Musings on Academic Esotericism

[moved from the website for the sake of streamlining where I keep my work!]

This post does not relate directly to Péladan, although it is indirectly related to my study of him, as theoretical and methodological issues within the field of Western Esotericism naturally impact my approach to my topic. In it, I raise some thoughts and concerns about the current trajectory of the field, musing on the purpose of such scholarship in general, and certain preconceptions that sometimes hinder scholarly exchange more than they help. Although I could have selected a scholarly venue for this post, I have chosen to place it here instead for several reasons, not least of which is the immediacy offered by the open nature of the internet (as opposed to subscription journals), as well as the freedom of expression it allows.

Depending on who you ask, the academic study of Western Esotericism is considered either innovative and pioneering, peculiar and slightly suspect, pointless, or a normal extension of the study of culture. Much ink has been spilled in the ongoing effort to demarcate the field, to provide definitions of slippery concepts, to gentrify the more stigmatised elements of the topic so as to justify its inclusion in “proper” academic venues, and to construct theoretical frameworks allowing for its exploration from a variety of academic perspectives. The reams that have been written on the topic constitute an ongoing debate that has at times been controversial, and that continues to evolve. For those less familiar with the issues involved, it may be worth taking a look at Wouter Hanegraaff’s latest book, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture, as well as his recent article “Textbooks and Introductions to Western Esotericism” in Religion journal, a discussion and summary of which is available here.

In his article, with regard to the concern with appropriate academic professionalisation of this field, Hanegraaff discusses various ‘structural problems and weaknesses’ in the seven textbooks he reviews, noting that despite their respective value in furthering the field, it has now matured to a point where a qualitative ‘upgrade’ is required – and he uses the software analogy to call for a form of ‘Western Esotericism 3.0′ representing the maturity of the field. He asks the very valid question of “What can be said about the quality of [the various currently available] Introductions [to W.Esotericism], both from a scholarly and a didactic point of view?… How good a job are they doing in demonstrating the broader academic relevance of Western esotericism to such disciplines as intellectual history or the modern study of religion?’ (p. 3).

All of these are important issues, and as with any field, new research is bound to produce new perspectives that either augment or supersede older ones. However, there are several issues that have struck me with regard to the approach expressed in Hanegraaff’s article, and upheld by many scholars from specific circles, and which give me some cause for concern regarding specific perspectives inherent in some parts of “the core field” of Western Esotericism.

Firstly, let me say that though I may disagree with a few points in Hanegraaff’s reading of Arthur Versluis and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s books as expressed in this article, overall it makes commendable and very useful points. My gripe is not with the call for quality standards or improvement of truly problematic approaches. Contrary to popular belief (I obviously need to spell this out), I am fully supportive of the separation of scholarly pursuits and subjective beliefs, and I believe that with appropriate training, the compartmentalisation of one’s personal beliefs from scholarly commentary is easy to attain.

However, my gripe is with a few notions that appear to be at the heart not only of Hanegraaff’s perspective, but of that expressed by several other scholars, and it is in fact less the notions that concern me, then their application and corollaries. In his review of a German-language layperson’s guide to esotericism by Ulrike Peters (2005), and his observation of certain oversimplifications and assumptions in the work, Hanegraaff acknowledges the non-academic nature of the book, and notes:

‘Peters’ “Introduction” is not intended for an academic readership and should certainly not be used in postgraduate or undergraduate teaching, but fairly represents a ‘baseline’ of assumptions about esotericism among laymen as well as academics. It is against this dominant perspective that the modern study of Western esotericism is still trying to emancipate itself’ – most notably, the notion that ‘the contemporary scene is seen as “normative” for what “esotericism” is all about.’ (p. 7). 

In a further review of David S. Katz’s The Occult Tradition (2005), Hanegraaff (rightly) notes a number of terminological inconsistencies and errors, some of which are indeed glaring. He ends this part of the review by saying: ‘Katz pays lip service to Faivre’s definition, but simply ignores its relation to his own approach as pointless academic nitpicking: “You say esoteric: I say occult” (2005: 16). The truth is that any questions of terminology or theoretical reflection seem to be supremely boring to Katz’s mind, and he clearly cannot be bothered to take them seriously’ (p. 8).

Hanegraaff is correct about these errors. My reason for picking out these two comments is not because I disagree with what he is saying. It  is because it is all too easy to level the accusation of “dilettantism”, laziness and sloppiness, in situations where it is not called for. Here Hanegraaff has taken the conventional academic approach and published a carefully argued article in a legitimate academic venue, drawing on established research to raise these issues. It would behoove all scholars to emulate this approach, rather than levelling criticism in whichever venue happens to present itself. With regard to the kind of objection Hanegraaff raises here, it is one thing to display a clear lack of due diligence in discussing basic definitions in a scholarly work intended as a textbook – and thus opening itself to peer criticism. It is another to simplify a difficult concept for a general audience (as Peters seems to have done and which Hanegraaff has acknowledged), and it is a third, to heap derision on peers who cast doubt on the significance of  theory and metatheory in certain contexts. I must stress that I am using Hanegraaff’s treatment of these textbooks as a springboard, and I am referring not to his approach, but to the way in which that approach is sometimes interpreted and then implemented by others. I shall expand on these ideas below, but before I do so, I must note a few more points of concern.

