What is Esoteric?
Methods in the Study of Western Esotericism

By Arthur Versluis

Until comparatively recently, there was very little scholarship on Western esotericism as a field. There were, of course, various articles and books on aspects of Western esotericism like alchemy or Rosicrucianism, but there was virtually no sense in the scholarly world that these disparate tributaries of thought formed a larger current of Western esotericism as such. One finds landmark studies in the mid-twentieth century by authors like Frances Yates, but no one who demarcated “Western esotericism” as a field for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary study. This situation was to change with the work of Antoine Faivre (1934-) who, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with numerous major books and articles defined an entire field of inquiry.

Faivre holds a chair in the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the Sorbonne in the “Histoire des courants ésotériques et mystiques dans l’Europe moderne et contemporaine,” and his work represents the first strictly academic overview of Western esotericism. In his view, it is best to speak of Western esotericism in terms of “forms of thought” rather than in terms of “occult tradition” or similar terminology. He is interested in delineating the elements that make up particular ways of thinking we can mark as “esoteric,” and this methodological approach has been widely accepted. In his definitive book Accès de l’ésotérisme occidental, (1996), he demarcates four primary and two secondary characteristics that he sees as common to all the various currents of Western esotericism.

Faivre’s six characteristics are, again, as follows: 1. Correspondences & Interdependence 2. Living Nature 3. Imagination
4. Transmutation 5. Praxis of Concordance 6. Transmission. Of course, these same elements can be found in other traditions, as various scholars have pointed out, which has led some scholars to question the utility of these six characteristics [1]. If they can be found in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, for example, or indigenous religious traditions, then are these characteristics not too broad to be of definitive use? Correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm, living nature, the use of the visionary imaginative faculty, and the possibility of transmutation as well as transmission are certainly not unique to Western esotericism. One might well wonder whether, drawing on Faivre’s characteristics, one might be actually fashioning a larger framework for analyzing esoteric traditions both Asian and European in origin.

With questions like these in mind, in his work on Christian theosophy, Arthur Versluis outlined six different characteristics, not of Western esotericism more generally, but of Christian theosophy alone. These characterics, outlined in Wisdom’s Book: The Sophia Anthology (2000), are as follows:

1. Focus upon the figure of divine Wisdom or Sophia, the “mirror of God,” generally conceived of as feminine;
2. an insistence upon direct spiritual experience or cognition, meaning both insight into the divine nature of the cosmos and metaphysical or transcendent gnosis;
3. non-sectarianism, and self-identification with the theosophic current;
4. a spiritual leader who guides his or her spiritual circle through letters and spiritual advice.
5. Reference to the works and thought of Jacob Böhme; and perhaps
6. visionary insight into nature and non-physical realms, though 6. is actually a subset of 2. I have yet to find a single figure in the theosophic current who does not exemplify at least four of the first five characteristics listed here [2].


The chief benefit of focussing on particular currents like theosophy is that one can achieve a reasonable degree of precision in determining whether a particular figure or school of thought belongs to the theosophic current by seeing whether it corresponds to these six characteristics. Using these characteristics, we can see, for example, that the “Theosophy” of Helena Blavatsky, though it includes some of these elements (for instance, an emphasis on cosmological gnosis and a notion of spiritual leadership), does not belong to the current represented in the theosophy of Jacob Böhme and subsequent theosophers. It is, in brief, considerably easier to discern characteristics that join theosophers and separate them from other groups than to find characteristics that join all forms of Western esotericism, let alone characteristics of transcultural esotericism.

The most important element missing from Faivre’s list of the characteristics of Western esotericism is gnosis. This concept he did not include most likely because it introduced something inconvenient: what often goes under the rubric of “mysticism.” Now the term “mysticism” is fuzzy; one often can’t discern whether the word is being used to refer to visionary experiences, to non-visionary via negativa experiences, or to something else. Much preferable are descriptors added to the term “gnosis,” which refers to direct spiritual insight either into hidden aspects of the cosmos, or into transcendence. Then one may speak of “visionary gnosis,” or of “via negativa gnosis,” without the confusion that “mysticism” generates; the kind of gnosis in question becomes clearer by the term preceding it.

I am using the word “gnosis” to refer to 1. knowledge or direct perception of hidden or esoteric aspects of the cosmos (cosmological gnosis) as well as to 2. direct spiritual insight into complete transcendence (metaphysical gnosis). Cosmological gnosis still entails a subtle dualism of subject-object, to some extent belongs to the realm of knowledge, and reveals correspondences between subject and object, or between humanity and the natural world. These correspondences may be drawn upon to achieve some aim, as in alchemy, astrology, or magic. Metaphysical gnosis is non-dualistic spiritual insight, as one finds in the work of Meister Eckhart or in that of the contemporary American author Bernadette Roberts. This distinction, Lee Irwin points out, is comparable to that found in the Corpus Hermeticum between “lower” and “higher” gnosis, “lower” referring to philosophic learning, “higher” to direct insight into the Nous.

