Interview with Glenn Alexander Magee


A year ago I interviewed Glenn Magee, the author of Hegel and the Hemetic Tradition and the editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism, for the Russian journal “Research in Religious Studies”. The interview was published in Russian in issue 2(12)/2015 of the journal (pp. 109-117).

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You are a specialist in classic German philosophy, Western mysticism and esotericism. Why do you think these topics are important for contemporary scholars?

Well, these are three distinct — and rather huge — areas. Though my scholarship deals with how they overlap. A very simple answer to this question would be that all of these areas ought to be of interest to scholars because they have been extremely influential. German philosophy has shaped the world that we live in today, culturally and politically. And mysticism and esotericism are perennial expressions of spirit — of human nature. But the real reason why German philosophy, Western mysticism, and Western esotericism are important is that they are extraordinarily rich and profound traditions that have a great deal to teach us about the human condition, and the nature of reality.

What scholars can you name who were especially influential on your choice to study these fields and on your work?

The scholar who first led me connect German philosophy with mysticism and esotericism was Eric Voegelin, who made the claim that Hegel belonged to the Hermetic tradition. In understanding Hegel’s relation to Jacob Boehme, I am indebted to the work of David Walsh and Cyril O’Regan. In terms of my understanding of Western esotericism, the major influences have been Frances Yates and Antoine Faivre. The Hegel scholars who were most important for me were my own teacher, Donald Phillip Verene, and also J.N. Findlay, G.R.G. Mure, and, especially, Errol Harris.

You speak about mysticism and esotericism, but some scholars like Arthur Versluis, for instance, prefer to talk about mysticism as a form of esotericism. What is your opinion on relationship between these terms? How esotericism correlates with mysticism? How do you define these terms?

Gershom Scholem’s position was that mysticism meant a type of knowledge which is incommunicable, whereas esotericism is communicable, but deliberately kept secret. This is not a very adequate way of characterizing esotericism, of course, since much of it is not secret and never was. However, I do think that Scholem is correct that mysticism is incommunicable. The essence of mysticism is found in the concept of gnosis: a direct perception of the ultimate truth of what is. Because everything in our experience flows from this source, the source itself cannot be understood in terms of the categories we employ in thinking or speaking about mundane things. In the introduction to my forthcoming volume, The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism, I argue that there is a particular worldview at the root of esotericism, one which asserts that existence is an inter-connected whole shot through with correspondences and sympathies, and that the most fundamental of these correspondences is that of macrocosm and microcosm. But this is, in fact, precisely the core mystical teaching; the “doctrine” that emerges when mystics attempt to convey in words what the experience of gnosis has taught them. Esotericism is thus founded upon mysticism. It would be more accurate to simply state that esotericism is founded upon gnosis, either directly (when esotericists themselves have the experience of gnosis) or indirectly (when esotericists put their faith in the testimony of those who have had the experience). Mysticism affords us with a special experience, or with the next-best thing: reports by those who have had the experience. The various items grouped together as “esotericism,” by contrast, mainly consist in techniques or practices or specialized areas of investigation: alchemy, astrology, magic, numerology, gematria, visions of other worlds, spiritualism, etc. Mysticism is gnosis; esotericism is technē (technique or art). And, as I have argued, this technē is founded upon gnosis. Esotericism is virtually unintelligible without an appreciation for its roots in mystic gnosis. And it can be plausibly argued that gnosis leads to esoteric technē; to the development of the various “occult sciences,” and preoccupation with them. Again, I discuss all of this extensively in the introduction to my forthcoming volume.

The title of your book Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition sounds as a reference to F. A. Yates and her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Was this reference intentional? What is your opinion about Yates and her works? Are her ideas important for contemporary scholars, or they are out of dated?

Yes, the title of my book is most certainly a reference to Yates — an homage, in fact. And the account of Hermeticism I offer in the book is greatly indebted to Yates. The current fashion is to claim that Yates is out of date, and that the “Yates paradigm” (the thesis that there is a “Hermetic tradition”) is untenable. However, the fact is that Yates is unquestionably the giant in the field of esotericism. It’s very typically the case that when a certain area of study has been pioneered — indeed, dominated — by one scholar, there will follow a generation or two of scholars who make their reputations by attacking his or her work. But we all stand on the shoulders of Frances Yates. Yes, there are flaws in her research, and she sometimes overreaches in making certain claims. However, her books remain classics. For the most part, I think her claims hold up quite well.

