Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO)
Director: Professor Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
The Western esoteric tradition represents a distinct form of spirituality extending from Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism in the early Christian era up until the present. Diffused by Arab and Byzantine culture into medieval Europe , these esoteric currents experienced a marked revival through the Florentine neo-Platonists of the late fifteenth century. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, esoteric spirituality was carried by Renaissance magic, Christian Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, German Naturphilosophie, theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry until the modern occult revival in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which the Theosophy of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky played an important role. Alongside and within this Western tradition, Arabic and Jewish currents have played a major role since the Latin Middle Ages. Arabic astrology, alchemy and natural science entered the medieval West through southern Italy and Spain from the tenth century onwards. In the fifteenth-century Jewish kabbalists in Spain and Italy assisted the Christian assimilation of Kabbalah, which henceforth became a major strand of European esoteric spirituality and thought. Accounts of spiritual ascent, angelic hierarchies and religious experience evidence strong commonalities between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic esoteric traditions. The purpose of the Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO) is to foster advanced research into historical and comparative aspects of the esoteric traditions from the Hellenistic period in late antiquity through the Renaissance and early modern period to the present. Staff members in the departments of History (with interests in religion, culture, science and medicine), Sociology and Philosophy, Theology, Classics and Ancient History, and the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, collaborate in seminars, research and publications. Literary and philosophical traditions are also examined by colleagues in the Schools of English and Modern Languages (departments of French, German, Italian, Hispanic Studies, and Russian)...
The new MA in Western Esotericism at the University of Exeter represents the first major initiative in this subject at a UK university. The subject is already taught in Continental Europe at the University of Amsterdam and at the Sorbonne (École Pratique des Hautes Études, EPHE), whose Emeritus Professor in the History of Esoteric and Mystical Currents, Antoine Faivre, established its disciplinary scope and methodology from the early 1970s onwards. Exeter, Amsterdam , and the Sorbonne are presently the only universities offering postgraduate courses or doctoral supervision in Western Esotericism.
The scholarly field of Western Esotericism is ably summarised in Modern Esoteric Spirituality, eds. Antoine Faivre and Jacob Needleman (SCM: London, 1993) in the "Encyclopaedia of World Spirituality" series edited by Ewert Cousins. Typically heterodox, rejuvenating and innovative, Western esoteric spirituality combines interiority, imagination, and an extension into cosmological speculation.
The Western esoteric traditions reach back to Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and theurgy in the Hellenistic world during the first centuries AD. These early sources often reveal θεοσοφια (theosophia), wisdom or knowledge in things divine, attained through spiritual exercise, contemplation and ecstasy. The early Church Fathers regarded such theosophy and gnosis ambivalently, and their variable reception in the Western and Eastern churches during the early Middle Ages is now an expanding field of enquiry.
The introduction of Greek, Arab and Jewish traditions into the medieval Latin West paved the way for the rediscovery of ancient texts and led to the scholarly revival of magic, astrology, alchemy and Kabbalah in the Renaissance. After the Reformation, these Hermetic sciences gave rise to such movements as Theosophy, Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, with their proliferation of esoteric rites and symbolic systems in the eighteenth century. The modern revival of esotericism extends from Romantic Naturphilosophie to nineteenth-century occultism involving Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, spiritualism, the ancient wisdom-tradition, and ceremonial magic and para-masonic orders.
Today, Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy, C. G. Jung and his archetypal psychology, and Fourth Way movements are among the major currents of modern esotericism, an inspiration to contemporary thinkers and practitioners in the arts, education and medicine. Western esotericism has exerted a profound and increasingly acknowledged influence on religion and science, culture and literature, politics and society.