Antoine Faivre and the Study of Esotericism

Antoine Faivre and the Study of Esotericism

Academic scholarship is increasingly recognising the existence and historical importance
of a third element in Western culture in addition to Greek rationality and biblical faith
in an externally received divine revelation. This third element, ‘esotericism’,1 is a
tradition of inner enlightenment as a revelatory experience bringing knowledge of one’s
true self in an encounter with the ground of being (see Broek and Hanegraaff 1998,
p. vii). Antoine Faivre is a major contributor to the ongoing scholarly endeavour to
recognise esotericism as a legitimate and fruitful area of academic research. He holds
what was for over three decades the only chair in the world devoted explicitly to the
Western esoteric tradition.2 In 1965 a Chair of Christian Esotericism was established in
the Religious Studies section of the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne.
The first holder was François Secret, a specialist in the Christian Kabbalah. When Faivre
assumed the chair in 1979, the name of the directorship became History of Esoteric and
Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe.
Perhaps the most accessible introduction to Faivre’s scholarship are the State
University of New York Press volumes Access to Western Esotericism (1994) and
Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism (2000). These volumes are
a translation of the second edition, in two volumes, of Accès de l’ésotérisme occidental
(1996; first edition in one volume 1986). Volume One of the English edition consists of
a methodological statement, a short history of Western esoteric currents, a set of studies
on esoteric subjects and an extensive bibliographical research guide. Volume Two
contains a preface on esotericism and academic research; an essay on the periodisation of
the theosophical current within Western esotericism; sets of studies on theosophy, the
imagination, the concept of tradition; and an update to the bibliographical guide. For
the most part, the content and arrangement correspond to the French edition. The
notable exception is the short history of Western esoteric currents in volume one. In the
English edition this section is divided into five chapters. The first consists of a six-page
survey of ancient and mediaeval sources of modern esoteric currents, and the next four
chapters carry the survey up to our own day. There is no corresponding material to
these four chapters in the French edition, and the section corresponding to the first
*Antoine Faivre, Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism. Albany, SUNY Press, 2000,
xxxv+259 pp., $73.50 (hardback) ISBN 0 7914 4435 X, $24.95 (paperback) ISBN 0 7914 4436 8.
Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism. Albany, SUNY Press, 1994, x+348 pp., $75.50. Cited as 2000
(hardback) ISBN 0 7914 2177 5, $25.50 (paperback) ISBN 0 7914 2178 3. Cited as 1994.
Antoine Faivre, Accès de l’ésotérisme occidental, 2 vols Paris, Gallimard, 2ème éd. 1996, 377 and 437 pp., FF175 ISBN
2 07 974293 8; FF190 ISBN 2 07 074126 5.
Antoine Faivre, Philosophie de la Nature: Physique sacrée et théosophie XVIIIè–XIXè siècle. Paris, Albin Michel, 1996,
33 pp., FF150 ISBN 2 226 07627 1.
Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, trans. Joscelyn Godwin. Grand Rapids, MI,
Phanes Press, 1995, 201 pp., $18.95 (paperback) ISBN 0 933999 52 6. Cited as 1995a.
Antoine Faivre, The Golden Fleece and Alchemy. Albany, SUNY Press, 1993, ix+134 pp., $19.50 (paperback) ISBN
0 7914 1410 8.
2001 Academic Press
0048–721X/01/040435+16 $35.00/0
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chapter covers eighty-five pages. An English translation of this material may be found in
Faivre (1995b, pp. 1–70).


Definition and Periodisation
Faivre has recently stated that

‘esotericism’, in the sense of a field of research, refers to an ensemble of spiritual currents in modern and contemporary Western history which share a certain air de famille, as well as the form of thought which is its common denominator.

Each of these historical currents has a name of its own, as will be seen.

As for the underlying ‘form of thought’, we have elsewhere presented it as an
ensemble of six constitutive elements. Four of these are intrinsic to ‘esotericism’: the
doctrine of universal correspondences, living nature, imagination/mediations, and
transmutation. The other two are extrinsic (i.e., they may be absent in certain cases):
concordance of traditions and transmission of knowledge. (Faivre 1998, p. 2)

In a second recent definitional statement, Faivre adds that esotericism as a field of
research is in the process of entering with full rights into the academy, and itemises
the historical currents as ‘spiritual alchemy’, neo-Alexandrian hermetism, Christian
Kabbalah, the so-called philosophia occulta, Paracelsianism, theosophy, Rosicrucianism
and a number of initiation societies, as well as later currents that flow more or less in the
wake of these (1999, p. 155). These definitions incorporate a periodisation (modern and
contemporary currents), geographical delimitation (Western), and a criterion (family
resemblance based on a form of thought comprised of the six characteristics), and they
allude to methodological issues (entrance into the academy).
Faivre has discussed the six fundamental characteristics that for him constitute the
underlying form of thought, or the common denominators of the various esoteric
currents, in many places (most extensively in 1994, pp. 10–5; see Faivre and Voss,
pp. 60–2 for an abridged version). 1. Correspondences. Symbolic and real correspondences
are said to exist among all parts of the universe, both seen and unseen (‘As below so
above; as above so below’). Microcosm and macrocosm are linked by the principle of
universal interdependence. The entire universe is a theatre of mirrors, an ensemble of
correspondences to be read and decyphered. 2. Living Nature. The universe is alive,
permeated by spiritual forces that circulate through a network of channels. The various
esoteric sciences are simultaneously examples of the knowledge of the dynamic network
of sympathies and antipathies that link multi-layered, hierarchical Nature together and
concrete operations informed by that knowledge. 3. Imagination and Mediations. These
complementary notions are corollaries of the idea of correspondences. Imagination,
considered as an ‘organ of the soul’, enables access to different levels of reality through
the use of mediations such as rituals, symbolic images, mandalas and intermediary spirits.
