Reality, by Peter Kingsley
A book the size of a housebrick-and-a-half, called 'Reality: now there's an author who's not lacking in confidence. In a nutshell? A 550 page commentary on two pre-Socratic 'philosophers', Parmenides and Empedocles, rooted in a passionate critique of the origins of so much of our culture and its limitations; origins that Kingsley claim lay in a hatchet-job done by Plato on the pre-Socratic mystical traditions.
This book was a roller coaster ride for me. Right from the start, it got on my tits, with its attitude of 'your life is a pile of shit because you are not enlightened', the same superior cosmic style that I reacted to so negatively when I first encountered mysticism in my teens.
...Even though I find the idea of a radical deconstruction – no, scratch that, a radical rejection – of normal reality absolutely irresistible.
In the language of this book, I still linger at the three-ways, with the ghosts who are not living fully. For so Kingsley would have us believe the pre-Socratic Italian-Greek teacher Parmenides was saying, in brief works which academics apparently usually take as the origins of logical thinking: Parmenides is no respecter of elites - that's where all of us stand, in relation to reality as it really is. Focusing on the origin of logic as the origin of our modern way of thinking is a totally deluded notion; Parmenides' words referred to an era 'before people learned how to use reasoning as a mask to disguise their terror of logic'.
He defends the 'terror of logic' with reference to Socrates who, he claims, was killed for making the Athenians feel like fools. He depicts Socrates as one of the last of a line of enquiry that used logic to demonstrate that ordinary thinking cannot produce a consistent model of the world, that everything we think hangs above an abyss of incoherence, 'aporia', the pathlessness in which Socrates left his dialogical victims.
Kingsley's reinterpretation of the pre-Socratic lineage is based on discoveries about the practice of incubation, a meditation conducted in underground chambers. Parmenides, it seems, was the leader of one such mystery school, in which the initiates gained visions, maybe meeting the underworld Goddess, Parmenides' interlocutor in the poem Kingsley takes as his core work.
In this poem, the Goddess cuts away all self-importance and smugness, dismantling the familiar world, stripping away all assumptions; 'and from this perfect reality that she (the Goddess) describes, there is no escape'.
This was when I realised the book was really speaking to me. Perhaps the subtlest and most lingering of my visions was exactly that - there is no escape, anywhere - what we see is, in a very important sense, what we get. My intuition calls it embeddedness.
I like the way Kingsley uses the term 'being'. Often people annoy me with that word - what right have we got to ascribe existence to one thing and not another? Well, Kingsley, in line with Parmenides' goddess, ascribes 'being' to it all; indivisible, bornless and endless. That I can get with.
Kingsley leads us through a version of the mystical solve et coagula. In this process, the face of the Goddess changes; at first, we met the unnamed Persephone, whose 'deceptive words' take our world apart, then later, as her deception becomes more total, more paradoxical, more complete, we encounter the seductive Aphrodite, whose charm hunts down and makes helpless the strongest man. But having gone through the death process, we have attained a kind of perspective that enables us to live in Aphrodite's lush garden of illusion without losing our minds again.
So what has this mystical cult really got to do with the history of Greek philosophy? Kingsley tells it as a gigantic selling-short: 'there was no way [people] were going to accept that the ultimate reality is whatever they see around them ... And so ... philosophers have worked their hardest for more than two thousand years to make his 'it' some kind of logical abstraction that exists somewhere else - on another level of reality.'
So he begins to insert the idea that reality is a seamless, unitary world, with no levels, only the delicious illusions of Aphrodite and the frightening truths of Persephone, both referring to the same universe.
The next sections, on Empedocles, take us into other territory, but there is still much mystical lore to be recovered. Empedocles' thought has had some strange descendents – his fanciful Aeonic model was taken far too seriously by the Gnostics, providing the basis for their profound hatred of the world and the flesh.
That is what tends to happen when initiatic writings fall into the hands of the priestly ascetics, the life-hating control freaks, and such perversions cannot necessarily be levelled against the original texts. But is it surprising that Empedocles' writings spawned toxic nonsense, when he spouted world-hating dualism like: 'Incarnation as human beings is, very specifically, a punishment for the daimon's failings'?
However, Kingsley uses Empedocles to bring in a vital new theme, which I'll return to: that Love and apparent unity is the basis for unconsciousness and automatic behaviour, but that Strife, the principle of separation, is on the side of truth.
The theme of the self-exhausting nature of logic is resumed with Zeno's paradoxes. We are taught them as shallow games, but Kingsley claims Zeno 'used logic in its truest sense, not to fortify or justify our commonsense view of reality, but to undermine it, destroy it.' He brings together Parmenides, Empedocles and Gorgias, the founder of the Sophists, whom Plato decried as shallow and irresponsible in that they merely held up mirrors to popular misconceptions.
Now Kingsley has got us ready to reveal the Platonic hatchet job on the mystery schools, the beginning of a cultural shift away from mysticism, perpetrated on the European world these last 2500 years. Athens invaded Lipora, one of the centres of the mystery tradition that included Parmenides, Empedocles and incubation; this was the political dimension. Plato's writings took care of the written evidence of the tradition, such as the poem of Parmenides Kingsley refers to throughout the book, by radically reinterpreting them, in ways which Kingsley demonstrates do not stand up well under close examination.
Plato elaborated Empedocles' simple cosmology, of everyday life and the Absolute bound inseparably together, into different levels, articulating the notion of transcendence, 'the need to get from here to there even though there is no there apart from here'.
The distortion of pre-Socratic texts continued, and continues still; Kingsley shows us how Empedocles' words were actually altered, in what he sees as a deliberate suppression of mystery traditions.
