Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion. Edited by
Antoine Faivre & Wouter J. Hanegraaff. (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), paper, xvii+309 pages.

Reviewed by Claire Fanger

This collection of essays, selected from papers presented at the 17th Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions in 1995, embodies an attempt to think collectively about Esotericism and some of the disciplinary and historical subcategories within it. The Introduction by Wouter Hanegraaff provides a brief review of the development of this relatively new discipline, pointing to the still problematic status of Esotericism in academic research: although the study of the gnostic and hermetic ideas of late antiquity has long been more or less respectable, study of modern and contemporary avatars of Esoteric thought has found only a modest academic niche which may be used by interested scholars "only on the condition that they use the correct (ie socially acceptable) code words....: hermetic' is OK, occultist' or esotericist' is wrong." (Introduction, xi) The stated goal of the volume, then, is to contribute to the process of the liberation of Esotericism from the more hole-and-corner aspects of its existence "by providing a sample of current research in the field, and especially by calling attention to central problems of methodology which confront the new discipline." (Introduction, xv)

There are twelve essays in the volume. The first three essays, by Antoine Faivre (on questions of terminology), Wouter Hanegraaff (on the construction of Esoteric traditions), and Pierre Riffard (on the Esoteric method), are the most theoretically and methodologically oriented, and between them help to set up a broad perspective on the field. There follows a set of articles which pick up specific (mostly) historical topics (mostly) within the domain of esotericism (though what that means in the case of each individual essay is a question sometimes more vexed than others). First come four articles of varied subject matter: Dan Merkur (on Western Esotericism and Otherworlds), Italo Ronca (on Islamic and Christian alchemy), Joseph Dan (on Christian Kabbalah), and Arthur Versluis (on alchemy and theosophy). These are followed by two articles

different aspects of Esotericism within or related to Freemasonry, by Jan Williams-Hogan; and two articles on esoteric philosophies of history by Arthur McCalla and Garry Trompf.

As will always be the case with an edited collection like this one, some of the essays are stronger than others, and some contribute to the overall goals of the volume more carefully and pointedly than others do. The essays differ in their approaches and assumptions, and show varied degrees of interaction with the methodological concerns laid out at the beginning. Since the collection is explicitly intended to bring together work on an idea in the process of being invented, this lack of consensus about the topic of the collection cannot be considered a flaw in the volume, although in the cases of some individual essays, it does seem that the essays might have benefitted had the authors been more careful to situate their own work in one of the larger contexts of Esotericism provided at the outset. In other cases, however, the variations between approaches, even the deficiencies of definition, become thought provoking, and the balance between historical scholarship and more theoretical/methodological concerns is for the most part a satisfying one.

This would not be true if the volume did not lay on the methodological concerns rather heavily at the start. Antoine Faivre's concepts have become central to what esotericism conceives itself to be (or at least what it conceives of itself to be as a category which is scholarly, histori cal, etic) and his ideas are probably the most often referred to in the volume. (Both Jan Snoek and Jane Williams-Hogan set up their essays using Faivre's criteria, in particular the 4/6 part schema defining Esotericism as an ensemble of four intrinsic elements and two extrinsic elements. In addition, Laurant's article seems to rely on Faivre implicitly, and several of the other authors refer to him in passing.) Thus it is appropriate that the volume opens with an essay by Faivre, "Questions of Terminology proper to the Study of Esoteric Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe," in which he formulates stricter definitions of certain esoteric notions and currents whose connotations, he suggests, are often vague. His essay describes the currents of hermetism, Christian Kabbalah Paracelsism, Rosicrucianism and theosophy, alchemy, magic (magia), occultism and

perennialism, and the notions of hermeticism and gnosis. As with Faivre's 4/6 part schema, all of his definitions are explicitly historically circumscribed and explicitly non-essentialist (in other words, he does not aim to refer to anything outside the modern period or to define a more general or universalizing sense for any of these terms). As with Faivre's writing in general, the particular clarifications seem useful.

