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The Triumph of the Archaic in the Work of Peter Kingsley

My aim today is to offer some reflections on Peter Kingsleys provocative account of OrphicPythagorean wisdom traditions and their treatment in Plato and later philosophers. His series of books and articles, viz. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic (APMM 1995), In the Dark Places of Wisdom (DP 1999), and Reality (R 2003) has revived the shamanistic interpretation of Parmenides and Empedocles, revealing with psychological insight and philological precision how their symbolic poetry encodes magical and meditative practices aimed at the transformation of our deepest longings in the search for reality. In dramatic fashion he has stepped forward as a spokesman for these ancient seers, insisting that their philosophical significance lies not in metaphysical and cosmological doctrines but rather in their spiritual practices and experiences, which, he claims, can speak directly across the centuries to produce a felt change in consciousness and healing for modern fractured psyches. Kingsleys work is remarkable both for its sweeping historical judgements and for the radical existential demands it makes on his readers. Since I am not a meditation-teacher nor a practicing shaman, I will focus more on the former than the latter, but his commitment to philosophy as a way of life and his in-your-face approach demands that I ask: does his intensely personal voice accurately represent the great archaic traditions he claims to speak for? Kingsley speaks in paradoxes and riddles, he plays the magician, hes cunning--like his Orphic masters, or so he claims. His most recent book, with the hardly modest title Reality, opens with this theatrical pronouncement: I had better write these things down before they are lost for another two thousand years. Invoking mtis, the archaic, magical, cunning intelligence he admires, Kingsley aims to shock and outrage scholars, to drive most of them away and, at the same time, to seduce the divinely foolish among us. He recounts a conversation in the Classics Department at UCLA after a talk on Parmenides. A faculty member complained that Kingsley is too dogmatic, that his interpretation is no better than anyone elses. Kingsley responded: But you and I are not the same. You read Parmenides so that you can change his meaning to suit yourself. I read Parmenides so that he can change me. I suspect that

this remark was not well received. Yes, its exciting for the world of Presocratic scholarship to be confronted with a living disciple of Parmenides. But, at times, its also exasperating. Which is exactly what Kingsley wants. In another interview he mentions that the first chapter of Dark Places was dictated in a dream, which confirms that his interest in divination by dreams is not purely academic. I begin with a sketch of the teachers, spiritual practices, and teachings that Kingsley believes comprise the core of pre-Platonic wisdom traditions. Against the glittering backdrop of legendary figures like Orpheus, Pythagoras, Zalmoxis, Aristeas, Epimenides, and Abaris, Parmenides and Empedocles emerge in Kingsleys writings as shamans, magicians, and prophethealers rather than as proto-scientists or philosophers in the classical or modern sense. This is because philosophy in the archaic period, on his account, has much more to do with otherworldly journeys and states of ecstatic possession than with arguments or discursive practices generally. The ubiquity of magic and divination in the ancient world is not news to classicists and historians of religion, nor is the fact that Empedocles was a shaman (even Jonathan Barnes admits that). In this regard, Kingsley is often too polemical in lining up straw men to mow down. Hes kicking at an open door. What sets his work apart from most Presocratic scholarship are, first, his stress on the primacy of mystical experience; second, on the practical value of these archaic spiritual practices and teachings for contemporary Westerners; and third, his refusal to accomodate orthodox scholarships interest in scientific and theoretical matters. We have forgotten, he claims, that rationality is mysticism misunderstood (R 148); and, more broadly, that Parmenides and others like him deliberately, consciously, laid the ground for our lives as we live them and for existence as we know it; who shaped our world, structured the ways we think and operate at a far deeper level than we are even aware of (R 253). If we balk at such grandiose claims, Kingsley is ready to expose our ignorance: You may think you know what I mean by philosophy. Its very unlikely that you do. Centuries have been spent destroying the truth about what it once was. We only have eyes now for what philosophy has becomeno idea of what it no longer is (DP 31).

