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Template:Spirituality portal Esotericism refers to knowledge that is secret or not generally known. It is knowledge suitable only for the advanced, privileged, or initiated, or knowledge of an 'inner' nature, as opposed to exoteric knowledge, which is well-known or public. It is used especially to describe mystical, occult and spiritual viewpoints.

Historically, 'esoteric knowledge' generally described knowledge kept secret from outsiders by certain select groups, such as Freemasons or magical orders, either for reasons of exclusivity, or to protect themselves against prejudice. More recently, as occult and mystical teachings have become more publicly available (through such groups as the Theosophical Society and the Rosicrucian Fellowship), another sense of esoteric has become more prominent: that which is complex and difficult to grasp except by the few who are more perceptive or aware.


Esoteric is an adjective originating in Hellenic Greece under the domain of the Roman Empire; it comes from the Greek esôterikos, from esôtero, the comparative form of esô: "within". Esoteric refers to anything that is inner and occult. Its antonym is exoteric, from the Greek eksôterikos, from eksôtero, the comparative form of eksô: "outside". Plato, in his dialogue Alcibíades (aprox. 390 BC), uses the expression ta esô meaning «the inner things», and in his dialogue Teeteto (aprox. 360 BC) he uses ta eksô meaning «the outside things». The probable first appearance of the Greek adjective esôterikos is in Lucian of Samosata's "The Auction of Lives", § 26 (also called "The Auction of the Philosophical Schools"), written around AD 166. [1]

The term esoteric first appeared in English in the 1701 History of Philosophy by Thomas Stanley, in his description of the "Auditors of Pythagoras." The Pythagoreans were divided into "exoteric," which were under review, and "esoteric," which had performed well enough to be admitted into the "inner" circle.

Esotericism (sometimes written esoterism) as a noun substantive first appeared in the 1828 work Histoire critique du gnosticisme et de ses influences of the early prominent Martinist Jacques Matter (1791-1864). Later, Eliphas Lévi, also a Martinist, occultist and cabalist, made common the use of the terms «esotericism» and «occultism», and both terms eventually became fashionable through the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and other personalities of the Theosophical Society in the last quarter of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Through these authors the term «esotericism» gains a sense of 'inner' knowledge and experience: knowledge pertaining to the soul, spirit or psyche.


"Esotericism" as selective[]

A prime example of a historically highly selective category of esoteric teaching is within the academic discipline of philosophy, (in particular, philosophy of mind), whose teachers maintain selectivity by limiting their scope to colleges and universities. This discipline has not focused entirely on esoteric thought, but enough that the term "philosophical knowledge" can generally be used in the place of "esoteric knowledge" when referring to knowledge pertaining to the same "inner" aspects listed above. The Oxford English Dictionary lists as its prime definition of esoteric, "Of philosophical doctrines," although modern philosophers generally avoid the term "esoteric" due to its negative associations with the occult as described below.

In the late 19th to early 20th Century, the discipline of psychology branched off from philosophy a reaction away from the "inner" nature of philosphy towards the more empirical, practical, exoteric nature of science and medicine. Ironically this was spearheaded by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, both of whom privately showed great interest in the occult and esotericism, including psychic phenomena, although it would be difficult in the time of Darwin and Einstein to appear unscientific in their professional lives. Through the 20th Century to present day, there have been various subsets of psychology that were more esoteric or spiritual than behavioral or scientific in basis, such as Gestalt therapy, although these subsets generally avoided the term "esotericism" due to its negative connotation with "the occult" and "New Age" authors such as Alice Bailey, who wrote a series of books in the early 20th Century entitled Esoteric Psychology. Many esoteric Eastern teachings, or Eastern esotericism, are also referred to as Eastern philosophies, although if they are taught, practiced, or reformulated by Westerners, they are often considered New Age, a term Bailey coined.

