The Plenum

A Modern-day Dialogue Between a Woman and a Man Named
Diotima and Socrates


Socrates: How do we overcome the assumption that we already know what reality is and then comparing what we call conception to that assumed knowledge, as though if there is some correspondence there is truth, and not otherwise? How can we discover the illusion, the error of sensations and conceptions and judgements and "objects" so as to grasp and discern Reality in a more spiritual, precise, and efficient way?

How does sensation plus conception create objects?

Diotima: I've come across a new book which refers to "forgetting the name."

Socrates: Seeing through the name to the reality in front of it, or eminent in it.

Diotima: That's what the term "seer" means.

Socrates: As in don Juan's teachings about "seeing" as a special way of coming into contact with unknown reality. Not unknowable. The Catholic Church likes to get away from any questioning of their authority by defining God as unknowable. Unknown, reality is hard to know, as yet unknown.

Diotima: I think there are different levels of knowing. Everyday knowing. Insight knowing through higher connection. Intuitive knowing which is beyond our ordinary perceptions and conceptions.

Socrates: Are they intuitions--which might be entirely within us--or actually, as the word "inspire" indicates, an infusion from the Source?

Diotima: There you get into the Muse territory.

Socrates: We're into the spiritual realm. Muse, deity, so on.

Diotima: Everyone who is involved in the arts, or intellectual pursuits . . .

Socrates: Genuine spiritual pursuits . . .

Diotima: Speaks in different ways of a heightened understanding at times. It's not ordinary.

Socrates: Not continual?

Diotima: Yes.

Diotima: The old epic cry, "Sing Muse!" rings down the ages because we all feel that way at times. Come and inhabit me, sit on my shoulder, whisper in my ear.

Socrates: Let me be a conduit for you to pass through your meaning, yourself?

Diotima: Yes

Socrates: To continue with an earlier question, do you have a sense of Reality being hard to know and as yet pretty much unknown?

Diotima: Reality is a big word.

Socrates: Define it any way you wish.

Diotima: Is there a substratum that we're not aware of? Well, we know there are many. There are strata. We know a dog has senses we don't have.

Socrates: That's range of sensory powers. But even more interesting to me is that cats raised in certain environments--with stripes or some other kind of form or pattern--will not be able to see--even though they are present--certain objects that do not have that pattern, that form. They simply don't see them, they run into objects without those patterns.

Diotima: Experiences limit us to a certain kind of "reality."

Socrates: Language limits us. We can only see what language provides for us to see.

Diotima: That's what poetry is for, to expand what we can see through language. Stevens says inventing new words is inventing new concepts.

Socrates: In some sense, it's inventing a new reality.

Diotima: If you don't assume there is a substratum that you can reach somehow, or can't reach somehow, but assume that reality is continually being created by our experience. . .

Socrates: Or revealed?

Diotima: Well, if it's revealed, then it's something that's already there. Either it's a substratum or it isn't. Or maybe it's something in between, which is (laughing) probably more likely. It jumps between states, the way electrons do. Maybe that's what ultimate Reality is, jumping between being a substratum and being perceived. Or created all the time and disappearing. Something like cotton floss candy being blown out of a tube.

Socrates: In what sense?

Diotima: There is a substratum there, a sugary substance. When the heat hits it and blows it through this contraption, and turns into spun candy. That is quickly eaten and disappears and goes into another state.

Socrates: Again, the cat experiment is interesting to me, that without a concept, without an experiential basis, an animal can literally not see the reality that's there.

Diotima: I think that's why people have been so fascinated by feral children who have been raised by animals. And indeed who do not have the same concepts as civilized children have. They've never acquired them.

Socrates: That's why I think Helen Keller is a miracle. She lived as a feral child, pretty much.

Diotima: Yes she did, except that I believe her experiences were more complex than say those of the wolf children or especially the pitiful little chicken child.

Socrates: Helen's experiences were less painful certainly in some ways . . .

Diotima: Well, more complex . . .

Socrates: I don't know what could be more complex than living in the wild, (laughing) that's in some ways more complex than living in a home.

Diotima: Yes.

Socrates: But complexity or not, Helen Keller was certainly able to come out of the feral stage and, the miraculous thing was that she was able to experience conceptually everything we perceive perceptually. Colors, feelings.

Diotima: We don't know . . .

Socrates: We can only judge from her descriptions. When she tells us that she was taught colors and sounds, which she couldn't see or hear, it appears she was able, from her description of it at least, to experience fine distinctions.

