The Forgotten Esoteric Roots of Modernity
We need to stop believing myths about the history of ideas
If we want to understand where we are now and how our modern intellectual and spiritual battle lines came to be, we need—obviously—to look at the history of ideas.
One of my ongoing research interests, based on my own experience growing up in the German left intellectual milieu that had been shaped by postwar thought, is to figure out how exactly the myth emerged that gained so much power over the entire Western world: the myth of “enlightenment rationality.”
This myth shapes our world in the form of a dialectical thrust generated by two camps: those who criticize it, going back at least to 19th century German romanticism and “irrationalism,” and those who embrace it, as a sort of “rationalist” counter-revolution.
Key players here are obviously Horkheimer/Adorno of Frankfurt School fame, whose thesis that “enlightenment rationality” has ultimately led to Hitler holds such sway over our minds to this day, whether we embrace it or oppose it.
The problem here is not just that the prominence of this line of thought tends to drown out the more subtle and less politicized elements of enlightenment critique that can also be found in these thinkers (and the previous generations they drew on), but also that “enlightenment rationality” is largely a myth:1 by criticizing and rejecting it, Horkheimer/Adorno and others simultaneously perpetuate it.
So—what are we missing here? While I don’t have all the answers, it seems to me that a key missing element is the West’s modern esoteric and mystical tradition that has been all but erased from our dominant narrative of intellectual history. That is, we pretend that the Enlightenment was about a fight between proto-science (“reason”) and religion, when in fact, there was a crucial third player: namely various forms of esotericism. (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what we like to think of as proto-science or enlightenment rationality was esotericism.)
The very word “superstition,” for instance, had been used at the time not to describe “irrational” religious beliefs in spirits and the like, but an alignment with bad spirits (demons), which obviously presupposes a belief in spirits, demons, etc. To simplify, it wasn’t about magic vs. reason, but good magic vs. bad magic. This is just one example of how wrong we got our Enlightenment narrative—the whole era was chock-full of esotericism, magic, and mysticism, and the very people held up as arch-Enlighteners often were knee-deep into it.
In many ways, what we like to see as a battle between science and reason was a battle between church authorities and various forms of mysticism and occultism, which often embraced an anti-dogmatic approach and represented attempts to study religious (and mystical/occult/paranormal etc.) matters more directly and based on reason—reason not in the sense it is often used today, but in the sense of “not bound by authoritarian orthodoxy.”
I plan to go into more detail and nuance in follow-up posts about all that, but suffice it to say that this esoteric inspiration of much of our intellectual history goes on and on and on, and you can find it even in the unlikeliest of places.
All of this seems to go well with a thesis that I have played with for many years now: that the success of postwar critical theory must be seen in light of a deep longing for enchantment, for the unknown and unknowable aspects of our experience, for the mystical and the Geistige (the German word has both spiritual and intellectual connotations).2 The critique of the modern age, an age perceived as cold, technocratic, reductionist, and scientistic, was palpable at the time, but somehow this feeling got channeled into Marxist and psychoanalytical waters instead of a revival of the religious-esoteric-mystical, and the project of incorporating it into a reasonable worldview compatible with science. The history of the psychoanalytic movement and its relationship with the mystical and paranormal is instructive in that regard.
Book: The Myth of Disenchantment
Sometimes you stumble upon a book that seems to do precisely the job you want to see—in this case, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason A. Josephson-Storm. I highly recommend it to those who would like to follow me along on this little journey.
Be warned that the author is a leftist critical theorist, and if you are critical of some of the tropes that came out of that tradition, prepare for some rolling eyes moments. But make no mistake: this is a brilliant piece of scholarship. Josephson-Storm has done a ton of legwork, and his prose betrays an impressive mastery of modern intellectual history. To say that this guy has read a lot (and in multiple languages no less) would be an understatement.
And if we use a minimalist definition of “critical theory,” as Josephson-Storm does, namely that history is often best seen as a multi-layered myth created in a certain period and then retrojected back into the past, and our job is to “deconstruct” these myths in productive and intelligent ways, then I’m all for critical theory. At the very least, it is a very useful approach to the study of the history of thought.
The point of this exercise, in any event, is not to dole out moral judgement or to look for intellectual heroes and villains. Let’s leave that to the believers in “Enlightenment rationality” and their postmodern accusers. The point is to understand: where we came from, how all of this unfolded, and why we ended up in a disenchanted world if almost all of our modern ideas seem to have roots in esotericism, mysticism, and occultism.
Neither is the point to convince anybody of the truth of spirits, telepathy, mystical connection and the like. But the fact is that these things used to be everywhere, and not just in the distant past; and they didn’t just come from the thinkers you love to hate; and where they are absent, they have shaped even that. If we want to understand the world today, and indeed ourselves and our often unconscious presuppositions, we absolutely need to grapple with this history that, for reasons I’m still unsure about, has been sidetracked, downplayed, and suppressed in recent times, perhaps as a casualty of the wars between secularism and religion, between conservatism and progressivism (especially in light of the Nazi experience), and between science worship and the drive towards more literary and free-flowing forms of knowledge.
I’m still reading, and I feel like I need some more time digesting and thinking, so maybe I will take two weeks or so off before the next installment.
In the meantime, if you have any comments, suggestions, or questions: fire away.
Stay tuned—and as always, thank you for your support!
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See also my essay, The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Enlightenment.
The German word for the humanities, “Geisteswissenschaften,” indicates that this has been an “enchantment” project all along: it literally means “science of the spirit/mind,” that is, there is a strong connotation of bringing together science and religion, rationality and spirit, mind and soul, to figure out the deepest mysteries of existence independent of dogmatic authorities.