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Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

Western esotericism: Towards an integrative model

of interpretation
Kocku von Stuckrad*
Department of Religious Studies, University of Amsterdam, Subdepartment ‘‘History of Hermetic
Philosophy and Related Currents’’, Oude Turfmarkt 147, 1012 GC Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Despite the fact that during the last fifteen years we have witnessed the emergence of a research field of
‘Western esotericism’, scholars are still far from agreeing on definitions of ‘esotericism’. For an academic
‘field’, however, that wants to establish international networks and to bring together scholars from various
research areas and disciplines, it is highly desirable to provide an interpretational framework in which these
different studies find their place. The main argument of this article is that such common ground can be
found only when esotericism is seen not as a selection of historical ‘currents’, however defined, but as
a structural element of Western culture. After reviewing the most influential approaches to Western
esotericism, this article identifies two dimensions of an esoteric discourse: claims of higher knowledge and
ways of accessing this ‘truth’. To these dimensions can be added certain world views that are typically
involved in there discourses. The interpretative model proposed here aims at critically addressing basic
aspects of Western self-understanding including the rhetorics of rationality, science, enlightenment,
progress and absolute truth. It postulates that conflicts of religious world views, identities and forms of
knowledge lie at the heart of Western cultural history.
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K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97 79

Introduction: the problem of definition

‘Esotericism’ is a controversial term. Despite the fact that during the last ten to fifteen years
a cornucopia of contributions has led to the emergence of the research field of ‘Western
esotericism’, scholars are still far from agreeing on definitions of ‘esotericism’. It is not that there
is fundamental disagreement about the currents and historical phenomena that scholars have in
mind when they apply the term ‘esotericism’. Most scholars share the view that ‘esotericism’
covers such currents as Gnosticism, ancient Hermetism, the so-called ‘occult sciences’ astrology,
magic and alchemy, Christian Mysticism, Renaissance Hermeticism, Jewish and (Christian
Kabbalah, Paracelsianism), Rosicrucianism, Christian Theosophy, Illuminism, nineteenth-
century Occultism, Traditionalism and various related currents up to contemporary ‘New Age’
spiritualities. All these currents are to be found in the new Dictionary of Gnosis and Western
Esotericism (see Hanegraaff, 2005e), which represents the state of the art in research on
esotericism. Consequently, the editor in chief, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, notes that ‘‘‘esotericism’’ is
understood not as a type of religion or as a structural dimension of it, but as a general label for
certain specific currents in Western culture that display certain similarities and are historically
related’ (Hanegraaff, 2005b, p. 337).
The double use of the term ‘certain’ in Hanegraaff’s depiction of the field reveals the vagueness
of this approach. For even if scholars, for pragmatic or other reasons, agree on historical currents
that they want to study under the rubric of ‘esotericism’, it is important to answer questions such
as the following: what is the rationale behind the selection of currents? Why do we need a general
analytic term to study phenomena that are apparently as different as Hermetism, Paracelsianism
and the ‘New Age’? Is it sufficient to justify the selection with reference to the fact that ‘this entire
domain was severely neglected by academic research until far into the 20th century’ (Hanegraaff,
2005a, p. ix)? What about other currents, such as ancient and medieval Theurgy, Islamic and
Jewish Mysticism and Romantic Naturphilosophie, that likewise ‘display certain similarities and
are historically related’ to currents seen as belonging to ‘Western esotericism’? These questions do
not undermine the pragmatic reasons for making selections. Rather, they indicate the need to
reflect on the biases and presuppositions that underlie academic interpretation.
Because of the problems related to a general concept of esotericism, many scholars prefer other
terms or else apply the term ‘esotericism’ to only a restricted period or context. Bettina Gruber,
for instance, makes clear that she is ‘not interested in any ‘‘transhistorical’’ definition of the
phenomena’. Instead, for her, such a definition would be ‘possible, at least with regard to
esotericism and occultism, only under certain conditions and at the price of marginalizing
functional aspects’ (Gruber, 1998, p. 28). The editors of an important contribution to the study of
‘Western esotericism’ avoid the term ‘esotericism’ because ‘it was not used in early modern times’
and because ‘it too easily provokes associations with the contemporary ‘‘New Age’’ movement’
(Trepp, 2001a, p. 10). A third example, to be discussed, is that of Monika Neugebauer-Wölk, who
limits the term to the period between 1450 and 1800.
To be sure, for individual scholars who focus their research on a clearly defined cultural or
religious context, it is not essential to use general concepts. But for an academic ‘field’ that wants
to establish international networks and to bring together scholars from various research areas and
disciplines, it is indispensable to provide an interpretational framework in which these different
studies find their place. The main argument of the present article is that this common ground can
80 K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

be found only when esotericism is seen not as a selection of historical ‘currents’, however defined,
but as a structural element of Western culture. Put differently, instead of asking what esotericism
is and what currents belong to it, it is more fruitful to ask what insights into the dynamics of
Western history we might gain by applying the etic concept of esotericism.

Western esotericism in the academy

While the adjective ‘esoteric’, (from Greek esô or esôterikós, meaning ‘the inner’) is first attested
in a satire by Lucian of Samosata in the second century CE, its contrasting term, ‘exoteric’, was
already present in ancient Greek philosophy (see Gaiser, 1988; Riffard, 1990, p. 65). Yet the noun
‘esotericism’ has a relatively short history (see Hanegraaff, 2005b, pp. 336e7; Riffard, 1990, pp.
63e137). In its French form l’e´sote´risme it makes its appearance in 1828, when in the wake of the
Enlightenment critique of institutionalised religion, alternative religious currents began to break
away from Christianity. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the notion that esotericism was
something different from Christianity gained wide currency. Scholars described the esoteric as
a kind of subculture, as a tradition that had formulated alternatives to the Christian mainstream
from the Renaissance onwards. Like ‘Gnosis’ and ‘mysticism’din fact terms often used
synonymously in earlier scholarship for what today is discussed as esotericismdesoteric currents
were regarded as having been suppressed as heretical by orthodox Christianity (see van den Broek
and Hanegraaff, 1998; van den Broek and van Heertum, 2000). Until the 1950s, the study of these
phenomena was dominated by specialists in mysticism and in Gnosis who regarded their fields of
research as powerful alternatives to the institutionalised scriptural religions of Europe. Many of
these scholarsdGershom Scholem, Henry Corbin, Mircea Eliade, Martin Buber and Carl Gustav
Jungdwere themselves part of a counter-movement against the ‘disenchantment of the world’.1
It was Frances Yates (1899e1981), working at the Warburg Institute, in London, who in the
1960s pioneered the research into what would today be called Western esotericism. To be sure,
older scholars such as Paul Kristeller, Ernst Cassirer and Eugenio Garin had already noted that
the Hermeticism of the Renaissance had played a largely underestimated role in the formation of
modern science and culture.2 For them, the conventional view that Hermeticism, in the light of
modern science, was ‘superstition’ or ‘irrationalism’ and should not be taken seriously was wrong.
But it was Yates’ spectacular Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) that set
scholarship on a new track. In this book and in an influential subsequent article (Yates, 1967), she
turned the tables and argued that modern science was the direct descendant of Renaissance
Hermeticism (see Yates, 2002 [1964], p. 174). For many, this argument was a revelation. Suddenly,