In his critique of Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (2008), Hanegraaff notes a number of omissions and ends by asking the question:

‘Students will… be subtly influenced by a narrative about the truth and universal validity of “esotericism” that is hard to reconcile with Goodrick-Clarke’s professed emphasis on history. Should the study of Western Esotericism keep investing in such monolithic and idealising concepts of “the” Western esoteric worldview, at the expense of historical differentiation and contextualisation? Should they keep endorsing normative valuations of “true” versus “false” esotericism, as if this is what scholarly research is all about? It will be clear that, at least according to this reviewer, such questions must be answered in the negative. It is high time for scholars to drop the apologetic agenda and acknowledge that esoteric worldviews are products of historical circumstance and human invention just like anything else in the field of religion and philosophy…. In order for Western Esotericism to become a normal part of the academic curriculum, we will have to move beyond the old models and their frequent religionist commitments, and start developing more historically grounded and theoretically sophisticated approaches’ (p. 16). 


I agree with what Hanegraaff says here too – for the most part . Esotericism is indeed a cultural current like all others, and what Hanegraaff is arguing for here, is for the avoidance of essentialist viewpoints that attempt to make esotericism somehow “special” or “separate” from said currents, thus conceptually (and artificially) isolating it both within academia and by extension, public opinion. He notes as much in an earlier point when discussing Katz’s book: ‘Does Katz really hold that religion implies no belief in the supernatural, or that the occult is separate from religion? ‘ (p. 7). Again, this is a valid point. So, since I acknowledge the validity of most of these points, where is the problem?

Let me explain, and I will begin with a contextualisation of my own perspective – because context is everything. Aside from scholarly, and indeed artistic pursuits, I have worked as a secondary school language teacher for almost ten years. Secondly, as a mature (!) student in the British academic system (since 2006), I have never been eligible for those few grants or scholarships available to humanities scholars, and the British system rarely offers stipendiary postgraduate posts. Therefore, unlike my peers (ie, postgraduate students) in some other countries, I have quite a lot of work experience in a variety of fields outside academia. Alongside my teaching, I have worked as a journalist for special interest publications aimed at a lay audience (writing on art, esotericism, and culture), and I have also organised and been responsible for the promotion of a variety of events in three different countries, ranging from concerts, to exhibitions, to conferences, which has given me a perhaps broader perspective and experience in terms of the popular understanding of notions such as esotericism, culture, and academia – in three, notably different cultures – than that of some of my colleagues who have been able to focus on their scholarship with no other distractions. And before I began my sojourn in academia, such as it is, I was an artist first. So in reading these lines, whatever your opinion of my thoughts, remember that I speak not only as a junior scholar with one foot (or perhaps a toe or two) in “the field” of Western Esotericism, but as a whole person who is bringing the entirety of this diverse experience to bear on this discussion.

This context is the reason why I take a different view on these matters. Based on my teaching experience, I have concerns about education, and based on my journalism and event organisation experience, I have a strong awareness of the issues involved in the relationship between academia and the general public, and academia and our subjects of study, which is to say, practitioners of esotericism. I have had to “translate academese” for quite hostile audiences more times than I care to remember (that includes the academic perspective, not just terminology), and this post represents an attempt to communicate precisely that issue back to academia. And yes, we do speak very, very, different languages, and unless the denizens of the ivory tower realise this, then there can be no common ground of understanding. Further on in this post I will explain why scholars and the public – practitioners or otherwise – do need to understand each other.

Furthermore, based on my experience of a country (Greece) with a disastrous educational system, a pre-modern cultural mentality, a corrupt and politicised higher educational system, and the repercussions of all of the above on Greek society, I have a particularly powerful interest in the way that life-long education in the Liberal Arts can offer an impetus for social change. NB: I speak of the Liberal Arts, not of religion and magic, and one day, perhaps a nuanced discussion of that differentiation (between religionism and educational philosophy) might be extremely useful to this arena. So before proceeding, I hope these two paragraphs clarify why it is as important to understand a scholar’s motivation and context, as it is to understand their words. The latter cannot be taken in isolation from the former, even, I might add, in formal venues.

