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Paper presented at the Phoenix Rising Academy Parallel Session “Demons in the Academy: Renouncing Rejected Knowledge, Again”, at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, San Francisco, California, 19 th November 2011. Copyright Notice This paper may be downloaded and/or distributed for non-commercial use only. It may only be distributed in the current format, with full attribution. Excerpts may be quoted in electronic and/or print media as long as full attribution is given. It may not be republished for commercial purposes in any form without the express written permission of the author.

Recently I was very excited to come across a website owned by the Bodossakis foundation 1, a high-profile educational charity based in Greece. The website hosts international academic lectures and conference videos from across the spectrum of the sciences and the humanities, and in its mission statement, it notes that its ambition is to form a true crossroads of interdisciplinary dialogue, and to offer the insights gleaned in closed conference halls and classrooms to a broader public audience. Two items in particular caught my eye: The first was a collection of talks from an international conference that took place in Athens this summer, entitled “Philosophy, Politics, and Finance in the Era of Globalisation,” and another was called “Leadership and Management in a Changing World: Lessons from Ancient Eastern and Western Philosophy,” and featured a number of discussions of Platonic thought vis-a-vis modern political dilemmas, as well as comparative analyses of Confucian thought from Platonic perspectives. A third conference was called “Art and Education: Creative ways of teaching languages.” Two lecture titles that stood out were entitled “Do you speak Music in your classroom? Conditions and Ideas for solid teaching and learning,” and “Techniques for Contemplative, Creative, and Linguistic motivation of students through the arts: theoretical and practical approaches.” The reason for my excitement at discovering the content of this website was because it embodied precisely






Academy and which brought us here today. The questions we're here to discuss are twofold: Firstly, we wish









1 © Sasha Chaitow 2011


methodologies we utilize are sufficient, or whether they are in danger of stifling or truncating the very subject they were designed to illuminate by keeping the experiential aspect and epistemology belonging to the esoteric traditions firmly outside the scope of exploration. Although many scholars may believe that we are tilting at windmills by quixotically reopening a subject that many consider to have been resolved long ago, I beg to differ. My reasoning lies in the second issue that I wish to raise and which is so beautifully represented by the mission statement of the Bodossakis foundation as well as many of the conference topics that it features: If these topics are only discussed in conference halls and classrooms at advanced and theoretical academic levels, and if they provide only the most sanitised perspectives on these topics, presented in language based on a referential framework that only scholars are actually privy to, while simultaneously frowning on the participation of the very people who make these traditions what they are, then what precisely is their purpose, beyond a very small, special interest niche in academic scholarship? It has become a well established truism that the W. Esoteric traditions form a third current in the development of Western thought, and represent a neglected, or rejected aspect – and a very broad one at that – of our cultural history. The reasons for its rejection are manifold and anything but uniform, but that does not necessarily mean that that pattern ought to be continued. Behind these issues lies the more elusive question of the purpose of academic study, and of the humanities in particular. A heretical notion, to be sure. We are so convinced of the intrinsic value of academic learning and knowledge that, at least in the humanities, we rarely pause to wonder at its practical value from a utilitarian perspective, despite often enough being governed by utilitarian rules. In the sciences, in technical specialisations, and in the political, business, and financial disciplines the inherent “usefulness” of such topics in terms of the world we live in, is more self-evident. With the humanities, the lines are more blurred, and apart from teaching, the media & publishing industries, or self-employment of one sort or another, a practical mind might wonder just what use a degree in philosophy, or religion, or Western Esotericism, might be to all those graduates not destined for or inclined towards an academic career. It is hardly surprising that since the onset of the financial crisis, it is the humanities that have been hardest hit. In the UK, history courses are being cut and truncated, focusing more and more on “useful” areas of history that may be combined with politics or sociology. Latin and Greek are being phased out of secondary schools. I cannot speak for many other European countries, but I can speak of the tens of thousands of unemployed and underemployed humanities graduates in Greece (Eurostat), 2 and of the rhetoric of more and more American higher educational establishments which are simultaneously focusing on marketable degrees and cutting Philosophy, Classics, and other humanities courses. 3

