A New Approach to the Hidden Intellectual History of the West
This handbook brings together articles on two subjects: Western mysticism and Western esotericism. These two areas are distinct, yet they are related so intimately that treating them together is not only possible but ultimately necessary if either is to be truly understood.
Mysticism in the West has tended to arise (as it has elsewhere in the world) within the context of a religious tradition, generally as a kind of deeper reflection on the inner meaning of the religion. This is obviously the case with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mysticism. However, the origins of Western mysticism go back much further, to pagan polytheism in fact, and the mystery religions of Ancient Greece.
Scholarship on Western mysticism enjoys a long, established history and is almost as old as scholarship on the religions from which mysticism typically springs. The same is not true, however, for scholarship on Western esotericism. It is, in fact, a very young field. Defining “esotericism” is a difficult task, and one fraught with controversy. However, we may begin simply by noting that this is the word increasingly used today to designate currents of thought formerly referred to as “occultism” or as “the occult sciences” (terms that came into wide usage in the nineteenth century). These currents have a long history in the West, sometimes hidden and subterranean (as the word “occultism” implies) – at other times, in the Renaissance for example, as part of mainstream thought. Esoteric doctrines, schools, or practices include alchemy, astrology, magic, Kabbalism, Renaissance Hermetism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, number symbolism, sacred geometry, Christian theosophy, spiritualism, mesmerism, and much else.
The ideas and movements just mentioned are familiar, in one way or another, to most people. We know that they exercised a great influence in the past (and still do). We have encountered traces of them in literature, film, and fairy tales. They peek through the cracks of standard histories of philosophy, science, and literature when, for example, it is mentioned in passing that Renaissance art and science were influenced by hermetic and kabbalistic teachings; that Goethe was an alchemist, and Newton an astrologer; that Kant and Strindberg read Swedenborg, and Schelling was a spiritualist; that Blake and Hegel were influenced by Jacob Boehme; that W. B. Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and so on.