The famous ‘Eranos’ meetings are an important part of this early stage of research into Western esotericism (see
Wasserstrom, 1999; Hakl, 2001).
It is common usage today to distinguish ‘Hermetism’ as the specific religious world view of the so-called
philosophical Hermetica of late antiquity from ‘Hermeticism’ as the various receptions of hermetic literature in later
periods. Particularly the Renaissance Hermeticism expanded considerably beyond a direct reference to ‘Hermes
Trismegistus’ and incorporated other philosophical and religious traditions. Most scholars of ‘Western esotericism’ thus
regard Hermeticism as an important part of esotericism: see Goodrick-Clarke (2005). Trepp and Lehmann (2001) use
‘Hermeticism’ as a synonym for what others would call ‘esotericism’.
K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97 81

a forgotten tradition seemed to become visible, a tradition that had been suppressed by
theologians but that in fact had been a driving force behind the scientific revolutiondthe
‘Hermetic tradition’.3 Presenting magic and HermeticismdYates later added Rosicrucianismdas
a master key to understanding the rise of modern science provoked harsh responses by historians
of science. Although most scholars today regard her thesis as overextended, the impact of her
works on the emergence of a serious study of Western esotericism can hardly be overestimated
(see Hanegraaff, 2005b, pp. 339e40).
Independently of Yates’ work, in 1965 a chair for the ‘History of Christian Esotericism’ was
established at the fifth section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Sorbonne) in Paris. The
chair was established on the initiative of Henry Corbin. François Secret held this chair until 1979,
when Antoine Faivre was appointed as his successor. The chair was then renamed as ‘History of
Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe’.4 In 1999 the second chair
worldwide for Western esotericism was created at the University of Amsterdam, entitled ‘History of
Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents’.5 With the appointment of Wouter J. Hanegraaff in
Amsterdam and with the establishment of other study programmes in Europe,6 research into
Western esotericism has grown. A journal was founded,7 several conferences were held within the
quintennial meetings of the International Association for the History of Religions (see Faivre and
Hanegraaff, 1998), and scholarly associations were founded both in North America and in Europe.8
Let us have a closer look at the most influential approaches to Western esotericism today.

Antoine Faivre: esotericism as ‘form of thought’

Following the ancient usages of the term, scholars often referred to the esoteric as something
hidden from the majority, as a secret accessible only to a small group of initiates. But many of
these teachings had in fact never been concealed, and in the twentieth century they even gained
wide currency in popular discourses, so that to characterise esotericism as secretive and elitist has
proved misleading (see Faivre, 1999a; Bochinger, 1994, pp. 374e75).
The most influential alternative understanding of esotericism was put forward by The Frenchman
Antoine Faivre, a Germanist and historian. He claimed that the common denominator, or the air de
famille, of those currents referred to as esoteric traditions was a specific form of thought (French
forme de pense´e), the vagueness of this concept notwithstanding (see the critique in McCalla, 2001,
pp. 443e4). Faivre regards the ‘form of thought’ as a characteristic way of interpreting the world.
Faivre developed his characteristics from a set of early modern sources that comprise the ‘occult
On the ‘Yates-thesis’ and the ‘Yates-paradigm’, see Hanegraaff (2001).
After Faivre’s retirement in 2002, the EPHE appointed Jean-Pierre Brach as successor.
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke has established an MA programme in ‘Western Esotericism’ at the University of Exeter,
UK (see; accessed 9 September 2005). The University of Kent, UK,
offers an MA programme in The Study of Mysticism and Religious Experience (see; accessed
9 September 2005).
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke has created a ‘Centre for Western Esotericism’ with an MA programme at the University
of Wales at Lampeter (see; accessed 13 June 2005). The University of Kent offers an MA
Programme in ‘The Study of Mysticism and Religious Experience’ (see
Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism, Brill, Leiden (2001 to present).
The Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) and the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism
(ESSWE; see; accessed 9 September 2005).
82 K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

sciences’ (astrology, alchemy and magic), the Neoplatonic and hermetic thinking as it was shaped in
the Renaissance, Christian Kabbalah, (mainly Protestant) theosophy and the notion of a prisca
theologia (‘‘First Theology’’) or philosophia perennis (‘‘Eternal Philosophy’’). According to this view,
the eternal truth had been handed down through the ages by extraordinary teachers, including
Zoroaster Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus and Pythagoras.
In 1992, Faivre put forward his heuristic thesis that the esoteric ‘form of thought’ consists of four
‘intrinsic’, or indispensable, characteristics, accompanied by two ‘relative’ characteristics, which
are not indispensable but which nevertheless occur often. Faivre insists that only those currents are
correctly labelled ‘esotericism’ that show all four ‘intrinsic’ characteristics, even if with different
emphases. The four are as follows. (1) The idea of correspondences is a crucial characteristic because
it refers to the famous hermetic notion of ‘what is below is like what is above’. In the wake of the
micro-macrocosm idea of ancient philosophy and religion, esotericists view the entire cosmos as
a ‘theatre of mirrors’, an ensemble of hieroglyphs to be deciphered by adepts. Astrology, magic
and spiritual alchemy all partake of this kind of interpretation.9 (2) The concept of living nature
views nature as a whole as a living being, permeated by an interior light or hidden fire that
circulates through it. Nature can be read like a book but can also be interacted with
through active participationdfor instance, in magical acts (magia naturalis in Renaissance parlance).
(3) Imagination and mediations are complementary notions. Imagination is an ‘organ of the soul’
and is key to concentration in magical work.10 ‘Mediation’ means contact with intermediary
entities that serve as informants and messengers to the absolute truth. The important role of
angels, (‘ascended’) masters or divine figures in the process of revelation can also be described as
mediation. (4) The experience of transmutation expresses the idea that adepts of esoteric tradition
undergo a profound process of transformation and rebirth. Faivre alludes to the alchemical
doctrine of death and rebirth to illuminate the spiritual processes within the adept.11 The two
‘relative’ characteristics are (5) the praxis of concordance, or the search for reference systems that
show the common denominator of all spiritual traditions (similar to the idea of philosophia
perennis), and (6) the notion of transmission, or the initiation of an adept by a teacher or a group
(see Faivre and Needleman, 1992, pp. xiexxx; Faivre, 1994, pp. 1e19).
The last decade has shown that this typological approach, developed from concrete historical
material, is helpful in understanding the connections among so many, seemingly diverse
traditions, such as the philosophy of nature, mysticism, Hermeticism, Gnosis, astrology, magic
and alchemy. In addition, Faivre’s operational definition of esotericism (see McCalla, 2001,
p. 443) has helped to overcome simplistic dichotomiesdof religion versus science, magic versus
religion, and esotericism versus enlightenmentdthat had so often distorted earlier understandings
of the complexities of Western culture (see Neugebauer-Wölk, 1999).

