The SHWEP aims to be accessible to the general public; we try to keep academic jargon to a minimum. But the world we are documenting is a world of scholarship – the academic study of western esotericism – and inevitably involves us in the use of highfalutin’ terms like a priori, heuristic, and hermeneutic. This glossary tries to define in an accessible way what we mean by these terms when we do use them. It also defines some terms which we have co-opted for our own purposes, because we saw a need for a special terminology for some reason – terms like utopia and otherworld.
We gratefully accept suggestions for new glossary terms.
- a priori
When you come to a philosophic conclusion based on earlier conclusions, or on what you take to be self-evident facts, this is an a priori (Latin ‘from the earlier’) conclusion.
This Greek term, best translated as ‘unsaying’, refers to the practice sometimes known as the via negativa or ‘negative theology’. If God or the first principle of reality transcends human thought and language, there is formally nothing we can say about it; apophatic philosophers thus confine themselves to making negative statements about this reality, e.g. ‘God is the un-ground of reality’ (Böhme); ‘the One is nothing’ (Plotinus). Things get really interesting when apophasis denies even the denials; we then have full-blown unsaying, often of the form ‘God is x; God is not x; God is neither x nor not-x, but something higher than either’, and so forth.
The SHWEP defines astrology in two ways, as a world-view and as a practice.
The astrological world-view is one which sees direct correspondence between stellar and earthly phenomena; this is broader than many specialists would like, and would include the ancient Babylonian omen-literature as an example of an astrological world-view.
Astrological practice is defined as the science or art of interpreting the mundane world in terms of events in the stellar regions, as well as actions determined specifically by such interpretations. This broad definition includes the making and interpreting of horoscopic charts and magical acts predicated on astral charts, correspondences, or influences, but also other activities predicated on astrological understanding (such as performing everyday acts at specific times based on astrological data). For the SHWEP, even if you act in a certain way because of something you read in the horoscope column, you are acting astrologically.
- B.C.E. and C.E.
The old dating terms B.C. and A.D. (standing for ‘before Christ’ and ‘Anno Domini’, ‘in the year of the Lord’, respectively) are widely familiar, but of course they presuppose a Christian worldview, wherein everything changed with the birth of Christ. The modern variants BCE and CE, ‘Before Common Era’ and ‘Common Era’ are an attempt to rectify this, while keeping the same familiar dating (so 10 BC = 10 BCE), and this podcast favours these terms. Really, we should all learn a more rational system of dating, but we won’t.
This key concept in Greek and subsequent western thought depends a lot on what kind of verb ‘to be’ your language has. The structure of the Greek verb εἰμι and its many cognates (notably οὐσία, ‘essence’) has been incredibly influential in this respect. There are two crucial uses of this verb which must be kept distinct, but often are not:
Predicative: this use of the verb ‘to be’ tells us that one concept partakes of another concept: ‘The table is oblong.’ Here, we are not told anything about the existence of the table, except that it is oblong; it could theoretically be an imaginary oblong table.
Existential: the existential use of ‘to be’ implies that something really exists. ‘There is a table.’ Here we have a real table.
See Orthodox Roman.
Doxography generally refers to a tradition of documenting the theories of earlier philosophers. Much of what we know of ancient philosophy and science comes from later, doxographic writers.
Emic and Etic are terms which have been coined in the study of cultures to indicate two different approaches; an ’emic’ approach attempts to get ‘inside’ a culture or way of thinking. Anthropological methodologies of ‘participant observation’ are powerful emic tools. Etic approaches on the other hand are more descriptive, taking a standpoint firmly outside the cultural formation being studied.
Epistemology is the philosophical jargon word for the study of thought/knowing/consciousness. Whenever a thinker gives a theory about how human beings know what they know or how thinking works, they are indulging in epistemology.
This term has many shades of meaning, and its exact parameters are hotly debated within the academic study of western esotericism. This podcast’s default definition is simply ‘meant only for the initiated’. Unpacking this a little bit, information is esoteric if, 1: it is presented as being accessible only to a select group, and 2: if it is presented as being wisdom of a higher order.
Exegesis is a fancy way of saying ‘interpretation’, but it is usually taken to refer to a specific type of interpretation, that of a canonical text. Kabbalists, for example, might use ‘esoteric scriptural exegesis’ to find hidden meanings in their holy books. But the term need not be confined to religious contexts: we might speak of ‘Plotinus’ exegesis of Plato’.
- Far West, the
- First- and Second-Order Terms
In the study of human cultures, scholars have to deal with
1. the way people identify themselves (first-order terms) and
2. the way the scholars wish to identify them (second-order terms).
Scholars studying the thought of Origen, the early church father, for example, may rightly describe him as a ‘Platonising Christian’, or even as a ‘Christian Platonist’: these are second-order terms which accurately reflect Origen’s obvious debt to Platonist thought alongside his obvious claims to Christianity. Origen himself, however, adamantly describes himself as simply a Christian. We must be vigilant to avoid bleed between the first- and second-order terms: scholarship abounds with second-order terms being applied retroactively to historical figures. We are right to examine Origen’s debts to Platonist thought, but we would be guilty of extreme anachronism if we berated him for being either a poor Platonist or ‘not a real Christian’ because of the Platonist content of his thought.
The Greek term hellenismos originally meant most basically ‘the ability to speak Greek’. However, the term later gains two important meanings for the history of western esotericism.