Faivre is keen to separate “mysticism” from “Western esotericism,” but such a division is artificial, and indeed, impossible in practice. A case in point is the seminal work of Jacob Böhme, central to which is his spiritual insight, or gnosis. I do not think Böhme can be properly understood without reference to the pivotal concepts of ungrund and nichts, the via negativa gnosis at the heart of his visionary gnosticism [3]. My point is that if one cannot understand such a central esoteric author as Böhme without reference to gnosis, then how can one exclude this term from the list of characteristics entirely? One must take gnosis into account [4].

Of course, when one takes gnosis into account as a characteristic of the larger current of Western esotericism, one has to acknowledge not only its presence in the works of Böhme and the theosophers and in such alchemical treatises as those in the 1675 collection entitled The Hermetic Museum, but also in the works of figures like Bernadette Roberts or Franklin Merrell-Wolff. Figures like these two would certainly be excluded from a Faivrean overview of Western esotericism and classed as “mystics,” yet their work is without question esoteric (not for the masses), and “Western” in origin, belonging to the Catholic line of Eckhart and the American line of Emerson respectively.

Naturally, we could exclude such figures, but then we would also have to exclude the various individuals known as “Gnostics” in antiquity, Dionysius the Areopagite, John Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, aspects of Jacob Böhme and the theosophic school, and indeed, nearly all those who represent apophatic (or, in the case of Böhme, hybrid visionary-apophatic) gnostic currents. If we include in “Western esotericism” broadly speaking these gnostics, who also do have representatives in the period from 1575 to the present, then we have another central characteristic of Western esotericism to deal with. And in fact I would suggest that without the concept of gnosis, the concept of Western esotericism is itself impoverished, so central is this idea in many of these various currents of thought.


Faivre’s six characteristics describe well what we may call the cosmological domain to which many currents of Western esotericism do belong, incorporating as it does such disciplines as practical alchemy, astrology, geomancy, and other forms of divination, as well as secret or semi-secret societies like that of the Rosicrucians, various magical lodges or orders, and so forth. All of these depend upon the doctrine of correspondences. What is more, much of Böhmean theosophy belongs to the cosmological domain—one thinks of the doctrine of signatures, the triadic nature of the Böhmean cosmos, and so forth. Böhme too offers a profoundly esoteric view of nature. But to acknowledge the primacy of the cosmological dimension in what has come to be known as Western esotericism must not entail denying the presence of a metaphysical gnostic dimension at least in some of the same currents of thought. This said, the basic principle behind Faivre’s methodology—a strictly historicist approach seeking primary definitive characteristics of esotericism—is a necessary one. We need definitions of terminology and of primary concepts, and even if Faivre’s listed characteristics may be in need of revision, the conceptual and historicist framework informing them is of great value in construing the new field.

The second major author on methodology in Western esotericism is the Dutch professor Wouter Hanegraaff, who holds the first specially endowed university chair for the study of Western esotericism—in particular, for the study of Hermeticism and related currents—at the University of Amsterdam. In a series of major articles, Hanegraaff has not only outlined the major contemporary approaches to the study of esotericism, but also proposed his own methodological approach. Hanegraaff argues that an a priori typology might well be valid, but it should not be a foundation for understanding the field as a whole, and that indeed, “a fully-developed academic study of esotericism should give attention to all the dimensions which may be distinguished in religious traditions generally (social, ritual, experiential, doctrinal, mythic, ethical, and symbolic) [5].” Essential to Hanegraaff’s methodology is what he calls an “empirical” approach, meaning among other things that the empiricist scholar seeks as much as possible not to apply a priori ideological constructs to esoteric subjects, but rather to approach his or her subject with an informed, open, and, so much as possible, neutral mind.

Hanegraaff follows a distinction between an emic and an etic approach to religious studies. The emic approach is that of the alchemist or theosopher as an alchemist or theosopher; Hanegraaff also makes reference to a “religionist” perspective, meaning an emic perspective from within a particular religious viewpoint as opposed to a more neutral historical or etic approach. “Essential to the scholarly integrity of any etic interpretation is that scholars remain permanently open to criticism from colleagues, who may challenge the validity of their interpretations,” Hanegraaff writes [6]. For “as soon as a scholar shuts himself off from criticism, research begins to degenerate into ideology.” But, he continues—and this observation is critical—”A continuing and (self-) critical dialectics of emic material and etic interpretation, in contrast, is the indispensable foundation for an empirical study of esotericism which wishes to go beyond mere description.” For Hanegraaff, most important is an open-ended “process of understanding” “in which no interpretation may claim to have the final word” (13). One might misunderstand Hanegraaff’s emphasis on an etic, empiricist, historiographic perspective as giving rise to an anti-esotericism masquerading as a study of the subject, but in fact when one looks at Hanegraaff’s own work, one finds that he remains a studiously neutral commentator willing to understand and convey his subject in the best, most comprehensive way possible.


Still, one has to wonder about the implications of the sharp division he makes between a “religionist” perspective and an “empiricist” one. Let us consider, for a moment, the example of an alchemical treatise. It may well be that this treatise includes arcane allusions to alchemical work that only a practicing alchemist would recognize and understand. We could envision an etic approach to this treatise that completely fails to recognize what the treatise conveys on alchemical discipline, whereas an emic approach might very well be the only one that could get at what the alchemical work is actually about. In this case, as in a number of others I might also cite, a sympathetic empiricist perspective may well be indispensable for understanding the work one is investigating. And this, in fact, is the methodological approach that I am advocating here.

