The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 2)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

Carl Jung was heavily influenced by Henry Corbin, a renowned 20th century scholar of Islamic esotericism. 

A central aspect of Corbin’s work was the idea of the imagination as both ‘cognitive and creative’. In line with the Persian philosophers whom he had studied, Corbin identified the human imagination as ‘an autonomous world of intermediaries, the mundus imaginals, where visions, apparitions, angels, and hierarchies occurred independently of any perceiving subject’. 

Corbin concluded that this world of hierarchies is as ‘real and objective’ as the material world in which we carry out our everyday lives. But because these intermediaries are not as dense as the material objects populating our everyday world, they are not easily perceptible. To access mundus imaginals, we must use our active imaginations rather than the sense of sight, smell, and touch, through which we usually navigate.

This, along with the work of other academics and scholars, leaves us with six fundamental characteristics of western esoteric spirituality: 

  1. Correspondence –  all constituent levels of being (stars, planets, humans, animals, plants, minerals, humours, and states of mind both healthy and diseased) are linked together through a series of correspondences. Imagine two violins. Sympathetic or corresponding  vibration occurs when two strings are tuned to the same pitch. When one is plucked, the other will sing out in ‘in sympathy’. The connection between these various levels of being is not causal, but symbolic. As Dr Liz Greene reminds us, the gods have left their traces in the material world for us to find and this is done through symbols. Humans don’t invent symbols. We discover them through our active imagination. Dr Greene says we use symbols to coax the gods to come down to earth and partake with us through ritual and this is precisely what Jung did whilst writing Liber Novus.
  2. Living nature – all things in nature are alive, full of divine energy or soul. It is through this divine energy or soul, that Marsilio Ficino, an accomplished magician and protégée of Cosimo de Medici, one of the most powerful men in Renaissance Europe, lived what he referred to as a ‘well-tempered’ life in cosmic harmony with the divine plan. This plan was charted in the heavens and so it is no surprise that Ficino was also an accomplished astrologer. In Ficino’s solar system, there were only seven planets (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto had yet to be discovered). Ficino believed that in order to thrive, soul needs exposure to each of those planets. For example, the Sun symbolizes the qualities – insight and imagination – that are uniquely human. Thus solar energy is associated with consciousness, rational thought, and the pursuit of truth and honour.  Cultivate solar energy through solemn music, all things gold coloured, nutmeg, heliotrope, myrrh, honey, crocus, corn, cinnamon, aloes, lions, swans, beetles, and chickens. Visualize a king on a throne in a yellow garment, along with a raven and the form of the sun.
  3. Imagination and mediations – as mentioned earlier, it is through our active imagination that we establish a cognitive and creative connexion with mundus imaginals. As Goodrick-Clark reminds us, where the mystic typically seeks a direct and immediate connexion with God, for the esotericist, this connection is made through the intermediaries that extend up and down the hierarchal ladder. In essence, this is magical thinking –  a unique type of consciousness – participative of mode of thought whereby participants gain awareness of the Inter relatedness of all things in the world by a means of simple , but we find, sense perception. In this sense, magic does not seek to fix or change the objective world.[1] Dr Greene reminds us that when we coax the gods to come to earth and partake with us through ritual , we have invoked them not to ‘fix’ our outer world, but instead to ‘fix’ our inner world – in other words, to transform us to live, as did Ficino, in harmony with the divine plan. 
  4. The experience of transmutation – as noted above, as the result of esoteric work we must expect to experience change in some uniquely manifest way. This is not an intellectual pursuit. For Jung, the arrival of his Philemon, his Saturnian daimon with Aquarian leanings, was a key moment in his life. Dr Greene suggests that Jung stopped working on Liber Novus in 1929-1932 because he needed to understand what was meant psychologically by Philemon as symbol of his ‘inner’ self.  As the result, he developed psychological models like perhaps synchronicity to explain what had resulted for him as the result of his esoteric work. Jung believed synchronistic experiences mirror deep psychological processes that further ‘individuation’ – the process by which we gain understanding of our place in the world. He believe that synchronistic experiences always involve an archetype. Consider the case of the Golden beetle. While Jung’s client was relating a dream which she’d received a gift of a Golden scarab (a large dung beetle held sacred in ancient Egypt), Jung heard a gentle tapping on the window. He opened it and caught a beetle whose green gold colour was the same as that of the Golden scarab his client had described. When Jung related that the scarab was a classic rebirth symbol depicting the archetype of self-transformation , exactly the issue with which she’d been struggling, the client was shocked enough to breakdown her resistance to therapy. Here you can see the connection between magical thinking (i.e. synchronicity), symbols, and personal change of transmutation.[2]
  5. Concordance – the idea here is that all of these western esoteric traditions (perhaps also some or all of the eastern traditions) are linked together in important ways and perhaps even stem from a single source (prisca theologia).
  6. Transmission – most esoteric traditions suggest that the fullness of their teachings can only be passed from master to disciple through an established path of initiation. In other words, book learning or even personal experimentation will never be enough.  

Finally, and very importantly, Corbin and other esoteric scholars have demonstrated that the esoteric traditions and ideals come back into fashion whenever the world order as we currently know it starts to fall apart. This is exactly what happened in the European renaissance revival of all of these traditions and we will see more examples of this in future blog posts.

(to be continued) 


[1] Campion, Nicholas, Editorial (p 1-8) in Culture and Cosmos: A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy, papers from the 2013 Sophia Centre conference, special double issue on Celestial Magic, vol. 19 , Number 1 and 2, Spring/ Summer and Autumn/Winter 2015.

[2] For more on this, see discussion at pp. 116-117 in The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus, (Routledge, 2018) by Dr Liz Greene.

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