2 3 © Sasha Chaitow 2011


Figures for 2010 showed that more than half of all undergraduates in North America were opting for degrees in business, engineering, or nursing, avoiding liberal arts programs and colleges in order to focus on subjects with guaranteed career trajectories, and despite the decision of many liberal art colleges




programmes to their curriculum, they are rapidly losing ground, turning away financially needy students, and some are nearing bankruptcy. Most tellingly of all, a recent survey carried out by Pew Research Centre for The Chronicle of Higher Education, reveals the disparity between the perspective of higher education leaders and presidents, and that of the general public. Where three quarters of Americans polled felt that higher education was too expensive, presidents and administrators have to worry about balance sheets and student numbers. Where colleges prepare marketing campaigns based on employability and watch their student bodies swell with the recently unemployed and overqualified seeking retraining, the public survey tells a different story: 55% of Americans viewed higher education as preparation for a career, but an overwhelming 74% said that it was more useful for knowledge and intellectual growth, with a further 69% saying that it was important for personal growth and maturity.4 We can read these figures in two ways: either as saying that college offers opportunities for knowledge and growth, but not necessarily career building, or as saying that knowledge and growth are more important than career building. It would be irresponsible and inaccurate of me to insist on one or the other interpretation, and in truth the way the question has been framed is not terribly helpful. However, the fact of the matter is that the humanities subjects being cut, are the ones most conducive to the life of the mind, intellectual development, and critical and creative thinking, the latter being a crucial skill in any workplace, as another report on student experience has attested.5 Dr Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, had the following






schools in relation to the demand for 4 , 5 Š Sasha Chaitow 2011


immediately marketable skills: “We ... give [students] the tools to be analytical, to be able to gather information and to determine the validity of that information themselves, particularly in this world where people don’t filter for you anymore....We want to teach them how to make an argument, how to defend an argument, to make a choice.” But, as noted by John Neuhauser, president of St. Michael's Liberal Arts College in Vermont, “The humanities tend to educate people much farther out. They’re looking for an impact that lasts over decades,” and as noted by Times reporter Kate Zernike, “these colleges also say they have the hardest time explaining the link between what they teach and the kind of job and salary a student can expect on the other end.” 6 In the modern world, this is certainly true. However, I think we can all agree that the analytical and critical skills one acquires when faced with the demands of humanities topics, especially at entry-level when these skills are newly acquired, allow for creative problem-solving, the ability to multitask, the ability to see the “big picture” and think laterally, and from this perspective, it is not surprising that technocratic governments have not succeeded in coming up with sustainable solutions for the issues currently plaguing both sides of the Atlantic. I cannot help but wonder what scale of difference might emerge were they historians with considerable life-experience behind them. With regard to advanced degrees, the situation is not necessarily the same, particularly when






applicability of skills. David Bejou, Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Elizabeth City State University in Virginia, makes

the following point

about MBA

degrees: “Today, many M.B.A. programs define






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Theodore Levitt (past professor of Harvard Business School, 1925-2006) believes that organizations that narrowly define themselves and focus on their products become myopic and fail along with their myopic products.” Of the attempts to change and modernise MBA degrees, he has this to say: “ Unfortunately for the most part... they did not engage the students in a holistic approach that would positively impact the individual students, the business world and the global society.”7 One of the key issues of study at advanced levels is the degree of focus and inevitably, the narrowing of one's sights. Once one has crossed into MA and PhD territory, it becomes increasingly harder to retranslate that perspective into a language accessible by those on a lower educational level, even though it is they who need it the most. The ability to effectively transfer knowledge is an underrated, yet invaluable skill, and less educated individuals cannot be blamed for what they do not know. Time and time again I have encountered senior scholars who are quite 6 pagewanted=2&fb_source=message&ref=edlife 7 © Sasha Chaitow 2011


