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"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: theology

An Erotic & Magical Greek Lesson: "What then can Love be?" "A great Demon, O Socrates"

The text for today’s lesson is Plato’s Symposium. If you wish to follow along at home (or wherever you are), please refer to the Stephanus numbering given below.

First, the warm-up . . . .

[Diotima:] ‘you have admitted that Eros, from lack of good and beautiful things, desires these very things that he lacks.’
[Socrates:] ‘Yes, I have.’
[Diotima:] ‘How then can he be a God, if he is devoid of things beautiful and good?’
[Socrates:] ‘By no means, it appears.’
[Diotima:] ‘So you see, you are a person who does not consider Eros to be a God.’
[Socrates:] ‘What then,’ I asked, ‘can Love be? A mortal?’
[Diotima:] ‘Anything but that.’
[Socrates:] ‘Well, what?’

. . . . and then the main attraction:

ὥσπερ τὰ πρότερα, ἔφη, μεταξὺ θνητοῦ καὶ ἀθανάτου.
As I previously suggested, between a mortal and an immortal.

τί οὖν, ὦ Διοτίμα;
And what is that, O Diotima?

δαίμων μέγας, ὦ Σώκρατες: καὶ γὰρ πᾶν τὸ δαιμόνιον
A great Demon, O Socrates: and all of the Demonic realm

[202ε] μεταξύ ἐστι θεοῦ τε καὶ θνητοῦ.
is between the immortal and the mortal.

τίνα, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, δύναμιν ἔχον;
having what power? [asks Socrates]

ἑρμηνεῦον καὶ διαπορθμεῦον θεοῖς τὰ παρ᾽ ἀνθρώπων καὶ ἀνθρώποις τὰ παρὰ θεῶν,
Interpreting and transporting [ἑρμηνεῦον καὶ διαπορθμεῦον] human things to the Gods and divine things to humans;

τῶν μὲν τὰς δεήσεις καὶ θυσίας,
entreaties [δεήσεις] and sacrifices [θυσίας] from below,

τῶν δὲ τὰς ἐπιτάξεις τε καὶ ἀμοιβὰς τῶν θυσιῶν,
and ordinances [ἐπιτάξεις] and requitals [ἀμοιβὰς] from above:

ἐν μέσῳ δὲ ὂν ἀμφοτέρων συμπληροῖ, ὥστε τὸ πᾶν αὐτὸ αὑτῷ συνδεδέσθαι.
being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole [πᾶν] is combined in one.

διὰ τούτου καὶ ἡ μαντικὴ πᾶσα χωρεῖ καὶ ἡ τῶν ἱερέων τέχνη τῶν τε περὶ τὰς θυσίας καὶ τελετὰς
Through it are conveyed all divination [μαντικὴ] and priestcraft [ἱερέων τέχνη] concerning sacrifice [θυσίας] and ritual [τελετὰς]

[203α] καὶ τὰς ἐπῳδὰς καὶ τὴν μαντείαν πᾶσαν καὶ γοητείαν.
and incantations [ἐπῳδὰς], and all soothsaying [μαντείαν] and sorcery [γοητείαν].

θεὸς δὲ ἀνθρώπῳ οὐ μείγνυται,
The divine with mortals does not mingle:

ἀλλὰ διὰ τούτου πᾶσά ἐστιν ἡ ὁμιλία καὶ ἡ διάλεκτος θεοῖς πρὸς ἀνθρώπους, καὶ ἐγρηγορόσι καὶ καθεύδουσι:
but the Demonic is the means of all society and converse [ἡ ὁμιλία καὶ ἡ διάλεκτος] of humans with Gods and of Gods with humans, whether waking or asleep.

καὶ ὁ μὲν περὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα σοφὸς δαιμόνιος ἀνήρ, ὁ δὲ ἄλλο τι σοφὸς ὢν ἢ περὶ τέχνας ἢ χειρουργίας τινὰς βάναυσος. οὗτοι δὴ οἱ δαίμονες πολλοὶ καὶ παντοδαποί εἰσιν, εἷς δὲ τούτων ἐστὶ καὶ ὁ Ἔρως.
Whosoever has skill in these affairs is a spiritual person [δαιμόνιος ἀνήρ], to have it in other matters, as in common arts and crafts, is for the mechanical. Many and multifarious are these Demons, and one of them is Love.’

[A little further on [203d], Socrates adds the following by way of summing up Eros]:

κατὰ δὲ αὖ τὸν πατέρα ἐπίβουλός ἐστι τοῖς καλοῖς καὶ τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς,
he takes after his father in scheming [ἐπίβουλός] for all that is beautiful [καλοῖς] and good [ἀγαθοῖς];

ἀνδρεῖος ὢν καὶ ἴτης καὶ σύντονος,
for he is brave, strenuous and high-strung

θηρευτὴς δεινός, ἀεί τινας πλέκων μηχανάς,
a famous hunter, always weaving some stratagem;

καὶ φρονήσεως ἐπιθυμητὴς καὶ πόριμος, φιλοσοφῶν διὰ παντὸς τοῦ βίου,
desirous and competent of wisdom, throughout life ensuing the truth;

δεινὸς γόης καὶ φαρμακεὺς καὶ σοφιστής:
a master of sorcery [γόης], witchcraft [φαρμακεὺς], and sophistry [σοφιστής].


The Greek and the English translation are both taken from Perseus. Here is a direct link. The translation is from Fowler (1925), but I have taken certain liberties.

To recap: all of the following are attributed to Eros and the Demonic realm:

  1. Interpreting and transporting [ἑρμηνεῦον καὶ διαπορθμεῦον] human things to the Gods and divine things to humanity
  2. communicating prayers [δεήσεις] and sacrifices [θυσίας] from us to the Gods
  3. communicating injunctions [ἐπιτάξεις] and requitals [ἀμοιβὰς] from the Gods to us
  4. filling in all the space between humans and the Gods, so that everything [πᾶν]is bound to everything else [ἐν μέσῳ δὲ ὂν ἀμφοτέρων συμπληροῖ, ὥστε τὸ πᾶν αὐτὸ αὑτῷ συνδεδέσθαι.]
  5. divination [μαντικὴ]
  6. priestcraft [ἱερέων τέχνη] concerning sacrifice [θυσίας] and ritual [τελετὰς]
  7. incantations [ἐπῳδὰς]
  8. soothsaying [μαντείαν]
  9. sorcery [γοητείαν]
  10. all society and converse [ἡ ὁμιλία καὶ ἡ διάλεκτος] of humans with Gods and of Gods with humans, whether waking or asleep
  11. the ability to be a true spiritual person [δαιμόνιος ἀνήρ] (or is that a truly Demonic person?)
  12. In general, all interaction, of any kind, between the divine and mortals must be by way of the intermediary realm of the Demons. Otherwise, the divine and mortals do not mingle directly [θεὸς δὲ ἀνθρώπῳ οὐ μείγνυται].

>Let Us Pray

>1. A Prayer to the Queen of Heaven

An ancient tale tells the story of a foolish young man whose blind lust for magical power leads him to accidentally turn himself into a donkey (instead of a bird, which had been his goal).

Worse yet, having botched the initial transformation, he then discovers that he cannot accomplish the crucial step of reversing the process to regain his human shape.

The young fellow, named Lucius, had used unethical means (theft and deception) to obtain the magical potions with which he had planned to first turn himself into an owl, and then, once he had had his fill of soaring through the night sky, to return to normal. Not only had his actions been unvirtuous, they had been extremely unwise, for they had put him in possession of power that he not only had no right to, but that he had no understanding of.

From there, things only went from bad to worse for poor Lucius, and a series of increasingly degrading mishaps ensues. Finally, Lucius manages to escape from his most recent human tormentors, and finds himself on a deserted beach late one day. As the sun is setting, Lucius also sets his four legged form down on the sand. Exhausted and miserable he falls asleep to the rhythmic lullaby of the waves lapping the nearby shore.

But soon after dark, he awakes suddenly, and, lifting up his head (still that of an ass), he sees the full moon rising above the sea. Now Lucius had never been a really wicked person. Certainly he was self-centered, short sighted, and morally lax. Nevertheless, he was still, at least in a very limited way, something like a good Pagan in the widest and most generous sense, and also, way down deep inside, a decent human being in spite of his many faults (think Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome).

And so it was that in his mind he now looked not merely on the Moon, but on the face of the Great Goddess, Mother of all humankind, in all her glory, and to whom he now prayed (as those who are only just barely religious often do when they have run out of all other options), as described in this first-hand account he is supposed to have given later:

I went down to the sea to purify myself by bathing in it. Seven times I dipped my head under the waves—seven, according to the divine philosopher Pythagoras, is a number that suits all religious occasions—and with joyful eagerness, though tears were running down my hairy face, I offered this soundless prayer to the supreme Goddess:

“Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them bread raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first Creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind for ever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine at Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites—you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays—I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be invoked, have mercy on me in my extreme distress, restore my shattered fortune, grant me repose and peace after this long sequence of miseries. End my sufferings and perils, rid me of this hateful four-footed disguise, return me to my family, make me Lucius once more. But if I have offended some god of unappeasable cruelty who is bent on making life impossible for me, at least grant me one sure gift, the gift of death.”

After having poured his heart out to the Goddess in this way, Lucius lay back down again and slept. And dreamed:

I had scarcely closed my eyes before the apparition of a woman began to rise from the middle of the sea with so lovely a face that the gods themselves would have fallen down in adoration of it. First the head, then the whole shining body gradually emerged and stood before me poised on the surface of the waves. Yes, I will try to describe this transcendent vision, for though human speech is poor and limited, the Goddess herself will perhaps inspire me with poetic imagery sufficient to convey some slight inkling of what I saw.

Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair supported this disc, with ears of corn bristling beside them. Her many-colored robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what caught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black luster of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasseled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon.

In her right hand she held a bronze rattle, of the sort used to frighten away the God of the Sirocco; its narrow rim was curved like a sword-kit and three little rods, which sang shrilly when she shook the handle, passed horizontally through it. A boat-shaped gold dish hung from her left hand, and along the upper surface of the handle writhed an asp with puffed throat and head raised ready to strike. On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory.

All the perfumes of Arabia floated into my nostrils as the Goddess deigned to address me: “You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me. The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.

Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis. I have come in pity of your plight. I have come to favor and aid you. Weep no more, lament no longer; the hour of deliverance, shone over by my watchful light, is at hand! …”

Should I give away how the story ends? Can you guess? Let’s just say that although Apuleius’ novel has a certain notoriety as a prominent example of “The Pornographic Tradition” of ancient literature, it nevertheless has just as great a claim to being a notoriously Pagan book in the religious sense, as well as a work in which a serious philosopher presents many subtle Platonic concepts concealed within a highly entertaining redaction of a popular story. That is to say, L’Asino D’Oro is in the end both spiritually uplifting and intellectually satisfying.

2. “Listen to the words ….”

The story of Lucius was immortalized by the writer Apuleius in his Latin novel The Metamorphoses (aka “The Golden Ass”). Eighteen centuries later, Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today (the pdf of the complete book can be viewed here, and if for any reason that link doesn’t work, just do a google search on something like “gardner witchcraft today pdf”) was published, announcing to the world that the ancient worship of the Goddess was still alive. Therein Gardner explains that he is oathbound not to “detail the rites and prayers” of the Wiccan religion. But he can tell us that when an initiation rite is about to start there is first read “a charge”, beginning as follows:

Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who of old was also called among men Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite and many other names. At mine altars the youth of Lacedaemon made due sacrifice.

Once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, meet in some secret place and adore me, who am queen of all the magics …. For I am a gracious goddess, I give joy on earth, certainty, not faith, while in life; and upon death, peace unutterable, rest and the ecstasy of the goddess. Nor do I demand aught in sacrifice ….

Gardner then states that these words show the influence of “a similar charge” that came from “the Romans” and/or “the ancient mysteries”. The cult of Isis was, of course, an ancient mystery religion especially popular among Romans. Apuleius was a prominent Roman citizen, and archaeologists have discovered the remains of Roman era cultic sites dedicated to the Goddess Isis in Britain. Gardner even explicitly mentions Apuleius’ Metamorphoses in the Forward to Witchcraft Today.

Apuleius’ novel is also mentioned by Gardner in his second book on Wicca, The Meaning of Witchcraft, where Gardner calls on Apuleius as a witness to the fact that Witches do not worship Satan:

Lucius relates with relish a number of macabre stories of the powers of witches in his day. Yet they are not devotees of Satan, of whom Lucius had never heard. Their goddess is Hecate, and Hecate, in the vision which delivers Lucius from bondage, is declared to be identical with Isis, the gracious and lovely Queen of Heaven. That is, she is the same goddess in her dark and light aspects, as is natural to a goddess of the moon.

Gardner’s obvious familiarity with Apuleius’ work removes any possibility of thinking that the significant similarities between the Wiccan Charge of the Goddess and the epiphany and aretalogy of Isis in The Metamorphoses could be accidental. However, there was undoubtedly another source for the Charge, and one much closer to Gardner in time. This was the famous book by Charles Godfrey Leland, Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, first published in 1899. As the following excerpt shows, in fact, Gardner was borrowing heavily and directly from Leland:

This is the Gospel (Vangelo) of the Witches:

Diana greatly loved her brother Lucifer, the god of the Sun and of the Moon, the god of Light (Splendor), who was so proud of his beauty, and who for his pride was driven from Paradise.

Diana had by, her brother a daughter, to whom they gave the name of Aradia [i.e. Herodias].

In those days there were on earth many rich and many poor.

The rich made slaves of all the poor.

In those days were many slaves who were cruelly treated; in every palace tortures, in every castle prisoners.

Many slaves escaped. They fled to the country; thus they became thieves and evil folk. Instead of sleeping by night, they plotted escape and robbed their masters, and then slew them. So they dwelt in the mountains and forests as robbers and assassins, all to avoid slavery.

Diana said one day to her daughter Aradia:

‘Tis true indeed that thou a spirit art,
But thou wert born but to become again
A mortal; thou must go to earth below
To be a teacher unto women and men
Who fain would study witchcraft in thy school

Yet like Cain’s daughter thou shalt never be,
Nor like the race who have become at last
Wicked and infamous from suffering,
As are the Jews and wandering Zingari,
Who are all thieves and knaves; like unto them
Ye shall not be….

