3 July 2014


Hans Thomas Hakl. Eranos: An Alternative Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, Equinox, 2013.

"Not all that many people are aware that, over a period of seventy years, men and women enjoying a high academic reputation met regularly at Ascona on Lake Maggiore in order to give scholarly lectures to a relatively small audience about their latest insights in the fields of religion, philosophy, history, art, and science… Their concern was… to locate such knowledge within a universal spiritual stream reaching from antiquity to the present day, from East to West and from North to South, stimulating all humanity."
So Hans Thomas Hakl sums up the Eranos conferences and the contrast between their significance and relative obscurity – an obscurity that the first, German edition of this book, which came out in 2001, did much to alleviate, as it stimulated the publication of more information about Eranos. Consequently this translation (by Christopher McIntosh of Exeter University’s Centre for the Study of Esotericism) is a revision of the original, incorporating much of that new information.

Eranos is – or was until recently - a kind of intellectual equivalent of the Bilderberg Group, annually bringing select academics, philosophers and scientists from across the world together to trade ideas and network, while shunning publicity. The gatherings were important for the development and dissemination of some key ideas, as well as for the careers of figures such as C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, and yet are almost complete ignored in scholarly reference works. The big difference to the Bilderbergers is that Eranos did publish its lectures in a series of yearbooks, although that’s virtually all it placed in the public domain. Everything else about the group’s organisation and history is in its private archives – to which Hakl, editor of the esoteric magazine Gnostika, has, since the first edition, been given access, along with unpublished correspondence between participants and interviews with speakers and other key figures.

The list of ‘Eranians’ is impressive, apart from Jung and Eliade including, among many others, Gershom Scholem, Karl Kerényi, Louis Massignon, Joseph Campbell, and the man who largely introduced Zen Buddhism to the west, D.T. Suzuki.

Hakl gives a straightforward historical account as an introduction to Eranos. Since they can be found in the yearbooks, he isn’t concerned with the lectures themselves. He does, however, give portraits of the major speakers and their key ideas and work.

Hakl sets the origins of Eranos in the context of the upsurge of interest in Eastern and esoteric thought as part of the ‘almost desperate search for meaning’ in Germany and Austria that followed the First World War. Hakl laments the lack of research into this ‘tidal wave of esotericism’ that swept the German-speaking lands, which could ‘contribute much to an understanding of the deeper causes of the lamentable National Socialist era.’

The creator of Eranos – privately called the ‘Great Mother’ by Eranians - was Olga Fröbe, née Kapteyn (1881-1962), a spiritual seeker much influenced by Theosophy. She was born in London of Dutch parents, raised in Switzerland, lived in Germany during her short marriage, and inherited her father’s estate on the shore of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland in 1927. The following year she had a conference hall built, but didn’t seem to know what to do with it, until Jung – she was a patient of his – suggested that it be used a ‘meeting place between East and West.’ After a false start - the first three meetings, from 1930 to 1932, were very much under the control of the Anglo-American New Age gurus Alice and Foster Bailey – Jung persuaded Fröbe to turn them into academic gatherings, creating the Eranos meetings proper from 1933. They became her life’s work and purpose.

The group took its name from a Greek word for a banquet or festive meal (although the meals themselves don’t appear to have been particularly festive - Jung smuggled in food to eat at night, as "Fröbe’s gastronomy was not exactly renowned").

From a simple forum bringing together Eastern and Western forms of spirituality, ‘the scope widened to include not only subjects such as psychology, art history, music, and natural science but also “hermetic” and “esoteric” themes’ in pursuit of ‘the spiritual transformation of humanity.’

Jung, who spoke every year until 1951 (when he chose Eranos to unveil his ‘scientifically hazardous’ concept of synchronicity), was a major guiding force during that formative phase, and was also instrumental in arranging finance, chiefly from wealthy American patrons, after Fröbe exhausted her inheritance. Eranos also brought Jung’s ideas to the attention of a broader scholarly audience and to a wider public, especially in the English-speaking world. As a result Jung has been accused of using Eranos as his mouthpiece. However, Hakl shows from correspondence that Jung was keen that his ideas and views shouldn’t overshadow proceedings, and that he was far from being a dominant influence over Fröbe; she herself wrote that ‘one could more accurately call it a struggle than a relationship.’

