Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)

As described in the Chicago note, Mircea Eliade is a marginal figure in the Friesian tradition. However, after Eliade died, certain criticisms were leveled at him that are noteworthy and deserving of serious attention. The substantive criticism was that the kind of theory of religion represented by Eliade, and for that matter Rudolf Otto himself, leads logically and directly to the neo-pagan amoralism of the Nazis, and furthermore that Eliade actually directly promoted just such a thing in Romania during or before World War II. Such accusations are of great concern. Nor are they unfamiliar, since these are precisely the problems many people (very properly) have with Martin Heidegger.

As with criticisms of Heidegger, in the course of this two things should be kept separate: the nature of the theory that Eliade is said to promote, and then the nature of Eliade's political involvement as a possible application of the theory.

Eliade, of course, is coming out of the kind of theory found in Otto, which is only minimally different from the philosophy of religion in Nelson and Fries; and Nelson and Fries are in many ways still four-square Kantians. Otto's Das Heilige is famous for dealing with the "irrational" in religion, but he himself cautions that this is only a supplement to the rational treatment of religion that he had provided in Die Kant-Friesische Religions-Philosophie. Consideration of the "Numen ineffabile" only follows upon the "devoted assiduous and serious study" of "the 'Ratio aeterna'." Although Otto's exhortation to the rational side of religion is plainly and prominently stated, it is widely ignored. What the rational side of religion largely contributes is morality, and there is little attenuation of the power of the Moral Law in Fries or Nelson or Otto from Kant. Otto himself establishes a hierarchy of religions according to the degree to which they have become morally "schematized": the basis of his clear preference for Christianity as the supreme religion. It is possible for us to argue which religion has the better moral conceptions and to disagree with Otto about that, but we may not disagree with him in principle to suppose that some religions do have superior moral conceptions to others.

On the other hand, supposing that some religions are morally superior to others implies that others are inferior. Given some religion that is not "morally schematized" very well, we can then ask what makes it a religion in the first place and what kind of meaning it had for its adherents, even if to us it is morally intolerable. That is the question that particularly interested Otto (and Eliade). This does not imply, as accusations of Eliade would imply, that the morally un-schematized religions are superior to the morally sophisticated ones. That would be standing the whole theory on its head.

The question becomes simply a matter of fact: Are there religions that are morally unschematized? The answer to that has got to be "yes," especially since much of the history of religion wouldn't make any sense otherwise. Zoroaster's entire reform of Iranian religion was predicated on his moral critique of the worship and propitiation of the forces of evil in the old religion. Thus Zoroastrianism became "the Good Religion." Similarly, in Greek philosophy from Xenophanes to Socrates and Plato, we see a process of morally editing Greek mythology. No one ever expressed it better than Xenophanes himself, who accused the poets of attributing to the gods everything that is shameful and a reproach among men. And we know well the fulminations of the Biblical Prophets against the Ba'als, the temple prostitution, and all the wickedness and uncleanness of the religion practiced around the Israelites. In the mix of Hellenistic Civilization, these three strains of moralizing all came together and produced the classic forms of Judaism, Christianity, and then Islam. The old religions of the Mediterranean world simply died out.

Concern with the morally unschematized religions is not an endorsement of them. It just means that they are there and that they represent something to be understood about religion and human nature. And they are still there, not just in older religions, like Hinduism, that didn't undergo the kind of revolution that took place around the Mediterranean, but also still in us, in the sense that they are from a level of existence that is always present and that can easily reassert itself in the wrong circumstances, as indeed happened with Nazi neo-paganism.

Denying that there is anything non-rational or non-moral about religion simply out of fear that the possibility of such things will lead to Nazi neo-paganism has two things wrong with it: first that moral objections cannot change facts, if indeed they are facts, and second that it is open to serious question whether the mere theoretical recognition of the non-rational and non-moral implies that there will be some kind of increase in non-rational or non-moral activities. We might more expect the opposite.

