Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Proclus


Proclus (412-485) was head of the Athenian school of Neoplatonism shortly before paganism was suppressed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. His prodigious output reflects the full-blown phase of Neoplatonist exegesis, which had departed from the Plotinian version.

Born in Constantinople, his Greek parents came from the upper class; his father was a law official in the courts. Proclus was educated in Alexandria, still renowned for a classical study curriculum. That syllabus included philosophy, in general part of the career vocation available to the Greek-speaking upper class. Like many others, Proclus was training for a professional role, and upon his return to Constantinople, he became a lawyer, as his father had intended.


He afterwards decided that philosophy was the most important subject, and returned to Alexandria. There he studied the corpus of Aristotle, and under a separate tutor he became proficient in mathematics. Proclus moved to Athens, a city still enjoying a reputation as the hub of philosophical activity. From 431 CE he studied at a (Neo)Platonist school led by his tutors Plutarch and Syrianus. When Syrianus died in 437, Proclus became the head teacher or scholarch, a position he maintained for the rest of his life.

The curriculum of his school did not represent a pristine Platonism, having absorbed the agenda of Iamblichean Neoplatonism, which displaced the Plotinian version. This development meant that theurgy was a primary interest, reflected in various ritualistic activities. Proclus himself is reported to have practised theurgic rituals in his otherwise studious routine. He never married, and was a vegetarian.

The major source is the Life of Proclus, composed by his successor Marinus of Neapolis, and which is in part hagiographical. This account refers to his vigils and fasts. During his temporary exile in Lydia, Proclus gained initiation into diverse mystery cults. Such an activity demonstrated the theurgic outlook, in which the ritual Mysteries were venerated and pagan ceremony glorified in the face of encroaching Christianity.

Recent scholarship has revealed that Proclus acquired a lavish annual income of 1,000 gold solidi, equivalent in contemporary terms to over half a million dollars. The patrons of theurgy did not neglect to support his activities. His surroundings were basically opulent. Proclus is associated with the Athenian cult of Asclepius, which was the focus of a temple near his residence (located in the vicinity of the Acropolis).

His substantial learning is evident from his books, though much of his corpus is lost. His religious beliefs are quite strongly accentuated, though absent from his commentary on Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, in which he demonstrates “a thorough grasp of mathematical method." In quite another direction, only fragments exist of his partisan commentary on the Chaldean Oracles, the theurgic text which became so influential amongst Neoplatonists. Different again is his Elements of Theology, containing propositions and proofs in the geometric mode associated with Euclid. Unique in antiquity, the Elements has often been regarded as his most important work.

Proclus is also noted for his commentaries on Plato, though not all of these have survived. His extensive commentary on the Timaeus has been considered the most important available on that text. Proclus regarded Plato as a divine prophet, an attitude symptomatic of the rivalry with Christianity.

Critics say that Proclus made Platonism into a theology supported by theurgy. His lengthy Platonic Theology has more generously been described as “a magisterial summa of pagan Hellenic theology,” in which Proclus was “eager to demonstrate the harmony of the ancient religious revelations (the mythologies of Homer and Hesiod, the Orphic theogonies and the Chaldean Oracles) and to integrate them in the philosophical tradition of Pythagoras and Plato” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

The subject of theurgy is controversial. Proclus advocated theurgy in his On Hieratic Art, only partially extant. The Neoplatonist version should be distinguished from magic, despite certain resemblances in ritual practices, including invocations. Critics regard the ritualism as a retrogression from Plotinus. Proclus converged with Iamblichus in the belief that theurgy was a means of salvation compatible with Platonism, which referred to the gods.

Three types of theurgy have been discerned in Proclus. The first category is ritualistic, concerned with the evocation of oracles and divine visions, and involving the “animation of statues,” a distasteful subject to some analysts. The second category is associated with the Hymns of Proclus, a more aspirational use of prayers and invocations. The third category relates to unity with the One, celebrating such matters as silence, “negative theology,” and “faith” (pistis). Complexities are still debated.

Some years after the death of Proclus, Damascius (c.460-c.540) became leader of the Athenian school by 515, and is credited with a producing a revival of philosophy. Damascius took a critical attitude to the adoption of theurgy, and his Philosophical History furnishes relevant information on various events. Revealingly, he criticised the followers of Proclus, including even the revered Marinus. Damascius accused these theurgists of lacking insight.

Damascius was especially critical of Hegias, a wealthy patron who became head of the Athenian school during the 490s. The factor of wealth is significant; affluence had ousted the “moderate asceticism” of Plotinus, and permitted the influx of ritual preoccupations to the extent that intellectual study was in jeopardy.

Damascius clearly wanted to change the situation, and was in favour of restoring the contemplative angle as distinct from ritual distractions. Systematic study of Aristotle and Plato was a primary feature of his “revival.” He composed the treatise known as Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, which provides a critique of the Proclean metaphysical system.

However, Damascius employed an Iamblichean mode of interpretation rather than anything Plotinian. He still tried to integrate the “Chaldean” theurgic doctrines into a Neoplatonist framework, though from a different standpoint to Proclus, and with some critical attention to the arguments of Iamblichus.

Time was running out. In 529 the oppressive Christian emperor Justinian the Great prohibited paganism. Exile was threatened if the pagans did not convert to Christianity. Some victims lost their lives. In this grim situation, Damascius and six other learned Neoplatonists decided to flee from Athens, emigrating to Mesopotamia in an endeavour to gain a hearing at the Sassanian court in Ctesiphon. The details are not clear.

A recent theory posits that a Neoplatonist school was soon established at Harran (Hellenopolis) under Sassanian protection. Harran certainly became a subsequent centre for philosophical and scientific studies in Greek and Syriac during the early Islamic era.

See further E. R. Dodds, ed. and trans., The Elements of Theology (second edn, Oxford University Press, 1963); G. Morrow, trans., Proclus: A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements (Princeton University Press, 1970); L. Siorvanes, Proclus: Neoplatonic Philosophy and Science (Edinburgh University Press, 1996); D. Baltzly and H. Tarrant, ed. and trans., Proclus: Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus (multi-volume, Cambridge University Press, 2006----); S. Ahbel-Rappe, trans., Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 8th, 2011

ENTRY no. 44

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Porphyry


The most well known disciple of Plotinus was Porphyry (c.232-c.305 CE), a Phoenician from Tyre, whose parents are often described as Syrians. Before meeting Plotinus, he originally studied at Athens under the Platonist Longinus. He possessed the disposition to study different languages and religions, and developed a polymathic ability.

When Porphyry moved to Rome in 263, he became a pupil of Plotinus, but was at first disconcerted by differences with the “official” Athenian format. The method of Plotinus contrasted with that of Longinus. Plotinus was far more informal and unorthodox. Longinus had composed two works of note, but Plotinus classified him as a scholar or literary man, not as a philosopher.

Plotinus (entry no. 42) did not write commentaries on Plato; his exposition, preserved in the Enneads, was in the Platonist spirit but altogether more free-ranging. Both he and Longinus had been students of the deceased Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria, yet they were in disagreement. Porphyry at first expected technical perfectionism from Plotinus, but the latter was not concerned about grammatical niceties in his usage of Greek. Like Ammonius, Plotinus was outside the official Platonist curriculum, whereas Longinus had become part of it.

Porphyry inherited the private manuscripts of Plotinus, which he considered defective in terms of format, though not in respect of ideational and experiential content. Porphyry eventually edited those manuscripts, publishing the result some thirty years after the death of his teacher. The Plotinus texts became known as the Enneads.