shocked by this observation, and who even consider that if individuals who cannot grasp such complex concepts have no place in the dialogue.Yet, if they are not the students of tomorrow,then who is? It is hardly surprising then, that frequently enough, a powerful anti-intellectualism is observed across the media and public life, if all but a few scholars place themselves out of the reach of the layperson. I am not suggesting that we should dumb down, by any means, but I am calling for us to translate and condense our information into a language that can be accessible to all. In that way, not only will it be on its way into the mainstream, but it would also be in a position to demystify the academic eyrie of ivory towers and marble halls, hopefully attracting more people to invest in the humanities. By this point you may be wondering what all this has to do with the







and of

methodology. I think David Bejou could have been talking about any number




qualifications, and not just MBAs, especially if we reconsider that survey of the public. Professor Dame Alison Richard,




Cambridge University in England has noted that: “the dichotomy between useful and not-useful is itself increasingly not-useful.” Her successor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz points out that, far from simply perceiving subjects belonging to the humanities and liberal arts as “knowledge for its own sake,” we need to take a broader view and look to the long term if we are to find workable solutions to today's problems. He also notes that “the case for a broader outlook centres on the proposition that the greatest challenges facing the world today are of huge complexity and global scope, best tackled by people whose education enables them to integrate different fields of knowledge and work across conventional academic boundaries.”


As I have already mentioned, W. Esotericism is an indisputable part of Western culture, with unique dynamics informing its complex interrelationships with the discourse, expression, and development of said culture, and with various strands that can be shown to be intimately interconnected with social and political developments on larger and smaller scales. It is also a set of currents, many of which are in existence and continuing to evolve, even as we speak, and which for many people are living traditions, as well as a way of life. Over the last few decades, the scholars who have dedicated themselves to exploring and establishing this fascinating field in Western Academia, have done wonders in terms of developing a structure, a vocabulary, and a set of tools for younger scholars such as myself to work with, while also establishing a series of 8 © Sasha Chaitow 2011


continental and transnational networks for the support of the growing academic community. The field is constantly growing, with new departments and courses springing up in both European and American universities, and numerous invaluable publications and studies appearing every few months. Yet, I would venture that there may be trouble in paradise, and the trouble begins with some of the elements that I have outlined thus far, particularly the point raised by the survey of higher education administrators juxtaposed with the needs and desires of the general public. When it comes to Western Esotericism, the existing options for study are aimed mainly at students planning to pursue an advanced academic path, or, in some cases, students simply wishing to pursue it for their own personal interest. In terms of methodology, the options are also fairly straightforward, and in all cases approaches that conform to as empirical, documentary, and objective a method of research as possible are well-established and defended.

However, it is my strong conviction, based on my involvement with this field, on my own teaching experience, on dialogue resulting from addresses I have delivered and articles I have written aimed at the general public rather than academic peers, and on my understanding of education in general, that adhering to this approach for the field to the exclusion of all others, will, eventually, jeopardise the very field itself. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, this approach is alienating the very people who could and should be the most passionate and able to carry this field forward, and secondly, because in restricting these studies to an academic level which does not make allowances for entry-level students, or speak a language comprehensible to the general public, it is inevitably narrowing the scope for intake and spread, much like the MBA programs discussed by David Bejou, like a railroad company worrying about the colour of the trains, and not the efficient service of the passengers. That the field needs to be demarcated, and that quality standards need to be met and Š Sasha Chaitow 2011


maintained is a given. I am not in any way challenging this. However, it must be noted that a key argument used by many independent scholars or practitioners of esotericism, rests on the premise that it is almost impossible to understand esoteric concepts without the referential framework of the enchanted worldview from which they sprang, and thus feel that an unambiguously academic approach in its current form cannot do justice to these subjects. Some, ourselves included, have called for more interdisciplinary perspectives to be introduced within the bounds of acceptable scholarship. In other cases, a considerable number of individuals and groups who self-identify as practitioners of various esoteric paths have not only argued that the academic approach is a mistake, but are quite hostile towards it, as the intellectual rigour it demands and the lack of flexibility allowed in terms of empathetic engagement, is seen as damaging to the overall perception of esotericism. From this perspective, in some circles it is believed that scholars can never truly understand exactly what esotericism is, much less be in a position to label themselves as experts in the field. And all of these perspectives are emerging in response to a burgeoning demand for books, lectures and courses in esotericism, though it appears that no two people can agree on just how this should take place, since even academics disagree amongst themselves, as do practitioners of various kinds, while scholar-practitioners are frowned on in academia. These issues are becoming an ever larger proverbial elephant in the room, and for as long as the leaders of the field neglect to respond to it, or respond by simply excluding themselves from this dialogue, the larger the elephant will grow, and the longer the controversy will be perpetuated. Although we wouldn't for a moment claim that we at






