Esotericism and Democracy: Some Clarifications
At the invitation of the German Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education), on 5 September this year I gave the opening lecture for the conference Esoterik und Democratie – Ein Spannungsverhältnis (Esotericism and Democracy: A Tense Relation). As the lecture was meant for a general non-academic German audience, I gave a broad introduction to (the study of) esotericism, with special attention to political concerns about the relation between contemporary esotericism and far-right activism online and offline. In view of current debates about “the West,” this was a welcome opportunity to also clarify the relation, as I see it, between esotericism as “rejected knowledge” and the historical dynamics of what I refer to as “internal eurocentrism.” I have edited my text for online publication here, and added footnotes (but please note that due to some kind of technical issue that I have not been able to figure out, they are not clickable: to find them, you'll need to scroll down).
Table of contents: Listening First, Judging Later – Rejected Knowledge – Internal Eurocentrism – Critical Theory and Uncritical Fantasies – Rightwing Esotericism – Concluding Remarks
Let me begin with the first question that the organizers of this conference asked me to address: what is esotericism? My answer could seem a bit disappointing at first, and perhaps will even strike you as not entirely serious. But in fact it is meant entirely in earnest, for reasons I will try to explain. What is “esotericism”? Well – in a very real sense, there is no such thing! By this, I mean that “esotericism” is not anything you will ever encounter in the world around us. You will only ever find it in our discussions about what is in fact going on in the world around us, so you will find it in our discourse, and you will find it in our collective imagination. So what is Esotericism? The first thing to emphasize is that it is just a word - no more than that.1 Perhaps a bit more precisely, “esotericism” is an umbrella term, or a label - like a sticker you put on a box.
If you open the box, inside it you will not find some mysterious entity called “esotericism” but a very large collection of historical traditions and contemporary practices, ideas, organizations, or social movements, many of which go under names that are not widely known either.2 Or more precisely, the “esotericism” box would appear to be filled with many smaller boxes, each of them with their own label too; and again, to find out what those labels mean, you will have to unpack them carefully, one by one, and examine the contents. Some of those boxes contain even smaller boxes, again with their own labels.
It is significant that if you look at the most authoritative academic journal for the study of esotericism, Aries, you will find no definition of esotericism there – just a list of labels for all those smaller boxes that you may expect to find inside the large one:
Esotericism is understood pragmatically as an umbrella term that covers a variety of historical currents, including but not limited to Gnosticism, Hermetism, theurgy, the Islamic science of letters, the “occult sciences” (magic, alchemy, astrology), kabbalah, Paracelsianism, Rosicrucianism, theosophy, illuminism, spiritualism and occultism, tantra and yoga, psychical research, traditionalism, neopaganism, alternative spiritualities, conspirituality, popular occulture, etc.3
The “etcetera” is significant, as are the words “including but not limited to”: the editors of Aries are perfectly well aware that their list neither is nor ever can be complete, because the boundaries of this field are not precisely defined but blurry and contested among all specialists. It is clear that each of these smaller labels would need to be explained carefully in turn. Or to stick to my metaphor: you will need to unpack and examine the contents of the smaller boxes on which they have been pasted. If you take the trouble to do this, again, you will find nothing but words or labels. There is no “astrology” inside the “astrology” box, and there are no “Rosicrucians” inside the “Rosicrucianism” box! To gain any true precision and clarity (any reliable knowledge) about what is meant by all this terminology, in each and every case you will need to zoom in very precisely and look at the only realities that are actually there: not those words, not some elusive entity called “esotericism,” but people (individuals or collectives) who are doing certain things and are saying certain things. Why? For exactly the same reasons all of us do. Because their personal experiences in their own lives have led them to feel, believe, or be convinced that certain things are true and important while others are not.
So this is my first point, simple as it may be. It is meant to bring our topic from the realm of abstractions “down to earth.” If we study “esotericism,” it is very easy and always rather tempting to imagine we are studying some kind of reality that exists “out there” in the wide world. But in fact, “esotericism” is just that label in our minds. Still, this does not mean that the term is unimportant. The figments of our collective imagination do exert real influence in the real world: if we believe firmly enough that something exists, “it” becomes real for us.4 This is not just true for the beliefs of esoteric insiders but also for those of outsiders about “esotericism.”
Listening First, Judging Later
Nevertheless, the basic point remains that if you try to find out about the realities of so-called “esotericism” (by examining the contents of all those boxes, carefully and patiently), then all you will ever find is flesh-and-blood people like yourselves, and the things they say and do. If we want to understand “esotericism,” therefore we need to understand them, what really drives them, what makes them tick. We need to listen first. The biggest temptation in studying “esotericism” consists in labeling and judging (not to mention condemning) its representatives and their ideas before we have understood them well enough.
