Leesfragment: Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture

27 november 2015 , door Wouter Hanegraaff
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8 februari wordt met de discussie 'Het andere van de wetenschap' Wouter Hanegraaffs Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture gepresenteerd bij Spui25. Vanavond kunt u al de inleiding en een deel van het eerste hoofdstuk lezen.

Academics tend to look on 'esoteric', 'occult' or 'magical' beliefs with contempt, but are usually ignorant about the religious and philosophical traditions to which these terms refer, or their relevance to intellectual history. Wouter Hanegraaff tells the neglected story of how intellectuals since the Renaissance have tried to come to terms with a cluster of 'pagan' ideas from late antiquity that challenged the foundations of biblical religion and Greek rationality. Expelled from the academy on the basis of Protestant and Enlightenment polemics, these traditions have come to be perceived as the Other by which academics define their identity to the present day. Hanegraaff grounds his discussion in a meticulous study of primary and secondary sources, taking the reader on an exciting intellectual voyage from the fifteenth century to the present day and asking what implications the forgotten history of exclusion has for established textbook narratives of religion, philosophy and science.

Hic sunt dracones

Quod tanto impendio absconditur, etiam solummodo demonstrare, destruere est.

Tertullian, Adversus Valentinianos iii.5

We are vaguely aware of its existence in our culture and our history. But we would not be able to define what it is, and are at a loss about what to call it. It has many names, but none of them seems to have a clear and straightforward meaning, and each carries associations that are somehow questionable or confusing. And yet, all these names – “esotericism,” “hermeticism,” “the occult,” “magic,” “mysticism,” “superstition,” “the irrational,” and so on – refer to something that unquestionably seems to exist, in our history and all around us. Bookshops have special sections devoted to it, artists and poets claim to be inspired by it, theologians warn against its dangers. We are bound to come across its representatives or its ideas when we are studying the sources of our cultural past, or just while reading a popular magazine or watching television. And whenever that happens, most of us are at least dimly aware of an emotional response of some kind: discomfort, irritation, amusement, contempt, or perhaps some vague feeling of curiosity, puzzlement, even excitement. What we do not do, or only very rarely, is take a persistent look at it and ask ourselves questions about what we see. What is all this, really? Where does it come from? How does it all hang together? What is it doing in our society and our history? And why is it that we tend to smile about it, feel embarrassed, or look the other way?
The generic “we” in the above refers primarily, although not exclusively, to intellectuals and academics like myself. Questions of this kind have occupied me since the day, during my years as an undergraduate student, when I came across a book by a German scholar, Will-Erich Peuckert. It was titled Pansophie, and dealt with a range of early modern authors I had never heard of before: a platonic philosopher (Marsilio Ficino), an author on magic (Cornelius Agrippa), a rebellious physician (Paracelsus), a cobbler given to visions (Jacob B¨ohme), and many others. I learned about their ideas, which turned out to be complex, unusual, and located in some hard-to-define no-man’s-land between philosophy, religion, literature, art, and science. And it became clear that, far from being marginal outsiders, they had been remarkably influential in their own time, and stood at the origin of large and complex intellectual traditions that could be traced through the centuries and even up to our own time. In short, an unknown world opened up for me. Why had I never come across all of this before?

I was intrigued, and wanted to learn more, so I asked my professors for advice. And that is when I began having my first experiences with a phenomenon that has ultimately led me to write this book. My interest in this domain seemed to make my teachers uncomfortable, and to my repeated requests for information and suggestions, they responded by tossing the embarrassing topic on to another colleague as if it were a hot potato. Nobody seemed willing to touch it, and it did not take me very long to decide that if this were the case, then somebody had to do it. This is how I began my explorations of an unknown continent that seldom appeared on the maps of respectable learning, except with a negative travel advice attached to it: hic sunt dracones. Few guidebooks were available, and even fewer proved reliable. With only rare exceptions, scholars who had made serious ventures into this unknown territory had stayed in only one of its towns or provinces, refusing to go anywhere else, and many were those who claimed profound knowledge about it without having learned even just one of its languages. Almost nobody had attempted to map the continent as a whole, however provisorily, and the very few who had tried disagreed about its very boundaries.
Over the past twenty years, the situation has begun to improve. At the time when I began exploring it, there was exactly one academic chair devoted to this continent of learning as a whole, and no university program where students could study it as part of a regular curriculum. At the time of writing, there are at least three, all in Europe: still a very modest number, especially if one considers the vastness of the terrain, but an encouraging beginning that promises more to come. Several academic journals and learned societies, countless international conferences, and great numbers of articles and books demonstrate that what used to be, arguably, the single largest stretch of terra incognita in modern academic research is now attracting scholars in ever greater numbers. They even seem to have agreed about what to call it: Western esotericism. In this book I make no attempt to provide a map of the domain, or write its history. Instead, I have set out to write the history of how scholars and intellectuals have imagined it, ever since the time that its contours first began to be drawn by those who claimed to know of its existence. It is only through their eyes that we will be introduced to it here, and it will quickly become apparent that many of those who have confidently described its nature – sometimes as a lost paradise, sometimes as a dark realm filled with demons, or a resort of fools – have been projecting their own hopes or fears onto it, or have just been repeating what others said about it. But no matter how extravagant the claims that have been made about this continent, one thing is clear: it has always been considered the domain of the Other. It has been imagined as a strange country, whose inhabitants think differently from us and live by different laws: whether one felt that it should be conquered and civilized, avoided and ignored, or emulated as a source of inspiration, it has always presented a challenge to our very identity, for better or worse. We seldom realize it, but in trying to explain who “we” are and what we stand for, we have been at pains to point out that we are not like them. In fact, we still do.
How much truth there is to these perceptions of otherness is an open question, which I will not try to answer directly. What must be emphasized, however, is that our perceptions of “esotericism” or “the occult” are inextricably entwined with how we think about ourselves: although we are almost never conscious of the fact, our very identity as intellectuals or academics depends on an implicit rejection of that identity’s reverse mirror image. It is for this reason that the field of “Western esotericism” has potentially explosive implications for academic research as a whole. If our inherited assumptions about it prove to be inadequate, because they are reflective of ideological constructs and stereotypes rather than unprejudiced investigation of the historical record, then we will be obliged to reconsider the foundations of our own identity. Our imaginal constructs of esoteric or occult otherness are simultaneously constructs of ourselves, and therefore if “they” turn out to be different, the question is what does this imply about us.
In short: setting out to explore the blank spaces on the maps of learning and confront their dragons is a dangerous business. It will affect us possibly beyond recognition, and should do so: if we return from our expeditions unchanged, this means that the dragons have won. In this book we will be following a range of scholars who made the attempt, with greater or lesser degrees of success. I have written it in the hope that after traveling through six centuries in their company, and returning home to our own time, intellectuals and academics will discover that their familiar world no longer looks quite the same.


