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Friday, May 17, 2024

Ethics in the Renaissance

Dr. Alice C. Linsley


Giotto’s great works 1266–1337 AD
Pico della Mirandola 1463–1494 AD
Niccoló Machiavelli 1469–1527 AD
Michelangelo 1475–1564 AD
Columbus’ first voyage 1492–1493 AD
Emperor Charles V 1500–1558 AD
John Calvin 1509–1564 AD
Jesuit Order founded 1540 AD
Period of Religious Wars 1560–1598 AD
Christopher Marlowe 1564–1593 AD
Spanish Armada defeated 1588 AD

"It must be grasped that the Renaissance was primarily a human event, propelled forward by a number of individuals of outstanding talent, which in some cases amounted to genius. ...The Renaissance was about the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism."--Paul Johnson

"I am aware that a philosopher’s ideas are not subject to the judgment of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God."--Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543)

The Renaissance was a cultural movement beginning in the 14th century in Italy. It spread to the rest of Europe, reaching England by the 16th century and northern Europe by the mid-17th century. It is characterized by Humanism, the predominant social, intellectual and literary currents of the period from 1400 to 1650. Humanism emphasizes appreciation of worldly pleasures, interest in classical pagan art and architecture, and the value of individual expression.

The Renaissance was driven by talented individuals who were ever seeking greater achievements. It involved renewed interest in pagan and Christian themes in literature and art. The two traditions often were shown in the same painting and depicted as sharing similar values or contrasting values. Titian’s portrayal of Sacred and Profane Love is an example (shown above). It shows two women: one dressed and holding a branch of myrtle, and the other naked and holding an oil lamp. Between them, Cupid stirs the waters. An obelisk and a church are seen in the town in the background. Hunters and hunting dogs are seen in the field behind the women. Two bodies of water separate the town from the field.

The artist who marks the transition to Renaissance painting is Giotto di Bondone, described by the 16th century biographer Vasari, as initiating “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”

Many of Giotto’s works were painted on wood panels in the style of icons. These were commissioned for use in the great churches of Italy. A Giotto triptych was found as recently at 2012. (See this video.)

Imagine living as an artist in Italy during the early 16th century (High Renaissance). How would you distinguish yourself from the other artists living in your area: Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, or Titian? The competition was steep!

The artists of the Renaissance excelled in many medium. In the early Renaissance paintings were done on wood panels using tempura paint, an egg-based paint. From about 1550, paintings were done on canvas with oil paint. Some of the greatest Renaissance artists did fresco painting on walls and ceilings. Many also excelled at sculpture. Michelangelo Buonarroti is an example. Michelangelo completed most of his famous sculptures by age 30, but he continued to work until age 88.

Leonardo da Vinci excelled at drawing and his drawings reveal his genius and remarkable imagination. His private sketch books contain drawings of helicopters, gliders, a machine gun (“3-barrelled organ”), an armored tank, and many machines. Some of the machines he drew have been built and found to work very well. Da Vinci also researched the human body to ensure his artworks were anatomically accurate. Between 1507 and 1513 he dissected more than 30 human corpses. Today Da Vinci’s drawings of the human body are regarded as masterpieces both as works of art and as studies of the human anatomy.

There was as much competition and individual drive in literature and drama as in art. Christopher Marlowe’s work embodied the Humanism of Erasmus. Erasmus lived in England between 1505 and 1517 and he was influential in fostering sympathy for Henry VIII’s political aspirations. Erasmus’ views aligned well with Henry’s desire to centralize political and religious power in the person of the King and to require obedience to a unified church and state in England. Marlowe questioned religious authority, much as Erasmus questioned the corruption he saw among Roman Catholic prelates during his time in Rome. Marlowe’s plays were as famous in his day as those of Shakespeare, one of his contemporaries.

William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were trained in classical literature and were writing for the stage between 1587 and 1593. Marlowe died in 1593. Prior to 1587, there were no educated men dedicated to the public theater as professional writers. However, in England by the time Marlowe and Shakespeare had gained public recognition, there were eight other men competing for work as dramatists, and their ambition drove them to ever greater individual accomplishments.

A Time Similar to Our Own

In many ways the Renaissance was a time like our own. It was marked by individualism, renewed interest in paganism, religious conflict, Islamic expansion, deadly diseases, and new directions in literature, art, healthcare and education. The accomplishments of the Renaissance must be viewed against the backdrop of bloody religious conflict, the plague, the territorial ambitions of the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean, and the discovery of the New World which expanded geographical horizons and stimulated European imaginations and economies. The Renaissance was a period marked by the quest for discovery in virtually every area of human endeavor.

The invention of the printing press made it possible for scholars to share their research and for literate nobles and merchants to enjoy the great literature of their day. The impact was much like the impact of the internet today. The difference is that many people during the Renaissance were not able to read. It was not an egalitarian society in which equality was a value, and it was not a democratic society. Enacting laws and enforcing laws was the work of the landed nobles and their king.

In our time we also face religious upheaval and renewed interest in pagan ideas and religions. We live with terrible new diseases such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS, and the resurgence of resistant strains of old diseases such a Tuberculosis and Polio. In education, parents seek alternatives to public schools, such as charter schools, home schooling, and classical education schools. Healthcare reform is one of the most discussed topics among Americans today. Islamic leaders call for expansion of Islam, aspiring to establish an Islamic world empire under Sharia Law. This has lead to the outlawing of Sharia in some places. Some extremists propose holy war (jihad) against any who oppose them.

As there are no new lands to discover, we look instead to the heavens, as did Galileo. It is hoped that cooperative space exploration will lead to the discovery of earth-like planets in other galaxies. This hope stirs the human imagination and nurtures technological development.

Ethical Considerations of the Renaissance

This lesson concentrates on the 15th and 16th centuries because it was during these centuries that the key ethical questions of the Renaissance came most clearly into focus. The ethical questions of the Renaissance that will be addressed in this lesson are:

  • The dignity of Man
  • Responsibility of the nobility
  • Reform of education and healthcare
  • The power of rulers and the authority of the Papacy
  • Religious intolerance, persecution and war
  • Individual conscience and personal interpretation

The question of human nature was addressed by both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. The Catholic position held that while humans are sinful due to the fall of Man, the image of God with which we were originally created is not fully erased. Therefore Man has dignity derived from being made in the “image and likeness of God.” The Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did not deny that humans were created in God’s image, but they believed that that the fall so thoroughly corrupted us that we were robbed of our original dignity. Our sinfulness is such that we no longer are free to desire communion with God. Our wills are in bondage to sin and we stand before the Creator as filthy beggars.

During the Renaissance, Luther’s view was challenged by the Christian Humanist Erasmus and by others who believed that the Lutheran doctrine of total depravity robs humanity of the dignity that remains even after the Fall. That dignity comes from the image of God that cannot be completely erased from human nature.

