In 2009 I organised the 1st Phoenix Rising conference on Art, Literature, and Esotericism at the University of Indianapolis in Athens, and alongside it I presented a series of artwork that also formed the basis for the paper I presented. The work below forms a symbolic narrative addressing the conference theme, based mainly on Gnostic mythology.
Click the first box below for photos and a detailed conference report. Click the second box for an updated version of the paper I presented, discussing the nature of emblematic and symbolic expression from the Renaissance onward. At the end of the paper, I explain the narrative depicted in these paintings.
Phoenix Rising: Death and Renaissance in Philosophy, Art, and Literature
A Dying Society, or a Renaissance for the 21st Century?
Hosted by the Dept. of Academic Affairs,University of Indianapolis Athens
Venue: University of Indianapolis Cultural Centre, 5 Markou Avriliou St., Plaka
The 1st International Phoenix Rising Conference had several objectives, first and foremost of which was to explore the conference question, being the extent to which ancient philosophies, esoteric traditions, and the vehicle of the arts, can offer insights and directions towards what might be termed a Renaissance for the 21st century in light of the crises facing Western civilization on multiple levels. A further objective related to the discussion of aspects of methodology, approach, and apparently, purpose, in the scholarship of these fields, particularly with respect to the field of academic study of Western Esotericism as well as the role and state of the humanities in Western Universities. Thirdly, the conference was intended to open a dialogue between Greek and visiting scholars with the aim of introducing and eventually establishing such studies in Greece according to international standards.
As conference director I am pleased to say that all three objectives were achieved successfully and that feedback thus far seems to indicate that all participants – speakers and audience – went away with much food for thought and further discussion. Attendance was overwhelming – over 300 individual participants registered at the conference over the two days, while the afternoon sessions were particularly well-attended.
The conference programme was organized around four broad thematic areas: Classical and modern philosophy in relation to the foundations of civilization and potential approaches which could act as the underpinning for a new Renaissance, Esoteric traditions and what they could contribute to such an end, the arts as a vehicle or lens through which such ideas can and have been transmitted, and practical considerations relating to the same question. The four plenary sessions delivered by Dr. Arthur Versluis, Dr. Scott Olsen, Julia Cleave and Dr. Alan Cardew respectively, were arranged along the same sequence.
Dr. Arthur Versluis of Michigan State University delivered the opening plenary session, in which he discussed the phenomena and factors which can or may lead to cultural emergence. He raised many important questions, some of which remain open, with regard to the ways in which our respective fields can contribute to such a phenomenon, and stressing the current state of the humanities and their lack of provision for anything resembling cultural evolution. Arguing for a reexamination of the Platonic tradition whereby the dualism that has led to the current cultural collapse is reconciled, he left an open question deserving of further discussion; regarding the extent to which the educational system per se can no longer offer the cultural rebirth so desperately needed, and what alternative options the Platonic academic tradition can offer.
The first panel began with Dr David Fideler’s paper, which examined the classical idea of living nature and the World Soul, how it reemerged in the Florentine Renaissance, went into eclipse with the mechanistic
worldview of the Scientific Revolution, and how it is now reemerging through contemporary scientific discoveries. Fideler argued that Renaissance and
cultural renewal can only occur when culture is “situated in a living cosmopolis,” because human creativity is rooted in, and needs to participate in, the deeper creative energies of the world fabric. Therefore, cultural recognition of, and access to, the energies of the living universe establishes a necessary “foundation for Renaissance”; and the breakdown of the mechanistic worldview is a needed precondition for cultural renewal and renaissance, though not a guarantee of it.
Vincent McEvilly delivered a complex discussion regarding realism and reality comparing the sustainability and practicality of the individual experience embedded within a wider metaphysical narrative, as opposed to the individual understanding of archetypal experiences in terms of modern reality, while exploring the extent to which traditional esoteric universalism is sustainable in a modern setting.
Sander Kalverda crossed the boundaries between religion and philosophy in his discussion of the angelic potential of man as per Neoplatonic traditions. Delineating the emerging academic approaches to these topics, he proposed that the emerging study of esoteric belief systems can shed light on our spiritual makeup in modern terms so as to counterbalance our hitherto finite approach to spirituality.
Dr Stanley Sfekas delved into the intricacies of process theology according to Bergsonian and Whiteheadean formulations regarding the theological problems of the “omnipotence” debate, and proposing an evolutionary model of theology which can better explain and underpin the emerging currents of our time. Such an approach can not only resolve theological dualities and inconsistencies, but also serve as a metaphysic of a novel theology whose ontological commitments are consistent with evolution, emergentism, and quantum
theory, thus providing an approach consistent with the concerns of our time.
Dr Scott Olsen delivered the second plenary presentation, which took the audience through a wide range of philosophical areas regarding the infinite possibilities and potentials for the expansion of human consciousness, as well as the inherent dangers and responsibilities that accompany such practices and experiences. He raised the loaded question as to the extent to which philosophers and those who have for themselves experienced elevated states of consciousness also have a responsibility towards culture and society, and discussed numerous personal experiences alongside scientific evidence to propose a close reexamination of such knowledge with a view to a new approach to consciousness.
