Still of Fay Wray and Joel McCrea in The Most Dangerous Game, 1932. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Most Dangerous Game

You have no choice but to play— scholar of esotericism Richard Smoley suggests how

Mitch Horowitz
5 min readAug 30, 2023

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Asked by the New York Times in 2023 what books he avoids, novelist Aleksandar Hemon replied with lettered-class oblige: “No advice books, least of all self-help manuals…”

The moment a category is pinned on something — a person, a type of literature, a politics — its relationships and parameters are fixed. In his new book, Seven Games of Life and How to Play, scholar of esotericism Richard Smoley brings a sledgehammer to that party.

At risk of further labeling, I think it is fair to say that Smoley, perhaps today’s most penetrating interpreter of Western esoteric tradition, has produced an anti-self help book. Since the esoteric tradition of which Smoley is a leading scholar posits that life exists on a sliding scale of polarities (“as above, so below”), it is a given that opposition completes.

Seven Games of Life and How to Play by Richard Smoley (G&D Media, 2023)

In 1616, the late-Renaissance alchemist Michael Maier (1568–1622) published an allegorical work called Lusus Serius, Latin for a “serious game.” This is Smoley’s view of life: not as a series of problems to be solved, boxes to be checked, emotions to be resolved, or even a “self” to be actualized; but as a deadly serious drama from which none of us, barring extreme countervailing measures, is free to sit out.

With that fate accepted — or unaccepted, since the player is bound — Smoley, whose observations span a remarkable arc of literary and spiritual thought sharpened by demands of wage-earning and family-raising, explores our seven stages: 1. Survival, 2. Love, 3. Power, 4. Pleasure, 5. Creativity, 6. Courage, and 7. The Master Game.

I must straight up acknowledge a personal debt to Smoley, which suggests why I embrace his counsel. Early in Smoley’s career, before we met (we’re now friends and colleagues), the independent scholar taught me that seriousness derives not from choice of topic but method of treatment, an insight lost on many widely read people who display the type of ersatz seriousness quoted at the start.

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Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China