If I may use my own work in this field as an example, in 1995 I defended my dissertation New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, which got published a year later.5 As you can see from the title, it was an attempt to understand the popular esotericism known as “New Age” by studying its basic ideas and where they came from. The New Age had been attracting a lot of interest since the 1960s/70s and especially since the 1980s, when it became hugely popular and commercially attractive. There was quite a lot of academic literature about the New Age as a social movement, and some scholars were expressing concerns or worries about its social or political implications as well. But the rather embarrassing fact is that literally nobody had found it necessary to go find out what those New Agers were actually thinking, what kinds of ideas they had or how they looked at the world, for instance by taking the trouble to read those countless books that were available in New Age bookstores. Scholars were quite good at telling their readers what they thought about the New Age, but they had hardly been listening to its representatives. That my book was the first attempt to do so is not a particular accomplishment on my part; but it does tell us something about the remarkable lack of interest, among scholars and the wider public, in taking esotericists and their ideas seriously at all.
The modern study of Western esotericism as an academic pursuit began developing around this same period, the mid-1990s, and intended to do something about that situation. It has become quite a success. Today we have professional academic journals such as Aries or the online open-access journal Correspondences;6 we have academic book series published by prestigious publishers such as Brill or Oxford University Press;7 we have a vibrant academic community of scholars affiliated to the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE, founded in 2005) that organizes large conferences every two years and is connected to a remarkable series of ESSWE networks focused on specific periods, cultural or linguistic regions, or themes;8 conferences or sessions about esoteric topics have become perfectly common in the wider field of religious studies and elsewhere in the humanities; and specialized teaching programs and courses about esotericism have been developing at different universities, beginning at the University of Amsterdam in 1999,9 resulting in a new generation of young scholars specialized in these fields.
This process of professionalization means that those who work in other contexts than the academy – such as many of you who are present here today – have much better opportunities for gaining solid and adequate information about “esotericism” today than was the case just three decades ago. Looking at the books and publications that are now available on the general book market, there can be no doubt that both the quantity and the quality have improved enormously. Roughly until the later 1990s, the book market for “esotericism” was dominated by the often unreliable publications of non-academic esoteric insiders or opponents, but nowadays it is easy to gain access to serious, well-researched, sophisticated information. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that a considerable gap still exists between the scholarly literature produced by specialists who have studied these topics in depth, and a wider reading public that tends to take the easier road of getting its information from popular books published for a mass market.
Of course, it is perfectly understandable that professionals in fields like yours, as well, cannot spend their working days making a systematic study of the extensive scholarly literature about esotericism; but I would very much like you at least to be aware of the fact that the knowledge and information you need to figure out what “esotericism” is all about is now readily available. It is all right there for you to use it, but you need to be critical and selective. So that is the second point I would like to make. Sadly, the popular book market for “esotericism” is still largely dominated by badly informed and unreliable disinformation; so please do take the trouble to search out solid and reliable literature written by qualified scholars. I might as well mention that attendance of the biannual ESSWE conferences is open not just for academics but for professionals in other contexts as well. Some of you may be working in fields (for instance law enforcement) where your assumptions and your knowledge about a field like “esotericism” can sometimes have a serious impact and touch the lives of real people. So please make sure that those assumptions are founded on solid information rather than on the countless questionable stereotypes and misperceptions that are still widely prevalent in contemporary society and the popular media.
And this leads me to a third point that I consider essential. It will take me quite a bit more time to explain, but it will also bring us to the heart of what “esotericism” is all about. I began by making the point that this word is just a label, not something that “really exists out there.” I found it essential for you to grasp that there is no such thing as a hidden “essence” of esotericism, or some kind of checklist for determining what is esoteric. But when you heard me make that basic point at the beginning of this lecture, surely you must have been asking yourself the obvious question: “if this is true, then what is it that justifies any such ‘esotericism’ label in the first place? If we put all these heterogeneous movements, ideas, personalities, practices, or beliefs together in one conceptual box and paste the sticker ‘esotericism’ on it, surely this means that they must have something in common?”
Indeed they do!
But how is that possible? Haven’t I just been telling you the opposite? Well – the essential point to grasp is that this commonality between “all things esoteric” has relatively little to do with the true characteristics of everything that is actually present inside that box. It does, however, have very much to do with our own reasons for putting them together in a special box in the first place. In other words, this perceived commonality exists first and foremost in our own minds. We feel that all this stuff somehow hangs together, even if we find it hard to explain to ourselves or others why we think so. So that is my third point: the label tells something about us.
Now please note that when I speak of “us” here, I do not mean you and me in particular. I mean a broad consensus that is typical of our modern Western cultural, societal, and intellectual mainstream. This consensus has deep historical roots because it has been developing over many centuries ever since the beginning of the Common Era about two thousand years ago. Whether we like it or not, and whether we are consciously aware of it or not, all those of us who have been born, raised, and educated in Western-European or North-American culture have been deeply influenced by most of the basic ideas, frameworks, and assumptions – including all the dark sides and deeply-ingrained prejudices – that are typical of the long and complicated cultural and intellectual history of “the West.” And now I come to the point, which I want to set apart here for special emphasis:
Our very sense of a Western cultural identity has been built, over many centuries, on systematic patterns of critique and polemical rejection directed at a whole range of worldviews, intellectual traditions, or spiritual practices that were perceived and promoted as incompatible with the fundamental values and assumptions of Western civilization.
