Peter Kingsley

I decided to start with the presocratics and vanished right into the rabbit hole. To get into the topic I decided (a few months ago) to do something I had wanted to do for a long time: read all the books by Peter Kingsley.

Peter Kingsley
Some background first. Born in 1953 he was trained as a classicist and got his PhD from the University of London. From 1990 on he published a very impressive series of articles in scholarly journals, followed by his 1995 monograph Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. In the following years, Kingsley's annoyance with academia became increasingly evident, and his next book In the Dark Places of Wisdom (1999), on Parmenides, was published (like all his later books) not by an academic press but by the Golden Sufi Center. It was followed in 2003 by his large volume Reality and finally by a small book titled A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World published in 2010. By the second half of the 1990s Kingsley was clearly moving out of academia. He moved to an island off the coast of Canada and set himself up as a popular speaker on spiritual topics. His website doesn't look very active anymore, and I wonder what he is doing today.

His 1995 book made a big impression on me when I first read it, and did so again when I re-read it a few months ago. He is a deep scholar and a virtuoso philologist with very profound knowledge of Greek antiquity and its wider contexts. His interpretation of Empedocles as a iatromantis figure (a "healer/seer") deeply involved in the context of "chthonic" mysteries seems wholly convincing to me. Over the last weeks I also read the complete series of his early academic articles, and was impressed even more deeply. About Kingsley's scholarly credentials there cannot be any doubt. Nor can there be any ambiguity about the extremely polemical thrust of his work, which basically argues that traditional classical scholarship misinterpreted everything it touched because of its ideological denial of anything that could possibly compromise an idealized picture of Greek rationality.

When I met Kingsley in the years just before and after 2000, his thorough disgust with the world of academia was impossible to miss. But it would seem that he never gave up scholarly work, even after moving to popular audiences. Dark Places is written in a style reminiscent of a self-help book, but if you actually read it, you find that it contains an extremely thorough argument about Parmenides, backed up by a large bibliographical apparatus at the end of the volume. The same goes for Reality, in two parts devoted to Parmenides and Empedocles respectively. On many pages, Kingsley's utter contempt for almost all his colleagues and their failure to see the Truth makes the reading embarrassing and painful; but if you can bring yourself to look beyond these displays of superiority and condescension, you discover an extremely sensitive argument grounded in deep learning and inspired by a genuine and even passionate love for his favorite thinkers. And again, the notes at the end are extremely impressive: Kingsley knows his stuff, and he knows that he knows it. His final book takes these approaches to their ultimate limit: arguing for an early transmission of "shamanic" traditions from Mongolia to Greece, the main text can be read in an hour, but the 84 pages of notes in small print are enough to keep anyone occupied for months and probably years.

I also did a thorough check of how Kingsley has been reviewed in academic journals. To the credit of the scholars whose attitudes he despises so much, all his books have received a fair share of attention, and all the reviews I have read show considerable respect for his expertise and appreciation of his perspectives and interpretations. Not a single reviewer I have read allows him/herself to be provoked by Kingsley hostility against academics: they may express surprise and disapprove of his tone, but basically keep their eye on the ball.

Walter Burkert
The prologue to my book will begin with a paraphrase of Parmenides' "Proem", describing how the "man who knows" enters the underworld to meet the Goddess (Persephone, according to Kingsley). Thus our very first discussion of strict logic about the nature of Being ("Reality") comes not from the brains of a philosopher but is revealed to him by a Goddess who basically tells him to shut up and listen: "I will do the talking." I am currently reading various other interpretations of Parmenides, Empedocles, and their relation to Pythagoreanism (Walter Burkert's classic Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism is currently on my desk, next to books by e.g. Charles H. Kahn on Pythagoreanism and Plato, Michael Attyah Flower about the Seer in Ancient Greece, Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston on Orphism and Divination, some chapters from Thomas McEvilley's The Shape of Ancient Thought, and so on), but as far as the presocratics go, I find myself quite convinced by the general direction of Kingsley's interpretations.

So: any thought on Kingsley, Parmenides, ancient Pythagoreanism and Greek mysteries? Comments and suggestions are welcome.


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