A good place to start is an historical perspective, and having recently began to reread Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages, I found within the first few pages a concise description of what I have come to understand the history of what occultism teaches to be.
This selection is from the foreword of the book, written by Henry L. Drake, Vice-President of The Philosophical Research Society:
Associations of men and women bound together by oaths and obligations into esoteric fraternities have descended from the earliest times and bear witness to a natural inclination to perpetuate doctrines which lead to the good of mankind.Here is another quote from the Preface to the Golden Anniversary Edition of the book, written by Manly P. Hall:
With the growth of social consciousness, these secret societies became the custodians of the highest cultural concepts. Their initiation rites were symbolic pageantries suitable to inspire veneration for the Divine Mysteries, and admiration for the powers of nature and God. Most of the mythologies of classical nations were originally rituals of secret societies, and it is a mistake to assume that earlier cultures accepted as literal the elaborate theology and legendry found in their traditions.
Historically the secret societies were closely identified with state religions. Basic knowledge was believed to have been bestowed by the gods in a remote age. The esoteric philosophies have always been taught by means of secret organizations, to which candidates were admitted only after appropriate preparation and initiatory rites. These spiritual brotherhoods of scholars, sages, and mystics have flourished among all peoples, ancient and modern, and in all parts of the world.
In the program of the Mysteries each individual must grow into the comprehension of truth. Before he could be entrusted with the divine powers of mind and will, he must accept knowledge as a responsibility to his Creator and his world, rather than as an opportunity for the advancement of personal ambitions. The masters of the Mysteries taught secret practices and disciplines by which the properly qualified disciples could develop the potent abilities latent within the soul, and so, come into conscious communication with spiritual realities.
Initiates of the philosophical societies came to be regarded as possessing extraordinary faculties and powers. They enjoyed the special favor of the divinities, performed miracles, and were worthy of the title "Twice-Born", for they had come to second birth from the womb of the Mysteries. These adept-philosophers were the truly evolved human beings. Most of the arts and sciences which enriched the modern world were discovered, developed, and in many instances perfected by these initiate philosophers and priests.
Scholarship was recognized as the pursuit most suitable to the abilities of man. But scholarship was always the means, never the end. The end of the sacred sciences was the abstraction of the human soul from bondage to the senses and its preparation to receive within itself the light of vast truths. Some men are naturally suited to higher learning for they possess integrity of motive, the patience of effort, and the vision of ends- these labored toward the soul's improvement, and championed enlightened progress above other considerations. Those of different opinion opposed the Mystery Schools.
It was inevitable that the initiates of the Mysteries should unite themselves against the forces seeking their extinction. Thus, while the secret doctrine with its body of disciples functioned more or less openly in ancient society, it later passed almost completely from public view. This circumstance should not be interpreted as a decline of plan or purpose. The esoteric schools remained as a powerful force for the regeneration of human institutions.
Those who do not understand the spiritual sciences question their use of unusual symbols, myths, and figures employed to conceal the essential teaching. Let it be remembered that these "clouds" were no part of the original doctrine, but were made necessary by intolerance and bigotry. The use of indirect communication was based entirely upon practical considerations. To remain unknown was the best way to prevent a repetition of disaster which occurred to the Knights Templar. The "veils" which concealed the arcana of the Mysteries were not employed to cover ignorance, but to protect wisdom, and in Europe it was protected for a thousand years.
The secrets of the Mysteries are obviously metaphysical, philosophical, and esoteric and relate to processes taking place within the fields of the human psyche during the practice of spiritual disciplines. Discipleship ends in the attainment of an inner capacity suitable for the realization of the esoteric tradition. The disciplines, by expanding consciousness, give the initiate practical mastery over that which is learned and constant awareness as to the proper use of higher learning.
If these sacred academies imparted only scientific, intellectual, ethical or cultural doctrines somewhat in advance of their time, they could produce only scholars. The initiates of the esoteric tradition were never regarded merely as brilliant intellectuals. From white-walled Memphis to rock-hewn Ellora, they were honored as practicing a higher dimension of essential knowledge. History preserves the records of numerous persons, living in different times and various places, who have exhibited a knowledge and skill which cannot be explained according to present standards of erudition. We cannot ignore the testimonies of such learned men as Pythagoras, Buddha, and Plotinus. Many of the noblest emmbers of our race have expressed their profound admiration for the esoteric institutions flourishing in their own times. Not to recognize the esoteric science is to disregard most that has contributed to the advancement and improvement of the human state during the last five thousand years. There being a divine order of learning superior to mundane knowledge, and its being available- the time is most appropriate for the further restoration of this sacred tradition.
