Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Paul Carus - Cool Dude

So I started reading a book by a fellow who is long dead, a guy I had never heard of before; Paul Carus.  Obviously, it wasn't his name which attracted me to this book, but, the more I know of him, the more that his name should have been a factor.

Basic Bio:
  • Born in Germany in 1852.
  • Raised as a piously orthodox Protestant.
  • Prolific and diverse author, writing 75 books and 1500 articles on history, politics, philosophy, religion, logic, mathematics, anthropology, science, and social issues of his day.
  • A student, theologian, and philosopher in the field of comparative religion.
  • Immigrated to the United States in 1882 "because of his liberal views."
  • Described himself as "an atheist who loved God."
Carus was one of the pioneers of interfaith dialog, where as early as 1893 he was working to introduce the West to the Eastern religious traditions, and visa versa.  He played a key role in bringing Buddhism to Western minds.

Oh, and he was also pen pals with some of the greatest minds of his time, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton (leader in the early woman's rights movement), Booker T. Washington (prominent figure in bridging the old racial divide in the time of Jim Crow segregation), Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, anyone?), Ernst Mach (ever wonder how "Mach" related to the speed of sound?), Thomas Edison (made the incandescent light bulb and a little company now known as GE), and Nichola Tesla (made Edison look like an idiot, both figuratively and literally when Edison went for DC instead of Tesla's preferred AC power), among many others.

Joseph Campbell would have been jealous of this guy, and/or they would have been good friends.

In a slightly similar fashion to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Carus took a look across various religious traditions with a focus on the "evil" side, and followed some of their evolutions in time, to compile an impressive work in 1900 known as The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil from the Earliest Times to the Present Day.  (That was back when book titles were more descriptions than tag lines.)  I'll call it The History of the Devil for short.

While not as entertaining as Campbell can be, I found Carus' book to be excellent.  His writing helped to coalesce many thoughts I'd previously had, persuaded me to more-strongly consider some different viewpoints, and challenged me to confront ideas which were foreign to me.  That's my kind of book!

I'll be re-reading this book, and blogging about it along the way.  It's not really going to be a formal book review, or a summary.  It'll be a highlight of interesting facts, and a discussion of the many thought provoking conjectures and points he made.  I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did.


  1. (1) I didn't follow you about his name.
    (2) Why did you first read this guy? How did you find him?

  2. I guess I wasn't too clear. Sorry about that.

    (1) There is a tendency for people to select a book from famous people, like, say, Daniel Dennett, based more on the author's name, what type of person the author is, and other books the author has written, than perhaps knowing much about that particular book. As I learned a little about Mr. Carus, I became interested in him as a person, to the point of being curious about what he would have to say. That's why I said his name should have been a factor, but I didn't know anything about him (beyond what I had just read) until I decided to do a little research for this post.

    (2) I was just browsing the Internet Sacred Text Archive, and the title of the book and short meta-description caught my interest enough to start reading. Overall, I really enjoyed his writing.

  3. On first read, I thought the mention of Campbell seemed out of place, but then I started to play with the title a bit.

    Could the work of Carus be dubbed:
    "A Thousand Evils Given One Face"
    or maybe,
    "A Thousand Adversaries Given One Face"

    I watched a few more of the youtube vids of the evid3nce you mentioned to me. Armstrong's A History of God seemed influential to his deconversion.

    I don't mean to balloon up your project here, but I'm tempted to suggest there could be an even larger study possible with this kind of trio - history of gods, history of devils and history of heroes.

    I'm going to catch up with your intro posts now.

  4. @Andrew
    Yeah, it is a bit of a stretch for the Campbell reference. :-) However, it's not just the "Devil" that Carus examines. He looks at the concept of evil, and an evil deity, throughout many eras and cultures. So it is, at least, a similar meta-analysis, even if Carus never quite presents a "grand unification theory" of evil quite equivalent to Campbell's. ;-) Yet, in his final chapter, he does reflect heavily on the concept of evil as we humans have used it in our understanding of the world.

  5. Also, Andrew, I'm glad you are enjoying evid3nc3's series. I did too. His largest influence was a professor he "bumped" into, which is early in the series.

    As for the future, I think you are doing a great job with the Hero theme already. I'm already planning the next project; another book in the Sacred Text archive on Christian gnosticism. It looks pretty cool!