Rarely a concept has been as misused and misunderstood like the word “Esoterism”.
For some people today, Esoterism is basically everything that is non-scientific and “spiritual” in a good way, for others it is everything that is irrational and unscientific in the bad way. How often did we read on some Skeptic’s site the contemptous words: “Those esoterics…”, meaning everybody who doesn’t cling to severe scholarship!
But Esoterism is on one hand yes, a very large field of subjects; on the other hand, many subjects attributed to “Esoterism”, especially coming from the New Age community, are not at all part of what Esoterism actually is. Also many people who work spiritually use the word without really knowing which fascinating world they’re almost ignoring.
“Esoteric means the “inner” (eso-), in the sense of the inner consciousness; the contemplative, mystical or meditative transpersonal perspective. This is something different from the ordinary everyday understanding of things, and can only be understood by intuition or higher mental or spiritual faculties.
The opposite of Esoteric is Exoteric, which means the “outer” (exo-), i.e. the outer or surface or everyday consciousness. This includes both the scientific-materialistic and the conventional (or literal) religious perspective. As it is based on the everyday understanding of things, and does not require any transformation of consciousness (and indeed considers any such transformation to be harmful), it assumes that the everyday mind alone can understand Reality. (Things are not always that simple though, because in order to do, say, quantum physics one requires a mathematical intuition not shared by many).
Central to the distinction between Esoteric and Exoteric is that of states of consciousness. An Exoteric philosophy or religion as one which is based on the normal waking state of consciousness, or a modified state of consciousness which is still pretty close to the normal waking state. Any aspiration beyond the ordinary state of existence is discouraged. For example, according to the religious person, “God created/loves you just as you are”, so who are you to question what God has ordained for you by striving for some higher state of consciousness? While according to the sceptical Materialist, there is no higher state beyond the rational mind anyway (all non-rational states of consciousness being delusionary).
In contrast, all true Esotericism is Gnostic. That is, it is based on Higher Knowledge, or Gnosis, to use the Greek term. Gnosis is a much superior way of understanding than Reason. Reason stumbles around with premises and logical arguments, and uses these in its own way, without regard for higher truth. With reason alone, you can equally prove or disprove any statement. Certainly, used properly, reason is an invaluable aid to understanding and approaching the Truth. But used improperly, it can cunningly justify any statement or argument, no matter how patently false. It is through this negative use of reason that the inferior religious and sceptical materialistic philosophies are able to flourish.
Thus we have (putting it of course simplistically) two fundamental positions; the Exoteric literal religious-and-scientific position, which requires no transformation of consciousness, and is therefore accessible to the “average joe”; and the Esoteric “mystical” and philosophically sophisticated position, which is based on the transformation of the self and the understanding of the nature of reality. Of course, I need to emphasise here once again that this is an oversimplification of what is not really a clear cut few and many dichotomy at all. For example the understanding of an “exoteric” (no need to attain a mystical/transpersonal state) science such as physics is accessible to only a small percentile of the population (which is why there are so few talented physicists), whereas the average person (if spiritually inclined) is much more easily able to understand and assimilate mystical or at least New Age topics, such as homeopathy, “geopathogenic zones”, eastern teachings (especially as presented by a guru), and so on.” (see full article and details at http://www.kheper.net/topics/esotericism/esoteric_and_exoteric.htm).
Not that we’d like to define ourselves as esoterics or theosophists.
But we think that it is important to know what one is actually talking about using certain terms which are, on top of all, often negatively stigmatized.
And then we think that the study of Esoterism is extremely fascinating as it leads deep into history, magic and the world of mysticism, going far back in time.
An interesting work about Esoterism is the book The Esoteric Tradition by G. de Purucker.
Purucker writes in the introduction to the first chapter:
“From immemorial time, in all peoples there has been current an intuition, an intimation, persistent and ever-enduring, that there exists somewhere a body of sublime teaching which can be had by those who qualify to receive it. Like those vague yet undying rumors of the existence of mysterious personages, whose names flash out in the annals of history and then fade away into the mists of time, just so have these intimations of a sublime wisdom-teaching in both history and story frequently found lodgment in legend and myth, and thus have become enshrined or crystallized in the religious and philosophical records of the human race.
There is probably no single group of religious and philosophical works which does not contain some record, given either in open statement or by vague hint, of the existence of this wisdom-teaching; and it is one of the most interesting of literary pursuits to trace out and to assemble together these scattered and usually imperfect records from everywhere; and by juxtaposition to discover in them distinct and easily verifiable proof that they are indeed but fragments of an archaic wisdom common to the human race. The literary historian, the mythologer, the anthropologist, all know of the existence of these scattered fragments of archaic thought; but being unable to make anything coherent of them, they are usually ascribed to the inventive genius of so-called primitive man weaving myths and legendary tales about natural phenomena which, because of the fear and awe their appearance had aroused, were thought to be the workings of gods and genii, some friendly and some inimical to man himself.
