This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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5.5. Principles of Esoterism

Initiatic orders and esoterism

If we set out to identify the esoteric aspect of any religion, we come upon the idea of initiation and, as a result, the presence of initiatic orders or “brotherhoods.” The first thing to be said, in order to prevent confusion or contradiction, is that iniatic orders have esoteric knowledge as their end, otherwise there is no justification for their existence; but this also implies that most of their apparatus and much of their membership does not operate at the level of metaphysics. These orders present a pathway and support for realization but are not equivalent to that realization itself.

It was important to say this because if we look at the most well-known initiatic orders we immediately see that their membership is not composed exclusively–or even predominantly–of metaphysicians. This does not nullify them, but is part of their structure and is a necessity.

Thus, the fact that initiatic orders may have vast membership does not contradict the truth that esoterism is necessarily restricted to an intellectual elite and cannot be otherwise. The Muslim brotherhoods are an example of this, likewise the remnant of Freemasonry (although it is possible that here the esoteric kernel has completely disappeared).

We’ve said that this is part and parcel with the nature of any organization that must operate by human means and be integrated with some social group, which leads it to be composed of various elements not all of them capable of realizing the higher purpose of the organization. Here we come to an important distinction in initiatic orders between the “inner circle” and the rest, where only those in the inner circle are aware of the real nature of the order to which they belong, and may consider it little more than a social club or run-of-the-mill religious association. For them, this membership may simply be another form of exoteric religious participation. In Islam these are mutabarik or “blessed”/”initiated”, whereas the members of the elite attain the degree of salik or “one who travels” since they have discovered the “narrow door” hidden to others and which prevents the others from proceeding beyond a certain level.

Contemporary disequilibrium

We should remark that while the presence of both groups is natural, an equilibrium is necessary, and it would not be far-fetched to suggest that today the salikun are far too few and the barkun far too many to result in a healthy organization, and that this is a serious impediment to their function. For example, while the esoteric element is strong in the organization, the barikun benefit from the barakah or “spiritual influence” of the salikun, and so a disequilibrium in the organization disrupts the spiritual health of both circles.

The danger of initiatic orders in the present day. Here I’ll issue a warning that although these initiatic orders may have at one time presented themselves as powerful aids to those with the potential to participate in them, the current state of disequilibrium in humanity as a whole and in such groups as a consequence is so extreme that they present a grave danger for participants in them. I know of more than one of these orders that, even with the best of intentions and the wisest leaders, ended into embarrassment and perversity, not because of any ill will on the part of the leaders but due to an incorrect appraisal of the current state of things, or a refusal to accept the present age for what it is. In other words, even if their projects may have had merit in another age, they were doomed from the start in ours. In everything, take account of the instability, inward and outward, of all things during the Kali Yuga.

The mode of spiritual expression in contemporary Protestantism

While we are obligated to respect the impetus that gives rise to Protestant forms of worship, acknowledging that it is related to the nature of the people involved and could not be otherwise, we must limit this ‘allowance’ to the validation of the spiritual temperament alone, and not the absence of doctrine that has come about as a result of this temperament operating outside of any traditional framework. This latter aspect of Protestantism has been and is disastrous. We mention this only to point out that we necessarily have to adopt an ambiguous attitude toward the Protestant movement, as with most things in our time, and see it as something valid and good that is also corrupt and misguided. Keep this in mind whenever we seem to take an overly pessimistic view of Protestantism.

Sensus fidelium

Every religion contains a more or less exoteric aspect, and in a sense this is a “necessary evil,” in that dogmatism is a sort of reduction of the Truth; but since this reduction is for the sake of its transmission, it is also a “necessary good.” We can even further and say that even though the priestly caste plays the predominant role in safeguarding and developing doctrine, the people also participate and even guide this same development, although not in a conscious and intentional way. The Catholic church calls this the sensus fidei, or the “sense of the faithful,” which is a type of “supernatural appreciation” on the part of the whole body of believers. Of course, emphasis should be placed on the fact that this does not refer to the “laity” as if it were an authority that they could wield against the clergy as a kind of religious populism. It is rather a universal capacity shared by the laity and the clergy alike.

