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Esotericism refers to knowledge suitable only for the advanced, privileged, or initiated, as opposed to exoteric knowledge, which is public. It is used especially for mystical, occult and spiritual viewpoints.



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 (427-347 BC) uses in his dialogue Alcibíades (aprox. 390 BC) 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 (aprox. AD 120-180) "The Auction of Lives", § 26 (also called "The Auction of the Philosophical Schools"), written around AD 166. [1]

Esoteric knowledge is knowledge that is secret or not generally known. Historically, esoteric knowledge is not generally known in large part because it is deliberately kept secret from those outside a select group. Such knowledge was confined within certain disciplines, such as magic and freemasonry. This is not the case any more as most groups, such as the Theosophical Society and the Rosicrucian Fellowship, teach freely to anyone, often without cost. Because of this openness, the reflexive aspect of the esoteric prevails: that it is complex and difficult to grasp except by the fewer, more perceptive or aware.

Esotericism (also sometimes written as esoterism) is a word and concept created in the 19th century. It was first used as the noun substantive l�ésotérisme in the work Histoire critique du gnosticisme et de ses influences (1828) of Jacques Matter (1791-1864). Later, the occultist and cabalist Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875) made common the use of the terms «esotericism» and «occultism». The term became fashionable after Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and other personalities of the Theosophic Society used it during the last quarter of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In this context, Esotericism refered to things which are or were forced to be kept private or secret, either from fear of persecution or because of likely misunderstanding and misuse by the outside world.

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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 Gustav 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:

  • 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 ae 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.

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:

Esotericism in popular culture

The Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling contain numerous genuine esoteric references, notably that of the "philosopher's stone" from the first book.

Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist involves a spiritual interpretation of alchemy.

Umberto Eco has written fiction with esoteric themes, notably the satirical novel Foucault's Pendulum.

The plot of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code involves a centuries-old secret society called the Priory of Sion, charged with preserving certain secrets relating to Jesus Christ and the Merovingian kings.

See also

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