Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

Eliade's Legacy 25 Years Later: A Critical Tribute

Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

Eliade's Legacy 25 Years Later: A Critical Tribute

Article excerpt

Mircea Eliade, who was born in Bucharest in 1907 and died in Chicago in 1986, was often described by scholars and in the popular press as the world's most influential historian of religion and the world's foremost interpreter of symbol and myth,1 Time magazine identified Eliade as "probably the world's foremost living interpreter of spiritual myths and symbolism." People Weekly claimed that "Eliade is the world's foremost living historian of religions and myths."2 Typical of Eliade' s lofty status, Lawrence Sullivan, former Eliade student and leading historian of religions, claimed that "Eliade has been the single most important individual in introducing the world to what religion means."3 An incredibly prolific writer, Eliade had what he described as a "dual vocation" as a scholar of religion and as a writer of literary works. Romanian was his literary language. His major scholarly works - from Traité d'histoire des religions (English translation: Patterns of Comparative Religion) and Le mythe de l'éternel retour (The Myth of the Eternal Return) in 1949 through the third volume of Histoire des croyances et des idées religeuses (A History of Religious Ideas) in 1983 - were written in French. He served as editor-in-chief of the 16 volume The Encyclopedia of Religion published in 1987, one year after his death. What remains ofthat extremely influential Eliade 25 years after his death?

As influential as Eliade was as a scholar of religion, he has remained extremely controversial. Indeed, many scholars, especially those in the social sciences, have completely ignored or vigorously attacked Eliade' s scholarship on religion as methodologically uncritical, subjective, and unscientific. Critics charge that Eliade is guilty of uncritical universal generalizations; reads "profound" mythic and religious meaning into his data; ignores rigorous scholarly procedures of verification; and interjects unjustified, personal, metaphysical, and ontological assumptions and judgments into his scholarship.

Both Eliade' s style and the contents of his scholarly studies add to the controversial nature of his scholarship. He never seems bothered, as critics think any serious scholar should, by his eclectic approach, by contradictions and inconsistencies in his writings, or by his mixing of particular scholarly studies with sweeping controversial personal assertions and highly normative judgments. Unlike the self-imposed limited approaches of empiricists and other specialists studying religion, he views his subject matter as the entire spiritual history of humankind. He often does many different things simultaneously, resists simple classification of his scholarship, and describes himself as "an author without a model."4

Adding to the controversial nature of his scholarship is the fact that Eliade, while not hesitating to criticize the approaches of other scholars, never seems to feel the need to defend his work against the attacks of critics. Eliade could be incredibly generous in his appreciation for the values, dignity, and significance of peasant religiosity, shamanic myths and rituals, and other phenomena ignored, dismissed, or devalued by other scholars as "primitive," backwards, superstitious, undeveloped, ignorant, irrational, and unscientific. He could also be remarkably generous in his encouragement and support for his followers and other sympathetic scholars. And yet he could be extremely ungenerous in his attitude toward critics. He usually ignored and frequently attacked other scholarly approaches as simply "false" and "inhuman," and he rarely felt the need to address their criticisms of his approach. In the Foreword to my Structure and Creativity of Religion, Eliade wrote the following: "For myself, I plan someday to dedicate an entire work to discussing the objections put forth by some of my critics, those who are responsible and acting in all good faith (for the others do not deserve the bother of a reply.)"5 But during the last year of his life, after noting that "methodological" criticisms brought against his conception of the history of religions had increased, Eliade wrote the following: "The fault is, in part, mine; I've never replied to such criticisms, although I ought to have done so. …

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