A quite relevant debate continues to take place in the field of Buddhist studies. The question is: can someone with no practical knowledge of Buddhist meditation, say, adequately or accurately convey a tradition to which meditation is central? Or does the best scholarship need to be informed by direct knowledge of the actual practices about which one is writing? I am reminded of a fairly prominent professor of Zen Buddhism who told me directly that not only was it not necessary to practice Zen meditation to answer koans, but what is more, he could answer correctly any koan through entirely rationalistic means! I doubt that his answers would meet with the approval of a Zen Buddhist master, but such remarks are a measure of the chasm between many Western academics on the one hand, and that which they purport to study on the other. Is it appropriate to presume to answer or pronounce upon koans as an academic who has not actually practiced Zen Buddhism? It is indeed a bizarre assertion to claim so, at least in my view.

By “sympathetic empiricism,” on the other hand, I am referring to an intermediate position that incorporates the best of both emic and etic approaches. In the field of Western esotericism, as in that of religious studies more generally, it is important to balance on the one hand the virtues of scholarship that strives to achieve a standard of objectivity, and on the other hand the virtues of an approach that seeks to sympathetically understand one’s subject, to understand it from the inside out, so to speak. Anthopologists have long understood the importance of balancing etic and emic approaches, of on the one hand entering into a culture in order to understand it while on the other hand retaining the status of observer and analyst. If the vice of a too emic position is that of becoming an apologist, the vice of a too etic position is if anything greater: a failure to understand and accurately convey what one is studying. If the vice of the extreme emic approach is too great a sympathy, that of the extreme etic approach is ignorance of and hostility to one’s subject, even if under the guise of a studied neutrality.

Western esotericism is a field in its formative years, and it is, I believe, vitally important that scholars in it remain aware of their methodology and in particular of the dangers inherent in approaching this delicate, subtle, and sophisticated field without a sufficient appreciation not only of their subject’s historical context, but also of its underlying premises, or to put it another way, of their subject’s metaphysical and cosmological self-understanding.


Dangers of Reductionism

There is, of course, continuing academic debate over the value of reductionism as an approach to religious studies [7]. As Wouter Hanegraaff has outlined in his important articles on methodology in the study of esotericism, approaches can be delineated into a number of categories, chiefly pro-esotericist, anti-esotericist, and an empirical-historical approach [8]. But I will here loosely characterize empirical-historical approaches to esotericism as in turn also existing on a spectrum from “internal,” meaning writing from within the perspective of the tradition itself, to “empiricist,” meaning a more or less neutral approach, to “reductionist,” meaning an effort to reduce a given religious subject to non-religious constituent parts—i.e., power relationships, social constructs, and so forth.

Now, given it is possible for someone to write from an empirical perspective—i.e., as a more or less neutral observer of historical figures, works, or events—one may still acknowledge and draw upon what I will here call a sympathetic or, as Hanegraaff puts it, an emic approach, drawing upon the perspective of the alchemist or theosopher without for all that presenting oneself as an alchemist or theosopher. Such an approach is, I believe, particularly important in the field of esotericism because otherwise one runs the very real risk of distorting one’s topic by attempting to reduce it to something else. A recent proponent of reductionism writes that opponents of reductionism fear “ontological reductionism,” so “the putative transcendent” will be lost, and adds that “we need to know what relevance this threat of reductionism would have for a serious analysis of the tea ceremony, or of the women’s movement, or of the Confucian civil service [9].” A more relevant question, however, would be what is lost if one finds a scholar attempting to approach, say, Böhme’s profound writings on the Ungrund and attempting to reduce or rather, to distort them to socio-political constructs (to give a hypothetical example). The real problem with reductionism is that it may well lead to profound misreadings or distortions of primary sources—in brief, I argue that some sympathy with the authors and works one is studying is necessary to understand them.

Hence I believe it is extremely important to attempt to remain faithful to the subject one is investigating. That comparative religion can lead one astray is obvious, and an example readily to hand is that of the early scholar of Tibetan Buddhism L. Austine Waddell, who argued that the ritual empowerment of pills (Mani-rimdu) in Buddhist Tantra resembles the Christian eucharist, and that therefore this tradition of ts’ewang could have originated in Nestorian Christianity [10]. As Geoffrey Samuels points out, in fact the two traditions only very superficially resemble one another, but this resemblance did lead Waddell and others to speculate on some sort of historical influence of Christianity on Buddhist Tantra [11]. Waddell’s work may be of some value as an example, but it is certainly marred by his incessant denigration of Buddhism as demonic in origin (hence his need to posit a Christian origin for a Tibetan Buddhism “eucharist.” His work thus can be seen as anti-esoteric, and as reductionist.