So that is the reason why “we” put it all together in one box. The box is filled with all kinds of stuff that “we,” over long stretches of time, have decided we didn’t want to accept or take seriously – it is, in other words, a box filled with rejected knowledge. That is what the label “esotericism” actually means.
Now your first response might be: “well, ok, if so – then please just tell us clearly what kind of knowledge that is, so we’ll finally know what ‘esotericism’ is all about!” But that is not so easy, to say the least. Why? Because to understand what is really at stake in studying esotericism, you will need to question the very ground under your feet or the very air that you breathe! – by which I mean: the very core beliefs and worldviews that almost all of us have inherited from our education and our socialization in Western society. Instead of just taking for granted your most basic assumptions (about how the world works, what is true and what is not, what is good and what is bad, what is “serious” and what isn’t) you must be willing to take some steps back and consider some of your core beliefs and worldviews with much more critical distance than you may be used to. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough, radical as it may be: to even begin understanding what “esotericism” is all about, you will need to consider at least the possibility that many of your taken-for-granted beliefs might not actually be self-evidently true. There is a simple reason why this is so: all human ideas come from history, and any history might just as well have happened entirely differently from how it has actually happened. All of us are constantly taking many things for granted on a daily basis, simply because we come from a particular culture and intellectual tradition that teaches us to consider certain beliefs as self-evidently true while telling us simultaneously that anything which conflicts with those beliefs is self-evidently false – and therefore belongs in that box of “rejected knowledge.”
To impress this point on you, I want to give you two historical examples. At first, you will probably wonder what they have to do with “esotericism,” but if so, please bear with me. You will see that they have everything to do with it.
· First example. One particular day roughly around 450 before the birth of Christ, two young people from aristocratic families in Athens got married. The bride’s name was Perictione, and her new husband was called Ariston. You probably do not know their names. However, you have certainly heard the name of their youngest son: Plato! Now please just try for a moment to imagine what would have happened if Ariston and Perictione had never met – if, for some reason, they had ended up marrying someone else, or if perhaps one of them had gotten sick and died before marriage, or some other such contingent event. Countless very minor things could have happened just a tiny bit differently in their lives, that could have prevented Plato from ever being born. However, if this man had not been born two and a half thousand years ago, then I assure you that we would not be sitting here today discussing “esotericism.” Why? Because it is impossible to even begin imagining how the world would have developed without the presence of Plato’s writings. Just think about it. We would not have the Greek philosophy that has become a bedrock foundation of so-called Western intellectual culture. It would have been impossible for the followers of Jesus to develop what we now know as Christian theology, because so many of its most basic assumptions that have dominated European intellectual life are actually grounded not in the Bible but in the philosophy of Platonism and its successors. We wouldn’t have had Arabic philosophy in the Islamic world either, which means we also wouldn’t have had the intellectual culture of the later Christian Middle Ages that is deeply indebted to Arabic scholarship.10 There could have been no such thing as the Renaissance, as it was based in crucial respects on the rebirth of Platonism in the fifteenth century,11 and so on and so forth. In sum: if Perictione and Ariston had not married, so that Plato had not been born, almost nothing could possibly have happened the way it has happened. We cannot even begin imagining the world in which we would be living today. Last but not least: many of the most central ideas that we now see as “esoteric” are actually grounded directly in Platonism as well. No Plato, no esotericism.
· Second example. If you had been born in the fourth century of the common era, you might perhaps have been present in 363 CE at the Battle of Samarra (now in Iraq). In the early morning of June 26 that year, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, Julian (331-363 CE), had to rush out of his tent in great haste, because of a sudden attack by the enemy. It so happened that a small leather strap of his breast armor was broken and there had been no time to repair it. Probably because his armor did not fit properly, Julian was killed – by a spear that would otherwise have bounced off. His death put an abrupt end to a three-year period (361-363 CE) during which Julian had been working hard to stop the Christianization of the Roman Empire and lead it back to “paganism.” We will never know what would have happened if that tiny leather strap had not been broken or had been repaired in time. The fact is that although Julian was a philosopher at heart, he had been remarkably efficient as an Emperor, and it is entirely possible that he would have succeeded in re-paganizing the empire and putting a stop to the rise of Christianity. If he had been successful, then again I can assure you that we would not be sitting here today talking about “esotericism”! Instead of remembering the Emperor Constantine “the Great,” who created the foundations of what would become a Christian Europe, we might be remembering Julian “the Great” – as the world-renowned emperor who put a stop to that strange but now largely forgotten sectarian movement known as “Christians” and put our culture back on the right track…12
Why do I tell you these stories? What is my point? Firstly, I am trying to convince you that many of the basic ideas, worldviews, or values that you probably take for granted in your daily life are actually not self-evident at all. They are ultimately no more than the contingent products of specific historical developments that just happened to take place the way they did but could just as easily have taken entirely different directions. And secondly, what we nowadays refer to as “esotericism” can only be understood from that perspective.
