It was an unusually polemical tone that Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) struck there. Anyone who sees ghosts is probably a "candidate for the hospital". Relevant visions were apparently based on a "hypochondriacal wind in the bowels", which would only have taken the wrong direction, namely upwards instead of downwards. The target of Kant's mockery was a certain Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish scientist and theosophist, one of the most famous esotericists of his time.
The sober Kant never had much left for the "wonderful". He once wrote in a letter that he had never believed in ghosts or feared in cemeteries; he always followed common sense. And yet Swedenborg's reports from another, higher world also impressed him. After all, this man, who claimed to cultivate personal dealings with spirits and angels, had amazing knowledge.
Swedenborg reportedly reported a fire in Stockholm in detail, even though he was many kilometers away at the time. Even in his writing Dreams of a ghost seer (1766) Kant could not refute Swedenborg's visions, but that did not seem necessary to him. Probably Swedenborg simply suffers from a "deceptive imagination", that is from delusions. Scientific knowledge of the other world was not only impossible because it exceeded the limits of reason, but was also simply unnecessary. Reason should rather deal with the here and now instead of chasing an ominous shadow realm. And those "half-citizens of the other world" who felt like Swedenborg at home in higher spheres, should be in the madhouse.
Many enlightened people see it today in a similar way to Kant. Esoteric thinking is considered an irrational bully, a superstition from pre-modern times. Relevant content and practices seem to be incompatible with our secular worldview. In an enchanted world there is no place for angels, spirits and magic. Anyone who still believes in the supernatural is quickly considered a spinner that you no longer have to take seriously. And yet it seems like we are the spirits of the Esoteric not going: The market is booming – from book bestsellers like The Secret up to Higher self-Courses and Kabbalah seminars. Many still expect healing and enlightenment from esotericism – and access to a higher, spiritual world. But what is behind this need? What "knowledge", what is the meaning of esotericism? And what distinguishes it from science, religion and philosophy?
The term "esotericism" itself is controversial, and even more so the question of what belongs and what doesn't. Perhaps the best way to agree is that the quest for higher, hidden knowledge and spiritual transformation is always at stake. We supposedly acquire this knowledge through mystical vision, through the mediation of higher beings or through personal experiences. This particular approach alone distinguishes esotericism from natural science as well as religion. Esoteric knowledge is not based on reasonable consideration of reasons, nor does it come from a divine revelation alone.
From an esoteric point of view we have the ability to gain access to the higher world, to the divine. The only evidence is the personal spiritual experience of the "initiates" who are ready to take the path to higher knowledge. That sounds like sheer irrationalism. And yet one does not live up to the esoteric tradition by simply reducing it to a pre-enlightened, primitive world view.
The Greek word esoterikos actually means "inward, not open to the public", in contrast to exoterikos (foreign, understandable for laypersons). Esotericism – from Greek esoteros for "further inside (located)" – in the historical sense means a teaching that is only accessible to a small group of initiates or elect: This is how the term was developed in the 19th century by the Frenchman Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875 ), one of the first and most influential occultists.
According to the influential definition of the religious scholar Antoine Faivre, "esotericism" means a form of thought that is characterized by four necessary characteristics:
1. the representation of correspondences or correspondences between the different levels of reality, for example between planets, plants and human body parts, whereby these connections are not to be understood causally, but symbolically. Such correspondences form the basis of astrology, magic and alchemy; the idea can still be found in alternative medical treatment methods such as homeopathy.
Second the idea of a living, animated nature that underlies these correspondences; this is the basis for the basic idea of a magia naturalis, with which people with certain higher abilities can intervene in the living cosmos.