Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Peter Kingsley: tone versus vision

Peter Kingsley's vision of philosophy is as a spiritual practice; an interweaving of discourses and exercises that induced trance, altered consciousness, all aimed at cultivating insight, transforming one's experience of the ordinary world, and preparing the human being for the ultimate journey of death (and rebirth). Kingsley is capable of making the case for this with forthrightness and formidable scholarship. His first book (Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic) is a powerful and well-argued re-reading of the tradition, mainly centered on Empedocles, but moving backward and forward with care, and trawling a broad set of data (scholarly, historical, anthropological, philosophical) to make his case. This was an exciting book, similar to but different from the work of Hadot, for instance. Those who, like myself, were already well-disposed to the notion of philosophy as a tradition, were eager to see what Kingsley would do next.

What he did next was change horses. In the Dark Places of Wisdom shows just as much comfort with the ancients and with scholarship as Ancient Philosophy, but it is written in a different key, a popular key; Kingsley was taking his message to the masses. He traces the lineage of Empedocles and Parmenides back through Greek religious and oracular practice, marshaling archaeology and textual analysis along the way, but clearly trying to keep this potentially intimidating array of evidence in its right proportion compared to the real issue, which is for him always the living possibility of philosophical insight now.

I liked this new tone, and I certainly liked the project; In the dark Places of Wisdom is still I think the best place to enter Kingsley's writings unless you are immune to being impressed by and intimidated by scholarship. But there was something else about Kingsley's second book that I didn't like so much, but couldn't quite place until I read -- on my second or third attempt -- his next one, the enormous tome Reality. Almost from the first of its six hundred pages, I felt a mounting sense of irritation, which did not diminish. It was like what I sometimes feel when reading Derek Jensen, another thinker I so often agree with and yet whose knowing fury I find painful to tread through (though Jensen is a better writer). There was a smugness, and simultaneously a weird defensiveness, as if every sentence were accompanied by a "what are you staring at" attitude, a unilateral "what? what?" that oozed out. And at the same time, a missionary zeal undercut the aggression, a plaintive petition for fair hearing; but always accompanied by this too-sure separation of receptive sheep from dubious goats.

It wears on one. Just how often can one read sentences like "Of course, these conclusions are scoffed at, or more often ignored, and nothing is easier if you want to close your eyes to the truth... but if you have willingness to see, you'll have your life transformed..."?

To be fair, I made that last one up, but if you open Reality at random, you'll find plenty pretty much like it. And the same is true, alas, of Kingsley's most recent book A Story Waiting to Pierce You. This is a pity, for it is in some ways his most accessible and (despite its slenderness) most ambitious work. (A sympathetic review is here.) Kingsley here traces, or tries to trace, the Pythagorean roots of Western philosophy via Mongolian shamanism to Tibetan Bön and the proto-tradition of the Amerindians. The main hinge in Kingsley's case is the textual record pertaining to Abaris the Hyperborean, a figure who came from the north walking in a great circle and carrying a golden arrow; we know of Abaris from scattered references in a number of ancient writers, and Kingsley's footnotes refer one to Herodotus, Pausanius, Iamblichus (especially), and all the other testimonia, but also (and this it seems is the more original part of the thesis) to anthropological literature on shamanism, especially from Siberia and Mongolia, where he finds many telling parallels. Here Kingsley makes a decent case, and one could come away convinced if it were not for the sense that one was being bullied into it. His prickliness at the ancients when they exhibit skepticism (Herodotus especially) and at the moderns when they are, well, modern, makes even the best-disposed of readers (and I am already three-quarters convinced before I open his book) turn skeptical in turn. He breezes past some difficulties and lingers over others, but always with the same belaboring "he-with-eyes-to-see" attitude. For instance, pesky chronology is barely acknowledged (the fact that Abaris and Pythagoras are said to have encountered each other despite being, by other reckonings, as much as six centuries apart), in order to contest, if that is the word, the Pythagoreans' assertions about what happened in that alleged meeting. Kingsley wants to make Abaris out as a kind of link between an ancient shamanic tradition and Pythagorean theurgy, so it is important to downplay or dismiss Greek claims that the recognition or initiation was the other way around. Despite this tendentiousness, his arguments here and elsewhere are plausible and his vision is inspiring. As he makes his case for cultural diffusion, he traces particular motifs (the theme of a five-arrow bundle being unbreakable in comparison to a single arrow, for instance) from the Mongols to Greece in one direction and to the Iroquois in the other; this geographical breadth is matched by the urgency and relevance he clearly believes the tradition has (or can have) to us now. This mission notwithstanding, Kingsley is not moved by mere enthusiasm; he is confident of his ground, and the apparatus makes it clear that he knows what he's doing with this material (though I have heard occasional complaints that he does not always credit all his sources). The endnotes, at least as long as the main text, are better-written (and often less tendentious) than the book itself, and many of them are little essays. They remind me of some of Ken Wilber's good ones in the last third of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

I don't know what success Kingsley is likely to get, or has got, with his popularizing strategies. I certainly do not think that philosophy is obliged to be polite, and certainly not to confirm people in their prejudices. Philosophy will confuse you, irritate you, scare you; tell you you are wrong, tell you to change your life. If it doesn't get you in trouble, it's not philosophy. God knows Socrates pissed some people off. But to my ears, Kingsley lacks (at least on the page) a certain Socratic balance and humility, to say nothing of good humor. (This may not distress him overmuch, as Kingsley -- like Nietzsche, now that I think of it -- seems to think Socrates is about where things started to go wrong.) Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic is a fine piece of work, admirably free from his later three books' growing stylistic faults. The mix in the later work of annoying alteration between cloying congratulation (if you buy in) and brusque Bulverism (if you don't) risks burying in bluster their central urgent insight.