Now, Hanegraaff’s article on textbooks is focused on the appropriacy of the books he reviews as academic textbooks in a scholarly setting, and as such, it is vital that inconsistencies and indeed errors, should be pointed out and eradicated where possible. However, I do take issue with questions of simplification, and so my first concern is related to the educational process. In the case of the oversimplification perceived in, for example, Goodrick-Clarke’s or Versluis’ books (temporarily leaving other issues aside), I ask: textbooks for whom? When we teach English grammar as a second language, we present beginning learners with a list of rules. When these learners reach a more advanced level, we have to throw out the rulebook, because English grammar is notorious for its irregularities, and it is an inside joke among English teachers, that students are often shocked to reach their first Proficiency class only to be told that the rules they spent years learning no longer apply. My editors, who are responsible for marketing their publications to a lay audience, often groan over what they consider too much attention to fine detail on my part, and many of my (general)  readers and lecture attendees are by turns fascinated or irritated by my emphasis on getting terminology and historical context right. My occasional practitioner attendees and readers are usually infuriated by my insistence on pointing out the historical context of the French occult revival to which most esoteric thought popular in Greece derives from. So depending on the setting, and depending on the audience, one must tune one’s delivery of a topic to that audience IF one wants them to understand what is being said. Given that my own professional priority is not advanced academic teaching, but the dissemination of what is being said in the ivory tower at a level that the layperson can understand, and more importantly, explaining WHY this matters, I am particularly attuned to these concerns.

In my university teaching experience (World History and World Religion at undergraduate level), we offer broad brushstrokes. The main approved textbook on World History at the University of Indianapolis Athens where I occasionally teach, covers key concepts and currents in a few pages, skimming over the detail, offering the impression that “Imperialism” for example, was a coherent whole that had an even rise and decline, with a few tidbits about the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions thrown in for good measure. When I taught this class, when discussing formative ideas during the nineteenth century, I threw in a couple of slides about Freemasonry and Theosophy alongside the book’s prescribed topics. The Renaissance, the Reformation and the notion of “State-Building in Europe” were all taught in one lecture, into which again, I threw in a couple of slides telling the students about Ficino and Renaissance Humanism, visual culture and the notion of symbolic perception in the context of the artistic efflorescence of the time. I said nothing about “Western Esotericism: The Field”, and I painted these ideas, as the others, with broad brushstrokes, because these undergrads didn’t need any further detail. The detail was saved for more advanced classes, or levels of study.

This is common practice in academia, where basic concepts are built on and expanded upon as students advance. I see no History professors critiquing this approach to World History, nor do I see historians of science complaining about the one-page synopsis of the Scientific revolution and the simplistic presentation of Lutheranism vs. Calvinism in a neat little table. Again, the detail is saved for 300- level Religion classes.

So, firstly, I would remind my colleagues who are involved in teaching and writing for advanced academia, that not all scholars are obliged to aspire to that same end. And those of us who by choice or circumstance are working in different venues, may have very good reasons – such as audience comprehension, student skill-level, and reader attention-span – for taking a more simplified approach, for the issues that need to be overcome in those venues, are not the same as those of someone writing a grant application or an MA seminar.

By extension and as a corollary, with reference to books such as that by Goodrick-Clarke (written for his introductory module in the EXESESO MA), I don’t see that any of the flaws Hanegraaff points out, preclude this book from being used at an introductory level. His objection to Goodrick-Clarke’s view of esotericism as ‘defined by “intrinsic philosophical and religious characteristics”‘ (p. 13) may be a legitimate point for theoretical scholarly discussion, but it is completely and utterly insignificant to a beginning student – or my hypothetical reader –  wanting to understand how/whether/if esotericism is differentiated from religion, and an entry-level student needs that differentiation, like the beginner in English needs grammar rules that will eventually outlive their usefulness and may be peeled away once the student has acquired the necessary skills for them to handle the preponderance of irregularities in the language. The same applies to Hanegraff’s later critique of the same book, in which he states: ‘Goodrick-Clarke shows no interest in describing how, or why, “esotericism” has emerged out of specific historical circumstances, or how it has developed, or been transformed through history; rather his goal is to demonstrate the enduring prescence of a worldview that is presumably not dependent on historical context.” (p. 13).

