The term Esotericism derives from the Classical Greek term esoterikós, which means "within" or "inwards". Its original meaning is "secret lore". In contemporary use, it is largely identical to the more modern New Age or New Occult. The term esotericism used to apply to rites and custom within closed societies which were hidden from outsiders and kept secret from them. Today it stands for a large number of very different doctrines and convictions which are based on assumptions, according to which a scientific, rational description of the world is impossible. Consequently, all esoteric doctrines share a common feature: They cannot be tested or falsified, but are represented with the claim of absoluteness. There is no commonly accepted single esoteric lore, and no such lore is desired by the esoteric scene.
Terms like Esotericism, New Age and Occultism embrace certain non-religious paths to insight and forms of action. They often emphasize the role of the individual, subjective and often out-of-the-ordinary experience, especially when it avoids rational communicability and intersubjective scrutiny. Esotericism embraces certain spiritual qualities of the individual which typically cannot be falsified scientifically. Nonetheless followers of esoteric beliefs occasionally claim scientific testability for certain aspects, leading to pseudo-scientific arguments. A conspicuous feature of Esotericism is the inconsiderate "borrowing" of words and concepts from other fields of knowledge, often that of natural sciences.
A uniting element of many esoteric tenets is the claim of offering ultimate answers to key questions of humanity. They assert to have knowledge of "higher powers", of past and future of humankind, and promise ascent to higher realms or higher forms of knowledge which are denied to the uninitiated. This restriction of knowledge to insiders is the exact opposite of an important principle in science: Any good idea is accessible to all humankind, and not just to a circle of a chosen few.
Part of the seductive power of Esotericism is initiated by narcissistic needs: Who wants to be a mere letter in the big book of evolution? A "nano-particle" in an inconceivable and infinite universe, if one can instead interpret one's own birth as having been inspired by cosmic fate and relevance. Worries about a fundamentally uncertain future call for a higher power which guides us. Another source of its appeal may be the complexity of the world which makes it hard to understand, and the fact that getting into the established sciences is tedious and complicated. Engagement in Esotericism can lead to the flattering impression of being able to understand and add meaning to everything.
The human soul is often portrayed as eternal, the fate of each individual as predetermined. Esoteric practices and lores focus the craving for the mysterious which allegedly is veiled behind the mundane material world. Communication with other people, and even "higher beings" or the deceased, is possible according to esoteric comprehension, requiring "channels" in addition to our five senses. Such phenomena present no logical problem to esoteric thinkers, since according to their understanding the known laws of nature are too restricted to explain the world.
All in all the esoteric scene shows a weak institutionalization.
Evidence-based scientific thinking as well as common religions are insufficient to explain the world in the eye of Esotericism. Esoteric lores have been seen as "substitute religions" or "secular substitute religions" in the past.
Subjectivisation of nature
The language of Esotericism
Esotericism uses its own lexicon. There are terms such as Cosmic Consciousness, change of paradigms, transformation or the Age of Aquarius. These terms, however, lack a clear definition. The avoidance of clear definitions can even be seen as a typical sign of Esotericism. Some of these words are borrowed from various fields of science and converted to new, ambiguous meanings. It is usually not defined what quantum, energy or vibration and frequencies mean in the esoteric sense. And if there is a definition or explanation, it is typically kept vague and diffuse, which often leads to esoteric points of view being accused of consisting of drivel.
The fuzzy vocabulary of Esotericism obstructs the understanding of esoteric context, but enables followers to immunize their doctrine from criticism and from "the outside" in general. They also welcome this because it creates a pleasant feeling of being understood by like-minded persons. It is often observed that consumers of esoteric products are rather uncritical in this context. Demanding explanations would disturb the pleasant feeling, because it exposes the inquirer as not belonging to the circle of those "in the know".
Today's flavor of Esotericism saw its first big wave at the end of the 19th century and then in the 1970s in particular. It has a big economic impact (see: esoteric market) and reaches far beyond the initial audience. Contrary to the past, today's Esotericism views everyone as a potential customer of esoteric products and services. Esoteric lore is no longer secret, but the air of a "higher" knowledge with which one can set oneself apart from the masses is still a big part of its appeal.
