Though neither term is precise and there is often a great deal of overlap in the actual use of the terms, ‘esotericism’ and ‘occultism’ represent distinct approaches to life and the nature of reality, both based upon knowledge of secrets.
Esotericism: According to Lucian, Aristotle classified his works into ‘esoteric’ and ‘exoteric’, depending upon their intended audience, and the word ‘esoteric’ came to be applied to those doctrines of philosophers such as Pythagoras that were taught only to a few disciples. The esoteric world-view considers that there are secrets to existence and the meaning of life, which are not easily understood and therefore not appropriate for the general public, who also remain largely uninterested in them. Since these truths are hidden from ready comprehension or knowledge, the term ‘occult’ (hidden) is inevitably linked to some extent.
Occultism: ‘Occult’ has semi-scientific connotations, originally applied to the properties of nature which are not readily perceptible (and including such forces as magnetism). The term extends then to a knowledge of those hidden sympathies and correspondences, which are the basis of magical thinking. Through associations with the more sensational, ‘black’ forms of magic during the twentieth century, especially in film and popular fiction, the term has acquired slightly more sinister nuances in some contexts. These connotations were not so present during Yeats’s lifetime, and the derived forms of ‘occultism’ and ‘occultist’ were recent, nineteenth-century coinages, first used in French by Éliphas Lévi, and in English by Madame Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled (1877), though she preferred the term ‘occult science’. A. P. Sinnett uses both ‘occultism’ and ‘occultist’ more liberally in his books The Occult World (1881) and Esoteric Buddhism (1883), works which are far more readable than Blavatsky’s and effectively popularised the Theosophical Society, along with its special meanings of occultism and esotericism. As such, occultism is intimately linked with Theosophy, but has more general application.
Sinnett’s titles point to a major distinction between the two terms ‘occult’ and ‘esoteric’. Occultism is linked to the world, natural and supernatural, and based upon a view of hidden forces and practices to reveal or harness these. It is largely independent of religious belief, so that astrology, numerology or alchemy take very similar forms whatever the practitioner’s religion or lack of it, and even ritual magic, which often uses culturally or religiously defined schemata, is readily transferable from one to the other. The Golden Dawn, for instance, used pagan pantheons (especially Egyptian) alongside Judaic angels as representatives of the divine Sephirothic forces (taken from esoteric Judaism), and Yeats spent some time trying to create a Celtic version of the Golden Dawn’s constructs, with the Tuatha de Danaan and the four treasures of Ireland associated with the Cabbalistic Tree of Life. In contrast, esotericism is linked more closely with mysticism and the personal experience of divine presence and can be accommodated to a greater or lesser extent within the major religions of the world. Phrases such as ‘esoteric Buddhism’, ‘esoteric Judaism’, ‘esoteric Islam’ and‘esoteric Christianity’ refer to an inner core of teachings linked to, but separate from, the exoteric, public form of the religion. Christianity is, in fact, among the least open to such interpretations, since it deliberately eschews esotericism and emphasises that Christ and the Church teach all equally and openly, but even so there are esoteric traditions, from Gnosticism and Catharism to the theories which surround the Knights Templar and the Grail (see Mircea Eliade, below).
To simplify and exaggerate somewhat, occultism is directed towards the supernatural and symbolic, whereas esotericism is directed towards the noumenal and spiritual.
One of the keystones of European occultism is H. C. Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, and the philosophical basis of his system is the idea of the World Soul, Anima Mundi, which binds all creation together, and through which the secret connections and sympathies between various different parts can be known and used. One of the reasons for Agrippa’s importance is the grand synthesis which the work aims for, bringing together strands from astrology, numerology, Cabbala, and Stoicism. James Webb has called occultism ‘rejected knowledge’ (The Flight from Reason), still knowledge but no longer useful to the mainstream of society, having been superseded. Most people might regard ancient forms of divination, for instance, as having fallen into disuse because they were discredited; however, for the Theosophical writer, Franz Hartmann:
|If Geomancy was a truth once, it must still be true, and the answer to the question why it is so little practised at present can only be either that man’s intuition has been unfolded so much as no longer to require such artificial aids; or that he has become so much less intuitive as not to be able to grasp truths spiritually, even with such artificial aid.
That the first answer cannot be the true solution of the riddle is self-evident. . . .