And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i’ the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor’s soul (with power); 1
And when ye find a peasant who is rich,
Then ye shall teach the witch, your pupil, how
To ruin all his crops with tempests dire,
With lightning and with thunder (terrible),
And the hall and wind….

And when a priest shall do you injury
By his benedictions, ye shall do to him
Double the harm, and do it in the name
Of me, Diana, Queen of witches all!

And when the priests or the nobility
Shall say to you that you should put your faith
In the Father, Son, and Mary, then reply:
“Your God, the Father, and Maria are
Three devils….

“For the true God the Father is not yours;
For I have come to sweep away the bad,
The men of evil, all will I destroy!

“Ye who are poor suffer with hunger keen,
And toll in wretchedness, and suffer too
Full oft imprisonment; yet with it all
Ye have a soul, and for your sufferings
Ye shall be happy in the other world,
But ill the fate of all who do ye wrong!”

Now when Aradia had been taught, taught to work all witchcraft, how to destroy the evil race (of oppressors) she (imparted it to her pupils) and said unto them:

When I shall have departed from this world,
Whenever ye have need of anything,
Once in the month, and when the moon is full,
Ye shall assemble in some desert place,
Or in a forest all together join
To adore the potent spirit of your queen,
My mother, great Diana. She who fain
Would learn all sorcery yet has not won
Its deepest secrets, them my mother will
Teach her, in truth all things as yet unknown.
And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everything; p. 6
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also: this shall last until
The last of your oppressors shall be dead ….

In the next installment of this series, Let Us Pray, I’ll look at two other important sources of insight into the question of prayer as it relates to Witches: Margaret Murray and Doreen Valiente.

>Top Ten Things Pagans Should Know About Buddhism

>0. Caveat meditator.
A seemingly infinite variety of misconceptions abound concerning both Buddhism and Paganism. Very often these misconceptions are perpetuated by Buddhists and Pagans. And it often seems as if the Internet was designed for no other reason than to serve as the perfect vehicle for the world-wide (and nearly instantaneous) dissemination of the worst of these misconceptions. But, hey, whaddya gonna do? There is no substitute for exercising one’s own judgement. Even if we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study with great teachers whose hearts are pure and whose understanding is unimpeachable, it is still the responsibility of each of us to stand on our own two feet and strive to understand matters for ourselves. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” as the Buddha said just before dying. Much more could be said about all of the following, but for now I will just list them and write something very briefly for each one.

This is still very much a rough draft, but I feel motivated to put it out there as is.

1. The Buddha was a Pagan.
The Buddha showed genuine respect for the ancient spiritual traditions of his native land. He spent many years studying under the two most famous meditation masters alive at the time. He was deeply appreciative of what he learned from these teachers, and made extensive use of what he had been taught, even though he eventually decided that he needed to continue his search on his own. Years later, when he was nearing the culmination of his spiritual quest, Mara, the God of Deception, made one last attempt to prevent the Buddha from attaining final and complete Enlightenment. In response, the Buddha turned to the traditional Vedic Earth Goddess, Prthivi, who answered the Buddha’s prayer by rising up from the depths of the ocean and wringing the water out her hair. With this simple gesture, Prthivi caused a great flood that swept away Mara and all of his demonic hordes. This is why the Buddha is often depicted reaching down and touching the earth, showing how he called upon the Earth Goddess at this most crucial moment.

2. Buddhism was Goddess-centric before being Goddess-centric was cool.
As the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment indicates, Goddesses have always played a prominent role in the Buddhist religion. Many of the earliest known structural artifacts of Buddhism, temples and stupas dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C., are adorned with images of the Goddess Lakshmi, one of the best known and loved deities of Hinduism. According to Miranda Shaw, Lakshmi’s prominence in early Buddhism “demonstrates the difficulty of drawing a line between Buddhist observances and popular devotional idioms, revealing the extent to which Buddhists subscribed to beliefs and practices indistinguishable from those of the surrounding populace.” [p. 102 in Buddhist Goddesses of India] Later on, Shaw also states that “we may discern a message of rapprochement between Buddhism and the preexisting pantheon of divine beings. There need be no forcible displacement [or, apparently, any displacement at all!], and followers of Buddhism may [and obviously did and still do] continue to pay homage to spirits and deities that had long received their worship.” [p. 105] The contrast with Christianity and Islam could not be more glaring. In modern Buddhism Goddesses continue to play a central role. The Goddess of Compassion, Kuan Yin, is one of the most ubiquitous features of Buddhism throughout east Asia, including China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The Goddess Tara is, if anything, even more prominent in the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, and other parts of central Asia. Tara is revered as the mother of all Buddhas (and also of all other beings, who are all potential Buddhas), the embodiment of pure awareness, and even as Ultimate Reality itself.

3. Rebirth and karma are very similar in Buddhism and Paganism.
Modern Pagan conceptions of karma and rebirth are so similar to those found in Buddhism and Hinduism, that this has led some scholars to mistakenly believe that modern Pagans have, in fact, merely imported these ideas from Asia. However, despite these similarities and the resulting confusion, Pagans have our own longstanding traditions regarding rebirth and karma.

In Buddhism, Paganism, and also Hinduism, rebirth and karma serve to provide seekers with a way of understanding Life the Universe and Everything in terms of our own individual spiritual progress. In my opinion no one has expressed this basic principle better than the modern day Hindu master Sri Aurobindo (although Buddhists and Hindus sometimes quibble about this, the conceptions of rebirth and karma in those two religions are nearly the same, and this is especially true in the specific case of how it all applies to the issue of spiritual progress):

The one question which through all its complexities is the sum of philosophy and to which all human enquiry comes round in the end, is the problem of ourselves, — why we are here and what we are, and what is behind and before and around us, and what are we to do with ourselves, our inner significances and our outer environment. In the idea of evolutionary rebirth, if we can once find it to be a truth and recognize its antecedents and consequences, we have a very significant clue for an answer to all these connected sides of the one perpetual question. A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge, — this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity. But we have to look at it in the right focus, to get its true proportions and, especially, to see it in its spiritual significance more than in its mechanical process. The failure to do that rightly will involve us in much philosophical finessing, drive on this side or the other to exaggerated negations and leave our statement of it, however perfect may be its logic, yet unsatisfying and unconvincing to the total intelligence and the complex soul of humanity.
[Rebirth and Karma, pp. 35-6]

4. Buddhism reveres Nature.
Unlike Christianity, but like many forms of ancient and modern Paganism, Buddhism views the physical universe as eternal, uncreated, alive and conscious. As it spread peacefully throughout all of Asia, Buddhism never displaced the more ancient forms of religion it encountered, and these inevitably included the worship of spirits and Gods associated with Nature. In Korea, Buddhist temples always include statues, shrines, or other specific places dedicated to the reverence for the ancient Mountain God, Sahn Shin. In Japan, Buddhism and the ancient nature religion of Shinto exist in a truly symbiotic relationship. Religion scholars who specialize in China have given up trying to clearly demarcate Buddhism from ancient forms of “animism” and ancestor worship. Throughout Central Asia (Tibet, Mongolia, etc), the lines separating Buddhism from Shamanism are all but nonexistent. Throughout Southeast Asia, most Theravadin Buddhists also believe in and practice various forms of “spirit religion” alongside the Buddhadharma. Sometimes one finds purists who would like to purge Buddhism of the influence of Gods, spirits, “demons”, “magic” and so forth, but such efforts never succeed, and in both the attempt and the failure they only serve to accentuate the luxuriant diversity and tolerance of Buddhism.

5. Buddhism is a magical religion.
Although Socrates would not approve, instead of attempting to actually define magic, I will simply list eight things that are widely accepted as being magical, and briefly give an example of each of these magical practices in Buddhism.

  1. Spiritual healing. Reiki, a popular modern form of spiritual healing, has its origins in Japanese Buddhism.
  2. Divination. Astrology plays a prominent role in Tibetan Buddhism.
  3. Bringing about sought after results (in general). Mantras are widely used in Buddhism. Often mantras are used for “purely spiritual” purposes, but they are also often employed in order to achieve mundane ends including better health, financial success, and even such things as attracting a boyfriend or girlfriend! We know that the practice of Buddhists using mantras even for such mundane things is very old, because some ancient monastic regulations forbid it.
  4. Ability to communicate with non-human beings (either animals or discorporate “spirits”). A famous story in Chinese Zen Buddhism tells about an old Zen master who has a conversation with a mysterious man who turns out not to be human at all. The master’s interlocutor is a fox who has the ability to take on human form. This “fox spirit”, in turn, is really another Zen master who lived many generations ago, and because of some transgression he committed against Buddhist teachings he has been condemned to reborn over and over again as a fox.
  5. Psychism (“mind reading”). Forms of psychism are widely considered to be a side effect of meditation practice by Buddhists. For the most part, this ability is not sought after, though, and is often considered a potentially dangerous distraction.
  6. The ability to fly or otherwise travel long distances quickly or even instantaneously. Padmasambhava, one of the great saints of Tibetan Buddhism, once traveled from India to Tibet by turning Lady Tsogyal (another pivotal figure in Tibetan Buddhism) into a flying tiger and flying on her back.
  7. Ability to travel to realms below the earth or in the heavens (or outer space). According to tradition, Nagarjuna traveled under the earth and visited the realm of the Nagas (the snake people who live below the earth). It was from the Nagas that he obtained the Prajna Paramita texts that today form a central part of the Sutras of Mahayana Buddhism.
  8. Mediumship (communication with the dead). Dogen is the great founding teacher of the Japanese Soto Zen school. Dogen once traveled to China and while there met the Zen master Genshi, who told Dogen (whom he had never met before): “I will transmit the Dharma to you.” Master Genshi said this because of a dream he had had five nights previously when the great Zen master Daibai Hojo appeared to him. But Dogen’s meeting with Genshi took place in the year 1224 AD, and Daibai Hojo had died almost four centuries before that in 839!

This list is neither exhaustive nor systematic, yet since each of these magical activities are found in Buddhism, then certainly Buddhism is a very magical religion.

6. Buddhism values the spiritual potential of sexuality.
Jeffrey Hopkins is a Buddhist scholar of some note. Among other things he served as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s chief English interpreter for a decade (from 1979 to 1989). Among his numerous publications is a book with the self-explanatory title Sex, Orgasm and the Mind of Clear Light: The Sixty-Four Acts of Gay Male Love. One of the latter chapters in that book is titled, “Why Tibetan Buddhism Is Sex-Friendly,” on which subject, Hopkins has this to say:

“Why this religion is so sex-friendly stems first of all from a recognition that everyone wants happiness and does not want suffering ….

“The intention of using a blissful, orgasmic mind in the spiritual path is to manifest the most subtle level of consciousness, the mind of clear light … to realize the true nature of mind, stripped of its distractions and peripheral manifestations. The bliss of orgasm is so intense that the mind becomes totally fascinated and entranced with pleasure: both the usual conceptual mind and the appearances that accompany it melt away, leaving the innermost mind in its pristine state, if one is capable of recognizing it. In orgasm, the phenomena of ordinary life which are so concrete and solid they they seem to have their own independent existence melt into the expanse of the reality behind appearances ….

“When the sense of pleasure is powerful, consciousness is totally involved with that pleasure and thus is completely withdrawn; the subtler levels of consciousness can manifest themselves, at which point the nature of the mind can be apprehended and held by someone accustomed to watching the mind ….

“Through desirous activities such as gazing at a loved one, or smiling, holding hands, embracing, or engaging in sexual union, a pleasurable consciousness is produced; it is used to realize the truth that afflictive emotions are peripheral and that the nature of the mind is clear light, whereby afflictive desire itself is undermined. The pleasurable consciousness is generated simultaneously with a wise consciousness knowing the mind, and thus the two are indivisibly fused.”
[pp. 71-76]

7. Buddhism is a religion of connection and immanence.

Ayuthaya - 009 Bodhi Tree & Buddha Head, Ayuthaya, Thailand
This travel blog photo’s source is TravelPod page: The Old Kingdom

One of the least understood of all the teachings of Buddhism is that of “no self”, or, in Sanskrit “anatman”. But this teaching can be understood as just another way of affirming the fact that there is “no separation” between one being and another, or between anything in the Universe and anything else. In the Avatamsaka Sutra this idea is taken even one step further in the teaching of interpenetration. This teaching is often explained by way of the image of Indra’s Net: the whole universe is an interconnected net or web, and at each node of the net there is a perfectly smooth, spherical jewel. If one peers into any one of these jewels, one can see the entire net reflected on its surface, including each of the other jewels, which, in turn, also reflects the entire net.

8. Modern Paganism and Western Buddhism have developed as kindred paths.
Until very recently (in historical terms) it was not possible for people living in the West to freely explore non-Christian religious traditions. As this freedom was slowly recovered, there were two natural inclinations among those who were adventurous enough to take advantage of it: (1) to explore “our own” pre-Christian religious traditions (Paganism), and (2) to explore religions found in other parts of the world that have not been Christianized (especially Buddhism and Hinduism). As a result, the recent histories of western Buddhism and modern Paganism are inextricably entwined with one another. In particular, the pioneers of Buddhism in the West often turn out to be important figures in the foundations of modern Paganism as well. It is in the nature of pioneers to cross boundaries, and so figures like Alan Bennett (who taught Qabalah to Aleister Crowley and became one of the first Europeans to ever ordain as a Buddhist monk), and Henry Steel Olcott (a military officer, journalist, lawyer, occultist and Theosophist from New Jersey, who is honored with his own holiday in the Buddhist nation of of Sri Lanka) defy any simplistic categorization. Rick Fields devotes a chapter to some of these genre-bending Occultist/Buddhist pioneers, whom he calls “White Buddhists”, in his now classic study of the history of Buddhism in America, How the Swans Came to the Lake.

9. You can be both a Pagan and a Buddhist.
Many people find that they are attracted to both Buddhism and Paganism. Some people feel the need to choose one or the other. That should be a personal choice, and it should not be based on the (baseless) notion that Paganism and Buddhism are somehow intrinsically incompatible. Some people feel that it is important to focus on a single path, while other people seem to be congenitally eclectic. Its important for modern Pagans to realize that Buddhists in Asia have a long history of simultaneously being good Buddhists and good Pagans. And there is a long tradition of Asian Buddhists actively promoting the harmonization of different schools of Buddhism along with spiritual traditions outside of Buddhism, incuding Bön (Tibet), Shinto (Japan), Shamanism (Korea), Taoism and Confucianism (China), etc.

