Last fall I attended a panel talk hosted by the New Acropolis in Bangalore. I’d never heard of the New Acropolis before, and only heard of said event because the head teacher from my yoga teacher training course was among the panelists. I found the environment at the New Acropolis to be friendly and intriguing. The talk took place amid a small library (not necessarily small for an institution of its size) and books always put me in my happy place.
There were brochures out for an upcoming 16-week Explorations Course. “Explorations” is the name for the introductory course that’s taken by non-members to dip their toes into the New Acropolis curriculum, and see if they’d like to continue as members of this school of “philosophy.” (You may be asking, “Hey–wait a minute–why’d he put quote marks around the word philosophy. I’ll get to that in due time.) At any rate, perusing the brochure, I decided to enroll.
The course consists of 13 lectures given over a 16-week timeline. The reason there are more weeks than lectures is that there are two sessions in which one meets briefly with the instructor one-on-one, and one session that consists of exercises that one does with one’s classmates. (The latter is one of the highlights of the course.) The course is organized into three parts. The first and longest section deals with the idea of “know thyself.” That is, it presents several approaches to developing oneself as an individual. The second section expands the scope, looking at society and the role of individuals in it. The third section is about the “philosophy of history,” (there go those telltale quote marks again) or what they refer to as “evolution,” (really?) which shouldn’t be confused with Darwinian Evolution (which–as near as I can tell–has no status in their system of teachings.)
In my opinion, the transitions from one part to the next represent downshifts in the value of the course. (i.e. The course is at its most beneficial in the first section. That’s also the portion in which it’s presenting ideas that are fairly mainstream among the various philosophical / religious systems it studies.) As the course moves into the second section, one begins to see a few ideas that are either archaic or that depart from rationalism (e.g. the word “magic” gently enters the discussion.) By the time the third section rolls around, ideas that have no relationship to observable reality are being presented as if they were a given.
I was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book entitled Antifragile the other day and he used the term “neomania.” Neomania–a term that Taleb coined for all I know–means an exuberance for the new for its own sake (as opposed to any objective improvement it represents.) Taking this cue, I will cobble together the term “paleomania”(an exuberance for old ideas for their own sake) to describe one of the main underlying features of the New Acropolis syllabus. One might easily believe that nothing of value has been learned in the past 2000 years and that modern thinkers (not to mention modern science) have nothing worthwhile to lend to the discussion.
This can be seen in the ideas presented from ancient Greece. Let me first say that I’m a big fan of Plato. His words “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” is one of my favorite philosophical quotes. However, while I like Plato, the New Acropolis pretty much deifies him. I’m sure they wouldn’t agree with that statement. However, even Plato’s ideas on those subjects about which he was least in a position to write intelligently or authoritatively are presented as if irrefutable. A couple of his most ill-informed ideas are at the forefront of two of the lessons–notably the Platonic hierarchy of forms of government and the ideas he accepted [I don’t know that these are properly attributed to him, but he seems to have believed them] about astrology. (Note: New Acropolis’s teachings about forms of government seems to be one of the biggest causes of ill will toward the organization in Europe. Plato was an elitist on the subject. He distrusted democracy–to be fair they killed his teacher under [a form of] democracy–but believed that if you could just give a philosopher unlimited power he’d do the right thing for everybody–and not just himself. Plato wasn’t a believer of Baron Acton’s “…absolute power corrupts absolutely…” an idea that came later by those with a greater body of exposure to varying forms of government.)
The first couple of lectures I attended didn’t seem in any way untoward or unusual. The first lecture was about knowing oneself, and presented two ancient approaches to this question–i.e. Greek and Indian Vedic. The Greek three-pronged model of soma/psyche/nous, which is translated various ways–but commonly as body, soul, and reason. The Indian approach was a seven-layered variant that also started with the physical body and moved toward more conceptual elements of being.
