Lost Masters: Rediscovering the Mysticism of the Ancient Greek Philosophers

Lost Masters: Rediscovering the Mysticism of the Ancient Greek Philosophers

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Lost Masters: Rediscovering the Mysticism of the Ancient Greek Philosophers by Linda Johnsen

Ashrams in Europe twenty-five hundred years ago? Greek philosophers studying in India? Meditation classes in ancient Rome? It sounds unbelievable, but it’s historically true. Alexander the Great had an Indian guru. Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plotinus all encouraged their students to meditate. Apollonius, the most famous Western sage of the first century c.e., visited both India and Egypt—and claimed that Egyptian wisdom was rooted in India.

In Lost Masters, award-winning author Linda Johnsen, digging deep into classical sources, uncovers evidence of astonishing similarities between some of the ancient Western world’s greatest thinkers and India’s yogis, including a belief in karma and reincarnation. Today ancient Greek philosophers are remembered as the founders of Western science and civilization. We’ve forgotten that for over a thousand years they were revered as sages, masters of spiritual wisdom. Lost Masters is an exploration of our long-lost Western spiritual heritage and the surprising insights it can offer us today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608684380
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Series: Eckhart Tolle Edition Series
Edition description: Revised Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 779,379
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Linda Johnsen has a master’s degree in Eastern studies and has done postgraduate work in the history of religions. She is the author of eight books on spirituality, including Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism.

Eckhart Tolle is the author of The Power of Now and A New Earth.

Read an Excerpt

Lost Masters

Rediscovering the Mysticism of the Ancient Greek Philosophers

By Linda Johnsen

New World Library

Copyright © 2016 Linda Johnsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-439-7


The Light of the West

No one reads the ancient Greeks anymore. In the last century scholars accomplished something no literate person in past ages could have imagined: they made the Greeks boring. I slept through my Ancient Western Philosophy class in college, resentful that my Jesuit professor inflicted the dialogues of Plato and Aristotle's outdated metaphysics on defenseless freshmen like me.

It would be decades before I realized the Greeks were neither dull nor irrelevant — in fact, until the modern period, Plato was recognized as one of the greatest mystics in the history of Western civilization, and Plotinus (who carried on Plato's tradition five hundred years later in Rome) towered over the centuries as a giant of Western spirituality. These men were not just thinkers — they were considered sages, transmitters of a profound and inspired wisdom tradition that paralleled the mystical lineages of India. As late as the Renaissance, the stature of the ancient Greek philosophers as spiritual masters of the first magnitude was acknowledged throughout the Christian and Islamic worlds.

I didn't have a lot of patience for the Greeks. Like many children of the 1960s, I turned to the Hindu Upanishads not Plotinus' Enneads for enlightenment, to India's Ramayana and Mahabharata not Greece's Iliad and Odyssey for inspiration, and to Krishna and Buddha rather than Homer or Socrates for heroes. Compared to Hindu seers and Buddhist siddhas, the much-vaunted Greeks seemed like lightweights.

Ironically, it was my Indian researches that led me back to Greece. I learned that a Greek magus named Apollonius of Tyana had visited India in the first century C.E. and that a fairly detailed account of his travels had actually survived. Reading Apollonius' story was a galvanizing experience, revealing astonishing connections between the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Persian, and Indian cultures, which most modern historians neglect. My interest in the Greek thinkers was piqued: How did it happen that many of their doctrines and religious practices matched the teachings of the Indian sages so closely? Was Apollonius correct when he claimed that the Greeks had learned their doctrines from the Egyptians — and the Egyptians learned them from India?

So I returned to the Greeks, reading the portions of Plato my Jesuit professor had advised us students to skip. Sure enough, there was the juice, the living spirituality that so appalls academics today but kept the greatest minds of the Western world enthralled for more than a thousand years.

