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The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction [Hardcover]

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
Price: 15.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

23 Oct 2008
Western esotericism has now emerged as an academic study in its own right, combining spirituality with an empirical observation of the natural world while also relating the humanity to the universe through a harmonious celestial order. This introduction to the Western esoteric traditions offers a concise overview of their historical development.

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke explores these traditions, from their roots in Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, and Gnosticism in the early Christian era up to their reverberations in today's scientific paradigms. While the study of Western esotericism is usually confined to the history of ideas, Goodrick-Clarke examines the phenomenon much more broadly. He demonstrates that, far from being a strictly intellectual movement, the spread of esotericism owes a great deal to geopolitics and globalization. In Hellenistic culture, for example, the empire of Alexander the Great, which stretched across Egypt and Western Asia to provinces in India, facilitated a mixing of Eastern and Western cultures. As the Greeks absorbed ideas from Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia, they gave rise to the first esoteric movements.

From the late sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, post-Reformation spirituality found expression in theosophy, Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry. Similarly, in the modern era, dissatisfaction with the hegemony of science in Western culture and a lack of faith in traditional Christianity led thinkers like Madame Blavatsky to look East for spiritual inspiration. Goodrick-Clarke further examines Modern esoteric thought the light of new scientific and medical paradigms along with the analytical psychology of Carl Gustav Jung. This book traces the complete history of these movements and is the definitive account of Western esotericism.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (23 Oct 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195320999
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195320992
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.7 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 47,825 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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a useful introduction to a wide range of esoteric traditions and an important reminder that orthodoxy is not the only story. (Charlotte Methuen. The Journal of Theological Studies)

In his ground-breaking work Professor Goodrcik-Clarke summarizes a huge amount of research into esoteric literature across more than two millennia (Christopher Moody. Theology)

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
By Polly
The Product Description of the contents of this book is excellent.

There are many books which have been written about the esoteric. They vary from the outrageous to the academic. Many present the speculative as if it is factual. This book sticks to the facts, is academic but very readable. It is a reliable base to start any research into the esoteric. Whether your interest is academic or a passing fancy, I can unreservedly recommend keeping a space on your bookshelf for this book. If you believe you are well-informed, this book may surprise you with new facts!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars rigorous and comprehensive 13 Feb 2011
If you are interested in the esoteric and don't want to be caught in the fields of speculation, this is perfect. N.G-C has written a detailed analysis of the historical origins of the written alternative theologies, (non-canonical and heretical), showing their development and relationships with one another. He makes clear some very complex thinking, opening the door to further studies. Highly recommended.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A public secret 8 Jun 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"The Western Esoteric Traditions" by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke is a very basic introduction to the subject. To be honest, I found it boring! But then, I've read quite a bit on the subject, including some of the author's other books, which are much more detailed.

In this work, Goodrick-Clarke takes us on a journey through the often bewildering maze of European occultism. It's all in there: ancient Hermetism, Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism; the magic, alchemy and Naturphilosophie of the Renaissance; the Christian Kabbala of Jacob Boehme and the speculations of Swedenborg; Rosicrucianism and "Scottish" Freemasonry; Theosophy and its offshoots; ritual magic á la the Golden Dawn; and modern developments, which are sometimes "scientist" in character. Even Rupert Sheldrake, Wilhelm Reich and James Randi's adversary Jacques Benveniste have been crammed into this overview.

The differences between the various periods are obvious enough (to take just one example, 17th century Rosicrucianism was "progressive", while 18th century Scottish Masonry was "reactionary"), but the continuity is nevertheless fascinating, as is the geographical spread of the phenomenon. The Western world is often portrayed as strictly Christian before becoming strictly scientific, but that view of history is a polemical oversimplification. Judging by Goodrick-Clarke's overview, occultism always had support in high society, including Church and scientific circles. Esotericism must be the West's most public secret...

I'm not sure how to rate this book, since it feels very basic, but in the end, I give it three stars.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Informative Introduction Based on Current Academic Studies of Western Esotericism 26 Feb 2009
By Thaumagnost - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This introductory text is the fruit of a fairly new field of recognized academic studies which developed as a result of the pioneering literary efforts of scholars such as D. P. Walker (1914 - 1985) and Frances A. Yates (1899 - 1981) who took the subject of Western esotericism seriously rather than denigrate it as an area filled with superstition and irrationalism as many earlier scholars in different specialized fields had done. Other scholars of esotericism who have contributed to this growing field include but are not limited to Henry Corbin, Francois Secret, Antoine Faivre, Arthur Versluis, Joscelyn Godwin, and Wouter Hanegraaff, the last being the senior editor of the landmark Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (2005), a collaborative effort by many scholars. Goodrick-Clarke is also a recognized scholar in this field and introduces it to the reader in his own introduction which also addresses the question of how esotericism is defined by those dedicated to studying it.

As clarified in the introduction, Western esotericism is rooted in the Hellenistic philosophy of classical paganism as expressed in Alexandrian Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism which have syncretized with the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, leaving vital traces within each. Through the Italian Renaissance, a Hermetic revival occurred as a result of the rediscovery of ancient texts which further resulted in the development of magic, astrology, alchemy, and Cabala through prominent individuals such as Marcilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Johann Trithemius, Henry Cornelius Agrippa, John Dee, and Paracelsus, each given significant attention. The development of German Naturphilosophie, Christian theosophy through Jacob Boehme and his followers (such as Gichtel, Pordage and Law), and Pietism are also covered before thoroughly introducing us to Rosicrucianism in the early 17th century, high-grade Freemasonry and Illuminism in the 18th century, and the ideas and practices of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Anton Mesmer which significantly impacted esotericism.

