In earliest times certain sages discovered the fundamental nature of ultimate reality. Their successors have taught select students how to reawaken organs of perception, resulting in a higher state of consciousness. This higher consciousness enables the student to discern that what we take to be reality is actually a kind of illusion and that there are higher dimensions of being. This state of higher discernment has been called wisdom and the teaching of the attainment of this state, the quest for wisdom.
The early Greek, Arabic, and Persian mystics called this tradition philosophia, the love of and the search for wisdom. From the earliest records of persons who practiced philosophia, it is clear that for these individuals philosophy was a way of life, not merely an intellectual pursuit. Some of them--Pythagoras, Socrates, Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, and Jesus, among others--paid for their pursuit of wisdom with their very lives.
"Suhrawardi's life and Suhrawardi's thought were intimately connected, just as they were for Pythagoras and many later philosophers who believed that philosophy required a philosophical life. Philosophy for him was the love of wisdom and implied the obligation to live his philosophy; it was not simply the love of talking about wisdom. To pursue the Illuminationist philosophy, it is necessary to seek enlightenment from the divine lights."
John Walbridge. The Leaven of the Ancients:
Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks
- The Perennialist teaching is the hidden secret which has been transmitted through all the world's major mystical and esoteric systems. In the Perennial Tradition we thus have teachers such as the author of the Bhavagad Gita, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Plato, Jesus, Rumi, and Francis of Assisi. This teaching is adapted to the specific needs of the time and the people during each historic era. After the death of the original teacher, unenlightened disciples codify the teachings, which become largely fossilized and useless. But certain other followers of the teacher, who understand the genuine teachings and processes, continue in the Perennialist line.
In each age a teacher is active in the world to reinterpret the Perennialist teachings to people of that era. Thus the Perennial Tradition has been given varied names such as: Gnosticism, Illuminism, Philosophia, and Sufism, among others.
"Do not imagine that philosophy has existed only in these recent times. The world has never been without philosophy or without a person possessing proofs and clear evidences to champion it. He is God's viceregent on His earth."
Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154-1191),
The Wisdom of Illuminism
The Greek word, filosofia, philosophia, is translated into English as "philosophy." Contemporary philosophy--and other academic disciplines--are only fossilized remains of the genuine tradition called philosophia. We have almost entirely lost the ability to distinguish an authentic teaching from a petrified scholastic husk. With our present state of "learning," we are largely the product of ossified systems which teach us to pile opinion on top of assumption.
We've been trained to try to blow back to life the mere imagination of long-dead coals called Classical Philosophy or Classical Science until these areas of study have become mere "disciplines" within a university curriculum, the dead seeking to resurrect the dead.
"The modern philosopher is a professional pedant, paid to instruct the young in philosophical doctrines and to write books and articles. He is a professor of philosophy, not so very different from a professor of biology or of marketing. He need not reshape his inner being to the model of the doctrines he discusses in his classes. If pressed, he will perhaps claim that he is useful because he teaches the young to think more clearly and, less plausibly, that he forces his fellow professors in other departments to clarify their concepts. The proud cities of metaphysics were long ago abandoned as indefensible and have fallen into ruin. The philosophers have for the most part retreated to the safer territory of language and logic, creating for themselves a sort of analytical Formosa."
John Walbridge. The Leaven of the Ancients:
Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks
Plato's Conception of Initiatory Philosophia
To distinguish the modern counterfeit which is called "philosophy" from the genuine tradition of philosophia, we must study carefully the writings of Plato. Though the tradition of the search for wisdom is to be found in pre-Greek cultures such as Egypt and India, the tradition of philosophia was actually formulated by Plato.
"Greek philosophy is autochthonous, 1 and requires no Oriental antecedents. Greek philosophers themselves never say that they borrowed their doctrines from the East. That Pythagoras went to Egypt may be true, that he became acquainted there with the solutions of certain geometrical problems may be true also, but that he borrowed the whole of his philosophy from Egypt, is simply a rhetorical exaggeration of Isokrates. . . . That Plato travelled in Egypt need not be doubted, but that he went to Phoenicia, Chaldaea, and Persia to study philosophy is mere guesswork. What Plato thought of the Egyptians he has told us himself in the Republic (436) when he says that the special characteristic of the Greeks is love of knowledge, of the Phoenicians and Egyptians love of money. If he borrowed no money, he certainly borrowed no philosophy from his Egyptian friends."
