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The Basics: What Is Occultism? | How to Understand Occult Philosophy and Gnosticism

Additional Entry on this subject was written in Six Points on “Magic”: Theosophy rejects Supernaturalism and Miracle. It explains the source of Magical Knowledge, according to Occultists, outside of the God-Satan theory. Read William Q. Judge on Theosophical Criticisms of Western Occultism to delve more into the Theosophical Perspective. These perspectives given are not the notions that developed in popular culture through the centuries: but (1) are condensed collected perspectives of well-known ancient philosophers, occultists and Modern Theosophists explained; and (2) are contrary to most portrayals, or as defined by Religion, Contemporary Alternative Spirituality, and Science, that may inform our preconceptions of the topic, Occultism.

Post Updated 12/23/2019


The term, occult dates to the 1530s from the Middle French, occulte (“secret, not divulged”), and the Latin occultus (“hidden, concealed, secret). The term occult, in the 1540s is used to mean, “not apprehended by the mind, beyond the range of ordinary understanding, or senses.” It is associated with astrology, magic, alchemy, etc., in the 1630s.

In the 17th c., Agrippa began The Occult Philosophy with this poem:

Pragmatick Schoolmen, men made up of pride, And rayling Arguments, who truth deride, And scorn all else but what your selves devise, And think these high-learned Tracts to be but lies, Do not presume, unless with hallowed hand, To touch these books who with the world shall stand; They are indeed mysterious, rare and rich, And far transcend the ordinary pitch.” (Io. Booker) — The Epigraph from the 1651 English Translation of Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia

Academicians were as skeptical then, as now. Christianity regarded magic, except its own “miracles” as superstition or even satanic. The occultist and ancient theosophists maintain, that intelligence is a fundamental property in nature, and that the divine essence can be interacted with through metaphysical and alchemical processes. Revealing the theories underlying these processes corrects superstitions.

The OCCULT in Western Dictionaries refer to super-NATURALISM, and psychic manipulation of forces. Occultists argued that their knowledge proceeds from an understanding of the natural laws, and the correlation of forces in nature and man.

They describe the different types of practitioners who utilize variant methods in producing results.

“The thaumaturgists of all periods, schools, and countries, produced their wonders, because they were perfectly familiar with the imponderable — in their effects — but otherwise perfectly tangible waves of the astral light. They controlled the currents by guiding them with their will-power. The wonders were both of physical and psychological character; the former embracing effects produced upon material objects, the latter the mental phenomena of Mesmer and his successors. This class has been represented in our time by two illustrious men, Du Potet and Regazzoni, whose wonderful powers were well attested in France and other countries. Mesmerism is the most important branch of magic; and its phenomena are the effects of the universal agent which underlies all magic and has produced at all ages the so-called miracles. The ancients called it Chaos; Plato and the Pythagoreans named it the Soul of the World. According to the Hindus, the Deity in the shape of Æther pervades all things. It is the invisible, but, as we have said before, too tangible Fluid. Among other names this universal Proteus — or “the nebulous Almighty,” as de Mirville calls it in derision — was termed by the theurgists “the living fire,” the “Spirit of Light,” and Magnes.

This last appellation indicates its magnetic properties and shows its magical nature. For, as truly expressed by one of its enemies — [[magos]] and [[magnes]] are two branches growing from the same trunk, and shooting forth the same resultants.” (H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, Vol. 1, pg. 129)

Therefore, a real knowledge of forces stems from a thorough knowledge of the latent and potent powers in matter, and their correlations in nature. The highest science of Occultism, or GNOSIS is Divine Knowledge, SELF-Knowledge, and is most commonly expressed in the Delphic inscription: MAN KNOW THYSELF. This is real Occultism, not “Dark Arts.”

According to the OCCULT PHILOSOPHY of Theosophy, “spiritual” phenomena is rooted in MOTION, but the term, Occultism or Esotericism is too much equated in our day — far removed from the Medieval period — with “nefarious” action, or SORCERY.

Blavatsky stated in her Studies n Occultism, that the lack of language in the English to define the reality of the occult was a problem, so how would one be able to define and shade the difference between those abnormal powers, or sciences that lead to the acquisition of them.

“…a magical performance based on Knowledge of the forces of Nature and their correlation [is] simply “Knowledge of the Soul,” true Wisdom… but which means far more. This last is the only kind of Occultism that any theosophist (…) who would be wise and unselfish, ought to strive after.”


