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July 6 Mircea Eliade and the Eternal Return

Today we look at the life and thought of Mircea Eliade a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. His work on the Eternal Return and also on the Terror of History as an explanation for secular man's anxieties was ground-breaking and innovative


Today we travel to Portugal where the Hungarian historian of religions Mircea Eliade was received by President Salazar in 1942 after praising his Estado Novo ‘New State’. This had been formed after a coup d'état in 1926 against the democratic but unstable First Republic. Inspired by conservative and autocratic ideologies, it would be fiercely criticized by most of the international community after World War II and decolonization. Until Salazar was removed in 1968, it was one of the longest-surviving authoritarian regimes in Europe

Eliade has been described as one of the 20th centuries most interesting religious thinkers with his intuitions about the sacred. After publishing a dissertation on Italian renaissance philosophy, he then studied in Calcutta primarily under the Sanskrit scholar Surendranath Dasgupta, he spent six months practicing Yoga at Rishikesh under the direction of Swami Shivananda. After this eclectic academic formation, he became a journalist and essayist, and in the 1940s, he served as cultural attaché for Hungary to the United Kingdom and Portugal. It was in his role of cultural attaché to Portugal that he wrote his naïve book in praise of the Estado Novo, claiming that "The Salazarian state, a Christian and totalitarian one, is first and foremost based on love". His political involvement at the time, as well as his other far right connections, were widely criticised after World War II, including latterly by himself. At signs that the Romanian communist regime was about to take hold, he moved to France with his adopted daughter Giza. It was a time of shifting ideologies and great damage and as a sign of the range of his thought and his adaptability, he went from backing far right movements in the 40’s, to twenty years later his interest in the American hippie community, His academic interest was reciprocated by many hippies, some of whom viewed Eliade as "a guru". He was noted for his erudition, had a fluent command of five languages (Romanian, French, German, Italian, and English) and a reading knowledge of three others (Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit).

Mircea Eliade's legacy in the field of the history of religions, is unparalleled and an endowed chair in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School was named after him in recognition of his wide contribution to the research on this subject. Writing at a time when the thoughts of Marx, Freud etc were widely discussed, Eliade rejected "reductionist" approaches to religion. Noting that "the social man, the economic man, and so forth are all important conditioning factors. Together they do not, of themselves, add up to the life of the spirit.

Eliade had a fleeting acquaintance with Carl Jung who said in a letter that he had admiration and esteem for Eliades work, although he could be prone to making ‘idiotic’ errors. Like Jung, Eliade was keen to demonstrate broad, cross-cultural parallels and unities in religion, particularly in myths, which he called universals. For instance, in traditional societies, he noted that man actually thought like homo religiousus and that the religious impulse was deeply embedded in our ancestors. Looking at religious communal behaviour. Eliade recognises that traditional man performs myths and rituals because the Sacred's essence lies only in the mythical age, only in the Sacred's first appearance. Any later appearance is actually the first appearance; by recounting or re-enacting mythical events, myths and rituals "re-actualize" those events. Religious behaviour does not only commemorate, but also participates in, sacred events: this is the "eternal return". The idea of this eternal return is original to Eliade and a central idea.

However much of modern anxiety and alienation is because we have a yearning to remain in the mythical age and this causes a "terror of history": because we desire to escape the linear succession of events. The abandonment of mythical thought and the full acceptance of linear, historical time, with its "terror", is one of the reasons for modern man's anxieties. Traditional societies escape this anxiety to an extent, as they refuse to completely acknowledge historical time with sacred ritual and liturgies. The eternal return—the implicit belief, present in religious thought in general, that religious behaviour is not only an imitation of, but also a participation in, sacred events, and thus restores the mythical time of origins. However there was an interesting point of divergence between the older religions of the East and the new religons of the West. Humanity is 200.000 years old; for at least 95% of humankinds existence as a species, time was cyclical and circadian. This is recorded in The East with concepts such as reincarnation and the wheel of time, however as Judaism emerged as the first monotheism and we see an emerging self-consciousness as being God’s Chosen People, and then Christianity developed out of it they did not understand time as a circle endlessly turning on itself; nor did they see such a cycle as desirable, as a way to participate in the Sacred. They embraced the concept of linear history progressing toward the Messianic Age or the Last Judgment, thus initiating the idea of "progress" (humans are to work for a Paradise in the future). This lineal theory of time, would influence and be proven in cosmology, by Father Georges Lemaitre in his famous Big Bang theory (see pod of June 20th).