I disagree with this reading, and feel that it places undue emphasis on details that Goodrick-Clarke does in fact pay attention to, he simply does not overstate them. However, that is not my reason for noting this passage; rather, even if Hanegraaff is right and I am wrong, once again I ask: when you are introducing a new topic to students whose only contact with the topic may be the layperson’s view, or an insider view, or perhaps none at all, then is it strictly necessary to introduce the key currents, figures, and concepts, in different terms? How are you supposed to explain the “difference” between Western Esotericism and, say, Christian Pietism to someone who does not yet have either the vocabulary or the conceptual framework to deal with the subtleties involved? How am I supposed to communicate these academic objections to a thirsty audience composed mainly of practitioners thirty or more years my senior (my main audience in Athens), who are utterly certain that WE is indeed something special and different that must be experienced, not read and written about? What do you say to someone eager to learn more, who tells you that Dion Fortune, or better still, H.P. Lovecraft is the foremost authority on occultism?  Who, when you say that Blavatsky’s dictionary of occultism isn’t the best source to be using for definitions, launched into a tirade about academic blind spots ? And what do you say to the occult publisher when trying to convince them of the value of publishing an academic introductory text as opposed to another translation of Crowley or Fortune? (These are all real-life situations that I have had to deal with head on, by the way, as if miscommunications in the academic community weren’t enough to be getting on with). I wonder how many of my peers have experienced that uncomfortable moment of a hostile, public audience, telling them that all their “book-larnin” means absolutely nothing…. and what answers one might muster in such a situation. How does one argue the value of advanced academia in that context? How does one demonstrate why such an (academic and theoretical vs. experiential and practical) approach is needed? One might of course say, that “academic esotericism” is not aimed at the practitioner or general audience. To which I would then ask : how then, will you deal with the accusation of elitism that ensues?

In the academic context, is it necessary for students wanting a grasp of this myriad complex of topics we call Western Esotericism for convenience, to understand the fine methodological detail involved in these definitions at the first stroke? And if it is, is it because of the underlying fear of the continuing marginalization of the topic? I leave these questions open, but I remain unconvinced as to this argument. I will not deal here with the extent to which Goodrick-Clarke is right or wrong in viewing esotericism as being defined by intrinsic characteristics, but will focus on the question of essentialism and marginalisation. I do not think that Goodrick-Clarke’s approach, which he states clearly at the outset, is one that leads to marginalisation of this set of currents. Having been taught by Goodrick-Clarke I can actually guarantee that he didn’t see it this way, and did not teach it this way – he also supported the integration of WE within cultural studies. But with vastly heterogeneous student cohorts composed of mainly mature students from a vast range of backgrounds, how else could he have established a common ground for communication between academe and student, scholar and scholar-practitioner, who often arrived with very clearly crystallized ideas? In my cohort (of roughly 25 students), aged 28 at the time, I think I was the youngest, a good 15 years younger than the cohort average….

In informal discussion with colleagues who share Hanegraaff’s view on this, I am told that the quibble with Goodrick-Clarke’s perspective is that his view implies an essentialist definition of esotericism – one which the school of thought supporting Hanegraaff’s call for an “Esotericism 3.0” considers a contributing factor to its marginalisation. Assuming for the sake of argument that this is the case, it leads to some curious conundrums, for if, as stated earlier, the purpose of this theoretical line of thought is to “drop the apologetic agenda and acknowledge that esoteric worldviews are products of historical circumstance and human invention just like anything else in the field of religion and philosophy…. In order for Western Esotericism to become a normal part of the academic curriculum..”, and this is to be achieved by moving to new models, then the first question arises: Why have a field of Western Esotericism at all?

There are numerous examples of topics that come under the current rubric of Western Esotericism being studied at advanced scholarly levels, without the slightest concern for these theoretical and metatheoretical debates (examples follow).

In the  final chapter of his book, Esotericism and the Academy, Hanegraaff states that the purpose of the insistence on high scholarly standards and critical debate,to ensure the ‘demarcation of the field’  as opposed to the dissolution of those boundaries,  is to ‘normalize’ the study of Western esotericism so that it is eventually seen ‘as just another dimension of Western culture,’ citing the ‘longstanding academic neglect of these topics.’ 1

I fully concur with this intention, but have qualified objections towards the prescribed approach if this means setting disciplinary boundaries so high that interdisciplinarity cannot be a bilateral process and that exhaustive reiteration of esoteric historiography and metatheory must necessarily be a component of every discussion of esotericism. Hanegraaff states that:

The study of “Western Esotericism” should be firmly grounded, first and foremost, in a straightforward historiographical agenda: that of exploring the many blank spaces on our mental maps and filling them in with colour and detail, so that they become integral parts of the wider landscape that we already knew, or that we thought we knew. In this process, what used to be strange and alien will eventually become normalized as just another dimension of Western culture; and discredited voices concerned with “cosmotheism” and “gnosis” will be taken seriously as representing possible ways of looking at the nature of reality and the pursuit of knowledge. These perspectives may still not be acceptable within academic discourse, which has approaches and methodological principles all of its own, but need not on that account be dismissed as dangerous, stupid, or wrong.2

Although this dismissal of esoteric topics has occurred in the past as Hanegraaff has meticulously demonstrated, and continues to occur in certain milieux, this does not mean that it is the rule. There have been equally as many recent cases of scholarly studies (see below) in a variety of disciplines that do not “belong” to the field, yet which treat of their subject matter appropriately, show more than a passing understanding of its issues, and have effectively “filled with colour and detail” aspects of the corpus of scholarly literature on Western Esotericism without jeopardising the field’s credibility nor crossing the ‘red lines’ of objective research.

