The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Secret Teachers of the Western World. In it I look at the history of the western esoteric or ‘inner’ tradition through the lens of the work of two important thinkers, the German-Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser, and the contemporary neuroscientist and English scholar Iain McGilchrist. My central idea is that the western esoteric tradition has been a victim of what we might call a “consciousness war,” which has been taking place over the last several centuries.
In The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser argues that the western mind has moved through different “structures of consciousness,” and is at present undergoing the breakdown of what he calls the “mental-rational consciousness structure,” in preparation for the emergence of the new, “integral” structure of consciousness. As should be gathered from the excerpt, this is no picnic and the transition is fraught with danger. In The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist re-boots the “split-brain” discussion and argues that throughout our history, our cerebral hemispheres have been involved in an at times friendly but more often very serious rivalry. McGilchrist believes that since the Industrial Revolution, the left brain – associated with logic and analysis – has gained the upper hand, with its neighbor, the right brain, partial to intuition and synthesis, increasingly losing ground. The result is the fractured, fragmented, disintegrating postmodern world we are all too familiar with.
Although the western esoteric tradition has suffered from this development, it has never completely vanished, even with the many attempts by reductive science to eradicate it. Here, in the closing sections of the Introduction, I present the central argument of the book, and invite the reader to explore with me the ‘other mode of consciousness’ embodied in this defamed tradition, and the many “secret teachers” who carried on its work.
The esoteric, Hermetic tradition, forced underground by the rise of material, mechanical science, has suffered, I believe, a full scale, no holds barred assault by the left brain and the deficient mode of the mental-rational structure. Its right brain worldview, with its sense of a living, intelligent universe with which we can participate through our imagination, was targeted for attack by its left brain antagonist. It is not the case, as it is generally accepted, that the Hermetic/esoteric view, anchored in what it erroneously believed was a profound “ancient wisdom,” was, with the rise of reason, rationality and the Enlightenment, simply superseded by a more correct view. It was not simply a case of “superstition” giving way to “science,” or of dogma dissolving in the face of free thought. That “more correct view,” informed by the proselytizing zeal of a competing form of consciousness, seems to have purposely and ruthlessly set out to consciously obliterate its rival. This was, indeed, a real war, one carried out on the fields of consciousness.
In the early stages of its campaign, the anti-esoteric view enjoyed many victories, and it eventually established itself as the sole arbiter of what is true, and what is “real” knowledge and what is not. But now, some four hundred years after Hermes Trismegistus the thrice great sage of magic and the ancient wisdom was dethroned, his usurper’s position seems threatened – or at least the foundations on which it established its supremacy seem somewhat less secure. In our time, the deficient mode of Gebser’s mental-rational consciousness structure has reached its peak, as it were. Developments like “deconstructionism” and “post-modernism” suggest that the western intellectual tradition has begun to take itself apart, with the left brain’s obsession with analysis turning on itself. Even earlier than these, the rise of the “new physics” of quantum theory and related fields in the early part of the last century has shown that the neat nineteenth-century vision of a perfectly explainable mechanical universe is no longer tenable. But there are more pressing concerns. We’ve seen that Gebser in his last days believed that we were heading toward a “global catastrophe,” and the various crises – ecological, environmental, economic, social, political, religious, and cultural – that fill our daily news reports suggest he was not far wrong. Our era has had no shortage of Cassandras, and it would be easy to lump Gebser’s concerns together with other, less eloquent — not to mention researched — jeremiads. But there is a tension, an anxiety about our time that somehow seems to suggest that something will happen, that some dike will burst, and that we will have a flood. As the philosopher Richard Tarnas remarked, “late modern man”– that is, ourselves — is “the incongruously sensitive denizen of an implacable vastness devoid of meaning,” living in a world in which “gigantism and turmoil, excessive noise, speed and complexity dominate the human environment.” Things, many believe, cannot stay this way much longer. As Yeats said long ago, “the center cannot hold.”
Gebser was hopeful that with awareness and will, catastrophe can be avoided, and the shift from our decaying mental-rational structure into the new integral one could be achieved without the world collapsing. McGilchrist is hopeful too. Although he believes that left-brain dominance is increasing and that this is resulting in a world that is more and more like that familiar to people suffering from schizophrenia, McGilchrist also believes that the very crisis induced by left brain dominance will – or at least may – trigger a reversal. He points out that in the past, similar periods of left brain dominance have, in a sense, set off an alarm that resulted in a shift toward right brain values. In what Jung called an enantiodromia — that is, a reversal of values when one’s conscious attitude becomes lop-sided and the unconscious steps in to restore the balance — our hyper left brain view may trigger a resurgence of the right.
