Podcast episode

Episode 3: Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism

We generally aim for a twenty- to thirty-minute podcast, but sometimes it would be a crime to cut an interview short, and you just need to let the tape roll! Professor Wouter Hanegraaff discusses his personal academic journey following a chance discovery of an entire intellectual history of the western world which nobody seemed to know anything about: western esotericism. We then discuss the thesis of his recent book Esotericism and the Academy, and in the process explore the contours of the historical development of western esotericism from late antiquity down to modern times, and consider the formation of western esotercism as an object of historical study in now almost forgotten polemics of the Reformation period. Finally, Professor Hanegraaff gives a cogent and forceful argument that the study of western esotericism is not just interesting to specialists and nerds (although it is), but absolutely essential to creating a more accurate history of the development of western thought as a whole. Not to be missed!

More specific topics under discussion include: 

  • ‘Platonic orientalism’ and its appropriation by Christian church fathers,
  • some re-evaluation of Plethon, Ficino, and the Florentine Renaissance revival of Platonism, including a critique of Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum,
  • the significance of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s overweening ambitions, and of his new synthesis of the ‘ancient wisdom’ narrative to incorporate kabbala,
  • the characterisation of Plato by the counter-reformation as the origin of all heresies, and the adoption of this discourse by anti-apologetic Protestant writers,
  • the first identification of the currents of thought now known as western esotericism by anti-apologetic authors (who generally hated them and considered them perversions of the truth), and the evolution of this Protestant, religious conceptualisation through the Enlightenment into a discourse of stupidity and superstition, and then into a hidden, marginalised, secret history of ideas,
  • An in-depth look at the historiography of western esotericism generally, and at some of the dynamics of exclusion which have led to its suppression in grand narratives of western history-of-ideas.

This episode also features an improvised soundtrack in the tradition of John Cage, performed by some local builders with power-tools and Pillows the cat.

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

  • Baronius, Cardinal Caesar (1538-1607) wrote the Annales Ecclesiastici (Annales ecclesiastici a Christo nato ad annum 1198, published from 1588 to 1607) an attempt at a universal counter-reformation church history.
  • Brucker, Johann Jakob. Historia Critica Philosophiae (Leipzig: 4 vols., 1742–1744). A hugely-influential history of philosophy, the first of its kind for scope and ambition.
  • Faivre, Antoine. A complete bibliography of the works of Antoine Faivre (PDF)
  • Peuckert, Will-Erich, 1956. Pansophie. Ein Versuch zur Geschichte der weißen und schwarzen Magie. Erich Schmidt Verlag, Bielefeld. Hardly anything has been written about Will-Erich Peuckert’s work, but check out Hanegraaff’s article discussing Peuckert and his influence on Wouter’s scholarly career.
  • Magdeburg Centuries is the name given to an ambitious Protestant church-history, first published from 1559 to 1574, and divided into centuries, hence the nickname. Its seven authors were Lutheran divines centred on the city of Magdeburg, which explains the other part of the nickname.
  • Said, Edward W., 2003. Orientalism. Penguin, London.
  • Walbridge, J., 2001. The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
  • Webb, James, 1974. The Occult Underground. Open Court, Chicago, IL.
  • 1976. The Occult Establishment. Open Court, Chicago, IL.

Recommended Reading

Professor Hanegraaff has written widely on the field of western esotericism. His books have the elusive combination of academic rigorour and readability. Indeed, for a true history-of-ideas nerd, they are compulsive page-turners. Here is a selection of his book-length treatments:

  • His dissertation New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (Brill 1996/State University of New York Press 1998) was the first study that placed contemporary “esoteric” religion in the broader context of Hermetic and related currents since the Renaissance, and is considered a standard work in the field.
  • His monographic treatment and text edition Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500): The Hermetic Writings and Related Documents (Medieval & Renaissance Texts & studies 2005, with R.M. Bouthoorn) is the most comprehensive study of a seminal but previously neglected Italian poet and religious philosopher, whose Crater Hermetis is among the most profound products of Renaissance Hermetism.
  • His small monograph Swedenborg, Oetinger, Kant: Three Perspectives on the Secrets of Heaven (West Chester 2007) focuses on Emanuel Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia and its critical reception in Germany.
  • In his monograph Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge University Press 2012), Hanegraaff provides a history of how intellectuals and scholars since the fifteenth century have tried to come to terms with the religious, philosophical, and scientific traditions known by terms such as Hermeticism or Occult Philosophy.
  • Hanegraaff is editor of seven collective volumes, including the 1200-page Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (Brill 2005) and, most recently, a volume titled Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism (Brill 2008 / Fordham University Press 2011, with J.J.Kripal).
  • He recently published an introductory textbook Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury 2013).


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