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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Eliade: Cosmos and History

Mircea Eliade (1907 - 1986) made his first attempt at a systematic exposition of his views on the problem of meaning in history in his short book The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (the original French edition, published in 1949, had the subtitle Archetypes and Repitition). Significantly, in the brief Foreword Eliade stated: "Had we not feared to be overambitious, we should have given this book a subtitle: Introduction to a Philosophy of History. For such, after all, is the purport of the present essay..." In this book, as in his other works, Eliade approaches the problem of man's search for meaning in existence and history by examining "the fundamental concepts of archaic societies." Eliade uses the expression "archaic" in its Greek etymological sense, meaning not "old" or "outmoded" but rather "original," the "principle" from which further developments are derived.  The term thus comprises not only ancient "cosmological" civilizations (such as those of Egypt, the ancient Near East, China and India) but also peasant and tribal societies and, indeed, all societies of any stage of history that can be said to embody a "traditional" outlook.


It is important to understand the reasoning behind Eliade's decision to base his analysis, his philosophy of history, on a study of "the fundamental concepts of archaic societies."  It is Eliade's view that such a study will reveal an "ontology" that is common to all human societies, although the fact that this ontology is common to all human societies may be obscured by its culturally conditioned expression in mythic form.  Despite its many culturally conditioned expressions, the ontological insight is essentially identical.  The cosmos, the entire universe, is seen by man to be finite and thus existentially dependent--it possesses no meaning of its own.  Such meaning has the cosmos possesses--and, crucially, man and human societies within the cosmos--derives from its relation to the divine ground of being.  This is how we have previously summarized this "archaic ontology":

Building on the insight that the limited being of our universe must be dependent for its being on a divine "ground" of being, archaic man expresses this ontological vision in mythic form, giving expression to the view that to be real is to be an earthly expression of a divine or heavenly archetype. Only by sharing in or being an expression of this archetypal divine or heavenly reality does earthly reality become truly "real" and charged with meaning. There is, of course, also a moral component in this: for man to live a truly human life he must seek to conform himself to this divine pattern of humanity.

This archaic ontology is of far more than merely historical interest, for it is Eliade's view that archaic ontology is fundamental to human nature and that its influence can be seen throughout the later developments of "religion" and "philosophy."  Indeed, it can be said that what we refer to as "religion" and "philosophy" are to a very great extent transmutations of archaic ontology.  Eliade offers a crucial example, as we have previously noted:

Eliade sees Plato as the thinker who gave philosophical expression to this "primitive" ontology of archaic man: "his great title to our admiration remains his effort to justify this vision of archaic humanity theoretically, through the dialectical means which the spirituality of his age made available to him." (Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Cosmos and History, 34-35) We will need to address the significance of Plato at much greater length. For now, let us observe that this archaic ontology can be seen in the literature of the ancient Greeks. For the Greeks this ontology of archetypes was used in an effort to understand or to give meaning to the events of their history.

When you consider Plato's overwhelming influence throughout the history of Western thought, the need to appreciate Plato's connection to archaic ontology should be apparent.

In his studies, Eliade was also struck by what he saw in traditional societies as "their revolt against concrete, historical time, their nostalgia for a periodical return to the mythical time of the beginning of things ..." In the structure of the myths that constituted these societies' self expression--the structure of archetypes and repetition--Eliade found a function that expressed their "will to refuse concrete time ... that is, ... history not regulated by archetypes." What Eliade means by this is that traditional societies tended to reject novelty in history, preferring to give meaning to historical events by linking them to previously formed "archetypes" or heavenly patterns. Of special importance, Eliade sees in archaic ontology's explanation of existence a radical opposition to "certain post-Hegelian philosophical currents--notably Marxism, historicism, and existentialism--[which] have sought to give [a different valorization to human existing] since the discovery of 'historical man,' of the man who is insofar as he makes himself, within history.”  Archaic man, in other words, embraces his dependence on the divine ground of meaning, whereas "modern" man is in revolt against such dependence, preferring to claim that man legislates his own meaning of existence for himself.