Yet the idea is not to merely jettison the left brain and return to an earlier, right brain mode of consciousness. That would merely push the pendulum back to the other side. Our left brain consciousness was not a mistake, or “fall,” but an experiment on the part of the right, out of which it emerged. It is, as McGilchrist says, the right brain’s emissary. It is needed, absolutely necessary, and has a job to do; the problem is it does it too well. The point is to educate our left brain — that is, ourselves — so we can achieve the kind of psychic integration that both McGilchrist and Gebser suggest is our salvation.
Bringing it All Together
They were not the only ones to see this. A reader of The Master and His Emissary familiar with the esoteric tradition could not be criticized for experiencing a distinct feeling of déjà vu. One of the central themes informing the western esoteric tradition, as well as that of the east, is the union of opposites. We see this in the ancient Chinese yin-yang symbol, in the mysterium coniunctionis or coincidentia oppositorum of alchemy, in the pillars of Mercy and Severity that border the Middle Pillar of Harmony in Kabbalah, in the union of microcosm (man) and macrocosm (universe) in Hermeticism and in its central dictum “as above, so below.” The idea that by bringing opposites together some new, third element, not given, is produced, or that a third element is necessary in order to bring about the union, also has a long history in esotericism, as well as in more “mainstream” forms of thought.
In alchemy, for example, the Great Work of transmutation requires the union of sulfur and mercury — the Sun and the Moon — brought about through the medium of salt (Earth). Hindu philosophy speaks of the three gunas, which are characteristics or tendencies of being. Left to themselves, tamas, the guna of inertia and rajas, the guna of agitation, lead to ill health and disturbances, unless they are balanced by sattva, the middle guna of bliss. We have already mentioned Blake (“Without contraries is no progression,” again from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). The philosopher Hegel’s dialectic, the three-step dance of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, is another expression of this threefold arrangement, as is Nietzsche’s pairing of Apollo and Dionysus, the Greek gods of order and madness, whose union, Nietzsche believed, was behind the beauty of Greek drama. Rudolf Steiner’s “spiritual science” offers a similar tripartite arrangement. For Steiner, the spirits of Ahriman, associated with deadening materialism, and Lucifer, the source of pride and hubris, are united and transcended by Christ, the mediator of these opposing spiritual forces. Gurdjieff spoke of a “law of three,” a “fundamental law” responsible for all phenomena in existence. And Jung spoke of the “transcendent function,” brought about by the union of the conscious and unconscious mind, which produces some new, unexpected development, that can help an individual break free of a psychic deadlock.
The psychologist and paranormal investigator Stan Gooch argued, much like McGilchrist, that humans inhabit two different and opposed realities, which he called Reality O (the objective world) and Reality S (our inner, subjective world), and that these are reconciled in what he called Reality U, or “universal reality.” One of the best guides to understanding these opposed realities, Gooch believed, were the Letters on Aesthetic Education by the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller. In these Schiller writes that “Freedom arises only when a man is a complete being, when both his fundamental drives [of imagination and intellect, or right and left brain] are fully developed; it will, therefore, be lacking as long as he is incomplete, as long as one of the two drives is excluded…” Schiller was a contemporary and friend of Goethe, whose own thinking focused on the tension between two forces, what he called “polarity” and “intensification,” the work of dividing unities and unifying divisions, the “systole” and “diastole” of the eternal heartbeat. Goethe shared this insight with his younger English contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge who spoke of the “universal law of polarity” which was “first promulgated by Heraclitus,” the pre-Socratic philosopher who argued that the “way up and the way down are one and the same.” More than a century after Coleridge, Arthur Koestler proposed what he called a “holoarchy,” a hierarchy comprised of what he calls “holons,” which are simultaneously both “parts” and “wholes.” Holons are “parts” of the level of the holoarchy that is above them, and “wholes” to the part that is below. In this they display what Koestler sees as fundamental characteristics of all “holons,” whether physical, organic, or social: what he calls their “self-transcending” and their “self-assertive” tendency; that is, their tendency to merge into a larger whole, and their tendency to affirm their independence. It is suggestive that Koestler speaks of this as a “Janus principle,” taking the name from the two-faced Roman god.
A Double-Truth Universe
This list could go on. When I began to see what Richard Tarnas calls our “double-truth universe” in light of our twin hemispheres, I experienced a kind of “double-truth” myself. Was this a profound insight, or a numbing platitude? When you begin to look for these oppositions, they seem obvious. And yet, they are so obvious that we overlook them, or feel they are not important. I do not know whether our “dualities” – those mentioned above as well as the many I have not mentioned – originate in the fact that we have two brains, or rather if our having two brains is a neurological expression of some fundamental law of being, some irreducible cosmic yin-yang that runs through everything. In one sense this doesn’t matter. What is important is that the central idea running through all of these philosophies of “polarity,” “opposition,” and “duality,” is the need for the creative tension between them to be maintained. This means that any imbalance between them, with one side of dominating the other, must be rectified. This is not in order to achieve some bland equilibrium, but to keep the creative interchange between them going.
