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Wouter J. Hanegraaff : Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture


Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO)



The Western esoteric tradition represents a distinct form of spirituality extending from Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism in the early Christian era up until the present. Diffused by Arab and Byzantine culture into medieval Europe , these esoteric currents experienced a marked revival through the Florentine neo-Platonists of the late fifteenth century. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, esoteric spirituality was carried by Renaissance magic, Christian Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, German Naturphilosophie, theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry until the modern occult revival in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which the Theosophy of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky played an important role.

Alongside and within this Western tradition, Arabic and Jewish currents have played a major role since the Latin Middle Ages. Arabic astrology, alchemy and natural science entered the medieval West through southern Italy and Spain from the tenth century onwards. In the fifteenth-century Jewish kabbalists in Spain and Italy assisted the Christian assimilation of Kabbalah, which henceforth became a major strand of European esoteric spirituality and thought. Accounts of spiritual ascent, angelic hierarchies and religious experience evidence strong commonalities between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic esoteric traditions.

The purpose of the Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO) is to foster advanced research into historical and comparative aspects of the esoteric traditions from the Hellenistic period in late antiquity through the Renaissance and early modern period to the present. Staff members in the departments of History (with interests in religion, culture, science and medicine), Sociology and Philosophy, Theology, Classics and Ancient History, and the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, collaborate in seminars, research and publications. Literary and philosophical traditions are also examined by colleagues in the Schools of English and Modern Languages (departments of French, German, Italian, Hispanic Studies, and Russian).

Postgraduate and postdoctoral members of EXESESO will be able to pursue research projects with the support of the Centre's panel of distinguished scholars across a number of departments and disciplines.

There are three main objectives:

to document and analyse new subjects (figures, groups and movements) in the history of esotericism, thereby making an original contribution to scholarly knowledge.

to gain insight into the social, religious and philosophical changes, which are conducive to esotericism and to assess its influence on culture, politics and society.

to develop an understanding of the fundamental characteristics which define esoteric spirituality, which often manifests as a form of religious experience, while offering a perspective upon the individual soul in the context of nature and the universe.