A Critical Approach to Mysticism and Ideals of Enlightenment

Ideals of the Age of Enlightenment have long been dominating the world by stripping humanity from its spirit. Could mysticism, that is considered esoteric, be an answer for humanity to find harmony resolving conflicts? For this inquiry, it is essential to inspect what sort of processes the history of human thought has been through. Hence, this article aims to dive into the covert world of mysticism and esotericism to be able to understand how they work and why they could posit solutions to the problems of radical rationality.

Humanity has passed through different phases of history, and a phase not so far is the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment has its roots in the Renaissance movement, secularization and rationalization of arts and sciences (Borghesi, 2019). These ideals shaped the world as they manipulated the sources and resources through their needs and their will. Secularization might seem to be a necessary ideal for the scientific progress. However, as its radicality, it also comprises of elusion from any possibility of transcendental experience. To define transcendental experience, one ought to mention spirituality and mysticism that are hand in hand with esoteric methods of comprehension of the world. A conservative and obscurantist concept might spring to mind if mysticism is thought about. However, an extension of the definition of the concept of mysticism to a current and living system of comprehension of the world is required. The purpose of this extension is to be able to describe the historical progress of humanity as an experience and how this concept is parcelled with the ideals of enlightenment via the ideals of rationality (Asprem, 2016). As Western civilization prospered with the light of rationality and secularism, it also left a part of human experience in the shadows in order to have dominance over physicality, and this phenomenon posits a conflict within the holistic experience of humanity. It is embodied in history as the conflicts of colonization, discrimination, and environmental issues. However, mystical comprehensions of the world posit a more holistic understanding of the world and the place of humanity in it, considering mysticism in the extended definition that reflects the recent understanding of humanity as a concept.

Anonymous. Meditative Person. [Digital Art].
Fig. 1: Anonymous. Meditative Person.

Mysticism is hand in hand with esoteric methods. To define esotericism, it is essential to identify main branches of thought in Western thinking. Those main branches are a rationalist thinking of enlightenment, and Judeo-Christian theology (Hanegraaff, 2013). Esotericism is the field of thought that is separated from each with a view of mystic or agnostic approach to the world. It is also called Western esotericism because its denomination is rooted in Western culture as the distinct category of thought from the other two branches (Hanegraaff, 2014). The possibility of another comprehension of the world through these concepts is immanent to the mystical experience, or namely spiritual experience. Spiritual experience is defined as the experience of consciousness as becoming one with the nature or the feeling of absoluteness. It also has roots in Zen teachings regarding meditation and the meditative state. However, meditation can have different meanings in Western culture and Zen. Philosophical meditation, identified with the Western culture, is a process of rationality. It involves thinking thoroughly in a focused way about a subject using logic as the method of thought. On the other hand, Zen meditation is more focused on the clarity of mind and coming to a meditative state to be in meditation, which could be described as leaving the experience of ego. Additionally, it directs one to a holistic understanding of nature and humanity.

Mysticism and esotericism are based on the latter kind of meditative experience. Rationality is a tool to comprehend what physicality encompasses. Spirituality enables us to comprehend metaphysical existence. This distinction between meditations reflects the difference of the comprehension of each teaching. It comes forth as mysticism is transcribed to the culture. Hence, the influence of the latter is seen within the Western civilization as the New Age movement (Asprem, 2014). On the other hand, Brînzeu & Szönyi state that this kind of thinking is linked directly to the existence of a higher being or a higher life-force that is keeping the universe working in harmony in a post-modernist fashion. The crises of Enlightenment lead to the idea of progress to fall and the assurance of truth to be shaken, leading to the post-truth era. Hence, people found assurance in such a belief of existence of a higher being (Brînzeu & Szönyi, 2011). Although the ideas of mysticism or spirituality at first seem to be directly connected to an idea of a higher being, these ideas do not necessarily entail a god-like being.

