Jonathan Black's new book, The Secret History of the World, reveals extraordinary and thought-provoking insights into the esoteric teachings of secret societies down the ages and offers a radical new (or perhaps very ancient) perspective on human history.

The Secret History of the World, by Jonathan Black, published in paperback by Quercus Books, London, 2008, is available from all good bookshops and from

Alternative History and Esoteric Philosophy

– two portals into the same world?

Something that often surprises me about the opponents of alternative history is how readily they stoop to intellectual dishonesty. Typically the 'scientifically correct,' as I like to think of them, present themselves as high-minded defenders of intellectual rigour. Then they go right ahead and attribute to others claims they have never made just so they can rubbish them!

The 1999 Horizon documentary about Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval was a shining example of this, cut, dried and well documented in the adjudication of the Broadcasting Standards Commission. Maybe it's a kind of tribute? If the scientifically correct were sure of their ground, perhaps they wouldn't feel the need to behave so shiftily?

But they do, more's the pity on several deep and important, levels. Because alternative history often touches on what the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich called 'the ultimate questions' – the questions of where we come from, who we are and what the meaning of life might be. Of course, ideally, these questions should inspire in us a whole-hearted desire to discover the truth. We should be passionately interested yet scrupulously disinterested, setting aside all partisan affiliations, even the desire to be right, because upon the answers we give to those ultimate questions depends the way we choose to live our lives.

Exactly how does alternative history bear on the ultimate questions? I think this is best explained using an example that is central to alternative history. If the Sphinx dates back deep into what's conventionally called the Stone Age, in other words if it is many thousands of years older than conventional, academic history allows, then it follows that we are not who we thought we were. Our history has different patterns to the accepted ones.

This question of the age of the Sphinx is also an example of a curious feature of the human condition as a whole, a feature which is quite remarkable when you come to consider it, but often overlooked:

when it comes to issues like these, we find ourselves dealing with minute fragments of evidence that admit of many different interpretations, sometimes even contradictory ones.

It seems to me to that when it comes both to the great questions of history, and to the great questions of life and death that are tied up with them, the evidence is often not so overwhelming that it imposes an answer on us. We often have great latitude when we choose what to believe.

Perhaps we then choose what we want to believe?

Important then to be aware of which part of ourselves is doing the choosing, that we do not choose unconsciously but bring our full intellect to bear. Is it the part that really wants to know the truth that is doing the choosing? Or is it the partisan, egotistical side that wants to be right or to be on the winning side?

* * *

As I try to show in my book, The Secret History of the World, that fact that we are in a position to consider the ultimate questions in a relaxed a tolerant way and without trying to tear each other's throats out, the fact that a wonderful forum like Graham Hancock's website exists, is in part at least due to the work of the secret societies. In particular the secret societies that lay behind the Royal Society, and therefore the great scientific and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, created protected spaces – sometimes called lodges – where free-thinking, disinterested intellectual enquiry could take place.

In these spaces people like Newton, Boyle, Hooke and Harvey were not only able to discover and define gravity, formulate the law of thermodynamics that paved the way for the internal combustion engine, invent the microscope and discover the circulation of the blood, they were also able to pursue their interest in alchemy and other arcane subjects. When an outsider questioned Newton about his interest in astrology, he is reported to have replied 'Sir, I have studied it, you have not.' Newton also believed that that we live in a world dense with secret codes – in the laws of nature, in books like the Bible and in ancient monuments like the ones on the Giza plateau. They were put there, he believed, to help draw our intelligence out of us.

The initiates of the secret societies had realized that you get two very different sets of results if you look at the world as objectively as possibly and then on other occasions as subjectively as possible. This realization brought great material benefits to the world, but it also opened up many strange realms of thought…

* * *

It was brooding on these sorts of things, especially the dates of the monuments on the Giza plateau, that led me to think I might have a contribution to make as a writer. In my day job I was editing and publishing at different times not only Graham and Robert, but also Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight, Robert Temple, David Rohl and Michael Baigent. In my spare time I had also developed an interest in esoteric philosophy, in theosophy with a big and small 't', in the Rosicrucians and their modern representatives, the Anthroposophists. I used to delight in finding obscure and weird old books about the esoteric and mystical in second hand bookshops – for example the works of magi like Paracelsus and Jacob Boehme.

