Western Esotericism

(Part of the Bloomsbury Series: Guides for the Perplexed)

by Wouter J. Hanegraaff

Published 2013

Reviewed by John E. Mead


The academic field of Western Esotericism is both new and dynamic. This addition to the Bloomsbury series, The Guides for the Perplexed, is overdue. The audience for this series is explained as thinkers and students wanting to explore difficult subjects. Dr. Hanegraaff provides a solid overview of key ideas, discussions of historical currents and includes the influences of esoteric thought upon both religion and philosophy. With this in mind, the book is well written, meets the intended audience and also the entire set of goals.

The expectation of a student approaching this book would likely be to find that elusive definition of esotericism. This is dealt with in the first chapter, and surprisingly dismissed as the primary topic of the book. The first chapter covers the three main models, not definitions, for Western esotericism and then states a very broad , and different, working definition for the book. The three main models are: 1) Early modern enchantment (i.e. Faivre/Yates), 2) Post modern occult (i.e. transformed pre-enlightenment), and 3) Inner traditions (esoteric vs. exoteric). Instead, Western esotericism is described as the chief casualty of academic specialization starting after the 18th century. It consists of items that are in the dustbin of history. At this point the book first goes into a brief historical overview ranging from gnosis in Hellenistic culture to post WW II. The casualties of history, i.e. esotericism, is covered in three chapters dealing with: 1) items not in main stream religion and intellectual culture and 2) worldviews and epistemologies at odds with normative intellectual culture. These chapters cover a large amount of material including apologetics and polemics, metaphysical radicalism, alchemical mediation, reason, faith, gnosis etc. These are but a sampling. It is an excellent overview with surprising detail. There is one quote on worldviews that is worth stating specifically for the Theosophy.net site and members: “Scholars of esotericism should better not waste their time on attempts to lend credibility to such pursuits of an artificial chimera called 'the' esoteric worldview. No such thing exists.[p.85]”

At this point the book takes a contemporary viewpoint on various topics. In particular, Dr. Hanegraaff examines esoteric practices, religions and their collective supermarket, evolution, psychology, philosophy, science, arts etc.; with all those listed before as the short list. Everything is potentially affected by esotericism. In a nutshell, esotericism is “academically homeless.” Esotericism is essentially free to set up a home base in any academic discipline it chooses. Dr. Hanegraaff is not subtle when he states: “The hope is that this will make it easier for students in various fields of study to find their way into this unfamiliar domain.[p.143]” Hence, philosophy and science are positioned to include esotericism as a valid piece of their domains. What has happened is that the history was written to purposefully exclude items, which esotericism must retrieve from the dusty archives, and illuminate them as part of the entire picture. The analogy for science, is to notice that it has gardeners who study their plot and keeping it carefully weeded, i.e. out with the esoteric stuff, so the future contains only the approved little biosphere for that small ecosystem. The Biologist is the necessity. One will look at the entire ecosystem of a planet. I, personally, would also add the realm of atmospheric physics, economics of energy, oil spills, windmills and bat migrations, and one sees that the gardener is quite deplete in knowledge.

One topic related to modernization, that has a following of believers, is that HPB and her Theosophy had the major impact on the western culture, and was the prime mover of esotericism in the West. This is not really true. A very large part of the influence was actually formed inside the Eranos Foundation meetings, made possible in the Americas due to the Transcendentalists, such as Emerson. It was the Eranos Foundation meetings which had the intellectual and scholarly power which propelled much of these changes. C. G. Jung, Erwin Schrödinger, D. T. Suzuki, Joseph Campbell, Gershom Scholem, Henry Corbin, Mircea Eliade, Antoine Faivre to name a few. As to current influence in Western esotericism, Faivre vs. H. P. Blavatsky is not even a close call, with the the imbalance for the former. The last chapter is devoted to “Sources and Resources.” The listings are extensive and placed within topics along with a multitude of references. It is a valuable reference for most any student at any level.

In summary, one must say that this book is an agenda as well as a path into the 21st century. It has a definite agenda that is complete and even summarized. One must only read the first and second sentences in the Forward: “We might as well begin by spilling the secret. The ultimate objective of this book, and of the field of study that it seeks to introduce, is to change the reader's perspective on Western culture and society. [p.vi]”

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