The people and the development of method and doctrine

The reason we must admit that “the people” and their spiritual sense can legitimize doctrine and influence it in a good way is because the people possess an aspect of totality. They too rotate around the “center” of a traditional civilization, which is the Transcendent. They perform, in passive and collective mode, the same functions that the priestly caste performs in active and individual (even if cooperative) mode. For example, they develop a powerful and organic spiritual method through the crafts, which are forms of spiritual realization in traditional societies; they develop a doctrine through folklore, which, again, is always profound and which ceases to exist when a society becomes “modern” and loses its “center.”

The superiority of a religion

Each revelation is superior to all others in a particular aspect, and this is its reason for existing and the basis of its claim to legitimacy in the face of all other pre-existing religious forms. When a prophet speaks of his revelation in exclusive mode, he is emphasizing this claim, and is right to do so. Each Prophet is therefore superior to all others in a way that is unique to that Prophet. He obligated, at the same time, to acknowledge the legitimacy of other religions.

Islam represents the last form of the Sanatana Dharma  in this maha-yuga, and in this way possesses a contingent superiority to all other revelations. But in a different way Hinduism, since it represents the most ancient religious form, possesses its own superiority over all others that would come later. And so on, through all legitimate traditions, we find a multiplicity of superiorities.

Questions ignored by exoterism

Because of the limits of the exoteric point of view, there are a number of concepts that will always remain out of its reach, and this leads to a number of quandaries and “mysteries” which we’ll outline below.

The graduated order of reality

Reality is one, but manifests itself by degrees, hierarchically arranged so that we can speak of some as ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ without implying that they are not all capable of being integrated into one another in principle. The fact that, behind all manifestation, All is God, leads to the esoteric way of speaking which seems to deny the reality of the world as a grand illusion. From the exoteric perspective that sounds like a denial of the reality of inferior degrees and is usually perceived as an offense, as if it denied the dignity of man and the “goodness” of creation. But it is none of that, since the truth of the affirmation that all is God and all that is not God is not real is an emphasis on the Infinity of the Absolute, and if this makes all else seem ephemeral it is only because, next to the Infinite, everything is ephemeral and only acquires stability and existence by participation in the reality of the Absolute. In other words, exoterism frames everything from the perspective of man and must begin by affirming his reality and then affirms all other things in relation to that reality. Esoterism begins from metaphysics, which is the reality of the Absolute, and describes the reality of other things in relation to the One.

The relativity of Being or God

The real complications arise when metaphysics affirms the relativity of the conception of God as pertaining to the order of Being and speaks of the Infinite, of Non-Being, which transcends God. Since exoterism, and theology, which usually stops short of metaphysics since it pertains to the development of exoteric doctrine, does not go beyond Being, then all this talk of Non-Being sounds like blasphemy.

The presence of the Intellect in all beings

In human experience, the division between God’s reality and all contingent reality, which is illusion, takes the form of the alienation from the Self, which is a participation in the Divine from which man derives his capacity for transcendence. Hence, in esoteric doctrine we find constant teachings about the discovery of the “truth self” as opposed to the “ego” which we confuse with ourselves but which is actually a kind of phantom and a mask that we wear throughout life, and which is ripped away in the presence of God to reveal what was always the truth even if we never knew it. And the esoteric path is the “rediscovery” of this Self, which is also the path of “metaphysical realization.” Within the framework of esoterism, this again smacks of a kind of blasphemy since the limits of that point of view, which is individualistic through and through, there can be no “Self that is also God” within man. Exoterism needs these concepts to be neatly separated so that they can be dealt with on rational grounds, with a more external path to a “personal God” that we come to know as subject and object. This also explains why there is no room is exoterism, the realm of “faith vs. reason,” for pure Intellection, or Direct Intuition, which can only be explained by first acknowledging that the Self-knowledge is God-knowledge because the Self is truly God. And so exoterism speaks of knowing God while esoterism speaks of “realizing God.” The former takes on the guise of a “relationship” between to beings, which the latter takes the form of a process of “realization” whereby the individual rediscovers an identity that was always present. The former is indirect and external, hence all the activities and methods proper to religion, while the latter is direct and involves an inner method.