Eliade developed the concept of hierophany (manifestation of the Sacred)—which was wider that the more restrictive concept of theophany (manifestation of a god). From the perspective of religious thought, Eliade argues, heterophonies give structure and orientation to the world, establishing a sacred order. The "profane" space of nonreligious experience can only be divided up geometrically: into seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and so on. That division was purely functional and has no qualitative differentiation and, hence no orientation. According to Eliade, profane space gives man no pattern for his behavior. No fasting during Lent, no hoping during Advent. Hierophany has a sacred structure to which religious man conforms himself. As an example of "sacred space" demanding a certain response from man, Eliade gives the story of Moses halting before Yahweh's manifestation as a burning bush and taking off his shoes. We could structurally divide the year into remembering these events and in some ways participating in them. He was heavily influenced by the Rudolph Otto’s insights into numinous experience, a profound emotional experience that the Herman theologian argued was at the heart of the world’s religions. Building on Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy he attempts to show how religion emerges from the experience of the sacred, and myths of time and nature. In his book The Sacred and the Profane he argued that "Yahweh is both kind and wrathful; the God of the Christian mystics and theologians is terrible and gentle at once." In contrast to the Indian and Chinese mystic, who tries to attain "a state of perfect indifference and neutrality in which "pleasure and pain, desire and repulsion, cold and heat are expunged from his awareness."

According to Eliade, heavenly Supreme Beings became less common in more advanced cultures. The discovery of agriculture brought a host of fertility gods and goddesses into the forefront, causing the celestial Supreme Being to fade away and eventually vanish from many ancient religions. Even in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, the High God is a vague, distant figure, dwelling high above the world. Often, he has no cult and receives prayer only as a last resort, when all else has failed. Eliade calls the distant High God a deus otiosus ("idle god"). The Christian claim that Christ is the Son of the High God is remarkable as it breaks this -In Eliades own words When the Son of God incarnated and became the Christ, he had to speak Aramaic; he could only conduct himself as a Hebrew of his times [...] His religious message, however universal it might be, was conditioned by the past and present history of the Hebrew people. If the Son of God had been born in India, his spoken language would have had to conform itself to the structure of the Indian languages. Christianity's "trans-historical message" is the most important help that modern man could have in confronting the terror of history. God willingly entered historical time by being born as Christ, and accepted the suffering that followed. By identifying with Christ, modern man can learn to confront painful historical events. Eliade sees Christianity as the only religion that can save man from the "Terror of history". In his own words "Christianity incontestably proves to be the religion of 'fallen man'", of modern man who has lost "the paradise of archetypes and repetition".

Secular man cannot escape his bondage to religious thought because by its very nature, secularism depends on religion for its sense of identity: by resisting sacred models, by insisting that man make history on his own, secular man identifies himself only through opposition to religious thought: "He [secular man] recognizes himself in proportion as he 'frees' and 'purifies' himself from the 'superstitions' of his ancestors." Furthermore, modern man "still retains a large stock of camouflaged myths and degenerated rituals" and still participates in something like the eternal return: by reading modern literature, "modern man succeeds in obtaining an 'escape from time' : the recent popularity of literature by JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and George RR Martin.

Eliade also describes modern political ideologies which can be so destructive as secularized mythology. According to Eliade, Marxism "takes up and carries on one of the great eschatological myths of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world, namely: the redemptive part to be played by the Just (the 'elect', the 'anointed', the 'innocent', i.e. in Marx’s word the proletariat), whose sufferings are invoked to change the ontological status of the world." The widespread myth of the Golden Age, which, according to a number of traditions, lies at the beginning and the end of History, is the "precedent" for Karl Marx's vision of a classless society. Finally, he sees Marx's belief in the final triumph of the good (the proletariat) over the evil (the bourgeoisie) as "a truly messianic Judaeo-Christian ideology". Likewise, Eliade notes that Nazism involved a pseudo-pagan mysticism based on ancient Germanic religion. He suggests that the differences between the Nazis' pseudo-Germanic mythology and Marx's pseudo-Judaeo-Christian mythology explain their differing success: the universal optimism of the communist myth, outlasts the limitations of the racial myth.

Many rituals, and mystical experiences according to Eliade involve a "coincidence of opposites," or a twofold revelation which laments the lost but contains a hope to be reconciled at some eschatological moment – that is, at the end of time, in which the very nature of the divinity, shows itself. This appeals to us because of our deep dissatisfaction with our actual situation, with what is called the human condition. Because the coincidentia oppositorum is a contradiction, it represents a denial of the world's current logical structure, and a reversal of the "fall". Our modern sense of being "torn and separate” is balanced by a wish to recover the lost unity of the mythical Paradise. Elaides sense of this is that "The most popular prayer in the world is addressed to 'Our Father who art in heaven.' It is possible that man's earliest prayers were addressed to the same heavenly father."

As a leading interpreter of religious experience, he established paradigms in religious studies that persist to this day. However his literary works such as 'Bengal Nights', 'The Forbidden Forest'’ 'Isabel and the Devil's Waters'), and the 'Novel of the Nearsighted Adolescent' with the novella 'Youth Without Youth should not be overlooked .


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