A huge number of esoteric authors, advisors and healers create billions in revenue every year in Germany alone. Millions of people look for esoteric solutions for everyday problems as well as severe crises, even though the effectiveness of the products and services offered is typically unknown at best. Providers themselves often do not know the details and history of their esoteric doctrines. It has become a product much like other consumer goods. The preference of followers changes accordingly. If a given practice fails or gets boring, it will simply be replaced by another.
Esotericism offers an individual way to separate oneself from the masses, to view oneself as a keeper of a "higher knowledge", while at the same time ridding oneself of personal responsibility. Followers can be taught in accordance with the lore, to view all events in the world as rightful and a given, including social inequity and racism. In this way, esoteric irrationality can work to protect and shield a system of oppression. Under the fuzzy reign of a holistic concept as understood by Esotericism, people can be robbed of their individual freedoms. They can be convinced to accept their situation, or that of other people, as cosmically predetermined and intended (see: Karma).
National Socialism and extremist right groups today
A special chapter is Esotericism in National Socialism and modern day "Brown Esotericism". Connections between Esotericism and the extreme right are indeed visible today, in Germany as well as in other countries. According to Barth, the esoteric movement has aided in making positions acceptable to a broad public which would not have been tolerated some ten years ago, in particular trivializing the crimes of German Fascism. It is not unusual in those groups to explain the holocaust as the inevitable result of Jewish karma.
Examples of esoteric lore
Typical examples of esoteric lore and ideology are astrology, neopagan interpretations of shamanism, theosophy and anthroposophy by Rudolf Steiner. Further examples of currently popular esoteric ideas are breatharianism (light fasting) and indigenous spirituality.
Esotericism in health care
Many products of alternative medicine are influenced by esotericism. A typical exponent of that scene is Rüdiger Dahlke who claims to practice "esoteric medicine". Esoteric axioms appear to be essential, in the absence of proof of effectiveness, to make a product more appealing, and separate and protect it from conventional therapies. The ambiguous and differing terminology of today's Esotericism apparently simply shrugs off rational critique of such medical practices.
The transition to alternative medicine which claims to be based on science is blurred: Esoteric elements can be found in the description of pseudo-medicinal methods like Energy medicine, Quantum medicine, Bioresonance and so on. This e.g. also applies to the avoidance of a well-defined terminology.
The market for esoterically influenced medicine often not only makes unsustainable promises about health, the methods frequently even present a potential danger for clients or patients: Critical thinking, necessary for survival, is in danger of being neglected. Competent help from actual experts can be missed or declined. A notion of anti-scientific bias is common. Prejudice and reservation are fostered by esoteric literature as well as websites and TV channels. A typical example for this is the esoterically influenced anti-vaccination attitude common among many esoteric doctrines, such as anthroposophy.
Versions of this article in other languages
- Deutsch: Esoterik
- Antoine Faivre / Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Hrsg.): Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion. Leuven 1998
- Wouter J. Hanegraaff: Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, Bd. 1, Leiden / Boston 2005
- Bochinger, Christoph (1994): 'New Age' und moderne Religion. Gütersloh
- Heelas, Paul (1996): The New Age Movement. Oxford.
- H. Uhlen: Vom ungläubigen Thomas lernen. Warum sich Wissenschaft und Religion nicht vertragen. K. Fischer, Aachen 2006, S.225
- Knoblauch, Hubert (1989), Das unsichtbare neue Zeitalter. "New Age", privatisierte Religion und kultische Milieus, in: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie
- Möth Ingo: (1989) New Age und Esoterik – Ersatzreligionen oder Protestbewegung? IWK-Reihe "New Age"
- Irmgard Oepen, Krista Federspiel, Amardeo Sarma: Lexikon der Parawissenschaften: Astrologie, Esoterik, Okkultismus, Paramedizin, Parapsychologie kritisch betrachtet. Lit-Verlag 1999, Seite 88. ISBN-10: 3825842770
- Claudia Barth, Über alles in der Welt - Esoterik und Leitkultur - eine Einführung in die Kritik irrationaler Welterklärungen. Alibri-Verlag, 2003, 206 Seiten, ISBN 3-932710-36-3