Today, using Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Western Esoteric Traditions, I want to try my best to give some view of the complex heritage of modern Western mysticism (a.k.a. Western esotericism, a.k.a. “New Age” or The Secret thought)…
The roots of mysticism go deep– to the very foundation of civilization, itself. Far, far back in history, there sprang into the human mind this idea that there exists beings superior and longer-lived than ourselves, and that these beings can influence or even control the world we live in.
The most powerful of these superior beings were often given some remote place to abide– neatly serving to explain why one never bumps into them having drinks at the pub or whatnot. Mountaintops made for nice godly abodes, but sometimes even mountaintops proved still to low, and the world of the more-than-mortals was placed up into the sky itself. This idea that there exists a higher world filled with higher (that is, “better”) beings will have enormous consequence on the West’s developing metaphysical beliefs.
Plato’s assertion that there exist a heavenly place containing perfect Ideals of the lesser things of the Earth (more on Platonic Ideals anon) may also have later influenced people to begin seeing the greatest of these heavenly beings as not just superior– but perfect. “Perfect” is a tall order, and many religious/ philosophical contortions have been exerted in the effort to explain why and how the Perfect God would create and maintain such an apparently imperfect world.
But getting back to the earliest days of Civilization… It should also be mentioned that humans have believed in ghosts and the spirit-world since the very earliest days. This essay is long enough without going into the psychological reasons humans wish to believe that the people they once knew still exist even after the loss of their bodies, but suffice it say for our present purposes the idea that there exists personalities hidden largely or totally from our normal sense-perceptions will prove a important part of Western mystic thought.
Perhaps one of the greatest ideas ever to marble-roll around inside the human noggin was this notion of the Egyptians that the position of the planets and stars affect life here on Earth. This belief is, of course, astrology, and the basic idea is still with us today, and in fact millions of people still give credence to the possibility that the alignment of the stars and planets can determine personalities and world events. Later, due to the human mind’s– and especially the Western mind’s– need to rationalize, reasons will be found to support this fantasy more logically– mostly centering upon the idea of the Ether (which goes by many names).
About 2,500 years ago, give or take, Zoroastrianism was established in Persia. This religion described the fight between Light and Darkness over the fate of mankind and of the Universe. The general concept of Good (Light) vs Evil (Darkness) will linger long in Western metaphysical thought– indeed, it seems to be a near-universal feeling in human beings that the Light is good, and the Dark is bad (which makes fairly obvious psychological sense when related to practical safety and needs).
It should be noted, as well, that there is a strong case to be made that certain Zoroastrian notions crept into Western thought via the influence of Zoroastrianism on Jews during the Babylonian Captivity. That said, most of the “The Secret” sort of thinking today does NOT focus on the idea of a Good vs Evil battle (indeed, the New Agey line of philosophy tends to eschew conflict and violence); nevertheless, the general dualistic thinking of Zoroastrianism fed into the later important Gnostic beliefs concerning the Spiritual vs Corporeal (I’ll be discussing the Gnostics soon), and also the Zoroastrian notion of a Savior coming to intercede on mankind’s behalf also figures into the development of Western mysticism, perhaps most directly in the concept of otherwordly Intermediaries.
There was an early belief, as witnessed by the ancient Chaldean Oracles, that, by the practice of certain rites, a spiritual being can be called down to temporarily inhabit a statue or even a human medium. This idea, mixed with the belief in ghosts or spirits, — along with the Gnostic belief (still getting to that) in Spirit-intermediaries between us and The Highest One– could be argued to underpin the much later idea that (at least certain) people are capable of “channeling” Spirits through their own bodies (performances of just such alleged events at seances were all the rage during the late 1800s in England).
Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato was expounding his belief that, somewhere up there, there exists the ideal form of every thing down here. Platonic Ideals are the original and most perfect forms of everything reproduced and showing up here in the terrestrial sphere. I suspect that when Plato used the word “ideal” that the modern connotation of “perfect” was not yet strongly associated with that word. It is my guess, in fact, that Plato’s use of the word “ideal” in this context GAVE it that additional meaning of “perfect.”
