Western Esotericism

A Concise History

By Antoine Faivre
Translated by Christine Rhone

Subjects: Esotericism And Gnosticism, History Of Religion, Religion
Series: SUNY series in Western Esoteric Traditions
Paperback : 9781438433783, 136 pages, October 2010
Hardcover : 9781438433776, 136 pages, October 2010

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Table of contents

Five Meanings of the Word “Esotericism”
Sixth Meaning: A Group of Specific Historical Currents
From the Religionist and Universalist Approach to the Historico-Critical Approach
A New Manner of Constructing the Object
State of Research and Institutionalization
Past and Present Obstacles to the Recognition of this Specific Field
Perspectives: Throwing New Light on Old Questions
1. Ancient and Medieval Sources of the Modern Western Esoteric Currents
I. The First Eleven Centuries

1. Alexandrian Hermetism
2. Other Non- Christian Currents
3. In Christian Thought of the First Eleven Centuries

II. In Medieval Thought

1. Aspects of Theology
2. “Sums” and Universal Syntheses
3. Hermetism, Astrology, and Alchemy

II. Initiatic Quests and Arts

1. Jewish Kabbalah
2. Chivalry and Initiatic Societies
3. The Arts

2. Esotericism in the Heart of the Renaissance and the Flames of the Baroque
I. A Discovery of Humanism: Philosophia perennis

1. Re-emergence and Success of the Corpus Hermeticum
2. Christian Kabbalah
3. Homo Universalis: Activity, Dignity, and Synthesis

II. The Germanic Contribution: Nature Philosophy and Theosophy

1. Paracelsism
2. Jacob Boehme and the Theosophical Current
3. The First Rosy-Cross

III. Readings of the World and of Myths

1. Philosophia Occulta
2. Alchemy: Science of Humanity, Nature, and Myths
3. A Hermetico-Emblematic Art

3. Esotericism in the Shadow of Enlightenment
I. Sunburst of Theosophy

1. At the Dawn of Illuminism
2. The Great Theosophers
3. Faces of Illuminism

II. From the Arts of Reading to the Art of Subtle Fluids

1. Continuity of the Occult Sciences
2. Alchemy, Shadow Side of the Enlightenment, and the Light of Mythology
3. Animal Magnetism

III. A Century of Initiations

1. Strict Observance and Rectified
2. Other Masonic and Paramasonic Systems
3. Initiation in Art

4. From Romantic Knowledge to Occultist Programs
I. The Era of Naturphilosophie and the Great Syntheses

1. Nature Philosophy in the Romantic Era (1790-1847)
2. Main Representatives of This Current
3. Naturphilosophie and Animal Magnetism
4. Esotericism on the Edge of Naturphilosophie (1815-1857)
5. Esotericism in Art (1815-1847)

II. Universal Tradition and Occultism

1. From the Romantic East to the India of the Theosophical Society
2. Advent of the Spiritualism and Occultism (1847-1860)
3. Growth of Occultism in the Era of Scientism, and Continuity of Theosophy (1860-1914)

III. Esotericism in Initiatic Societies in Art (1848-1914)

1. Masonic or Paramasonic Societies
2. The Theosophical Society
3. Esoteric Arts and Literature

5. Esotericisms of the Twentieth Century
I. Gnoses in the Wake of the Western “Tradition”

1. “Traditional Sciences,” Christian Theosophy, and New Forms of Gnosis
2. Presence of Christian Theosophy
3. Gnosis and Science: Toward a New Pansophy?

II. At the Crossroads of “Tradition”

1. René Guénon
2. The Perennialist Current
3. Initiatic Societies
4. “Tradition”: A Multifaceted Notion

III. Arts and Humanities

1. Arts and Literature
2. Psychology and the Humanities
3. Historiography of Western Esotericism

Index of Names

A survey of Western esoteric currents since late antiquity, with an emphasis on the last six centuries.


Widely received in France, this brief, comprehensive introduction to Western esotericism by the founder of the field is at last available in English. A historical and pedagogical guide, the book is written primarily for students and novices. In clear, precise language, author Antoine Faivre provides an overview of Western esoteric currents since late antiquity. The bulk of the book is laid out chronologically, from ancient and medieval sources (Alexandrian hermetism, gnosticism, neoplatonism), through the Renaissance up to the present time. Its coverage includes spiritual alchemy, Jewish and Christian Kabbalah, Christian theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Illuminism, 'mystical' Free-Masonry, the Occultist current, Theosophical and Anthroposophical Societies, the Traditionalist School, and 'esotericism' in contemporary initiatic societies and in New Religious Movements. Faivre explores how these currents are connected, and refers to where they appear in art and literature. The book concludes with an annotated bibliography, which makes it an essential resource for beginners and scholars alike.

Antoine Faivre is Professor Emeritus at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Religious Studies), Sorbonne. He has published extensively, including Access to Western Esotericism and The Golden Fleece and Alchemy, both also published by SUNY Press. Christine Rhone has translated numerous books, including Faivre's Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism, also published by SUNY Press.