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").
Internment and diplomatic service
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.
Exile and later life
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.
Contribution to the study of religion
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:
- A religious phenomenon ... will only be recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level, that is to say, if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp the essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art, or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it—the element of the sacred."
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:
- The world exists because it was created by the gods, and that the existence of the world itself "means" something, "wants to say" something, that the world is neither mute nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing without purpose or significance. … The mere life of the cosmos is proof of its sanctity, since the cosmos was created by the gods and the gods show themselves to men through cosmic life.
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,"
- Since man is a homo symbolicus, and all his activities involve symbolism, it follows that all religious facts have a symbolic character. That is certainly true if we realize that every religious act and every cult object aims at a meta-empirical reality. When a tree becomes a cult object, it is not as a tree that it is venerated, but as a hierophany, that is, a manifestation of the sacred. And every religious act, by the simple fact that it is religious, is endowed with a meaning which, in the last instance, is "symbolic," since it refers to supernatural values or beings.
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):
- In the face of life's drab, empty routine and daily irritations, they seek to overcome all in a defiant gesture of denial; through symbol and myth, they reach back to the world's primal state of perfection, to a moment when life starts over from its origin, full of promise and hope. "The primitive, by conferring a cyclic direction upon time, annuls its irreversibility. Everything begins over again at its commencement every instant."
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.
Critiques of Eliade
Scholarly: Eliade's work as theology
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.
Scholarly: Imprecise definition of "symbol"
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:
- … one finds all the ideological themes that were dear to him—above all the glorification of sacrifice and of patriotic death—aptly woven together in a theatrical text that had a priori no direct connection with the European and Romanian present. Many passages repeat, almost word for word, the contents of the articles Eliade had dedicated in 1937 to the “sacrifice” of Ion Motza and Vasile Marin.
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.
A sampling of critical works about Eliade
- Allen, Douglas. 2002. Myth and Religion in Mircea Eliade. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415939399
- Carrasco, David and Law, Jane Marie (eds.). 1991. Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. ISBN 0870812394
- Culianu, Ioan Petru. 1978. Mircea Eliade. Assisi: Citadela Editrice.
- Dadosky, John Daniel. 2004. The Structure of Religious Knowing: Encountering the Sacred in Eliade and Lonergan. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791460614
- Dudley, Guilford. 1977. Religion on Trial: Mircea Eliade and His Critics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 0877221022
- Ellwood, Robert S. 1999. The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 079144306X
- McCutcheon, Russell T. 2005. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195166639
- Olson, Carl. 1992. The Theology and Philosophy of Eliade: A Search for the Centre. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312079060
- Rennie, Bryan S. 1996. Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791427641
- Rennie, Bryan S. (ed.). 2000. Changing Religious Worlds: The Meaning and End of Mircea Eliade. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791447308
- Simion, Eugen. 2001. Mircea Eliade: A Spirit of Amplitude. Boulder: East European Monographs.
- Strenski, Ivan. 1987. Four Theories of Myth in Twentieth-Century History: Cassirer, Eliade, Levi Strauss and Malinowski. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. ISBN 0877451818
- Ţurcanu, Florin. 2003. Mircea Eliade. Le prisonnier de l'histoire. Paris: Editions La Découverte.
- Wasserstrom, Steven M. 1999. Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Pals 1996, 159.
- Ross 1996.
- Ornea 1995, 150–151, 153.
- Ornea 1995, 174–175.
- Eliade 1933, in Ornea 1995, 167.
- Ornea 1995, 207.
- Ornea 1995, Chapter IV.
- Eliade 1933, in Ornea 1995, 32.
- Eliade 1936, in Ornea 1995, 32.
- Eliade 1937, in Ornea 1995, 53
- Eliade 1937, in Ornea 1995, 53.
- Eliade 1927, in Ornea 1995, 147.
- Eliade 1937, in Ornea 1995, 203.
- Eliade 1937, in Ornea 1995, 203.
- Ornea 1995, 209.
- To this end, Eliade wrote that "[In his place], I would not be grinding it in Russia" in an attempt to encourage Antonescu to see reason.
- Ross 1996.
- Ribas 2000.
- România Liberă, passim. September–October 1944, in Frunză 1990.
- Frunză 1990, 448–449.