Its true beginnings, he announces, are evident among the western Greeks, in southern Italy, in the wake of migrations from the west coast of Anatolia in the 7th-6th centuries. Central to the religious practices of the founders of Elea, Parmenides home, and of Empedocles in Sicily, was incubation, i.e. ritual descent to the underworld in the form of caves or underground lairs where the initiate would rest or sleep waiting for lucid dreaming, healing, and visionary knowledge. The masters of this initiatory regime, men like Parmenides and Empedocles, were known as iatromanteis / prophet-healers:

But those people werent just ordinary healers. They were sons and priests of Apollo, healers belonging to a world of Iatromantis figures concerned wtih incubation and dreams and ecstasy: a world of magicians who spoke in poetry and oracles and riddles, who used incantations to enter other states of consciousness (DP 141).

Kingsley presents Parmenides Proem as a paradigmatic account of a shamanic descent to the underworld, a journey which culminates in being awake in the land of the dead, i.e., dying before you die, i.e. the dissolution of the ego, an event, Kingsley insists, which can only be described or evoked in the language of myth (DP 53). Hence the importance of Parmenides being a priest of Apollo and his meeting with the Goddess Persephone who greets P as a kouros, a young initiate. I will return to Kingsleys claim that mystical experience requires myth and esoteric initiation both for its attainment and for communicating it. He ascribes a host of spiritual practices to these Orphic-Pythagoreans. Like Pythagoras, Parmenides and Empedocles came not to teach but to heal, which means, on Kingsleys telling, that the first great philosophical systems created in Italy and Sicily werent theoretical products at all. Then knowledge of how the universe came into being, or of the elements that make up reality, was meant to have a practical application. But above all it was bound up with healingwith getting ones own life in order on every possible level and helping other people get their lives in order as well (DP 144, APMM 342-43). Thus, the primary purpose of

incubation was not physical healing (DP 101) but rather deliverance from ignorance (DP 109). The reason why scholars have failed to recognize this crucial point, in Kingsleys view, is that the knowledge of the early philosophers didnt have its origin in thinking or reasoning. It came from the experience of other states of consciousness. As with healing, so too is the meaning of prophecy in Greek religion expanded beyond its normal range, raising questions about the precision of his account. Thus, Kingsleys iatromantis is not concerned primarily with telling the future but rather with revealing the nature of reality: They were able to see things in the present that are so obvious we miss them, and see the things in the past that hold us down and hold us back (DP 109). An Iatromantis was concerned with indivisible oneness (DP 111). Their methods are non-cognitive or even anti-cognitive: Orphic-Pythagoreans learn less and less as they wrestle with riddles (DP 189). They employ incantations and breath control to help break the hold of the senses, to create access to an awareness beyond space and time (DP 109). Through active dreaming they gain access to other worlds, moving freely between the waking and sleeping states (DP 111). Tracing Pythagorean practices back to Central Asian shamans and Indian yogis, Kingsley points out that what would soon be covered over and rationalized in Greece was preserved and developed in India. What in the West had been an aspect of mystery, of initiation, was classified and formalized in the East (DP 115). Like Indian meditators, these Greeks practiced techniques of stillness (DP 180-81) as the means of entry into higher worlds and the attainment of nonconceptual states like samadhi. (cf. the hissing sound & rapid spinning movement at the rise of kundalini, DP 128). These experiences motivate Parmenides and Empedocles incantatory, repetitious, riddling poetry (DP 115), which aims less to inform than to induce possession and ecstasy, whose primary purpose is the purification and liberation of the transmigrating celestial or occult self (daimn). Unfortunately, Kingsley doesnt tell us where he stands amid the disputes of anthropologists and historians of religions about which are the essential and which the peripheral features of shamanism. He is content to cite various phenomena and practices: descending to and

