As philosopher, historian of religions, novelist, professor, and editor, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was an extraordinarily erudite scholar whose writings, methodology, and personal biography continue to generate debate in various academic disciplines. Several of his well-known books reflect a fascination with the concepts of time and history, in particular, and still influence the contemporary discussion.
Born in Bucharest, Romania, where he also received his university education, Eliade’s interest in philosophy led him to study for 4 years in Calcutta and to spend several months in a Himalayan ashram. These experiences helped to make Eliade an expert on yoga—the subject of his 1933 doctoral dissertation and later book—and broadened his comparative horizons; other writings reflect Eliade’s study of Eastern religions, including the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of time and history. His political affiliations caused him to leave Romania after World War II began. Following the war, Eliade taught comparative religion for 10 years in Paris, where he developed many of his seminal ideas. In 1957, Eliade came to the United States and began teaching at the University of Chicago, where he exercised tremendous influence as chair of the history of religions department for nearly 3 decades. By all standards, Eliade was a gifted and prolific writer; he published over 1,300 items, including a number of popular and influential books—two of which incorporate his major treatments of time and history, namely, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return and The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Creative and energetic, Mircea Eliade’s life and wide-ranging scholarly perspectives remain provocative and controversial.
Repeated use of a technical vocabulary, some of whose terms Eliade created or used in an idiosyncratic manner, reflects his fascination with the concepts of time and history. Among the world’s ancient (or “archaic”) and modern cultures, he identified two different perspectives on time. On the one hand, a religious person (homo religiosus) divided time into two categories: “sacred” and “profane.” The former refers to time associated with religious festivals and other occasions (hiero- phanies) that recall and regenerate (or “reactualize”) the mythical time of origins. On the other hand, a modern, nonreligious person does not experience this sacred time but lives in the mundane world of ordinary historic time. Members of this secular (or profane) society do not have access to illud tempus, the mythical, ideal time that gives meaning to life. In Eliade’s analysis, myths reach across time and provide explanations of what took place and how things came into existence at the beginning of time (ab origine) and provide examples for human behavior. Eliade also emphasized the distinction between cultures that perceived time as cyclical and allowed for periodic reoccurrences of sacred, primordial time (“myth of the eternal return”) and those that did not. The latter saw history as linear and irreversible, and Eliade emphasized the special place of history in the noncyclical perspective of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Time—its passage and our experience of it—is also a major theme in Eliade’s fiction, as seen, for example, in the character Stephane in The Forbidden Forest. Eliade advocated a new humanist agenda and wanted his readers, who live in a desacralized world, to rediscover the sacred in their lives— including its manifestations in space and time.
Gerald L. Mattingly
See also Anthropology; Cosmology, Cyclic; Eternal Recurrence; Evolution, Cultural; Mythology; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Religions and Time; Time, Sacred
Allen, D. (2002). Myth and religion in Mircea Eliade. London: Routledge.
Eliade, M. (1954). Cosmos and history: The myth of the eternal return. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Eliade, M. (1959). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Rennie, B. S. (Ed.). (2000). Changing religious worlds: The meaning and end of Mircea Eliade. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rennie, B. S. (Ed.). (2006). Mircea Eliade: A critical reader. Oakville, CT: Equinox.
Rennie, B. S. (Ed.). (2007). The international Eliade. Albany: State University of New York Press.