- Kabbalah: based on the overall premise of becoming more other-centered and less-ego centered. To receive, we must open ourselves to a higher reality and use that knowledge to share with others.
- Alchemy: based on the overall goal of finding the stone of knowledge, discovering the medium of eternal youth and health and understanding the transmutation of metals.
- Behmenism: founded by Jacöb Bohme. It does not describe the beliefs of any single formal religious sect, but instead designates a more general description of Böhme’s interpretation of Christianity.
- Gnosticism: includes the idea of an absolute pure concept of God. It states that a lower divinity created the world and it believes in the existence of evil. Through knowledge, a person can get closer to the pure God.
- Rosicrucianism: a combination of esoteric beliefs and practices, including Hermeticism, Jewish mysticism and Christian Gnosticism. The central feature of Rosicrucianism is that its members possess secret wisdom handed down to them from ancient times.
- Freemasonry: principles include a belief in God, according to one’s religion, education, community service and personal integrity. Many consider freemasonry as a secret society.
- Golden Dawn: its purpose was to study and practice metaphysical techniques as well as paranormal activities.
- Thelema: it strives to ascend to higher states of existence, uniting oneself with higher powers. It also strives to understand and embrace one’s true will, their ultimate purpose and place in life.
- Illuminism: in a historical sense, it refers to Bavarian Illuminism, aimed at undermining religious intolerance. Today, some circles associate that myth to the idea of a New World Order, an alleged underground totalitarian world government.
- Theosophical society: founded in 1875, it encompasses wider religious philosophies like Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, Kabbalah and Sufism. The Theosophical Society functions as a bridge between East and West, emphasizing the commonality of human culture.
- Modern esotericism: encompassing new interpretations of old beliefs, based on more modern set of questionings. These include scientology, wicca, magick, among others.
Benefits and uses
Contrary to more traditional practices, spirituality is not concerned with a specific ailment. Instead, it can help find a framework to orient one’s life and give a sense of purpose. Ironically, finding the right framework can have enormous implications one one’s overall wellbeing. It is very important to know that spirituality is personal and it often consists of an amalgamation of beliefs from different schools of thought. In other words, a person can combine tenets from different doctrines and apply this personal combination to one’s life.
The reasons why we seek to know esotericism can be different. Sometimes we turn to esotericism because we want an unprecedented sensation. New knowledge and a new sense of direction can help see reality in a new light. Other times, we seek esoteric knowledge to help cure serious illnesses. These include some psychological conditions, such as constant dissatisfaction, depression and inability to achieve goals.
People who explore esotericism can:
- Assess one’s actions as good or bad, based on the framework provided.
- Launch a channel of energy and information exchange between one’s soul and the subtle world.
- Learn the skills of meditation.
- Begin a systematic, methodical work on oneself, entailing a change in one’s destiny.
- Achieve higher levels of happiness while solving other problems.
Who practices it
Unlike other practices, there are no specific “practitioners” of esoteric knowledge that you can go to. Instead, you will find structured bodies or institutions, some highly organized and public (e.g. Kabbalah, Scientology, etc.) and others with scattered groups of followers.
Newcomers to esotericism have a hard time finding their way through the forest of literature. The situation is complicated by the fact that many sources academics as the authors (while some authors without university credentials publish excellent research). Furthermore, material of superior quality may be hidden away in specialized periodicals available to some.
Some great collections are creations of connoisseurs who may not have the means to make their treasures available. With the use of the Internet, this situation has begun to improve. At the same time, it has also created much confusion about what to take seriously. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, author of “Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed”, recommends looking into organizations, libraries and teaching programs. At the moment, there are two professional organizations for scholars in the field of esotericism: the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) and the USA-based Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE). In addition, esotericism is also well represented at the conferences of several international organizations in the study of religion, notably the International Association for the History of Religions, the European Association for the Study of Religions and the American Academy of Religion.
The best scholarly library in the field, is the renowned Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam. Two other famous collections are the library of the Warburg Institute in London and the Manly P. Hall Archive. Some excellent libraries are owned by esoteric organizations, which may restrict access to their own members. Lastly, many books on specific practices are available on the Internet for purchase.
What to expect
As one starts learning about the esoteric practices and their underlying beliefs, self-research is paramount. Oftentimes, reading on different subjects can help identify what set of beliefs resonate the most.
Typically, this is enough for amateurs who are seeking a new spiritual compass. The personalization of doctrines to one’s specific needs and views of the world is oftentimes sufficient as a starting point. The adoption of said doctrines on daily life is dependent on the level of commitment and discipline of the individual. It will also depend on how literally the individual absorbs and applies the set of beliefs.
Applying a new set of doctrines on one’s life often generates discomfort as it requires contact awareness of one’s actions. This awareness helps correct discrepancies between actions and what the doctrines indicate. Over time, this generates positive and “sticky” change in behavior. For example, one tenet in Kabbalah is about eliminating ego and the habit of “receiving for the sake of receiving”. Applying just this tenet in daily life requires ongoing awareness of one’s actions. Over time it can generate a meaningful change in behavior and views of the world.
If there is a particular doctrine of interest, one can get in contact with any local office (if any). It is a good idea to conduct research about said doctrine, to ensure a match beforehand. A few traditions are closed groups and do not allow new members unless there is a commitment from them. Many others, however, are very open to new members, do not require commitment and encourage applying their beliefs with others.
Esotericism has a long and winded history. Below are some interesting facts about it:
- A number of esoteric doctrines are actually part of the spiritual foundation of religious practices.
- Many modern-day movements and religions have their roots in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Members may have included personalities like Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Waite and the poet William Butler Yeats.
- One of the most active debunkers of phony spiritualists was famed escape artist Harry Houdini. He offered a cash prize to anyone who could convince him of supernatural powers or esoteric beliefs.
- While recognition and adoption have been rising, practitioners of alternative beliefs account for less than 1% of the US population.
- Magick included a “k” to differentiate itself from performance magic. It is defined as the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.
- The concept of esoteric can challenge some orthodox practices. Hence, the hidden nature of some esoteric beliefs stems from issues of political or religious persecution
The heart of esotericism has long been centered around the belief that certain spiritual teachings are best transmitted to others only after sufficient preparation and initiatic training. Historically, such knowledge has not been accessible in popular formats nor readily available for study without membership. However, this is changing dramatically these days with more accessible information and global connectedness.
The global future of esotericism cannot be bound by its relationship to any particular religious tradition or institutions. The history of increased religious pluralism on a global scale reflects an opening of intellectual and spiritual horizons. This can only result in an increasing complexity in future conceptualization of “esotericism”. In these circumstances, any individual has an incredible wealth of materials to draw on in formulating a view of spirituality. In such a context, the future of esotericism will surely become increasingly global, international and pluralistic.