Mircea Eliade (March 9, 1907 – April 22, 1986) was a Romanian historian, philosopher, theorist of religion, literary critic, and novelist notably in the fantasy and autobiographical genres. He had fluent command of five languages (Romanian, French, German, Italian, English), and a lesser (but still significant) ability in three others (Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit).
His most significant contributions to the study of religion are his revalorization of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, his cross-cultural comparative analysis of religious symbolism, and his stress that religion must be studied phenomenologically, that is, as discrete experiences that must be approached from within their own respective contexts.
Born in Bucharest to a Romanian army officer, Eliade had a quiet, bookish childhood, spending much of his time reading, writing, or simply wrapped up in his own imaginings. While in high school, he wrote his debut work, the autobiographical Novel of the Nearsighted Adolescent (which was influenced by the literature of Giovanni Papini). His writing talent was such that, "at the age eighteen, he celebrated the appearance of his hundredth published article."
He graduated from the local university's Faculty of Philosophy in 1928, after becoming fascinated with the idealistic/mystical philosophy of the early Greeks and their medieval Italian inheritors (including Marsilio Ficino to Giordano Bruno). These interests also led him to Indian thought (especially the monistic understanding of Brahman), which encouraged him to apply to the Maharaja of Kassimbazarto to study in India for four years. When approved, in 1928 he sailed for Calcutta to study Sanskrit and philosophy under Surendranath Dasgupta, a University of Cambridge–educated Bengali professor at the University of Calcutta and author of a five-volume History of Indian Philosophy. While living with Dasgupta, Eliade fell in love with his daughter, Maitreyi Devi, later writing a barely disguised autobiographical novel (Bengal Nights) in which he claimed that he carried on a physical relationship with her. When she became aware of this account, she contested his account in her own novel Nya Hanyate (It Does Not Die, written in Bengali).
At the time, he also became interested in the actions and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, particularly his concept of Satyagraha; later, Eliade adapted these Gandhian ideas in his discourse on spirituality and Romania.
As one of the figures in the Criterion literary society (1933–1934), his initial encounter with the far right was polemical: The group's conferences were stormed by members of A. C. Cuza's National-Christian Defense League, who objected to what they viewed as pacifism and addressed anti-Semitic insults to several speakers, including Mihail Sebastian; in 1933, he was among the signers of a manifesto opposing Nazi Germany's state-enforced racism. Additionally, Eliade's views at the time focused on innovation. As a result, when he came across an anti-modernist critique by George Călinescu in a Romanian publication, he immediately produced a reply: "All I wish for is a deep change, a complete transformation. But, for God's sake, in any direction other than spirituality."
However, while a professor at the University of Bucharest (1933–1939), Eliade became active in nationalist politics, eventually enrolling in the Totul pentru Ţară ("Everything for the Fatherland" Party), whose political arm was the brutal Iron Guard, to the extent that he contributed to its 1937 electoral campaign in Prahova County. This membership is indicated by his inclusion on a list of party members with country-level responsibilities (as published in Buna Vestire). He also contributed to the movement's press, writing in various nationalist papers, including Sfarmă Piatră and Buna Vestire. He and friends Cioran and Constantin Noica were by then under the influence of Trăirism, a school of thought formed around the ideals of Romanian philosopher Nae Ionescu. A form of existentialism, Trăirism was also the synthesis of traditional and newer right-wing beliefs.
Eliade's articles from the period of his political and ideological involvement with the Iron Guard (or, as it was usually known at the time, the Legionary Movement), which begin with his famous Itinerar spiritual ("Spiritual itinerary," serialized in Cuvântul in 1927), center on several political ideals advocated by the far right. They displayed his rejection of liberalism and of the modernizing goals of the 1848 Wallachian revolution (which were perceived as "an abstract apology of Mankind" and an "ape-like imitation of [Western] Europe"), as well as a disdain for democracy itself (accusing it of "managing to crush all attempts at national renaissance," and later praising Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy on the grounds that, according to Eliade, "[in Italy,] he who thinks for himself is promoted to the highest office in the shortest of times").
Eliade approved of an ethnic nationalist state centered on the Romanian Orthodox Church, as evidenced in his 1927 recommendation that young intellectuals "return to the Church").
The stance taken by Eliade resulted in his arrest on July 14, 1938 after a crackdown on the Iron Guard authorized by King Carol II. Eliade was kept for three weeks in a permanently lit cell at the Siguranţa Statului Headquarters, in an attempt to "encourage" him to sign a "declaration of dissociation" from the Iron Guard, but he refused to do so. Due to his recalcitrance, he was transferred in the first week of August to a makeshift camp at Miercurea-Ciuc. When Eliade began coughing blood in October 1938, he was taken to a clinic in Moroeni, because the death of a popular young writer in custody was a potential scandal. Eliade was simply released on November 12 and, with the help of Alexandru Rosetti, became the cultural attaché to the United Kingdom, a posting cut short when Romanian-British foreign relations were broken.