I went back to the original Greek historians, such as Herodotus, Diogenes Laërtes, Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch, in an effort to learn what the ancients said about their own tradition before modern scholars reinterpreted it for them. I was continually amazed at how similar the long-lost Greek world was to the India I travel through today, where the perspective of the ancients still lives in Bengali villages and Varanasi enclaves and the palm jungles of Kerala. The type of spiritual practices that Plotinus — perhaps the greatest of all the Hellenistic masters — described in his Enneads are as much alive in Himalayan caves today, where Plotinus is unknown, as they are moribund in American and European universities that claim to teach Plotinus!

It's surprising that today yoga students can read Plotinus and instantly recognize the higher states of consciousness he was describing, correlating them point for point with the levels of meditative focus listed in India's Yoga Sutras in 200 B.C.E. Yet Western scholars often ignore these very passages! They represent "Oriental contamination" of the pure Greek tradition, my professor claimed. And he was right — you can find Eastern influence throughout Greek thought.

I was so flabbergasted by the correlations between the Greek and yogic traditions that I started telling everyone I knew about the ancient Western sages. My friends would get as excited as I was and insist, "This information is incredible! It's unbelievable we haven't heard about this before. You've got to write a book." So here it is.

I very much want to introduce you, too, to the great spiritual masters of our past, Western "gurus" whose traditions, unfortunately, we've forgotten. Their life stories, like those of sages everywhere, are remarkable. And their distinctive approaches to spirituality will remind you of similar Hindu, Buddhist, yogic, and tantric lineages. They do differ from Indian gurus in many important respects, of course. India was a much older and far more sophisticated culture. Yet the differences aren't as great as you might imagine. The "mystery religions" that so inspired Greek and Roman civilization were also clearly related to the wisdom of India, especially in their doctrines of karma, reincarnation, and spiritual transcendence.

The Hellenes

Let me say a few words here about the region of time and space covered in this book. The Hellenic and Hellenistic epochs were a period of astonishing intellectual advances dominated by the Hellenes, as the Greeks called themselves. The Hellenic era lasted from about 800 B.C.E., when the poet Homer is said to have composed his brilliant epics about the early Greek heroes who built the Trojan horse, to around 336 B.C.E., when Alexander the Great (the student of Aristotle, who was in turn the student of Plato) first leaped onto the world stage.

The Hellenistic era began with Alexander, who spread Greek culture as far west as Afghanistan. His conquests stopped only when his men refused to go farther, recognizing the futility of attempting to conquer India. This era in one sense ended around 31 B.C.E. with the birth of the Roman Empire. In another sense it continued through about 500 C.E., when Christian rulers shut down the Hellenistic universities. Till then most educated people still wrote in Greek, and the Greek worldview held sway over Western consciousness. In this book I will introduce you to some of the greatest spiritual masters of the full Graeco-Roman period, from the Hellenic era through the sixth century C.E.

The "Greek" scientists and philosophers, artists, and sages didn't just come from Greece, by the way. Some of the greatest were from Turkey and Egypt, Italy and Bulgaria, Sicily and Syria. "Greece" at this time was more a state of mind than a physical location.

I believe bringing the viewpoint of the East to our knowledge of ancient Greek culture will vastly enrich our understanding of our own spiritual roots as Westerners. But first we need to know what those roots are. In reclaiming our ancient European heritage, we reconnect with the living spirituality at the heart of our civilization, a tradition that speaks to us more urgently than ever as we "New Age" foundlings search for authentic spiritual experience.

I believe the time has come to resurrect the ancient Greek masters, to hear again their perennial wisdom, and to live once more the ageless truths of the active spiritual life they embodied.


The Mystery Religions

On September 21, 1962, Robert Paget and Keith Jones discovered the entrance to hell. They found it right where classical Greek and Roman authors had always said it was, in the volcanic fields along the western coast of Italy — ironically, not far from the Vatican.

The two retired naval officers lowered themselves cautiously into a passage hidden beneath an ancient temple complex at Baia. They'd been warned they might be killed instantly by poisonous gases, but the air was just barely breathable. Stumbling down a long, narrow tunnel for about 400 feet, marked with niches where ancient priestesses had set oil lamps, they came to the "parting of the ways" where the tunnel split into two separate shafts, an important feature of hell described in ancient texts. By this point the temperature had risen to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In another 150 feet the explorers were stopped dead by gurgling volcanic waters. They had reached the shore of the River Styx.