In other words, my point is that you cannot understand “esotericism” without placing it in a much wider context – that of the history of Western culture itself. At the most basic level,the box that we have labeled with that name contains more or less everything that you (and all of us) have been taught to perceive as “different,” “weird,” “problematic,” “questionable,” and even “dangerous” because it does not fit the dominant, mainstream intellectual paradigms on which our very society is built. Another way of saying this is that our perception of “esotericism” is the outcome of a long process of polemical exclusion in which “we” have been defining and defending “our” “Western” identity against everything that “we” reject as incompatible with who we are, or aspire to be. In the space of a single lecture, I cannot possibly sketch even just the general outlines of this long and complicated historical development; so if you want to know more, I must refer you to a book-length treatment.13 All I can do is sketch in the most general terms why it is that our concepts of “esotericism” cannot be understood unless we see them in terms of a continuous and never-ending conflict that has unfolded, over millennia now, between the most foundational components of Western culture.
The first of these components can be referred to as as pagan-hellenistic14 and took shape after the fourth century before the Common Era as a result of the spectacular conquests of Alexander the Great. Here we are dealing with many of the great civilizations of the ancient world, and their incredibly rich religious and intellectual cultures, that now came under the influence of Greek or “Hellenic” culture – a process that continued under the Roman Empire. The second component consists of the great Abrahamic religions grounded in a radical or exclusive form of monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and (yes!) Islam.15 Judaism spread widely throughout the Empire before and after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, a process known as the Jewish diaspora. Christianity became dominant in the Roman Empire and its successors, the Byzantine Empire in the East and the Church of Rome in the West. And finally, Islam contested these territories and achieved dominance over an enormous domain that, eventually, became what is known as the Ottoman Empire. Please note that popular ideas about Islam as “the enemy of the West” (quite common, of course, in conservative and right-wing circles) are really based on little more than traditional Christian prejudice. From a perpective of cultural and intellectual history, it is essential to see that Islam is not some kind of “outsider” to “Western culture” but an integral and essential part of it.16 Of course I’m aware that this idea clashes with many popular assumptions about Islam, the Orient, and so on; but what I’m trying to do here is ask you to reconsider those assumptions.
The Abrahamic or radical-monotheistic religions had always defined their very identity against the “pagan” practices of the surrounding culture. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all agreed in their radical rejection of what they saw as the unacceptable practice of “pagan idolatry.”17 But the problem was that, in actual practice, it was simply not possible for monotheists to be consistent in rejecting the Hellenic culture of the “pagans.” The enormous influence and intellectual superiority of Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, and various other “pagan” philosophical systems made them indispensable to Christian theology and to religious, philosophical and scientific speculation in the Islamic world. Contrary to popular assumptions, all those bodies of Greek-Hellenic philosophical literature, beginning with Plato himself, were concerned not just with strictly “rational” or “scientific” speculation as we think of it today – if you look more closely, you discover that they were full of religious or spiritual ideas as well. You could not just pick out the “rational” or “scientific” bits of Greek intellectual culture and leave out the rest, because all of it was deeply interconnected.
Nevertheless, that is precisely what Christian intellectuals tried to do. We might say that they basically split these “pagan-hellenistic” traditions up into two parts; and as a result, the complex development of “Western culture” from antiquity to the present has come to be based on the highly uncomfortable but unavoidable coexistence of not two but three different cultural components, each with their own internal logic and dynamics. First, we have the exclusive monotheism of the Abrahamic religions, as codified in the Books of Moses, the Christian Old and New Testament, and the Quran. Second, we have what came to be seen as the respectable “pagan” traditions of Greek rationalism and science. And third, we have “all the rest,” “whatever is left” – that is to say, anything that does not fit comfortably in the neat boxes of scriptural monotheism or science and rationalism. You guessed it: here we have precisely the origin of that box with leftovers, the “rejected knowledge” to which we popularly refer as “esotericism” today.
Now my point is that the standard textbook narratives with which most of us have been raised would like to make you believe that Western culture can essentially be reduced to the first two: religion (read: monotheism) and science & reason (read: the Greeks). The “rest” is not supposed to be taken seriously. Moreover, especially after the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we are commonly presented with an even more reductive vision that basically deletes Islam from the picture, resulting in the popular but extremely problematic notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” (monotheism minus Islam) pitted against rationality and science.18
What we see here is nothing less than the deeply eurocentric or (to use an ugly but increasingly popular neologism) western-centric ideology of Christian and rational-scientific superiority – in this picture, everything above the horizontal line is supposed to be “good,” while everything below it is “bad.” Ever since the rise of modernity, this normative ideology has become deeply ingrained in our educational systems and social institutions, and so we have all been profoundly influenced by it.19
I hope you see my point. Ever since the early modern period, this eurocentric vision of Western superiority has been central to the imperialist-colonialist enterprise of transporting Christian and rational-scientific worldviews to the rest of the globe and seeking to impose them on non-Western people and cultures. The normative ideologies that sought to legitimize colonial conquest and domination have received enormous amounts of criticism in recent decades, and rightly so; but in spite of the obvious importance of these political debates, even the most vocal postcolonial critics of “the West” tend to overlook something crucial. This is that the eurocentric ideology of Western superiority has much older roots. It is based on a consistent and systematic effort to marginalize, exclude, and discredit even much more than its “external” Others (such as Islam or India and other non-European/north-American cultures). As it emerged and developed since Late Antiquity, it had already been targeting all those internal Others associated with “paganism” and “idolatry” that were routinely depicted, in highly dramatic terms, as an existential “demonic” threat.20 Eventually, all these forms of “rejected knowledge” ended up in a conceptual dustbin or box of leftovers, and these are known to the wider public today by such largely pejorative labels as “esotericism,” “magic,” “superstition,” “irrationality,” or “the occult.” In short: the “weird stuff” that we find hard to categorize. “We” have created this box because those practices and ideas just happen to exist and have always existed in our parts of the world and in our history; but we still feel troubled by their presence and do not really know what they are, what to make of them, or what to do with them.21 Our deep confusion about this entire domain is ultimately what has brought us together here today, to talk about “esotericism.” In sum: those well-known types of eurocentrism directed against non-Western cultures (including, of course, the entire discourse currently known as “Orientalism”) have emerged from an even broader, older, and more pervasive “grand polemical narrative” grounded in the discursive dynamics of an internal eurocentrism directed against the “rejected others” in Western culture itself.
