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Western Culture

Two of my books have "Western culture" in the subtitle. After all, my true concern has always been to explore historical currents, traditions, ideas or practices that played a role in the development of Western civilisation from antiquity to the present but were neglected, discredited, ostracised, condemned, marginalised or otherwise rejected by the intellectual mainstream and therefore often didn't make it into the official textbook narratives. Without even a single exception, all our standard textbook accounts of Western culture or Western civilisation create some kind of streamlined "politically correct" narrative that highlights whatever our dominant intellectual culture considered or still considers important and relevant, while excluding or severely misrepresenting whatever doesn't fit the preferred narrative. 

Rafael's famous painting "The School of Athens" might serve as an illustration. Plato and Aristotle are at the center as the foundational figures of Western intellectual culture - the former pointing upwards to the realm of the eternal ideas and the latter pointing downwards to our material world. However, the Plato of mainstream philosophy is in fact a streamlined and simplified figure, almost a caricature in some respects. We tend to imagine him in ways that distort the true complexity of a thinker and writer whose ideal philosopher - Socrates - insisted that not unaided reason but manía (an altered state of consciousness described as "divine madness") gets us closest to the truth about reality, and who attributed his ideas about the search for wisdom to the influence not of a male rational thinker but of Diotima, a female priestess of the mysteries who taught him erotics (ta erōtika). Moreover, the main tradition of Platonism until the early nineteenth century saw Plato not as the original founding genius of philosophy but as a link in the "golden chain" of wisdom teachers whose origins were to be found not in Greece but in "the Orient" and among "barbarian" peoples: the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus, the Hebrew Moses, or the Persian Zoroaster (the bearded guy on the right, the one who is holding a globe on his fingertips).

Many similar examples could be given from later periods from the past two and a half thousand years. If one explores the history of rejected knowledge seriously from such a perspective, one finds that studying Western civilisation or Western culture does not mean giving credence to imperialist or colonialist narratives of Western superiority, but quite the opposite! It means that in countless instances, we need to re-write those stories from the bottom up and replace them by better and more truthful accounts. If one reads the historical sources accurately and completely - taking all their information seriously rather than selecting only those bits that confirm pre-existing ideologies - one discovers again and again how one-sided and misleading many of the official narratives really are. In short, the true history of the West remains largely unknown, its place having been taken by those well-known hegemonic narratives of Western superiority.

Having deconstructed some of the foundations of the official post-Enlightenment narrative in my Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (2012), my interest has now shifted towards the idea of reconstructing Western culture on new and better foundations. My new book Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming in 2022) will focus on the question of what counts as "knowledge": does it consist only of what can be discovered through such well-known instruments as rational analysis and scientific empiricism, or should we also include other types of knowledge such as those that are referred to as gnōsis? Furthermore, while the 2012 book was an analysis primarily of discursive processes of identity formation through exclusion of the rejected "other," my focus is now moving towards the creation of reified imaginal formations that result from those processes. Against these backgrounds, a longer-term project for the future is to outline a new type of narrative of what Western culture might look like if we are really serious about "rejecting the rejection of rejected knowledge." Stay tuned!

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