Esotericism, Psychologism, and Spiritual Movements

Esotericism, Psychologism, and Spiritual Movements by John R. White, Ph.D.

Modern Western esoteric practice is deeply influenced by depth psychology. “Depth psychology” is a generic term covering basically all those psychologies which focus on the psyche’s “subconscious” or “unconscious” dimensions. Among the best-known depth psychologies are Freud’s psychoanalysis, Jung’s analytical psychology, Gestalt psychology, and psychosynthesis, though there are also numerous others. It was one of the achievements particularly of one of the best-known depth psychologists, Carl Jung, to have recognized both that Western esotericism is implicitly a depth psychology and that depth psychology, if it is to obtain a comprehensive picture of the psyche, needs to study and assimilate Western esotericism.

Though Jung was aware of this need of a mutual understanding between existing depth psychology and Western esotericism already in the 1930’s, and though it is fair to say that Jung himself made significant strides in this direction, depth psychology and perhaps classical esotericism as well have not, up to this point, moved significantly further down the path that Jung originally cleared. This unfortunate fact arises partly from Jung himself and from the manner in which he treated spiritual phenomena. Jung assumed a particular methodological stance to the effect that psychologists can only speak about events internal to the psyche, a not uncommon view for his time but one which also significantly hinders what insights one can obtain about esoteric phenomena. What sense does it make, for example, to try to understand an act of worship while ignoring that the worshipper at least experiences the entity being worshipped as something beyond his or her psyche? Or how much can one understand a ritual act if its transcendent purpose is not entertained as something at least potentially and in truth transcendent? Have we really understood a poltergeist or UFO phenomenon if we merely take for granted at the outset that these are simply products of the human psyche?

Thus, due to this stance, Jung tended to reduce phenomena which are experienced to be beyond or transcendent to the psyche as if they are merely aspects of or immanent to the psyche itself. Consequently, though Jung had a keen sense for the fact that reality extends much further than was typically thought by the materialists of his time, he nonetheless tended to treat all non-material being and experience as if it must be purely psychological, as if, in the final analysis, whatever isn’t material – whether we speak of his own concept of the archetypes or whether we speak of “supernatural” phenomena such as ghost, poltergeist, angel, or god – must in the end be mere products of the human psyche. Yet, while there certainly are experiences in which one mistakes mental products for entities transcendent to the psyche, it seems far-fetched to say that all such experiences are really nothing but mental phenomena. I have discussed an aspect of this problem in Jung with regard to he latter’s understanding of the divine in a forthcoming essay (“Jung, the numinous, and the philosophers” in Jung and Philosophy, edited by Jon Mills). Several examples in Mark Stavish’s book Studies in Poltergeists, Obsession & Possession should certainly give pause to anyone holding the blanket assumption that everything spiritual is at rock bottom a product or content of the human psyche.

Jung’s approach to esoteric phenomena has not only impacted psychotherapy practice but has also greatly influenced esoteric practices themselves over the last century, to the point that, for example, even something as diverse from pure psychic reality as laboratory alchemy became interpreted as a mere set of projected metaphors for purely psychic processes among many occult practitioners, including some of high notoriety, like Aleister Crowley. In our time, as admittedly valuable as Jung’s approach is and still can be for esotericism, we should also admit that certain aspects of Jung’s approach have actually inhibited a fuller understanding of Western esotericism and of the latter’s potential contribution to depth psychology. Among the most important problems with Jung’s approach to esotericism is precisely this reduction of potentially non-psychical, spiritual phenomena to the psyche and its projective processes. In the following, I will term this reductive stance on Jung’s part “psychologism.”

Psychologism: Pros and Cons

Before we look critically at one of the consequences of Jung’s psychologism, we should first note some of its advantages – for there certainly are advantages. For one, Jung’s approach to esoteric literature, with its well worked-out theoretical apparatus, offers a way of understanding, categorizing, and describing a number of discrete psychic phenomena which occur in esoteric practices. Jung was keenly aware of the various layers or strata of the unconscious psyche as well as that those various layers can differ not only regarding their depth but also their extension. For example, Jung’s differentiation of the individual versus the collective unconscious, though still a bit too crude to describe all relevant phenomena, nonetheless allows us to think of the soul or psyche as a locus not only of individual but also of group experiences, e.g., of egregores.

