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...
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