Wouter Hanegraaff's essay, "On the Construction of Esoteric Traditions'" is the broadest ranging in the volume, and furnishes a kind of schematic backdrop against which the work of the various other authors may be seen. He looks at how a number of different scholars have construed ideas of Esotericism, grouping authors according most common biases toward the material (pro-esotericist, anti-esotericist, and historicist). In the first category he discusses the work of Gilles Quispel and Pierre Riffard (with a brief glance at Perennialism); in the second Eric Voegelin, Carl Raschke and Marcello Truzzi; in the third Antoine Faivre, Gershom Scholem and Joseph Dan (who are treated together), and Dan Merkur. Hanegraaff's account is neutral but critical in the best sense, arguing for the greater utility of the historicist approaches, particularly the Scholem/Dan model, but giving a careful and balanced attention to all the approaches under consideration, even the anti-esotericist views with which he would have small reason to be sympathetic. (Though such objectivity can go only so far; I note in passing that the viewpoints Hanegraaff labells "anti-esotericist" are not represented in the volume, though various pro-esotericist and historicist viewpoints are.) In many ways Hanegraaff's writing, both here and in the introduction, provides a kind of cement for the entire volume, binding together what is in fact a quite heterogenous array of ideas, demonstrating with great clarity how each might be thought of as related to (or useful to) esoteric scholarship by showing the relations as well as the disjunctions between them. His account of scholarly attitudes to the esoteric not only provides a helpful guide for the reader (I found myself referring back to it on several occasions in the course of reading the articles that followed), but also I think provides the volume as a whole with a strong sense of unity of endeavor which it would otherwise lack.

Pierre Riffard's essay "The Esoteric Method" offers a methodological discussion of a different kind. Riffard deals with the question of whether the esotericist mode of knowing (to which he refers as the "internal method," and describes as "a form of self analysis," (Riffard, 64)) is necessarily incompatible with the mode of knowing of scholarship (the "external method"). Riffard takes the reader through various aspects of esoteric hypotheses and techniques (hypotheses, eg, of mythical origins, cosmic cycles, occult etymologies, and so on) and relates these to the mode of knowing proper to the "external method" (which is more generally described), concluding, perhaps unsurprisingly, that each has a validity in different areas. There is a combined method, both esoteric and historical-critical (which Riffard attributes, somewhat surprisingly, to Frances Yates), but he complains that this "runs the risk of utilizing the internal approach within an external domain." (Riffard, 73) This article is interesting both for its recapitulation of esoteric hypotheses and assumptions, and its attempt to balance the historians and esotericists claim to real knowledge, but ultimately I think runs the the risk of oversimplifying the issues at stake by its polarization of internal and external methods of knowing. (The internal method, for example, relates to meaning and not to facts; but is not the historians business in fact with meanings as well as facts?) The essay is certainly thought provoking, and provides an interesting counterpoint to the first two essays, though many issues it raises remain unresolved.

The essay which follows Riffard's, "The Otherworld as a Western Esoteric Category", by Dan Merkur, is one of the more problematic in the book, and a case in point of an essay where a stronger engagement with methodological issues might have been desirable. This is in part because it looks at broad range of cross-cultural materials, but really does not formulate its key concepts with sufficient clarity. "Although the argument ex silencio is necessarily inconclusive," writes Merkur in one of his introductory paragraphs "it would seem that the concept of the Otherworld was an invention of Western esotericism." (Merkur, 79) But the argument that follows is problematic, not only because it is indeed an argument from silence (though a suggestive one in places), but also because neither what Merkur means by "Otherworld", nor indeed what he

means, in this context, by "Western esotericism" is very clearly delineated. His claim is that "the Otherworld belongs to the history of gnosis, and only since the high Middle Ages". (79) It would seem here that he is relying on his own previous discussion of Gnosis (in Gnosis: An Esoteric Tradition of mystical Visions andUnions, Albany, 1993), and it appears also that gnosis is a term which he uses as interchangeable with the term "Western esotericism". According to the paraphrase by Hanegraaff (in his essay in this volume) Merkur construes gnosis as, "a tradition of visionary and unitive practice. It is rooted in late antiquity and can be traced in the three scriptural traditions." (Hanegraaff, 60) But it remains unclear how Merkur himself would tease out these ideas in relation to what he says about Otherworlds, or in relation to the other notions of Esotericism which the volume as a whole deals with. Since, in the examples covered by Merkur, the "otherworld"appears quite general concept, a religious or mythical idea, it is unclear how or whether Merkur means to distinguish between "Western esotericism"and "Western religion." As it is, his essay demonstrates the notion that the "otherworld" is a Western category only somewhat ambiguously, and the notion that the "otherworld" is a Western esoteric category is not really demonstrated at all. Merkur's lack of clear formulation in these respects prevents his essay from interacting with the other articles in the volume as usefully as it might have done.

