November 16, 2017
Episode 13: From Mystery to ‘Mysticism’
The ancient mystery-cults centred on initiatory, secret rituals. Modern mysticism is a term which is much harder to define, but nowadays is usually understood as involving something to do with ecstatic states of consciousness and personal religious experience. The term ‘mysticism’ is derived from the Greek term mystikos, but we would be wrong to think that the ancient mystery-cults had anything to do with what mysticism means nowadays.
In this episode we trace the secret history of the evolution of the term ‘mysticism’ and of its relatives like ‘mystic’ and ‘mystical’ from their original context of reference to secret rituals to the fully-fledged modern concept of mysticism. Along the way we meet some characters who will be appearing again in the podcast, including Plotinus, Proclus, the Pseudo-Dionysius, Marguerite Porette, Meister Eckhardt, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolph Otto, William James, Aleister Crowley, René Guenon, and Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts.
Works Cited in this Episode
- Burkert, W., 1983. Homo Necans. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- James, W. Marty, M. E. (Ed.), 1982. The Varieties of Religious Experience : A Study in Human Nature. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth/New York, NY.
- Otto, R., 1917. Das Heilige – über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen. CH Beck, München.
- Proclus, Saffrey, H. & Westerink, L. (Ed.), 1997. Théologie Platonicienne. Les Belles Lettres, Paris. 3.18.
- Proudfoot, W., 1985. Religious Experience. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA. P. 343.
- Ross, W. (Ed.), 1952. Aristotelis fragmenta selecta. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Frag. 15, p. 87.
- Stern, Roger and Sutton, Tom, with Chan, Ernie, 1978. Doctor Strange #28; Marvel Comics.
Initiation, Mystery-Cult, Mysticism, Overview, Religious Experience
September 11, 2019
This marvelous summary is occasionally marred by idolatry. I mean you seem to getting hung up on images, representations and especially words.
You say that you are looking at the evolutionary history of a bunch of words. But you are not. You are, at the very least, consider the history of concepts. We can have access to these concepts by the way they are shown through words. Thus, while the meaning of the root ‘mystic*’ may have changed since the mystery cults, the idea of mystical experience may persist through Heraclitus, Plato and on to Elkhart. A presumption that concepts, practices, types of experience or philosophies are invented when words/meaning are invented, is distracting. Even to say that a practice or philosophy is invented when a concept is invented could be destracting.
Perhaps there are two reasons why I see you and the scholarly discussion distracted by idols. One is my lack of knowledge and scholarly background. Which is true. I only follow my interest. Another might be because I am a mystic. I am the very anthropological object of the discussion, and so I can’t see the outside of the subject as the anthropologist (scholars) can. I have never heard a mystic admit to being one, nor the enlightened declare it. So clearly I am neither. What I mean is only that my view is the very opposite of Seaford’s sociological reductionism.
If this point of view is helpful then let me say: either don’t distract yourself or don’t both. You are right to use these words towards a definition of the mystical: immediate (inward), insensible, inexpressible (= ineffable), universal (= divine), essential (= elementary).
Here is an entry level example: the number two. What is two? Is it the numeral? No. Is it two dots? Is it two stones? No. Then where is it? Contemplate two for a while. Notice how what is going on here is different from signification and representation. That instruction or recipe is better than any definition or description for getting someone on the way to the mystical.
‘Two‘ in itself cannot be said. It can only be shown. But some can’t see it that way. And if they can’t then that is where the conversation stops. When Wittgenstein distinguished between ‘showing’ and ‘saying’, and said that all that is philosophical is unsayable, Russell could not understand him. It really does seem that Russell (as many other Aristotelians) cannot see how ultimately all is showing. He railed against continental mysticism because he found it incredible. He wrote his ‘Principia Mathematica’ to try to snuff out mathematical mysticism, to try to make everything fully said — including eventually, after hundreds of pages, the number two!
Now look at the words I have just used here. In doing this showing-by-words we could get hung up on the words. Take “seeing”. Must experience have an object? No, not in the sense of a sensible object or a gramatical object. Contemplate the sentence ‘I am’. Sum. Consider the description: “In meditation I experienced an expansive brilliance.” If Locke can’t see, if Kant can’t, then the conversation stops.
Don’t get hung up on the word ‘divine’ (theo*). What does it mean in Plato? Surely ‘Gods’, as in Zeus & Co, is a bit reductive. Perhaps his ‘divine madness’ and ‘en-thus-iasm’ has more to do with the above attributes of the gods aligned with mysticism, than it does with any one of the Olympians. In that case, there is not conflict with Buddhist mysticism.
Don’t get hung up on the Mystery secrets and ritual: There are many ways to show the unsayable, and in most traditions there is a problem with the path used by philosophy – i.e., showing-by-words. But, as you say, Heraclitus used Riddles and Plato was the trickster. It is Aristotle who tried to ‘say’ where they were illogical. You are not doing a history of words. Nor even of concepts. Concepts and practices are difficult to separate at the level of mystical. (Think again of ‘two’ and rites and practices that can show it.)
Don’t get hung up on cultural difference: I don’t see a lot of mystical schools spending a lot of time pronouncing their exclusivity. Usually they say there are many ways to go. Yes it is true that they might affirm the Low Church beliefs and rules (perhaps for pragmatic reasons?). But surely as scholars we can hypothesis the mystic’s belief that the essence in *my* mysticism is the same as in *their* mysticism, it’s just their ‘showing’ is carrying some cultural baggage (and I don’t recognise my own cultural baggage). This is not psychologising. If the mystic knows the cultural context, then s/he can see the truth behind. Who know if s/he is right? No one. There is a limit to what the anthropologist can say with any certainty. There will never be any proof, because we are clearly beyond proof. Try proving two. If proof is required then perhaps the scholarly conversation should stop. Any so must this ramble. Muss man schweigen!
September 11, 2019
Thanks for the complex criticism. I was going to reply, but I think the next episode is at least a partial reply to many of your points. When you have commented on that, as I suspect you may just do, I’ll see if there is anything I can profitably reply to.
However, I will say that I used to feel much the way I think you do about these matters, until I realised that I was worshiping the idol of ‘mysticism’, instead of seeing what different ‘mystical’ authors were really showing me.
October 20, 2020
Am really enjoying your most extraordinary podcast. Thank you!!!!
And I deeply relate to your tensions between M1 & M2.
If I may -as a gentle listener – point out; your unbecoming frustrations with people who inappropriately handle M1 – is because you’re an M2 who is struggling through this podcast-amongst other pathways-to be an M1.
Being M1 is the ultimate challenge in all of Existence.
With Love and Prayers🙏