Skip to content

Universal Aspects Of The Kabbalah And Judaism – Leo Schaya (2014)

Of course there have been (and are) more Traditionalists than the handful I have reviewed before. I ran into a reference to Schaya who was a Traditionalist who wrote from a Jewish perspective. This is interesting, because Islamic and Vedantic approaches are much more common.

Schaya (1916-1986) was a Swiss from Polish parents who spent much of his life in France. His parents were non-practising Jews, but as a boy, Schaya was captivated by the mystical aspects of that religion. On encountering Frithjof Schuon, he moved to a Traditionalist perspective.

Schaya wrote mainly in French, also in German, but not many of his writings have been made available in English. The current title contains a collection of essays and talks, some of which had been translated before, some had not.

Schaya indeed proves to have a ‘very Traditionalist’ perspective. Fond themes appear to be the appearance of God to Moses and his people on the mount Sinai and the earlier encounter of Moses with the burning bush. Schaya brilliantly explains these famous Biblical events in quite a ‘Guénonian’ way with constant references to Jewish terminology. He dives into the depths of Jewish theology coupled with Kabbalah. Along his way, he frequently refers to Vedanta, but a lot more to Islam and Sufism, making comparisons and explaining aspects of either system with references to the other and both he exoteric and esoteric sides. Creation, the name of God, large subjects are dealt with with interesting perspectives.

The introduction of Patrick Laude says that many people find Schaya’s writing style difficult. I personally find him more easily to read than some of the books I read recently and even easier than Schuon.

All in all I find Schaya a very interesting author, so I am going to see what other works of his are available in English.

2014 World Wisdom, isbn 1936597330

Western Sufism – Mark Sedgwick (2016)

Franz Farwerck joined Inayat Khan’s Sufi order in 1922. Some time ago I was reading Sedgwick’s book about Ivan Agueli who was another Westerner who became Sufi and who even initiated René Guénon. This was another order, so I wondered what Sufism was ‘available’ in the West in the early 20th century. With a little searching I ran into another book by the same Mark Sedwick.

Western Sufism is a term that Sedgwick uses for the ‘Western form’ of Sufism. This can either be brought to the West by Eastern Sufis or a system developed by a Westerner based on or inspired by Sufism.

The book begins with a lengthy investigation into Neoplatonism and “Emationism” and the reception in ‘Muslim minds’. He works towards the first Sufis, how either or not Sufism is connected to Islam and the short-lived Jewish form of Sufism. Sedgwick also looks at the political and radical elements of some Sufi orders and then describes how on the wings of Blavatasky’s Theosophy, Sufism found its way to the West.

The earlier mentioned Agueli was not the first, nor the last, Western to convert to Islam and later become Sufi, He was the first Westerner to initiate another Westerner (Guénon). He joined an existing tariqa and ‘worked from there’. Even though Agueli was not a Traditionalist himself, under influence of Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, a ‘Traditionalistic’ form of Sufism would rise that (mainly in followers of Schuon) still exists today.

Then we had people such as the Indian Inayat Khan (1822-1927) who was initiated into a Sufi order (but also in Hindu orders) and travelled the West as a musician. In the end he would found a Sufi order which had some schisms, some of which still exist today.

As Sufism reached the West, two developments started to emerge. One part of Western Sufism started to move towards Islam, another away from it. The latter is what Sedgwick called the “universalistic” branch. In both ‘camps’ there were moderate and more radical groups. As Islam became better known in the West (often because of members of Sufi orders), the view on Islam developed. Islam itself (outside Sufism) also developed which on its turn changed the attitude towards Sufi orders of Western non-members.

The Netherlands have played a large role in the reception and development of the Sufism that came from Inayat Khan. Sedgwick described how the organisation(s) fared after Khan’s death in 1927, but that did not tell me much about how Farwerck would possibly have developed his view on the order.

You will encounter many more people than the few in this review, giving an idea how big the penetration of Western Sufism into Western society actually was.

The book is interesting as you will learn how an element of Islam had an ever-developing relationship with the West, influencing both Islam itself and the view of the West on it. Western Sufism thrived in the ‘esoteric wave’ that was caused by the Theosophical Society, went down when that wave came to rest, but just like Theosophy, different Western Sufi orders may have gotten smaller, but they survived and still exist.

2016 Oxford University Press, isbn 019997764X

Pathways To An Inner Islam – Patrick Laude (2011)

  • religion

In order to say a few things about esoteric Islam, the author chose to do that by presenting not Muslim thinkers, but Westerners. These are Louis Massignon (1883-1962), Henry Corbin (1903-1978), René Guénon (1886-1951) and Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998).

