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Books: Nietzsche and Plato got it all wrong

In the Dark Places of Wisdom by Peter Kingsley Element pounds 12.99
Most brief summaries of Western Civilisation begin with that mythical entity, the Greek Mind. The Greek Mind, we are usually told, was cool, rational, preoccupied with facts and causes. It bequeathed us our scientific method and our political system, and its only weakness was a greater enthusiasm for male body-building than is generally considered decent. Its symbol was the god Apollo, radiant, omniscient, and very well-built.

We encounter a different Apollo, here, In The Dark Places Of Wisdom. It is well understood that Ancient Greek culture was shot through with mystery cults, and that the philosopher by day became the torch- bearing initiate by night. But the mysteries, it is understood, are not part of the Greek Mind. They are an Asiatic intrusion, presided over by Dionysius. Everything Greek, ie civilised, is gathered under the protection of Apollo. This distinction was carved in stone by Nietzche, among others, a long time ago.

Not so, says Peter Kingsley: Apollo presided over an Asiatic mystery cult too. As the sun god he enjoyed the privilege of travelling beyond night, and down into the Underworld, beyond life and death, and those who sought his protection could make the journey with him.

Kingsley teases out the existence of this cult largely through the shadowy figure of one of the earliest Greek philosophers, Parmenides. The name is largely familiar because his teachings are the subject of the Platonic dialogue named after him, a dialogue that is not well known because its subject matter is considered too abstruse for the general reader. In any case, Kingsley considers Plato's presentation a travesty. Otherwise Parmenides is remembered for a poem which describes a journey into the Underworld. Only fragments of this survive. Recently (recently, that is, in terms of Greek studies), some archaeological evidence has come to light which puts a different perspective on things. Forty years ago several statues and inscriptions were discovered in Velia, Parmenides' home city, which reveal the existence of an order of mystical priests of Apollo, dedicated to mystical dreaming. From the inscriptions it is clear that Parmenides was part of this order, if not its founder. Although Velia is in Italy, it was founded by the displaced citizens of Phocaea, a city in what is now Turkey. The Phocaeans were energetic colonists, establishing cities in the Western Mediterranean and around the Black Sea. They were active traders, whose influence stretched out into the wilds of Central Asia, the epicentre of the religious practice known as shamanism, and quick to pick up influences from the peoples they traded with.

It is Kingsley's contention that Parmenides' poem, or what remains of it, should be understood in a shamanic context. Although it features encounters with archetypal figures, it is not an allegory but an account of an actual experience, a real journey dreamed in the incubation chambers of a temple to Apollo. And if we find it difficult to accept dreams as real experience, that is because our minds have been poisoned against the idea by Plato's successful attempt to winnow inspiration out of Western thought.

Are there any holes in this hypothesis? Well yes, what did you expect? The biggest is that the uncovered inscriptions are not contemporary with Parmenides, they date from half a millennium later. So a living cult with its roots in in the fringes may have been wishful thinking on someone's part. Or it may not.

There is nothing particularly contentious about Kingsley's general thrust. M L West first drew attention to the parallels between shamanism and the cult of Orpheus more than 15 years ago. And as the physical sciences bring mind and body closer together, Parmenides' assertion that there is no difference between the two seems less of a paradox and more a statement of fact. Perhaps we should cast the net wider and ask ourselves how often in the past we have mistaken Greek words for intellectual positions when they actually refer to states of consciousness (Sextus Empiricus would be a good place to start). And at the very least, to think of Apollo in a more shamanic light certainly tidies up Orpheus studies.

But tidying things up is the last thing on Kingsley's mind. This is a heartfelt book, expressed gnomically, and occasionally poetically: "We're ancient, incredibly ancient. We hold the history of the stars in our pockets." He regrets that his subject matter remains in the hands of scholars who do nothing with it, while those inclined to seek knowledge as direct experience look everywhere but in their own culture. If we understood the roots of the West properly we could experience our history as a breathing thing, and recognise that the Greek Mind cannot be so easily separated from its well- toned body as has been generally assumed.