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Philosophical History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance by Arthur Versluis (Oxford University Press) The term "Western esotericism" refers to a wide range of spiritual currents including alchemy, Hermeticism, Kabbala, Rosicru­cianism, and Christian theosophy. There are also various practical forms of esotericism including forms of divination like cartoman­cy, geomancy, and necromancy, as well as alchemy, astrology, herbalism, and magic. All of these were widespread in Western Europe during the seventeenth and eigh­teenth centuries, and made their way to the New World with the colonists. The early presence of esotericism in North America has been studied very little, and even less so the indebtedness to esotericism of some major American literary figures. Here, Arthur Versluis breaks new ground, showing that many writers of the American Renaissance drew extensively on and were inspired by Western esoteric currents. Thus he demon­strates that Alcott and Emerson were indebted to Hermeticism, Christian theoso­phy, and Neoplatonism; Fuller to alchemy and Rosicrucianism; Hawthorne to alchemy; and Melville to Gnosticism. In addition to offering a detailed analysis of the esoteric elements in the writings of figures from the American Renaissance, Versluis presents an overview of esotericism in Europe and its offshoots in colonial America. This in­novative work will interest students and scholars of religion, literature, American studies, and esotericism.


In American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, I detailed the immense im­pact that the Euro-American discovery of Asian religions had not only on European Romanticism, but above all, on American Transcendentalism. There I argued that the Transcendentalists' discovery of the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other world scriptures was critical in the entire movement, pivotal not only for the well-known figures like Emerson and Thoreau, but also for lesser known later figures like Samuel Johnson and William Rounseville Alger. That Transcendentalism emerged out of this new knowledge of the world's religious traditions I have no doubt. But there were also pre-existing traditions in western Europe that contributed a great deal to the emergence, not only of Transcendentalism, but also of what has come to be known as the American Renaissance, that extraordinary period during the mid­nineteenth century when so much of American literature came into being. Primary among these European traditions was Western esotericism.

Until relatively recently, there was not much reliable scholarship on Western esotericism, and indeed, it remains the most important new field of re­ligious and interdisciplinary scholarship. The central figure of contemporary scholarship on Western esoteric traditions is Antoine Faivre, who holds a chair in the Sorbonne on precisely this subject. Faivre's numerous books and articles unquestionably make him the leading scholar in the field, but his scholarship goes beyond articles and books that focus on primary figures and movements in esotericism. Faivre also has sketched the primary characteristics of Western es­otericism more generally, and these will form a useful starting point from which to launch into an extensive investigation of how Western esoteric currents pro­vided the ambience for and informed the American Renaissance. It should be remarked that this is the first such investigation of its kind: there is no other book on this subject.

There have been, however, a few books that have begun to reveal the ex­tent to which nineteenth-century America was influenced and, one might even say, permeated by Western esoteric traditions. Chief among these is John L. Brooke's excellent The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844; another such work is Michael Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. These historians, in seeking out the hidden history of Mormonism, have also helped in revealing the extent to which esoteric views and traditions helped shape the American intellectual landscape in the eigh­teenth and nineteenth centuries. The application of these discoveries to litera­ture has many ramifications, not least of which is a re-evaluation of many ma­jor literary figures-both American and European-in light of their interests in Western esotericism.

The term Western esotericism refers to a wide range of esoteric spiritual currents including alchemy, Hermeticism, Kabbala, Rosicrucianism, and Chris­tian theosophy, to name only those that will figure most prominently in this study. There are also what might be called practical forms of esotericism,and these include the various "mancies," (chiefly forms of divination) like car­tomancy, geomancy, or necromancy; as well as alchemy, astrology, herbalism, and magic. All of these varied forms of esotericism were known in Western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so it is not surprising that they would all be carried over to North America by colonists or settlers. Such practices as divination or various kinds of folk magic become much more comprehensible when we consider how uncertain the future must have been to someone who left behind friends, culture, homeland, and sometimes family for the new world. Those who practiced some form of esotericism in Europe were entirely likely to continue it in the New World.

In a companion to this book, entitled Western Esotericism, Literature, and Consciousness, I discuss the primary currents of Western esotericism and de­velop a view of literature and language that emerges from an understanding of the Western esoteric traditions as uniquely literary in nature. Here the words literary or literature are used broadly to refer not only to modern forms of lit­erature like fiction, essays, or poetry, but also to specifically esoteric literature like alchemical treatises, visionary accounts, metaphysical and cosmological surveys, and indeed to the full range of esoteric writings. In Western esoteri­cism we find underlying all the various forms the traditions take, an underlying recognition that literature is not merely a means to communicate data, but also a vehicle to transmit means of spiritual understanding. Inherent in this recog­nition is the view that the entire cosmos emerges out of the combination of di­vine letters, that there is a divine writing or "book of life," an archetypal realm that nature and humanity reflect. One way to understand Western esoteric lit­erature is to see it as allowing us to read one or another aspect of this transcen­dent, multivalent divine writing that is reflected in the cosmos: astrology is reading the stars and planets; herbalism is reading plants, and so forth.