This dimension of Jung’s psychologism further allows, for example, a relatively cogent interpretation of the ancient proposition of the connection and correlation between the cosmos, the “macrocosm,” and the microcosm, i.e. the human being in the multiple ways in which it expresses the same universal principles that comprise the macrocosm. Since the individual human being is understood to be linked to the collective unconscious as one stratum of the individual psyche, one can offer a relatively cogent psychological understanding of how changes in the individual psyche can resonate and effect changes in the macrocosm and vice versa.

Further, Jung’s conception of the archetypes, with its emphasis on the idea that the cosmos includes divine and divine-like energies which impact the individual psyche, crystalizes insights and claims essential to the ancient Hermetic tradition, which understood the cosmos as a place filled with vast hierarchies of spiritual beings, ranging from the gods to angels to egregores to daemons. Jung seems to have accepted that there are many kinds of such energetic phenomena and that these are usually expressed in the myths of various peoples and religions, though he typically also reduced them to phenomena of the collective unconscious.

And, as a practical consequence of Jung’s psychologism, people of a more agnostic bent, for example people who doubt the existence of trans-psychic spiritual phenomena of any kind, have a way of entering into esoteric practices and gain what spiritual and psychological benefit they can from them, without it seeming like a contradiction. Thanks to Jung’s approach, there is no commitment to believing in trans-psychic phenomena in order to benefit from the practices, thus opening up the world of esotericism to practitioners without belief in anything intrinsically divine.

These are only a few of the pros of Jung’s approach to esotericism, but even the ones I have mentioned are not minor. However, there are also potential disadvantages to Jung’s approach that are at least worth mentioning, disadvantages that, I will suggest, sometimes impact spiritual movements negatively.


The original Hermetic tradition was of course closely associated with Neo-Platonic philosophy, something we have discussed to some extent in earlier posts (“The Magic of Philosophy, Parts One and Two”). One aspect of classical Platonic philosophies which is more or less entirely at odds with Jung’s approach is that they have no tendency to assume that if something is spiritual it is reducible to the projective powers of the psyche. Now that difference between Jung, on the one hand, and the Hermetic and Platonic traditions, on the other, might be conceived of as a weakness of the latter traditions. Perhaps it would be argued that the latter’s views are just the “primitive” beliefs of an earlier phase in human history and development. Yet it is important not to jump to that conclusion. After all, throughout the history of thought, any number of principles that have been held to be certain and universally valid have later been disproven and/or rejected – and there is no reason to think that Jung’s psychologism might not be one of these. Nor is it outside the realm of possibility that things look “primitive” to us only because of our own biases, not because of a deeper insight. The 18th and 19th century fantasy that just because something is later in historical time it is also more sophisticated is one which human experience disproves day after day. There is no reason at the outset, therefore, to assume that modern esoteric psychologism along with its rejection of independent spiritual realities is any different. Rather, we need to understand something of why the Hermetists/Platonists held to the position of actual, independent spiritual entities and, once this basic point is understood, what effect this difference might have on our esoteric practices.

Now both the Hermetists and the Platonists offered many and subtle arguments concerning the gods (as well as other spiritual entities), as Iamblicus’ magnificent text On the Mysteries demonstrates. For our purposes, however, we don’t need to enter into the subtleties of philosophy because the more crucial issue is the underlying assumption that the bulk of those arguments rest on, namely, that in the final analysis we are dealing with entities of a higher order than ourselves. Whatever “higher” means here, it at least indicates that we are more limited in power and understanding than they. Yet if this true, that would suggest that our understanding of these entities is not likely going to be due to our own discoveries of them, precisely because these beings are in some sense above and beyond our comprehension. Consequently, the primary access we have to knowing them and to knowing about them is through what they tell us about themselves.