On astrology, see von Stuckrad (2003a). But Darrel Rutkin (2002) has convincingly argued that astrology should be
configured with mathematics, natural philosophy and medicine and that linking it to magic or the other so-called ‘occult
sciences’ is a modern configuration (see also Newman and Grafton, 2001). It may be noted also that the idea of
correspondences is by no means limited to European culture. As Steve Farmer et al. (2000) [2002], have pointed out,
correlative cosmologies are a recurring feature of many highly developed cultures.
The importance of this concept in early modern times has been analysed in Godet (1982). See also van den Doel and
Hanegraaff (2005).
The problem of ‘spiritual alchemy’ as representative of alchemy in general (mainly through the religionist
psychology of C.G. Jung) is discussed in Principe and Newman (2001).
K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97 83

At the same time it is a characteristic of heuristic, operational definitions that they are subject to
critique. One problem is the fact that Faivre does not always consistently employ his own typology.
On the one hand he includes as esoteric some currents that do not fit all of his characteristicsdfor
example Mesmerism, which shows only one characteristic, namely, the idea of living nature. On the
other hand he excludes currents that nicely match his typology but fall beyond his scope of interest,
for example Suhrawardı’s medieval Islamic philosophy (see Walbridge, 2001). More important,
Faivre generates his typology from a limited set of sourcesdmainly Renaissance Hermeticism,
Naturphilosophie, Christian Kabbalah and theosophydand thus deliberately excludes aspects of
European history of religion that other scholars view as decisive for a contextual understanding of
esoteric currents.12 In doing so, he excludes antiquity, the medieval period and above all
modernity.13 He marginalises Jewish, Muslim and ‘pagan’ traditions, all of which heavily
influenced European esotericism. In the twentieth century Buddhism and Hinduism have also left
their imprint on Western esotericism. If we follow Faivre’s typology, we end up in a circular
argument: ‘since esotericism is defined as a form of thought, nothing outside that form of thought
can be esotericism’ (McCalla, 2001, p. 444). Although Faivre himself would disagree, his typology
in fact best fits what I would call ‘Christian esotericism in the early modern period’, or to use
Neugebauer-Wölk’s phrase, or ‘Western esotericism in a Christian context’ (Neugebauer-Wölk,
2003, p. 160).14
To overcome the limitations of Faivre’s typology, I will argue for a broader, more pluralistic
conception of esotericism. But before doing so, I must discuss the highly disputed issue of the
relationship between Christianity and esotericism.

Esotericism and Christianity

Monika Neugebauer-Wölk has recently argued for a distinction between esotericism and
Christianity. She contends that esotericism should be defined as an alternative to Christianity. To
describe early modern esotericism as an ‘independent religious system of meaning’ (‘Sinnsys-
tem’)dthat is, as independent of Christianity (Neugebauer-Wölk, 2003, p. 137)dshe identifies five
characteristics, or thematic fields (‘Themenkreise’), of esotericism that demonstrate its autonomy.
The five are as follows: (1) The ‘transgression of holy scriptures’ refers to the fact that esoteric
authors often claim knowledge that is revealed from non-Christian sources, such as the Corpus
Hermeticum, the Chaldaean Oracles and some pre-Christian traditions. (2) These claims lead to the
idea of a ‘higher knowledge’ within esoteric discourse. Early modern esotericism understands itself
as ‘true Christianity’ on the basis of higher knowledge.15 (3) ‘Realisation and worldly power’
addresses the claim to put esoteric knowledge into social and political practice, thus challenging the

On Faivre’s arguments against a ‘comparative study of esotericism’, that runs the risk of claiming a universald
essentialistd‘esotericism’ see Faivre (2000, esp. pp. 102e5); but see also Hanegraaff (1995, pp. 121e4).
‘Correspondences’, for instance, have a different meaning in the Renaissance and in twentieth-century magic.
Another problematic term is ‘magic’: Wouter J. Hanegraaff (2003) has compared the Renaissance magia naturalis with
the ‘disenchanted magic’ of the twentieth century. Simple typological approaches to this shifting field of identities and
strategies miss the point because they presume a common denominator that in fact is not found in the sources.
Faivre’s religionist languagedparticularly in his early writingsdis pointed out by McCalla (2002, pp. 444e7).
How the esoteric claim to represent ‘true Christianity’ fits the argument that esotericism stands outside Christianity,
remains unresolved.
84 K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

institutionalised forms of Christianity. According to Neugebauer-Wölk, this claim should not be

mixed up with the real historical exertion of power in Christian institutions because Christianity
had to ‘broaden and adjust’ its religious concepts in order to justify power, whereas the exertion of
power is ‘an integral part of esoteric religiosity’. (4) The practical aspect of esotericism has
implications on ideas of ‘revelation and the image of Christ’. It is especially the Gnostic notion of
self-redemption,16 the identification of Christ with the alchemical Opus Magnum and the ‘repeated
reincarnations of the Son of God’, that is ‘incompatible with the Christian system of meaning’. (5)
Finally, the idea of ‘invisible church and secret society’ constitutes a powerful alternative to the
public nature of both church and society in institutionalised Christianity (see Neugebauer-Wölk,
2003, pp. 137e43).
Neugebauer-Wölk understands her model as an ideal type. She intends to put forward
a religious conception, i.e., to distinguish esotericism from Christianity, not esotericists from
Christians’ (Neugebauer-Wölk, 2003, p. 143). And she limits her interpretation to the period
between 1450 and 1800, which means that if we want to arrive at a general concept of esotericism,
her model is of only restricted applicability. But even within that period methodological questions
remain: Is it correct to identify Christianity with the confessionalized and institutionalised
churches?17 Are we not confronted with an internal pluralisation of Christianity, a process in
which alternative readings of Christian tradition claim authority (the ‘true church’)?18 Even taken
as an ideal typical point of departure, Neugebauer-Wölk’s model subscribes to a theological or
even heresiological discourse of purity and difference.19 The crucial problem of this Christocentric
approach is the total neglect of non-Christian traditions in Western culture, a neglect that is all the
more remarkable since Jewish and Muslim mysticism had an enormous influence on the
development of Western esotericism, however defined. Even if we accept Neugebauer-Wölk’s first
two characteristics, we will have to remove the focus on Christianity as decisive for esoteric
discourse (see Lehmann, 2001, pp. 235e7). For the European history of culture, it is generally true
that we gain an adequate picture of the dynamics and dialectics only if we look for intra- and
interreligious processes of exchange, for something that I call discursive transfer.