Humanism took various expressions in the Renaissance. Some humanists, such as Erasmus, were deeply religious. These stressed the dignity of man and both heavenly and earthly rewards. Others were scoffers of religion who sought all possible rewards in this life. This secular humanism was a reaction against Church authority and also against the bloodshed that resulted from religious conflict.

Renaissance Humanism shifted the focus from God to Man and from the supernatural to the natural. Human achievement and creative potential took center stage. Some Renaissance thinkers believed that humans have the potential to become almost divine through the use of reason (Pico della Mirandola). Others believed that humans could achieve dignity only by casting off the social and religious conventions of their time (Christopher Marlowe). The development of the printing press made it possible for all to share their ideas with a wider audience than had ever been imagined.

The debate over the dignity of man was fed by both scientific discovery and humanistic literature. Copernicus proved that the sun was at the center of the planetary system, rather than earth, radically altering the worldview of many learned people. This was significant because earth and humanity could no longer be regarded as the center of the universe.

The Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in a work titled “Oration on the Dignity of Man” exalted humanity as being capable of rising to the level of angels through philosophy and reason. He pictured humans between beasts and angels and insisted that by allowing reason to rule our emotions, we ascend to the level of angels. By acting against reason, we descend to the level of beasts. He asserted that only human beings could change themselves since humans alone have free will. His Oration on the Dignity of Man is considered the Manifesto of the Renaissance.

Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus typifies the spirit of humanism in the character of Faustus who aspires to superhuman powers by making a pact with the devil. Faustus is fascinated by the prospect of pushing beyond the religious conventions of his time. At the same time, he fears the possible consequences. The character Faustus embodies both the boldness and the anxiety of Renaissance individualism.

Faustus represents Marlowe’s exploration of his own psyche. He scoffed at the major religions and said, “I count religion but a childish toy.” He also mocked the intelligence of religious people. The character of Faustus makes a declaration about the dignity of man that is very Nietzschean, that is to say: a man can achieve any earthly power he might desire, but to do so, he must utterly reject social and religious conventions.

Doctor Faustus was performed twenty-five times between October 1594 and October 1597 and was one of the most popular plays of Renaissance England. The troupe that performed Marlowe’s play was called The Admiral’s Men because they were supported financially by their patron Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, who commanded a squadron of ships.

Patronage of the arts developed in the Middle Ages but reached its peak during the Renaissance. Nobles vied with the Church for the services of the best artists, poets and philosophers. Wealthy families provided housing, food and a stipend in exchange for an artist’s work. Renaissance patronage made it possible for people like Giotto, Titan, and Michelangelo to dedicate themselves to their work, but it was not without problems, as we will discover when we explore the ethics of patronage.

The Responsibility of Kings and Nobles

During the Renaissance the ideal nobleman was a literate and refined gentleman of courtly manners. He had responsibility for the care of servants, peasants and family members, which for noblemen of limited resources posed a financial challenge. Some noble families lost their estates or became vassals of more wealthy lords in order to be able to keep their estates. This meant swearing loyalty to the overlord and coming to his aid in time of war.

Many nobles sought to be patrons of great artists in order to gain social status. During the Middle Ages the Church had been the primary patron of the arts, but during the Renaissance new systems of patronage developed. Artists were supported by individuals, noble families, organizations, and cities. The patron who commissioned work from an artist was to provide his material needs until that work was finished. The Florentine wool guild, for example, commissioned religious paintings and sculptures for the adornment of the Cathedral in Florence.

The Renaissance saw greater centralization of power among wealthy rulers, sometimes called “new monarchs.” These were men who were able to command armies to police their territories and to expand their territories. After a period of famine, plague and self-serving medieval chivalry, the new monarchs stirred Europe out of decline by forming new allegiances. Renaissance diplomacy became an art form and there was much political intrigue. Powerful new weapons were employed in war. Power struggles and shifting alliances between kings resulted in the destruction of property and citizens. This was evident on Italian soil where the German Hapsburg kings and the French Valois kings engaged in prolonged wars that devastated Italy.

Religion played a role in government. Kings often sought the support of bishops to justify their political actions. Henry VIII declared that the Pope no longer had authority in the realm of England. In Geneva, Calvin’s teachings ruled the day and his Consistory controlled all aspects of civil and religious life.

The Consistory was a council of pastors and elders elected to represent the 13 districts (cantons). The Consistory maintained church discipline, dictated standards of moral behavior, and established laws. Calvin has been accused of using the Consistory to advance his political aims and to punish those who challenged his authority. Some of his opponents were tortured and beheaded, and those accused of witchcraft were hunted and burned to death. In 1545, the Consistory charged 23 people with practicing witchcraft and they were burned at the stake in Geneva. Calvin's acceptance of torture was not unusual among rulers of that time.

Machiavellian Ethics

By far the most significant political philosopher of the Renaissance was Niccólo Machiavelli whose writings on statesmanship have brought him both notoriety and fame.

Machiavelli took a pragmatic approach to government. He believed that the first responsibility of the ruler is to increase and maintain his power and that the ruler was justified to use any means to accomplish this. Machiavelli studied the political tactics of some of Italy’s most cunning rulers, particularly those of Cesare Borgia, who through military prowess was enlarging his holdings in central Italy. (Borgia was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI.)

Machiavelli believed that bold and intelligent initiative on the part of a ruler could shape his fortune. In his view, human dignity was gained by exercise of the will to rule. Machiavelli provides instructions to the “new prince” on how to stabilize his power and retain control of his realm in his book “The Prince.” The prince is to appear benevolent in public while secretly acting as ruthlessly as necessary to squash his political opponents. He argues that this will achieve the greater good by maintaining social stability.

Machiavelli established guidelines for the ruler’s actions. He proposed this definition of acceptable cruelty: Whatever is done to one’s enemy must be swift, effective and short-lived, and there must not be collateral damage. In other words, killing a political opponent should be done as painlessly as possible, secretly, and without affecting other people or their property. Machiavelli justified this by reasoning that the ruler who has power can use it to benefit his subjects. The more powerful the ruler is, the greater his subjects’ benefits.

Machiavelli considered that some places, such as Milan, would never be ruled properly because there were too many nobles competing for power. His solution was to exterminate them all. He wrote, “In order to create a Republic in Milan it would be necessary to exterminate all the nobility. . . . For there are, among the nobles, so many exalted personages that the laws do not suffice to repress them, and they must needs be kept under by a living voice and a royal power.” (Discourse on the reform of the State of Firenze).

Machiavelli’s political ethics depart from those of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This is because Machiavelli saw that whatever a ruler does there are likely to be both good and bad consequences. In “The Discourses” (1517), he wrote, “It seems that in all the actions of men, besides the general difficulties of carrying them to a successful issue, the good is accompanied by some special evil, and so closely allied to it that it would seem impossible to achieve the one without encountering the other.”

