The Golden Thread is a lightning tour of the Western esoteric tradition, by one of the world's foremost scholars of esotericism. Crammed with invaluable footnotes, this slim book packs a punch far beyond its meagre size - it's simply chock full of interesting insights.
Basically, The Golden Thread is about wisdom; a wisdom that has survived only as a thin (and infinitely precious) thread - hence the title. This golden thread in fact gave birth to modern science, but 'science' in its contemporary sense has come to mean only knowledge 'about' something...whereas true wisdom comes from experiencing something. As C.G. Jung observed, "belief is no substitute for inner experience."
Richard Smoley notes in his foreword that "the fate of wisdom in the West has been an unusually dark one." This has been partly on account of Christianity (with its totalitarian mental outlook), and partly because of the pseudo-religion of scientific materialism, which "denies any reality other than the purely physical and mechanical." Materialism acknowledges only quantity - that which can be measured or counted.
Each chaper of this book looks at a different aspect of the golden thread. As the author notes in his preface, "each stage is perpetually present," and thus each chapter "makes reference to some aspect of contemporary life." But esotericisms are not for everyone...they are only for "those with sufficient interest, motivation, and capacity to benefit from them." Today, most of these people have become "lonely travellers among the ruined monuments of ancient mysteries. This book is offered by one such traveller, for the guidance and entertainment of others." And as such, it fulfills its stated purpose rather well.
Godwin's narrative begins in the Renaissance, when the so-called 'Christian Humanists' rediscovered the pagan philosophers of antiquity, and were at a loss to explain how these so-called 'benighted heathens' had been possessed of such wisdom and high spirituality. They were forced to revise their worldview, and admit that certain pagans had been divinely inspired. Gemistos, a Byzantine diplomat, came up with the idea of a prisca theologia, or 'primordial theology', to explain how these ancients had apparently received divine revelation. As a result of Gemistos' influence, the Platonic Academy was founded in Florence.
This kind of acceptance of pagan philsophies had also been advocated in the Muslim world by the Persian theosopher Suhrawardi, who spoke of a state called Hûrqalyâ (translated by Henry Corbin as mundus imaginalis - the imaginal world), the inner world of the imagination, which is as real as the quantifiable world around us, and in fact is superior to it. Godwin elaborates further on this mundus imaginalis in the chapter called 'The Arts of the Imagination': "Rational scholarship knows no intermediary between fact and fiction [...] but rational scholars are typically unacquainted with the workings of the creative mind. They do not know those ecstasies in which the poet beholds 'forms more real than living man', which he later attempts to capture in verse. If they did, they would call them hallucinations."
Godwin also examines the teachings of the Hermetic philosophy. Hermes was the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian god Thoth, who ruled over the esoteric path (i.e. the path of knowledge, as opposed to the devotional path of exoteric religion). The Hermetic philosophy involved the ascent of the soul through the various celestial spheres; if one's life's work was done properly, one would emerge throught the final sphere (of fixed stars) into the realm of the Blessed. This was not a theology, but rather a practical teaching, and thus it could (theoretically) be incorporated within the framework of any given religion.
Later, with Orphism, came the doctrine that each person possesses a small spark of divinity within themselves (this was also no doubt what Aleister Crowley meant in his famous assertion that "every man and every woman is a star"). Then Plato introduced the teaching that each state of being in the cosmic hierarchy emanates from the state above it, which "loves it as its own child, and is loved in return" - an astonishingly beautiful metaphor.
When Christianity came along, the golden thread continued, albeit in a disguised form...you have to really look hard to perceive it. It was guarded by esotericists like Dionysius the Areopagite, John Scotus Eriugena and Meister Eckhart, and also in the architectural secrets of the Gothic cathedrals, to which Godwin devotes a whole chapter. He also discusses secret societies and why secrecy can often be necessary for esoteric work: if a neophyte talks about it to outsiders they may give a false and distorted impression of its teachings. Most people have no aptitude to understand such things anyway, and are better off following an exoteric religion - an attitude which may be elitist and hierarchical, but is true nonetheless.
Godwin also examines various kinds of gnosticism and related forms of dualism (although it should be noted that not all gnostics were dualists). Perhaps the difference between those (like Plato) who see the material world as merely the lower emanation of a hierarchy, and those who regard it as a 'vale of tears' and actually 'evil', is merely a matter of temperament. Godwin speculates that the 'evil demiurge' of gnosticism might only be an egregore - who will wither and die when people stop believing in him.
One of the book's most interesting and contentious chapters is, in fact, devoted to this very concept of the 'egregore'. It is the theory that people or races create their own gods, with limited powers. For instance, Godwin speculates that Ancient Rome may have been essentially kept alive by the belief in its gods, and observance of ritual etc. Then, when the Roman gods were increasingly abandoned and the salvation cults and mystery religions began to flourish in their place, Rome itself began to decline. Attempts were made to fortify the Roman egregore by the establishment of an imperial cult, but this was artificial, and thus doomed to failure.
Godwin conjectures that this may also be why the egregore of Communism failed...because few people really loved it. It would also explain the astonishing survival of the 'revealed' religions (e.g. Islam) into the modern era. "It may be," he writes, "that for a society to flourish, it has to keep its egregore alive; and for this to happen, the emotional and spiritual focus of the population must be on this world rather than on the next." And while Christianity, for instance, began as an otherworldly cult, it soon took on its own egregore - that of the 'pseudoempire' (as Godwin calls it) of the Church.
Godwin rightly perceives that polytheistic religions are superior to monotheistic ones, because the former incorporate the latter but not the other way around. He asserts that semitic monotheism, far from being 'progressive', was "a retrograde step in almost every respect." He is good at translating his historical insights into modern terms. For instance, when discussing Orphism, he notes that the ugliness and depravity of much modern art signifies that our society is suffering from a kind of malnutrition of the soul. For how can modern men and women "enter the soul's domain with no songs to sing, no poetry to charm Pluto and Persephone?"
In the chapter on Plato, when discussing the concept of tyrants and tyranny, Godwin asserts that in our liberal-democratic system, today's tyrants are "the special-interests lobbies, the military, legal, and medical industries, the bankers and speculators, the multinationals etc." In other words, the ones who fund the major political parties. And he is spot on. In times (such as ours) when society is no longer conducive to spiritual values, enlightened people may take one of two paths - the personal, or the political.
For the golden thread has now frayed "into a myriad filaments." While Godwin sees Jung as having been the shining light for Western esotericism in the twentieth century (though Jung was limited in some ways by his self-proclaimed scientific worldview), for the contemporary searcher there is nevertheless "no centralisation, no single curriculum, no diploma of authenticity" to let him know whether he is on the right track or not. To paraphrase Knut Hamsun, we are "on overgrown paths."
At the end of the book, Godwin sums up both the good and the bad aspects of the times we live in. On the one hand, "knowledge has been put into our hands that was once the closely guarded property of initiates, together with the freedom to discuss and follow it without fear of being executed for heresy. Is this not cause for rejoicing?" But, on the other hand, "the price we pay for this historically unique situation is living in the modern world, in which the lunatics quite obviously are running the asylum."
It is up to each man or woman to decide for themselves what to do with the knowledge we have been given from the past. But at the very least, Godwin's book will have given many of us a valuable place to start in our exploration of that knowledge.