Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis (Hutton & Reincarnation, Part Six)

"Did it ever occur in true Rome, that a Lucretius was denounced to the consuls for having the system of Epicurus into verse; a Cicero, for having repeatedly written, that there is no pain after death; or that a Pliny or Varro was accused of having peculiar notions of the divinity? The liberty of thinking was unlimited among the Romans. Those of harsh, jealous, and narrow minds, who amongst us have endeavored to crush this liberty -- the parent of our knowledge -- the mainspring of the understanding -- have made chimerical dangers into their pretext; they have forgotten that the Romans, who carried this liberty much further than we do, were nevertheless our conquerors, our lawgivers; and that the disputes of schools have no more to do with government than the tub of Diogenes had with the victories of Alexander."
[Voltaire, from the entry for Soul in his Philosophical Dictionary]

According to Ronald Hutton, "The concept of reincarnation comes from the East, being especially associated with Hindu and Buddhist thought. It reached Europe, like so much else, in the 18th century, and was especially influential in Britain because the British conquest of India, followed by Ceylon and Burma, opened a highway for it. The first person to make it widely known among English and French intellectuals was Sir William Jones ...."

The first edition of Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique was published in 1764, when William Jones was only 18 years of age and still a student at Oxford. Below is an English translation of the entry for Metamorphosis, Metempsychosis:

"Is it not quite natural that all the metamorphoses seen on earth led in the east, where everything has been imagined, to the notion that our souls pass from one body to another? A nearly imperceptible speck becomes a worm; this worm becomes a butterfly. An acorn is transformed into an oak, an egg into a bird. Water becomes cloud and thunder. Wood changes into fire and ashes. In short everything in nature appears to be metamorphosed. What was physically seen in the crudest bodies was soon extended to souls, which were regarded as light forms. The idea of metempsychosis is perhaps the most ancient dogma of the known universe, and it still reigns in a large part of India and China.

"It is also very natural that all the metamorphoses we witness should have produced those ancient fables which Ovid collected in his admirable works. Even the Jews had their metamorphoses. If Niobe was changed to marble, Edith, wife of Loth, was changed into a statue of salt. If Eurydice remained in hell because she looked behind her, it is for the same indiscretion that the wife of Hoth was deprived of human nature. The little town in which lived Baucis and Philemon was changed into a lake; the same thing happened to Sodom. The daughters of Anius changed water to oil; in the scriptures we have almost the same metamorphosis, but true and more sacred. Cadmus was changed into a serpent; Aarod's rod also became a serpent.

"The gods very often changed themselves into men. The Jews never saw the angels in any but human form: the angels ate with Abraham. In his Epistle to the Corinthians Paul says that the angel of Satan slapped him: Angelos Satana me colaphiset."

Under Viands, we have this:
"I think that the Brachmans, so anterior to the Jews, might well have been divided also; but they were the first who imposed upon themselves the law of not eating any animal. As they believed that souls passed and repassed from human bodies to those of beasts, they would not eat their relations. Perhaps their best reason was the fear of accustoming men to carnage, and inspiring them with ferocious manners.

"We know that Pythagoras, who studied geometry and morals among them [that is, the 'Brachmans'], embraced this humane doctrine, and brought it to Italy. His disciples followed it a very long time: the celebrated philosophers, Plotinus, Jamblichus, and Porphyry, recommended and even practiced it;- though it is very rare to practice what is preached. The work of Porphyry on abstinence from meat [De Abstentia], written in the middle of our third century, and very well translated into our language by M. de Burigni, is very much esteemed by the learned; but it has not made more disciples among us than the book of the physician Hequet ... The work of Porphyry is addressed to one of his disciples, named Firmus, who it is said turned christian, to have the liberty of eating meat and drinking wine ... He speaks not of metempsychosis, but he regards animals as our brethren, because they are animated like ourselves; they have the same principles of life; they have, as well as ourselves, ideas, sentiment, memory industry. They want but speech; if they had it, should we dare to kill and eat them; should we dare to commit these fratricides?"
And under Resurrection:

"Many grave schoolmen clearly see purgatory and resurrection in Virgil. As for purgatory, I am obliged to acknowledge that is expressly in the sixth book ... Nor could the kinsfolk of that day obtain from pagan priests an indulgence to abridge their sufferings for ready money. The ancients were much more severe and less simoniacal than we are, notwithstanding that they imputed so many foolish actions to their gods. What would you have? Their theology is made up of contradictions, as the malignant say is the case with our own.