The output of Porphyry is rather different to that of Plotinus. He was an industrious writer, and evidently believed in a reconcilement of the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. He wrote commentaries on Aristotle that Plotinus might have deemed too academic. These included the famous Isagoge, a preparation for the study of Aristotelian logic, and well received by the Christian Schoolmen centuries later.

About sixty works are attributed to Porphyry, though most of these are lost or extant in a fragmented form. The subjects covered include history, mathematics, Homeric literary criticism, and metaphysics. There are scholarly uncertainties in confirming a number of the attributions.

The uncertainties have contributed to a mixed assessment of Porphyry’s role. He may have deliberately composed for different readerships, given the diverse nature of attributions. Modern scholars have credited Porphyry with a basically rational orientation, though diverging into what some have deemed an idiosyncratic preoccupation with religious matters (and even astrology).

One view is that he validated the Chaldean Oracles for the common worshipper, though himself remaining aloof from theurgy. Augustine of Hippo presented him in terms of an anomaly, though Pierre Hadot concluded that Porphyry tried to find a universal denominator in varied religious phenomena, including the Indian “gymnosophists.”

His lengthy work Against the Christians survives only in fragments, and was denounced by Christianity, being burned in 448 by Byzantine decree. Porphyry was a defender of paganism, more specifically the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle. During his lifetime, the spread of Christianity was slow by comparison with fourth century developments after the reign of Constantine.

One aspect of his mentation was a “Pythagorean” disposition associated with vegetarianism, which he advocated in the treatise On Abstinence from Killing Animals. Like Plotinus, he believed in a contemplative and ascetic lifestyle, though at about the age of sixty, he married Marcella, whose interest in philosophy was commemorated in his Letter to Marcella.

Perhaps the most evocative writing of Porphyry is the Letter to Anebo, extant in fragments. This has been assessed in terms of critical reference to the ritualist version of Mysteries, and as being devised to turn the attention of distracted readers to philosophy. The anonymous epistle is addressed to an Egyptian priest, and it is evident that the author was averse to divination and theurgy.

The Letter to Anebo complains about Egyptian religion, and the priests who acted as astrologers, teaching an inflexible astrological fatalism. The document has been interpreted as an attack on Iamblichus, apparently a former pupil of Porphyry, and one who became an influential advocate of theurgy.

Iamblichus (c.245-325) is an eccentric subject in the view of some analysts. A Syrian from a wealthy family of aristocratic association, he taught a version of Neoplatonism at the Syrian town of Apamea. He was an enthusiast of Pythagoras, whom he revived in a theurgic context that is controversial. Iamblichus is credited with authorship of On the Mysteries (De Mysteriis), though the attribution has not been universally accepted. That treatise was composed under the pseudonym of Abammon, signifying a putative Egyptian priest, and evidently being intended as a response to Porphyry’s anti-theurgy composition.

There is no doubt that the issue of theurgy was attended by a strong disagreement. Porphyry was furthering the outlook of Plotinus on this point, while Iamblichus and his school were in support of ritual sacrifices, divination, trance, invocations, ritual mysteries, talismans, and other trappings.

This issue remains an important significator of orientation, both in respect of the Neoplatonist exemplars and the contemporary responses.

See further J. Barnes, Porphyry: Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003); G. Clark, trans., Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals (Cornell University Press, 2000); K. O’Brien Wicker, Porphyry the Philosopher to Marcella (Atlanta 1987); A. Smith, Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition (The Hague, 1974).

Kevin R.D. Shepherd
October 10th 2011

ENTRY no. 43

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Plotinus


Plotinus (circa 204-70) is conventionally described as a Neoplatonist, but his teaching exhibits differences to later exponents of “Neoplatonism.” There is no theurgy in his Enneads, and this factor alone comprises a gulf between Plotinus and Proclus, a well endowed exponent of the Athenian school. 

A biography was composed by his disciple Porphyry many years after his death. The famous Vita Plotini (Life of Plotinus) is regarded as a basically reliable report, though some hagiology may have infiltrated. Porphyry was also the redactor of the Enneads, representing the formerly secretive writings of Plotinus. 

His date of birth is uncertain, and likewise his racial origin. Plotinus would not refer to his early years, nor allow his birthday to be celebrated. As a consequence, the date and place of his birth passed into obscurity. His outlook was world-renouncing, and basically a mystery to commentators like Bertrand Russell. The “moderate ascetic” orientation of Plotinus decodes to a gulf between him and most modern commentators, including even Pierre Hadot. 

An early hagiographer, Eunapius of Sardis, informs that the birthplace was Lyco(polis) in Upper Egypt. Plotinus might easily have been a Hellenised Egyptian, although the scholarly opinions have differed. His social class may or may not have been elevated. 

As a young man, Plotinus searched for a teacher amongst the Greek-educated philosophers of Alexandria. These tutors gave formal lectures, and were divided into different schools. Plotinus was disappointed with the example and teaching of these more or less official pedagogues. He eventually became a disciple of Ammonius, an obscure Platonist who was apparently self-taught and relatively distanced from the conventional professorial scene. Later authors applied the nickname of Saccas to Ammonius, though the meaning is uncertain. 

When Ammonius died circa 242 CE, Plotinus had been his pupil for a decade. The latter departed from Alexandria in 243, joining an ill-fated expedition (possibly as a court philosopher) of the Roman emperor Gordian III against the Persians. Gordian was murdered in Mesopotamia by rebellious soldiers; this situation was part of the political problem afflicting Rome. Plotinus fled to Antioch, and subsequently moved on to Rome by 245. There he settled, and gained followers in senatorial ranks. 

Plotinus “eventually became well known, though adhering to a cautious tactic of guarding his unpublished manuscripts, which were available only to committed students like Amelius and Porphyry.” His circle was cosmopolitan, including Syrians, Alexandrians, and at least one Arab.  Also, three women are fleetingly mentioned, two of them apparently Romans. 

Plotinus disliked the rhetoric favoured by orators. He also detoured the set speeches maintained by Platonist convention, preferring an informal procedure involving the discussion of texts. He did not claim originality in his version of Plato, though the Enneads are clearly innovative in a number of respects. 

He endorsed study of the sciences, though in a Platonist manner. He was evidently familiar with geometry, mechanics, optics, and music (then regarded as a science). Yet he would not himself practise those pursuits, which he viewed as a secondary support for training the mind. In the Neoplatonist view, much attention given to scientific activity is a distraction from the philosophical quest. There are differences with Aristotle, an authority whom Plotinus frequently contested, though not without some elements of convergence. 

He is noted for opposing astrology, regarding horoscopy as deceptive. Plotinus taught freewell as distinct from determinism, and his objective was to live in accordance with the standards of “virtue,” a complex theme associated with his elevation of the “Divine Mind” or Intellect. The strongly mystical element in his teaching emphasised a purification and illumination that was far removed from the convenient routines of orators and pedants. Plotinus contested the persuasions of Diophanes, an orator in Rome who favoured pederasty. 

We must break away towards the High,” was a Plotinian theme. Then as now, such emphases are unwelcome in many quarters. A wealthy Roman pupil of Plotinus was Rogatianus, who declined the office of praetor pressed upon him by the Senate. The pupil renounced all his property and set free all his slaves. Under the influence of Plotinus, Rogatianus chose a simple lifestyle that forsook all social status and elitism. 

It is evident that Plotinus was opposed to the excessive wealth and slavery in the Roman environment, trappings which accompanied military prowess. One may conclude that he scored over Aristotle, who had endorsed slavery in a more conciliatory gesture to the ruling class. Science might do little to remove social problems, whereas diligent mysticism may move a lot further. 

