Psychology•January 8, 2023
Within the esoteric realm of possibilities might lie the answer to some of humanity’s most puzzling questions.
Historically, the esoteric was deeply associated with ancient Greek philosophy, which aimed to reveal the secrets of the universe and was also at the core of the mystical experiences which are part of most religions. The esoteric is still present today, but is less mythical and magical, instead understood as a representation of the edge of collective human understanding.
Read on to learn about the origins of the concept of the esoteric, how it was understood in different traditions, philosophies, and religions, and its impact on society.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “esoteric” is defined as “very unusual and understood or liked by only a small number of people, especially those with special knowledge.” The term “esoteric” comes from the Greek 'esōterikos' and is derived from 'esōterō' meaning “inner” or “further inside.” Thus, the idea of the esoteric is generally associated with secret or hidden knowledge, a theme that can be found throughout history and across cultures.
In ancient Greece, there was a strong connection between esoteric meaning and the study of philosophy. Greek philosophers such as Plato and Pythagoras believed that true wisdom and understanding of the universe could only be achieved through the deep study of the world and the self. For a Greek philosopher, the type of knowledge that resulted from studying the inner depths of the self and the mechanisms governing the world was esoteric.
One of the most significant examples of esoteric knowledge in ancient Greece can be found in the story of the Oracle at Delphi. Greeks believed the Oracle could communicate with the gods and answer questions about future events. Nevertheless, the Oracle's answers were often cryptic and difficult to understand. Only a special few could decipher and interpret the meaning behind Oracle’s words and understand their true meaning.
In the Middle Ages, people associated the esoteric meaning with studying alchemy and the occult. Alchemists were considered scientists and philosophers at the time. They believed they could reshape matter and unravel the secrets of the universe. The philosopher’s stone was considered capable of granting immortality and helping alchemists turn base metals into gold.
During the Renaissance, individuals associated esoteric knowledge with spiritual or religious pursuits. For example, the Hermetic tradition, based on the teachings of the ancient Egyptian god Hermes Trismegitus, became highly popular among scholars and philosophers at that time. According to the Hermetic tradition, hidden knowledge or spiritual wisdom is to be discovered through meditation, contemplation, and the study of sacred texts.
Esoteric knowledge and practices continued to evolve throughout history and can still be found in various forms today. For example, the study of mysticism, spiritualism, alternative healing practices, secret societies, and conspiracy theories are all ways through which interest in esoteric knowledge persists.
The distinction between exoteric and esoteric lies in the accessibility and the prevalence of the knowledge or practices in question.
Esoteric knowledge is private, obscure, and exclusive and might be related to subjects such as mysticism or the arcane. On the other hand, exoteric knowledge is widespread, accessible, and shared among the general public.
For example, cutting-edge and complex science theories that only a few experts understand can be considered esoteric. In contrast, basic scientific concepts that teachers impart to their students as part of general education are considered exoteric.
When analyzing the concept of the “esoteric,” some scholars believe that the term describes knowledge known only by a small number of people. However, the term can also more broadly describe any knowledge that is not commonly understood or accepted by the general public.
Overall, the term “esoteric” is used to describe knowledge and ideas that are not widely known, but the specific connotations and implications of the term might vary depending on the context in which it is used. In the case of “esoteric subjects,” it could refer to secret or less understood domains of knowledge.
Here are a few areas of “esoteric” human knowledge and experience:
The specifics of the esoteric meaning might vary from context to context, but the underlying ideas represented by the term are constantly present. These ideas refer to the fact that there are elements, symbols, and insights present cross-culturally between philosophies and faiths that are considered at the edge of our knowledge, that are almost magical and mystical. Some esoteric knowledge might simply turn out to be wrong, but there are also nuggets of truth nested in the esoteric realm that, once discovered, change our world.
If someone is described as “esoteric,” it generally means that they are considered mysterious or hard to understand. It can also imply that they have an air of secrecy around them and might be considered different from other people. People described as esoteric might also have a distinct way of thinking and beliefs that are not accepted or understood by the general public.
It is also worth noting that the term can be used as a negative judgment, implying that the person is weird, hard to understand, or even shady.
An example of a person who was considered esoteric during his lifetime was Giordano Bruno. He was an Italian philosopher and astronomer who lived in the 16th century. Bruno was considered an esoteric individual by the Church because of his different views about the world. He believed that the universe was infinite and denied the concept of the Trinity. Because of that, the Catholic Church labeled him as a heretic.
The story of Giordano Bruno is a tragic one, as he was burned at the stake for his unorthodox beliefs, but he stood for what he believed was right, and some of his “esoteric” ideas, like the infinity of the universe, turned out to be true.
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who is known for his insights into the nature of the psyche, defining concepts such as the collective unconscious and the archetype.
He discovered seemingly esoteric ideas, such as the collective unconscious, which refers to the part of the psyche that contains the inherited memories, experiences, and knowledge of a species or culture. His exploration of the collective unconscious contributed to the discovery of archetypes. Archetypes are universal patterns of human behavior or personality found cross-culturally in different religious beliefs and mythology.
For example, the "Mother" archetype represents nurturing and caregiving, while the “Father” represents discipline and authority. Jung believed that understanding these archetypes could help us gain insight into our behavior and the behavior of others.
Carl Jung explored the esoteric meaning, or knowledge related to the human psyche, and found universal patterns representing human behavior. He dared to have the courage to look into the unknown depths of the psyche to bring back a tool for understanding ourselves.
There are many similar occurrences where people explored esoteric knowledge and found insights related to our reality. For instance, Srinivasa Ramanujan was a self-taught Indian mathematician known for his incredible mathematical insights and his contributions to number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. However, one of the most peculiar details of Ramanujan’s work was the way he discovered many of his mathematical insights, which was through communicating with a Hindu goddess named Namagiri.
During his lifetime, Ramanujan corresponded with English mathematician G.H. Hardy, who invited Ramanujan to work with him and study at Cambridge. Ramanujan accepted the invitation and worked with Hardy to create proofs for the mathematical discoveries coming from his esoteric mathematical revelations. As a result, Ramanujan became one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society.
Jung and Ramanujan showed the significance and validity of exploring esoteric knowledge and how, with enough care, curiosity, and courage, it can be transformed into insights revealing the nature of reality and the human psyche.
If you are interested in learning how to venture into the mysterious realm of esoteric understanding and come back with useful insights about our human nature and world, check out our Psychology Program Overview, or speak with Admissions Advisor to learn more about our programs.