"When their purgation was finished these souls went and drank of the waters of Lethe, and instantly asked that they might enter fresh bodies and again see daylight. But is this resurrection? Not at all: it is taking and entirely new body, not resuming the old one; it is a metempsychosis, without any relation to the manner in which we of the true faith are to rise again.

"The souls of the ancients did, I must acknowledge, make a very bad bargain in coming back to this world for seventy years at most to undergo once more all that we know is undergone in a life of seventy years, and then suffer another thousand years' discipline. In my humble opinion, there is no soul that would not be tired of this everlasting vicissitude of so short a life and so long a penance."

Also, under the entry for Soul, Voltaire states that "Pythagoras had been a cock, his relations swine; but no one found fault with this; his sect was cherished and revered by all, except for the cooks and those who had beans to sell." And then later on in the same section: "The historian Josephus, who was a Pharisee, tells us in book XIII of his Antiquities that the Pharisees believed in metempsychosis." [It should be noted that this interpretation of Josephus is not universally accepted.]

Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:
  1. Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
  2. Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
  3. Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
  4. Part Four: "Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah"
  5. Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
  6. Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
  7. Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis


SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Thank you for compiling this preponderance of evidence. Given all this, it is shocking that a university scholar could overlook it all. Meanwhile, those snide and ultimately shallow scoffers who for a brief time got to look down their noses at other pagans because they now felt superior due to seemingly scholarly backing can be chastened by the fact that many of us, unwilling to descend to their level, knew the truth all along. And how is one to trust the word of someone certified to be familiar with the archives who shows such astounding ignorance of such monuments within it? Any of us might be excused for overlooking the overwhelming minutiae within the archives, but to remain so ignorant about the classics and their lasting legacy? Astonishing. But the wheel, I think, is turning, and returning to some sense. The outrageous claims of many on all sides can be set aside for common sense, and you will prove to have been one of the architects in this new and restored edifice.

Robertt Mathiesen said...

It's scant consolation, Siegfried, that I have to offer. Being a professor (retired) at an Ivy League university myself, I can tell you that almost all published scholarship, at least in the humanities and in history, is highly *provisional*, and all of it is always subject to correction. Also, any scholar worth his salt knows that everything he has published only *approximates* to "the way things actually were/are."

If he is at all honest with himself, he knows, too, that much of his work will someday be made obsolete by the work of younger scholars who, perhaps, are yet to be born. Only the charlatans and fools among our ranks think otherwise.

So why be a scholar? The journey of a thousand miles is only to be accomplished step by tiny step, and there may be no end to the road at all. We scholars of today are the heirs of scholarly traditions that are older than the pyramids of Egypt; and yet our best efforts will seem as child's play to scholars who come after us five thousand years from now. Any single scholar, even the whole work of any single generation of scholars, is just a step or two down a very long road toward a destination none of us can imagine in any detail. Scholarship is a calling -- much more than it is a profession, and very much more than it is a job.

Along that road, too, much will be lost from one century to the next. For example, the Pagan author Celsus, writing against Christians in the 2nd century, tells us that Plato had something to say about the Third Eye. No extant work of Plato now mentions the Third Eye, but what we have of Plato is only his exoteric writings, and maybe only some of them. Plato's esoteric writings have been wholly lost to the ravages of time, and with them whatever he had written about the Third Eye. Or, perhaps, it was a part of Plato's teaching that he wholly refused to put into writing, which had come down to Celsus by oral tradition. (Plato mentions this unwritten teaching of his in one of his Letters.)

(By the way, this example is also relevant to Apuleius's argument about Western vs. Eastern sources for certain esoteric teachings. The Third Eye is another of those things in Western esoteric doctrine that are credited by some scholars to the influence of the East. The truth may be more complicated than that.)

So we have to be careful in supposing that Plato's extant writing give us everything of importance that he taught. They did not. We must also consider the evidence of later Platonists whose teachings may descend from Plato's esoteric writings or from his unwritten teaching.

[continued in the next post]

Robert Mathiesen said...

[continued from the previous post]

Nor is it just *ancient* esoteric writings (or unwritten teachings) that have been lost. I can think of a few seminal esoteric works published in the late 1800s or even the early 1900s, which anyone might have purchased at the time, that have come down to our days in only one known copy, or have even been wholly lost.

