Is Philosophy Magic? The Roots of Reason in Parmenides
Samuel Loncar on Peter Kingsley
If you hate heresy, stop now.
This is a story of illness, madness, and the end of what we are. I don’t recommend it. If you want to come along, we have to start with poetry and our betrayal of ourselves.
“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” This line from one of Auden’s poems often brings to my mind another powerful passage, this time from James Baldwin. In his chapter, “The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American,” he wrote: “Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.” Our intangible dreams, our interior life, make up the life of our spirit, to which Baldwin thought the artist must bear witness, as Jamil Drake explains in this issue.
There are few historians or scholars of the spiritual life in our time. The subject is in deserved disrepute. The spiritual today is either anodyne self-help, moralist censure, or creepy pseudo-religious cults, like those that have shaped California’s tech culture, which often claim to be scientific and offer ways to “hack” the body and mind to achieve better “outcomes,” usually just brazenly pilfering practices from spiritual traditions, like Sam Harris does, and then selling them to people for whom the origins of the practices are as irrelevant as the cultures that still revere them in their full context. These methods of enlivening late capitalism each have in common enslavement to commerce, which stands at the farthest possible remove from the spiritual life, and betrayal of the source material, which stands at the essence of who we are as moderns.
Mainstream media is no help, with the New Yorker’s idea of spiritual insight being Adam Gopnik, an admirable flânuer but middling philosophe. Indeed, mainstream media is so profoundly incompetent on matters of the spirit that the New York Times published in 2013 a story that discussed Easter. In it, they misidentified the nature and purpose of the holiday, only the most central event in the calendar that determines why today people globally see themselves as living in the year 2021: that is, two-thousand and twenty-one years after the “common era” marked by the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whose resurrection from the dead Easter celebrates. The Times had to publish a correction to their readers for their confusion. In such a world, we can hardly be surprised that the true spiritual revolutions would lie in plain sight, unnoticed by the crowd and unknowable to the arbiters of All the News That’s Fit to Print (and don’t get me wrong: I love the Times, especially the food section, and crushed on David Remnick in grad school).
If you have a taste for heresy, please allow me to introduce you to a person, a name, that spells something deeper and darker than what can be assimilated into the culture chatter. Useless at cocktail parties, he offers something better: your Death, should you choose to accept it.
To serious scholars of ancient philosophy, Peter Kingsley is a familiar and formidable name. Over the course of his career, he has offered a revolutionary reassessment of ancient philosophy, tracing its true path not through the West, where Kingsley sees it falling rapidly through Plato and Aristotle into a forgetting (this can remind one of Heidegger, of whose work Kingsley is contemptuous), but through the East, where it was preserved in particular by the Islamic tradition of Sufism. His first book, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition, published with the Clarendon press of Oxford University, presented his dissertation research under the great M.L. West in a conventional academic form, bristling with detailed footnotes, painstaking exegesis, and breathtaking historical range all deployed to make a closely argued and incontrovertible case that ancient philosophy is entirely enmeshed in ancient religion and magic. Subsequent books continued with all of these rigors, but fled from the confines of conventional academic style, in which one politely pretends not to exist as a fully descended human of flesh, bone, and desire.
Kingsley is a dazzling writer who makes arcane subject matter awake before one’s eyes into the very life we have always been seeking. The most minute detail of a Greek or Latin or Arabic word blooms into a panorama uniting a legend of an ancient Greek magician to a wonder-inducing account of medieval Islamic mystics as the true inheritors of a meditation practice that is the essence of ancient’s philosophy’s creative power, the very root of our culture, in Kingsley’s telling.