The following essay by Italo Ronca, "Religious Symbolism in Medieval Islamic and Christian Alchemy" treat an alchemical text, the Latin Senior or "Senior Zadith's Tabula Chemica" (a twelfth or thirteenth-century abridged and badly corrupted Latin translation of a tenth century arabic text). The essay deals with "religious symbolism (emblematic and literal) as it appears first in Senior's prologue, then in a fourteenth century's Christian miniature based on Senior and beautifully preserved in the Codex Thenovacensis 172 f the Zurich Zentralbibliothek." (Ronca, 102) Ronca shows the Christian miniaturist interpreted the symbolism of the Senior in ways that related to Christian culture, not the Islamic culture which generated the text initially. He goes on to make the salubrious points that historians of medieval alchemy should be extremely cautious not to read into the medieval texts modern esoteric ideas about alchemy;

and that "the vast majority of medieval alchemical texts are utterly unreliable in the printed form given to them by unscrupulous editors in the 16th and 17th centuries." (Ronca, 110)

Both Ronca's essay and the following one contribute to the volume in useful ways by showing the adoption/adaption of esoteric ideas and symbols from one culture to another. Joseph Dan's "Christian Kabbalah: from Mysticism to Esotericism" was for one of the most interesting and useful articles in the book, in part because of the interaction between its specific historico-scholarly claims and its contribution to the goals of the volume. The idea of esotericism (for which Dan delimits his usages carefully in a footnote to sentence one) is not extensively elaborated in the body of the essay, but the relations described between Jewish and Christian Kabbalah illumine it nonetheless. The main purpose of the essay is "to present the important similarities as well as the differences between the kabbalah itself and the Christian Kabbalah, hightlighting the original contributions of the Christian thinkers and their creative and selective attitudes towards their Hebrew sources." (Dan, 118) Not all the Hebrew sources drawn on by the first Christian Kabbalists were actually Kabbalistic; indeed not all of them were in themselves pro-Kabbalistic. This diversity of source material, combined with the primary interest of the first Christian Kabbalists in demonstrating the validity and truth of Jewish non-biblical tradition in general, meant that much was accepted as "Kabbalistic doctrine" by Christian thinkers that would have had little to do with Kabbalah for Jewish proponents of Kabbalah of the same period. Thus, concepts, notions, ideas and terms which were known as universal within Jewish culture were attributed specifically to Kabbalah by Christian thinkers (eg the gematria, which is a midrashic method, becomes understood as Kabbalistic). Dan concludes that "nothing is naturally' esoteric. Esotericism is a designation of the historical role of certain ideas and methods within a culture rather than a description of their intrinsic characteristics. As an adjective, esoterical' describes a culture's attitude towards ideas rather than the ideas themselves." (Dan, 128)

This is an important conclusion and one that interestingly distinguishes Dan's essay from the previous essay on alchemy, in which Ronca also treats the translation of esoteric symbolism from one culture to another. In the case of Ronca's subject matter, however, the symbolism would not seem to be less "esoteric" in one case than the next, though the symbols are made to read differently -- a fact which made this reader wonder if in fact some things actually are more "naturally" (intuitively?) esoteric than others (alchemy being a prime example). However Dan's point (that the distinguishing feature of the "esoteric" is connected to cultural attitude), is a salient one.

