Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
Mircea Eliade (AY-lee-ahd) achieved worldwide recognition for his pioneering studies in comparative religion and the history of religion. In addition, he was a gifted writer of fiction. To a rare degree, scholarship and imaginative literature were interwoven throughout his life. Eliade was born in the first decade of the twentieth century and initially educated in the turbulent era of World War I. From the war’s aftermath emerged a greatly enlarged Romania, incorporating from the demolished Austro-Hungarian Empire the old Roman province of Dacia, with its capital at Bucharest. Eliade began his university studies in the equally fervent 1920’s, amid overtones of resurgent nationalism. From the University of Bucharest, he received a master’s degree in 1928. He was awarded his doctorate in 1932, after graduate study in the more exotic environment of the University of Calcutta.
Though principally an author, he had associate status with the faculty of letters at the University of Bucharest until the outbreak of World War II. In 1937 he edited Scrieri literare, morale si politice de B. P. Hasdeu (literary, moral, and political writings by B. P. Hasdeu). He was sent as cultural attaché with the Romanian legation of King Carol II to London (1940-1941) and then to Lisbon, Portugal, for the Ion Antonescu regime, where he remained until the Soviet occupation of his homeland terminated his status. In 1942 he wrote Salazar i revoluia în Portugalia (Salazar and the revolution in Portugal), a book about a leader whose brand of neutral national socialism he admired. In 1943 he wrote a brief history of the Romanians, whom he identified as the Latins of the East. At the end of the war, he became a displaced scholar at the Sorbonne and, in 1950, president of the Centre Roumain de Recherches, Paris, a post he held until 1955. He was also lecturing intermittently at Ascona in Switzerland, where the Eranos project was focused and from which came an annual yearbook. The psychological priorities of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung made their special impact upon his understanding of the function of myth and symbol in the human personality.
The sudden and unexpected death, in August of 1955, of the leading mind in the history of religions and its methodological theory, Joachim Wach, left a major gap in the theological faculty of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. The scheduled appearance of Mircea Eliade as Haskell Lecturer and Visiting Professor for 1956-1957 opened the prospects of his succeeding Wach. By 1958 Eliade was not only a major professor but also chairman of the history of religions department, with additional ties to the University of Chicago’s broader Committee on Social Thought. In 1965 he was named the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor. At the University of Chicago, Eliade came in contact with the eminent Protestant systematic theologian and scholar of the interrelationship of Christianity and culture, Paul Tillich. A distinctive impact worked out in joint seminar was made by each upon the other’s later writings and thoughts. Unlike Tillich, who with many of his age had fled the Nazi regime in Germany, Eliade had championed causes of national rather than religious socialism in the interwar years. Thus Eliade always viewed “comparative religion” from an original Romanian nationalistic perspective. The impact of Eliade upon students of religion, theology, and their respective histories hinged to some degree upon the time-lag factor, wherein it depended on how quickly his thoughts could be communicated by successive translators into European and Asiatic languages.
There is no doubt that Eliade perceived in the events of his youth—insightfully evaluated but personally veiled in Huliganii (the hooligans)—the “terror of history,” a notion that became central to his discussion of religion at the level of “the myth of the eternal return.” In autobiographical remarks, he noted several occasions on which he had to escape from what he described as the prison of study to find a freedom which literary expression only in his native Romanian could provide. Study of Sanskrit grammar and Samkhya philosophy was interrupted for Isabel i Apele Diavolului (Isabel and the Devil’s sea), Shamanism, and The Forbidden Forest.
At the University of Chicago, Eliade’s critics believed that he was misleading a whole generation of students of religion by a methodology which obtained its comparative data from “zigzagging over the globe and through the known history” of humankind, without regard for the greater importance of unique and subtle differences. Some went so far as to call him the “antihistorian of religions.” His final magnum opus, A History of Religious Ideas, shows a level of systematization which mitigates some of the criticism leveled against him over the years and demonstrates, with its heavy emphasis upon annotated bibliography, the degree to which Eliade had a wide-ranging familiarity with all the important aspects of his vast subject—worldwide and from the Stone Age to the Enlightenment. Had he lived to complete a projected fourth volume, he would have added the living primal religions to the atheism with which he characterized much of contemporary civilized religiousness. Clearly, Eliade found in a very widespread audience the responsive chord at the level of a religiousness nostalgically recalled but permanently lost to the “terror of history” within the present modern world.
Near the end of his life, Eliade was nearly blind and suffered greatly from arthritis in the hands, which made writing difficult. His wife, Georgette Christinel Cottescu, whom he had married on January 9, 1950, played a major role in his work by reading to him. On the occasion of the establishment of the Eliade Chair in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago in 1985, she was honored equally with him by its name.
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