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Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms & Pythagoras

Former President Bill Clinton recommends Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell. This from the official site:

Despite its reputation for religious intolerance, the Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive and strange faiths: one regards the Greek prophets as incarnations of God, another reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock, and yet another believes that their followers are reincarnated beings who have existed in various forms for thousands of years. These religions represent the last vestiges of the magnificent civilizations in ancient history: Persia, Babylon, Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Their followers have learned how to survive foreign attacks and the perils of assimilation. But today, with the Middle East in turmoil, they face greater challenges than ever before.

In Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, former diplomat Gerard Russell ventures to the distant, nearly impassable regions where these mysterious religions still cling to survival. He lives alongside the Mandaeans and Ezidis of Iraq, the Zoroastrians of Iran, the Copts of Egypt, and others. He learns their histories, participates in their rituals, and comes to understand the threats to their communities. As more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of safety and prosperity, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction.

I haven’t read the book; though it’s on my list. I did watch a speech on the book given by the author which I have embedded below.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: The disappearing religions of the Middle East

One of the things that struck me listening to this lecture is Russell’s focus on Pythagoras as a figure who connects the different ancient religions. It struck me because this wasn’t the first time I encountered such notion. I am well familiar with John Adams’ letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated December 25, 1813, where he wrote:

Where is to be found theology more orthodox, or philosophy more profound, than in the introduction to the Shasta? “God is one, creator of all, universal sphere, without beginning, without end. God governs all the creation by a general providence, resulting from his eternal designs. Search not the essence and the nature of the Eternal, who is one; your research will be vain and presumptuous. It is enough, that, day by day and night by night, you adore his power, his wisdom, and his goodness, in his works. The Eternal willed, in the fulness of time, to communicate of his essence and of his splendor, to beings capable of perceiving it. They as yet existed not. The Eternal willed, and they were. He created Birma, Vitsnow, and Sib.” These doctrines, sublime, if ever there were any sublime, Pythagoras learned in India, and taught them to Zaleucus and his other disciples.

Now, a militant unitarian who bitterly rejected the Trinity, John Adams sought to trace the genealogy of this doctrine which most enlightenment rationalists of the Deist vein traced to Plato. As it were, “Platonic Christians” fabricated the doctrine of the Trinity. Adams traces the doctrine to Pythagoras who he thinks learned the doctrine from the Hindus.

The context of this letter was John Adams criticizing Joseph Priestley, a man for whom Adams had great respect in a love/hate sort of way, to Thomas Jefferson, another Priestley disciple. Adams invoked Priestley’s book “Doctrines of Heathen Philosophers, compared with those of Revelation.” (1804)

Priestley was a freethinking Socinian Unitarian “Christian.” He believed Jesus Messiah, and that God spoke to man through revelation; but he also thought 1. Original Sin, 2. Trinity, 3. Incarnation, 4. Atonement, and 5. Plenary Inspiration of the Bible were “Corruptions of Christianity.” Socinians, if we don’t know, believe Jesus was 100% man, not at all divine in His nature, but on a divine mission. Priestley thought himself a “unitarian” and a “Christian,” not a “Deist.” But his creed wasn’t that different from those of the “Christian-Deists” who preceded him.

Indeed, this controversy had been covered before Adams wrote his aforementioned letter, and Priestley, his book. (Though Priestley may have explored these issues in earlier writings.) The very orthodox Christian American Founder Elias Boudinat in his 1801 book “The Age of Revelation” (written to counter Thomas Paine’s Deistic “The Age of Reason“) cited a 1794 book by Thomas Maurice. As quoted

One of the most prominent features in the Indian theology, is the doctrine of a Trinity, which it plainly inculcates; a subject by no means to be passed over in silence; but at the same time connected with the abstrusest speculations of ancient philosophy. It has been repeatedly observed, that the mythologic personages, Brahma, Veeshnu, and Seeva, constitute the grand Hindoo triad of Deity. – That, nearly all the Pagan nations of antiquity, in their various theological systems, acknowledged a kind of Trinity in the Divine Nature, has been the occasion of much needless alarm and unfounded apprehension, especially to those professors of Christianity, whose religious principles rest upon so slender a basis, that they waver with every wind of doctrine. The very circumstances which has given rise to these apprehensions, the universal prevalence of this doctrine in the Gentile kingdoms, is, in my opinion, so far from invalidating the Divine authenticity of it, that it appears to be an irrefragable argument in its favour. It ought to confirm the piety of the wavering Christian, and build up the tottering fabric of his faith.

