Book Review: Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy

By August 27, 2015

Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

I’m planning on doing a series of posts on “cosmotheism,” or at least the way the Wouter Hanegraaff describes the concept in his book Esotericism and the Academy. But before I do so, I thought it best to review Hanegraaff’s book, which I had been meaning to do for a while now.

For anyone who attended MHA session on the reassessment of John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire, both Brooke and I mentioned this book a number of times, and I would simply state here that there isn’t a book that I would recommend more highly for anyone interested in situating Mormonism both historically and intellectually within Christian history.

Western esotericism, Hanegraaff explains, was a series of ideas and practices that various Protestant and Enlightenment thinkers sought to expunge from Western thought and practice. Such ideas often related to supernatural invocations that these thinkers would label “superstition,” “magical,” and “occult” as a means of discrediting them. This expunging project was highly successful as esoteric ideas came to be viewed as illegitimate objects of study and only served as a reminder of the foolish past that the Enlightenment had left behind. “Our imaginal constructs of esoteric or occult otherness are simultaneously constructs of ourselves,” argues Hanegraaff (3).

Such a project did considerable violence to the western intellectual tradition, because it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that these ideas began to be classified as “other.” In reality, the esoteric ideas and been fully integrated in western thought and practice and thus the Enlightenment project greatly obscured our own past.

A major target of those seeking to remove false ideas was Plato. Early modern Protestants in particular saw Plato as a corrupting force and were appalled by contemporary Christians who had embraced Plato. The problem for these Protestants was that as they went back to early Christianity for an ideal model, they found that many of the fathers had embraced Plato as well. Thus they constructed the claim that these fathers had been corrupted by Greek thought and were not reliable guides to Christian thought. Protestants used such a claim to denounce both Catholics and contemporary Platonists.

The rules-of-thumb that seventeenth and eighteenth-century Protestant thinkers developed for determining who was a corrupt Platonists was if they rejected creation ex-nihilo and if they believed in continuing revelation. They chose creation ex-nihilo because it had been developed by early Christians to reject Plato’s model of God creating out of mater in his Timaeus (a common idea in antiquity, creation ex-nihilo was a unique Christian idea that was developed in the second or third century). Platonists tended to reject creation ex-nihilo: a sign of their heterodoxy, said these Protestants. Such thinkers chose belief in revelation as a marker because they argued that mystics beliefs like Quakers’ belief in the inner light was based on Plato’s concept of the nous, or the uncreated, divine part of the soul that if one listened to would lead one back to God and eventual deification.

Yet many Protestant intellectuals wanted to engage in philosophy but felt they had to come up with a way to study Plato without being corrupted by him. Those who developed the modern discipline of the history of philosophy, therefore, invented the bifurcation of “reason” and “revelation.” The Greek philosophers engaged in reason, they argued, but not revelation; revelation was found in scripture (but not in continuing revelation, that made one a corrupt Platonism who believed in the nous). What was important was to keep reason and revelation separate. You could engage in philosophy or “reason” but don’t mix it with religion as the corrupt early fathers had. The Neoplatonists were the worst offenders since they were so blatantly religious in their quest for union with God, and Plato himself was refashioned into a purely and expounder of reason and not religion.[1]

Ultimately, though Hanegraaff never mentions Mormonism, Esotericism and the Academy is extremely valuable for understanding how modern thinkers have categorize modes of thought in opposition to ideas that Mormonism would embrace, and this understanding helps us better situate Mormonism within the history of Christianity.

[1] Stephen Webb notes the problems with modern views of Plato in his Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). “This story,” argues Webb, “has to deal with the fact that Plato himself was a lover of stories and many of the stories he told were about heavenly realities and mystical visions.” “The standard story of philosophy, however, treats [stories like] the charioteer as a myth that Plato used for rational, not religious, purposes. The standard story denies that Plato took any of the details of the myth literally (or even seriously).” “By treating Plato as a lover of stories that he did not believe,” Webb complains, “the standard story of philosophy is as hard to believe as any of the stories that Plato told.” Because the Neoplatonists were overtly religious, asserts Webb, “modern philosophers often show little interest in them, and the many thinkers who populate the Platonic tradition … are rarely taught in undergraduate courses.” That the Neoplatonists were seen to be involved with magic makes them even worse in contemporary philosophers minds, argues Webb, and leads such scholars to try to separate the Neoplatonists from Plato. “Plato is the West’s greatest thinker, and to associate him with someone like Iamblichus is to impugn his reputation,” is the attitude of contemporary philosophers, argues Webb. Mormon Christianity, 35, 53-54, 61, 68.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Of course the irony is that within the 19th century Protestantism became more and more liberal and sometimes becoming indistinguishable from deism as it demythologized scripture. As Charles Dickens put it, “angels in an age of railways.” The more modern society became the more drive to demythologize scripture. Ironically this moved many protestants towards a more deist like Hegelian or even Platonic conception of God. Of course there were countermoves such as what eventually developed into the Evangelical movement.

