From Egyptian mythology to Jewish mysticism, Rome and Greece to the druids and the gnostics, Tim Wallace-Murphy exposes a fascinating lineage of hidden mysteries and secret societies, continuing through the Templars, Rosicrucians, and Freemasons to our modern visionaries. This hidden stream of spirituality and that of sacred knowledge are inseparably entwined to form the single most important continuous strand in the entire Western esoteric tradition. This tradition exerted a seminal influence on the thinking of the builders of the great cathedrals; leading teachers in ecclesiastical schools; philosophers; playwrights; poets such as Shakespeare, Goethe, Blake, and W. B. Yeats; and on artists and Renaissance giants such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. It is also the root from which sprang alchemy and modern science. Now, as more people are looking to find information on the alternatives to dominant religions and dogmas that have told us what to think and how to behave, as faith has been questioned by religious scandals, economic meltdowns, and an increasingly sick planet Earth, Wallace-Murphy reveals the secrets of the masters, including invaluable spiritual insights into everyday life that have been hidden throughout the ages. He shows us who kept this spiritual tradition alive despite appalling persecution, so that we in the twenty-first century might benefit from its accumulated fruits and ennoble our lives.
Problem is, the book isn't so sure what it wants to be. Ostensibly, as the subtitle states, it wants to reveal the Secrets of the Western Esoteric
Mr. Wallace-Murphy set himself a large task by starting the book with the prehistoric era and ending with our own times. Even though he mostly restricts himself to Europe and European influences, it's a lot of territory to cover. In the beginning it suffers from historical vagueness and handwaving: there are ancient sites and our ancestors Knew Something about them, Egypt was full of initiatory mysteries with Amarna being especially important (alas, only to later monotheists, not to Egyptian history itself), and similar banal drivel one can find in a thousand other such books. In addition, despite taking the trouble to provide a bibliography, endnotes, and an index, W-M uses not just secondary but tertiary or further works for his source material. And much to frequently for my taste, the endnote cites one of his other books. (I feel it is classier to say something such as "As I wrote in my previous volume Title…" rather than have someone follow an endnote to the author's own work.)
Around the Middle Ages (chapter nine of twenty) I began making note of what to me were annoying to egregious errors and assumptions. For example, monasteries in the 6th and 7th centuries kept "meticulous accounts" and thus were able to deduce that slavery was not cost effective (except in the colonies, apparently). I keep meticulous accounts of my household budget, but all it does is tell me whether I have enough money in the bank to pay my bills. Meticulous record keeping is not the same as accounting as we know it. Accounting was invented centuries later; cost accounting would not be invented for centuries after that. So it's not clear what point he's trying to make.
Then there is "Mystical experience imbues one with a sense of justice; consequently in any rigid, dogmatic and unjust system the mystic is viewed as dangerous and is usually in trouble." Mystics can certainly be subversive to established order, but I fail to see how mysticism is itself leaning towards justice. Was Rasputin (not mentioned in the text) imbued with a sense of justice? I'd have to call that a stretch. He also states that biblical mystics in Israel were messengers of peace. All of them? My impression was that many were a bit more on the angry and scolding side of the scale.
He regularly speaks of the Church (the Roman Catholic one) as if it were some grand, growly, singular entity which is bestowed with the Sight so it knows how all its actions will play out in centuries ahead. Paraphrasing: "The Church knew that [xxx], so it did [yyy]…" Hindsight is 20-20, but foresight rarely can read the big letters in the top row. He cites Robert Graves, the poet and dreamer, as an expert source for history and religion. He cites Ouspensky, writing in the 20th century, as an expert on Templars and Gothic cathedrals, quoting: "The building of Cathedrals was part of a colossal and cleverly devised plan…" Oh, dear, more 20-20 foresight.
Wallace-Murphy lost me completely midway through the book with his endless speculations on the Templars ("…so it could only mean that…"), and finally with the Druidic "seven chakras of the Earth" upon which cathedrals were built. Considering the Druids left no written records or accounts of themselves, I don't know where this bit of lore originated; the endnote cites yet another work by W-M as the source of his information.
All along through his narrative, this historical person and that historical society are cited as initiates, although into what exactly they were initiated is never made clear. They simply Knew Stuff and thus Must Have Been Initiates. But even this unifying thread is lost in the last five chapters. Wallace-Murphy begins here to cover the periods of exploration and colonialism and finishes off with the present day. In his diligence to describe the sequence of historical machinations and repercussions of these times, he seems to forget (near totally in the case of chapter five) that his mission is a discussion of Western esotericism. The last chapters mention only Blavatsky and Steiner in any detail, with, so the index tells me, Steiner given roughly twice as many pages and references than HPB.
The final chapter is some sort of overview of the current state of mystical experience, but I found it trite; for example, wasting ink with a banal recital of variants on the Golden Rule, vaguely linking things to Gaia theory, discoveries of physics to Eastern spirituality, and so on. I was quite surprised that he named none of the scientists or thinkers as Initiates. The closer he came to the modern day, the faster that conceit disintegrated until it was completely lost. And at this point, the book ended, or more accurately, just stopped (somewhat to my relief).
Wallace-Murphy is also guilty of a sentimental racism, othering native people by making them So Much More Spiritual Than We Are. Native Americans are so wise and spiritual. Buddhists are so wise and spiritual. He made a comparison of Western industrial thinking to Buddhist industrial thinking, the latter of which, according to W-M, is based on "spiritual values." So Nike sweatshops are based on spiritual values? I imagine that would be a surprise to the factory workers.
My late husband received this book in 2010 as a review copy, but he did not live to read it. Now I'm not sure why I bothered, since by the end of the first chapter I knew it was not what I was looking for. But I dislike not finishing a book I start, so I soldiered on. Perhaps this review will dissuade others from bothering and thus accomplish something.