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The dying roots and sacred origin of Western culture

British classical scholar Peter Kingsley is widely known for having achieved mainstream academic credibility in his field before launching out in a new direction by writing several books in which he argues that (in the words of Wikipedia) “the writings of the presocratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles, usually seen as rational or scientific enterprises, were in fact expressions of a wider Greek mystical tradition that helped give rise to western philosophy and civilization. This tradition, according to Kingsley, was a way of life leading to the direct experience of reality and the recognition of one’s divinity. Yet, as Kingsley stresses, this was no ‘otherworldly’ mysticism: its chief figures were also lawgivers, diplomats, physicians, and even military men. The texts produced by this tradition are seamless fabrics of what later thought would distinguish as the separate areas of mysticism, science, healing, and art.”

Here he is talking to the editors of Parabola magazine in 2006 and saying things that resonate in some ways with my semi-ad hoc musings on the philosophical and spiritual side of the apocalyptic-seeming events of recent days and years here in America and elsewhere:

Every civilization comes into existence and lasts a few hundred or thousand years and then dies. We think we are different, but I’m sure the Babylonians felt the same way and the Egyptians and the Romans. Every culture is a certain experiment. Civilizations don’t just happen. As Rumi says, look back to the origin of every science and culture and you will find revelation or divine guidance at their source. We reject revelation in favor of reason, but what we have forgotten is that reason and logic are themselves gifts from the gods and have a sacred purpose. At the beginning of the Western world it was understood and taught that before you can start to learn chemistry or biology or astronomy or anything else you have to learn to breathe consciously, you have to learn a certain quality of attention and respectfulness. That is what Empedocles and other ancient teachers tell us. Reason, logic, the scientific disciplines, were all brought into existence from another world into this one as divine gifts and with certain warning labels attached: before attempting this, read the manual. Learn common sense, what it really is. Learn that everything given you is to serve a cosmic purpose.

So has this been a failed experiment? I don’t think it’s right to talk in terms of failure or success. What I do know is there is a certain quality of consciousness that appears at the beginning of civilizations which has to come back and be present at the end of civilizations. To me it is quite obvious that this is the end of a certain period in world history. We’re going through a period of huge transition from what used to be Western culture into something new. And now a certain stock-taking is needed. A return to the essence is required. The essence of each civilization needs to be carried consciously from the past into the present for the sake of the future. The legacy of the West, its true legacy, is a tradition now calling out to be redeemed. The spiritual impulse that originally gave rise to our Western culture is still present in its genes, its DNA; and if we ignore this impulse I think we are doomed. We will walk into the future empty-handed. There is a sacred purpose behind this culture and if we forget it we can import every other spiritual tradition in the world but nothing will make up for the dying, shriveling roots of our own culture.

More: “Common Sense: An Interview with Peter Kingsley” (pdf)