    The main problem with too platonic a reading of Mormonism is that in many ways Mormonism puts even *more* of a divide than creedal Christianity did. Instead of between God and creation though with each being absolutely other to each other we have God within creation and a part of creation. Yet that means the drives of both Hegelian and Platonism are still confounded since the One is no longer God. So some criticize us as demoting God to demiurge from a Platonic conception.

    Comment by Clark — August 27, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

  2. Well, a demiurge working within the cosmos to create is how Plato described the creation in the Timaeus. The Neoplatonists spoke of vast hierarchies above the demiurge (including the One), but JS also spoke of hierarchies above the Father and the Son.

    I think I’ll talk a bit more about that in later posts.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 27, 2015 @ 3:48 pm

  3. I think I may have picked this up based on your recommendation a couple of years ago. It was great, and I’ve come to point to this along with JZ Smith on the weakness of “magic” as an analytical category.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 27, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

  4. I’m glad it was useful J. This was sort of an overview, he goes over a lot of topics, and as you say, his analysis of magic is among the best. It’s always tough to come up with other terminology, but I kind of think I got the hang of it through trial and error. When all else fails I referred to “practices ‘deemed’ magic” since my advisor was really into pointing out that practices don’t have an ontology of their own but are simply “deemed” certain ways by different people.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 27, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

  5. Thanks for the post, Steve — I’ll have to go re-read that chapter in Webb. I missed the reassessment session on Brooke. Was it reassessing esotericism in religion generally or the actual links between Joseph’s particular texts or views and that broader esoteric tradition?

    Comment by Dave — August 28, 2015 @ 8:36 am

  6. There were four different papers, all of which will be published in JMH soon. To give a quick summation, I’d say that three of them placed Refiner’s Fire in American and Transatlantic historiography, while mine talked about developments in the the historiography of western esotericism.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 28, 2015 @ 10:41 am

  7. Bought the book on your recommendation. Interestingly I was reading The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture and he makes a very similar argument about how the religious/mystic aspects of the platonists are downplayed. His point was more that the west privileged a kind of demythologized platonic line and disparages (and misrepresents) Hebrew thought except to the degree if conforms to this belief. His point is that in doing this typically they are massively distorting the figures of antiquity and late antiquity. Maybe that made sense in the kind of history of philosophy Hegel gave, but it makes little sense today.

    It’s often interesting seeing how people deal with Socrates daemon in the more dry philosophical tradition. Some acknowledge the quasi-religious aspect and then discount it as superstition on par with the creation account in Timaeus. Others more interestingly discount it by reducing it to ones creative drive or inner voice. The move to continually demythologize doesn’t just apply to how people attempted to make the Bible respectable.

    Comment by Clark — September 1, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

  8. Thanks, Clark, that’s interesting. Socrates’s daemon troubled the West’s intellectual elites for centuries. The Encyclopedia Brittanica (1790s) said that Socrates was too dignified to engage in trickery and too modest to be influenced by “blind enthusiasm.” However, they said, “we would rather esteem Socrates an enthusiast in this instance, than degrade him to the base character of an imposter, or suppose that a spiritual being actually revealed himself to the philosopher, and condescended to become his constant attendant and counselor.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 2, 2015 @ 9:14 am

  9. I do hope you do your post on the Timaeus. My problem with reading the Timaeus in Mormon terms is that it really seems to divorce it fundamentally from the platonic basis from which it arises.

