This is a subject that has been rattling around in my mind for quite some time. It began to come into focus more clearly a few years ago when I was reading Joscelyn Godwin’s The Theosophical Enlightenment. One of the subplots of that book, especially in the concluding four chapters, is that of the the increasing amount of tension over the “East versus West” issue among Esotericists during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In one corner were those wished to drink deeply (and ever more deeply) from the fonts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. In the other corner were those whose motto was “East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet.“
Another theme that pops up in Godwin‘s book is that of “therapeutic blasphemy“, a term Godwin borrows from one of Britain’s most prominent Buddhists, Sangharakshita. The idea of “therapeutic blasphemy” is, in essence, that Christianity is such a pervasive influence in western culture, that only by a positive and concerted effort can one break free of its pernicious (and largely unconscious) influence. In particular, all those born in a Christian society (even if not raised Christian, even nominally) must go through a period of public denunciation of Christianity, ie, “Therapeutic Blasphemy”, otherwise they are doomed to remain perpetually under the thrall of the cult of the creed making fishermen.
Reference to therapeutic blasphemy always reminds me of Jesus’ own advice to his disciples to “shake the dust from your feet” upon leaving a place where the people were not receptive to his teachings.
Another book that I read at the same time was Christopher McIntosh’s The Roscicrucians, in which McIntosh draws attention to two types of factionalism among Esotericists: (1) that of political conservatives (in particular, monarchists), versus political liberals (in particular, republicans), and (2) that of Hermeticists who are “Christian only in that they include some Christianity but do not stress it”, versus Rosicrucians who “are primarily Christian but draw on other non-Christian sources”. [Those quotes are actually from Kathleen Raine’s Yeats, the Tarot and the Golden Dawn, which McIntosh quotes from on p. 105 of his book.]
A third book that influenced my thinking on these matters is Richard Kaczynski‘s Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (of which I am the proud owner of a signed copy, and also of which a revised and expanded version is due out later this year – yay!). In that book Kaczynski portrays Crowley (and to a lesser, or possibly greater extent Allan Bennett) as a Hermetic/Pagan (or in Bennett’s case Hermetic/Hindu/Buddhist) presence in the Golden Dawn at odds with the more staid Rosicrucian/Christian mainstream of the Order. The “conservatives”, led by William Butler Yeats, won the day in the end, despite (or possibly because of) Crowley’s alliance with S.L. McGregor Mathers. Christopher McIntosh, in his book mentioned in the preceding paragraph, concurs with this view, saying that the Golden Dawn became “totally ‘Rosicrucianized'” under Yeats, with all rituals rewritten so that they were now “Christian in emphasis” [pp. 104-105].
My personal interest in (and attraction to) Traditionalism and my abhorrence for Modernism have also led me to investigate the writings of Julius Evola, Arturo Reghini, and similar characters, despite my own (ever waning) leftist leanings. It has also led me to keep an eye on Mark Sedgwick’s Traditionalists blog, where a a fascinating item appeared just yesterday about a new English translation by Joscelyn Godwin of some writings by Marco Baistrocchi (an Italian Traditionalist and next-generation fellow-traveler of Evola and Reghini). These writings by Baistrocchi were critiques of Rene Guenon’s The King of the World. From what very little I know, the basis of Baistrocchi’s criticism of The King of the World, was that the story presented by Guenon in that book (first published in 1927), according to Baistrocchi, “was a deliberate manipulation, designed to shut off Western seekers from Eastern wisdom and to divert them, first into Catholicism, then into Islam.” For more details see this page (where the immediately preceding quote is lifted from), which is part of the Theosophical History website. At that page there is also ordering information for Godwin’s translation of Baistrocchi’s writings.
Here is a little excerpt mentioning Evola, Reghini, and Baistrocchi (among others), from another book by Godwin: The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions:
In Italy after World War I there was a concerted effort to restore the ancient Roman religion, led by Arturo Reghini and supported, for a time, by the young Julius Evola, whose Imperialismo Pagano (1928) is a forceful defense of Pagan imperialism against its Christian supplanter. Evidence of more recent activities emerges from the journal Politica Romana, which serves as a forum for a number of distinguished scholars and thinkers including the late Marco Baistrocchi (a diplomat by profession), Piero Fenili (a judge), and the expatriate American Dana Lloyd Thomas. Roman religion appears there in a broad context of philosophical polytheism, keeping company with Mahayana Buddhism, Vedanta, and Neoplatonism. The feasts of the Roman calendar are commemorated, the Gods and sacred sites of the city are honored, and the Italian Renaissance and the Masonically-inspired Risorgimento are celebrated as manifestations of the original spirit of Italy. An effort in a similar direction was the journal Antaios, edited by Mircea Eliade and Ernst Junger. Avowedly polytheistic, Antaios aimed at a Europe of mutually respectful homelands rejoicing in their ancestral myths, their Gods and Goddesses, and in the earth from which, in the Greek legend, the giant Antaios derived his strength.
To tell you the truth, Dear Reader, I am amazed that I have finally organized my thoughts on this subject even this much!! For now I will leave off with this unapologetically schematic list of dichotomies that seem to be ever present, just below the surface (if that much) of the swirling currents of the Western Mystery Tradition(s), for future consideration and investigation:
East vs. West
Pagan vs. Christian
Traditionalist vs. Modernist
Conservative vs. Liberal
Nota Bene: The books mentioned above by Godwin, McIntosh, and Kaczynski are all simply magnificent. Tasty, tasty brain-food for all discriminating occultist bookworm types!
UPDATE: Richard Kaczynski just yesterday announced to the world that he has “sent off the revised and expanded edition of Perdurabo for copy-editing”!! Check out his blog for the details.