Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture Kindle Edition
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This is an excellent work of historiography, the art that Oswald Spengler deemed the only intellectual possibility remaining to Western civilization. A thorough review of how the words "esoteric", "occult", and "magic" came into employment in the languages of Western Europe, it ignores entirely the content or meaning of the texts that were given such labels. Indeed, we should not expect Hanegraaff to touch upon such topics. When he chose to write a book for Cambridge University Press in the 21st century, he was robbed of his ability to speak of texts as possessing meaning in and of themselves, as opposed to historical interest. But the book that resulted from this Faustian bargain is still great reading as history and good food for thought for religious scholars young and old.
Hanegraaff uses this "radical historicism" to probe into the uncomfortable relationship between Christian universalism and the wisdom traditions of other ecumenes, notably its intellectual forefathers Plato and Aristotle and their late classical interpreters, but also including Brahmins, Druids, Egyptians, and everyone else the writers were aware of. How does one tell stories that are not the universal (catholic) story?
In the first chapter, Western Christianity (pre-Reformation) ends up presenting God as hiding himself to the non-western traditions; a sort of secret, Gnostic God for the Jews and pagans who only becomes publicly knowable in the person of Christ. Considering that the point of orthodoxy in the first place was to preserve faith in God from the evils of Gnosticism, this was unpalatable to many late medieval writers. The second chapter presents their equally dubious alternative: that pre-Christian and neoplatonic philosophy was per se heretical. Taking up this assumption leads us to the unfortunate conclusion that the Church Fathers all across the Mediterranean were misled by heresy. This of course became a favored line of Protestant attack, and by the late 17th century this gives rise to the modern category of "esotericism," into which the dream of the philosophia perennis was shoved. But this category was founded by radical Protestants, on the implausible premise that there were absolutely no lines of dialogue between ecumenes except for the corruption of God's truth by human or Satanic philosophy. Hanegraaff dubs this anti-apologeticism and it becomes the standard academic response; the third chapter of the book is devoted largely to how the resulting construction of "esotericism" became more ornate as it solidified.
When we enter the 20th century, though, the book's project starts to unravel, something that has been noted by other reviewers. If I were reviewing this book for a formal publication I could go on for several pages about why I think this is so. Lacking such an invested audience, I will just attempt a little radical historicism of my own. Today's "academies" of religion developed out of these anti-apologetic schools of Protestant theology that sought out the truth specifically by throwing into the wastebasket all the man-made teachings that they knew to be false. The development of "esotericism and the academy" after the Protestant era, then, is also about the transformation of Western elite opinion about religion as a whole. Over many decades, the bold proclamation of belief in God, Christ, angels and devils was whittled away into nothing. Once all the teachings were equally in the wastebasket, it is not surprising that some religious scholars, for some reason or another, got particularly interested in the reason the wastebasket was invented in the first place.
The result is a chapter differing in tone from the rest of the book, that contains many valid points such as a severe and accurate critique of Mircea Eliade, but is presented in the form of an inexorable progress towards historicism, deviation from which is completely intolerable to the author. We should not be surprised that Hanegraaff quotes at length Henry Corbin's rather cogent argument that historicism is meaningless and irrelevant to the quest for esoteric knowledge, and then cannot manage any reply other than the harried statement that it is "pointless to judge Corbin's work by the criteria of academic historiography", and later, "such normative judgments may be appropriate for philosophers or theologians, but cannot be supported on the basis of historical evidence." Hanegraaff is reduced to throwing up his arms and quite literally asking "quid est veritas?", because in his position as a 21st century Western academic he is unable to turn his eyes towards the content of esoteric knowledge.
I am not very eager about the conclusion of the book, where Hanegraaff, despite himself (specifically, despite his careful takedown of Frances Yates in the previous chapter), becomes weirdly excited about the possibilities opening up for researching what he calls "the polemical Other of modernity", and later indicates by the telling word "gnosis". I cannot claim to know what the historical study of such currents will open up for the de-Christianized academy. Instead of reading the conclusion, though, I would recommend that the reader turn back to the well-designed cover of the book, which shows a scholar with his head in his arms, being attacked by owls and other creatures that he seems to be trying to keep away. I am befuddled that the book's final chapter continually refers to two people named "Guénon" and "Evola" as if the reader is meant to know who they are, usually without supplying the first names of these two gentlemen, and without ever describing their beliefs in the body of the text. One gets the definite sense that these names are Dionysian ghosts being consciously suppressed from the Apollonian bent of the narrative, and it pleases me to think of them as the owls on the cover.
Although not a bad book it lacks clarity, a narrative hook, and any sympathy for readers who do not have more than a passing acquaintance with Latin, French, German. If you read the Kindle edition, on a tablet or phone, at least you will be able to look these quotes and phrases up online.
Recommendation: Give this one a pass.
Rating 3 out of 5 stars