Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 21.

Peter Kingsley, In The Dark Places of Wisdom. London: Duckworth, 1999. Pp. 255. ISBN 0-7156-3119-5. UKú12.99.

George Doukas,
Hellenic American Educational Foundation, Athens

Michael Bakaoukas,
University of Peiraeus, Greece

Peter Kingsley is a well-known authority in Pre-Socratic philosophy, in ancient mysticism, and in the origins of Western culture. According to him, 'the Hermetic and Pythagorean traditions both relied heavily on teaching through hints'.[[1]] This book critically examines this theme.

This study, according to its author, 'is neither fact nor fiction . . . It might seem to be a story about things that happened a long time ago. But really it's about ourselves' (p. 3). And this is true. The author relates archaeological discoveries in Italy near the ancient city of Velia (Elea), a sixth-century BC Greek colony, to his own unique and fascinating interpretation of the famous Parmenides epic poem, to tell us something about our common (Western) view of reality and life. A life that is continuously being filled with substitutions of what really matters. As Kingsley says, 'Western culture is a past master of the art of substitution' (p. 35). It teaches us to avoid coming to terms with our longing, because longing is associated with a sense of loss and pain. Instead of running away from pain, sadness, or depression we should face them by looking into what lies deep inside ourselves, and be healed of our complacency by discovering the 'essential that never changes' (p. 27). The teachings of Parmenides are relevant here, today; they have an extraordinary power 'that's waiting to be understood again and used' (p. 230).

Kingsley starts with an interpretation of the history of the evacuation of Phocaea (540 BC), a thriving Ionian city under pressure from the advancing Persians, and the foundation by the refugees of the city of Velia (Elea), birthplace of Xenophanes and Parmenides. There was a mystical, as well as practical significance in that choice of settlement. It followed an interpretation by a wise man from southern Italy of an oracle that the Phocaeans had received from Delphi. And wise men, who came to be known as Pythagoreans, were called that because 'their wisdom verged on the divine; because they were able to see beyond the surface and behind appearances; because they were able to interpret oracles and dreams and the riddles of existence' (p. 27). In fact, evidence indicates that the first Greeks to coin the word philosophia in the technical sense of 'love of wisdom' were Pythagoreans.

Coming from an area (western Anatolia) where the philosophy went hand in hand with the mystical cultural influences of the East (Babylonia, Persia, Phoenicia, Central Asia), the Phocaeans respected wise men. It is no accident then that Parmenides' own love of wisdom was born out of such traditions, traditions that were carried on in Velia and practised, as archaeological evidence suggests, by 'healers' (iatromanteis), dedicated to the Ionian god Apollo Oulios ('healer and destroyer'). Healing was a process associated with 'incubation' (enkoimesis), a state of suspended animation that took place in 'dens' (pholea), under the supervision of 'Lords of the Lair' (pholearchoi). Through incubation, the initiate would be left in utter stillness (hesychia), and through dreams, and guidance, he would come into contact with the world of the gods.

Parmenides' poem, in which he describes his journey to the nameless goddess of the underworld -- apparently Justice (dike) -- who teaches him about what is real and what is not, is in fact a description of such a dream. Evidence suggests that Parmenides himself was an ouliades physikos ('healing physician') who had been introduced to the Apollonian mysteries of healing through stillness by Ameinias the Pythagorean. He was a mystic and magician himself. And as far as such men were concerned, there can be no real healing, no discovery of what lies at the root of one's own existence, until one comes to discover what lies 'behind the world of the senses' (p. 144).

There lies the core of Parmenides' philosophy: the real world that never changes, the world that exists, has nothing to do with appearances. What is perceived by our senses is deceptive. Contrary to what Heraclitus believed, there are no opposites. The 'One', a spherical and material 'One', is indivisible and infinite -- not a union of opposites. The way of approaching it, the 'way of truth' that the goddess shows him in his dream, is not easy. Hesychia can look intensely disquieting, sinister, alien, profoundly inhuman (p. 185). At the same time, it may be the only way to find the inner resources to discover one's own answers inside one's own self. And in this journey there may lie real enlightenment. As the author concludes, the story he tells us in this absorbing book is only the beginning.


[[1]] P. Kingsley, 'Knowing Beyond Knowing: The Heart of the Hermetic Tradition', Parabola 22.1 (1997) 21.