Socrates would have argued that unless an action serves the common good of all citizens, the ruler should not do it. Plato would have said that a ruler who does evil is someone who does not have an intimate acquaintance with eternal Goodness. Aristotle argued that there are some actions which are always bad and should never be done.

Consider the different viewpoints expressed in the writings of Machiavelli and Aristotle:

Machiavelli wrote that it is not necessary for a prince to have the qualities of honestly, kindness, loyalty, etc, “but it is necessary to seem to have them…useful it is to seem compassionate, trustworthy, humane, endowed with integrity, religious, and to be such, but to be in such a condition, with one’s spirit so constructed, that, when you need to not possess these qualities, you are prepared and know how to shift to the contrary qualities… Let, then, a prince act in such a manner as to conquer and maintain his estate, and the means will always be judged honorable, and they will be praised by everyone – since the crowd is always going to be taken in by appearances and results, and in the world there is no one but the crowd…”

Aristotle wrote: “There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder. These and similar emotions and actions imply by their very names that they are bad... It is, therefore, impossible ever to do right in performing them: to perform them is always wrong.”

Reform of Education and Healthcare

Around the time that Machiavelli was gaining recognition in Italy, Ignatius of Loyola was born in Spain (1491). He was to have a worldwide influence as the founder of the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order that quickly spread over the globe.

The first Jesuits were ordained to the priesthood in Venice and offered themselves in service to Pope Paul III, who gave official approval to the Order in 1540. Ignatius served as General Superior of the Jesuits until his death at the age of 65. During his lifetime Jesuit missionaries went to China, Africa, Mexico and South America. Jesuit priests founded several towns in Brazil, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The Society of Jesus dedicated itself to education. The first Jesuit schools adopted the curriculum of the Renaissance humanist academies which included the study of Greek, Latin poetry, oratory, drama, mathematics, theology and history. When Ignatius' died in 1556, the Jesuits were operating 74 colleges on three continents, and by 1626 the order had established 400 colleges throughout Europe. Jesuits colleges and universities became the standard for excellence and produced some of the greatest minds of European history, among them: Copernicus, Galileo, Miguel de Cervantes, Otto Brufels (the “father” of botany), and the brilliant mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, to name a few.

The Catholic Church funded schools and charity work to the poor through its parishes and religious orders throughout Europe. Priests, nuns and lay clerics staffed schools and hospitals, but where Protestantism became the established religion, such as in northern Germany, Catholic educational and charitable efforts were taken over by Protestants.

Most of the hospitals in Europe were founded by Catholic orders of nuns and monks. The Ospedale Maggiore in Milan housed one of the first community hospitals, the largest such undertaking of the 15th century. In the 14th century, the Alexian Brothers in Germany and the Netherlands organized care for victims of the Black Plague and established institutions for people with contagious diseases such as leprosy. Nuns and monks provided most of the nursing care and even made important discoveries in the field.

During the Renaissance, universities in Italy, Spain and Germany became centers for the education of medical practitioners. Success in the cure of diseases encouraged further investigation of medicinal herbs, and autopsies of the dead helped doctors learn more about the human body.

Religious Intolerance

The Renaissance was a time of religious intolerance and bloody religious conflict. Catholic and Protestant rulers made war against each other. Catholics and Protestants killed each other and both fought the Ottoman Turks.

Under Luther’s influence northern German became Lutheran and the Catholics living there faced religious persecution. To escape trouble, many moved to southern Germany which remained Catholic. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg was a treaty between the catholic Emperor Ferdinand and the Lutheran princes. It was intended to lessen religious strife in Europe, but it actually made matters worse. The Peace of Augsburg caused thousands of Calvinists to flee from Germany to the Spanish Netherlands where they stirred resistance to Spain’s control of the Netherlands. The king of Spain was determined to squash the Calvinist resistance to his authority in the Netherlands and there were many years of bloody battles. Other Calvinists left Germany for France where they encountered intolerance from the mainly Catholic population. Still others went to Geneva or to England where they were more welcome.

When Charles V gave up his throne, his son, Philip II, inherited Spain, the Netherlands, most of Italy, and Spain's colonies in the New World. Philip’s troops viciously attacked Protestant protesters in Holland and Belgium. Determined to uproot Protestantism from the Netherlands, Philip brought in Inquisitors and increased the number of Catholic bishops from four to sixteen. The Protestant rebellion against Spain dragged on until 1648 and become part of the wider European conflict known as the “Thirty Years War.”

In 1566, the Duke of Alva with an army of 10,000 Spanish troops burned Calvinist churches, executed their leaders, and nearly extinguished the Calvinist resistance in the Netherlands. However, Calvinist sea raiders gained control of some ports in the north. When word spread of these Calvinist safe ports, more Calvinists flocked Holland. As a result of this migration, most people living in northern Holland today are Protestant.

Tensions between Calvinists and Catholics in France triggered anarchy and weakened the government. The Catholic majority opposed an influential minority of French Calvinists known as “Huguenots.” The Huguenots had the advantage of living primarily in the fortified southern cities ruled by nobles who provided excellent leadership. Catholic and Huguenot armies battled in France for almost 30 years, destroying fields, homes and lives. Seven religious wars were fought in France and the fighting often involved the massacre of women and children. From 1562-157l there were 5 massacres of Catholics and 18 massacres of Protestants, the most notorious being the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), when armed Catholics in Paris fell upon local and visiting Calvinists, killing 3000.

Spain used the unrest in France to intervene in France’s internal affairs. Tensions between Protestant England and Catholic Spain led the English to raid Spanish shipping and support the revolt in the Spanish Netherlands. Meanwhile Philip II conspired to dethrone Elizabeth I. The eclipse of Spain’s military and naval power came in 1588 when the English defeated the Spanish Armada.

Conscience and Individual Interpretation

The idea that one should act according to the dictates of one’s conscience emerged among the ancient Greeks. The conscience as a moral guide was one of the teachings at a famous philosophical academy in Tarsus in Turkey. This was the hometown of the Apostle Paul. The Tarsus academy was founded by the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus before Paul was born. The Greek geographer Strabo considered the Tarsus academy to be better than the academies of Athens and Alexandria, Egypt. Athenodorus taught that, “Every man's conscience is his god.” It is likely that Paul heard a great deal about the conscience while growing up in Tarsus because Paul makes abundant use of the Greek word for conscience in his New Testament writings (Romans 2:15; 1 Corinthians 8:7-12; 1 Timothy 1:5-19; Romans 9:1).