Kingsley’s work returns the path to its root, or arkhe, in the most enigmatic of ancient philosophers, Empedocles and Parmenides. He has recently republished his major book on Parmenides, Reality, and it tells a story from which there is no escape. One can fight it in denial, or accept it in submission. Kingsley will tell you your response does not matter. What is, is, and what is, has been, is, and will be. At the same time, nothing is as it seems. Trickery, deception, beguiling enchantments allure and dazzle; words wind their way through footnotes and capture the mind; traveling from the ancient Greek world to Tibet and back, into medieval Persia, they capture the body, flowing on like a river in which one is caught in a terrifying delight, a sense of rushing we know not where, except where we have always remained yet never known.
The trickery begins with the name itself. For Peter Kingsley is a name that hides another name. Among many contemporary indigenous people, as throughout the ancient world, names are sacred and often kept secret except among intimates, kin of the heart. Brothers of bone, sisters of stone, true names bring the soul home. This home of the heart makes names places of power.
To name is the primordial act of primeval Human, and so the Earthling (our ’Adam) of Jewish Scriptures woke to the world and gave birth to names, sprouting from his wonder as shoots from a seed. This is why ancient peoples regard names, especially divine names, with a reverence and an intensity of interest that baffles many people today.
It is also is why divine names in Greek texts are rarely explicit, especially in mystery religions, where the term “the god” is often used, so the sacred name is not profaned through public utterance to the uninitiated. Christians fail to see this happening in their own Bible, even though the most famous philosophical passage of the New Testament, the opening of John’s Gospel, speaks of the Logos facing “the god,” a most strange appellation when translated literally, as I have done, but most translations do not. For the text then immediately adds that “god was the Logos,” dropping the definite article, which it resumes a sentence later. All of this is straightforward enough in its context, but that context has never been rendered into an English translation. The results would shock and offend pious sensibilities.
This is the effect of Kingsley’s work to academic philosophers unused to having to reckon with that little thing called historical reality, which presents a scandal to those who want ancient philosophy to conform to the modern world and its dull and death-like culture of planned obsolescence, where we feast on ephemera and mock notions of anything Lasting, even as we love stories of the pyramids, watch clips of Ancient Aliens, and devour novels that are fantastic modern retellings of ancient magical myths. Kingsley’s scrupulous historical scholarship brings to light the true power of ancient names that have become for us simply historical items on quizzes, or something in which a person might specialize for a career in scholarship.
Using names in the manner scholars call “magical” – to invoke the named being, to curse it, or to bless it – is in fact normal, even today. When our parents yell at us as children, we all know the meaning of our full name, usually marked by the use of one’s middle name(s). This is doing exactly what any even charlatan ritual magician would require: a full name of the entity, so that its presence could be contacted through the invocation enacted by the name’s very utterance. Legal niceties preserve the same degree of scrupulous formality that magicians have used, and indeed lawyers are the only class in modern society who are almost as careful, due to professional demands, about appellations as were our ancient (and not-so-ancient) ancestors in acts of worship or magic (distressingly hard to distinguish, for those who care to try).
Indeed, many readers know that such practices are hardly unmodern. They simply are not part of the elite white culture, which has forgotten its manners along with its memory. Only through the invincible ignorance of white Christian-now-secular moderns, the global ruling class who oversaw the past few calamitous centuries of progress – only to this ruling elite, a benighted unconscious sect of Protestantism, has common and ancestral wisdom become a laughing matter, or something requiring special scare-quotes, or requiring special scholarly description as: “the magical.” What a strange word, Magic.
Academics use the category of magic, well, often magically, to dismiss the phenomenon they are studying, to banish the subject matter from living contact with their present reality. Ancient philosophy is over there, good and dead, and we enlightened modern philosophers and scholars are over here, living, present, pristine and modern, washed clean of ancient superstitions. But magic is rather sticky, hard to wash off from the hands or the delicate underside of the modern mind, to which it clings like a sinister visitor who has always arrived, but is still waiting to announce itself.