In the domain of Literature there are multiple precedents in the work of Stanton J. Lindon on alchemical influences in literature, Tatiana Kontou on Victorian Spiritualism, Alex Owen arguing for the place of occultism in British intellectual modernity, Pierre Hadot on myth in culture, Arthur McCalla on the work of Pierre-Simon Ballanche, and Marina Warner on multiple interrelationships of esoteric thought to wider culture, Mark Morrisson (a professor of Literature) on occultism and science, Marisa Verna on esoteric and magical symbolism in opera, Frédéric Monneyron on the myth of the androgyne, and recent successful doctoral theses on similar subjects in Literature, Art and Music History, such as Brendan Cole on the work of Jean Delville (Oxon, 2000), Robert Sholl on Olivier Messiaen, Péladan and Tournemire (KCL, 2003), and Jennifer Walters on the British Magical Revival (University of Stirling, 2007), to name but a few.3 Topics “belonging” to the domain of Western Esotericism of necessity cross-fertilize with other areas of intellectual inquiry, and Hanegraaff notes as much (emphasis his):

“Western Esotericism” is an imaginative construct in the minds of intellectuals and the wider public, not a straightforward historical reality “out there”; but, as argued above, it does refer to religious tendencies and worldviews that have a real existence… [that] do not reside in a space of mental abstractions or theoretical absolutes, but are grounded in the dynamics of monotheistic religion and the appeal to faith and reason: in a few words, cosmotheism and gnosis emerge as alternatives because the divine is held to be separate from the world and inaccessible to human knowledge.4

In this case, I repeat, what is the purpose of having a whole “field of Western Esotericism” for something that by the admission of the foremost scholar in that field, is only an imaginative construct? One probable reply is that it is necessary as a vehicle until such time as the subject has become fully integrated into academia, at which time the supporting structure may be removed, and it will blend seamlessly with other areas of cultural inquiry. Another is that because it is perceived as such by the wider public and historical circumstance, we must continue to use the term for purposes of communication. But in that case, is Goodrick-Clarke’s approach not perfectly sufficient within such a context in which we are all aware of this implicit agreement to continue using the flawed term and definition?

The continued, but self-aware usage of the term under such circumstances is a logical perspective, but its current application (NB, I speak here of implementation, not of theory) is flawed for two reasons. The first reason is that “the field” remains extremely self-conscious, whereby current scholarly standards implemented in “the field” appear to demand a reiteration of these arguments every time one discusses esotericism. Not to do so leads to accusations of inadequate theoretical reflection; whether or not one is discussing theory at a given juncture. This self-consciousness within the field appears to be the greatest obstacle to its integration with any discipline, for — and I refer not to Hanegraaff but to many other scholars within the same school of thought — it appears to be a case of “methinks [they] doth protest too much.” When you want to demonstrate that there is nothing strange, weird, or essentialist about esotericism, you don’t keep restating that…. there is nothing strange, weird, or essentialist about esotericism. Rather,  you get on and demonstrate the nature of its embeddedness without overstating the point. Otherwise, you are actually emphasising its difference – and thus essentialising it by nature of that restatement: and that is precisely the kind of apologeticism Hanegraaff seems to be warning against. Whether in a teaching setting (the slides I slipped into those History 101 lectures), or a scholarly setting (see aforementioned precedents), it is not actually necessary to ring a bell and keep reiterating the history of neglect and marginalisation. Not, I hasten to note, of the ideas under the rubric of W.E. vis-a-vis wider culture, but of the field of study itself. Not every  argument involving Western esotericism needs to be tuned to a self-conscious or implicit reaffirmation of this point unless one is studying the phenomenon of marginalisation itself.

The second flaw I perceive is not a scholarly one, but one of attitude, and this comment is directed to those colleagues who feel that it is not possible to critique another scholar (or their perspective) without, firstly, becoming critical on a personal level and resorting to veiled ad hominem attacks, and secondly, allowing a certain form of arrogance to blind them to their own blind spots. I am categorically not referring to Prof. Hanegraaff with this comment, and want to make that very clear indeed; but it is sadly a widespread phenomenon in “the field,” especially among younger scholars and in informal debate, and one which I fear is not conducive to any kind of dialogue or scholarly progress. Criticism is an integral part of the scholarly process, and it is peer criticism that makes us all better scholars, when it is professionally delivered and received. And it is absolutely true that “if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen”. Scholarship has rules, and if we want to be a part of the academic community, then we need to be able to take the rough with the smooth, whether the “rough” is criticism or otherwise. However, professional criticism is one thing. What I perceive as occuring in some cases in this field is quite another, and it is so insidious that I cannot give examples except by quoting direct conversations; and this I shall not do as it would be quite unprofessional.

