Eliding Mircea Eliade

After reading 13 of Mircea Eliade’s books, an exasperated Edmund Leach had had enough. Leach was, when he published this review of those 13 books in 1966, one of the few scholars in the world capable of evaluating Eliade’s anthropological sources and claims. As is evident from this epic opening paragraph, Leach was not impressed:

Merlin and his magic forest must be cut down to size before we can see the shape of the trees, but first let us examine the undergrowth. After graduating from the University of Bucharest in 1928 Mircea Eliade spent three years in Calcutta studying classical texts of Indian mysticism. His special concern was with the ascetic and ecstatic techniques whereby the would-be saint, having achieved a state of psychological dissociation, can persuade himself that he has access to the powers of the other world, being himself neither alive nor dead, neither on earth nor in heaven. All of Eliade’s subsequent writings have been concerned with this central theme, the symbolic modes through which communication is established between the sacred and the profane. His attitude is that of a Jesuit: he is scholar and believer at the same time. Eliade left Romania at the end of the war and later settled in Paris; for the past ten years he has been Professor of the History of Religion in the University of Chicago. The “history” which he pursues is not concerned with chronological sequences or the analysis of the causes and consequences of particular events, but rather with the development of human thought over vast regions of time and space. But this evolution is a very simple two-stage affair: for Eliade modern man stands to archaic man as Christianity to pre-Christianity. The cosmological ideas which characterize archaic religion are everywhere the same and may be exemplified, in Frazerian fashion, by any snippets of exotic ethnography which conveniently come to hand. Modern man is unique because the religious mythology of Judeo-Christianity is set in a matrix of chronological time. Christian time is on-going, it had a beginning and will have an end but it is non-repetitive, it is “historical.” In all other religions, time is a cyclical process. Instead of advancing boldly towards the discovery of a New Jerusalem, archaic man is content to engage in recurrent but imperfect imitation of divinely ordained archetypes fashioned by the ancestral deities in the first beginning.

Whatever may be the faults of method, it is easy to see why the thesis as such should appeal strongly to several kinds of anti-positivist.

While the Frazer comparison may be a bit unfair to Frazer (who always double-verified his ethnographic sources before deploying them in speculative evolutionary schemes), Leach is having none of Eliade’s ostensible erudition:

Eliade’s diagnosis may be challenged on many different grounds: bad history—there has never been a radical discordance between Christian cosmology and cyclical notions of time; bad ethnography—it is not true that the cosmologies of “archaic” man always incorporate notions of cyclical time; bad method—comparative ethnography in the style which Eliade employs, can only illustrate by example, it can never properly be used as a basis for generalization; bad psychology—Eliade takes for granted the Lévy-Bruhl fashions of his youth which assumed that ethnographic evidence reflects a pre-logical archaic mentality radically different from that of rational thought (Lévy-Bruhl himself abandoned this theory in his later years); confusion of terms—the most interesting parts of Eliade’s writings become fogged by his failure to distinguish clearly between the content of a set of symbols and its structure. It is only fair to add that in the last chapter of his latest book, Mephistopheles and the Androgyne, Eliade shows himself sensitive to most of these criticisms and seems dimly aware that he may have been maintaining indefensible positions, but he makes no retraction, and so he must be judged.

And so Leach judges Eliade unworthy on a range of issues. Though not the most damning, Leach’s comments on Eliade’s use and abuse of sources is revealing:

Since Eliade professes to be an expert on archaic modes of thought he necessarily relies very heavily on anthropological sources and his formidable bibliographies convey the impression of enormous erudition. But here again the proliferation of titles arouses a certain skepticism. A man who publishes a dozen books within fifteen years and appends over a thousand references to at least three of them is probably learned in only a rather superficial sense, but Eliade’s long book lists at least indicate what he has not read [e.g., Mauss, Hertz, and Van Gennep] and in some cases this test is quite shattering….Whatever may be the explanation for this silence it can do Eliade no credit. I am not suggesting that his erudition is wholly fake but that his knowledge of the history of anthropology must be abysmal. This is not a subject which can be understood by reading predigested textbooks and scrabbling through an index to find an appropriate reference.

Enamored as Eliade was of the mystical, it is not surprising he would deploy sources in ways that might mystify readers not deeply familiar with the ethnographic record, both old and new. The heavy and obscure sourcing seems designed to overwhelm. Most are in fact overwhelmed, or at least awed. Not Leach. He was deeply familiar with these sources and thus uniquely capable of critique.

While Eliade was a provocative scholar with some interesting ideas, we should recognize these ideas for what they are: metaphysical speculations supported with cherry-picked ethnography. The confirmation bias ran deep in Merlin.


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4 thoughts on “Eliding Mircea Eliade

  1. Darryl Cooper

    Hi Cris. Love your work, pleae keep it up.

    Do you have any advice for an undergraduate religious studies student with aspirations to RS/anthro graduate work and eventual scholarhood? When you read someone say that a man like Eliade was a sort of dilletante, and that his knowledge of the history of anthropology was abysmal, it can be overwhelming to the young student over-awed even by Eliade’s apparently superficial knowledge. Especially when one considers what Leach says about the limitations not only in the shortcomings of what one has read, but those arising from what one has not read and, given the sheer amount of work, what one has perhaps never even heard of. I often feel utterly hopeless reading some of your blog posts, thinking that I am already so far behind the conversation that by the time I catch up it will have moved on again, forever dooming me to that status of naive novice.

    Would you consider doing a post, or series of posts, some time for folks like me, that sort of lays out a very basic beginner/intermediate path, that says “Until you’ve read the following, or at least have a familiarity with the ideas, STFU.” Because I have to say that even the undergrad courses a lot of places offer in RS and Anthro seem woefully inadequte to preparing someone to meaningfully add to the conversation.


  2. Sabio Lantz

    I lived in Chicago in the days that I was slowly leaving Christianity. My way out of Christianity was comparative religion – after my exposure to Hinduism. And as I started reading (it was the 80s), Eliade was inevitably on every book list. I was a mystic at that time, and Eliade was presented as a fellow mystic. But I found Eliades’ theories very reaching, too academic and had too much of a distinctly Christian flavor for me. But at that time, I had very few academic tools by which to evaluate him. All I knew is that he seemed on a different path. I remember precious little of him. So with that recorded forward, I will now proceed to read your post.


    Thank you for pointing to these readings and culling a bit from articles I probably won’t read (besides, they are for purchase — so your clips help tremendously). The criticism of his anthropology techniques was fascinating. I keep learning from your posts — thanx.

    Darryl’s comment about is fantastic. For many escaping an exclusivist religion, anthropology is a wonderful friend and ally. But then, we go in there and are as quickly deceived as we were in our religious days — we get sucked into believe the authorities. But it is tough, and takes lots of time and effort to learn enough in any field to clearly understand the different positions in the field. For in most fields, teachers rarely tell their position as if it were just one more sect of anthropology — instead, they present their anthropology as if it were “ANTHROPOLOGY”!

    I found this in law and economics at Johns Hopkins — teachers of the elementary level (and even later) did not clearly lay out the controversial position but fed the myth that there is generally agreed understandings in Law and Economics. And since then, I have seen this in many fields: linguistics, medicine, mathematics …

    Of course, this is the hallmark of religion — never explain your own religion as a sect. Indeed, most religious folks don’t like to consider their religion a “religion” — but all the other beliefs are “religions”.

  3. Cris Post author

    I’m not ignoring you on this post; I’m still thinking about the best way to respond.

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