The Eye of the Storm: Promethean Man and Spiritual Unity in the Esoteric Counter-Enlightenment
by Sasha Chaitow, BA Comm., MA Eng.Lit., MA candidate, Western Esotericism
Religious warfare in Europe and the Middle East is not a new phenomenon. It has raged in various combinations for the best part of the last 2000 years. However, alongside the three monotheistic religions, which despite their common roots have long conflicted on doctrinal matters, both with each other and within themselves, there has long existed a form of thought, or a corpus of currents which are grouped under the broad term Western Esotericism. There is no short definition and time does not allow me to enter into the intricacies of a full definition. Suffice, however, to say that the term “West” comprises the ‘vast Greco-Roman whole within which Judaism and Christianity have always co-habited with one another, joined by Islam for several centuries.’1 Renaissance humanism gave shape to what has come to be called esotericism, comprising of ‘forms of Hellenistic religiosity’ to include Gnosticism, neo-Pythagoreanism and Stoicism, conjoined with forms of mysticism belonging to the ‘three Abrahamic religions,’ including Jewish Kabbalah and neo-Alexandrian Hermeticism. The prevailing purpose was to establish a case for a prisca theologia or philosophia perennis, characterized by a belief in a unity of the origin of religions in distant antiquity within an atmosphere of unity and tolerance.2 This body of ideas came to be known as esotericism, or the esoteric tradition, and broadly encompasses three ‘traditional sciences’ of alchemy, astrology, and magia naturalis, closely related to a science of numbers, Christian Kabbalah, and a romantic philosophy of Nature.
Certainly in their eagerness to prove the existence of a primordial tradition that would link all mankind before a universal truth, the great names of the Florentine circle within which these ideas flourished, such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno and later figures such as Johannes Reuchlin made assumptions, saw correspondences and wrote syncretic works which are inaccurate in a number of ways as far as modern scholarship is concerned, most of all in their vision of universality and syncretic tendencies. Their value lies in the fact by way of analogical thinking, the belief in correspondences between all things based on the Hermetic axiom ‘as above, so below’, nature as a living matrix providing these correspondences, the imagination as the sense through which we can perceive the latter, and the experience of transmutation, or the perfectibility of nature and man, they have greatly influenced the History of Ideas up until our day, providing an alternative vision for mankind from the one dictated by established religious authorities, one where, most importantly, harmony and unity could be found in all things, between Man and God, Man and Nature, and Science and Nature. Naturally many of these beliefs were decried as heresy, and there were many instances in which proponents of these traditions were excommunicated, persecuted, or even executed for their occupation with such matters, although ironically, most of them were devout Christians who sought to strengthen their faith with their discourse, while displaying respect and tolerance for Judaism that had brought them Kabbalah, and Islam that had preserved and developed ancient alchemical and philosophical manuscripts. (3-4 mins)
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, religious wars raged throughout Europe on the basis of Christian doctrinal differences, and giving esotericism a millenarian character particularly during the 17th century. All this culminated in a weakened Church and growing secularization of society that was to form the core of the Enlightenment, an Age of Reason in which secularism and science replaced religion and mythology as the uppermost areas for intellectual exploration, to the extent of discrediting many long-standing esoteric traditions. These effects spread into many fields, from the arts and natural sciences to history, rhetoric and government, with the apparently utilitarian aim of “the promotion of a better life on earth by making man more rational, and therefore wiser, more just, virtuous and happy.”3 “Language had been handed over to the grammarians, knowledge to the encyclopaedists,”4 and the emergence of a secular world-view left little space altogether for esoteric and magical thinking.
Concurrently however, there had appeared many streams which, to varying degrees of intensity and explicitness, flowed against this new age of reason; a pattern which was not at all new, and was dubbed the Counter-Enlightenment. On a religious level, Pietism, a Lutheran offshoot with an “emphasis on interior spirituality”5became the main vehicle for esoteric thought. Added to this, the re-emergence of “perennial concerns about the uncertainty and injustice of life,”6 the re-discovery of what Isaiah Berlin calls the ‘sublimity’ of myth and poetry,7and a growing consciousness of the concept expounded by Schelling; namely that the “universe [is] the self-development of a primal, non-rational force that can only be grasped by the intuitive powers of men of imaginative genius,”8were elements which informed and forged the materialization of Romanticism and the particular brands of esotericism characterising this period: theosophy and the overlapping current of Illuminism, which essentially attempted to “reconcile several intellectual systems,” in the midst of a “cultural crisis”9 on a massive scale. Fascinating though they are, these two streams of thought are intensely complex and time does not allow for a deeper discussion of precisely what they encompassed, more than to say that theosophy in particular leaned strongly on the teachings of Jakob Boehme, while Illuminism embraced the esoteric teachings and writings of antiquity and the Renaissance10 while also incorporating concepts put forward by Swedenborg and Saint-Martin.