By means of these intermediaries the imagination decodes the hieroglyphs of Nature,
and uncovers, sees, and knows the mediating entities between Nature and the divine
world. It is the eye of fire that pierces the bark of appearances and renders the invisible
visible. 4. Experience of Transmutation. The alchemical term ‘transmutation’ signifies the
ontological metamorphosis, or purification of being, of the initiate effected along with
and by means of knowledge of and participation in the hidden mysteries of the cosmos
and God. 5. Concordance of Traditions. The attempt to establish a common denominator
between several or all esoteric traditions. 6. Transmission. Esoteric teaching passes from
master to disciple through initiation. The mark of authenticity of esoteric knowledge is
filiation to an established line of transmission.
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The qualifiers ‘modern’ and ‘Western’ are not arbitrary limits on a vast historical field
but reflect Faivre’s conviction that esotericism is a historical phenomenon originating in
the new and specific intellectual and cultural conditions of late fifteenth-century
Europe, though possessing ancient roots. Faivre argues (see Faivre 2000, pp. xiv–xv) that
the development of late medieval and early modern theological thought had increasingly
eliminated cosmology from its scope of thinking. The investigation of Nature, cut loose
from theology, became the territory of scientists, humanists and philosophers. Some of
these thinkers produced secularising interpretations of nature which would lead to the
scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. Others speculated on the relationships
among God, man and the universe in terms of universal correspondences and a living
Nature. It is among these speculators that one finds the first ‘esotericists’ in the modern
sense of the term. At the same time Renaissance scientists and humanists such as Robert
Fludd, Tommaso Campanella and Michael Maier appropriated and linked various
traditions of the past—Neo-Pythagoreanism, Neo-Platonism, Alexandrian Hermetism,
Jewish Kabbalah—on the grounds that they enrich one another and represent more or
less branches of a common trunk. This is the idea of a philosophia perennis, an ‘eternal
philosophy’ that despite doctrinal variations represents a common attitude of mind. Just
as esoteric cosmology interprets Nature in light of analogy, so philosophia perennis
interprets the textual monuments of the traditions of the past in the light of analogy. The
higher knowledge—gnosis—derived from these texts presupposed a human faculty
capable of penetrating the mysteries of founding or revealed texts and of inspired glosses.
The referential corpus of esotericism was gradually built up from texts belonging to
ancient traditions that, at the dawn of the Renaissance, began to be compared with one
another, and, starting at the end of the fifteenth century, compared with new texts that
were often commentaries on the first and, beginning in the sixteenth century, readings
of the Book of Nature.
New currents, Faivre continues (see Faivre 2000, pp. xvi–xvii), were added from the
sixteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. They were situated marginally
to Renaissance philosophia parennis because they made almost no claims to authorities
belonging to a distant past. The three principal new currents arose in German-speaking
lands: Paracelsism, theosophy and Rosicrucianism. Paracelsism, which is more or less at
the origin of two other currents, blended an alchemical approach to Nature with an
active and creative imagination. Theosophy is characterised by an illuminated speculation
bearing on the relationships among God, man and the universe (Nature); the
primacy of myths (biblical) of foundation or origin as a point of departure for this
speculation; and the idea that human beings, by virtue of their creative imagination, can
develop in themselves the faculty of acceding to the higher worlds. The theosophical
current has its headwaters in the works of Gerhard Dorn, Valentin Weigel and Johann
Arndt but becomes a great river with Jacob Boehme. It flows through the seventeenth
century with the immediate successors of Boehme, such as Jane Leade, John Pordage,
Quirinus Kulhmann, Johann Georg Gichtel, dries up for a time; then gushes forth anew
in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with Martinès de Pascally,
Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger and above all Franz von
Baader. Faivre regards Emanuel Swedenborg as marginal in relation to the theosophy of
the Neo-Boehmian type but recognises his considerable cultural and spiritual influence
beyond theosophy proper. The third of the new currents is the Rosicrucian current, or
that of initiatic societies. In the early seventeenth century Rosicrucianism was a reform
movement designed to deepen Protestant spirituality by opening it to alchemy and
occult philosophy in the sense of Henricus Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta philosophia
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(1533). The myth of Christian Rosenkreutz, propagated in the Fama Fraternatis (1614)
and Johann Valentin Andreae’s Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz (1616),
perpetuated the Rosicrucian current. Initiatic societies proliferated from the eighteenth
century, and while they often placed themselves—as, for example, the eighteenthcentury
Gold- und Rosenkreuz and the twentieth-century A.M.O.R.C. (Antiquus
Mysticusqua Ordo Rosae Crucis)—under the sign of the Rosy Cross, they drew inspiration
from other esoteric currents as well.
Faivre also sees the Western esoteric tradition as riddled with discontinuities,
rejections and reinterpretations as new currents break away from those from which they
issued (see Faivre 2000, pp. xvii–xviii). Two examples of this tendency are Occultism
and the Perennialisms of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon. The Occultist movement,
which arose in the second half of the nineteenth century under the leadership of Eliphas
Lévi, attempted to reconcile the gnosis of eighteenth-century Illuminism with elements
of modern science. As such, it represented a transformation of esotericism in the context
of a materialist and secularising world. Perennialism, the quest for a ‘Primordial
Tradition’ that lies beneath all religions and philosophies, both encouraged, and was
encouraged by, increased knowledge of Eastern religions and by the rise of comparative
religions in the universities. While some Perennialists, notably Guénon, denounced
aspects of Western esotericism, Faivre nevertheless considers the Perennialist current a
transformation of esotericism rather than a repudiation of it.