In the Renaissance, the individual conscience again emerged as a moral guide, but many thinkers hesitated to speak from their consciences for fear of persecution or charges of heresy. Such was the case with Galileo who had a strong interest in Copernican theory. In 1543, Copernicus published “Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs” in which he set forth his idea that the Sun was at the center of the universe and that the rotating Earth complete one full orbit around the Sun every 365 days. After much study, Galileo concluded that Copernicus was right. He admitted this in a 1597 letter to Johannes Kepler, who had also written about planetary systems. Galileo wrote, “Like you, I accepted the Copernican position several years ago and discovered from thence the cause of many natural effects which are doubtless inexplicable by the current theories.”

Galileo’s conscience led him to pursue the truth, but he was wise enough to keep his thoughts to himself until he had conclusively confirmed Copernicus’ calculations using a telescope. Galileo explained to Kepler: “I have not dared until now to bring my reasons and refutations into the open, being warned by the fortunes of Copernicus himself, our master, who procured for himself immortal fame among a few but stepped down among the great crowd.”

The Protestant movement broke with Church Tradition when it came to interpretation of the Bible. Among Catholics, Bible interpretation was done by Bible scholars; people who could read the texts in the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Protestants developed a different approach to Bible interpretation based on conscience and personal interpretation of the Bible, apart from the Tradition of the Church and the Church Fathers. The printing of Bibles in languages other than Latin made it possible for people to read the Bible in their own languages.

Historically, the Catholic Church valued individual conscience as a God-given gift that could lead the individual to virtue. However, challenges to the Catholic Church’s authority made the matter of individual conscience less important than unquestioning obedience to the Church’s teachings.

As Protestants rejected the Vatican’s teaching authority, they asserted for themselves new authorities: the individual conscience, personal interpretation of the Bible, and the importance of reason.

Baron Samuel Pufendorf, a German rationalist, concluded that the individual reason is capable of deciding between right and wrong, and between truth and falsehood. The Protestant movement leaned heavily on this rationalist idea. Coupled with Renaissance humanism and rationalism, Protestant thought prepared the way for modern ethics based on human reason, individual conscience, and personal experience.


During the Renaissance, rulers provided for artists and musicians who offered their services to their wealthy patrons. The more artists one could support, the more social status one had. The system of patronage expanded to include noble families, organizations and cities. The competition between artists to draw the attention of patrons drove them to ever greater personal accomplishments.

Many of the famous artists of the Renaissance were gifted in drawing, painting and sculpture. Some, like Leonardo da Vinci, were also visionaries who drew images of future inventions. Some excelled in math and the sciences, as well as in art. This multi-talented figure stands behind the phrase “a Renaissance man.”

During the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in pagan themes in literature and art. Pagans themes were often portrayed alongside Christian themes. Often the two traditions were depicted as sharing similar values or contrasting values. Titan’s portrayal of Sacred and Profane Love is an example.

Competition was steep in literature and drama also. In the Golden Age of English drama there were ten famous playwrights competing for patrons.

Kings, bishops and nobles provided for artists and also took responsibility for family, servants and serfs who lived on their lands. They maintained armies and conducted diplomatic missions. They also defended the faith of their regions; Catholicism in Spain and Spanish holdings; Lutheranism in Northern Germany, and Calvinism in Switzerland.

Machiavelli believed that the ruler was to appear to be just and generous while dealing ruthlessly with his political opponents in secret. He justified his political ethics by reasoning that the ruler uses his power to benefit his subjects. The more powerful the ruler is, the greater his subjects’ benefits.

The humanism of the Renaissance stressed the dignity of man and the possibility of earthly rewards through individual accomplishments. Some humanists expressed the dignity of man in religious terms, stressing the image of God as an indelible mark. Pico della Mirandola believed that human dignity came with reason whereby humans can rise to the level of angels.

The Jesuits established universities throughout Europe and Catholic orders of nuns and monks founded many hospitals. Nuns and monks provided the nursing care and made important discoveries in the field of health care. Universities in Italy, Spain and Germany trained medical practitioners. Dissections were used to teach human anatomy.

Protestantism greatly influenced ethics during the Renaissance. Protestants developed ethical methods based on the principles of individual conscience and individual interpretation of the Bible, apart from the “Tradition” of the Church. Historically, Catholicism valued individual conscience as a God-given gift that can lead the individual to virtue. However, while the Catholic Church felt under siege from Protestantism and advancing Islam, this value was surrendered to the greater concern for obedience to the Church’s teachings.

Protestant rationalism coupled with Renaissance humanism prepared the way for modern ethics, based on human reason and individual conscience. This brings us to the eve of the Enlightenment, a new period in the history of Ethics.

Related reading: Aims and Means of Early Jesuit Education; Christopher Marlowe and the Golden Age of England; The Trial of Galileo; Machiavelli Believed in Fortune

Plato's Burial Place

Marble statue of Plato by Leonidas Drosis (1885) located in the Athenian Academy.

A deciphered Herculaneum Scroll offers new information about the possible site of Plato's burial. He apparently was buried near a sacred shrine to Muses in the garden of his academy in Athens. This according to Graziano Ranocchia, professor of Papyrology at the Department of Philology, Literature, and Linguistics at the University of Piza.

At an event in the National Library of Naples, researchers announced the early results of their decipherment of a carbonized scroll containing a copy of History of the Academy¸ penned by Philodemus of Gadara (c. 110–35 BC). Using advanced scanning techniques dubbed a “bionic eye” they were able to penetrate a 2,000-year-old carbonized scroll.

According to the research team, the scroll contains intriguing new details about Plato’s life and death. 

Friday, March 15, 2024

Mircea Eliade's Limitations


This is the fourth in a series on the failures of leading 20th century mythologists and religionists to uncover significant antecedents of the religions they studied. The first considers the work of Joseph Campbell, the second addresses Raimon Panikkar's Limitations, and the third looks at the failure of Carlos Castaneda to empirically investigate the roots of shamanism. 

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

The Romanian born Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) is rightly regarded as a preeminent scholar of religions and one of the world’s foremost interpreters of religious symbolism and myth. He was a prolific writer and of the five writers I am considering in this series, I find his research to be the most empirical. 

Eliade's writings reveal great insight on how early human populations viewed time as cyclical, how they understood the "world" to be that of their limited experience, and how events outside their worlds were viewed as magical or supernatural intrusions. 

Eliade understood myths to be symbolic sacred narratives about mythic events that cannot be identified with historical events. Through enactment of sacred rituals humans enter again and again into the timeless mysteries of their ancestors. According to Eliade, creation myths and origin myths describe "breakthroughs of the sacred (or the 'supernatural') into the World." He called such breakthroughs "hierophanies" rather than "theophanies" because while these narratives do not always involve deities, they all involve the sacred or holy (hiero).

In mythic hierophanies, the sacred appears in the actions and commandments of gods, heroes, priests and shamans. By manifesting an ideal such as self-sacrifice, the sacred gives the world value, direction, and purpose. According to Eliade, "The manifestation of the sacred, ontologically founds the world." In this view, all things are to imitate or conform to the sacred models reflected in hierophanies in order to have true reality.  All things "acquire their reality, their identity, only to the extent of their participation in a transcendent reality."