Recognition of the non-rational in Otto falls into an epistemological category used by Nelson and Fries: Ahndung. For Fries there are three basic categories of cognition, Wissen, Glaube, and Ahndung. Wissen is scientific knowledge of phenomenal objects and is produced by the synthesis of sensible intuition in space and time. That corresponds to theoretical rational knowledge in Kant. Glaube is "belief" concerning the unconditioned character of things in themselves. Fries did not believe that the Ideas of Reason were "dialectical illusion" the way that Kant did. Kant didn't want to believe that himself and ended up making the key Ideas postulates of practical reason. Fries regarded the argument for the postulates feeble unless bolstered by a sense that the Ideas were not "illusions" in the first place. The result, nevertheless, is much the same; and Glaube still differs importantly from Wissen, as practical from theoretical reason in Kant, in that there is no intuition that corresponds to the Ideas and so no system or science that can be constructed about transcendent objects. Thus we can be secure with our Idea of God, but we can really know nothing else about God apart from that concept.

Ahndung is what Fries does with Kant's Third Critique. The objection was that while Kant's category is supposed to cover "feeling," what Kant really ends up with is a theory of the subjective universality of a rational aesthetic judgment. This seems to follow from a sense Kant has that only reason connects us to the transcendent and that sensation is only a subjective and confusing factor that distracts and distorts reason: sensibility, our passive relation to objects, is the mark of our imperfection -- where for God's intellectual intuition, objects are produced spontaneously with the active thought of them. Fries's view was that sensation relates us to things in themselves just as much as reason and that aesthetic feeling is precisely that aspect of sensation. There is for Fries a symmetry between Wissen, Glaube, and Ahndung: in Wissen there is an effective synthesis involving concepts and intuition, which produces the perception of phenomenal objects. On the other hand, in Glaube and Ahndung there are concepts and intuitions, respectively, which do not result in an effective synthesis or a perception of objects: nevertheless they are the conceptual side and the sensible side of our relation to things in themselves. Otherwise Fries's view of Ahndung differs little from Kant's aesthetics, and the view of religion in Fries and Nelson is fully as moralistic as Kant's but with the addition of aesthetic feeling.

Now, to Hegel this was all a very gross kind of irrationalism, and he was happy to derive Fries's radical politics and anti-Semitism from these theories. On the other hand, Hegel makes the same accusations of "irrationalism" against Kant; but when it comes to Wissen, Glaube, and Ahndung the differences between Kant and Fries are really vanishingly small. The preferred "rationalism" advocated by Hegel was merely a return to the worst kind of circus of absurdities made possible by speculative metaphysics. And while Hegel may have been relatively and laudably free of anti-Semitism, his politics otherwise are nothing worthy of praise. It is no error now to trace the modern theory of the totalitarian state to Hegel rather than to Kant or Fries.

What is conspicuously lacking in Kant or Fries is any interest in actual religions apart from Christianity, which for them is superior beyond doubt or dispute. Nelson has lost any unquestioned sympathy for Christianity, but the result is that he makes vague statements and gives us a sense that he endorses religion in a general and theoretical way but has never met any real religion that he has ever liked. (One story is that Nelson actually divorced his wife because she insisted on baptizing their new son in the Lutheran Church.) Even Fries rejected the central mystery of Christianity, the Atonement. But it is hard to see how anyone could actually be a Christian if they didn't believe that the function of the Crucifixion was to redeem us from our sins.

Otto becomes less interested in reconstructing an idealized rationalistic Christianity and instead turns to what is actually in it. Thus as a purely phenomenological matter, Otto perceives more to Ahndung than aesthetics, and this begins to produce something descriptively adequate to actual religions. Otto's addition of numinosity to Ahndung, made no change, as far as he was concerned, in the overall structure of Friesian theory. It was too much for Nelson, who rejected Otto's new theory as a kind of mysticism; and that characterization seems to get repeated in most descriptions of Otto. However, Nelson himself has a pretty clear definition of mysticism, as a claim to perceptual or discursive knowledge of transcendent objects; and Otto was never guilty of saying anything like that. Otto was certain that God was the numen, but he was also clear that the concept of God and the justification for it comes entirely from the rational side of the equation, from Glaube, and that the theory of numinosity is the description of a feeling, not the description of an object. Now, if we become more sceptical about the rational force of the Kantian-Friesian derivation of the Idea of God, we can appreciate that holiness can apply to other things in other religions. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha come to mind.

Otto is not a great thinker, but it is enough for anyone to have at least one really good idea. Otto's is both sound and profound, and it is well lodged both in the context of Kantian-Friesian epistemology and philosophy of religion and in the phenomenological description of religion.