Faivre began his career as a Germanist, with books on Niklaus Anton Kirchberger
(1966) and Karl von Eckhartshausen (1969). His principal research interests
within Western esotericism are those currents originating in German-speaking
countries, particularly Boehmist theosophy, including Naturphilosophie, and Franz von
Faivre has outlined four periods in the evolution of the theosophical current. 1. The
development of a specific textual corpus—above all the works of Jacob Boehme—from
the end of the sixteenth century through the seventeenth. Six factors favoured the
emergence of this kind of thought at this time. The first four are linked to Lutheranism:
an openness to independent religious thought; emphasis on inner experience as means
of reconciling mysticism and rationalism; desire for revitalisation of theology; and a
certain freedom, in some circles at least, from pastoral control. The final two derive
from contemporary philosophical and scientific debates: the widespread desire to unify
science and faith into a harmonious whole, and the hope of reasserting the correspondence
of the microcosm and the macrocosm in the face of mechanistic philosophies. 2.
The spreading of that corpus and its reception by historians of philosophy in the first half
of the eighteenth century. Two main tendencies characterise the theosophy of these
decades. First, the original Boehmian current is represented by Oetinger, Gichtel and
William Law. Second, a ‘magical’ type of theosophy, Paracelsian and alchemical in
orientation, is represented by four German authors: Georg von Welling, A. J.
Kirchweger, Samuel Richter and Hermann Fictuld. This is also the period in which
theosophy receives recognition from historians of philosophy. Notable discussions
include the Theophilosophia theoretica et practica (1710) by Sincerus Renatus, the Opus
mago-cabalisticum et theosophicum (1721) by Georg von Welling, and, epochally as
concerns mainstream thought, the Historia critica Philosophiae (1741) by Jacob Brucker. 3.
Revival in the pre-Romantic and Romantic era. Theosophy once again springs to
life during the 1770s and experiences a second Golden Age, which lasted until the
mid nineteenth century. The theosophy of this period may be divided between authors
who identify themselves or are identified as Boehmians—notably, Saint-Martin,
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Eckhartshausen, Heinrich Jung-Stilling, Friedrich Salzmann and Baader—and initiates
of secret societies such as Rectified Scottish Rite Masonry and the Order of Elect
Cohens. 4. The decline of theosophy, but also its endurance, from the mid nineteenth
century until the present. If the theosophical current dries up to a great extent in
Occultism and Primordialism, it still flows, diversely, in a few twentieth-century
representatives: Vladmir Soloviev, Serge Boulgakov, Nicolas Berdiaev, Rudolf Steiner,
Valentin Tomberg and Robert Amadou.
While Faivre has written on numerous aspects and representatives of the theosophical
current, he has returned again and again to Naturphilosophie and Baader. Inspired by
Boehme and Paracelsus, the Naturphilosophen of the Romantic period, mostly German,
investigate Nature as the code of God. Underlying their efforts is a conception of
Nature as a system of correspondences, both within itself and linking humanity, God
and Nature. Because Spirit permeates Nature and expresses itself through it, the key to
the correspondences lies outside Nature itself, in Spirit. By means of this analogical
hermeneutics (imaginatio), the Naturphilosoph penetrates directly the divine world,
thereby acquiring the ability to explore all levels of reality and attain a body of light.
Individual scientific facts are perceived as signs of the underlying spirit. Since the
facts/signs must correspond to one other inasmuch as they reveal the same Spirit,
Naturphilosophen freely identify notions from one scientific field with those from
another, using observations from geology, for example, to understand botanic or
chemical phenomena. Naturphilosophie further sets itself the task of relating Nature and
Scripture to each other. Since both, correctly interpreted, reveal the same underlying
Spirit, revelation confers on scientific facts new significations, and inversely a hermeneutic
of scientific facts serves to enrich the content of Revelation. The idea of living
nature as the code of God to be interpreted by an analogical hermeneutics was present
in both Boehmist theosophy and Paracelsism. What is new in Romantic Naturphilosophie
is the idea that nature has a history embodying the progressive unfolding of Spirit
(cosmic dynamism replaces cosmic structure) and the conviction, shared with Fichte and
Schelling, that the Kantian critical philosophy allows one to conceive of the world as the
product of the imagination, that is, as the result of the synthetic, spontaneous activity of
Spirit. Faivre edited, with Rolf Christian Zimmerman, Epochen der Naturmystik:
Hermetische Tradition im wissenschaftlichen Fortschritt (1979). More recently, he has
published Philosophie de la Nature: Physique sacrée et théosophie XVIIIè–XIXè siècle (1996).
The first third, roughly, of this book consists of studies on Franz von Baader; the balance
of the volume contains various studies presented in chronological order of the authors
treated: Oetinger and other theologians of electricity, Abraham Gottlob Werner, Johann
Wilhelm Ritter and Johann Friedrich von Meyer.
The author to whom Faivre has devoted the most attention is the theosopher,
minerologist, geologist and University of Munich professor Franz von Baader. Faivre
argues that Baader towers over Romantic esoterici
Faivre observes that the field of esotericism has long been a subject of interest, but
only recently has it begun to be approached in a neutral fashion, as one sector among
others in the history of religions. Pioneers in the scholarly treatment of esoteric
currents include Viatte (1928), Thorndike (1923–58) and Peuckert (1966 1973),
while Yates (1972, 1979), Tuveson (1982) and Secret (1985) relate esoteric currents
to religion, politics, art and literature. In the last decades of the twentieth century an
outpouring of works—inter alia Benz (1968), Corsetti (1992), Frick (1978), Godwin
(1987), Introvigne (1990), Laurant (1975, 1992), Riffard (1990, 1998) and Webb
(1974, 1976)—suggests an at least implicit recognition that the study of esotericism
represents an independent field of research (see Faivre 2000, pp. xviii–xx). Conferences
and journals devoted to esotericism have similarly proliferated (see the
bibliographical guide in Faivre 1994 and 2000). The names listed above represent a
wide range of approaches to the study of esotericism. Faivre concludes that rigorous
methodological reflection is required if the study of esotericism is to take its place in
the academy (see Faivre 2000, p. xxi).