Plotinus gained a reputation for austerity. Amongst his admirers were the Roman Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina. Gallienus was an intellectual type, with a taste for Greek culture; he was not popular with military commanders, despite his victories in battle. Plotinus advised that Gallienus should rebuild a ruined city in Campania, one that should be renamed Platonopolis, and accordingly governed according to the laws of Plato. This proposal was opposed at court, probably by the military. The details are vestigial. 

The treatise entitled Against the Gnostics (Ennead II.9) is a well known feature of the Enneads. The protest was made on grounds of Platonist tradition, reason, and morality. The Gnostics were present in Rome, and there are implications of flawed doctrines and behaviour. Gnostics were claiming a secret knowledge facilitating a short and easy path to the Divine. Plotinus contrasted this with the long, difficult, and necessary route involved in the Platonist practice of virtue and the due exercise of philosophic intelligence. He repudiated the resort to magic and ritual in the popular Gnostic sector, usages amounting to theurgy (theourgia). 

Gnosticism, like Platonism, was a variegated phenomenon, and one causing extensive confusions in the modern day. Popular Gnosticism rivalled both Platonism and orthodox Christianity. Gnostic adherents were spread throughout different countries, and with diverse figureheads in the “ascetics and libertines” vista discussed by scholars. Plotinus himself has some similarities to the ascetic wing, especially in that he claimed a “mystical union” in his version of philosophic rationalism. These subtleties are difficult to convey in the current climate of misconception caused by “new age” thinking, which includes the disputed integralism

At the end of his life, Plotinus suffered a severe illness in the onset of an epidemic created by war and social unrest. The distinctive Emperor Gallienus was assassinated by military schemers, a mood of anarchy was prevalent, and Rome was beset by troubles. Plotinus retired from Rome to the countryside, possibly afflicted with leprosy, and stoically awaited his end. The man who had rejected his birthday could also transcend death. 

See further Stephen MacKenna, trans., The Enneads, ed. John Dillon (London: Penguin, 1991); J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1967); A. H. Armstrong, ed. and trans., Plotinus (7 vols, Harvard University Press, 1966-88); Pierre Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, trans. M. Chase (University of Chicago Press, 1993); L. P. Gerson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 
August 31st 2011

 

ENTRY no. 42

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Hypatia of Alexandria


Hypatia was a Greek reared in Alexandria. She is often associated with the phenomenon called Neoplatonism, generally credited as commencing in the third century CE. She was born circa 355, and her Greek father Theon was a mathematician. Over a century earlier, Ammonius Saccas had taught in Alexandria, and he is considered the effective founder of Neoplatonism. 

Ammonius was an obscure philosopher, apparently self-taught, who functioned outside the conventional Platonist curriculum. His pupil Plotinus (c.204-270 CE) appears to have shared the same independent orientation. Plotinus moved from Alexandria to Rome, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Hypatia also taught a version of the Platonist outlook, using her home in Alexandria as a base. She is reported to have been proficient in mathematics and astronomy. 

None of her writings on philosophy survive. Her mathematics has been reconstructed, and was not the modern version. Hypatia viewed geometry as a route to the One, and this outlook was compatible with celibacy. Astronomy was still a sacred science in her time, though often admixed with astrology (which Plotinus rejected). 

Modern scholarship has concluded that Hypatia did not teach the theurgy lore which pervaded much of the later Neoplatonism associated with Iamblichus and Proclus. She has instead been viewed by some interpreters as a Neoplatonist in the Plotinian sense; an early annalist refers to her in a context of the tradition of Plato and Plotinus. Like Plotinus, her lifestyle was frugal and disciplined, and she never married, remaining a virgin. Female philosophers were a rarity. There were a few women amongst the pupils of Plotinus, though they reaped obscurity. 

The fifth century annalist Socrates Scholasticus (c. 379-450) was a contemporary Greek Christian of Constantinople. In his Ecclesiastical History, he profiles Hypatia as a major philosopher of her day, and refers to her as following the Platonist way of thought via Plotinus. Professor J. M. Rist suggested that it was Hypatia who revived interest in Plotinus at Alexandria. The same scholar also linked her to the outspoken Cynic tradition; she wore the rough cloak strongly associated with Cynic teachers. 

The Platonist curricula relied on students from wealthy families. Hypatia was no exception. Her pupils came from various towns in Egypt, and also from further afield in Syria, and even distant Constantinople. There were Christians in her circle, and two of these became bishops, including Synesius of Cyrene, a Greek Platonising Christian who was at first reluctant to become Bishop of Ptolemais, though he did so in 410. 

This was a difficult time for the surviving paganism, which was now increasingly the minority in territory ruled by Christianity. Persons from wealthy Christian families still learned Greek philosophy, though theological dominance meant that Platonism and Neoplatonism were on the defensive, and more so in Alexandria than at Athens. 

Hypatia was eventually murdered. There are different versions of her death in the early reports. With regard to the Hypatia biography in general, scholarship has to be distinguished from novelism. Eighteenth century writers like Voltaire and Gibbon have been accused of creating a literary legend. Nineteenth century embellishments followed, and the twentieth century added a further round of Hypatia lore influenced by contemporary preferences. 

An early sixth century report was supplied by Damascius, a Neoplatonist who studied in Alexandria two generations after the death of Hypatia. This source affirms that she gave public lectures on Plato and Aristotle; further, the Alexandrian Patriarch Cyril (in office 412-44) became envious of her fame and plotted the murder of Hypatia, goading a mob to kill her. 

Cyril was a Christian archbishop who later gained a repute as the persecutor of pagans. Hypatia was on cordial terms with the governing secular prefect Orestes, a rival of Cyril in the political power stakes, and who resisted clerical attempts to gain secular control. Orestes was a Christian, and thus the issue was not paganism versus Christianity, but civic versus ecclesiastical interests. Hypatia might have expressed some degree of opposition to the church hierarchy, but she was not anti-Christian and cared for her Christian students, who apparently included Orestes. She provided a convenient political scapegoat for Cyril, who was opposed to pagans, Jews, and heretics. 

Some commentators have attributed the murder of Hypatia to Christian monks. That is a theory, and not proven fact. Another interpretation has more feasibly urged that Cyril utilised a private cadre known as the parabolans. This grouping comprised 800 young men employed by the Alexandrian Patriarch in the service of the church. In contrast, the Coptic monks were an independent faction. 

The parabolans sometimes exercised a benevolent role of caring for the sick and homeless, but they were also deployed as militant agents of the Patriarch in various places. They are described by some scholars as soldiers in the private army of Cyril. The parabolans were the most likely tool of the former Patriarch Theophilus in the destruction of the Serapeum and other pagan temples. This cadre were almost certainly involved in the fanatical attack on the Jewish quarters at Alexandria in 414, a molestation inseparably associated with Cyril. 

Professor Maria Dzielska concluded that these young men were incited to spread adverse rumours about Hypatia, and subsequently caused an Alexandrian mob to kill her in 415. She was depicted as a witch, and the unreasoning attitude is evident in the seventh century version of events by Bishop John of Nikiu, who describes Hypatia as a witch deserving to be killed. 

The full background to the murder, in the details surviving, is revealing. Cyril is implicated as having caused riots between Jews and Christians in the critical year of 415. He proclaimed that all Jews must leave Alexandria. In contrast, Orestes was committed to preventing the persecution of non-Christians. Not surprisingly, Jews and pagans favoured him against Cyril. 

In 415, Cyril’s private army attempted to murder Orestes; the attack failed, and although Orestes was wounded, the victim was rescued by Christian onlookers. The leader of the attack was apparently a monk named Ammonius, who was afterwards killed by the army of Orestes. Cyril then glorified Ammonius as a saint, and the church led the public to believe that urban strife would cease if Hypatia was eliminated. She was murdered by a Christian mob. 