F. Max Muller. Theosophy or Psychological Religion, 1893
Immediately following Plato, beginning with his student Aristotle, the degradation of philosophia into "philosophy" began.
- The "wisdom" which philosophia sought was not some vague conceptual understanding as we now use the term. It was the actual achievement of a higher state of consciousness, obtained by self-discipline and mystical contemplation.
"Plato yet more plainly declares that to know oneself is Wisdom and the highest virtue of the soul; for the soul rightly entering into herself will behold all other things, and Deity itself; as verging to her own union and to the centre of all life, laying aside multitude and the variety of all manifold powers which she contains, she ascends to the highest watch-tower of beings. According to Socrates, also, in the Republic, we read that Wisdom is generative of truth and intellect; and in the Theaetetus Wisdom is defined to be that which gives perfection to things imperfect, and calls forth the latent Intellections of the soul--and again, by Diotima, in the Banquet, that mind which is become wise needs not to investigate any further (since it possesses the true Intelligible); that is to say, the proper object of intellectual inquiry in itself; and hence the doctrine of Wisdom according to Plato may be sufficiently obvious."
M. A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy
Philosophia, properly understood, involves a transformation of one's inner being, a pursuit that rules every aspect of one's life. This acquisition of mystical knowledge does not come from doing research in a university library, it involves a special method of meditative contemplation and an entire way of life.
"In both the classical and the late Christian writers the word philosophy. . . had a double application. At one time it was taken ethically, or practically, to designate a certain self-mastery in conduct, while at another time its sense is intellectual and seems to rise into the region of pure intuition. The point I would make is that no real inconsistency exists in this double aspect of the word, and that even when most theoretical philosophy still retains, in proper usage, something of its simpler, practical value; it implies always theory as concerned with actual life and as resting on a definite experience of the soul." Paul Elmer More, The Religion of Plato
- Philosophia, the quest for wisdom, brings the philosopher to higher levels of being. A genuine follower of the tradition of philosophia understands that this lower, terrestrial world is in some way a shadow of a higher world. "The key to the wisdom of inner meaning," Suhrawardi said, "is in the knowledge and ability to distinguish the material world from the spiritual world."
"Plato and his brilliant disciples of the Alexandrian School. . . continued to regard the human mind as an imperfect embryo, separated off from its antecedent Law; and, by this common outbirth into individual life, so made subject to the delusions of sense and phantasy, as to be incapable of true progress or wisdom until it had been rectified and re-related, as they assure us, even in this world it may be, by certain artificial aids and media, and made conformable to the Divine vision in truth, whence it sprang. And this was, in fact, though Peripatetics have wandered, the true initiatory object and comprehending whole of ancient philosophy; namely, to turn the eye of mind away from sensibles and fix its purified regard on the Supreme Intelligible Law within.
"We are well aware that this kind of philosophy is obsolete; that the capacity of man is considered unequal to the discovery of essential Causes; and that all pretensions to interior illumination have appeared fanciful, and are lightly esteemed in the comparison with modern experimental sciences. It may be a question however whether they, who have determined thus, were competent judges; whether they have at all entered upon the ground of the ancient doctrine to prove it, or studied so far as even to surmise the Method by which the ancients were assisted to propound the mystery of the Causal Principle in life."
M. A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy
- Ancient sages such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, and Plato were genuine adepts in philosophia, so today they would be given the modern titles of shaman, mystic or magician. They were savants, not scholastics; their goal was to enable their students to experience a higher reality, not just comprehend some idea or concept.
"Aristotle's education was entirely different from that of Plato. Aristotle did not know the secret science of the 'initiates.'
"We are therefore fully entitled to consider Plato as the last exponent and philosophic interpreter of 'ancient wisdom.'"
Andrew Efron, The Sacred Tree Script, 1941
- Orthodox "philosophy," beginning with Aristotle, became a process of weeding out, as they put it, the esoteric and mystical and proclaiming intellect as the supreme faculty. Aristotle and his successors believed that they were purging human thought of mythical rubbish and replacing it with rationalist explanations which met the tests of logic and common sense. So, from that time till today's inert, hard-headed college course in analytic philosophy, the counterfeit has been sold as the genuine.
"Philosophy, as a study of the deeper and more inward facts of consciousness, was rightly contrasted with those encyclical, or secular studies (grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, music, etc.) which are its handmaids; and, as still pragmatic in its method, it was distinguished with equal propriety, though perhaps not with equal regularity, from those bastard overgrowths of eristic, or metaphysics, which are its most inveterate enemies for the very reason that they so subtly resemble it."