The next article also treats the idea of alchemy, but in a later historical context. Arthur Versluis essay, "Alchemy and Christian Theosophic Literature," analyzes the work of two theosophical writers influenced by Boehme, Johann Georg Gichtel and John Pordage. Versluis addresses the ways in which the alchemical interests of the two writers connected to their theosophical ideas. One might perhaps expect theosophical writers to embrace the esoteric side of the practice ( alchemy as spiritual discipline) rather than the exoteric (alchemy as laboratory science). Versluis demonstrates that they both "came out on the side of alchemy as a spiritual discipline primarily, but a spiritual discipline that can have definite results in the physical world." (Versluis, 132) In the course of his analysis it becomes patent that these writers did not shun the laboratory, and that Gichtel, in particular, seems to have attained succesful transmutations there which informed his subsequent thinking about spiritual processes.

In the closing remarks to his article Versluis confronts the reader with the problem of belief: "Reading Gichtel's letters, the works of Pordage, and the records of American theosophic communities, one is driven in the end to an inevitable desicion about alchemy, its nature and authenticity. One is forced to decide whther what Gichtel writes to his numerous correspondents is true or not." (Versluis, 141) Versluis' article culminates in an apologetic for theosophic alchemy (as an inner knowledge which changes the knower) versus "modern science" (or "experimental science") as merely "an accumulation of external observations" which rejects everything not obviously material. Versluis seems here to go beyond the pro-esoteric approach of Riffard (who suggests that the "intrinsic"

esoteric understanding is incompatible with the "extrinsic" scholarly understanding unless each mode of knowing keeps to its own object domain) by suggesting that a still truer understanding may be available if we allow the two domains to converge (as they do in alchemy). I have no objection to this formulation in its own terms (my own experience suggests that such things do in fact converge all the time) although it seems to me that Versluis apologetic is marred by a philosophical oversimplification, somewhat akin to Riffard's, which sees both the scientific and the spiritual modes of understanding as less complex and more polarized modes of knowing than they really are.

The next article by J.A.M. Snoek, "On the Creation of Masonic Degrees: a Method and its Fruits," begins by carefully setting up the relation of Freemasonry to Esotericism using Faivre's criteria. Snoek notes that Masonry picks up only two of the elements in Faivre's 4/6 scheme, yet "it is clear that Freemasonry has a family resemblance' with esoteric movements, that it has interacted significantly with these movements, and that many of the high degree systems contain various esoteric elements." (Snoek, 147) The body of the article is concerned with discovering the reasons for the creation of specific Masonic degrees, and Snoek uses a "detective method" (Snoek's term for what is not in fact an uncommon manner of practicing scholarship in cases where there is less information than one could wish), to address the way in which each degree could be seen as an answer to a specific problems within Freemasonry. Perhaps there need not have been quite so much worrying over the question of whether Freemasonry is genuinely esoteric or not, since I think its relevance to Esotericism is not really in question -- the interactions between Freemasonry and modern occult movements are extensive and plainly visible. However I found Snoek's apposition of Faivre's Scheme to Freemasonry to be an interesting exercise, at least in revealing how few of the elements need be present in a practice to bring it in range of esoteric categories.

It becomes in certain ways more interesting in light of the following article, Jean-Pierre Laurant's "Esotericism in Freemasonry: the Example of François-Nicolas Noël's Géométrie du Maçon (1812)."

This article discusses a text, the Géométrie du Maçon, found in a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France -- a work composed by a Mason, which may represent the thought either of "a group of masons in the tradition of the Christian theosophy of the late 18th century", or of "a surviving initiatic tradition exterior or parallel to Masonry, but attempting to ... continue a somewhat different type of esoteric teaching." (Laurant, 192) Laurant describes Noël's endeavour as a combination of "discussions of masonic symbolism with an alchemical discourse on the philosopher's stone, in the context of an exegesis of Scripture.... The esoteric character of the manuscript lies in this combination: it aims at the redemption ... of Nature in its totality, by revealing the correspondences between microcosmic man and the macrocosmos." (Laurant, 191) It seems from this brief account that Noël's text would fit most if not all of Faivre's criteria without difficulty, though Laurant attempts no extended analysis to demonstrate this. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the text does not warrant such an analysis because it is in fact more "naturally" esoteric than the practices discussed in the preceding essay.