Orestes apparently departed from Alexandria, probably in fear of his life. Damascius reports that the perpetrators of the crime went unpunished. The alarmed city council made repeated petitions to the court at distant Constantinople. As a consequence, the following year (416) Cyril was divested of his authority over the parabolans, whose numbers were reduced by an imperial ordinance to 500. Yet only two years later, Cyril regained his leadership of the parabolans, a factor conferring power in his subsequent attacks on pagans. 

See further Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. F. Lyra (Harvard University Press, 1995); Michael A.B. Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (New York, 2007); Sandy Donovan, Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher (Bloomington, 2008). 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 
July 21st 2011 

ENTRY no. 41

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Eric Voegelin


A political philosopher, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) has the reputation of being a philosopher of history. His magnum opus Order and History is regarded as comprising an early phase (the first three volumes) and a later phase (the last two volumes). 

Voegelin was born in Cologne and subsequently educated at Vienna, where he gained a doctorate in political science. His professorial role at the University of Vienna was terminated in 1938, when he resisted association with the Nazi cause of Adolf Hitler. He fled with his wife to America, where he continued an academic role and became an American citizen. He became a professor of political science at Louisiana State University. 

During the 1940s his outlook moved at a tangent to the history of political ideas, in which he had written extensively. His new orientation involved a form of existentialism, though in reaction to Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Indeed, Voegelin’s existentialism was very unusual, exhibiting a Platonist complexion, further associated with a Christian background. Hence my description in terms of an existential Christian Platonism. However, he did mute certain Christianising tendencies in his later years, and should be classified as a philosopher. 

Voegelin is also unusual for his linguistic affinities. He learned both Greek and Hebrew, acquisitions by no means common amongst philosophers. He was thus able to read Plato in the original, and studied the Old Testament in depth. 

By the 1950s, he had developed a theme of rediscovering the philosophical quest via an experiential mode, meaning that philosophy was not just a format of ideas but an existential process of experience. He also railed against the influence of positivism and scientism, and became noted as a critic of modernity. These tendencies are distinctive, though they became controversial. His enduring opposition to Fascism was accompanied by a strong reaction to both G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx, not to mention various other modern exponents. Voegelin classified all these figures under the generalising term of Gnosticism, considered by some analysts to be an extreme usage of that word, and perhaps reflecting to some extent his Christian upbringing. 

The first volume of Order and History afforded a coverage of ancient Israel. This version of Biblical events drew upon scholarly sources available by the 1950s. Many of those are now outdated. Since that time, archaeology has uncovered numerous details formerly unknown. This development led to a basic rift between differing approaches to the Old Testament. What emerges today is that the Hebrew Bible is basically a late post-exilic composition, though with some earlier components much debated. 

Voegelin argued that the ancient Israelites did not progress to the “noetic differentiation” in process amongst the Greeks. The presumedly “compact” nature of the Israelite experience of spiritual life was here viewed as preventing the development of philosophy, which for Voegelin, involved “the explicit experience of divine presence as an ordering force within the individual psyche of the philosopher” (quote from Christian neoexistentialist). Yet intrinsic existence would always remain a mystery, he believed, and in this context he stressed resort to the language of myth. 

Some attention was given to the Israelite prophets. The books attributed to prophetic entities like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah have been the focus of detailed scholarship. How far such texts represent the entities named is an elusive matter. They were cast in the form of a post-exilic Jewish understanding, in the early centuries BCE, though earlier themes and content may intervene. 

In volume two of Order and History, the author surveyed trends in early Greek literature and philosophy, and analysed features of the polis or city-state. He continued this treatment in volume three, devoted to Plato and Aristotle. Thus, a fairly detailed version of Greek events emerges, quite distinctive in certain respects, though with room for disagreement on some points. See Voegelin and Plato

From Homer to Aristotle, Voegelin pursued his favoured themes attendant upon order in the soul or psyche. This feature was declaredly evolved by philosophers in opposition to the political activities of the polis. The philosophical process could not be institutionalised like the rival, and was dependent upon individual contributions and achievements. In this way, Voegelin counters conventional conceptions of philosophy as an “intellectual” activity concerned with mere ideas and arguments. 

He clearly preferred Plato to Aristotle, though attempting to give the Stagirite a due credit. Voegelin celebrated Plato’s Dialogues and the attention given to philosophical mythic formulation. He focused upon the Timaeus, the Republic, and the Laws, all of these works demanding a more than casual attention from the modern reader. The contrasting, or complementary, bios theoretikos of Aristotle also gains profile. 

So far Voegelin had inserted a number of Christianising comments that led some readers to expect a culminating coverage of Christianity in terms of the desired order. Yet in volume four, published in 1974, the author frustrated those assumptions. He admitted to encountering a problem in his conception of history, and now viewed a linear time scheme as an error. Proliferating researches were revealing the complexity of world history, and even New Testament scholarship was adopting new criteria. Voegelin learned with dismay that the Gospel of John was now considered to exhibit Gnostic tendencies. 

The rigidity attaching to orthodox Christian ideas of Gnosticism was substantial until the late twentieth century. Discovered in 1945, the Nag Hammadi texts challenged some entrenched notions, giving scholars a far more accurate idea of early Gnostic beliefs, which circulated amongst different groupings. Translations did not become readily accessible until the 1970s, when Voegelin had already formulated his basic outlook. The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Leiden, 1977) made available the “Coptic Gnostic library.” 

The tendency of Voegelin to use Gnosticism as a blanket term for modern ideological handicaps seems discrepant to some contemporary readers. Both Hegel and Marx were designated as Gnostics by the existential Christian Platonist. Hegel was a Protestant Christian as distinct from the iconoclastic atheist Karl Marx. Hegel’s “science of logic” affords a contrast to the “neo-Thomist” deliberations of Voegelin, though both of them can be considered philosophers of history. See Voegelin and Gnosticism

Voegelin’s “non-linear” tangent touched upon Pauline Christianity, though ranging into differing eras of world religion. He found some Eastern religions defective in comparison to (Greek) philosophy, but tended to favour some religious phraseology of Thomas Aquinas, the neo-Aristotelian with a strong Dominican profile. In contrast, Joachim of Fiore and Siger of Brabant were two of the many stigmatised “Gnostics” in the neo-existential panorama. 

The relatively brief volume five (curtailed in size by the author’s death) was subtitled In Search of Order. Hegel is again one of the ingredients, apparently regarded by Voegelin as the major modern predecessor and rival. 

See further Eric Voegelin, Order and History (5 vols, Louisiana State University, 1956-87); Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1952; repr. 1987); Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Vol. 6), ed. David Walsh (University of Missouri Press, 2002); Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History (University of Washington Press, 1981); Lee Trepanier and Steven F. McGuire, eds., Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition (University of Missouri Press, 2011).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 
June 5th 2011

ENTRY no. 40

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Richard Tarnas and Stanislav Grof


The philosopher Richard Tarnas (right) is noted for an unorthodox approach. After graduating from Harvard, Tarnas opted to become Director of Programs at the Esalen Institute (California) for a decade. In that capacity he was closely associated with Dr. Stanislav Grof (left), an Esalen resident (from 1973) whose “cartography of the psyche” became fluently accepted in alternativist circles, though dismissed by the academic world in general.

Earlier, the doctoral thesis of Tarnas was on the subject of LSD psychotherapy, the speciality of Grof, whose extensive programme in this subject is elsewhere contested. The thesis was entitled LSD psychotherapy, theoretical implications for the study of psychology (1976)

During the 1970s, Tarnas was already a supporter of Grof. He has since gained repute amongst the defenders of Grof as a vindicator of the controversial LSD psychotherapy. This support was explicated in terms of “archetypal astrology,” a resort of Tarnas which claimed to correlate the perinatal matrices of Grof transpersonal theory with an “archetypal” version of planetary influences. The planets Neptune, Saturn, Pluto, and Uranus were here major players. Esalen transpersonalism, dominated by Grof, favoured such innovations.