Discursive transfers: European history of religions

There can be no doubt that within the traditions called Christianity, Judaism and Islam there
exists a relatively closed centre of transmitted elements and doctrines, mostly handed down in
literary formdas canonized texts, for instance. But when one examines the concrete
manifestations of those lines of tradition, it is also apparent that these closed centres are in

One may add that in Gnosticism even the divinity is saved, whereas in mainstream Christianity it is only humans
who are saved.
This idea is criticised by Hanegraaff (2004), to which Neugebauer-Wölk responds in her article.
Neugebauer-Wölk recognises the problem but gives no solution to it: ‘The main problem of the approach proposed
here, namely to basically differentiate esotericism and Christianity, is the self-understanding of the contemporaries’
(Neugebauer-Wölk, 2003, p. 159).
Neugebauer-Wölk correctly criticises the full inclusion of esotericism into Christianity for taking the side of the early
modern esotericists who claim to be true Christians, but taking the sides of ‘the orthodoxies of that epoch’
(Neugebauer-Wölk, 2003, p. 160) is equally problematic.
K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97 85

fact very small. Much more often this set of material is used and transformed in the light of
contemporary debates and interests. At this point the discourses come into play because they
identify concerns of shared interest for people from divergent religious traditions. Discourses can
be seen as the social organisation of tradition, meaning and matters of knowledge. Invoking to
Michel Foucault’s understanding of discourse (see Foucault, 1971), one notes that discourses
constitute not only meanings and uses of tradition but also instruments of power as well as the
societal realities that these discourses create.
For instance, we can analyse speculation about the meaning of historical events and their function
in a concept of salvation history as a discourse. While medieval Shiites used the astrological doctrine
of the ‘great conjunctions’ of Jupiter and Saturn to calculate the coming of the hidden Imam, Jews
applied this same doctrine to cope theologically with their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and their
situation of exile that soon was to lead to a messianic age. Christians, for their part, referred to the
great conjunctions as indications of the eschatological significance of interconfessional tensions.
These transfers of meaning from one tradition to another and their social and political implications I
call fields of discourse.20 In this case we can refer to an apocalyptic, heilsgeschichtlichen or astrological
field of discourse in early modern Europe.21 In doing so, we can refer to theoretical considerations
following Foucault as well as to the notions of ‘fields’ elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu and Ingo
Mörth. In the words of Burkhard Gladigow, ‘Cooperation and complementarity, polemic and
dialogue, exclusion and inclusion of systems and among the carriers of these systems should best be
described as a ‘‘field’’’ (Gladigow, 1995, p. 28, with reference to Mörth, 1978). In addition, fields of
discourse are not limited to the religious sphere. We find transfers of meaning from religious systems
to scientific, philosophical, philological and juridical systems as well as to the areas of art and
literature (see Simonis, 2002), and vice versa. I will return to these transfers as characteristics of the
European history of religion.

Multiple identities

The notion of fields of discourse and shared concerns challenges the conventional notion of
strictly demarcated religious identities. In fact, fields of discourse can change these identities and
bring forth astounding alliances and parallels. Often demarcations are more prominent between
Platonists and Aristotelians, between Scholasticism and Nominalism or between literal
interpretation of Scripture and mystic-esoteric vision than between (or among) ‘Christianity’,
‘Judaism’ and ‘Islam’. If we consider sociological research into modern religious identities, we will
no longer refer to a closed religious identity in the twentieth century that follows the rule ‘one
persondone religion’. My thesis is that this crossover is not limited to the modern age, even if the

On my understanding of a ‘discursive study of religion’ see von Stuckrad (2003c). The difference between a ‘transfer
of ideas’ and a ‘discursive transfer’ is that a discursive transfer also conceptualises the material realisation of ideas in
a society. A discourse of ‘exile’, for instance, is inseparably bound up with physical expulsion, ghettoization and the
public burning of scriptures.
Matt Goldish approaches the phenomenon of Sabbateanism in early modern Europe from exactly this point of view:
‘Exploring Sabbatean prophecy as part of Jewish and general culture in Europe and the Ottoman Empire can help us
understand a great deal more about the place of Jewish ideas in the seventeenth-century world and their
interrelationship with contemporary conditions’ (Goldish, 2004, p. xi). It is the trans-religious discursive field of
prophecy and apocalypticism that determined the interpretations and rhetorics of seventeenth-century esotericism.
86 K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

differentiation of religious options and the possibilities to choose among them are enhanced in
modern times. In earlier times, identities were also constructed along the lines of fields of
discourse, biographical narratives and a tension between inner and outer perception. As it does
not seem to create problems for Christians today to practice Zen meditation or to believe in
Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and karma,22 in early modern times many Christians easily
could pick up pantheistic thoughts or practices that officially were regarded as heretic. Minister
Johann Rist (1607e1667), for instance, established in his parish in Wedel, Germany, a complex
alchemical laboratory in order to search for the foundation of life. In 1664 he confessed that
‘[t]he joy [Lust], however, that I drew from this I can hardly put into words’. When a friend
criticised his alchemical practice, saying, ‘as a consequence the [alchemist] and his sort will become
half-gods’, the minister tersely replied: ‘Why shouldn’t this be possible?’ (see Trepp, 2001b,
pp. 103e104).
In the history of Western esotericism we find many personalities that can be described as
junctions for the transfer of religions and traditions. More prominent than Minister Rist is
Guillaume Postel (1510e1581), who was simultaneously a Jesuit, a Kabbalist, an Islamic scholar
and the prophet of the return of the Virgin Mary, herself identified by Postel as the Kabbalistic
Shekhinah. Although the interest of these figures was polemical, they enhanced the exchange of
philosophical, theological and esoteric concepts in Europe. What Steven M. Wasserstrom (2000)
calls ‘interconfessional circles’dtransmitters of thought between Jewish and Muslim circles in
medieval Spain who were ‘interconfessional despite themselves’dholds true for early modern
Europe and for Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations as well.
Religious identities are shaped through communicative processes. They are not found but
negotiated (see Kippenberg and von Stuckrad, 2003a, pp. 136e46). In this process religious
alternatives play a crucial role because in considering other options, whether positively or
negatively, persons come to form their own position. And this process applies to individuals such
as Guillaume Postel, Johann Rist and Christian Zen-practitioners as well as to whole
communities. Both need a deviant ‘other’ to define themselves. In this process slight differences
are exaggerated as radical contrasts, a phenomenon that is particularly obvious in the ‘high tide’
of esotericism and the confessional differentiation of Christianity between 1450 and 1750.23


