Since Davis is, as you know, the site of one of the most
prestigious enology programs in the U.S., the following
analogy suggests itself to me. Suppose that at some point
in time the study of wine writing becomes a matter of academic
interest. A large and flourishing specialty begins to arise
that discusses writing about the subject from the days of
Petronius to the latest issue of Wine Spectator. But there
is one extremely peculiar feature of this field of inquiry.
None of those who study this literature are allowed to taste
wine. If anyone happens to have done so, he is immediately
suspect because he is no longer an impartial scholar, but
a participant with some vested interest in the discussion.
Indeed the stricture goes still further: it is not permitted
in this discipline even to admit that you believe in the
existence of wine. It is a matter of strict policy to maintain
a rigorous agnosticism about whether there is such a thing
as wine or not. Not only the taste and smell of this elusive
commodity, but even the question of its very existence,
are to be kept at a remote distance. To do otherwise would,
according to the arbiters of scholarly wisdom in this field,
cast serious doubts upon one's intellectual integrity. There
are in fact a few among these scholars who have tasted wine,
but it would be lethal to their careers to admit that they
have done so.
It must have dawned upon most or all of you by this point
this analogy has a double significance, because wine is
a longstanding metaphor for the spirit in a number of esoteric
traditions. And it must also have dawned upon you that what
I am drawing here is a caricature of the current state of
academic inquiry into esotericism. Or is it a caricature?
From a personal point of view, I must say that I regard
the interest shown by academe in the Western esoteric traditions
with more than a little bit of ambivalence. To begin with,
this is because the professors - if you will permit me to
say such a thing in this august company - often seem to
resemble Rappaccini's daughter in Hawthorne's story. As
you may remember, Rappaccini is an eccentric Italian doctor
who raises his daughter to have no contact with the outside
world. Through some artifice, he's even managed to raise
her so that she is immune to poison, but her own touch is
poisonous. So has the touch of academic inquiry proved more
In this regard I'm thinking of two disciplines that are
fairly close to the field that is the subject of this conference:
philosophy and theology. There was a time when both these
disciplines sat at the pinnacle of intellectual effort.
Theology, you may remember, was once known as "queen
of the sciences." (In researching this article, I ran
a Google search for the phrase "queen of the sciences":
most of the results gave this honor now to mathematics.)
And a contemporary reader who goes back to Plato and Aristotle
and other ancient texts and discovers the reverence they
felt for philosophy is apt to be somewhat puzzled. Philosophy
giving actual guidance for life? Philosophy being the summit
of intellectual inquiry? It has not held that position for
What happened to these disciplines? To answer this question
would take us far afield. Some contend that philosophy,
like a good mother, gave birth to any number of other disciplines
- remember science 200 years ago was known as "natural
philosophy" - and, as it were, exhausted herself in
so doing. But the answer may be simpler than that. All human
activity, it seems, begins as play and ends as  work.
Philosophy was at its most vital when it was the province
of a bunch of Greeks wasting time in the marketplace; now
with its chairs and associations and official journals,
it looks rather moribund.
Theology, on the other hand, began to diminish when it
became not only intellectually respectable to doubt the
existence of God but intellectual disreputable to believe
in him - a process that probably began with the Enlightenment
but certainly has reached its culmination today. Scientistic
thinkers - and by this I mean not scientists but those who
hold up science as a kind of pseudoreligion - often make
pronouncements about religious experience that are as ignorant
and ill-informed as those of creationists are about biology.
But the creationists are laughing-stocks while the advocates
of scientistic materialism command the awe of mainstream
I could go on more about philosophy and theology, but my
point here is really that I would personally prefer to see
Western esotericism escape the fate of these two disciplines.
That it has done so up to this point has largely been due
to the ironic favor of contempt. By ignoring and dismissing
esotericism, by excluding it from academic inquiry until
extremely recently, the professors enabled the esoteric
traditions to stay alive. They were pursued and studied
only by those who felt them to be of personal and vital
significance. I wonder if these traditions will be able
to survive now that they have become, at least to some minor
degree, intellectually respectable.
What, then, is the danger? At this point I need to bring
up the distinction between what are called the etic
and emic approaches to the study of religion.(1)
The emic has to do with "the believer's point
of view." Any study of a religion must at least take
into account how it seems to those who practice it, rather
than, say, denouncing it as devil-worship or primitive savagery
or cultism or whatever you like.