The doctrine itself bears such striking internal marks of a Divine original, and is so very unlikely to have been the invention of mere human reason, that there is no way of accounting for the general adoption of so singular a belief by most ancient nations, than by supposing what I have, in pretty strong terms, intimated at the commencement of this chapter, to be the genuine fact, that the doctrine was neither the invention of Pythagoras, nor Plato, nor any other philosopher in the ancient world, but a sublime mysterious truth, one of those stupendous arcana of the invisible world, which through the condescending goodness of Divine Providence, was revealed to the ancient patriarchs of the faithful line of Shem, by them propagated to their Hebrew posterity; and through that posterity, during their various migrations and dispersions over the east, diffused through the Gentile nations, among whom they sojourned. I must again take permission to assert it as my solemn belief – a belief founded upon long and elaborate investigation of this important subject, that the Indian, as well as all other triads of Deity, so universally adored throughout the whole Asiatic world, and under every denomination, whether they consist of persons, principles, or attributes deified, are only corruptions of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Maurice’s book was written in part to rebut the “critical religious studies” of Deists like Voltaire (whom he names) that tried to explain away the doctrine of the Trinity. Boudinat following Maurice attempts to defend the doctrine as a divine Truth traceable to the Hebrews that then filtered its way to the Eastern regions and got corrupted by those religions. Adams followed Priestley and the Deists attempting to trace the “false” doctrine of the Trinity to Plato and perhaps before. Before Plato was Pythagoras, who encountered the Hindu Trinity.

In his book, Russell admits that Pythagoras and his followers viewed the concept of Trinity as something divinely true.

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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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21 thoughts on “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms & Pythagoras

  1. When I was a believer, the main thing I had a problem with was original sin. Now that I am a heathen, original sin is the only part I don’t have a problem with.


  2. The context of this letter was John Adams criticizing Joseph Priestley, a man for whom Adams had great respect in a love/hate sort of way

    Priestly did tend to suck all the oxygen out of a room.


    • Haha. Good pun Mike. On a more serious note, I’m fascinating how the enlightenment zeitgeist of that age had men like Priestley and Ben Franklin wearing hats of scientists, theologians, and political thinkers all at once. Totally interdisciplinary.


      • In those days it was possible to be current in all of cutting-edge science, and still have time for other things. Nowadays? Pick one thing, like high energy physics, and it’s already a full time job.


        • That’s part of it. But it’s also because the culture of the intelligentsia in that time put a high value on being well-rounded. It wasn’t enough to be good at commerce, for instance: demonstrating excellence involved not only the demonstration of successful financial ability, but also knowledge of the classics, personally experimenting in technology, drafting poetry, possessing martial ability, and holding one’s own in a discussion of theological matters. These were all different facets of the same gem. Compare the contemporary reputations of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with those of greater individual focus like John Adams (a gifted lawyer but no soldier) or Benedict Arnold (a solider driven to treason by his own financial ineptitude).

          We don’t put nearly as much of a premium on being mentally well-rounded in our contemporary culture. I think that instead, we quantify a person’s value and esteem using dollars: a good lawyer is worth X dollars and X is nothing to sneeze at and the lawyer doesn’t have to be anything but a lawyer to get it. But an attractive woman who can cry on demand for a camera is worth 500x dollars, and someone who creates a useful tech product everyone uses is worth 10,000x dollars.

          Today, a polymath is as like to be condemned for not having decided what she wants to do when she grows up as she is to be celebrated for her breadth of knowledge — or worse, she’ll be sneered at for majoring in a liberal art and failing to land herself a job that commands a high salary, even if she possesses sufficient knowledge and experience to hold her own in a conversation about one of those high-earning subjects.

          Which isn’t to say ‘s point is wrong: a more complex economy and a greater accumulation of knowledge forces specialization in a way that was neither necessary nor possible in the Federal Era. But I think it’s incomplete: it’s a different culture now than it was then. We’re not only blessed with more knowledge driving us to specialize, we’re also more mercenary, which also drives us to not only specialize but also exploit.


