2017.03.12

I made a promise a while ago that I’d write a little about the books I read that are related to esotericism. It’s a promise I haven’t kept, but better late than never, and that’s why I’ll briefly mention two books that I must return to the library today.

The first one is a straightforward academic treatise, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation by Henrik Bogdan, published in 2007. You’ll find Steiner mentioned, but obviously the book’s focus are other esoteric groups and practices, mainly the rituals and practices that come from freemasonry and have influenced and inspired esoteric movements later, like Golden Dawn. This is of course at least indirectly relevant to Steiner’s project, even directly in that he was to some extent involved in such things. Perhaps more so is the introduction to western esotericism and the chapters on rituals of initiation (this is something Steiner talks about extensively — his visions of ancient practices and so on) and a brief look into the historical background (Rosicrucianism, eg). It’s interesting but (as is usual with such texts) a bit dry. Not really a page-turner.

Which leads me to the second book, which has rather different qualities, as it isn’t an academic book — far from it. But that doesn’t detract from it being informative, perhaps in an unintended way. It is The Secret History of the World by Jonathan Black (2010). The most intriguing thing about this book for an afacionado of Steiner is that it is heavily indebted to him. The author refers to him explicitly many times, but it’s also apparent that Steiner is potentially the source even when he doesn’t. Of course, Steiner takes his stuff from other sources too, so it would take some effort to examine what comes from where; perhaps it isn’t necessary either. As I said, it’s not an academic book; there’s a long list of reading material at the end but there’s rarely clarity as to where specific claims come from. This does not detract from the fact that the book can be read with some enjoyment.

It is quite a splendid account of how esotericists view the world, the history of it and the history and evolution of humanity. One must (perhaps) keep in mind, though, that it isn’t so much an account of history as it is an account of how history is seen and construed by an esoteric worldview. It’s not mainly about what people of the past believed or how they perceived and experienced the world, physical or transcendent, but what esotericists have believed about this. The benefit of the book is that it’s eminently accessible and readable, whereas the original sources, the treatises of esoteric teachers communicating to their followers, are more impenetrable. So in a way it’s an excellent introduction to a certain way of seeing the human being, the world, the cosmos and the evolution of consciousness. For obvious reasons, it stands in contrast to ordinary “materialistic” ways of explaining history; I think, if one read it that way, one would find that factual errors abound. One might perhaps categorize Black as a “believer” — he certainly appears to be convinced of the truths of the views he describes; he’s sometimes disturbingly gullible, though there’s really nothing spectacular about it considering the context — but he possesses an ability to analyse and describe them in a way that most adherents of and insiders to these movements don’t, ie an ability to write engagingly for an audience not restricted to “believers” themselves. But perhaps one is well-advised to look at the book as an interesting piece of entertainment.

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