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on 14 September 2017
I really wanted to like this book. I did find it knowledgeable and thorough, which was only to be expected, but what is missing is some kind of evaluation. Nowhere in this entire book does the author evaluate any of the systems he describes, and he often seems to take at face value some of the more ludicrous claims of various "esotericists". For example, he talks about the purely fictional construct "Koot Hoomi" (a theosophical so-called "ascended master") as if he were a real person communicating with Bailey or Blavatsky. Any writer knows that you don't quote imaginary people as though they were real - one or two "allegedly" or "reportedly" warning words would have been very useful. Also, the esoteric systems that he describes have very different aims. Some are mystical and part of a religious tradition, such as the original Kabbalah and the Sufi poetry of Rumi. As their objective, in common with well-known Christian mystics, these practicioners are not seeking personal power or self-aggrandisement; indeed, the reverse is true: the true mystic seeks to become nothing, to be transparent to the Divine and thus reflect divinity as in a mirror. Systems of "magic" and their offshoots, such as the Golden Dawn and its associated organizations, seek to magnify the magician's self-will, as in the case of Crowley or Fortune, always with disastrous results. They are completely opposite. I don't know whether the author simply does not understand this hugely important difference, or has chosen to leave it out. Either way, the book suffers from its omission. I cannot recommend it for this reason.
PS - I have just noticed that the author's university department receives quite a lot of funding from the Blavatsky (theosophical) Foundation. Obviously, this explains his complete lack of objectivity and his apparent credulity when it comes to the likes of "Koot Hoomi" and company! I think this really undermines the book, as no university department should allow donors to determine their findings.
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on 28 December 2014
This book provides an excellent, introductory yet also insightful, overview of the Western esoteric traditions. For me two of its key qualities were firstly (but along with other such texts) a clear distillation of the key elements of esotericism, and secondly an excellent historical narrative showing the continuities and developments in the traditions and philosophies. Initially I borrowed the book from my university library, but very quickly realised I wanted my own copy, partly to be able to liberally annotate the text with connections and further themes to follow up. The book provides a fascinating integrating framework of a relatively little-known tradition that has enormous implications for our understanding of ancient Greece and Rome, the crucible libraries of Alexandria and their synthesis of Oriental knowledge into Western thinking, and the Renaissance, as well as the more usual themes of Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Anthroposophy and Theosophy.

I may even go so far to say that you can't fully understand so much great Western art without a strong grounding in the Western esoteric traditions outlined and discussed in this book.

Although it is basically an academic textbook, it is certainly not in any way dull, indeed I found the book very hard to put down. Finally the author's untimely death in 2012 is such a tragedy, and it is hoped that EXESESO, the Centre for the Study of Esotericism, that he founded in the University of Exeter, can continue with its important work in the future.
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on 13 February 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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on 27 May 2015
This will not answer all your questions about different esoteric traditions in the west - but it begs the question, are there not esoteric traditions in the east too? 'The western esoteric traditions have their roots in a religious way of thinking, which reaches back to Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism in the Hellenistic world during the first centuries A.D. In the Renaissance, the rediscovery of ancient texts led to the scholarly revival of magic, astrology, alchemy and Kabbalah....The scholarly study of Western esotericism is a comparatively recent phenomenon.' Esotericism is really an umbrella term, and yet there does appear to be correspondences and concordances between them, which do suggest a common origin. But this is neither conventional theology, nor religion, nor philosophy, for it perhaps relates more to the relationship between the individual and the often unacknowledged phenomena of creation; whereas a spiritual aspirant in the religious sense might be more interested in climbing the ladder of ascent, the esotericist is perhaps more interested in the rungs of the ladder; which rather reminds me of Rumi's analogical distinction between the foam (on the sea shore) and the sea. Part of the problem with the generic term 'esoteric' - as opposed to exoteric, is the media's cultification of many of these 'traditions' is due to misinformation or misinterpretation. Whether the Freemasons deserve the reputation they seem to have acquired - both Mozart and Haydn were freemasons, I am not sure; but to be wary of secret societies, or at least suspicious of ones is probably healthy scepticism, as Shakespeare clearly was of 'The school of Night.' I remember reading a biography of Ficino, and on reading it, I got the impression that all Ficino was really interested in was magic - which was certainly not my previous view of Ficino, until I discovered that the writer was herself very interested in the history of magic, so her perspective was slanted if not coloured.

So this is an outline, described by the writer as 'a historical introduction', despite the fact that it is clearly written for students of degree courses in esotericism, such as those at Exeter University, it should not put it beyond the reaches of any more general reader, who has an interest in a particular field. For those interested in, say, Swedenborg's or Blavatsky's Theosophy, or the Rosicrucians, this will put their interest into a wider perspective.
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on 6 February 2009
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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on 8 June 2013
"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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