Faivre’s principal methodological statement is the ‘Criteriologies’ and ‘Methods’
sections of the preface to Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition (an earlier version of which
appeared in English in Faivre and Voss 1995). Faivre dismisses essentialist, universalist,
doctrinal and thematic criteriologies of esotericism as inadequate. Essentialist criteriologies
define ‘esotericism’ as a universal and therefore trans-historical phenomenon;
although its manifestations may differ, the essence of ‘esotericism’ is always and
everywhere the same. An example of an essentialist approach is Gilles Quispel, for
whom gnosis (his preferred term) is ‘a basic structure of religious apperception [more or
less the Jungian individuation process] . . . a human religious possibility among other
ones, which emerges ever again from time to time’ (Quispel 1972, p. 39). In Quispel’s
usage, neither the ancient gnosticism of Alexandria nor its later heirs in the West nor
indeed any later historical movements or individuals who appeal to ‘gnosis’ in a wide
sense fully exhaust the essence of gnosis (see Hanegraaff 1998, pp. 20–1). An essentialist
criteriology is also characteristic of Perennialists such as Schuon (1953) and Seyyed
Hossein Nasr (1986), who seek to rediscover the ‘transcendent unity of religions’. In this
usage ‘esotericism’ becomes a metaphysical concept applied to the comparative study of
religions rather than a specific historical current.3 Faivre is adamant that in order to
establish the study of esotericism on solid academic bases, the perennialist approach must
be rejected (see Faivre 2000, p. xxvii).
Essentialist criteriologies are universalist, but not all universalist criteriologies are
essentialist. Faivre nevertheless rejects non-essentialist universalist criteriologies of
esotericism. His example is Pierre A. Riffard’s identification of esotericism as an
‘anthropological structure’. This means that ‘it is fundamental to being, one finds it in
all societies, in all periods, on various levels, more or less hidden, but always there’
(Riffard 1990, p. 135). Riffard identifies eight ‘invariables’ that characterise this
anthropological structure wherever and whenever it manifests itself: authorial impersonality,
opposition between the profane and the initiated, correspondences, the subtle,
numbers, occult sciences, occult arts, and initiation. Faivre’s objection is twofold. First,
he rejects the concept of an esotericism sui generis. Each of the component elements of
the form of thought that it has been agreed to call esoteric presents itself only as a
theoretical generalisation starting from empirical data (concrete historical ideas). Second,
Riffard’s model aspires to be far too global. Using his model, the field of esotericism
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would once more escape being made coherent, approachable and manageable (see
Faivre 2000, pp. xxv, xxviii).
Doctrinal criteriologies start from sectarian presuppositions bearing on what esotericism
‘should’ be (see for example, Vernette 1993). Such criteria reproduce the various
ways in which esotericists have themselves attempted to codify it, and are usually
invoked for the purpose of placing their own sectarian programmes above those of
others. Faivre rejects definitions of esotericism that reproduce the self-definitions of
esotericists as inadequate for scholarly research and further notes that a doctrinal
criteriology produces almost as many doctrines as there are currents or even authors (see
Faivre 2000, p. xxviii).
A thematic criteriology, which defines esotericism on the basis of favoured themes—
androgyny, sophiology, the World Soul, and so on—cannot account for the nature of
esotericism because, Faivre argues, while esotericism as he understands it has indeed
favoured these themes, none of them belongs to it exclusively. As elements of
mythologies, it is to the mythic in general that they refer. Faivre concedes that the
concept of the ‘anthropological structures of the Imaginary’ (as understood in Durand
1960) offers a criteriology of interest to scholars of esoteric currents but cautions that
these structures refer to archetypes rather than to mental attitudes more directly
connected with historical conditions (see Faivre 2000, p. xxviii).
Having disposed of essentialist, universalist, thematic and doctrinal criteriologies,
Faivre advocates an empirical, historical criterion of esotericism as the most conducive
to a scholarly approach to its study:
Methodologically, it appears far more fruitful to begin with the empirical observation
that esotericism is a Western concept, and that this concept derives from an ensemble
of varied and sometimes problematic materials which are sufficiently challenging when
studied within that context. It is a matter of studying the genesis and the various
transformations of these modern Western esoteric currents in a diachronic way which
highlights the differences and disruptive factors within specific currents, as well as the
affinity or antipathy evinced by these currents in their relationship to one another or
in their relationship with other forms of thought. Thus, it is a matter of emphasising
these things, rather than of demonstrating a ‘continuity’ of what would be an
overarching esotericism per se, above all traditions. (Faivre and Voss 1995, pp. 63–4;
see also Faivre 2000, p. xix)
Faivre then turns to the task of defending the empirical, historical approach to the study
of esotericism against ‘religionist’ and ‘reductionist’ approaches. He proceeds by
endorsing Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s argument that empirical research must be based on
methodological agnosticism with regard to religious and philosophical ‘first principles’,
and must fully recognise the historicity of religious phenomena. This argument (see
Hanegraaff 1995, pp. 101–2) is a specific application to the study of esotericism of
methodological proposals put forward for the study of religion in general by Jan Platvoet
(1990). Platvoet distinguishes empirical research from ‘religionist’ and ‘positivistreductionist’
pursuits. Believers view religion from the perspective of a ‘multiple tier
cosmology’: an empirically perceptible realm and one or more meta-empirical,
non-perceptible realms (Platvoet 1990, p. 184). Scholars who study religion are
dependent on believers expressing their awareness of a meta-empirical reality in
empirically perceptible ways (words, images, behaviour, etc.). As scholars, they do not
themselves have direct access to the meta-empirical: ‘They can find ‘‘religion’’ only in
the historical religions of humankind, and can analyse those religions only as events in
its history, and as institutions of human societies by which definite personal and societal
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needs, religious as well as non-religious, are met’ (Platvoet 1990, p. 185). Because
scholars can thus neither verify nor falsify the existence of a meta-empirical reality, or
any claims made about it, methodological agnosticism is the only proper attitude.
