The Esoteric Arts
There are many kinds of practitioners of the occult and esoteric. Every single person will give you a different explanation for what they do, and every single person is right, in their own way. The occult and esoteric traditions are not rigidly defined as are many fields of more “traditional” academia, such as, for example, my own fields of history and sociology, not to mention sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology. In each of these academic fields, certain ethical, scientific, and methodological guidelines exist and are enforced by institutional boards. Despite what many “scientific skeptics” will tell you, many esoteric and occult practices do in fact have ethical, scientific, and methodological guidelines, though they differ in form and function from more traditional science. Additionally, there are no centralized authorities enforcing these guidelines, allowing for greater diversity among occult and esoteric practitioners.
This means that there is a wide spectrum of opinions about what constitutes esoteric and occult practices, and how they “should” be practiced. Just like all other practitioners of this type, I have my own opinions on the matter. Commonly, though, the fields of alchemy, astrology, tarot, geomancy, ritual and ceremonial magick, any form of divination, and numerology are considered “esoteric” or “occult” practices. I would like to take this time to point out that both of these words mean “hidden;” these practices are generally, by the way they are practiced, shielded from public knowledge and passed down between knowledgeable people.
Being surrounded by academia all of the time, many people – including some of my closest friends – have repeatedly mocked any form of occult or esoteric practices (especially Tarot, which seems to be a trigger for rants on the stupidity of superstition) as “unscientific” and “false,” claiming that they “don’t work.” I usually end conversations on the matter about there.
Whether or not it works all depends on how you perceive the practice. Many of the most devoted occultists and esotericists will say that what they do is a science in and of itself; indeed, many of these practices, most obviously alchemy, were the precursors to modern science. Many aspects of alchemy are merely chemistry in disguise, using different symbols and with different goals. Astrology is incredibly complex (my studies in the subject progress agonizingly slowly due to this) and feels like a science. Almost every single esoteric and occult practice has a great deal of practice, lore, background, and established methodologies behind it, in many cases rivaling the content in many academic disciplines. Its practitioners, however, are free to decide to abide by this background or branch out on their own, leading to, in many instances I think, a growth in these practices greater than many academic disciplines.
I am not one of those practitioners who considers himself a scientist. I never refer to what I do as an “occult science;” rather, I call them “esoteric arts.” Undoubtedly this is influenced by my perception of myself as a wordsmith and an artist of words, characters, plots, and worlds (not so much visual images; those are hard)! In my opinion, esoteric and occult practices, despite many similarities to academic disciplines, more closely resemble arts due to their ability for rapid change, the individualistic flairs they encourage, and the tradition built up behind them consisting of vast amounts of practical experience as opposed to a collection of tested theories. Neither one of these types of traditions are better than the other, a point I shall get back to soon.
Before that, however, there is one more comparison I must make between occult and esoteric practices and the arts, and that is the esoteric emphasis on intuition. In this case, most esoteric arts take a completely different view on intuition than science does. In science, intuition is merely the expression of emotions and current circumstances leading you to think something, perhaps combined with “animal instincts.” In most esoteric arts, intuition can be all of these things, but more importantly, it is also an expression of some kind of fundamental energy, whether you call it a spirit, god, nature, or anything else. I call it the universe. As such, many esoteric arts heavily involve relying upon the intuition as a means of reading and understanding the universe through one’s own subconscious. Artists do a similar thing, I believe, though they use different words to describe it.
It is because of this reliance on intuition primarily that makes me view myself as an artist rather than a scientist. However, this is not to say that there are not esoteric and occult scientists; there definitely are. However, most of them work on occult and esoteric theory as opposed to practice. I am currently at nowhere near that stage of development in my esoteric practices, and am content learning and applying theory to what I consider my art. In time I hope to move up to theory, and I am already starting to develop some ideas. Esoteric theory, in many ways, is an extension of philosophy – but that is a discussion for another day.
Every time I read a Tarot Spread or a Geomantic Chart, I am practicing an art form, not a science, in my opinion. When I make my art, I am drawing upon the world as it is expressed in myself. I believe that the world has a little piece of everyone inside them, and that by using an esoteric art my mind is better able to bring the subconscious forward by using symbols to trigger thoughts I might not otherwise have thought. That is all.
Now, I promised I would come back to the two traditions: one built on logical experimentation (science) and one built on practical experience (art). As I said, I firmly believe that neither is better than the other overall, but each has its place, and it is best when the two are mixed together in moderation. For example, in matters of theory, experimentation clearly takes the lead, and in any kind of artistry practical experience does. However, in the medical field, both are necessary; logical experimentation to develop the theories to lead to the cures, and practical experience on the ground.