10. Buddhism and Hinduism have been far more successful than other religions in resisting the spiritual aggression of Christianity and Islam.
Modern Pagans are constantly frustrated by the fragmentary (at best) nature of what survives of our own ancient spiritual traditions. Buddhism and Hinduism, on the other hand, remain intact even after centuries of attempts by Christians and Muslims to do to them what was done to our ancestral traditions. Pagans can learn a great deal from the ancient spiritual traditions of Asia, and we can do this without engaging in “cultural appropriation” if we follow the example of the Buddha: who sought out teachers of the living traditions of his time and learned everything he could from them, with great respect and appreciation, but without ever forgetting that ultimately he was responsible for finding his own way.

"There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult." ("The Totality of the Gods", Part Deux)

“Taking one by one every Greek author who lived and wrote before 350 B.C., he shows by quotation of parallel passages, as often as possible from a single work of the author concerned, that again and again (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi are used to express identical thoughts, and that no distinction can be made between them. Often singular and plural alternate within a single passage or argument, both obviously indicating one and the same divine power, the totality of gods.”

. . . . . .
In 1957, Gilbert François published Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots θεός δαίμων dans la littérature grecque d’Homère a Platon. Therein, François painstakingly examined all of classical Greek literature prior to 350 BC, to determine the true meaning intended by classical authors when they made use of the singular ho theos, which Christians, going back at least to Eusebius, have routinely insisted on interpreting as synonymous with the gaseous invertebrate they call “God”.

For those who do not have direct access to that volume (WorldCat.Org informs me that the closest library that holds a copy of Gilbert’s book is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in West Yorkshire, UK), and/or for those with little or no skill in the French language, there is, fortunately, a very helpful review of François’ book published by Joseph Fontenrose in 1960 (in English).

Fontenrose’s review is quite thorough, and he is not shy about pointing out what he sees as gaps in François’ argument. Nevertheless, Fontenrose’s assessment of what François had accomplished is unreserved: “These objections and disagreements are not intended to depreciate the worth of François’ treatise, which does a great service in demolishing every support for theories that the ancient Greeks had a monotheistic tendency. There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult.”

Below is the review in its entirety. It was originally published in Classical Philology, vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan. 1960), pp. 55-58. A brief excerpt was included in a previous post in this blog: “The totality of the Gods” (Lies, Damned Lies, & Pagan Monotheism, Part Deux)“. Also, here is a direct link to the review at JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/pss/265449.

Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots θεός δαίμων dans la littérature grecque d’Homère a PlatonBy GILBERT FRANÇOIS. (Bibliotheque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Universite de Liège, Fasc. CXLVII.) Paris: Société d’Edition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1957. Pp. 374+19.In the entire range of ancient Greek literature from the Homeric poems to Nonnus one encounters the singular noun (ὁ) θεός in passages where it does not refer to a god that is named in the context. Scholars have differed about the meaning of the singular of this word in many of these passages. Some have seen in this use of theos a monotheistic tendency and have rendered it “God,” and it plainly has this meaning in some philosophical writings. Others, insisting that the Greeks were thoroughgoing polytheists, argue that in most such passages the singular refers to a particular god whose name the writer either does not know or does not care to mention; they therefore translate with “the god” or “a god.” For some passages they are certainly right; for a good many others such an interpretation seems forced. Still other scholars interpret (ho) theos as a collective singular in many of these passages. Among them is Gilbert François, who has devoted a fairly big book to a thorough and painstaking study of every passage of Greek literature from Homer to Plato in which the singulars (ho) theos and (ho) daimon are used without obvious reference to an individual deity; and along with these singulars he studies every occurrence of the substantives to theion and to daimonion.

François shows that in most passages where the unspecific theos and daimon occur the singular is equivalent to (hoi) theoi and (hoi) daimones, when these plurals mean all gods or all supernatural powers together. It is used exactly as “man” is used in English as a collective singular to mean “mankind” or “(all) men.” Theos, therefore, often means “godkind” as simply another term for all the gods in one, divinity in general. Taking one by one every Greek author who lived and wrote before 350 B.C., he shows by quotation of parallel passages, as often as possible from a single work of the author concerned, that again and again (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi are used to express identical thoughts, and that no distinction can be made between them. Often singular and plural alternate within a single passage or argument, both obviously indicating one and the same divine power, the totality of gods. Especially when the gods are described as rulers of the world, controllers of fate, dispensers of justice, or as intervening in human affairs, the singular is often used instead of the plural not as much as the plural by most authors, it appears, but often enough by everyone. In reference to the gods as objects of cult the plural predominates, but the singular is found as early as the Homeric poems and is in- creasingly employed thus in later times.

Not in every instance, however, is theos meaning “godkind” collective in sense; opposition’s case, even when it is an sometimes the sense is generic (as in reference to qualities that a god has as god) or abstract (divinity as an abstract term). The plural may also be used generically and abstractly, so that here too singular and plural are parallel. Aside from Xenophanes, Plato, and one or two other philosophers, no Greek writer before 350 ever uses the singular to mean “God” as the one deity of the world or to mean a supreme being that rules over inferior gods; and even these philosophers often use the singular in a collective or generic sense in the manner of other writers. The development of the collective sense of theos, says François, is a linguistic, not a theological, phenomenon.

The singular and plural of (ho) daimon are often used exactly as those of theos; when they differ the former are usually either more impersonal, referring to supernatural power in general, or refer to supernatural beings inferior to gods.

Since prose writers are as likely as poets to use either the singular or plural of theos and daimon when they refer to the gods collectively, it is apparent that the choice of singular or plural is not dictated by the exigencies of meter. Presence or absence of the article with theos and daimon has no significance when the word is used without reference to an individual god: either theos or ho theos may mean”godkind.”

François’ argument is convincing; his careful, thorough, and well-reasoned study proves his thesis that unspecific theos and daimon have in most, instances a collective sense. His method is necessarily the close discussion of one passage after another, with a summary of conclusions at the end of each chapter; his book is pretty much a series of explications de texte. Of such a book we can demand only soundness and completeness and these we have. We cannot insist that it be entertaining too: it is not designed for armchair reading. Nevertheless the book is a bit too prolix, though this fault is largely due to François’ generosity in dealing with alternative interpretations. He constantly hears the opposition’s case, even when it is an imaginary opposition. In instances where his collective interpretation of (ho) theos is obviously right, he will give full consideration to a bare possibility that the singular could refer to an individual god, even though nobody has ever adopted the specific interpretation nor is likely to. François’ argument would have been more effective if the book had been reduced by one third.

Though I agree in general with François’ thesis and conclusions and find his interpretations sound, his zeal has led him astray in his interpretation of a few passages. He is often more logical than the writer whose work he is discussing. In considering the phrase κατὰ δαίμονα καὶ τύχαν which appears in Diagoras, Fragment 2, he maintains (p. 84) that daimon means divine power rather than fate or destiny, since fate and chance are mutually exclusive, whereas the divine power and chance are not. He supports his argument by pointing to the recurring θεὸς καὶ τύχη. The Greeks did not distinguish so sharply as this between fate and chance, or between the divine will and either: the three concepts, and the several Greek words which indicate them, run together. Diagoras’ phrase is simply a redundant expression like “trusting to luck and Jesus,” where the two terms mean essentially the same thing to the speaker. And what does che sara, sara refer to, fate or chance? Diagoras’ phrase recurs in the same or similar form and means the same as κατὰ δαίμονα or κατὰ τύχη alone, both everyday expressions. The reason one does not find κατὰ θεὸν καὶ δαίμονα, the nonappearance of which François uses as an argument, is that such a phrase did not establish itself in idiom. Again, since the gods’ will and fate were constantly identified, it is hardly true that the former concept is less contrary than the latter to chance.

In several other instances François’ excessive logicality leads him to put too much meaning into commonplace idioms. In dealing with σὺν (τῷ) θεῷ, σὺν (τοῖς) θεοῖς, he finds, or looks for, meaning for the noun from the logic of the context, exactly as when he finds the noun used in the nominative or accusative case as the subject or object of discourse; thus he gives the dative of these phrases varying interpretations according to the possible meanings of the noun. He is right that singular or plural form makes no difference to the phrase; but the phrase is colloquial and is used without much regard to the literal denotation of theos: it is “with God’s help” or “with good luck,” which, colloquially, have the same use, and therefore the same meaning, in English. σὺν θεῷ, in fact, differs not at all from σὺν τύχη θεοῦ, τύχη θεῶν, etc., phrases which François also treats much too literally. Of course, a pious person like Xenophon, having used the phrase σὺν θεῷ several times, may justify himself by a discourse on the gods’ omniscience and wisdom (Hipp. 9. 8f.).

In considering the oath formula πρὸς θεῶν καὶ δαιμόνων (p. 192, n. 1), quoted from Andocides and Isaeus, François says that the second noun must refer to inferior divine beings, distinct from the gods. I hardly think so; formulae, especially those which have a legal character, are likely to be redundant, for example, “‘goods and chattels,” “men and citizens.” Even in τους οὕτε δαιμόνων οὕτε θεῶν ὅπιν έχοντας (Herod. 9. 76. 2) the disjunction should not be pressed too hard (p. 201, n. 1): at most δαιμόνων includes more than θεῶν.

In the Politicus, Timaeus, and other late dialogues Plato distinguishes between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi: the singular refers to the supreme being, ho megistos daimon, the plural to the inferior gods who deal directly with mankind. [In fact, one of the most striking examples of Plato completely obliterating all distinction between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi, and even theoi kai theai,occurs in the Timaeus at 27b-c, as I have discussed in an earlier post. Therefore the implication that Plato’s “late dialogues” make a systematic theological distinction between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi is utterly without merit. But then again, nearly any argument based on the “devlopmental model” is bullshit from the get-go. Otherwise I do not have any strong feelings about that subject.] François holds (pp. 272f.) that even here Plato slips sometimes into traditional usage without regard for the distinction which he has made, that, for instance, at Pol. 274D εκ θεῶν refers to the supreme being. There Plato’s Stranger, referring to the time when the supreme god abandoned his direct rule over mankind, uses the plural instead of the singular. But does not Plato refer here to both the supreme being and those gods to whom he had assigned the task of helping him govern the world and who abandoned the world when he did? Again in the Timaeus François believes that the difference established between the supreme being and the inferior gods in respect to the number of the noun is often disregarded. In 44E-47C both singular and plural are used in the account of the creation of men, a task which the supreme god had assigned to his subordinates. Why cannot the singular refer to the supreme god under whose authority and plan the other gods act ? In a philosophical discourse we are justified in assuming consistency unless we are forced to give it up. At Pol. 274C παρὰ θεῶν should not be rendered “by the gods (par les dieux)” but “from gods”; the reference is to the gifts that particular gods of the present order, for example Prometheus, gave to man.

I doubt that Herodotus used the masculine singular ho theos to designate a goddess, as François,following Linforth, maintains (p. 324). Kleobis and Biton, after serving the goddess Hera, were rewarded with death in Hera’s temple (1. 31). Solon, who is telling the story to Croesus, interrupts it to remark that ho theos demonstrated by the event that death was better for man than life. It seems to me that ho theos does not refer specifically to Hera, but to the divine power in general, the gods collectively; here as elsewhere Herodotus draws from a particular story a conclusion about the gods and their relation to men. François, so strong an advocate of the collective sense of ho theos, has refused to adopt it here where he could very well have done so. At 2. 133 King Mykerinos of Egypt received a prophecy from Buto, where the goddess Leto had an oracular shrine, that he would die in seven years; he then sent a message of reproach τῷ θεῷ. François refers the noun to Leto. But what is Mykerinos’ reproach? That his father and grandfather, who had committed grave crimes against the gods, nevertheless lived long lives; whereas he, a pious king, had to die soon. That is, Mykerinos’ reproach is directed to the gods, not specifically to Leto, who was their mouthpiece. At 1. 105 I would read
ή θεός with papyri and Longinus. At 6. 82. 1 the second ho theos can hardly refer to anyone but Apollo.

François, like everyone else, interprets to daimonion of the Apology as Socrates’ inhibiting voice, except at 40A, η ειωθυια μου μαντική η του δαιμονίων: here he translates “Mon avertissement coutumier, celui de la Puissance surnaturelle” (p. 287). He argues that elsewhere to daimonion is equivalent to το (του θεού) σημείον, and that in 40A the latter phrase cannot be substituted for the former. The genitive phrase has given trouble to editors, some of whom have bracketed it; François, however, accepts it. But why must the genitive be differently interpreted from the nominative ? Interpreted as to semeion, it may still depend as a genitive upon mantike, “divination through (by means of) the demonic sign.” Notice Herod. 2. 57. 3, των ἱρων η μαντική, “divinationby means of victims,” as Rawlinson translates it. The genitive alone is equivalent to the prepositional phrase seen in την δια των ψηφων μαντικην (Zenob. 5. 75). Therefore η φωνή του δαιμονίων may stand at Theages 128E. Though Socrates’ daimonion manifests itself as a voice, the genitive may be interpreted as a defining genitive. We may also question the argumentof François and others that if it is a sign or voice it cannot also be a kind of spiritual entity. Remember that we say both that conscience is a voice and that we hear the voice of conscience. In saying this I am by no means accepting P. E. More’s interpretation of Socrates’ daimonion as conscience (the inner check); I am merely pointing an analogy. Certainly Socrates’ daimonion was something more alien to its host than is conscience.

Finally, François (p. 140), dealing with an anonymous tragic fragment, translates εις μουνος ανθρώποις θεός, κτλ., by “C’est une seule et unique divinit6 qui a alloue aux hommes, etc.” This seems to indicate an only God rather than the gods collectively. Better, “God (i.e., godkind) is the one and only (power) that has granted to men, etc.”

These objections and disagreements are not intended to depreciate the worth of François’ treatise, which does a great service in demolishing every support for theories that the ancient Greeks had a monotheistic tendency. There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult. Only certain philosophers, by a process of reasoning about the divine nature, arrived at monotheistic conclusions. On the other hand François shows that we need not always force the singular theos into a reference to an individual god.

The book is provided with useful appendixes, a bibliography, and two indexes, one of the several words with which the book is concerned, the other of passages. A general index would have been useful too.

