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ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE

These and other attempts to provide a scientific basis for occult phenomena have never been successful. This, of course, does not disprove them: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes. New Agers are content to accept the occult and the esoteric on faith, as all religions are accepted.

A Thumbnail Sketch of Esotericism and the Occult in Western History

The Italian Renaissance

Identification of the esoteric and occult as such in the West stems from the Italian Renaissance during the fifteenth century or quattracento. During this time, the revival of classical learning in northern Italy, interest in the Jewish mystical writings called the Kabbala on the part of scholars such as Pico della Mirandola, and efforts to recover the works of Plato, known only through fragments, preoccupied those people who were called humanists. In this context, the latter term did not refer to “secular humanists” (those who doubt or deny the reality of the supernatural), but to individuals interested in human cultural achievements of the past, such as Greek and Latin literature. Such persons were few in number and chiefly to be found in northern Italian city-states such as Pisa, Florence, and Milano, which had not lost their urban character during the course of medieval times. The typical Renaissance humanist was curious about the world , fascinated with all aspects of art and literature, and, above all, highly appreciative of the Latin and Greek heritage. Leonardo da Vinci is usually cited as the best example of a Renaissance person. He was an artist, poet, scholar, athlete, and military genius: he apparently excelled in everything.

Nearly all Renaissance humanists were devout Roman Catholics, albeit critical of the Church for its corruption. Unlike the men and women of the Reformation (which coincided with the Renaissance during the following century), humanists like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More advocated reform of the church from within, but not sectarianism. They were not rationalists like the philosophes of the eighteenth century, and this is a matter of relevance to the occult. They were instead fascinated with the psychic dimension, keen believers in astrology and alchemy, and indeed, made outstanding contributions in both. Alchemy, which is the art of transforming base metals into gold, the achievement of perpetual youth by chemical means, and, above all, the arts of soul enhancement, was of particular interest to the men of the Italian Renaissance. Paracelsus, the greatest of all alchemists, was among them.

During the fifteenth century, Renaissance scholars in Northern Italy also recovered certain classical texts which they took to be ancient revelations, older than Christianity. One of the most important of these for its impact on the modern European tradition of the occult were the fifteen books which made up the Corpus Hermeticum or collection of Hermetic writings.

Hermeticism

Hermetism was a Hellenistic system of the occult which originated and flourished in Alexandria, Egypt during the early centuries of the Christian era. It persisted as a distinct religio-philosophical system as late as the tenth century.

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