This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
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5.6. Cautions Regarding Esoterism

General remarks

Throughout our discussion of doctrine we have already had frequent recourse to the concept of esoterism and the esoteric-exoteric distinction. This notion (and the distinction it implies) is necessary for our purpose, which is to equip the reader with a conceptual understanding of the world as he will encounter it. The term is therefore legitimate and apt within certain limits; but because these limits are often forgotten or denied, it is necessary to clarify our usage and offer a few cautions.

First and foremost, we do not intend to portray esoterism as a kind of meta-religion or meta-doctrine that is above and beyond the religions and which can be used as a measure to determine their value. This point of view has disastrous consequences, which we will point out as our discussion progresses. For now, we can summarize our position as follows:

Esoterism—both the notion signified and the word itself—are products of the modern situation, made possibly by that situation and impossible in any previous epoch. There is no equivalent notion in the ancient world. Insofar as the term itself appears there, it is as an adjective and not a noun, which is to say it always qualifies something else and is not a self-sufficient thing. So for example we might find an esoteric Christianity, or an esoteric approach to the Christian way, but we do not find a separate esoterism that stands as a meta-religion and by which all religions can and should be judged.

Since the notion is modern, is it even legitimate to use it with regard to doctrinal study? We can again answer in the affirmative, provided we acknowledge the origin of the term, which coincide with the advent of the modern world.

The modern world brought with it an unprecedented awareness of the multiplicity of religions and their teachings, both in quantity and quality. Unlike St. Thomas Aquinas, who was, in comparison, very limited in the availability of texts explaining Islam, for example, anyone born in the last century has easy access to the primary texts and commentaries of every major tradition. The result of this situation is that individuals of powerful intellect are able to imbibe, at least to some degree, the doctrine or message of each Revelation, and this situation is that it becomes almost immediately apparent to them that there is, especially at the level of metaphysics, an undeniable unanimity between them.

The result of this situation is not difficult to anticipate: the sensitive soul will see immediately the truth that ‘all paths lead to the summit,’ and, being in a position actually delineate each path and compare the metaphysics of each, will get the impression that this summit consists precisely in that collection of principles on which all religions agree and maintain without fail. It is only one step more to the conclusion that since this knowledge is capable of being synthesized into a distinct body of doctrine, that it is in fact the core of all religions and the unique characteristics of each are merely so many veils to be drawn aside.

Now all this seems obvious strictly due to the vantage point enjoyed by the modern man. Without that perspective, it is difficult to imagine how the notion of an ‘esoterism’ as something universal and above and beyond all religious forms (and by which they can be judged) would ever have been able to exist—and that is why it did not.

In fact, this perspective is a kind of optical illusion, for the simple reason that the metaphysical doctrines from which the ‘universal metaphysic’ is derived are in every single instance the product of the religions themselves. Every spiritual master was a master with an affiliation, and while it is possible that the modern student, who has access to so many masters of so many affiliations, could himself surpass them, it is not possible that he could surpass them by a means completely different from that which they themselves used. And the means? Revelation.

Revelation is the point of departure for every religion and every spiritual master, and this is also why the great teachers taught via scriptural commentaries.

The presence of esoterism as criterion of truth in the religions

Every religion contains esoterism if by this we mean an interior way to the divine. The danger however is that this esoterism be abstracted and then turned back on the religions themselves in order to discredit them based on how well they conform to our abstraction. This is what we mean when we warn against the notion of an ‘absolute esoterism.’

One of the negative consequences of an absolute esoterism is this knowledge is turned around and used as if it were the standard by which a religion is to be judged. In reality it is the religion that produces the metaphysics, but the esoterists of the modern world would judge the religions by the esoterism they have derived. It is as if a man took an apple from a tree and then condemned the tree itself for not being edible. This is to misunderstand the very nature of things. We can perhaps say that modern esoterists suffer primarily from a superabundance of religious produce and, blinded by this superabundance, they have lost all perspective as to how it was formed and on which branch.

To provide but one example of this hermeneutic ‘cart before the horse’ problem, we can observe that the most developed metaphysics we are aware of—the Vedanta doctrine of the Hindus—is derived, not from a speculative work such as Guenon’s, but from commentaries on the scriptures, namely the Upanishads, and from canonical texts like the Brahma-sutras. We find the same thing in Hebrew esoterism, the most signifianct text of which is the Zohar, another scriptural commentary.

Are we to assume then that Shankara was not up to the task of abstracting ‘pure metaphysics’ from Scripture, and that the world was simply waiting for Guenon to accomplish this feat? Or is it more reasonable to see this as evidence of the dependence of metaphysics on revealed texts—and as a warning against any attempts to ignore this relationship?

What esoterism is not

Perhaps the primary warning with regard to esoterism would be this: esoterism is the seeking out of the inner meaning of a revelation, meaning that it cannot be transformed into a means of escaping from dependence on this same revelation. Every actual esoterism, formal or otherwise, is situation in the framework of a religion, and every attempt to form a society based on ‘pure esoterism’ has failed, and could not but fail.