And it struck me that, although, as far as I knew, none of these alternative historians were – at that stage at any rate – much interested in esoteric philosophy, many of their discoveries were confirming its tenets, regarding, for example, the claims that the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid are much older than conventional history allows or related claims regarding the historical reality of Atlantis and the Flood.

If new evidence was being unearthed that suggested that extremely important traditions like these have some basis in historical reality, the question naturally arises: what other esoteric traditions about history might also be true? So I planned to try to weave together into one narrative historical lore from different esoteric traditions from around the world. In order to achieve one narrative thread, I decided to focus on what they had in common – discarding what are sometimes called 'cultural accidentals' – and also to focus, where possible, on traditions that chime in with the latest discoveries of alternative history.

I very quickly realized that this if this history was to be in one volume rather spreading across many, many volumes, it could not incorporate debate as to whether its claims – the arguments for and against the Sphinx being some twelve thousand years old, for example – are true. This would have to be a 'take it or leave it' history. If readers wanted to follow up these debates, the pros and cons, they'd have to turn to the works referenced at the back. (In the case of the Sphinx these would be books by Graham and Robert, John Anthony West, Robert Temple and Schwaller de Lubicz.)

After a while I began to formulate a theory as to what these esoteric traditions all had in common: they describe the ways that the supernatural works in the world. Gods, angels and spirits may have different names in different places and at different times, but, according to secret teachings everywhere, the patterns they help make, the shapes they give to our lives are the same. Therefore The Secret History of the World describes patterns that wouldn't be there if materialistic science accounted for everything.

Of course it is quite impossible to prove supernatural events on the page. I couldn't do that even if I wanted to. But I did entertain a very big – perhaps insanely big – ambition. I tried to weave all these different mystical traditions about our beginnings and endings and great turning points in between together into one epic imaginative vision. My aim was to see if this imaginative vision formed a coherent, cogent whole that might be set against the scientific materialist one. I couldn't think of anyone who had tried to do this since Milton, and he had done it in very different circumstances, when scientific materialism was beginning to roll back the idealism that had been the universal philosophy up to that point.

Madly, I asked myself if it were possible to create an imaginative vision that would be a sort of mirror image to Milton's – written at a time when scientific materialism seems to many to be beginning to fray and look a bit thin at the edges.

I wanted to write a book that would be an experience, not a collection of arguments. So the deep structure of the book is as follows. I try to show patterns in history that are perhaps deeper than the laws of economics, the effects of climate change and the conventional, materialistic view of politics that interest modern, academic historians. In other words I show history operating according to what I call – after the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – the Deeper Laws. Then at the end of the book I invite readers to look at their own lives to see if they can't find these same Deeper Laws operating there.

The Secret History of the World invites readers to trust their own personal experience in preference to the say-so of academic experts. I have known many academics as teachers, authors and friends. Naturally I would trust their judgment when it comes to their fields of research. I wouldn't always extend the same trust when it comes to questions of how I ought to live my life. (If you're hesitating on this point, just think of the average don's dress sense!)

* * *

The world is a much more mysterious place than we have been brought up to believe. There are other ways of knowing than the one we have been taught to see as the exemplar and paradigm of knowing..

The Secret History of the World is packed with examples of people who have known important things and not by the scientific method. The priests and artists of the Egyptian and Hindu temples knew of and understood the function of the pineal gland thousand of years before it was 'discovered' by German and English anatomists more or less simultaneously in 1866. Robert Temple has shown that the Egyptian priests knew that Sirius is a three star system, something only confirmed by French astronomers using radio telescopes in the second half of the twentieth century. According to Rudolf Steiner – the founder of Anthroposophy – knowledge of the evolution of the species from marine life to amphibian to land animal to anatomically modern human was encoded thousands of years of ago in the imagery of the constellations. Jonathan Swift was deeply immersed in esoteric philosophy. In Gulliver's Travels he predicted the existence and orbital periods of the moons of Mars. A hundred years later, when astronomers first observed these moons using the latest telescopes, they named them Phobos and Demos – fear and terror – so awestruck were they by Swift's evident supernatural powers.