Given how central literature is in Western esotericism, we should not be surprised to discover that there is a long history of interrelationships between literary figures and esotericisms. Poets, dramatists, novelists, essayists-all have gone to esoteric currents for inspiration, perhaps because there is such a natural correspondence between esoteric metaphors and literary metaphors, between esoteric ways of "reading the world," and literary ways of seeing. This corre­spondence became especially pronounced during the romantic era: one finds es­otericism woven throughout the lives and works of such figures as Goethe and Novalis, not to mention Blake, Coleridge, and Shelley. It seems likely that these poets and authors came to esotericism because they saw in its various currents alternatives to the emerging secular materialist worldview that so impoverishes and disenfranchises poetry. Poetry, as Yeats pointed out, needs to draw on an­cient springs of religious inspiration or it becomes dry and uninteresting, and esotericism is one major way to find such inspiration without necessarily en­tering into a particular religious tradition.

The Western esoteric traditions, after all, often exist on the margin or bor­der of religion, and this too may account for their attractiveness to authors in the modern era, when institutionalized religion often seems constricting or oppressive to them. On the whole, Western esotericism entails individual spiritual work, and is only infrequently if at all institutional in nature. Hermeticism and Platonism, for instance, can be found in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic contexts, but themselves belong to none of these traditions. What is more, there is no sign of any institutional structure for either of these. They constitute currents of Western esotericism, and as such exist on the boundaries between religion and secularity, just as they exist on the margins of academic disciplines.

One major reason that Western esoteric traditions did not receive much academic attention until the end of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first, is that these traditions are inherently transdisciplinary. "Transdisciplinary" refers to a sphere of knowledge that not only cuts across a wide range of disciplines, but also ramifies beyond any particular discipline. So, for instance, the study of alchemical treatises includes the histories of science, literature, religion, and art, but belongs to none of these alone, and has rami­fications beyond any one category. This transdisciplinarity makes Western es­otericism difficult to place in an academic environment concerned primarily with disciplinary turf. Only recently has academia begun to venture into the realms beyond particular disciplines, where Western esotericism is to be found, and only recently have previously eclipsed spheres of knowledge come into view, chief among which are the Western esoteric currents.

But exactly this same transdisciplinarity made the various esoteric currents attractive to poets and authors from the romantic era onward, even if these cur­rents have remained largely invisible to academia. Writers found in esoteric cur rents alternatives to what they often perceived as the deadening nature of both modern secular materialism and conventional religion. Modern society has tended to reward specialization; but for the author with an inquiring mind, spe­cialization in a limited field like vertebrate biology or organic chemistry seems constricted; the poet or author wants a comprehensive way of understanding, and for this it is often esotericism that offers an integration of the various realms of life. Such a wide-ranging integration is precisely what Goethe, for instance, intended to create with his scientific work late in life, informed as it was by a lifetime studying alchemy and other esoteric subjects. For the poet, the artificial opposition of religion to science, and of both of these to the humanities, is of­ten intolerable. Thus the poet or author turns to the study of one or another form of esotericism.

This is precisely what we find behind what has come to be known as the American Renaissance: the efflorescence of brilliant authors in New England, nearly all of whom were heir to and inspired by Western esoteric currents. As we will see, each of our authors took from different esoteric traditions-Alcott and Emerson from Hermeticism, Christian theosophy, and Neoplatonism; Fuller from alchemy and Rosicrucianism; Hawthorne from alchemy; Melville and Poe from Gnosticism. In this indebtedness, these authors followed very much in the tradition of the earlier European Renaissance, which was also largely inspired by the esoteric interests of Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and others. Initially, I had doubts about using the term American Renaissance, but as I have come to see the extent of the parallels between the two renaissances, chiefly in their indebtedness to Western esotericism and their universalist aims of uniting the sciences, the humanities, and spirituality, I have come to see the accuracy of such a term.

Yet despite the countless volumes of literary criticism devoted to these au­thors of the American Renaissance, their indebtedness to Western esoteric tra­ditions has remained almost totally ignored. There are a number of reasons why this is so. One reason, of course, is that esotericism has been frequently excluded from the purview of academia as a whole for the past several cen­turies, often relegated to a dusty bin in the back room marked "superstition." But another reason has to do with the efforts of such influential twentieth-cen­tury literary critics as F. O. Matthiessen to demonstrate that nineteenth-cen­tury American literature belongs to "high culture" on a par with Shakespeare. Such "high culture" was assumed to have nothing to do with topics like alchemy or magic. Of course, there is a striking irony in such assumptions, since in fact Shakespeare's own works are replete with references to magic and to all manner of esoteric traditions. But this, too, is a subject only infrequently examined.

One clear implication of this book is that many preconceptions about Western esoteric traditions must be re-examined, particularly those that label alchemy, magic, and Hermeticism as "low" or "vulgar," in contradistinction to an imagined "high literature" free from them. The truth is, such esoteric inter­ests in fact cut across socio-economic classes, from the farmer with his astro­logical almanac to the New England governor with his alchemical laboratory, and are to be found among virtually all of the major American authors of the nineteenth century, as well as among American Protestant clergy of the eigh­teenth century. One cannot say that such Western esoteric traditions belong to a category "beneath the American Renaissance," to cite the title of David Reynold's book-such esoteric traditions are intimately woven throughout the American Renaissance, and were much more widespread in America before this period than many scholars have cared to acknowledge.

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