Tarnas became a professor of philosophy and psychology at the unorthodox California Institute of Integral Studies. His version of those two subjects became influential in his widely read book The Passion of the Western Mind (1991). This offered a version of Western thought from the classical Greek era to the modern and “postmodern” phases. Grof theory is elevated in the epilogue. For a coverage, see Philosophy, Richard Tarnas, and Postmodernism (2010).

In two subsequent books, Tarnas demonstrated his strong orientation in astrology. His Cosmos and Psyche (2006) is a lengthy and sustained account of astrological complexities. A basic contention of Tarnas is that planetary configurations influence patterns in human events. Astrology does have some adherents, though also many critics.

The Tarnas version of astrology has been a strong influence on the Grof camp, and the reciprocal interplay is a notable feature of the Integral Studies scenario. Well prior to publication of Cosmos and Psyche, Dr. Grof celebrated the convergence in such words as:

“An important factor in the selection process might be the relationship between karmic patterns and the time and place of a particular incarnation with its specific astrological correlates. This notion is in general agreement with the observations from psychedelic sessions, holotropic breathwork, and spontaneous episodes of psychospiritual crises. They show that in all these situations the content and timing of holotropic states are closely correlated with planetary transits.” (Grof, Psychology of the Future, State University of New York Press, 2000, p. 242).

A critical citizen stance in relation to “holotropic” matters can be found at Grof Therapy and MAPS (2007). See also Contesting Grof Transpersonal Training.

The transcript of a radio interview with Richard Tarnas has been considered revealing. There is reference to the ecological situation, with the observation that “we cannot continue to live according to the same assumptions with which we have lived blithely for the past several hundred years.” The basic contention here is surely correct, a complication being that so many relatively obscure insights are lost to view in the “new age” jettisoning of pre-1960s events.

There is another largely undiscerned problem. Tarnas refers in his interview to the well known theme that “modern science has essentially voided the cosmos of all intrinsic meaning and purpose.” He adds that “it is only, I think, through going through a profound inner transformation, and also an intellectual transformation, that one can see beyond that crisis.” There are so many people who claim transformations that the issue becomes one of authentic transformation. Indeed, this situation necessitates the urgent remedy of a basic sanity avoiding all claim to transformation of any kind.

There is further talk in the Scott London-Richard Tarnas interview of paradigm shifts, a well worn topic sometimes deemed monotonous. Tarnas also refers to Grof’s theme of “the death-rebirth process,” meaning ego death and spiritual rebirth. That theme, based upon LSD experiences, has been regarded as very misleading by analysts of mystical literature. LSD experiences in “psychotherapy” were given an elevated mystical significance by Grof, though the scope for disagreement is extensive. (See further my Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, pp. 70-73.)

The Grof-derived viewpoint of Tarnas extends to pop music, and includes the unconvincing statement: “I feel that Madonna’s combination of these very different [“perinatal”] impulses is reflective of the fact that our whole civilisation is going through the birth process, this initiatory transformation.”

Some of the Tarnas references to philosophy have puzzled other commentators. For instance, he says in the same interview: “I love Plato and I’m as much of a Platonist as anybody I know. But Plato’s Republic would only be truly utopian and livable if it could have the Rolling Stones in it!”

What is utopian and livable varies markedly according to temperament and appetite. A well known account of Rolling Stones anomalies in the 1970s describes a preoccupation with cocaine and heroin. The author, a close attendant of Keith Richards, relates how his girlfriend died after a bad reaction to the heroin substitute methadone. When the attendant tired of this confused lifestyle, he went into rehabilitation. He again encountered Richards in a hotel room at New York. The celebrity did not wish Sanchez to author a book about the past, and pulled a gun on him. There was no shooting, only the book that subsequently materialised. See Tony Sanchez, Up and Down with the Rolling Stones (1979; repr. 2010). Cf. Keith Richards, Life (2010).

Grofian confusions about death and rebirth have become pervasive, and are associated with the controversial California Institute of Integral Studies. See entry no. 31. Tarnas discloses that he and Grof were teaching the same course in philosophy and religion at San Francisco. “It’s a great program where we offer doctorates and masters degrees.”

Some citizens believe that it is not necessary to obtain “integral studies” doctorates in order to analyse the context of theories and statements.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
April 27th 2011

ENTRY no. 39

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Tulasi Srinivas and Winged Faith

In 1998, Professor Tulasi Srinivas commenced a lengthy nine year ethnographic study of the Sathya Sai Baba sect. She emphasises the theme of globalisation, viewed by some analysts in terms of Western capitalist dominance. In 1989 the Indian economy was opened to global market forces, and a new middle class emerged with affluent purchasing power (Srinivas, Winged Faith, 2010, pp. 1-2).

In 1950, Sathya Sai Baba established an ashram at the village of Puttaparthi, in a rural zone of Andhra Pradesh, about a hundred miles from the city of Bangalore. His biography is a problem. “Devotee accounts construct a complete and complex mythic biography that replaces lost incidents in his life” (ibid., p. 52). The hagiology involved is notorious amongst scholars, one of whom observed over twenty years ago that “no objective account of Sathya Sai Baba’s life has been written by anyone close to him” (ibid., p. 53, citing L. Babb, 1987). There are hundreds of devotional biographies, a very few of which are officially favoured by the sect.

It is definite that, at an early stage in his career, Sathyanarayana Raju claimed to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1918). The youthful claimant “demanded that people refer to him as Sathya Sai” (ibid., p. 57). Confusions about the supposed predecessor (Shirdi Sai) are rife in many accounts, including those written by academics. Sathya Sai claimed to materialise healing ash (vibhuti), and the “miraculous” association has mistakenly been applied to Shirdi Sai, “who had also materialised vibhuti for his followers” (ibid., p. 9). That statement is incorrect. Cf. Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), pp. 2-58.

Sai Baba of Shirdi was a Muslim Sufi faqir who lived in a simple rural mosque in Maharashtra. He became subject to Hinduising hagiological tendencies, which could not, however, completely eclipse the original profile that is evident to close analysis (see Marianne Warren, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism, 1999; rev. edn, 2004). Shirdi Sai always needs to be distinguished from Sathya Sai.

The Puttaparthi ashram became wealthy, a process aided by the many visitors from Western countries. “The [Sathya] Sai religious movement can be construed as a global religious empire” (Srinivas, op. cit., p. 235ff.). One development was the Sathya Sai (Seva) Organisation, commencing in the 1960s and swelling by the 1980s (ibid., pp. 240ff.). In 1974 the closely related devotional magazine Sanathana Sarathi bore “the new ecumenical logo of the [Sathya] Sai movement – a lotus with the symbols of the crescent and the star (Islam), the cross (Christianity), the Om (Hinduism), the fire (Zoroastrianism), and the wheel (Buddhism)” (ibid., p. 70, and p. 15).

There is a substantial omission of origin in Srinivas and numerous other accounts. The same ecumenical symbols were used as publishing insignia since the 1940s by the transnational Meher Baba movement; the reappearance as a logo of the Sathya Sai Organisation (SSO) is a clear example of borrowing without acknowledgment. The Meher Baba sect was regarded as a rival, the founder also claiming avatarhood. See Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, pp. 141, 231 note 403). Srinivas makes no reference to Meher Baba. There are significant gaps in the devotional and academic records (especially in relation to the contested “Sai Baba movement,” not to be confused with the Sathya Sai movement).