Plato did NOT think (although I’m sure are those who would argue the point) that there is –physically– in heaven some Ideal Dog chasing around some Ideal Cat. He is contending, I believe, only that there exists in some shadowy way, the concept of an Ideal Circle or Ideal Straight Line, though we may never see a perfect circle or perfectly straight line in our quotidian existence.
I don’t recall Plato ever making it very clear just how and where and whyfore these Ideals exist. He also never really got into the details as to how far this Ideal think went…. I mean, is it just geometrical shapes– or do there exist ideal iPads and ideal coffeemakers in Heaven?
Plato’s concept of heavenly Ideals preceding Earthly (and lesser) copies will the seed the idea in the West of the Ideal Man– which will then later be grafted onto the Mid-Eastern notion of the Messiah. There was, after all, no mention in the original Hebrew prophecies that the Messiah need be perfect; the Messiah (the “annointed one”) was instead imagined as a righteous warrior who would, with God’s blessing, deliver the Jews from their Earthly tormentors.
Plato’s Ideals will never completely exit the realm of Western metaphysical thinking. Importantly, Plato first gives to the West this idea that Earthly things have a correspondence to heavenly things. The power and influence of this Correspondence Principle on Western metaphysics cannot be overstated.
Between the 200s and 500s AD there flourished the philosophy which we today call “Neo-Platonism” (though the “neo-” prefix wasn’t added til centuries later). The so-called Neo-Platonists took the Platonic ball and ran with it. Plato had merely said that there exist somewhere perfect Ideals of (some or all?) the imperfect things populating the Earth. The Neo-Platonists added-in the idea that we humans once belonged to that realm of perfection, but that our souls had “fallen” into the lowly corporeal world. This tweaking of Plato’s world of Ideals will prove foundational to much Western mysticism throughout the centuries.
Existing about the same time as the Neoplatonists were the Gnostics. Indeed, the Gnostics and Neo-Platonists seem to have borrowed ideas from each other. Pardon me for saying so, but the Gnostics strike me as an especially gnegative group of philosophers. Gnostics totally reject the value of our Earthly existence. And they really harp on just how dirty and sinful is this corporeal world. There are some conflicting myths in the different Gnostic world-stories, but there is definitely a strand of blame-the-victim in some tales in which we humans are blamed for our fall due to the following of our base sensual desires.
As far as I can recall, the Gnostics are the first group in the Mideast or West to have posited that there were numerous intermediate levels of creation between the Ultimate Being and the world in which we live in. According to the complex creation myths of the Gnostics, there are several layers– or “spheres”– of creation, with each sphere giving birth to the next, and with each succeeding sphere being less pure than its predecessor— until at last we end up at the lowest of the low planes of existence– you guessed it– our own dear world. Our plane of existence is, conveniently enough, the only one perceptible to our human senses.
Because the Gnostics held this notion of ascending spheres, they were naturally –almost necessarily– led to the idea that, if like the Neo-Platonists said, we humans had fallen from the realm of the Ideal, the climb back would necessarily entail slogging through the domains separating us from the ideal. We can reach each successively higher realm of existence by increasing our knowledge and wisdom. The more knowledgable we become, the purer we can live, and the higher we can climb up through the spheres, growing ever closer to our reunion with The Ultimate with each new spiritual breakthrough.
Gnostics also PERSONIFIED the different spheres of existence. Actually, these cats personified just about everything. In this case, they viewed each sphere of existence as a species of divine personage called the Aeons. Our own lowly universe was created by the Demiurge; this name demonstrates the Neo-Platonist influence, as the Demiurge (I’ve seen it translated as “the Craftsman”) is also what Plato had called the creator of the world. There’s all kinds of myths about the Demiurge… in some he’s just plain incompetent, in others he’s downright evil (and hostile to the wise Supreme Being existing many planes above him), and in some accounts he’s even the higher-realm version of Satan. I’ve done other posts on Gnosticism and won’t go farther into all of that here.