So if you ask me “what is esotericism?,” then this is my answer. It may not be what you had expected, but I felt I owed you a serious response rather than just something easy but superficial. There are some far-reaching implications.
· First, and perhaps rather obviously after what I just said: you cannot understand “esotericism” at a deep level without questioning those hidden or explicit ideologies of Western superiority that have defined the very project of modernity as such, including its imperialist expansion and efforts to colonize the rest of the world. If you doubt this, then just think of the popular idea that “we over here” have science, but “they over there” have nothing but primitive magic.22
· A second implication is that all the “weird stuff” that we used to put in the “esotericism” box, to keep it safely apart from what we thought “Western culture” should be really all about, will have to be taken out of that box again and brought back to the table. It must be studied seriously and without prejudice, like any other manifestation of Western culture, and must be restored to its legitimate place in our narratives about the complex history that has been unfolding in our parts of the world over the past two and a half thousand years. Essentially, that is what we are doing in the academic study of esotericism.
· Once we take such a project seriously, a third implication is that we cannot keep thinking about “Western culture” the way we used to think about it. Our traditional stories or grand narratives about “the West” must be exposed for the ideological fictions that they really are and have always been. The well-known triumphalist storylines of Western superiority will have to be replaced by extremely different but, hopefully, more fair and accurate historical narratives of “Western culture.”
Critical Theory and Uncritical Fantasies
You have seen that I am deeply critical of eurocentric ideologies that seek to present a narrow understanding of Western culture as superior, by pitting “Greek” scientific rationality and “monotheistic” (or rather, so-called “Judeo-Christian”) morality against the supposed “irrationality” and “immorality” of everything associated with “paganism,” “idolatry,” “magic,” “superstition,” “the occult,” or “the irrational” – in short, against everything that was placed in the “esotericism” box.23 Over and over again, the modern academic study of esotericism has demonstrated that such crude polemics are simply mistaken. As soon as you move past the stereotypes and look a bit more closely, you discover how impossible it is to keep “esotericism” neatly apart from acceptable mainstream culture by such simple yardsticks as “science,” “rationality,” “religion,” or “morality.” There is plenty of irrationality, immorality, or simple stupidity to be found on both sides of the fence (that is, above and below the horizontal line in the previous image). Conversely, of course, there is plenty of reasonable, moral, and intelligent stuff to be found on both sides as well.
Nevertheless, it remains extremely common in general society and the popular media, especially in Germany, to find countless variations on Theodor Adorno’s notorious thesis that Okkultismus ist die Metaphysik der dummen Kerle (Occultism is the Metaphysics of Dunces).24 I must be perfectly frank here. This quote is a quite typical reflection of the standard pattern of “internal” eurocentric prejudice discussed above. Particularly in the German-speaking world after World War II, the authority of what is known as Critical Theory associated with the Frankfurt School has played a powerful but, in my firm opinion, extremely questionable and largely negative role, by delegitimizing, discrediting, and throwing suspicion on the very attempt to make esotericism into a serious topic of critical and historical academic research. From my own experiences as an academic, I can testify that as the study of esotericism developed during the 1990s, it had to be built up, established, and professionalized largely against the standard type of prejudice that came from Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School. Therefore I need to say a few words about it.
At the end of World War II, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno published their famous Dialektik der Aufklärung (1944). The opening chapter “Begriff der Aufklärung,” dominated by Max Weber’s concept of die Entzauberung der Welt, is based on a truly extreme version of the standard stereotypes that I have been discussing and criticizing above: “Magic versus Reason,” “Mythos versus Logos,” “Paganism versus Monotheism,” and so on.25 Dialektik der Aufklärung is considered a classic, so it is still routinely assigned to new generations of students and remains widely read. But if you read it from a perspective of modern critical scholarship in the fields of magic, disenchantment, or Western esotericism, you find that even its most basic assumptions and lines of argumentation are so utterly outdated that, quite frankly, they cannot be taken seriously anymore. As formulated by Jason Ā. Josephson Storm, who does his best to be as kind as possible, it is little more than “a late expression of an old myth.”26
Ten years later, another Marxist philosopher, Georg Lukács, published his book Die Zerstörung der Vernunft (1955), based on a very similar background logic with extreme political implications.27 The volume is based on a simple opposition. On the one hand, Lukács sketches a positive, healthy, progressive intellectual tradition based on reason (die Vernunft), that runs from Hegel through Marx towards the future ideal of the classless society. By sharp contrast, its counterpart is depicted as a wholly negative, unhealthy, reactionary tradition of unreason that runs from Schelling through Nietzsche and ends with Hitler.