The teaching of Sathya Sai is strongly aligned to Hinduism. There is no element of Zoroastrianism, Islam, or Buddhism. In contrast, Meher Baba was born a Zoroastrian, and his teaching strongly reflects the terminologies of both Sufism and Hinduism. His followers cultivate a strong devotional orientation, reminiscent of the Sathya Sai contingent, and with similar tendencies to suppression of alternative and history-oriented materials. Certain books of mine have been suppressed on Wikipedia by supporters of both these religious sects; see Hazrat Babajan and Wikipedia Issues. Those sects are markedly unreliable as an index to sources. Even the university transmission in social science is to date incomplete, though presumably with more ability to remedy the lacunae.

Srinivas refers to the impression created “that the upper orders of the [Sathya] Sai movement do not appreciate democracy, equality, or openness” (ibid., p. 252). She relates that “I found I was waging an uphill battle when I tried to discuss the scandal and the embedded issue of secrecy” (ibid., p. 236). Secrecy emerges as a major complication. Srinivas gives a far less secretive (though still rather restricted) attention to the counter-trend comprised of disillusioned ex-devotees. This was in process by 2000, reporting allegations of sexual abuse and other drawbacks (pp. 233ff., 252-9). The Srinivas version is an improvement upon former academic commentaries.

Srinivas describes the allegations in terms of “sexual healing,” a sanitised verbal gesture that is clearly influenced by the SSO (ibid., pp. 252ff.). Indeed, Srinivas states that the conflict with ex-devotees caused Sathya Sai and the SSO “to develop a sophisticated critique of Western thought that has been aired repeatedly in every confrontation with the press, the West, anti-Sai activists, and secular Indians” (ibid., p. 260). Any criticism of the guru is blamed on the evils of Western thinking by the putatively model format of sectarian morality.

Concession to this acute problem attitude is the current state of globalisation theory in anthropology and sociology. In contrast, analytical citizens are not obliged to render subscription or deference to devotionalism and “secrecy” traits. In sectarian programmes, globalisation and secrecy evidently amount to something evasive of accountability.

Srinivas only briefly refers to Basava Premanand (1930-2009) in a footnote (ibid., p. 372 note 56). Yet he was the major Indian critic of Sathya Sai for many years, with sufficient profile for documentation. Srinivas awards lavish space to the beliefs of devotees, who view all critics with contempt, or as evil.

A form of devotee thinking has been: “Admitting perhaps some of his [Sathya Sai’s] materialisations to be fraudulent, and the charges of sexual misconduct accurate, but the idea of mere mortals sitting in judgment on God [Sathya Sai] is to ‘distort the truth’.” (Ibid., p. 261, citing N. Palmer, 2005). Professor Srinivas seems anxious to placate both the contending parties involved:

“Anti-Sai activists argue that the sexual behaviour (if it did happen) is criminal behaviour, while devotees argue that it is a pathway to spiritual betterment. I suggest that these two versions of truth are both valid to the participants” (ibid., p. 269).

Anthropologist Tulasi Srinivas invokes the philosopher Paul Ricoeur via the phrase “conflict of interpretations,” and in the context of “an indeterminacy of meaning within a discourse” (ibid., p. 270). Ricoeur was not involved in the strongly alleged sexual abuse episodes, which were not discourses, and it is not necessary to adopt a relativist viewpoint in assessing so many complaints and allegations. The devotee argument for a Tantric “kundalini” significance in the guru’s homosexual actions has been strongly repudiated by ex-devotees, despite some lingering tendencies amongst the latter of psychological conditioning to the “miracle” hype favoured by the SSO.

“Devotees rise through the ranks of ordinary devotees into the upper ranks of the ‘Sairarchy’ – hierarchy of Sai officials – by advancing their store of seemingly secret knowledge” (ibid., p. 275). Unquestioning and blind obedience to the sectarian mandate is here involved. Yet we are told by Srinivas how the evidence suggests that the SSO “constructs a viable alternate organisational structure to the accepted worldwide corporate model” (ibid., p. 281). Regardless of corporatism, it is ethically important to determine which version of “truth” is the most valid in relation to “sexual healing.”

The final chapter of Winged Faith relates to economic factors. “The genealogy of materialised objects is obscure, and devotees work hard to ensure the occlusion” (ibid., p. 297). Srinivas compares the esteem for “miracle” objects (supposedly materialised by Sathya Sai) to the “medieval European trade in the relics of Christian saints” (ibid.). One ex-devotee took a “miraculous” diamond ring to a top Copenhagen jeweller who concluded that the stone was a synthetic green sapphire (ibid., p. 296). The miraculous jewels palmed by the guru are alleged to come from the substantial marketplace created for objects associated with him.

Globalisation of the sect has involved “a global distributive network of Sai goods” (ibid., p. 300). Affluent Western devotees have been an easy target for consumption. Both the SSO and independent merchants were busy selling books, cassettes, images, and other objects. “By the late 1970s, the sale of the religious objects reached a new high” (ibid., p. 302), with the commercial zone at Puttaparthi enjoying prosperity. Everything from statues and packs of cards to talismans and jewellery were on offer.

The commercial growth of Bangalore from the late 1980s increased the insatiable market inspired by miracle lore. By 2000, the SSO “was the largest religious foreign exchange earner in India, totalling approximately Indian Rs 75 million” (ibid., p. 304). The total investment of the SSO in Puttaparthi is stated by the same source to be approximately 400 million dollars, which “includes rental on shops selling images, licensing agreements, real estate holdings” (ibid.). However, the SSO does not reveal internal accounting, and in 1990 the Economist assessed the guru’s assets at over two billion US dollars. The current total figure is much higher (ibid. p. 377 note 31), and known only within the ranks of secrecy.

Srinivas ends with the contention, inherently favourable to the SSO, about the generation of a language “toward an engaged cosmopolitanism that is a necessary condition for multicultural societies to live in civility; this is the basis of a new pluralism” (ibid., p. 342). Further, the “grammar of diversity is about inclusion” (ibid.).

The language of new pluralism includes an acute form of internet attack and stigma. At the time of publication, the book under discussion was treated to a very hostile and uncivil dismissal by an aggressive American web supporter of Sathya Sai (alleged to be an internet hit man for the SSO). The extremist commentator even implied that Professor Srinivas would be laughed out of Emerson College as a consequence of his remarks.

Various ex-devotees and critics were lacerated in the same “cosmopolitan” document featuring the stridently censoring and non-inclusive language of Pro-Sai activism. See Tulasi Srinivas and the Politics of Religion. Beware all potential victims of the new pluralism.

Viable globalisation will acknowledge valid sources, and in due context, without resort to stigma or libel, and nor the forms of repression found in religious sects and the expanding American web organ Wikipedia, which is prone to influence by pseudonymous editorship of sectarian affiliation.

See further Tulasi Srinivas, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement (Columbia University Press, 2010).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 7th 2011

ENTRY no. 38

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.


Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Al-Hallaj, Sufi Radical

The significance of Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (c. 858-922) is rather substantial. This unorthodox Sufi mystic was executed as a heretic in Abbasid Baghdad. His resurrection in literary terms is largely due to the research of the French scholar Louis Massignon (d. 1962), whose multi-volume commemoration is a major work in Islamic studies.

My recent web article on Hallaj was an exercise in summary. The subject is not an easy one, though relevant to the history of religion. Hallaj aroused proletarian support and official censure, his oppressive trial revealing an effort to remove a source of objection to the agenda and ruses of politicians and financiers. The decadent era of the late Abbasid Caliphate was not in the interests of citizens at large, despite the efforts of the “virtuous vizier” Ali ibn Isa to offset corrupt fiscal policy.