After personifying the different spheres of existence, the next natural step for Western mystics was to ask these higher personages for assistance in their attempt to climb-up through the different realms of enlightenment. Thus, the idea of helpful spiritual Intermediaries is given to Western mysticism. And it’s not that big of a stretch to go from asking Intermediaries for assistance to asking other spiritual Masters and Adepts from beyond for help– an idea which will come to abound in Western mysticism, largely through the mythologized history of secret societies (which I’ll come to later).
The philosopher known today as Pseudo-Dionysus was active toward the end of the Gnostic / Neo-Platonist run, and his views– especially his detailed account of the hierarchy of Angels — will prove very influential with medieval mystics for centuries.
ALCHEMY IN MYSTICISM
Since the dawn of consciousness, humans have been aware that things change and their forms alter. The sun moves across the sky, the stars come and go, water evaporates, caterpillars turn to butterflies, juices from grains or grapes can turn to beer or wine, respectively.
Humans eventually got it into their fairly thick craniums that maybe they could transform things on purpose. Obviously, they would prefer to change less valuable things into more valuable. Very early on, our clever ancestors began to think of certain metals as “precious,” especially silver and gold– and most especially gold. The long, long (and so far unsuccessful) attempt to change not-gold into gold is basically what Alchemy boils down to, if you’ll pardon the wordplay.
At some point along the crazy zig-zag way, somebody connected the idea of transforming impure metals to purer ones with the idea of transforming imperfect humans into more perfect ones.
During this same era, Alchemists were attempting to keep their hard-won knowledge secret within their own cohorts. One way they did this was by communicating with each other in code or metaphor.
Soon (and perhaps concurrently in some circles), the metaphors used by Alchemists to cloak their true meanings began to be seen as a way of symbolizing deeper and more philosophical or magical meanings beneath what the Alchemists were doing.
The parallels between the transmutation of metals and the transmutation of human-souls were then all too easily spotted. Wisdom and knowledge were required for both transformations, and –similar to the purification process in metals– humans were also capable of purification as they reached for the higher planes of existence.
Later, Jewish thinkers developed their own mystical strand of religious approach– the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah is said by all the experts to have exerted vast influence upon Western mysticism. I personally find Kabbalism tediously intricate and little-rewarding considering the amount of study-time required, so I have not been inclined to read-up much on it. But I do know this much about the Kabbalah: 1) it assigns special, mystical powers to the 22 Hebrew letters and to the text of the Torah, and 2) it is the source of the whole “Tree Of Life” thing. Personally, I find Western mysticism completely understandable WITHOUT a knowledge of Kabbalah, but they tell me that it is nevertheless indispensable to the development of mystical philosophy in the West. So there’s that going for it.
CRUSADES AND RENAISSANCE
After the mind-opening decades of the Crusades, Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophies were re-discovered during the Renaissance, and the path of the developing Western Mysticism was altered and renewed.
Plato had said there exist higher and more perfect IDEALS of the objects of this world. By the fifteenth century, people such as Paracelsus had come to believe that there existed some mystical CONNECTION between the Ideal object and the Mundane object. Plato had never really claimed a connection, or at least never described it or made much of it. This alteration of Platonic thought– the imposing of the idea that things in this world are connected to things in the higher world– will lead to the growing belief that the two worlds can affect each other.
Western Mystics during and after the Renaissance tended to believe that the Universe, itself, was a manifestation of God. Everything in the Universe could be viewed as a symbol telling us something about God. In this way, for those who could understand the symbols, the Universe could be read like a book– a biography of God. The largely German strand of mysticism known as “Naturphilophie” contended that Nature is a living text-– one which can be deciphered via the use of analogies and correspondences.
