The Esoteric is back in force

Nouvel Observateur: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, about which you have just written a book (« Code Da Vinci : l’enquête » published by Robert Laffont (1)), has sold a million copies in France alone. The dazzling success of his book – like the growing interest in the Kabbalah, astrology and numerology, as well as the public’s fascination with Masonry and secret societies – has brought to light a huge infatuation with the esoteric. But what exactly is implied in the generic term ‘‘esoteric,’’ and what is the origin of the rather enigmatic word ‘‘esotericism’’?

Frédéric Lenoir: ‘‘Esotericism’’ is indeed a catch-all word that encompasses some very dissimilar aspects. First, the adjective ‘‘esoteric’’ should be distinguished from the noun ‘‘esotericism.’’ The adjective is older and comes from the Greek word ‘‘esoterikos,’’ which means ‘‘to go within.’’ It is the opposite of ‘‘exoterikos,’’ or ‘‘towards the outside.’’ This double concept was already present in the Greek wisdom schools, in particular with Aristotle. They distinguished between ‘‘inner’’ teachings, given to advanced disciples, and ‘‘outer’’ teachings given to the masses. Esoteric teachings were thus intended for ‘‘initiates.’’ All religions have developed such teachings for the masses and others for the elite. Bergson spoke in this regard of a ‘‘static religion’’ and a ‘‘dynamic religion.’’ The static religion was connected to dogma, morality and ritual. It was intended for the general congregation. The dynamic religion was to be found in mysticism, the force that draws certain individuals towards the divine.  In this sense, one could say that mysticism is the inner path, or the esoteric dimension, in the great religious traditions. It is the Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism in Islam, and the great Christian mysticism of figures such as Saint Theresa of Avila and Meister Eckhart etc. (see sidebar, p.).

And what about the word ‘‘esotericism’’?

The noun ‘‘esotericism’’ wasn’t invented until the 19th century. It was first coined by Jacques Matter, a scholarly Lutheran from Alsace, in his Histoire critique du gnosticisme, to designate a school of thought outside a specific religion. Esotericism became a whole world unto itself, a nebula. Indeed, there were thousands of definitions for esotericism. Specialists like Antoine Faivre and Jean-Pierre Laurant rightly spoke of esotericism as a ‘‘way of looking’’ rather than a doctrine, and tried to pinpoint its major characteristics. Let us consider four or five of them. Esotericism strives above all to reunify the knowledge from different philosophical and religious traditions − with the idea that there is a primordial religion of mankind hidden behind them. Thus esotericism almost always harks back to a golden age when human beings possessed knowledge that was subsequently diffracted into various religious movements. Another basic feature is the Doctrine of Correspondences. This doctrine claimed the existence of a continuum among all parts of the universe, in the plurality of its various levels of reality – both visible and invisible – from the infinitely small to the infinitely large. This was the idea underlying the practice of Alchemy (see sidebar). It was based on the postulate that Nature is a great living organism traversed by a flow of spiritual energy that gives it beauty and unity. But only magical, esoteric thought can elucidate the mysteries of this enchanted Nature. The last element is the central place of the imagination as mediator between mankind and the world. It is through their imagination and symbolic thinking – more than through their rational intelligence – that human beings can connect with a deeper reality. Thus, symbols are the very basis of esotericism.

But religions are teeming with symbols; so why should we look elsewhere for them?

Because religions in the West have gradually lost their symbolic dimension! They have favoured logical thought, dogma and norms rather than symbols and mystical experiences. The 16th century marks a fundamental break in the history of Christianity. On the one hand, there was the birth of the Protestant Reformation and its criticism of mythical thought; on the other hand, there was Catholicism’s response through the Counter-Reformation, launched at the Council of Trent, which created the catechism – a set of definitions of what should be believed. It was an extraordinary theological restriction which left no more room for mystery, experience or imagination, and was intent on explaining and defining everything through Thomistic scholasticism. We still haven’t emerged from this religion/catechism even today. For most people, Christianity is first and foremost about what one must believe or not believe, and what one must do or not do. That is a far cry from the Gospel and what is sacred. This is why some people have looked for the sacred side in mystical/esoteric movements within religions, while others have searched outside – in parallel esoteric movements which highlight symbolic thought. People are interested in both of these types of spiritual paths today, on very diverse levels.