"Esotericism" as secretive or "occult"[]

On the other hand, there are many examples of the highly secretive category of esoteric teachings, which are usually referred to as occult (from the Latin for hidden). The category of "the occult" is broad and encompasses many exoteric teachings as well, such as alchemy, particularly if those teachings may have also had an esoteric aspect. Further, efforts by certain religions to identify and warn against heretical teachings has added a highly pejorative connotation to "occult," and by extension, "esoteric." This is so prevalent that many non-religious sources now consider "occult" and "esoteric" to mean exactly the same thing, and it has also led to religions like Voodoo, Sufiism, and Wicca to be grouped together with Satanism, cults, and Dungeons and Dragons, regardless of how "hidden" or "inner" the concerns of any of these may be, or even if they are religions at all (but merely games that make no attempt to be secretive). Historically, "occult" (i.e. secretive and hidden) forms of esotericism ("inner" teachings) included magic, freemasonry, and certain monastic and ascetic traditions. In Eastern societies, however, such as Tibet, esoteric knowledge was more generally known and was not suppressed by those in power. As well, today in modern Western societies, due to the separation of church and state, the suppression of "inner" teachings has generally subsided, to the extent that formerly secret groups such as the Theosophical Society and the Rosicrucian Fellowship may teach freely to anyone, often without cost.

"Esotericism" in current usage[]

In Western, English-speaking societies today, the term "esotericism" is commonly used in the sense of "the occult," though it carries fewer pejorative connotations. The descriptive term "esoteric," in slight contrast, has come to mean any knowledge that is difficult to understand or remember, such as theoretical physics, or that pertains to the minutiae of a particular discipline, such as "esoteric" baseball statistics. The term "esoteric" does not necessarily refer to "esotericism" per se in the sense of "inner" knowledge, disciplines, or practices, and for this reason "esotericists" generally choose to refer to themselves by a more specific term related to their discipline (such as Gnostic, Kabbalist, Sufi, Mystic, etc.).

Some present-day teachings choose to term themselves as forms of "esotericism" due to their focus on the "inner" aspects of experience (such as self-transformation) or the "inner" meanings of religious texts (such as Esoteric Christianity and "the Work" of G.I. Gurdjieff). A variety of past traditions could be classified as forms of "esotericism" due to their similar "inner" focus as well as their "selective" and "secretive" nature, for example Martinism, which was (arguably) one of the most influential "occult" movements since the Enlightenment.

Esoteric vs. Esotericism[]

The word esoteric generally relates to that which is known and accepted by a restricted number of people (contrast exoteric). The word esotericism (or esoterism) used in a general sense can simply mean any knowledge which is secret or confidential. Used in its more specific sense it refers to the knowledge of those who claim to have had supernatural experiences. While these experiences typically are not validated by scientific experiments, scientific proof is not always necessary for belief. Esoteric experiences tend to be highly subjective and so are difficult to study with the scientific method. There exists some skepticism about these experiences due to this lack of empirical evidence and sufficient proof; however, among supporters of esotericism, most believe that measurement of this phenomena simply exceeds current scientific capabilities. Esotericism is one of the subjects studied under the discipline parapsychology.


Esotericism largely overlaps with occultism which simply means "hidden knowledge." However, in the 20th century many esotericists avoid the latter term owing to negative connotations associated with it (for example, the presumption that it involves devil-worship or black magic). For the same reason, many (predominantly Christian) opponents of esotericism prefer the term "occultism."

Much overlap exists as well between esotericism and mysticism. However, many mystical traditions do not attempt to introduce additional spiritual knowledge, but rather seek to focus the believer's attention or prayers more strongly upon the object of devotion. Thus Trappist monk Thomas Merton may be a mystic, but is probably not an esotericist.

The New Age movement has many links with various esoteric traditions. However, many esotericists disavow the "New Age" label. Often they reject elements of the New Age movement as commercialism and/or naivite with which they do not wish to be associated. Another difficulty is that of describing as "new" esoteric traditions that may be hundreds or even thousands of years old. On the other hand, "traditions" that are actually rather new are often clothed in a fictional history and passed off as ancient in commercialized esotericism; it takes some discernment to see through such marketing techniques.

"Theosophy" means "divine wisdom" and once—in the writings of Jacob Boehme, for example—meant something similar to "esotericism." Today, however, it has come to refer to the Theosophical Society founded by H.P. Blavatsky, and to other movements in this tradition.

Finally, culturally speaking, many followers of Satanism do probably belong under the general category of esotericism. However, these are shunned by practically everyone else, and for that matter their relationships with one another have been strained as well. Esotericism has far deeper ties--both historically and in the present day--with Christianity, though conservative Christian groups may be uncomfortable with the forms that this Christianity has taken.


