Secrecy by Hugh B. Urban on Esoteric vs. Occult

Secrecy: Silence, Power, and Religion, Urban (

Throughout the history of this blog issues of secrecy have constantly arisen, especially since the private correspondence of a secret society of the 1880s was provided to Missouri State University, which led to their publication.  Four decades of writing experience as a historical researcher included consistently friendly, open, constructive encouragement from esotericists.  Occultists on the other hand often have behaved in precisely opposite ways.  These two terms, used frequently as synonyms, refer in my experience to opposite poles of historical honesty and accountability.  A new book, Secrecy: Silence, Power, and Religion by Hugh Urban, Ph.D., from University of Chicago Press, gives the best summary I have seen of the theoretical rather than practical difference between the two tribes:

The terms “esoteric” and “esotericism,” meanwhile, were first used in German and French literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to refer to traditions that were conceived as the “inner” or hidden teaching beneath outer, mainstream religious institutions. In contemporary scholarship, the phrase “Western esotericism” usually refers to a complex body of literature that developed out of Hermetic, Gnostic, and Neoplatonic sources of late Antiquity and reached its height during the European Renaissance and early modern period.  These include esoteric practices such as alchemy, magic, astrology, as well as esoteric communities such as the Rosicrucian Fraternity, Freemasonry, and modern orders such as the Golden Dawn and Theosophy. While claiming to contain deeper “inner” knowledge, esoteric literature may or may not be “secret” in a sociological sense.

The correspondence between Wilder and Johnson and their friends is overwhelmingly that of esotericists, scholars of historical esotericism, and even though Johnson briefly led a secret society his passion was esotericism and not occultism, knowledge of the past and not predicting the future or practicing mediumship and divination in the present.  But those who appear as adversaries of these esotericists, among their Theosophist and Spiritualist associates, were better described by this second passage from Urban:

“Occultism,” then, refers primarily to a more recent current within Western esoteric traditions that developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in response to major transformations in modern European and American society, politics, and economics.  While the term “occult” had appeared in texts since at least the twelfth century, occultism as a modern movement amid the secularizing trends of modern science, technology, and the ravages of the industrialization; it was, in short, a search for a deeper, hidden spiritual reality beneath the increasing materialism and rationality of modern life. As Antoine Faivre put it, “The industrial revolution naturally gave rise to an increasingly marked interest in the `miracles’ of science… Along smoking factory chimneys came the literature of the fantastic and the new phenomenon of Spiritualism.”

Many of the individuals named in reference to decanates by Benjamine in the Brotherhood of Light lessons and those appearing by birth date in the Letters to the Sage were either esotericists focused on the past or occultists focused on the present and future.  Those with natal Suns in the third decanate of Aries, by far the largest single contingent, will be discussed in the upcoming blog post.

In retrospect the summer of 1994 was when I crossed the Rubicon beyond which esotericists would all be friendly and occultists would often be punitive in protection of secrets.

July 1994