The Western Tradition

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Goodrick-Clarke, author of The Occult Roots of Nazism is Professor of Western Esotericism at Exeter University and director of the Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism based there. This history of the esoteric traditions from their Hellenistic roots down to the contemporary New Age is explicitly aimed at being a textbook for students on such a course.

It is clearly comprehensive covering subjects such as Renaissance ritual magic, the role of Paracelsus, John Dee, Jacob Boehme and his circle, the Rosicrucians, high grade Masonry and Illuminism (no, not the illuminati folks), Swedenborg, mesmerism, spiritualism, Eliphas Levi and the rebirth of magic in the 19th century, the Golden Dawn, Blavatsky and theosophy, Jung and alchemy etc

That a university course and textbook could be produced on a topic which a generation ago would have been relegated to the fringes is testimony to the historical revisionism which began with Francis Yates. Fortunately this a textbook, the main text of which can also be read with ease by the lay reader. I would however advise general readers to skip or skim the introduction, which is perhaps the main genuflection to academia

This work clearly shows that these traditions were once part of the European intellectual mainstream, only to fall by the wayside. Despite the intelligent and sympathetic treatment here, I cannot really see how, even in an age looking for alternative spiritualties, in their traditional form, these traditions can ever get back to their former glory. They are just too rooted in the anthropocentric and geocentric pre-Copernican world view. Though their have been some adaptations, with for example, the secularisation of the angels and daemons into 'superior' extra-terrestrials (perhaps the only major lacunae in this book), and the adepts and hidden masters secularised into conspiracy theories, these seem very stopgap. Whether they could adapt further only time will tell, but anyone attempting this should learn from the mistakes of the past and not hitch their wagon to quantum mechanics (or particular interpretations of it) in the same way that nineteenth-century spiritualists and others hitched their wagon to the lumniferous ether. -- Martin Reid

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