November 19, 2020

Through the Labyrinth to the Self: the Esoteric Way

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

Publicity still of Laurence Olivier
in Hamlet (1948)
The above is the phrase Hamlet uses in the homonymous William Shakespeare’s play. To be precise and to minimally contextualize the phrase, let’s recall that Hamlet has just talked with his father’s ghost and learned of his uncle’s perfidy, and when Horatio calls this confrontation “wondrous strange,” Hamlet says: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things...” Given that, as always with Shakespeare, there are layers of meaning, which have made scholars happy and frustrated in various measures over the centuries, I’d say that Hamlet seems to suggest that human knowledge is limited and that, no matter how broad our education, even the most learned of men cannot explain everything. Not by chance the above was one of Sigmund Freud’s favorite quotations from any source, a true tribute to the complexity of existence. As for Horatio, who is a model of rationality, ghosts are not the sort of beings his “philosophy” easily takes into account. Please note that both Horatio and Hamlet are students at the University of Wittenberg, a recently founded university (1502) that represented the institutional change from scholastic theology to Protestant humanism, and that the rational philosophy they’ve learned there is not adequate to deal with what the two friends have just seen. Of the two though, Hamlet is more open to mystery and the ineffable. He doesn’t overestimate philosophy, science, and rationality at large. And this, in my view, makes him a model of what every human being should be: rational but open-minded and willing to consider alternate perspectives if and when reason… isn’t able to do the job. And that’s where different scenarios open up, of which the history of religions on one side, and the esoteric sciences and traditions on the other, are full. The latter are exactly those I want to talk about here.

First and foremost, what is esotericism? Arthur Versluis, a professor and Department Chair of Religious Studies in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, gives the following definition (Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism, 2007, Rowman Littlefield): 

The word “esoteric” derives from the Greek esoterikos, from esotero (inner), comparative of eso, meaning “within.” Although its first known mention in Greek is in Lucian’s ascription to Aristotle of having “esoteric” (inner) and “exoteric” (outer) teachings, the word later came to designate the secret doctrines said to have been taught by Pythagoras to a select group of disciples. In this context, the word was brought into English in 1655 by Stanley in his History of Philosophy. Esotericism, as a field of academic study, refers to the study of alternative, marginalized, or dissident religious movements or philosophies whose proponents in general distinguish their beliefs, practices, and experiences from public, institutionalized religious traditions. Among areas of investigation included in the field of esotericism are alchemy, astrology, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, magic, mysticism, Neoplatonism, new religious movements connected with these currents, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first-century occult movements, Rosicrucianism, secret societies, and Christian theosophy.

Horloge de Sapience - Henri Suso
Biblioteque Royale de Belgique, Bruxelles
As for Christianity, it’s interesting to note that, according to the great French thinker, scholar of world religions, Eastern cultures, and esoteric teachings René Guénon, the almost impenetrable obscurity that surrounds everything relating to its origins and early stages—“an obscurity so profound that, upon reflection, it seems impossible that it should simply have been accidental, but more likely was expressly intended”—seems to suggest that Christianity originally had both in its rites and doctrine an essentially esoteric and ‘initiatic’ character. “We find confirmation of this,” he says, “in the fact that the Islamic tradition considers primitive Christianity to have been a tariqah, that is, essentially an initiatic ‘way’, and not a shariyah or social legislation addressed to all; and this was so true that subsequently this latter had to be supplied by instituting a ‘canon’ law that was really only an adaptation of ancient Roman law, thus something coming entirely from the outside, and not at all a development of something originally contained in Christianity itself.”  Moreover, he continues, “it is evident that no prescription can be found in the Gospels that might be regarded as having a truly legal character in the proper sense of the word. The well-known saying ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, seems to us particularly significant in this respect because, regarding everything of an exterior order, it formally implies the acceptance of a legislation wholly foreign to Christianity.” In fact, the Canon Law was simply modeled after the Roman Law. “This would surely have been a most serious lacuna,” says Guénon, “if Christianity had been then what it later became, for the very existence of such a lacuna would have been not just inexplicable but truly inconceivable for a regular and orthodox tradition if Christianity had really included an exoterism as well as an esoterism…” , and if it was even to have applied—above all, only might say—to the exoteric domain. If, on the contrary, Christianity had originally an esoteric character, such lacuna is easily explained. (Insights into Christian Esoterism, chapter 2 “Christianity and Initiation”)

Moreover, according to the same thinker, the esoteric or initiatic domain is absolutely not to be confused with the mystical domain. For instance, Guénon argued that “it is currently the fashion […]  among those with limited horizons to construe all Eastern doctrines as ‘mystical’, including those that lack even a semblance of the outward aspects that could justify such an attribution.” In reality, “in everything pertaining to initiation there is really nothing vague or nebulous, for on the contrary it is as precise and ‘positive’ as can be, so that initiation by its very nature is in fact incompatible with mysticism” (Perspectives on Initiation, chapter 1). The same applies, of course, to the so-called “occultism,” a term introduced by the 19th-century French ceremonial magician Eliphas Lévi. Lévi was also who popularized the term ésotérisme in the French language in the 1850s—which is perhaps also why “esotericism” and “occultism” were often employed as synonyms until later scholars, such as René Guénon, distinguished the concepts.