In recent years, the field of religious studies has sustained a number of controversies and even attacks from within concerning the nature of the field and the degree to which it is still indebted to its origins (within the Western university) in Christian theology. Such controversies are themselves often motivated by various kinds of reductionism. One argument, belabored at great length in recent books by Timothy Fitzgerald and to a lesser degree, by D.G. Hart, is that the entire field of religious studies is fundamentally flawed by what critics believe are its often hidden Judeo-Christian assumptions [12]. This argument, however, (if and when it is indeed a valid argument and not grossly overstated) applies to comparative religion and in particular to comparisons between monotheistic and non-monotheistic traditions—it does not apply to the field of Western esotericism inasmuch as the field exists largely (although by no means exclusively) in a Judeo-Christian context to begin with.


But the fundamental argument of Fitzgerald and others—to reduce religious studies to cultural-historical studies or to eliminate religious studies entirely—is quite relevant here because its reductionism would be fatal to the study of Western esotericism. Why? Above all, because anti-esotericism and reductionism so often go hand in hand. One almost certainly will not learn much about, say, actual seventeenth-century alchemy from a scholar whose basic premise is that alchemy was a foolish, misguided pursuit eclipsed by the rising sun of scientific inquiry, nothing more than a chimera chased after by those in a state of delusion. Reducing a beautiful set of alchemical illustrations like Mutus Liber or Splendor Solis to a superceded relic of the past is a form of anti-esotericism different only in degree, not kind, from the hyberbolic denunciations of evil “occultism” to which fundamentalist evangelical Christian authors are prone. Both are reductionist and, as a matter of principle on their authors’ part, anti-esoteric.

Historian of religions Mircea Eliade went even further, expressing a mistrust of some historicism as a form of reductionism. In his journal entitled No Souvenirs, Eliade wrote that

I would like to analyse the attitude of historicists of all kinds. . . all those who believe that one can understand culture only by reducing it to something lower (sexuality, economics, history, etc.) and to show that theirs is a neurotic attitude. The neuropath demystifies life, culture, the spiritual life. . . he can no longer grasp the deep meaning of things, and consequently, he can no longer believe in their reality [13].

But he also remarks that

I have never affirmed the insignificance of historical situations, their usefulness for understanding religious creations. If I haven’t emphasized this problem, it is precisely because it has been emphasized too much, and because what seems to me essential is thus neglected: the hermeneutic of religious creations [14].

Eliade is not attacking historicism in itself, then; he attacks reductionist historicism that does not seek to understand the phenomena it is studying on its own terms, but instead attempts to explain a given religious phenomena away as something else. Reductionism almost always is a function of ideological distortion: one approaches a given topic, like eighteenth century theosophy, with some sort of ideological axe to grind, and while one may offer some limited insight into the social manifestations of theosophy as a result, one will almost certainly do it an injustice precisely because “the hermeneutic of religious creations” has been lost along the way.

I am arguing, here, for an empirico-historical approach that does not descend to mere reductionism, but that remains open to insights that can only come from a sympathetic understanding of one’s subject. This does not necessarily entail an explicitly “believer’s” viewpoint in the sense that a scholar is seeking to “convert” his or her readers, but it does entail some indebtedness to the insights that can only come from within the perspective of that current or figure one is studying. How did this particular alchemist or theosopher understand this tradition out of which he is writing? If we can’t answer that question faithfully, I would suggest there is a serious danger that we are doing that subject an injustice. A studied sympathetic neutrality toward one’s subject allows us to enter at least imaginatively into the alternative worldview we are studying and to faithfully convey it to others. Ideologically charged scholarship may be fashionable from time to time, but because it cannot answer faithfully this question of how a given figure understood and conveyed his or her own esoteric perspective, it is not helpful for the kind of foundational historical research necessary for us to come to understand the breadth and depth of this new field.



If ideologically charged reductionism represents one end of the spectrum we are considering, the other end is surely perennialism or Traditionalism. “Perennialism” is the general term referring to those who see all various world religious traditions as having common features and perhaps as deriving from common origins or spiritual archetypes; “Traditionalism” is the subset of perennialism espoused by figures like René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Frithjof Schuon that insists on the spiritual importance of religious tradition in contradistinction to a decadent modern world.

Traditionalism, as a doctrinal system, insists uncompromisingly that there is such a thing as timeless truth and that the esoterist [note again that this term differs from Faivre’s ‘esotericist’] can have access to it. Schuon writes in a typically uncompromising fashion that

In reality, the philosophia perennis, actualised in the West by Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, the Fathers and the Scholastics, constitutes a ‘definitive’ intellectual heritage, and the great problem is not to replace them with something better—but to return to the sources, both around us and within us, and to examine all the data of contemporary life in the light of the one, timeless truth [15].

And, in the words of Kenneth Oldmeadow,

[T]raditionalism is grounded in the premise of a Primordial Tradition, or Universal Wisdom which, through manifold Revelations, is manifested in the different religious traditions. Further, each of these traditions includes within itself a core of esoteric metaphysical wisdom always shaped by the same principles which constitute the sophia perennis [16].

From both of these quotations, we can clearly see that a Traditionalist perspective insists that it has access to the ultimate truth, and it is this insistence that generates the resistance to Traditionalism one finds prevailing in academic circles where it is far from fashionable to make such claims.