In 1870 Heinrich Schliemann astounded the world when he took the fables in the Iliad, Homer's ancient Greek epic, seriously enough to follow their trail to the ruins of Troy. Troy was supposed to be a myth, not a real city that had actually presided over the Hellespont, where the Mediterranean greets the Black Sea. Here the amateur archaeologist unearthed what many today believe to be Homer's defeated city, which perhaps really did fall to the jealous fury of Menelaus and Agamemnon long, long ago, as the Greek poet had claimed.

But even Schliemann could hardly have imagined that Hades — the dark cavern of the afterlife where Homer's heroes ultimately found themselves — might really exist. Yet in Homer's Odyssey the sorceress Circe described the sea route to Hades in specific geographic terms that seemed too detailed to be mythical, to Robert Paget's literal way of thinking. Other ancient writers such as Virgil and Pausanias had described the site as if it were a physical location, and Livy mentioned that no less a luminary than Hannibal — the African general who drove elephants over the Alps to menace the Italians — had paid his respects at the oracle there some twenty-two hundred years ago. It hadn't sounded to Paget like these classical authors were making it up. With tireless enthusiasm, and with what must also have seemed to their friends like embarrassing naïveté, he and Jones followed the crumbs dropped by writers of antiquity to this hole in the ground in the Phlegrean fields southeast of Rome.

In the archaeological flurry that followed Paget and Jones's discovery, experts agreed the two explorers had indeed uncovered "the Oracle of the Dead," the entrance to Hades visited by such Greek and Italian heroes as Odysseus and Aeneas in the hazy beginnings of European history. Suddenly it no longer seemed so odd that the poet Virgil had described hell in such minute detail in his Aeneid. He had no doubt stopped there many times — he lived just a few miles away.

"Hades" remains one of the most enigmatic archaeological finds of the twentieth century. The site is undatable; it must have existed in Homer's time since his description of both the shrine and its environs is so accurate, suggesting the site goes back to at least 800 B.C.E. If Odysseus really did visit it, as Homer claimed in the Odyssey, it must date back to Mycenaen times, perhaps 1200 B.C.E. It could in fact be far older — Paget suspects it was constructed sometime during the Stone Age. Its sacred purpose is immediately evident: the first section of the tunnel, 408 feet long, is oriented directly toward sunrise on the day of the summer solstice. The inner sanctuary, where Odysseus spoke with the ghost of the sage Teiresias, is oriented toward the sunset.

But what is so puzzling is how Hades could possibly have been built in the first place. Incredibly, a 200-yard subterranean passage heads directly toward an underground stream of boiling water 150 feet beneath the surface of the Earth, as if its planners knew exactly where to find "the River Styx." No false starts or exploratory excavations have been located: the workers, digging or drilling through solid volcanic rock, knew exactly where they were going. Engineers today would be hard-pressed to locate an underground hot spring so accurately.

The construction of this underworld is a marvel. The shape and dimension of its galleries were designed with painstaking precision, the tunnels measuring 6 feet tall by 21 inches wide. The ventilation system is quite sophisticated and would pass an engineering inspection even today. The temperature and water level of the boiling volcanic springs at the bottom of the complex remained constant till the day Paget scrambled inside, still regulated by mechanisms put in place by the original builders thousands of years ago.

So much about this rock-hewn Hades remains a mystery. What we know for sure is that sometime during the reign of Caesar Augustus, Marcus Agrippa (Caesar's right-hand man) was dispatched to close the gates of hell. At his order 19,000 cubic feet of earth were hand carried into the complex to fill the northern shaft. Given that only one man could pass through the narrow tunnel at a time, the work must have taken years. Then immense 20-foot-long blocks were set in place to seal the tunnel forever. Whoever wanted the entrance to hell shut down must have wanted it very badly. An earthquake — probably the enormous temblor of 63 C.E. — partially sealed the rest of the site until our two indefatigable naval officers lowered themselves in almost exactly nineteen hundred years later.