That criticism strikes a strong chord with me. Consider Plato's notion of a realm of divine forms, that aetherial library of cosmic designs. Where are they supposed to be? In the mind? Fair enough, and we all share them; they resemble Jung's archetypes of the collective unconscious, the ur-patterns of how we construct and perceive the world.
We can go further than that, and identify the structural relationships that are demonstrated by mathematics as ideal Forms too, patterns that are so deeply embedded in our minds that we see them everywhere we look.
However, I find very dubious the idea of actual other levels or planes of reality which contain these forms, levels which ascend step after step towards God. This is what the Neo-Platonists did with Plato's notion, and it is the basis of the Four Worlds of Renaissance Qabalah. And the philosophical underpinning of the empire of 'reason', its chief weapon in defeating the mystery traditions, and keeping them defeated.
This set of notions is what we have to thank for the rigmarole of Western occultism and, taken seriously, this book would be the death-knell of all that crock of neo-Platonist nonsense, that concoction of planes, rays and worlds. I for one would not miss it.
The way of awakening that Kingsley hints at throughout this book has some definite qualities in common with the Odian way, not least the sacrificial basis of full consciousness: 'the very act of becoming conscious is, itself, a process of destruction; of separation; of learning to die before we die.' [P435].
Concerning the illuminatory necessity of interrupting the Love principle with Strife, the author quotes a commentator describing the perfect sphere of love in Empedocles' cosmology – 'a state of crude and chaotic matter'; this sounds like Ymir, before Odin Vili and Ve carve a coherent universe out of him, before Strife gets on the case and produces some clarity.
It's not that there's anything wrong with love, but until we separate ourselves from our automatic impulses, which are ruled by love, by Aphrodite, we cannot become conscious. After we have achieved consciousness, then is time to return on the other arc of the cycle, into engagement with the world, into the rage of desire that Love generates.
Another feature of interest in this system [P289] is when Kingsley tells us that 'the ability to trap and bind successfully had a single name – metis'. Compare Odin's valknut, in its open and closed forms – it is the primary symbol of binding and loosing. One dimension of this dualism is in the technology of magical spells, in which we cause flow or stoppage. Another is in relation to the core nature of selfhood: on the Tree, Odin is torn apart, his self sacrificed, and out of that chaos new knowledge – the runes – and a new Self emerge. These are the two modes in which selfhood operates, the poles of solve et coagula, the cycle of dissolution and reintegration. On the one arc, we allow our selves to undo themselves; incubation, like some forms of sitting meditation, is a tool of the dissolution stage. The reintegration stage is automatic, but the nature of the visions and of the new self that emerges is influenced by our aspiration and knowledge.
Metis is usually translated as 'cunning', and this important divine attribute is examined in both Greek and Odian contexts in a fascinating paper 'Cunning intelligence in Norse myth; Loki, Odin and the limits of sovereignty', by Kevin J Wanner, which would require another essay to even begin to do justice to. (Wanner is at http://www.wmich.edu/religion/kevin_wanner.html )
Kingsley's words show up vividly the sometimes-problematic nature of the RHP/LHP distinction. On p185, he writes of this 'perfect, complete' reality: 'The only choice we have, our single real freedom, is to decide whether to participate in it consciously or be at its mercy.... '
This does at first reading seem like classic RHP as defined by Dr Flowers, along the lines of 'get with the cosmic programme, don't stand out' - but the next section shows us another dimension:
'The one option we have is to turn around and face, head-on, all the impulses that keep bombarding us and pushing us in every direction. By turning each impulse back on itself we are returning thought and perception consciously to their source.'
That sounds like a recipe for meditation, not for self-annihilation; more like someone fearlessly deconstructing all they appear to be, because they know there is something far deeper behind that anxious self.
Have we reached the source of the misunderstanding that seems to be at the root of much LHP/RHP dichotomy? Is it about where we draw the line, on this side of which is our free will, and on the other side of which the changes we label 'inevitable'?
There is another, and perhaps deeper, problem for the Odian seeker in this discourse. Kingsley criticizes seeking: '… if we manage to carry one particular search right through to the end, … we find ourselves straightaway at the beginning of another'.
To me, that's the core of the way. For Kingsley, it's bad: real Reality doesn't go anywhere, doesn't move. It's the opposite of the constant renewal of 'Seek the Mystery', this Absolute Reality.
On the surface of it, that's worrying; there is no progression, only perfection, always and forever. But the process Kingsley recommends is nothing but an increase in consciousness, and if that isn't what the Odian way is about, I don't know what is. And maybe the above idea is again a misunderstanding: the sense of a perfect universe comes at the culmination of a process, which will certainly feel like a journey. On arriving, one may feel that: 'There is no transcendental reality to get away to' (p288).
Now that is a notion I can get with – eliminate all those other levels, all those half-hearted semi-paradises, and let the self dismantle itself into bare, immediate presence. How can there be anywhere to go to from that place?
But we return, and then movement resumes. It may not ever feel as real again, that movement, but it doesn't mean we are not passionately engaged in changing the world to the best of our ability; even Kingsley admits his illuminated Greeks were engaged in political intrigue: the perspective of a motionless, eternal world has not paralyzed their will. They return from eternity and take up their work in the world again.
In the end, I can't find any serious fault with this book. Reservations, yes; his style has been described (by Duncan Barford) as 'arch', which fits perfectly; it definitely feels like he is talking down to his reader. This puts me off his other works, one of which I've been emphatically recommended by the friend who passed this volume on to me. I don't think I'll ever like his style, and it may irritate you too. But I have to recommend this book, because he has such vitally important things to say.
I'll leave you with a rallying cry from P497:
'Trying to escape from our own civilization can offer no real solution. What now is needed more than anything else is to penetrate to the roots of this western world and release the wisdom that has been waiting there for so long.'