We’ve been reading Catfalque. This is Peter Kingsley’s most recent take on the Presocratics but this time explored through the life and work of Carl Jung. It is a satisfying read and gives one a sense of the depth that goes missing in many other Jungian views.
However, there was one thing that bothered me. Kingsley kept on insisting on the uniqueness of the West, that Westerners must focus on their own culture instead of looking to the East or elsewhere. For a scholar of the ancient world, this seems simplistic and naive. East and West, as we now know it, is not a distinction ancient people would have made. The Greeks were more concerned with differentiating themselves from Barbarians, including the tribal people of Europe that were to the west and north of their own lands.
Those Presocratics never thought of themselves as Westerners, except in a relative sense in talking about those to the east of them, but certainly not as a monolithic identity. In fact, they were part of a syncretistic tradition that was heavily influenced by the far and near East, often by way of Egypt. Some early Greek thinkers gave credit to African-ruled Egypt as the original source of great art and philosophy. This would be more fully embraced later on in Hellenism. Greek medicine, for example, may have been shaped by Eastern teachings.
We know that many Greeks had traveled East, as had many Easterners traveled to the Greek and Greco-Roman world. This included Buddhists and Hindus. This was true into the period of the Roman Empire when supposedly there was a Buddhist temple on the Sea of Galilee. The North African church father Augustine was originally a Manichaean before he converted to Christianity, and his early faith was an amalgamation of Judaic baptismal cult, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. Besides, the Greeks themselves were a wandering people who originated from somewhere else, and throughout their history they kept wandering about.
In following Jung’s own cultural defensiveness, Kingsley argues that we Westerners have to look to our own sacred origins and that there is a danger of doing otherwise. But Kingsley is an American, a culture of a thousand influences. And Jung was a northern European. Like most other supposed ‘Westerners’, neither probably had any ancestral roots in the ancient people of Greece nor the Greco-Roman Gnostics that Jung and Kingsley see as the heirs of the Presocratics.
The Gnostics were essentially the original Christians which formed out of Judaism which in turn was from the Near East. Judeo-Christianity, Gnostic or otherwise, was a foreign introduction to the Greco-Roman world and even more foreign to the far west and north of Europe. If Jung was looking for sacred origins of his own ancestral inheritance, he would’ve been more wise to look to the tribal paganism that was wiped out by the onslaught of Greco-Roman thought and imperialism. Christianization of Europe was a genocidal tragedy. Paganism held on in large parts of Europe into the Middle Ages and some Pagan traditions survived into modernity.
Our criticism isn’t with the respect given to these non-Western influences that took over the West. We are likewise fascinated by the Presocratics and Gnostics. But we feel no need to rationalize that they belong to us nor us to them. They are foreigners, both in space and time. The ancient Greeks were never a single people. As with the Celts and Jews, to be Greek in the ancient world was a very loose and, at times, extensive identity (Ancient Complexity). Many of the famous Greek thinkers technically weren’t ethnically Greek. It’s similar to how the Irish adopted the trade culture of the Celts, even though they are of Basque origins.
So, what is this fear* of the East seen in Jung’s reluctance while in India? And why has Kingsley adopted it? We are typical American mutts with some possible non-European ancestry mixed in, from African to Native American. And we were raised in a hodge-podge of New Age religion with much Eastern thought and practice thrown in. We have no sacred origins, no particular ancestral homeland. Even our European ancestry originated in different parts of Europe, although none from Italy or Greece, much less the Levant. The Presocratics and Gnostics aren’t our people.
So, it doesn’t bother us to seek wisdom wherever we can find it. It doesn’t cause us fear, in the way it did for Jung. He worried about losing himself and, as he had experienced psychotic breaks earlier in his life, it was a genuine concern. He needed a sense of being rooted in a tradition to hold himself together, even if that rootedness was an invented myth. And that doesn’t really bother us. We are still admirers of Jung’s work, as we appreciate Kingsley’s work.
We understand why Jung, having lived through the world war catastrophe that tore apart the Western world, sought a vision of a renewed Western tradition. It may have seemed like a useful and necessary story, but it poses its own dangers. Even if it really was useful then, we question that it is useful now.
* Why didn’t Carl Jung visit Ramana Maharshi after being told by both Zimmer and Brunton?, from Beezone. It has been argued that Carl Jung borrowed his notion of ‘the Self’ from Hinduism, and this notion was key to his own teachings. Maybe this was the fear, that the meeting point between the two cultures would simply overwhelm his own view and overwhelm his own psyche.