Mitch Horowitz is one of the most respected contemporary historians of the occult and related spiritual movements, such as New Thought (the movement that gave birth to the idea of “positive thinking” as a practice to change oneself and one’s life for the better). We recently spoke with him about the influence of occultism, Freemasonry, Hermeticism, and esotericism on the modern world (especially America), and what he believes authentic spiritual practice requires.
Phalanx: You’re the author fo the widely-acclaimed Occult America, as well as the more recent One Simple Idea, which explores the positive thinking movement from its origins in New Thought. Can you tell us what drew you to these subjects, and why you feel they’re relevant to our understanding of the world?
MH: I felt that the figures and ideas in these cultures were getting lost to mainstream history, as most of the historicism was being written by people who had no sense of the values that emanate from the spiritual search. Also it occurred to me that we cannot understand ourselves when we draw neat lines between “alternative” and mainstream culture. Ideas tend to enter our society, and all societies, from the fringes. This phenomenon is true not just for trends or popularizations, but it goes to the foundation of American history.
It is impossible to understand the gestation of religious liberty in the U.S. without tracing a family tree from the Hermetic revivals of the Renaissance and the emergence of Freemasonic and Rosicrucian thought movements, to the backlash reflected in the Thirty Years War, to the early migration of Central European mystical, Hermetic, and occult pilgrims to the American colonies in order to flee persecution. Decades before the War of Independence you can see mystical colonies taking shape in America, such as Johannes Kelpius’s commune on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia, Conrad Beisel’s colony of Ephrata, and later the first Shaker village outside Albany, New York, along with emergence of traditional and renegade Freemasonic movements. Educated people knew about these things: these topics and communities were written about in newspapers and pamphlets, both in Europe and colonial America. Such coverage, in turn, attracted more religious radicals.
This atmosphere of religious experiment was formative to the culture of colonial and early America. Yet most Americans today, if they consider it at all, think that statutory religious freedom is something granted us in the Constitution. Well, that’s true–but the impetus began much earlier. The real purpose of American life–and one that may be tested in the years ahead–is the protection of the individual search for meaning. That aspect of America began with the wide range of mystical, pietist, and fervent religious movements that took root here early on.
Phalanx: Besides noting how widespread such spiritual movements were, you raise two especially important points. Firstly, in regard to the movements you mention, Freemasonry has obviously had a wide and significant influence on American culture. Early college fraternities borrowed from Freemasonry. It influenced the “alternative” spiritual movement, including various Rosicrucian and related movements, and ultimately paved the way for the New Age movement — and, from there, to the eclectic spirituality that we see in the mainstream today, mixing Yoga, Buddhism, Cabala, etc. New Thought, Rosicrucianism, and similar movements also influenced Marcus Garvey, Noble Drew Ali, and other early pioneers of Black nationalism.
Can you tell us a bit more about this? What did, say, Noble Drew Ali get from this milieu? How did it shape his movement, and how did it shape more mainstream culture, such as Christian Science? Related to that, if such esoteric and alternatives are, and were, widespread and influential, is there something as an American consciousness?
MH: Freemasonry reintroduced the West’s connection to the ancient mystery religions. Now, Masonry’s origins are a matter of perennial debate, and we’ll probably never have a consensus around the matter. It seems to me that the Masonic impulse—that of radical ecumenism, social polity, and initiatory religion—appears in the Rosicrucian manuscripts of the early 1600s. By 1646 the esotericist and antiquarian Elias Ashmole made unmistakable references in his diaries to lodge-based Freemasonry. There exists other, and much earlier, references; but Ashmole’s manuscripts are the most unambiguous statement of a lodge-based, fraternal order.
I think the impulse toward modern, aboveground Freemasonry grew from the Renaissance encounter with esoteric philosophies of the ancient world. The Renaissance intellect in the West was trying to figure out how use the initiatory, alchemical, and passion-based ideas found in Greek, Latin, and Arabic manuscripts. I think modern Masonry represented an effort to sew together, and thus preserve and vivify, the threads of ancient initiatory experience. There was a tremendous idealism behind this effort, because modern man really had only threads of a tradition that had been based in oral retelling and symbolism, and was written down fractionally in the Hermetic manuscripts in the decades immediately following the death of Christ.