Paul Elmer More, The Religion of Plato
Philosophia As An Esoteric Tradition
Philosophia, even after all these centuries, remains an esoteric tradition. A person can read, for example, the Phaedo of Plato and completely miss the meaning of philosophia, the search for a higher state of discernment. For many years, I did not fully understand what Plato and other "philosophers" were saying, only becoming aware of their true meaning after immersing myself in the Perennial Tradition.
I had studied with some of the best-known American "philosophers" at Yale University in completing my Ph.D., but in all my studies there was never a hint of the esoteric mystery of philosophia. With the understanding gained from my assimilation of the Perennial Tradition, I have been able to re-study "philosophy" in the entirely new mode of philosophia.
In my examination of Plato's writings in this new light, I have come upon extraordinary insights. In the Phaedo, Socrates (Plato) reveals the secret nature of philosophia. 2"I hold that the true votary of philosophy [the search for wisdom] is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that his whole practice is of death and dying. . . . When the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and the body is released from the soul--death, surely, is nothing else than this. . . . In matters of this sort philosophers, above all other men, may be observed in every sort of way to dissever the soul from its communion with the body. . . .
"When does the soul attain truth? . . . Must not true existence be revealed to her in contemplation, if at all? . . . And contemplation is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her--neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure--when she takes leave of the body, and has as little as possible to do with it, when she has no bodily sense or desire, but is aspiring after true being. . . .
"If we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body--the soul in herself must behold things in themselves; and then we shall attain the wisdom which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers. . . .
"True philosophers. . . are always occupied in the practice of dying. . . ."
- If we take that last statement seriously, we're sure to experience psychic upheaval. Philosophia is the practice of dying!?
One of the things which makes it difficult to understand this teaching is that it occurs in the context of Socrates's own experience of final physical death. So it's easy to think that when Socrates speaks of death, he means only the cessation of bodily functions.
But as with all esoteric Perennialist teachings, when interpreted in an unexamined manner, using commonplace meanings, it doesn't make sense. It would be absurd for Socrates to say that seekers of wisdom are always occupied in the practice of dying if what he means by dying is physical death.
What Plato is referring to is the teaching about "dying before you die" which we have seen to be one of the central concepts of the Perennial Tradition.3 Philosophia, the love of and the search for wisdom, is the actual practice of learning to leave the body and live in the soul, the spiritual body.
"Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You're covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side.
Die, and be quiet.
Quietness is the surest sign that you've died.
Your old life was a frantic running from silence.
The speechless full moon comes out now."
- This dying Plato refers to is not a simple concept to understand or an activity easily practiced, since it contains several levels of meaning. As a preparatory discipline, authentic dying consists in giving up those things which enchain the spirit, divide its interest, and deflect it on the road to Reality--whether these are possessions, habits, friends, interests, hatreds, or desires. Perennialists through the centuries have described how they found it necessary to die to self-love and to all the foolish interests in which their surface consciousness was steeped. They called this purgation or mortification.
"This dying has many degrees, and so has this life. A man might die a thousand deaths in one day and find at once a joyful life corresponding to each of them. . . . The stronger the death the more powerful and thorough is the corresponding life; the more intimate the death, the more inward is the life. Each life brings strength, and strengthens to a harder death. When a man dies to a scornful word, bearing it in God's name, or to some inclination inward or outward, acting or not acting against his own will, be it in love or grief, in word or act, in going or staying; or if he denies his desires of taste or sight, or makes no excuses when wrongfully accused; or anything else, whatever it may be, to which he has not yet died, it is harder at first to one who is unaccustomed to it and unmortified than to him who is mortified."
Tauler. The Inner Way
In philosophia, "dying's" second level of meaning involves the actual practice of learning to leave the physical body and live in the spiritual body.
"Do we believe there is such a thing as death? . . .
"Is it not the separation of soul and body? And when the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and the body is released from the soul--death, surely, is nothing else than this?
"Just so, he replied. . . . "Then must not true existence be revealed to her [the soul] in contemplation, if at all?
"And contemplation is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her--neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure,--when she takes leave of the body, and has as little as possible to do with it, when she has no bodily sense or desire, but is aspiring after true being?
"Plato said: 'When freed from my body I beheld luminous spheres.' . . . Of himself, Plato said that in certain of his spiritual conditions he would shed his body and become free from matter. Then he would see light and splendors within his essence. He would ascend to that all-encompassing divine cause, and would seem to be located and suspended in it, beholding a mighty light in that lofty and divine place."
Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, The Wisdom of Illuminism
This mystical experience is explored in more detail in Chapter Twenty-One: Regeneration Into A Higher Consciousness.
Philosophia As the Pursuit of Self-KnowledgeAs I continued my new study of Plato's writings, I next examined the Apology, concentrating on Plato's description of how his teacher, Socrates, had been sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the Athenian youth and being an atheist.
Even though the ideal of democracy had been established by the Greeks, this era was still dominated by the practice of dictatorial rule. Even in Athens, democracy was subverted by powerful cabals, as was demonstrated in the experience of Socrates. Socrates was charged with subversion, corrupting the morals of young men and spreading atheistic heresy. The background of his political assassination is informative.
Socrates had grown up in a family of good standing, so he moved with ease in the most select circles of society. He served in the army, fighting with great bravery. Shunning luxury, he lived simply. He was unconventional but a patriotic citizen, considering it a great privilege to live in a democracy. He felt he had a serious mission to help his fellow citizens become aware of their assumptions and lack of knowledge and to search unremittingly for wisdom. Socrates pursued his mission by exploring the mind through verbal interchange--what became known as dialogue.
- The previous summer the navy had barely been able to stave off a defeat at the hands of an enemy. The victory cost the navy twenty-five ships and four thousand lives; the commanders of the fleet were charged with criminal negligence for not trying to rescue their men. At that time Socrates had been a senator and a member of the executive committee. Certain political leaders demanded that the commanders be convicted en bloc by a single vote, suspending the regular legal processes. The question of whether or not to suspend the ordinary legal processes finally came to the executive committee and Socrates had alone stood firm, even though all its members' lives were threatened. However, Socrates's protest was overruled; the military leaders were tried and condemned in a body and six of them were executed.
- When a new government came into power, Socrates refused to participate in arresting a rich man whose property the government wished to confiscate. The rich man was seized and murdered, but Socrates' refusal to participate created enemies for him.
- It was Socrates' misfortune to have been a friend to persons who had changed allegiance during the recent war or who had been members of the former government. Socrates was suspected of subversive activities, charged with advocating illegal religious concepts, introducing new and unfamiliar religious practices and corrupting the young. The death penalty had been demanded.
- The charges against Socrates were the result of widespread hostility against him for his critical spirit of inquiry and his unconventional manner of life. Socrates was tried before five hundred jurors selected by lot. Socrates' defense before the jury was along these lines:
"These calumnies have been raised against me because of a peculiar kind of insight which I possess. I was first made aware of this gift when I heard that the oracle at Delphi had certified that there was no man more wise than Socrates. I began to reflect on this strange assertion. I knew that I was not wise in the ordinary sense, but then I began to realize what the oracle meant.
"I went to a man reputed to be wise, thinking that I would prove the oracle wrong. But as I spoke to this 'wise man' I began to see that he and his admirers only assumed that he was wise, whereas he was actually quite unenlightened and ignorant of many things. This man believed that he had knowledge when in fact he did not, whereas I at least was aware that I had no knowledge. After several such encounters, I realized that my so-called wisdom is in not assuming that I know things when I do not."
- Socrates here defines philosophia as freeing oneself from delusions--from assuming one knows things one does not actually know. Philosophia is the pursuit of self-knowledge and the escape from ignorance.
"The daemon involved in the Platonic conception of happiness is not to be taken as a power outside of our immediate experience, but as emphatically a power of the soul, as the very soul. The knowledge of the daemon and the knowledge of happiness are one and the same act of self-knowledge.
"Philosophy then may be defined to be the soul's discovery of itself, as an entity having a law and interests of its own apart from and above all this mixed and incomprehensible life of the body. That I take it--the soul's deep content in the recognition of itself--is the beginning of the Platonic religion and, if not the beginning, certainly the consummation of Christianity."
Paul Elmer More. Christian Mysticism
- Most of our mistakes trace back to some deeply hidden self-delusion. For all the help we get in creating these delusions we have to take final responsibility for them. If we are true seekers after wisdom, once we learn that there is even one self-delusion we have allowed to cloud our perception or bias our thinking, we then have the responsibility to begin tracing all these self-defeating elements.
Being asked what is difficult,
Thales (an ancient Greek philosopher) replied:
"To know oneself."