To be an esoterist is to be a seeker. The esoteric is in perpetual conversion toward the inner, and this conversion is the true conversion that leads in and through a particular religion, not above and beyond. Esoterism does not aim and the empty air above the Tabernacle, but rather to enter into it by passing through the outer rooms and dwelling inside the temple—and every temple is the construction of a particular faith.

Eliphas Levi on occultism

Occultism is a term that underwent a similar evolution, and here we can quote Eliphas Levi:

“If the word is new, it is because what it designates is also new. Prior to this there were ‘occult sciences’…But there was never an effort to unite all of them into a single body of doctrine, which would essentially imply the dominance of occultism.”[1]

This applies equally to the term esoterism and with the same significance.

[1] Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual, tr. A.E. Waite (London: Rider and Company, 1896), p. 5.

Etymology and meaning

We have said that, when found in the ancient world, particularly in the Christian context, we do not find the noun ‘esoterism’ but rather an adjective ‘esoteric’, or esoterikos. The meaning here is simply ‘that which has a comparatively more interior quality.’ Note the word ‘comparatively,’ indicating that the word always implies the esoteric-exoteric distinction.

The adjective esoteric does not correspond to pure interiority but indicates a movement toward the interior as opposed to the exterior.

The legitimacy of the exoteric-esoteric distinction

The exoteric-esoteric distinction is legitimate as long as it is neither absolutized nor institutionalized.

An example of unjustifiable institutionalization would be to insist, as some do, on a distinction between the ‘Church of Peter’ and an esoteric ‘Church of John.’ John was undeniably the preeminent mystic, but to take this fact and see in the development of Christianity two distinct paths in an excess and in fact a fiction.

A good example of the legitimate use of this distinction comes from St. Paul, although he uses the terms ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’: clearly here he is neither institutionalizing two Churches nor abolishing one side of the distinction in favor of the other. He is emphasizing the inner dimension of the religion life to which we, as Christians, are invited.

Exoteric and esoteric teachings

The esoteric-exoteric distinction does not apply to doctrine or the data of revelation itself, which is what it is. That is to say, there is no formal exoterism promoted by the Christian Church as opposed to a formal esoterism that is reserved for the adepts. The mystery of Christ is there for all to see, exposed naked from the outset, as he was at the Crucifixion. In fact I think it is this nakedness that perhaps offends certain spiritual types and drives them away from Christ toward traditions that offer ‘pure metaphysics,’ and which do not ‘profane the sacred.’ Christianity is nothing if not the mysterious profanation of the sacred, and this understandably turns the stomach (but we are getting ahead of ourselves). Regardless, the mystery of Christ only becomes exoteric or esoteric once it is seen by someone and depending on how it is seen by them. It is possible to penetrate into the mysteries, or to remain at the surface, but the mystery is what it is.

With that said, we must also admit that exposition is something else entirely and is commonly adapted to the aptitudes of the hearer.

The universal and the general with regard to esoterism

We do not deny that esoterism aims at seeking out the essence of a revealed truth, but this does not mean that its formulations are identical with that essence. In other words, esoterism will always deal with concepts, and even if these concepts are universal, they are universal by abstraction, which is to say they are what Guenon would term ‘general’ rather than ‘universal.’ This is a way of saying that as much as the promoters of an esoteric meta-doctrine would like to claim universality, which is really in question is a collection of general concepts, universal in their way but not identical with the essence they intend to approach.

This distinction helps to illustrate why it is wrong to envision the religions as paths to the summit, while the esoteric meta-religion stands at the summit. Rather, what is really in question is a set of general concepts (although we grant that these are the loftiest concepts to which the human understanding can aspire). This is why even the ‘universality’ of the Guenonian doctrine turns out to be relative to his time and to those with his mental characteristics, which is to say his concepts are marked by his own relativity and not always intelligible to others.

To say it another way, if it were possible to have a universally intelligible conceptual framework for understanding the various Revelations and their respective religious doctrines, then we would have to deny the necessity of the plurality of religions which is one of the very postulates put forward, rightly so, by Guenon. If there is a plurality of religions, it is because they are necessary as paths to spiritual ascent. If a universal set of concepts could be brought to bear on the problems of the spiritual life in such a way as to render the religions unnecessary, then that possibility itself renders the religions unnecessary.

The relativity of the esoteric

A helpful symbol in this regard is that of Jacob’s Ladder, which illustrates the spiritual ascent toward the Divine. What is important is that from the first rung, any progress will be progress into the esoteric and away from the surface which is after the first step the plan of exoterism. But what we discover is that each time we climb to a higher rung, the rung we leave behind is now ‘exoteric’ in relation to our new understanding, even though it previously belonging to esoterism. Thus, we can see that in this case the esoteric-exoteric distinction is mobile and dynamic and relative to our own journey, and the only thing static about esoterism is that we never possess it but only proceed further into it, and for this reason it is better seen as a movement than a body of actual knowledge. Moreover, we should point out that Revelation would here play the role of the Ladder, and again this serves to illustrate how there is nothing specifically esoteric or exoteric about it except that its whole purpose is to guide souls away from the one and toward the other.