Over the long centuries a temple to the wisdom goddess Minerva continued to operate at the surface of the Oracle of the Dead, but eventually the underground sanctuary was forgotten, and Hades faded into the shadows of mythology.

The Oracle of the Dead

What on earth were the ancients doing in this carefully carved pit? Scholars today speculate it was an immensely successful business concern, a sort of ghoulish Disneyland. Oracles go back a long way in the old world, and the Mediterranean was peppered with them. There was money to be made from people's fears, then as now, and pretenders to supernatural knowledge rarely suffer from a lack of paying clients.

The scenario scholars have worked out runs something like this. Clients showed up at the temple complex overlooking the Gulf of Baia frightened, confused, desperate, or recently bereaved. They may have been in trouble with the gods, like Odysseus, or could have had problems with powerful relatives, like Hercules, who was ordered to pillage the site by his vengeful uncle. Aeneas, legendary father of the Roman people, was sent to our oracle by the famous Sibylline prophetess from nearby Cuma, who was undoubtedly paid a handsome kickback for the referral. The Sibyl explained this was the one spot on earth where someone who was not already dead was allowed to enter the world beyond — provided, of course, they brought a generous offering for Persephone, goddess of that gloomy underworld, and for the priestesses and priests who served her there. In the netherworld one could reconnect with a parent or spouse who had passed away, seek counsel from a respected seer of yore, and receive assurance of the soul's survival after death, even if this meant souls lived on in the damp and dismal cavities of the earth.

Each new client fasted and prayed, keeping all-night vigils in the temple of the grim goddess on the bay. Drugs were slipped into his drink, and once he was in a sufficiently hallucinatory frame of mind, dark-robed priests sent their terrified customer into the dark corridor leading down toward his tryst with the dead. Knees knocking, the visitor descended into the earth, accompanied by appropriate sound effects (the shrieks and moans of temple staff) to the boiling river below. As he neared the end of this short but petrifying journey, he glimpsed the departed soul he sought to contact, or rather a carefully coached priest or priestess standing in for the deceased, in a confusing billow of smoke and light. The customer would ask his questions, hopefully receive the guidance and reassurance he had come for, and then rush back up the tunnel, grateful to reemerge in the land of the living. It was a glorious fraud, brilliantly conceived and thrillingly executed. Some of the greatest heroes of ancient Greek culture were completely fooled.

Is this what was really going on at the Oracle of the Dead? Maybe — but maybe not. I would like to suggest an alternative scenario.

Thanks to advances in medical science, thousands of critically ill patients have survived to report a near-death experience. Called back from the dead — resuscitated after having been declared legally dead following an accident or surgery — these individuals allege, in remarkably similar terms, that they felt a disembodied version of themselves floating through a long, dark tunnel, where they encountered a being of light who helped them review their past life and future destiny with a profound sense of clarity and joy. Many report returning to their bodies completely transformed by the experience.


Excerpted from Lost Masters by Linda Johnsen. Copyright © 2016 Linda Johnsen. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Eckhart Tolle vii

Lost Masters Timeline xii

1 The Light of the West 1

2 The Mystery Religions 5

3 Calming the Savage Heart: Orpheus 15

4 Helen's Chalice: Thales 25

5 The Spiritual Colony: Pythagoras 31

6 The Road to Reality: Parmenides 41

7 The Private Investigator: Heraclitus 49

8 The Man Who Stopped the Wind: Empedocles 55

9 Atoms and the Void: Democritus 61

10 The Man Who Lost a Continent: Plato 69

11 The Master of Those Who Know: Aristotle 87

12 Apollonius Was Like the Sun: Apollonius 97

13 The Priest of Delphi: Plutarch 109

14 From the Alone to the Alone: Plotinus 125

15 The Work of Enlightenment: Iamblichus 141

16 The Shepherd of Men: Hermes Trismegistus 151

17 The Golden Chain: Proclus 171

18 Extinguishing the Light 179

19 The India Connection 191

20 Exploring Our Western Heritage 203

Index 213

About the Author 225

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