So no scholar, working at a given time and place, can ever get access to all of the relevant sources. And even the sources that he can access are often so vast that no one scholar can work through them all in a single lifetime and still manage to keep everything straight that he has found in them.

In short, perfect, flawless scholarship is n ideal that is beyond the strength and ability of any mortal scholar. We scholars do what we can, but you should never take anything we publish as the last word on any subject. You should correct us whenever you have found evidence that we did not take into account.

The best of us will thank you for correction openly. Many of us will insist on a hard argument to make you prove your point before yielding -- and that is only fair, I think, since we treat our fellow scholars in the same way. Others, being all too human, will only grudgingly admit that they were wrong and you were right.

But if you ever find a scholar, so-called, who absolutely refuses to believe in principle that he could ever be wrong, or who will not admit that there have ever been errors in anything he has published, then that person is not a scholar at all, but a charlatan, or possibly a fool. (For whatever it may be worth, I have not found Hutton to be such a person.)

For some reason, outsiders always seem surprised to hear such things about scholars, and sometimes they are even disappointed to hear them. Don't be! Know what we actually are, and forget about dreams of what you would like us to be. Knowledge is power, and knowledge of what sort of people scholars actually are will empower the reader.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Robert, a scholar needs to have the basic facts right. Uncertainty and errors in scholarship should be due to genuine difficulties and ambiguities in the available evidence, not to the kind of base ignorance that a decent high school education should have removed, as is the case with Hutton.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Apuleius, as far as "should" goes, and the importance of a "basic high school education," you're right on target, and I also agree with you.

But Siegfried seemed to me to expect more of scholars than they are, in the very nature of things, able to give him, and I was addressing that. Perhaps I misunderstood him.

Now to address your quite valid points. As an insider, I can tell you that "should" is often miles apart from "is."

A "basic high school education" seems to be a thing of the distant past in most cities of the United States. To judge by what I have seen, a significant number of professors with tenure at Ivy League universities (including my own) never got one.

Also, accurate and exhaustive scholarship is sometimes mocked in principle by my humanistic or historical colleagues in the Ivy League, who deride it as old-fashioned Germanic pedantry. Their goals as academics are to keep up with the newest trends and to display all the right political and moral shibboleths.

In short, the institutional rot runs deep and wide, and it is firmly entrenched by now. A good number of scholars do what they can as individuals to uphold the best traditions of scholarship in the humanities and in history, but they have little institutional support as they do so. And they seem to grow fewer with each new decade.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Dr. Mathiesen,

You're absolutely correct to point out that scholars are human, like everyone else. This fact precedes a problem of following trends within the tides of existing scholarship, and lacking the boldness to step outside these tides to gain higher ground from which the larger momentum of the archives can be grasped. But the bold are often quickly chastened for stepping out of line, with rigor, erudition, dedication notwithstanding. I think of Martin Bernal, on the bolder side (and whatever one may think of his thesis, rigor, erudition, and dedication characterize it throughout) ; and Carlo Ginzburg on the still-bold but milder side, and both in their own ways, the one more than the other, have been chastized and scolded to trim their well-founded theories within the lines determined by the clique.

I've been pointing out the downfalls of primate politics on scholarship for years. There's been some good work written, for example, on how even in the hard sciences, disputes with a wide range of informed opinion are often quickly roped in by the stomping display-behavior of a prestigious alpha-male within the community. That may suffice for gorillas, but not my mind!

I don't expect scholars to be perfect. I'd like them to be trained in courage and creativity. The right hand needs the fetters of the archives held in unrelenting examination and close scrutiny, but the left hand needs the wings of imagination. While we're all human, surely it's not too much to ask scholars to behave a little more humbly when their display-behaviors stumble before the contents of classics any one of us can pick up for a couple bucks at a thrift store!

It's inexcusable, actually. Even Margot Adler's first edition of "Drawing Down the Moon" made it very clear that pagans as a whole are fairly educated and familiar with the classics, and so for the likes of Hutton to suggest that we don't understand what we're reading when we see obvious parallels between our practice and ancient practices documented on the page is just a circus! And while I understand that newly-emerging subcultures are themselves often a circus, full of charlatans and petty rivalries (demonstration of which I will give full credit to Hutton), such is the state of a burned-down forest in its beginnings stages of succession.

Scholars such as yourself who are able to hold your line while at the same time remaining humble I have the greatest respect for.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Siegfreid: bonus points for mentioning Bernal. He was first introduction to Hermeticism!