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The occult (from the Latin word occultus "clandestine, hidden, secret") is "knowledge of the hidden". In common English usage, occult refers to "knowledge of the paranormal", as opposed to "knowledge of the measurable", usually referred to as science. The term is sometimes taken to mean knowledge that "is meant only for certain people" or that "must be kept hidden", but for most practicing occultists it is simply the study of a deeper spiritual reality that extends beyond pure reason and the physical sciences. The terms esoteric and arcane can also be used to describe the occult, in addition to their meanings unrelated to the supernatural.
It also describes a number of magical organizations or orders, the teachings and practices taught by them, and to a large body of current and historical literature and spiritual philosophy related to this subject.
Occultism is the study of occult practices, including (but not limited to) magic, alchemy, extra-sensory perception, astrology, spiritualism, religion, and divination. Interpretation of occultism and its concepts can be found in the belief structures of philosophies and religions such as Chaos magic, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Theosophy, Wicca, Thelema and modern paganism. A broad definition is offered by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke:
OCCULTISM has its basis in a religious way of thinking, the roots of which stretch back into antiquity and which may be described as the Western esoteric tradition. Its principal ingredients have been identified as Gnosticism, the Hermetic treatises on alchemy and magic, Neo-Platonism, and the Kabbalah, all originating in the eastern Mediterranean area during the first few centuries AD.
From the 15th to 17th century, these ideas that are alternatively described as Western esotericism, which had a revival from about 1770 onwards, due to a renewed desire for mystery, an interest in the Middle Ages and a romantic "reaction to the rationalist Enlightenment". Alchemy was common among important seventeenth-century scientists, such as Isaac Newton, and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton was even accused of introducing occult agencies into natural science when he postulated gravity as a force capable of acting over vast distances. "By the eighteenth century these unorthodox religious and philosophical concerns were well-defined as 'occult', inasmuch as they lay on the outermost fringe of accepted forms of knowledge and discourse". They were, however, preserved by antiquarians and mystics.
Based on his research into the modern German occult revival (1890–1910), Goodrick-Clarke puts forward a thesis on the driving force behind occultism. Behind its many varied forms apparently lies a uniform function, "a strong desire to reconcile the findings of modern natural science with a religious view that could restore man to a position of centrality and dignity in the universe". Since that time many authors have emphasized a syncretic approach by drawing parallels between different disciplines.
Science and the occult
To the occultist, occultism is conceived of as the study of the inner nature of things, as opposed to the outer characteristics that are studied by science. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer designates this "inner nature" with the term Will, and suggests that science and mathematics are unable to penetrate beyond the relationship between one thing and another in order to explain the "inner nature" of the thing itself, independent of any external causal relationships with other "things". Schopenhauer also points towards this inherently relativistic nature of mathematics and conventional science in his formulation of the "World as Will". By defining a thing solely in terms of its external relationships or effects we only find its external or explicit nature. Occultism, on the other hand, is concerned with the nature of the "thing-in-itself". This is often accomplished through direct perceptual awareness, known as mysticism.
From the scientific perspective, occultism is regarded as unscientific as it does not make use of the standard scientific method to obtain facts.
Occult qualities are properties that have no known rational explanation; in the Middle Ages, for example, magnetism was considered an occult quality. Newton's contemporaries severely criticized his theory that gravity was effected through "action at a distance", as occult.
Religion and the occult
Some religions and sects enthusiastically embrace occultism as an integral esoteric aspect of mystical religious experience. This attitude is common within Wicca and many other modern pagan religions. Some other religious denominations disapprove of occultism in most or all forms. They may view the occult as being anything supernatural or paranormal which is not achieved by or through God (as defined by those religious denominations), and is therefore the work of an opposing and malevolent entity. The word has negative connotations for many people, and while certain practices considered by some to be "occult" are also found within mainstream religions, in this context the term "occult" is rarely used and is sometimes substituted with "esoteric".
Christian authorities have generally regarded occultism as heretical whenever they met this: from early Christian times, in the form of gnosticism, to late Renaissance times, in the form of various occult philosophies. Though there is a Christian occult tradition that goes back at least to Renaissance times, when Marsilio Ficino developed a Christian Hermeticism and Pico della Mirandola developed a Christian form of Kabbalism, mainstream Christianity has always resisted occult influences, which are:
- Monistic in contrast to Christian dualistic beliefs of a separation between body and spirit;
- Gnostic i.e. involving the acquisition of secret knowledge rather than based on scripture and open church tradition
- Seen as involving practices such as divination and calling on spirits which are forbidden in the Bible
- Not monotheistic, frequently asserting a gradation of human souls between mortals and God; and
- Sometimes not even theistic in character.
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- Nevill Drury, The Watkins Dictionary of Magic, ISBN 1-84293-152-0. p. 03
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- Harold W. Percival, Joined the Theosophical Society in 1892. After the death of William Quan Judge in 1896, organized the Theosophical Society Independent and then wrote Thinking and Destiny which covers in plan terms the purpose of the universe and occult meanings.
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- Newton, Isaac, Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John. Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John by Sir Isaac Newton
- Rogers, L. W. (1909). Hints to Young Students of Occultism. Albany, NY: The Theosophical Book Company.
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- Davis, R., True to His Ways: Purity & Safety in Christian Spiritual Practice (ACW Press, Ozark, AL, 2006), ISBN 1-932124-61-6.
- Partridge, Christopher (ed.), The Occult World, London: Routledge, 2014. ISBN 0415695961
- Forshaw, Peter, 'The Occult Middle Ages', in Christopher Partridge (ed.), The Occult World, London: Routledge, 2014
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- Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam
- University of Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO)
- ESSWE European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, with many links to associated organizations, libraries, scholars etc.
- Joseph H. Peterson, Twilit Grotto: Archives of Western Esoterica (Esoteric Archives: Occult Literature)
- Occult Science and Philosophy of the Renaissance. Online exhibition from the Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections. Accessed 2013-09-15.
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Occult Art, Occultism". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- eLibrary of ancient books on occultism, spiritism, spiritualism, séances, development of mediumship in the Western and Oriental Traditions. Many technical advice on ITC and EVP, and practical tips concerning the development of different forms of Mediumship provided by medium Maryse Locke.
- the MYSTICA.ORG An on-line encyclopedia of the occult