A fairly ineffective critique of Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions, for instance, is to be found in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, in which Richard Bush writes that he is not impressed by the concept of transcendent unity Schuon envisages, and further is “deeply troubled because of the further division between an elite few. . . and the masses of human beings who cannot participate in the transcendent unity. A metaphysical dualism has been avoided at the cost of an epistemological and anthropological dualism, both of which are grounds for a subtle arrogance which is hardly becoming in those who desire religious unity [17].” This charge of elitism and arrogance is not an uncommon one, but it does not as such address the fundamental question of whether or to what degree Traditionalism might form a basis for an approach to the study of Western esotericism or to the study of comparative religion more generally.


A more telling critique has been offered by Wouter Hanegraaff. Hanegraaff argues that the “first necessary step towards establishing the study of esotericism as a serious academic pursuit would be to demarcate it clearly from the perennialist perspective [18].” He insists that because perennialism [Traditionalism] “considers its own metaphysical framework to be the absolute truth about the nature of religion,” this “logically precludes the possibility of discovering anything new or unexpected.” Traditionalism is based, he holds, on the premise that “if you understood, you would agree; if you disagree, obviously you don’t understand [19].” Indeed, one scarcely finds any references among the Traditionalists to Western esoteric traditions such as alchemy or Christian theosophy, and in their works the term “esoterism” replaces “esotericism” as a theoretical concept expressing a unity of all religions rather than referring to any particular form of esotericism. In short, Hanegraaff concludes Traditionalist “esoterism” [note the different word] is a means (for the most part from outside academia), for the comparative study of all religions from a particular doctrinal basis, and thus is not relevant for the study of Western esotericism [20].

As Hanegraaff points out, Traditionalism does reflect a fairly radical perspective that rejects modernity as degenerate and that dismisses much of contemporary academic study. Yet it does raise questions that eventually must be answered when we turn to the comparative study of religions and in particular to the study of various forms of esotericism not only Western but also Asian. On what basis can one compare, say, Buddhist Tantric and European alchemical traditions? Is it permissable to acknowledge that the Ungrund or Nichts of Böhme corresponds in some respects and perhaps in many to the Buddhist concept of shunyata or emptiness? And if so, then does this in turn mean that these disparate traditions do indeed point toward the same experience of transcendence, as a Franklin Merrell-Wolff would certainly insist? Or are we to claim dogmatically that we must study European traditions only in relation to themselves and that there is nothing to be gained by seeing whether there are parallels or correspondences between, say, Sufi, Taoist, Hindu, or Buddhist and European forms of alchemy? If one says ‘yes’ to this last question, one has effectively cut off the possibility of any comparative study of esoteric traditions.

Comparative Esotericism

A somewhat more moderate set of criteria than those of Traditionalism for the cross-cultural comparison of esotericisms, including Western esotericism, is to be found in the work of Pierre Riffard. Riffard, in his book L’ésotérisme (1990), outlines eight characteristics of esotericism, and these are: 1. authorial impersonality; 2. an opposition of esoteric to exoteric; 3. the concept of the “subtle” mediating between spirit and matter; 4. a theory of correspondences; 5. the esoteric significance of numbers; 6. the ‘occult sciences’; 7. the ‘occult arts’; 8. initiation [21]. It is interesting that, while Riffard’s set of characteristics are more inclusive than Faivre’s, he too does not include gnosis as a central element.

In a subsequent article, Riffard goes on to outline further characteristics by which one may compare esotericisms, including

1. Mythical origins; 2. Cosmic cycles; 3. Chains of initation; 4. Secret books;
5. Mystical names; 6. Occult etymologies; 7. Anagogic translation; 8. Spiritual translation; 9. Magical uses [of esoteric writings or art works] [22]. But these may remain what Riffard calls “external” methods of comparison, and so he also insists on the importance of what he calls “internal” methods, which correspond to the distinction between emic and etic approaches. The example he gives is this: it is true that A.J. Festugière offered information about the Corpus Hermeticum, but Marsilio Ficino, while his external data about the Corpus may have been inaccurate, offered insight into the Hermetic tradition itself [23]. Both are important approaches, but it is wrong to valorize historical information while denigrating an esotericist’s insight into the tradition itself; in brief, an emic or internal approach may be much more valuable and insightful than an etic or external one.


If Riffard offers a framework for a methodological approach to comparative esotericism, a comparative esotericism in practice was created by Henri Corbin (1903-1978), whose many and influential books were based upon his phenomenological or internal approach to Islamic and primarily Persian Sufi works, but with an eye to the works of such European figures as Swedenborg, Böhme, Oetinger, and Baader. Corbin is perhaps best known for bringing to the fore the concept of the mundus imaginalis, or imaginal realm of visionary encounters with revelatory spiritual figures. This concept of an imaginal realm had a substantial impact in the world of arts and letters as well as psychology via such figures as British poet and scholar Kathleen Raine (1908 -), American psychologist James Hillman (1926 -), and American author Robert Sardello (1942 -), to name only a few. Corbin revealed the spiritual worldview of figures like Sufi visionary Suhrawardi from what Corbin held to be the inside out—he saw things as much as possible from Suhrawardi’s own perspective while drawing on his own background in Western esotericism.