Esotericism, however, remains in itself a controversial term. An acceptable definition seems to be the one according to which “the term stands for ‘inner’ traditions concerned with a universal spiritual dimension of reality, as opposed to the merely external (‘exoteric’) religious institutions and dogmatic systems of established religions.” This use of the term “stays closest to the original meaning of the adjective ’esoteric’ in late antiquity, when it referred to secret teachings reserved for a spiritual elite such as the Pythagorean brotherwoods or some mystery cults.” In other words, exoteric teachings are meant for the uneducated masses that can be kept satisfied with mere ritual observance and dogmatic belief systems. Yet, underneath the surface of conventional religion, “there are deeper truths that are known only to initiates into the true mysteries of religion and philosophy.” (Wouter Hanegraaff, Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2013, London: Bloomsbury)

It is interesting to note that this way of looking at the whole matter entails as a corollary that the true esoteric spirituality must ultimately be one, independent of social, historical or cultural circumstances: Regardless of the tradition in which each of us has been raised, those who want to go beyond outward appearances and conventional religions will always find access to the universal truth about life and death, human nature, the universe and our place in it, compassion and empathy towards others. This means that ‘Western’ esotericism is only one part of a larger whole: the esoteric teachings of all non-Western religions and cultures, such as Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Sufism, Shamanism, and so on, must ultimately point towards the same esoteric underneath surface appearances.

Another way to approach the concept of esotericism is to see it as an “enchanted” alternative to established religion and rationalistic science, a worldview opposed to the disenchanted, secularized Weltanschauung of modern West. (See: Ibidem) In any case, it’s clear that everything rests upon the conviction (faith) that a universal, hidden, esoteric dimension of reality really does exist. In this perspective, the problem is that scholarly methods are by definition “exoteric,” and scholars can only take into consideration what is empirically available to them and to whomsoever it may concern… To put it another way, academically speaking, the main problem is the unverifiability of the kind of “reality” claimed by the esotericists of all faiths and schools of thought. As a matter of fact, whether you like it or not, the academy has no methodologies for either falsifying and or verifying what the esotericists talk/narrate about. This, of course, applies to religion as well, though perhaps in varying degrees.

However, with that being said, we’re right back where we started from—William Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s willingness to be open-minded in the face of the unknown and the unknowable, at least stricto sensu. Of course, the risk of getting lost in the desert of the unreal and/or in the prairies of non-sense is extraordinarily high. “But,” as German poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin put it, “where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” Let’s say that, in the case of esotericism, salvation comes from the power of symbols. The wisdom of esotericism, like “the ruler whose prophesy occurs at Delphi,” “neither gathers nor hides[oute legei oute kryptei], but gives hints [alia semainei].” (Heraclitus, Fragment 93)

Hugh of Saint-Victor
Works of Hugh of St-Victor 
 illumination on parchment
(Bodleian Library, Oxford)
To put it in a nutshell, we must take into consideration that a symbolic form in the transmission of doctrinal teachings of a traditional order is precisely what is needed. This because, as the great 12th-century philosopher and theologian Hugh of Saint-Victor opined, “symbolum est collatio formarum visibilium ad invisibilium demonstrationem” (symbols resemble visible forms in order to ‘demonstrate’ the invisible). “The truth of the invisible,” he explains, “is ‘demonstrated’ by the visible. Our mind can ascend to the truth of the invisible only when taught by the consideration of the visible.” (Expositio in Hierarchiam coelestem Dionysii Areopagitae II)

René Guénon’s explanation echoes Hugh of Saint-Victor’s:  “First of all,” he writes, “symbolism appears to be quite specially adapted to the needs of human nature, which is not a purely intellectual nature, but which requires a sensory base from which to rise to higher levels. One must take the human compound as it is, at once one and multiple in its real complexity; this is what tends to be forgotten, ever since Descartes claimed to establish a radical and absolute separation between soul and body.” This means that, in order to guarantee a complete understanding of reality and our place within it, “there can be no opposition between the employment of words and that of figurative symbols; these two modes of expression should rather be complementary to each other.” Therefore nothing is more wrong than thinking/saying that symbolism is suited to the under-standing of the common man only. It is rather the contrary that is true, writes Guénon. “Or better still,” he continues, “symbolism is suited equally to all, because it helps each one to understand the truth which it represents, more or less completely, more or less profoundly, according to the nature of each person’s own intellectual possibilities.” It is thus that even the highest truths can be communicated “up to a certain point” when they are “incorporated in symbols.” (“Word and Symbol” in Symbols of Sacred Science, trans. Henry D. Fohr, ed. Samuel D. Fohr. Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2004) Those very truths would not be otherwise communicable or transmissible and would remain hidden for many. Which, of course, would be an unforgivable loss for a large part of humanity.

Edward Burne-Jones - Tile Design -
Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth
Yet, as previously outlined, such an approach requires the acceptance of a non-calculated risk, a leap into the unknown. One of the most appropriate metaphors to illustrate and clarify the proposed approach is that of the labyrinth, such as the one in Chartres Cathedral in France, or the one that, according to Greek mythology,  was built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos, and whose function was to hold the Minotaur, the monster eventually killed by the hero Theseus. In both cases, the symbolism refers to concepts such as the quest, spiritual pilgrimage, or odyssey through hell, etc. All of which include the ultimate risk of sacrificing—metaphorically or not—one’s life. The bet is that, as Hermann Kern states in his book Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings Over 5,000 Years (2000, Prestel Publishing),  “In the labyrinth you will not get lost, in the labyrinth you will find yourself. In the labyrinth you will not meet the Minotaurus. In the labyrinth you will meet yourself.”