The discovery of esotericism in Italy in the 20th century – from the ContERN cyberproceedings

Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)

Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)

The latest addition to the cyberproceedings of August’s conference on contemporary esotericism is slightly different from previous installations in the series. It is not too contemporary, but it adds a discussion that should be quite interesting to anyone involved in the definition debate and the broader history of the academic study of esotericism. Francesco Baroni’s paper focuses on what one might call the  discovery of esotericism in Italy during the early-to-mid 20th century, by a generation of idealistically (in the philosophical sense) oriented scholars. Baroni shows how Benedetto Croce, Adolfo Omodeo and Piero Martinetti were all involved with uncovering esoteric aspects of e.g. Renaissance natural philosophy, early Christianity, and Western idealist philosophy, even while despising the “irrationalism” of modern and contemporary esoteric currents such as spiritualism and Theosophy.

More directly influential as precursors for Western esotericism as a field of study are the works of Eugenio Garin and Ernesto de Martino after the Second World War. As a curiosity, Garin’s description of Renaissance hermetism, in an essay from 1950, prefigures Antoine Faivre’s famous characteristics of esotericism almost down to the letter, about half a century before Faivre published his famous definition. Garin spoke about “the idea of a universe wholly alive, all made of hidden correspondences, of occult sympathies, all pervaded by spirits […] and in the middle of it stands man, a wonderful changing being, who can say anything, reshape anything, draw any character, respond to any invocation, invoke any god”.

Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965) - a founder of esotericism research?

Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965) – a founder of esotericism research?

Francesco Baroni is also interested in the question of why esotericism was put on the research agenda by Italian scholars at this point in history. He finds an answer in both Garin and de Martino’s struggle with the contemporary crisis of war and unrest. In fact, both Garin and de Martino – no doubt influenced by the idealist context of thinkers such as Croce – saw in the uncovering of esotericism as a historical “lost continent” a way to change Western self-perceptions. In this view, revising historical narratives were thought to have effects on the whole of contemporary culture. Thus:

“The link between his research on magic and the crisis of contemporary Europe is clearly stated by de Martino in the preface to Il mondo magico (1948): «The task of historicist ethnology is to pose problems whose solution may lead to the enlargement of our civilization’s self-awareness» (29). Again, in the words of Benedetto Croce, «all history is contemporary history». Studying the past, for de Martino as well as for Garin, was a way of expanding Western civilization’s self-awareness, and ultimately of providing the present with a new humanism.”

This intriguing motivation may, I think, be found in several other authors in this field even today. Is there not a similarity here to Wouter Hanegraaff’s recent argument that “esotericism” is the outcome of a series of shifts in how the West remembers itself, it’s “mnemohistory”? The Italians may have prefigured more aspects of later esotericism research than the Faivrean characteristics only.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Egil, your conclusion makes a lot of sense, provided that it is clearly understood that De Martino and Garin were not working with a model that is comparable to Western esotericism. But the theoretical basis is very similar.

  2. Indeed. At any rate, the conclusion is more of a musing on what I read in Francesco’s paper, than strictly my own. So I will refer you (and other readers) to his discussion.


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