What is the Hermetic tradition you write about?

My understanding of the Hermetic tradition does not differ significantly from how Yates conceived it. Hermeticism is the tradition that grew up around the Corpus Hermeticum over the course of centuries, as a result of many different influences and infusions of ideas from other sources. The thinkers I identify as “Hermetic” typically reject the mysticism that stops short at “mystery,” and hold that actual, discursive knowledge of the nature of God is possible, as opposed simply to an “immediate experience.” However, Hermeticists usually go much further than this in declaring, implicitly or explicitly, that God requires creation, especially the human beings who contemplate Him, in order to be truly actual. As has been noted by others, Hermeticism can be seen as a positive form of Gnosticism, positive insofar as it does not denigrate creation but makes it play a central role in the being of God. The ideal of the Hermeticist is to grasp the nature of God, and reality as such, in terms of an all-encompassing system of thought. Possession of this total wisdom was thought to perfect and empower the individual. The seeds of all of these ideas are present in the CH, and germinate in the Renaissance. The “Hermeticism” of certain thinkers refers not just to their endorsement of these positions, but also typically to their interest in a grab bag of loosely-related subjects, including alchemy, extra-sensory perception, dowsing, Kabbalism, Masonry, Mesmerism, Rosicrucianism, prisca theologia, philosophia perennis, “correspondences,” “cosmic sympathies,” and vitalism. “Hermetic” thinkers typically were interested in most of these subjects.

In Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, you wrote that “Hegel is not a philosopher”. What do you mean? Should we exclude Hegel of textbooks on the history of philosophy?

The sentence you quote is only mysterious if you take it out of context. As I explain in the book, “Philosopher” means “lover of wisdom.” Hegel claims (implicitly) to have arrived at wisdom: at a philosophical system that provides knowledge of the whole. Thus, he claims to have consummated the love of wisdom. He is no longer a lover or seeker of wisdom, he has it. He is wise. (Though I must add that while Hegel never explicitly makes such hubristic claims, they are nonetheless clearly implied by what he does say.) So, in the literal sense, Hegel is not a philosopher. Does this mean that Hegel should be excluded from textbooks on the history of philosophy? Of course not. Accounts of the history of philosophy are accounts of the attempts men have made to consummate the love of wisdom. Hegel’s is one such attempt — really, in my view, the most remarkable and impressive in the history of philosophy.

If Hermeticism influenced philosophy that much, can we describe “Hermetic tradition” itself as a form of philosophy? Maybe “Hermetic Philosophy”?

It depends on how you define philosophy. I’ve stated above that literally philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Defined in this way, certainly mysticism would be philosophy, and so would much of what we consider esotericism. However, traditionally philosophy has been understood to mean an approach to wisdom that is rational and discursive. That is the tradition of philosophy in the West. So, when I teach Western philosophy I do not typically include mystics and esotericists. In one sense, “philosophy” really is a Western project, moved by certain assumptions and a certain approach. Sometimes the line between philosophy and mysticism becomes blurry in the West, but normally it is quite easy to distinguish between the two: philosophy argues; mysticism does not. Philosophy considers the ultimate truth to be knowable and expressible; mysticism typically holds that it is inexpressible and unintelligible in terms of the categories we ordinarily employ in thinking. Setting aside this understanding of philosophy as a Western tradition, I do personally think that mystics are “lovers of wisdom.” So, can we say that there is a “Hermetic philosophy”? Why not?

You were co-translator of a volume dedicated to an examination of Kant’s reception of Swedenborg. There are two opinions about Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. Some scholars think that Kant criticized Swedenborg, while others think he considered Swedenborg as a serious philosopher. What is your opinion about it?