This Masonic revival, which certainly attained posterity and some success, formed influence on a wide range of modern social and religious thinkers. For example, Prince Hall, the namesake of Prince Hall Masonry, an African-American Masonic tradition chartered in 1775 through a British army garrison, fixed his signature to two abolitionist petitions in the 1770s. Prince Hall Masonry represented the first black-led abolitionist movement in the American nation. That’s not fantasy. But kids today learn about none of this. So they interpret “secret societies” through the nonsense spewed by Alex Jones and company.
A young man, an African-American, recently stopped me on a basketball court to ask if I were a member of the Illuminati (it had something to do with the t-shirt I was wearing). I told him that I was not, that the Illuminati hadn’t existed for more than two hundred years, but that if they were around, I’d be very happy to be a member. The Bavarian Illuminati was itself a renegade Masonic group, and they stood chiefly for the protection of the individual search from monarchical or clerical interference, and for the rights of the individual. It was no accident that Thomas Jefferson, who was himself steeped in religious heterodoxy, wrote admiringly in letters about the Illuminati’s founder Adam Weishaupt.
Later on, Freemasonry influenced Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, who believed that Masonry had successfully reassembled some of the ceremonies of the ancient Hebrew priests. Smith adapted Freemasonic rituals and symbols into Mormonism. I know members of the Mormon church who are also initiated into Masonry. My in-laws are Mormon and they understand and admire Freemasonry.
Now, you mentioned Noble Drew Ali, a compelling figure. What a wonderful example he is of the fruition of some of what Weishaupt was aiming for: Noble Drew cultivated a religious atmosphere in which the individual was bound by no laws or structures other than the ambition of his own search. And, like Weishaupt and Smith, Noble Drew had a penchant for mystery symbols and a Masonic aesthetic, which I think is very alluring.
I wish that kids today, like the one who stopped me on the ball court, had a figure like him to look up to. Noble Drew took the renegade impulses of Freemasonry and Illuminism and made them into a very credible statement of protest, dignity, and reconnection to ancient tradition. He is more the story of Masonry than anything we hear on late-night radio or in the grimmest reaches of the Internet. The black-nationalist Marcus Garvey also adopted the Masonic aesthetic. I may be sentimental (not the worst of sins) but I think young people would gain a lot from rediscovering these figures. They would provide with a truer insight into the ideals of Masonry than the garbage offered by conspiracists.
Phalanx: Yes, agreed… And, Secondly, I’m intrigued, and quite pleased, by your phrase, “the individual search for meaning.” It strikes me that, today, meaning itself is in retreat. We are told by establishment artists, that the meaning of their art is subjective and only what the viewer perceives it to be (perhaps because this way no potential client will feel excluded). Morals are often said to be relative or social constructs, while pre-modern cultures generally regarded their morals and way of life as reflecting Divine law or cosmic law. And spirituality, I was recently told by one individual, is only experienced when you have no identity, no gender, and no body. Certainly, one can experience such states, for example, in Kundalini meditation. But, ultimately, we have a body and we have to find meaning and spirituality in this world and even in our body. What do these traditions say about this? Is spirituality about checking out into a permanent, disembodied bliss, or is it — at least in part — about guiding us toward meaning in this world and the next?
MH: I very much appreciate that question. I feel strongly that the current push to segment truth into communities of interest, however you devise them, is to deny the existence of truth itself. The concept of a universal search for truth is one of the core aspects of what it means to be human. Without it, what are we but different species of interest on an element chart, with no conjoined origin or purpose? Let me be personal about this. I grew up in a traditional Jewish household. I had an orthodox bar mitzvah. I did not encounter the Gospels until I had entered my thirties. When I did, I fell to my knees before them. I had a similar reaction to the Tao Te Ching. This wasn’t by accident. This wasn’t happenstance. Individuals are bound across history, and across traditions, by the experience of encountering and exploring universal truth. But we are breaking with this today.
