October 11, 2017
Episode 8: Esoteric Orientalism Part I: Ancient Barbarian Sages
When we talk about the origins of western thought, we are nearly always talking about the classical Greeks. But the Greeks themselves had a curious habit of attributing their own wisdom in the sciences, in philosophy, and in other arts such as magic and astrology, to their neighbors in the Near East. This episode is the first in a series of two podcasts examining the troubled relationship that the Greeks had with what they perceived as their more ancient contemporaries. Concentrating on Mesopotamia and Egypt, we also look at the Indian Brahmans and the Jews, all through the Greek lens which informs the later western esoteric traditions. Along the way, we discuss
- The influential theory of ‘orientalism’ propounded by Edward Said, considering some of its drawbacks and advantages,
- Greek chauvinism, which considered all non-Greeks to be ‘barbarians’, alongside the troubled admiration which the Greeks had for other cultures,
- The process by which esoteric traditions often bolster their claims by constructing an ‘authenticating apparatus’ of ancient wisdom,
- The ancient sages Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, and Moses through Greek esoteric eyes, and
- The concept of ‘Platonic Orientalism’ which has been coined to describe this phenomenon of appropriating ‘barbarian wisdom’ among the Platonists of late antiquity and beyond.
Works Discussed in this Episode:
- Hanegraaff, W., 2012. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge and Western Culture. The University Press, Cambridge.
- Hesychius, Lexicon, K. Latte (Ed.), 1953-1956. Hesychii Alexandrini Lexicon. Ejnar Munksgaard, Hauniae.
- Nietzsche, F., 1966. Also sprach Zarathustra : ein Buch für alle und keinen, in vol. 7 of the collected works, Goldmann, München.
- Said, E. W., 2003. Orientalism. Penguin, London.
- Walbridge, J., 2001. The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
On the history of the Greek adoption and adaptation of the Persian magus-sages, the classic work is
- Bidez, J. and Cumont, F., 1938. Les mages hellénisés: Zoroastre, Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque. Les Belles Lettres, Paris.
A more up-to-date treatment, with a focus on the early modern period, is
- Stausberg, M., 1998. Faszination Zarathushtra: Zoroaster und die Europäische Religionsgeschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. De Gruyter, Berlin.
On the strange story of the development of the figure of Hermes, see
- Faivre, A., 1995. The Eternal Hermes, from Greek God to Alchemical Magus. Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, MI. Trans. J. Godwin.
Of all the many books and articles published criticising Edward Said’s theory of orientalism, the one which stands out as not only pertinent, but also impassioned and beautifully-written is
- Irwin, R., 2006. For Lust of Knowing: Orientalists and their Enemies. Allen Lane, London.
Hermes, Late Antiquity, Magic, Moses, Platonist Orientalism, Zoroaster
Christian Hughes Fontaine
February 12, 2020
Thank you for all the work you have put into this series. Can you explain why you continue to use “Barbarian” when describing non-Greek philosophers? Is this done ironically or for some other reason?
February 12, 2020
Christian, you raise a very good point here. The Greek word for ‘non-Greek’ is βάρβαρος, whence our ‘barbarian’; sometimes it has a pretty neutral sense (‘non-Greek’), and at other times it invokes something not too far from the English ‘barbarian’ (i.e. ‘uncouth’, ‘savage’, ‘primitive’, &c. &c.). However, the English word pretty much always invokes these derogatory qualities, while the Greek word did so only some of the time, and so I shouldn’t use it in this way as a second-order term meaning ‘non-Greek’.
It’s just easy to fall into the trap of doing so, because the Greek authors are always going on about ‘the barbaroi this’ and ‘ the barbaroi that’. So I would say it is done out of sloppiness more than anything else. It’s a bit like how, in the context of Judaism, we use the Græco-Jewish word ‘gentile’ to refer to non-Jews, when we should really just say ‘non-Jews’.