Lemonnier (1812). Reading of Voltaire's tragedy of the Orphan of China in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin in 1755. [Painting].
Fig. 2: Lemonnier (1812). Reading of Voltaire's tragedy of the Orphan of China in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin in 1755

It is stated by the thinkers of modernity that the world is disenchanted through enlightenment and modernity. The idea of disenchantment might seem to be a process of secularization through the values of enlightenment (Hanegraaff, 2013). However, it is criticized as follows: disenchantment of the world is a sterilization process of the thought from the spiritual experiences (Versluis, 2007). This sterilization process strips humanity from the possibility of having a transcendent perception, which reduces humanity to biological machines. Modernity is needed to procure its dominance over materiality. Hence, it leaves any mystical approach or spiritual experience aside. This split was not an easy one, so modernity had to put mysticism under inquisition to make the possibility of spirituality vanish. When the argumentation of contemporary rationalism is analyzed with a fundamental and critical philosophical approach, we can explore that the idea at the root of rationalism carries its own genuine radicality as its allegedly hostile reaction to be restricted by religion and its oppression to any mystical experience clearly exhibit. In this sense, the radicality of secular rationality seems to be a restriction by religion. Thus, the point of its degeneration is embedded in its oppression to any mystical experience. Accordingly, these radical and septical lines of the idea converge at the same point of inhibition

Robert-Fleury, Joseph-Nicolas. (1847). Galileo before the Holy Office. [Painting].
Fig. 3: Robert-Fleury, Joseph-Nicolas. (1847). Galileo before the Holy Office.

Galileo being punished for proving that the Earth revolves around the Sun (and the opposite), and academia rejecting esoteric knowledge in the name of secularism, sets out examples of how the encapsulations of concepts within ideals prevents the progress of thought. First, rationality was demonized, with the power of dogmatic beliefs that are empowered by religions and mythical structures of ancient times. Then rationality was at power, which demonized any mystic and intuitive belief system beyond rational thought. With this movement, the world was dominated by Western culture. This domination led to the exploitation of the world according to the appetite of the Western culture. However, the seed of spiritual thought was already within the rational thought that was rooted in the secularization of theology as a practice of philosophy. Although it is included within the doctrine of Enlightenment, discrimination of esotericism that involves spiritualism is the prevailing current in academia because of radical rationality of modernism and West-centric thought. In a modernist understanding, through enlightenment, academia and scholars reject this kind of systems and categorize them as occult, superstition, and magic (Hanegraaff, 2014).

As humanity evolves, it embraces thought systems to find the most useful way to sustain its existence. Hence, there seems to be a pattern of domination between each system of thought. It could be set out as when one becomes more dominant, the other collects momentum to become more dominant again. On the other hand, both concepts can also cooperate in the discourse of thought. When rationality cannot comprehend the unknown, or comes across a systemic end such as scientific constants such as maximum speed of light or Coulomb constant, one can argue that this is how the universe functions. If we take the question a step further as to why the universe has such constants, the response is either an agnostic one that leaves the question open ended and does not provide an answer, thereby leaving one in a state of indeterminacy, or is the mystical one which leads to spiritual or religious systems. Considering the functionality of both concepts, two questions arise as follows: can rational scientific development encompass the mystical belief system? Can a mystical belief system embrace all scientific progress? These questions actually point out a border between two different thought systems. Each thought system needs a base to build upon. For both of the fields, this border works as a point of assumption for both systems to be able to work in their schema of comprehending the world. Hence, as they build the systems, they provide a progress of resolution of understanding in their fields. Hence, it could be stated that rational thinking and practices provide an understanding and a domain of practice in physics, and spiritual inquiry and practices provide an understanding and clarity in metaphysics (Jones, 2016). However, what if two domains overlap on fields and conflict?

Johnston, Miles. (2018). Binary Source. [Graphite on Paper].
Fig. 4: Johnston, Miles (2018). Binary Source.