We began our analysis of Eliade's theory of history by observing that any effort at understanding existing must account for the problem of origins: why it is that the universe or cosmos actually exists. Moreover, in light of man's nature as a social being, the question of what meaning is to be given to human existing becomes crucially important. This is, of course, especially true for human existing within the given society to which the thinker belongs. For every society finds itself in a struggle for existence: if not with neighboring societies (which is the usual case) then at least with the forces of nature or with the ultimate boundary of human earthly existence--death. The resolve to carry on such a struggle is possible only if a meaning can be assigned to human existence itself. We believe that this broadened perspective is able to account for the historical effectiveness--the ability to face history and often to endure in the face of persistent misfortune--of many societies that hold to the "archaic ontology" in one form or another. From this perspective, meaning is an imperative for man. Since he finds himself in a "world" that is manifestly intelligible at some level, but which resists complete human grasp, man's ultimate struggle--one which spans generations and is passed down through history--is for meaning. Man's ultimate temptation is to embrace meaning based on desire--to fabricate meaning based on what man wants to be true--rather than to seek meaning based on reasoned insight into existing, and with full recognition of the limitations of human understanding. The tension between the will to meaning and the will to truth are constants in human history.

Seen from this standpoint, the modern revolt that Eliade sees is not so much a revolt against the search for meaning. It is, rather, an impatient rush to overcome the vicissitudes and uncertainty of historical existence - vicissitudes and uncertainties that archaic man has not been able to banish. But this impatience to appropriate meaning and overcome uncertainty does not mark modern man off from the main of archaic cultures, for "modern" man's quest in its own way reverts to archaic man's own periodic perversion of myth. For whereas, as Chesterton described it in The Everlasting Man, myth can serve the healthy function of explaining reality in metaphorical fashion, communicating intelligible insights into reality in the form most conducive to internalization--story and imagery--this "healthy" function of myth can be perverted into the magic quest to attain divine powers. Thus we find repeatedly that archaic man may seek to use the myths of archaic ontology to magically control and manipulate reality through secret "knowledge" (gnosis) and ritual, in an attempt to transcend man's existential limitations. It is this same deformation of the archaic ontology that we find in much of modern thought, as we will have occasion to discuss as we proceed. This is especially true in what passes in the modern world as "philosophy" or in particular as "political" thought - both of which are in many cases more properly understood as ideology: the magic manipulation of ideas in the belief that this will effect a change in reality to conform reality to the magus' desires. (A classic case study of ideology can be found in Eric Voegelin, "On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery," Studium Generale, 1971.)

For now we will sketch out the basics of Eliade's account of archaic ontology.

Archetypes and Repetition

Eliade maintains that, if we observe the behavior of archaic man we will realize that, for archaic man, nothing in the "world" has value or intrinsic meaning of its own. Meaning or value is derivative: it is possessed in virtue of participation in archetypal heavenly realities, and it is this relationship that myth is intended to express. Myth is intended as an expression of insight into the true structure of reality. The archetype is true reality, and the worldly reality is real only in this derivative sense of a participation in the true archetypal or heavenly reality. Indeed, it is possible to say that, without an archetype of this sort, nothing is truly real. The same is true of human actions. Their meaning is endowed with meaning and value because human acts are seen as repeating or reproducing primordial acts that were performed by divine figures or that were communicated by divine figures to man. Eating, marrying, begetting children, making war, hunting or planting, rituals and forms of worship--all these human acts are performed in imitation of divine archetypes or paradigms. (3-4)

Eliade organizes his account around several principal headings (beginning at 5-6):

1. Facts which show that, for archaic man, reality is a function of the imitation of or participation in a celestial archetype.

These facts demonstrate that archaic man regards the features of the world as expressions of celestial archetypes. Wild, undiscovered or uncultivated lands are viewed as representing primordial chaos that must be assimilated to reality and order through rituals, most of which are shown to mimic the creation of the world by a god or gods. Cultivation, for example, transforms the primordial chaos into order, and in this way is seen to participate in the paradigmatic divine activity of creation.