Empirical researchers, Platvoet continues, do not limit themselves to the empirical
because they wish to claim that it is the only reality (privately they may believe the
opposite) but because it is the only one accessible to them for investigation. They hold
to their ‘one tier cosmology’ non-axiomatically, while positivist-reductionists hold to it
axiomatically, that is, as an ideology, and religionists hold axiomatically to a multiple tier
cosmology. Empirical research cannot accept any axiomatic beliefs about the ultimate
nature of reality (see Platvoet 1990, pp. 186–7).
Faivre affirms that scholars can approach the meta-empirical realm of the believer only
through its historically available expressions, and with the help of methodological tools
and conceptual models. The empirical method therefore rejects metaphysical premises
of religionists and draws on methods of interpretation that are not intrinsically those of
the esotericists themselves but which are historical, sociological and psychological. The
empirical method, Faivre adds, corresponds to the attitude of laicity (laïcité) in the
technical French institutional sense, which characterises the spirit in which one studies
religious sciences in the public institutions created for this purpose (see Faivre 2000,
p. xxvii). Faivre here distances himself from Riffard’s methodology, just as he had
previously rejected Riffard’s universalist criteriology. (Religionism and a universalist or
essentialist criteriology are often found together.) Riffard identifies two methods for
gaining knowledge of esotericism: the external method of the scholars, which considers
esotericism as a fact to be studied by means of critical-historical, comparative,
phenomenological, structuralist and anthropological approaches, and the internal
method of the esotericists themselves, which reveals itself as the adept’s reflection on
esotericism itself, a form of self-analysis (see Riffard 1998, p. 63). Riffard concludes that,
while the external method is indispensable for authorial identification, dating, establishment
of texts and restoration of works, and understanding of the cultural milieu, the
internal method remains indispensable for all that is related to meaning rather than to
facts. In short, the external method deals with what is circumstantial; the esoteric
method expresses what is fundamental (see Riffard 1998, pp. 73–4).
While the ‘methodological agnosticism’ of the empirical method rules out religionist
approaches, it also illegimates reductionist approaches. Faivre cautions that scholars do
not limit themselves to the empirically perceptible because it is the only reality but
because it is sole realm to which scholarship has access. Reductionist approaches, no less
than religionist ones, ‘have shown a characteristic tendency to impose ‘‘immutable’’
laws and principles on their material, and this often at the expense of historical
contingency (feared by both because of the relativist implications of this contingency)’
(2000, p. xxvii). Faivre does not cite examples of reductionist approaches to esotericism
(but see Hanegraaff’s analysis [1998, pp. 28–42] of the ‘anti-esotericisms’ of Vogelin
1952, Truzzi 1974 and Raschke 1980).
We may summarise Faivre’s approach to the study of esotericism as: an empirical
method brought to bear on an object of study defined by family resemblance based on
an underlying form of thought. Critiques may address the definition; form of thought;
or empirical, historical approach.
Faivre’s six characteristics are conceptualised as an inductive generalisation from detailed
historical research into specific movements and persons rather than as a deduction from
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a pre-conceived idea of an essential esotericism. Such a procedure, while it may be
regarded as making explicit a certain measure of coherence that had already been
implicitly assumed by the researcher (see Hanegraaff 1998, p. 44), yields an ‘operational
definition’ of esotericism: ‘An operational definition is developed for the purpose of
delineating the object of study in its historical particularity. No universal validity and
applicability is claimed for it. . . . It is also a heuristic definition. It is proposed because
it is believed it will be an instrument for fruitful research’ (Platvoet 1990, p. 182). Such
a definition is always subject to testing and criticism from other scholars. One possible
outcome of further research might be to add one or more additional characteristics.
Actually, it seems to me that Faivre himself comes very close to enshrining a seventh
characteristic. He often alludes, albeit always in relation to the theosophical current, to
the centrality in esotericism of the myths of creation, fall, redemption (for example, see
Faivre 2000, p. 141). Further, Faivre uses this myth as a criterion for adjudicating
marginal cases. He argues that one essential trait distinguishes Swedenborg from
theosophy proper: ‘with him the mythical is almost entirely devoid of dramatic
elements: the fall, the reintegration, the idea of transmutation, new birth, or the fixation
of the spirit in a body of light is almost absent from his visionary conception’. And again,
‘While reading Swedenborg, one has the impression that one is meandering through a
garden rather than participating in a tragedy’ (Faivre 2000, p. 23). Faivre similarly notes,
in relation to Henry Corbin’s ‘comparative theosophy’, based on Corbin’s theory of the
mundus imaginalis, that Islamic theosophy is permeated by dramatic scenarios to a lesser
extent than Western theosophy (see Faivre 2000, p. 30). One would like this emphasis
on the drama of fall and redemption to receive explicit methodological recognition.
