Only a God Can Save Us?

Peter Kingsley has built a double reputation as a respected classicist and a spiritual teacher. His first two books for general readers, In the Dark Places of Wisdom and Reality, were both grounded in philological and archaeological research, and their argument that Greek philosophy grew from initiatory, shamanic roots has been increasingly accepted in the scholarly community. But Kingsley has never been interested in scholarship for its own sake. He wants to recover those shamanic roots, restore spiritual practice to a central place in a culture that has consistently marginalized it, and call readers to cultivate an ecstatic stillness from which, he feels, all wisdom and culture-making flow.

Nor does Kingsley shy away from proclaiming the importance of his own thoughts. His most recent book, A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World, contains eighty-four pages of oracular, sometimes portentous prose and scholarly apparatus of the same length. It comes with an impressive garland of praise from Native American and Mongolian sages, New Age teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, and the renowned classicist Walter Burkert. The book ought to be something extraordinary, but it sadly fails to live up to the blurbs and the many glowing reviews. It is ultimately more troubling than illuminating.

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The story waiting to pierce us starts with Pythagoras, the semi-legendary ancient philosopher whose followers and descendants have concerned Kingsley throughout his career. A mysterious shaman, Abaris the Skywalker, once came to Greece from the north beyond north—evidently Mongolia—carrying a sacred arrow. Guided by the arrow, Abaris circumambulated the Greek lands and then passed the arrow to Pythagoras.

This incident is supposed to suggest a couple of themes. One is the mutual recognition of Abaris and Pythagoras; both see in the other an incarnate deity. Another is the passing of knowledge from central Asia to Greece. Kingsley then cites a few more facts—Pythagoras’ claim to be the incarnation of Hyperborean Apollo, an archer god from beyond the north; a tradition that the worship of Apollo was brought to Greece from Mongolia; and tales of travel between Mongolia and Greece by Pythagoras and others. He concludes from this sketchy evidence that our roots are quite other than what we think. Abaris came to give the West a kick start. Like all other civilizations, ours is a gift from the deep ecstatic wisdom of the shamanic tradition, and Greece, supposedly the birthplace of humanism, was a child of the gods—Mongolian gods at that.

It is true, the “humanism” of Greece has always been exaggerated, and Greek culture owes a great deal to Asia. Walter Burkert has been making these points for decades. But Kingsley carries them so far that they are no longer persuasive. The Greeks weren’t hanging around in a spiritual haze waiting for the word from the north. They had their own seers, shamanic practices, and sacred speech traditions for centuries before Abaris showed up. And civilizations aren’t launched like ships anyway; they grow, and they have many more than one or two parents.

Plausibility isn’t Kingsley’s only problem. The book is seriously marred by his uncritical embrace of all things Mongolian. He does a real service in uncovering part of the dark story of Buddhist Tibet. As his sources bear out, Mongolian shamans and practitioners of Bon were persecuted and slaughtered for centuries by Buddhist monks practicing their own kind of shamanism. Anyone who has accepted the fairytale that often passes for Tibetan history will read this part of the book with a shock, but Kingsley’s account is all too credible.

When it comes to the Mongols, though, he treats genocide very differently. Relying often on Jack Weatherford’s much-criticized Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, he offers nothing but extenuation. In his view the feared Mongol hordes were a cleansing wind, removing a corrupt world so that a better one might take its place.

This is not so different from saying that the two world wars—and the Holocaust and the Ukrainian famines—were cleansing winds that cleared the field for the flowering of the EU. Whether they practiced “ecstatic warfare” or not, the Mongols caused a huge amount of unnecessary and unjustifiable human suffering, and even those so cold-hearted as to consider that slaughter a price worth paying can’t deny that much of central Asia failed to come up with new and better civilizations after the Mongols left. The Mongols may not deserve the opprobrium that has usually been heaped on them, but historically they don’t come off any better than your average group of world conquerors.

What’s more, they were much better at conquering civilizations than they were at nurturing them. For all their supposed wisdom they kept backing the wrong horses. Not long after Abaris’s visit is said to have happened, the Pythagoreans themselves were driven underground and their tradition was all but destroyed. Much of Kingsley’s other work, in fact, attempts to recover traces of their teachings from the often-garbled or misinterpreted quotes in Aristotle and later writers. Later on he turns to the League of the Iroquois—American Indian culture being descended from Siberia, which shares shamanic traditions with Mongolia. He claims that the Iroquois influence on the United State Constitution was another spiritual transmission like Abaris’s. But the federal system and the balance of powers owe a lot to rather secular Frenchmen, and the divinity of the Constitutional structure is now doubted by everyone except perhaps some Tea Partiers. That gift, in any case, worked out rather badly for the Iroquois themselves.

Kingsley is so obsessed with the Mongols that Africa, Australia, and anywhere else where their influence can’t be traced simply disappear from view. He hasn’t so much escaped Eurocentrism as he has embraced a kind of Eurasia-centrism. But this a minor flaw compared with his final move. The ecstatic silence he wants us to cultivate has been the source of spiritual traditions, artistic insights, and liberatory politics; William Blake’s visionary books, for example, combine all three of these. But Kingsley will have none of that. In his earlier work he had praised metis, the divine cunning and purposefulness for which Odysseus was famous. Now, though, he counsels passivity.

The real point of A Story Waiting to Pierce You is that everything is in the hands of the reincarnating great souls of Mongolia. Theirs are the sacred purposes for which civilizations come into being. It’s their inspiration that starts cultural traditions and they provoke the divine madness that wipes the slate clean. It’s not our world and we can do nothing with it but keep still and wait. Sooner or later a divine being will lead us to a better one.

Kingsley’s message sounds like that of the elderly Martin Heidegger, who told Der Spiegel that “only a god can save us.” What Heidegger would never admit is that he once thought that Hitler was the promised savior. Peter Kingsley seems a decent enough man and I do not think he would fall as Heidegger did. But irresponsibility and moral blindness are natural consequences of the notion that only a spiritual elite can create or remake civilizations. The fantasy that a coterie of secret masters hidden behind the Himalaya has been the bane of Western spiritual thought since the days of the Theosophists, feeding the Nazi fascination with the occult, popping up in pulp like Lost Horizon, and sealing the authoritarian claims of figures like Gurdjieff. It is a pity to see Kingsley dressing it up again for a new generation.

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2005) and writes a blog on OpenSalon called The Bigger Picture. His current work focuses (at different times) on the science-religion debate and the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He and his wife Loret live in Rochester, New York, where the weather is no longer as gray as it used to be.