How did these guys know? Where did their 'powers' come from? Isn't there something going on we don't fully understand?

Again the intellectual establishment would like to us to see a very clear distinction between modern scientific endeavour and the occult, seen as primitive and superstitious. But as I show in my book the line is not always clear.

We've already touched on Newton, Boyle, Hooke and Harvey. Newton's rival in devising the calculus, Leibniz, made his advances while studying the Cabala. Paracelsus, the great Swiss magus, a great practical alchemist sometimes credited with inventing the principles that lie behind homeopathy, has also been called the father of modern experimental medicine. Swedenborg, the most famous psychic and esoteric teacher of his day, also discovered the cerebral cortex and engineered the largest dry dock in the world. Perhaps significantly Darwin formulated his theory of evolution shortly after his friend Friedrich Max Muller had made the first translations into a European language of the great esoteric texts of Hindu literature. Freud was very interested in the Cabala as boy, and his model of the mind – super ego, ego and id – can be seen as a materialistic version of the cabalistic one. Jung based his account of what he called the Seven Great Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious on the spirits of the planets as they have always been understood in esoteric lore. Thomas Edison, the inventor the phonograph and so in a sense the godfather of all recorded sound, and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, made their discoveries while researching into the spirit worlds. Edison tried to make a radio that would tune into the spirit worlds. Even television was invented a result of scientists trying to capture psychic influences on gases fluctuating in front of a cathode ray tube.

Scientists from Newton through Tesla to Einstein have also talked about their great discoveries coming to them suddenly in a dream or in a vision. Einstein even compared the process to 'the three degrees of initiation' of the ancients. I was fascinated to hear from Graham Hancock, when he was first telling me about Supernatural, a book that would be extremely influential on my own thinking, that Francis Crick cracked the code of the double helix and launched modern genetic medicine while he was on an LSD trip.

The reality is that we all perceive things in altered states of consciousness – in dreams, visions, prayerful states, mediations, perhaps under the influence of drugs, and when we're struck by hunches and premonitions. The key questions is: are any of the things we perceive in these altered states real or are they all delusions?

In other words: Do altered states bring other ways of knowing?

Only a fool would deny that science has brought untold benefits to the world. (And I don't mean 'fool' in an interesting esoteric way, I mean just plain stupid.) Science has made our lives safer, easier, more comfortable, longer and given us more spare time for enjoying ourselves, for art and speculation. However these benefits have come at a cost.

We have been enabled to make scientific leaps forward because we have been so focussed on the material world. We have constructed a practical, commonsensical form of consciousness for ourselves which is great for tying up our shoelaces in the morning, and navigating our way around our mechanical world in our cars and planes and fending for ourselves and our families.

But other, more subjective forms of consciousness, other ways of knowing have been squeezed out, devalued and discarded. Esoteric philosophy is the systematic cultivation of these other ways of knowing. It is also the richest tradition of thinking about 'the ultimate questions'. The more I researched my history, the more I discovered just how many of the great men and women of history were steeped in it. I began to wonder if it mightn't even be the case that every intelligent person checks it out at some time or other.

In the late nineteenth century, writing of the totality of reality as consisting of 'the playground of numberless Universes incessantly manifesting and disappearing', Madame Blavatsky prophesied some of the leaps forward that science would make in the twentieth century. Although many leading scientists in the twenty first century are into possible universes and multiple dimensions, I suspect most of us live – in terms of our every day, unthought out world-view – in a solid, common sense sort of universe with just one dimension. There causality is still a matter of atom knocking against atom like billiard balls – with an entirely predictable result.