Paracelsus claimed we could teach ourselves to “overhear” the wisdom whispered by things in the Universe– from stones to stars, and from plums to planets. Like a good Neo-Platonist, he assumed that every object possessed existence in both the material or worldly dimension, and in the heavenly or “astral” dimension. Even a human, too, has an Astral Self. But a person’s Worldly Self can sometimes stray out of alignment or balance with his Astral Self, and this misalignment is what causes sickness. Paracelsus felt he could prescribe remedies to bring these two Selves back into alignment and so restore good health. His prescriptions often were based upon astrological signs and alchemical reactions.
The idea that we cause our own illness by falling out of proper alignment with esoteric forces is an opinion still held by many mystical thinkers today.
Jakob Boehme agreed with the general view of medieval mysticism that the physical world forms a language telling us the secrets of the Universe. “Everything has its mouth,” he declared. Boehme described the world as being a mirror held to God, and he agreed with the Hermetic mantra, “as above, so below.”
Certain numbers recur throughout the development of Western mysticism. The most powerful and prevalent number appears to be the number THREE.
Paracelsus tossed-out the idea espoused by Hippocrates that all matter is composed of the mixture of FOUR basic elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), and replaced it with concept that there are three basic principles at work in matter… the Fluid, the Combustible, and the Solid. He associated each principle with a specific substance… Mercury represented the Fluid, Sulfur the Combustible, and Salt the Solid. He then mystically connected these paired trios to Hermes Trismegistus’s contention that there are three basic substances of existence… Spirit (Mercury/Fluid), Soul (Sulfur/Combustible), and Body (Salt/Solid). The Spirit component of an entity is its eternal part, the presence of God in the thing. The Soul is the entity’s projection of itself in the heavenly realm– the entity’s Astral Self. And the Body is the entity’s projection into the material world.
Different philosophers had different names and descriptions of these three planes of existence, but the three-fold division nevertheless remained a common element in much of mystical thinking. For instance, the Agrippa described the three worlds as the Elemental (body), the Celestial (soul), and the Supercelestial (spirit). Sometimes, reflecting Gnostic influence, the spiritual world was referred to as the “Intellectual” plane– the world of pure LOGOS.
Mixing-in his belief in the Holy Trinity, Boehme’s spin on the Three Worlds was to describe them as the Earthly World (ruled by the contention between Christ and Satan, a world full of conflict and choice), The Dark-World (driven by the Father’s “wrath” manifesting itself as Nature’s forces and drives), and the Light-World (the realm of the Holy Spirit, where instead of the Father’s wrath, there is Sophia’s, or Wisdom’s, “Love.”). [How Sophia gets into the Holy Trinity, I’m not sure, other than that there has been a drive to restore the feminine to the largely masculine Godhead since the earliest days of Catholicism and Gnosticism].
Another number important to Western Mysticism is the number SEVEN. This is largely due to the number of celestial objects visible to the naked eye (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). Alchemists, on the lookout of course for mystical correspondences between the mundane and celestial spheres, assigned [rather arbitrarily] a metal to correspond with each of the seven “planets.” Later, the number seven will also resonate with the number of colors in the rainbow. Boehme wrote about the Seven Qualities (dry, sweet, bitter, hot, sounds, corporeality, and love/light). Trithemius claimed to know (somehow) that God had delegated the governance of the lowest world (that would be ours) to a succession of Seven Intelligences, each corresponding to a “planet,” and each ruling for a fixed period of so many hundreds of years.
SORCERY AND MAGIC
A sort of bastard-child of Western Mysticism is Magic. Magic, in its most philosophically developed form, relies on the mystical beliefs in… 1) the existence of higher worlds, 2) that these worlds are somehow “connected”, and that 3) one world can affect the other. The basic philosophy of Magic (where it has one) is that a Magician (or Witch or Sorcerer) can tap into the occult powers of higher (or “deeper”) realms of existence to influence events our Earthly, physical realm. To do this, he would use his knowledge of the inter-world, sympathetic correspondences (long a staple of Western mystical thought). To make use of these connections between correspondences, he would need to employ RITUAL– the correct rendering and ordering of symbols. Such rituals can take the form of signs, talismans, spells, et cetera.