Another possible outcome is that scholars who more or less accept Faivre’s six
characteristics may use them to enlarge the domain of esotericism beyond the limits
(modern, Western) he has established. The six characteristics in this case become a
heuristic tool used in order to discover ‘esotericism’ in contexts outside the original
scope of specific historical developments in Western culture. Hanegraaff, for example,
notes that, in light of the syncretisation of elements from the Jewish, Christian and
Islamic traditions during the Renaissance period, a more general definition of ‘esotericism’
applicable to the three great Western scriptural traditions is called for. Despite
Faivre’s explicit refutation of the attempt to establish a universal esotericism, a heuristic
use of his characteristics may reduce Faivre’s original delimitation of the field to a
specific, historically and culturally demarcated sub-domain within a wider field (see
Hanegraaff 1998, pp. 46–7).
Faivre’s characteristics serve to demarcate a distinctive ‘form of thought’. The result
is a study of esotericism that focuses on the historical emergence and subsequent
development of a historically specific mode of thinking. On the one hand the heuristic
expansion that identifies ‘esoteric’ traditions within the Jewish-Christian-Islamic
domain as a whole is compatible with conceiving of esotericism as a form of thought.
One would then explain the coherence of the domain by genetic diffusion based on
inter-religious contact over a long period of time. On the other hand one might explore
the option of relatively independent invention, based on the logic(s) of monotheism
and scripturalism. It is possible that the normative absoluteness of monotheism and
scripturalism sooner or later lead—in certain individuals or groups, under specific
conditions—to the emergence of structurally similar speculations (see Hanegraaff 1995,
p. 124). Esotericism in this approach is less a ‘form of thought’ than a ‘good move’ in
the ‘design space’ (Dennett 1995, p. 306) of the scriptural religions. In this context,
moreover, it is not clear that the term ‘esotericism’ should have preference over such
Antoine Faivre 443
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rival candidates as ‘gnosis’ and ‘mysticism’; it may be that esotericism, gnosticism and
mysticism refer to manifestations of one great and complex domain (see Hanegraaff
1995, p. 122; 1998, p. 52; see also the ‘Defining Gnosis’ chapter in Merkur 1993,
pp. 111–6). Faivre has briefly responded to this challenge: ‘Actually, it is not evident that
all such ‘‘gnostic’’ currents in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam . . . belong to the form of
thought’ (Faivre 1998, p. 3). This defence appears circular: since esotericism is defined
as a form of thought, nothing outside that form of thought can be esotericism.
An example of an approach to esotericism that attempts to construe a general theory
of esotericism in the three great scriptural traditions is offered by Joseph Dan, Gershom
Scholem Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dan’s
‘contingental’ methodology (discussed in Hanegraaff 1998, pp. 53–4) is empirical.
There is no such thing as esotericism ‘in itself, but only esotericists, who must be studied
in their specific contexts with historical and philological approaches (see Dan 1993,
pp. 58, 89). Rather than a form of thought, Dan defines ‘esotericism’ with reference to
the status accorded language:
The language of the esoterics differs from that of theologians—and that of many
mystics—in its delegating of the semantic level of language to a secondary place,
and emphasising the non-semantic aspects of language. . . . The esoteric expert is a
‘reader’: he can read series of signs that other people cannot, be it in an exotic alphabet,
a system of astrological or alchemical signs, or any other physical system which acquires
semiotic signification. (Dan 1998, p. 129)
Accordingly, the study of esotericism, in Dan’s construal, focuses on all those groups and
individuals, forming a coherent tradition of commentary, who interpret both scripture
and one another’s interpretations in symbolic fashion because they assume that ultimate
truth transcends discursive, literal language.
How well do Faivre’s own works meet the criterion of the empirical, historical
method? There are two aspects to this question. The first concerns a point raised by
Hanegraaff in relation to Occultism: ‘A diachronic study of esotericism would have to
consider any of its historical manifestations not in terms of continuation but in terms of
reinterpretation. As any interpretation necessarily presupposes a context, a detailed analysis
of that context—in all its dimensions: intellectual, religious, social, political, etc.—is
essential’ (Hanegraaff 1995, p. 121). Faivre’s studies rarely provide detailed investigation
of the contextual factors contributing to the emergence and development of his form of
thought. The relative neglect is in part attributable to Faivre’s concern to emphasise the
study of esotericism as a history of ideas in order to defend the independence of the field
from the ‘appropriative claims’ (Faivre 2000, p. xx) of anthropology and sociology.
Nevertheless, the history of ideas must be anchored in broader history. One must ask
under what social and economic conditions Europeans have opted for esotericism.
A second aspect of the question concerns the presence of religionist language in
Faivre’s own work. One of the blurbs (unattributed) on the back cover of The Golden
Fleece and Alchemy announces that ‘This book will be welcomed by modern practitioners
of alchemy and the occult as well as by scholars of esotericism’. The blurbs
accompanying The Eternal Hermes similarly position the book as appealing to both
spiritual seekers and scholars. An author ought not be held responsible for promotional
materials, yet inasmuch as The Golden Fleece and Alchemy and The Eternal Hermes are
clearly being marketed to insiders and religionists as much as to scholars, we may
legitimately inquire into the extent that the works themselves align Faivre with the
religionism of the marketers. The Golden Fleece and Alchemy traces the presence of the
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elements of the myth of the Golden Fleece in the alchemical tradition from the
Byzantines to the Rosicrucians and from the Age of Enlightenment to contemporary
hermeneutics. The Eternal Hermes is an anthology of historical studies on the distinct but
complementary figures of the god Hermes-Mercurius and Hermes Trismegistus. Both
books are historical studies. Faivre throughout encourages esoteric approaches to the
Golden Fleece and Hermes as good things but does not practice them himself.