    I’m not saying one has to adopt the neoPlatonic notion of levels (which is in some ways a response to the Stoics). However it’s hard to reconcile the One and demiurge to Mormonism given our inherent materialism. There are of course interesting parallels with the demiurge story, but I suspect that arises just out of the typical pantheon in the near east that often had a head god and then a lesser god who did all the dirty work in various ways. That is even if Plato and the Platonists were far more religious and mystical than the Hegelians and Cambridge Platonists were comfortable with in other ways they were also far more demythologizing and allegorizing than probably most of their contemporaries.

    Comment by Clark — September 3, 2015 @ 8:31 pm

  10. No doubt Mormonism’s God of flesh and bone varies from the Neoplatonic concept of the One, but I kind of see that as comparing apples and oranges. Again the KFD opens up the possibility of vast divine hierarchies, which complicates a simple God the Father=the One comparison. The One is above all those hierarchies, and JS never said what was at the top of his.

    The Middle Platonists and Neoplatonist certainly loved to allegorize but that wasn’t always the same as demythologizing. For instance, Origen (who also used this method) said that the garden-of-eden fall was an allegory of the preexistence. It’s an allegorical reading while still maintaining a belief in a cosmic (and Platonic) event (the preexistence).

    And just to be clear, I actually argue in my dissertation that JS used Thomas Taylor’s translation of Plato’s Timaeus to translate chapter 3 of the BoA (I’m not kidding). They’re that similar. JS also used vocabulary found in the Timaeus in speeches he made about the creation in the 1840s. (I go through all that in a lot of detail, what the rationale might have been etc.).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 3, 2015 @ 8:57 pm

  11. Well I was less thinking of the One. The only time anything like the One comes into Mormonism is with Orson Pratt’s aether as the Spirit of God – a more Stoic-like interpenetrating fluid that fills the universe. But Pratt, at least after the presentation of “all spirit is matter” moves much more towards Stoic and/or Priestly atomist conceptions. To me it seems very much a way of trying to rescue the traditional ousia vs. hypostasis division within God of traditional Christianity. (Which had been given a fairly neoPlatonic twist by the time of Augustine)

    Pratt can easily be taken as de-platonizing this Augustinian concept which inexorably moves it back into the Stoic presentation.

    However for Pratt you have individuals who are in harmony with this interpenetrating fluid making them all one being in a certain sense. Again, we move closer to a stoic mysticism and cosmology.

    Famously though (see Bergera’s Conflict in the Quorum among other places) Young hated this idea. While I suspect Young’s opposition was in part opposition to traditional Christianity that he thought he saw in Pratt, his real issue was attributes vs. being. Young’s ontology really was a pragmatic anthropology. Thus all that mattered were the material people and their attributes. Since he didn’t buy into a neoplatonic or stoic ontology to him Pratt was setting up a system where the attributes rather than the persons were worshiped.

    If we try and translate this back into neoPlatonic cosmology Young thought it completely inappropriate to worship the One or even anything on the intellectual plain. We worship only the persons who are at the level of spirit.

    This type of thinking tends to persist into the 20th century when Mormonism becomes if anything more materialistic. First with the near scientism of Talmage and Widstoe but even with the more literalist and legalist approach of Joseph F. Smith, Bruce R. McConkie and others. The ultimate cosmological and ontological questions become irrelevant. All that matters are the persons and their relationships.

    Given all that, it’s hard to take a Timaeus like cosmology too seriously – at least after Nauvoo.

    To the point of Nauvoo or earlier. Again I think we have to be careful. While I have a lot of problems with Quinn’s work on esotericism one thing I think he gets quite right is structural use vs. adopting the ideas. (He doesn’t put it that way, but I think that’s what he’s after) That is Joseph reads in a fashion we might call deconstructive. The margin of this reading is always the spirit. (Socrates daemon?) Thus he’s reading the text not to be true to the understanding of the author of the text, but to be true to the questioning of the text.

    Quinn (again not putting it in those terms) thus has the three degrees of glory come out of the three ontological levels of emanation in neoplatonism. One could easily see Joseph Smith reading the Timaeus deconstructively and getting back and a more pre-platonic “council of the gods” that was so ubiquitous in the ancient near east. (From a more secular perspective, we might say he reading it in a de-platonizing way and letting his creative drive remove what he thought fundamentally wrong doctrinally)

    To the demythologizing I was thinking less of the figures of late antiquity than the figures of antiquity. That is the time period of Plato and later the rise of the Stoics. To see this merely look at how they talk about the gods versus the more traditional (even in their time) conceptions of the Hellenistic pantheon. By the time of late antiquity those readings had themselves already become dogma.

