Platonic Mysticism

Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art

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Arthur Versluis
SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , September
     172 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Mysticism” is a problematic term with different meanings for different people and seemingly infinite connotations that confuse understanding, distort the concept, and encourage prejudiced rejection of the topic and its implications. In his inquiry into contemplative science and literature, Arthur Versluis attempts to restore important context and refocus the discussion. Versluis defines mysticism with reference to etymology and philosophy, proposes a Platonic origin, and argues for transmission through Egypt and Rome, integration into early Christianity, and influence on medieval saints and modern practitioners, artists, and poets. He maps the academic study of mysticism from the intellectual theories of the 19th century to stigmatization by materialists and nihilists, refutes the pejoratives and misrepresentations of contemporary scholars, and proposes new directions for study and application. His book is effectively organized and provocative.

Mysticism derives from the adjective μῠστῐκός (mustikós) meaning private or hidden, the verb μυέω (mueō) meaning entrance or induction, and the nouns μῠστήρῐον (mustḗrion) meaning secret teaching and μῠ́στης (mústēs) meaning silent initiate. The root μῡ́ω (mū́ō) is cognate to the Latin mutus and Sanskrit मूक (muka) meaning mute. The idea is related both to “esoteric” (concealed, distinct from esotericism) and also “gnosis” (knowledge, distinct from gnosticism). Versluis defines mysticism as direct cognition of a transcendent reality beyond the division of subject and object (3) which cannot be fully expressed discursively (9). This is similar to the definitions cited by Brian Ogren in Secret Religion (Macmillan Reference, 2016): direct and immediate experience of ultimate reality; intimate consciousness of the divine presence (315). Ogren gives further definitions: the arcane rites of exclusive groups and also the allegorical interpretation of scripture as a figurative representation of philosophical abstractions. 

According to Versluis, Platonic metaphysics provides the explanatory context for mysticism. He characterizes Plato as a sophisticated author of fiction who indirectly describes transcendence through analogy, symbols, and allusion. Subsequently, Plotinus employed reason in an exposition recorded in the Enneads. Early Christians adopted a Neoplatonic synthesis produced by Dionysius the Aeropagite, who discloses two methods: the kataphatic way, or via positiva, the affirmative path of images, metaphorical language, and the world as revelation; and the apophatic way, or via negativa, the denial of all sensory phenomena, intellectual constructs, and iconography. Versluis suggests that the insights possible through this bifurcated structure are evident in the Cloud of Unknowing and the works of Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, Jacob Boehme, and many others. 

His thesis advocating the Platonic foundation for mysticism suffers, however, from the intentional omission of Eastern influences on Greek philosophy, especially Vedanta. In The Shape of Ancient Thought (Allworth Press, 2002), Thomas McEvilley shows (to praise and critique) that diffusion of Indian religious ideas made a strong impression on Western culture. Moreover, the traditionalist René Guénon suggests in Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta that the last two chapters of the Mystical Theology of Dionysius the Aeropagite nearly plagiarize the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad (104). Such credible evidence demands a more inclusive framework to explicate mysticism. Dismissing plausible sources of inspiration for the Platonists is a serious error of attribution and intellectually irresponsible if making a case for origins and theoretical principles. 

Versluis next compares three pioneers in the academic study of mysticism: Richard Maurice Burke, William James, and Evelyn Underhill. In Cosmic Consciousness, Burke distinguishes between authentic mystical experiences and psychosis by extracting features from the lives of exemplary figures. He notes the age, time, and place of illumination; spontaneous joy; increase of personal charm; intellectual and moral elevation; greater capacity of will; loss of fear; and a sense of immortality (40-42). In Varieties of Religious Experience, James uses examples from poetry and medical science to depict religious genius: an ineffable experience of intuitive insight and unspeakable feeling that is impermanent, but absolutely authoritative and proof of a higher order of consciousness (44-45). No revelation demands uncritical acceptance by others, yet it is not appropriate to discredit such phenomena with vain rationalism. In Mysticism, Underhill objects to James’s assertion of a passive occurrence and instead offers four tests for fulfillment of this innate capacity: realization engages the total person; it is not concerned with exploring or changing the world; the Reality is encountered as a personal Object of Love; and unity with this One results in a new state of consciousness (47-48). Taken together, these authors shift mysticism toward a universal typology manifested in individual psychology.

Unfortunately, the inclination of the modern age toward scientific reductionism and materialism eclipsed questions of metaphysics, purpose, and meaning (26). Mysticism was rejected by pro-sensational and anti-intellectual pragmatists and the extreme relativism of Marxists (62). The prevailing attitude of “nothing is true” fostered intolerance toward religion and faith commitments, and challenges to the predominant bias and confidence trick of secular progressivism were mocked and marginalized (63). It became taboo to be an essentialist (assuming an intrinsic quality or essence to be discovered) or a religionist (experiential engagement of tradition or belief) (77). Only historical analysis and discursive argumentation merited academic respect, and all else was labeled as muddle-minded, faulty, and delusional (81). Contemplative study of consciousness and mystical attainment is a threat to the power and privilege of those who falsely declare that all truth claims are invalid and merely cultural constructs (61).

Versluis charts an escape from this lamentable condition. First, he repudiates models that explain consciousness as a product of the brain yet fail to identify the nature of consciousness. He shows alternatives in the work of Robert K. Forman (61) who proposes both a dualistic mystical state (DMS), which includes the apparent world and its witness, and also a pure consciousness event (PCE), which is assimilation to the non-local and unlimited Absolute Unitary Being (AUB) described by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg (68). Second, Versluis gives new direction to literary study, which has an uncertain function in the postmodern university, by suggesting use of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1957) to explore different aspects of consciousness from the alienation and suffering of extreme dualism to partial transcendence in cosmological awareness to complete immersion in the metaphysical Real.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arthur Versluis is professor and chair in the department of religious studies at Michigan State University. He is the author of Restoring Paradise: Western Esotericism, Literature, Art, and Consciousness and Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition, both also published by SUNY Press.


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