Several years ago I published an anthology of Emerson’s essays with a short introduction by Jacob Needleman. An English professor somewhere published a review where he claimed–literally–that it was “impossible” to understand Emerson without theoretical and historical models. What would Emerson himself have said about that? Emerson plainly intended his lectures to be read by any searching individual. Mozart intended his operas, first and foremost, to be enjoyed by the individual. One’s engagement doesn’t have to stop there, but the point of entry is that plain and that open.
But look at what we face today. Many members of the academic mainstream, in the humanities and social sciences, tell us that meaning — if they believe in such a concept at all — is a permeable issue divulged to certain individuals based on cultural traits, and available through ideological thought schools.
A critic of New Thought and related movements recently called one of my articles “White” in the racial/cultural sense. The searching individual is bound by none of this. These terms are deployed by those who would obstruct the human search.
Some people worry about the streak of anti-intellectualism that runs through American culture today. That’s a legitimate concern. But it’s a mistake to think that the mainstream of academic humanities isn’t contributing to that problem. Many people intrinsically, and rightly, distrust the professional academic who would place a barrier before their inquiry and claim that ethics or religion are a segmented message with a tollgate of theory in front of it.
Needleman once asked the rhetorical question: “Who’s to say that Mozart is any better than a Pepsi-Cola jingle?” His response: “I’m to say. I’m to say.” The individual, in sensitive moments, can perceive and speak to the greatest truths in history, even if only momentarily. That is a human given. Every sensitive person feels that. For that reason I’m very interested in the thought of Ayn Rand, an ardently secular figure, even though I am not an atheist.
One can find a similar language, a similar impulse, within the experience of any searching person. Rand believed that any individual who had come to terms with his deepest values, and who was possessed of a sense of purpose–of his own self-purpose–was fulfilling a life proper to an individual. At such a point, what difference does it make whether someone calls himself a believer or an atheist? William James asked whether any such difference matters. If the world were to come an end in one hour would the conduct of a so-called atheist or believer be any different? The point is: When we venerate the human possibility these descriptors become unimportant.
This is completely lost on most of the mainstream intellectual culture today because they do not really believe in the concept of an individual search.
Phalanx: That’s interesting. When Freemasonry is usually discussed in relation to the USA, the focus is normally on George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, but we’ve been discussing those at the other end of the social spectrum, such as Noble Drew and Prince Hall. One could mention, also, the influence of fraternal symbolism on “folk art” — from woodwork and metalwork to patchwork quilts made by women — especially in America during the 19th century. Of course, it’s often towards the margins of society, where people are out of power, that interesting things happen, because, of course, people are forced to do things for themselves and to be more creative.
I want to tie things together. In some sense, we’re talking about revolutionary movements, but you also mention the “individual search” for meaning and truth — perhaps an inner revolution, as Krishnamurti called for. Traditionally, that individual search could involve joining an esoteric group — from Freemasonry to a spiritualist circle, of course. We can still do this today, but it seems that sometimes the experience can be quite fragmentary. An esoteric group might have profound, mystical insights, but it might not offer any teachings that could be helpful in improving one’s life in the ordinary world. At the other end, we have a kind of distorted form of positive thinking that advocates trying to get material things.
For those on an individual search, what would you suggest they, or we, should practice or cultivate? For example, should we cultivate ourselves through a combination of positive thinking, initiation, the study of symbols, or, perhaps, physical training as well (many martial artists and weightlifters use positive thinking and visualization, of course)?
MH: That’s a powerful question: How to search? It strikes me that we no longer live an age of great teachers. From the late 19th to mid-20th century there were a wide range of truly compelling figures offering experiments, ideas, entry points. That is not part of our culture today. Whenever someone whispers to me, “I’ve got a great one for you…” I am all the more disappointed. There are virtually no “secret societies” today worthy of the name, not that I fetishize secrecy.