2. Facts that show the significance of the "symbolism of the Center," by which cities, temples and houses become real by being assimilated to an archetypal center of the world--usually understood as the site of the creation of the world or of a theophany.

Here, Eliade provides examples of prime symbols of the Center:


  • The sacred mountain is always situated at the "center" of the world; 
  • Temples and palaces are viewed as mountains, and thus as situated at the center; 
  • Sacred cities or temples, by virtue of their centrality, are regarded as the meeting place of heaven, earth and hell. 
  • Every act of creation, of whatever sort, repeats the pre-eminent cosmogonic act, the Creation of the World.


3. Facts that show that rituals and significant profane gestures acquire meaning only as they deliberately repeat acts posited ab origine by gods, heroes or ancestors.

Examples of rituals that mimic divine founding activities include marriage, initiations, consecration of leaders (kings), magic of all sorts, etc.

In summarizing this first chapter (34 ff.) Eliade first notes that, according to the ontology of archaic man,

an object or an act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype. Thus, reality is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything which lacks an exemplary model is 'meaningless,' i.e., it lacks reality. 

For Eliade this means that "the man of a traditional culture sees himself as real only to the extent that he ceases to be himself." We, however, view this conclusion as not totally warranted, as unduly influenced by modern (perhaps existentialist) views. Rather, the archaic ontology represents the recognition and acceptance of the fact that man--in fact, all that exists--is dependent. The individual qua individual is not unreal, but the individual is dependent: he participates in a reality that is larger than himself, in which he plays a limited role in line with his limited existence.

On the other hand, Eliade is correct when he maintains that the archaic ontology tends to devalue the individual. From one standpoint, this follows from the fact that in archaic ontology there is typically little understanding of an "afterlife": it is either not envisioned or is so tenuous a hope as to be incapable of structuring human life in this world. On the other hand, this bias against individuality is built into the very structure of archaic ontology.  Since true reality for archaic man lies in what is exemplary; to demand of the individual that he justify his own existence would be an impossible and unfulfillable demand. Rather, the individual in archaic societies structures his life in view of the exemplary reality in which he participates--that is his meaning and role in being and life. It is limited and participatory, but it is real.

Significantly, at this point Eliade relates (as we have already noted) the archaic ontology to Platonic philosophy:

it could be said that this 'primitive' ontology has a Platonic structure; and in that case Plato could be regarded as the outstanding philosopher of 'primitive mentality,' that is, as the thinker who succeeded in giving philosophic currency and validity to the modes of life and behavior of archaic humanity ... his great title to our admiration remains his effort to justify this vision of archaic humanity theoretically, through the dialectic means which the spirituality of his age made available to him (34-35). 

Eliade is correct in this. Plato, in common with other early Greek thinkers, used the newly developed dialectic tools of Greek thought to manipulate the Ideas or Forms, but these can readily be seen to be a transformation of the Archetypes of archaic ontology. Just as ultimate reality for archaic man resides with the heavenly archetypes, so it is Platon's belief is that these Ideas or Forms constitute ultimate reality. Viewed from this standpoint, Aristotle does not represent a break with Plato (as is commonly supposed) but rather a development of Plato: for Aristotle it is the species (Idea, Substance) that is true reality rather than the individual--the individual exists for the species. The primacy of the archetypal remains. However, it bears repeating that this Greek "philosophy" (to use Plato's term) was developed in the absence of a meaningful notion of a life that endured beyond the grave.

Eliade's insight that Platonic thought is a continuation and development--perhaps even an ”ideologization”--of the archaic ontology is of great importance. Platonic thought in its many permutations has remained through the millenia the overwhelmingly dominant Western intellectual tradition, and that means that in this Platonic form archaic ontology survives. From this standpoint the supposed barrier between "mythic" and "rational" thought disappears. It will be our task in this study to trace the implications of Eliade's insight and to relate them to Christian "faith," the only competing theory of meaning in Western history.