Lukács’ idea was not just that Marxism is rational while Fascism is irrational. His intention was more radical: he wanted to suggest that the progress of “reason” could only lead to Marxism while “unreason” in all its forms (whether philosophical or esoteric) must lead inevitably towards Fascism and Antisemitism. Again, and in spite of Lukács great erudition, the basic argument amounts to little more than political propaganda that reflects the core eurocentric ideology of Western superiority. It is always the same old background story: all true morality comes from Judaism and Christianity while all true science and rationality comes from Greece. Those two core traditions of Western culture are then depicted as facing their eternal (and supposedly not really Western, hence “Oriental”) enemy, the mother of all things irrational and immoral: paganism, magic, the occult, superstition – in short: esotericism. And just in case anybody might still doubt how bad it all is, Lukács states that this entire “genealogy of darkness” finally led to the ultimate horrors of Fascism, National Socialism, and Antisemitism.
Clear rational arguments for such a blanket demonization of “the irrational” (that is: of myth, magic, paganism, the occult, esotericism) are never given. The foundations of Lukács’ political ideology are simply considered beyond dispute. It is not hard to understand that in the shadow of the Shoah, such dramatic narratives of a reductio a hitlerum (“it all leads to Hitler”) were bound to make a strong impression on popular consciousness.28 But there is a deep irony here: if they seemed so convincing and reassuring to many, that was precisely because they confirmed those deeper eurocentric assumptions (including their evolutionist underpinnings, see note 22) of what Western superiority was all about. This made the story easy to sell, and it has largely determined popular and media perceptions of “esotericism” up to the present day. In the absence of a serious academic research tradition focused on actually studying the history of “esotericism and the occult,” historically and critically, there were simply no scholars with sufficient factual expertise and intellectual authority to challenge it – or with the courage to do so. For if you dared to challenge the dominant narrative, you always risked getting attacked as an “apologist” defending questionable, sinister, even dangerous “irrational” traditions.29
Even more unfortunately (and reaching far beyond the impact of Critical Theory now), such simple associations of fascism, nazism and antisemitism with “esotericism, magic, and the occult” were turned into a highly successful genre of popular conspiracy fiction since the 1960s. Here we find the sensational fantasy that Hitler and the Nazis were really occultists, members of sinister secret societies engaged in black magic and inspired by demonic forces. None of that has any historical basis,30 but it was sold to an international mass audience by the French mega-bestseller Le Matin des Magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians) published by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in 1960.31 Out of this developed a never-ending series of further conspiracy theories, disseminated up to the present through popular culture in the form of novels, comics, movies, video games, and the internet. All of this has the effect of creating a cloud of vague but persistent sensationalism in popular consciousness, about unknown but no doubt very sinister “esoteric” (secret!) or “occult” (hidden!) organizations believed to be working behind the scenes and involved in such radical evils as satanism and nazism. We may be dealing with “just fiction” here, but its attraction lies precisely in the exciting subliminal suggestion that “surely there must be something true about it…” Unfortunately, such suspicions are given a certain degree of legitimacy and plausibility by the dominant intellectual traditions that I have been criticizing here. You can see this in the fact that similar patterns of ideologically-driven disinformation about “esotericism” are not limited just to the popular media but can be found even in the work of influential university professors who set themselves up as experts but seldom know the scholarship or care to get acquainted with it.32 The only effective antidote against all this confusion about “esotericism” consists in reliable factual information based on serious, non-partisan, critical and historical scholarship. So again, I warmly invite you to familiarize yourself with the abundant critical literature that is available today.
My argument does not imply, of course, that there is nothing problematic about the relation between esotericism and democracy. With this I reach my fifth point: the importance of being specific – of always differentiating carefully and precisely, rather than painting everything with the same brush. In a liberal democracy, an open society that cherishes freedom of religion, there is no particular reason why the presence of “esoteric” movements or ideas as such should be seen as problematic. The true problem lies in widespread ignorance about esotericism and its history, to which the antidote consists of solid information based on legitimate scholarship. The first lesson that can be learned from the study of esotericism is to steer away from blanket generations and always narrow any inquiry down to specific esoteric trends, movements, or organizations.
