The Secret Teachings of All Ages, published in 1928 is one of the great books of all time because it traces the history of humanity's core ideas about life and meaning. These ideas, formed at the outset of civilisation, have fundamentally influenced all the main conceptual systems developed since.
Strangely enough for a work that centres on the secret, esoteric and arcane, The Secret Teachings is largely concerned with the methodical application of rational logic. Hall begins the book with a series of definitions of philosophy, a discipline which he includes in the ancient tradition . He similarly ends the book with an appeal for readers to pursue inquiry into the true nature of reality through the use of evidence and rational argument.
So why is there such a focus on secrecy, and what is at the heart of this great tradition?
The central concern of the key philosophers covered in Hall's book was the linking up of human life and the practical conditions of the planet and the cosmos. The use of mathematics and methodical observation to know the patterns of the stars, which led to astrology and numerology, were originally about understanding seasonal changes in relation to crops. Similarly, alchemy, with its concentration on plants (especially for herbal remedies) and metals, was extremely practical in its concerns.
Hall begins his discussion with the mystery schools that likely began in ancient Egypt and in different forms cropped up around the Mediterranean. These schools established definite relations between the cosmic realm and human life, and set the pattern for much of what was to come. Later he discusses the Hermetic tradition, Gnostic ideas and the influence of the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato, and how the Kabala sprang out of Judaism.
When the Catholic Church entered the picture it all got much more difficult for any alternative belief system and they increasingly went underground. Nevertheless, various ideas entered the Church and became influential, as they later did with Islam. With overt hostility from the Church proponents of the core ideas opted for secrecy, with astrology, Roscrucianism and alchemy taking shape. The Tarot, for instance, was an attempt to pass on key ideas in a simple form. Alchemy, similarly, was an attempt to crystallise the essential teachings secretly, and its practices led to the modern science of chemistry. Isaac Newton, who virtually invented modern science, was more interested in alchemy than his new physics.
Freemasonry, which may have developed out of the disbanded Templars, became very powerful in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and also attracted Church antipathy. These societies became the centre of interest and discussion of rising modern ideas, such as anti-Monarchism and democracy, and played a definite role in the American and French revolutions. The turn of the century saw the rise of various secret societies around the world, including those in which Alistair Crowley participated, often becoming involved in international politics which were then coming to the boil.
The dangers of such beliefs and their tendency to resort to secrecy were well illustrated by the activities of the German Nazi Party. Hitler and other top Nazis believed in astrology and other arcane ideas. In the wrong hands any set of ideas can do harm, but the Nazi's focus on racism and war ensured this.
The most recent efflorescence was during the 1960s which led to the so-called New Age movement. This was to some degree due to the influx of ideas from the East which along with other novel ideas were sponsored by the Theosophists. Some of the ideas promoted by feminists and environmentalists have obvious references to some of the traditional concepts. The creation of the Internet more recently has created a ready mechanism for the exploration and spread of new ideas of all sorts, including those related to the ancient traditions.
Hall does not mention it, due to the time when the book was written, but the rise of a number of scientists discussing such ideas in relation to certain developments, in particular quantum mechanics, has also stimulated interest. Overall there is a growing awareness that some of the most ancient ideas seem to have insights into the latest scientific discoveries.
The secrecy has two main reasons. The first was the belief by insiders that some of the knowledge was so powerful it should be limited to only responsible people. The average person was not to be invited into the club. The other reason was the open hostility of the Church, even though, as mentioned, some Churchmen were themselves interested and inserted related ideas into Church doctrine.
So why are these age-old teachings relevant now? As we travel further into the global crisis, it is apparent that the main ideas that have guided humanity over the last few millennia may have reached their use-by date. Indeed, in a way they have been at the core of what has gone wrong. They have failed to persuade us to stop hurting each other and to live softly on the planet in peace and abundance.
The ancient traditions were always practical and always embedded in the realities of human life on Earth while still concerned with our spiritual aspect. The book religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), whatever their intentions, arguably shifted the emphasis to a god in the heavens that compromised our capacity to deal with each other fairly and live with nature. In a real sense, modern science is part of the rebalancing process once it could be reintegrated into the cosmic picture.
Of course this is the writing of one man, and there will be omissions and distortions included in it. But it is a great achievement to bring to the public's awareness such a compendium of age-old ideas.