What is esotericism?

western-esotericismHere is a summary from the Encyclopedia of Religion.

ESOTERICISM. Esotericism has several meanings. After presenting a list of them, this article deals with the use of the term in scholarly parlance and with the various approaches toward this academic speciality in religious studies.

A VARIETY OF MEANINGS. The substantive esotericism seems to have first appeared in French (l’esoterisme) in Jacques Matter’s Histoire critique du Gnosticisme et de son influence (A Critical History of Gnosticism and Its Influence), published in 1828. Along with its adjective form esoteric, esotericism until the early twenty-first century has carried different meanings that overlap only in part:

  1. Booksellers and publishers tend to group under this heading (or under that of the occult or even metaphysics) a plethora of domains concerned with the paranormal, exotic and particularly Eastern wisdom traditions, New Age literature, and magical literature.
  2. Esoteric is used to designate teachings or doctrines that are purposely kept secret, generally with a view to distinguish between initiates and noninitiates (the former are supposed to respect the so-called discipline of the arcane).
  3. Esoteric refers to the hidden meanings of apparent reality (i.e., of nature, history, and mythical narratives) and to the deeper, inner mysteries of religion as opposed to its merely external or exoteric dimensions. In this understanding, esotericism tends to designate the ways likely to provide an access to these deeper meanings. Here gnosis is often used as a synonym of esotericism.
  4. Within the so-called perennialist discourses, notably those of the traditionalist school of religious studies (e.g., in Rene Guenon’s and Frtijof Schon’s works), “esoterism” (used rather than esotericism) is the doctrine according to which there is a transcendental unity of religions— sometimes called the primordial tradition—and the ways to try to recover it.
  5. The term is often used in a rather broad sense as a near synonym of (again) gnosis, understood as a mode of knowing that emphasizes the experiential, the mythical, and the symbolic rather than the dogmatic and discursive forms of expression.
  6. Mainly since the beginning of the 1990s, esotericism, or rather Western esotericism, has been used in academic parlance to designate (from a strictly historical perspective) a speciality covering a number of currents and traditions that present some obvious similarities. Western here refers to the medieval and modern Greco-Latin world in which the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity have coexisted for centuries, visited by those of Islam. In an even stricter sense, this speciality has developed into modern Western esotericism. This expression was chosen by scholars among other available ones (e.g., hermeticism or hermetic philosophy, which some other scholars conveniently use, but they do so in the same sense). It was a matter of choosing a term to designate a historical field. This latter corresponds to a specific phenomenon that appeared at the beginning of the early modern period (i.e., of the Renaissance) and is represented by a number of specific spiritual currents.

It is in this latter, stricter sense that esotericism is intended in the present article. It is to be understood as a historical construct, not as a type of religion but as a general label for some currents in Western culture that display certain similarities and are historically related. Although there is still some debate about the definition and the demarcation of this domain, notably of its historical scope, a widespread consensus has been reached about the main currents that form its core.

They are mainly of the following ones (the list is not exhaustive):

  1. the Renaissance revival of hermetism (i.e., the literature bearing witness to an intense, renewed interest in the Greek hermetica of late antiquity, in particular in the Corpus Hermeticum attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus);
  2. Christian Qabbalah of the Renaissance and post-Christian Qabbalah;
  3. the so-called occult philosophy of the Renaissance (see, for example, Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia, 1533) and its later developments;
  4. alchemy of the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, understood as a spiritual form of meditation and practice;
  5. astrology (in its speculative more than its divinatory form);
  6. Paracelsism (the philosophy of Paracelsus in the first half of the sixteenth century) and that of his followers bent upon giving a chemical or alchemical interpretation of nature;
  7. Rosicrucianism, which began to flourish at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and its numerous varieties until the early twenty-first century;
  8. theosophy (the current that began to flourish with Jacob Bohme) in the seventeenth century but also the history of the Theosophical Society since the end of the nineteenth century;
  9. the so-called illuminist current (c. 1750 to 1820);
  10. the occultist current (mid–nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century) and its related developments. 

ACADEMIC APPROACHES: 1964–1990. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) by Frances A. Yates has been instrumental in calling attention to the importance and significance of hermetism in the history of the Renaissance and consequently to that of the esoteric currents that flourished at that time and later. Yates’s book caused a flurry of debates over what Wouter J. Hanegraaff has felicitously called “the Yates paradigm” (Hanegraaff, 2001, p. 5). Indeed Yates has created a grand narrative, as it were, based on two main assumptions. First is the existence of what she called “the Hermetic Tradition,” in which she saw a more or less covert reaction against both Christianity and the rise of scientific worldviews. Second, however paradoxical it may seem, is the claim that the essential tradition of magic—which Yates considered essentially nonprogressive—was an important factor in the development of the scientific revolution. Neither of these two tenets has proved resistant to close scrutiny, but this work paved the way for an ongoing academic recognition and institutionalization of modern Western esoteric currents as a specialty in their own right.

