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Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism

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There are few scholars who can both speak about a field of study in terms of its subject-matter and reflect on the field itself. Wouter Hanegraaff is one of those few; in this interview we learn much of great interest about Renaissance esotericism and the Hermetic tradition, but also about the field of the study of western esotericism itself: where did it come from, where is it going, and why has it taken the forms it has taken?

The wide-ranging conversation covers topics a wide range of topics, including:

  • The significance and legacy of the work of Frances Yates for the study of western esotericism: what are the Yates Thesis and the Yates Paradigm, and is there anything that can be salvaged from them?
  • The fascinating and complicated publication history of Ficino’s edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, which led to centuries of confusion and obfuscation.
  • Ficino, Pico, and Bruno are seen by Yates as Hermetists par excellence; Hanegraaff argues that we should look instead to Ludovico Lazarelli, Ficino’s contemporary, and to Cornelius Agrippa, whose spiritual worldview drew on Lazarelli rather than Ficino.
  • Some history of the modern study of western esotericism, including reflections on the role played in the formation of modern academic study of western esotericism by diverse influences including the counter-cultural movements of the ‘Sixties, the work of Frances Yates and Antoine Faivre, the Eranos meetings, Traditionalism in the American Academy of Religion in the 1980’s, and more.

We move on to a discussion of Professor Hanegraaff’s book Esotericism and the Academy, and discuss:

  • Hanegraaff’s threefold typology of prisca theologia, philosophia perennis, and pia philosophia for understanding Renaissance esoteric ‘histories of truth’.
  • The curious story of the Hermetic preacher Giovanni Mercurio da Coreggio, who entered Rome dressed like Christ on Palm Sunday, proclaiming the Gospel of Poemandres.
  • The Rosicrucian manifestos, viewed in light of previous models of the history of truth, as a kind of progressive sacred history.
  • Hanegraaff’s concepts of the ‘alchemical’ and ‘Platonic’ paradigms, two distinct modes of thinking about the world in Reformation-era esotericism.
  • The thought of Jacob Böhme understood in terms of the ‘alchemical paradigm’.

The interview features a rich and complex improvised accompaniment courtesy of the Amsterdam Building Trades Ensemble.

Interview Bio:

Wouter J. Hanegraaff (1961) is Professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam. From 2005 to 2013 he was President of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE), and in 2006 he was elected member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Since the mid-1990s, Hanegraaff has been active at the forefront of the academic study of  History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents, also known as “Western Esotericism”.

Check out Wouter’s profile here, and his Creative Reading blog and Western Culture and Counter-culture project are both worth checking out.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

  • Campanelli, M., 2011. Mercurii Trismegisti Pimander sive de potestate et sapientia Dei (Opere di Marsilio Ficino, I; Ficinus novus, I). Aragno, Torino.
  • Ficino, M., 1576. Opera omnia, Basel.
  • Hanegraaff, W., 2012. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge and Western Culture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Newman, W. R., 2005. Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Yates, F. A., 2014. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Routledge, London.

Recommended Reading:

  • Faivre, A., Christine Rhone, trans., 2010. Western Esotericism: A Concise History. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
  • Hakl, H. T., 2001. Der verborgene Geist von Eranos – Unbekannte Begegnungen von Wissenschaft und Esoterik – Eine alternative Geistesgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Scientia Nova-Verlag, Bretten.
  • Hanegraaff, W. J. and Bouthoorn, R. M., 2005. Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500): The Hermetic Writings and Related Documents. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe, AZ.
  • Wasserstrom, S. M., 1999. Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.