June 12, 2021

1. Body and Soul in Ancient Greece

One of the most fundamental shifts in Western civilization was the shift from viewing the body as a home to viewing the body as a prison. Pagan civilization was generally at home in the body, while Christian civilization felt that the body was the prison of the soul. When we think of ancient Greece, we think of the naked sculpture, the naked athlete (the word “gymnasium” is from the Greek gymnos, naked). The Greeks celebrated the body. For Christians, on the other hand, the body meant corruption and temptation, the body was something to break free from. Jesus said, “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee” (in other words, combat the lusts of your own body).

In his book The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds says that, for the Greeks, the soul (psyche) “was no reluctant prisoner of the body; it was the life or spirit of the body, and perfectly at home there.”1 When Xenophon made a list of names for dogs, he put Psyche at the top of the list.2

But as Xenophon was writing, a new view of the soul or psyche was developing. This view said that the soul had a divine origin; the soul was utterly different, better, more divine than the body. Body and soul weren’t partners, they were foes. This was a “new interpretation of human existence” that was to have a profound effect on Western civilization. It led to “a horror of the body and a revulsion against the life of the senses which were quite new in Greece.”3 The German scholar Rohde said that this new view of the soul was “a drop of alien blood in the veins of the Greeks.”4 Where did it come from?

Dodds argues that the Greeks planted colonies on the shores of the Black Sea around 600 BC. This brought them into contact with the shaman tradition of Central Asia. Shamanism believed that the soul and the body were separate, and the soul could travel around while the body was asleep; the soul could also move into another body (reincarnation).

These beliefs, Dodds argues, influenced Greek thinkers like Pythagoras, who believed in reincarnation and vegetarianism. The belief in reincarnation often led to vegetarianism — you don’t want to eat an animal’s body if it might be the abode of a human soul. Like other occult powers, reincarnation was sometimes considered the exclusive province of special individuals, and sometimes considered a universal capacity of mankind.

The immortality of the soul is a prominent theme in Plato’s dialogues, especially Phaedo. Dodds tries to trace the immortal soul from Christianity back to Plato, then further back to Empedocles and Pythagoras, then still further back to the shaman tradition of Asia.

Before about 1900, it was widely believed that the cult of Orpheus brought the idea of the soul “front and center.” Dodds argues that Orphism had little influence on philosophers like Plato, that the importance of Orphism has been over-stated, and that Orphism may have been a mere by-product of the shaman tradition. Orphism was a “mirage,” Dodds argues, created by scholars who felt that the immortality of the soul was such an important part of religion that the Greeks must have taken it seriously. But in fact, the Greeks had a different conception of religion; their conception of religion had little in common with Christianity. Dodds writes,

“The modern reader, baffled and dismayed by the apparent crudity of much of conventional Greek religion, is inclined to look everywhere for signs of Orphism, because he feels it gives more of what he has come to expect from religion, and he is loath to believe that the Greeks did not demand it too”5 ....I cannot help suspecting that the “historic Orphic Church,” as it appears, for example, in Toynbee’s Study of History, will one day be quoted as a classic instance of the kind of historical mirage which arises when men unknowingly project their own preoccupations into the distant past.

Like the shamans, philosophers such as Pythagoras and Empedocles tapped into occult powers, magical powers. They attracted followers by their eloquence and their power to heal the sick. (One might compare them to Jesus, who also had healing power.) Pythagoras and Empedocles combined the roles of “magician and naturalist, poet and philosopher, preacher, healer, and public counsellor.”6 In later times, these roles were performed by separate people; even in Homer’s time, these roles were performed by separate people. Pythagoras and Empedocles were throwbacks to pre-Homeric wise men.

Dodds says that Empedocles was a scientist as well as a magician; his poem On Nature shows “acute observation,” but he also claimed “the power to stay the winds, cause or prevent rain, and revive the dead.” (One thinks of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.) Dodds speaks of “the crowds who came to [Empedocles] in search of occult knowledge or magical healing.”7 (I’m reminded of the contemporary Chinese healer who attracted such large crowds that the Chinese government became nervous.)

Dodds notes that, in the Pythagorean community, women had a prominent role (compared to their role in other Greek communities). He notes that in some Asian societies, women as well as men can become shamans.8 He also notes that the shaman sometimes switches gender.9

In earlier issues, I mentioned how Hemingway’s soul seemed to detach from his body after he was wounded in World War I, and Jung’s soul seemed to detach from his body when he was near death. Aristotle was aware of the “near-death experience”; Dodds says that the soul or psyche “is most active when the body is asleep or, as Aristotle added, when it lies at the point of death.”10 One might equate the soul with the unconscious, and one might say that the unconscious is awake when the conscious mind is asleep.

The shaman enacts the “near-death experience” in an intentional way, though he isn’t actually near death. (If you think that the detached soul would be a good subject for a novel, you might look at Jack London’s novel, Star Rover.) The psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross spoke of, “the ability to shed our physical body — not only at the time of death but in times of crisis, in times of exhaustion, in times of very extraordinary circumstances, and during a certain type of sleep. It is important to know this can happen before death.”