Even within the pale of academic scholarship, the Yates paradigm was used by a number of authors with a more or less religionist-esoteric persuasion within the intellectual climate of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed they were prone to consider esoteric currrents in general as a form of counterculture, just as Yates’s narrative portrayed the Renaissance magus as a rebel against the dogmas of the established churches and later against the claims of mechanistic science. Such an interpretation is illustrated, for example, by many scholars associated with the Eranos group, like Carl Gustav Jung, Mircea Eliade, Henry Corbin, Ernst Benz, or Joseph Campbell (see Wasserstrom, 1999; Hakl, 2001). Therefore, on the one hand, the Eranosian production was viewed with suspicion by scholars of a strictly historical persuasion; on the other hand and more importantly, the study of Western esotericism found in Eranos a place in which precedence was given to a “phenomenological” even apologetical approach.

What seems to be the first methodological attempt proper was proposed in 1990 by Pierre Riffard. Starting from the idea that there is a universal esotericism, this scholar attempted to find what its invariables might be. He found seven: author’s impersonality, distinction between the profane and the initiated, correspondences, the subtle, arithmology (the esoteric science of numbers), occult arts, and initiation. Given its universalizing aspect in terms of areas and eras, that is, its lack of precise anchoring in history, such a position evinces a tendency toward essentialism and religionism.

Nevertheless it is not devoid of interest insofar as it is likely to be appropriable by anthropology and psychology.

ACADEMIC APPROACHES: 1991–EARLY TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. Not until as late as the beginning of the 1990s did the study of modern Western esotericism begin to be seriously recognized as an academic field of study in its own right. In these years the Yates paradigm as well as its religionist interpretation from a countercultural perspective were challenged by a different paradigm introduced by Antoine Faivre that can be seen as encompassing the entire period from the Renaissance to the early twenty-first century while still clearly demarcating the field from nonesoteric currents. As a result during the 1990s Faivre’s approach was adopted by many other scholars and tended to replace Yates’s grand narrative as the major paradigm in the field.

In a number of publications in the 1990s, Faivre submitted an academic construct based on empirical observations (i.e., not on an essentialist or religionist position claiming to deal with the essence of esotericism, which he considered problematic). He proposed calling esotericism in the modern West a form of thought identifiable by the presence of six characteristics distributed in varying proportions. Four are intrinsic in that their simultaneous presence is supposed to be a necessary and sufficient condition for a discourse to be identified as esoteric (although of course no discourse turns out to be that only). With them are joined two others, which he calls secondary, that is, not intrinsic, but whose presence is frequent next to the four others. That said, it is clear that none of the six characteristics belongs to esotericism alone.

The four intrinsic characteristics are:

  1. The idea of correspondences. There exist invisible and noncausal correspondences between all visible and invisible dimensions of the cosmos. This is illustrated, for example, by the old notion of macrocosm and microcosm and the principle of universal relationships between all things within the universe. The latter is a theater of mirrors, a mosaic of hieroglyphs to be decoded. Everything in nature is a sign, and the least object is hiding a secret. Occult relationships govern the metals, the planets, and the parts of the human body. There are also correspondences between nature and history on the one hand and the revealed texts (the myths of foundation or origin) on the other hand.
  2. Living nature. The cosmos is not merely complex or plural, nor can it be reduced to a network of correspondences. It is also alive. Viewed as a seat of sympathies and antipathies, it is palpitating in all its parts, permeated and animated by a spiritual presence, a life force, or a light—a hidden fire that circulates through it.
  3. Imagination and mediations. These two notions are complementary. Rituals, man:d: alas, symbols charged with polysemia, and intermediate beings (like angels) are mediators that allow the various levels of reality to be (re)connected to one another. And imagination is understood here as a specific faculty (a magical one, as it were) of the human mind to use these intermediaries, symbols, and images for acquiring a higher knowledge. Imagination (often compared here with magnet, mageia, imago) is the tool of knowledge of the self, of the world, of myth—it is the “eyes of fire” that makes visible the invisible.
  4. The experience of transmutation. This fourth element comes in to complete the first three. It adds to them the dimension of a living experience. It may be the transmutation of oneself through an illuminated knowledge that favors a second birth but also of a part of nature itself (such is the case of course in alchemy).

The two secondary characteristics include, first, the idea of concordance, which posits the existence of common denominators (a fundamental concordance) between several or all spiritual traditions, then studies these by comparing them, in the hopes of bringing out the forgotten hidden trunk of which each particular one would be only one visible branch. Second is transmission, which has become rather common since the eighteenth century. Transmission emphasizes the importance of channels; for example, transmission from master to disciple or initiatory societies (one cannot initiate oneself).  Some insist on the authenticity of the regularity of the channels of filiation supposed to transmit what could not be obtained without them.