Many religious movements in various parts of the world claim to possess a higher, truer, or better interpretation of the wider religion of which they are a part. Whether they are correct is inevitably a matter of controversy. Not infrequently, the claims of one esoteric group may be rejected by the wider religious culture, or by other esoteric groups which make their own rival claims.

While esotericism tends to focus on personal enlightenment and internal spiritual practice, organized religion or exotericism tends to focus on outer spiritual practice and ritual and on laws that govern the society. Nevertheless, esotericism also involves traditions, institutions, and other public aspects.

Esotericism is often said to assume the existence of a spiritual elite, as distinct from the believing masses. While many elements within esotericism are rooted in folk traditions--examples would include the Western study of magic and witchcraft--these have arguably become transformed into elite traditions by virtue of their appropriation by later antiquarians.

"Esotericism" often suggests an additional element of secrecy, for example the requirement that one be initiated before learning the higher truth (as in the case of the Freemasons). Note however that most "esoteric" teachings are widely available, and indeed often actively promoted. Some of this may be because it is now generally safer to promote alternative religious viewpoints than before.

Another possibility is that such knowledge may be kept secret not by the intention of its protectors, but by its very nature—for example, if it is accessible only to those with the proper intellectual or spiritual background. An example would be alchemy, success in which is said to involve copious amounts of study, practice, and spiritual preparation.

In some religious contexts, especially within Western Christianity, "esoteric" knowledge is seen as somewhat dangerous to the mainstream of that religion, involving the possibility of heresy. In other religious cultures such as Judaism, the leaders of the mainstream religion have historically also been recognized as the elite interpreters of its esoteric dimension, in this case Kabbalah.

The English word "esotericism" is usually applied to Western spiritual traditions. However, it has occasionally been used for non-Western religions, or more often, interpreted in such a way as to include such phenomena as yoga or tantra.

The criteria for inclusion under the label of "esoteric" are not always made explicit, and the result is often a matter of taste or historical usage. For example Emanuel Swedenborg, but not Mary Baker Eddy, is usually considered an esoteric figure, even though both developed their own inspired interpretations of the Bible.

Historical sketch[]

Esotericism is not a single tradition but a vast array of often unrelated figures and movements. Nevertheless, the following may be helpful.

The Roman Empire gave birth not only to Christianity but also to a group of mystery religions which emphasized initiation. Some see Christianity, with its initiation ritual of baptism, as a mystery religion.

After Christianity became the state religion of Rome, dissident Christian groups became persecuted as traitors to the state. Also, pagan groups came to be suppressed as well. The terms "Gnosticism" and "Gnosis" have been challenged as coherent categories, but refer to a family of ancient Jewish, Christian, and pagan religious movements which often did claim to possess secret teachings relating to the spirit world, as opposed to the ordinary world which they tended to denigrate. Another important movement from the ancient world was Hermeticism, sometimes called Hermetism to distinguish it from post-Renaissance appropriations of it. Separately, ancient Babylon provided the basis for Western astrology.

During the Middle Ages such things as astrology, alchemy, and magic were not distinct from the standard subjects of the curriculum of an educated man. While some people assume esotericism to be opposed to the Bible or Christianity, as a historical matter this tension did not arise until later. Indeed, Christianity contributed its own esoteric imagery, notably the Holy Grail from Arthurian literature.

The institutional danger of esotericism is its potential as an alternative source of doctrine or authority. In Gershom Scholem's view, normative Judaism distanced itself from Kaballah in the wake of Shabbatai Zevi's use of it to bolster his messianic pretentions. Similarly, Roman Catholic theologians seem to have shied away from esoteric subjects at about the same time that certain elements within the Protestant Reformation were celebrating them. An example would be the initial wave of Rosicrucian manifestoes. Magisterial Protestants themselves grew suspicious of esoteric traditions as they began to be invoked by pietist inspired figures such as Swedenborg.

Hence esotericism's inherently marginal or fringe status in the modern West. Nevertheless, esotericism of one type or another has influenced Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Shakespeare, Goethe, Kant, and William Blake, to name just a few exemplary figures.