Historically and sociologically, many phenomena that fall under the “esotericism” umbrella are hardly concerned with political questions. Many others, since the eighteenth century, have been aligned with left-wing, socialist or progressive agendas. For instance, there is a history of strong connections between esotericism and socialism in the nineteenth century;33 and many forms of esotericism during that period were involved in such progressive causes as women’s emancipation and voting rights, anti-vivisectionism, gender reform, sexual liberation, and anti-colonialism.34 It is not insignificant that the most influential modern esoteric movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Theosophy, was promoting a world-wide program of social reform that should lay foundations for “the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.”35 That this was not just theory is shown by the very strong presence both of women and of South-Asian Theosophers in the leadership and the publications of this global organization.36 After World War II as well, much of the popular esotericism that flourished in the Counterculture since the sixties was leaning decidedly towards the left, for instance in its support for the civil rights movement, sexual liberation, and opposition against the Vietnam war and others manifestations of Western imperialism.
But of course, in the contemporary context we see a number of specific esoteric trends that are undoubtedly problematic because they reject the basic values of liberal democracy. Since esotericism takes its basic ideas from the Western reservoir of “rejected knowledge,” it always has a strong potential for countercultural critiques against the status quo. During the later eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, many esoteric currents took the side of the Enlightenment and progressive social causes against the still-powerful influence of the churches and Christian dogmatism.37 But as this battle was decided increasingly in favour of modernization and secularization (or “rationality and science”), those who felt that “disenchantment” was emptying the world of spiritual meaning found it easy to perceive esotericism as an attractive reservoir of non- or anti-modern ideas and traditions.38 This could and did lead to various new forms of more or less conservative or reactionary “right-wing” esotericism, some of which are explicit in rejecting the very foundations of liberalism and democracy. I will briefly mention the most important of them; but before doing so, I would like to emphasize my sixth and final point. Again, I want to highlight it for special emphasis:
These increasingly visible and popular trends of right-wing esotericism must be seen not as causal factors that help explain the rise of far-right populism over the past two decades. Rather, they are symptoms of the general crisis of liberal democracy that we are currently experiencing.
Here I need to make short excursion to explain the background argument on which my analysis rests. The ascendancy of Neoliberalism based on the theories of Friedrich Hayek and his Mont Pelerin Society since the Reagan/Thatcher era of the 1980s, and the global spread of this ideology since the Clinton/Blair era after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, has led to a deep transformation of what “liberalism” was supposed to mean. For reasons that I cannot possibly discuss here but have been analyzed by specialists in detail,39 the deep logic of neoliberalism is in fact incompatible with democracy and undermines the very principles of “freedom and equality” that liberalism was supposed to be all about.40 At present, we are seeing a widespread popular revolt against the fact that the global push towards radical neoliberalization has clearly not brought us freedom, equality, social justice, democracy and human flourishing, but rather their opposites: authoritarianism, impersonal technological systems of bureaucratic surveillance and control, widespread social injustice, extreme economic inequality, and an ever-deepening crisis of democracy. The tragedy is that neoliberals have always presented themselves as defending “liberalism” and “democracy,” whereas in fact (as specialists and insiders have always known) they were doing the opposite. Because this somewhat subtle but all-important distinction is lost on the wider public, “liberal democracy” gets blamed for the sicknesses that are actually caused by the surrogate that took its place: neoliberalism.41
A certain number of specific esoteric trends have been responding to this situation, or profited from it, by presenting themselves as alternatives. Some of them have taken a clear turn towards the right or the far right. Without going into any detail here, I would suggest the most important ones are the following.
· First, there is the so-called Traditionalist current,42 defined by its virulent opposition against “modernity” in all its forms. For this very reason it has, of course, always tended to be extremely critical of democracy and liberal values as well. Traditionalism was born from the work of the French esotericist René Guénon (1886-1951), and it must be said that many of its sympathizers are much more focused on spiritual concerns than on political ones. Its contemporary anti-democratic far-right manifestations are inspired most specifically by the Italian Traditionalist Julius Evola (1898-1974), who tried to align himself to Mussolini and Hitler and was perfectly explicit about his racist and antisemitic opinions.43 Today, this kind of Traditionalism is coalescing around “spiritual” New Right publishers such as Arktos Media or influential “white-nationalist” websites and networks with explicit racist and antisemitic agendas such as Greg Johnson’s Counter-Currents.44 Not surprisingly, in the same milieus we find a fascination with specific esoteric traditions such as the well known racist/antisemitic mutation of Theosophy known as Ariosophy, or Neonazi icons like Savitri Devi (Maximiani Julia Portas, 1905-1982), who believed that Hitler was a divine avatar;45 and with various more or less “pagan” forms of esotericism aligned to Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite or the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, both of whom have a rather large international following.46
· Modern paganism (also known as Neopaganism) is indeed the second main field where, these days at least, you will find quite some interest in conservative-traditionalist ideas leaning towards the right or the far-right. Predictably, this has led to internal controversies in the pagan community, because many pagans are liberal, left-leaning, and deeply concerned with such progressive issues as women’s emancipation and protecting the environment. But other trends in contemporary paganism place a strong emphasis on the Northern and Germanic pagan deities or “masculine” warrior values; and this may easily, although not necessarily,47 lead to an endorsement of Blut und Boden ideologies.48 Furthermore, a Nietzschean critique of the “soft” so-called “Judeo-Christian” values of Western society, held responsible for the desacralization of the world that has culminated in a spiritually empty neoliberal consumer society, may easily give food to right-wing forms of paganism (although, since it is quite natural for pagans to be critical of Christianity, somewhat similar arguments can also be made from left-wing pagan perspectives).