This brings us back to Eliade. Eliade was not an actual student of Otto's. Instead he just read Otto's book, and it is obvious that he has no handle on the philosophical and rational side of Otto's Kantian-Friesian project. Eliade simply continues with the phenomenal description of numinosity. There is nothing wrong with that. The issue is whether he did more than simply fail to treat the moral and rational side of religion but if he actually rejected it in favor of some kind of neo-pagan irrationalism and immoralism. I think that charge is false.

Eliade can justly be accused of political naiveté. If it was merely naiveté, that would be a kind of defense -- a kind of defense that is often offered for Heidegger and Werner Heisenberg. The problem is whether foolish or ignorant views are vicious or merely well meaning but uninformed. The proof is whether the views become disillusioned in the face of conspicuous demonstrations of evil. If there is no disillusionment in such circumstances, then we must ask whether such evils really follow from the views and so whether the views are really naive or in fact informed, deliberate, and actually pernicious.

With Eliade there is no doubt of his commitment to Christianity. Any accusation of neo-paganism is grotesquely wrong. Furthermore, Eliade's own best example of Christian behavior and spirituality was Mahatma Gandhi, whom he had met in India. These are not the kind of views that can justly be accused of implying Death Camps. And Eliade was actually attacked as being too interested in India and in foreign thought to be properly promoting Romanian culture. He thought such xenophobia absurd and reprehensible. What Eliade wanted for Romania was some kind of spiritual rebirth. Not a rebirth of pagan Dacianism, but a rebirth along the lines of Gandhi's project in India. Eliade hoped that Romania could emulate the achievements of such other small European countries as Denmark, which would always be famous for Kierkegaard and other like thinkers and writers. Wanting to be the Romanian Kierkegaard should not fill one with apprehension about Eliade's project.

Eliade's naiveté comes in his attitude toward democracy. He thought that democracy had failed in Romania, and as a description of actual accomplishments, he need not have been wrong. He didn't like the alternatives either, for he saw Communism in the Soviet Union destroying religion and he saw Fascism in Germany turning against the Jews. Both were sufficient to discredit these things in his eyes. That should be emphasized. If it is a question of recognizing evil, Eliade had no trouble recognizing Hitler's evil in his anti-Semitism. In that respect we could claim a great moral superiority for Eliade over Heidegger, who never seemed to notice anything of the sort about National Socialism -- and both removed the dedication to Edmund Husserl, who was inconveniently Jewish, from Being and Time and refused to sign the dissertations of those of his graduate students who came up for approval after he had become a functionary of the Nazi regime.

If neither democracy nor Communism nor Fascism were very helpful, then that didn't leave Eliade with much to endorse. That could well have bothered him, but then he felt that his primary interests were not political. His project was promoting his Gandhian "spiritual" revival. At the same time, the looming threat of war was obvious, and Eliade could not help but worry about Romania's fate when the Titans clashed. In that context the model that began to appeal somewhat to him was indeed Italy, just because Mussolini had (apparently) made the country strong, and Romania would need to be strong to weather the coming storm. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini was not alienated from Christianity -- he had negotiated a Concordat with the Pope, which created the modern state of the Vatican City. Nor was Mussolini attacking the Jews. Indeed, Mussolini seems to have even promoted Zionism during the 30's and was only pushed into actions against the Jews as his dependence on Hitler increased during the War. Eliade's attraction now sounds very foolish, and in retrospect it seems like sophistry to distinguish Mussolini from Hitler. But there were differences, and Eliade pursued the logic of those differences until he ultimately decided, in the course of the War, that the paradigm he liked the best was Salazar's Portugal. Fascists all, it is still clear that there were differences between Salazar and Franco, in Portugal and Spain, and Hitler and Mussolini, in Germany and Italy. Franco could not be tempted into the War, for all Hitler's promises; and, far from joining in Hitler's Final Solution, Franco seems to have been instrumental in rescuing many Jews from the Holocaust by offering refuge in or passage through Spain. Those differences were the key ones for Eliade; he was not interested in anyone who attacked either Christianity or the Jews.