Religionist language, however, is to be found in many of Faivre’s articles republished
in the Access volumes, including ‘The Inner Church and The Heavenly Jerusalem—
Foundations of a Cosmic Anthropology According to Franz von Baader and Christian
Theosophy’ (Faivre 1994, pp. 135–46), ‘The Temple of Solomon in EighteenthCentury
Masonic Theosophy’ (Faivre 1994, pp. 147–62), and ‘Thoughts of God,
Images of Man (Figures, Mirrors, and Engendering in J. Boehme, F. C. Oetinger, and
F. von Baader)’ (Faivre 2000, pp. 137–52). These three articles, all based on lectures
delivered to gatherings of the Université de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem, are examples of
Faivre speaking to esotericists and appearing to share their project: ‘For the second time
we are assembled under the emblem of the University of Saint John of Jerusalem, a
symbol that evokes the traditional Temple to which each of us devotes himself to
become the co-architect and laborer’ (Faivre 1994, p. 135). The Université de St Jean
de Jérusalem, also known as the Centre International de Recherche Spirituelle
Comparée, was established in 1974 by Henry Corbin. Faivre was one of thirty
university professors who collaborated on the founding of this ‘hermetic university’
openly dedicated to the reconstitution of Martinist Templarism (see Wasserstrom 1999,
p. 8). Membership in the Université de St Jean de Jérusalem overlapped considerably
with that of the Eranos group; and both fraternities practiced what Steven Wasserstrom
calls ‘an ‘‘illuminist’’ sense of scholarship as theosophy’ characterised by ‘a lasting
suspicion of mere academicism’ (Wasserstrom 1999, pp. 24–5).
The following lengthy example of religionist language is taken from yet another Access
article, ‘From the Divine Figure to the Concrete Figure, Or Transposition Through
Mirrors’ (Faivre 2000, pp. 153–67), written for a religionist audience in this case, the
Cahiers du Groupe d’études spirituelle comparées. The following statements are offered as
Faivre’s final comments on the texts discussed in the article:
The first comment has to do with an interpretation of certain miracles of the Virgin.
Bernadette and the other little girls having described their visions by means of images
corresponding to those that these children could have seen in their churches, there was
no lack of ‘clever’ minds to draw the conclusion that everything, from that point on,
was easily explainable and that any ‘miraculous’ hypothesis could be put aside. Now,
considering with even a little attention and an open mind the stories of the theophanic
visions spoken of earlier, one realises the poverty of this kind of approach. In what
form could the Virgin in fact be seen, assuming that she can be seen, if not through the
images that each one of us already has of her? And who indeed would recognise her
if she chose to show herself in the physical form that was ‘historically’ hers? Already
Ludwig Feuerbach considered religions as simple ‘projections’ of human concerns.
Certainly, no one today casts any doubt on the need to ‘situate’ every religious
tradition, and every theosophic image, in its social and historical context. . . . Thus one
can always understand them better by studying the economic circumstances (Marx),
emotional frustrations (Freud), and collective resentments (Nietzsche) associated with
their manifestation, and it is not a question of denying the validity of such research.
But, as the sociologist Peter Berger says: ‘The point is, quite simply, that this is not the
whole study’. One can always define an analytical parameter to ‘explain’ a traveler’s
tale, it nonetheless remains true that the country visited really exists. Similarly, the fact
that gods are symbols of human realities does not necessarily imply that they are no
Antoine Faivre 445
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more than that, and the fact that a theophany individualises each witness does not
imply by the same token that it lets itself be dissolved in the analysis of these
singularities. (Faivre 2000, pp. 161–2)
The final paragraph of the essay is even more engagé:
We do not accede to the world, natural and spiritual, and to beings, except through the
molds that structure our physical eye and our inner eye. But if our inner eye remains
passive, routine, lazy, then it runs the risk of ‘degenerating into a doctrinaire blindness’,
for example, in ideologies and reductive visions, totalitarian, or simply into a blurred
mirror reflecting no more than lifeless forms. It is perhaps not given to everyone to
partake of a theophanic vision. But between the Book of Nature, or an authentic work
of art, and the imaginal world, there is perhaps not so much a gap as discrete degrees
linking levels of reality. And while to most of us the imaginal world can appear too
remote or inaccessible, the few stories, thoughts, and testimonies here brought
together can at least serve as a horizon line that many orient us, spiritually or culturally,
toward a spirit of openness to these levels of reality that are, perhaps, awaiting our
seeing. (Faivre 2000, p. 163)
Faivre has said of Corbin that he ‘knew how to join scientific rigor to personal
engagement. . . . This combination allowed him to apprehend the specificity of his
subjects both from inside and the outside’ (Faivre 1994, p. 98). Earlier in the same essay,
he had cast a wider net:
The exegeses of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Mircea Eliade, Henry Corbin, and Seyyed
H. Nasr always start with the notion of philosophia–theosophia–perennis, and it is to this
that their hermeneutics always return. But not one of them neglects erudition, critical
apparatus, or the historical and philosophical tools that constitute a specific aspect of
modernity. With them, university scholarship comes to the aid, today indispensably, of
Tradition, which they approach both as savants and philosophers. (Faivre 1994, p. 44;
see also Faivre 1995a, pp. 67–8)
Faivre here appears to be celebrating what Wasserstrom has called, in reference to
Eliade, Corbin and Gershom Scholem, the ‘uncanny doubleness in their scholarship’: at
once study of religions and a quest for a post-institutionalised spirituality (Wasserstrom
1999, p. ix).