Whether we believe in magic or not, whether we honor names or not, names are magical and magical are our names. They are magical because we answer to them, and through them make the world answerable to us. Try just inventing a name that “sticks.” It is impossible to do so ad libido, even more impossible than arbitrarily inventing a word. Coining effective terms is a dark art, and marketers spend a great deal of time and money phishing through the minds of the masses to find words that stick. In general, they fail, and thus we re-use the same words, like Democracy Science Freedom, and a host of other lesser powers, through which politicians and hucksters alike sell their specious wares.
Superstition, for example, is the name we give to things we dismiss without argument, essentially a form of apopotraic magic. To say philosophy is magical is of course absurd, outrageous, a vile staining of rationality’s pure white robes with the muck of (typically “oriental and decadent”) superstition. It is therefore a challenging fact that a person following the path of ancient Greek philosophy will be beguiled by a strange world where superstition and ironclad argument seem to morph into each other like shapes in the mist, rising into distinctness only to fade imperceptibly into the night.
That the brilliant clarity and rationality of Greek philosophy begins to blur into haziness is well known to the minority of scholars who take history seriously. Innocent observers unaware of academia might think people who specialize in ancient Greek philosophy would have a profound knowledge of its historical context. This is not the case, about almost anything in academia, including ancient philosophy. Historical context in academia is something everyone, often including historians, can professionally afford to ignore.
The result is a division between the statistical majority of otherwise excellent academics who conform to the trends of their field as if they were god-given, and the minority of scholars who attempt to see the past in terms of its fullest available historical context, which inevitably demands going beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries. The common response that these resurrectors of apparently dead worlds are mere antiquarians is belied by the evident facts and betrays ignorance of how modern classical scholarship created the ancient Greek world as a model of modern ideals. That classical scholarship might be drastically implicated in the anachronistic projection of, say, Western imperialist values, is not surprising to anyone who has been following that field and its travails.
So while it may initially seem shocking that academic fields would ignore large swaths of available evidence if it troubles their discipline, this is nothing but normal. We are only human. Discipline exists for a reason, and always carries a whip.
The Lash of the Past
Seeing the past as a foreign territory with its own view of the world is even harder than understanding a different culture contemporary to our own. Even with extended exposure to another culture with the intent to appreciate it, the capacity to relativize our cultural assumptions is an arduous and rather rare achievement. Yet this achievement is exactly what a historian of the ancient world must not only realize but, even more difficult, convey to their students and readers.
This unreasonable and improbable combination of historical insight with communicative power means that, even in the minority of deeply historical scholars of Greek thought, truly landmark achievements of scholarship are unpredictable and treasured, even if it takes time for the wider world to appreciate them. They are also inevitable, even if some scholars try to skirt around them. No one who works on Greek philosophy can ignore Kingsley’s scholarship. A reckoning with Kingsley is ineluctable because the quality of his work is unignorable.
Why, then, have you almost certainly never heard about ancient Greek philosophy being inseparable from magic and religion? For the reason already given: we are human, all too human. Kingsley’s work is most inconvenient to the dominant cultural story of philosophy as a precursor to modern secularity. Moreover, Kingsley committed academic high treason. After publishing his brilliant first book with Oxford, he committed the ultimate crime de lèse-majesté in academia: he revealed in all his subsequent work that he took his scholarship seriously in his own life, and, worse to many of his colleagues, he placed himself in the very tradition of philosophy he describes, saying it is only because of that living tradition that his writing is possible.
And the problem for all who may be skeptical, especially academic philosophers, is that Kingsley provides unanswerable arguments for the claim that ancient philosophers were often mystics and, god forbid, magicians.
This raises the disquieting prospect of Kingsley himself as a magician, one whose spells are words rooted in the depth of footnotes fit to frighten the unwary reader who might now reasonably think Kingsley’s books are form of spiritual practice and self-help. They are, but the Self they help is not the puny, craven ego childish adults imagine to be the wholeness of who they are. This windowless ego, cut off from the sun of dreams and darkness, lit by the fluorescent glare of animal craving brightened by cruel human cunning, can only tense, flee, or fight – pure folly – in the chthonic light of Kingsley’s dark learning.
