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Birth of Esotericism DEF

Birth of Esotericism DEF

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Published by Hajar Almahdaly
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Published by: Hajar Almahdaly on Sep 24, 2012
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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, DOI: 10.1163/156798910X520593
 ARIES . () – 
 ARIES
www.brill.nl/arie
Te Birth of Esotericism fromthe Spirit of Protestantism
 Wouter J. Hanegraaff 
University of Amsterdam
 Abstract 
La naissance de l’ésotérisme à partir de l’esprit du protestantisme 
Cet article traite de l’émergence et du développement historiques des manières dontnous entendons actuellement l’“ésotérisme occidental” compris comme domaine relative-ment autonome de la recherche universitaire. Il en traite en explorant un certain nombrede moments possibles de sa “naissance”, en partant du présent et, à partir de là, en remon-tant dans le temps. Déterminantes pour l’émergence de l’ésotérisme occidental en tant queconcept sont les années  (
L’ésotérisme 
, d’Antoine Faivre),  (création de la premièrechaire d’Histoire de l’ésotérisme occidental, à l’E.P.H.E. [Paris]),  (le début des con-rencesEranos),et(l
Histoire critique du gnosticisme 
,deJacquesMatter).L’auteurposequ’en définissant l’ésotérisme en termes de prétention à la connaissance (recherche de con-naissancesecrète,cachée,dissimulée,supérieure,plusprofonde,ouintérieure),lesapprochestraditionnelles, religionistes, aussi bien que les approches discursives contemporaines del’ésotérisme finissent par en faire un concept théorique aux applications potentiellementuniverselles et, du même coup, risquent de faire perdre de vue sa spécificité historique. A l’encontre de ces perspectives, l’auteur défend la manière dont Faivre conçoit l’ésotérisme,c’est-à-dire, comme une série de
courants historiques 
ayant donné lieu à un
corpus référentiel 
de textes. Il poursuit en posant que ce que ces courants et ces textes ont en commun n’estpas, comme le dit Faivre, leur participation à une “forme de pensée”, mais leur exclusion, à caractère polémique, de la part d’un discours “anti-apologétique” dans le Protestantisme du
ème
siècle.
Keywords
Esotericism; Antoine Faivre; Jacques Matter; Ehregott Daniel Colberg; Religionism; Anti-apologeticism
 With playful reference to Friedrich Nietzsches famous title, the question Iwouldliketoexploreinthisarticleconcernstheemergenceanddevelopmentof ourcurrentunderstandingof“Westernesotericismasarelativelyautonomous
 

Wouter J. Hanegraaff / ARIES . () – 
field of academic research.
1
My central thesis is that this origin is to be foundin a heavily polemical Protestant discourse that developed in Germany in thesecond half of the th century. In line with the metaphor of “birth and devel-opment”, I will approach my topic genealogically: taking the contemporary situation as my starting-point, I will attempt to trace the “family tree” of West-ern esotericism back into the past as far as possible.
. From Faivre back to Corbin and Eranos
It could well be argued that the present study of Western esotericism as anacademic pursuit was born sixteen years ago, in , with the publication of  Antoine Faivres small but influential “Que-sais-je” volume called
L’ésotérisme 
,whichbydefiningWesternesotericismintermsoffourintrinsiccharacteristics,plus two non-intrinsic ones, created a basic paradigm that was quickly takenup by a range of later authors up to the present. In previous publications Ihave referred to this as the “Faivre paradigm”,
2
and there can be no doubt thatit has played a crucial role in getting the field established as a discipline witha distinct academic identity, and keeps playing a very important role to thepresent day.In proposing his novel definition, Faivre was, of course, attempting tospecify and clarify an academic usage that was already in place before .“Westernesotericismhadbeenconsideredafieldofresearchinitsownrightatleast since the time of Faivre’s appointment as professor of “History of esotericand mystical currents in modern and contemporary Europe” thirteen yearspreviously, in :
3
a date that could therefore be seen as an earlier moment
1)
o prevent any misunderstandings: when I speak of the “birth of esotericism” I amreferring neither to the historical origins of the various currents that are seen as belonging tothe field of “Western esotericism”, nor to the historical origins of any purportedly esoteric“worldview”, “spiritual perspective”, “religious orientation”, “form of thought”, or the like.I am concerned simply, and exclusively, with the historical origins of a theoretical
category 
;or in other words, I am interested in the question of when intellectuals and scholars firstbegan to conceive of a relatively autonomous “field of research” resembling the field that wenow study under the label “Western esotericism”, and why this happened.
2)
In his completely rewritten Introduction to the th edition [] of 
L’ésotérisme 
, Faivrehimself briefly mentions this proposal, without further expressing an opinion about it (o.c.,).
3)
Tere is no reason to attach any special significance to the fact that this title uses theadjective “esoteric” rather than the substantive. As for the combination of “esoteric” with“mystical”, this had to do mostly with matters of faculty politics internal to the E.P.H.E. If the “mysticism” candidate Michel de Certeau had not lost against the “esotericism” candi-
 