Joseph Fontenrose
Universityof California

Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles: ‘A hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity’

In his Hellenism in Byzantium, Anthony Kaldellis states the following of Michael Psellos: “He expresses contradictory opinions regarding the worth of the Chaldean Oracles and goes on at length about topics that he then suddenly dismisses as nonsense, which has been seen as a possibly ‘hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity.'”

Kaldellis provides two references for this statement. The first is John Duffy’s 1995 paper “Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos”, while the second (from which Kaldellis has taken the words in quotes) is Katerina Ierodiakonou’s 2002 paper “Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon”.

The remainder of this post will consist of excerpts from those works by Duffy and Ierodiakanou.

1. From John Duffy’s “Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos”, which comprises Chapter Five in the volume Byzantine Magic, edited by Henry Maguire (Dumbarton Oaks, 1995, (www.doaks.org/etexts.html).

Let us look more closely at the Chaldaean Oracles and Psellos’ association with them. They are a set of hexameter verses, composed probably in the second century A.D., but purporting to transmit a much older revelation about the universe and the hierarchies of powers that control it. The real author is not known, but there is a tradition that connects them with a father and son, both going by the name of Julian. Within the subject matter of the Oracles them- selves there are, from our perspective, two general tendencies which we may label the philosophical or theological, on the one hand, and the theurgical or magical, on the other. The first of these, the philosophical or theological, reveals a system of powers who rule the cosmos and are interrelated in a hierarchy that shows a marked preference for triadic arrangement. At the top of the hierarchy is a trinity consisting of (1) the Supreme Deity, (2) a Demiurge Intellect, and (3) a female divinity identified as Hecate. There follows a long series of beings who, as they descend in order of importance, come ever closer to the world of matter. At the higher end of the series is a triad of powers called iynges, synocheis, and teletarchs, each of which has a distinct role to play in governing the universe. At the lower end are various angels and demons, including good demons that assist the soul in its attempts to ascend to the Supreme Deity and bad demons which are responsible for evils such as sickness and disease.

The other side of the Chaldaean coin is the world of theurgy and magic, part of which is reflected in the surviving fragments, but it is most fully re- ported by people such as the Neoplatonist Proclus, who was an active practitioner of the hieratic art, and Psellos, who made it his business to find out everything he could about the subject. One of the chief aims of theurgy as an art, and of the rites performed in connection with it, is the purification and elevation of the soul toward union with the Supreme Deity. Since this process begins at the lower mundane level, theurgy is deeply involved in both attracting good demons and placating or repelling bad demons. It is not surprising, then, that Hecate, who already had these associations in much earlier times, is given a central magical as well as a leading theological role in the system. Also brought into the magical setting from the cosmological side and given a trans- formed identity are the iynges. In cosmology they function as thoughts or ideas emanating from the mind of the Supreme Deity, but in theurgy they are physical objects employed in magic.

One kind of iynx (also called a strophalos) is a magic wheel used by a theurgist for ritual purposes. Psellos himself explains that the strophalos known as the Hecatic was a golden ball with characters written all over it; it had a sapphire in the middle, was swung by means of a strap made from a bull’s hide, and was used during invocations.

In another type of ritual, again according to information supplied by Psellos, the theurgist used statues of specific deities in order to establish con- tact with them. The process of making contact involved, among other things, special stones, herbs, animals, and sometimes aromatic substances (aromata), which were placed inside the effigy. Stones and herbs were also used in other rituals to scare away bad demons or to purify the soul. lamblichus tells us that in the art of theurgy certain materials—specific stones, plants, animals, and aromatic substances (aromata)—were regarded as especially suitable for attracting the presence of divinities.

Psellos, both through scattered obiter dicta and through the medium of a number of specific expositions, has left a fairly full record of his own dealings with and attitudes toward the Chaldaean material. Without a doubt he was, of
all Byzantines after the seventh century, the most familiar with this “bible” of
the Neoplatonists, even if his knowledge appears to derive largely from the
(now lost) commentary on the Oracles by Proclus. He has also left us an exegesis of some twenty pages, as well as several short summaries of the main doctrinal features, including one inserted in a theological treatise explicating a passage from Gregory of Nazianzus.

When we come to consider his outlook on the Oracles, it must be admitted that, depending on the context, he expresses two kinds of reaction which appear to be contradictory. One is the expected, typical repudiation of pagan nonsense which, in the normal course of events, need be seen as little more than a device to forestall charges of impiety; in unusual circumstances the same response could be turned into a weapon to use against somebody else. This is precisely what Psellos himself does in the course of a church-sponsored attack on Patriarch Michael Cerularios; in the document he drew up for the purpose,10 he refers to the Chaldaean system as a concoction of myths about oracles and various kinds of spirits and gods. In other words, it is an attack not just on the magical elements but on the theological content as well. That attitude, as suggested above, could be anticipated.

Less expected, and all the more noteworthy, therefore, is evidence from several quarters of a genuine interest in and an openness on his part to the content of the collection. In one instance he speaks of the “theology and philosophy” of the system.” In another he reveals what we must take as one of the reasons for his positive disposition, namely,that the Oracles were embraced by a number of the philosophers whom he most respects. He comments that the majority of the doctrines were accepted by Plato and Aristotle; furthermore, Plotinus, Porphyry, lamblichus, and Proclus subscribed to all of them, taking them without argument to be divine revelations.’ Not only were the ancients open to them, but he himself finds some of their ideas parallel to and in agreement with Christian doctrines.’ Further on in the same piece of exegesis, he concludes his comments on one of the passages with the observation “it is correct and full of Christian teaching.” We can cap this in a sense by combin- ing evidence from two autobiographical statements in two different works. In a long section of the Chronographia [Book VI, chaps. 36-43], Psellos provides a detailed account of his intellectual and philosophical progress on a road that led him up, through several distinct and well-marked stages, to the “first” philosophy. His journey began with the study of logic and of certain commentators who then showed him the way to Aristotle and Plato. At the next level he concentrated on the major Neoplatonists: Plotinus, Porphyry, lamblichus, and Proclus. This was followed by the mathematical quadrivium,“which” to use his own words, “occupy a position midway between the science of corporeal nature… and the essences themselves, the objects of pure thought.”

That should have brought him to the very summit, but quite out of the blue another stage is mentioned, introduced by the following words: “I had heard it said by the more adept philosophers that there is a wisdom which is beyond all demonstration, apprehensible only by the intellect of a wise man, when prudently inspired. Even here my resolution did not falter. I read some of the occult books and grasped their meaning, as far as my human abilities allowed, of course, for 1myself could never claim that I had an accurate under- standing of these things nor would I believe anyone else who said he had.”

He does not identify further what these occult or mystic books are that contain a wisdom very close to the summit. There can be little doubt, however, that they included (perhaps above all else) the Chaldaean Oracles. The sup- porting evidence comes from a letter to Patriarch John Xiphilinos in which Psellos offers a fighting apologia for his interest in ancient philosophical systems. One of the passages in the letter describes in detail the ascent of the mind to the summit, here symbolized by Mount Sinai, which culminates in final illumination. “These ideas,” he informs Xiphilinos, “I have taken from the Chaldaean Oracles and have subordinated to our Christian scriptures.”
[pp. 84-87]

2. From Katerina Ierodiakonou’s “Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon”, which is Chapter Ten in the volume Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources (Oxford, 2002). (Here are two reviews that might also be of interest: (1) R.J. Hankinson writing for the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, and (2) Denis M. Searby writing for BMCR.)

To begin with Psellos, we notice straightaway that his interest in the Oracles and in Proclus’ commentary is unduly vivid for a pillar of the Byzantine establishement. Intellectual–and even spiritual–curiosity is certainly to be detected at the root of his choice, but, to judge from his commentary, which nowhere deviates substantially from Christian orthodoxies, one comes to the conclusion that, if Psellos originally approached the collection in a spirit of unprejudiced enquiry, this must soon have given way to a desire to find in the work confirmation of his own faith. Thus Psellos often twists the meaning of the text to meet the dogmatic requirements of Christianity, as for example, when he equates the invariable female second principle of the Chaldean triad–the dynamis–with the Son (1144A-B = 141.15ff.); at other times he cannot withhold his joy at the discovery of points of undeniable agreement between the two creeds, as is clear from enthusiastic interjections of the type: ‘Ημετερον και ἀληθὲς τὸ δόγμα! (1145A = 142.21). However, a closer–and less charitable–examination of the evidence might reveal a hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity on the part of the commentator out of fear. In one instance he describes in great detail–and with obvious relish–a magical instrument, the strofalos of Hecate, only to end with the following pietist remark: ‘all this is nonsense’ (1132C = 133.4-6). Not περιεργασία but φιλομάθεια is his guiding principle as he approaches the Chaldean revelation.

When it comes to magical practices Psellos is wholly engrossed by his material and is eager to turn the slightest hint into a theory with multilple adaptations. Whether in this task he was guided by Proclus we cannot know. What is certain, however, is that the sheer amount of space that he devotes to the magical aspect of the Oracles betrays a considerable bias in this direction.
[p. 246]
Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)

  • Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis’ Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson’s Scholars of Byzantium
  • Part Three: Athony Kaldellis’ The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles (this is the post you are reading right now)

"Just because a medieval philosopher publicly presents himself as a Christian does not automatically mean that he was one." (duh)

First of all, this post, finally, contains the “money quote” found in the overall title of this series: “Forsaking Christ to follow Plato“. For anyone who has been wondering. Also, here are links to the first two posts: Part One, Part Two.

This third installment in the “Forsaking Christ to follow Plato” series is definitely on the rangy side. But it’s not my fault, honest. Blame Anthony Kaldellis (and/or Leo Strauss). Kaldellis insists on embedding his own very problematic views on late antique Platonism deeply inside of his overall analysis of Michael Psellos, whom he correctly identifies as a Platonist whose Platonism is incompatible with Christianity. Kaldellis wants to put as much distance as possible between Psellos, as a genuine Platonist, and the horse-shit dressed-up like Platonism that “mystical” Christians have been trying to pass off as the real thing ever since pseudo-Dionysos. The problem, at least according to my reading, is that Kaldellis fails to recognize that a clear bright line can, indeed must, be drawn between the Christian pseudo-platonists, a la pseudo-Dionysos, and the genuine late-antique Pagan Platonists, a la Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, Simplicius, usw.

Now, before going any further, here is another thumbnail biography of Psellos, this one from Anthony Kaldellis’ Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition:

“Konstantinos Psellos was born in 1018 in Constantinople to a middle-class family, at a time when the empire was at the peak of its power [during the reign of Emperor Basel II, who ruled from 976-1025]. He acquired a superb education and began to serve as a secretary for high officials, eventually acquiring a post at the court. His rhetorical skill and personal charm brought him to the attention of Konstantinos IX Monomarchos (1042-1055), who employed him as an official spokesman (as would all emperors thereafter). At the same time, he was privately teaching philosophy, science, and rhetoric, while his friend Ionnes Xiphilinos taught law. Monomachos was soon persuaded to reform education in the capital, founding two new departments, one of law under Xiphilinos and one of philosophy under Psellos, who took the title “Consul of the Philosophers” [the title later passed on to John Italos].

By the early 1050s Psellos’ circle was losing power at the court. His friends were fleeing the capital, some of them becoming monks. He himself was accused of harboring non-Christian beliefs and was required to produce a confession of orthodoxy. With the ascendancy of the ambitious patriarch Keroularios, Psellos decided to leave and become a monk in Bythnia (under the name Michael). But Monomachos soon died and Psellos hated the monastic life, so this retreat lasted less than a year. In 1056 he was back in Constantinople, teaching, writing, and still playing politics. He was soon allied with the Doukas family, which came to the throne in 1059. Psellos advised the emperor Konstantinos X and tutored his son, who later reigned as Michael VII (1071-1078). But first Psellos has to weather the years of Romanos IV Diogenes (1067-1071), who tried to reverse years of military decline, and finally suffered a disastrous defeat at Manzikert (1071). Psellos was among those who supported Romanos’ vicious blinding [see this lovely wikipedia article on “Political mutilation in Byzantine culture” for background], but the regime of his protégé Michael VII proved disastrous, bringing Byzantium to the verge of total defeat. Even Psellos lost favor at court during the 1070s, and must have died at some point during that decade. While brilliant as an orator, historian, scholar, and teacher, Psellos’ political activity has been characterized as unscrupulous and he has been personally accused of contributing to the decline of Byzantium during the eleventh century.”
[Hellenism in Byzantium, Anthony Kaldellis pp. 192-193]

In a different work, and the one which will be our main focus in this post, Kaldellis provides the following account of how Psellos came into conflict with Christianity because of his Platonic philosophizing. (This is from Kaldellis’, The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia):

“Contrary to scholarly consensus, I argue that Psellos was a serious philosopher rather than a mere polymath or intellectual dilettante, and that he used his considerable rhetorical skills to disguise the revolutionary nature of his political thought, which was consciously anti-Christian and deeply influenced in some respects by the political philosophy of Plato. This book is therefore, a contribution to the history of Platonism. But which Platonism, and which Plato? We must begin with a digression.

The currently dominant view of Plato in the English-speaking world has been created largely by academic historians of ancient philosophy, who are not themselves philosophers. These scholars, including A.E. Taylor, W.K.C. Guthrie, Gregory Vlastos, and many others, interpret philosophical texts by employing modern tools of analysis in order to determine that validity of their arguments. Thus the dialogues are combed for discussions on particular topics which are then extracted from their dramatic and literary context and transformed into formal arguments. These are always taken at face value, subjected to rigorous logical analysis, and, more often than not, found to be false or invalid. According to Terrence Irwin, “much of what [Plato] says is false, and much more is confused, vague, inconclusive, and badly defended.” While the approach that Irwin represents has taught us something about the logical structure of Plato’s arguments, it has seriously misrepresented the great philosopher’s thought.”
[pp. 1-2]

And this point Kaldellis is still just getting warmed up with his “digression”. A couple pages later he manages to come back around to what is, at least as far as I am concerned, the real crux of the biscuit:

[T]here is room for substantial disagreement about the broad nature of Plato’s philosophy. Although this statement is not controversial in itself, its implications constitute a serious challenge to the fundamental presuppositions of most Platonic scholarship. Avid Platonists can perhaps disbelieve that the life of philosophy involves the rejection of the senses, that the soul is immortal, or that metaphysics and ontology take precedence over ethics and politics, and yet still be closer to their master’s teachings than are those who accept such positions.