Diotima: Well, of course she was born with sight and vocal ability so there could have been some kind of resonance.

Socrates: But people who regain their sight don't want to use it.

Diotima: They prefer to remain in the world of touch. It's painful for them.

Socrates: They're so unfamiliar with this new reality that they won't learn to use this absolutely astounding capability. You just wonder how a person could not develop this power. But you have to realize that they don't know the wonders of this capability. You have to experience it before you know the wonders of it.

I think we're more like that kind of person. We have a sight--you call it intuition, inspiration--we have an organ or perception, discernment which has become atrophied and we just don't know how marvelous it is, so we don't put much effort into realizing it, making it real for ourselves. That seems to be one of the descriptions of the spiritual world.

But words, then, concepts, can be as much a hindrance as they can be a help in understanding or creating reality. I tend to think there's a substratum, that it's not created out of nothingness. I tend to think that if that kind of activity of creation out of nothing is going on in the universe--or the totality or Reality--that only the Deity can do that.

Diotima: That may be the case.

Socrates: I think we actualize and bring into awareness and embody and show forth--all those words that mean emanation--of a substratum that's already there, which we have only a glimmering of. And our words, in many instances, are keeping us back from that.

Diotima: But once you have developed a sense of language, it can also lead you further in.

Socrates: There are certain words which have that anagogical quality, which can actually take you beyond themselves. So the loss of those words, in particular, is a horrible one. You lose words, not just by not having them in your vocabulary as an individual, but in the vocabulary of the whole cultlure.

Diotima: Oh yes, language certainly depends on the whole culture. And changes through the culture.

Socrates: It's like the conception of being doubly ignorant. Not only are the people in our culture today unaware of these anagogical, mystical words, but they don't even know the most common words. They've become functionally illiterate.

Diotima: English is especially interesting because it's a melange of languages. You've got the Germanic roots, an ample supply of Latin, and then, through Latin, French, and then Greek. There have been influxes from these other language bases that give us a really great variety of concepts, not just percepts or denotations.

Socrates: How do you think this melange contributes to our higher or more accurate or more efficient discernment of reality?

Diotima: Let me put it this way. Reading about the structures of some languages, makes me (laughs) very grateful I'm not a native speaker of that language. When all adjectives apply to cows I think you're very limited by your language. To use an adjective that doesn't apply to a cow (laughs) you have to make a special instance of it.

Socrates: But my question was, is there a way that the interconnectedness--what you called the melange of the different languages into English--help this language more readily discern reality?

Diotima: Again, getting back to "discerning reality," I believe that concept formation is our way of discerning reality--of whatever kind. I'm not really fixed on any particular version of reality; I don't know. There may be a substratum, there may not be. It may be constantly created. It may be a great thought in the mind of God. But I do think that even speculating about it requires that we have proper concepts, linguistic tools, or we can't speculate. We could write mathematical theorems in a rather restricted language. Mathematics will give us marvelous theories.

Socrates: And means of conducting marvelous experiments that sometimes work. (laughing) Not always. Sometimes they have results that are so contradictory that your hypothesis is shot to hell (laughing) and then you have to come up with a mishmash of a hypothesis--both corpuscular and flowing energy at the same time.

I know that you're agnostic about Reality . . . that's the thing. I'm trying to get you to accept the Second Church of Socratic Truth version so you can be f--ing saved. Otherwise I fear for your eternal soul.

(Laughter)

Socrates: Because I have THE true conception of reality--you understand that don't you?

Diotima: Well, of course . . .

Socrates: I'm trying to get you to accept THE Truth, because God knows I know what it is--(laughs) and no one else does, unfortunately. But I can only save the world one person at a time, it seems like.

Diotima: Well, I'm afraid I'm not a very good prospect.

Socrates: Well, I'm finding that out, damned if I'm not. I mean I say to God, "I think I'm ready for the Big Time--Sermon on the Mount type of thing."

Diotima: Oh, boy.

Socrates: And he says, "Well, when you get your first convert, get back to me." (laughs)

Diotima: And you say, "I'll have my girl call your girl."

Socrates: I say to God, "You gave me this impossible convert. I mean, you deliberately screwed me up, didn't you? You couldn't have given me a worse person. (laughs) No respect, no obeisance. She cut out the 'obey' part of the marriage vow. What kind of disciple is that?" I pray every night to God, "Give me a real good disciple this time."

Diotima: Well, maybe you'll get one on the Internet. I'm hoping you will. I'm a hard case.