From the perspective of Jung’s psychology, if the conscious, rational mind ignores or obscures the input from the unconscious, the situation can be corrected in two different ways. The individual can consciously attempt to open up a dialogue with his or her “other half” and actively try to absorb and assimilate what it has to say – Jung developed a method of doing this, “active imagination,” the aim of which was to stimulate the “transcendent function” mentioned above. Failing this, the unconscious would do it itself, and this can be calamitous. The unconscious contents are not always polite; they can burst into our conscious life in sometimes terrifying ways. They are willing to work with us if we are open to them, but they will make themselves felt, whether we want them to or not. The first route is preferable but harder, and demands discipline and determination. The second route is easier: you just let yourself go mad.
I don’t want to put too Freudian a point on this, but I think we can say that with the rise of left brain dominance and the deficient mode of the mental-rational structure, our culture has swung into a dangerous imbalance, by repressing the contribution of our other self, our other mode of consciousness. And one sign of this, I suggest, is the wholesale rejection of what we call the western esoteric tradition. For the last four centuries we have pushed this aside, made it a laughing stock, diminished its importance and ignored it, when we haven’t made determined attempts to eradicate it, once and for all. Scientists periodically announce that they have finally and categorically debunked “the occult,” the paranormal, mysticism and everything related to it, but as anyone familiar with the history of our defamed inner tradition knows, it will not go away. We can’t get rid of it for the simple reason that it is literally part of us; if I am correct it has its roots there, a few millimeters across from “us,” next door in our right brain. Whether we like it or not, we have to make an attempt to get to know our neighbor, our other self, or suffer the consequences.
Our Secret Teachers
What follows is a kind of history of our “other” mode of consciousness, our “other” mind, and a look at what we can learn from its rejected knowledge. This knowledge has been subject to abuse by both the church and science, been driven underground and parodied in popular culture, but its influence has always been felt, if not acknowledged, and it has produced a remarkable canon of ideas, insights, and speculation about ourselves and our place in the cosmos. There is the standard history of who we are, how we got here, and what the outlook for our future may be. But there is another history, a “secret history” of our consciousness, as I have argued in an earlier book. That history is not as easily accessible as the official one, although, to be sure, it has become more available to us in recent years through the internet and other sources on our “information highway.” The standard history teaches us that the actors in this secret history were a muddled, superstitious lot, gullible and credulous, when they were not simply madmen or fools. The western inner tradition has certainly had its fair share of eccentric types, but this wholesale low assessment of its members is merely propaganda, and the western world owes much to its “secret teachers,” to the men and women who devoted themselves to understanding and expressing the vision of our other mode of consciousness.
Some of these teachers we know and in a sense are not secret at all. Yet in many cases what they have to teach remains so. Some are not so well known, indeed, are hardly known at all. One can be a secret teacher in the sense of being unknown, but one can also be a secret teacher in the sense that what you teach is secret, hidden, obscured or, perhaps in some cases, even purposely disguised. Esoteric means “inner,” that which resides within as opposed to the exoteric, which relates to the outer, surface of things. It also means something aimed at a small group, those who share an interest in and have a familiarity with concerns to which the majority are oblivious. The western inner tradition has always faced criticism about elitism, about select groups who pride themselves on being different, if not superior to the masses. A smug spiritual self-satisfaction can arise with those who enjoy the distinction between “us” and “them.” But this is true of any group; esotericism has no monopoly on egos and the false sense of superiority to which they are prone. The message of our secret teachers is open to everyone. To understand it requires the same degree of intelligence, discipline and determination needed to master a musical instrument or gain proficiency in quantum mechanics. But perhaps most the important thing is that you must want to learn.
What makes an esoteric education different from learning to play a musical instrument or grasping quantum physics is that its subject and the person pursuing it are one and the same. In studying esotericism we are in reality studying and exploring ourselves, our being, our consciousness, and this is not a study to which we can remain “scientifically” detached. As the historian of esotericism Arthur Verlsuis remarks, within its different branches, western esotericism displays a “consistently recurring theme of transmuting consciousness, which is to say, of awakening latent, profound connections between humanity, nature and the divine, and of restoring a paradisal union between them.” We should, Versluis argues, view “esoteric traditions as written maps of and means toward the exploration of consciousness,” and see the initiations that make up much of the esoteric tradition as ways of “awakening…higher degrees of consciousness.”
I agree. What draws most people to the study of esoteric ideas and philosophies is a profound felt need for this change, this transmutation of consciousness. Something is missing, there is some lack that the usual sources of satisfaction cannot meet. There is a vague, obscure sense that one must change oneself in order to meet this need, and the different insights and philosophies making up the varied strands of the western inner tradition suggest a way of doing this. I would add to this that we have good reason to believe that at least some of what is missing is the contribution to our self-understanding offered by our much maligned yet infinitely patient, wise and silent neighbor living in the brain next door.
So let us take a look at the sources of our rejected knowledge and what lessons we can learn from the secret teachers of the western world.