However, before proceeding to a consideration of the remaining chapter's of Cosmos and History, it will be well worth our while to note a significant lacuna in Eliade's thought. It is a well known fact that, within the ontology of archaic man, each society views itself as true, as real, because each society views itself as embodying in its own culture and structure the divine archetypes. The problem that arises, then, is: how is archaic man to interpret the existence of other human societies? How can there be multiple sacred cities or mountains, multiple peoples who descend from the gods? Two predominant responses can be seen. One is to view other societies as simply unreal, to assimilate other human societies to the archetype of cosmic chaos: these other, perhaps competing, societies are unreal because they fail to reflect true participation in the divine archetypes; they are to true participation as wilderness is to cultivated land. We find this expression, in the ancient world, in some Israelite views; we also see it in the Greek and Chinese view of "barbarian" societies (and other examples could be multiplied). The other way of responding is to view each society as embodying the archetypes in analogous ways, although each society views its own participation or embodiment as to some degree superior. Thus, the Greeks often interpreted the gods of other nations as culturally conditioned expressions of the Greek gods--a  more sophisticated view than we might ordinarily suppose.

With this in mind, we turn to Eliade's account of the use of creation myths. We have seen that Eliade applies this myth to the discovery and settlement of new land, to cultivation of formerly wild land, etc. An important area of human action in history that Eliade fails to discuss in this context is that of conquest. In point of fact the act of conquest is frequently assimilated to the creation myth in that the enemy society is portrayed as chaotic, at war with true participation. The conqueror, then, participates in the mythic victory of the gods over cosmic chaos and assists in the establishment of cosmic order, taking possession of wild lands, etc. An excellent example is afforded by the correspondence between Pope Innocent IV and Kuyuk Khan, the Mongol ruler (cf. E. Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 56-59). The Mongols viewed their reign as the expression of the divine will on earth. Logically, therefore, their empire included every land subject to the divine order--the entire earth. From the Mongol point of view they had never waged an aggressive war: their conquests were simply punitive expeditions to suppress rebellions against the cosmic order--as embodied in their own society. The proof of rebellion was the failure to promptly submit to the Khan when requested to do so.

As we indicated above with regard to Plato, the archaic ontology has remained in various forms alive and well in the West. Voegelin, having discussed the Mongol expression of archaic ontology, draws a parallel to Marxian dialectic. He notes the obvious difference that Marxists do not invoke a divine order but rather a world immanent order. But the structure of this desacralized Marxist order is not at all dissimilar to the sacral cosmic order of archaic ontology:

the Communist movement is a representative of this differently symbolized truth in the same sense in which a Mongol Khan was the representative of the truth contained in the Order of God; and the consciousness of this representation leads to the same political and legal constructions as in the other instances of imperial representation of truth. Its order is in harmony with the truth of history; its aim is the establishment of the realm of freedom and peace; the opponents run counter to the truth of history and will be defeated in the end; nobody can be at war with the Soviet Union legitimately but must be a representative of untruth in history, or, in contemporary language, an aggressor; and the victims are not conquered but liberated from their oppressors and therewith from the untruth of their existence. 

Voegelin's analysis demonstrates that Marxism is functionally the same as archaic ontology, with the important difference that Marxism is in rebellion against the divine order and seeks to reject the order of reality as man has known it throughout history and instead to establish an order of Marxist man's own creation. A similar analysis of Islam is also revealing. From this standpoint, Islam can be seen to constitute an ideologization of a particular way of life--that of the raiding life of the desert Bedouin. This raiding life is transformed from a localized variant of archaic ontology into an ideology that demands submission of the entire world to the order of Islam. Again, as with Mongols and Marxists, disinclination to submit or outright resistance is simply rebellion against the divine order of the world. Converts are assimilated to this way of life through the ideology of Islam, even though their way of life may be settled and agricultural, thus providing recruits for expansion. The similarity to the Mongol view is striking, but there is a notable difference: for the Mongols conquest is left more or less to the discretionary desires of the Mongol Khan, but in Islamic ideology world conquest is a positive duty to be pursued by all means by all believers.

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