The most popular topic on this conflict could be argued to be about the inquiries of mind. Considering what the mind is, it could be the state of energy flow which the certain order of body and brain constitutes, or it could be the part of the person that belongs to the spiritual world as Descartes puts forth with mind-body duality. However, this requires a different consideration as it does not necessarily mean that for one to work on an area, the other cannot work on that area. Let us consider psychiatry as a field that tries to treat the state of mind of a person. The method of psychiatry seems to be regulating the bodily systems in order to clear the mind of the patient as in any other field of medicine. In the light of radical rationalist modernist ideals, early psychiatry was more about regulating the mind to become normal. However, with the recent approaches, it does not try to penetrate the meta-physicality of the patient. It is aware that any attempt of penetration to the meta-physicality to the patient is an act of razing the persona. And also, the guidance in the metaphysical area is in the domain of psychology which aims for the resolutions of the conflicts in the personality of the counselee.

To conclude, the West-centric worldview shaped the world according to its will through the history of Enlightenment. Shaping the world with the ideas of rationality as the tool, Western civilization was conditioned to make the world a heaven for itself at the expense of other teachings and tenets. However, this process resulted in the destruction of the world. The extremes of these ideals of modernity developed the world at the expense of different societies, cultural differences, and environment. The results of this elimination can be seen through the history of colonisation: African-American people being transported to America to be used as slaves, and massacres of Native Americans, and in underdeveloped parts of the world. Additionally, the environment is a victim of this process. The polar caps are melting, oceans and lands are full of waste and micro-plastics, and many species are in danger of extinction. Major causes of the rise of these menaces to the nature are extensive industrialization and wastefulness of mass production. It is not only the other parts of that are suffering but also the Western civilization. A great part of the population suffers from depression and the sense of meaning to life is lost. What could be a solution to these problems that we face as humanity? The search for resolution for these conflicts continues as humanity tries to adopt a more holistic and embracive understanding of the world. As an alternative, mysticism posits such an understanding through its ways of comprehending humanity, the world, and their co-occurrence. This is a compelling reason for people to be inclined to these belief systems. Therefore, it seems evident that, as humanity, we need more consolidative, sustainable systems that enhance togetherness of humanity as a whole and our environment.

Bibliographical References

Asprem, Egil (2014). “Beyond the West: Towards a New Comparativism in the Study of Esotericism." Correspondences, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 3–33. correspondencesjournal.com/ojs/ojs/index.php/home/article/download/9/9

Brînzeu, Pia, & György E. Szönyi (2011). “The Esoteric in Postmodernism.” European Journal of English Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Informa UK Limited, pp. 183–88. https://doi.org/10.1080/13825577.2011.626934.

Borghesi, Francesco (2019). “From the ‘Renaissance’ to the ‘Enlightenment.’”. Intellectual History Review, vol. 29, no. 1, Informa UK Limited, pp. 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1080/17496977.2019.1546426.

Hanegraaff, Wouter (2013). Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed). 0 ed., Bloomsbury Academic.

Hanegraaff, Wouter (2014). Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Reprint, Cambridge UP.

Jones, Richard (2017). Philosophy of Mysticism: Raids on the Ineffable. Reprint, State University of New York Press, ..

Versluis, Arthur (2007). Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esoteric Traditions. Rowman and Littlefield Publisher.

Visual Sources

Fig. 1: Anonymous. Meditative Person [Digital Art]. Retrieved from https://neuro.wharton.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/iStock-Blog2-e1585773724832.jpg

Fig. 2: Lemonnier (1812). Reading of Voltaire's tragedy of the Orphan of China in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin in 1755 [Painting]. Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Salon_de_Madame_Geoffrin.jpg

Fig. 3: Robert-Fleury, Joseph-Nicolas. (1847). Galileo before the Holy Office [Painting]. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6b/Galileo_before_the_Holy_Office_-_Joseph-Nicolas_Robert-Fleury%2C_1847.png

Fig. 4: Johnston, Miles. (2018). Binary Source [Graphite on Paper]. Retrieved from https://www.milesjohnstonart.com/2018/a5ei490jooz1itqbebbceavpve8esr

Cover Image. Anonymous. (1888). Flammarion Engraving [Wood Engraving]. Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Flammarion.jpg

Author Photo

Övünç Koşar

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