Christian sacramentalists easily can relate to this. Christ, the Man-God, comes to us in the bread and wine consecrated by a priest of the Church. His self-sacrifice gives infinite value, purpose, and strength to those who receive Him in faith and obedience.

Eliade's analysis of secular man

Eliade saw a sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane. In this he followed the lead of Émile Durkheim who considered the distinction between the sacred and the profane to be a central reality of religion. Both thinkers were reacting to the lack of respect in modern western societies for sacred things that deserve reverence or veneration.

Eliade criticized those who attempted to reduce religion to psychological, social, economic, historical, or other nonreligious phenomena. According to him, such attempts failed to convey the unique essence of the "sacred" in religious experience.

In his book The Sacred and the Profane, he exposes the lack of self-recognition of secularists. Moses was told to remove his shoes because he stood on sacred or holy ground (Ex.3:5). Religious people regard their places of worship as sacred ground, and while the secular person may belittle that attitude, he too has sacred spaces. For the one who loves to cook, it may be the kitchen. For the one who loves to garden it may be an enclosed refuge.

Sacred Time and Space

Eliade observed that time for traditional communities is not historical. Rather, it is archetypal or mythical. They observe periodic times of festival, propitious days for weddings, and days of rest. These were determined by lunar cycles, solar cycles, and agricultural cycles.

Eliade recognized that rituals, ceremonies, and even the architecture of ancient societies expressed belief in the connection between earthy sacred space and heavenly sacred space. The Babylonian temple had seven tiers because the number seven represented the number of visible celestial bodies: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. The architecture was intended to express a celestial reality on earth.

Eliade believed that many ceremonies represent humanity's attempt to overcome chaos by renewing the primal estate of innocence or sinlessness. Such ceremonies mark a new beginning, "the mythical moment of the passage from chaos to cosmos" and new year ceremonies are "a resumption of time from the beginning, that is, a repetition of the cosmogony." (The Myth of the Eternal Return, p.54).

The early Hebrew had a consciousness of the cyclical nature of time associated with the seasons, agriculture, fertility, etc. However, they believed that time was created by God. Genesis 1 speaks of this. In this view, since God is eternal, that is outside of time, there must have been a "beginning" and that beginning was when God began to create.

Mircea Eliade noted that the religious person can hold both the mythical cyclical view of time and also commemorate a beginning such as the divine work of creation of the world (The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, p. 104).

Eliade on Shamanism

Eliade's book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was first published in French by Librarie Payot in 1951. The book was later translated into English by Willard R. Trask and published by Princeton University Press in 1964. This book, along with the writings of Carlos Castaneda, influenced the Neoshamanic movement which developed in the western world in the 1960s and 1970s.

Eliade explains that his intention is to situate world shamanism within the larger history of religion. Disputing any claims that shamanism is a result of mental illness, he highlights the benefits that further sociological and ethnographic research could provide before explaining the role of a historian of religions. Describing shamanism as "precisely one of the archaic techniques of ecstasy", he proclaims that it is "at once mysticism, magic and "religion" in the broadest sense of the term."

His book describes shamanic practices of initiation, methods of obtaining power, and the symbolism of the shaman's clothing, implements, and drum. The second half of the book considers the development of shamanism in Asia, the Americas, Oceania, Tibet, China and Japan. Eliade speculated that shamanism was the earliest religion and that all shamanisms had a common source in the Paleolithic. He was never able to provide empirical evidence to support that view. However, his thought seems to align with a long-accepted principle of cultural anthropology that the more widely distributed a culture trait, the older it is.

Many archaeologists assume that shamanism preceded the organized religions of the Axial Age (1000 BC- 200 AD). They believe cave art depicts shamans conducting ceremonies as early as 15,000 years ago, although this is controversial. Eliade believed the roots of shamanic practice are to be found in the paleolithic, but he was unable to produce evidence of this. 

Eliade's Limitations

On publication, Eliade's book on Shamanism was recognized as an authoritative study. However, as anthropological data increased, elements of the book were questioned. It is evident that that shamanism exists in many regions of the globe, but it has not been proven to be the only archaic religion, nor has it been proven that all shamanistic practices have a common source. 

Eliade failed to distinguish between shamanic religion and the ancient henotheistic, non-occult religions such as that of the early Hebrew (4200 BC) and their Nilotic priest ancestors (10,000 BC). 

Eliade's exploration of shamanism reveals the slippery work of defining the religious office. He described shamanism as a "technique of ecstasy". However, that description also could apply to non-occult religious practices of ancient populations. 

He explained that shamanism is embedded in a framework of cosmological beliefs. The same could be said for the priests of the Nile Valley who were keeping records of astronomical events as early as 10,000 years ago, according to Plato. By 4245 BC, the priests of the Upper Nile had established a calendar based on the appearance of the star Sirius that becomes visible to the naked eye once every 1,461 years. Apparently, they had been tracking this star and connecting it to seasonal changes and agriculture for thousands of years. The priest historian Manetho reported in 241 BC that Nilotic Africans had been stargazing as early as 40,000 years ago.

Shamanism can be viewed as a form of healing. The same can be said for the office of priest. The tradition of physician priests has deep roots in Africa. Only members of the elite strata of African society learned and practiced medicine. One of the earliest known medical practitioners was Eanach (Enoch). He served the Pharaoh as his physician priest, or a wab sxmt (wab sekhmet). Eanach lived around 3000 B.C. and is said to have "healed the pharaoh's nostrils."

Ancient Egyptian doctors used copper to sterilize water and wounds around 2,400 BC. They also used herbs and minerals medicinally. They mixed the substances with honey, wine, or beer. Some medicines were worked into dough balls to form pills. They used ointments for wounds and treated chest complaints by getting the patient to inhale steam infused with essential oils. Oil was used to prevent infection, treat dry skin, and for anointing the sick with prayers for healing.

The idea of sacred pools can be traced to the priest-physicians of the Nile Valley. The sick came to them at the water shrines and temples. Water was used to cleanse wounds, ease strained muscles, and for ritual healing of the inner person.

The wives and daughters of these early Hebrew ruler-priests served at the royal water shrines. One title for royal ladies who served at Bronze Age water shrines was rabitu. The term is related to an Ancient Egypt word bity, and to the earlier Akkadian words for water (raatu) and house/shrine (biitu). The emblem of the rabitu was the spindle. In the Ugaritic story of Elimelek, the queen mother holds the title rabitu and her emblem is the spindle.

Many women had names associated with Neith as she was the patroness of water shrines, rivers, pregnant women, and women in childbirth. It is likely that Neith was a holy woman who lived at one of the early water shrines along the Nile before Egypt emerged as a political entity (c.3200 B.C.). Joseph's wife Aseneth was named for her. Aseneth was the daughter of a priest at Heliopolis, a prestigious shrine city on the Nile River.