· The third and final main trend that I would highlight is of a rather different kind. As everybody knows who has read Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), a very important dimension of modern and contemporary esotericism consists of conspiracy theories; and their wide adoption in contemporary spiritual milieus has led to a popular new term, Conspirituality.49 Historically, these trends first developed toward the end of the eighteenth century among deeply conservative Roman Catholics who believed that the Freemasons and the German Order of the Illuminaten were inspired by the devil and responsible for the French Revolution.50 They further developed in many ways throughout the nineteenth century, resulting in countless extremely popular conspiracy fantasies with a central role for Freemasons, Occultists, Satanists, Jesuits, and Jews.51 I already mentioned the popular conspirational genre of “Nazi occultism”; but quite some other similar narratives are themselves implicitly or explicitly antisemitic, as they follow the example of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion52 in suggesting that the neoliberal “elites” that seek to control the world are dominated by a sinister conspiracy of wealthy Jews (the Rothschilds, George Soros, and so on). It is extremely disturbing to see how all these long-refuted stories keep being revived and disseminated online, and keep finding new converts, in the wider context of a “post-truth” culture that erases any distinction between fiction and fact.53
Traditionalism, Right-wing Paganism, and Conspirituality are certainly important phenomena, and it is understandable that they attract much attention from the popular media. But we should not forget that, in the end, they are just three specific dimensions of the much wider and extremely complex field known as “contemporary esotericism.”54
In the wake of such phenomena as the Covid crisis, the popular anti-vaccination movement, the attack on the Capitol, and now the Ukraine war, many recent commentators have been shocked and surprised to see how incredibly popular conspiracy narratives have become, on the internet and social media and among protesters who take to the streets. What to make of the fact that, nowadays, Hippie-like spiritual movements that supposedly preach “love and peace” seem to find it no problem to stand shoulder to shoulder with neofascists and other radical activists on the far right, including pagans and traditionalists?55
I have been arguing that these phenomena are not caused by anything that could be considered “intrinsically esoteric.” In other words, it is not “because of their esoteric ideas” that these people are turning towards the right and against “the elites.” Rather, these protest movements should be seen as symptoms of a deep crisis of liberal democracy. I have suggested that this crisis is caused, essentially, by the historical process of neoliberalization (and neoliberal globalization) that has unfolded since the 1980s and has been spinning out of control increasingly since the financial crisis of 2009. Let me return here to my point at the beginning of this lecture: never forget that in studying esotericism, we are ultimately studying people. It is perfectly normal that average citizens today are struggling with feelings of deep sadness or depression, fear and uncertainty, or alarm and moral outrage about what is currently happening to our world. Many of us feel helpless, afraid and angry, seeing how powerless we are to do anything about the steady accumulation of crises (environmental, social, political, economic, democratic, military, medical, mental-psychological, and so on) that seem to be tearing the fabric of our society apart. Given this situation, it is not just easy but perfectly natural for many individuals to start searching for possible sources of hope and inspiration in the rich historical reservoir of “esoteric” beliefs, concepts, symbols, language, myths, or narratives. After all, those materials have at least one thing in common: the fact that they have been discarded and marginalized by the Western mainstream and intellectual elites, so that they ended up in that box of “rejected knowledge.” This makes them obviously attractive.
In other words, if you feel deeply disappointed, frustrated, or betrayed by “the system,” “the mainstream media,” or “the elites” who have been making such a mess of our world, to a point where you conclude that those who are in charge must be utterly corrupt, then of course you no longer believe any of the “official stories” that “those elites” are trying to sell you, or their claims about what is “true” and what is not! You no longer trust anything they say. But you are still looking for answers, for some kind of meaningful knowledge, some larger story that makes sense, something that might help you understand what is happening and why. The result is that you have plenty of reasons now to take a special interest in whatever “they” reject and have always been trying so hard to discredit, as ridiculous or dangerous and false. In short, you will be inclined to reject whatever they accept (possibly even because they accept it) and to accept whatever they reject (possibly even because they reject it).
This logic is perfectly easy to understand. It explains the special attraction of esotericism as “rejected knowledge” to a society in crisis. I believe there is reason for us to be deeply concerned about the future of liberal democracy, its most fundamental values, and its basic institutions; for they are seriously weakened and under continous attack, and I’m afraid it is by no means certain that they will survive the next decades. To be effective in meeting this enormous challenge, we should not allow an obsession with symptoms to distract us from diagnosing the deep causes of what is going on in society. Our task is to find out what is really wrong with the patient and what we can do to heal her. Otherwise the symptoms will not go away.
1 For the history of the word “esotericism,” see Monika Neugebauer-Wölk, “Historische Esoterikforschung, oder: Der lange Weg der Esoterik zur Moderne,” in: Monika Neugebauer-Wölk, Renko Geffarth & Markus Meumann (eds.), Aufklärung und Esoterik: Wege in die Moderne, De Gruyter: Berlin/Boston 2013, 37-72.↩