It becomes apparent that the important part of Eranos wasn’t the lectures themselves, but what went on behind the scenes – particularly at the speakers’ meals, taken appropriately at a round table, which Jung called the ‘real Eranos’ - as the participants discussed their work and ideas. Indeed, the audience (which until the 1990s was firmly forbidden from asking questions) appears largely irrelevant; Hakl tells us virtually nothing about those who attended the conferences, summing them up as ‘mainly hard-working but modestly paid psychologists, writers, and artists.’

Hakl distinguishes three phases in Eranos’ history. The first lasted until the end of the Second World War, and was characterised by the search for balance between East and West, during which ‘Fröbe was the one who pushed the esoteric agenda, whereas Jung attempted to restrain her.’

The second phase began after the War, when the biologist Adolf Portmann became more influential in Eranos’ organisation. (Fröbe anointed him as her successor, and he duly became President of the Eranos Foundation, created in her will, after her death in 1962.) Hakl places Eranos’ heyday in the late 1940s and ’50s. During this time ‘esotericism, gnosis, and the mysteries receded into the background and man as a biological and cultural being became the central focus.’ The first post-war meeting included a scientist, Ernst Schrödinger, for the first time.

The third phase, which began in the late 1970s, was marked by tension between speakers of a polytheist and monotheist persuasion, ‘polytheist’ here defined in terms of archetypal psychology rather than religion – gods as ‘metaphors for modes of experience and living,’ which, Hakl argues, comes more naturally to human beings than ‘the narrowness of monotheism.’

In the late 1980s, under its then president Rudolf Ritsema, Eranos turned in a less academic, more New Age, direction while also breaking down the barriers between speakers and audience (who were finally allowed to ask questions). Those who maintained the traditional spirit of the conferences formed the breakaway Amici di Eranos. Since then things have fragmented even further. However, as Hakl shows in the penultimate chapter, Eranos served as a ‘prototype’ for many other associations and conferences that continue its original ethos, such as the Esalen Institute in the USA and the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, of which Hakl and McIntosh are prominent members.

Eranos has, of course, had its critics. The two main charges levelled at it are that it was irrationalist and, more seriously, that it leaned toward fascistic modes of thought. The two are connected, since according to some – particularly Marxist – philosophers and historians, the former inevitably leads to the latter.

Hakl devotes considerable space to the allegations that Eranos not only gave undue prominence in the 1930s to speakers sympathetic to the Nazis and Italian Fascists, but also that Eranos itself embodied ‘authoritarian and fascistic currents of thought,’ an accusation levelled at Fröbe and Jung personally. It’s actually surprising that Hakl has to go into this in quite such length, as the facts clearly exonerate Eranos along with its leaders while, as Hakl shows, attacks on Eranos as fascistic are ideologically motivated and often poorly researched. (One of the fascinating titbits to emerge from this discussion is that during the Second World War Jung was an agent – code number ‘888’ - of the OSS, working under its Swiss-based spymaster Allen Dulles.)

For Hakl, the importance of Eranos is that it brought together two approaches; some speakers emphasised the scholarly or scientific approach, others the inner experience, and from this emerged a ‘third way’ that combined the two, through Eranos’s "readiness to extend scientific enquiry beyond the boundaries set by reason and into areas where myth, imagination, and religious experience play their roles." Ultimately, as well as serving as an introduction to Eranos and its work, the book is an argument for the validity and relevance of such an approach when it is under more pressure from the strict materialist-rationalist camp than at any time since the Victorian era.

Given the subject, Eranos couldn’t be other than a fascinating read, and Hakl, with his in-depth knowledge and understanding of the varied subjects that the conferences explored in their long history, is the ideal person not only to write Eranos’ story but also to put it in context and explain its relevance. Even so, he admits that, even given its length – over 400 pages of eye-strainingly small print – the book "cannot be described as even a moderately comprehensive history of Eranos." It’s a good place to start, though. -- Clive Prince 

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