Although he did not directly address methodological considerations in the rigorous way of a Hanegraaff or even of a Riffard, Corbin thus may be seen as a pioneer in the field of comparative esotericism, a pioneer who insisted on the central importance of understanding one’s esoteric subjects from within, not merely from without. Yet Corbin is in fact contemptuous of historicist emphasis on accumulating external data; for him, far more important is one’s understanding of the esoteric perspective about which one is writing. Of course, Corbin may well be charged with having gone beyond what is proper to the historian of religions precisely for this reason, but this charge he would probably wear as a badge of honor. For Corbin’s work is like that of no other scholar I know: with his open exhortation to his readers to enjoin in a “battle for the soul of the world,” to become warriors in a spiritual chivalry, to transcend what he saw as a modern imprisonment in mere history, to enter into the visionary world of Persian spirituality, his work may indeed be seen as a kind of spiritual exhortation as much as an effort in comparative esotericism.

Like the Traditionalists, Corbin could well be considered a primary rather than a secondary source, but regardless of how one views these authors, there is no doubt that Corbin’s work—like that of Guénon or Evola—is well worth close examination not least because it represents a major intellectual contribution to contemporary thought in its own right. Mircea Eliade wrote of Guénon that his work represents a mythological way of understanding the world, and the same may certainly be said as well of Corbin and, for that matter, of Evola and of the various Traditionalists [24]. While the works of these figures may not all be entirely academic, and may even evince hostility to contemporary academia, they are certainly themselves worthy of academic study as manifesting important reactionary currents of thought in the modern era.


Gnosis: A Modest Proposal

Having offered this overview of various methodological approaches to the study of esotericism, what may we conclude from it? As editor-in-chief of an academic journal for the study of esotericism, I frequently confront the kinds of questions we have been considering during this methodological survey, and from the beginning chose to accept a wide range of approaches in the journal, so long as the work in question was acceptable to our editorial board. The only approaches that our journal, Esoterica, refuses out of hand are those that derive from manifestly anti-esoteric or reductionist perspectives. We see no point in offering a forum to those who, rather than investigating a given subject in its own right, instead approach it with some sort of ideological sledgehammer and attempt to pound it into a shape that corresponds to a particular pre-ordained thesis [25]. Nor do we see any point in offering a forum for someone to denigrate the field or a particular topic within it. But in my own view, also, no single methodological approach—be it empirico-historical, typological, internal, or otherwise—should dominate this field of study, for each genuinely investigative approach has something to offer in developing a broader and deeper understanding of esotericism.

This said, I would like here to offer another framework for understanding the study of esotericism, one that lends itself also to the comparative study of esotericisms and that informs this historical survey of esotericism. I think we should begin by defining “esotericism,” rather straightforwardly, as a term referring to cosmological or metaphysical religious or spiritual knowledge that is restricted to or intended for a limited group, and not for society at large. The word “esoteric,” in other words, refers to secret or semi-secret spiritual knowledge, including both cosmological and metaphysical gnosis; and I think that one cannot exclude from this definition phenomena classed as “mysticism.” We must look at all esoteric phenomena, and not exclude one area or another for convenience’ sake. Analyzing what is esoteric and why should not be restricted to more or less cosmological forms of esotericism.

Furthermore, as we look over Western esotericism from antiquity to the present, we can discern one characteristic that emerges as central throughout the entire period: gnosis. Once again, the word “gnosis” refers to direct spiritual insight into the nature of the cosmos and of oneself, and thus may be taken as having both a cosmological and a metaphysical import. Indeed, one may speak of these as two fundamental but related kinds of gnosis: under the heading of ‘cosmological gnosis’ we may list such traditions as astrology and the various forms of -mancies such as geomancy, cartomancy, and so forth, as well as numeric, geometric, and alphabetic traditions of correspondences and analogical interpretations, traditions of natural magic based on these correspondences, and so forth. Cosmological gnosis illuminates the hidden patterns of nature as expressing spiritual or magical truths; it corresponds, more or less, to the via positiva of Dionysius the Areopagite. Metaphysical gnosis, on the other hand, represents direct insight into the transcendent; it corresponds, more or less, to the via negativa of Dionsyius the Areopagite, and is represented by gnostic figures like Meister Eckhart and Franklin Merrell-Wolff, to offer two historically disparate examples. These terms are not mutually exclusive but exist on a continuum: visionary experiences in general belong to the realm of cosmological gnosis, but they may nonetheless convey metaphysical gnosis.


I choose to define esotericism primarily in terms of gnosis because gnosis, of whatever kind, is precisely what is esoteric within esotericism. ‘Esotericism’ describes the historical phenomena to be studied; ‘gnosis’ describes that which is esoteric, hidden, protected, and transmitted within these historical phenomena. Without hidden knowledge to be transmitted in one fashion or another, one does not have esotericism. Alchemy, astrology, various kinds of magical traditions, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Jewish or Christian visionary or apophatic gnosis—under the rubric of ‘Western esotericism’ are a whole range of disparate phenomena connected primarily by one thing: that to enter into the particular arcane discipline is to come to realize for oneself secret knowledge about the cosmos and its transcendence. This secret or hidden knowledge is not a product of reason alone, but of gnosis—according to esotericism, it derives from a supra-rational source.