Knowledge and morality

The previous observation leads to the problem of morality. Due to the nature of exoterism, which paints a picture of the path to God as a pilgrimage made by the “good servant” for the sake of the “Lord,” the emphasis is naturally on how “good” the servant is throughout this journey. It is founded on action and actions, and the emphasis is on righteousness. Hence, the centrality of moral considerations in exoteric method. Since esoterism deals with the realization of what never ceased to be, it is clear that knowledge must always be central, and this knowledge is sought through “Self” knowledge, since this is the same as God-knowledge. It ceases to be a question of a Lord-servant relationship where salvation is the goal and is given based on the goodness of the servant, and becomes instead a question of Ignorance vs. Knowledge. Morality plays a subordinate role in that it is still a legitimate consideration, but is only important insofar as virtue acts as a support to metaphysical realization, or Self-knowledge, which it undoubtedly does.

Beyond paradise

If it is true that exoteric doctrine does not go beyond Being, then we can see that that spiritual level, even up to and including man’s final destination of paradise or hell, is also confined within the limits of Being. And obviously if esoterism is not limited in this way but is concerned with a journey that ends in the Infinite, then its destination is not paradise, which is a spiritual state, but in something beyond paradise, namely union with the Absolute. This is why, regarding him who has received initiatic (esoteric) knowledge, a Sufi has said: “Paradise is the prison of the initiate as the world is the prison of the believer.” Thus, beautification in paradise, which in Hinduism is the Brahma-Loka is nonetheless a metaphysical limitation. It is a “final destination” for exoteric doctrine, or theology, only because theology goes no further. A note here is necessary, however: Even though Paradise, from the exoteric perspective, implies a limitation or a “conditioned” state, the term employed from an esoteric perspective and even in the Gospels can be used to refer to an unconditioned state.

Beware accusations of pantheism

The truth contained in pantheism is that there is some kind of continuity between the Infinite and the finite, between the principle and its productions. The error of pantheist consists in attributing this to a “substantial identity” between the ontological Principle and the rest of the created order. This is erroneous and is symptomatic of an improper or incomplete notion of Being and its relationship to manifestation. The identity between manifestation and its Principle is an “essential” and not a substantial one, in that they are connected in terms of essence but not of the same substance. The erroneous notion of pantheism is usually evidence of a substantial notion of Being, which is unfortunately the case with most forms of theism and therefore with theology in general. Once one accepts a substantial notion of Being, one must correctly deny pantheism. But if we see the identity as substantial, then pantheism becomes true.

Being as essence and as substance

In truth, theology is correct in its substantial view of Being, but only due to its perspective which is from within manifestation, where everything is substance. It therefore must describe Being as substance while denying a substantial continuity between Being-as-Principle and the manifested order. But this separation, while necessary, is only really possibly once one transcends this “relative Being” and instead places the Principle outside of ontology. Then the essential identity between principle and production becomes clear while also making quite clear the substantial discontinuity between them, since the ontological Principle can have nothing to do with substance.

Pantheism is most often used as a rhetorical tool to avoid having to make any effort at comprehension of a doctrine that is not familiar to them and not readily apparent.

The several items above concerning pantheism and the essential continuity between the principle of Being and all beings could be better explained. See pages 39-41 of Transcendent Unity.

Divine impersonality

Another difficulty that arises when transitioning from the exoteric to the esoteric point of view is comprehension of Divine Impersonality. To make it clear why it is necessary to approach this subject if one wishes to contemplate transcendence, we need only insist that since God is Infinite and can therefore have no limits and no privations, and since Personality is in its own way a privation or a limit, then we can say that God is not a Personality. If it is legitimate to speak of God as a person or persons, it is only legitimate from the point of view of theology. In other words, to speak of Divine Impersonality is not to say that God lacks personality, but is rather to say that he is suprapersonal–unable to be limited in that way. When the personal God is spoken of, it is really the Divine Ego which is in question, or the Logos. Thus, we can say that Christ is the human manifestation of the Logos, which is itself the Divine Personality or Ego. And all of these “proceed from the Father,” which is beyond personality.