Psellos explicitly identified himself as a Platonist. It is clear from many of his writings that he had studied Plato carefully and had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the dialogues … Instances where he praises [Plato] can be adduced at will, but a single event reveals the intensity of Psellos’ allegiance. In 1054 he was accused by his erstwhile friend, the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos, of forsaking Christ to follow Plato. Plato had no illusions about the seriousness of the charge: ‘you have separated me from Christ and enrolled me among the followers of Plato.’ Psellos realized that, according to Xiphilinos, devotion to Plato was equivalent to a renunciation of Christian Orthodoxy …. Of course, Psellos … claim[ed] that Plato’s teaching was ultimately compatible with the Christian faith, a claim that is nevertheless hardly supported by the meager evidence presented in his letter [to Xiphilinos].”
[pp. 4-5]

Kaldellis is simultaneously putting forward two different (but not unrelated) arguments concerning Psellos’ Platonism, or, to be more precise (in terms of what Kaldellis himself claims), concerning Platonism itself: (1) On the one hand Platonism, according to Kaldellis, is inherently incompatible with Christianity. (2) On the other hand, Platonism, at least properly understood, as it was (again, according to Kaldellis) by Psellos, is fundamentally a political philosophy.

Two very important subsidiary arguments are involved in Kaldellis’ position: (3) the first being that genuine Platonism is a very different thing from the mystical speculations (as Kaldellis sees them) of the late antique Platonists from Plotinus to Simplicius (so-called “Neoplatonism”, a term that Kaldellis crudely misuses in the most blindingly uncritical and anachronistic fashion), and (4) that “Christianity” can be viewed, like Platonism, as fundamentally a political philosophy (which at least in the context of an unabashedly theocratic Christian state like Byzantium is perfectly reasonable).

At the risk of repetitiveness, let me present these assumptions again more schematically, along with one more assertion that Kaldellis snuck in along the way:

  1. Platonism is incompatible with Christianity.
  2. Platonism is a political philosophy.
  3. Late antique Neoplatonism is a mystical philosophy fundamentally different from the genuine philosophy of Plato.
  4. Christianity is a political philosophy.
  5. The following three ideas are extraneous to Platonism itself, although they are misrepresented as essentially Platonic by “most” modern Platonic scholarship: (i) the rejection of the senses (ii) the immortality of the soul (iii) the precedence of metaphysics and ontology over ethics and politics.

One thing that becomes clear when these are spelled out like this is that 1, 2, and 4 are closely related to one another, while 3 and 5 are essentially independent of the other three, and are even arguably extraneous.

If we take 1 and 2 above as the core of Kaldellis’ main argument, then of the other three points, only number 4 is intrinsic to this main argument, which revolves around making as sharp a division as possible between Platonism and Christianity as mutually exclusive world-views. The reason why position 4 is important to the main argument is that if Christianity and Platonism are both seen as primarily political/ethical in nature then the counterposition of the two is made that much neater and cleaner. To put it very crudely, Kaldellis wishes to compare apples with apples, that is, he is saying that both Christianity and Platonism are apples, with Christianity being a rotten apple not fit to eat, and Platonism being a nice, fresh, ripe apple. But if Platonism is primarily political/ethical, while Christianity is not, then we are left with apples and oranges.

However, the nature of late antique Platonism (that of Plotinus and so forth), and its relationship to Christianity, especially those Christianizing appropriations of Platonism emanating from the “teachings” of pseudo-Dionysos, is a separate, or at least a separable, issue.

That is to say, first of all, one set of positions (1, 2 and 4) comprise a single, coherent argument: Platonism and Christianity are mutually incompatible political philosophies. Secondly, the other two assumptions (3 and 5) comprise an independent argument about the nature of Platonism vis-a-vis so-called Neoplatonism: Platonism is a truly Humanist philosophy of life-as it-is-actually-lived, while Neoplatonism is a bunch of theistical/metaphysical mumbo-jumbo which tends to steer one away from a life of action and engagement with one’s fellow human beings and with “the world”. The interested reader can look here and here for more of my thoughts on where Kaldellis goes wrong in his analysis of late antique Platonism.

It is certainly possible that Kaldellis’ treatment of late antique Platonism has not been properly understood by me, and that there are important parts of his overall argument that I fail to grasp. However, it does appear to me, as of now, that Kaldellis is perpetuating a central tenet of Christian apologetics, namely the Eusebian “strategy of breaking the ‘golden chain’ and the ‘sacred genealogy’ of Plato’s disciples,” as Niketas Siniossoglou puts it in his monograph on the subject of the Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy. Indeed, Siniossolgou’s description of this apologetic strategy sounds almost as if he were talking about Kaldellis: “This [strategy] consisted in presenting the philosophical theology of Hellenes in late antiquity as alienated from Plato’s philosophy. Eusebius argued at length that with few exceptions Plato’s disciples distorted the philosophy of their master and introduced sophisms and innovations.” For more on Siniossoglou see this previous post concerning his book Plato and Theodoret.

Kaldellis’ analysis of Psellos demonstrates that it is possible to make a strong case for Psellos as an anti-Christian Hellene, that is, a Pagan, even if one does not approach Psellos as part of a ‘sacred geneology’ comprising a (more or less) continuous spiritual movement of Platonic Paganism, the so-called ‘golden chain’, that connects Psellos not only to Plotinus and Porphyry and Iamblichus and Proclus, but also to Cicero and Vergil and Ficino and Agrippa.

Best of all, and to end this post on a high note, Kaldellis also provides us with a wonderfully withering deconstruction of the theory of Psellos-as-sincere-Christian, as seen in the following long excerpt from The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia:

Although there are a few exceptions, modern historians interested in Psellos’ philosophical and religious beliefs tend to draw their conclusions on the basis of selected passages or brief quotations. His works are ransacked for allegedly representative declarations on topics that scholars consider important. These are then stitched together and presented as ‘Psellos’ world-view’. This cut-and-paste approach rarely takes the original context of the quotations into consideration, for it assumes that since Psellos wrote the words, he must have believed them to be true. Like the declarations of a religious creed, or that arguments of a modern scholarly monograph, his various statements are taken at face value, though exceptions are occasionally made for the obvious exaggerations of his rhetorical compositions, and his sarcastic treatment of contemporary individuals. But in general, the individual nature of each text and the unique context of any statements it may contain are completely disregarded. This is exemplified and reinforced by the reprehensible, yet pervasive practice of citing passages by the page number of the most recent edition, even if it is a massive compilation containing dozens or even hundreds of separate texts. Readers are apparently not supposed to care what kind of work is being cited or what the context of a particular passage is.

An example of the inevitable results of such scholarly exegesis can be found in the prestigious and widely used Pauly-Wissowa … Realencyclopädie. The author of the long article on Michael Psellos, E. Kriaras, does not hesitate to ascribe the most glaring contradictions to the Byzantine thinker, for example concerning the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy, or Christianity and Greek philosophy. We learn in the space of a few pages that Psellos believed that Greek philosophy had value independently of Christianity and that it was valuable only insofar as it prepared the ground for Chrisitanity; that rhetoric was philosophy’s equal and that he despised it because it did not seek the truth. Kriaras does not attempt to explain or resolve these blatant contradictions, which are produced by juxtaposing quotations taken from different works. We are not told whom Psellos is addressing in each case, nor under what circumstances each work was composed. Consequently, Psellos emerges as a man utterly confused about the most basic principles of those disciplines to which he had devoted his life.

An article in modern Greek, entitled ‘The Theological Thoughts of Michael Psellos’, illustrates the arbitrariness of prevailing hermeneutical methods. The author, D. Koutsogiannopoulos, promises to resolve some of the apparent contradictions in Psellos’ thought. Yet in order to do so, he simply postulates that Psellos was fundamentally a Christian, and even claims that ‘Psellos, of course, could not follow every aspect of Proklos’ dialectical derivations; this was due to the unsurpassable obstacle posed by the Christian source of his own philosophical thought.’ The author, of course, would hardly countenance the suggestion that the same might be true of a modern Christian scholar of Neoplatonism, including, perhaps, himself. However that may be, he believes that one can derive Psellos’ personal theological beliefs from a single work ‘alone,’ the De Omnifaria Doctrina. This work is a series of conceptual definitions and discussions on religious, philosophical, and scientific topics, which range from the nature of God to the reason why sea water is salty. This work does suggest that Psellos was a believing Christian, albeit an intellectually sophisticated one. But the crucial fact that it was composed for the benefit of Psellos’ imperial protege, Michael Doukas, who was emperor from 1071 to 1078, is never mentioned in the article.

The possibility is never considered that a direct exposition of doctrinal principles before a member of the Empire’s ruling family may not necessarily express its authors genuine views. But it takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that even if Psellos were not a Christian, he would stil have to pretend that he was. His very circumstances would have compelled him to conceal or disguise his true beliefs. After all, he had a highly prestigious career, and was at varioius times director of the schools of higher education in the Capital, tutor of the heir to the throne, and intimate advisor to several Emperors. We cannot expect a man of such public prominence, if he had a shred of prudence in him, to reveal his lack of faith openly before his rather intolerant contemporaries. And he would certainly have declared himself an Orthodox Christian, especially when the sincerity of his faith was challenged. ‘One will be able to do justice to the question of a Byzantine author of the eleventh century, only if one takes into account that he could never overstep the limits imposed by Orthodoxy without seriously endangering himself.’ [Here Kaldellis is quoting from Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner by the noted Austrian Byzantinist Herbert Hunger.] In other words, just because a medieval philosopher publicly presents himself as a Christian does not automatically mean that he was one. In an age of religious persecution and enforced orthodoxy, dissimulation was often a necessary strategy for survival. The desire to wield influence at court, not to mention the fear of punishment or exile, can explain why Psellos’ treatment of sensitive religious matters was occasionally conventional (which the De Omnifaria Doctrina really is not). At hte very least, he had to respect the opinions of his masters, but, as has rightly been pointed out, ‘to respect opinions is something entirely different from accepting them as true.’ [Here Kaldellis is quoting from Leo Straus’ What is Politica Philosophy? and Other Studies.]

Thus we cannot simply assume that the De Omnifaria Doctrina reveal Psellos’ true beliefs. The need for such caution is confirmed by the existence of a curious discrepency between a crucial statement in that text and a comment on the same topic in the Chronographia. In the final section of the De Omnifaria Doctrina (201), Psellos claims that its teachings represent a combination of Christian doctrine and ‘those salty waters, I mean Hellenic thought.’ But in the Chronographia, near the conclusion of its central autobiographical passage (6.42.16), Psellos explicitly compares the texts of ancient rhetoric and philosophy to νᾶμα, which ordinarily refers to the clear running water of a spring. He there claims that his revival of genuine philosophy was based entirely on the teachings of non-Christian antiquity. [Actually, and I really cannot resist interjecting at this point, Psellos explicitly tells us that he relies very heavily on the teachings of non-Christian philosophers of late antiquity, in other words, precisely those other-worldly “neo-” Platonists!] The apparent disagreement between these two passages is significant, regardless of the fact that they are both couched in metaphorical language. We must, in this connection, be prepared to interpret images as well as words, and on this crucial issue the image of the De Omnifaria Doctrina and the Chronographia are fundamentally at odds with each other.

What if for every statement that seems to establish the sincerity of Psellos’ Christian faith, we could find another that seems to undermine it? For instance, in his apologetic Letter to Xiphilinos (lines 11-19), Psellos says that although he had read many non-Christian books, he had found them all to be corrupt and inferior to Scripture, which alone is entirely pure and reliable. Yet, in one of his letters, he instructed his students not to believe anything written by Moses and not to dismiss every aspect of Hellenic, i.e., pagan, theology. This is an astonishing statement for a thinker of his age (it would be centuries before similar ideas were pursued seriously in the West). We are thus faced with a conventional affirmation of the perfection of Scripture, and a revolutionary attempt to establish a relative neutrality between it and Hellenic theology, which inevitably calls for the creation of an independent, i.e., non-Scriptural, method of adjudicating theological truth. Perhaps we now have at least some tentative grounds on which to question the sincerity of Psellos’ faith, for ‘when an author living in an age when people are persecuted for heterodoxy expresses contradictory sentiments regarding religion, the buden of proof … lies with those who would uphold the author’s piety.’
[pp. 13-16]

[The closing quote is from D.L. Schaefer, The Political Philosophy of Montaigne, p. 42, n.5, summarizing an argument by A. Armaingaud.]

Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
  • Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis’ Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson’s Scholars of Byzantium
  • Part Three: Athony Kaldellis’ The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia (this is the post you are reading right now)
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles

"The Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy and the Hellenic intellectual resistance"

“The people are driven into disbelief in the existence of the Gods
due to their lack of knowledge.”

[Proclus, in his Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades, 264.5-6, as paraphrased by Niketas Siniossoglou]

Some see Platonism as a kind of proto-Christianity that helped to pave the way for a smooth and painless, even “tidy”, transition from ancient traditional polytheistic Paganism to the new ideology of monotheistic Christianity. According to this school of thought, Platonism in particular, and Greek philosophy generally, served as midwife at the birth of Christianity from the womb of Hellenism, thus making Christianity the legitimate heir of Greco-Roman culture.

Two simple historical facts should give pause to all those who are tempted to see things in this way. First of all, this “theory” is in fact taken bodily, in toto, from the religious writings of Eusebius and other early church fathers, which is a fine source so long as one is engaged in the work of propagating the Christian faith, but not otherwise. Second of all, those who are portrayed as the servile handmaidens of the Church turn out to have been its most stubborn, and arguably its most effective, opponents.

But please, don’t take my word for it.

The view that Hellenic philosophy and paideia were maintained within the religious and cultural framework of Judeo-Christianity is widely held. Important terms and concepts of Platonic philosophy are often said to have been assimilated into the emerging Christian religion in order to meet the needs and aims of late antique apologists. Yet from the viewpoint of late antique intellectual history, this perspective has a fundamental problem: essentially relying on the argumentation of Christian apologists, it fails to perceive and recover the unresolved hermeneutical conflict between ‘pagan’ Platonists and Christian apologists with respect to the meaning of Plato’s lexis. As a result, the philosophical, rhetorical and political dimensions of this conflict remain unexplored. Further, the significant consequences entailed by its outcome for the conceptual history of Platonic philosophy are obfuscated.