Could you say that one is more ‘‘noble’’ than the other?

Because esotericism has existed outside the walls of tradition, it has at times generated sectarian delusions and phantasmagoria of all kinds. That is why esotericism has a bad name in the intellectual community. The esoteric nature of religions is far less disqualified, however, because it involves an ‘‘elite’’ meant to be interested in the deeper, most inner – and therefore most authentic – side of religion. This has not stopped certain traditional movements, such as the Kabbalah and Sufism, from having representatives nowadays who resemble gurus and offer spirituality on the cheap – although it can be quite expensive – flattering people’s most narcissistic tendencies under a pretence of high-end spirituality.

Although the word esotericism may only date back to the 19th century, Pythagoras is often said to be its founder. How far back can you trace its history?

Pythagoras was the first to conceive of the idea of universal harmony and sacred mathematics at work in the universe. That was the foundation of esoteric thought. But esotericism really came into being in late Antiquity, in the 2nd century and 3rd century CE, with Gnosticism and Hermetics. According to the Gnostics (see sidebar), earthly existence is a terrible punishment which is the result of an original Fall from innocence. Man can only become aware of his divine nature through knowledge (gnosis), transmitted via initiation. ‘‘As above, so below,’’ was the claim made by Hermetics – that there are laws of analogy between the individual parts and the whole, between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Astrology is an excellent illustration of this. This art, dating back to the earliest civilizations, postulates a correlation between human events and cosmic events (comets, eclipses) – or planetary movements – and interprets them symbolically.

These ideas have resurfaced frequently, including in our own times.

Because the history of esotericism has occurred in successive waves. Gnosticism and Hermetics were rediscovered during the Renaissance. The rediscovery of ancient Greek texts caused a tremendous shock, in particular Poimandres’ Corpus Hermeticum translated by Marsilio Ficino in 1471 at the request of Cosimo de’ Medici. This text is indeed a veritable synthesis of ancient thought, from Pythagorism to Neoplatonism. Renaissance thinkers believed it to be earlier than all other schools of wisdom, even earlier than Moses himself. They interpreted it as proof of the existence of a primordial tradition unifying all the knowledge that was subsequently dispersed. The tradition was traced back to Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary figure believed to be connected to the Egyptian god Thoth. A century later it was discovered that in fact the Corpus Hermeticum dated from late Antiquity.

What a disappointment!

A huge one! But this early moment in the Renaissance showed the desire of these first humanists to bring mankind’s great wisdom schools into agreement, starting from the idea that they all derived from a primordial tradition usually situated in Egypt. To name just one of them, Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) was an extraordinary figure who hoped to attain universal knowledge through a synthesis of texts from Antiquity, the Christian faith and the Jewish Kabbalah.

Yet scientific thought and Enlightenment philosophy won out in the end.

Absolutely. After that, esotericism was merely a counter-current against the mainstream way of thinking. Early modern thinkers had continued to link science and the sacred, reason and the imagination – including Descartes, who claimed to have had a dream vision of his famous method, which became the paradigm for experimental science! But the West embarked on a rationalist path, even within religions, and eventually compartmentalized the sacred and reason. The imagination and symbolic thought no longer had their place. It was a definitive break with the world of symbols inherited from the ancient world and the Middle Ages. On a deeper level, Western man tore himself away from Nature, which was no longer considered magical and bewitching, but rather a world of objects to be observed and controlled. Man was no longer an ‘‘inhabitant of the world,’’ as the Ancients saw him, but gradually turned into the ‘‘master and owner of nature,’’ as Descartes proclaimed in chapter 6 of his famous Discourse on Method.  There was a hastening of the process of ‘‘disenchantment of the world,’’ according to Max Weber’s well-known expression, signifying that it had lost ‘‘its magical aura’’ and become a cold world of objects. Through this process of rationalization, man progressively cut himself off from nature and no longer thought of it as a living organism whose fluctuations could be controlled through magic or alchemy.

