ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY, MYSTERY AND MAGIC: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (1995)


This is the first book to analyze systematically crucial aspects of ancient Greek philosophy in their original context of mystery, religion, and magic. Peter Kingsley brings to light recently uncovered evidence about ancient Pythagoreanism and its influence on Plato, and reconstructs the fascinating esoteric transmission of Pythagorean ideas from the Greek West down to the alchemists and magicians of Egypt, and from there into the world of Islam.

Oxford University Press, 1995. 432 pages. Paperback.

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Empedocles played a crucial role in the development of western culture; yet little is known or understood about this man, who lived in Sicily in the fifth century BC. Using material never exploited before, this is the first full-scale study of Empedocles to situate his fragmentary writings in their original context of philosophy as a way of life, of mystery religion and magic, and of the struggle to realize one’s own divinity.

The second half of the book re-examines problems regarding the connections between ancient magic, science and religion. More specifically, it traces for the first time a line of transmission from Empedocles and the early Pythagoreans down to southern Egypt, and from there into the world of Islam. This neglected process of transmission is of profound significance for our understanding not only of Greek philosophy but also of the background to ancient alchemy, Sufism, and medieval mysticism.


“Every scholar dreams of writing a truly original book, but in reality hardly anyone ever does. A truly original book, one that can transform a whole discipline, appears at the most once in a generation. In the field of ancient philosophy, Peter Kingsley’s Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic is such a book.”
PROF. A. A. LONG, University of California at Berkeley

“A masterpiece, gripping, urgent and important: a unique pioneering work.”

“The thesis is argued with immense learning … courageous, original.”
THE TIMES (London)

“provides a storehouse of new insights … compelling.”
GNOSIS (San Francisco, CA)

Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic is very readable and its snappy, almost breathless pace conveys the excitement of the exploration of a newly opened tomb. I cannot recommend this book too highly; it sets the terms for future investigations of ancient esotericism.”
CADUCEUS (Seattle, WA)

“A remarkable achievement: challenging, learned and at the same time enthralling to read.”

“Bold and extremely significant … Kingsley’s book may well be the most important book about Presocratic philosophy in years, and it is certainly one of the most exciting, challenging, and stimulating.”

“Extremely rich … deals with topics of the utmost interest for the comparative student of religious phenomena in ancient societies. Dr Kingsley has put us all very much in his debt.”
NUMEN (Leiden)

“Of great interest to students of Islamic thought, while being of an even greater significance for the field of Greek and Western philosophy, since it challenges the commonly held view of the whole foundation of Western philosophical thought.”

Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic has been translated into:

French, as Empédocle et la tradition pythagoricienne, by Les Belles Lettres
Greek, as Archaia philosophia mystêria kai mageia, by Archetypo Publishing
Turkish, as Antik Felsefe, Gizem ve Büyü, by Kabalci Yayinevi
Italian, as Misteri e magia nella filosofia antica, by Il Saggiatore and Mondolibri
Spanish, as Filosofía antigua, misterios y magia, by Ediciones Atalanta

Additional information

Weight1.4 lbs
Dimensions8.5 × .9 × 5.4 in