Sufficient detail survives to trace the fate of chief opponents of Hallaj. They did not escape the calamitous cycle of violence which had been initiated by that time in political circles. Even the Caliph al-Muqtadir (rgd 908-932) was a loser, eventually falling victim to his commander-in-chief, the veteran Greek soldier Munis al-Khadim.

The drama represented by the life of Hallaj is unique in Sufi annals, covering not merely religious matters, but also social and political dimensions of strong relevance. Yet strangely enough, the subject has often been reduced to a form of acute abbreviation, and even caricature, in medieval Islamic sources and more recent references. Professor Massignon commenced the process of discerning what really happened behind the veils of legend, poetry, hagiology, and conservative hostility. He opted for a “martyr” portrayal, which is confusing in some respects.

Hallaj was born in the Iranian province of Fars, his paternal forbears being Zoroastrians. His grandfather Mahamma remained a Zoroastrian, though his father Mansur converted to Sunni Islam. Mansur was a cotton-carder, a humble vocation which Hallaj is also thought to have practised at times. There was much Iranian artisan activity in early Sufism, including the Baghdad “school” primarily associated with Junayd.

Hallaj received a Sunni education in Arabic at the Iraqi town of Wasit, being trained in the Quran and related matters by Hanbali traditionists. Yet he was not satisfied with the orthodox digest of reference, and gravitated to Sahl al-Tustari (d. 896), who lived at Tustar in the Iranian province of Khuzistan. Sahl was a Sufi commentator on the Quran, and his views were too esoteric for the canonists. Sahl emphasised the conflict between the nafs (lower self) and the qalb (heart), a mystical teaching of some complexity. Hallaj may have acquired from Sahl the belief in a spiritual hierarchy of saints (awliya), which in origin appears to have been pre-Islamic.

After two years, Hallaj apparently separated from Sahl at the time of a major political unrest, namely the Zanj revolt, centred in southern Iraq. Diverse rebels and slaves were opposing Abbasid rule in a violent conflict that caused many deaths, and which spread into Khuzistan. Hallaj moved to Basra, a major urban centre in Iraq, and likewise in the shadow of the Zanj rebellion. There he married the daughter of Abu Yaqub Aqta al-Basri, a disciple of the famous Sufi Junayd (d. 910), who lived at Baghdad. He also became a Sufi convert, adopting the ascetic woollen robe in what appears to have been an initiation by the Arab Sufi and traditionist Amr ibn Uthman al-Makki (d. 903/4), another disciple of Junayd.

Problems occurred. Hallaj and Makki had a disagreement, which resulted in the ostracism of the former as a heretic by the latter. Hallaj separated from formal Sufism, and moved at an independent tangent. He may have encountered Junayd, but did not remain as one of the Baghdad circle (if he was ever a part of it, which some scholars think unlikely). A legend of friction between Junayd and Hallaj subsequently featured in Sufi hagiology. More reliable is the factor of disagreement with Makki, who eventually accepted the prestigious and conventional position as a judge (qadi) at Jeddah (a move that was not favoured by Junayd). Whereas Hallaj became an unorthodox preacher and gnostic.

Reconstructing the teaching of Hallaj is not easy. His output only survives in fragments, and the evocative Kitab al-Tawasin is not comprehensive. Massignon deduced that the subject cultivated a liaison with Iranian literati who were familiar with Greek philosophy, medicine, and alchemy. From them he derived some Greek concepts, expressed in an Arabic (and Islamic) mode. An element of universalism has been discerned in Hallaj. Professor Herbert Mason writes:

“He [Hallaj] was accused by his enemies of dissimulation and opportunism by associating with neo-Hellenists, philosophers, aesthetes, pseudo-mystics, magicians, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Hindus, Buddhists, the rich and the poor” (Mason, Al-Hallaj, Richmond: Curzon Press,1995, p. 54).

Hallaj was in friction with influential Mutazili theologians, who resisted Sufi concepts, especially the teaching about a hierarchy of saints. Various opponents accused him of charlatanism and sorcery. Makki and some other orthodox Sufis spread the rumour that he had made a magical pact with the jinn (demons), but that is very unconvincing. More likely, his version of (Sunni) Sufism was too radical for the conservatives.

He undertook lengthy journeys, moving as far afield as India and Central Asia. He apparently gained a following amongst the Khalaj Turks, who had become Islamised. At some point, a colony of adherents formed at Talaqan, in the vicinity of Balkh. He may have journeyed as far as Qocho (Ma Sin, near Turfan), a sector in Chinese Turkestan where the Uighur Turks had become Manichaeans. See Universalist Tendency.


His mode of preaching appears to have been curtailed during his earlier years. He was apparently limited to use of the Arabic language, and needed interpreters to communicate with other linguistic audiences, including those speaking Persian dialects. He emerged far more into open profile during his last years at Baghdad.

Hallaj also undertook three pilgrimages to Mecca, all of them distinctive for varied reasons. The first involved a year of ascetic discipline in a secluded courtyard, exposed to sun and rain. Some ten years later, he returned, this time with many disciples; he was favoured by the Meccan authorities but opposed by a group of orthodox Sufis associated with Amr al-Makki. Several years later, his third hajj occurred in 903, lasting for two years; his “farewell address at [Mount] Arafat” was celebrated by Massignon in terms of “the denouement of his final crisis of conscience” (Mason trans., The Passion of Al-Hallaj, abridged edn, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 14). This event is here viewed as the preparation for his final phase of life at Baghdad, in which he faced official disapproval.

Travelling via Jerusalem to Baghdad in 905, he there resided with other émigrés, associates from Tustar. In the Tustari quarter, Hallaj built an enclosure containing a miniature Ka’ba, the cube-like shrine at Mecca. His purpose was evidently to mediate the hajj (pilgrimage) to his own community. Many mawali (non-Arab converts to Islam) were not able to make the dangerous journey to Mecca. Indeed, “access to the holy cities [of Arabia] was not completely guaranteed to the Iraqi pilgrims by the Banu Asad and Banu Shayban patrols” (ibid., p. 53).

The audience for his unusual preaching at Baghdad was substantially Arab, meaning ex-Bedouins who had fled from famine and poverty. His sympathy with distressed elements of the population was accompanied by mystical allusions (which his son Hamd did not fully understand). In addition to the proletarian factor, there were also upper class contacts; Hallaj was regarded as a saint by a number of dignitaries, including state secretaries. He effectively represented reform, though he was not a militant preacher. Yet change and public discontent were resisted by some influential politicians and bankers.

Hallaj was implicated as a sympathiser with Sunni reformist agitation. He left Baghdad and went into hiding at Sus. After three years he was located and brought back to Baghdad. His persecutors wished to have him condemned as a heretic, but their plan was foiled by the new wazir (chief minister) Ali ibn Isa. However, the opposition was such that he was confined in the palace of the Caliph al-Muqtadir, while the struggle between his supporters and opponents continued. This was the situation during 913-22.

A major opponent was the wazir Hamid ibn al-Abbas, a wealthy landowner, tax farmer, and palace banker. He had hundreds of slaves, and gained a reputation for drunkenness. Hamid was in friction with the prudent minister Ali ibn Isa, and hated Hallaj. Hamid was at the centre of the notorious court plot that ruthlessly provoked a famine, private gain being the objective. The cost of bread rose acutely, and a public riot occurred in 921. The rioting tradesmen would have included Arabs, Iraqis, and Iranian mawali.

Hamid gained the upper hand, having Hallaj imprisoned with the approval of the fickle Caliph al-Muqtadir, after an obscure book of Hallaj was indicted on grounds of blasphemy. The Hanbali proletarian supporters of Hallaj demonstrated against Hamid in the streets of Baghdad, but the ruthless wazir had their leader killed. The courageous Ibn Ata (a Sufi) had his skull smashed by the brutal guards of Hamid.