- But we have likely become habituated to hiding these self-delusions from others and ourselves because we've been conditioned to feel that we have to defend ourselves against all criticism or self-exposure. In many of our dealings with others we compete and struggle for supremacy; we try to get one up on them. Defending our image is of crucial importance; to let others see us would destroy us. In the thick of these interpersonal battles, we develop the feeling, understandably enough, that we should try to hide and defend ourselves even against self-disclosure. We feel we can't admit who we are to others, so we don't, even for a moment, admit to ourselves that we are not the glorious creatures we pretend to be.
- Lao Tsu (an ancient Chinese sage):
- "In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
- "In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped."
- Before long such deception becomes a way of life. We feel vulnerable when we seriously begin trying to discover who we really are. We feel we will be destroyed if we allow anyone, even ourselves, to see beyond the self-protective facade we create.
- This was undoubtedly why Socrates met with such hatred, to the point of his being condemned to death. He not only worked to free himself from self-delusion but encouraged others to do so as well.
- In gaining self-knowledge, we come to understand that we "are concocted from ideas put into us by others" and that what we take to be our self is not our self at all. So we're faced with learning what false and delusory ideas we must decondition from. We decondition so that we can remove ideas and obsessions which we carry around with us that keep us from thinking and behaving reasonably.
"Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is who within you makes everything his own and says, 'My god, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.' Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate. Learn how it happens that one watches without willing, rests without willing, becomes angry without willing, loves without willing. If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself."
Monoimus (quoted by Hippolytus, Refutations)
- We must first take full responsibility for our conditioning. The past, other people, our culture may have conditioned us, but we're now fully responsible for what we do with our present mental and emotional state. Most likely we've allowed ourselves to be conditioned to be almost totally other-directed mechanisms who believe whatever our culture or group tells us to believe. Very probably we've allowed ourselves to be conditioned to be persons who do not wish to be self-directed in a real sense--other than according to the myth of "just do what you feel like and you'll be okay." Hence we allow conditioning to take place and perpetuate its effects, the responsibility now accruing to us. So when I refer to being conditioned I mean: ALLOWING ourselves to be conditioned.
- The difficulty with trying to understand conditioning is that we are conditioned to believe and feel that we are not conditioned. Or if at all, we believe it is in some minor ways which we either quite consciously chose or which we could easily overcome just by thinking about them. And if we identify culture with conditioning, then we excuse or "accept" conditioning as a necessary process. "Sure I'm conditioned; isn't everyone? So what?"
- To explain the important facets of our conditioning, Plato created the Allegory of the Cave.
- "Imagine men and women living as prisoners in an underground cave. These people have been here since birth, their bodies chained so that they cannot move. They can see only what is in front of them and can see no other prisoners.
- "Behind the prisoners on a raised platform is a series of fires. Between the prisoners and the fires is a parapet, like the screen at a puppet show. Behind this parapet are people carrying various artificial objects, such as the figures of men and animals. The prisoners see nothing but the shadows of the artificial objects cast by the firelight onto the cave wall in front of them. The cave has an echo so that the when the people in back of them speak the prisoners believe the sounds come from the shadow figures on the cave wall.
- "Suppose one of the prisoners became free from his chains. The firelight would be painful to his eyes and the objects in back of him would so terrify him that he might desire to regain his former chained situation.
- "If this free person actually crept out of the cave into the sunlight, he would be completely dazed, unable to comprehend ordinary objects. Slowly this former prisoner might begin to understand that it is the sun which is the source of light and life. He would feel sorrow for his former fellow prisoners.
- "If he did return to his chains and speak to his fellow prisoners, they would think he was insane. And if they could lay hands on him they would kill him."
- In reference to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, not only have the "chains" of our conditioning programmed us to mistake the "shadows"--the delusions, the easy answers, the prejudices of our group--for reality, but we're afraid to find out the truth.
- We usually learn the value of delusion-exposure the hard way: through making some catastrophic mistake. Suffering from such mistakes, we may see the importance of overcoming the self-deception that led to our unhappy circumstance. I say "may" because we possess a phenomenal ability to remain totally oblivious to self-deception, even in the midst of abject failure and destruction. So only if we can understand the tremendous value in freeing ourselves from these delusions, will we have any motivation for exposing them.
"Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other."
He Who Knows His Real Self Knows Reality
As we saw in Chapter One, a major teaching of the Perennial Tradition is that self-knowledge is a prerequisite to knowledge of Reality. The Hermetic rendition of the Perennial Tradition, long called alchemy, was a spiritual philosophy, not a physical science. The wonderful transmutation of baser metals into gold was a figurative expression of the transformation of man from his natural state into a regenerate condition in which he became aware of his divine nature.
