Esoteric Groups and Political Currents: Book Review

Gary Lachman
Politics and the occult : the left, the right and the radically unseen
(Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2008, 261pp.)

Gary Lachman has written a very useful and sober book on esoteric current in modern political thought — modern meaning here from the Protestant Reformation to the present. A sober book is necessary as the internet is filled with wild speculation about the role of the Illuminati on the political and financial system. The current meltdown of the banks and the stock markets does nothing to diminish the conspiracy theories of Illuminati-Rosicrucian hands pulling strings. The same ideas are found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion where the controlling hands have been transferred to the Jews. The Protocols have, alas, become a best seller in the Middle East, but my impression is that the Illuminati are the lead manipulators on the internet.

Lachman deals primarily with the impact of personalities, drawing good portraits of those involved. For readers more interested in the ideas themselves, I would recommend Antoine Faivre and Jocob Needleman (Eds.) Modern Esoteric Spirituality (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1995, 413pp.) as the best overview.

There are four moments when esoteric thinking entered social and political currents in a serious way: the Protestant Reformation, the 18th century with the American and French Revolutions, the first half of the 1900s anti-colonial movements especially in India and China, and today in the efforts to develop the political meaning of New Age-Age of Aquarius thought.

The Protestant Reformation broke the strangle hold of the Catholic Church on theology and its translation into political principles, owning much to the classic if rigid approach of Thomas Aquinas. It is only in the very recent past, when devoid of political control, that Aquinas has provided a fertile ground for political thought, especially in the writing of the French political philosopher Jacques Maritain. By breaking the monopoly of the Catholic Church on the theology-politics connection, the Protestant Reformation opened the door to a wide range of religious ideas and their political manifestations. From the Ranters, the Quakers, the Brethern, to the Moravian Church of Count Nikolaus Zinzendorf (1700-1760) — what is often termed the Radical Reformation — upset the political thinking of Europe with their equalitarian practices and emphasis on the Inner Light in all. The European political authorities did not mistake the challenge these groups posed to the established order, and nearly all the groups left for America where they have become part of the unesoteric and largely non-political scene of US Protestantism.

Lachman does not analyse the two religions of American roots with strong esoteric elements: Joseph Smith and the Mormons and Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. The influence of the Mormons on Utah politics and the political impact of the Christian Science Monitor might merit books in themselves. William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg are part of the esoteric current in Protestant thought, but their political influence is small. Blake, however, had a spiritual vision of what England might be.

The influence of esoteric thought in the American and French Revolutions is well brought out by Lachman, building on a large body of historical scholarship. Freemasonry is the classic ‘esoteric movement ‘ — a group reserved for the few which through ceremonies and symbols conveys a body of moral, religious and spiritual traditions. Although Masonry claims to represent ancient teachings, as an organization the first Grand Lodge was established in England in 1717 and in France in 1735. The Masons placed an emphasis on written constitutions in which basic principles were outlined first, followed by the rules of the administration of the Lodge. The Masonic orders spread from England to the American colonies, and American Revolutionary leaders, in particular George Washington, were Masons. Both the first post-Revolution Articles of Confederation and the later American Constitution followed the Masonic principle of setting out the principles of association which were to be known by Reason and not Revelation, followed by the structure of the government. The three-fold structure of government — executive, legislative, judicial — is also probably linked to a Masonic use of the number three. The first post-Revolution French constitution followed the same pattern, and especially the lasting Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

In the USA, there was no counter-revolutionary movement. Those loyal to English rule left for Canada and had no further influence on US politics. In France, on the other hand, there was a strong and persistent Royalist counter-revolution often linked to mystic Catholic thought and the creation of esoteric societies. Some of this religious counter-revolutionary thought still exists within French Right Wing movements. Right Wing hatred of Masonic movements for being at the base of democratic thought led the French Vichy government (1940-1944) to outlaw Masonic movements and to jail known Masons.

The third period of impact might be called “The Awakening of the East”, basically India and China. The image that both Western esoteric thinkers and Asian reformers had was of countries sleeping. See the excellent study of early 1900s Chinese reformers: John Fitzgerald Awakening China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, 461pp.).

In India, the same image of a civilization asleep but which had much to offer the world if it would awake was used by Annie Besant and Myra Alfassa who became the ‘Mother’ of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. For a good overview of Annie Besant’s work for self-rule in India see Authur H. Nethercot The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961, 435pp.) especially the second volume Arthur H. Nethercot The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963, 483 pp.).

Both Annie Besant and earlier, H.P. Blavatsky’s understanding of the role of India and the need for its Independence from England came from the analysis of the Kalachakra (The Wheel of Time), an Indian text written around the year 1000 AD. The Kalachakra has now disappeared in its Indian form and is preserved in its Tibetan version. There are many levels of meaning in the Kalachakra, but on one level it is a presentation of past and future historical cycles over a 1000 year period. If the Kalachakra was written in 1000 AD, its final cycle describes patterns up to the year 2000. For individuals as for states to be meaningful participants in the next cycle of time, they need to be mature and free. Decisions cannot be made for them. Thus, India, China and the other colonial territories had to be independent in order to be responsible actors before the year 2000. They also had to purify their traditions and knowledge in order to present it to the world. Thus, Annie Besant made a twin effort for self-rule and education for enlightenment.

The Kalachakra influence on the writings of H.P. Blavatsky is analysed by David and Nancy Reigle Blavatsky’s Secret Books (San Diego, CA: Wizards Bookshelf, 1999, 181pp). For H..P. Blavatsky, the emphasis is less on the need for political independence than on the need for understanding the evolution of the cosmos and the soul which is also a theme of the Kalachakra. The Dalai Lama believes that the Kalachakra is an important contribution to this current peiod of transition and has been presenting the rituals arising from the Kalachakra nearly each year to ever larger groups of people. Traditionally in Tibet, the Kalachakra ceremonies where done rarely — every ten years or so. Now, because of the need for the spiritual energy which is said to be produced by the ceremonies, the Dalai Lama has been presenting them yearly.

The idea that humanity is moving into a new cycle, called by many the Age of Aquarius, is a fairly wide-spread belief. Its political implications are as yet unclear. The belief in a new age is articulated by President Ahmadinejad of Iran in the form of the return of the Hidden Imam. Fortunately, there are other presentations as well. I think that the best overviews of the political forms that the New Age will take are set out in Mark Satin New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society (New York: Dell Publishing, 1978, 349pp.) and David Spangler and William Irwin Thompson Reimagination of the World: A Critique of the New Age, Science, and Popular Culture (Santa Fe, NM: Bear and Co, 1992, 218pp.)

We can see some of the New Age political patterns in the increased role of women, in the idea of networking, in the growth of citizen diplomacy, and the ecological concern for the welfare of the Planet. Thus we can hope for a follow up book on the present by Gary Lachman.


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