Now, it might have occurred to me that both of these approaches take the supernatural as a given, but as they were true representations of the systems in question, I didn’t find it bothersome. This raises a point that I think bears saying, I don’t think that the New Acropolis distorts the teachings that they include in the syllabus, but they do use selectivity to frame the subject. This framing gives the student a limited view philosophy and the various approaches to leading an examined life (as opposed to the unexamined life that Socrates told us was not worth living.)
The second lecture I attended was actually the third lecture–because I was out-of-town for a class on the Bhagavad-Gita–and it dealt with Buddhism. This session was the most orthodox and arguably the least controversial of the lectures. The four noble truths and the eight-fold path were the core of the lesson, and one doesn’t get any more fundamentally Buddhist than that.
However, the fourth lecture, which was ostensibly about Tibetan Buddhism, started me wondering where the course was going. One would expect a lecture on Tibetan Buddhism to refer heavily to the words of lamas, but most of the ideas presented in this lecture were attributed to a woman who I don’t think I’d ever heard of before. Her name was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. (If you’re saying, “Hey, that name doesn’t sound Tibetan, you are correct.”) It’s not that I don’t think that a 19th century Russian woman is capable of giving informed insight into Tibetan Buddhism. However, one becomes curious when there’s not a single Lama, Rinpoche, monk or nun in the picture. While I’m admittedly a bit of a neophyte on the subject, I’ve been to hear Tibetan monks and nuns before and have visited the local Tibetan meditation center on occasion, so I’m not completely ignorant of that system’s teachings–enough to have an idea what the most fundamental ideas would be.
So, after the Tibetan Buddhism class, my Googling fingers got to work. I just wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be asked to drink any Kool-Aid made Jim Jones style. There wasn’t a lot on the organization besides their various websites, but there were a few negative comments and would-be controversies to be found. I wasn’t too concerned by these comments for a number of reasons. First, the claims were isolated and unverifiable. To elaborate, if a person is either far to the right or far to the left, then the middle seems an extreme way off. Therefore, when a leftist organization calls an organization a “fascist cult” one has to consider the bias of the source of the claim. (Note: the same could be said from the other end of the spectrum, but I stated it that way because that’s essentially what I read in one post.) Nothing I’d seen at New Acropolis would lead me to think they were fascist, or even particularly politically conservative (if anything, I’d guess that individual members would be more likely to be left of center, but it wasn’t really an issue that came up.) Second, most of the negative comments were directed at a couple of the European centers, specifically.
I will say that, despite the fact that I didn’t believe the extreme claims, I can’t say that they weren’t cause for concern. I’ve had a little experience with organizations prone to being embroiled in drama. Even if the organization has many worthwhile attributes and individuals, that inclination to attract drama will inevitably bite a member in the ass. In my experience, one can’t just sit on the sidelines and pretend the drama won’t affect you. If you do, you’ll just be all the more surprised when you feel your ass being bitten.
My web searches confirmed that the New Acropolis was an offshoot of the Theosophical Society. This wasn’t kept a secret. In fact, I believe it was mentioned in the Tibetan Buddhism lesson, and I know it was intimated at various junctures in the course. I was aware of the Theosophical Society, and–in particular–the falling out that Jiddu Krishnmurti had had with them. (A parting of ways that was apparently amicable on Krishnamurti’s side as well as on the side of some from the Theosophical Society’s side–though some Theosophists apparently went dark.) Krishnamurti is among my favorite thinkers, and it was a concern that New Acropolis was an offshoot of an organization whose beliefs were so at odds with his own. I don’t want to deify Krishnamurti (that would be ironic as he was explicit that he didn’t want followers and believed followers were missing the point), but many of his ideas resonated with my own–particularly those on organizations to advance personal or spiritual development (of which he [& I] are quite skeptical.)
Krishnamurti opposed the idea of religions, sects, and paths as means to betterment. The New Acropolis would likely agree with Krishnamurti’s stance on religion as they’re explicit in their antipathy for the ritualism of religion. However, Krishnamurti went further to oppose entities that proposed that they had a path to guide one to some enlightened state. This is where the New Acropolis would presumably part ways. They seem to believe they have such a path. The aforementioned framing that they do seems to designed to carve out the waypoints so that future courses can work on building the path.
