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The Irrational and the Paranormal: the legacy of E. R. Dodds

Greg Shaw

In an article entitled “The Renaissance of the Occult,” the great classicist E. R. Dodds wrote: “When the history of the early years of the twentieth century comes to be written … there will almost certainly be found in it a chapter devoted to the Renaissance of Occultism. It will be a very long chapter.”[1]  Dodds himself played a central role in this renaissance.  In addition to exploring the non-rational aspects of Greek culture in his ground-breaking study, The Greeks and the Irrational, published in 1951, Dodds, like his mentor Gilbert Murray, was a member of the Society for Psychical Research for which he served as President from 1960 to 1963.  Despite his disparaging characterization of theurgy and the influence of Iamblichus on the Platonic tradition, Dodds himself avidly researched the very phenomena associated with theurgy: mediumistic possession, telepathy, and clairvoyance.  He traveled to Germany to spend time with Willy Schneider, a renowned medium said to practice telekinesis, was convinced of the reality of telepathy, and in 1971, he published an essay entitled “Supernormal Phenomena in Classical Antiquity.”[2]  In the late 1970’s, shortly before his death, Dodds is reported to have said: “I have no interest anymore in Greek religion.  I am only interested in paranormal phenomena.”[3]

Perhaps Dodds was overstating his position.  After all, the paranormal phenomena surrounding Iamblichus and Sosipatra and the supernatural powers demonstrated by Proclus were an integral part of later Platonic philosophy and religion.  Yet, as a Classical scholar imbued with the rationalistic spirit of his time, Dodds had argued that the introduction of such irrational phenomena spelled the demise of Hellenic rationalism, and almost all scholars—perhaps influenced by Dodds—have avoided serious study of the supernatural powers of theurgists.  After all, in the worldview provided by materialist science, such paranormal phenomena cannot happen and so, if mentioned by the ancient sources, they are usually explained away as the result of superstition or as the cultural baggage of a credulous age. 

This paper will seek to understand the supernatural phenomena of later Platonists within their metaphysical vision, one that describes a world that is an unbroken continuum extending from the One to the multiplicity of the material world.  Iamblichus was a critical figure in laying out the imaginative framework in which paranormal phenomena were incorporated into this tradition both through his metaphysics of mediation and through the practice of ecstatic divination.  Today there are many outside the academy—especially in popular culture—who are deeply interested in the paranormal because of anomalous experiences that “science” cannot explain.  The later Platonists developed techniques that not only assumed the existence of transphysical realities but allowed its initiates to develop the ability to see and to hear these phasmata through their own etheric bodies.  I will argue that the development of one’s etheric body into a luminous augoeides was an integral part of the theurgic path and that the supernatural power of Platonic adepts was a very “natural” outcome of their way of life.  While it would be anachronistic to apply their worldview to our own, their imaginative framework for the paranormal might serve as a heuristic model for those with questions about the paranormal today.

[1] Irish Statesman I:14 (27 Sept. 1919) 337-8.

[2] Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 55, 1971; reprinted in Dodds, The Ancient Concept of Progress (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1988) 156-210.

[3] Jeffrey J. Kripal, Authors of the Impossible, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) 11.

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Platonism and the Irrational

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