Occultism [Lat. occultus] is a term that is used synonymous with secret doctrine, or esoteric philosophy, though the former term is less used, because of the stigma of occult as signifying “evil” and heterodox “superstitions.” Occult Philosophy is a term, also used by theosophists as a synonym of the philosophy or system they promulgate, for occultism is “the science that deals with things hidden in nature.” The Mahatma Letters are subtitled, e.g., an “Exposition of Occult Philosophy.” So, even since Agrippa’s time in 1650, there still existed many minds who were against any subject under the title of Occult Philosophy, or Magic, regarding it as arts of the forbidden, of dark things and heresies, or a signifier of sorcery and superstition. 

R. Laurence Moore states on conspiratorial notions used as a tactic against esotericists, that:

“writers in the nineteenth century who were alarmed by the popularity of Eddy’s [Mary Baker] doctrines frequently summed up their feat using the word “occult”, the same word that had been used earlier to attack Mormons and spiritualists. It was meant to draw into question the allegiance of those movements to sound democratic and Christian principles. Opponents of Christian Science wanted to link Eddy’s church to an anti-Christian tradition that they said was trackable, despite the shrouded secrecy that had cloaked many of its activities, back to Mesmerism and the Illuminati Conspiracy, back to the renaissance of Paracelsus and the devoted students of Hermes Trismegistus, back to the Gnostic and Neo-Platonic cults of the early Christian era.” (R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, New York/Oxford, 1986, pg. 106).

The same goes for theology. Theology is a term dating to the mid 14th c., “meaning the science of religion, study of God, and his relationship to humanity.” It comes from the old French, theologie, or “philosophical study of the Christian doctrine; scripture.  Also from the Latin, theologia and the Greek theologia, meaning “an account of the gods.” A theologos is “one discoursing on the gods,” from theos a “god,” not just the singular Supreme God of the Abrahamic conception. In this sense, philaletheians are theologoi, and theosophos, are the God-taught. Theo-LOGIA is not the study of a particular national deity, or personal Jehovistic or Mosaic god, as it is conceived to the “monotheists.”

Theology cannot be described as merely, the study of God, because the way we have come to understand that idea of God is very limited. There is a such idea, as the Universal unconditioned Deity. Theos is our very essence, and can only be, if itself is that essence of the atom. Theology in one sense is hence, the study of the daimonia, the Divine Nous, or MONAS (God as the supreme monad), of sacred Sound and Numbers.

The early theologists were theurgists also, and writers, and so theologians must consider the breadth and history of the MYSTERIES., which therefore, by all means, must include the Occult. Today, theology merely operates as apologetics for religion.

But Paul Tillich mentions in Systematic Theology (1951) that:

“Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundations and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.”

Religion would in this sense refer to binding back man to the MONAS. SCIENTIA must be in truth with it, the companion of the esotericist’s studies. The “‘secret doctrine’ is the general name given to the esoteric teaching of antiquity” (Theosophical Glossary).

“Plato did not invent his philosophy, nor did he write merely as the disciple of Socrates; rather, his works are imbued with the concepts and characteristics of a universally-diffused wisdom-tradition, a primordial gnosis, to which all major religions have given expression. (…)

Just what is the gnosis and
why is it central to Plato’s philosophy?

In every gnostic system, gnosis is virtually synonymous with spiritual enlightenment. Gnosis, however, is not ordinary knowledge, but connotes direct experience of divine reality. As such, it is esoteric or secret to the worldly man because he does not possess “the eyes to see or the ears to hear,” his intuitive faculties are not yet awakened. Nevertheless, this knowledge is accessible to all who earn their way into its sacred precincts. The gnosis is also soteric, that is, “saving” or healing in the sense of bestowing wholeness: it carries the power to transform and reintegrate one’s life. Faith alone cannot save; one must also know and practice the alchemy of redemption.

Knowledge of divinity, of the origin, present condition, and destiny of man, and of the discipline which prepares one for the reception of the gnosis are important themes in Plato’s philosophy. As in other gnostic systems, ascent to the divine realm is a major goal, too: we should strive towards a “likeness to Divinity” (Theaetetus, §176b), for in this way we discover the reality behind outer appearances. However, whereas many gnostics have preached transcendence as the ultimate achievement, Plato clearly emphasizes that gnosis is not an end in itself. Rather, it should be put in service for the common welfare, for creating a just and beneficent polity on earth. Divine wisdom is meant to glorify the whole of cosmos, not just a part (Timaeus, §29e-31a).” (W.T.S. Thakara, The Gnosis according to Plato)


In no other present-day philosophical tradition is the concept of a “VITAL FORCE” in nature so prominent and detailed, more than in the Occult Philosophy of Theosophy (19th century). Helena P. Blavatsky in Studies in Occultism on the Kosmic Mind tried to demonstrate the link between phenomena in nature and the mind; that the vital-theory, or rather hylozoism cannot be merely understood through a physicalist and mechanical explanation. Herein, we will find the foundations of Occultism.