That said, I hope that this point will be heard where it needs to be heard, and this is one of the reasons I have selected this venue, rather than another, in which to express myself. I return to a very basic question: What is the purpose of scholarship? Why do we go into academia? There are many reasons, though one would like to think that the logical answer is, to learn, and as we learn, to share what we have learned. But we never stop learning, and the scholar who begins from the assumption that they are superior to others because they know something others do not, is a poor scholar indeed, and an unfit teacher besides. I once remember a senior scholar saying to me quite dismissively, that if people “can’t be bothered” to go and look for the literature on a topic, then they were “just lazy”. But I was arguing, at the time, that the general public cannot be expected to have the same familiarity with scholarly resources and literature, nor can they be expected to have the same skills or discernment as someone who has spent even a few years in academia. That is the audience I am aiming at with Phoenix Rising Academy, that is the audience I want to write for, and for some reason, some people may have acquired the impression that that makes me an inferior scholar. So let me say quite plainly that my long-time involvement in secondary (and more recently, undergraduate) education, as well as journalism, across several geographical boundaries, has made me more interested in education at lower levels, and that is not a reflection of my own critical ability, but a matter of personal interest or preference.

It is where I perceive a greater need (the advanced levels are well-covered), and it is also where public opinion is forged. For new, entry-level students to take courses in Western Esotericism, then when the current cohorts graduate, it is to that public you will need to turn. When doing so, it is necessary to make a case for the usefulness of studying esotericism at university beyond a personal interest in it, and beyond the argument of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”, especially in the modern world where marketable degrees are the most sought-after. In that context, all those involved in teaching the academic study of Western Esotericism will need to find an answer to the question: “why study it? what is it for?” that is grounded, down to earth, and if it does not recourse to religionist answers, then it will have to recourse to philosophy of education – which leads right  back to the question of social improvement. Why do we study anything if not to improve and cultivate ourselves, and our small social spheres? What do you answer a parent asking why their child should study WE instead of Marketing? What do you say to a mature student who is looking for meaning in life? What do you say to the musicologist and the seasoned journalist looking for a basic grounding in these ideas? That is what I am doing with PRA and in my UG classroom, and with ten years of secondary teaching and six years writing and speaking for the general public, experience has taught me what that public can and cannot handle. That does not mean my own scholarship suffers in the process, it means I have selected a different professional path based on my experience thus far. But, if I may be so bold, the kind of attitude that considers the choice of such an approach inferior or somehow lacking, is  somewhat unhelpful when thinking about the purp0se of scholarship, and even more unhelpful in making a case to potential students for the study of W.E, with or without a dedicated field.

I come, as noted, from a background in the Humanities, with training in Literature, Art, and the history of Western Esotericism. I am not a scholar of the Social Sciences, and my entire contact with that area of inquiry was limited to a handful of classes on statistical analysis techniques taught in the context of my Communication Studies BA. I fully acknowledge the legitimacy of these fields, but I am unfamiliar with them and their theoretical contexts — and constructs. In the context of my own area of specialisation, I acknowledge its limitations, but am also in a position to exchange perspectives with scholars who are on the other side of the disciplinary fence. And as I am glad to learn new things I didn’t know before, and do my best to acknowledge as much, I believe it important for scholars in all disciplines to approach other fields with the same respect for those differences, rather than with an air of superiority. The idea of transdisciplinary exchange, I was taught, (the first step on the path to interdisciplinarity) should be to broaden each others’ horizons and to learn from each other. The first step on that path is not to generate ever-more theoretical paradigms, it is to communicate across the disciplinary fence. Hence, if I am studying expressions of Western Esotericism in the form of art and literature (which is what I am doing), I am naturally going to approach a theoretical proposal such as that put forth by Hanegraaff or anyone else, with the key question: “how can I use this?” or, “how is this relevant to what I am doing?”

By this point, it should be apparent that my objections to a given approach, or my consideration that it is utterly irrelevant to some contexts, is not based on  intellectual laziness. It is, however, based on the two key questions just asked. Can I use “Esotericism 3.0” to improve my analysis of Péladan’s work? Do I need it? And:  Can I use it to explain to a potential undergraduate level student why they should apply to study Western esotericism and not, say, Philosophy or Anthropology, or indeed Literature and Myth Studies with a concentration in occult literary fiction? The answer on both counts is that I cannot and I do not.

In my approach to Péladan my priority first and foremost is to let the man speak for himself, and in this I am following Northrop Frye’s work on Blake (not, I hasten to add, his theoretical framework). Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), was a ‘systematic analysis… us[ing] only those biographical situations which have a direct bearing on the development of Blake’s thought and poetry.. insist[ing]… on the essential unity of Blake’s whole conception.’


