Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (Book Review)

The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction
By Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke

Eostericism abounds. What was once the religious purview of societal elites from the ancient world to the modern has been thoroughly capitalized and publicized. It has become, in some form of derivation, the popular praxis of the the "everyman," that overarching cultural mode known as secular humanism. Every time I address topics of an esoteric or otherwise occult or new age bent, I often receive emails wondering why I would devote space to such topics. My answer is simple and consistent: the concept of God is changing and a broadly defined esotericism is the primary influence upon this transformation. Or, as I put it to a Lutheran pastor once, "if you don't think the people in your congregation are reading, you're living in la-la land." Crude, but to the point. Theologians, whether ecclesiastical or academic, are living in a bubble, largely talking with other persons in the same bubble and largely unaware of their greater irrelevance to a culture whose form of "God-Talk" is nearly a foreign language.

This being said, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction is, as its title implies, a very accurate primer of the development of esotericism from its earliest (and fairly ancient) manifestations to its recent popularization. More importantly, this volume is an academic effort. The author, an academic himself, spends time in the introduction highlighting esotericism's entrance into the university as a proper field of study - early in its development, but growing.

The volume collects a wealth of historical information, elucidating for the scholar and perhaps disillusioning for fanatics, both religious conservatives who see the devil at play in all variant things and adherents to various esoteric currents who will likely watch their mythology dissolve before their eyes. All of which is to say that the book is accurate in its presentation of information and supplies demonstrable proof of esotericism's intellectual legitimacy when its contemporary mythos is stripped away. Goodrick-Clarke begins by identifying the ancient texts that eventually became the inspiration for esotericism (broadly speaking) in the   late medieval/early Renaissance period. Famous figures such as Albertus Magnus (Aquinas's master) and Marsilio Ficino played crucial roles in the development of a truly Western esoteric stream. Ficino succeeded in renewing Western interest in the first century Corpus Hermetica. The Corpus Hermetica' popularity was so vast it not only became the topic of regular commentary, Hermes was honored with a Mosaic in the Duomo of Siena. For a religious or theological audience, Albertus Magnus may well be the most important name in the documented development of Western esotericism. The famous teacher of Thomas Aquinas (the lynch pin of Roman Catholic theology) developed a mature system of natural magic or occult astrology in his Speculum Astronomiae. Therein, Albert posits the influence of celestial powers upon physical events and the prospect of ultimately manipulating the course of human events through a successfull reading or divination of the stars. This work of Albertus Magnus, Goodrick-Clarke argues, was itself a maturation of the system of natural magic developed by the Benedictine Monk, Johann Trithemius, whose output seems to have acceded that of Albertus Magnus on these matters.

The development of Western esotericism continues well into the Reformation period and the Enlightenment. Indeed, it may be said the "second wave of esotericism" comes to the fore at the instigation of the Reformation. The Reformation's insistence on individualism, personal piety over a solid corporate identity and rejection of ecclesiastical authority proved to be fertile ground for the flourishing of Western esotericism. The work of the Anglican clergyman Dr. John Dee, most famous for his accounts of invoking heavenly powers and receiving communication is somewhat briefly handled, although the author accurately establishes is place as perhaps the most reputable scholar in Northern Europe at the time. Conversely, Jacob Boehme is given adequate length and it seemed as though his works were treated in greater detail. This is understandable to some extent; Boehme was perhaps the most poignant reaction to the solidification of Lutheran orthodoxy and identity after the death of the movement's movements founder. As the author follows the development of Rosicrucian mysticism, Freemasonry and Illuminism, he demonstrates how such movements fall within the full spectrum of Protestantism's development. The material on Illuminism is most timely. Conservative Christians have revived the notion of an Illuminati conspiracy in recent years and in so doing have often provided an incomplete chronology of the movement with aim of presenting some sort of satanic super structure of world politics. Simply, it's rubbish. Illuminism, rather, was a complex interaction of Enlightenment era methodology and principles with a rejection of the growing materialist view of the cosmos and man's place within it.

As should be expected, the book provides an account of spiritualism, Theosophy and the rise of modern esotericism. In so doing, the author aptly implies that the antagonism towards Christianity or Judeo-Christian mythos is rather accidental, likely born from more contemporary esotericists failing to be well versed in the greater context of esotericism and merely functioning as reactionaries to contemporary cultural trends. After reading this volume, one will find it impossible to ignore the influence of Western Christianity on Western esotericism. Plainly, it may be stated that Western esotericism is an offshoot or development of Western Christianity. As the author observers in the opening sentence of the introduction, "Western esoteric traditions have their roots in a religious way of thinking." Western esotericism in its origins did not so much seek as to deny religion so much as it sought to fulfill religion, often by denying the limitations of certain conventions of language, thought, or imagination. In its Renaissance appearance, esotericism was the fulfillment or conclusion of the Catholic imagination, pursuing many elements in Roman Catholicism that have traditionally been left undeveloped in favor of a more comprehensible system designed for mass adoption. The same holds true for Protestantism; in an attempt to compensate for the elements of the religious imagination lost by the Reformation, esotericism in Protestant cultures created complex hierarchies of interior illumination, under the influence of the Reformation's focus on individual religiosity and opposition to any ecclesiastical authority - a point of development that accounts for much of contemporary esotericism's antagonism to its source of origin.

As to be expected, there is much more to the content of this book than one can adequately convey in a review of any manageable length. The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction is highly recommended for those looking for a concise contextualization of modern esotericism.