“Hitherto the opponents of vitalism and “life-principle,” as well as the followers of the mechanical theory of life, based their views on the supposed fact, that, as physiology was progressing forward, its students succeeded more and more in connecting its functions with the laws of blind matter. All those manifestations that used to be attributed to a “mystical life-force,” they said, may be brought now under physical and chemical laws. And they were, and still are loudly clamoring for the recognition of the fact that it is only a question of time when it will be triumphantly demonstrated that the whole vital process, in its grand totality, represents nothing more mysterious than a very complicated phenomenon of motion, exclusively governed by the forces of inanimate nature.

But here we have a professor of physiology who asserts that the history of physiology proves, unfortunately for them, quite the contrary; and he pronounces these ominous words:

I maintain that the more our experiments and observations are exact and many-sided, the deeper we penetrate into facts, the more we try to fathom and speculate on the phenomena of life, the more we acquire the conviction, that even those phenomena that we had hoped to be already able to explain by physical and chemical laws, are in reality unfathomable. They are vastly more complicated, in fact; and as we stand at present, they will not yield to any mechanical explanation.

This is a terrible blow at the puffed-up bladder known as Materialism, which is as empty as it is dilated.”


In our highly civilized West, where modern languages have been formed, and words coined, in the wake of ideas and thoughts — as happened with every tongue — the more the latter became materialized in the cold atmosphere of Western selfishness and its incessant chase after the goods of this world, the less was there any need felt for the production of new terms to express that which was tacitly regarded as absolute and exploded “superstition.” Such words could answer only to ideas which a cultured man was scarcely supposed to harbor in his mind. “Magic,” a synonym for jugglery, “Sorcery,” an equivalent for crass ignorance, and “Occultism,” the sorry relic of crack-brained, mediaeval Fire-philosophers, of the Jacob Boehmes and the St. Martins, are expressions believed more than amply sufficient to cover the whole field of “thimble-rigging.” They are terms of contempt, and used generally only in reference to the dross and residues of the dark ages and the preceding aeons of paganism. Therefore have we no terms in the English tongue to define and shade the difference between such abnormal powers, or the sciences that lead to the acquisition of them, with the nicety possible in the Eastern languages — pre-eminently the Sanskrit. What do the words “miracle” and “enchantment” (words identical in meaning after all, as both express the idea of producing wonderful things by breaking the laws of nature [!!] as explained by the accepted authorities) convey to the minds of those who hear, or pronounce them? A Christian — breaking “of the laws of nature,” notwithstanding — while believing firmly in the miracles, because said to have been produced by God through Moses, will either scout the enchantments performed by Pharaoh’s magicians, or attribute them to the devil. It is the latter whom our pious enemies connect with Occultism, while their impious foes, the infidels, laugh at Moses, Magicians and Occultists, and would blush to give one serious thought to such “superstitions.”

This, because there is no term in existence to show the difference; no words to express the lights and shadows and draw the line of demarcation between the sublime and the true, the absurd and the ridiculous. The latter are the theological interpretations which teach the “breaking of the laws of Nature” by man, God, or devil; the former — the scientific “miracles” and enchantments of Moses and the Magicians in accordance with natural laws, both having been learned in all the Wisdom of the Sanctuaries, which were the “Royal Societies” of those days — and in true OCCULTISM. This last word is certainly misleading, translated as it stands from the compound word Gupta-Vidya, “Secret Knowledge.” But the knowledge of what? Some of the Sanskrit terms may help us.

There are four (out of the many others) names of the various kinds of Esoteric Knowledge or Sciences given, even in the exoteric Puranas. There is (1) Yajna-Vidya, knowledge of the occult powers awakened in Nature by the performance of certain religious ceremonies and rites. (2) Mahavidya, the “great knowledge,” the magic of the Kabalists and the Tantrika worship, often Sorcery of the worst description. (3) Guhya-Vidya, knowledge of the mystic powers residing in Sound (Ether), hence in the Mantras (chanted prayers or incantations) and depending on the rhythm and melody used; in other words, a magical performance based on Knowledge of the forces of Nature and their correlation; and (4) ATMA-VIDYA, a term which is translated simply “Knowledge of the Soul,” true Wisdom by the Orientalists, but which means far more.

This last is the only kind of Occultism that any theosophist who admires “Light on the Path,” and who would be wise and unselfish, ought to strive after. All the rest is some branch of the “Occult Sciences,”, i.e. arts based on the knowledge of the ultimate essence of all things in the Kingdoms of Nature — such as minerals, plants and animals — hence of things pertaining to the realm of material nature, however invisible that essence may be, and howsoever much it has hitherto eluded the grasp of Science.”

Post Updated 12/23/2019

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