Esotericism or Esoterism signifies the holding of esoteric opinions or beliefs,[1] that is, ideas preserved or understood by a small group or those specially initiated, or of rare or unusual interest.[2] The term derives from the Greek ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos), a compound of ἔσω (esô): "within", thus "pertaining to the more inward", mystic. Its antonym is "exoteric".

The term can also refer to the academic study of esoteric religious movements and philosophies, or more generally of alternative or marginalized religious movements or philosophies whose proponents distinguish their beliefs, practices, and experiences from mainstream institutionalized traditions.[3]

Examples of esoteric religious movements and philosophies include Alchemy, Astrology, Anthroposophy, early Christian mysticism[4], Magic, Mesmerism, Rosicrucianism, Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, the Christian Theosophy of Jacob Böhme and his followers, and the Theosophical currents associated with Helena Blavatsky and her followers. There are competing views regarding the common traits uniting these currents, not all of which involve "inwardness", mystery, occultism or secrecy as a crucial trait.



Plato, in his dialogue Alcibíades (circa 390 BC), uses the expression ta esô meaning "the inner things", and in his dialogue Theaetetus (circa 360 BC) he uses ta exô meaning "the outside things". Aristotle applied this distinction to his own writings. The probable first appearance of the Greek adjective esôterikos is in Lucian of Samosata's "The Auction of Lives", § 26, written around AD 166.[5]

The term esoteric first appeared in English in the 1701 History of Philosophy by Thomas Stanley, in his description of the mystery-school of Pythagoras; the Pythagoreans were divided into "exoteric" (under training), and "esoteric" (admitted into the "inner" circle). The corresponding noun "esotericism" was coined in French by Jacques Matter in 1828 and popularized by Eliphas Levi in the 1850s.[6] [1]. It entered the English language in the 1880s via the works of theosophist Alfred Sinnett.


Among the competing understandings of what unites the various currents designated by "Esotericism" in the scholarly sense, perhaps the most influential has been proposed by Antoine Faivre. His definition is based on the presence in the esoteric currents of four essential characteristics: a theory of correspondences between all parts of the invisible and the visible cosmos, the conviction that nature is a living entity owing to a divine presence or life-force, the need for mediating elements (such as symbols, rituals, angels, visions) in order to access spiritual knowledge, and, fourthly, an experience of personal and spiritual transmutation when arriving at this knowledge. To this are added two non-intrinsic characteristics. Esotericists frequently suggest that there is a concordance between different religious traditions: best example is the belief in prisca theologia (ancient theology) or in philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy). Finally, esotericism sometimes suggests the idea of a secret transmission of spiritual teachings, through initiation from master to disciple.[7] It should, however, be emphasized that Faivre's definition is one of several divergent understandings of the most appropriate use of the term.

The “perennialist” or “traditionalist” school is represented by authors like the French René Guénon (1886–1951), the Indian Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), the Swiss Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998), the Italian Julius Evola (1898–1974), the Iranian Seyyed Hossein Nasr (born in 1933), both scholars and esotericists. They postulate that there exists a Primordial Tradition of non-human origin.

“We say that it [the origin of the traditions] is polar, and the pole is nomore Western than it is Eastern. It is only in a later epoch that the seat of the primordial tradition, transferred to other regions, was able to become either Western or Eastern. We consider the origin of the traditions to be Nordic, and even more to be polar, since this is expressly affirmed in the Veda as well as in other sacred books.” [8] [2]

In perennialist usage, esotericism is a metaphysical concept referring to a supposed “transcendent unity” of all great religious traditions. Esotericism is the metaphysical point of unity where exoteric religions are believed to converge.[9] [3]

“Our starting point is the acknowledgment of the fact that there are diverse religions which exclude each other. This could mean that one religion is right and that all the others are false; it could mean also that all are false. In reality, it means that all are right, not in their dogmatic exclusivism, but in their unanimous inner signification, which coincides with pure metaphysics, or in other terms, with the philosophia perennis.” (F. Schuon, 1995).

After all, the esoteric tradition may be recovered if the seeker undergoes initiation.