answer, what we do have is a handful of suggestions and a strong desire to bridge



views, that we also hope might




toward healing the often quite forceful animosity that appears to emerge whenever these views are aired. The foundation for these suggestions is that the form of thought that we now call esotericism, is very very similar indeed to the ancient Philosophia of the Liberal Arts educational model.

Š Sasha Chaitow 2011


To begin to bridge the perceptual divide, we need to begin by fostering an environment within which these ideas can regain their meaningfulness, and to do that, we need to look at the worldview within which these traditions emerged and evolved.





appropriate environment and worldview, I am






tradition, but of a mental and intellectual environment.

This brings me not to a

romantic revisioning of the past, but to the model of classical education. Grammar, the first lesson of the Trivium, was first developed by poets in ancient Greece in order to help speakers of the common





language of Homer. Known as the “Art of Grammar”, and later called “Janua Artum”, meaning the Gate of the Arts by the Romans, the concept of Grammar was always closely related to the creative arts, as it provided a frame of reference to exercise and expand the mind toward its creative possibilities. Rhetoric, or the








differentiation between written and spoken expression, and beyond the actual skills it imparts – including the use of allegory and metaphor - it is an exercise in consciousness, selfawareness, and analytical thought and expression. Logic at this level sets the ground rules for the study of philosophy – we could say that logic is to philosophy what grammar is to language.


curiously, all four of the


subjects inherently incorporate the philosophical and metaphysical bases for what we now call the esoteric traditions. Mathematics and abstract mathematics inherently include a philosophical component. Plato himself had a warning carved above the entrance to his Academy: let no-one enter here without geometry – since for Plato philosophy, cosmology, and geometry, were inseparable – and reading Plato without geometry

© Sasha Chaitow 2011


may leave more gaps in our understanding than we know. Of music I shall say little, apart from noting that of all the art forms it was considered the most ethereal and magical – both because it was considered able to move, as well as for its harmonic and mathematical properties. And finally astronomy served to place Man in the universe, at once observer, recorder, creator and guardian of nature. As a form of education, this is the model and set of principles that liberal arts colleges were founded on, and from which they are now being forced to move away. There is still a dissonance and a fatal flaw in my argumentation that I have not yet addressed, which has been aptly identified by Professor Wouter Hanegraaff as the profoundest of ironies: the fact that “the 19th and 20th century representatives of Western Esotericism are largely so deeply influenced by the very worldviews to which they object, that what they present as enchanted alternatives turn out in fact to be products of the secularization process.” 9 This is absolutely true, and it is also true of our educational system. But does that mean that my call for a reexamination of the Liberal Arts as a model of education underpinning the core esoteric notion of self-awareness and self-determination is just one more religionist and utopian dream? Hardly religionist, I would venture. Philosophist, perhaps, but then I would not presume to argue with Plato and Socrates! But is it utopian? It might be, if we were to advocate some kind of return to the glorious past, which would represent the “first naiveté” of Paul Ricoeur's system of hermeneutics. Yet, if we accept this, and choose instead to use the academic tools at our disposal, imbued with the spirit of rationalism, we do in fact remain at the first naïveté, because we are continuing to take a rationalist approach to material which is patently irrational. Naturally these are the best tools for the historiography of esotericism,






