Esotericism and political ideologies


One of the oldest, most basic forms of religion is veneration of political leaders – chiefs, heads of clans, pharaohs, kings, emperors, and so on. In the past, the belief was that leaders possessed unusual, literally magical, powers that made it worthwhile to follow them. The belief in superhuman powers of political leaders persisted well into modernity, one notable example being the tradition of healing by royal touch in England and France. Similar beliefs, although not necessarily this explicit, persist nowadays.

It is political leader’s magical power that allows them the power to enchant their subjects. The enchanting power of a leader is especially visible in political ideologies. An ideology is an instrument of construction of virtual reality inhabited by members of a certain political body. Maintaining a parallel universe of ideology is important for any political system. A political system exists as long as its ideology remains convincing or, put differently, as long as it has the magical power to enchant people. As soon this power is exhausted, the political body collapses.

To understand how it works, let us keep in mind that, provided that we have two persons, A and B, there is no natural law that when A commands B should follow (unless there is direct physical violence involved). However, if B follows A’s commands regardless we say that A rules over B. This is what I call being enchanted by another person. If this enchantment goes beyond a simple relationship between the two, affects multiple people, and transforms into a comprehensive image of reality, we are talking about an ideology.

The ideology is a continuation of magic, it is structurally and functionally similar to magic. Renaissance authors, such as Tommaso Campanella, explicitly envisioned state as an inherently magical enterprise. In Campanella’s The City of the Sun, the ideal city-state is depicted as a microcosm ruled by a philosopher-priest who governs it based on astrological principles.

They hold great festivities when the sun enters the four cardinal points of the heavens, that is, when he enters Cancer, Libra, Capricorn, and Aries. … They celebrate also every full and every new moon with a festival… Prayers are made from the State to the four horizontal corners of the world – in the morning to the rising sun, then to the setting sun, then to the south, and lastly to the north; and in the contrary order in the evening, first to the setting sun, to the rising sun, to the north, and at length to the south. … They take great pains in endeavoring to understand the construction of the world, and whether or not it will perish, and at what time. They believe that the true oracle of Jesus Christ is by the signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars, which signs do not thus appear to many of us foolish ones.

On the other hand, from a perspective of a person subjected to a political ideology, it can also be seen as the opposite of magic. A magician seeks to learn and control the magical powers; ideology seeks to enchant a person. Unless you are a part of the political elite who directly defines the ideology, you are in a position of a person being enchanted. Which is precisely the opposite to the position of a magician.

In The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the most well-known nineteenth-century esoteric organizations, a neophyte gave an oath that he or she “will not be hypnotized or mesmerized, or place himself in such a condition that he loses the control of his thoughts, words or actions” (quoted in: Bogdan, Henrik. Western Esotericism and Rites of Initiation (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), 132). This is how the Golden Dawn members saw the ethics of magicians.

In contrast to that, people under a spell of a political ideology give up the control of their thoughts and actions to that ideology. Another way to put it in esoteric terms is to say that the ideology is a form of dark magic. Nineteenth-century occultist writer Éliphas Lévi, a founding figure of contemporary Western esotericism, in The History of Magic gave the following definition of black magic: “Black Magic may be defined as the art of inducing artificial mania in ourselves and in others.”

This is precisely the opposite of the Golden Dawn’s magician’s oath. A magician swears to keep his or her mind clear; a black magician, however, is a master of “artificial mania” (for a parallel from popular culture, one can refer to the difference between the Jedi and the Sith in George Lucas’s Star Wars movies). The art of creating “artificial mania” can also be a viable definition of marketing, PR, and political ideologies.

It comes as no surprise then that esoteric imagination, particularly in the twentieth century, has at times depicted the ideology as literally demonic. A good example of this is a Soviet mystical writer Daniil Andreev who spent ten years in prison on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda. In the visionary book The Rose of the World based on visions that he had in prison, Andreev describes a peculiar type of spiritual entities called uitsraots, demons of national chauvinism. In Andreev’s visions, uitsraots ignite nationalistic feeling in people; they nurture national pride and militarism and then feed on “psychical radiation” of people affected by these emotions.

It also comes as no surprise that political leaders oftentimes developed interest in occult sciences in hopes to strengthen their political power. After the World War II, popular culture has created the easily recognizable narrative of “Nazi occultism”; however, esoteric interests are hardly tied to any particular type of political ideology. For example, Ronald Reagan and his wife consulted an astrologer before planning important events and so did French president François Mitterrand.

What is less reflected on in sensationalist narratives of politics and esotericism is how often esoteric communities become targets of authoritarian political regimes. In fact, almost every authoritarian political regime in the twentieth century started by persecuting esoteric communities. This happened in the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia, in Nazi Germany, and in China. Universally, persecution of people involved with esotericism is a sign of authoritarian tendencies. This is because people in power, whether they believe in esoteric metaphysics or not, has this intuition that esotericism has something to do with political power and that by constructing alternative cosmologies esotericism has a potential to challenge the established ideology, or, to put it in Foucault’s terms, the established “regime of truth.”

A Computer is a Plato's Cave

From the early days of personal computers, they were used as a metaphor for esoteric reality that resembles Renaissance visions of Hermetic universe. This metaphor emerged, at least in part, because computers themselves were a product of esoteric imagination. However, do they still retain this emancipatory esoteric power?

2022-12-05 · Read ›

Bibliography of Ioan Couliano

This post includes a selected and annotated bibliography of books by Ioan Petru Couliano (Culianu) (1950 – 1991). I focus primarily on books attempting to provide a better sense of continuity within Coulianos corpus by highlighting connections between different texts.

2021-05-29 · Read ›