          • See also Newton (and IIRC Bacon as well) who were utterly batty when it came to theology, but spent years crapping out reams of ridiculousness because it was expected of someone in his position (and to be fair, he had a serious interest if not vocation).


          • Polymaths tend to scare the shit out of people who want everyone to have credentials and act like a royal asshole in order to demand respect.

            I know a historian who’s also a talented writer and a standup comedian. I can say that with a straight face and expect you to believe me. He’s also an economist, a world-renowned expert in a few select bits of math, a master logistician, and a hell of a visual analyst (works with NASA on some of their data). He also writes weather models, and designs video games.

            If you just read the third sentence of that graph, it’s barely plausible as well.

            It’s putting all of it together that makes people think that I’ve got to be lyin’.


      • Priestley also wrote an English grammar that stands out as an early (perhaps first?: I’m not sure) descriptive grammar. This stands out in an era when other grammarians were busily pounding the square peg of the English language into the round hole of Latin grammar.


  3. , two questions for you.

    First, did Founding-era thinkers look at non-Christian ancients from places like India and Persia with the same sort of reverence that they did the Classical writers? Adams demonstrates references for Pythagoras, but it’s not clear to me in the quoted passage whether his reference to the Hindu or Persian religions expresses admiration or whether he simply finds Eastern notions of supernatural trinities to be quaint.

    Second, to the extent that this sort of study of non-Western trinitarian notions did inform the moral and philosophical mindset of the Founding era, in what ways do we see those notions manifest? We already see Jefferson and Madison espouse very broad rights of conscience and worship, but that can be based in no small part to the debate between Trinitarians and Unitarians and Deists, and the many vacillations that so many of the Founders had over the course of their own individual lives between these theological views. So what does learning of the Founders’ study of non-Christian theology add to an intellectual environment already rich in theologic debate?


  4. To answer the first question: Thinkers like Adams had more of a superficial understanding of non-Western thinkers, though they were quite interested in gaining a holistic view of things. I think he was on the right path in determining the genealogy of the Trinity (which keep in mind, he viewed as false).

    So to transition to the second question, key Founders like Adams and Jefferson thought their enlightenment unitarian notions superior to all other theological notions. They relegated Trinitarianism to the same or a similar place as Hinduism or Islam. Something that contained Truth insofar as it taught the existence of an overruling Providence and future state of rewards and punishment, but also irrationality. The notion of the Trinity was irrational and hence false like transubstantiation or the clearly “mythological” elements of the non-Western religions.


      • Yes, Mike, in a sense both Judaism and Islam were more rational than Trinitarianism because Judaism and Islam believe in a unitary God. On the other hand, Jefferson and J. Adams saw irrational superstitions in THOSE creeds as well.

        Christianity including “irrational” Trinitarianism was also in a sense superior because it had Jesus, who they believed the world’s greatest moral teacher. This is important because morality was, to them “the” central function of religion.


        • And it is this last point that really sticks out for me: to the Founders, morality was the whole point of religion. This is an era when the atheist was thought by many to be necessarily an immoral person, by definition an immoral person.

          That people of good faith could disagree on matters of morality would of course have been obvious to the Framers. But thinking about the “marketplace of ideas” justification advanced for enshrining religious tolerance into law does put something of a less liberal gloss on things like the First Amendment and the Virginia Statute: perhaps the Framers wanted unitarian Christianity to win and were sure that if the playing field were level, it would do so.

          This is an uncomfortable thought for me on multiple levels. Fortunately, we can interpret notions of governmental non-involvement in religion and the place of atheism in our culture as we collectively choose, and are not bound by the dead hand of the Founders’ or the Framers’ theological sensibilities.


  5. “[P]erhaps the Framers wanted unitarian Christianity to win and were sure that if the playing field were level, it would do so.”

    Yup. I think this might be true.

    I found the President more free and open than I expected, starting subjects of conversation and making remarks that sometimes savored of humor and levity. He sometimes laughed, and I was glad to hear it ; but his face was always grave. He talked of religious sects and parties, and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.— TICKNOR, GEORGE, 1815, Letter to his Father, Jan. 21 ; Life, Letters and Journals, vol. I, p. 30.


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