Running in a contrary direction is the teaching brought again to the Western world by H. P. Blavatsky, who showed in her books the real existence in the world of such a body of wisdom-teaching, comprising in its totality a marvelous system of doctrine dealing not only with cosmogonic matters embracing the noumena and the phenomena of the universe, but likewise a complete historical story of the origin, nature, and destiny of man himself.
The “Wisdom Religion” is the inheritance of all the nations, the world over. . . .
. . . the Esoteric philosophy is alone calculated to withstand, in this age of crass and illogical materialism, the repeated attacks on all and everything man holds most dear and sacred, in his inner spiritual life. . . . Moreover, Esoteric philosophy reconciles all religions, strips every one of its outward, human garments, and shows the root of each to be identical with that of every other great religion. It proves the necessity of an absolute Divine Principle in nature. . . .
Time and human imagination made short work of the purity and philosophy of these teachings, once that they were transplanted from the secret and sacred circle. . . .
That doctrine was preserved secretly — too secretly, perhaps — within the sanctuary. . . .
This is the true reason, perhaps, why the outline of a few fundamental truths from the Secret Doctrine of the Archaic ages is now permitted to see the light, after long millenniums of the most profound silence and secrecy. I say “a few truths,” advisedly, because that which must remain unsaid could not be contained in a hundred . . . volumes, nor could it be imparted to the present generation of Sadducees. But, even the little that is now given is better than complete silence upon those vital truths. The world of to-day, in its mad career towards the unknown . . . is rapidly progressing on the reverse, material plane of spirituality. It has now become a vast arena — a true valley of discord and of eternal strife — a necropolis, wherein lie buried the highest and the most holy aspirations of our Spirit-Soul. That soul becomes with every new generation more paralyzed and atrophied. . . . there is a fair minority of earnest students who are entitled to learn the few truths that may be given to them now; . . .
The main body of the Doctrines given is found scattered throughout hundreds and thousands of Sanskrit MSS., some already translated — disfigured in their interpretations, as usual, — others still awaiting their turn. . . .
The members of several esoteric schools — the seat of which is beyond the Himalayas, and whose ramifications may be found in China, Japan, India, Tibet, and even in Syria, besides South America — claim to have in their possession the sum total of sacred and philosophical works in MSS. and type: all the works, in fact, that have ever been written, in whatever language or characters, since the art of writing began; from the ideographic hieroglyphs down to the alphabet of Cadmus and the Devanagari. . . .
The Secret Doctrine was the universally diffused religion of the ancient and prehistoric world. Proofs of its diffusion, authentic records of its history, a complete chain of documents, showing its character and presence in every land, together with the teaching of all its great adepts, exist to this day in the secret crypts of libraries belonging to the Occult Fraternity. . . .
. . . it is not a religion, nor is its philosophy new; for, as already stated, it is as old as thinking man. Its tenets are not now published for the first time, but have been cautiously given out to, and taught by, more than one European Initiate. . . .
Yet there remains enough, even among such mutilated records, to warrant us in saying that there is in them every possible evidence of the actual existence of a Parent Doctrine. Fragments have survived geological and political cataclysms to tell the story; and every survival shows evidence that the now Secret Wisdom was once the one fountain head, the ever-flowing perennial source, at which were fed all its streamlets — the later religions of all nations — from the first down to the last. — 1:xviii-xlv
It would be impossible to express in more striking language just what the character and nature of the Esoteric Tradition is. An exhaustive and critical examination, conducted in an impartial spirit, of even the remains of the religious and literary relics of ancient times, will convince one that the statements made in the preceding paragraphs are founded on fact. The conviction grows upon the unbiased student that it is a marvel that scholars could have been so blind as to allow the actual existence of the Esoteric Tradition to escape observation and discovery for so long. What is needed is more intuition and less merely brain-mind analysis of dates and grammar and names and spelling; for these, however important they may be, all too frequently distract the attention from the underlying truth to the overlying details of literary rubble.” (Source: http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/et/et-hp.htm#contents )
So, is someone who researches UFOs and extraterrestrial life an esoteric? No, he’s not. He’s a ufologist.
Is someone who treats people with homeopathy an esoteric? No, he’s a homeopathic doctor (or however you want to call him).
Is someone who believes in the benefits of yoga an esoteric? No…
Thus, science-orientated people and, in particular, the so-called Skeptics, would do well in studying such definitions and literature before using the word Esoterism in an ever impropriate way. As much as they insist in using words properly when those words belong to the world of science, they should as well use words beyond their knowledge in a proper way and show the same respect that they claim for their own subjects.
If you’re interested in Purucker’s work, his book can be downloaded in PDF-format for free at http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/et/et-hp.htm#contents .