Linda Johnsen, M.S., discusses her newest book, Lost Masters: Rediscovering the Mysticism of the Ancient Greek Philosophers. She is the award-winning author of nine books on ancient and modern spirituality, including Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India, The Living Goddess, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism. Hundreds of her articles have appeared in Yoga International, Yoga Plus, Yoga Journal, and other magazines.
- Why on earth did you decide to write a book on the ancient Greeks?
Well, like most other people on the planet, I thought the ancient Greek philosophers were as relevant to our lives today as bows and arrows. But when I went back to the original Greek sources, I was astonished to find how much the Greeks had in common with us yoga students, New Agers, and spiritual seekers today. In school you’re always told they were the founders of scientific materialism, the first men who ever thought completely rationally, supposedly. But what they tell us about themselves is that they were intensely interested in spirituality. Many of them believed in karma and reincarnation, and a lot of them were vegetarian! I’m not making this up. It’s in the written sources.
- So you’re telling me Pythagoras, say, believed in reincarnation?
Pythagoras is a great example. He claimed to remember his previous lives. He actually founded a hugely successful ashram in Italy–this was around 600 B.C.E. His followers meditated, ate no meat, drank no alcohol, worked out every day, practiced music therapy, and really believed he could lead them to enlightenment. He had an enormous impact on the ancient Greek world. A lot of later thinkers, like Plato, studied his ideas.
- That’s awfully hard to believe, Linda. Pythagoras just sat down one day, decided he was enlightened, and started an ashram?
Not quite. Actually, his ancient biographers tell us that first he spent decades studying with great spiritual masters in Egypt, Syria, and Persia. One ancient writer even says he studied with Hindu brahmins. Pythagoras was in his 50s before he came back to Europe and founded his spiritual community. And get this. His first teacher was Thales–the very same Thales we learn in grade school was the father of Western science. It was Thales who encouraged him to go to Egypt in the first place, because Thales himself had studied with the priests there.
- Did any of the other Greek philosophers go to Egypt?
Sure–including major ones like Plato, Plotinus, and even Democritus, the father of the atomic theory. It’s a myth that the Greeks were self-educated geniuses who came up with all their ideas by themselves. A lot of them were educated abroad.
- You’re saying the Greeks had a lot in common with New Agers?
Honestly, the answer is yes and no. The Greek philosophers were interested in many of the same things, like near-death experiences, the nature of the soul, and training the mind to reach high meditative states. But they had a strictly rational approach to all this. They didn’t consider metaphysical subjects to be off limits like a lot of scientific types do today. I wish more New Agers would read ancient thinkers like Iamblichus. His insights about phenomena like channeling would really help them understand psychic experiences better.
- In your book you talk a lot about a link with India. You even say Alexander the Great had a guru.
That’s right. Many of the ancient biographers talk about that. Alexander’s guru was named Kalyana–Alexander took him back with him from India to Persia. When Alexander first got to India around 327 B.C.E., one of the first things he did was send his men to find yogis for him to talk to. Some of his men, like the famous philosopher Pyrrho, even stayed on in India and brought what they’d learned from the spiritual masters there back to Greece.
You know, during his own lifetime Jesus wasn’t that well known in the Roman Empire. The most famous sage in the first century was Apollonius of Tyana, who some of the Roman emperors loved, and other emperors were afraid of. We have a detailed account of Apollonius’ trip to India and his experiences in a Hindu ashram. He thought the yogis there were the wisest, most amazing human beings he’d ever met. He traveled in Egypt too, and noticed how incredibly similar the Egyptian’s esoteric doctrines and practices were to those he’d learned in India. He had this theory that in vast antiquity, a group of teachers from India must have migrated to North Africa and taught this stuff to the Egyptians.
- I can’t believe we haven’t heard about any of this before.
There was some pretty bad fanaticism when Christianity first took over in Europe, unfortunately. The colleges of the Greek philosophers were shut down, the temples were closed or torn down, and libraries, which preserved hundreds of thousands of ancient texts, were set on fire. Apollonius wrote a four-volume book on the teachings he received from his gurus in India, but every copy was hunted down and destroyed. I sure would love to know what it said!
Since the Renaissance scholars have gathered pretty much all the texts that survived from antiquity. Tragically only fragments remain of writings and sayings by great Greek sages like Empedocles and Heraclitus. In antiquity, people thought of the Greek philosophers not as boring men who wrote boring books no one wants to read, as we think of them now. They thought of them as sages, spiritual teachers. When Empedocles, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E., would visit a town, all the people would rush out to listen to him speak. And you know what he would tell people? He told them that if they really wanted to find peace and lasting happiness, they needed to meditate! I quote him at length in my book.
- That leads to my last question. Why should people read your book?
Most of us have already heard of the yoga and meditation techniques from India, or about Sufism or the Kabbalah. What we don’t know about is about own Western spiritual heritage! We don’t even know it existed!
I was blown away by the ancient Greek sources I was reading. Scholars in universities today ignore this stuff. They actually call it “Oriental contamination.” They’re focused strictly on the scientific stuff, or the dry logic. And their translations of the ancient Greek sages are so full of technical terms that readers today can’t understand a word anyway.
I wanted to let people know how exciting the Greek philosophers were, how amazing their lives were, how open-minded and insightful they were, that they studied with the wise men of older, spiritual cultures around them like the Magi from Persia, Chaldeans from Iraq, hierophants from Egypt, later even brahmins from India. So I tried to translate their teachings into words people today can easily understand, while still remaining true to the original Greek. People who pick up my book will learn about fascinating ancient Greek mystery traditions like Orphism in Greece and the Oracle of the Dead in South Italy. They’ll learn about amazing priests and philosophers like Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, Hypatia, and Plutarch, and the absolutely mind-blowing things they were teaching thousands of years ago. And lots more incredible stories about Apollonius and Pythagoras and the other philosophers I’ve just been talking about.
My book also introduces the Corpus Hermetica, absolutely astonishing ancient texts, which meld the ancient Egyptian and Greek wisdom traditions together. When they were rediscovered in 1460, they helped spark the European Renaissance. It will blow your mind to see how close they are to many texts from India.
- Everything you’re talking about is new to me.
Oh, and I have to mention one more thing. I heard some lawmakers in the U.S. are trying to ban yoga from public schools because yoga isn’t part of the Western tradition. That attitude is wrong on so many levels, but it’s also ironic too, because ancient Greek spirituality was actually a lot closer to yogic beliefs and practice than to our traditions today.
So what I’m doing is inviting readers to explore their long forgotten Western spiritual heritage. It will challenge everything you thought you knew about the men and women who founded Western civilization.
Lost Masters by Linda Johnsen • Foreword by Eckhart Tolle
November 15, 2016 • Philosophy & Spirituality • Trade Paperback/eBook • 256 pages
Price: $15.95 • ISBN 978-1-60868-438-0