Modern Occultism: History, Theory, and Practice

Modern Occultism: History, Theory, and Practice

Mitch Horowitz
New York, G&D Media, 2023; 440 pp., paper, $24.95.

Right from the start, Modern Occultism, Mitch Horowitz’s wonderfully comprehensive and challenging new synthesis of occult history, makes its project quite clear:

The idea, simple in concept yet seismic in impact, is that there exist unseen dimensions or intersections of time, all possessed of their own events, causes, intelligences, and perhaps iterations of ourselves; the influence of these realms is felt on and through us without meditation by any religion or doctrine. (Emphasis Horowitz’s.)

Or as the author more simply puts it a few pages later, “the secret of human development is discovering the psyche’s causative dimensions and the expansion to which they point . . . within the cosmic framework you occupy, you, too, are capable of thought causation.”

People fall into two general camps. One holds that mind never interacts with matter at a distance and only exists as an epiphenomenon of an embodied animal’s brain, and that time and causation are necessarily only forward-moving. The other camp knows that these propositions are simply not true, or certainly not complete.

This book is the thousands-of-years-old history of those who not only knew the falsehood or limitations of materialistic propositions, but who—within cultural milieus as old as ancient Egypt and earlier—passionately and astutely practiced the arts and sciences of nonbounded, nonlinear, mental causation.

Horowitz tells us that the book aims to make use of the “vocabulary, outlook, and sense of possibility that emerged from the birth, rebirth, and winding path of occult spirituality.” We learn that the word occult comes from the Latin word occultus, which means secret or hidden. But what exactly counts as the “occult”? And for purposes of the book, which specific figures and places merit inclusion?  

In contrast to “esoteric” or “inner” teachings, which have existed throughout the world in Vedic, Buddhist, animist, Taoist, Confucian, and shamanic traditions, Horowitz informs us that “the occult rose from the West’s rupture with its own religious past during the rise of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity in particular.” While esoteric traditions represent the inner core of a traditional religion to which they corresponded, the occult “is independent of religion while not necessarily rejecting of it.”

According to Horowitz, the occult in this sense arose within a bounded geographic area, “territories occupied first by the Greek armies of Alexander the Great . . . and later by the Roman Empire, extending from Ancient Egypt and Constantinople to the Mediterranean Basin, Persia, and much of Europe, as well as colonial and migratory offshoots, including the Americas.”

From the ancient world to modernity, the book “explores the roots, people, ideas, aesthetics, and practices that have shaped our conception of the occult, as we have been shaped by them.” Horowitz’s metaphor is that there is an “obsidian thread” of occult history, knowledge, and traditions. His aim is tracing that thread’s “origin, entanglements, key figures, and catalytic role in modern life.”

These entanglements of so many threads of spiritual teachings necessarily broaden the book’s reach. By the time we get to the later chapters covering the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, the narrative touches upon a much wider range of practices and personages, from modern Eastern teachers to those who have led the (latest) New Age revival.

As for science, we are treated to a thoughtful consideration of the implications of quantum physics, as well as a review of where things stand on psi, or parapsychology research, versus standard science. As Horowitz masterfully conveys, we have known for at least a hundred years that according to the most stringent scientific methodological requirements, psi phenomena (such as precognition, clairvoyance, telepathy, and telekinesis) are unquestionably real.

Any real science—and not the kind of science that psychologist Charles Tart has labeled “scientism”—must accept the implications of the data that it gathers, which has unquestionably shown that sometimes mind affects matter at a distance and that sometimes time does not function linearly. 

The book is challenging in three ways. First, even to attempt this kind of history was a very challenging task—which Horowitz ably and amazingly pulls off. He fluidly weaves in the origins, personal histories, and real-world impacts of those who founded and propounded New Thought and Theosophy, and treats figures like Aleister Crowley, G.I. Gurdjieff, Jack Parsons, and Henry A. Wallace with erudition and great care.

Second, for readers, the book can be challenging not just because so many people and historical occurrences are covered, but because of the sheer amount of detail needed to bring together so many threads of history, people, and practices. But let me tell you: it was worth it, and so gratifying.

As a result of this big picture of occult history and its many players laid out in one place, all sorts of people, places, ideas, and phrases (like “thoughts become things”) that were only a little bit familiar (or completely unknown) to this reviewer now make sense. They have come into focus and interlocked to form a glorious historical mosaic that won’t soon be forgotten.

That brings us to the book’s third challenging aspect: the clarity of this exquisite picture, woven with an obsidian thread, invites each of us to transcend and transform. We are challenged by the book’s subject matter to go beyond previous personal limitations, to allow ourselves to access the occult framework, knowledge, and abilities we are capable of bringing to bear in our own lives—today.

All we have to do is remember the many times we have personally experienced the nonlinearity of time, the interactivity of mind and matter, or the unquestionable real-world impacts of a ritual or magical act, and everything can shift in an instant forever. As Horowitz challenges the reader in the book’s last word, sentence, and paragraph—try.

            Jordan Gruber

Jordan Gruber is coauthor (with James Fadiman) of Your Symphony of Selves (reviewed in Quest, winter 2021) and of a work in progress on microdosing psychedelics with St. Martin’s Press.