What did Moses de Leon, Charles Williams, Jacob Boehme, and William Blake all have in common? They each cultivated a unique spiritual practice and outlook that has been described as "esoteric." What's more, their attempts to communicate their insights and epiphanies to a wider audience set off ripples of inspiration that are still affecting people years and centuries later. This is no small feat, for at a time when mainstream churches in the U.S. are in slow decline (despite Newsweek cover stories on "The Return to Religion") it is worth pondering the lasting impact of religious individuals operating outside of the recognized institutions of Church and Temple.
The terms "esoteric" and "esotericism" (sometimes rendered as "esoterism") in their narrowest usage refer to teachings and mystical intuitions that express the living heart or inner essence of a religion. These are usually contrasted to the "exoteric" or outer trappings, the dogmas, doctrines, and institutions that shape most people's experience of that religion.
Lending some confusion to the area is the even more common use of the term "esoteric" to refer to secret or hidden spiritual teachings from a variety of sources, many of which have little connection with the major religions.
It is often alleged that esoteric teachings are meant for the chosen few who are capable of grasping them, and indeed this would seem to be the meaning of biblical verses such as Matthew XIII:10-11:
"And the disciples came, and said unto him. Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given."
Though Jesus here (and in other sayings such as "cast not your pearls before swine," Matthew VII:6) seems to be practicing a selective esotericism, the early Church fought such implied elitism when it first manifested in the teachings of the gnostics who emphasized the individual's experience of gnosis, or mystical knowledge of the divine, as more crucial to the salvation of one's soul than either good works or strict allegiance in faith to Church doctrine. Since gnosis, in contrast to the Sacraments, was not uniformly available to all believers and could not be ritually accessed, it ran counter to the egalitarian ethic of exoteric Christianity. Thus gnostic sects were marginalized and branded as heretical, despite the fact that the mystical state they encouraged partook of the very essence of the believer's search for God.
This emphasis on non-discursive, experiential "knowledge" of God and the Eternal also characterized early Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah and remained a recurring element of esotericism as it developed over the centuries in parallel with the more familiar exoteric tenets of Wester gnosis at the core of Western esotericism has resisted systematic exposition by exoteric means such as theology, it has best been conveyed by analogy, symbol, and myth. Unlike esoteric traditions in Asia, such as Taoist alchemy or Yoga, Western esotericists cannot point to an unbroken lineage of teacher-student transmission; however, the recurrence of the same esoteric myths and symbols, sometimes with centuries intervening between documented occurences, suggests the permanence of an esoteric perspective that repeatedly manifests to give expression to a gnosis that exists outside of time and space.
There are indications that in the centuries following the eclipse of the early Christian gnostics, gnostic heresies and esoteric teachings dispersed eastward, preserved in some cases by groups like the Bogomils, Arians, and, ironically, by Islamic scholars. These perspectives later flowed back into Western culture via Bogomil influence on the Cathars in Languedoc, and in the vital cross-cuural mix of Moorish Spain. Thus, when the Hermetic and other classical writings were recovered from the Arabic at the genesis of the Renaissance, the stage was set for esoteric hybrids such as Pico's Christian Cabala and Agrippa's magic, which led to such later permutations as Rosicrucianism in the 17th century and speculative freemasonry in the 18th.
Indeed, the British historian Dame Frances Yates suggested in several groundbreaking books such as The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and The Occult Philosophy that any attempt to understand the dynamics of such central developments in Western history as the Renaissance, the Elizabethan era, and the Hundred Years War would require the acknowledgement of the key role played by proponents of Cabala, the Hermetic philosophy, and magical ritual. In calling attention to John Dee, Giordono Bruno, Ficino, and other seminal figures, Yates and her colleague D. P. Walker paved the way for a reevaluation of the esoteric influences at work at the inception of the modern era.
In modern times the study of esotericism has benefited from the growth of the global village, with an armchair explorer able to pile up newly translated classics from numerous esoteric sources and compare and contrast them. One indication of both the accessibility and acceptability of esotericism has been the American Academy of Religion's acceptance of a consultancy on esotericism (self-named "the Hermetic Academy,") which sponsors papers and panels at the annual AAR conferences. Such academic respectability would not have been imaginable without the groundbreaking historical research of towering figures like Gershom Scholem in the area of Jewish Kabbalah and Mysticism, and the aforementioned Frances Yates.
Gershom Scholem's exhaustive research into the Kabbalah and Kabbalists was crucial in bringing this rich spiritual treasure-trove out of the shadows of neglect and misunderstanding. Despite Scholem's death, numerous scholars including Moshe Idel, Aryeh Kaplan, Joseph Dan, Arthur Green, and others have continued to produce new insights and research in this area of esoteric mysticism. Reclaiming Kabbalah for contemporary study has been particularly important for the understanding of other esoteric approachs (including the Christian Cabala of the Renaissance and later hybrids such as the French occult revival of the late 19th century) because of the popular use of Kabbalist elements like the Tree of Life in these other symbol systems.
Prior to the advent of Scholem, Yates, and other scrupulous scholars, modern esotericism was half-submerged in the bubbling swamp of romantic myth, spurious legend, and sectarian claim-jumping which characterized the occult revival in the final decades of the nineteenth century. While the leading figures of esoteric interest in that era, such as A. E. Waite, Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, Papus, and MacGregor Mathers played important roles in bringing forgotten teachings to light and inspiring thousands of sincere students, their research was full of holes at best and their organizational affiliations and petty disputes prevented much objectivity from emerging.