Thomas Karlsson of Stockholm University was the first panelist to present on esoteric traditions with regard to the conference question. Tracing the influences, effects and potential of the Perennial Philosophy, he discussed the case of Johannes Bureus, a 17th century Swedish swcholar who formed his own brand of syncretic esotericism combining the Kabbalah of Pico della Mirandola and Reuchlin with Norse runic traditions, to form his own brand of “Gothic Kabbalah”. He then traced the influences of this, and other syncretic systems in the later evolution of occult and esoteric orders, demonstrating the potential such syncretic developments can offer to esoteric thought.
Leandros Lefakis gave a lively and moving presentation on the archetypal interplay between scientific rationalism and esoteric tradition as found in Masonic philosophy, proposing that Freemasonry’s inherent lack of division between scientific and esoteric thought provides a constructive model for the integration of these polarized aspects of modern thought into a new and dynamic worldview that can liberate consciousness and provide a roadmap for the modern age.
Derek Bain explored the psychology of ritual and function of non-dogmatism as found in Masonic philosophy, and the ways in which it can facilitate the development of anagogical thought. Citing Neuro-Linguistic Programming techniques and live examples from Masonic tradition and ritual, he demonstrated the ways in which is effected, thus proposing that as an approach it can be utilized on a wider scale to promote moral behaviour, ontological change, and spiritual evolution, all of which are conducive to the objective of a social and spiritual renaissance far from the limitations of dogmatism.
As third plenary speaker, Julia Cleavepresented an in-depth analysis of a work by Nicholas Poussin: “The Birth of Bacchus”. Following an exploration of the mythological sources of his work, she explained the theurgic basis of his choice of symbolism and the potentials it implies in terms of its relationship to the Mysteries and the appeal it makes to the imagination, thus suggesting the way in which Poussin’s and similar works can offer a springboard for the “radical re-visioning of the relationship between Man, Nature and Cosmos” so necessary in our time.
Hereward Tilton delivered a captivating presentation regarding the inherent aspect of “inspired” and experiential knowledge in esoteric currents, and its exclusion not only within the historical context of social and religious conflict, but also within the modern academic approach. Citing numerous examples and philosophical precedents from a perspective of Protestant and Enlightened polemics (among many), he delivered a significant and timely argument for the inclusion and reexamination of this intrinsic component of esoteric currents in the face of postmodern deconstruction.
Niki Stavrou gave an entrancing delivery on the Heroic archetype as found in the work of Greek poet-philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, possibly the most significant Greek literary figure of the 20th century. Tracing Kazantzakis’ portrayal of this Promethean figure in many of his works, most notably his “Odyssey: A Modern Sequel,” she eloquently delineated his call for spiritual revolution and human empowerment in true
Promethean spirit, positing it as a timeless message particularly appropriate to our current predicament.
In his presentation entitled “The Tomb and the Theatre,” Iordanis Poulkouras traced these two related motifs, their symbolism and significance, from the Mysteries, through the esoteric traditions, to their modern signification. By exploring their significance as symbols and processes – from the theatrics of ritual and of everyday interaction to the symbolic tomb of initiation to the inexorable weight of our own mortality, he demonstrated their value in establishing the responsibility all men bear with regard to self-knowledge and reestablishment of core values.
Sasha Chaitow presented a “self-termed” experiment, in which she presented and discussed her own artwork in terms of the emblematic worldview that characterized the Renaissance.
Drawing on the concepts behind Michael Maier’s emblematic work, she presented a series of paintings designed as a visual narrative that essentially described the Gnostic problem – and Hermetic/Promethean solution – while positing that provocation of the imagination through visual imagery which bypasses the analytical processes of the mind may be a valuable tool with which to spark a new “way of seeing” which, if conceived of and reexamined today, may be a valuable counterweight to the linear and shallow approach to the world around us.
Dr. Alan Cardew, the final plenary speaker, gave an impassioned presentation illustrated by historical examples of the devaluation and censorship of the humanities. Through a delineation of the lost sacrality of learning and philosophy as described in the Parangelmata and exhortations to philosophy of a number of ancient thinkers and scholars, he called for an “abandonment of current institutions and technologies, and a
return to the disinterested contemplation of pure knowledge, which is the proper pursuit of the humanities.”
In the final panel, Dr. Versluis presented some more specific examples of emergent cultures as originally referred to in his plenary speech, and called for further discussion of whether or not we may currently be observing such a phenomenon, as well as the extent to and ways in which the philosophies and esoteric currents thus far discussed could be tools with which a new Renaissance can be engendered in our time.
Dr. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke addressed a number of political, social, and cultural concerns in his ardently delivered overview of the study and current understanding of esoteric historiography and traditions.
Beginning with a historical overview of the Alexandrian and post-Alexandrian world, he stressed the significance of the Hellenic legacy in Western culture and called for its preservation in a world of rapidly blurring cultural demarcations. Citing current social and political issues, he posited that the esoteric worldview can act as a common point of reference that crosses religious and cultural boundaries and function as a counterweight to cultural polarization, particularly if, via its academic study, it can gradually be incorporated into mainstream thought.