Socrates: I know you are. But God says, "No other till you get her."

Diotima: Oh, dear.

Socrates: So day and night I'm praying for your soul, hoping that you'll come around to the Second Church of Socratic Truth version of Reality. The Second Church version, not just any old version.

Diotima: Goodness, that does seem provincial, not to say parochial.

Socrates: And yet you and I both grew up with that mind set around--and in us, at least in my case. I don't know how much it took with you.

Diotima: Until I was twelve years old and read an article about evolution.

Socrates: Ah.

Diotima: I was a convert to evolution immediately.

Socrates: Yes, see, that's why we have an Index of forbidden, proscribed books. (laughs) That's why for centuries we didn't even have the Bible translated into a language that people could read.

Diotima: Too dangerous. Well, they were right about that, it is a dangerous book.

Socrates: Well, it's dangerous--it turned out--in a bad way. People become . . .

Diotima: Insane . . .

Socrates: And less caring for each other in some instances.

Diotima: Hateful.

Socrates: Of course, I don't know how you could be less caring than the Church which kept the book from the people.

Diotima: For their own good.

Socrates: You get your hands chopped off if you're caught reading it.

Diotima: It's a very powerful concept, that reality is hidden within the leaves of a book. There it is, for all to read. The Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Holy Bible, the Torah . . .

Socrates: And my book . . .

Diotima: Oh, yes, I'm sorry, excuse me.

Socrates: Actually my new one, which I don't think you even know the title of.

Diotima: Well, tell me.

Socrates: The Unknown Truth and How to Know it; actually The Unknowable Truth and How to Know It.

Diotima: Oh, the Unknowable Truth. That's even better.

Socrates: Yes. And then with my full regalia of titles: The Right Reverend Mr. Socrates . . .

Diotima: Pastor . . . professor . . .

Socrates: Well, this unknown Reality is a magnificent conception to me.

Diotima: I'm still way way back there, with the . . .

Socrates: Presbyterians? (laughs)

Diotima: Oh, no, goodness. With the puzzlement and . . .

Socrates: Agnosticism?

Diotima: No. The puzzlement and exhilaration that seem to sweep over the physicists who really know what they're talking about. I don't. But I can feel their sense of grasping something alien. There IS a universe "out there," we insist on saying. And different from anything that we COULD have imagined from our experiments. It's a contradictory universe. So if we sit down and begin with a premise that it has to be either or--a substratum or not--you're already in trouble. Because it doesn't work that way.

Socrates: Well then how do you just happen to have come upon this absolute truth of it being contradictory?

Diotima: I didn't have anything to do with that . . .

Socrates: Oh . . .

Diotima: I'm unhappy to say.

Socrates: You're reporting . . .

Diotima: I'm reporting second-hand.

Socrates: Oh, okay. Well, I think, on the contrary, that the best physicists have never said that the universe is contradictory. What they would say, is that our conception of it is contradictory.

Diotima: All right. Whatever.

Socrates: And I think the best of the physicists have always had, as you say, this excitement to be trying to get nearer through the unknown to the Reality. And let their quest take them where it would. And they were really looking--as the old alchemists were--for the substratum.

Diotima: Yes.

Socrates: That's what they were looking for. Now these modern physicists and scientists in general seem to me to have said, "Screw that 'substratum' nonsense; all we're going to do is deal in mathematical symbols. And we're going to come up with a new thing called 'the string theory.' And it works a little bit here, to explain a few anomalies that we couldn't explain before. At the same time, ninety-nine percent of the rest of the (laughing) universe is unexplainable with this theory. Who gives a crap about that. We have a brand new wonderful theory.

Diotima: And then there's always the void. We get back to the void.

Socrates: You want to avoid that.

Diotima: Umm, avoid the void.

Socrates: What do you mean by void?

Diotima: The plenum.

(Laughter)

Diotima: It's all in the plenum.

Socrates: As if the mere word should explain it. Oh, I see now. Oh, gee . . .

Diotima: Well, when you ask me . . .

Socrates: I didn't understand it before but now . . .

Diotima: Well, I'll tell you what, when you ask me what I mean by a word I can either use more words . . .

Socrates: No, I didn't ask you . . .

Diotima: To tell you what I mean, or point to something. Now if you ask me . . .

Socrates: I didn't ask what you meant by the word . . .

Diotima: Now, if you ask me to point to Reality , , ,

Socrates: Yes.

Diotima: I have problems.