What we have here is a snapshot of a world in turmoil. Old values have been swept away by the tidal wave of reason and secularism, and are not simply considered passé, or even heretical, they are ridiculed. This age of science and reason may have taken giant steps towards progress and modernization, but it chose to leave unanswered the age-old eschatological questions that are bound to plague a generation of thinkers and educated men only one generation away from a worldview which was on speaking terms with the secrets of existence, whether from the viewpoint of conventional theology, or esoteric tradition. There is no longer a place for art and poetry, in this world seeking to avoid the “misunderstanding of words, of confusions bred by the speculative fantasies of philosophers,” (Bacon) the “clouding of reason by emotions” (Spinoza) and the “fallacies and confusions due to the misuse of language” (Valla, Locke and Berkeley).11 So just where is Man left standing bearing in mind that we are not speaking of our age, where these concepts have had 300 years to become commonplace? We are talking of a paradigm shift of worldview within a generation, leaving a number of ontological paradoxes demanding resolution. “The ages of which we are speaking are above all those periods when humanity relies on itself for salvation.”12
The bridge and the tools to forge a form of faith “that would combine reason and mystical élan”13in answer to this predicament, are embodied in Romanticism. Although it is commonly thought that Romanticism is influenced by esotericism and mysticism, in truth it is the other way around. It is generally acknowledged that “Romanticism was the revival of something old, but it is a revival with a difference; [its] ideas were translated into terms acceptable to men who had undergone the experience of the Enlightenment.”14 These ideas can be condensed to those of “Diversitarian holism: The belief in an organic cosmos,” “Romantic evolutionism,” comprising of “the belief that this cosmos is not static but dynamic […and] oriented towards a goal that is as infinite as divine creativity itself,”15and, crucially: the belief that the active imagination, equated with reason by some writers,16 is that higher faculty which permits our understanding of the divine, or infinite, and which is capable of achieving the reintegration both of the duality within man, and of the fallen world with the divine.
So within the maelstrom of a rapidly changing world, the theosophers and Illuminists tried to perform their form of theurgy, inspired by the visions of poets in an attempt to bring a little more light into the world.
The media of art and poetry, and specifically the philosophical epic became the primary vehicles for the expression and exposition of this philosophy through the concept of a primeval and “original, universal, and divinely natural language of humanity.”17This concept was a common point of interest between poetry and Illuminism,18 and was repeatedly discussed to the end that the poet was seen respectively as “the recipient and transmitter of revelation and a divine universal language,” “a priest who will lead humanity to its eschatological fulfillment by relinking the world here below and divine transcendence,” while “poetry [was seen as] the intuitive faculty of penetrating the essence of beings and things.”19 Therefore, essentially Romanticism sanctioned individuals to take an active role in the reintegration of the whole of humanity. Each poem, each verse contained a seed clothed in symbols, which, if interpreted and assimilated in a given reader’s consciousness, held the potential for awakening and understanding. Poetry and art were empowered with temporalism and evolutionism, added to a unifying concept of science, nature, and religion, thus drawing together all these diverse concepts to the end of a “reunion of the arts and sciences, [and the] reintegration of humanity as a whole, under the sign of the divine.”20
At both the dawning and height of the Romantic period, the main figures who dealt with esoteric philosophy in the shape of theosophy or Illuminism, were “men who had undergone the experience of the Enlightenment.” They were educated, many of them scientists, many of them with a high public and social profile. Yet at some time or other, they had also been exposed to the esoteric traditions. In comparison with the Renaissance, “the locus and criterion of ultimate value was transferred […] to this world of man and nature and human experience.” […] Secondly, the recovered unity was no longer “the simple, undifferentiated unity of its origin, but a unity which is higher because it incorporates the intervening differentiations.” The final state is higher than the beginning because it preserves diversity and individuality, and also because it has not simply been given but has been earned by incessant striving.21
The Enlightenment advocated the voice of Reason above all else. The essential transformation achieved by this re-alignment of esoteric forms of thought to the new age, via the vehicle of art and literature, was the reinstatement of a triad of perceptive faculties in order to attempt to approach reality, both mundane and divine. These consist of what have been termed “the eye of the senses, (empirical science), the eye of reason (philosophy, logic, mathematics), and the eye of contemplation (the intuitive and spiritual faculties of the self).”22 Such an integralist approach offers the space for holistic reasoning and resolutions. Holistic thinking has rapidly gained ground in disciplines ranging from the field of medicine, to those of education, quantum physics, sustainable agriculture research, not to mention the humanities.
