7 February 2012


Wouter J Hanegraaff. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

I think I had better start this review with a warning as to what this book is NOT about; despite the subtitle it is not about the wide range of ‘damned and excluded’ topics discussed by Forteans, psychical researchers and the like. Nor does it really cover the full range of ‘magical’ and ‘occult’ beliefs mentioned in the publisher’s blurb.
It’s attention is more narrowly focused on what he suggests should be called the ‘western esoteric tradition’ and which might be better know (wrongly in his opinion) as the Hermetic tradition. This tradition he traces from attempts from the Church Fathers onward to incorporate Greek, or more particularly Platonic philosophy, or at least what was presented as such, into the Christian tradition.

This tradition was one in which God was seen as imminent in an eternal world, and in which there was a spark of divinity in everyone. These ideas were not exactly compatible with orthodox Christian belief, and there were various ways round it. For example the Greek philosophers might have been prophets of Christianity. However one that tended to predominate was what Hanegraaff calls orientalisation. The Greek philosophy was claimed to have descended from the Egyptians, especially the imaginary Hermes Trismegistus, or the mythologized Zoroaster, or, at least ultimately back to Moses.

Hanegraaff argues that it was the development of what we might call a form of Christian fundamentalism, which led to the exclusion of this tradition from Christianity. It was the decisions of both the Protestant reformers and the Catholic counter-reformation to purify Christianity of ‘pagan accretions’, to return to a stark view of a wholly desacralised world that was nothing more than the inert clay out of which a wholly transcendent God moulded things. This ‘fundamentalist’ desacralisation of nature opens up the road to the secular mechanical Laplacian universe.

By the 18th century this esoteric tradition was caught between religious critics that continued to attack paganism and secular critics who attacked ‘superstition’. Exiled from the intellectual mainstream, the esoteric continues as an opposition culture, against which elites can differentiate themselves, but in this underground it flourishes as the province of autodidacts of all kinds.

Hanegraaff especially notes that as belief in mythical secret societies such as the Rosicrucians took hold, real life groups such as the early Freemasons tried to emulate them, and the whole mythology of secret societies in general, and that of grand conspiracism in particular developed.

After tracing the evolution of the influence of the esoteric tradition on topics as diverse as Mesmerism and German romanticism with its notion of ‘the night side of nature’ (which became the title of a book of ghost stories by Catherine Crowe), he discusses its return to academe, mainly through the influence of the Eranos conferences and year books.

He gives particular attention to a number of individuals associated with it like the psychologist Carl Jung, the Islamist and mystic Henry Corbin, the expert on the Kabala and Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, and the esoteric Christian Antoine Faivre who started his career as an expert on Vampires. Hanegraaff contrasts the ‘religionist’ approach of Corbin, who spoke exclusively as a believer (and seems to have awarded himself quasi-papal infallibility) and the meticulous historical approach of Scholem, and presents a revisionist view of Jung and alchemy, arguing that Jung did not see alchemy as an exclusively psychological processes..

He also reviews critically the work of Frances Yates on Bruno and the Hermetic tradition.

This is not always an easy book, but contains much of interest. and Magonia readers may be especially interested in the later sections on the Eranos group. I get the author’s point, but I am not sure one can talk about ‘the academy’ for periods of centuries. Is this not reading backwards from the professionalization of knowledge in the late nineteenth century onwards? I do get the feeling that this is in some way two rather different books knitted together, one on the intellectual history of the western esoteric tradition, and another, much narrow one, on its study in the academic environment from Eranos onward. – Peter Rogerson.

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