Gilles Quispel, the scholar of ancient Gnosticism, has argued that European tradition may be demarcated into a triad of faith, reason, and gnosis, with gnosis being the third and hidden current of Western thought. While I do not agree with some of Quispel’s Jungian premises, I do think that he is fundamentally right in proposing this triad, and further think that we cannot investigate European, American, or other categories of comparatively recent esotericisms without reference to their historical antecedents at least as far back as late antiquity. One cannot fully understand the triad of faith, reason, and gnosis without considering the full range of European history in which it manifests itself. What is more, we cannot adequately investigate, singly or comparatively, variants of esotericism without an awareness from the outset that we are entering into unfamiliar territory for the strictly rationalist or scientific mind, and that in order to understand it in any genuine way, we will have to learn at least imaginatively to enter into it.

There have already been some limited or preliminary efforts by a few scholars to begin a comparison of Gnosticism in late antiquity with Vajrayana Buddhism, with Böhmean theosophy, or with Persian Sufism, to give several examples [26]. And such efforts are bound to suggest new insights into these disparate but sometimes apparently parallel traditions or spiritual currents. But what we are discussing here is no simple matter. For while the conventional historian must work with rather straightforward historical data—dates, events, major figures—to this the historian of esotericism must also confront an entirely new additional dimension that we may as well describe from the outset as gnosis. This dimension cannot be addressed by conventional history alone, precisely because gnosis represents insight into that which is held to transcend history. A visionary revelation, for instance, occurs in time, but according to the visionary that which is revealed does not belong to time alone. As eighteenth-century visionary Jane Leade wrote, to enter into the visionary realm, one must cast off from the “shoar of time.” So must the historian of esotericism attempt to do, at least imaginatively if not in fact, or his or her history may well devolve into mere reductionism and even denigration due to a failure of understanding. And this imaginative effort is all the more difficult if one is attempting to deal with not one but two culturally disparate forms of esotericism.


But this imaginative effort is critical if one is to truly begin to understand one’s esoteric subject from within as well as from without. It is here that the work of a Corbin, like that of Eliade and of Scholem, reveals its importance. Here I am not referring to the accuracy or lack thereof of Corbin’s work—I am not a scholar of Persian spirituality—but to the effort to enter into the perspective one is studying. This is the adventure the study of esotericism offers the scholar that few other fields can present. In the future, comparative esotericism will take its place as a subspecialty, but for now the field as a whole is in its infancy, with vast primary research yet to be done, whole histories yet to be written. Before we can compare European alchemy with that of South India, we must first have a firm grasp of European alchemy itself! And that is a goal as yet not attained, one that will require not only a wide range of knowledge, but the imaginative capacity to interpret it.

While it may not always be easy to chart a course between the extremes of wholly embracing and wholly rejecting esotericism, this is what is necessary if we are to come to understand this complex and subtle field. An investigator must attempt to understand the world in almost certainly unfamiliar ways, and this requires a sympathetic approach to various figures, writings, and works of art, open to the unexpected, yet also retaining some sense of critical distance. Western esotericism as it is outlined in this book is a vast and profound area for research, one that could perhaps best be characterized as a long series of different investigations into the nature of consciousness itself. It is entirely possible that an investigator into it will discover in its various forms of cosmological or metaphysical gnoses unexpected insights into hidden aspects of nature, of humanity, and of spirituality.

Central to these insights is the relationship between self and other, or subject and object. In an article published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, I argued that

Western esotericism tends to see and use language in a fundamentally different way than many of us are familiar with—here, language is used not for conventional designation in a subject-object relationship, but in order to transmute consciousness or to point toward the transmutation of consciousness through what we may term hieroeidetic knowledge. Be it Kabbalism or alchemy, troubadours and chivalry, the Lullian art, magic or theosophy, pansophy or esoteric Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry, one finds a consistently recurrent theme of transmuting consciousness, which is to say, of awakening latent, profound connections between humanity, nature, and the divine, and of restoring a paradisal union between them. Hieroeidetic knowledge can be understood in terms of a shift from an objectifying view of language based on self and other to a view of language as revelatory, as a via positiva leading toward transcendence of self-other divisions. It is here, in their emphasis on the initiatory, hieroeidetic power of language to reveal what transcends language, that the unique contribution of Western esoteric traditions to consciousness studies may well be found.


Near the end of this article, I remark that

The massive edifice of the modern technological, consumerist state was built from a materialist, secular, and objectified worldview, and the participatory, transformative, and gnostic perspectives characterizing Western esotericism seem far removed from and incompatible with that edifice. Still, for the first time now there are numerous scholars examining both Western esotericism as a general concept, and particular currents within esotericism, and it may well be that such studies will eventually offer unexpected insights into the historical origins of the modern era, as well as further insight into the relationships between Western esoteric traditions and consciousness [27].

It is important to recognize how different are the premises of Western esoteric traditions from modern ways of thinking and understanding, and that by entering into these currents of thought we may indeed see our own world in new ways.