Moreover, Faivre explicitly links this duality to Eliade’s desideratum of a ‘new humanism’: ‘The risk that our age must take, if it wishes to see the birth of a new
humanism, consists of relearning the place of myth and mystery in our lives and in our
field of knowledge’ (Faivre 1995a, p. 65).

This sentence echoes a paragraph from Faivre’s entry on ‘Esotericism’ in the Encyclopedia of Religion:
Esoteric traditions can be especially valuable in suggesting ways of thinking beyond the
closed systems, abstract terms, and dehumanising ideologies that characterise so much
of modern life. They offer the immense depth of a traditional wisdom and hermeneutics,
which are becoming progressively more accessible thanks to the process of historical research and publication. Esotericism presents us with a form of nonreductive
thought that reveals the richness of the correspondences uniting God, man, and the
universe in the play of its reflecting mirrors. It potential value for a renewal of the
human sciences has yet to be realised. (Faivre 1986, p. 159)
Here we have an analogue of the History of Religions process that Wasserstrom
identifies as the ‘use of myth to make meaning for universal history’ (Wasserstrom 1999,
p. 242). But there is a contradiction at the heart of this project:
That contradiction emanates from ‘theogonic process’, the fabulous imaginal dialectic
by which human history is seen theosophically as unfolding inside cosmic process. This
theosophy allowed the three Historians of Religion to write academic history while
retaining religious significance, which proved to be inspiring for many readers. But it
also—and here’s the rub—tended to eradicate social difference. To take up the
theogonic process, history as the unfolding of a great myth, to take this grandiosity on
its own terms, as they insisted, must also be to diminish the little differences seeming
so little when seen from such a height. But close analysis of context tells the historian
that differences are never humanly little. Myth, in short, belittles difference; it builds
on the drive, in fact, to close the gap of contradictions, to tell one story and not two.
(Wasserstrom 1999, pp. 242–3)
Does this same contradiction between academic history and religious signification
lurk at the heart of Faivre’s scholarship, with the dangerous scholarly and ethical
consequences to which Wasserstrom alerts us? Preliminary to offering an answer, we
should note that while Faivre was a friend of Corbin and Eliade, he was always historical
(no ‘terror of history’ [Eliade 1954, p. 160]) and democratic (no elitism or flirtation with
fascism). Nevertheless, it may appear that Faivre, in shifting between religionist, or
esotericist, and empirical-historical approaches, resembles his own description of
Hermes as ‘plastic, mobile, and ambiguous’ (Faivre 1995a, p. 13). And yet, to leave
Hermetic ambiguity as the final word on Faivre’s scholarship would be to ignore a
crucial historical divide. The year 1993 marks a watershed in Faivre’s criticalmindedness
(Hanegraaff, private conversation, Amsterdam, March 2000). Before that
date, he did at times write as a religionist rather than a critical scholar and did not always
give sufficient weight to theoretical issues. After 1993 (the chronology is tricky in the
English editions because, though published after 1993, they include older material), and
under the influence of Hanegraaff’s critical approach, he embraced the empirical historical method and is more careful about definitional and theoretical issues.

4 Thecombination of rigorous historical, empirical research and a critical-mindedness that recognises the conceptual status of ‘esotericism’ as a scholarly construct is the
prerequisite for the acceptance of its study as a legitimate field of academic research, the
goal towards which Faivre has worked over the course of his distinguished and highly
readable studies.
1 While the word ‘occultism’ is sometimes used synonymously with ‘esotericism’, the term is increasingly reserved for the specific historical movement that began with Eliphas Lévi in the mid-nineteenth-century (see Faivre 1994, pp. 34–5).
2 A second chair, dedicated to the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents and occupied by Wouter J. Hanegraaff, was established in 1999 at the University of Amsterdam.
3 Hanegraaff notes that ‘ ‘‘esotericism’’ in a perennialist sense is not intended to be, and should not be misunderstood as, a proposal for construing an ‘‘esoteric tradition’’ in any accepted historical sense of that word. Instead, it is a proposal for interpreting, not esotericism, but the phenomenon of religion as such’ (Hanegraaff 1998, p. 27).
4 An institutional expression of Faivre’s transformation is provided by ARIES: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism. Formerly published by La Table d’Emeraude and Archè-Edidit, a New Series of ARIES has from January 2001 been published by Brill with a new editorial mandate (critical historical scholarship and interdisciplinary approaches, including the use of social-science methodologies within a historical framework) and team (Faivre, Hanegraaff and Roland Edighoffer).
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Dan, Joseph
‘In Quest of a Historical Definition of Mysticism’, Studies in Spirituality
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Dennett, Daniel
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon
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1986 ‘Esotericism’, in Eliade 1986, vol. 5, pp. 156–63.
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1998 ‘Questions of Terminology Proper to the Study of Esoteric Currents
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pp. 1–10.
1999 ‘Notions of Concealment and Secrecy in Modern Esoteric Currents since the
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Faivre, Antoine,
and Wouter
Hanegraaff (eds)
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ARTHUR MCCALLA is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and the Humanities
at Reed College. He is the author of A Romantic Historiosophy: The Philosophy of History
of Pierre-Simon Ballanche (Brill, 1998). His publications include articles in Numen,
Religion, Historical Reflections and Journal of the History of Ideas on the history of the study of religion and the religious thought of the Romantic period. He is Co-Chair of the
‘History, Method, and Theory in the Study of Religion’ Consultation of the American
Academy of Religion.
Department of Religion, Reed College, Portland, OR 97202, U.S.A.
E-mail: Arthur.McCalla@directory

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