After leaving London, Eliade was assigned to the same position in Portugal, where he was kept on as diplomat by the National Legionary State (the Iron Guard government) and, ultimately, by Ion Antonescu's regime. In 1942, Eliade authored a volume in praise of the Estado Novo, established in Portugal by António de Oliveira Salazar, alleging that "The Salazarian state, a Christian and totalitarian one, is first and foremost based on love." On July 7 of the same year, he was received by Salazar himself, who assigned Eliade the task of warning Antonescu to withdraw the Romanian Army from the Eastern Front. Eliade also claimed that such contacts with the leader of a neutral country had made him the target for Gestapo surveillance, but that he had managed to communicate Salazar's advice to Mihai Antonescu, Romania's Foreign Minister.
When it became obvious that, in the wake of World War II, the Romanian communist regime was about to take hold, Eliade opted not to return to the country. He lived in France, where, recommended by Georges Dumézil, he taught at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.
In 1957, he moved to the United States, and was invited by Joachim Wach to give a series of lectures at Wach's home institution, the University of Chicago. Upon Wach's untimely death before the lectures were delivered, Eliade was appointed as his replacement, becoming the Sewell Avery Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. He also worked as editor-in-chief of Macmillan Publishers' Encyclopedia of Religion, collaborated with Carl Jung and the Eranos circle, and wrote for Antaios magazine (edited by Ernst Jünger).
Initially attacked with virulence by the Romanian Communist Party press, chiefly by România Liberă (which described him as "the Iron Guard's ideologue, enemy of the working class, and apologist of the Salzar's dictatorship"), he was slowly rehabilitated beginning in the early 1960s (under the rule of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej).
Eliade remained a fixture at the University of Chicago for over twenty years and, even in retirement, continued writing books and articles, and editing entries for his Encyclopedia of Religion. When asked to assess his impact on the study of religion in America, he cited "a simple statistic": "When he came to Chicago, there were three significant professorships in the history of religions in the United States; twenty years later, there were thirty, half of which were occupied by his [former] students." He died from complications related to a stroke in April of 1986. The History of Religions department at the University of Chicago Divinity School named an endowed chair after Eliade in recognition of his wide contribution to the research on the subject. The current (and first incumbent) holder of this chair is Wendy Doniger, Eliade's colleague from 1978 until his death. As a final honor, he was posthumously elected to the Romanian Academy in 1990.
Eliade's most enduring contribution to the academic study of religion was to recover it from the then-prevalent tendency towards reductionistic explanations (i.e., the economic reductionism of Karl Marx, the psychological reductionism of Sigmund Freud, or the social reductionism of Emile Durkheim). To counteract this tendency, Eliade stressed that:
To explore this notion of sacrality, Eliade built upon Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy to show how religion emerges from the (personal) experience of the sacred, and from myths of time and nature (which Eliade also saw as vestiges of such numinous experiences). Moreover, he suggested that all religious observance (especially among non-Western or non-modern cultures) stems from a fundamentally religious orientation towards the world:
Given that he saw religious thought and practice as part of a larger world-view, he advocated the phenomenological approach of Gerardus van der Leeuw as the only appropriate way of studying religion, as it involves interpreting phenomena within their respective settings and contexts.
A second major contribution of Eliade is his serious attention to religious symbolism as a topic worthy of study. As he argues in "Methodological Remarks on the Study of Religious Symbolism,"
In this way, it behooves scholars of religion to apprehend religious symbols in their respective contexts as means of accessing a particular group of people's understanding of the Sacred and their relationship to it. However, Eliade's study was anything but particularistic. Indeed, all of his major works are notably synoptic, extracting unifying patterns between the religious myths and symbols of various peoples and cultures around the globe. Indeed, the purpose of his scholarship is to demonstrate that "regardless of place, time or culture, archaic peoples have shown remarkable constancy in returning to the same types of symbol, the same themes in their myths, and the same universalizing logic in both. The closer we look at the historical specifics of religion, the more clearly we see its ever recurring, ever-expanding patterns."
His other scholarly works include a well-known study of shamanism (Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy) and an analysis of yoga as a concrete search for freedom from human limitations (Yoga, Immortality and Freedom). Finally, his Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, provides a critically acclaimed analysis of the religious impetus of "archaic man" to resacralize the present as a means of returning to the primeval state of oneness with the Divine (as represented by such varied concepts as Eden and Brahman):
It is only with the development of Israelite historicist religion that this model was challenged: Suddenly, religious meaning was being found in history, rather than only existing outside of it. His notion of the dichotomy between "archaic" and "historicist" religion, both in their mythologies and their practices, remains of paradigmatic significance to many modern scholars of religion.