Esoterism is not a standalone archetypal doctrine

When we begin to comprehend the universality of Truth by means of the apparently universal language of metaphysics and the unanimity of the doctrinal principles of the traditional world, we have a sense of having discovered the essence of religion and this gives the impression of having come into possession of the meta-doctrine or having access to a meta-religion, or even an ‘archetypal theology’ which is itself the principle of all specific theologies.

This is, in itself, an appropriate intuition, for the Truth really is universal and this is precisely what we are trying to approach, not only through the general study of doctrine and metaphysics, but through any religion in particular. The error, however, is in overestimating the level we have achieved, or confusing the concept, which has come into our possession, with the true essence of which it is only an anticipation. No matter how universal our concept, it is, as a concept, still relative, and is not identical to the essence it attempts to express.

If one forgets this, one runs into grave spiritual and psychology problems because one not only severs oneself from the true sense of each particular religion, which can only speak for itself, but also—and this is much worse—one begins to entertain an illusion of superiority over all adherents to a religious form, as if they are inferior for not having ‘transcended form’ and climbed to the heights of universality.

Again, we emphasize the distinction between the universal and the general, and emphasize that often when esoterism is spoken of as a self-sufficient body of sacred knowledge, what is in question is something general and conceptual rather than universal, and that, while one might arrive at contemplation of the universal via these concepts, insofar as they are true, one also approaches the universal through the paths provided by the religions themselves. To put in another way, if the doctrinal expression of a religion belongs to the ‘particular’ and general esoterism belongs to the ‘general,’ we can approach the universal through either, because both in fact belong to the same plane, even if the second give the impression of being beyond the first.

We can perhaps drive this point home by observing that anyone who truly enters the universal cannot repeat what he ‘knows’ when he descends back into the individual domain, since memory and the rational faculties only resume their function at that time. This does not make the knowledge any less real—it only means that this knowledge was direct and that it cannot be ‘brought down’ to the individual domain. Esoterism allows us to perceive this universality but, in light of what has just been said, it is obviously not universal knowledge itself, but is rather a perspective  or a way of understanding the mystery which has been revealed.

Who has seen me has seen the Father

The subordination of esoterism to Revelation is exemplified in the words of Christ: ‘Who has seen me has seen the Father,’ and ‘No one cometh to the Father but by me.’ In other words, one does not see God directly, for the result of this is death—or perhaps we should say that the requirement in order to attain to this vision is a departure from the human state. But one may behold the Father in the Son of Man who has been Revealed to us and opens the door through which we might pass. We must, of course, have a sense of the universal in order to perceive the Father in the Son, and this is the same ‘perception of universality’ that we encounter in esoterism and which is perhaps its essence, but it is through the Son that the Father must be perceived, which is to say, through the Revelation which bridges the gap.

In other words, we cannot set aside revealed forms as if we were better than them and preferred to go ‘right to the source,’ for there is no possible way to get there except via the revealed forms. Nor is it safe or true to write them off a concession to the weakness of those individuals who limit themselves to an exoteric perspective: religion does accomplish this concession, of course, but that is a matter of pedagogy and it is absurd to reduce religious forms to that as if that were their only purpose, and that they can be done away with by those who have chosen the esoteric way instead. Religion is an esoteric way or it is nothing at all, even if it also permits the passive participation of the mass of believers who remain at an exoteric point of view.

Esoterism and exoterism are hermeneutic perspectives

Esoterism and exoterism are not two sides of the doctrinal coin, constituting so to speak as two parts its very being. They are rather two possible hermeneutic perspectives applicable to it. One searches out the inner meaning of the revelation, the other tends toward exteriorization.

We are all exoterists to a degree

From a certain point of view we can say that every man is an exoterist insofar as he has not attained to total knowledge, and on esoterist insofar as he makes progress toward the inner meaning of things. When we speak, then, of the ‘exoterist’ vs. the ‘esoterist,’ by the latter we are referring to the ‘conscious exoterist’ who knows that he has a path to travel and that there is an exterior meaning beyond which is a hidden mystery; and when we speak of ‘exoterists’ what we mean are those who, on the contrary, deny that there is anything beyond the exterior and therefore remain at a certain level. An example of a truly exoteric believer would be those in Christianity who insist on the notion of a strictly literal interpretation of Scripture, and abhor any reference to symbolical or analogical hermeneutics.

Esoterism as a shifting frontier

We will refer again to the imagery of Jacob’s Ladder, which is given as follows:

And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it.[1]

The symbolic meaning of this image (or one of them, at any rate) is that of religion itself, which has been defined as the intersection between Revelation and human culture, constitution a juncture between the world and the heavens, and the ‘rungs’ themselves representing so many steps on this journey. What this representation shows also is that once we touch the ladder we are already esoterists, at least with respect to the surface of the earth which until that moment was the entirety of our reality.

Thus, we can say that anything that has to do with religious knowledge, and religion itself, is esoteric when placed next to the profane. Even the most exoteric of believers is an esoterist in comparison to the non-believer by the simple fact that he is a believer and is therefore a ‘knower of the hidden meaning of things.’

[1] Genesis 28:12.