Dr Emmanuel Korkidakis offered a ritualistic note in his invocation to Hestia at the beginning of his lecture. Via a close discussion of pre-Socratic, Aegean-Cretan and Orphic philosophers he advocated a “return to the sources” and a close re-reading of pre-Aristotelian and pre-Platonic teachings with respect to the sociocultural context, arguing that the Aristotelian-Platonic influences on modern culture are the cause of much confusion and misinterpretation.
Issues and Conclusions
Naturally any conclusions, despite the best efforts at academic objectivity, cannot be anything but subjective, and so any lapses in interpretation are entirely the author’s own.
With regard to the conference question itself, it can certainly be said that many directions were proposed, and many questions raised. The speakers seem to have focused on the modern academy and the ancient mystery traditions as the two main sources from which ideas and further direction can be drawn, while the topics of Arthur Versluis, David Fideler, Stanley Sfekas, and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke seem to be those which most strongly demonstrated more practical directions in which to look. To regenerate a society we most certainly need education of a type that can encourage a kind of thinking conducive to cultural renaissance – though to do this it must be practicable in all those terms which as outlined by Versluis and Cardew, the modern academy no longer considers to be of significance. This naturally leads to the question, again as framed by Versluis, as to whether penetration of mainstream academia is even desirable, or whether a parallel educational current may be an equally viable option. As to its content, Fideler’s cosmology of a living universe, Sfekas’ process theology, Goodrick-Clarke’s cultural underpinnings, the call to responsible living on all levels as expressed by a number of speakers, and the “arts” panel’s “language of symbolism” seem to offer a full palette from which to glean orientation.
With regard to the study of esotericism per se in the modern world and modern academy, speakers such as Tilton, Poulkouras, Olsen, Bain, Lefakis and Chaitow, as well as audience members expressed or demonstrated the necessity for the integration of an experiential dimension – or at the very least, its understanding, into the academic study of esotericism. Concepts such as Fideler’s cosmology and even Versluis’ cultural emergence cannot very well be any more than abstract ideals without the full spectrum of human experience. For any potential integration into the mainstream as per Goodrick-Clarke, once again it needs to maintain a clear and honest balance between academic objectivity and emic perspectives derived as much from history as from the modern understanding of religious experience and esoteric practice, such as it is.
An issue which seems to gaining significance in the current sociopolitical climate is that of the political implications of esoteric thought, an easily misunderstood and still more easily misused aspect from which Phoenix Rising was not exempt. Given the occasionally elitist tendencies of practicing esoteric groups and the historical link between occult traditions and politics of a certain colour, as discussed by Hanegraaff at the 2009 ESSWE conference in Strasbourg, it is all too easy for scholars studying aspects of esotericism to be accused of political rhetoric, or for loaded language to be misunderstood. This is as much a cultural issue as it is a real one, and it is possible that there is a whole “politics of language” waiting to be discussed. Yet there is a clear and present issue here, which, since the Phoenix Rising conference took place in Athens, I will approach from a Greek perspective.
To begin with, political correctness does not have much meaning here. Freedom of expression and openness do. The majority of what may be considered “loaded terms” in a different cultural context, are understood here at face value. However, “esotericism,” “occultism,” and “mysticism” are indeed loaded and misunderstood terms which are not as acceptable here as they may now be in other Western cultures, and Phoenix Rising represents a triumph of the academic approach and the first step towards bridging such discrepancies – for while religion may still be a contentious subject in Greece – and elsewhere – philosophy is our greatest legacy, which is not and can not be censored. It is philosophy, culture, and Western esotericism born of Hellenic philosophy that we were here to discuss, and it is worth considering that prior to allowing it to polarize on the basis of implication alone – otherwise the same sensitivities that have led “Baa Baa Black Sheep” to become “Baa Baa Rainbow sheep” in UK nursery schools will have us building another Babel instead of rebuilding the road to the Philosophers’ Rose-garden. It has taken 300 years for us to even permit ourselves to publicly reexamine an enchanted worldview which allowed for man to stand in harmony with nature and look across the bridges of correspondences to the divine. Let us not be divided by semantics and circumspection – methodological debates and academic bitchery are quite enough to be getting upset about.
Equally, and importantly, the darker lessons of history must not be forgotten, neither those that led to the careless loss of cultural heritage in the name of technology and progress, nor those that led to carnage in the name of cultural superiority. As academics and as philosophers we know this. But this brings us back to our responsibility towards those who don’t, and this is where the unifying aspect of esoteric thought based on living nature, the brotherhood of man, and the divine spark in all living things, may be the key to union not only with the divine, but with each other.
The turnout and feedback both from our host venue, the University of Indianapolis Athens, the audience, and the speakers, has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and it is quite safe to say that “Phoenix Rising” will continue to develop and grow as an international, educational entity, comprising publications and further events in the near future, with the express purposes of (a) furthering the academic study of Western Esoteric Currents in Greece, (b) providing an alternative forum for the discussion of methodological and philosophical issues (c) reviving the exploration of Hellenic philosophy and teachings from a scholarly perspective, all of which within an environment characterized by an emphasis on transdisciplinarity and a spirit of openness and inclusiveness.