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Esotericism signifies the holding of esoteric opinions or beliefs, that is, ideas preserved or understood by a small group of those specially initiated, or of rare or unusual interest. The term esoteric derives from the Greek ἐσωτερικός. Its antonym is exoteric.

Quotations pertaining to esotericism in philosophy[edit]

  • Should you be willing to read [Xenophon's Anabasis] very carefully you shall discover how … to deceive one’s enemies to their harm and one’s friends to their advantage, and to speak the truth in a way that will not pain those who are needlessly disturbed by it.
    • Dio Chrysostom, “On the Cultivation of Letters,” Discourses (18.16–17), quoted and translated by Bartlett, Xenophon: The Shorter Socratic Writings, 4
  • Erasmus dramatizes a well-established political position: that of the fool who claims license to criticize all and sundry without reprisal, since his madness defines him as not fully a person and therefore not a political being with political desires and ambitions. The Praise of Folly, therefore sketches the possibility of a position for the critic of the scene of political rivalry, a position not simply impartial between the rivals but also, by self-definition, off the stage of rivalry altogether.
  • You can never tell the wise by what they say in public. They speak not in their own voices, but in that of common stupidity, though deep inside they are cursing it.
  • To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that "they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand."
    • Mark 4:10-12
  • If there is something really demanding about philosophy, so that truth comes only to those who serve it by personal effort, discipline, and sacrifice, then a survey by an outsider cannot claim to offer anything like a true account.
  • Through the practice of esotericism, the great minds of the past endeavored to create the impression that they were supporters of the conventional political and religious views of their age. They used all their genius, in effect, to convince their (non-esoteric) readers that even their highest philosophical reflections always remained captive of the prevailing order. Thus, if one surveys the record of past philosophical writing without awareness of its esoteric character, one will necessarily and systematically misconstrue the relation of human thought to politics—or of reason to history, theory to practice—seeing every mind as merely the prisoner of its times. The result will be what in fact we see everywhere in the recent explosion of hermeneutical theory: the radical politicization or historicization of thought.
    • Arthur Melzer, “On the Pedagogical Motive for Esoteric Writing,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 69, Issue 4, November 2007, pp. 1015-1016
  • It is the characteristic way of the wise to speak indirectly, to talk in figures, proverbs, and puzzles. All the sages of pre-modern cultures seem to share a belief in the ineffectiveness of open statements, the superficiality of direct communication. Wisdom, it seems, would not be so rare and difficult a thing if it could simply be “told” by one person to another.
    • Arthur Melzer, “On the Pedagogical Motive for Esoteric Writing,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 69, Issue 4, November 2007, p. 1017
  • Machiavelli is the complete contrary of a machiavellian, since he describes the tricks of power and “gives the whole show away.” The seducer and the politician, who live in the dialectic and have a feeling and instinct for it, try their best to keep it hidden.
  • And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.
  • Attend me briefly while I now disclose
How art of fable telling first arose.
Unhappy slaves, in servitude confined,
Dared not to their harsh masters show their mind,
But under veiling of the fable’s dress
Contrived their thoughts and feelings to express
Escaping still their lord’s affronted wrath.
So Aesop did; I widen out his path.
  • Phaedrus, Fables, quoted and translated in Vico, The First New Science, 136 (2.9.425)
  • So behold me daring, not only to read the sacred messages of Moses, but also in my love of knowledge to peer into each of them and unfold and reveal what is not known to the multitude.
    • Philo, On the Special Laws, 3.6
  • Be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours. Judge it afterwards if you think yourself qualified to do so; but ascertain it first. And be sure, also, if the author is worth anything, that you will not get at his meaning all at once;—nay, that at his whole meaning you will not for a long time arrive in any wise. Not that he does not say what he means, and in strong words too; but he cannot say it all; and what is more strange, will not, but in a hidden way and in parables, in order that he may be sure you want it. I cannot quite see the reason of this, nor analyse that cruel reticence in the breasts of wise men which makes them always hide their deeper thought. They do not give it you by way of help, but of reward; and will make themselves sure that you deserve it before they allow you to reach it.
  • I am a Russian writer and therefore I have two slave’s habits: first, to write allegorically and, second, to tremble. For the habit of allegorical writing I am indebted to the pre-reform Department of Censorship. It tormented Russian literature to such a degree, that it was as though it had vowed to wipe it off the face of the earth. But literature persisted in its desire to live and so pursued deceptive means.... On the one hand, allegories appeared; on the other, the art of comprehending these allegories, the art of reading between the lines. A special slave’s manner of writing was created which can be called Aesopian, a manner which revealed a remarkable resourcefulness in the invention of reservations, innuendoes, allegories and other deceptive means.
    • M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, quoted by Ray J. Parrott, Jr., “Aesopian Language,” in Modern Encyclopedia, 41
  • One who is clever conceals knowledge, but the mind of a fool broadcasts folly.
  • Philosophizing means, then, to ascend from public dogma to essentially private knowledge.
  • Telling someone something he does not understand is pointless, even if you add that he will not be able to understand it. … If you have a room which you do not want certain people to get into, put a lock on it for which they do not have the key. But there is no point in talking to them about it, unless of course you want them to admire the room from outside! The honorable thing to do is to put a lock on the door which will be noticed only by those who can open it, not by the rest.

Quotations pertaining to esotericism in religion[edit]

  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead is ostensibly a book describing the experiences to be expected at the moment of death, during an intermediate phase lasting forty-nine (seven times seven) days, and during rebirth into another bodily frame. This however is merely the exoteric framework which the Tibetan Buddhists used to cloak their mystical teachings. … The esoteric meaning, as it has been interpreted in this manual, is that it is death and rebirth of the ego that is described, not of the body. Lama Govinda indicates this clearly in his introduction when he writes: “It is a book for the living as well as the dying.” The book's esoteric meaning is often concealed beneath many layers of symbolism. It was not intended for general reading. It was designed to be understood only by one who was to be initiated personally by a guru into the Buddhist mystical doctrines, into the pre-mortem-death-rebirth experience. These doctrines have been kept a closely guarded secret for many centuries, for fear that naive or careless application would do harm.

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