Some aspects and implications of Faivre’s construct have been challenged. Hanegraaff (1996, 2004) has cogently argued that it applies mostly to the Renaissance occult philosophy and to the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century illuminist and Romantic contexts but fails to fully account for developments within the spiritualist pietist context since the seventeenth century and the secularization of esotericism over the long period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Kocku von Stuckrad (2004) has suggested that the limitations of Faivre’s concept of a form of thought could be overcome by a discursive approach. Furthermore the relation of Western esotericism to Christianity and to the other religions of the book lends itself to ongoing debates (Hanegraaff, 1995, 2004; Neugebauer-Wolk, 2003; Stuckrad, 2004). It seems likely that such discussions, which are already operating in several directions, will contribute to further developments in the study of Western esotericism.

THE ACADEMIC INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF ESOTERICISM: A SHORT OVERVIEW. This long-neglected domain has been increasingly recognized in the early twenty-first century as an area of academic research and has gained a foothold in academia. It has been instrumental in bringing about a reappraisal of the understanding of Western culture in general and of its religious history in particular. Indeed even before methodological questions were seriously raised, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Section des Sciences Religieuses (Paris, Sorbonne), created in 1964 the chair History of Christian Esotericism, which became in 1979 the History of the Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Contemporary Europe (in 2001 the adjective mystical was deleted). The University of Amsterdam in 1999 created a chair of the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents from the Renaissance to the Present, which encompasses a full academic curriculum, from the undergraduate to the doctorate levels. In Lampeter, United Kingdom, in 2001 another was established, History of the Western Esoteric Tradition. Within the American Academy of Religion, a program unit functioned from 1986 to 2000 under several titles, the latest one being Western Esotericism since the Early Modern Period. The International Association for the History of Religions held a conference in Mexico City in 2000, “Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion” (see Faivre and Hanegraaff, 1998), and another one in Durban in 2000, “Western Esotericism and Jewish Mysticism.” Other similar examples could be adduced.

SEE ALSO Alchemy; Astrology; Hermetism; Nature; Theosophical Society. 


Broek, Roelof van den, and Wouter J. Hanegraaff, eds. Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany, N.Y., 1998.

Caron, Richard, Joscelyn Godwin, Wouter. J. Hanegraaff, and Jean-Louis Vieillard-Baron, eds. Esoterisme, Gnoses, et Imaginaire symbolique: Melanges offerts a Antoine Faivre. Louvain, 2001.

Faivre, Antoine. Access to Western Esotericism. Albany, N.Y., 1994. Includes a detailed bibliography of scholarly studies devoted to specific modern Western esoteric currents, pp. 297–348.

Faivre, Antoine. Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism. Albany, N.Y., 2000. Includes a detailed bibliography of scholarly studies devoted to specific modern Western esoteric currents, pp. 248–259.

Faivre, Antoine. L’esoterisme. Rev. and enlarged ed. Paris, 2002.

Faivre, Antoine, and Wouter J. Hanegraaff, eds. Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion. Louvain, 1998.

Hakl, Hans Thomas. Der verborgene Geist von Eranos:Unbekannte Begegnungen von Wissenschaft und Esoterik; Eine alternative Geistesgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Bretten, Germany, 2001.

Hammer, Olav. Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age. Leiden, 2001.

Hammer, Olav. “Esotericism in New Religious Movements.” In The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, edited by James R. Lewis, pp. 445–465. Oxford, 2004.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. “Empirical Method in the Study of Esotericism.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7, no. 2 (1995): 99–129.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden, 1996; reprint, Albany, N.Y., 1998.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. “On the Construction of ‘Esoteric Traditions.’” In Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, edited by Antoine Faivre and Wouter J. Hanegraaff, pp. 11–61. Louvain, 1998.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. “Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity.” Aries 1, no. 1 (2001): 5–37.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. “The Study of Western Esotericism: New Approaches to Christian and Secular Culture.” In New Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz, and Randi Warne. Berlin and New York, 2004.

Introvigne, Massimo. Il cappello del mago. Milan, 1990.

Laurant, Jean-Pierre. L’esoterisme chretien en France au XIXe siecle. Lausanne, 1992.

Laurant, Jean-Pierre. L’esoterisme. Paris, 1993. Matter, Jacques. Histoire critique du Gnosticisme et de son influence. Paris, 1828.

Neugebauer-Wolk, Monika. “Esoterik und Christentum vor 1800: Prolegomena zu einer Bestimmung ihrer Differenz.” Aries 3, no. 2 (2003): 127–165.

Neugebauer-Wolk, Monika, ed. Aufklarung und Esoterik. Hamburg, 1999.

Riffard, Pierre A. L’esoterisme: Qu’est-ce que l’esoterisme? Anthologie de l’esoterisme occidental. Paris, 1990.

Servier, Jean, ed. Dictionnaire critique de l’esoterisme. Paris, 1998.

Stuckrad, Kocku von. Was ist Esoterik? Kleine Geschichte des geheimen Wissens. Munich, 2004.

Wasserstrom, Steven M. Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos. Princeton, N.J., 1999.

Yates, Frances Amelia. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London, 1964.


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