Even though the book is ‘very scholarly’ it immediately springs to the eye that the last two names are not those of academics. The first to are not too typical academics either. Corbin I recently encountered in Religion After Religion. Guénon is -of course- no new name for me, neither is Schuon.

Both Massignon and Corbin had encounters with Islam and Sufism firsthand but retained their Christianity. Guénon (as we saw in the Aguéli book) did receive a Sufi initiation and later in his life also became Muslim. Schuon went as far as to start his own tariqa after having been initiated into Sufism in Algeria.

Laude’s book is a tough read. Long sentences, very academic, but also diving deep into the ideas of the four men, comparing and commenting on them. I often had the idea that the book is quite a bit over my head. Also I remember less of it than I prefer.

It is not like Laude presents the four thinkers in separate chapters. Rather there are subjects which not only the four are quoted and commented on, but also their sources and other thinkers. The subjects are The Qur’an, The Prophet, The Feminine, universality and war. Laude also sets the ideas of the four in a contemporary context in which Islam has become quite a different thing than it was in the previous century.

An interesting but difficult book about the Islam and Sufism of four Westerners in which you will also learn a few things about Islam (mostly its history) itself.

2011 Suny Press, isbn 1438429568

Freemasonry Theory Of The Origins – Fabio Venzi (2022)

Earlier I reviewed two very Traditionalistic books (in the sense of Guénon) by Venzi from 2013 and 2016. In his previous book in English (2019), he mostly investigates the relationship of the Church and Freemasonry and the author presents a somewhat one-sided view on Freemasonry.

However the colophon says nothing of it, Theory Of The Origins was initially published in Italian 2020. The cover reminds a lot of Venzi’s initial history of Freemasonry in Italian.

The book is divided in three parts and the subtitle says mostly what the parts are about. “From ‘Homo Ludens’ to the Invention of a ‘Tradition'”.

In the preface Venzi again writes about anti-Masonic tendencies in the past and the present, the role of the Church, the misunderstandings about Freemasonry. All this takes a bit too many pages for my liking particularly because The Last Heresy was already about this.

Then we come to part I, which is about the playing man ‘homo ludens’. Freemasonry is presented as a serious play that came into being together with theatre. Before he gets that do, Venzi shortly gives a few theories about the origins of Freemasonry most of which he debunks. The ‘religious base theory’, the ‘theory of conspiracy fellowship’ (a political motivation), ‘the age of enlightenment theory’, the self-help / charitable theory (Freemasonry as social security), “the ‘myth’ of a ‘Speculative’ Freemasonry” which is the best known theory such as that of Knoop and Jones that Freemasonry grew out of ‘operative’ guilds. Then we have the Stevenson theory that Freemasonry comes from Scotland rather than England and Venzi also rallies against Stevenson’s idea that there have been Hermetic influences from the start of modern Freemasonry. Next up is the idea that something speculative, philosophical and even esoteric was part of early modern Freemasonry. Also the popular theory that Freemasonry has something to do with cathedral builders is laid aside, even the point that Freemasonry is a revival of what came before is a “blunder”. Lastly there is a theory called “pseudomorphosis”. Freemasonry filled in a gap when other elements ‘washed away’.

Then we come to Venzi’s own theory. He sees that origin in an ‘inner circle’ of the London Masons’ Company who “accepted” people and who met for “social pastime, for the sake of pure entertainment, as a play“. Inspiration for these plays they took from ‘Mystery Plays’ and ‘Morality Plays’.

Then follow some pages about Johan Huizinga’s theories of play, the rise of theatre, Yates is introduced, both for her work on the Art of Memory and on that of the theatre and via architecture we come to Solomon’s Temple.
Venzi is a bit too focussed on documentary evidence. Sometimes he dismisses a theory based on the lack of it while apparently forgetting that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. His own theory also has such lacunas. Be that as it may, the morality/mystery play theory is one that is not posed very often, so let us just see this part of Venzi’s book as another interesting theory of one of the origins of Masonic symbolism.

Part II is about the invention of tradition. Of course in Anderson’s Constitutions a ‘mythical’ history of Freemasonry is given. Venzi sees this as the starting point of the transition from ‘ludic’ (convivial) Freemasonry towards a more structured phenomenon. This part is mainly about the parts played by James Anderson, John-Theophile Desagulier, but Thomas Payne has played a bigger part in the transition/invention in Venzi’s theory than other books I read about the subject.
This part also deals with the question if the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster was actually founded in 1717 or if this is part of the invented tradition. Venzi’s conclusion is that in 1717 and the following years there indeed have been meetings, elections of Grand Officers, but only after 1721 did this become more than just a social event.