The dubious trial of Hallaj was reopened, and he was condemned to death as a heretic on the basis of flimsy accusations. “One report conveys that the pretext for condemnation was a passage in his writings that advocated the construction of replicas of the Ka’ba for those unable to travel to Mecca” (Shepherd, Trial and Execution). The Caliph was persuaded to endorse the death sentence.

Hallaj was cruelly executed, a symptom of the corrupt Abbasid court run by manic commercial interests. He was mercilessly flogged, and then suffered intercission, meaning that his hands and feet were cut off. Hamid callously delayed the execution, which was decapitation.

Two years later, Hamid was killed by a crowd of resentful citizens whom he had abused. Perhaps his abject slaves rejoiced. Yet behind the Sunni politician Hamid was a group of Shi’ite bankers and intriguers involved in career gains at the public expense. Not all the persecutors escaped unscathed, including the fabulously wealthy Caliph, whose empire collapsed. See Aftermath.

The memory of Hallaj lived on in diverse formats; he was a unique “universalist” (and radical Sufi) of his time, with a courage (like that of Ibn Ata) to stand against the corrupt ruling classes and their regime of oppression and torture. The current Wikipedia article on the subject exhibits hagiology and reductionism, missing the point.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
February 1st 2011


ENTRY no. 37

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Climate Change Problems

Misconceptions about the subject of climate change still abound, so frequently assisted by the corporate lobby denialists, the confused journalists, and also far too many evasive politicians. See further my Climate Change Complexities.

Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine encountered an American executive in the oil industry. When challenged on the subject of  global warming, this executive conceded that the climate was altering, but said he did not believe that human activity was the cause. Moreover, he could not see any reason for oil companies to change their policy, and instead investigate alternative energy sources, while such profits were to be made from oil production. When confronted about melting polar ice caps, the executive stated that oil companies were pleased about the Arctic ice cap receding; his own company could now drive drilling equipment straight into the rock without having to remove the ice layer. There was no expression of conscience about the repercussions of this exploitation.

Of course, warming in Greenland and adjacent regions can mean a reverse in weather conditions elsewhere, as weather experts have indicated. Then again, a very cold winter can be followed by a very hot summer, as was demonstrated by nature in 2010. The oil companies have inaugurated the climate of weather extremes, and nothing else matters to them but their accumulating wealth and sales drive.

The ever more costly fuel is purchased by compliant consumers who race at breakneck speeds in corroding metal frames poised on wearing rubber tyres. They can often be seen holding mobile phones close to their ear as they drive around in their technological chariots. Too many of them play extremely loud music on car radios that defy normal standards of public nuisance. The British police have given unheeded warnings that the combination of car radios and mobile phones is deadly, being the root cause of many accidents on congested roads where almost everyone drives too fast.

There is now a new industry for the consumer. Many writers on ecology are tending to favour various forms of “green” merchandise which supposedly create utopia. Like the “eco houses” of the Findhorn Foundation, everything has a price in the new age of eco-fantasy. The more affluent the client, the more he or she might have to pay the entrepreneurs. Furthermore, like other houses, the “eco” variety can be resold for a profit. I have critically referred to this scenario as ecobiz, dating back to my book Pointed Observations (2005); see the index p. 415. (The word Ecobiz has been used in a more glorifying sense by industry and business concerns.)


The current situation can be deceptive. George Monbiot has reminded that “a powerful counter-movement, led by corporate-funded thinktanks, has waged war on green policies.” Another impediment is the new wave of green business consultants, who have invented such beliefs as “we will save the biosphere by adopting nuclear energy, GM crops and geoengineering.” See Channel 4's convenient green fictions.

Other problems are comprised by misleading journalism, which has shown an alarming ability to misread and distort environmental issues. A British daily recently hosted a diversion which the more responsible George Monbiot has also duly addressed. The misinformation extends to the subject of water vapour, alleging that cyclical changes in vapour may account for much global warming in the twentieth century.

Scientific analysis has described this construction as a classic denialist argument created in the early 1990s, though one dispelled years ago by a NASA satellite measuring water vapour. The changes caused by accumulation of carbon dioxide are the root cause of water vapour feedback. Water vapour is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but does not increase or change unless carbon dioxide precipitates the damaging atmospheric processes. Warming from CO2 emissions causes more water to evaporate from the oceans and collect in the atmosphere, thus producing an even larger scale of warming.

The same erring media source asserted that the Met Office website showed how global temperatures have been flat for the past fifteen years. Monbiot observes in contradiction that “all the datasets, including the Met Office/CRU figures show that the current decade is the warmest in the instrumental record.”

It is evident that too many media reports about climate change cannot be trusted. The yardsticks employed are too often those of corporate business and complacent high salary politics. Not to mention sheer incompetence. In view of the extensive scale of the climate problems, the current civilisation can easily be regarded as the worst one in history; whatever the glaring flaws in former epochs and societies, none of them could achieve anywhere near the damage provided by contemporary feats of manic corporate capitalism and the “march of progress.”

On the controversial subject of nuclear power, Greenpeace states: “Despite what the nuclear industry tells us, building enough nuclear power stations to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would cost trillions of dollars, create tens of thousands of tons of lethal high-level radioactive waste, contribute to further proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, and result in a Chernobyl-scale accident once every decade.”

In America, the current situation is gloomy for scientific findings. According to environmentalist Rick Piltz, “during the past two years the global warming denial machine has launched a nihilistic, take-no-prisoners war on climate science and climate scientists that makes Bush officials seem tactically subtle and rhetorically nuanced in comparison.”

Science journal reported the debacle (R.A. Kerr and E. Kintisch,“Climatologists Feel the Heat as Science Meets Politics,” 17/12/2010). In 2000, George W. Bush pledged to regulate CO2, but when he became President, he refused to sign the crucial Kyoto Protocol which 187 countries had ratified three years before. The Bush Administration became notorious for downplaying and evading the actual and potential effects of climate change, but did not mount overt attacks on climate scientists. The recent Republican revolt against climate science is far more extremist.

Rick Piltz adds, “what we face today also includes members of Congress and other politicians, plus an army of lobbyists and political and propaganda operatives, who are essentially acting as agents for corporate interests and right-wing anti-regulatory radicalism.”

There is the further warning from Piltz that “the [American] blogosphere is awash in science-ignorant attack dogs who appear to take lessons from thugs.”

It should be well known that America and China are not the only vandals in terms of carbon dioxide pollution. The new threat from Canada, formerly a minor factor, has created alarm. Some details are relevant to mention here.

Canada needed to cut CO2 emissions only 6% by 2012. Instead the Canadian emissions rose over 25% by 2010. This setback was caused by big business exploitation in Alberta. Mining the tar sands can politely be called an eco disaster. The tar sands have to be extensively refined to produce crude oil, and the general mess is one more major strike at nature and non-corporate humanity. The many adverse consequences include “mutated fish, poisoned food, and unusual diseases.” That does not mean anything to the relentless purses pocketing the profits. Several of the world’s biggest oil corporations are reported to be involved, including Shell, Exxon, Total, and BP.

British university students have conveyed due information online, as part of their very commendable project People and Planet. The future of their generation stands to suffer from the consequences of denialism and surfeit capitalism.

Ecological sanity is currently severely offset by corporate greed. By the time that due public education is created, it may be too late, if it is not already so even now, as some ecologists do strongly imply. Yet realism is not the stuff of the ailing international consumer society, which instead substitutes distractions at every turn.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 7th 2011

ENTRY no. 36

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.