When did this process of rationalization and disenchantment of the world begin?

Weber didn’t say, but in my book Les métamorphoses de Dieu(2), I put forward the theory that it began with the passage from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, when hunter-gatherers settled in villages. A whole series of steps then shows how man was gradually wrenched from nature, leading to his disenchantment. The elaborate Judeo-Christian religion already constituted a loss of magic. Magicians were replaced by priests, and people invented rituals and adhered to ethical lives to save their souls rather than seeking powers in nature or trying to make peace with the tree and animal spirits. It may seem incredible to a modern-day atheist, but religion already involves a process of rationalization. Thus Marcel Gauchet endorsed the extremely pertinent theory according to which modern Western thought grew out of the matrix of Christianity before turning against it.

What were the consequences when reason took over and man was torn away from Nature? Was there an upsurge of esotericism and magical thinking?

Yes, because the idea of a world without magic or myths is hard for human beings to deal with, given our tremendous imaginative capacities. Man can be distinguished from animals by his ability to symbolize things, in other words to associate separate elements. This has given rise to art, writing, and religion. The mere fact of seeing signs, of feeling there is no such thing as chance or being concerned with synchronicity corresponds to this basic need to imbue the world with mystery or magic – in the broad sense of the word. In the 20th century, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and the anthropologist Gilbert Durand showed that what is condescendingly called ‘‘a return of the irrational’’ is in fact a return of modern man’s repressed impulses, so great is his need for myths and symbols.

How was this first wave of re-enchantment expressed during the Age of Enlightenment?

First there was Illuminism, a movement founded by the Swedish scholar Emmanuel Swedenborg from visions he had. It had a profound influence on many thinkers, including some Enlightenment philosophers. It involved a kind of affective religiosity which arose out of an inner emotion rather than from the analysis of a text. Then there was Franz Mesmer’s magnetism. While performing scientific experiments on magnets, Mesmer observed that one could magnetize another person by touching him. He drew the conclusion that there was an invisible power in nature that could be controlled to heal people and to move objects. His theory achieved enormous success twenty years before the French Revolution. Even today there are scores of therapeutic touchers, bonesetters, hypnotizers and other healers.

When did the public’s fascination with secret societies begin?

A hundred years before that, in the early 17th century, when the fundamental concept of initiation was revived. Rosicrucianism was one of the first secret societies in the modern era, and a precursor of Freemasonry. An anonymous text appeared mysteriously in 1614 in the kingdom of Habsburg, revealing the existence of a brotherhood of followers. Their goal was to transmit the memory of an equally mysterious knight from the 14th century, Christian Rosenkreutz, whose purpose was to unify all the wisdom of mankind in order to prepare for the Last Judgment. The Rosicrucian myth was inspired by the Knights Templar, a military and religious order founded for the crusades, whose rules of discipline were written by St. Bernard in 1129. The Templars were persecuted by the French King Philip the Fair, with the support of the pope. One of the most incredible police sweeps of all time occurred on 13 October, 1307, when all the Templars in France were arrested at dawn in their headquarters, then tortured and massacred. The Western imagination has been haunted by this belief in the Templars’ knowledge and occult powers ever since the death of the Order’s last Grand Master, Jacques de Mollay, who was burned at the stake in 1314.

Wasn’t Freemasonry also inspired by the Templars?

Freemasonry was probably more directly inspired by Rosicrucianism. But its story is not well known. The masons, who built cathedrals in the Middle Ages, were knowledgeable about symbols, and therefore about the esoteric dimension of Christianity. Beginning in the 18th century, cathedrals were no longer being built, Christianity was being rationalized and esoteric knowledge started to fade away. So they began transmitting their knowledge in circles of initiates; and in 1717 the first Grand Lodge was created in London. A few decades later Freemasonry had created an ancient lineage for itself, tracing its roots back to the Temple of Solomon through the Templars, who had supposedly been bequeathed this ancient wisdom during their stay in Jerusalem.

So the secret societies and Freemasonry were the most important movements reacting to the progress of rationalism and a materialistic vision of the world?