“Initiation is essentially the transmission of a spiritual influence, a transmission that can only take place through a regular, traditional organization, so that one cannot speak of initiation outside of an affiliation with an organization of this kind. We have explained that 'regularity' must be understood to exclude all pseudo-initiatic organizations, which, regardless of pretention and outward appearance, in no way possess any spiritual influence and thus are incapable of transmitting anything.” [10]


Since esotericism is not a single tradition but a vast array of often unrelated figures and movements, there is no single historical thread underlying them all.[11] The developments that one might wish to emphasize in drawing up a history of esotericism furthermore depends on whether esotericism in the dictionary (non-scholarly) or the scholarly sense is intended.

Several historically attested religions emphasize secret or hidden knowledge, and are thus esoteric in the dictionary sense, without necessarily being esoteric movements in the scholarly sense of the word. Thus, the Roman Empire had several mystery religions which emphasized initiation. Some saw Christianity, with its ritual of baptism, as a mystery religion. None of these are "esoteric" in the scholarly sense. The terms "Gnosticism" and "Gnosis" refer to a family of religious movements which claimed to possess secret knowledge (gnosis). Another important movement from the ancient world was Hermeticism or Hermetism. Both of these are often seen as precursors to esoteric movements in the scholarly sense of the word.

Non-Western traditions can also display the characteristics of esoteric movements. The Ismaili Muslims also stress a distinction between the inner and the outer. It is believed that spiritual salvation is attained by receiving the 'Nur' (light) through the "esoteric", that is, spiritual search for enlightenment. Ismaili Islam also has some of the characteristics associated with esotericism as defined by Faivre, e.g. the belief in an intermediate spiritual sphere mediating between humans and the divine. Esoteric movements in Buddhism, which fall under the general category of Vajrayana Buddhism, employ esoteric training into Buddha's teachings, through use of symbols, mantra and hand-gestures, or mudra. Initiation rituals are typically given to students as they progress along these paths, and care is taken not to discuss specific rituals to those lacking the right empowerment.

In order to distinguish esoteric currents based primarily on sources from late Antiquity and the European Middle Ages, from e.g. Islamic or Jewish currents with similar features, the more precise term "Western esotericism" is often employed.

Western esoteric movements in the scholarly sense thus have roots in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. A major phase in the development of Western esotericism begins in the Renaissance, partly as the result of various attempts to revive such earlier movements. During the Italian Renaissance, for example, translators such as Ficino and Pico della Mirandola turned their attention to the classical literature of Neoplatonism, and what was thought to be the pre-Mosaic tradition of Hermeticism. Other pursuits of Antiquity that entered into the mix of esoteric speculation were astrology and alchemy. Beside such revived currents from late Antiquity, a second major source of esoteric speculation is the Kabbalah, which was lifted out of its Jewish context and adapted to a Christian framework by people such as Johannes Reuchlin. Outside the Italian Renaissance, yet another major current of esotericism was initiated by Paracelsus, who combined alchemical and astrological themes (among others) into a complex body of doctrines.

In the early 17th century, esotericism is represented by currents such as Christian theosophy and Rosicrucianism. A century later, esoteric ideas entered various strands of Freemasonry. Later in the 18th century, as well as in the early 19th century, the diffuse movement known as Mesmerism became a major expression of esotericism. In the 19th century, esotericism is also represented by certain aspects of the philosophy, literature and science associated with Romanticism, by spiritualism, and by a notable French wave of occultism.

The major exponent of esotericism in the latter part of the 19th century is the Theosophy of H. P. Blavatsky, not to be confused with the Christian Theosophy mentioned above. In the 20th century, Theosophy was reformulated by Annie Besant, Charles Webster Leadbeater, Alice Bailey, Rudolf Steiner and many others, and became the source for a whole range of post-theosophical movements such as The Summit Lighthouse. A particularly successful post-theosophical movement is Anthroposophy, a synthesis of occultist, Christian and Neoplatonic ideas with Western esoteric concepts as formulated in the wake of Theosophy. Anthroposophy, which was founded by Rudolf Steiner in the early part of the 20th century, includes esoteric versions of education, agriculture, and medicine.[12]

Yet another notable esoteric strain stems from the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky.