The shaman sometimes begins his career with a near-death experience. The shaman is often a “wounded healer,” a person who has had “physical illness or psychological crisis.... The shaman must become sick to understand sickness.”11 Dodds says that the shaman is “a psychically unstable person who has received a call to the religious life.”12 In an earlier issue, I discussed a contemporary Chinese guru who struggled with illness in his early years. Many therapists are people who once needed therapy.

Just as physical skills, such as juggling, can be practiced and developed, so too psychological feats can be practiced. The shaman seems to develop the ability to leave his body. In an earlier issue, I discussed how Richard Feynman developed certain psychological skills:

Psychiatrists say that if they ask their patients to report on their dreams, their patients can usually come up with something — the will to remember one’s dreams often allows one to do so. Richard Feynman, the American physicist, not only willed to remember his dreams, he willed to observe them while they were in progress, and also to observe himself as he fell asleep, and as he awakened. Strangely enough, Feynman says he was able to do this.

* * * * *

The idea of life-after-death is widespread among primitive peoples, it’s not unique to shamanism. As Frazer said, “The question whether one’s conscious personality survives after death has been answered by almost all races of men in the affirmative. On this point skeptical or agnostic peoples are nearly, if not wholly, unknown.”13 Hence people were buried with food, clothing, tools, even board games. It was common among the early Greeks to give food to the dead through feeding tubes. So elaborate were the accoutrements of the dead in ancient Greece that laws were passed to limit this form of luxury.

The idea of reward-and-punishment after death is also widespread, and not unique to shamanism. Dodds says that punishment-after-death can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Eleusinian Mysteries promised rewards after death.14

And finally, the idea of reincarnation is widespread, not unique to shamanism. “The belief in some form of reincarnation,” wrote Paul Radin, “is universally present in all the simple food-gathering and fishing-hunting civilizations.”15 What, then, is special about shamanism? Dodds thinks that shamanism led the Greeks to

In part, shamanism in 600 BC may have been a revival of older, more primitive beliefs. And shamanism paved the way for later beliefs in immortality; it paved the way for Plato’s view of the soul, and for Christianity’s view of the soul. Shamanism was a catalyst, Dodds argues, that led to the further development of the soul concept: “The impact of shamanistic beliefs... set the process going.”16 The Greeks moralized shamanism, the Greeks emphasized guilt-and-punishment in a way that Asian shamanism hadn’t.

I’m struck, not by how much is unique in shamanism, but by how much it shares with the general primitive worldview. I would compare the development of shamanism into Platonism/Christianity with the development of Buddhism into Chinese/Japanese Zen. Like shamanism, Buddhism acted as a catalyst, reinforcing local tendencies, and pointing the way to further development.

As the new view of the soul was developing in ancient Greece, and becoming a “horror of the body,” most Greeks were little affected by the new view, and Aristophanes mocked it in his comedy.17 Few Greeks followed Empedocles in denouncing “marriage and all sex relations.”18 (I’m reminded of the Shakers’ hostility to marriage and sex.) And few Greeks subscribed to the Pythagorean view that “Pleasure is in all circumstances bad; for we came here to be punished and we ought to be punished.”19

* * * * *

Dodds points out that the Greeks frowned on tattoos; only criminals and slaves had tattoos. But among many less-civilized peoples, tattoos were common. There was even a society, the Picts, who were named after their abundance of tattoos. Below is a Greek vase that depicts a Thracian maenad with tattoos.

2. Movies

A. The French Connection (1971) is loosely based on a real drug bust. According to Wikipedia, it’s “considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.” It takes place largely in New York City, and it’s famous for its chase scenes. It feels authentic, but it doesn’t let facts get in the way of a great story. Highly recommended.

B. Greyhound (2020) is a movie about destroyers escorting cargo ships through submarine-infested waters during World War II. It has a tight focus on the battle, it moves swiftly to a conclusion, and it makes the viewer feel that he’s part of a real naval battle. It’s based on a novel by C. S. Forester.

3. Shelby Steele

My favorite TV pundits are Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, who both started out as left-wing radicals, and are now at the Hoover Institution. In a recent TV appearance, Steele said,

We [are] in a culture that sees the victimization of Black people as power. If you can establish that blacks are victims of a certain situation, then that gives you a kind of moral authority, and a power, to change things. The entire American educational system has been taken over [by] “woke-ism”... the argument that the victimization of Blacks and minorities is much wider and more profound than we think, and therefore I’m due more power, and I should have the power to take over this institution and run it in a way that redeems America.... Blacks are now the victims of liberalism and woke-ism, that’s what’s keeping us down, not racism. “Systemic racism” is an idea to capture more Black victimization....

The deeper problem is that the 1960s injured the moral authority of White Americans profoundly. Since the 1960s, we’ve been more focused on bringing back moral authority to America — that’s what woke-ism is — than actually developing the people who suffered from slavery and segregation and so forth. It’s this lack of moral confidence that makes us as Americans vulnerable to woke-ism....