They were just the beginning of it. The real revolt came later on with the tremendous intellectual, literary and artistic ferment of German Romanticism in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Romanticism, which developed from Sturm und Drang, was the first great collective movement aimed at re-enchanting the world, a proper challenge to the materialistic, mechanistic and disenchanted conception then prevailing in modern Western civilization. ‘‘Poetry is absolute reality,’’ said Novalis. In other words, the more something is poetic, the more real it is. What an extraordinary vision of the world! According to the Romantics, man, the cosmos and the divine were indeed closely connected, constituting a harmonious, infinite whole. Man’s quest was to achieve that unity by experiencing the intensity of these relationships on an inner and social level. In this way, poetic activity and a poetic sensibility would help to re-enchant a world deprived of its charms by the modern commercial world. The Romantics brought back myths and folk tales (the Grimm Brothers) and the idea of a World Soul, the anima mundi of the Ancients. They invented a science of Nature, Naturphilosphie, that was meant to be an alternative to experimental science, itself based on a standardized concept of reality. Within that concept, there was only one level of reality – one that could be observed and controlled. The philosophy of nature was echoed by many poets, including Baudelaire: ‘‘Nature is a temple where living columns…’’ (Correspondances). The first Romantics were members of secret societies. Then they turned towards the East, whose religious and philosophical depth was starting to be discovered in Europe. As Friedrich Schlegel observed in 1800: ‘‘We must look to the East for supreme Romanticism.’’ The pattern that had been followed during the Renaissance was reproduced. They idealized a mythical Orient whose sacred texts were believed to go back several thousand years, well before the Bible. The discovery of the Orient was a response to the Romantic dream of mankind’s golden age, which had been kept alive to the present day in a civilization radically different from our own – wild, primitive and pure of all materialism. They soon became disillusioned, as real knowledge of the East gradually replaced the Orientalist dream and the Romantics lost their battle against rationalism, materialism and mechanization.

Then came the second wave of esotericism in the 19th century, when the word was first coined.

Esotericism in the mid-19th century inherited everything left by its forerunners – from Antiquity, the Renaissance, the 18th century, and the Romantics – but strongly differentiated itself from them by espousing the idea of progress and by trying to reconcile religion and science in one single kind of knowledge. This new esotericism was expressed in several ways. There was the occult, for example, whose greatest theorist was the magus Eliphas Levi (1810-1875), and whose purpose was to combine all magic and divinatory practices by providing a pseudo-scientific explanation for them. It also saw the birth of spiritism in a small village in the United States in 1848, when the Fox Sisters had experiences contacting the dead which they claimed to be quasi-scientific. In Europe, the French medium Allan Kardec played a decisive role in codifying spiritist practices in Le livre des esprits. He also introduced the idea of reincarnation to the West based on the modern idea of progress: spirits reincarnated from one body to another according to a universal law of evolution for the whole of creation. Thus, curiously, in the second half of the 19th century marked by the triumph of scientism, most of the era’s great artists, from Victor Hugo to Claude Debussy, Verlaine and Oscar Wilde, did table-turning to contact the dead or indulged in occult practices.
Another manifestation of this ‘‘modern’’ esotericism was the Theosophical Society. On 8 September 1875, Russian aristocrat Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) founded the Theosophical Society with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) in New York. She was a medium and claimed to draw her teachings from spiritual masters encountered in Tibet, which is totally false since it was proved that she never set foot in the Land of the Snows. But in evoking the Tibetan masters as the last guardians of mankind’s primordial religion, she gave birth to the myth of a ‘‘magical Tibet’’ peopled by lamas with supernatural powers. The theosophist Rudolf Steiner left the Society in 1912 to found his own movement, Anthroposophy, which helped energize this esoteric counter-culture. In anthroposophy, mankind and the world responded to each other through the interplay of subtle correspondences. Steiner’s genius was in giving practical applications to his thoughts – in medicine, economics, education, and so on. Biodynamic agriculture was another field he developed.

Did these esoteric societies disintegrate after the First World War?