The Principles of Astrological Geomancy, 85
Writing about Renaissance occultism, Brian Vickers notes that ‘one is confronted with a tradition in which nothing has been abandoned, all ideas have been absorbed into ever more comprehensive syntheses’ (Hermetism and the Renaissance, 266). Nineteenth-century European occultism, following in the wake of Enlightenment freemasonry and a revival of interest in Egyptian religion and theurgy (see Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment), continued this eclectic approach, and the Golden Dawn is arguably the zenith of such synthetic thinking. The process of synthesis is made easier by the frame of mind through which ‘the occult imposed traditional thought categories onto the world and read nature in the light of them’ (Vickers, 266), so that observed phenomena are read through the construct, rather than the construct being derived from observed phenomena.
Esotericism similarly tends to start with a priori categories and a description of spiritual reality, usually gained by revelation, and then passed on through teaching to chosen disciples, who are then encouraged to seek further personal or mystical revelation through this construct. Nineteenth-century esotericism also tends to be syncretic in its forms, often drawing upon comparative religion, and seeing all exoteric religions as partial readings of a central body of truths, the secret doctrine or kernel of all religions.
Both esotericism and occultism are therefore largely opposed to scientific or deductive reasoning, though in the nineteenth century most writers felt a need either to explain the lack of scientific method, the general esoteric approach, or to use its language, the general occult approach. The Theosophist, Mabel Collins, writes that:
[Intuition] is the only form of knowledge which enables a man to work rapidly or reach his true and high estate, within the limit of his conscious effort. To obtain knowledge by experiment is too tedious a method for those who aspire to accomplish real work; he who gets it by certain intuition, lays hands on its various forms with supreme rapidity, by fierce effort of will; as a determined workman grasps his tools, indifferent to their weight or any other difficulty which may stand in his way. He does not stay for each to be tested—he uses such as he sees are fittest.
“Comments on ‘Light on the Path’ by the Author”, Lucifer, Vol. 1 (September 1887), 9-10
The validation of the esoteric tends to lie in personal, subjective experience; occult practitioners often argue that objective experience verifies the causes they have posited - that the proof of magic, for instance, lies in a tangible result, the proof of astrology, in the in a recognisable delineation of character or accurate predictions. Aleister Crowley, Yeats’s opponent in the Golden Dawn but a writer with a thoroughgoing grasp of occult thinking, emphasises the scientific pragmatism of ‘magick’ throughout the novel Moonchild, and has one of his mouthpieces state:
‘The Order to which I belong,’ pursued Simon Iff, ‘does not believe anything; it knows, or it doubts, as the case may be; and it seeks ever to increase human knowledge by the method of science, that is to say, by observation and experiment. Therefore you must not expect me to satisfy your real craving by answering your questions as to the existence of the Soul; but I will tell you what I know and what I can prove; further, what hypotheses seem worthy of consideration; lastly, what experiments ought to be tried.’
Yeats characterised himself somewhat similarly when he wrote to Ethel Mannin, on 23rd December 1938, a few weeks before his death: ‘Am I a mystic?— no, I am a practical man. I have seen the raising of Lazarus and the loaves and the fishes and have made the usual measurements, plummet line, spirit-level and have taken the temperature by pure mathematic’ (L 921).
In practice the two approaches overlap greatly, and the exceptional but influential writer, Madame Blavatsky, expends almost equal energy on vituperating contemporary science and vaunting the objective proofs of her ideas. The subtitle of The Secret Doctrine is ‘The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy’, and she claimed to be revealing the truth which lay behind all of these, fighting the materialism of science as much as the sectarianism of religion, but also using science, religion and philosophy as mutually enlightening fields rather than antagonists.
The esoteric and the occult share a common ground in initiating the enquirer into secrets. The idea of a secret doctrine, which only the few have the aptitude, inclination and perseverance to study and master, is ancient, as is the importance of initiation and a hierarchy of initiates. They hark back to the Mysteries of the classical world, such as Eleusis, and its cults, such as those of Orpheus, Mithras and Serapis, in which the initiates would gain hidden knowledge, and maybe power and the promise of survival of death. Even in ancient Rome, the pull was towards the East, especially Persia, Mesopotamia or Egypt, and towards the past, the retrieval of lost knowledge. Part of the attraction derives from the exotic provenance, which contrasts with the established forms of religion or philosophy, which are implicitly regarded as tired or having become inadequate through being established; there is also the reassurance that the ideas are sanctioned by time and have been handed down from an age when the truth was for some reason clearer.
The same elements can be seen in the nineteenth century. Though Blavatsky tried to wrest Sinnett’s title Esoteric Buddhism away from Buddhism as such, claiming that the form should have been ‘Budhism’ (since Theosophy was centred on ‘Budha’, ‘Vidya’ or enlightenment, rather than the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the enlightened one), Eastern religion, specifically Buddhism, was given a priveleged place among world religions in the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky herself had moved from an eastern Mediterranean inspiration to an Indian, from the neo-Platonic and Egyptological exegesis of Isis Unveiled (1877), which denied reincarnation, to a system based solidly upon Tibetan Buddhism in The Secret Doctrine (1888), expounding reincarnation. Along with the advantage of exoticism (for the Western audience), Buddhism also had the reassurance of age.