The above is taken from the opening paragraph of Niketas Siniossoglou’s 2008 monograph Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance (Cambridge University Press). I have only just started reading the book myself, but fortunately Joshua G. Lollar (an obviously quite gifted graduate student at Notre Dame, working on his PhD in the History of Christianity) has written a detailed and insightful review of the book, published in the Journal of the International Plato Society and available online here.

Here is one excerpt from Lollar’s review, giving an overview of the entire book:

1. In Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance, Niketas Siniossoglou sets out to establish the contours of the late-antique conflict between Christians and Hellenes over the proper interpretation of Plato’s philosophy. In particular, Siniossoglou seeks to define the distinction between what he calls the “philosophical mode of interpretation,” characteristic of the Neoplatonic schools, and the “rhetorical mode” of the Christian apologists who sought to appropriate Plato in support of Christian doctrine over-against pagan religion and philosophy. He focuses specifically on the Graecarum Affectionem Curatio of Theodoret of Cyrrhus, a work of Christian apologetic that has been positively evaluated by modern scholarship as an articulate response to pagan philosophy. In his reading of Theodoret, Siniossoglou seeks to uncover the dynamics of his appropriation and transformation of Platonic terminology and concepts to get at just how he, and by extension, other Christian apologists, went about rewriting Plato as a supporter of the Judaeo-Christian worldview. To do this, the author attempts to hear Theodoret from the perspective of the intended audience of the Curatio, the Hellenic intellectual elite, so as to be attentive to the philosophical and cultural significance of the moves Theodoret makes with respect to the texts of Plato. In brief, Theodoret, from this point of view, seeks to fragment the Platonic philosophical corpus so as to render it incoherent as a whole and open it to his own selective retrieval of elements that accord with established Christian dogma. It is these retrieved and appropriated elements that Theodoret (echoing earlier Christian apologists) claims to be the authentic Platonic tradition, which derive from the Hebraic tradition, whereas the Neoplatonic interpretation of Plato, Theodoret claims, is a corruption of this original intention of Plato.

And here is another excerpt discussing oracles, theurgy and ritual sacrifice (the paragraph numbers are given to aid the interested reader who wishes to refer to the original in its entirety, which I highly recommend) :

12. With respect to oracles, Neoplatonic theurgy, and ritual sacrifice, the author demonstrates Theodoret’s basic strategy of lifting positions out of the internal dialectic of Neoplatonic debates on the issue (particularly between Porphyry and Iamblichus) in support of his own interpretation of pagan ritual—that it seeks to manipulate daemonic powers for human benefit—in order, 1.) to supplant pagan oracles with Judaeo-Christian prophecy, and 2.) to separate Plato from the later tradition which, he argues, has departed from him. However, the author shows that Theodoret, either deliberately, or as a result of his sources, does not acknowledge the subtleties of Plato’s and Porphyry’s actual position on sacrifices (that they have their place in the state); neither does he acknowledge the thrust of Iamblichus’ teaching about theurgy in that he gives a superstitious view of theurgy that Iamblichus himself was at pains to criticize.

13. The author notes a similar tendentiousness with respect to Theodoret’s criticism of pagan myths and “idolatry,” arguing that Theodoret “overgeneralize[s]” the notion of idolatry with respect to paganism and then bluntly applies it to all pagan religion, ignoring the philosophical and theological accounts by the best pagan philosophers of the time. The intention here was to reduce Neoplatonism to a vulgar polytheism, which, the author argues, the Neoplatonist philosophers themselves rejected with a sophisticated notion of the place and interpretation of myth and image in the philosophic life. In fact, all of the noted criticisms of pagan cultic practice and polytheism could be applied just as readily to Christian practice.

And here is one final excerpt, almost at the end of the review, giving a more overall assessment:

25. Because the question of the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity has been vexed throughout the history of its asking by generalizations and clever one-liners— “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” “Plato is Moses in Attic Greek,” etc.—it is often difficult to find one’s way into a clear and fruitful engagement with it. Nikitas Siniossoglou provides just such a fruitful engagement in Plato and Theodoret. The author’s project of giving a reading of Theodoret’s Curatio from the perspective of its intended audience, the Hellenic intellectual elite, is, in the opinion of this reviewer, a success and a very helpful contribution to our understanding of the specifics of the engagement between Christian apologists and Platonism. It is itself a work of resistance against what the author takes to be a modern scholarly reiteration of the ancient attempt to appropriate Hellenic culture and philosophy to Christianity. [1] The author shows a firm grasp of the late-Antique Platonic tradition and is able to demonstrate convincingly the ways in which this tradition responds to Christian attempts to appropriate its master. His hermeneutical orientation in the introduction to the book is not overbearing (as such chapters often are), and provides a precise statement as to the nature of the author’s own interpretive strategy.

Now I wish to return to Siniossoglou’s book itself. Below is a fairly longish (7 pages!) excerpt. Even more can be found at the publishers website here. (The same author also has a forthcoming book in the works on George Gemistos Plethon: Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon.)

The Christian apologists took key words of Platonic vocabulary and infused them with new significations. Yet by what strategies did they rewrite Plato? In what ways does their application of Platonic conceptual vocabulary diverge from that of their contemporary Hellenes? I chose Theodoret’s Graecarum Affectionum Curatio, a work now considered to be ‘one of the best Christian replies to pagan philosophy’ and praised as the last and probably the most complete of the numerous apologies which Hellenic antiquity has produced, as the most appropriate axis of reference in order to contextualize and concretize these questions. The present inquiry is not interested in a descriptive reconstruction of Theodoret’s argumentation, but rather in critically examining the conceptual shifts introduced into Platonic texts, the mechanisms of semantic change employed, and the significations ascribed in Curatio. Moreover, there is a further interest in viewing the apologetical argumentation from the perspective of its intended recipient: the educated elite of the Hellenes who strongly resisted any attempt at philosophically legitimating the Christian negotiation of Plato. This method will enable us to unveil what Theodoret is actually doing with his appropriation and application of central concepts of Platonism, that is, to recover the illocutionary force of his treatise: his actual intentions in rewriting Plato after the apologetical hermeneutical pattern.

The deeper motivation of Christian apologists extends beyond the professed aim of converting the Hellenes. This book argues that the hermeneutical conflict over Plato is the surface manifestation of a fierce intellectual battle for the conceptualization of Hellenic identity by the means of assigning specific connotations and associations to Platonic conceptual vocabulary. In the late antique political and ideological power game the interpretation of Plato becomes a two-sided weapon. In the case of Theodoret and the apologists on whom he relies, it is an instrument of attack aimed at corroborating the triumph of Christian claims of universality and exclusivity, while undermining the Hellenic identity of pagan intellectuals and eroding its philosophical substratum. By contrast, in the case of the Hellenes whom Theodoret was addressing, the interpretation of Plato is an instrument of resistance and survival: it provides them with the means to systematize and rigidify their cultural and philosophical heritage in an age of expanding intellectual imperialism, thus immunizing their world-view against the apologetical communication strategies. I shall argue that the apologetical utilization of Plato complied with the tactics and strategies set out by a rhetorical agenda and is at odds with the Neoplatonic model of interpretation as well as with the hermeneutics developed by the apologists themselves when reading the sacred Judaeo-Christian texts. Hence, the Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations stems from a clash between a rhetorical and a philosophical or doctrinal reading of Plato that had definite consequences for the conceptualization and reaffirmation of Hellenic identity in late antiquity.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ Curatio epitomizes this Hellenic–Christian trial of strength regarding the compatibility of Platonism with Christianity. Theodoret argues in favour of an assimilation of Plato’s philosophy inside Christianity by revisiting crucial notions, passages and myths in Plato’s corpus. The terms paideia, philosophia, logos, nomos, askesis, phugē, politeia, the ‘study of death’ (μελέτη θανάτου) of the Phaedo, the ‘assimilation to god’ (ὁμοίωσις θεῷ) of the Theaetetus, the ‘likely tale’ of the Timaeus and the myth of Er in the Republic are central to his argument. Theodoret’s lengthy work offers a clear example of how the rhetorical and exegetical tactics of the Antiochean School were employed against Neoplatonic hermeneutics in order to negate the possibility of a coherent Platonist philosophical theology by breaking its unity and claiming its most vital elements. Further, it illustrates the way in which the apologists opposed the Julianic vision of a Neoplatonic universal religion by postulating a discontinuity or rather chasm between Plato and his successors.

Theodoret refined and elaborated on Eusebius’ strategy of breaking the ‘golden chain’ and the ‘sacred genealogy’ of Plato’s disciples. This consisted in presenting the philosophical theology of Hellenes in late antiquity as alienated from Plato’s philosophy. Eusebius argued at length that with few exceptions Plato’s disciples distorted the philosophy of their master and introduced sophisms and innovations. In the same vein, Theodoret describes his contemporary (οἱ νῦν) pagan exegetes as attempting to misinterpret (παϱεϱμηνεύειν) rather than interpret Plato. Like Aeneas of Gaza, the most remarkable fifth-century exponent of this anti-Hellenic strategy, Theodoret divides the Platonic tradition into two parts: the first includes Plotinus, Amelius and Numenius, namely Platonists who are supposedly following Plato’s initial adaptation of Hebrew lore; the second phase begins with Porphyry and its hallmark is the ‘pagan’ sophisticated and allegorical interpretation of Plato. At the rhetorical level this move had two complementary aims: to deprive the Hellenic intellectual resistance of its primary philosophical resources, while conveniently appropriating, transforming and subsuming them to Judaeo-Christianity. The apologetical approach to Plato is presented as the return to Plato’s original source, Judaism. Like Clement, Eusebius and Theodoret proudly pose as the true heirs and interpreters of the arcane wisdom that inspired Plato.

How did the Hellenes respond to the apologetical claims over Plato? Already Celsus had argued that Plato’s philosophy was fundamentally alien to and incompatible with the Judaeo-Christian religion and talked of the imminent need to expose the philosophical principles that the Christians systematically misunderstood owing to ignorance. In particular, they were misunderstanding Plato’s lexis and twisting his doctrines. For his part, Julian declared that the aim of the Christian apologists was to avoid the intellectual confrontation with Hellenism by selectively usurping and misappropriating the intellectual weapons and philosophical tradition of their opponents.

Celsus and Julian made extensive use of both philosophical and rhetorical tools when openly confronting and challenging the apologists. Yet in the fifth and sixth centuries direct and explicit criticism of Judaeo-Christianity gave its place to a covert and subterranean form of opposition that used the exegesis of Plato’s philosophy as its means of articulation. Faced with the expansion of a Christian hegemony of discourse that enjoyed the support of the new political status quo, in late antiquity Hellenes such as Proclus, Damascius, Simplicius and Olympiodorus abandoned the battle at the rhetorical front. Instead of openly debating with the Christians, they fell back on the philosophical systematization and substantiation of the Hellenic world-view by means of philosophical exegesis. The Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations over Plato reflects this shift. While apologists such as Eusebius and Theodoret intensified their appropriation of Platonic terms and concepts, the Neoplatonists recognized in Plato ‘the leader of salvation’ and viewed the mission of the commentator-philosopher as holy at an age of ‘depraved polities’ – to use Simplicius’ and Olympiodorus’ expression – when temples were destroyed and religious institutions attacked.

Working surreptitiously on the Platonic corpus, Theodoret’s contemporary Neoplatonists produced a multicentred and multivalent hermeneutical model that was directly opposed to the Christian rewritings of Plato. By setting as their aim to systematize, save from oblivion and pass on to future generations their philosophy, they made sufficiently clear that they were anything but persuaded by the apologetical utilization of Plato and postulated a less outspoken, yet persistent intellectual resistance to the apologetical methods of handling and appropriating philosophical texts. Treated intertextually, their philosophical commentaries function as the response and counterpart to the apologetical rhetoric and are the main expression of what I call the Hellenic intellectual resistance of late antiquity.

A methodological note by F. Schleiermacher is particularly relevant here: authors belonging to the same period or school of thought and sharing common characteristics and intentions may be considered as a single agent. For example, in Curatio Theodoret addresses ‘the Hellenes’ as a single opponent. Hence, although we do not have a Hellenic treatise directly intended as a reply to Theodoret’s approach to Plato, we are, nonetheless, able to reconstruct his controversy with the Hellenes and recover the conflict between the Hellenic and the apologetical hermeneutical patterns; to do so requires a comparative discourse analysis that exemplifies how specific Platonic texts are read and ‘applied’ by opposed collective agents within the same historical situation. This allows us to treat the apologetical expropriation and recontextualization of key terms and passages from the Republic, the Phaedo or the Laws from a different angle.

From a late antique Hellenic viewpoint the apologetical synthesis of Christian and Platonic elements then emerges per contrapositionem to the Neoplatonic project as a contradiction in terms, sustainable only as long as one concentrates on the level of vocabulary alone and does not advance towards the meaning of the philosophical terms and concepts appropriated by Christian authors. Yet as Porphyry put it, one should proceed beyond the linguistic level of signifiers and ‘look for their significations (σημαινόμενα), so that it is sufficient that the conception remains the same, whatever the names (ὀνόματα) may be that are used’. Proclus employs this exegetical principle when arguing that his contemporary hoi polloi fail to become philosophers (φιλόσοφοι). They are lovers of mere opinions (φιλόδοξοι) who are unable to advance beyond the verbal expression (φωνή) of philosophical vocabulary. Their understanding of the Hellenic language (ἑλλη- νίζειν) is restricted to the level of the common use of names and prevents them from an adequate comprehension of philosophical concepts. This inability to penetrate the deeper layers of Hellenic philosophy affects not only the way that hoi polloi read philosophy, but their actual choices of belief: ‘these days’, Proclus says elsewhere, hoi polloi are driven into disbelief in the existence of gods due to their lack of knowledge (ἀνεπιστημοσύνη). Clement of Alexandria – one of Theodoret’s main sources – had made the same point, but turned things around: it is the Hellenes who stay at the superficial level of names (ὀνόματα), as opposed to the Christians, who advance beyond the eloquence of words into the things themselves (πϱάγματα), namely, the truth. Pagan Platonists and Christian apologists use the interweaving of hermeneutics and ontology according to their aims in a visceral, yet fierce conflict of interpretations that reached its culmination during the fifth century.