While many esoteric subjects have a history reaching back thousands of years, these have generally not survived as continuous traditions. Rather, they have benefitted from various antiquarian revival movements. During the Italian Renaissance, for example, translators such as Ficino and Pico della Mirandola turned their attention to the classical literature of neo-Platonism, and what was thought to be the pre-Mosaic tradition of Hermeticism. Nineteenth-century writers turned their attention to earlier traditions of magic and witchcraft, often in conjunction with the various nationalisms of the day. Nazi mysticism is an extreme example.

Nineteenth-century esoteric writers came to be deeply influenced by various Eastern religions, which they typically saw as partaking of the same divine truth. Thus Madame Blavatsky could combine Indian philosophy with various Western esoteric traditions. In her view, the saints and mystics of all countries and ages (many of them otherwise unknown) cooperate in a common fraternity which resembles the lodges of Freemasonry as well as the original Rosicrucians, who were said to be "invisible." (Rosicrucianism was another tradition which enjoyed a nineteenth-century revival.)

Perhaps the most important twentieth-century development was a certain psychological turn, in which esoteric subjects acquired new subjective interpretations more in accord with prevailing scientific opinion. If alchemy turned out to be a dead end when taken literally, i.e. as a search for artificial gold or the elixir of life, then it might find new life as a symbol for the workings of the unconscious, as Carl Jung would have it. The intersection of esotericism with mysticism and religious pluralism is another important emphasis of this period, and is represented in the writings of Rene Guenon. The influence of post-modernism remains to be digested.

Esoteric themes[]

What, in a nutshell, does "esotericism" teach? No possible answer could do justice to the myriad groups which are subsumed under this name. However, we may venture some representative examples:

  • Deconstructionism takes classical philosophical writings and concepts that once seemed clear, and dissects them bit by bit, concentrating on language and syntax, to arrive at new variants that are intended to reveal new insights, though the process and the result are esoteric.
  • Kabbalah preserves traditions describing the origin and destiny of humanity and the universe, as well as practices aimed at restoring ourselves and the world to our true stations. These are of course typical religious concerns, which in this case parallel or amplify the teachings and practices of mainstream Judaism.
  • Gnosticism teaches that this world is not our true home--that by seeing through the illusion and realizing our true nature, we can escape, returning to the world of spirit.
  • Hermeticism, including astrology, is based on the assumption that the soul and the cosmos are mysteriously and fundamentally linked. "As above, so below."
  • Freemasonry and some forms of alchemy use symbolic means to aid the practitioner in his individual betterment, with the aim of increasing virtue and drawing closer to the divine.
  • Theosophy and its offshoots teach the existence of hidden masters, who are charged with guiding earth's spiritual evolution. We may choose to actively cooperate with these efforts.
  • Spiritualism emphasizes the comfort of direct experience of the afterlife by means of communion with ghosts.
  • The Gurdjieff work teaches that people normally function like automatons, but can be taught to "wake up" via special practices which shake us out of our normal, mind-numbing habits.
  • Jungian psychology seeks to integrate the various dualities and contraries within a patient's psyche through involvement with myths, dreams, and visions.
  • Taoism seeks to preserve the thoughts of ancient chinese, and aimed to achieved balance (yin/yang) with nature. Classic works includes Daodejing which strongly influenced a lot of east Asian esotericism. Taoist commentators have been very impressed by the opening lines of the ancient Daodejing, which can be translated:

The way which can be uttered, is not the eternal Way. The name which can be named, is not the eternal Name.

(The original words are

道可道,非常道。 名可名,非常名。 In Chinese, "道" or "Dao", when used as a noun, it means "way" or "path"; but when it is used as a verb, it means "to utter" or "to speak it out".)

As important a part of esotericism as any of these answers, is the spirit of quest which has encouraged seekers throughout the ages to search the world, and their own souls, for deeper meaning and ultimately salvation.


Many groups or schools of thought embrace an esoteric tradition or philosophy:

See also[]

af:Esoterie bg:Езотеризъм da:Esoterisme de:Esoterik eo:Esoterismo es:Esoterismo et:Esoteerika fr:Ésotérisme nl:Esoterie pt:Esoterismo sv:Esoterik

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