Contradictions between exoterism and esoterism that result

Solomon’s universalism draws ire on the formal plane, and he suffers the consequences. King David’s actions with regard to Bathsheba. The Bible presents an essential “moral” and therefore legal outlook and narrative, due to the fact that it is a predominantly exoteric book. “Offense must come.” Solomon was the result.

Sin and moral wrong

Perhaps it would be helpful to draw a distinction between what moralism see as right and wrong and what is “sin” in the true sense. David broke the laws of the Old Testament, and suffered consequences, but at the same time we could say that from an esoteric point of view, God “inspired” his actions and that they were a matter of obedience to the spirit, and it would have been sin for him to otherwise.

There is a Sufi saying on the contradictions between the two orders:

“The exoteric way: I and Thou. The esoteric way: I am Thou and Thou are I. Esoteric knowledge: neither I nor Thou, Him.”

Exoterism takes the creature-Creator dualism to be an absolute, and not a relative, dualism. But no dualism can exist in the Absolute, and all dualism must fade and be ultimately reabsorbed into the Infinite. Esoterism admits a provisional distinction between the self and Self, for example, but only as apparent distinctions, as illusions to be overcome by transcending them, realizing the Truth through knowledge. Thus, esoterism accepts as legitimate much of the dichotomizing that is done in exoterism, but it puts it all in its place as relative.

Definition of exoterism

The true definition of exoterism is the acceptance of an irreducible dualism between the creature and the Creator, and since principles determine pursuits, the exclusive pursuit of the salvation of the individual. This summarizes the nature and limits of the exoteric point of view.

Evil in the esoteric view

Most people who’ve explored esoteric or metaphysical teachings without actually getting beyond the exoteric point of view come away with the impression that esoteric doctrines deny the existence of evil. The truth is that, first of all, if in metaphysics we do not speak much of “evil,” it is because evil is a theological and even moral concept, and that is not the focus of the metaphysician. Secondly, however, to refuse to emphasize a concept does not amount to its denial, and in fact esoteric doctrine subsumes evil within itself, as should be expected, through the doctrine of the three gunas. I’ll talk about these in depth elsewhere, but at the moment we need only say that tamas, the third guna, refers to the tendency toward oblivion and dissolution or dissipation. It is the “downward” tendency in all beings and affects man at every level, physical as well as moral. Thus, tamas accounts for what on the theological level is personalized and named Satan. Satan is tamas personified, and it makes sense that this is how exoteric doctrine deals with things, because it is concerned with cosmology only in its relation to man.

And so it is not that esoterism denies evil, but that, when one arrives at pure metaphysical doctrine, it is seen from an aspect that transcends the purely human, and is “depersonalized” and becomes one element in a larger structure that is what it must be and could not be anything other than what it is; and it is from this point of view that good and evil cease to oppose one another. Or, to put it another way, all that God created is good.

To further illustrate this point, we need only say that once we cease to consider tamas only as it effects the human individual, we see that it is also tamas that causes the condensation of material bodies and keeps them from volatilizing. Thus, all physical things depend on this tendency and participate in it, even the Eucharist.

The terror displayed by the exoterist at such this “nonmoral” (although he will call it amoral or even immoral) understanding of life is another example of why it is truly better than exoterists maintain their view and not be disturbed with concepts that are not appropriate to their nature. But if we are to answer this, we need only acknowledge that while an amoral view of life would, presumably, rob the exoterist of his motivation for upright conduct and his pursuit of the salvation, we cannot say the same for the esoterist whose desire is not salvation (an essentially moral concept) but union, and so is in fact better served by the supramoral view which places human conduct within a context, not of good vs. evil, but of concentration vs. dissipation, which is to say.

A religious morality is never made for contemplatives, but for the generality of men. What is “wrong” for the generality, which is to say, that which obstructs their path to salvation, may in fact be necessary for the contemplative, since his path is different and what obstructs theirs may facilitate his. The opposite is also true, in that certain actions that are good and necessary for the exoterist, or the common “believer,” may obstruct the path of the contemplative.