The following article by Jane Williams-Hogan, "The place of Emanuel Swedenborg in Modern Western Esotericism," like that by Snoek, tackles a set of ideas whose esoteric status appears dubious. As Williams-Hogan begins by pointing out, Swedenborg is an influential writer whose writings are nevertheless not firmly lodged in the proper domain of Esotericism, though at the same time (and somewhat paradoxically) have always held a consistently important place in the margins. This article addresses the questions: How or in what ways can Swedenborg's writings be seen as consistently esoteric? In what ways do they fail to be so? Williams Hogan first gives an outline of the shape of Swedenborg's career, and then begins a systematic breakdown of his ideas with respect to the four main items in Faivre's schema: correspondences, living nature, imagination and transmutation. The analysis, which shows that Swedenborg does match at least three out of four of Faivre's criteria (all but the element of living nature) shows him to be an Esotericist at least in the core content of his ideas.

What makes the article's conclusions more subtle, however, is the brief assessment that follows this analysis of Swedenborg's subsequent influence, which shows the shape of the varied receptions of his work in German, French and Anglo-American cultural contexts. Williams-Hogan concludes that the German reactions tend to be more analytical whereas in France "his system is not analyzed so much as it is incorporated and utilized to further the visions and enterprises of others." (Williams-Hogan, 252) Despite these differences, in continental Europe as a whole, his reception takes place almost exclusively in a recognizably esoteric context. His influence in the Anglo-American world, by contrast, is as much on non-esoteric and mainstream contexts -- "his writings have a more "taken for granted' or empirical cast to them" (Williams-Hogan, 252) among such writers as, for example, Browning, Emerson, and Whitman. This article seems extremely important, both in showing the way Faivre's ideas may be useful in the application to a particular text, and more particularly Ithink in the ways it shows that the boundaries of Esotericism are permeable: the status of an idea or conceptual framework as "esoteric" has to do not less with its intrinsic qualities than with the way it is used, read and appropriated.

The last two articles in the volume concern esoteric constructions of history. In the first of these, "Illuminism and French Romantic Philosophies of History,"Arthur McCalla examines the contribution of Illuminism to the rise of historicizing thought in the early nineteenth century; he argues that "historicizing thought began, not as a move toward secularization (whatever its later direction), but as an attempt to find meaning in history; and in this attempt French Romantics drew on Illuminist themes." (McCalla, 253) In the next and final essay, "Macrohistory in Blavatsky, Steiner and Guénon" Garry Tromf looks at what he terms esoteric "macrohistory" as a reaction (one of several) to a science oriented evolutionism emerging in the period (in the writings, e.g., of Herbert Spencer and others). He explains "macrohistory" as "an act of adjusting frames of meaning, or of re-imaging one's place in the cosmos and "the whole course of human events' into a neue Bedeutungsbildung." (Tromf, 269) Both essays are of interest in their own terms, McCalla's

perhaps particularly so because it shows the interaction between the more and less esoteric frameworks of Illuminism and French romanticism.

In general, I found the most conceptually satisfying of the historical essays in the volume to be those which showed some interaction between an idea of Esotericism and non-esoteric categories (e.g. categories like the religious, the romantic, the historical, and so on). Joseph Dan's essay on Christian Kabbalah and Williams-Hogan's essay on Swedenborg seemed particularly important, since both in different ways managed to gesture at not merely at what it takes for a system to <I>be<I>esoteric, but also might take for a system to be <I>read as<I> esoteric -- the fact that the two are not identical casts an interesting back illumination on the idea not only on the ideas of Kabbalah and Swedenborg respectively, but also on the idea of Esotericism itself. Taken together with Hanegraaff's work in this volume, both of these essays in particular (and several others in the volume to greater or lesser degrees) succeed in casting light on how "the esoteric" is not a closed or sealed off territory, a mode of knowing polarized against other different (and more acceptable) modes of knowing (science, scholarship) but rather constantly interacts with things outside itself. In terms of the long range goals of the volume this is a significant point to be made, since if Esotericism is to become a discipline like any other, the full scope of its interaction with other ideas and other modes of knowing must be teased out and clarified, and I think the volume will be important for what it has achieved on this score. While not all of the individual articles are equally successful in illuminating an idea of Esotericism, most will have an independent interest for scholars working in the periods and areas they cover. In sum, this is a book few people interested in Esotericism or related areas will regret buying.