The thesis I am arguing is that the antagonistic Neoplatonic and Christian claims of possessing the key to the gates of Platonic lore, together with the mutual accusations of distorting Plato’s lexis, are only surface manifestations of a much wider conflict between the Christian rhetorical mode of negotiating Plato and Neoplatonic philosophical hermeneutics. This conflict reflects the polarization between the Judaeo-Christian and the Hellenic world-views. Before proceeding to a discourse analysis of Theodoret’s Curatio, thus providing evidence for this claim, it is necessary to make explicit what I mean by the Christian rhetorical mode of appropriating Plato. This calls for an introduction to the strategies used by Theodoret in his rewriting of Plato, and further, for a set of necessary hermeneutical and methodological criteria for an intertextual and contextual approach to the late antique Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations.
[pp. 1-7]

>Belief in reincarnation in Europe by country (Map of EVS 2008 data)


Statistics for belief in reincarnation in Europe are from the 2008 European Values Survey. Here are the numbers:

1/3 or more believe in reincarnation
Latvia 41.9% (2.3M)
Lithuania 37.4% (3.4M)
Ukraine 37.1% (46.3M)
Iceland 36.2% (0.3M)
Russian Federation 33.0% (142.0M)
between 1/4 and 1/3
Portugal 31.4% (10.6M)
Estonia 30.7% (1.3M)
Belarus 30.6% (9.9M)
Ireland 30.5% (4.4M)
Northern Cyprus 30.5% (0.3M) [not indicated on map]
Bulgaria 29.8% (7.6M)

Austria 28.8% (8.3M)
Turkey 28.4% (74.8M)
Switzerland 28.0% (7.6M)
Great Britain 27.8% (62.0M)
Moldova 27.5% (3.6M)
Luxembourg 26.1% (0.5M)
betweem 1/5 and 1/4
Finland 24.7% (5.3M)
Hungary 23.2% (10.0M)
Northern Ireland 23.2% (1.7M)
Spain 23.1% (45.6M)
Serbia 22.6% (7.4M)
France 22.6% (62.3M)
Sweden 22.6% (9.3M)
Bosnia-Herzegovina 22.4% (3.8M)
Romania 21.8% (21.5M)
Armenia 21.5% (3.1M)
between 1/6 and 1/5
Malta 19.5% (0.4M) [not indicated on map]
Slovenia 19.4% (2.0M)
Italy 19.2% (60.2M)
Albania 19.1% (3.1M)
Netherlands 18.8% (16.4M)
Germany 18.4% (82.1M)
Denmark 18.4% (5.5M)
Norway 18.4% (4.8M)
Czech Republic 17.6% (10.7M)
Cyprus 17.5% (0.9M)
Belgium 17.5% (10.7M)
Poland 17.4% (38.1M)
Greece 17.4% (11.3M)
Macedonia 17.4% (2.0M)
less than 1/6
Croatia 16.2% (4.4M)
Slovak Republic 13.0% (5.4M)
Georgia 11.3% (4.4M)

Azerbaijan 7.1% (8.7M)

(These show what percentage of people answered “yes” to Question 31 on the 2008 European Values Study: “Do you believe in reincarnation?” Numbers in parentheses are total population for each country. Here is a handy link so that you can go and look up the data yourself. The numbers shown in this post are more complete than what I have previously posted here and here.)

>"A Different World"? (Ronald Hutton’s Recantations, Part Deux)

>1. Introduction
For those just tuning in, this post is part of an ongoing series looking at the concept of “the Old Religion” (“The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise”). Behind that concept is the belief that modern Paganism represents the survival of ancient forms of religion that Christians (and Muslims) have been trying to “extirpate” (that is their word for it) for two millennia (although the Muslims have only been in on the fun for a slightly lesser span of time).

In 1999, English historian Ronald Hutton (who also happens to be a Pagan himself who may or may not be a Pagan himself) published a book titled Triumph of the Moon, in which he claimed to have demonstrated that there was no basis whatsoever for the notion of “the Old Religion”. But then in 2003 he published another book, Witches, Druids and King Arthur, in which he announced to the world that he had changed his mind. In that book, he devotes two chapters (which, somewhat awkwardly, come sandwiched in the middle, making up the fourth and fifth chapters) to attempting to explain his reversal. The post you are reading right now (and several future posts) will focus on the chapter “Paganism in the Missing Centuries”. In a previous post (“The Recantations of Ronald Hutton, Part One”) I have already discussed, briefly, the chapter “The New Old Religion”.

Once we get to the essay in question (“Paganism in the Missing Centuries”), it is painfully clear that Ronald Hutton is like the proverbial general who is “still fighting the last war” (a war, by the way, that was decisively lost). By this time it has been conceded by Hutton that modern Paganism “closely resembles”, has been “certainly influenced” by, and possesses “linear connections” to ancient Paganism. In other words, the question of if ancient Paganism survived into modernity has been resolved in the affirmative, and it is now time to move on to how Paganism survived. But this is something that Ronald Hutton simply cannot bring himself to do in any constructive way.

Having failed in his campaign to prove to the world that modern Paganism is completely lacking in historical connections to ancient Paganism, Hutton turns to petulantly obscuring and misrepresenting these connections, which is all that is left to him since even he can no longer pretend that they simply do not exist. Still, old habits die hard, and so he reverts to framing his discussion, ignoring what he himself has already granted as true, as if it were still an open question whether or not there is anything that, “to any extent”, constitutes “a ‘survival’ of ancient Paganism.”

Anyway, here is Hutton in his own words from somewhere near the beginning of “Paganism in the Missing Centuries”:

The purpose of this chapter is to trace …[the subsequent history of] those particular forms of paganism that appeared in the Roman Empire towards the end of the ancient world, and have been noted as bearing most resemblance to the religions of the modern Pagan revival.

Between the early nineteenth and the mid twentieth centuries there was a significant scholarly tradition of belief that an active and organised paganism had survived in Europe throughout the Christian middle ages. It was conceived as having been essentially a resistance movement of the common people, especially in the countryside, and (as seen) was disproved by more thorough research since the 1960s. The present investigation moves through a different world, that of the scholarly elites. Late pagan monotheism, Neoplatonism, theurgy and Graeco-Egyptian ritual magic were all cultural forms that were conveyed by texts and developed by intellectuals. It remains to be asked now what was made of them during the succeeding thousand years, by people operating within societies restructured by the new monotheistic faiths of Christianity and Islam. In the process, it may be possible to answer the larger question of whether they provided any continuity of traditions during this long period that opposed, challenged or compromised the norms of the dominant religions. Did they, to any extent, represent a ‘survival’ of ancient paganism?
[pp. 137-138]

In this post the focus will be on one specific issue raised in the excerpt above: Hutton’s claim that medieval “scholarly elites” (who studied and practiced Astrology, Alchemy, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, etc) inhabited and constituted “a different world”, religiously speaking, completely separate from “the common people”.

This “different world” paradigm is a direct extension of Hutton’s grotesque mischaracterization of late antique Pagans (or at least those who most stubbornly resisted conversion to Christianity and who are the most closely related to modern Pagans) as a “private and avant-garde” clique that was “very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite, detached from the masses.” Hutton wishes to portray the “golden thread”, as it is often called, of those who kept the ancient Mysteries alive throughout the persecutions of the Middle Ages, as an isolated “elite”, hermetically, if you will, sealed off from any connection with “the masses”, that is, disconnected from from the vast bulk of their fellow human beings. In other words, Hutton wishes to portray this vital connection between modern an ancient Paganism as nothing more than the furtive hobby of well-heeled antiquarians and aficionados, rather than as a living spiritual tradition. This characterization plays a central role in Hutton’s schizophrenic narrative of how Paganism didn’t really survive, even though it actually did.

Is there any basis for this narrative positing an unbridgeable chasm between “elites” and “the masses”? Lets take a closer look.

2. On the arbitrary sociological compartmentalization of ancient Paganism
Patricius Aurelius was a Roman citizen in the North African town of Thagaste during the fourth century AD. According to historian Peter Brown, Patricius “was a poor man, a tenuis municeps, a burgess of slender means,” and his son, Augustine, grew up “in a hard competitive world, among proud and impoverished gentlefolk.” Fortunately, there was a way up and out: “A classical education was one of the only passports to success for such men … His early life will be overshadowed by the sacrifices his father made to give him this vital education.” In fact, even once Augustine’s father had been able to send his son to be educated in the “university town” of Madaura, this education had to be interrupted “for one disastrous year”, during which time Patricius was unable to send Augustine any money, and the young man had to scrape by on his own. But it all paid off. By the age of 31, Augustine was a professor of rhetoric and had gained acceptance, and a growing admiration, in all the right circles. Sixteen centuries later he is known to the world as “Augustine of Hippo”, or simply “Saint Augustine.” (See Brown’s excellent biography Augustine of Hippo, especially pages 7-10, for the basic outlines of Augustine’s early life.)

Augustine lived at a time when Christianity was the official religion of the Roman state, the largest and most powerful political entity on planet earth at the time. In the early centuries of its existence, however, Christianity had lurked tenuously at the margins of Roman society, and Christians who were well educated, or even poorly educated, were extremely rare exceptions. What evidence there is tells us that Christianity in the centuries prior to Constantine only slowly evolved from being completely unknown by those who could read and write, to being silently ignored, to being silently shunned to, finally, being openly acknowledged by way of mockery and ridicule. Over the same period, a small number of Christian intellectuals slowly developed an “apologetic” literature of their own, which consisted largely of variations on the theme of requests to be taken seriously. And to be taken seriously in Roman society required being able to express oneself in the language of rhetoric, philosophy and classical literature.

But those Christian elites who engaged in early apologetics did not speak on behalf of some separate Christianity walled off from the unwashed, ignorant, superstitious masses who made up the vast bulk of the faithful. Although they attempted to express the beliefs and practices of Christianity in a language completely incomprehensible to nearly all of their fellow Christians, nevertheless we do not speak as if there were two completely different Christianities inhabiting two “different worlds.”

And yet it is quite common to find the religiosity of Pagan intellectuals being characterized as not only utterly separate from, but actively opposed to the “traditional” religious beliefs and practices of their fellow Pagans, the majority of whom (even among the rich, the powerful and the educated) either had little interest in philosophy and “high” literature, or were even openly hostile toward them.

The fact is that if one bothers to look at what, for examples, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the so-called “Middle” Platonists, and the mislabled “neo-” Platonists, had to say on religious subjects, one finds that they all, far from attacking traditional Pagan religion, were engaged in something very much like the same kind of “apologetic” enterprise that occupied Irenaeus, Lactantius, and so forth.

Not only did the great Pagan philosophers and writers explicate and defend traditional religion, they also practiced it (just as Christian philosophers both “apologized” for and practiced the same religion as their fellow Christians). For there were not separate temples dedicated to Gods and Goddesses only worshipped by “the elites”. Nor were there separate festivals and holidays, one set for the elites, the other for the commoners. In fact, Pagan cults tended to cut across, and even to obliterate, such social divisions.

Christians have tried to have it both ways. Ancient Pagan intellectuals, they insist, couldn’t possibly, I mean not really, I mean how could they, believe in all that nonsense about Gods and Goddesses and so forth! I mean look at those silly myths! Look at those ridiculous superstitions! Philosophers and other smart Pagans might have gone through the motions, just to get along, but they obviously did not believe any that nonsense. But naturally these same Christians see no difficulty in highly educated and highly intelligent people, such as Augustine, Aquinas, and so forth, believing in all the obscene bullshit that one finds in the Old and New Testaments, not to mention the demented teachings of the Church that surpass even what is found in their “scriptures”! Here we have two interlocking circular arguments. The coupled premises are that Paganism is patently irrational and Christianity is perfectly reasonable, therefore intelligent people can’t really believe in Paganism, whereas they can, indeed should, believe in Christianity.

An early example of this standard Christian trope is to be found in the writings of Augustine himself, who, in Book VIII of his Against the Pagans, posits a threefold division of Pagan theology: (1) the “fabulous” theology of Pagan myths, “which displays the crimes of the Gods”, (2) “the civil, that is, urban theology” of the official cults of a given polis, which “manifests the criminal desires of the Gods”, and (3) “natural theology”, of which Augustine asserts, “it is not with ordinary men, but with philosophers that we must confer concerning the theology which they call natural.”