(Socrates points to the ceiling.)

Diotima: Yeah, well, you're talking about the ceiling are you?

Socrates: No.

Diotima: Okay, you're talking about the heavens, you point up. I can't see them. What are you pointing to?

(Socrates uses all his fingers to point around.)

Diotima: Oh, I see, the walls of the room.

Socrates: Isn't it interesting, we ask someone, "Well, what is that? What is the reality of that thing?" And the person says, (Amos and Andy dialect) "Oh let me tell you . . ."

Diotima: Some more words . . .

Socrates: Yes.

Diotima: That's right.

Socrates: Give me a new word . . .

Diotima: That's where we are.

Socrates: That'll make it all clear. Now, how in the hell do we get beyond that?

Diotima: Well, you can play music if you want to.

(Laughter)

Socrates: Yeah.

Diotima: But then, then you'll have to talk about it.

Socrates: Well, you don't have to talk about it.

Diotima: Yea, you will.

Socrates: You will, why is that? If you want to share your experience of discerning reality in a new way through this medium, you will, if that's what you mean. If that's what you mean.

Diotima: Umm hmm.

Socrates: And you'll have to talk about poetry.

Diotima: Probably.

Socrates: If you're going to experience another--as someone has said--portal to higher consciousness.

Diotima: Oh, yes.

(Laughter)

Diotima: Well, what you said . . .

Socrates: I said, "What is reality?" Somehow we got to that. And you said, "Oh, it's the plenum."

Diotima: It's the void . . .

Socrates: Yeah . . .

Diotima: From which the plenum arises.

Socrates: Yes, you said, "Oh, it's the plenum." "Oh," I said, "that makes everything absolutely clear to me. I don't need any more information; now I know."

Diotima: It is the electron from God's perspective.

(Silence)

Diotima: How many electrons can dance on the nose of an angel?

Socrates: The same number, I'm happy to report to you, that can dance on the point of a needle.

Diotima: Umm.

Socrates: It's exactly the same, I have discovered, through my super-electric microscope, which is an internal device of my own making.

Diotima: Umm hmm.

Socrates: You and I have a sense of reality which--not in any way devolving to us necessarily from our own efforts--but we have a sense of reality which is certainly of a higher order. And even our not-knowing what reality is, is in a certain way a tremendous accomplishment. I mean, how many people tonight just absolutely, dogmatically, knock-down sure, know what the whole damn thing is all about?

Diotima: Well, it's the first step, isn't it?

Socrates: It is. That's why Plato is so important.

Diotima: But you see, when he would evict poetry from the Commonwealth, the Republic . . .

Socrates: No, he doesn't . . .

Diotima: I know . . . I know, you would say it's not poetry, it's . . .

Socrates: TV.

Diotima: It's drama, or epic, or what?

Socrates: TV.

Diotima: Okay.

Socrates: Destructive content of any kind.

Diotima: How do you . . ?

Socrates: Well, in his day, he was fighting the same forces we are, as I see it. This noise that they're now calling music, is just back to the elemental, non-thinking state of consciousness. Which is pretty much, as I understand it, what had been happening in the Homeric age. And Plato literally created thought in a rational mode. You have to, for example, make distinctions between things.

Diotima: You don't think Homer does that?

Socrates: He does, but mostly his is a kind of mimicking of epic heroes' kind of life. You don't need to think, you just need to be a good follower. And you memorize constantly; it was an oral culture.

Diotima: Sure. True.

Socrates: That's what's happening to our culture; it's going backward, back to oral culture, where they don't read, they don't have concepts. So you constantly recite, you don't think. You recite. You memorize. And you think you know something if you can (laughs) recite Homer. In one of Plato's dialogues . . .

Diotima: He thinks he's a general . . .

Socrates: A general! "Are you a great general?" "Yes."

Diotima: "Of course."

Socrates: "How do you know?" "I can recite Homer in the passages that involve military leaders."

Diotima: Quite an accomplishment.

Socrates: I can give you a whole oration on generalship.

Diotima: Well, I don't know that Plato would have approved the dramatists either.

Socrates: Oh he did.

Diotima: He did? Some of them?

Socrates: His own dialogues are dramatic, they're drama . . .

Diotima: Of some sort, yes,

Socrates: They're fables and they're poetry.

Diotima: Well, of course, moralists are always saying that drama is bad for us.

Socrates: They like to make Plato out to say that, but that's not what he says at all.