For some, another of the appeals of esotericism may lie in the exclusiveness of the groups, whether Mithraic or Masonic, while for others there is the promise of an inner development or altruistic benefit. The religious historian, Mircea Eliade, in ‘The Occult and the Modern World’ (1974), contemplating the rise of occultism in the West, emphasises the aspiration towards renovatio, personal and social renewal, and notes that:
What is more general is a rejection of Christian tradition in the name of achieving an individual and, by the same stroke, a collective renovatio. Even when these ideas are naïvely or even ludicrously expressed, there is always the tacit conviction that a way out of the chaos and meaninglessness of modern life exists and that this way out implies an initiation into, and consequently the revelation of, old and venerable secrets. It is primarily the attraction of a personal initiation that explains the craze for the occult. As is well known, Christianity rejected the mystery-religion type of secret initiation. The Christian ‘mystery’ was open to all; it was ‘proclaimed upon the housetops,’ and Gnostics were persecuted because of their secret rituals of initiation. In the contemporary occult explosion, the ‘initiation’ — however the participant may understand this term — has a capital function; it confers a new status on the adept; he feels that he is somehow ‘elected,’ singled out from the anonymous and lonely crowd. Moreover, in most of the occult circles, initiation also has a superpersonal function, for evey new adept is supposed to contribute to the renovatio of the world.
Occultism, Witchcraft and Cultural Fashions, 64-65.
There is certainly some resonance with Yeats’s position, since he felt that he was ‘very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood’, he made first ‘a new religion, almost an infallible Church of poetic tradition’ (Au 115-16), and then entered the orbit of Mme Blavatsky (see Graham Hough, The Mystery Religion of W. B. Yeats). After joining the inner group of the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric Section, paradoxically a movement was towards greater occultism and perhaps less esotericism, he then became more involved with practical occultism and joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. (Hermeticism/Hermetism combines elements of both occultism and esotericism, being founded on the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which include abstract theology and mysticism, along with magical and astrological texts.) Addressing himself to Moïna Mathers, the widow of S. L. MacGregor Mathers, and using her name within the Order, Vestigia Nulla Retrorsum, he tried to recall their aims and aspirations in the Golden Dawn:
We all, so far as I can remember, differed from ordinary students of philosophy or religion through our belief that truth cannot be discovered but may be revealed, and that if a man do not lose faith, and if he go through certain preparations, revelation will find him at the fitting moment. . . . I look back to it as a time when we were full of a phantasy that has been handed down for generations, and is now an interpretation, now an enlargement of the folk-lore of the villages. That phantasy did not explain the world to our intellects where were after all very modern, but it recalled certain forgotten methods of meditation and chiefly how to suspend the will that the mind became automatic, a possible vehicle for spiritual beings. It carried us to what we had learned to call Hodos Chameliontos.
Some were looking for spiritual happiness or for some form of unknown power, but I had a practical object. I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of the one history and that the soul’s. The Greeks certainly had such a system, and Dante. . . and I think no man since.
(AV A x-xi)
Yeats here claims that his main goal was artistic, to provide a world-view, comparable to that of the ancient Greeks or the late Middle Ages of Dante. Elsewhere he calls this ‘Unity of Culture’, part of the ‘Unity of Being’ which Yeats conceived ‘in man and race alike’, culturally possible in those epochs and places where ‘poet and artist’ were able to confine ‘themselves gladly to some inherited subject-matter known to the whole people’ (Au 190), and which he was later to regard as having been ideally exemplified in Justinian’s Byzantium. Such a ‘system of thought’ potentially assures him that if he creates within it then his work must partake in a unified history of man’s whole being or soul, in a congruence lost since the advent of the Renaissance: ‘Had not Europe shared one mind and heart, until both mind and heart began to break into fragments a little before Shakespeare’s birth?’ (Au 191).
Facing what T. S. Eliot termed the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (which Eliot placed shortly after Shakespeare’s death), Yeats took a very different approach. Eliot chose to associate himself with the historical and traditional continuum of Anglican Christianity, Yeats with a subterranean and marginal, but arguably equally traditional, continuum, the Hermetic or occult strand. By definition whatever system he might find in this way could not be part of the ‘inherited subject-matter known to the whole people’ of Europe or the West, but might be a hidden thread running through the broader fabric. The occult, esoteric strand might come to the fore occasionally in certain trends and movements, and in writers such as Spenser, Shelley or Blake.
