10. Esoteric Introduction

Mysticism is often associated with privileged or secret knowledge. This tendency stretches back to ancient Greek times, with Pythagoras, and probably even further back to the Egyptians. Hermetic knowledge, supposedly begun by Hermes Trismegistus, carried on the tradition. The direct knowledge of God was seen as something given only to those who had the particular virtues, the particular will or ability. While various mystics in the Middle Ages were part of the establishment, various others were seen as a threat to the establishment. Their knowledge was seen as corrosive to good order, by advocating Dionysian excess and chaos amid the Apollinian order that the authorities desired. Sometimes the threatening knowledge was related to social class or gender (for instance, the Beguines), sometimes it was just knowledge that threatened Aristotle or Augustine or some other authority. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for just such advocating just such knowledge.

Esoteric knowledge, as the centuries went by, sometimes just turned out to be subversive to existing regimes. Pythagoras' "secrets" turned out to be mathematics, Paracelsus' secrets turned out (sometimes) to be just good science. But other times, the secret knowledge involved powers unseen by the untrained eye, conspiracies only suspected by the common person. X-Files is, in a certain sense, a good example of esoteric knowledge, except that they work mostly from conspiracies rather than supposing that there is an order beyond the natural. (Their aliens are natural, just unusual, not supernatural).

How is this an introduction to the study of mysticism? It is an introduction in the sense that mysticism has often been understood as esoteric knowledge. Indeed, it overlaps with it, although esoterism is not completely mysticism and mysticism is not completely esoterism.