There’s a common saying that a good education teaches one HOW to think and not WHAT to think. By that definition, I wouldn’t classify the New Acropolis’s approach as a good education, generally speaking. The course is set up for a one way flow of learning. There’s no time for discussion or refutation of the concepts presented in the course. The teacher presents concepts in a lecture format, and there are designated times in which students can ask questions (in many cases outside the class time when peers might have ideas to add or questions to build off.) Despite the nominal homage to ancient Greece, the New Acropolis pedagogic approach is at odds with the Socratic method by which students are asked questions rather than being presented with answers.
What’s my beef with their use of the term “philosophy?” Depending upon how it’s used, I don’t have a problem with it. When they’re explicitly talking about their particular philosophy, (i.e. New Acropolis’s philosophy) it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s only when one uses the term in a general sense, e.g. as in “school of philosophy,” that students might expect that they’ll learn rational approaches to consider life’s big questions for themselves, rather than learning a specific ideology’s answers to said big questions.
The term “theosophy” would be much more honest and apropos, though I understand their reticence to use that term–given their strained relationship with the Theosophical Society–which has a corner on the market of that term. The fact that the New Acropolis takes the divine or supernatural as a given is hard for me to reconcile with philosophy, which implies an open discussion and refutation of ideas–particularly of those notions for which there is little or no evidence. I’m not saying that philosophy can’t and shouldn’t consider the question of whether there is a god (or spirits or divinity or whatever term you prefer.) I’m just saying that taking the existence of such ethereal entities as a given flies in the face of rationality, because the existence of such ethereal entities isn’t rooted in observation or application of logic but in emotion. Faith is the domain of theology (or theosophy, if you prefer), rationality is the domain of philosophy. A lot of the teachings in this course were couched in terms of feelings or the beauty of ideas rather than in rational investigation.
It might seem that I was quite negative about the experience, and that I wouldn’t recommend it for others. That’s not exactly true. There are some individuals that I wouldn’t recommend it for, but others that I might. I did learn a lot during the course, and brought away a number of ideas that I think will be of service to me. For example, we did a throwing stick concentration exercise that was eye-opening (no pun intended), and there were many ideas and stories presented in the course that provided good food for thought. There was only one class /idea that I found not only completely baseless but also potentially dangerous.
(FYI-If you’re wondering what idea that was, it was in the penultimate lecture on astrological cycles (yeah, I know, right?) The lecture presented both Indian Maha Yugas and Greek zodiac cycles. Guess what? According to both mythical sets of cycles we’re currently in the crappiest of times. [FYI- If there’s anything my education and experience as a social scientist taught me, it’s that notions of determinism applied to the sphere of human behavior are inevitably wrong. The physical world may be clockwork, but the minds of men are a clockwork orange.] Why do I think these conceptions of cycles may be dangerous? Because a lot of damage is done by people who go through life thinking the world is feeding them a steady diet of shit-sandwiches. This is, of course, all perception. Nature–unlike gods and other supernatural mythical creatures–doesn’t draw targets on the backs of individuals, nor weigh them good or evil. However, now you’re going to tell people who already see the world through dung-colored glasses that your [pseudo-]science shows they were born in the worst of times. That–my friends–is not helping make a better world.)
I think those interested in the course should be aware of three things: 1.) a god, gods, the divine, the supernatural, or whatever you wish to call it is taken as a given by the course (you’re not going to see a Nietzschean counterpoint in this school of philosophy); 2.) you aren’t going to get a broad-based exposure to philosophy in that a.) the ideas are all from ancient traditions and b.) the concepts presented are cherry-picked to be consistent with the New Acropolis agenda (which isn’t to imply the agenda is onerous by the standards of sects or religions, but there’s an agenda) ; 3.) you should banish any expectations of engaging in rousing class discussions or dialogues with the teacher because it’s very much a one way street. If you’re good with those three factors, you may want to give it a try. You might find it’s the right approach for you.