To be concrete, consider his 2018 book Catafalque. A two-volume work, the entire second volume is careful footnotes, written in a smaller font than the narrative first volume. This is the norm of Kingsley’s word-to-research ratio. On average, every book he has written has almost the same length in footnotes as in its primary text, if not longer. This must be stressed to shake readers into an awareness of why Kingsley cannot be ignored: his work is simply too good, and whatever one makes of it, that remains true.
Kingsley makes it perfectly plain that no philosopher today or in the past who pits reason against religion, rationality against mysticism, or science against magic, has any understanding of what philosophy really was. Which means their claims to speak on behalf of reason, science, or philosophy are like a fanatical sect claiming to be the only true Americans, living in a compound on a remote island, proclaiming themselves to be the real American continent, nation, and state. Absurd! You may think so. For how could such a sect of True Americans justify such madness?
But consider, guard down, this question: what is easier than not knowing? What is easier than believing what the authority says? And why do so many read Margaret Atwood novels if somehow, somewhere, many of us don’t believe something like this has actually happened, or easily could?
And what is easier, finally, than staying comfortable? A prominent psychologist of happiness was recently presented with a thought-experiment, a famous version of which was used by Jeremy Bentham. The idea is simple: would you prefer to live in a completely simulated world with no relation to reality, but which was a world of pure pleasure and personal satisfaction (for Bentham it was: better to be a happy hog or a troubled human?), or to live in the real world, even if knowing reality came at the price of suffering? The psychologist, an excellent researcher and teacher, answered without hesitation: Yes to pure pleasure (implying: let the philosopher’s “reality” be damned).
This answer shows an admirable honesty and confidence, for many might be at least slightly troubled by the apt analogy of The Matrix, since The Matrix is the Wachowski’s inspired retelling of Plato’s Republic. In the journey from the cave of apparent meaning to the blinding light of the real world, Neo, new, natal, is saved by the agency of form, Morpheus, and the love and power of Trinity. Through the hope, faith, and saving sacrifice of these characters, Neo begins to believe. When he sees for himself what he first only believes on behalf of another, everything he thought of as his humanity begins to disappear. His truth dies.
Ispent my first life, inspired by Socrates, looking for the meaning of truth, until the search had left me “blind and burnt,” my body dying of a horrifyingly severe and incurable auto-immune disease. Seven years, during which I started a school, finished a PhD, and re-founded this magazine, seven years of illness against which I fought and fought, denied and denied, seven years to face, as I was approaching my PhD’s completion, the fact that I was dying, that I had no career prospects with a body as broken as mine, smashed to earth by my mind’s flight, a childhood I did not understand, and a system that feasts on the brilliant young with an eyeless maw dripping youthful blood through the halls of academe, temple of the living dead.
I could not, for all my love and apparent talent for truth, face the lies at the center of my life. I have only compassion and respect for the people I have described as the majority of scholars, for now you see the truth: they are us. We are all bone and blood, bleeding at the slightest slice of reality’s edge, trying to just “do our part,” trying just to “make our mark,” trying, trying, trying. . . Dying is the name of that trying, and as I once writhed naked before my helpless family in mind-ending agony, my body lit with pain’s fire in every pore and cell, I thought: if there were a gun in this house, I would beg to be shot. Such firsts are never forgotten. The encounter with death, fought, unsought, especially under duress but at all times, is absolutely sacred. To force it on another, or to harbor contempt for those unwilling to stare into that eerie bony grin, the dark cloud under the black hood, is the surest sign a person has not come to terms with their own death. Death is not academic. It is the veil of the real, and one fine day its face will shine its darkness upon you, ready or not. Here it comes.
Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of God’s ikon-hewing hands leafing through the “dark Book of the beginning,” in which it is written: if you cannot die well, you have not lived well. So also, Lao Tzu says of those who love sharp weapons, and use them gladly: “They will not have the death they desire.”