This leads, I believe, to two closely related and very common logical fallacies. These fallacies are typical of scientific correctness. One is to believe that if an event can be shown to have one cause, no other causes of it are possible. So an example relevant to my work would be to believe that because thunder and lightning can now be explained in terms of clashing blocks of air and electricity, this proves that they cannot be the result of the anger of a god.

Another example which relates to a common belief today would be that if you could capture on CCTV a pigeon shedding a feather just before you walked into view, then you would know that that is the cause of your sighting of the feather, not that an angel is trying to send you a message.

The reality we are more likely to recognize if we don't have an anti-spiritual axe to grind is that we commonly accept that simple events have infinite networks of causes behind them, and so that, in these examples, there is nothing contrary to logic about supposing that both the mechanical and spiritual explanations may be true at the same time.

One might call this fallacy – with a little ironic nod to the law of excluded middle – the law of excluded cause.

Closely related to this fallacy is another one to do with the interpretation of texts. According to this fallacy, if it can be shown that, for example, biblical or mythological stories such as the conquest of the Promised Land, Jason and the Argonauts or the siege of Troy are descriptions of astronomical events or alchemical processes, they cannot be true descriptions of historical events.

That simply does not follow. To borrow Alvin Plantinga's tools of analysis, there are many possible universes in which both these interpretations are true.

Indeed in the esoteric universe of my book, ALL true descriptions of events on this planet are also true descriptions of astronomical events.

One of the aims of my book was to give consciousness a slight nudge away from the billiard ball view to something more mutli-dimensional, more in tune with the reality of inter-penetrating realms.

* * *

Interpenetrating realms are also reflected in the form of some esoteric literature. I'm sure that anyone reading this will be familiar with cabalistic number mysticism and the idea that there are other texts encoded within the first five books of the Bible. A Cambridge-based statistician came to me recently with some texts he had derived using 'skip codes' and had then had translated from Hebrew into English. These texts were a bit fragmentary, as if the skip code were not 100% accurate, but in subject matter and form they were somewhat like the Psalms.

It seems to me entirely possible that this kind of research will eventually yield entire other books encoded within the books of the Old Testament. And the question that naturally arises is will these other books have further books encoded in them and so on to infinitude?

To write books with other books encoded within them would seem to require supernatural intelligence. Yet great initiates including Rabelais and his contemporary at Montpellier University, Nostradamus, as well as Shakespeare are sometimes said to have written in what is sometimes called the Green Language – a language that reflects different orders of reality in its different layers of meaning.

I leave you with one last possibility. Perhaps we all think, speak, write the Green Language all the time? Perhaps the only difference between us and the great initiates, is that we do it unconsciously?

* * *

A senior publisher I know – a rather down to earth and worldly fellow, I don't think he'd mind me saying – started to read The Secret history of the World, saying he was not sure if he could take it seriously – was not even sure he was meant to take it seriously. In fact he may have used the phrase 'apparently barmy'! But by the end he said had began to see life from a slightly different angle, to notice connections. A senior publicist of a rather more spiritual inclination, who began to read it at the same time, started to experience some mild, supernatural phenomena. The last I heard they were panning a trip together to the British Museum to stand in front of the Lohan – a statue alluded to in my book which seems to have mysterious properties.

I can't claim my book offers initiation. As I explain, I am not an initiate myself. But feedback like this reminds me how much help I have had writing this book and that much of the imagery that flows through the narrative was devised by minds far more intelligent than mine to work at a below the conscious level.

The Dawkins tendency has had it pretty much its own way recently. I believe that nothing will turn the tide of materialism except real, lived spiritual experience. When you've had that, you don't believe. As Jung said, you know – and that, as I try to show in my writing, is what the esoteric teaching of the secret societies has always offered.

The Secret History of the World, by Jonathan Black, published in paperback by Quercus Books, London, 2008, is available from all good bookshops and from

Jonathan's blog is online here:

Originally published 20 September 2007. Updated: 17 July 2008