Since ancient times, even if especially in modernity, religious pluralism has been the standard
situation in Europe (see Kippenberg and von Stuckrad, 2003b). Even during those times in which
Islam was not institutionalised in Western Europe, it existed as an ideological alternative to
Christianity or Judaism, as did Judaism to Christianity. It was part of a shared field of discourse.
Here we see the difference between ‘plurality’ and ‘pluralism’. Whereas plurality stands for a simple
coexistence of different religious traditions, pluralism denotes the organisation of difference.
Religious options alternative to one’s own are known, are a matter of negotiation, and constitute an

A similar example is the nice expression ‘Jewboo’ for Jews who openly embrace Buddhist doctrines.
As Jonathan Z. Smith (1990) has persuasively argued, the confessional age also determined later processes of
theological ‘othering’ that declared a comparison between Christianity and ancient mystery cults impossible. This point
is important for methodologies in esoteric studies as well.
K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97 87

element of one’s own identity. In constructing the ‘other’, both parties form a discursive unit. The
organisation of difference then crystallises in ecclesiastical councils, confessional literature,
constitutions, social group-formation, and political and juridical systems. In the case of esotericism
not only are the scriptural religions players on these fields, but so also are memories of the pagan,
polytheistic past and religious traditions that are related to the names of Hermes Trismegistus or
Zoroaster. In his impressive Rezeptionsgeschichte of the figure of Zoroaster in Europe, Michael
Stausberg addresses Zoroastrianismdwhich was present in Europe as ‘mere imagination’din such
a way that ‘in addition to the analysis of the European view on Zoroaster from outside
(‘‘Fremdgeschichte’’) the question of the religious or historical implications and explications of this
process of reception’ must always be taken into account (Stausberg, 1998, p. 22).
Religious pluralism is a structural element of the European history of culture. If we want to
analyse this history, we have to include the ‘other’ that is constantly being produced by the ‘own’.
That scholars in Basel, Venice or Paris in the sixteenth century began to be interested in Muslim
theologies and literature did not stem from a neutral interest in the Qur’an or the intention to
refute this ‘heresy’. The enemies were also found within the church. In 1716 the Dutch theologian
and orientalist Adrian Reland wrote: ‘Whoever wants to give a discreditable name to a doctrine
immediately uses to call this doctrine Mohammedan’. Hartmut Bobzin correctly concludes: ‘The
motives for a study of Islam and particularly of the Qur’an as a ‘‘box of all heresy’’ . can only be
understood in all their consequences against the background of theological dispute related to the
Reformation’ (Bobzin, 1995, p. viii). Esotericism illustrates how Christians and others became
interested in alternative descriptions of the cosmos and of history that were subsequently
incorporated in their own identities, either within or beyond scriptural religions. Only when we
acknowledge the pluralistic reflection as characteristic of the European history of religions are we
able to understand these processes.
Discursive transfers are not limited to religious traditions. In a seminal article Burkhard
Gladigow has argued that it is the mutual dependency of religious, philosophical, scientific and
political reflections that characterise the ‘European history of religions’ (‘Europäische
Religionsgeschichte’, in contrast to ‘history of religions in Europe’). He offers a prolegomenon
to the discursive study of esotericism:
In the course of many centuries, philosophy and philologies presenteddor revivedd
traditions that no longer or never had ‘carriers’ [‘Träger’] (in the Weberian sense), traditions
that were transmitted only in the medium of science. Renaissance, Humanism and
Romanticism took their alternatives to occidental Christian culture mainly from the sciences.
A revived Platonism could subsequently be closely tied to Christianitydor it lived on as
theory of magic and irrationalism right into the eighteenth centuryd; Gnostic schemes and
ideas of redemption could interfere with Asian religions that were imported through
philologies; a monism could melt into a Christian pantheism or constitute a new religion.
(Gladigow, 1995, p. 29)
To avoid misunderstandings, Gladigow makes clear that ‘we are not, nota bene, dealing with
a mix of systems of meanings, a syncretism, but with a ‘‘semiotic’’ which assembles different
religions and the constructions of meaning in parts of society like signs in a system of signs’
(Gladigow, 1995, p. 37). Hence scientific interpretations and interpreters can themselves become
producers of ‘meaning’ (see also Tenbruck, 1993; von Stuckrad, 2003b, pp. 279e84).
88 K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

Towards a discursive model of esotericism

Following all these considerations, I want to suggest a model of esotericism that is capable of
describing the dynamic and processuality of identity formation as well as the discursive transfers
among areas of Western culture, especially among religious traditions, natural philosophy,
science, literature and art. Because we are constructing an analytical instrument, one thing should
be clear from the outset. ‘Esotericism’ as object matter does not exist; ‘esotericism’ is
a construction of scholars who order phenomena in a way that they find suitable to analyse
processes of Western history of culture. Studying the esoteric as an element of discourse refuses to
present a new master-narrative, as Moritz Baßler and Hildegard Châtellier correctly note:
‘Nobody will . from the discovery of new discursive elements construct a new ‘‘master
narrative,’’ for instance that it was ‘‘basically occultism that enabled modernity’’d
against this one has to insist on the complexity of every historical fact as junction of innumerable
discourses in specific constellations (‘Einleitung’ to Baßler and Châtellier, 1998, p. 25).24
Although I intend to include in this model those currents that most scholars regard as relevant
to ‘esotericism’, I want to put up a general matrix of interpretation that will be applicable to other
new fields of research as well. That is the reason that my model identifies two dimensions of an
esoteric discourse: claims of higher knowledge and ways of accessing this knowledge. To these
dimensions we can add certain world views that are typically involved. While those currents that
are usually addressed as esoteric show all these dimensions and world views, it is perfectly
justifiable to approach other currents or phenomena with this model of interpretation.25 For
example, Marxism, Hegelian philosophy, parts of twentieth-century science and the mysticism of
a Hildegard of Bingen share certain dimensions of this model of ‘esotericism’. Still, that overlap
should not lead us to conclude that Marx, Hegel and Hildegard were also ‘esotericists’. The
benefit of this model of esotericism is rather to elucidate the role of these personalities in an
ongoing Western discourse of higher knowledge. What is at stake is the simple question: do we get
new insights into the dynamics of Western culture by applying the analytical instrument of
I will come back to the methodological status of this model. Let me first elaborate on the
dimensions in more detail and illustrate them.