In the public eye, these esotericists were seen as cranks or overblown peddlers of occultist nostrums, yet they had an indisputable impact, particularly in the fields of art and letters. W. B. Yeats was an active member of Mathers' Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; the Symbolist painters were active in salon exhibitions sponsored by French rosicrucian revivalists; Paul Klee and Saul Bellow found inspiration in Steiner's Anthroposophy; Ezra Pound pursued theories of the troubadours and Cathars as esoteric descendants of the Eleusinian mystery cults; Antonin Artaud juggled influences from kabbalah, tarot, gnosticism, alchemy in his work before sliding off into schizophrenia; and Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Charles Williams, and Evelyn Underhill studied with Waite's Golden Dawn offshoots, the Independent and Rectified Rite and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross.
These manifestations of esoteric interest were pursued, in most cases, outside of the purview of established religion. However, esotericism was not their sole possession for there were other distinct camps of esotericists with different emphases.
Perhaps the most respected were the so-called Traditionalists gathered around the forcefully articulated perspectives of René Guénon and his most illustrious student, Frithjof Schuon. Through the journals, Sophia Perennis and Studies in Comparative Religion, and through numerous books, Schuon, Titus Burkhardt, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy,and others, presented a ringing defense of esotericism as the study of the primordial unity and truth at the heart of all true religions. Strongly influenced by the wedding of mysticism and orthodoxy in the Sufism of the Shadhili Order (Guenon, Schuon, and Lings were all Western converts to Islam), the Traditionalists advocated that each person should maintain allegiance to an orthodox religious path. This would help both the exoteric masses and the esoteric few from going astray into realms of spiritual self-indulgence. In their emphasis on esotericism as the exercise of the soul's Intellect and in their uncompromising style of metaphysical exposition, the Traditionalists dilineated an austere esotericism which stood in stark contrast to the softer, more romantic style of other advocates of the perennial philosophy.
Although they advocated fidelity to a relatively narrow set of major world religions, the Traditionalists did not, for the most part, operate their intellectual project within the halls of the Church or other religious institutions. The manifestation of the esoteric impulse from within religious bodies was best found among members of contemplative orders. This impulse was not self-identified as esoteric as such; rather, it could be thought of as a continuation of the humble tradition of the Christian mysticism of St. John oster Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, and John Ruysbroeck. These mystics, by validating the inner life of the soul, also expressed the esoteric side of their faith.
Perhaps the most famous mystic of the modern era was Thomas Merton who balanced a profound inner life with a prolific writing career. Merton drew inspiration from the Pseudo Dyonysis, the Rhinish mystics, Eckhart, and even Zen Buddhism. This is most explicit in his unpublished treatise "The Inner Experience" which has been discussed at length in Raymond Bailey's book, Thomas Merton on Mysticism. Merton's meeting with Buddhist monks toward the end of his life fostered his realization that as contemplatives they were closer together despite doctrinal differences than they were with non-contemplative exoteric followers of their own religions. Other monks, including Brother David Stehndahl-Rast, Father Thomas Keating, and Father Basil Pennington, have been active in inter-faith dialogues and in teaching meditative techniques, such as centeringrayer, that help penetrate to the heart of spirituality.
This brings us to the central issue of the credibility of esotericism as a useful category of study. Can one really include figures as diverse as Cistercian monks and Renaissance magicians under the same rubric without having the whole conceptual structure collapse around one's ankles? Morris Berman's recent Coming To Our Senses is one attempt to do so by locating the unifying thread between various Western mysticisms and heresies in the body's inherent ability to experience states of heightened nondualistic consciousness. In linking the West's cyclic cultural repression of the body and physicality with it's repression of the esoteric, Berman delivers some startling insights. However, this is at best a partial model and one that leaves out much.
Perhaps esotericism's diversity can best be grasped in noting its roots in ancient hierarchical concepts. In numerous systems, including Christianity, the distance between the earthly and the celestial realms was not absolute but was divided up by degrees of ascent. The spiritual planes, while invisible to the human eye, were no less real, and the experience of gnosis could include their penetration. The links between heaven and earth were codified in the Hermetic axiom, "as above, so below," which posited an active parallel between the macrocosm of God and the celestial realms and the microcosm of humanity and the earth.
This sense of the universe as an interplay of visible and invisible forces was maintained by all variants of esotericism, but how the spiritual seeker related to that interplay was a matter of much controversy. The mystics and gnostics whose overriding concern was union with God subordinated all other concerns to that end. However, other esoterics embraced the spirit of inquiry and emphasized man's role as emissary of the divine on earth, capable of redeeming the material plane in cooperation with God. This divergence of focus, symbolized by the contemplative monk on the one hand and the Kabbalist or "white" magician on the other, wasn't a matter of moral opposition or conflict between two camps (though proponents of each focus sometimes saw it that way) but rather an expression of a natural polarity within esotericism itself.
Notions of hierarchy and natural elitism are not popular in this democratic era and it remains to be seen whether esotericism will survive as a distinct entity or transmute into something more generic and accessible. It can already be argued that many of the tenets of the human potential and New Age movements are formerly esoteric teachings stripped of their tell-tale markings and repackaged for mass consumption. If Carl Jung could find parallels to modern psychoanalytic concepts in ancient gnostic and alchemical symbolism, then who's to say that the attendees at a weekend seminar can't pursue insights into the inner spiritual life previously known to the few?
Originally written for the now defunct Books & Religion, Jan. 1991. Not published by B&R for obscure editorial reasons, no doubt leading to that journal's demise.
Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.