Theosophy is also considered a major influence on the many less institutionally organized varieties of esotericism in metaphysical milieus, "Ascended Master Activities", and within the New Age.

Finally, it can be noted that Carl Gustav Jung can be seen as an exponent of esotericism: his writings concern esoteric subject matter such as alchemy, and rephrased the concept of correspondences in a modern, psychologizing terminology in his theory of synchronicity.


Wouter J. Hanegraaff is Professor of “History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents” at the University of Amsterdam (1999). The Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA) is the world's first academic institution to have created a complete program for research and teaching in the field of Western Esotericism.[4] He is also president of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism. Essential to Hanegraaff’s methodology is what he calls an “empirical” approach, with an informed, open, and, so much as possible, neutral mind. He makes a sharp division between a “religionist” perspective and an “empiricist” one.

“Empirical research must be based on methodological agnosticism with regard to religious and philosophical ‘first principles’, and must fully recognize the historicity of religious phenomena. This empirical perspective is applied to the newly emerging academic field of esotericism.” [13]

Secondly, Hanegraaff follows a distinction between an “emic” and an “etic” approach to religious studies. [5] The emic approach is that of the alchemist or theosopher as an alchemist or theosopher. The etic approach is that of the scholar as an historian, a researcher, with a critical look. An empirical study of esotericism needs “emic material and etic interpretation”.

“The principal theoretical tool to safeguard scientific legitimity in this situation is the distinction between emic and etic. Emic denotes the believer’s point of view. On the part of the researcher, the reconstruction of this emic perspective requires an attitude of empathy which excludes personel [sic?] biases as far as possible. Scholarly discourse about religion, on the other hand, is not emic but etic. Scholars may introduce their own terminology and make theoretical distinctions which are different from those of the believers themselves.” [14]

Pierre A. Riffard (Ph.D., University of the French West Indies) studies the method used by esotericists themselves (alchemists, magicians, Rosicrucians, Anthroposophists...).[15] He examines some of their procedures. 1) Mythological origins. The esotericists trace the origins of their doctrine or practice to an extremely distant past. They situate the life of Hermes in times immemorial. 2) Cosmic cycles. For Gaston Georgel, “history is governed by cycles of 540, 1080 and 2160 years”. 3) The chains of initiation. Some Rosicrucians include Francis Bacon among their masters and trace their origins back to the time of Thutmosis III. 4) The secret books. Esotericists prefer to base their beliefs on secret writings, unknown to the majority of people and inaccessible to the uninitiated: for instance, among the Theosophists, The Book of Dzyan. 5) Spiritual interpretations. The esotericists are able to endow the most profane texts with an occult meaning. The alchemists discover within the Greek and Roman myths the Great Work of alchemy. 6) Magical uses. A book can be used as a talisman, a divinatory machine... The Sortes Sanctorum (Lots of the saints) were, in early Christianity, a divination which consists in taking passages of the Bible at chance, and drawing conclusions from them concerning future. [6]

Arthur Versluis (Professor, Ph.D., Michigan State University) proposes the term “sympathetic empiricism” as the approach that he finds most amenable in the study of Western Esotericism. 

“While I am convinced of the critical importance of historiography in the study of esotericism (and for this reason all of my academic books are firmly grounded in historical method) I do not believe that historiography is adequate in itself to convey the complex, multivalent nature of esoteric thought, traditions, or most of all, experience.  Esotericism, given all its varied forms and its inherently multidimensional nature, cannot be conveyed without going beyond purely historical information: at minimum, the study of esotericism, and in particular mysticism, requires some degree of imaginative participation in what one is studying.”[16] [7]