The last part Venzi looks at the union of ‘Moderns’ and the ‘Antients’. Apparently this is to show that only after 1813 the rituals of the Lodge of Reconciliation and Emulation ritual ‘esotericism’ was firmly rooted. The author has said several times that esotericism was no part of Freemasonry from the start. Not in the organisations that inspired the inventors of the traditions (organisations of which we know the “Old Charges”), not in the “Acception” lodges, hardly even on the invention of the third degree.

That men such as Ashmole and Moray had esoteric interests does not make their lodges esoteric. This is true, but does not explain why these men joined in the first place. Some of the “Old Charges” and catechisms are described by Venzi as “Ludic” even “Goliardic”. This is also true, but is a possible explanation for that not just that such texts were written by people who wanted to make fun of the lodges?
And so we go from “Ludic” texts to more moralising, philosophical and, all the way at the end, esoteric rituals. The treating of men such as Wellins Calcott, William Preston and William Hutchinson seems to suggest that these men worked towards the deepening of Freemasonry, but were they not just the first people who reflected on what was already there at some length? This part would have been more convincing, had the author shown that these men had elements added to the rituals.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the detailed description proces that led to the United Grand Lodge of England. Interesting in itself, but I find the idea that only in this proces ‘esotericism was introduced’ unconvincing. What is more, Venzi can write at length the “Centre” and the “Throne of God” referring to thinkers such as Guénon, Evola and Eliade, but if Freemasonry only got (or is) initiatic in the Emulation ritual after 1816, can Freemasonry be seen initiatic within the framework of René Guénon? Besides, Freemasonry had spread (and splintered) substantially by the time, would only the change of some of the rituals used suddenly bring esotericism in the Traditionalistic sense?

I enjoy Venzi’s English language books of 2013 and 2016 a lot. The book about the Church was less interesting. The title presently under review gives in some ways nicely detailed information, also details that I need to look into further, but also a lot of information that appears to be a bit out of place or out of context. All in all this alternative view of the origins of Freemasonry gives some food for thought as it presents some new ways of looking at available material, but it is hardly a completely convincing theory to replace all others.

Let me stay with the thought that Freemasonry had many sources and some of those that Venzi tried to do away with, did not really become less probable to me.

An interesting book, but not the next ‘ultimate history of Freemasonry’.

2022 Lewis Masonic, isbn 9780853186144

Religion After Religion – Steven Wasserstrom (1999)

An investigation into three big names in the “history of religion”: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade and Anton Corbin. Wasserstrom himself seems to posit himself in that field as well and closely investigates Scholem, Eliade and Corbin in order to be able to take the next step in the history of religions.

Scholem, Eliade and Corbin knew each other, they influenced each other, they had similar influences, but also they differed from each other. A meeting point of the three Wasserstrom takes as focal point; the annual Eranos meetings where academics met around a certain ‘program’.

The book is both biographical and deeply investigative into the thought of the three scholars. They had similar contacts and influences, some perhaps somewhat unexpected. Each has its own field. Scholem -of course- mostly focussed on Judaism, Corbin on Islam and Eliade was more of an all-rounder.

Wasserstrom tells his readers where the three academics found their inspiration, where they looked for answers and looks into their religions and esoteric (even initiatic) filiations. Also he takes up a few themes that can be found in the work of the three named authors.

Renaissance thought, perennial philosophy, Christian Kabbala, antinomianism, Goethe, (anti-)modernism, nationalism, Wasserstrom does not just scratch the surface and does not shy away from more difficult subjects. Even though he admires all three, some sides of for example Corbin he obviously finds dangerous.

“Religion After Religion” will give you context and background of these three famous authors in the field of the history of religion, partly also elements that are not so clear when you read their books yourself. He works towards the question if the history of religions is or was a child of its time, what the relevance of it could be today and how the approach can develop.

1999 Princeton University Press, isbn 0691005400

Anarchist, Artist, Sufi – Mark Sedgwick (editor) (2021)

  • history

Ivan Aguéli (1869-1917) was born as John Gustaf Agelii. The name was somewhat familiar to me, as Aguéli had ‘something to do’ with René Guénon. I ran into this biographical compendium, edited by none less than the editor the Traditionalists blog and author of Against The Modern World Mark Sedgwick. Time to learn a bit more about the anarchist, artist and Sufi from Sweden.