Thus, the basic principle here would be: all knowledge of the divine (or of any higher spiritual entity, in principle) would be knowledge from the divine. To put this in more traditional theological language, one would say that concrete knowledge of the divine is always and only through revelation on the part of the divine.

What If The Gods Are Real?

Now, how one interprets this principle will have a lot to do with one’s general cosmological and esoteric views. If, for example, one’s views tend toward Jung and psychologism, any such “revelation” might be granted on one level but denied on another, since it would be understood to be a “revelation” of one part of one’s unconscious psyche (probably some archetypal dimension of the unconscious) to one’s conscious psyche, rather than a revelation from an autonomous spiritual being. In contrast, were one to hold to the ancient Hermetic view of autonomous and real spiritual entities, these would be revelations in a robust sense of the term, i.e. communications from one being to another.

These differences cannot but imply differences of attitude, depending on which stance one takes. For example, it makes some psychological difference if one thinks one is relating exclusively to a piece of oneself in a magical operation or believes one is working with a genuine Other of some sort – just as it is psychologically different when I talk to myself versus when I am talking to someone else. In the first case, the event in question is presumably a wholly internal experience, just as Jung assumes. In the second, something which resembles interpersonal experience is occurring, with all the potential for surprise, misunderstanding, and mutual adaptation that actual relationship requires – i.e. an experience of genuine “otherness.” There is therefore potentially a great difference in how these two approaches understand and interpret an experience.

A more subtle difference, however, would pertain to what we might call the “ownership” of the operation. If we approach a magical operation from the standpoint of psychologism, we will tend to take the attitude that we initiate the procedure since, in practice, it is an aspect ourselves that is being addressed: it is exclusively an internal operation, deriving from some part of ourselves and addressed to some part of ourselves. In contrast, if we take the traditionally Hermetic view, we would presumably assume that other, higher powers interact with us constantly and hence what is occurring in us is at least in part the fruit of this interaction. This latter would in fact be the practical application of the principle that “knowledge of the divine is knowledge from the divine.” If we take that principle only as an abstract philosophical principle, it refers only to the general knowledge of the gods. But if we take the principle also to have a practical application, it would suggest a number of other consequences – among them that, for example, the impulse to perform a magical operation with respect to a certain god also most likely arose from the action of that god. In other words, what from the standpoint of psychologism would amount to a simple decision on my part to perform some magical act would, from the traditional Hermetic view, be understood to have been initiated at the level of the gods (or spiritual entities). According to the first interpretation, the act is merely my decision: I own the act; according to the second interpretation, the act is a response to an invitation arising from a higher order of being than my ego and the divine and I are cooperating in the decision to act. We are, as it were, co-owners.

Psychologism and Spiritual Movements

Whether or not one finds it plausible that there are independent spiritual entities, it is at least important to recognize that one’s attitudes will tend to be different – indeed, in some ways opposed – depending on whether one takes a psychologistic stance or rather takes something along the lines of a more traditional Hermetic stance. In the communications of Master R (St. Germaine) to Paul Foster Case et al., published in Paul Clark’s Paul Foster Case. His Life and Works, there is a telling passage which cuts to the heart of this issue:

“… one of the most important things is to do everything possible to correct the errors which have disrupted so many spiritual movements.

One of these errors – one of the worst and one of the subtlest – is that against which the subject matter of this instruction is directed. This error springs from the supposition on the part of the aspirant that he is doing something to raise himself – to lift or sublimate, some of what he mistakenly believes to be his personal powers – physical, emotional, or mental.

The truth is that nothing originates in, or is directed from, the personal level. Right understanding of what really goes on requires this basic realization. Everything in one’s spiritual unfoldment is, so far as personality goes, a tropism, an automatic response to impacts from the level of Ruach in Tiphareth.

Because many do not understand this, all sorts of variations of spiritual pride, or even spiritual vanity, vitiate the work of the student who has not grasped the basic principle. This misunderstanding leads to the substitution of purely personal prejudices for judgment, and is colored by unresolved complexes (124-5).”