Within the context of Rosicrucianism, the content of the manifestos are discussed along with Johann Valentin Andreae and the Tubingen Circle; in England, Michael Maier, Robert Fludd, and Comenius and the Origins of the Royal Society are covered. The impact of Rosicrucianism and theosophy on Freemasonry are explored as well as the following types of Freemasonry: "Scottish" and Chivalric, German Templar, and Egyptian. Within the context of Freemasonry and Illuminism, the following are also discussed: Martines de Pasqually and the Elect Coens, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Martinesism, Martinism, Willermozism, The Illumines of Avignon, and Count Cagliostro.

Not only are the ideas of Swedenborg and Mesmer presented but also how they contributed to spiritualism and healing movements in the 19th century, including the United States which birthed Andrew Jackson Davis as the main theologian for spiritualism; Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, Warren Felt Evans and others who developed the New Thought Movement; and Mary Baker Eddy who founded Christian Science. A separate chapter is dedicated to ritual magic from 1850 to the present. Within this chapter, one is introduced to Eliphas Levi and the French Occult Revival, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its members, and special attention is given to the contributions of A. E. Waite, Aleister Crowley and Thelemic magick, and Dion Fortune and the Inner Light. I was, however, disappointed to see the section on Crowley end with the following: "Gerald Gardner (1884 - 1964), the founder of modern witchcraft, introduced Crowleyan magick into the neopagan Wiccan movement." For a better understanding of the influential role of Crowley and ritual magic, including the grimoires, on Wiccan practices, I recommend Wicca: Magickal Beginnings (2008) by Sorita d'Este and David Rankine.

Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society are given a separate chapter which expounds on her influences, travels, developing doctrines, and legacy. The last chapter titled "Modern Esotericism and New Paradigms" discusses theosophical heirs such as Annie Besant, Charles W. Leadbeater, and Rudolph Steiner (who developed his own religious system called "Anthroposophy"). It also has a section on Fourth Way Groups, introducing Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Additionally, it covers the scientization of esotericism, New Age science, and Carl Jung's influence on esotericism. One individual I would have liked to see introduced within the context of Steiner is Valentin Tomberg who anonymously wrote Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism which is recognized by some, including esoteric scholar Antoine Faivre, as a masterpiece of 20th century esoteric/mystical literature.

Goodrick-Clarke's book not only includes valuable footnotes and recommendations for further reading for each chapter, but also includes a helpful index as well as over 30 illustrations comprised of portraits, diagrams, plates, charts and other relevant pictures to supplement the text. This historical introduction to Western esotericism deserves wide readership.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably The Best Introduction to Western Esotericism Available 25 Oct 2011
By Grant Hemingway - Published on
I recently completed my MA in Western Esotericism at the University of Exeter and studied under Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. He is the Director of the Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO) at the University of Exeter. This book is structured in the same fashion as the MA program at Exeter and provides a comprehensive overview of the key topics in the field of Western esotericism. The book is chronological and begins in ancient Alexandria, through the Italian Renaissance, post-Reformation Germany and into the Age of Enlightenment. Goodrick-Clarke covers complex topics such as Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, Alchemy, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism and Theosophy but makes it understandable even to novice readers. The underlying theme behind the subject of Western esotericism is the continuity in the different schools of thought that can be traced though the two thousand period from ancient Alexandria to the present day. This is a subject that has been overlooked for many years due to its association with the occult and magic. Thanks to the work of Goodrick-Clarke and scholars such as Antoine Faivre and Wouter Hanegraaff it is now being given the respect it deserves. This is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in learning more.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An informative survey of a neglected field 10 May 2010
By Eric Maroney - Published on
Goodrick-Clarke provides an excellent overview of esoteric traditions in western religions, philosophies, and systems of thought. He begins in the Greco-Roman period, and ends at the modern New Age movement. In between Goodrick-Clarke takes the reader on a somewhat wild ride among diverse systems of theosophy, spiritual psychology, occult magic, metaphysical speculation, and more. For anyone unfamiliar with these trends, this book will be very informative. A wide base of material is presented in a readable and enjoyable manner.
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing book that teaches a great history 12 Mar 2014
By JA - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a great book that takes the reader on an amazing journey through a part of Western history that is rarely taught.

This book teaches the other side of the development of Western religion and after reading this book I now have a knew light on previous theological education.

It is easy to understand but does not compromise on scholastic research and standards.
4.0 out of 5 stars Serious[ly] 18 Feb 2014
By Gary A. Hall - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is exactly what the title claims - a historical introduction. While although the author doesn't go into a great deal of depth, he more than makes up for it in breadth.

The author starts with an attempt at defining what exactly esotericism is. After that, the book is arranged chronologically, starting with Hellenistic esotericism and proceeding through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and up to the present. Each chapter centers on an individual or group of individuals who were influential thinkers in their time and place. At the end of each chapter, there is a list of books for further study, much like a textbook.

It is serious; it is scholarly. It is most definitely not silly. If you are at all interested in a "Third Way", which is neither mainstream religion nor strictly empirical "scientism", this may be a gooding jumping-off point for you, as it was for me.
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