One major criticism often levelled at Eliade is that his work is more theological than historical. Specifically, his search for essentialistic correspondences between traditions and mythologies reveals his fundamental assumption that "all authentic religious experience implies a desperate effort to disclose the foundation of things, the ultimate reality" and that differences between religions simply emerge from "embedded[ness] in a historical context." Eliade's position is not "provable" in any traditional sense, requiring instead a religious conviction of the "rightness" of such a position. As such, though he is considered to have discerned some valid patterns in mythological and religious traditions, his presentation of them was often historically cavalier and heavily loaded with his own brand of Romantic spirituality that lauded religions of the "cosmic type" over traditions stressing historical rationality.
As described above, Eliade’s far-reaching studies have all sought to better comprehend the institution of human religion through its use of myth and signs. In his view, symbols form a coherent, logical system, one that reveals many meanings simultaneously, and that expresses the "subconscious and transconscious activity of man."
While his theory of symbols is a mere subset of his whole perspective, this portion of Eliade’s approach has received numerous criticisms. For example, it has been argued that Eliade failed to account for the manner in which his omnipresent symbols function. Are the symbols themselves important or is the signification process itself central? A further issue, this time with his “logic of symbols,” is that he must postulate a "transconscious" level of thought in order to address the similarities that exist in symbolism across cultures. The transconscious level is a form of mental functioning where “archetypal symbols … [are] present in the mind in some latent form.” This Jungian-sounding premise is interesting, but unfortunately it is inadequately explored or justified in his research.
The early years in Eliade's public career show him to have been highly tolerant of the Jews in general, and of the Jewish minority in Romania in particular. His condemnation of the Nazi's anti-Semitic policies was accompanied by his caution and moderation in regard to Nae Ionescu's various anti-Jewish attacks.
Despite this, Mihail Sebastian has claimed in his Journal that Eliade's actions during the 1930s show him to be an anti-Semite. According to Sebastian, who was Jewish, Eliade had been a genial companion to him until the outset of his political commitments, at which point he severed all ties. Before their friendship came apart, however, Sebastian took notes on their conversations (which were later published in his Journals) during which Eliade was supposed to have expressed anti-Semitic views. According to Sebastian, Eliade said in 1939:
The Poles' resistance in Warsaw is a Jewish resistance. Only yids are capable of the blackmail of putting women and children in the front line, to take advantage of the Germans' sense of scruple. The Germans have no interest in the destruction of Romania. Only a pro-German government can save us. … What is happening on the frontier with Bukovina is a scandal, because new waves of Jews are flooding into the country. Rather than a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate.
The content of Sebastian's testimony is disputable, especially given the uncharacteristic radicalism of Eliade's reported views, and the clear but unprecedented esteem reserved for German methods. Indeed, beyond his involvement with a movement known for its anti-Semitism, Eliade did not usually comment on Jewish issues. However, a text he contributed to Vremea (an extremely right-wing newspaper) in 1936 showed that he supported at least some Iron Guard accusations against the Jewish community:
Ever since the war [that is, World War I], Jews have invaded villages in Maramureş and Bukovina, and have become absolute majority in every town in Bessarabia. ... It would be absurd to expect Jews to resign themselves in order to become a minority with certain rights and very many duties—after they have tasted the honey of power and conquered as many command positions as they have. Jews are currently fighting with all forces to maintain their positions, expecting a future offensive—and, as far as I am concerned, I understand their fight and admire their vitality, tenacity, genius.
One year later, a text, accompanied by his picture, was featured as the answer to an inquiry by the Iron Guard's Buna Vestire about the reasons he had for supporting the movement. A short section of it summarizes an anti-Jewish attitude:
Can the Romanian nation end its life in the saddest state of decay ever to be known in history, undermined by misery and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn apart by foreigners, demoralized, betrayed, sold off for some hundreds of millions lei?
According to the literary critic Z. Ornea, Eliade later in life denied authorship of the text. He explained that his signature, his picture, and the picture's caption were applied by the magazine's editor, Mihail Polihroniade, to a piece that he himself had written after having failed to obtain a contribution from Eliade; he also claimed that, given his respect for Polihroniade, he had not wished to publicize this occurrence.
Further criticism of Eliade's political involvement with anti-Semitism and fascism comes from Adriana Berger, Leon Volovici, Daniel Dubuisson, and others, who have attempted to trace Eliade's anti-Semitism throughout his work and through his associations with contemporary anti-Semites, such as the Italian Fascist occultist Julius Evola. Volovici, for example, is critical of Eliade not only because of his support for the Iron Guard, but also for spreading anti-Semitism and anti-Masonry sentiment in 1930s Romania. Indeed, it also seems likely that many of Eliade's articles and fictional works (especially Iphigenia) were directly motivated out of identification with Iron Guard ideologies. For example, Laignel-Lavastine argues that in Iphigenia:
Other scholars, like Bryan S. Rennie, have claimed that there is, to date, no evidence of Eliade's membership, active services rendered, or of any real involvement with any fascist or totalitarian movements or membership organizations, nor any evidence of his continued support for nationalist ideals after their inherently violent nature was revealed. They further assert that there is no evidence of overt political beliefs in Eliade's scholarship and that critics attempting to find evidence of such elements are following their own political agendas.
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