The two are halves of the same coin, yet in the modern academic climate, one is almost entirely ignored (experience) and the other praised as the only way forward (experimentation). I believe this is not the best way to proceed. As much as I might disagree with occultist John Michael Greer’s criticisms of much of the Western scientific tradition, he does bring up the point that its flat, outright denial of esoteric and occult symbolism and thought hinders more than helps. Scientists don’t truly understand occult and esoteric practices, and yet still dismiss them out of hand without ever coming to truly understand them. They use only their logical experimentation, which, I might add, is imperfect at best, and are happy to ignore the experience of countless generations of occultists.
So, what am I saying? Science is very good and has gotten us to a great deal of places, and I put a lo of faith in it. Bravo, science! However, its ridicule of things it does not really understand – the esoteric arts being the primary one of these (I won’t bring religion into this right now, as I have my own very harsh views on organized religion) – doesn’t really help anyone, I think, especially if most of these practitioners have accepted science as equally valid, if not in some cases more so, as their own practices. Science should have an open mind, not a closed one.
To boil it all down to a single sentence, I consider myself an academic who studies society, but also an esoteric artist and a wordsmith.
In response to a very thoughtful e-mail I received about this post, I would like to add the following to clarify and add onto what I said above, after thinking about the topic some more:
I believe there is a strong division between the arts and the sciences, and that in many cases they should remain separate. Certainly if a claim is to be made by any esotericist or occultist regarding how the world works, it should be able to hold up to testable evidence to become a theory, or otherwise it is just a hypothesis, nothing more. I don’t believe the two are completely separate, however, and there are definitely artistic characteristics in quite a few sciences and academic fields, and in the “earlier days” of science, hypotheses were formed under an inspiration that resembled art in many ways. On the other hand, science has also informed many art-styles, as well.
However, where I feel like science is losing something is its unwillingness to even consider testing many occult and esoteric hypotheses. However, this is just as much occultism’s fault as science’s, in that most occultists rely on a completely different source for their knowledge than science, and so often don’t feel the need to conform to science’s demands for proof. Like you said, that definitely doesn’t make science more willing to accept it.
Reading through my piece again, it comes off a lot more critical of science than I had intended. 😛 What I see as the role of the esoteric, I think, is looking at the world in a way that science doesn’t allow you to, and in that way seeing things that science might not allow you to (just as science lets you see a lot of things that esotericism won’t let you). Many esoteric practitioners (at least the ones I’ve read) have a tagline about their practices and beliefs, in that they only pick up where science fails or does not reach. As science expands, esotericism will move further beyond science, continuing to attempt to explain the unexplainable. I would be the first to admit, however, that pure intuition can be dead wrong; studying sociology, which is one long lesson how intuition is wrong, has taught me much in that regard. However, in certain spheres when you are in the right mindset, I believe that intuition has a lot to say. It belongs in some places, but not others. I feel like esotericism builds upon science, and actually represents a fusion between science and religion (leaning much closer to religion, though). Alchemy is my favorite example of this; an esoteric field that morphed into a science when its stated goals, some methods, and symbols changed.
I also view religion and esotericism/occultism as two completely different things. Occultism and esotericism, while not having nearly as much grounding in observable reality as science, have a lot more grounding in it than religion. It grew out of traditions trying to explain how religion makes itself known in the world; as a sort of “scientification” of religion, but in the process it’s become something else entirely; a new way of looking at the world distinct to, but derived from, both religion and science.
So , I believe they should remain separate for the most part, but I believe the attitude of a lot (not all) scientists towards many more “artistic” forms of discovery and progress – particularly ritual and ceremonial magick – as not even worth considering doesn’t help, either. I don’t believe the two can ever be completely separated, and I personally don’t feel they should. All that I really want is a slightly more open academic community, and maybe a community of occultists less hostile towards science. Of course, I think a lot of my own opinions come from those people around me – and there are a lot of them – who believe that science and pure rationality are the solution to every single problem in the world, which I don’t feel is true.
December 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm
And upon even further thought, helped along by another thoughtful e-mail, my only real criticism of science is that its mindset is too “atheistic” and not “agnostic.” I have always felt that agnosticism was a better stance for science than atheism, despite its association with atheism. Isn’t questioning the world around us what science is all about?
December 21, 2012 at 8:08 pm