Then when I had ceased all active search, yet had not ceased from desire, the documents upon which this book is founded were put into my hands, and I had what I needed, though it may be too late. What I have found indeed is nothing new, for I will show presently that Swedenborg and Blake and many before them knew that all things had their gyres, but Swedenborg and Blake preferred to explain them figuratively, and so I am the first to substitute for Biblical or mythological figures, historical movements and actual men and women.|
(AV A xi-xii)
Yeats, with his wife, had in some ways joined the most esoteric of groups, a group of two or a folie à deux as Brenda Maddox suggests in a chapter-title of George’s Ghosts. George would apparently have preferred Yeats not to have published the System or to make it public, but this was not in his nature, and in this sense his esotericism is not exclusive, even if its content and style deter many. By rooting it in the real and actual world of history rather than some mythological or purely symbolic world, Yeats implies that he is attempting to make the work more accessible.
According to his comments, it is less the essence of the System and its geometry which are new than the presentation. This is only partly true: much of A Vision has resonances with the various systems of occult and esoteric thought which he had learnt through the years, but the combination of ideas and elements is very much original. Though he mentions Swedenborg and Blake, their influence is in the end not as important as the largely undeclared influence of his long interest in occultism on Yeats’s conception of reality and the elements of the human psyche. With respect to the Golden Dawn, an oath of secrecy bound Yeats not to tell too much, and his use of the Order’s terms in his own writing is almost always inaccurate and a form of indirection. In ignoring or by-passing the links with other systems, Yeats is also perhaps wary of acknowledging too much debt to the occultism of the previous century, marginal in its own day and démodé by the 1920s. While Yeats is happy to cite the pre-Socratics, Blake, Flaubert, Grosseteste or the Upanishads, when he refers to the occult strands they are slighted as ‘popular mysticism’ (AV B 193). However, these form part of the mental furniture which he had acquired and developed over many years of reading, speculation and involvement.
The variety of his learning is witnessed by the references in his writings and letters and the evidence of his library, which are themselves only partial indications of his myriad interests. Furthermore, the wealth of his knowledge about esoteric topics was acquired through an avid interest and curiosity, not necessarily in a scholarly fashion and not always methodically, so that fragments and points of interest from one source do not necessarily indicate any systematic knowledge of that source, but equally the lack of a thorough knowledge does not mean that elements had not been absorbed in the course of general reading.
Some of his learning was necessarily methodical, through association with groups that enforced systematic study of a particular body of thought, most notably the school of Madame Blavatsky in the Theosophical Society and the Rosicrucian Cabbalism of the Golden Dawn. It is difficult to treat the material with brevity, because it usually needs substantial preliminary explication, which risks obscurity if it is too summary. The following considerations aim to delineate adequately some of the systems which Yeats knew, without descending into unnecessary detail; a degree
of specialised vocabulary is inevitable.
They serve several purposes in understanding A Vision better:
- in showing the precedents of the ideas which Yeats proposes in A Vision, particularly with respect to the Principles;
- in helping to elucidate ideas which are complex in themselves and further complicated by Yeats’s presentation of them;
- in showing the kind of tradition in which Yeats’s work has some of its most natural points of comparison.
Despite all of Yeats’s eclectic interests and reading, Theosophy and the Golden Dawn’s Cabbalism are two of the strands which lie deepest, because of when he encountered them, the length of time he was associated with them or the emotional commitment he gave. There is a further reason, since the single most important influence in the work on A Vision was George, both as medium, where her memory was certainly essential to the Instructors, whatever construction is placed upon them, and also as Yeats’s collaborator in understanding and developing the Automatic Script, separate from her role as
medium. She shared Yeats’s background in the Golden Dawn, association with Theosophy and interest in occult and esoteric areas, adding her own perspectives and concerns, but was as thoroughly versed in the Cabbala as her husband, if not more so through her study of Pico della Mirandola and the Christian Cabbalism of the Renaissance. Again, she was the more practised astrologer, although both of them were deeply versed in astrology and associated areas.
For further consideration of Yeats's esotericism and occultism, see the essay "Esotericism and Escape," by C. Nicholas Serra in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012).
The essay "'Everywhere that antinomy of the One and the Many': The Foundations of A Vision," by Neil Mann in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012), provides useful further exploration of this subject.
This title is available for free download here or here from Clemson University Press (click here if seems the link may have changed). It is also accessible online via Liverpool Scholarhip Online and University Press Scholarship Online (simplest to search on "Yeats" and "Vision"; direct link functional April 2016), though this is by subscription or through a library.