returning from the underworld, reviving the dead, removing souls from bodies, controlling the weather, knowing how to use the power of plants, prophecy, law-giving, magical healing, bilocation, and possession by gods or other powers which induces ecstatic states. But he does not specify whether the shamans soul leaves his sleeping, inert body or whether a god or spirit enters and displaces the shamans consciousnessor both. The lack of a clear taxonomy of possession that applies to all these phenomena is a serious handicap even for sympathetic readers. Typing these figures as shamans means that they are magicians, which for Kingsley is perfectly natural since he believes that philosophy and magic once were two halves of a whole (DP 170) and also that then there was no difference between mysticism and magic (DP 105); [the theme of mystical union with the divine arose first out of magical and ritual practice (APMM 313)]. These ambiguous terms, which often feature in polemical debate, are difficult enough to define without running them together in this way. If one reads widely in Kingsleys work, its clear he assumes that magic is to be employed for spiritual or ethical, not evil or selfish ends. Key examples are immortalization and healing, e.g. the Pythagorean use of Homeric phrases as magical charms and of the Orphic gold leaves as magical amulets (APMM 308). Thus, he is well within the scholarly mainstream, at least among historians of religion if not Presocratic scholars, in rejecting the Christianizing denigration of magic as corrupt or degenerate or simply primitive religion (APMM 305). Nevertheless, some aspects of Kingsleys presentation are a bit disturbing and leave one with the concern that he doesnt distinguish between religious supplication and magical manipulation for selfish ends:

Soft words, cunning seductive persuasion were all trademarks of humans or divinities who are experts in mtis: who know exactly how to turn a difficult situation to their advantage, twist those who are more rigid and less flexible around their little finger, find their weak spot, who know how to charm them in every sense of the word. These are the irresistible tools of those who use magic, who make use of mtis, to get their way (R 131). This is not the standard picture of

spiritual masters that emerges in religious literature! Also problematic in Kingsleys celebration of these Greek figures as magicians is his silence about the dangers occult powers present to spiritual aspirants. Indian yoga traditions (Yoga Stras 3.16-51), the Buddhist Nikayas (cf. Eliade Yoga 179), Sufi authorities like al-Hujwiri and Ibn al-Arabi, just to cite a few examples, are quite clear on this point: occult powers are natural concomitants of progress in meditation, concentration, and prayer which afford one mastery of nature, body, and mind, but they are best avoided or should only be used sparingly and under the direction of an enlightened teacher. Otherwise, they have the potential to deflect one from achieving selflessness and attaining the highest levels of concentrated awareness. As one Buddhist text puts it, one can become a god but still fall far short of nirvana. Similarly, Plotinus readily admits the reality of magical operations (goteia) on the levels of cosmic soul and nature, but these are inferior, limited levels of being as compared to the intelligible realm and the super-transcendent One. The distinction between the Greater and the Lesser Mysteries is relevant here. Within the Neoplatonic orbit, Kingsley argues that theurgic ritual and magic are the culmination of philosophy, as a way of attaining what thinking alone was incapable of ever achieving: the raising of men to the gods and the divinization of the soul (APMM 302). This dichotomous opposition between thinking and magic is a gross oversimplifcation, it seems to me. I cant defend the claim here, but I am convinced that the higher forms of theurgy in Iamblichus, which transcend magic, are analogous to Plotinian contemplation and eros for the One. Kingsleys valorization of magic and his equation of it with the mystical in archaic OrphicPythagoreanism and in late antiquity in the Chaldaean Oracles, Iamblichus, and the alchemical tradition, is the lynchpin of a dramatic narrative of decline in ancient philosophy. The point of greatest stress in the scheme is his portrait of Plato, about which I have time to raise only a few objections. Drawing on selective quotation of the later Neoplatonists, Kingsley claims that most Neoplatonistsemphasized Platos role as a mere link in the chain of transmission of earlier Pythagorean and Orphic tradition (APMM 305). Numenius critique of the Academy and its scholastic disputes are enlisted in the attempt to identify the pure gold of Pythagorean teaching