It has been argued that the office of shaman is older than the office of priest since the priest is associated with temples and with what Eliade called the "paleo-oriental cultures" of Babylon, Egypt, and Israel. Yet there were priests at Catalhoyuk in 7500 BC. They wore the traditional priestly garb of the leopard skin. Recent excavations have identified a small temple on the eastern side of the sacred settlement.

Many of the practices associated with shamans are also associated with priests. At what point in human history did the two offices become distinct? Unfortunately, that question was never addressed by Eliade, and this is one of the limitations of his work.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Carlos Castaneda's Limitations

This essay is the third in a series on the failure of leading 20th century mythologists or religionists to uncover significant antecedents of the religions they studied. The first considers the work of Joseph Campbell and the second addresses Raimon Panikkar's Limitations, and the fourth concerns Mircea Eliade's Limitations.

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998) was born in Peru. In 1951 he moved to the United States. He studied sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Lima and hoped to make a living as an artist. He worked a series of odd jobs and took classes at Los Angeles Community College in philosophy, literature and creative writing. Those who knew him remember him as a consummate storyteller.

He studied anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, earning a Ph.D. in 1973. He, along with Timothy Leary, is considered a father of the New Age movement which certainly gained momentum through his tales of shamanic mysticism.

Even before his arrival in the United State Carlos and his then wife Margaret Runyan became fascinated by the occult. He later divorced Margaret and had multiple lovers, some of whom are believed to have taken their own lives upon Castenda's death. (See The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda.)

Under the tutelage of don Juan Matus, a Yaqui shaman, Castaneda entered what don Juan called "a separate reality." This reality was explored through peyote and exposure to "sacred" ceremonies and surreal Mexican environments. Casteneda claimed that his shaman tutors made his car disappear before his eyes. He also claimed to have a bilingual conversation with a coyote, turn into a crow, and learn how to fly. 

Castaneda considered don Juan his "teacher" while another shaman, don Genaro is described as his "benefactor" (Tales of Power, p. 226). Castaneda claims that don Genaro's actions had an extraordinary effect on him. "Every time I had come into contact with him I had experienced the most outlandish sensory distortion." (Tales of Power, p.6

Castaneda had a voracious appetite for the occult. At one point, he sought advice from Yogi Chen, a practitioner of esoteric Buddhism on how to produce a “double” of himself. Yogi Chen replied that there were methods for producing up to six emanations of oneself. “But why bother? Then you only have six times as much trouble.”

From 1971 to 1982, Castaneda's books sold at least 10 million copies. Castaneda's most popular titles, "A Separate Reality," "Journey to Ixtlan" and "Tales of Power," sold 10,000 copies in 2006, 8 years after the author's death. None of Castaneda's titles have ever gone out of print -- an impressive achievement for any author. His books became international best-sellers and have been translated into some 17 languages.

Castaneda's books stirred widespread interest in shamanism. It hardly mattered that his claims were debunked. His books are listed as nonfiction and don Juan and don Genaro are fictional characters. Nevertheless, having read Journey to Ixtlan and Tales of Power, I understand the appeal of his work. There is a freshness to the dialogue and at times a compelling glimpse of shamanic life, in spite of the fictional character of the works.

Tungus shaman with drum

Castaneda's Limitations

While Castaneda's works reveal an expansive imagination and fanciful literary style, his anthropological research is undisciplined, lacking in factual substance, and entirely anecdotal. It is as if he read what he could find about shamanism and then invented the perfect shamans to befriend him. His tales include all the classic elements of shamanic practice: drug-induced visions, progressive levels of skill at hunting, mystical bodyless flights, and rituals to gain the help of spirits. However, the tells are there! Castaneda's writings do not reveal understanding of the place of shamanism in the history of religion.

I may have more first-hand experience of shamans than Castanedo. I have sat through shamanic cleansing rituals in sweat lodges, and I conducted a year-long correspondence with a Umani Lenape shaman who I invited to speak to my World Religions students. I am not a nay-sayer when it comes to the realness of their occult powers. It is seductive. 

My intention is to clarify the distinction between the offices of shaman and priest, the oldest known religious offices. Both serve as intermediaries between their communities and the supernatural. They share some common symbols such as the Tree of Life, serpent symbolism, and the Sun as the emblem of the High God. However, they represent different worldviews, different ways of reasoning, and different practices.

Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits and restore balance or harmony. This often involves use of psychoactive substances to induce a trance state. Rarely, does the shaman perform blood sacrifice. The hides used to make their drums come from animals that have been hunted for food.

Underlying the priesthood is belief in a supreme High God to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. The ancient laws and received traditions governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, cleansing and healing rituals clarify the role of the priest as one who offers sacrifice for the people according to sacred law.

In the priest's understanding, the High God holds the world in balance, and it is human actions that cause disharmony. Offending spirits (demons) contribute to the chaos. Therefore, priests are to discern or test the spirits, recognizing that evil spirits can masquerade as beneficent. In my experiences with shamans, I noted that they also recognize that the spirits sometimes lie. They have their own ways of testing the spirits. (Only one Spirit never lies.)

Shamans can be found among many populations around the world: Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. They tend to serve small tribal communities or nomadic clans, whereas priests historically serve at shrines and temples under the authority of high kings and rulers. Another difference is the gender-transgressive (cross-dressing, transvestite) practice that occurs with shamanism. However, transvestism was prohibited among the Hebrew ruler-priest caste, the oldest known order of priests.

Related reading: Hallucinogenic Substances Found in 3000-year Hair of Shaman; Males as Spiritual Leaders: Two Patterns; Female Shamans; Belief in the High God; The Oldest Known Religion

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Raimon Panikkar's Limitations

Portrait of Raimon Panikkar (pencil on paper), Wikimedia Commons

This essay is the second in a series on the failure of leading 20th century mythologists or religionists to uncover significant antecedents of the religions they studied. The first considers the work of Joseph Campbell, the third addresses Carlos Castaneda's Limitations, and the fourth looks at Mircea Eliade's Limitations.

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Mr. Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) was a Roman Catholic priest and a professor of philosophy at the University of Madrid. His first trip to India in 1954 was a turning point in his life and a connection to the spiritual roots of his Hindu father. Panikkar's Spanish mother was Roman Catholic. As a scholar, Panikkar specialized in comparative religion.

While studying Indian philosophy at the University of Mysore and Banaras Hindu University, Mr. Panikkar began conversation about Eastern expressions of Christianity with several Western monks. About that experience Panikkar later wrote, “I left Europe as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.”

The rest of his life was dedicated to promoting an expansion of the Judaic and Greco-Roman foundations of Christianity to embrace the insights of non-Western religions.