If Western esotericism is to fully develop as a field of scholarly inquiry, its unique nature must be recognized. Most unique about it is not its transdisciplinary nature alone, but the fact that its manifold currents are each concerned with new ways of knowing, with the transcendence of the self-other dichotomy, be it through alchemical work, visionary experience, or apophatic gnosis. While purely historical research obviously has its place in this field, the most important works will be those, like the works of Corbin, Eliade, and Scholem, that also seek to reveal the kinds of consciousness esotericism entails, that seek to bring us into new ways of seeing and knowing. It is here, I am convinced, that the most vital and profound contributions of this emerging field will be. There is much yet to be accomplished.



1.See, for example, Harry Oldmeadow, “The Western Quest for ‘Secret Tibet,’ in Esoterica, III(2001): 83-85, where he cites passages from Lama Govinda’s writings that correspond more or less closely to Faivre’s defining elements of Western esotericism.
2.See Wisdom’s Book: The Sophia Anthology, (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2000): 10-14.
3.See, on Böhme’s concepts of the ungrund and nichts, Arthur Versluis, “The Mystery of the Ungrund,” Studies in Spirituality, (XV: 2001):
4.Another example, if we need to multiply them, is Franz von Baader. Baader is clearly a gnostic; he is also a theosopher, and the subject of a lengthy section in Faivre’s Access to Western Esotericism. Baader was the rediscoverer of Eckhart in the nineteenth century. Are we to ignore Baader as gnostic and view him only as a “Western esotericist”? If so, why?
5.See Wouter Hanegraaff, “On the Construction of ‘Esoteric Traditions’” in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, (Leuven: Peeters, 1999): 42-43.
6.Hanegraaff, “On the Contruction of ‘Esoteric Traditions,’” 13.
7.See for example T.A. Idinopulos, and E.A. Yonan, eds., Religion and Reductionism: Essays on Eliade, Segal, and the Challenge of the Social Sciences for the Study of Religion, (Leiden: Brill, 1994).
8.See Wouter Hanegraaff, “Some Remarks on the Study of Western Esotericism,” in Esoterica, http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/ I(1999): 3-21; see also Hanegraaff, “On the Construction of Esoteric Traditions,” in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, (Leuven: Peeters, 1998): 11-63
9.Fitzgerald, op. cit., p. 67
10.L. Austine Waddell, The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism (London: Allen, 1895), 444-448, cited in Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1993), 261
11.See Samuels, op. cit., 262
12.See Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religion, (New York: Oxford UP, 2000); D.G. Hart, The University Gets Religion, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999)
13.Mircea Eliade, No Souvenirs, (New York: Harper, 1977): 144
14.Ibid., 121
15.Frithjof Schuon, Stations of Wisdom, (London: John Murray, 1961): 43.
16.Kenneth Oldmeadow, Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, (Colombo: Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000): 180.


17.Richard Bush, “Frithjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions; Con” in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, xliv(1976)4:716-717.
18.Hanegraaff, “Empirical Method in the Study of Esotericism,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7(1995)2:110.
19.Ibid.; see also Len Bowman, “The Status of Conceptual Schemata: A Dilemma for Perennialists,” ARIES 11(1990):9-19.
20.Hanegraaff, “On the Construction of ‘Esoteric Traditions’,” op. cit., 26-27.
21.Pierre Riffard, L’ésotérisme (Paris: 1990):245-306. See, for a brief discussion of Riffard’s work, Riffard, “The Esoteric Method,” in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, op. cit., pp. 63-74.
22.See Riffard, “The Esoteric Method,” op. cit., 65-71.
23.Riffard, “The Esoteric Method,” op. cit., 73
24.Eliade, No Souvenirs, op. cit., 291.
25.Exemplary of this tendency is Eric Voegelin, whose work is based on a total misreading of the concepts of gnosis and Gnosticism. For a damning reading of Voegelin’s confused anti-esoteric works, see Hanegraaff, “On the Construction of ‘Esoteric Traditions’” op. cit., 29-36. Another such author is Carl Raschke, whose book The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origin of the New Religious Consciousness (Chicago: 1980) is somewhat better informed than the works of Voegelin, but like Voegelin’s work is painted with a very broad and undiscriminating brush.
26.See Versluis, “Christian Theosophy and Gnosticism,” Studies in Spirituality 7 (1997):228-241; the comparative work of Henry Corbin includes such works as L’Imagination créatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabi, (1958), Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969); Terre céleste et corps de résurrection, (1960), Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977); Temple et contemplation, (Paris: Flammarion, 1980). John Reynolds and Keith Dowman, both pioneering translators and interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism, have employed the term “gnosis” in their analyses of Dzogchen and other advanced Buddhist practices. Reynolds has even indicated, in private correspondence, that he is interested in publishing a book comparing Gnosticism in antiquity with Vajrayana Buddhism, which he thinks may be historically linked. See John Myrdhin Reynolds, The Golden Letters: The Three Statements of Garab Dorje, (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1996): 110, 122, 205, 270, and Keith Dowman, Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal, (London: Arkana, 1984): 333, for examples of the use of the term “gnosis” in translating a Buddhist concept.
27. See Versluis, “Western Esotericism and Consciousness,” The Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7(2000)6: 20-33