The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism

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Glenn Alexander Magee
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     514 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The academic study of Western mysticism and esotericism remains a relatively nascent field of inquiry, due in part to a lack of single referents or even shared terminology. The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism overcomes this impasse by combining two distinct but closely related fields, making the argument that, although different, “treating them [mysticism and esotericism] together is not only possible but ultimately necessary if either is to be truly understood” (xiii). Representing a truly remarkable breadth of subject matter and authorial perspectives, The Handbook allows readers to journey through the intimate connections between mystical and esoteric currents of thought, and how these have in turn impacted the growth of Western spirituality and religious traditions. In fact, as this collection makes clear, understanding the trajectory of Western religiosity (and civilization) necessitates awareness of the mystical truths and esoteric knowledge which map a clear intellectual tradition from ancient Greece to our contemporary worlds.

Hardly uniform, “the essence of mysticism,” as editor Glenn Alexander Magee stresses throughout his informed introduction to The Handbook, “is to be found in the concept of gnosis,” which “is precisely what was supposed to have been acquired by those who participated in ta mysteria: a direct perception of the ultimate truth of what is” (xvi). While it would be naïve to ignore the significant differences which exist between and within Western mystical traditions and esoteric expressions, let alone comparative discussions of East and West, the connection between mysticism and gnosis, as Wouter Hanegraaff accentuates in his contribution, points to the potentiality of and for “‘ecstatic’ ascent to, direct perception of, and unification with the higher realms of spiritual light” (391), including the mystical lesson articulated by Magee, that “all finite things are connected” (xvii).

Esotericism, however, proves to be more difficult to locate, a realization that nevertheless helps capture the true value of an edited collection which places mysticism and esotericism within the same frames of critical study. Derived from the Greek word esotero, meaning “within” or “inner,” esotericism refers broadly to hidden or inner spiritual wisdom which opposes (or underlies) exoteric, or publicly known, knowledge. More significantly, “esotericism is founded on gnosis, either directly (when esotericists themselves have the experience of gnosis) or indirectly (when esotericists put their faith in the testimony of those who have had the experience)” (xxix). Highlighting this distinct overlap demonstrates not absolute accordance—that mysticism is esotericism or that the esoteric is mystical—but rather the perspective that “everything treated in this book as esotericism—alchemy, magic, number symbolism, visions of other worlds, spiritualism, and so on—is founded in one way or another on the mystical teaching of hen kai pan (One and all)” (xxix).

To cultivate this relationship, The Handbook offers an essential compendium of who’s who in these fields, bringing together established scholars who first signaled the clarion call to develop scholarly approaches and emerging scholars more than willing (and able) to push these discussions forward. Collectively, the thirty-six chapters help us uncover (and recover) how “an understanding of the roots of esoteric currents almost always leads us back to the mystical traditions” (xv). This should not suggest, however, that gnosis equates with theory and esotericism with practice (technē); rather, as the various chapters make clear, to gain gnosis is to participate in esotericism, and to participate in esoteric currents of thought is to journey toward gnosis, which not only “returns [the seeker] to the spiritual light from whence he has come, but …[also leads to the discovery] that he is that light” (383).

Highlighting the transdisciplinary perspectives which emerge within the study of Western mysticism and esotericism, The Handbook starts with “Antiquity,” outlining a trajectory that leads from the “Ancient Mysteries” to “Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism”; from “Parmenides and Empedocles” to “Plato, Plotinus and Neoplatonism”; and from “Hermetism and Gnosticism” to early Jewish and Christian mystical expressions. Although diverse in subject matter, these entries establish a coherency to the base connection between esoteric currents and mystical modes of understanding, ultimately locating a gnostic source of and for divine awareness.

From here, the collection moves through “The Middle Ages,” noting specifically the emergence of esoteric currents within Abrahamic traditions, including Sufism, Kabbalah, and medieval Christian mysticism, and ending with an exploration of “Hildegard of Bingen and Women’s Mysticism.” These entries outline the mystical core of traditional religious systems by pointing to esoteric practices designed to cultivate unmediated access to the divine in the here-and-now. Rather than transcendent and elsewhere, these mystical and esoteric expressions of the Abrahamic traditions recover a root interiorization which connects the remoteness of individual life directly with the totality of the divine light.

Following these critical discussions, The Handbook proceeds with a detailed section on the groundswell of new esoteric expressions and voices which emerged in the Renaissance and early modern period. Beginning with Antoine Faivre’s contribution on “Renaissance Hermetism,” Part III proceeds with examinations of specific mystical systems ranging from “Christian Kabbalah,” “Paracelsianism,” and “Rosicrucianism” to “Freemasonry,” as well as studies of key figures such as Jacob Boehme, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Franz Mesmer. Collectively, part 3 highlights distinctive esoteric rituals which aimed to cultivate mystical understanding of reality as it is, ultimately capturing the construction of and engagement with sacred knowledge, and the contingences and expectations hoisted upon those who have experienced gnosis directly.

Part 4, which centers on movements and expressions in the “Nineteenth Century and Beyond,” demonstrates both the consistent manifestation of esoteric currents and the persistent desire to search out and recover mystical processes for obtaining gnosis. Part 4 locates both essential figures including H.P. Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, G.I. Gurdjieff, and René Guénon, and distinct movements ranging from Spiritualism and The Golden Dawn and the O.T.O. to contemporary paganism and the New Age. Part 4 also includes entries which analyze specific rituals and psychospiritual models for understanding the experience of esoteric practices and mystical knowledge (see Arthur Versluis’s “Via Negativa in the Twentieth Century” and Gerhard Wehr’s “C.G. Jung and Jungianism”). These entries help fortify the perspective that, just as the very roots of esotericism always lead back to mystical traditions, so too does the work of mystics remain bound to esoteric currents and occult preoccupations.

As an effective way to summarize the profound overlaps which exist between mysticism and esotericism, particularly in relation to the rituals and sacred understandings connecting the Ancient Mysteries to the New Age, The Handbook ends with a final section on “Common Threads,” which include alchemy, astrology, gnosis, magic, mathematical esotericism, panpsychism, and sexuality. In ending with this section, The Handbook helps construct a broader critical perspective. When we study specific movements or expressions in Western mysticism and esotericism, we not only undertake to understand the nature and means by which historical peoples gain gnosis, but come to realize that this process is intimately entangled with esoteric expressions ranging from astrology to magic.

The collection ends with a wonderfully thorough compendium of recommended readings broken down into broad categories, historical genealogies, and specific voices.

I have little doubt that this collection will be of great interest to specialists and novices alike, providing a single volume source which critically and capably traces the various expressions, practices, and threads connected to Western mysticism and esotericism. Through these voices, we come to see how “understanding esotericism leads us back to mysticism, as the fundamental theoretical groundwork for esoteric currents” (xxxi).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Morgan Shipley is Visiting Assistant Professor & Academic Advisor in the Department of Religious at Michigan State University.

Date of Review: 
August 31, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Glenn Alexander Magee is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University. He is the author of Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (2001) and The Hegel Dictionary (2011), as well as many articles on German philosophy and its connections with mysticism and esotericism.



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