Virtue and morality

Virtue is a conformity with God, and is as necessary for the contemplative as it is for the believer, perhaps even more so given the order of knowledge sought but the former. But there needs to be a distinction between a moral code and the possession of a virtue, since the latter has more of a relative legitimacy. In other words, virtue is often obtained by means of a moral code, but two very different moral codes may support the practice of the same virtue. Therefore, virtue transcends the moral code, and the latter is really a tailored and contingent guide to action put in place for a specific type of person, whereas virtue should be sought by every human type via different moral codes.

Two religious dimensions: exoterism and esoterism.

Exoterism: morality, action, merit, grace, salvation.

Esoterism: symbol, knowledge, concentration, identity, realization.

The passional man approaches God via action, and is supported by a moral code.

The contemplative approaches God through realization, which leads to union with the Divine Essence, supported by symbolism and knowledge.

Morality is a principle of action, and deals with merit. Symbolism is support for contemplation, and leads to intellection and the identity between subject and object.

The danger of moralism

Morality is legitimate, and the contemplative also makes use of it, although keeping it in its proper domain. Moralism, however, is a tendency or attitude that not only makes the relative into an absolute, but even replaces all points of view with the moral one, such that nothing can be seen in anything but moral terms.

The law of reduced culpability

As a result of degraded spiritual vitality, the expectations placed on mankind in the last days are much lighter. According to the Prophet Muhammed: “In the beginning of Islam, he who omits a tenth of the Law is damned; but in the latter days, he who shall accomplish a tenth thereof will be saved.”

Why evil exists

The question of why evil exists can only remain a mystery at the exoteric level, and ceases to be a question at all on the esoteric level.

It is sometimes easy to tell a person’s spiritual nature by the degree to which they are preoccupied with certain questions. The exoterist is plagued by questions about the existence of evil, and how God, who is Good, could permit the existence of evil and suffering. They constantly ask “Why?” when misfortunes come, and are never satisfied. The esoterist, on the other hand, seems to be untroubled by the question at all. And this is true even of the potential esoterist, a man on the street who has never even heard the term metaphysics but who at the same time, by his very nature, tends toward an impersonal appreciation of the Divine and cannot be troubled with the question of evil, since to him everything is what it is and is as it must be. He does not know the answers, but having a center in himself he does not feel at a loss in the face of such mysteries and apparent contradictions. He does not know, but he is certain that no contradiction in fact exists. He senses the illusion of all dualism.

The esoteric explanation for the existence of evil

To answer this question, we must answer two others: Why was the world created, and why are created things imperfect? The first is answered by the metaphysical notion of the Infinite, which contains within itself every possibility. Creation is a possibility, and so the reality of an Infinite God implies the creation of the world. God creates because He is what He is. But why are his creations imperfect? Or, in more “personified” terms, why are beings evil? The answer is that they could not be anything else without immediately ceasing to be created beings. In other words: “God alone is Good,” said Christ. This obviously did not mean that no created things participate in goodness, but that God alone is pure Goodness. Anything that is not God participates His Goodness, but is also not God and is therefore imperfect. Thus, all created things, by definition, are imperfect. And so the created world, and created beings, merely by the fact that they are not God, are imperfect and could not be otherwise since if they were wholly Good they would cease to be created beings and would instead become identical with the Creator. What then, of the existence of evil, which is the personification of imperfection? It is there because it must be there. And how can it be escaped? Here the answer is obvious: by union with the Creator.


Predestination is another apparent dilemma that troubles the lives of believers and is, despite varied efforts that claim success, insoluble at that level of exoteric exposition, which is to say, there is no acceptable apologetics that can do away with it. Solutions always wind up leaning on man’s freedom, which explains very little, or denying his freedom, which again does not explain the problem but exacerbates it.

The truth is that the term predestination has no meaning in metaphysics since is strictly a temporal notion, hence the prefix pre-. It assumes the limits of human ignorance and describes a problem that only exists within the very limited sphere of human comprehension, which sees events one at a time in a linear progression. From that point of view, which is a very contingent one, it appears that God knew ahead of time about some action and then damned or saved certain beings by destining them for those actions. But does this really make sense if we step beyond time? In such a case, God doesn’t “predestine” anything, since everything exists in perfect simultaneity. It makes as little sense to say that God predestines as it would to say that he post-destines by looking backward at the end of life. He does neither. He creates, and his creations realize the potentialities which they represent.