It has become something of a cliché that ‘history repeats itself.’ Yet I have selected the example of the Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment to illustrate precisely this point. It is only recently that the academic study of Western Esotericism has begun to be taken seriously in the academy, incorporating as it does transdisciplinary approaches which cross many boundaries, offering much in terms of insights and an understanding of the history of ideas. It is truly the eye of the storm in that despite social, cultural, political, religious and ideological conflicts, it has demonstrated the ability to do away with polarising factors, and without reductionism, offer universal answers by finding, or at least seeking, the common ontological ground of humanity that we all share. We too, are products of the Enlightenment, today’s meeting of minds embodying a quest for answers that harmonise and unify. It might therefore be appropriate to suggest that we do take a closer look at these neglected historical currents with a view to comprehending how and indeed why, despite frequent and often intense opposition from prevailing currents, they were able to achieve a semblance of peace and unity, in the hope that forgotten answers for our time may also be discovered.
1 Antoine Faivre, ‘Introduction I’ in Antoine Faivre & Jacob Needleman eds., Modern Esoteric Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1992) p. xiii
2 All references in paragraph: ibid.
3 Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities,’ Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (London: 1955; Pimlico, 1997), pp. 80-109 (pp. 83-87)
4 Christine Bergé, ‘Illuminism,’ Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, pp. 600-606 (p. 601)
5 Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, ‘Unit 3: Eighteenth-Century Theosophy and Illuminism,’ HPSM 156, Theosophy and the Globalisation of Esotericism, (Exeter: Exeseso, 2006), pp. 16-29 (p. 16)
6 Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, HPSM 150: The Western Esoteric Traditions, p. 84
7 Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Counter-Enlightenment,’ Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (London: 1955; Pimlico, 1997), pp. 1-24 (p. 5)
8 ibid., p. 17
9 Christine Bergé, ‘Illuminism,’ Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, p. 600
10 It is noted that Illuminism and theosophy are not the same thing, and indeed the Illuminists ‘questioned’ the theosophers who preceded them. However they were often equated by the Romantics on the basis of common Boehmenist elements. The details of their differences are not central to this discussion.
• Arthur McCalla, ‘Romanticism,’ Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, pp. 1000-1007 (p. 1000)
• Christine Bergé, ‘Illuminism,’ Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, pp. 600-606 (p. 600)
11 All unnumbered quotations in paragraph: Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities,’ Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (London: 1955; Pimlico, 1997), pp. 80-109 (pp. 83-87)
12 Beguin, ‘Poetry and Occultism,’ p. 17
13 Christine Bergé, ‘Illuminism,’ Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, p. 600
14 René Wellek, “The Concept of ‘Romanticism’ in Literary History,” Comparative Literature 1, no. 1 (1949), pp. 1-27, 147-72 (p. 171)
Wouter Hanegraaff, ‘Romanticism and the Esoteric Tradition,’ Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff eds. (Albany, NY, SUNY: 1998), pp. 237-268 (p. 244)
15 Wouter Hanegraaff, ‘Romanticism and the Esoteric Tradition,’ Gnosis and Hermeticism, p. 241
16 See Antoine Fabre d’Olivet, Vers dorés de Pythagore (1813),
Friedrich Schelling “ drawing on J.G. Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre,” and others in the Jena circle.
– Arthur McCalla, ‘Romanticism,’ in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, p. 1001
cf. Arthur McCalla, ‘Antoine Fabre d’Olivet,’ in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, pp. 350-354
17 Arthur McCalla, ‘Romanticism,’ in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, p. 1002
18 Beguin, ‘Poetry and Occultism,’ p. 24
19 Antoine Fabre d’Olivet, La langue hebraïque restituée, (1815-1816)
F. Schlegel, Novalis, Athenaeum (1798-1800)
Pierre-Simon Ballanche, Vision d’Hébal (1831)
– Orphée (1829)
cited in Arthur McCalla, ‘Romanticism,’ in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, p. 1001
20 Versluis, ‘Baader,’ Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, p. 151
21 Wouter Hanegraaff, ‘Romanticism and the Esoteric Tradition,’ Gnosis and Hermeticism, p. 247-8
Meyer H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York and London, 1971) pp. 183-85
22 Kyriacos Markides, The Mountain of Silence, (New York: Doubleday, 2002), p. 7-8
citing Pitirim Sorokin &
Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1983)