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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.
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.
- 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.
September 5, 2019
I have a question regarding Hanegraaff distinction of different attitudes to the ancient (pagan) theology in the Renaissance. He mainly discusses the ‘pristine’ and the ‘perennial’. The pristine is all about getting the lost knowledge, and so about finding the most ancient texts, the Adamic language etc. The perennialists say that this knowledge has never been lost. I see a lot that is similarly there, with the difference perhaps mostly a politically motivated conservative reaction.
Both agree that the ancients had the true religion. The radicals want to go back to it and revive it. But if you worked for the Vatican during the, well, “Renaissance”, then you would probably argue defensively that it is obvious that there is nothing to revive, that these new translations only confirm what the Church continues to teach.
But then Hanegraff mentioned briefly something that is very different: the progress model. He said (?) it was weak then, but stronger later. I think this was (or includes?) the idea of progressive revelation, with the revelations of the Christ as progressive over Jewish revelation and pagan natural theology. The ancient pagans did not have the Revealed truth and the Jews only had part of it. The implication is: start with the New Testament is a sure bet, go to the OT for a bit of background, but don’t bother with the pagans because they had no idea.
I can see this in the conservative side of the Revealed/Natural Theology debate of the 17th – 18th centuries.
But what about earlier? Luther’s hermenutics was surely an uber version, with his intense focus on narrowly defined Revelation. His determinism does not place him out there with the optimistic, humanistic, empiric, free will brand of progressivism of the Alchemists!
The revelatory brand of progressivism, I would have thought was rather mainstream throughout. The Jews tradition privileged knowledge by revelations directly from God progressively through Abraham, Moses and the later prophets. The Christians picked up on this approach, linking the new teaching to the old as fulfilled prophesises and then adding a new revelation from the Christ-man himself. As for dealing with Pagan influences/sympathies, Philo was formative in his way of dealing with Greek knowledge. He said that it is like Ismail from Hagar, that it is helpful in the absence of, and in preparation, for revelation, but that it should be rejected as soon as the Revelation (Isaac) arrives. Now, this type of argument was a popular middle road defensive strategy against Deism in the Early Enlightenment, but I thought it was picking up on a long tradition? Don’t these strategies date from the Early Church Fathers? I thought that this was the very issue in the debate over what made Christianity distinctive from Platonism/Stoicism and from Judaism. And then it was also in the scholastic debate around the use of Aristotle. In short: Hasn’t the “progressive view” always been at the heart of Christian exceptionalism?
September 5, 2019
Good question. I have forwarded it to Wouter; let’s see what he says!
September 9, 2019
My simple answer to your question in the final sentence would be: yes! The pagans prepared the revelation of Christianity as the True Religion. Ficino’s prisca theologia was extremely problematic from the RC point of view because it implied that the Church had lost the way somewhere along the road between antiquty and the 15th century, and had to get back to it. But the philosophia perennis is different from both, because it would imply not only that the Church preserves the Truth, but also that it was present and available even before Christ.
December 12, 2019
Oh wow, fabulous episode and especially fine ending: connecting western esotericism to transhumanism! The alchemical view, wherein we transform the world towards a dynamic future harmony – – contrasted with a platonic view that we can only restore a once perfect harmony.
Humblebrag: Nick Bostrom was my philosophy professor. He teaches statistical metaphysics – giving a convincing argument for the likelihood that we live in a computer simulation. This opens up all kinds of physical possibilities for theology, of course. Ethically, it only asks that we keep things *interesting* for the simulators – – lest they shut us off to save compute cycles. Shwep excels on that count. However, I admit some small concern that a scientific revelation of the perennial philosophy would have the potential to end the game. Well, just to be safe, we’d better stay esoteric.
May 27, 2020
It is absolutely certain that I need to expand my horizons out of the first century niche of study that I have been engaging with for a long time. Aside from the fascinating material in of itself, I need to be more fully cognizant of the lenses that were created and used to study my particular areas of interest. I simply wasn’t fully aware of these seminal influences until now. I will be listening to these two podcasts again, but I’ve said that for virtually every podcast I’ve listen to thus far. Great work…!
Travis Wade ZINN
August 29, 2020
I know that typically scholars do not engage in thought projects involving hypothetical futures, but I would be interested in there being podcast that would do this in terms of what it would have looked liked if the reformation and counter reformations turned out differently. In this episode the Hermetic Reformation in the fifteenth century came up, which might have turned out differently. Similarly, had Swedenborg and John Wesley met as planned, but instead there was an untimely death. Or if Jakob Böhme’s influence on the Anabaptist tradition been more significant, and this tradition had instead flourished, and so on. Might there have been colliding factors of the 17th century that could have produced a Christian reformation consistent with esoteric thinking and practice? What would something like that look like in the 21st century? Would it be possible to explore some of these topics? Thanks!
August 31, 2020
Or if the Münster Anabaptists hadn’t been betrayed by both the Catholics AND the Lutherans, and been allowed to found the New Jerusalem in peace. Or if the noble Diggers hadn’t been suppressed by their alleged brothers, the Puritans. Or if …. or if …….
February 22, 2022
A paper that goes into some of the points discussed in the first third of the episode related to Cornelius Agrippa and Lazzarellian Hermetism
February 23, 2022
How about doing an episode on the ERANOS movement?
February 23, 2022
There will be a massive 10-part-plus series on Eranos when we get to it.