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Some Western mystical traditions have an element of esotericism or secrecy, restrictions on who can learn the mysteries and how. For example, Judaism traditionally restricts the Kabbalah to men above 40, preferably married with children. Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and their descendants (eg Rosicrucianism) are also full of secrecy.

I’d like to learn about why the mystics thought their content should be kept secret.

I understand the reasoning for mystics who believe their practice is magically efficacious: you don’t want “powerful” magic to fall into the wrong hands. But it seems to me that many mystics have downplayed the “efficacious” aspects of their practice while holding onto secrecy. To use the Hermetic example again, even those who only care about the theoretical Hermetic corpus seem to buy into esotericism. But why?

Im familiar with the Jewish myth of the Four Sages in Paradise, which provides only a very partial explanation of the idea. An analytic treatment of that myth or a collection of commentaries on it would be very helpful in answering my question. I’ve also read Ginzburg’s “High and Low,” which is more focused on the Christian conception of mysteries. That was very helpful and has clued me into earlier and later discussions. As I read Ginzburg, he chalks it up to a priestly desire to maintain a monopoly on religious interpretation and a popular desire to quell sectarianism.

But I want to widen my range of sources. Why do the mystics want to keep their mysteries mysterious?

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  • There may be mystics among the priest class but the priest class is not populated by mystics. In the Gospel legends Jesus engages in social conflict in public and counsels his disciples in private. In one context some Jews are saying, "Abraham is our father!" Jesus tells them, "God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones!" In private Jesus says to the disciples, "Call no man your father. There is One in heaven. Call Him your Father." Catholic priests are called father! Jesus understood the infantile ego ideal better than Sigmund Freud who coined the term to sell "ego" psychology. Jul 3, 2023 at 16:47
  • I didn’t mean to imply that all priests are mystics; they obviously weren’t. I don’t see how to use your comment to further my research. Can you elaborate? Jul 3, 2023 at 17:05
  • In the context of history and folk psychology mystics would have a reasonable expectation to be killed or attacked or crucified or punished for their inability to conform to social norms. Social norms are a type of ego ideal or ideal ego that takes hold in the society. Jesus tells his disciples, "Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your heavenly father, who sees in secret, will reward you." My theory is that mystics get a payoff outside certain norms and usually do their thing in secret because the mind of the mystic gets polluted or distorted by efforts to conform to social norms in public. Jul 3, 2023 at 18:39
  • IMO it's not so much that you don't want "powerful magic" to fall into the wrong hands (it is useless in the wrong hands, and whether it is effective is another matter) but certain practices should be avoided until the person is ready to deal with their effects. To draw some kind of parallel: you don't send a rookie soldier to war without training. Jul 3, 2023 at 19:48
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    @InakiViggers Unfortunately, in early life, and in extreme conditions of adult life, help from God either comes through concrete benevolent human beings or not at all. Sigmund Freud, who must have known the dramatic figures of Jesus and Saint Paul, gives no credit for their contributions to his models of ego psychology. Freud states that pain in early life drives efforts called ego defense mechanisms. He does not state what Jesus seems to know: the most powerful ego defense mechanism is efforts to conform to social norms. The evil perpetrated in sadistic norms needs a remedy supplied by Jesus. Jul 3, 2023 at 22:47

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There were widespread mystery cults in the ancient world, like the Eleusinian Mysteries which both Socrates and Plato were known to have taken. In Ancient Greek society it was considered necessary to be an initiate of that in order to go to the afterlife, and it is one of the longest running religious traditions. Unfortunately because telling people who hadn't undertaken the ritual what was involved was considered a very serious religious crime, we know little of what is involved. Some evidence indicates an entheogenic preperation was made from ergot, and we think there was a link to Demeter Persephone and natural cycles in relation to rebirth.

Buddhist tantra traditions involve secret initiations, largely because they involve practices or ideas that run counter to conventional Buddhism, which are considered dangerous if not undertaken under close supervision, and as part of a process that is committed to. This is a mainstream part of Tibetan Buddhist practice, but has roots back to 5-8th C AD India, and mahasiddha yogis who cultivated magical practices.

Freemasons use initiate practices, and trials of faith.

Not knowing what you are in for, and being led through a ritual or psychological experience or test, can have profoundly different consequences than just being told information, of particular importance for non-intellectual practices of psychological change and cultivation. It can also help build trust and confidence, of teachers in students and vice versa, through passing tests of faith.

Keeping things secret can also avoid full intellectual scrutiny of your ideas by anyone without a vested interesting in interpreting them favourably (I think of Scientology..).

A guru and apprentice system is found all over the world, from Wuist sorcerers in China, to medieval alchemists in Europe. I would argue it's just part of human spirituality practices and traditions; just one that is largely out of fashion in the West so we have forgotten how prevalent it used to be.

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I’d like to learn about why the mystics thought their content should be kept secret.

Oskar Adler's explanation in Astrology as Occult Science might be of interest to you. In many (if not all) mystical traditions, it is not so much that esoretic knowledge is to be transmitted to only an elite. Instead, esoteric knowledge can be attained only from within oneself. Hence, in part, the importance of Know Thyself. Because of its nature, it is impossible to transmit esoteric knowledge, let alone to receive it from others.

What Ginzburg describes in High and Low is not really an order or commandment of secrecy. He rather points to an institutional discouragement or prohibition to pursue or attain that knowledge. In other words, the prohibition is primarily on the student, not on the teacher. The motive for that prohibition is to preempt questioning insofar as that questioning ultimately poses a risk to the elite's position of power. This pragmatic approach has nothing to do with the epistemological nature that Adler characterizes.

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Britannica - Mysticism and secrecy

https://www.britannica.com/topic/mysticism/Mysticism-and-secrecy

I take this as the broad main idea concerning mystics and secrecy:

Because mystics experience spiritual phenomena that are hidden from the senses, they often conform with the secrecy of the spiritual by being secretive themselves.

Why Are Their Age Limits to Torah Learning?

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ask-the-expert-do-i-have-to-be-40-to-study-kabbalah/

“For the most part, I do not see that this [rule] was ever taken too seriously until recent times,” Prof. Wolfson said, “as interest in Kabbalah has spread and the level of Jewish literacy has diminished, some religious authorities have felt the need to emphasize that one should not study Kabbalah until one is 40.”


Mystical Child In Understanding - Why are their age or other time limits to mystical learning?

Mystical Authority Figure - Because the mystical authority figures said so!

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    This answer does not explain why they keep their knowledge secret from their acolytes, but drip-feed it. The OP says: For example, Judaism traditionally restricts the Kabbalah to men above 40. Imparting knowledge too soon may fall on deaf ears, but the worse risk is that it will be misunderstood, which is much harder to undo. So they teach the right stuff at the right time during an acolyte's development. Jul 4, 2023 at 19:20
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    And the same thing applies during the teaching of any discipline. It has to be at an appropriate level, in the right sequence, and at the right time. Otherwise the student will be confused, and not taught. One thing that has to happen in any teaching is the student has to let go of any erroneous concepts they have of the subject. That requires time for them to readjust. In arcane matters, too soon may result in meltdown. Jul 4, 2023 at 19:42
  • @WeatherVane This objection is not limited to mystical or esoteric knowledge. It is a general dramatic pattern inherent parent-child, teacher-student, and even many adult-adult human interactions. If we are not going to generalize and speculate then we must depend on the mystics to report their reasons for keeping secrets - but in general they do not do so! Jul 5, 2023 at 16:03
  • I thought that's what I wrote, but it particularly applies here. Jul 5, 2023 at 16:08

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