What is Western Esotericism?


The people who have discovered something important in any of the more noble arts have principally done so when they have abandoned the body and taken refuge in the citadel of the soul.

Marsilius Ficino
(Platonic Theology - Book 13, Chapter 2, 1474)

There are many definitions of what Western Esotericism really entails, some are outdated, some are new, some are charming and some are blue, but none can really be said to be completely true. Western Esotericism is an artificial umbrella term that only recently gained traction and prominence in academic circles, it is an attempt to categorize and understand the offshoot and neglected tendencies and movements that are inextricably linked to the development of western history into what it is today.

One of the most influential definitions of what Western Esotericism is all about, can be found in the writings of Antoine Faivre and Frances Yates, where they describe it as movements, individuals and ideas that upheld a significantly more "enchanted" and spiritual way of understanding nature, life and existence. That is compared to their strictly disenchanted, materialistic scientific counterparts. In other words the esoterics could from this perspective be understood as the movements and individuals who were radically opposed to the strictly scientific, positivist and rational worldview inherited and derived from the ideas of Descartes and Newton.

The history of western esotericism

To understand Western Esotericism we could if we wanted to, very well begin with legendary figures such as Zoroaster or Hermes Trismegistus to describe the source of this fascinating tradition. However that would open the door to too much, though highly entertaining, speculation for our own purposes here.

Giordano Bruno Quote

The defining events that were going to be responsible for that which was going to be termed as Western Esotericism took place in the 15th century. This was the period of the so called “Renaissance”, which was a time highly characterized by a deep fascination and attraction to the ways of the ancient Greco-roman world.

Influential thinkers like Gemisthos Plethon, Marsilius Ficino and Giovanni Pico de Mirandola were on the forefront when it came to reviving the lost esoteric arts of the classical world.

This was a time where many translations of deeply spiritual, mystical and philosophical works were actively pursued. There were many attempts to integrate and synchronize the wisdom from the ancient world with the Christian worldview which so dominantly characterized the west during this time.

This was indeed the begin of the great fascination for the hermetic, and neoplatonic arts. Much was to follow this initial burst of inspiration.

Western Esotericism incorporate broad topics such as neoplatonism, kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, magic, hermeticism, gnosticism. Those are some of the main topics and themes that have influenced the growth of western esotericism.

Here below are some prominent figures, movements, scholars, quotes and documentaries related to the Western Esoteric tradition, have a look!

Notable Individuals

Jesus of Nazareth
Hermes Trismegistus
George Gemisthos (Plethon)
Marsilio Ficino
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Cornelius Agrippa
Christian Rosenkreutz
Giordano Bruno
John Dee
Jakob Boehme
Isaac Newton
Emanuel Swedenborg
Franz Anton Mesmer
Marquis de Puységur
Joseph-Philippe-François Deleuze
Eliphas Lévi
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
Paschal Beverley Randolph
George Gurdjeff
Aleister Crowley
John Whiteside ”Jack” Parsons
Anton Szandor LaVey
Terence McKenna

Notable Movements

Islamic Mysticism (Sufism)
Christian Mysticism
Jewish Mysticism (Kabbalah)
Christian Kabbalah
Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
Rosicrucian Order
Theosophical Society
New Age

Relevant Scholars

Mircea Eliade
Henry Corbin
Frances Yates
Wouter Hanegraaff
Antoine Faivre
Manly P. Hall

Other Valuable Resources

Esoteric Archives
Esoteric Library (SacredTexts)
Gnostic Library
Western Esotericism Podcast

So when the universe was quickened with soul, God was well pleased; and he bethought him to make it yet more like its type. And whereas the type is eternal and nought that is created can be eternal, he devised for it a moving image of abiding eternity, which we call time. And he made days and months and years, which are portions of time; and past and future are forms of time, though we wrongly attribute them also to eternity. For of eternal Being we ought not to say 'it was', 'it shall be', but 'it is' alone: and in like manner we are wrong in saying 'it is' of sensible things which become and perish; for these are ever fleeting and changing, having their existence in time.

Plato (Timeaeus)

Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.
Jesus of Nazareth (The Gospel of Thomas - Saying 1)
All teems with symbol; the wise man is the man who in any one thing can read another.
Plotinus (The Enneads, 270)
The excellence of the soul is understanding; for the man who understands is conscious, devoted, and already godlike.
Hermes Trismegistus
Only for you, children of doctrine and learning, have we written this work. Examine this book, ponder the meaning we have dispersed in various places and gathered again; what we have concealed in one place we have disclosed in another, that it may be understood by your wisdom.
Cornelius Agrippa (De Occulta Philosophia)

In one way or another, all historical currents that fall within the purview of Western esotericism are concerned with asking and answering questions about the nature of the world, its relation to the divine and the role of humanity in between. Strict philosophical argumentation can be part of such discussions; but the underlying motivation is primarily religious, in the sense of a deep concern with the true meaning of life and the ultimate spiritual destiny of human beings in the universe.

Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed - Chapter 4, 2013)