Firstly, from the Hellenistic period onward, and particularly under Rome, hellenism came to refer to a whole, complex set of educational and social practices: Greek language, but also a polished rhetorical style, knowledge of Greek literary classics, the practice of philosophy, and so on. This form of hellenism was a unifying elite educational culture within which the disparate strands of what would become western esotericism began to take shape.
Secondly, from around the third century CE, the term Hellenism comes to be used polemically by Christians to refer to traditional polytheist religions, or ‘paganism’. A struggle was waged for hundreds of years within early Christianity over what aspects of Greek culture could be adopted, subverted, or otherwise used within Christianity, and what must be rejected outright. Conversely, the Platonist intellectual opponents of Christianity argued not only for their philosophical positions, but for a larger ‘hellenismos’, imbued with the authority of the entire Greek legacy as developed through the Roman centuries.
The Hellenistic era is the period usually dated from the beginning of Alexander the Great’s campaigns of conquest; it is ‘Hellenistic’ because it saw a large-scale spread of Hellenic cultural tropes across a vast region of the world where there had previously been no Greeks, a.k.a. Hellenes. It is generally taken to end with the Roman conquests.
A fancy way of saying ‘interpretation’. Scholars generally use this term when they are trying to get at the idea of an interpretive framework: for example, if I say ‘Plotinus reads Plato with an esoteric hermeneutic’, I mean that Plotinus thinks Plato wrote with a hidden meaning, so that an interpretive practice of unearthing this meaning is the proper way to read him. ‘Hermeneutic’ actually has an etymological relationship to the ancient god Hermes, who was associated with thought and communication; hermeneuein in ancient Greek means ‘to interpret, translate’. So that’s another reason to use it.
The SHWEP uses this term to mean ‘having to do with the mystery-cults’. No implication whatsoever of ‘mysticism’ is intended.
- Negative Theology
- Neopythagoreanism, Philosophic
A tendency in post-Platonic authors to privilege number as a fundamental metaphysical reality. A One/Dyad metaphysics is often called ‘Pythagorean’ in ancient sources, but equally common is a more general preoccupation with the nature of number as ontologically important for the nature of the universe.
Nous is a Greek term which might best be translated as ‘mind’. The podcast prefers to leave it untranslated, because the term was seized upon by the ancient Platonists to indicate a kind of cognition radically different from everyday thinking, one which is true by definition, eternally valid, and which takes place outside of time and space.
One of the key Platonist and Platonistic (q.v.) ideas is that of a divine nous, which exists independently of any individual who might exercise the faculty of noêsis. Nous is thus, for many authors, both a sublime state of consciousness and a hypercosmic reality. You can see why no term of translation like ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’ is going to do it justice.
- Orthodox Roman
Although the city of Rome was sacked by Visigoths in 410 and the western Roman empire collapsed in the ensuing years, the eastern half of the Empire, commonly known as Byzantium, survived, with many ups and downs, until 1453, when the capital city of Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks. This is not the ‘decline and fall of the Roman empire’ you learned about in school. The importance of this Orthodox empire for the history of western esotericism has long been underestimated, a situation which current scholarship is rectifying.
An otherworld is defined by this podcast as an imagined or imaginal place which is presented as real, though different from normal reality. Examples of otherworlds might include the Græco-Roman underworld, Plato’s world of forms, the Christian Heaven, the Islamic ‘Alam al-Amr, or just the place where true dreams are thought to dwell. Otherworlds differ from utopias in that the authors of utopias are not constructing a place which is meant to be real, but a place which might be real if certain things were different.
This podcast uses the term ‘Platonic’ to refer specifically to the works of Plato himself (including some writings, such as some of the epistles and a few dialogues, which are now thought to be spurious). It will never be used as equivalent to ‘Platonist‘, and so we will never speak of a ‘Platonic tradition’.
An ancient philosophic thinker who treats Plato as a dogmatic philosopher and professes to follow his thought is a Platonist. There are, in addition to these core defining characteristics, a number of usual concomitants: belief in an immortal soul, in a hierarchical universe with the material world of the senses at the bottom of the chain of being, and an immaterial world of forms higher up the chain, and
the ability for human beings to know the different levels of reality with different, appropriate faculties of knowledge.
This is a term of our own invention, describing the pervasive influence of Platonic ideas on western culture at large in the non-philosophic sphere. The second century CE was a time of widespread Platonistic influence, and much of subsequent western thought bears the imprint of Platonistic ideas, which include the immaterial, immortal soul, the hierarchical universe, the divine nous, and the primacy of immaterial archetypes.
- Second-order Terms
See First- and Second-Order Terms
An imagined alternative social and/or political model which serves as a critique of really existing social and/or political circumstances.
- Via negativa
- West, the
The ‘western’ in ‘western esotericism’ is taken by this podcast to refer to the vast cultural sphere characterised by the Hellenic-Abrahamic synthesis. While this is a very broad category, it can usefully be contrasted with other great civilisational groupings, such as the Sanskritic area and the Chinese or Sinatic area. There are of course areas in the world where these civilizations have mingled, but it remains valid to speak of these large-scale civilisational areas in terms of the history of ideas, with due attention to the complexities of the cultures involved.
Ancient Greece before the rise of Hellenistic Judaism and Christianity is therefore not yet ‘western’ in the full sense, but becomes so in the Roman period. With the rise of Islam, the territory of the west expands greatly into the heartlands of Asia, and with the rise of colonialism it expands even further into the Americas, Australia, etc. Western Europe, defined as the rump of the predominantly Latin-speaking Roman empire and the territories which fell under its influence, is defined as ‘the far west’.