And here we now are, standing in a windowless prison, a cave lit by lanterns in the morning, as an Athenian shaman sees this fear to face death in his disciples, and says: “I will sing a spell to cast away your fear of death.” And what is the spell this shaman sings, what does this medicine man chant to his children? Arguments. Science. Philosophy.
Arguments about the soul, the body, and the art of practicing death before you die, so dying becomes the first true step to living. That happened. It is the most famous scene of death in Western writing, shaping the Christian gospels and all martyrdom accounts. All saints live in the shadow of Socrates. But where did he learn his spells, whence the deep magic cast in death’s darkness? Peter Kingsley whispers hints and argues the answers, answers taking us into the murky underworld of Hades and his Queen, the Maiden, Persephone, shadow mother of Mary, where a man named Parmenides, a priest, like Socrates, of the great god Apollo, traveled as only shamans can, to Hades and back again, emerging with a poem. And in the poem? The root of Logic, of Reason itself.
The very “law” of noncontradiction was born in hell, given by the goddess, proclaimed by the priest Parmenides in poetry, and scattered to the four winds of the world, torn by the wolves of Time, dismembered fragments of a still living body, held in pious confusion in the temple of Diels-Kranz and other storehouses of the soul. And Peter Kingsley, in Reality, will take you to the body and show you how to breath the spirit through the ancient poem, to see how it has always been breathing you. This is the journey of his book, or spell, Reality. Kingsley can lead you to hell’s gates, but he would be the first to admit: whether you can ever find your way back, once entering, is out of his hands. That lies in the lap of the gods.
In his achievement, Kingsley has rotated right side up Nietzsche’s image of Apollo with better history; he has fully absorbed as few have, and corrected as few are able, Dodd’s The Greeks and the Irrational; and he has transformed over two-thousand years of writing on the founders of Greek philosophy (Socrates in his piety would have hated the idea of “presocratics” – they were his ancestors, the root from which his tree grew and returned when Athens cut it down).
And it was not by accident. We should pay attention when an artist says how their art has happened. The primal root of his scholarship and magic is his own transformation through Empedocles and Parmenides, which led him to his academic work, just as it was for the ancient Greek sages, who, like Kingsley, helped me find a way to accept my death, and heal an incurable disease, bestowing on me ever after wonder and gratitude for every moment, every movement without pain, every breath I breathe, leading me through my lies to healing ignorance.
All the baubles of erudition or desired glory were strewn across the path of love, leaving me with the joy of few truths in an infinite sea of unknowing. What truths? Those of Socrates, like the Buddha: That it is always wrong to harm another. That harming another is harming oneself. And this eviscerating gift: to know death, and no longer be afraid. But I also know, and am compelled to say: if you have not faced death until you see a friend, you are right to fear. You should be very afraid. Fear keeps us alive, until it kills us.
Unconquered death is a tyrant, and if you read Peter Kingsley, rashly or at the wrong time, you may meet Death unawares and unprepared, ready or not. Here it comes.
So read Reality and more if you dare. But remember the tradition of orthodox Lithuanian Yeshivas, where, as my teacher Paul Franks once told me, Maimonides was visible but tucked away on a shelf, not to be read by students yet present to their training. He was honored, but a heretic, a danger. A day will come to pull the book off the shelf, and from that day, as from this day, there will be no returning. You now know why. “We beheld our nakedness, and now we philosophize for our salvation.” So said another ancestor, an archon of the modern world.
Kingsley’s magic in the service of philosophy is reverence for his ancestors, those who speak through him, who have given him his life. And as you reading face certain death, if you are blessed, so you too live in Socrates’s shadow. And as he was sheltered by the shadows of the Ionian mages, through whom he found the keys to life and death, may you, too, find those keys, and in them, your heart’s desire.
But remember. This is just the Beginning.
Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. He is writing a book on science as a spiritual revolution for Columbia University Press. Learn more at www.samuelloncar.com. Tweets @samuelloncar