The etic, by contrast, is the familiar scholarly
approach. It is neutral, impartial, and at least to the
degree possible in such areas, quasi-scientific. Wouter
Hanegraaff, in his metholodological discussion in his New
Age Religion and Western Culture, says, "The final
results of scholarly research should be expressed in etic
language, and formulated in such a way as to permit criticism
and falsification both by reference to the emic material
and as regards their coherence and consistency in the context
of the general etic discourse." (2)
It is this "general etic discourse" that poses
the problem. The general etic discourse, like it or not,
presupposes scientific materialism and religious agnosticism.
To espouse any other point of view can be, from a professional
point of view, dangerous and possibly lethal.
Naturally, there is some need for falsifiability in academic
discourse. A cult leader says that the Space Brothers will
arrive June 6, 2006. When this does not happen, it leaves
the leader open to some amount of criticism. If he is a
prophet, his prophecy has failed, quite apart from how believers
may justify this failure to themselves. This aspect of academic
inquiry is, I trust, reasonably uncontroversial.
But what happens when one approaches esotericism? The very
word comes from Greek roots meaning "further in,"
and I would suggest that one dimension of the meaning of
this term has to do with the need to go within oneself,
through meditation or contemplation, to verify or refute
these ideas. But this is precisely what the etic approach
has put off-limits. Moreover, what are we to do with secret
societies and oral traditions, for which the evidence may
be - is likely to be - lacking?
Let me take a reasonably simple example. In an article
on eighteenth-century Masonry, René Guénon
comes up against the issue of whether there were in fact
"Unknown Superiors" - whether in incarnate or
disincarnate form. Guénon, of course, not being a
conventional scholar, has no qualms about stating his own
opinion: "All of this will no doubt seem fabulous to
certain anti-Masons, those historians  scrupulously faithful
to the 'positivist method' for whom the existence of Unknown
Superiors is only a 'false Masonic claim'; but we have our
reasons for not subscribing to this too...definitive judgment,
and we are not aware of having put forth here anything that
is not rigorously exact; those who wish are free to refer
to written documents alone and thereby guard all their 'negative
What's the scholar to do? The existence of the Unknown
Superiors might be a matter even of conventional historical
interest; but as Guénon implies, there is none of
the documentation that the historian relies on. And particularly
if we are dealing with societies and individuals that were
doing their best to keep their existence secret, the absence
of evidence hardly constitutes evidence for the falsity
of these claims.
Certainly the conventional scholar cannot, by the rules
of his discipline, rely on hearsay or indirect evidence.
There is probably no dealing with this issue from a purely
conventional point of view. But to return to the perspective
of the practicing esotericist, the scholar's doubts should
not have the final say in all cases.
To take another example: there is a famous story in the
Talmud that speaks of four rabbis who made the ascent into
Paradise. One died, one went mad, one became a heretic.
Only one, the great sage Rabbi Akiva, "departed unhurt."
In advance he had warned the others, "When you arrive
at the slabs of pure transparent marble, do not say: Water,
Water! For it is said, 'He that speaketh falsehood shall
not be established before Mine eyes' (Ps. 101:7)."
What does this mean? Obviously this has to do with visionary
experience, and please notice that this is verifiable
visionary experience. That is to say, far from being subjective
or imaginary, it is treated as real: one does certain practices
and achieves certain predictable results, just as if one
stays on the road to San Francisco, one will reach San Francisco.
But what's a conventional scholar to do with this? It would
certainly not be difficult to go on and on about the story
in the context of early hekhalot or merkavah mysticism,
but what does the experience mean?
The scholar who wants to go past the mere letter has two
choices. He or she can attempt this experience for himself
or herself. This is not easy to do, if only because the
actual practices of mystics in the time of Akiva are not
well understood. Another, more feasible, approach might
be to seek out a practicing Kabbalist for some illumination,
but by and large the scholarship of esotericism has avoided
this solution also, as if it were the lovely but toxic daughter
of Rappaccini. Esoteric scholarship is, with some limited
exceptions, the study of dead material - of Kabbalists,
mystics, visionaries who have long gone to the grave. Their
living counterparts are frequently treated as if they did
Gershom Scholem, one of the first and greatest scholars
of esotericism, certainly seems to have suffered from this
difficulty. His treatment of the Kabbalah is wide-ranging
and comprehensive until we reach the modern era, where he
has to pretend that Kabbalah no longer exists, that it ceased
to be anything but the plaything of genteel occultists after,
say, the eighteenth century. Here is the comment of an old
Jerusalem rabbi on this kind of scholarship: "They
are accountants. That is, like accountants, they know where
the wealth is, its location and value. But it doesn't belong
to them. They cannot use it." (5)
For my part, I have to say that I have practically never
read anything by contemporary scholars of esotericism that
suggested they knew what they were talking about from an
experiential point of view. There are certainly exceptions,
but remarkably few. I'm not, by the way, willing to draw
the obvious conclusion from this: that there are no practitioners
of the esoteric traditions among those with scholarly interests.