(304), while neglecting Numenius point that the differences between Pythagoras and Plato were matters of style not doctrine and that pure Platonism is Pythagoreanism (OMeara 13). Assessing the varying attitudes towards Plato among the Neoplatonists is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that Kingsley bends and twists the evidence to support his contention that Plato is a mere cog in the Pythagorean transmission machine, and, in fact, a cog with broken teeth, so to speak, which causes it to sputter and creak for centuries. Paradoxically, despite his Pythagorean credentials, his almost total dependence on OrphicPythagorean lore in e.g. his myths of the afterlife, Plato is repeatedly cast by Kingsley as a rationalist, a perspective that ironically reflects contemporary scholarly orthodoxy, which is precisely what Kingsley castigates when it comes to pre-Platonic figures. Early and Late Pythagoreans surpass Plato, Aristotle, and their successors in their emphasis not only on practical application but also on detailed knowledge and observation as means to achieving understanding and mastery of cosmic principles, involvement in magic and ritual, and the attachment of primary importance to healing in all its facets. Plato and the other rationalists replaced the philosophical life as an integrated combination of understanding and practice, wisdom and the application of it, with the new role model of the disinterested student and theoretical scholar (APMM 339). These are colorful remarks, but they will strike some as tendentious, especially those who are sympathetic to Hadots inquiries into classical, Hellenistic, and early Christian philosophies as ways of life. The central points in Kingsleys multi-faceted critique I wish to contest are: (i) that practice is basically magical, (ii) that Platonism as way of life is essentially intellectual in a discursive sense, and (iii) that Platonic transcendence represents an escape from reality. Kingsleys position, as usual, is polemical: Philosophy has just come to mean the love of endlessly talking and arguing about the love of wisdomwhich is a complete waste of time. Philosophy is a travesty of what it once was, no longer a path to wisdom but a defence against it (R 156). What originally had been intended to involve every fibre of ones being was converted into a

dry logic thats only good for complicating and torturing our minds (DP 197). While these descriptions certainly apply to much contemporary Anglo-American philosophy as well as many philosophers throughout western history, not to mention many theologians and religious thinkers, a point that Hadot also argues forcefully, their relevance to Plato or Plotinus, two of Kingsleys favorite targets, is doubtful in my view. Kingsleys narrative of decline, from authentic to degenerate philosophy, focuses squarely on Platos devils bargain with dialectic and rationalism, symbolized by his Oedipal murder of Parmenides. It is surprising to learn, therefore, that there was nothing at all intellectual about the Socratic elenchos (R 151). This judgment is calculated to exalt Socrates the magician, enchanter, and expert in incantations (R 155) at the expense of his student and disciple Plato. It ignores the knotty problems that plague Platos presentation of SocratesKingsley falls prey to what Kahn (42) has called the fallacy of transparencyon which the Socrates of the early dialogues is an unambiguous portrait of the historical Socrates, while the Socrates of the middle and late dialogues becomes Platos mouthpiece and, in Kingsleys version of this interpretation, a rather garrulous rationalist at that. I argue that the paralysis of thought Socrates induces in his interlocutors, which ideally leads to the realization that one knows nothing and that one must confront utter helplessnessthe heart of Parmenides teaching according to Kingsley (R 154) is a state Plato himself experienced in the hands of his master, which he dramatizes with great forcefulness and for the same spiritual purpose. The aporiai induced by Socrates involved having your whole being turned upside down until you no longer knew if you were coming or going (R 154). The contrast between Xenophons Socrates and Platos on this point comprises strong evidence that Plato wanted to thematize aporia in precisely this way. So too does the disorientation of the cave-dweller who is forced to turn around and ascend to the sunlight. Theres plenty of evidence that one doesnt think ones way out of the cave: first, the repetition of words for compulsion and necessity throughout the allegory of the cave. (Note that repetition is a shamanic practice, according to Kingsley.) Second, the references to meditative withdrawal and the cultivation of stillness in the Phaedo and Republic. Finally, the ascents to the Good and