It was the black vote that elected Mr. Biden, because he tapped into this source of power.... As long as it’s there, you’re going to have a Black Grievance Industry that then keeps trying to milk it. [White people] have lost the moral confidence to stand up to that.... White America has to believe in itself once again, as a morally coherent and sound society.

White guilt is found in the more affluent strata of society. The more affluent the neighborhood, the more BlackLivesMatter signs.

For a more detailed version of Steele’s argument, see his documentary What Killed Michael Brown?, available on Amazon Prime Video. Steele argues that liberal programs assuage White guilt, but injure Blacks by persuading them that they’re victims, that they aren’t responsible for their own lives, and they can’t improve their own lives by hard work, frugality, etc. As Banfield said, we need to find ways to assuage White guilt without injuring Blacks, we need to “find ways of doing good that are relatively harmless — that do not greatly injure those to whom the good is done.”

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. p. 139 back
2. Footnote 26. For Greeks like Xenophon, the psyche or soul is the seat of feeling, like Freud’s id; the psyche is “the appetitive self.”(p. 138) Thus, the psyche resembles what Homer called thymos. There’s no antagonism between soul and body, psyche and soma; “psyche is just the mental correlate of soma.” back
3. p. 152 back
4. p. 139. Dodds calls this new view of the soul “puritanical,” and at the start of his chapter, he puts a quote from Melville: “That man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through!” back
5. p. 170, footnote 88. Dodds is quoting a scholar named D. W. Lucas.

Orpheus may be a “northern shaman,” he comes from Thrace. Orphism has much in common with Pythagoreanism.(p. 149)

Dodds says that, since his youth, he has lost much of his “knowledge” of Orphism; “the more I read about it the more my knowledge diminishes.”(p. 147)

Dodds isn’t suggesting that thinkers like Pythagoras were influenced by the shaman tradition and nothing else. Rather, he argues that shamanism was an important influence on Pythagoras, especially with respect to the soul, the soul that can be detached from the body. Dodds writes, “I do not, of course, suggest that Pythagoreanism can be explained entirely as a development from shamanism; other elements, like number-mysticism and the speculations about cosmic harmony, were also important from an early date.”(footnote 63) back

6. p. 146, and see footnote 72 back
7. p. 145 back
8. Footnote 59 back
9. See footnote 32, where Dodds speaks of “the shamans change of sex in Scythia and Siberia.” Scythia was on the northern coast of the Black Sea. See also p. 140, where Dodds speaks of a “psychological change of sex.”

In Scythia and Thrace, Dodds says, the Greeks came into contact with shamanism. “What I have thus far suggested is a tentative line of spiritual descent which starts in Scythia, crosses the Hellespont into Asiatic Greece, is perhaps combined with some remnants of Minoan tradition surviving in Crete, emigrates to the Far West with Pythagoras, and has its last outstanding representative in the Sicilian Empedocles. These men diffused the belief in a detachable soul or self, which by suitable techniques can be withdrawn from the body even during life, a self which is older than the body and will outlast it.”(pp. 146, 147)

Dodds says that the belief in reincarnation that we find in India may have its beginnings “in contacts with the shamanistic culture of Central Asia.”(footnote 97) Dodds says that, in India, people are “highly esteemed” if they can remember past lives.(footnote 107) back

10. p. 140. Dodds says that, before Homer, the Greeks didn’t separate ghost and corpse. “To have disentangled the ghost from the corpse is, of course, the achievement of the Homeric poets. There are passages in both poems [i.e., the Iliad and the Odyssey] which suggest that they were proud of the achievement, and fully conscious of its novelty and importance.”(p. 136) If ghost and corpse are separate, you can allow the corpse to decay, but the Greeks tended the corpse (with food, etc.); the common people couldn’t separate corpse and ghost, even if poets could. Dodds speaks of “the tendance of the dead, with its implication of identity between corpse and ghost.”(p. 137) Dodds says that the Greeks didn’t have exact definitions of terms like corpse, ghost, body, and soul; the mind of the “ordinary man” was “in a state of great confusion, as indeed it usually is.”(p. 138) “There was no ‘Greek view,’ but only a muddle of conflicting answers.”(p. 180) back
11. Wikipedia back
12. p. 140 back
13. p. 157, footnote 4 back
14. p. 137 back
15. Footnote 101. Man has always wondered, “Why do the innocent suffer?” The theory of reincarnation says, “No one is innocent, everyone sinned in a past life, therefore all suffering is deserved suffering.” Reincarnation provides an explanation for the feelings of guilt that many people have, the feelings of guilt that, according to Freud, play such an important role in human nature. back
16. p. 152. Shamanism met the “spiritual needs” of the Greeks — the “logical, moral, and psychological” needs of the Greeks.(p. 150) back
17. See p. 152 and footnote 110 back
18. p. 155. Dodds says that Empedocles’ hostility to marriage/sex is the “extreme theoretical limit” of Puritanism.(p. 155) back
19. p. 152 back