3 May 2018


Arthur Versluis, Platonic Mysticism: Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art. State University of New York Press, 2017

Platonic Mysticism is written for fellow academics by a scholar specialising in the subject – Arthur Versluis is Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University – much of what it has to say has a wider relevance to we Magonians.
Versluis’ twin themes are the disfavour into which mysticism has fallen as a subject for academic study (‘we live in an era of extreme relativism, and one in which subjects like mysticism or transcendence are not in vogue, to say the least’) and, more specifically, how all Western mysticism ultimately derives from the works of Plato (‘The argument in this book is that “mysticism” as a descriptor becomes intellectually incoherent if we don’t recognise and acknowledge its Platonic history and context’).

Starting with the second of these themes, Versluis traces the history and evolution of Plato’s mystical philosophy from the man himself, via the Neoplatonic philosophers of the early centuries AD – particularly Plotinus - on to the fifth/sixth-century writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite that brought Platonism into Christianity and which exerted a huge influence on all subsequent Christian mysticism, all the way through to the modern era and the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and C.G. Jung.

Interestingly, Versluis includes in his survey of ‘Christian mystics’ figures influenced by Neoplatonism who are usually considered part of the occult tradition, such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno. He recognises the connections with other esoteric and religious streams, observing that ‘It is probable that Platonism, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism are all variants on a theme.’ As to where Plato got his ideas, tantalisingly Versluis slides in that ‘In essence… Plato himself conveyed essential aspects of the secret initiatory traditions inherited from Egypt by Greece.’

At first glance, there appears to be a contradiction between Versluis stating, on the one hand, that ‘for our purposes, Platonism and mysticism are different terms for the same thing’ while on the other cautioning that this ‘should not be understood as suggesting that there is no mysticism in other traditions’. However, it’s a matter of terminology: it depends what you mean by ‘mysticism’, or rather what Versluis means by it in different contexts.

His definition, adopted after some discussion, is that mysticism is about ‘religious experiences corresponding to the direct cognition of a transcendent reality beyond the division of subject and object.’ However, his central argument is that, as all Christian mysticism – which was, of course, all there was for most of Europe’s history – can be traced back to Platonism, the two were effectively synonymous, something that he shows was taken for granted by scholars until the beginning of the twentieth century. Only then was the definition widened to take in the transcendent aspects of other, particularly Asian, religions.

Versluis acknowledges the influence of Eastern traditions, most obviously Buddhism, on modern concepts of mysticism. He considers that Buddhism ‘offers natural complements’ to the Western mystical tradition; indeed, towards the end of the book he writes that Platonism and Buddhism are ‘fundamentally the same’.

But for Versluis, the tragedy isn’t that the Platonic origins of mysticism have been eclipsed, but that the entire subject has fallen into academic disrepute - or worse: ‘What we are considering here is much stronger than simply ignoring mysticism: it is academics seeking to excommunicate those who study and take seriously the category “mysticism”.’ He cites critics such as the religious historian Daniel Dubuisson who reject the study of mysticism as, by definition, incompatible with scientific or historical scholarship.

This, Verluis explains, is a consequence of ‘the ascendancy and ultimately the hegemony of leftism and materialism in the modern academy’; he quotes Victoria Nelson that ‘the greatest taboo among serious intellectuals… is the heresy of challenging a materialist worldview.’ According to this worldview, mystical experiences are merely psychological and social constructs, an attitude that leads to what Versluis calls the ‘externalist fallacy’, the notion that the esoteric aspects of religion can be understood – and can only be understood - by studying them from the outside.

Versluis rips into that attitude which, he argues, is merely ‘an assertion by discursive rational consciousness that it alone exists and has validity’ - or, more pithily, is ‘based on just saying so’. Even more damningly, ‘It is, in the end, a confidence game.’

Versluis’ conclusions about that confidence game do, of course, apply equally to other esoteric, paranormal and Fortean subjects that are considered beyond the academic pale. Summarising an argument of Jeffrey J. Kripal, he writes of ‘an enduring strain of scientific rationalism that privileges only discursive rationalism, and for which all the various aspects of esoteric religion – mysticism, cosmological traditions, the paranormal – are anathema and relegated to the large trash can typically marked as “the irrational.” This is true despite those theories and findings of contemporary physics that seem to brush up against and even overlap what we would term esoteric religion.’

In the closing chapters Versluis looks at ways of resolving the conflict between these two seemingly incompatible worldviews, to engage with mystical and esoteric traditions while maintaining an analytical perspective. There are fascinating chapters on the relationship between literature and mysticism – Versluis sees literary works, which enable the reader to connect with the consciousnesses of others, as initiatory - and Platonism’s influence on Western art, from the Renaissance to (more surprisingly) the Hudson River School of American artists.

Finally, Versluis sketches out an approach for uniting the esoteric/experiential and exoteric/analytical perspectives: ‘Contemplative science’, a new form of mysticism which ‘results from engaging our faculty of inward observation to reflect upon its own nature.’ Seeing Buddhism as offering the ‘most sophisticated model’ for such a science, Versluis looks towards a scientific religion or religion of science, citing recent research, including brain-imaging studies of Tibetan Buddhists that present neurological evidence for the mystical state, which ‘suggests that the future in the area of consciousness studies may be transreligious, drawing practical aspects and larger metaphysics from Buddhism, while also drawing on the extant and venerable tradition of Platonic mysticism in the West.’

There’s much in Platonic Mysticism to mull over. It isn’t always an easy read – the parts analysing and defining the mystical experience are, perhaps unavoidably, heavy going - but Arthur Versluis succeeds in revealing the hollowness and intellectual dishonesty of the materialist-rationalist worldview and offers a way to reconcile proper scientific rigour with the transcendent, as well as unifying Western and Eastern mystical traditions. 
  • Clive Prince.

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