    Comment by Clark — September 4, 2015 @ 10:00 am

  12. Sorry for the length of that – it didn’t look that long in the comment box. I’ll try making future comments at my blog because I think there’s a lot to unpack.

    BTW – Do you have a link to Thomas Taylor’s Timaeus? I found his Proculus commentary on the Timaeus. Is that what you meant?

    Comment by Clark — September 4, 2015 @ 10:09 am

  13. […] Fleming, who?s done a lot of work on neoplatonic influences on early Mormonism, had up an interesting post at the Juvenile Instructor. The context was a brief book review of Wouter Hanegraaff?s […]

    Pingback by Demythologizing Plato | Mormon Metaphysics — September 4, 2015 @ 10:36 am

  14. Taylor’s translation is Plato, The Cratylus, Phaedo, Parmenides and Timaeus of Plato, trans. Thomas Taylor (London, 1793). I couldn’t find it on Google.

    I’d also point out that the council of the gods isn’t pre-Platonic since there is a council of the gods in the Timaeus (and other dialogues). This is Taylor’s translation. “When therefore all such gods as visibly revolve, and all such as become apparent when they please, were generated, the Artificer of the universe addressed them: “Gods of gods, of whom I am the demiurgus and father … Learn therefore what I now say to you indicating my desire. Three genera of mortals yet remain to be produced. Without the generation of these, therefore, the universe will be imperfect; for it will not contain every kind of animal in its spacious extent. But it ought to contain them, that it may become sufficient perfect. Yet if these are generated, and participate of life through me, they will become equal to the gods.” And then goes on to say more stuff that sounds a lot like the Book of Abraham. That’s 473 in Taylor’s translation.

    More recent translations aren’t that different. It’s 41b-d or so in the standard numbering system.

    I’d just point out the Neoplatonists insisted on the One as unknowable and JS didn’t describe the Gods above God the Father (so also unknown).

    Plato doesn’t really lay out the the One like that, he has The Good and God, who are sort of vague. Again it’s the Neoplatonists who lay out all those cosmic hierarchies. In the Timaeus, it’s just the demiurge, the world soul, and the lower gods.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 4, 2015 @ 11:47 am

  15. Sorry. I didn’t phrase that well. Perils of typing on a phone.

    I wasn’t sure if the influence you identify was from Proculus or the Timaeus proper. I’d found a bunch of texts of Taylor on Amazon but no electronic versions. Presumably because the e-version of Jowett is already available. I’ll have to run up on campus and make some photographs as I am curious as to how much is just phrasing elements and how much is more. However the start of semester is probably the worst time to head to campus.

    By council, I simply mean that Plato is making use of earlier traditions for the Timaeus but likely giving them a very different twist. While I’m more familiar with semetic traditions, the Twelve Olympians who meet in council in Homer is an obvious Hellenistic tradition of the same notion. Obviously the Homeric Hymns aren’t the same as the Timeaus.

    I should also note it’s been years since I read the Timaeus and when I last did I was much more focused on the philosophical notion of the Khora. So my memory is a tad rusty. I should reread it before commenting too much.

    I’ll say a bit more at my blog latter so as to not distract people here who I’m sure are much more interested in Mormon history than ancient history.

    Comment by Clark — September 4, 2015 @ 4:24 pm

  16. I’d definitely say the influence was the Timaeus proper since Proclus is a bear to read. His commentary is like thousand pages and quite difficult. So yeah, the original is much easier.

    No doubt Plato was drawing on earlier stuff, but still, this council in the Timaeus, I argue, sounds a lot like the BoA and the KFD.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 4, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

  17. And I just realized I made a mistake in my dissertation (not the only one obviously) when I said that the Timaeus didn’t explicitly state that the demiurge sent humans to earth so that they could become deified. But clearly it did in the quote above. (Note to self).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 5, 2015 @ 10:53 am

  18. […] concludes Esotericism and the Academy by arguing that the two principal points that Enlightenment scholars of philosophy labeled as pagan […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » What’s the Opposite of Strict Monotheism? A Question of Terminology — September 8, 2015 @ 11:27 am


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