The relevance of this passage for our discussion should be clear enough: when one takes a basically psychologistic attitude toward esoteric practices, there is an accompanying temptation to think that everything, including one’s progress, relies entirely on one’s own choices, attitudes, deeds, and so forth. Consequently, there is also an inner tendency to forms of spiritual vanity and pride and to a substitution of “personal prejudices for judgment… colored by unresolved complexes.” I have mentioned this problem in passing in an earlier blogpost with respect to power complexes (“Esoteric Practices and the Power Complex”) but we can easily extend the set of complexes evoked by this attitude to those associated with narcissistic tendencies (such as pride in the negative sense, arrogance, and vanity), to those associated with inner attitudes of scarcity (envy of others’ achievements, resentment towards those who don’t acknowledge one’s own achievements, refusal to teach or aid others lest they advance further than oneself, resentment toward those in superior positions, etc.), and to those which provoke tendencies toward self-righteousness (treating a spiritual gift as one’s own achievement, lording over others who have not received the same gift, etc.).

Many of these tendencies are straightforwardly seen in contemporary fundamentalist Christianity, often with intellectual rationalizations attempting to construe these vices as virtues. A particularly pronounced case of these specific complexes arise in sacramental Christianity where “clericalism,” an attitude that amounts to the idea that only ordained clergy have the totality of Christian spiritual and esoteric gifts (such as the ability to celebrate at least some of the sacraments), often results in a perverse devaluation of non-clerical people – some of the fruits of which we have seen revealed recently in sexual scandals which pit clergy against the children of the laity. However, clericalism is not restricted to mainstream churches and often the reception of ordination or episcopal consecration can be felt so strongly that a person suddenly feels superior as a person to those he or she has worked with in the past, often resulting in self-righteousness, the breaking of previous agreements, rigid superiority complexes, and the many vices that flow in the wake of these attitudes.

Similar tendencies happen in magical orders and organizations, as Mark Stavish recently reported here (“Gresham’s Law and Esoteric Movements”). In this case, some of the leaders in the order would not accept the person chosen to be the successor (in accordance with the Rosicrucian documents and tradition) and acted again out of “purely personal prejudices,” something which became particularly clear later as the new leaders re-organized this purportedly Rosicrucian order on decidedly non-Rosicrucian principles, ignoring the work of the “meditation on nature” which is required of esoteric orders of the Rosicrucian variety (see “Gresham’s Law and Esoteric Movements – An Update”), all the while denigrating the basic assumption that the order leadership itself is meant to have any specific relationship to the higher planes!


These examples might seem to be unusual deviations, but in practice they are mere examples of a much broader phenomenon. Such movements and organizations deviate from a deeper tradition and wisdom in that they have lost sight precisely of the point from the quoted passage above, namely, that genuine esoteric practice is initiated not primarily from within but is, in practice, a response to movements on higher planes. One of the cultural tendencies that buttresses this particular misunderstanding is the psychologistic approach to esoteric practices, with its accompanying sets of complexes, which reduce these phenomena a la Jung to purely internal and immanent experiences. While such a deformation of esoteric practices may not necessarily be a logical consequence of Jung’s approach, it is an understandable and natural practical consequence, nonetheless.

In any case, whether one practices in the more Jungian and psychologistic fashion or in the more traditional Hermetic way, in either case it is imperative to watch for how these specific complexes and pathologies can and often are provoked, especially when one works in the context of esoteric organizations. The tendency toward overestimation of one’s individual achievement and claiming ownership over spiritual realities that are in fact no one’s individual property or claim is part and parcel of the demise of many spiritual movements.


John R. White, Ph.D. (Pittsburgh, PA) is a Jungian psychoanalyst and mental health counselor. He was a philosophy professor for twenty years, prior to becoming a psychoanalyst, and his current research interests include the various links among psychology, parapsychology, philosophy and esotericism. He has been a student of several esoteric traditions.

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