the Beautiful in the Republic, Symposium, and Phaedrus are powered by metaphysical eros, an essential feature of Platos (and Plotinus) practical approach to divinization that is suppressed by Kingsley. For Platonists the highest form of knowledge is supra-rational and it is unattainable without the activation of the higher powers of the self. Kingsley belittles Plotinus rational mysticism: where Plotinus thinking comes to an end is where we have to begin (R 438). Speaking for myself, as a beginner I would be delighted (and terrified!) to find myself perched atop the wave of Intellect as it erotically goes out of its mind in its quest for union with the Good (see Enneads 6.7.35). (If THATs where Kingsley starts, then I admire and envy him!) The problem with Kingsleys distorted picture of a rationalistic Plotinus is that Nous is an organ of transcendent, mystical perception, i.e. a mode of non-conceptual cognition that is very much like, it seems to me, Parmenides notion of the pure thinking of Being. And Plotinus explicitly says so. My point is not that Platonic erotic mysticism is superior or more efficacious than Parmenidean or Empedoclean mysticism. But rather that the allusions to spiritual practices in the Platonic dialogues are not desiccated remnants of Pythagorean originals, as Kingsley argues. The fact that they are embedded in dialectical contexts or within complex literary texts, which are aimed at wider audiences than Parmenides poem or the Orphic gold leaves, doesnt make them any less authentic as accounts of and goads to spiritual experience. The notable changes in mystical teachings and practices from the archaic to the classical period and beyond are familiar to any careful student of the subject. One of the more interesting discussions is Stroumsas who notes the displacement of esoteric teaching and ritual by personal/subjective mysticism. (See ) Kingsleys critique of Platonic transcendentalism aims to eliminate the real affinities I have pointed to above. Weaving an account that sounds eerily like Heidegger, Kingsley identifies Plato as the culprit who seduced us away from immediate access to Being by structuring a whole world of separation[by] theoretically articulating the principle of transcendence (R 305). Of course, because this is a rationally constructed realm it is accessed only through discursive reason, not through faith and revelation, a misrepresentation of Platos approach, as Ive already argued and one that is rooted in Christian-pagan polemics in late antiquity. How

ironic that Kingsley constructs his position by employing the polemical stance of Christian dogmatists. On the other hand, the metaphysical perspective of Orphic-Pythagoreans is calibrated so as to seem completely different from anything that came afterwards. As a selfappointed member of Parmenides inner circle, Kingsley prophesizes: Theres no possibility of transcendence (R 288). This line of thinking, if I understand it correctly, aims to collapse the distinction between transcendence and immanence, appearance and reality, or to simply eliminate transcendance altogether. In Kingsleys case it is motivated by an urgency and authentic longing for enlightenment that is palpable. However, one might suspect that the power of these subjective concerns overwhelms his effort to articulate Parmenides view, as when he denies that motionless and unified being for Parmenides constitutes some different world from the one we live in (R 293). To dismiss the illusion as just an illusion is, itself, just an illusion. For ultimately its all we have (R 258). These immanentist riddles superimpose Zen-like readings on Parmenides paradoxes. Because there is no opposition between thought and the senses (R 93), because Every thought is its own validation. It needs no confirmation outside it. Whatever we are able to think is true (R 73), our thoughts [and our sensations] are reality thinking itself (R 80-81). Men of the spirit do speak this way, when carried off in mystical transport, and we may envy them, but this rhetoric of immediacy can be a destructive drug for the unprepared or the unserious, especially in the contemporary spiritual marketplace. What remains is the prosaic business of trying to comprehend the difficult language of Parmenides and Empedocles. Construing them to say there is no need to struggle for anything at all because whatever we think already exists: nothing to fulfil, nothing to fear, (R 75), Kingsley sounds like a Crazy Wisdom master from Tibet or a self-help guru on tour. His diagnosis is simple: We have the fond idea that as philosophers or scientists or mystics can start off from the confusion we are in and gradually, steadily work our way closer towards the truth. But there are no ladders, no stages, to reality (R 255). Despite his counsel that we need not direct our spiritual aspirations towards the East, Kingsley seems close here to Nagarjunas paradoxical statements about the identity of nirvana and samsara, which spawned