Joseph Prabhu, a professor of philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles, and the editor of “The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar” (1996) concerning Panikkar:

“He was one of the pioneers in opening up Christianity to other religions and learning from them,” and “We can see the new waves of Christianity moving toward the non-European world in the 21st century, and he prepared the ground for an authentic dialogue between Christianity and other faiths, and beyond that for the cross-cultural conversation which marks our globalized world.”


Panikkar was a prolific writer. He wrote more than 40 books and 900 articles. His complete works are being published in Italian. His 1989 Gifford Lectures were published in English by Orbis in 2009 under the title "The Rhythm of Being." His books include “The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man” (1973), “The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness” (1993), “Christophany: The Fullness of Man” (2004) and “The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery” (2006).

He explained, “Writing, to me, is intellectual life and also spiritual experience… it allows me to ponder deeply the mystery of reality.”

Panikkar's limited scope

As with many who study world religions, Panikkar's research and experiences were limited to the religions that emerged in the Axial Age (c. 1000-200 BC). He did not delve into the earlier religions of the ancient world, which would have exposed the Messianic elements in Vedic texts

Hinduism is older than Judaism, but not older than the religion of the early Hebrew (4200 BC) who dispersed out of the Nile Valley into Arabia, Canaan, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Indus Valley. The Rig Veda, the oldest Vedic text dates to between 1900 and 1200 BC, about 1000 years after the time of Abraham the Hebrew. Judaism emerged closer to 600 BC. The term "samhita" refers to the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas. Parts of the Vedic Samhitas constitute the oldest layer of Hindu tradition and include material that resembles early Hebrew concepts.

In the Rig Veda, for example, the number seven is sacred, and the Word of God is called Speech and is described as "a loving wife, finely robed." She resembles the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), personified as a female (Sirach 24:8). In Sirach, Wisdom declares that she “came forth from the mouth of the Most High” as the first-born before all creatures.

In Srimad Bhagavatam 10:16 we find a parallel to Genesis 3:15 where we are told that the serpent's head will be crushed under the feet of the Woman's Son. The Hindu text reads: "The Ancient Man danced on the serpent, who still spewed poison from his eyes and hissed loudly in his anger, and he trampled down with his feet whatever head the serpent raised, subduing him calmly..." (Cited in Andrew Wilson, Ed. World Scriptures, p. 449.)

The same idea is found in Psalm 91:12-13 - "They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and cobra, the young lion and the serpent you will trample down."

However, this expectation was expressed about 1000 years before Psalm 91 in the Pyramid Texts, a collection of mortuary texts. Utterance 388 says, "Horus has shattered (tbb, crushed) the mouth of the serpent with the sole of his foot (tbw)." 

Scholars from India acknowledge the Nile-Indus connections. The Indian linguist Ajay Pratap Singh explains, "Comparisons of Akkadian and Sanskrit words yielded at least 400 words in both languages with comparable phonetic and semantic similarities. Thus, Sanskrit has, in fact, descended from Akkadian."

The Indian scholar Malati J. Shendge has concluded that the language of the Harappans of the Indus Valley was Akkadian, the language of the territory of Nimrod the Kushite Hebrew. 

Akkadian is the oldest known Semitic language. he Bible scholar, E.A. Speiser, found that names taken to be Indo-European were often labeled "Hurrian" [Horite] only to be identified eventually as Akkadian. The Horite Hebrew were widely dispersed and spoke the languages of the people among whom they lived. Scholars today use terms like Hurro-Akkadian, Hurro-Urartian, and Canaano-Akkadian.

Further evidence of the connection between the Nile Valley and the Indus Valley is demonstrated by comparing early Egyptian and Indus pottery inscriptions. Note that 17 figures under the headings "Indus Valley" and "Egyptian" are almost identical.

The Indian archaeologist, B. B. Lal contends that the Dravidians came from the Upper Nile (Nubia/Kush). Lal writes:
"At Timos the Indian team dug up several megalithic sites of ancient Nubians which bear an uncanny resemblance to the cemeteries of early Dravidians which are found all over Western India from Kathiawar to Cape Comorin. The intriguing similarity extends from the subterranean structure found near them. Even the earthenware ring-stands used by the Dravidians and Nubians to hold pots were identical."


Some old Hindu fire altars were constructed in the shape of a falcon. The falcon was the totem of Horus (HR), who among the Horite Hebrew was the archetype of the son of the High God. This explains why the Shulba Sutras state that "he who desires heaven is to construct a fire-altar in the form of a falcon."

 Anatomical Evidence

The German archaeologists Friedrichs and Muller identified some of the skulls of Mohenjo-Daro as "Hamitic." The term "Nilotic" would be more accurate.

Paleontologists B.K. Chatterjee and G.D. Kumer reported in "Comparative Study and Racial Analysis of the Skeletal Remains of the Indus Valley Civilization" that the 18 Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa skulls that they examined are "similar to skulls from Nubia during the third to second Millennium B.C." (See Wayne Chandler: "The Jewel in the Lotus: The Ethiopian Presence in the Indus Valley Civilization" in African Presence in Early Asia, Ivan Van Sertima et. a1. eds., 1985 p. 87)


I propose that the universality of what we might call the "Proto-Gospel" is due to the wide dispersion of the early Hebrew ruler-priest caste that moved out of Africa well before 3000 BC. It appears that the widely dispersed early Hebrew caste spread elements of their belief in God Father and God Son wherever they settled in the service of high kings. They expected a universal ruler to overcome death. The idea of a universal king who is divinely appointed to rule is found in the oldest layers of Hindu thought. The Sanskrit word cakravartin and the Pali word cakkavattin refer to a righteous king who rules over the entire world. His "messianic" rule is called sar-vabhauma. From Africa to Nepal the words sar and sarki refer to rulers and priests. This is the root of the royal title Sar-gon, which means High King or King of Kings. Nimrod's Akkadian name was Šarru-kīnu, which is usually translated “the true king.”

These words are related to the Akkadian words šarratum - queen, šarri - divine, and šarrum - king.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Joseph Campbell's Limitations


Joseph Campbell in the late 1970s (Wikipedia).

This is the first essay in a series on the failure of leading 20th century mythologists to uncover significant antecedents of the religions they studied. The second addresses Raimon Panikkar's Limitations, the third concerns the limitations of Carlos Castaneda, and the fourth essay considers the strengths and weaknesses of Mircea Eliade's work

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was the most notable mythologist of the twentieth century and a prolific writer. His thought was influenced by the work of Carl Jung, James Joyce, and Heinrich Zimmer on Indian myths and Hindu philosophy.