In fact I suspect that there are a great many. But they
frequently seem to feel the need to disguise  their involvement.
(Scholem, as a matter of fact, published an early text on
the Kabbalah from a personal perspective, but later regretted
the decision and bought up all the copies.)(6) We go back
to the strange little fable with which I began this talk:
they're scholars of wine writing who can't admit that they've
actually tasted wine.
One of the most nakedly honest descriptions of this issue
comes in a book that's over fifteen years old: Tanya Luhrmann's
Persuasions of the Witch's Craft. In this, what is
for the most part a conventional anthropological study of
contemporary witches and magicians in Britain published
by a major university press, Luhrmann makes an interesting
revelation. At one point she felt the need for a more "emic"
approach, so she actually began to do the practices associated
with these traditions (which may be loosely described as
"Western ritual magic"). And, astonishingly, she
began to experience results. "I woke early one morning
to see six druids beckoning to me from the window. This
was not a dream, but a hypnopompic vision. I saw the druids
as clearly as I see my desk. And while the momentary vision
frightened me, it also pleased me deeply, because it taught
me experientially what I had learned intellectually: that
when people said that they 'saw' Christ, or the Goddess,
they were not necessarily speaking metaphorically."
Luhrmann goes on: "The only reason I continued to
think of myself as an anthropologist rather than as a witch,
was that I had a strong disincentive against asserting that
rituals had an effect upon the material world....I stood
to gain nothing by belief except power which I was told
that I could exercise unconsciously even if I made no explicit
acceptance, but I stood to lose credibility and career by
This is a striking revelation. Indeed the book displays
a strange tension throughout. Although Luhrmann concedes
that magic often does seem to work, she still finds herself
forced to explain why magicians believe in it when it doesn't
work? Would Harvard University Press have published her
book had she done otherwise? I don't think so.
All these considerations raise an interesting issue: to
what extent do we believe - or disbelieve - as a result
of external pressure? But that's a subject that's beyond
the scope of this paper.
I don't mean to single out Luhrmann for criticism here.
Indeed she is to be congratulated both for her willingness
to explore and for her honesty in describing her own thought
processes. They are extremely revealing. However unremunerative
the academic life may seem as a career, it's probably going
to be both more lucrative and more socially prestigious
to be an anthropologist than a witch. It is also interesting
to see, however, that Luhrmann reached a point where she
would have to choose between one path or the other. To study
esotericism academically, in whatever form, it would appear,
one cannot actually be an esotericist. But then I suppose
one can't be a Bushman in order to study Bushmen, and so
What methodological concerns am I raising here? Am I seriously
suggesting that one has to be a magical adept in order to
study esotericism? No. But it might be of use to have some
experience of the inner worlds that are the chief concern
of the field.
Indeed I don't have any real recommendations for the academic
side of the subject. Professors will continue to study things
as they will, and there is no reason to upset oneself about
it. Moreover, scholarship, even of the conventional kind,
can be extremely useful. It's valuable to know when so-and-so
was born, whom he studied with, what books he read and what
books he wrote. I have no quarrel with that aspect of the
 But, as I said earlier, I'm concerned about something
else. Academic study can be - to use a rather loaded word
- somewhat imperialistic in its approach. It has had a way,
witting or unwitting, of pushing itself forward as the only
legitimate approach to the study of a subject. And soon
the entire topic is reduced to a kind of Flatland, where
only one kind of knowing has any authority. This is certainly
not my concern alone, nor is it a new one. Here are some
words from the Indian scholar I.K. Taimni:
The perception of the deeper truths of life and the
inner significance even of the ordinary facts with which
we come in contact every day depends not upon reason or
the exercise of the lower mind but upon the higher spiritual
faculty which is called buddhi and which is vaguely referred
to as intuition. The intellect may know all the facts
but unless and until it is illuminated by buddhi it will
fail to see their deeper significance. That is why the
attitude of the philosophers who lecture every day on
the deepest problems of life does not differ appreciably
from the attitude of the man on the street. That is why
the scientists who daily scan the skies and look into
the farthest depths of this vast universe cannot see the
insignificance of our human life from the purely physical
point of view. That is why we find so many religious teachers
preaching Vedanta to their followers and living their
life as if this philosophy was a matter of pure academic
This funny word buddhi has resonances of its own.
We may think of this term as something distinctly Indian,
but I might suggest as an aside that it corresponds quite
closely to what the medieval philosophers called intellectus
and what the Hebrew Kabbalists called Binah or Understanding.
