IN THE DARK PLACES OF WISDOM
by Peter Kingsley (GoldenSufi Press, 1999)
Reviewed by Hannah M.G. Shapero
The iconoclastic scholar of ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY, MYSTERY, AND MAGIC, Peter Kingsley, has returned with another book on the philosophers and mysteries of the ancient Greek world, IN THE DARK PLACES OF WISDOM. But this is quite a different type of book than the earlier volume. If you're used to bland, impersonal, emotionless, heavy academic writing, this is a refreshing change. Kingsley in this book is not only a scholar but also a storyteller. The written voice here is intensely personal, more like a conversation than a lecture. Most of it is narrative, moving along with surprising suspense for a tale about
things that are 2500 years old. This narrative is interspersed with
Kingsley's impassioned meditations on consciousness, philosophy,
and ancient cultures. Sometimes this passion can even be
challenging - exhorting the reader to think deeper, to change
point of view. Yet this confrontation, rather than being scholarly
rhetoric, is an exact echo of the didactic tone taken by the Greek
philosopher-poets he is writing about.
The story begins with an account of the founding of a Greek colony in southern Italy. According to Kingsley (and other scholars), the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East were far more open to travel and exchange than is commonly thought. Goods, people, and most especially ideas traveled back and forth from Mesopotamia and Persia to Egypt, Crete, the Eastern Mediterranean, and from there to the Greek colonies in Italy, Sicily, and the south of France. Thus ideas and practices from the Middle East or even Central Asia might show up in what has hitherto been thought of as an "isolated" set of Greek towns in the ancient "West."
The name of Kingsley's colony is Velia, also known as "Elea." Elea is in south Italy, on the coast somewhat south of Naples. It is the discovery of carved Greek inscriptions from Velia which sets Kingsley's story in motion.
The hero of Kingsley's story is Parmenides, a philosopher from that town of Elea. Parmenides is known as the "founder of modern logic" and he used that logic to describe an ultimate Reality that is very different from the one we see with our senses. His logic proves Being - everything which exists - to be unified, changeless, motionless, eternal, all the same - a single pure, perfect fullness. He called this description the "Way of Truth." Our perceptions of a changing, moving, developing reality, with its alternations of opposites, was to him, ultimately, an illusion, which he called the "Way of Seeming."
Parmenides' philosophical writings are in poetry, rather than prose, and they begin with a vivid mythological introduction describing Parmenides' journey in a chariot, led by the Daughters of the Sun, to the Gates of Day and Night, where he meets an unnamed Goddess who is the source of all wisdom. This mythological "proem" (introduction) has been assumed to be simply decorative, a conventional way to present his hard philosophy to a Greek audience - a kind of ornate, baroque title
page for an otherwise prosaic text of philosophical logic.
For Kingsley, though, this introduction is a vital clue to what Parmenides was really about. Every detail of this mythic passage, according to Kingsley, can be decoded to show that this philosopher was far more than just a dry logician who backed himself up into a logically possible but unbelievable world-view.
The clues come from archaeological discoveries at Velia, and from Kingsley's research into ancient Greek mystical practices, which had been inherited from the shamanic cultures of Asia at the very beginning of Greek civilization. Inscriptions discovered at Velia/Elea honor a centuries-long line of healer-priests, who practiced a primeval technique of physical and mental healing known as "incubation."
Kingsley spends a lot of time talking about incubation. The
practice involved having the patient visit a temple of the healing
god Apollo, or later, Asclepius, where he or she would lie down to
sleep in a deep trance - described by the ancients in metaphors of
an animal's hibernation - and in that sacred sleep, the patient would
receive information in visionary dreams which would lead to healing. The priests were there to interpret those dreams and mediate the divine healing for the patients. Incubation is like a voyage to the Underworld - the dark place of wisdom - and often was actually done in underground caves.
The inscriptions honoring the healer-priests found at Elea name Parmenides (in the original spelling of "Parmeneides") as the founder of their sacred lineage. Parmenides the logician is also a mystical healer who journeyed, and led other journeyers, to the inner Underworld. Therefore the mythological, poetic introduction to Parmenides' poem is not at all simple conventional decoration, but shows in every detail direct references to the practice of altering consciousness by incubation, in order to enter and explore inner space.
But how does this visionary consciousness relate to the
Parmenidean logic and explorations of Being - the way of truth and
the way of illusion? Here is where Kingsley prefers to hint at, rather than openly proclaim, the deeper teachings of Parmenides. The hints point to the possibility that Parmenides' vision of Being as one complete, immobile, unified singularity is a result of a direct mystical experience of the world as it really is - a vision beyond all description which would in later days, in other cultures, be referred to as the "apophatic way" or the "way of silence and darkness." And perhaps it also reflects, whether through indirect transmission from India to Greece, or independent discovery, the non-dualistic, monistic Indian philosophy of Advaita, which became the doctrine of the Hindu Vedanta.
With that non-dual monism as Truth, Parmenides would
then proceed to the "way of seeming," explaining the world as our senses reveal it to us. Yet all along, if this theory about his teaching is true, he would know, and teach, that the brilliant world
we know and strive in was an illusion.
If the world is an illusion, then what's a philosopher to do?
Parmenides, as portrayed by Kingsley, did not withdraw from the "world of seeming" but was actively engaged in it. For the voyage to the dark place of wisdom was not followed by a retreat to an ivory tower with a PhD, but to a return to working in the world.
Kingsley, in the later chapters of the book, recounts how
Parmenides and his philosophical disciples were also engineers, designers, diplomats, warriors, and especially lawgivers. Indeed,
there was a special reverence given to lawgivers who could receive
legal wisdom from the divine Underworld!
IN THE DARK PLACES OF WISDOM is a compelling book, with a compelling story. Kingsley backs up everything he says with references to primary and secondary texts. The words, and their intensity, speak for themselves. Indeed, in one passage of the book (page 120) he says that, much like proverbial magical spells, words have their own intrinsic power to transform consciousness, as they are heard and remembered and drop from consciousness into one's inner mind. There, the words are like seeds, growing in the darkness all by themselves, until they emerge in the fullness of time.
This book will be too subtle for some readers, who hanker after "ancient wisdom revealed" and mystical special effects. Academic classicists will react nervously to Kingsley's daring interpretation of Parmenides' mythical poetic passage and his association of Parmenides with irrational mysticism and shamanic practices. But for those who are up for the adventure and the journey, for those who are willing to pay attention and make the effort, even if it causes the world to spin a bit strangely - if you are not afraid of looking into the darkness - this book is for you.