What this political temptation led to while Eliade was still in Romania were articles endorsing what turned into Romania's Fascist Party (the "Legionary Movement" or "Iron Guard"). Eliade could endorse the movement only because at first he did not believe it was, as it did not present itself at first as, a political party at all. Eliade hoped it was precisely the sort of grass roots moral and spiritual movement that he wanted, and he relied on the judgment of his academic mentor that this was so. In 1938 the government decided to round up the leaders and sympathizers of the movement, and Eliade got scooped up and detained for two months as part of that. He had never actually belonged to the organization; and as soon as it turned violent, as soon as it began to act like a proper Fascist party, attacking Jews, etc., Eliade washed his hands of it and judged that they had completely discredited themselves. After he was released, he never had anything to do with them again. Instead he began thinking it might be a good time to get out of the country, perhaps even come to America. His prospects of employment in America, however, were bad -- American immigration laws were then prohibitive -- but then a friend of his offered him a chance for a diplomatic post, as cultural attaché, in London. Eliade and his wife, ironically, thus spent the Blitz in London, a period when Romania was still neutral.

Eliade later got transferred to Lisbon, after Romania joined the Axis, where he spent the rest of the War. There he developed his interest in Salazar, about whom he wrote a book that was published back in Romania. He hoped Salazar would be a good example. He only went back to Romania once during the war, and that resulted in an incident that sounds like the only prima facie credible accusation of anti-Semitism ever made against Eliade. And that was that he visited all his old friends in Bucharest except for an old Jewish friend, who survived the War and later reminisced that it was painful to have been so obviously rejected. However, before leaving Lisbon Eliade had meet Salazar himself, who gave him a message for the Romanian government. After that meeting, Eliade noticed that he was being followed and sensibly concluded that this was the Gestapo keeping track of him. The last thing he wanted to do was to lead the Gestapo to a Jewish friend in Bucharest. I think we can still assume that the Gestapo would have investigated anyone Eliade, as a Romanian diplomat negotiating with neutrals (through whom contacts with the Allies could be made), might have had contact with.

Beyond a certain point it is not necessary to defend, or even explain, Eliade. The worry that Eliade was promoting some kind of neo-paganism in line with Hitler's is profoundly groundless. His estrangement from democracy was a definite failure of his political judgment, but Otto's philosophy of religion can hardly be blamed for that -- it potentially has no different political principles than Kant. All this would seem to stand in the most obvious contrast with Heidegger, whose views clearly imply the kind of neo-paganism, violence, and irrationalism that he actually found, recognized, embraced, and never repudiated in Nationalism Socialism. This all is bound to thoroughly discredit the fundaments of Heidegger's thought. Nevertheless, even with Heidegger we should recognize some historical importance and some minor theoretical interest in his work. But compared to Heidegger, Otto's Kantianism, and Eliade's contributions to Otto's program, are sterling achievements beyond reproach. For them, Eliade should have at least as much of a hearing as Heidegger (or as the celebrated Joseph Campbell, whose distaste for theistic religion in general, and for Judaism in particular, is often palpable).


Recently published materials throw some new light on Eliade's involvement with the Iron Guard. It now appears that Eliade's enthusiasm may have been much more political, rather than merely cultural, and even anti-Semitic, than his own later collections give us to understand. This would tend to take him out of the category of naiveté and into that, like Heidegger, of far more serious lapses in moral judgment and moral discrimination. The distortions of his retrospective reconstruction consequently call into question the nature of Eliade's disillusionment in 1938. If he indeed did want to emigrate to the United States then, and only settled for foreign diplomatic posts as the next best thing, then the rest of the story may be as I have considered it. Doubtless more evidence will come to light, and then it may be clearer whether Eliade thought better of things like anti-Semitism early on, or only after the Germans actually lost the War and the full horrors of Nazi practice (and the political disabilities of having sympathized with it) became evident. Such revisions in the record of Eliade's life, however, still have little logical bearing on the value of Eliade's phenomenology of religion:  Even if he had taken comfort from the irrational side of Otto's theory of numinosity and abandoned his own sense of the moral content of Christianity or Gandhism, in order to promote a Fascist/Nazi political irrationalism, this would still have been a grotesque distortion of the Kantian rational and moral context of Otto's theory. Whether the record will bear out Eliade's own timely personal realization of this now seems to be an open question.

Terms used in Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

The Kant-Friesian Theory of Religion and Religious Value

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)

Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773-1843)

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Copyright (c) 1996, 2001, 2005 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved