What is Western Esotericism?
The modern term “Western esotericism” is used as a general label for a great variety of religious currents and trends in Western culture – from Antiquity generally, and from the Renaissance to the present more in particular – characterized by their belief that true knowledge of God, the world, and man can only be attained by means of personal spiritual experience or inner enlightenment. Such “knowledge” was traditionally referred to by the Greek word gnosis. Since it is supposed to go beyond mere rationality and normal discursive language, representatives of Western esotericism have shown a marked preference for using imaginal, symbolic and mythical forms of expression. For this reason, Western esoteric currents have not remained limited to the domains of religion and philosophy, but have frequently overlapped with those of the visual arts, music, and literature. Moreover, because they claim a superior knowledge not only about God and man, but about the natural world as well, esoteric perspectives have become part of the history of the natural sciences and are essential to understanding the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Processes of modernization, secularization and disenchantment of the world since the 18th century have caused a profound transformation of Western esotericism, as its representatives sought to present their perspectives as compatible with or superior to mainstream science. In the wake of the separation of church and state, modern Western democracies have seen a proliferation of esoteric fraternities and organizations, as well as the emergence of a broad and diffuse “cultic milieu” that caters to the esoteric interests of the modern spiritual consumer.
For general overviews and introductions to the history of Western esotericism, see Wouter J. Hanegraaff (ed.), in collaboration with Antoine Faivre, Roelof van den Broek & Jean-Pierre Brach, Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Brill: Leiden 2005; Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, State University of New York Press: Albany 1994; Kocku von Stuckrad, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge, Equinox: London/Oakville 2005; Antoine Faivre & Jacob Needleman (eds.), Modern Esoteric Spirituality, Crossroad: New York 1992; Roelof van den Broek & Wouter J. Hanegraaff (eds.), Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, State University of New York Press: Albany 1998; Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction, Oxford University Press: Oxford 2008.
About the problematics of definition and demarcation of the field, see Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘On the Construction of “Esoteric Traditions”’, in: Antoine Faivre & Wouter J. Hanegraaff (eds.), Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Peeters: Louvain 1998; id., ‘The Study of Western Esotericism: New Approaches to Christian and Secular Culture’, in: Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz & Randi Warne (eds.), New Approaches to the Study of Religion, De Gruyter: Berlin/New York 2002.