Magic also places an emphasis on the power of the Will. For most practitioners of Magic, the Will is a form of subtle energy which can be strengthened and focused and radiated into the higher spheres of existence, where it can affect the non-material, corresponding manifestations of entities in this world, and thus produce, secondarily as it were, an effect in the Earthly, or material, realm.
As one example of a symbol used in Magic, there is the five-pointed Pentagon, which is often interpreted as symbolizing the dominance of the Will (the uppermost point) over the Four Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
Societies such as the Rosicrucians and the Masons have a long and intertwined history with Western Mysticism. I’ve decided not to farther extend this already overly long post with a big spiel about Secret Societies. But I do want to point-out that Secret Societies exhibit an important theme in the mysticism of all parts of the world… the theme of the Master or Adept who can indoctrinate students– deserving students only– into the secret ways of the Universe.
MORE MODERN CONTRIBUTIONS
Even the most superficial overview of the development of modern Western Mysticism (such as this one is) must at least mention Emmanuel Swedenborg. One of Swedenborg’s major contributions was his philosophical exploration of correspondences. I’ve posted on Swedenborg elsewhere, so I’ll just reiterate here that he had a notion that like-spirited people are naturally drawn together. I mention this belief specifically, because it is a progenitor of the 20th century gobbledeegook about “good vibes” and such.
Also related to the idea of sending out “vibes” and attractions through the cosmos –as well as to the magical notion that our Will, though nonphysical, can influence physical events– is the contention that the Universe is filled by an imperceptible fluid or “ether.” This ether is the medium through which vibes and the powers of the will travel to exert their mysterious effects. Some mystics also feel that electricity, magnetism, and/or gravity also utilize this magical ether.
One of the most important contributors to this theory was Mesmer, who was active in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He attempted to explain “scientifically” how celestial objects might truly affect events here on Earth. His proposal was that, just as the moon affects the watery ocean to produce the shifting tides, the planets were– in some way– affecting the fluidy, invisible ether– which in turn could affect the physical world. Mesmer was one of those who felt that Will could manifest itself via the ether and influence events in world of the senses. Hypnotism was discovered more or less accidentally by those Mesmerists attempting to help people heal themselves via the application of magnets (later dropped from the procedure) and the focus of the will. Some Mesmerists also started toying around with “automatic” writings and the attempt to make contact with the spirit world. This latter attempt leads in a direct hereditary line to belief in the ability of certain people (“mediums”) to “channel” certain spirits– sometimes departed souls from this world, and sometimes greater beings– beings taking on the role of “Masters” which I mentioned earlier.
Jumpstarted by Colonialism, which brought the West into close contact with the East, Indian and Chinese thought has come to play a prominent part in Western mysticism during the last few centuries. The idea of Karmic energy and the possibility of Reincarnation, mostly drawn from ideas contained in India’s native Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism, has proven very attractive to many Westerners. The Chinese concepts of “chi” body-energy and the yen-yang ideal of balanced opposites has also been very important to modern mystic thought– not least of all in the area of personal health. The Hindu view that all apparently individual entities are actually part of The One –and the view that all of us contain a spark of The Highest inside of us– has also been extremely influential in recent (relatively speaking) Western thought.
Probably no one drew all the threads of mystic thought from all the world together with more adeptness than did Madame Blavatsky in the 1800s. I’ve also posted about this incredible influential woman, and so won’t here go into the details of her vast and lasting contribution to Western mysticism and New Age thought.
Lastly, I’ll mention Besant and Leadbeater’s book, Thought-Forms, published in 1901, which posited that our thoughts could produce corresponding vibrations in what is basically their version of the ether. They also talked about the energy radiating or surrounding a person, which we today think of as one’s aura. Auras and especially vibrations are a big part of popular mysticism today.