I mentioned Jacob Needleman and he has been an influence on me. His response to this problem is: “today we have the group.” Within certain very precious quarters there are groups proceeding along powerful lines. But these can be difficult to locate or enter—I do not mean that in some mysterious way, it’s just a fact. One of my cousins, for example, in steeped in Kabbalah and belongs to an ultra-orthodox religious order in Brooklyn. Theirs is the path of intellect. And to enter you have to leave your outer world behind. I believe that if you can find a legitimate teacher in the Gurdjieff work, someone who is part of the line of that work as left by Gurdjieff in this country or another, you should follow that. But that is not for everyone.
I can only offer, then, what I attempt in my own search in hopes that it will be of use to someone. First, you must have ardent commitment to whatever you’re doing. If you want to study Kabbalah, for example, learn Hebrew. If you want to approach Islam or Sufism, find a madrassa or a real teacher with whom to study. The writer Michael Muhammad Knight moved to Pakistan as a teen to study. That’s commitment. Do not be casual or go halfway. And be intellectually excellent. Read deeply in your path. Know everything about it, including its history. And also be safe. If you want thrills, take up mixed marital arts. I say that with seriousness. Don’t endanger yourself on the path by entrusting your physical or psychological wellbeing to someone else. The synagogue I grew up at in Queens, NY, had a tiny chapel and above the Torah appeared the words, “Knowest Before Whom Thou Standeth.” Don’t entrust yourself to just anyone.
Try to find groups, where possible. It is vital, I think, not to study alone but to be in a group situation of some kind. That summons energies that are not available alone. If that means you interact, at first, digitally, then, okay, do that—but make sure it is a self-selected, harmonious, and vibrantly intelligent group of people. That is difficult to find.
Some kind of physical practice is needed in your search. I consider meditation a physical practice, so find a form that speaks to you.
My own search is a mélange. I have no choice. I practice Transcendental Meditation. I chant nam myoho renge kyo. I research and experiment in New Thought. I regard the New Thought thesis that thoughts are causative very seriously, even if the culture around it is mostly unserious (a problem which some colleagues and I are working on). The teachers in that tradition who I most admire are Neville Goddard, Joel Goldsmith, and Vernon Howard. (Vernon began there but later branched out in a very independent direction.) I also study figures who are outside that world but intersected with it, such as William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Krishnamurti. I believe that mental and spiritual experience are separated by a very thin line of tissue, and I am trying to learn about that and experiment with it.
I am also interested in the Catholic mysteries, including saint veneration, devotions, and petitionary prayer. I feel very strongly about knocking down the barrier between what is considered “serious” and “unserious” in religious tradition. I also feel strongly that seeking practical results is not only a valid path but in certain respects is the only valid path. We’ve erected what I consider a needlessly intellectualized critique of popular religiosity, with which I want nothing to do. I don’t like “serious” religion. I like religion that parts the Red Sea, so to speak, and I challenge anyone who says otherwise. Religion is about power under good. Salvific power but also power and purpose by which to live in the here and now.
I believe that the Legion of Mary ladies who set up card tables outside of churches have more authentic religious experience to share than most of what gets heard or published in respected organs of religious study. I know that because they’ve saved my life. Krishnamurti talked about how the greatest threat to any kind of personal progress is in seeking “respectability.” I try to take that to heart. I don’t like translations from Vedic and Taoist tradition that some people wave in the face of the everyday seeker and try to school him about “non-attachment” and so forth. I am in no way attempting to disparage such traditions. I fall to my knees before them and I participate in parts of them. It’s just that I am uncertain that the nonattachment model, as it is generally used today, fits the Western mindset, or that such teachings are reaching us in the modern West in a pure and unadulterated form.
I’m not looking for nods of agreement when I say any of this so much as I want to communicate: It’s your search. Allow no one else to dictate to you what you should or shouldn’t be doing. You’re going to gravitate where your heart pulls you and that requires no correction. So, to boil it down, I suppose I am suggesting: ardent commitment, some kind of group activity, physical and meditative activity, and dedication to your search without seeking peer approval. See what you find. Be persistent. Share what you find with others who are equally dedicated and respectful of what you’re attempting.