Diotima: And I don't see how anybody who can recite, who has memorized Shakespeare, even if it's only memorization, I don't see how you can be unaffected by it.

Socrates: No, because it's transformative.

Diotima: Right.

Socrates: But the Iliad and the Odyssey are not, from my point of view.

Diotima: Oh, some of it.

Socrates: I know you like them as epics and as stories, but there's nothing but brutality and these horrible gods intervening in human life in the most inhuman ways.

Diotima: Well, the gods are not in the least admirable in Homer, no. Oh no.

Socrates: And that's . . .

Diotima: I don't think Yahweh is much better.

Socrates: No. But Jesus' conception is, Paul's conception is . . .

Diotima: Umm.

Socrates: Rumi's conception is.

Diotima: All right.

Socrates: Plato's conception is the highest, I think, of all--Plato and Hermes. This absolutely marvelous conception of the Deity.

Diotima: And the Gita too.

Socrates: Yes, that too is marvelous. But we have a grasp of reality that I think we need to get at somehow.

Diotima: Well, seeing the folly of humankind in great epics can be transformative.

Socrates: If they're positive, yes. Even some aspects of Homer. But, again, you have to so change the context that it's hardly worth the candle. Ulysses is, in some instances, a seemingly positive character.

Diotima: Umm hmm.

Socrates: But in the next chapter he becomes such a monster that you realize, no, he's not an exemplar that you want your children to follow, He's as much a monster as anyone else. There are no exemplars until you get to Hermes, to Pythagoras, that are acceptable, it seems to me.

Diotima: I don't know. Must they be exemplars, can't they be characters that show us what human beings are capable of? And sometimes disgusting, sometimes admirable, sometimes worthy of emulation, sometimes utterly despicable and loathsome. There's a whole range of humanity, it's there. And so many kids today grow up in this black hat/white hat, cowboy culture. The poor dupes who went to Iraq . . .

Socrates: Oh, yeah, because them was the evil Ayeerabs.

Diotima: To defend their country.

Socrates: Well, you can get into making all of literature and drama a great morality play, I'm not suggesting that. But I'm suggesting that if you're going to help children learn to be good people, a culture has to have examples of good people. Now, they can be human, and they can fall and stumble and pick themselves up, but ultimately they must be, as exemplars, as the word itself means, basically positive people. Show me one of those in Homer; I'd like to see it.

Diotima: Well, Hector is admirable, he's a decent fellow.

Socrates: Well, he's just sort of a mindless soldier.

Diotima: But they all are, it was that kind of culture, it was a warrior culture.

Socrates: Right . . .

Diotima: But the character specimens, the range, is extraordinary.

Socrates: Yeah.

Diotima: They have personalities, they're distinct.

Socrates: Yes, we see all their humanness, all their characteristics, certainly; we're not spared any of that.

Diotima: Well, that's an education in itself, I think.

Socrates: No, that's the thing that Plato makes clear. You don't just throw a mishmash of symbols at people and expect them to learn from them. There has to be some kind of teaching.

Diotima: All right.

Socrates: Learning, education, maturity, doesn't just happen through having experience thrown at you.

Diotima: No, but, if Plato was right that education is literally a drawing out, as the roots of the word "education" indicate . . .

Socrates: Educare.

Diotima: Then we have this within us, it's potential.

Socrates: Right. Right.

Diotima: And a good teacher, then, can draw this out.

Socrates: Yes.

Diotima: With any number of examples.

Socrates: Yes, but he or she needs some kind of exemplar figures to assist with that.

Diotima: Yes, but this is where the myths come in now.

Socrates: Exactly.

Diotima: And the myths do have real heroes.

Socrates: A lot of them. And, of course, a lot of the great figures of history are true exemplars.

Diotima: Or we've made them into exemplars.

Socrates: I think there's evidence that some of them were.

Diotima: But there needs to be a trial, hardship . . .

Socrates: Yeah, experience.

Diotima: Experience. For any character to develop to what we call the romantic. Because blameless heroes who just go blithely through life . . .

Socrates: No, we want . . .

Diotima: Being good, virtuous, admirable--are boring.

Socrates: And they're not educational.

Diotima: No, not in the least.

Socrates: They have to overcome obstacles . . .

Diotima: Umm hmm.

Socrates: Challenges. They have to develop personal qualities of self-awareness or self-discipline, or they're useless. So no, we don't want a totally blissful life for our hero.


. . . At which point, all the imponderable questions of the Universe had been answered, so the dialogue discontinued.