analysis. But in that case, we are not scholars of esotericism at all, but scholars of a specific historical niche, or of a particular type of discourse. So here's the basic conundrum: We have a set of neglected cultural currents, without which our general understanding of Western history and culture is essentially incomplete on several fundamental levels. Academic attempts to explore and reinstate them in our collective corpus of knowledge, are slow, painstaking, in some respects unable to fully do them justice, in others more 9 Wouter Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Seculr Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 520-1. © Sasha Chaitow 2011


damaging than good, particularly when these topics are only made available at advanced academic levels – although they belong in undergraduate classrooms alongside history, literature, art as well as science. Practical and individual approaches to these topics are unlikely to have a great influence on their being understood on a broader level, and are often likely to lack method or to reflect more subjective or solipsistic interpretations. So in all cases, the 'esoteric traditions' remain grouped outside of mainstream culture, outside mainstream academia as a kind of “other”, in a situation that is perpetuated by the way of thinking that divided these worldviews from each other in the first place. Keeping its study in the highest echelons of academia fuels accusations of elitism, and supports calls for anti-intellectualism and the shunning of academic perspectives altogether. I see two ways out of this conundrum, and they are both based on the premise that within the history and the content of Western Esoteric currents, are embedded models and ideas that we can learn from and which can offer far-reaching practicable and pragmatic ways in which to counter the social, moral and existential crisis that we are all experiencing, whether from the eye of the storm or the sidelines. The first of these models is that of education that I have already raised. It is also my conviction that when they are so inclined, scholars in particular, have a duty to communicate, disseminate and discuss these models and their potential applications.






have how

the these

concepts work, need to leave their ivory towers and talk both to their more positivist colleagues, as well as their 'objects' of study and



(pardon the pun).

Practitioners who wish to join this dialogue need to root philosophical and enchanted ideals in modern reality. It is esotericism that can provide a common vocabulary and vision; from there on, we need to talk to each other - assuming of course, that we are agreed that right now the world could use some improvement. If scholars remain ensconced in libraries and conference halls, practitioners remain fixated on high-minded discussion and defence of their individual belief systems, and armchair occultists continue to disseminate misperceptions, then all together, we remain part of the problem.

© Sasha Chaitow 2011


In her 2010 presidential address to the AAR, published in this summer's Journal of the AAR, Ann Taves makes the following point: “Rather than simply borrowing theories and methods from other disciplines and turning our departments into fragmented microcosms of the larger university, I think we can take advantage of the fact that we can approach our object of study at many different levels of analysis and take up the challenge of figuring out how we might relate explanations generated at different levels of analysis.” 10 In the same issue of the same journal, another author notes the following point, in an article entitled 'Embodied research and writing: A Case for Phenomenologically Oriented Religious Studies Ethnographies,': The body can be a vehicle for complicating, at times transcending, emic and etic boundaries. To ignore our embodied interactions with others in the field when we write is to occlude lived experience and how our bodies are epistemological sites that allow us privileged access into our interlocutor's worlds.' 11 I am not proposing that we should use Ricoeur's method of hermeneutics as he used it, nor as it was adapted for use in theological hermeneutics, and I do believe that matters of personal spirituality and belief have no place in academia. Then again, neither do personal politics. However, that doesn't mean they should not be talked about, and that we should not explore germane ways to make use of the insights gleaned from a closer interaction with these ideas. Nor is the fear of this occurring, or precedents belonging to a different time, a sufficient reason to avoid reexamining them from new perspectives. All teachers inevitably bring their life-experience to bear in the classroom, whether they are aware of it or not, and the more self-aware they are, the better teachers they tend to be. We would not bat an eyelid at an art historian who is also an artist bringing his own aesthetic perspective or artistic imagination to bear in the classroom, and we would not think twice about a musicologist who is also a musician using her performance experience to clarify elements of 10 Ann Taves, '”Religion” in the Humanities and the Humanities in the University,' Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 79:2, June 2011, 287-314 (p. 293). 11 Kristy Nabhan-Warren, 'Embodied Research and Writing: A Case for Phenomenologically Oriented Religious Studies' Journal of the AAR, 79:2, June 2011, (378-407), p. 378. © Sasha Chaitow 2011