This is not to deny freedom, but to put it in its proper aspect, which is entirely different from the modern view, which is reduced to a simple political conception. Suffice it to say that for man whose goal is transcendence, liberty is in conformity with the Divine. This is why Paul speaks of freedom as slavery in Christ. To what degree this is “in our hands,” is somewhat like water flowing into a mold. The water flows freely, but it flows into a mold and its full development implies complete conformity to that mold, which is the full development of its possibilities. To wish not to fill it is not to change the mold, since that is impossible, but to simply truncate one’s own development.

We must emphasize here that this analogy, while accurate in this precise context, is not the only way of considering human freedom, and it can legitimately be described in other ways, so long as this basic reality, which shows the limits of that freedom, is not forgotten.

The distinction between beings in terms of Intelligence and Existence

On the horizontal plane, beings are differentiated from one another by the way in which they participate in Intelligence; they are united by their existence. Vertically, considered in their relationship with their transcendent Principle, this is reversed. A being is united to its principle by its participation in Intelligence, and that which separates that Principle from a being is the latter’s participation in Existence.

The manifested world is rooted in both Existence and Intelligence. Being are distinguished in part by the way they participate in Intelligence and Existence. In other words, there is a spectrum between pure knowledge and pure existence, man being toward the former and mineral toward the latter. This is exemplified by those examples that stand at the summit of each: the diamond integrates intelligence into its existence (passively and unconsciously) through its hardness, luminosity, transparency, etc. Man integrates existence into his knowledge, actively and consciously, hence his universality and the claim that he contains all things.

Thus, a plant cannot “progress” in knowledge, since it “is” what it knows. It’s knowledge and its existence are closely identified, passively and unconsciously. It’s knowledge is imposed on it by its existence, and “it is what it is,” and that is all it knows. Man, on the other hand, works opposite, actively and consciously integrating existence into his knowledge.

We can say that Existence does not permit differentiation, but Intelligence does. For those beings for whom intelligence is “outward” so much so that it determines form, as in mineral and plant life, we will find endless variety and many species. But when intelligence is inward and existence outward, there will be no outward differentiation, and distinctions will appear based on the inner dimension. This explains why man is one species, and that when he is divided it is in “inward” terms, such as caste, vocation, and spiritual temperament or religion. The more “peripheral” beings, on the other hand, have no inward divisions whatsoever.

What we are discussing here is in fact the “Great Chain of Being,” but it should always be remember that this way of framing the question, completely true as it is, is not the only way of framing it, and if other explanations are offered, they should not be taken as contradicting this one unless they have been examined and are in fact found to be contradictory.

An anecdote on the relativity of religious forms

We once heard someone complaining about a few Chinese persons who, while living abroad in Europe, had “converted” to Christianity. They left Europe as “practicing Christians” but once back home they took up their old practices and ceased the Christians. In the view of the person relating this story, they were backsliding, betraying the faith they had found, and it was a great tragedy. But the reality, we suspect, had escaped him. For the traditional mentality, conversion is not what it is for today’s Evangelical. It does not imply the rejection of all other forms or spiritual means. To adopt the spiritual means provided by Christianity when one finds oneself, for an extended period of time, within a Christian ambience, is not some sort of irreversible rebirth. It may be a birth into Christianity, but this does not mean a death to one’s previous religion, if any there was. This is because the means of grace provided by a particular religious form only function within the environment to which that form is home. In a Christian civilization, the best form to adopt is Christianity, regardless of one’s background and even, to some extent, regardless of one’s temperament. Place and culture and psychic environment are all factors that can help or impede a method. When these Orientals converted, they acknowledged this. When they ceased practicing Christianity, they were only continuing to acknowledge the same truth. They left the Christian ambience and once again adopted the form and the method appropriate to their homeland. There is no contradiction, and certainly no sin, in such actions.

We should stress, however, that in this situation, a firm background in the previous religion is implied, as well as a prolonged stay in an alien environment. In other words, the situation in question should not be used as a justification for globe-trotters who would go everywhere and engage in a smattering of practices, not out of necessity but out of a lust for change and spiritual rootlessness. The Orientals in the story had a center, and the possession of a center is what permitted the transition from one form to another.