3. Was late antique Paganism “detached from the masses” and “very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite”?
Here is how Garth Fowden talks about the social milieu of late antique Hermeticism (from his The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind):

“It is time, at long last, to take up Casaubon’s cue, and ask who were the men and women who hid behind the name of Hermes Trismegitus, and how their search for God was articulated in everyday experience. Not, it must be said from the outset, that there can be any easy or even very specific answers, when they have to be sought for the most part between the lines of philosophical texts. Even as an approach to the late pagan mind, our search will have its limitations. Hermetism was only one of a number of non-elite currents of thought which drew on Greek philosophy; and anyway it is easy to over-estimate how non-elite it was …. Even so, my conclusions touch on broader areas of society than did those which emerged from my earlier investigations of the circles of Plotinus and his successors …. [M]y treatment of the movement’s historical milieu represents, I hope, a useful step forward in the wider sociological analysis of late paganism – a subject whose neglect is now slowly being overcome.” [p. xxiv]

And here is Fowden’s description of how the ancient God Thoth gradually transformed into the Egyptian Hermes:

“… [T]o understand the genesis of the Egyptian Hermes is to take a first step into the historical milieu of the Hermetica. Thoth was among the most diverse and popular of all the Egyptian Gods. Like many of his colleagues he was an accumulation, rather than a figure cast whole and unambiguously defined; he was a powerful national God who yet had certain specialties and local associations …. He presided over almost every aspect of the temple cults, law and the civil year, and in particular over the sacred rituals, texts and formulae, and the magic arts that were so closely related …. [H]e came to be regarded as the lord of knowledge, language and all science – as Understanding or Reason personified …. Esoteric wisdom was his special preserve, and he was called ‘the Mysterious’, ‘the Unknown’. His magical powers made him a doctor too …. Perhaps, though, it was to his role as guide of souls and judge of the dead that Thoth most owed his popularity with ordinary people. And he continued to inspire strong popular devotion throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. His was an inseparable presence. And it is easy to see why foreign settlers in Egypt were tempted to try to establish some sort of link with him …. [T]he Greek settlers identified Thoth with their God Hermes. Like Thoth, the classical Greek Hermes was associated with the moon, medicine and the realm of the dead. Furthermore, both had a reputation for inventiveness and trickery, and both functioned as messengers of the Gods, which in Hermes’s case prepared him as well for his characteristic function in the Hellenistic period, as the logos or ‘word’, the interpreter of the divine will to mankind. Hermes Trismegistus, then, was the cosmopolitan, Hellenistic Hermes, Egyptianized through his assimilation to Thoth, and in fact known throughout the Roman world as ‘the Egyptian’ par excellence … a divinity who could deservedly could be place among the dei magni of the pagan pantheon that presided over the Roman world.”
[pp. 22-24]

Toward the end of Fowden’s book he engages in a prolonged comparison of Hermeticism with three other, related, late antique religious currents: Platonism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism (pp. 186-195). It is important to note that Fowden characterizes all three of those movements as “intellectual and elitist,” even though one, Manichaeism, was an extremely successful religious movement that persisted for centuries and spread through much of Asia. The Gnostics, too, managed to attain something like the size and status of a mass movement that, at least for a while, was able to run with the big dogs alongside the major Christian sects. Therefore, at least in the hands of a social scientist who knows what he is talking about, “elite” explicitly does not mean “detached from the masses” in the way that Hutton loutishly insists. As for late antique Hermeticists, they were, according to Fowden, “literate but not (usually) learned …. [and] most late antique Platonists would, one suspects, have regarded the Hermetists as socially and culturally homespun.” [p. 193]

Two of the late antique religious movements discussed above, Hermeticism and Platonism, are separated “by less of a gap than has often been assumed.” [p. 134] That any clear bright line separated the two at all seems unlikely considering the fact that Iamblichus not only placed great emphasis on the Egyptian component of Theurgy, but he “specifically claims to have found the theurgical liberation of the soul from the bonds of fate described in Hermetic books.” [p. 134] Several pages later Fowden concedes that “Scholars have not found it easy to make sense of” the relationship between Platonic Theurgy and the Hermetic movement. [p. 138] A little later on he makes it clear that there are grounds for speaking of “theurgical Hermetica”. [p.141]

Hutton’s conception of an effete “late antique avant-garde” that was “detached from the masses” is clearly derivative of GW Bowersock’s “analysis” of the Emperor Julian. Bowersock had claimed, in his Julian the Apostate (first published in 1978), that his fellow Pagans were actually quite hostile to Julian’s Platonic Paganism, to the extent that Bowersock (who clearly despises Julian and Paganism generally, without possessing even the slightest understanding of either) epitomizes the death of Julian with these words: “The fanatic was gone, and there were few to regret him.” [pp.118-119]

Rowland Smith’s far more detailed and thoughtful treatment of Julian’s spirituality, Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate (1995), paints a quite different picture. Smith points out, among other things, that Julian’s Paganism was not at all limited to Theurgy, and that Julian’s philosophic leanings did not “put him hopelessly at odds with his subjects.” [pp. 47-48] Overall, Smith’s view is that Julian’s Paganism was conventional when it came to matters of piety, cult and tradition, and that the much of Julian’s philosophical interest was motivated by a desire to defend traditional polytheistic Paganism from the predations of “the creed making fishermen”. [See, in particular, Smith’s disussion of Julian’s Against the Galileans.]

4. Was Marsilio Ficino a member of the “elite”?
When Marsilio Ficino was still a boy he fell in love … with philosophy. For a time it was possible to indulge this youthful infatuation, but eventually it was necessary, due to “dire financial straits” (quotes are from Giovanni Corsi’s biography of Marsilio Ficino, written in 1506, seven years after its subject’s death) for more practical considerations to take precedence: it was time for him to learn some useful trade in order to earn a living. Marsilio’s father was a physician, and it was decided that the boy should put away his philosophy books and study medicine, which he reluctantly did.

Fortunately, though, Marsilio’s father was a very successful physician; successful enough, in fact, to be in the employ of the wealthy and powerful Medici family. Even more fortunately, Cosimo de’ Medici not only had a great love of philosophy, but also felt a passionate calling to support and propagate philosophy, and, even better, had the means to act on that noble aspiration. So when Cosimo discovered that his personal physician’s son had both a great aptitude and a burning desire for the study of philosophy, but that the father had felt compelled, because of economic considerations, to have the boy study medicine, the employer instructed his employee “to take especial care over Marsilio’s studies so that he should not go against his natural disposition.” Naturally, Cosimo added that money should be no object, and offered to personally “supply everything most generously.” Thus was set not only the course of one man’s life, but the course of all that has been praiseworthy in the subsequent intellectual and spiritual history of the West.

Was Marsilio Ficino one of the “elite”? Those who must earn a living by selling their own labor power in exchange for money (as opposed to living off inherited wealth, which is the hallmark of true hereditary aristocrats) are members of no social elite anywhere, except perhaps in some non-existent Marxist Workers’ Paradise. And access to education was no sign of “elitism” in Renaissance Florence, where half or more of all children received education, to the extent that not only the entire business class, but most of the artisans and craftsmen in their employ, were literate. In a word, Marsilio Ficino was solidly middle class. But Ficino was far better off than Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who never enjoyed the secure benefits of long-term, stable employment, and who was forced by both economic hardships and ideological persecution to remain on the move throughout his life. Giordano Bruno, whose father was a soldier, faced similar difficulties (and ultimately far worse) as those that beset Agrippa. Then there is the case of Eliphas Levi, born 210 years after the death of Bruno, who lived out his life in grinding poverty, when he wasn’t in prison due to his religious ideas. These are some of the most important representatives of the “elite” of which Hutton speaks. (It is true, though, that some links in the “golden chain” were more fortunate in their choice of parents, such as Pico della Mirandola, who father was a Lord and a Count, and whose mother was the daughter of a Count.)

5. “A Europen-wide system of popular beliefs”
In her study, Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice, 1550-1650, Ruth Martin raises the question of “how the ‘popular’ aspects of witchcraft were influenced by the ‘learned’ during this period (and vice versa).” Her opinion is that “[t]here is clear evidence of a great deal of interpenetration of ‘popular’ and ‘learned’ beliefs throughout this period … but the actual mingling of these two strands, if they ever were entirely separate, seems to have taken place earlier [that is, prior to 1550] ….” [p. 225]

“Until more work is done on Venetian social history as a whole it will be hard to draw … conclusions …. Even so, it seems that witchcraft of one type or another held an interest for people from all levels of society …. Womens’ social standing ranged from the gentildonne who would often consult witches or even try the experiments themselves, through wives of retailers and craftsmen, to washerwomen, arsenal workers (making sails or ropes), the wives of boatmen, prostitutes, to some with no visible means of income at all. Witchcraft had in fact become the main craft of many, hence their titles: la Pirotta, la Caballada, l’Astrologo and la medegha.”
[p. 234]

“There was also a close degree of contact between the different classes of Venetian society. The rich and poor lived side by side and the flow of ideas and beliefs between them must have been considerable. As we have seen, the distinction between the ‘learned’ and the ‘popular’ elements of witchcraft beliefs in Venice was not always easy to define. This distinction has perhaps been overemphasized in the past in any case. Christina Larner’s recent work on Scottish witchcraft, for instance, has revealed a considerable degree of interpenetration between the so-called learned and popular beliefs. In Venice this sharing of beliefs by popular and learned elements of society was even closer.”
[p. 243]

“It is clear that Venetian witchcraft was by no means unique. Each category of witchcraft in Venice … paralleled what is known to have existed elsewhere in Europe during the period and, no doubt, outside this period as well ….

“Necromancy, or the practice of the learned tradition of magic, was current throughout a great part of Europe, and certainly throughout Italy during this period. Some records still survive for the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition which contain copies of certain processi, usually just the sentence and/or abjuration, which were forwarded to Rome from all over Italy. Necromantic exploits feature prominently in these records. The sentence of the 1580 Vicentine trial against Antonio de Franci, for instance, refers to the work of Pietro d’Abbano and to the Clavicula Salomonis being used used in the celebration of a mass as part of a love magic ceremony. There is little doubt that these and other books of magic like them circulated widely in Europe during this period as did the corrupted versions of traditions evident in many of the conjurations and divinatory experiments seen in Venice.

“At a different level of society other forms of witchcraft also were all part of what was presumably a Europen-wide system of popular beliefs. Mary O’Neil describes the same experiments, with some local modifications, being practiced in Modena. The Udine records, and those in Trinity College, Dublin, covering the whole of Italy contain references to similar practices. Indeed, whenever the available records provide us with a glimpse into traditional beliefs and activities, for instance those of the so-called ‘cunning folk’ in England, we see time and time again what were basically the same types of witchcraft as those observed in Venice.

“England is indeed the one country outside Italy to display the most obvious similarities with Venice as far as witchcraft practices are concerned …. [T]he nature of the records in each area enables us to see beyond the large trails, the epidemics of witch-hunting, to the day-to-day beliefs and attitudes of the population as a whole …. The Venetian records provide us … with a detailed picture of a way of life … [W]hat Venice shows us was, broadly speaking, the picture throughout most of Europe.”
[pp. 239-241]

The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise

  1. Part One: Two Myths
  2. Part Two: “A very specific historical claim”
  3. Part Three: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton
  4. Part Four: “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Deux)
  5. Part Five: More on “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Trois)
  6. Part Six: Huttonian Triumphalism (Recantations, Part Quatre)
  7. Part Seven: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton, The Final Episode [parts 5, 6 & 7 are not done yet]
  8. Part Eight: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion
  9. Part Nine: Coeval With Time [part 9 is still to come]

>21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion (The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, Part Eight)

>In Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton triumphantly claimed that the whole notion of the Old Religion had been “swept away” by a “tidal wave” of research. Not only that, but “virtually the whole set of assumptions” underlying the concept of the Old Religion had also been, according to Hutton, thoroughly demolished. Indeed, he went even further and declared that all those who persisted in so much as suggesting that there might be some truth in the idea of the Old Religion were caught in “the trap of fundamentalism”!

But it turns out that despite all the obnoxious chest-beating on the part of Ronald Hutton and his loyal followers, a great many Pagans have continued to believe, as Pagans have always believed, that there is, indeed, some truth, and perhaps more than a little, in the idea of the Old Religion.

“Wicca is a nature based, Earth centered spiritual path rooted deeply in the history of Europe and even as far back as our Paleolithic past.”
[What is Wicca?, Christopher Penzack (from his website)]

“The Goddess is alive. She has always been. But during the last two millennia, at least here in the West, She has been obscured. Occulted, but not erased, Her life-enhancing worship did not die. It was secreted within the inner teachings of esoteric societies, trivialized as folk custom, or enveloped within a mass of religious practices that officially denied Her.”
[Isis Magic, M. Isidore Forrest]

“Wicca is called the Old Religion because it is based on the religious practices of our Pagan ancestors. Wicca worships Goddess and God using those symbols found deep within the psyche of humanity. Their antiquity and universality given them a power that more modern Gods will always lack.”
[Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium, Vivianne Crowley]

“Paganism is the ancestral religion of the whole of humanity. This ancient religious outlook remains active throughout much of the world today, both in complex civilisations such as Japan and India, and in less complex tribal societies world-wide. It was the outlook of the European religions of classical antiquity – Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome – as well as of their “barbarian” neighbours on the northern fringes, and its European form is re-emerging into explicit awareness in the modern West as the articulation of urgent contemporary religious priorities.”
[What Paganism Is, The Pagan Federation website]

“Modern witches follow in the tradition of our earliest ancestors and are the shamans and healers of the 21st century. We are priests and priestesses of the Great Goddess; we practice the ancient art of sacred magic in the modern world. Certainly witchcraft has changed over the milleniia, but we still have much in common with the neolithic practitioner crouched before a fire, crushing herbs for a healing brew.”
[The Wicca Handbook, Eileen Holland]

“The goddess Hekate was one of the most significant deities of the ancient world. Her history stretches back across the millennia. We find traces of her in the recent past, through into the Renaissance – stretching back through the Byzantine and Roman Empires, Hellenistic , Classical and Archaic Greece through into the Greek Dark Ages – and beyond. Hekate has been with us for at least three thousand years.”
[Hekate Liminal Rites, Sorita d’Este, David Rankine]

“Despite persecution, witches and their beliefs survived the crucible or severe trials of the Inquisition and the Middle Ages … The terror that had engulfed Europe and New England simmered down, and the last execution for witchcraft took place in Poland in 1793. But neither the faith nor the magick died out completely. Practitioners of witchcraft stayed hidden in the shadows and kept their knowledge and powers secret.”
[Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft, Denise Zimmerman, Katherine A. Gleason]

“Theurgy is the late Classical Neoplatonic practice whose closest modern equivalent is Drawing Down the Moon. In both cases the practitioner achieves temporary unity with a deity, and is to some degree transformed in the process. These similarities, along with some others, are the reason why some investigators of our history argue that Wicca’s earliest major roots lie not in Celtic Britain or stone age Europe but in late Classical times.”
[Theurgy and Drawing Down the Moon: Theurgicon 2010, Guz diZerega]

“Foxwood is a dedicated temple to the Old Gods and a Traditional House of the Old Religion. Originally founded in 1990 by Lord Orion, High Priest in Celtic and Alexandrian Traditions and initiate of Welsh Tradition. The teachings of Foxwood are based on the ancient ways of Prytani Celtic, Strega, and Faerie Traditions and are collectively transmitted as Celtic/Traditional Craft or ‘The Old Religion’. Foxwood is a haven for personal exploration of the esoteric tradition of the Old Religion as passed on by the Elders of Foxwood.”
[Foxwood Temple of the Old Religion website]

The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise

  1. Part One: Two Myths
  2. Part Two: “A very specific historical claim”
  3. Part Three: The Recantation of Ronald Hutton
  4. Part Four: “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Deux)
  5. Part Five: More on “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Trois)
  6. Part Six: Magical Christianization (Recantations, Part Quatre)
  7. Part Seven: The Recantation of Ronald Hutton, The Final Episode [parts 5, 6 & 7 are not done yet]
  8. Part Eight: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion
  9. Part Nine: Coeval With Time [part 9 is still to come]