- Pals 1996, 160.
- Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion, quoted in Pals 1996, 161.
- Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), p. 165.
- Mircea Eliade, "Methodological Remarks on the Study of Religious Symbolism," in The History of Religions: Essays on Methodology, edited by Joseph Kitagawa and Mircea Eliade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 95.
- Pals 1996, 178–79.
- Eliade quoted in Pals 1996, 180.
- Pals 1996, 189.
- Eliade, "Methodological Remarks on the Study of Religious Symbolism," pp. 88-89.
- Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, translated by Rosemary Sheed (London: Sheed and Ward, 1958), p. 450.
- Pals 1996, 190.
- Guildford Dudley III, Religion on Trial: Mircea Eliade and His Critics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977), p. 63.
- Ornea 1995, 408-409, 412.
- Sebastian 2000, passim.
- Sebastian 2000, 238.
- It was popular prejudice in the late 1930s to claim that Ukrainian Jews in the Soviet Union had obtained Romanian citizenship illegally after passing the border into Maramureş and Bukovina. In 1938, this accusation served as an excuse for the Octavian Goga/A. C. Cuza government to suspend and review all Jewish citizenship guaranteed after 1923, rendering it very difficult to regain (Ornea 1995, 391). Eliade's mention of Bessarabia probably refers to an earlier period, being his interpretation of a pre-Greater Romania process.
- Eliade, 1936, in Ornea 1995, 412–413.
- Eliade, 1937, in Ornea 1995, 413.
- Ornea 1995, 206; Ornea is skeptical of these explanations, given both the long period of time spent between the article's publication and Eliade's retraction (almost fifty years), and especially the fact that the article itself, despite the haste in which it would have been written, has remarkably detailed references to many articles written by Eliade in various papers over a period of time.
- Volovici 1991, 104–105, 110–111, 120–126, 134.
- Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine, quoted in Cristiano Grottanelli's "Fruitful Death: Mircea Eliade and Ernst Jünger on Human Sacrifice, 1937-1945," Numen 52(1), 2005, 116–145.
- Rennie 1996, 149–177; Ross 1996.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Cernat, Paul. 2004. "Îmblânzitorul României Socialiste. De la Bîrca la Chicago şi înapoi." In Cernat, Paul, Ion Manolescu, Angelo Mitchievici, and Ioan Stanomir. Explorări în comunismul românesc, Vol. 1. Iaşi: Polirom, 346–348. ISBN 973-681-817-9
- Dudley, Guildford the III. 1977. Religion on Trial: Mircea Eliade and His Critics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 0877221022
- Eliade, Mircea. 1959. "Methodological Remarks on the Study of Religious Symbolism." In Joseph Kitagawa and Mircea Eliade (eds.). The History of Religions: Essays on Methodology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Eliade, Mircea. 1954. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. Bollingen Series XLVI. New York: Pantheon Books. ASIN B000H0UH0G
- Eliade, Mircea. 1968. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York: Harvest Books. ISBN 015679201X
- Eliade, Mircea. 1999. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Translated by Rosemary Sheed. London: Sheed and Ward. ISBN 0722079451
- Frunză, Victor. 1990. Istoria stalinismului în România. Bucharest: Humanitas.
- Grottanelli, Cristiano. 2005. "Fruitful Death: Mircea Eliade and Ernst Jünger on Human Sacrifice, 1937–1945." Numen 52(1):116–145.
- Ornea, Z. 1995. Anii treizeci. Extrema dreaptă românească. Bucharest: Ed. Fundaţiei Culturale Române.
- Pals, Daniel L. 1996. Seven Theories of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195087259
- Rennie, Bryan S. 1996. Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-2763-3
- Ross, Kelley L. 1996. "Mircea Eliade" on Friesian.com. Retrieved October 10, 2008.
- Sebastian, Mihail. 2000. Journal, 1935–1944: The Fascist Years. Translated from the Romanian by Patrick Camiller; with an introduction and notes by Radu Ioanid. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
- Volovici, Leon. 1991. Nationalist Ideology and Antisemitism: The Case of Romanian Intellectuals in the 1930s. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
- Ribas, Albert. 2000. Mircea Eliade, historiador de las religiones. Retrieved October 10, 2008.
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