On diversity in the study of esotericism

For me, this winter and spring were full of experiences related to communication with colleagues from different countries. The experience led me to some thoughts that I’d like to share and listen for your feedback.

First of all, I should say that the greatest thing that one can see during such meetings is that we actually are not so different. Themes of our presentations, our academic experience and knowledge in many regards seems to be very similar and actually we can speak on the same language and understand each other – which is definitely a good thing that provides a possibility for cooperation. Of course, there are different accents and perspectives, but I can say that all these perspectives actually make the field more complete and diverse, which is actually a good thing.

Of course, in different academic traditions there are different understandings of academic approach to study of esotericism, that developed because of historical reasons and specific features of academic community in particular countries. For instance, I believe that Western European continental scholars are more inclined to reductionistic approaches, whereas their American colleagues more often aim to more diverse and holistic understanding of esotericism. Quoting words of Glenn Magee from my interview with him for a Russian journal “Researches in Religious Studies” (2015: 2 (12), pp. 116-117):

“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.

And it is actually a very good point. It is especially obvious for me because my primary education is in Philosophy, not History, Anthropology or Philology. Just think about it, when it comes to philosophy, its only natural when somebody publishes a book entitled like “Philosophie als Inspiration für Manager” (Philosophy as Inspiration for Managers) or “Kant für Manager” (Kant for Managers) or “Stoicism 101: How to Live Like a Modern Day Stoic.”

We do not think about it as a problem, instead we actually usually approach it quite positively as such literature provides us with good arguments why Philosophy is important and should be studied in universities. However, when it comes to the history of esotericism, it does not work in the same way. If somebody would publish a book like “Blavatsky 101: How to Live Like a Modern Day Theosophist,” the book would definitely be stigmatized as “esoteric, not academic” by many colleagues.

To get a better understanding of the problem, it worth to compare two books published in a series “A Guide for the Perplexed”: “The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed” by A. M. Holowchak and “Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed” by W. J. Hanegraaff. Both of them are generally a great works and I really respect the authors, but the difference between them is quite obvious.

Holowchak starts with a discussion of 9/11 tragedy aiming from the very beginning of the book to connect Stoic’s ideas with contemporary issues and, as it is stated in the abstract of the book, “to present Stoicism as an ethically viable way of life today.” We definitely will not find anything similar in the Hanegraaff’s book, indeed the purpose of the book seems quite opposite: to create and to keep a distance between a reader and the subject of the book.

Therefore, it seems like when we speak about Stoicism, we essentially treat Stoics as “us,” and when it comes to esotericism people from the academia often think about its followers as “others,” who should be treated as such. At this point, a definition of esotericism as “rejected knowledge” somehow transforms into a methodological claim to keep a distance.

And I believe that it is not a good thing, because Western esotericism was an important part of Western culture that is simply inseparable from the history of philosophy and from the academia itself. Therefore, in study of esotericism there should be a space to treat Western esotericism, in some of its historical forms, just like we do with the history of philosophy. After all, in some of its forms it was a philosophy, like in the case of many Renaissance thinkers.

Updated: December 26, 2018 — 01:58