Chapter 1
The history of truth

Recovering ancient wisdom

Down that road, the past did not grow darker with distance, but brighter; that way lay the morning lands, wise forefathers who knew what we have forgotten, radiant cities built by arts now lost.

John Crowley, The Solitudes, 96

The history of human thought emerged as a topic of intellectual fascination among Italian humanists in the fifteenth century, and the historiography of what we now call Western esotericism was born along with it. The grand Renaissance project of recovering the sources of classical antiquity and its philosophical traditions forced Christian thinkers to reconsider basic questions concerning the relation between human rationality and divine revelation, and stimulated them to trace the historical origins and chronological development of both. However, at a time when critical neutrality had not yet emerged as a historiographical ideal, any such history had to be based upon theological and metaphysical premises and assume the shape of a history of truth: it was not expected merely to discuss the various opinions of earlier thinkers, but rather, to demonstrate the sources of true knowledge and wisdom, trace the paths they had followed through time, and make clear how those trajectories harmonized or coincided with the unquestionable truth of Christian doctrine. This Renaissance project, generally recognized as central to the history of Renaissance hermeticism and Western esotericism, is usually referred to as prisca theologia (ancient theology) or philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy).
From contemporary academic perspectives, the very idea of a “history of (metaphysical) truth” might strike us as contradictory and self-defeating: howcan truth be absolute and yet subject to historical development, or conversely, how should we imagine a history of something that is immutable and beyond change? But such questions are inspired by a secular development of historical consciousness that was still alien to the Renaissance humanists who will be discussed in this chapter: for them, metaphysical verities grounded in divine revelation were the self-evident foundation for intellectual inquiry, and there was not yet any compelling reason to see them as incompatible with the business of historiography. Although we can now see these Italian intellectuals as having made the first tentative steps in a direction that would eventually lead towards the history of philosophy as an autonomous discipline (while also laying some early foundations for the future development of another one, the comparative study of ancient religions), it is of the utmost importance to emphasize that their essential project was not historiographical in our sense of the word, but doctrinal and theological throughout: in studying the ancient wisdom discourse of the Renaissance, we will be dealing with a species of Christian apologetic theology5 that derived its vigor and its religious urgency from the intellectual challenge posed by the newly discovered “pagan” literature.
The overall argument of this chapter is that this Renaissance project resulted in the emergence of a powerful grand narrative which seriously challenged traditional perspectives on the relation between philosophy and theology, or rationality and revelation, and remained a highly important factor in Roman Catholic thought until its decline under the influence of the “anti-apologetic” discourse developed by Protestant authors during the seventeenth century (the main topic of Chapter 2). After the victory of anti-apologeticism during the eighteenth century, this grand narrative of “ancient wisdom” survived as a widespread but officially discredited countercurrent at odds with mainstream intellectual thought. It has been accepted or implied, in one version or another, by most of the authors and practitioners studied under the umbrella ofWestern esotericism, up to the present; but, interestingly, it has also strongly influenced the thinking even of the most important modern scholars who have shaped and developed that field. Were these scholars attracted by the ancient wisdom narrative in spite of its incompatibility with post-Enlightenment intellectual and academic culture or, rather, because of it? As the narrative unfolds, we will see that in addressing such questions, we get to the heart of what is at stake in the modern and contemporary study of Western esotericism.
The story that will be told here is one of apologetic and polemical battles and negotiations over the “wisdom of the pagans,” and their continuations or reverberations right into the present: a story with winners and losers, but without a final victory in sight. Moreover, it will be argued, not only do we see the complex processes of secularization and modernization reflected in this story at each and every turn, but, far more importantly, the battle between the apologists of “ancient wisdom” and their anti-apologetic enemies has shaped and determined the emergence of modernity to an extent that has rarely been recognized.


Meer voorproeven? Zie Cambridge.org.

© Wouter J. Hanegraaff 2012

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