I have read most of Joseph Campbell's books including The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (1964); Myths to Live By (1972); Primitive Mythology (1987); and The Hero's Journey (1990). As an anthropologist with a strong background in philosophy, I appreciate his extensive cultural research and range of thought. The enduring power of myth and symbol is evident in what he has written. He makes significant connections between the religious traditions of the world and provides examples of how mythic themes and motifs are enacted ritually.

Campbell was attuned to the unification hopes of many intellectuals of his time, and he hoped that his work might contribute to "human mutual understanding" (Introduction of The Hero's Journey). As Robert Ellwood notes in his book The Politics of Myth (1999), Campbell believed that ancient myths are a valuable resource for people "baffled by the ambiguities and superficiality of modern life".

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero common to most world mythologies. He called this the monomyth. Campbell does not offer a detailed explanation for how this emerges universally, but he suggests that it is deeply rooted in Mankind's collective unconscious (The Hero's Journey, p. 57). I propose that the universality is due to the wide dispersion of the early Hebrew ruler-priest caste that moved out of Africa well before 3000 BC and spread what might be called the "Proto-Gospel" wherever they settled.

Campbell delves into myths of Native Americans, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and animistic religions. He sometimes strays with seeming reluctance into the territory of the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised, but never to elevate it above the other faiths. He stopped attending Mass as a communicant in his twenties.

Perhaps Campbell embraced the symbolism of Christ, the Immortal Hero, on his deathbed in a Catholic hospital. In an interview with his widow entitled "Campbell and Catholicism", the Catholic journalist Pythia Peay reports that Campbell "experienced profoundly the depths of the Christian symbol" during the last weeks of his life. She quotes his wife Jean Erdman as saying, "He was thrilled to see that [Christus Victor Cross] because for him this was the mystical meaning of Christ that reflected the state of at-one-ment with the Father. It had been through this image that he had come to a resolution the problem of his Catholic religion. While he didn't say it in so many words, "he was probably preparing himself for eternity." In the hospital, according to his wife, "he experienced emotionally what he had before understood intellectually."

However, Campbell did not receive the Last Rites and there was no formal religious service at his burial.

The Limits of Campbell's Exploration

Most of the myths that Campbell explored come from religions that emerged in the Axial Age (c. 900-200 BC): Hinduism (the Upanishads), Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Daoism (Taoism), the Mediterranean mystery cults, and Zoroastrianism.

Even his discussions of Nilotic myths involve the late syncretistic expressions of Egyptian imperialism. He does not explore the antecedents of the Ra-Horus-Hathor narrative among the early Horite Hebrew at Nekhen (4200 BC).

The core dogmas concerning the life-generating Spirit, God Father and God Son, including the Son's divine conception by overshadowing, his third day resurrection, his descent to the place of the dead to declare good tidings, and his co-substantial and co-equal nature with the Father were already held by the early Hebrew long before Judaism.

The Edenic Promise of Genesis 3:15 foretells how the Woman (not Eve) would bring forth a son who would crush the serpent's head and restore paradise. Psalm 91, recognized as a Messianic psalm, says, "You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot." This early Hebrew expectation was expressed about 1000 years before Psalm 91:14 in the Ancient Pyramid Texts. "Horus has shattered (tbb, crushed) the mouth of the serpent with the sole of his foot (tbw)" (Utterance 388).

Horus is the Greek for the Ancient Egyptian HR, meaning "Most High One" or "Hidden One". He is hidden by His own radiance. The terms for ritual purity in Sumerian, Akkadian, biblical Hebrew, Hittite, and Ugaritic are related to the idea of radiance. (See The Semantics of Purity in the Ancient Near East, p. 5). The ancient Nilotes associated purity with the radiance of the sun, the emblem of the High God Re. In Ancient Egyptian, Re means "Father".

Hathor overshadowed.

As the sun was the symbol of the High God and his Son among the early Hebrew, divine appointment was expressed by overshadowing. When the Virgin Mary asked how she was to become the mother of the Messiah, the angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:35)

A Horite song found at the royal complex at Ugarit, speaks of HR (Horus) who descends to the place of the dead "to announce good tidings." The text reads: Hr ešeni timerri duri - "below in the dark netherworld" and has the Hittite phrase Šanizzin ḫalukan ḫalzi - "to announce good tidings". (See Note 2 on page 2012.) 

Horus is described as rising on the third day and ascending to the place of the immortal stars. (The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Utterance 667).

In the Pyramid Texts, a priest's prayer on behalf of the King, he says, "Horus is a soul and he recognizes his Father in you." (Utterance 423) 

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Horus is called the "advocate of his father" (cf. 1 John 2:1). The Son's advocacy is militant as described in Psalm 110:1 - The Lord says to my Lord: "Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet." This belief is expressed 1000 years earlier in the Coffin Texts (Passage 148). "I am Horus, the great Falcon upon the ramparts of the house of him of the hidden name. My flight has reached the horizon. I have passed by the gods of Nut. I have gone further than the gods of old. Even the most ancient bird could not equal my very first flight. I have removed my place beyond the powers of Set, the foe of my father Osiris. No other god could do what I have done. I have brought the ways of eternity to the twilight of the morning. I am unique in my flight. My wrath will be turned against the enemy of my father Osiris and I will put him beneath my feet in my name of 'Red Cloak'." (Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt by R.T. Rundle Clark, p. 216)


Joseph Campbell's work remains a rich source of valuable information for anthropologists, philosophers, and students of world religions. He was writing before some of the information I have provided about the early Hebrew was available. R. O. Faulkner's English translation of the Pyramid Texts had only appeared in 1969. My own research into the myths of the early Nilotic populations, including the Horite and Sethite Hebrew, began only 3 years before Campbell died in 1987.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Richard Hooker Matters More than Ever!


Richard Hooker wrote, "What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the church succeedeth." (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5,8,2)

Richard Hooker (1554-1600) wrote Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to stake out a middle course between Calvinism on the one hand and the Roman Catholicism on the other. Hooker was unsparing in his censure of Rome, yet his contemporary, Pope Clement VIII (died 1605), said of Hooker's book: "It has in it such seeds of eternity that it will abide until the last fire shall consume all learning."

Hooker's book set a path for historic Anglicanism. He wrote with the rationality and seasoned reasoning of a lawyer. The Anglican Way relies on the faculty of reason in opposition to sensation and emotion. It is a reasonable faith that finds expression in the works of great thinkers such as Anselm of Canterbury, Richard Hooker, and John Keble. Empiricism flourished in the British Isles among members of the Church of England, and though British Empiricism took an anti-Church turn, it owes much to the Anglican intellectual environment.

In our day, many Anglicans, Protestants, and Roman Catholics have become unhitched to the core doctrines of the received tradition that we call "Christianity." Reading Hooker, as challenging as that may be for modern readers, is a grounding experience. 

In this video, Dr Andrea Russell (University of Nottingham) explains why Hooker's book is still important today. It is about how we discern God's presence in the world and how Scripture is our authority.