Claims of higher knowledge

On the most general level of analysis we can describe esotericism as the claim of higher
knowledge. Important here is not only the content of these systems but the claim to a wisdom that
is superior to other interpretations of cosmos and history.26 What is claimed here, a vision of truth
as a master key for answering all questions of humankind. Thus, relativism is the natural enemy of
A similar approach can be found in Bettina Gruber’s introduction to Gruber (1997).
This distinction resembles Wouter Hanegraaff’s differentiation between esotericism sensu strictu and esotericism
sensu lato. Note, however, that esotericism sensu strictu for Hanegraaff more or less coincides with esotericism sensu
Faivre (see Hanegraaff, 1996, pp. 384e6).
A good example of a discursive analysis is Stephen Pumfrey’s (1998) discussion of ‘Paracelsianism’, a notion that
lacks precise content but that is used as an identity marker for claiming ‘too much’ knowledge in early modern
confessional debate.
K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97 89

esotericism. The idea of higher knowledge is closely linked to a discourse of secrecy, albeit not
because esoteric truths are restricted to an ‘inner circle’ of specialists or initiates but because the
dialectic of concealment and revelation is a structural element of secretive discourses. Esoteric
knowledge is not so much elitist as hidden. This difference can lead to certain paradoxes, as Elliot
Wolfson notes:
The hermeneutic of esotericism displayed in many kabbalistic sources does attest to the elitist
posture based on the presumption that secrets must not be divulged to those unworthy to
receive them, but it certainly goes beyond it as well, inasmuch as the concealment of the
secret is dialectically related to its disclosure. Simply put, the utterance of the mystery is
possible because of the inherent impossibility of its being uttered. (Wolfson [2005], quoted
from manuscript)27
In principle the revelation of esoteric truths is accessible to anyone who follows the prescribed
ways and strategies that lead to this ‘land of truth’, even if the requirements of following these
strategies are so high that an elitist self-understanding emerges from them. Moshe Idel, borrowing
Jan Assmann’s notion of ‘arcanisation’, describes the dialectics of secrecy and concealment on the
one hand and of revelation and understanding (binah or derishah) on the other in Jewish mystical
discourse as an elitist form of religion that fully matches my notion of esotericism (see Idel, 2002,
pp. 202e4).
Totalising claims to knowledge can be found in many religious contexts, from the ‘Gnostic’
search for self-redemption to Suhrawardı’s school of illumination to Abraham Abulafia’s
Kabbalistic fusion with the divine to Jacob Böhme’s notion of Zentralschau and Emanuel
Swedenborg’s conversing with the angels. These claims can also be found in philosophical
contexts, such as a late antique Middle Platonism and Renaissance Neoplatonism. The Chaldaean
Oracles as source of absolute knowledge are a telling example. Take, for instance, the Byzantine
theologian Michael Psellos, who is a link between Proclus and Pletho. In his Chronographia he
I heard it said by the more adept philosophers that there is a wisdom which is beyond all
demonstration, apprehensible only by the intellect of a wise man, when prudently inspired.
Even here my resolution did not falter. I read some of the occult books and grasped their
meaning, as far as my human abilities allowed, of course, for I myself could never claim that
I had an accurate understanding of these things nor would I believe anyone else who said he
had. (Psellos, quoted in Duffy, 1995, p. 87)
With these sentences Psellos, characteristically for the heresiological discourse of his time, tried
to combine the totalising knowledge of the ‘wisdom beyond all demonstration’ with the refutation
of the accusation that he was a practitioner of ‘occult techniques’.
Philosophers have often partaken in an ongoing discourse of higher knowledge. From this
perspective even Hegel can be described as a player on esoteric fields of discourse because he
Note also Michael Taussig’s comment: ‘The real skill of the practitioner lies not in skilled concealment but in the
skilled revelation of skilled concealment. Magic is efficacious not despite the trick but on account of its exposure. The
mystery is heightened, not dissipated, by unmasking and in various ways, direct and oblique, ritual serves as a stage for
so many unmaskings. Hence power flows not from masking but from unmasking, which masks more than masking’
(Taussig, 2003, p. 273).
90 K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

presents his doctrine as the ‘end of philosophy’ (Abschluss der Philosophie) (see Magee, 2001).
These examples illustrate the ‘esoteric’ structure of such philosophies. If we compare them with
the view of Augustine and the medieval Scholastics that the ultimate truth has simply to be
believed because it is beyond the reach of the human intellect, the difference is apparent (see also
Ginzburg, 1976). Likewise Cartesian rationalism and the Kantian critique of pure reason are
much more modest about the ultimate reach of their doctrines.
How, then, are we to differentiate ‘esotericism’ from ‘Gnosis’ (i.e., ‘knowledge’)? Since the term
‘Gnosis’dand to a certain extent ‘Gnosticism’ toodis a highly biased term in theological rhetoric,
there is good reason to agree with Michael Williams’ (1996) argument for ‘dismantling’ this
‘dubious category’ (see also Hanegraaff, 2005c). At the same time this ‘dubious category’ played
an important role in Christian heresiological discourse, as in Gottfried Arnold’s influential
Unparteyische Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historien vom Anfang des Neuen Testaments bis auf das Jahr
Christi 1688. Arnold defines ‘Gnosis’ as follows: ‘1) That you understand the things properly; 2)
that you fulfil what you know; 3) and that you expound what is hidden in truth in divine
fashion’.28 The Gnostic search for higher understanding hence is ‘really a completion of man .
through the wisdom of divine things, both in words and in practice and in whole life, as they talk
about it. That is why those Christians called themselves Gnosticos, particularly those who are
interested in studying divine things in a contemplative life’.29 ‘Gnosis’ is introduced in Arnold’s
description as an emic term, the function of which we can analyse with reference to an esoteric
field of discourse (see Gilly, 2000; Schlögl, 2001). It illustrates what Michael Pauen has nicely
called the ‘self-empowerment of the understanding subject’ (‘Selbstermächtigung des erkennenden
Subjektes’) (see Pauen, 1994, p. 36). But should we turn ‘Gnosis’ into an etic term? The answer is
‘no’. With the concept of esotericism proposed here, we can easily relinquish the terms ‘Gnosis/
Gnosticism’ and describe various passages from the Corpus Hermeticum (I:20; XI:22; XIII:18;
Asclepius 6 41) as esoteric.30
We encounter claims of higher knowledge not only in religion and philosophy but also in
science. While many scientists regard their work as the application of heuristic models in order to
understand natural phenomena, until the nineteenth century the objectives of ‘science’ often
transgressed these limits. Scientists were ready to unveil the master key to the world. An ‘esoteric
spin’ is present, for example, in John Dee (1527e1609), who experimented with angels in order to
learn about the end of the world, as well as in the attempt of seventeenth-century natural
philosophers at the court of Sulzbach to combine Kabbalah, alchemy and experimental science.31
Even today, totalising claims are not absent from scientific rhetoric. It is revealing to compare the
search for a ‘grand unified theory’ in contemporary physics or the religious language underlying