composition. If anything, their practice of these intangible arts of the imagination will make them better teachers. Nor is there a problem with using the language and hermeneutic devices of diverse philosophical perspectives in order to explore aesthetic nuances. Likewise with literature and concepts ranging from the post-modern sublime to the semiotics of poetry. Multiple conferences on education are organised annually, in which both theoreticians, administrators, as well as teachers discuss and exchange ideas; the latter basing their expertise on their classroom experience, which has a bearing both on the further development of theory, and of management. The approach of each of these professions incorporate a legitimate epistemology: the theoretician's is based on psychological, pedagogical, and statistical research. The administrator's is based on mainly practical considerations such as finance and logistics, and the teacher's is experiential first and foremost. A good teacher need not be a good theorist, but she does need to learn from experience and implement that experience in the future, and both administrators and theoreticians must hear that experience if they are to help, and not hinder, the educational process – which is often enough like being on stage without a script, especially when teaching younger age-groups. It is the experienced teacher who must be able to translate theoretical models and practical concerns into a classroom setting, and communicate that classroom reality back to the theoreticians hidden in offices and libraries. Likewise in the medical field, both clinicians and practitioners frequently gather to exchange findings – and there is a tension between them, since although the findings of clinicians may rest on empirical bases, it is the practitioners who know what no meta-analysis can demonstrate. Alone, they can only perform half their task, and I dread to think of the bedside manner of clinicians, whose valuable work, on the other hand, serves both as quality control and as a constant learning tool for medical practitioners seeking to develop and improve their field. Finally, coming full circle to the Bodossakis Foundation website with which I started, it is hardly surprising that, while Greece is in the throes of financial and sociopolitical crisis, the Athens School of Economics summoned political philosophers to attempt to redefine the possible applications of Platonic thought to the current situation. A naïve approach would quote the Republic verbatim and possibly call for synarchic rule by philosophers. Passed through a critical lens while maintaining the essence of Platonic

© Sasha Chaitow 2011


philosophy, and adapted to modern considerations, the result was a series of presentations that produced thoughtful and applicable suggestions for management, governance and economic protocols, that take social cohesion and the human element into account, and all of which made abundantly clear that technocratic number-crunching is not the way forward when governing people rather than numbers. Therefore, in summary, I hope that I have clarified the proposal being made here. •

Firstly, that the humanities, and education in general, is in danger of becoming ever more commercialised, ever more an elite luxury.

Secondly, that esotericism belongs in the corpus of cultural knowledge just as much as any other branch of the humanities.

Thirdly, that there are numerous precedents in other areas of the humanities that support the case for both interdisciplinary borrowing, as well as for the acceptable acknowledgement and use of experiential learning alongside theory.

Fourthly, that esotericism as a corpus of knowledge is in a position to offer models and paradigms that can be of use in a modern setting, provided that they are viewed through a combined lens that takes their full nature into account.

Fifthly, that as a field, it is necessary to reach out and to translate “academese” into a more accessible kind of language, if for no other reason than to counterbalance the continuing misconceptions that led esotericism to be stigmatised in the first place.

And finally, that as scholars, we have a duty to bring this area of study to a wider audience, not least because if it remains shut away in the ivory towers of academia, it will also remain “other,” and may well eventually wither as an academic field if the state of the humanities continues to devolve as it is currently doing. If that occurs, it will be the practitioners, and not the scholars, who keep these currents alive. It is for this reason that at Phoenix Rising Academy, we are calling for dialogue, and for all those of us who care about esotericism, whether as an object of study, or as a way of life and worldview, to sit down at the table and talk about what we can learn from each other, and how we can make our collective knowledge count for something. It is to this end that today's session was organised, and it is in this spirit that we hope to continue.

© Sasha Chaitow 2011


Š Sasha Chaitow 2011


Western Esotericism in A Brave New World_Demons in the Academy at the AAR 2011  
Western Esotericism in A Brave New World_Demons in the Academy at the AAR 2011  

Paper presented at the Phoenix Rising Academy Parallel Session “Demons in the Academy: Renouncing Rejected Knowledge, Again”, at the America...