Mircea Eliade’s A History Of Religious Ideas (Vol.2)

For most of my adult life, I have had no use or patience for religion. I was raised outside of the church, never inducted into any religious tradition, and therefore – like so many of my generation – I came to regard religious belief as synonymous with superstition, an idiosyncrasy at best, a pernicious flight from reality at worst. It did not occur to me that religion and philosophy overlapped, or that religions acted as behavioral blueprints for entire civilizations, and therefore ought to command a certain amount of respect – even from a nonbeliever. The price of my hubris has been the belated recognition that so much of what I care about, find meaningful or worth fighting for now seems horrifyingly contingent on a religious foundation. Mine is a generation largely “liberated” from Christianity, and yet the result of that liberation has not been – pace the New Atheists – enlightenment or the triumph of reason, but a Houellebecqian materialist nightmare, in which the only compass points towards pleasure, however crude or fleeting, and away from the slightest discomfort or personal sacrifice, however necessary to a life beyond mere sensory enjoyment.

Such was my impetus in seeking out Mircea Eliade, perhaps the 20th century’s most famous scholar of religion, and attempting to give “the history of religious ideas” its due. The second volume of Eliade’s trilogy, “From Guatama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity,” covers world religions in the same survey formula utilized in the first, though because we are now dealing with a period of history involving a written record, he can speak with a higher degree of authority about what the ancient peoples of India, China, Europe and the Middle East truly believed. A short list of the religious and/or belief systems covered includes Taoism, Confucianism, Brahmanism and Hinduism, Jainism, the belief systems of the Hellenistic Enlightenment (Stoicism, Epicureanism and Cynicism, for example), Buddhism, Mithraism, as well as Judaism and Christianity. Rather than attempt a summary of his survey – a daunting task indeed – I will confine myself to discussing what most struck me about these various systems of thought, and how they might find continued relevance to us today, to one degree or another. At the end of a lengthy exposition on the Bhagavad Gītā, for example, Eliade gives us this summary, “translated into terms familiar to Westerners”:

[…] the problem faced in the Gītā is as follows: how is it possible to resolve the paradoxical situation created by the twofold fact that man, on the one hand, finds himself existing in time, condemned to history, and, on the other hand, knows that he will be “damned” if he allows himself to be exhausted by temporality and by his own historicity and that, consequently, he must at all costs find in the world a way that leads into a transhistorical and atemporal plane?

This description of man as being “twofold,” trapped between his knowledge of his own mortality and his desire to transcend it, applies equally well to modern men and women, who have largely lost the comfort of religious belief and have consequently fallen back on other methods of denying a mortality that weighs too heavily on them. The flight from consciousness – whether via drink or drug, the cult of celebrity worship, the quasi-spirituality of yoga, or the self-dissolution necessitated by the political doctrines of the far left and right – is everywhere in evidence today, and if it is the case that literature, art and philosophy can offer us some comfort, it remains true that these solaces are not universally reliable. Here, another snippet relevant to our modern times, taken from Eliade’s history of the Hellenistic Enlightenment: “The decadence of the polis had freed the individual from his immemorial civic and religious ties; on the other hand, this freedom showed him his solitude and alienation in a cosmos that was terrifying by its very mystery and vastness.” The universe of modern man is infinitely more vast, more barren, and therefore more terrifying; we have penetrated to the heavens and found no angels, no god, no refuge for an afterlife of the soul. The Greek philosophers understood that, with such an emptiness arrayed against him, the individual needed to be buttressed, and Eliade understands both Epicureanism and Stoicism as attempts to fortify man’s position in an indifferent universe.

A final quote, this time from Eliade’s description of Judaism during the period of Babylonian captivity, struck a chord with me due to its relevance to an ongoing debate within the American conservative movement. During the Babylonian captivity, the Jewish community revalorized overt professions of their faith, from circumcision to observation of the Sabbath, as well as a stricter adherence to regulations governing animal sacrifices, festivals, purity rituals and sexual relations. Here is the most relevant quotation from Eliade: “The reconstruction of the national life is no longer expected, as it was by the great prophets, to result from an inner conversion, brought about by the spirit, but from the effective organization of the community under the absolute authority of the Law (torah).” The American conservative movement is at present undergoing a cold civil war, fought between those (broadly speaking) who think individual conversion is sufficient (see David French) and those who believe that the appropriate path forward involves a collective recalibration, enforced by government policy, if need be (see Sohrab Ahmari’s notorious “Against David French-ism“).

My personal sympathies have always been with the individual against the collective, and it is from that perspective that I have founded my antagonism to religion. And yet, from where I stand, in a pocket of the world largely devoid of religious belief, my generation has found not individual freedom but a crushing solitude, and no means of transcending it. Against a universe forever proclaiming its indifference to us, we do not build monuments of stone in defiance of time, or even adequately maintain those built by our ancestors; our artistic heritage, even more precious than our architectural heritage, likewise suffers our neglect, if not our scorn. Even the humble family unit, once the most widely available source of transcendent meaning, and the bedrock upon which we built our nations, has fallen into disarray: fewer relationships, fewer marriages, fewer children, greater solitude. Finishing Eliade’s book, a line from Emil Cioran immediately came to mind: “Every lie which protects us against our unbreathable certitudes is religious.” Seen in that light, the history of religious ideas is nothing less than the history of man’s grappling with his own mortality, and his desperate attempt to snatch meaning and purpose from the void.