Overview of Esoterica

Delving into esoteric literature can be an overwhelming experience that prematurely sets off bullshit detectors which short-circuit one’s awareness of their own cognitive biases.

Curious enthusiasts (like yours truly) stumbling through this paradoxical maze of arcane terms, odd blabbering’s, and fantastical explanations need some sort of guide.

Johnathon Black’s The Secret History of the World is just such a guide.

This comprehensive narrative weaves together disparate strands of esoteric philosophy into something that lay folk can grok.

Black detours down the alleyways of esoterica, walking through the streets of Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Swedenborg, Egypt and more, to let the reader admire their unique form and structure before merging back onto the main road they all use. 

The main road they use is composed of three parts:

  1. A Secret History
  2. A Mind-Before-Matter Universe
  3. Practical Techniques
Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

A Secret History

Why is this history a secret?

The wisdom and practices of the Mystery Schools were heavily guarded even in the heyday of their influence in the  ancient world. As Christianity became the ruling religion in the 3rd century CE the old temples started closing one after another.

Any secrets and practices held were deemed heretical in a (failed) effort to halt their spread. The wisdom embodied in these schools was passed down through historical time by way of secret societies.

The secrets they kept alive were basically ways to bring about “the material transformation of the body by spiritual practice.”

Mind-Before-Matter Universe

“According to the secret doctrine” Black writes, “the cosmos created the human brain in order to be able to think about itself.” This philosophy is essential to an esoteric understanding of humanity.

“While today we like to think of ourselves as each having one individual center of consciousness located inside the head, in the ancient world each person experienced him or herself as having several different centers of consciousness originating outside the head. (…) If today we naturally think of people thinking, in ancient times they thought of Thoughts peopling.”

Within this framework history can be reinterpreted in a way that views Moses’s “ban on images” as a way to help “create the conditions that would make abstract thought possible.”

Although the alleyways of esoterica can twist and turn and wind into small corners that seem forever cut off from the main road, they all share this tradition of having a Secret History and the belief in a Mind-Before-Matter universe.

And on the main road we find that “esoteric philosophy teaches its initiates how to achieve psychological transformation, using practical techniques to manipulate human physiology.”

The Alchemist In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone by Joseph Wright

The Great Work

The process of doing the practical techniques is often referred to as The Work or The Great Work.

Unfortunately the Secret History book is lacking in specific exercises culled from the various traditions, but Black does manage to drop in tantalizing tidbits and character profiles –like Bach’s Chaconne being composed by linking each note with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

This manipulation of the Hebrew alphabet shows up in The Work of Emanuel Swedenborg as well. He was known to sync his rhythmic breathing with his genital pulse while imagining naked bodies erotically transformed into the Hebrew letters.

“If the world is materialized thought, then, according to the Cabala, words and letters were the means by which this process happened. God created the world by manipulating and making patterns out of the Hebrew letters of the alphabet.”

The visionary poet William Blake, who was deeply influenced by Swedenborg, often drew the naked figures who accompanied his visionary poetry in the form of Hebrew letters.

“Abraham Abulafia” the last name of which was used to described the computer in Umberto Eco’s famous mind-maze novel Foucault’s Pendulum, “proposed that the initiate could participate in the creative process by combining and recombining Hebrew letters in the same way.”

Opening of the Fifth Seal by El Greco

In the esoteric understanding of the world, human consciousness has progressed through Mineral, Vegetable, and Animal stages before reaching an apex in Human. Now the Human must be worked on (through The Work) so as to reverse the flow down through Animal to Vegetable to Mineral and create a perfected form of consciousness.

“They immersed themselves in vegetable consciousness., in the physical processes — waking, sleeping, breathing, digesting — which we have seen are the gifts of the vegetable kingdom to the human body. By learning to control the ens vegetalis, or etheric body, they could control, too, breathing, the rate of digestion, even the heart rate and the flow of blood, leading to the amazing feats for which Indian adepts are famous”

For those less concerned with such grandiose goals, other practices that Mystery School initiates would undergo seem apropos.

“By experiencing the outer limits of fear, the initiate was prepared for the worst that could happen, both in life and after death. An important part of this preparation was inducing in the candidate conscious experience of the separation of the animal part of his make-up from the vegetable and material parts, as happens in sleep. Equally important was to experience the separation of the animal from the vegetable part, as happens after death.”

This is similar to Seneca’s Premeditation, which is quite a pragmatic approach. This tip of erring on the side of Pragmatism (on what works when doing The Work) mixed with the adoption of Robert Anton Wilson’s Maybe Logic can help one to better navigate the bewildering worlds of esoterica.