I might go even further out on a limb and suggest that Plato's
famed allegory of the cave is precisely about this contrast
between the lower mind and the mind illuminated by buddhi.
But that would take us too far afield.
In an ideal world - ideal at least from my point of view
- the holders of the chairs in all subjects at the great
universities of the world would be illumined by this buddhi.
If it were so, I suspect, many of our civilization's problems
that now seem so intractable might disappear, as if by magic.
But that seems ridiculously utopian. Rather it's my concern
- and it's the chief reason I've chosen to give this talk
- that this lower mind against which Taimni warns and which
seems so prevalent in academe does not, as it were, infect
esotericism. Those who practice it have generally done so
against considerable opposition - persecution in the old
days, mockery and contempt in the present - but they managed
to preserve it nonetheless. It now remains to be seen whether
they will withstand the current danger.
What would this kind of, as it were, colonization of esotericism
look like? Well, take for example Antoine Faivre's well-known
characterizations of the chief features of esotericism.
I won't go into them in great detail here, since I'm sure
they're familiar to all of you, but they basically include
doctrines of correspondence, living nature, imagination
as higher faculty, transmutation, concordance, and transmission.(9)
I think these characterizations are extremely useful as
heuristic tools, but I also think it would be dangerous
to see them as prescriptive tools. That is to say,
they're valuable in sketching out a general method of approach,
but it would be wrong, I think, to rule out some practicing
esotericist because he or she does not fit into these categories.
A number of the esoteric traditions I'm familiar with have
 these characteristics only to a faint degree. And as
Arthur Versluis pointed out in a recent paper, there are
other characteristics that can arguably be included: the
concept of gnosis, for example.(10)
I am not singling out any of the scholars I've mentioned
here for reproach. In fact, I'd say that they've seemed
exquisitely sensitive to these issues. But this may not
remain the case if the study of esotericism takes hold in
academe over generations to come. If this happens, I think
practicing esotericists will have to be very careful about
their attitude toward academic scholarship, and use it as
only one means of approaching the truths of these traditions.
They must also guard against a highly dangerous and also
highly contagious tendency - to view reality only
through the eyes of academic scholarship. To my mind, the
ultimate authorities on the esoteric traditions are and
must remain its practitioners. There will certainly be an
overlap between the scholar and the practitioner, as there
has always been. Nonetheless, it seems to me that if an
authority is to wear two hats, regardless of what he may
do in an academic context, it is that of the practitioner
that he should use in defining and reformulating these traditions
for current times. Wine writing, after all, is or should
ultimately be about wine.
(1) For this account I am relying on Wouter J. Hanegraaff,
New Age Religion and Western Culture (Albany: SUNY
Press, 1998), 6-7.
(3) René Guénon, "The Strict Observance
and the Unknown Superiors," in Guénon, Studies
in Freemasonry and the Compagnonnage, trans. Henry Fohr
et al. (Hillsdale, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis, 2004), 137.
(4) H.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitzky, Book of Legends/Sefer
Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash (New
York: Schocken, annotated edition, 1992), 235.
(5) Herbert Weiner, 9 1/2 Mystics (New York: Macmillan,
(7) T.M. Luhrmann, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft:
Ritual Magic in Contemporary England (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1989), 319-21.
(8) I.K. Taimni, Gayatri: The Daily Religious Practice
of the Hindus, reprint (Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing
House, 2003), 3-4.
(9) See, e.g., Antoine Faivre, "Introduction"
in Faivre and Jacob Needleman, eds., Modern Esoteric
Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1994).
(10) Arthur Versluis, "What Is Esoteric? Methods in
the Study of Western Esotericism," Esoterica
4, 2002: <http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeIV/Methods.htm>;
June 6, 2006.
"Academe and Esotericism: The Problem of Authority"
was a talk presented at the Association
for the Study of Esotericism, Davis, California, June
2006. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.
Educated at Harvard and Oxford universities, Richard Smoley
worked at a wide range of journalistic positions before
becoming editor of Gnosis, the award-winning journal
of the Western spiritual traditions, in 1990, a position
he held up to 1999. He is the coauthor (with Jay Kinney)
of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions,
and of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition
(Shambhala, 2002). He authored Forbidden Faith: The Secret
History of Gnosticism (San Francisco: Harper, 2006),
Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity
(San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008) and his latest book
The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the
Universe (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2009). Currently
Richard is editor of Quest; Journal of the Theosophical
Society in America. He is also editor of Quest Books,
a publisher of books on spirituality and esotericism, operated
by the Theosophical Society.
Web site: http://www.innerchristianity.com/works.htm
Footnotes in the original were changed into endnotes with
round brackets. Original pagination in square brackets.
Original format available in pdf.