Aguéli was -like I said- born in Sweden. He was foremost a painter. A restless soul. After studying under different Swedish masters, Aguéli moved to Paris were he emerged himself in the Symbolists scene. Also, like other symbolists, he went around in Paris’ ‘occult scene’ of the day.

As the title of the book says, Aguéli was also an anarchist and he was involved in the Paris student riots of 1893. This put him in jail for a few months, months which he used for intense studies. These studies brought him in touch with Islam. Aguéli travelled to Cairo and found his Shayk, only to become one himself taking the name ʿAbd al-Hādī al-ʿAqīlī (usually Abd al-Hadi or Abd al-Hadi al Maghrabi (“al Maghrabi” means ‘the Westerner)).

The book contains 13 essays of different authors. There is some overlap between the texts. The texts are divided over the subjects Aguéli as anarchist and artist and Aguéli as Sufi. In the last chapter Sedgwick also says a thing or two about Aguéli’s influence on Traditionalism.

Aguéli was an interesting character, but it is obvious that he was not just a ‘proto-Traditionalist’. Sure, before René Guénon he had converted to Islam. As a matter of fact, it was Aguéli who initiated Guénon in Paris in 1911! Contrary to Guénon, Aguéli identified himself as a Muslim (Guénon only did so after he moved to Cairo in 1930). There is a bit of irony in here too. The Shayk that Aguéli found, had a fairly modern/Western system. Aguéli wrote for magazines that also Guénon wrote for. He influenced Guénon’s thinking, but Guénon went quite a different way.

Aguéli was an avid writer and he translated many Sufi texts for the first time to a Western language. He had something with languages too, learning as many as 16! Even though Aguéli was pushed out of the history of Traditionalism, he not only influenced Guénon, but also Frithjof Schuon.

To the end of the book two letters and two texts of Aguéli are published showing a mature thinker at an early age.

All in all Sedgewick’s book makes an interesting book about an interesting person.

2021 Bloomsbury, isbn 1350229563

Zonder Blinddoek – Huub Lazet & Ruud Luder (2021)

A review for my Dutch readers as I do not expect there will be an English version of this book (soon).

The title Zonder Blinddoek, een andere kijk op Vrijmetselarij translates to “without blindfold, another look at Freemasonry” (or “without hoodwink” or “unmasked”). The authors met each other each week over a period of five years. They have quite different views on Freemasonry, its history and its symbolism, but they reached middle ground so to say. The authors wanted to get rid off ancient misconceptions, present a more factual history of Freemasonry, expand the knowledge of the subject of their readers and thus present a fresh view of Freemasonry which could give rise to improvement of the Craft. In so doing, they came to conclusions that are often remarkably close to mine, so the book reads a bit like a summary of my own investigations of recent years.

The authors both have their backgrounds in the “regular” Grand Orient of the Netherlands, but they are also familiar with other Grand Lodges in their country, so here and there they compare practises. They are very critical towards developments in rituals which are -in their opinions- often made without proper knowledge. Especially certain additions that are very common in the Netherlands raise their disapproval.

The book begins with a history of Freemasonry. They follow Stevenson in their statement that the earliest forms of what would become Freemasonry can be found in Scotland. Also they put quite some stress on the Ars Memorativa and hence there is also a somewhat esoteric approach.

Based on the investigations of Isaac Newton of the Temple of King Solomon they conclude that the different placement of officiers (both Wardens in the West versus one in the South and one in the West) is due to the room within the Temple where the ritual takes place (forecourt, Middle Chamber, holy area). A conclusion that I am not entirely convinced with is that the third degree is actually ‘the first of the follow-up steps’ as it was created specifically for ‘non operatives’ who wanted to be more than the rest of the Fellows. The description of Lazet and Luder of the developement of the third degree is detailed and interesting though. For some reason they do not follow Stevenson in the idea that the (precursor) of the third degree is connected to the Scottish ‘Mason’s Word’, at least, they do not mention this.

There is also a part in which the authors suggest new tracing boards for each degree, the explanations make a nice read on Masonic symbolism.

All in all, the book makes an excellent read about the subject in the Dutch language. Here and there are ‘spoilers’ for the rituals, but especially the fact that the Masonic world of the authors is larger than their own “regular” Grand Lodge will make that the book may have new information for many readers.

