ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
Hellenistic esotericism, like Hinduism, had two parallel trends. The major trend was rational, according to some authorities, and the minor was non-rational. (Edward Burns et al, 1980: 155) I disagree, and argue that rationalists always have been a very small minority; that this was true during Hellenistic times and is true today.
What is relevant to Esotericism is the non-rational component of Greek philosophy exemplified by the Skeptics and Cynics. Our terms scepticism and cynicism come from these philosophical movements. By definition, a “skeptic” is one who doubts while a “cynic” is one who is apathetic. Both the Skeptics and the Cynics despaired of discovering truth by rational/empirical means. They acknowledged that much could be learned about the natural world of perceived phenomena by the critical examination of the material world as revealed by the senses. But, unlike the Stoics and Epicureans, and like the esoterics, the Skeptics and Cynics held that there was a metaphysical realm, that is to say another realm beyond or within the material dimension.
The Cynic philosophy was founded in 350 B.C.E. by Diogenes, who, according to an oft-repeated legend which has become a joke, went about with a lantern looking for an honest man. Diogenes and his followers were much like the “nature boys” of the 1940s, the “beatniks, of the 1950s, and the “hippies” of the 1960s. They lived the “natural life,” free of artificiality and conventionalism, wholly without ambition. But unlike the beatniks and hippies, who included poets such as Ginsberg, and musicians like the Beatles, the Cynics spurned music and the arts as artifices.
All of the Hellenistic philosophies fostered individualism. Indeed, the idea of personhood arose during this time. Previously, people identified themselves primarily as members of families, clans, and tribes. This is still true of tradition-directed people today, that is to say, people whose lives are strictly regulated by the traditional customs of their social groups. Esoterics also tend to stress individualism rather than social commitments.
Modern and post-modern esotericists are therefore faulted for a lack of social conscience. They are almost completely absorbed in their own interests, are usually comfortable if not affluent, and tend to be indifferent to the suffering of the poor, the deprived, or the oppressed. Few if any esotericists have been distinguished for social action, political commitment, or even for the most minimal civic duties, such as casting a vote. Instead, they tend to be self-absorbed and self-centered, sharing their inner experiences with fellow occultists, sometimes seeking converts, but not at all interested in trying to save suffering humanity.
Hermeticism and Gnosticism
Virtually all forms of esotericism and the occult, such as tarot cards, palmistry, crystal-ball gazing, spiritualism and communication with the dead through mediums, holistic healing, astrology, alchemy, the Jewish mystical phenomenon known as Kabbala, and neo-paganism are based on the two Hellenistic philosophies, Hermetism and Gnosticism, which originated in Alexandria, Egypt during the early centuries of the Christian era. Both have