Frye pays special attention to Blake’s use of the imagination and its entanglement with the intellect in the creation of his vision through mythopoeic praxis, and from the very beginning he argues that any approach that does not understand both the man and his work is doomed to misrepresent him. In explaining why anthologies of Blake’s work appear to have meticulously avoided his Prophecies, for instance, he notes that there has been no real reason, apart from:

…one or two hazy impressions. One is that Blake wrote lyrics at the height of his creative power and that he later turned to prophecy as a sign that he had lost it…. Another is that Blake is to be regarded as an ultrasubjective primitive whose work involuntarily reflects his immediate mood. The Songs of Innocence are to be taken at their face value as the outpourings of a naïve and childlike spontaneity, and the Songs of Experience as the bitter disillusionment resulting from maturity… It is a logical inference from this that the Prophecies can reflect only an ecstatic self-absorption on which it is unnecessary for a critic to intrude.2

Frye goes on to note how ‘Blake was a neglected and isolated figure, obeying his own genius in defiance of an indifferent and occasionally hostile society,’ and in Blake’s own words, he demonstrates how the poet longed for acknowledgement:

 It is pathetic to read his letters and see how buoyant is his hope of being understood in his own time, and how wistful is the feeling that he must depend on posterity for appreciation. And it wasn’t only recognition he wanted: he had a very strong sense of his personal responsibility both to God and to society to keep on producing the kind of imaginative art he believed in.


This passage could easily be referring to Péladan, who began to write his autobiography in the third person over a decade before his death,4 and whose public pleas for acknowledgement and constant reiterations of his statement of purpose and sense of duty are scattered throughout his works, as will be revealed when I eventually finish my thesis. As Frye notes following several more examples of the mistreatment of Blake’s work at the hands of critics and anthologists:

… no one will deny that Blake is entitled to the square deal he asked for, we propose to adopt more satisfactory hypotheses and see what comes out of them… First, all of Blake’s poetry, from the shortest lyric to the longest prophecy, must be taken as a unit and mutatis mutandis, judged by the same standards… Second, that as all other poets are judged in relation to their time, so should Blake be placed in his historical and cultural context…5

Frye goes on to demonstrate just how far Blake had been misrepresented in earlier studies through the selective or subjective interpretation of his work, presenting example after example of cases where the poet’s own statements had been thoroughly ignored, so that, to give just one example, “mysticism” was read into his work where Blake himself never used the word. Frye points out that ‘the mystical experience for him is poetic material, not poetic form.’6 Likewise for Péladan, the mystical experience and its cumulative social effect was the end, while art in all its forms, was the means, and he stated as much in every way he could. Frye notes that Blake considered ‘the meaning and the form of a poem [to be] the same thing,’ reflecting Dante’s notion of ‘the fourth level of interpretation: the final impact of the work of art itself.’7 For Péladan, the highest form of magic was the ensoulment of a work of art: ‘Artist… you know art descends from heaven. If you create a perfect work, a soul will come to inhabit it.’8 Finally, as Frye explains:

As ignorance of the methods and techniques of allegorical poetry is still almost universal, the explicitly allegorical writers have for the most part not received… criticism that is based directly on what they were trying to do. If Blake can be consistently interpreted in terms of his own theory of poetry, however, the interpretation of Blake is only the beginning of a complete revolution in one’s reading of all poetry. It is for instance quite impossible to understand Blake without understanding how he read the Bible, and to do this properly one must read the Bible oneself with Blake’s eyes.9

Although naturally literary criticism and exegesis have evolved and progressed since Frye’s time, the problem of reading ‘as the writer wanted to be read’, especially in the case of allegorical work with esoteric content persists. In the case of Péladan I am dealing with an author first and foremost, who believed in occult ideas and who synthesised his own occult cosmology.

Should this oblige me to worry about metatheoretical concerns regarding the shape of Esotericism 3.0? This is not to say that this is Hanegraaff’s intention, indeed, it seems that this is more a matter of the interpretation and implementation of his ideas elsewhere, and it is that interpretation and implementation that constitutes my source of concern. Do these discussions, and does the theoretical framework have a bearing on how I go about trying to understand the man’s work? Apart from pointing out Péladan’s sources and elucidating the philosophical content, and apart from demonstrating those elements of the historical context that are directly relevant, no, it shouldn’t. In this I believe I am entirely in agreement with Hanegraaff’s point about esoteric thought being just another part of culture. But in that case, why do I need to worry about metatheoretical developments, and who are they really for? Why do I need the legitimation from “the Field”? Are these developments helpful to scholars like me, merrily toiling away in an interdisciplinary Literature department, co-supervised by the Head of the Department of Psychoanalytic Studies? Hardly. Are they helpful to my readers and my audience comprised of the general public? No. Are they helpful to my undergraduate students? Not yet.