Adeptship is the state of complete spiritual maturity so far as this is possible to a member of the human family. Deficient in nothing necessary to a life of wisdom, the adept is sufficient to his own needs and capable of determining that course of personal action most likely to contribute to enlightenment. The adepts foreshadow the state of mankind when it will have attained the full release of its faculties and its powers. The adept is, therefore, the truely evolved of our species. Accordingly, the adepts, considered together as the citizens of an invisible empire of the philisophical elect, constitute the heroic elder brothers, the custodians and protectors of humanity. As the interpreters of the Mysteries, they are the true educators and illuminators. As the redeemed, the servants of Divine purpose, they comprise a powerful, creative and directive force in the world.
The science of life is, therefore, the supreme science, and the art of living, the finest of the arts. There have always been truth-seekers willing to acknowledge the sovereignty of the eternal over the temporal. These have dedicated themselves to the mastery of life, and have perpetuated from generation to generation the knowledge and skill they accumulated. This body of essential knowledge is the esoteric tradition. The institutions which perpetuated this tradition are the Mystery Schools, and the graduates of these schools are the adepts.
This volume reveals that the lore and legendry of the world, the scriptures and sacred books, and the great philosophical systems all tell the same story. Human ambition may produce the tyrant; divine aspiration will produce the adept...
In assembling the collection of reference material used in the presentation of this volume, special attention was given to the patient labors of the emblem writers. It is impossible to date, even approximately, the origin of the concept of emblems. At an early date however, these devices mingled with the streams of religious and moral philosophy. Although all emblems are symbols, all symbols are not emblems. Technically, a symbol is used to express a concept and an emblem expresses a precept, but in the course of time the terms became interchangeable. A symbol may describe abstract attributes or qualities, as symbols of the Godhead, or the attributes associated with saints or venerable persons. Among old nations, emblems and symbols served two important purposes. They became first the simplest means of communicating the mysteries of religion, and second, a convenient method for picturing and even extending the social graces.
In the House of the Dionysia of Pompeii, elaborate religious murals representing scenes of the initiation rituals cover the walls. Similar ornamentations, either painted or sculpured, adorn Eastern shrines and temples, and combine decoration and visual impression. Henry Green in his introduction to Whitney's "Choice of Emblems" writes: "Naturally and easily the term 'emblem' becomes applicable to any painting, drawing, or print that was representative of an action, of a quality of mind, or of any peculiarity or attribute of character. Emblems in fact were, and are, a species of hieroglyphics, in which figures or pictures, besides denoting the natural object to which they bear resemblance, were employed to express properties of the mind, vitues and abstract ideas, and all the operations of the soul."
Mystical speculations about God, the world, and man occupied the minds of many medieval scholars and theologians. They conceived creation itself to be a symbol of figure through which the Divine Will manifested its purposes and intentions- thus by analogy, the world revealed God, and man revealed the world. The human being himself was a microcosm- a miniature of the cosmos. After the collapse of the pagan cultural institutions, it was unlawful to teach classical learning or to advance scientific knowledge contrary to the prevailing scholasticism. To avoid persecution and at the same time perpetuate for the benefit of qualified disciples the more advanced formulas of the ancient wisdom, the sacred truths were presented symbolically through the beautiful engraved devices of the emblem writers.
The seventeenth century restoration of learning gradually brought about a Universal Reformation as proclaimed in the Fama of the Rosicrucians. A careful study of the emblem books of that period reveals that most of the figures and designs were based upon teachings of esoteric fraternities. Today, those well informed in the Orphic Mysteries and the mystical speculations of the Neoplatonists can interpret the designs with little difficulty. It appears that the emblem books were, in many cases, actual extensions of Pythagorean and Platonic metaphysics. Paracelsus said that the first hieroglyphic book is nature, published in folio, and the second hieroglyphic book is man, published in duodecimo.
To live in a world without becoming aware of the meaning of the world is like wandering about in a great library without touching the books. It has always seemed to me that symbolism should be restored to the structure of world education. The young are no longer invited to seek the hidden truths, dynamic and eternal, locked within the shapes and behavior of living beings.
Manly P. Hall
Los Angeles, California
October 1, 1975