the famous, and long-lasting, debate in Indo-Tibetan and later Chinese Buddhism as to whether attaining enlightenment was gradual or sudden. Is ultimate reality so distant from and yet so continuous with the mundane that one can have only a mediated and step by step access to it? Or is it so proximate, and yet so autonomous and so utterly unlike our illusions or expectations of it, that one can reach it only all-at-once and only without any mediation whatsoever? (Gimello 482). In the last cited statements, Kingsley sounds like a partisan of the sudden enlightenment school. Since sudden awakening depends directly on the Absolute, enlightenment is immanent, innate in every being, we face no limitations, denial of time, denial of sequence, denial of skillful means because theres no need to do anything (Faure 34). The Chan Buddhist strategy of attaining Buddhahood by not becoming Buddha (Faure 33n) is similar to Kingsleys koans, even when trapped, we are free (R 473). We should wonder, however, whether Kingsleys aphorisms point to the same realities as Parmenides words. Parmenides, or I should say the Goddess, says several times that the true path of inquiry requires the right sort of thinking: nha (B7.2), nosai (B2.2), cf. B.1.28-29, B8.6-8. At B8.28 pstiw lhyw differentiates immanent and transcendent realities in a manner consistent with what one finds among Platonists and hence challenges Kingsleys radically immanentist reading of Parmenides. Complicating the picture is the fact that some of Kingsleys statements suggest a different metaphysical perspective, when his focus shifts from Parmenides to Empedocles. On the latter we hear that the very act of becoming conscious is itself, a process of destruction; of separation; of learning to die before we die (R 435). Sounding remarkably like Socrates in the Phaedo, Empedocles, it turns out, points to the existence of another life beyond what we call life, another intelligence behind our normal human intelligence, an entire reality waiting for us outside what we consider reality (R 452). Not surprisingly, Kingsley employs both the via negativa and via positiva, as do many mystic philosophers and non-phiosophers. Hence, one critics remark that Kingsley is Mr. Have-it-Both-Ways. I see it in this passage: Parmenides poem begins with a journey that appears to take us as far away from here as possible: to the limits of existenceOnly with time does it start to become clear that his there is really here

(R 339). It is precisely here that I locate the source of his questionable historical judgments. When he speaks the language of immanence, he declares war on transcendent philosophy. When he speaks in concrete, literal terms, he misconstrues figurative language. When he privileges poetry, riddles, and symbols, he devalues dialectic and prose. On the other hand, when he reverses direction, he acknowledges there is some distance to travel, another world behind the appearances, but faults the means proposed by others. One final issue: how Kingsleys empathy and engagement with the mythic presentation of underworld darkness shapes his historical judgment. He complains that in appropriating Pythagorean ideas Plato cleverly amputated the ambiguities: focused only on the true and good and the beautiful, and cut out the need for the descent (DP 69). You can go up and you can go down. Its a point on the axis of the universe: the axis that joins whats above and whats below. But first you have to descend to this point before youre able to ascend, die before you can be reborn. (DP 70) He argues, therefore, (i) that the ascensional structure that characterizes Platonic mystical experiencesas well as Neoplatonic, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic experiencesis somehow inferior to shamanic descents to the underworld because they dont engage our dark places or because they dont require esoteric rituals or magical practices; and (ii) that, somehow, such descents dont themselves involve journeys to other, transcendent realms. Stroumsa called attention to the transition from archaic mystical descents to mystical ascents in the early Christian era but without offering any explanations why the symbolization of transcendence changed. Kingsleys implicit explanationthat the mystical disappeared or was driven underground into alchemical and theurgic traditionsbelies the evidence of ancient history, both East and West. That Orphic-Pythagoreanism was a rich mystical tradition and can inspire us today, Kingsley has demonstrated with passion and insight, but not, in my view, that archaic experiences are superior to later forms of mysticism. Not that he would be bothered by this response, for writing APPM was an exercise in cunning. I was simply putting on a garment that didnt belong to me.