The first half of the 20th century was so murderous that all these parallel spiritual movements were broken by it. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a new attempt to re-enchant the world was born. It was known as the New Age movement, which developed in California with the aim of uniting Western psychology and Eastern spirituality by striving to link man with the cosmos. Like the preceding forms of esotericism, this new alternative religiosity was turned more towards the future than to the past and the myth of a lost Eden. It heralded the start of the New Age of Aquarius, the only astrological sign illustrated by a man rather than an animal, symbolizing the coming of a universal humanist religion. The remarkable thing about the New Age was that in an era of mass media it disseminated esoteric ideas far beyond a circle of initiates, into the whole society. The divine was no longer personal, but identified with a kind of ‘‘world soul’’ or energy – like the ‘‘force’’ in Star Wars. There was a transcendental unity among religions, all more or less equal. The essential point was to experience the divine within oneself. There were universal correspondences and intemediary beings such as angels and essential nature spirits.

Even today people are attracted by these compelling ideas, recently brought into play in film and literature.

And with such success! Why was Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist sold in more than 140 countries? Because it reformulated the old concept of a world soul and connected it with modern individualism. The leitmotiv of the book is: ‘‘the universe is conspiring to achieve our personal legend,’’ in other words our dearest wishes. Most of the big contemporary best-sellers are in the esoteric vein: The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, which synthesizes all the theories we’ve been talking about! Dan Brown’s book is captivating. But it is also typical of books that illustrate the best and worst of the esoteric. The best, because it gives people something to dream about and restores the symbolic dimension of religion. The worst, because it sometimes diverts symbols from their true meaning and gives totally false information, as we have shown in our book.

Dan Brown has led people toward a rather adulterated version of the esoteric; furthermore, he plants a seed of doubt in his readers’ minds that triggers a paranoid response, i.e. ‘‘they’re hiding something from us.’’

He does indeed play around with one of the mainsprings of the esoteric: conspiracy theories. As I pointed out before, esotericism grew up in the shadow of the Church, which always fought against it due to its subversive power. To thwart attacks from official Churches, followers of esotericism built up a defensive position that consisted in saying: religions are trying to hush us up because we possess a secret truth which they do not want us to divulge. It was a seductive, highly demagogical argument, and it was undoubtedly one of the keys to the success of The Da Vinci Code. But we shouldn’t be too harsh; there are also some very accurate things in the book, such as the way Christianity repressed the sacred feminine. And I think we should thank esotericism in general for having added a feminine side to the divine. The esoteric ideas about the world soul, the immanence of the divine and its emanations are typically feminine archetypes.

Beneficial work, to be sure, but aren’t these irrational conspiracy theories potentially dangerous?

Naturally, some of them lead straight to typically sectarian ideologies: we are the chosen ones, the small circle of initiates who possess the only truth, while the rest of humanity is wandering around in ignorance. Others, who stress the idea of a primordial tradition and criticize all modern progress, often have an extreme-right flavor. They are all threatened by serious irrational deviations. In the ‘Ordre du Temple solaire’ sect, for instance, their murderous aberration was legitimized in the name of the ‘‘invisible masters’’ of the Templars! For weak minds, there is a real risk of becoming unhinged from reality. To my knowledge, the best criticism of interpretive delirium was given by Umberto Eco, a fine semiologist, in his two first books. In The Name of the Rose he denounced interpretive delirium of a religious nature, when the monks interpreted crimes committed in their monastery as the realization of prophecies from the Apocalypse. In Foucauld’s Pendulum, he portrays esoteric madness.
We could therefore see the return (or rather the permanence) of the esoteric in modern society as a worrisome sign of the need for magic and the irrational. We can also see it as an attempt by modern Westerners to rebalance their imaginative and rational functions, and the logical and intuitive polarities in the brain. Shouldn’t we accept once and for all, as Edgar Morin has been constantly reminding us for the past forty years, that human beings are both sapiens and demens? That, to live a fully human life, they need love and emotion as much as they need reason, and myths as much as scientific knowledge? In short, to lead a poetic existence.

Interview by M.L.

(1) a study conducted and co-written with my colleague from Le Nouvel Observateur, Marie-France Etchegoin.
(2) Plon, 2003.