Wouter J. Hanegraaff / ARIES . () – 

of birth. Tat year, however, is no absolute point of origin either, for the chairhad in fact been created under a different title fourteen years earlier, in ,as “History of Esoteric Christianity”. If this first academic chair for esotericismwasthereforeborninParis,attheEcolePratiquedesHautesEtudes,itsoriginalconception must be attributed to one of the professors, Henry Corbin, sinceit was he who proposed the idea to his colleagues.
4
Corbin, of course, was a central representative of the famous Eranos ap-proach to the study of religion, and certainly had his own vision of esotericismin mind when he made the proposal. As emphasized by Tomas Hakl in hisdefinitive history 
Der verborgene Geist von Eranos 
, the “Eranos spirit” implieda view of esotericism entirely different from Faivre’s later definition:
 Against the scholarly definition of Antoine Faivre, “esoteric” here means simply theconscious concern with a religiously motivated way “inwards”, with a “know thyself”(your “divine” self). Or formulated in different words, the “esotericism of Eranos”is concerned with “individuation”, the “descensus ad inferos = ascensus ad superos”,which takes places not in the rational and intellectual domain, but in the symbolicand spiritual domain of the soul, and nevertheless can be known by the intellect.Hence also the scepsis, which can time and again be noticed at Eranos, against a 
purely and exclusively 
rational attitude, and the deliberate inclusion of analogical “mythical”thought.
5
Tis difference between an Eranos perspective and Faivre’s later definitionis highly important, as will be seen. It closely parallels the basic oppositionbetween a “religionist” concept of esotericism and a historical-empirical one:
6
an opposition that is present not only in the modern and contemporary study 
dateAntoineFaivre(seeDosse,
 Michel de Certeau
,–),perhaps“Westernesotericismwould not exist as a field of research the way it exists today.
4)
See Faivre, “La parola ‘esoterismo’”. My metaphor of “birth” and “conception” shouldnot be understood as implying that the E.P.H.E. made any deliberate choice to start a new specialty called “esotericism”: instead, what happened is that almost by chance—simply by proposing this particular title—Corbin turns out to have “planted a seed” that wouldeventually blossom into the first academic chair devoted to a new academy field (and eventhat happened only because the second chairholder, Antoine Faivre, chose to interpret hisassignment in a much broader and more comprehensive sense than his predecessor). It isonly with the second academic chair (University of Amsterdam, ) that a university made a deliberate choice to create an academic setting for the study of Western esotericism(albeit under the title “History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents”).
5)
Hakl,
Verborgene Geist von Eranos 
, –.
6)
See e.g. Hanegraaff, ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm’; id. ‘Study of Western Esotericism’,; Faivre,
L’ésotérisme 
(th ed.), –.

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