See also


  1. ^ Chambers 20thC dictionary, 1972
  2. ^ "Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: esoteric". 2007-04-25. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  3. ^ "What is Esotericism?". 
  4. ^ Stroumsa, G. (2005). Hidden wisdom: esoteric traditions and the roots of Christian mysticism. Leiden: Brill. 
  5. ^ Lucian of Samosata, The Auction of Lives (also called The Auction of the Philosophical Schools), § 26. Pierre A. Riffard, L’ésotérisme. Qu’est-ce que l’ésotérisme?, Paris: Robert Laffont, coll. “Bouquins”, 1990, 65. "O que é o Esoterismo". Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  6. ^ Jacques Matter, Histoire critique du gnosticisme, Paris: Levrault, 1928, 83 (Jean-Pierre Laurant, L’ésotérisme chrétien en France au XIX° siècle, Lausanne: L’Âge d’homme, 1992, 13-48 ; L’ésotérisme, Paris: Cerf, 1993, 40-41.)
  7. ^ Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, Albany: State University of New York Press (“SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions”), 1994, 10-15. Wouter J. Hanegraaff (ed.), Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2005, I, 340.
  8. ^ René Guénon, Traditional forms and cosmic cycles (1925-1949, first published in 1970), New York: Sophia perennis, 2003, 16.
  9. ^ Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (1948), London: Faber anf Faber, 1953.
  10. ^ René Guénon, Perspectives on initiation (1946), New York: Sophia perennis, 2001, 48.
  11. ^ Jean-Paul Corsetti, Histoire de l’ésotérisme et des sciences occultes, Paris: Larousse, coll. “Références”, 1992, 17-319. Kocku von Struckrad, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge (2004), London / Oakville: Equinox Publishing, 2005, 12-145. Arthur Versluis, Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism, Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, 11-264.
  12. ^ Robert McDermott, The Essential Steiner, ISBN 0-06-065345-0, pp. 3-11
  13. ^ Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “Empirical Method in the Study of Esotericism”, in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Florida State University, 7:2 (1995), 99-129.
  14. ^ Wouter J. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture. Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, 6.
  15. ^ Pierre A. Riffard, “The Esoteric Method”, in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Leuven: Peeters, coll. “Gnostica”, 1998, 63-74.
  16. ^ Arthur Versluis, “Methods in the Study of Esotericism, Part II: Mysticism and the Study of Esotericism”, in Esoterica, Michigan State University, V, 2003, 27-40.

Further reading

  • Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism, Leiden: Brill, since 2001. [8]
  • Aries Book Series: Texts and Studies in Western Esotericism, Leiden: Brill, since 2006. [9]
  • Esoterica, East Lansing, Michigan State University (MSU). An online resource since 1999 [10]. I (1999) [11]; VIII (2006) [12]; IX (2007) [13]
  • Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (1986), Albany: State University of New York Press (“SUNY Séries in Western Esoteric Traditions”), 1994, X-369 p. [14]
  • Antoine Faivre, Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism (1996), Albany: SUNY Press (“SUNY Séries in Western Esoteric Traditions”), 2000, XXXV-269 p. [15]
  • René Guénon, Perspectives on initiation (1946), New York: Sophia perennis, 2004, 320 p. [16]
  • Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “The Study of Western Esotericism: New Approaches to Christian and Secular Culture”, in Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz and Randi R. Warne, New Approaches to the Study of Religion, vol. I: Regional, Critical, and Historical Approaches, Berlin / New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004, 497 p. [17]
  • Wouter J. Hanegraaff (ed.), in collaboration with Antoine Faivre, Roelof van den Broek, Jean-Pierre Brach, Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Leiden / Bristol: Brill, 2005, 2 vols., 1228 p. ISBN 90-04-14187-1.
  • Édouard Schuré, The Great Initiates: A Study of the Secret History of Religions (1889), Blauvelt (N.Y.): Garber Books, 1992, 480 p. [18] “Rama, Krishna, Hermes, Moses, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, and Jesus.”
  • Kocku von Stuckrad, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge (2004), London / Oakville: Equinox Publishing, 2005, XVII-167 p. [19]
  • Arthur Versluis, Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism, Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, 208 pages. [20]
  • Benjamin Walker, Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man: The Hidden Side of the Human Entity, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977, 353 p. ISBN 0-7100-8479-X. New title: Body Magic, London: Granada Publishing, “Paladin Books”, 1979, 478 p. ISBN 0-586-08323-5. Arranged alphabetically.
  • Benjamin Walker, Man and the Beasts Within: The Encyclopedia of the Occult, the Esoteric, and the Supernatural, New York: Stein and Day, 1978, 343 p. ISBN 0-8128-1900-4

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