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Esotericism (or esoterism) signifies the holding of esoteric opinions or beliefs, that is, ideas preserved or understood by a small group of those specially initiated, or of rare or unusual interest. The term derives from the Greek, either from the comparative ἐσώτερος (esôteros), "inner", or from its derived adjective ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos), "pertaining to the innermost".
The term can also refer to the academic study of esoteric religious movements and philosophies, or to the study of those religious movements and philosophies whose proponents distinguish their beliefs, practices, and experiences from mainstream exoteric and more dogmatic institutionalized traditions.
Examples of esoteric religious movements and philosophies include Alchemy, Anthroposophy, Astrology, early Christian mysticism, The Fourth Way, Tantra, Freemasonry, Gnosticism, Hermetism, Mahavidya, Vamachara, Kabbalah, Magic, Mesmerism, Neoplatonism, Numerology, Perennialism, Rosicrucianism, Scientology, Sufism, Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, Taoism, the Alawites, the Theosophy of Jacob Böhme and his followers, and the Theosophist movement associated with Helena Blavatsky.
Although esotericism refers to an exploration of the hidden meanings and symbolism in various philosophical, historical, and religious texts, the texts themselves are often central to mainstream religions. For example, the Bible and the Torah are considered esoteric material.
The term derives from the Greek, either from the comparative ἐσώτερος (esôteros), "inner", or from its derived adjective ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos), "pertaining to the innermost," both compounds of ἔσω (esô): "within", thus pertaining to interiority, the initiatic or mysticism, all these terms relating to what lies within a sacred enclosure. Its antonym is "exoteric" or "profane".
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.
The term esoteric first appeared in English in the 1660 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). A corresponding Gallicism, "esoterism", was coined in French by Jacques Matter in 1828, it is first recorded by the OED in 1835, and it was popularized by Eliphas Levi in the 1850s. . It was notably given currency in 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. 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.
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. 
After all, the esoteric tradition may be recovered if the seeker undergoes initiation.
Since the field of 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. 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 further developed by Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater, while people like Alice Bailey, Rudolf Steiner and many others, became the source for a whole range of post-theosophical movements such as The Summit Lighthouse. The post-theosophical Anthroposophical movement is 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.
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. 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.
Secondly, Hanegraaff follows a distinction between an “emic” and an “etic” approach to religious studies. 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”.
Pierre A. Riffard (Ph.D., University of the French West Indies) studies the method used by esotericists themselves (alchemists, magicians, Rosicrucians, Anthroposophists...). 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. 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.
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