So to whom are they of use beyond the intrinsic value of theoretical discussion? To the conservation of a field studying “an imaginative construct” that needs to apply for funding, construct book and course proposals, argue for the addition of syllabi, create posts for newly minted Doctors, and prove, at the highest levels, that Western Esotericism is worthy of inclusion in university curricula? Agreed… but many of us have been doing that anyway, without any trouble… and without any particular need to refer to these theoretical debates, for in my field at least, you look for a theoretical underpinning when it is called for. When looking for meaning however, when demonstrating how symbolic motifs and esoteric philosophy is used in a work of literature or art, you don’t need one. When teaching cultural history, you simply slip in the necessary mention to esotericism in the same way you talk about any other cultural current. In terms of the study of Literature, the critical skills required are quite different, for you are engaged in an attempt to unveil meaning in what you are studying, and questions of metatheory are of no relevance unless that is your direct object of discussion.  And while new discoveries and knowledge that elucidates these cultural currents will always be welcomed by all scholars, there is a difference between the fair and objective presentation of a given philosophy or figure or current, and the construction of theory for theory’s sake, and the subsequent dismissal of all other methods – until version 4.0 comes along…

Others are welcome to disagree, and no doubt many will. In sum, however, it is good for us to keep in mind that the path proposed by Hanegraaff, and the way each scholar uses that path, are individual ways. It is not the only way, and while some scholars may prefer to construct metatheory within small academic circles, others feel a need to destigmatise esotericism in the eyes, not of the converted, but to the general audience, to younger learners, and to those whom we study even though some may disapprove of their credulity; practitioners. Culture is not constructed in the ivory tower,  but on the streets, in cafés, in backrooms of bookshops, in artists’ studios and in the imaginings of fiction writers. Those are the people who drive culture. And I firmly believe that education should serve society, and not the other way around. That, is where I am coming from, and if I am to be criticised for it, so be it. I only ask to be criticised for what I am really doing, and not for what I am assumed to be doing… remembering that different disciplinary training of necessity gives rise to different approaches of equal validity. And it behooves us all to remember that the idea and the individual, are two separate things.


1Anonymous reviewer, ‘Elucidation of Blake,’ Times Literary Supplement, 10 January 1948, p. 25.

2Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947; repr. 1969; 1990), p. 4.

3Ibid., p. 4.

4See Section 1.1: Biographical Overview, p. X, n. X: J. Péladan, unpublished notes for an autobiography written in the third person, Péladan archives, Bibliothéque de l’Arsenal. The notes are undated but have been estimated to date from between 1900-1904 by Christophe Beaufils in Joséphin Péladan, p. 350, n. 46.

5Frye, Fearful Symmetry, p. 5.

6Frye, Fearful Symmetry, p. 7.

7Ibid., p. 8.

8 Josephin Peladan, L’art idéaliste et mystique, doctrine de l’Ordre et du salon annuel des Rose+Croix, (Paris : Chamuel 1894) p. 33.

9Frye, Fearful Symmetry, p. 10-11.

1Ibid., pp. 353, 360, 368-9, 377-8.

2Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy, p. 378.

3Stanton J. Linden, Darke Hieroglyphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration (Kentucky: Kentucky University Press, 1996); Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth Century Spiritualism and the Occult (Surrey; Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2012); Tatiana Kontou, Spiritualism and Women’s Writing: from the fin de siècle to the neo-Victorian (Palgrave, 2009); Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004; 2007); Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. by Michael Chase (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2006; first published as Le Voile d’Isis: Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de Nature, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2004); Arthur McCalla, A Romantic Historiosophy: The Philosophy of History of Pierre- Simon Ballanche, (Leiden: Brill, 1998); Marina Warner, Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Mark S. Morrisson, Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Marisa Verna, L’Opera teatrale di Joséphin Péladan: esoterismo e magia nel dramma simbolista (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2000); Frédéric Monneyron, L’androgyne décadent: Mythe, figure, fantasmes (Grenoble: ELLUG, 1996); Dorothea von Mucke, The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Jennifer Walters, ‘Magical Revival: Occultism and the Culture of Regeneration in Britain, c. 1880-1829’ (unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Stirling, 2007); Brendan Cole, ‘Jean Delville’s Idealist Art and Writings: Art Between Nature and the Absolute’ (Ph.D. Dissertation, Christ Church College, Oxford, 2000; Surrey: Ashgate, in press); Robert Sholl, ‘Olivier Messiaen and the Culture of Modernity,’ (Ph.D. Dissertation, Kings College, London, 2003; in preparation for publication).

4Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy, p. 377. Hanegraaff bases this argument on the demarcation of pagan thought by anti-apologist Jacob Thomasius. See pp. 101-107.