2021 De Alk, isbn 905961237X

Contra Mundum: Joseph de Maistre & The Birth Of Tradition – Thomas Isham (2017)

“Before René Guénon, there was Joseph de Maistre”.

I have known the name of De Maistre (1753-1821), probably because of the few references to him by the mentioned Guénon. I ran into this biography and decided to learn a bit more about the country-mate of Guénon.

The author makes many comparisons between the two men who were similar in several regards, but also different. Both were Catholics, went around in the ‘occult scenes’ of their time, joined Freemasonry and both revolted against the modern world of their ages.

De Maistre lived before, during and after the French Revolution (1789) and his Catholic orthodoxy did not like the direction France headed. He took a fierce stance with sharp polemics giving him the name of a gloomy thinker. Isham shows that De Maistre was nothing of that sort.

In spite of being a Catholic in difficult times, De Maistre -as mentioned- also explored other directions of thinking and knowing. Ironically, he was an active Freemason and Freemasonry was accused of being one of the major causes of the anticlerical sides of the French Revolution. In De Maistre’s life we see that things are not that black and white. Like he disapproved of a large part of society’s new worldview, he did of a part of Freemasonry.

Isham mostly focuses on De Maistre’s life. He compares ideas often to those of Guénon, but after finishing the little book (154 pages) I really cannot say much about De Maistre’s thinking. He appears to have been more philosophical (and perhaps theological) than the more esoteric Guénon, but that is about it.

According to Isham De Maistre is hardly known outside France. Some of his works are available in English by now. Isham thinks he remains a relevant political and religious thinker and a precursor to Traditionalism, so this biography may introduce him to more potential readers.

2017 Sophia Perennis, isbn 1621382508

Occult Paris – Tobias Churton (2016)

Another Churton. This time about Paris during the “Belle Epoque”. According to the author an unexposed part of esoteric history, at least in the English language.

As you may know, the late 19th century had an ‘occult revival’. Movements such as Theosophy rose, different systems of ‘high grade’ Freemasonry came into being. Martinism, neo-Rosicrucianity. Much of this can in one way of another be traced back to “Belle Epoque” (“Beautiful Epoch”) Paris.

Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) lived just before this time, but he was one of the inspirators. What Churton mostly concerns is the “Symbolist” movement. Painters, poets, composers, etc. apparently longed back to a time of magic. Bookshop, meetings, groups and movements were formed by people with similar interests where they met, discussed, inspired each other and indeed, held seances too.

In Churton’s book you will not only meet Edmond Bailly, Fabre d’Olivet, Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, Stanislas de Guaita, Lady Caithness, but most of all Joséphin Péladan and Papus. (And many others.)

The movement oddly went from a more occult orientation to a more artistic one and back. Of course there were several big egos, clashes, schisms and the like, so you will learn about Rosicrucian movements that were basically magical organisations, while others appear to be more art-movements. Or were they? Gnosticism, Cathars, Martinism, Freemasonry, magicians and philosophers all these things oddly ran through each other with Paris as focal point, also when we are talking North America and Russia.

Churton has presented another interesting book about a interesting part of history. I do not know if it was a story formerly untold, but it sure was a nice read with here and there some subjects to dive into deeper.

2016 Inner Traditions, isbn 162055545X

The Kybalion – Three Initiates (1908)

I have known about The Kybalion for decades, but I never intended to read it. Just a contemporary book claiming to be Hermetic, right? For some reason the book gets renewed attention and I kept running into references. I decided to see what it is all about.

The “three initiates” are probably just “the New Thought pioneer William Walker Atkinson (1862–1932)” (Wikipedia). This -indeed- is also how the book reads. ‘Modern science’ of a century ago, references to authors of these days, obvious ‘New Thought’ ideas.

Just as I thought, the author(s) refer to the “ancient text” Kybalion, quoting it and explaining the quotes. None of these quotes seem to be ‘genuinely Hermetic’. The book has got the famous and often quoted “Seven Hermetic Principles” which are mostly just variations to the idea of duality. They are the principles of “mentalism”, “correspondence”, “vibration”, “polarity”, “rhythm”, “cause and effect” and “gender”. It is amazing how often these principles are quoted, but I really wonder how these were distilled from Hermetic texts.

It is not like the book is entirely without interesting thoughts, but it has little to do with Hermetism. It is really but a child of its time and from a fairly specific line of thought too. Yet the book remains to be influential. Even the most famous Hermetic saying “As above, so below; as below, so above” comes from the Kybalion. I do not think this wording is used in any traditional Hermetic text.

Nothing more than a ‘page through and move on’ text to me.