‘1) Daß man die sachen wol erkennet: 2) auch vollbringet was man weiß: 3) und darlegen kann/was in der warheit
auf Göttliche art verborgen ist’.
‘Eine rechte vollendung des menschen . durch die weißheit in Göttlichen dingen, so wol in worten als in wercken
und im gantzen leben/wie sie davon reden. Und daher haben sich nun auch die Christen selber Gnosticos genennet,
zumal die, welche sich auf betrachtung Göttlicher dinge in einem beschaulichen leben geleget haben’ (Arnold, 1740, I,
p. 70).
The same is true for later claims of individual ways to superior knowledge analysed by Pauen: see von Stuckrad,
2004, pp. 41e7. On ‘Gnostic’ astrology where the issue of transgressing theological boundaries is crucial, see von
Stuckrad, 2000, pp. 624e95.
See Coudert (2001). Moran (1991) makes a similar point with regard to the court of Moritz of Hessen.
K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97 91

the decipherment of the human genome with the interpretational instrument of ‘esotericism’. The
vocabulary of genetics alludes both to a divine potential of creation (‘genesis’, ‘genes’,
‘generation’) and to the esoteric theme of finding the ultimate language of the cosmos (the
Ursprache) (see Coudert, 1999; Kilcher, 1998).
Although claims of higher knowledge can be part of established and well accepted cultural
areas,32 they at times challenge the truth claims of institutionalised religious traditions. As soon as
a majority is established, various deviant minorities enter the stage, both through strategies of
exclusion by the majority and through the conscious decision of minorities to espouse alternative
systems of meaning. The minority’s claim to provide an individual way to ‘true knowledge’ has
further fuelled the underlying conflicts. Many esoteric currents belong to the field of deviant
religious optionsdfor instance, certain Christian ‘heresies’, the reception and reconstruction of
Hermetic philosophy, some techniques of ritual power (Theurgy, magic, Goeteia), and polytheistic
and pantheistic theologies that define themselves in opposition to the hegemony of scriptural religions.
Often these deviant identities are connected to an appeal to tradition that is held to be superior
to institutionalised religion.33 The whole issue of prisca theologia and philosophia perennis with its
line of distinguished teachers of mankind, such as Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Plato and others, served
as a powerful tool in constructing identities beyond the revelations of ‘mainstream’ Judaism,
Christianity and Islam (see von Stuckrad, 2005; Faivre, 1999b).

Ways of accessing higher knowledge

The next step in addressing the esoteric components of Western history of religion is to identify
the specific means of gaining higher knowledge. Two ways in particular are: mediation and
individual experience. I understand mediation here in the same way as Antoine Faivre, who
introduced it into academic language, albeit not as a typological characteristic of esotericism but as
a strategy for substantiating the claim for secret or higher wisdom that is revealed to humankind.
The mediators can be gods or goddesses, angels, intermediate beings or other superior entities.
Examples of mediators are Hermes, Poimandres (in the Corpus Hermeticum), Enoch, Solomon,
the ‘Great White Brotherhood’ and ‘Mahatmas’ of the Theosophical Society or the guardian angel
‘Aiwass’, who revealed higher wisdom to Aleister Crowley in the Liber AL vel Legis in 1904.34 From
this perspective it is obvious that the large field of ‘channeling’da term coined in the context of the

Neugebauer-Wölk rightly points out that the idea of esotericism as a counter-culturedso prominent in earlier
religionist approaches to the fielddshould be abandoned entirely: see Neugebauer-Wölk, 2003, p. 157. See also
Hanegraaff, 2001. Agostino Steucho, Johann Crato of Krafftheim, the emperor Rudolph II or Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe indeed cannot be regarded as marginal figures see Neugebauer-Wölk, 2003, p. 158, but giving up the romantic
notion of esoteric counter-culture should not lead us to overlook the conflicting potential of totalising truth claims. In
fact, Neugebauer-Wölk’s own model gives evidence to that conflict.
For a critical assessment of rhetorics of ‘tradition’ in the history of religions see Engler 2005; Engler and Grieve,
2005. The importance of claims to tradition in esotericism is highlighted by Hammer, 2001, pp. 85e200, and
Hanegraaff, 2005d.
To be sure, the element of mediation is also present in mainstream Christianities, even in the New Testament. Again,
this does not mean that the revelation of the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:26e38; cf. Matt 1:20e22) qualifies as
‘esotericism’. It means only that ‘esoteric’ patterns of revelation can be found in quite different places, from which they
were taken over into esoteric discourses of ‘absolute knowledge’. This claim is absent from the New Testament
narrative, as is the claim of individual experience.
92 K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

so-called New Age movement35dis a typical phenomenon of esoteric discourse, no matter who the
channelled source isdfor example, ‘Seth’ (Jane Roberts), ‘Ramtha’ (J.Z. Knight), or ‘Jesus
Christ’36 (Helen Schucman, A Course in Miracles).
In addition to, and sometimes in combination with, mediation, we can identify the individual
experience as an important mode of gaining access to secret or higher knowledge.37 Repeatedly,
the claim of individual experience of ultimate truth was a threat to institutionalised forms of
religion, as the reaction of the Christian churches to these claims clearly reveal.38 It is not the
experience itself that causes problems for institutionalised religionsdevery religion encompasses
the dimension of experiencedbut the two other aspects: the individual character of it and the
claim that is linked to it, which often transgresses the boundaries of an institutionalised religion.
En passant we can note that the mode of experience explains why in early modern times esoteric
currents were openly embraced by Protestant denominations, especially in the spiritualistic
and pietistic milieu that focused on the formation of an ‘inner church’ through personal
This dynamic, again, is prominent in the Corpus Hermeticum and subsequent literature, where
a vision indicates the process of revelation.40 The complex genre of ascension to higher dimensions
of realitydin the Hekhalot literature, in ‘Gnostic’ traditions and also in various mystical contexts,
through meditation or through drug-induced altered states of consciousness41dincludes claims of
individual experience as well. Last but not least, we may refer to Neopagan groups with their
insistence on personal experience and their refutation of ‘mere belief’ in scriptures and authorities.
In so doing, they have also been part of the esoteric discourse.42