I think that it’s only on a superficial reading that one can hold that Kant was dismissive of Swedenborg. Of course, most philosophers would like to believe that the matter is as simple as that. As I alluded to earlier, philosophers understand what they are doing as quite distinct from mysticism, and are usually hostile to it. The idea that Kant might actually have taken Swedenborg seriously seems impossible to them. There is a similar situation in Hegel studies, with respect to Hegel’s treatment of Jacob Boehme. Scholars seize on the negative things Hegel says about Boehme (e.g. that he was a “barbarian”) and assert that Hegel “decisively rejects” him. This really amounts to a willful distortion. It’s an instance of seeing what one wants to see. I’ve even encountered scholars who think Hegel “debunks” animal magnetism in his Philosophy of Subjective Spirit, even though he states explicitly — and in unusually clear language — that he believes in it. In the case of Kant, I think it has been very persuasively argued that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is an example of esoteric writing: beneath the superficial mockery, Kant takes Swedenborg quite seriously, and was even influenced by him. Your question actually poses a false dichotomy, however. Of course Kant criticizes Swedenborg, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t take him seriously as a thinker (that he considered him a “philosopher” is, however, implausible).

Please, tell our readers a little about The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism, which is going to be published in 2016. Should we buy the book?

Of course you should buy the book! It’s a splendid collection of essays. Thirty-six in total. And authors include some of the major figures in esotericism: Antoine Faivre, Jean-Pierre Brach, Wouter Hanegraaff, Arthur Versluis, Joscelyn Godwin, Lawrence Principe, and others. The volume includes a number of essays by authors who will be less familiar. In some cases these are younger scholars whose essays are very fresh, original, and thought provoking. I have also contributed a lengthy introduction which attempts to define both mysticism and esotericism, and to demonstrate (as I alluded to earlier) their intimate connection. The latter part of my introduction deals with the methodological controversies surrounding esotericism, and offers a critical appraisal of some of the current approaches. It is sure to be controversial.

Can you tell our readers a little about current projects are you working at now?

I am the current Vice President of the Hegel Society of America. My next major project involves assembling a program for the 2016 conference. Subsequent to that, I will edit the proceedings for publication. Aside from this, I am contemplating another book on German philosophy and esotericism. In writing my essay on Boehme for the Cambridge Handbook I was struck anew by the continuities between the German philosophical tradition, and German theosophy. It would be quite exciting to write a study dealing with those continuities — one that would have a much broader scope than my book on Hegel, in that it would also treat the Romantics and Schelling. I am also considering bringing out a collection of my essays on German philosophy and esotericism.

Some scholars think that there is a gap between British and American scholars of esotericism on the one side, and continental European scholars like W. J. Hanegraaff on the other side. What do you think about this idea? Are there any differences between esoteric studies in the USA and in the Europe?

There are some considerable differences between the Anglophone scholars of esotericism and those on the Continent, especially in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. For one thing, I think American and British scholars (but especially the Americans) feel much freer to treat esotericism in any manner they wish. In the academy in Europe there seems to be tremendous pressure on scholars of esotericism to make it clear that they have no personal interest in, or sympathy for the subjects they write about. The result is that some of them have declared themselves “methodological agnostics” and have repudiated the work of some truly profound writers on esotericism, such as Eliade, Corbin, Jung, and Guenon. All of these authors had a philosophical interest in esotericism. They aimed to get their facts straight but they also aimed for something much greater: they wanted to learn from the subjects they studied. But this seems to be anathema today — not just in Europe, but more so there than in the U.S. What I find very interesting here is that while the advocates of methodological agnosticism have a great deal to say about the “construction of discourses,” it is often not clear whether they are aware of the degree to which their own discourse has been constructed to meet the criteria necessary for acceptance in today’s academic world. What is particularly problematic is the way in which some of these authors seem determined to accommodate scholarship on esotericism to postmodern historicism and relativism.

Among our readers, there are many students who major in philosophy. What would you advise for those of them who are interested in the study of the history of esotericism and its influence on philosophy?

I would advise them to tread very carefully. Esotericism and mysticism are regarded with a great deal of suspicion in departments of philosophy. Conventional scholars of the history of philosophy do not like hearing that their favorite philosophers were influenced by “irrationalism.” It has been difficult for me to explain my own work to most professional philosophers, and to convince them of its importance. However, I do not for a moment regret the path I have taken. I would advise anyone who is interested in doing scholarship on esotericism and philosophy to go right ahead, if that is their passion.

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