World views

The two dimensions of an esoteric discourse that I have expounded so fardthe claim of higher
knowledge and the ways of accessing the truthdalready provide us with a sufficiently accurate
instrument for locating esoteric currents in Western culture. To them we can add a third aspect. It is
On channeling see Hanegraaff, 1996, pp. 23e41; 182e202; von Stuckrad, 2004, pp. 229e31 (with further references).
This is another indication of how difficult it is to differentiate ‘Christianity’ from ‘esotericism’.
Olav Hammer (2001, pp. 331e453) describes the ‘narratives of experience’ as powerful means of ‘claiming
knowledge’ in modern esotericism. This observation can easily be extended to earlier periods.
The negative response of rabbinic authorities to Abulafia’s ‘ecstatic Kabbalah’ is a similar case. Reference can also
be made to Suhrawardı, who was burned alive in Aleppo (in 1191) due to the ‘heretic’ potential of his philosophy.
See, for instance, the notion of ‘True Christianity’ as an inner phenomenon in Johann Arndt’s Vier Bücher vom
Wahren Christentum. The esoteric components of this influential book are treated extensively in Geyer, 2001. See the
remarks on Geyer in Neugebauer-Wölk, 2003, pp. 154e6.
For the subsequent Jewish tradition see Wolfson, 1994, esp. pp. 326e92. On the Corpus Hermeticum see
Copenhaver, 1992.
I have analysed the ‘journey of the soul’ as a continuous motif in European cultural history in von Stuckrad, 2003b,
pp. 232e68.
Michael York, in his openly religionist Pagan Theology, insists that ‘Inasmuch as paganism is the root of religion, it
confronts the earliest, the most immediate, and the least processed apprehensions of the sacred. This is the experiential
level on which paganism in both its indigenous and contemporary forms wishes to concentrate’ (York, 2003, p. 168).
York’s description of non-Western traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism etc.) is heavily influenced by his preconceived
attitude towards a universal paganism. Contemporary Western paganism, for its part, cannot be explained without
reference to a critique of Christianity anddironicallydto a Protestant focus on experience.
K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97 93

possible to access the esoteric field of discourse through to its actual beliefs and world views. Although
these beliefs are by no means necessary to calling something esoteric, they lend themselves quite
naturally to esoteric truth claims. Certain philosophical ideas and cosmologies are more likely to foster
esoteric interpretations than others. Neoplatonic cosmologies played an especially significant role in
supporting esoteric claims from antiquity onwards (see Runggaldier, 1996) through their notions of
emanation, of the transcendent realm of ideas, and of the mythical home of the immortal soul.
In general, most esoteric currents share an ontological monism. Their cosmology derives from
world views that constitute a unity of material and non-material realms of reality.43 This position
is a necessary precondition for doctrines of correspondences as well as for magical rituals or ideas
about living nature (or natura naturans in philosophical parlance). Although monistic, pantheistic
or animistic lines of thought do not inevitably lead to a claim of higher knowledge, they can be
seen as a natural backbone and explanation for esoteric modes of accessing the ‘truth’.
One may ask here how this view of ultimate monism fits dualistic brands of philosophy found
in parts of ‘Gnosticism’ and in Manichaeism, both of which have clearly exerted an influence on
esoteric discourse. The answer is that esoteric cosmologies have constantly wrestled with the
problem of dualism, often in accounts of evil. As a rule, those interpretations have gained the
upper hand that have transformed dualisms into polarities and have explained the existence of
counter-powers as integral elements of cosmological processesdthus, in an ultimately monistic
world views). Influential examples of this attempt are the cosmology of Zoharic and Sefirotic
Kabbalah, the Renaissance Neoplatonism, and also Schelling’s philosophy of nature and Hegel’s
response to it. The blending of Eastern philosophies, which are held to be non-dualistic, with
Western esotericism in the twentieth century reveals the same cosmological attitude.


Let me come back to the problem of definition. From the academic study of religion we know
that it is not a necessary precondition for establishing fields of research into ‘religion’ to agree on
a definition of ‘religion’. Much of the work in religious studies consists exactly of reflection on
definitions and tools of analysis. The argument of this article is that ‘esotericism’ presents a similar
case. If we want to set up an academic field of research, we must extend our understanding of
esotericism beyond definitions that are necessarily limited to specific cases. We must reflect on the
implicit interlacing of various definitions and seek general cultural dynamics. The model that I
present here is an attempt at reaching this common ground. I do not propose a definition of
esotericism but a framework of analysis. In doing so, I appeal to Max Weber, who wrote in Die
‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis (1904):

It is not the ‘factual’ association of the ‘things’ [die ‘sachlichen’ Zusammenhänge der ‘Dinge’ ]
but the intellectual association of the problems [die gedanklichen Zusammenhänge der
Probleme] that underlie the fields of scientific research: if scholars apply new methods to new
It is important to note that this does not necessarily include an anthropological monism. In fact, many Platonically
inclined esoteric philosophies display a dualistic attitude towards the nature of man, with a clear preference for the soul
vis-à-vis the body (see Runggaldier, 1996, pp. 99e112).
94 K. von Stuckrad / Religion 35 (2005) 78e97

problems and subsequently discover new truths, which open up new important criteria,
a new ‘science’ will emerge. (Weber, 1982, p. 166)

Put differently, the study of esoteric elements in the European history of religion generates
a field of research along the lines of Problemgeschichte.44 The problems relate to basic aspects of
Western self-understanding: how do we explain the rhetorics of rationality, science, enlighten-
ment, progress and absolute truth in their relation to religious claims? How do we elucidate the
conflicting of religious world views, identities and forms of knowledge that lie at the bottom of
Western cultural history?


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Kocku von Stuckrad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam, subdepartment
‘History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents’. He has published widely on methodological and historical
aspects of European history of religion from antiquity to the present, with particular focus on esotericism, astrology
and philosophy of nature. His publications include a History of Western Astrology from Earliest Times to the Present
(Equinox, 2005), Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge (Equinox, 2005) and Schamanismus und
Esoterik: Kultur- und wissenschaftsgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Peeters, 2003).