Human beings, it was said in the Wisdom literature, was of the image of God. The Hermetic Emerald Tablet proclaims:"That which is below corresponds to that which is above, and that which is above corresponds to that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of the one reality."
Because humans are made in the image of God and things on the terrestrial plane are in some way facsimiles of the spiritual plane, self-knowledge is essential if we are to understand Reality.
"He that hath the knowledge of the microcosm, cannot long be ignorant of the knowledge of the macrocosm. This is that which the Egyptian industrious searchers of nature so often said and loudly proclaimed, that every one should know himself. This speech, their dull disciples, the Greeks, took in a moral sense, and in ignorance affixed it to their temples. But I admonish thee, whosoever thou art, that desirest to dive into the inmost parts of nature, if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee. He who desires the first place among the students of nature, will nowhere find a greater or better field of study than himself. Therefore, will I here follow the example of the Egyptians, and from my whole heart, and certain true experience proved by me, speak to my neighbor in the words of the Egyptians, and with a loud voice do now proclaim: Oh, man, know thyself; for in thee is hidden the treasure of treasures."
Alipili, a Middle-Eastern sage
- Pursuing philosophia as the search for self-knowledge leads ultimately to the understanding that in our essence we are our Higher Self or pre-existent soul.
- "Whosoever, therefore, shall know himself, shall know all things in himself; but especially he shall know God, according to whose image he was made; he shall know the world, the resemblance of which he beareth; he shall know all creatures with which in essence he symboliseth, and what comfort he can have and obtain from stones, plants, animals, elements; from spirits, angels, and everything; and how all things may be fitted for all things, in their time, place, order, measure, proportion, and harmony; even how he can draw and bring them to himself as a loadstone, iron."
Agrippa, Occult Philosophy
The Vocation of Philosophia
If we carefully studied those who practice(d) philosophia, we would understand it to be a vocation within an active life, a self-transformation in which we become progressively able to see through delusions and face realities, a reawakening of dormant organs of perception which allow us to see and relate to the essence of things.
- We would realize that the understanding that philosophia helps us develop is a discrimination between what we only think we know and what we truly know, as Socrates made so clear. We could learn to seek self-knowledge, exploring the essence of what philosophia was and is, the teaching within and beyond contemporary "philosophy" and religion and economics and chemistry and all academic disciplines.
In the Apology, Plato reveals how a genuine initiate in philosophia, such as Socrates, practices this vocation."While I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him, after my manner: You, my friend--a citizen of this great and mighty and wise city of Athens--are you not ashamed of devoting yourself to acquiring the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? . . .
"I proceed to interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no 'virtue' in him, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less.
"For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul."
The Hiddenness of Philosophia
The tradition once called philosophia is active in each era, but is practiced by Perennialist teachers in forms which differ according to the needs of the time.
- The reality behind philosophia may be practiced in our world in ways which ordinary persons would not find easy to discern. What cleansing of our psyches of centuries-old dogmas, myths, and habits might be required to recognize a true practitioner of philosophia, a real teacher of the search for wisdom?
In one of his letters, Plato says that certain elements within philosophia cannot be expressed in words like other teachings. This is because, like all Perennialist teachers, Plato is not merely presenting ideas to his students but providing them experiences through which they can achieve a higher state of consciousness.
- "The subject on which Plato had not written and would never write, must be something about which all writing would be futile. It must be a feeling, a sentiment, and experience, which is not gained by instantaneous communication, but by making oneself one with it, in heart and soul. The reference is to the inner education which Plato was able to give those he selected. For them, fire flashed forth from his words, for others, only thoughts.
- "The manner of our approach to Plato's Dialogues is not a matter of indifference. They will mean more or less to us, according to our spiritual condition. Much more passed from Plato to his disciples than the literal meaning of his words. The place where he taught his listeners thrilled in the atmosphere of the Mysteries. His words awoke overtones in higher regions, which vibrated with them, but these overtones needed the atmosphere of the Mysteries, or they died away without having been heard."
Rudolph Steiner, Christianity as Mystical Fact
The generalized pattern of habits we call the intellect couldn't hope to grasp this genuine tradition of philosophia fully. We could expect the intellect, on the contrary, to misuse its limitedly useful techniques by dismissing ideas about an original essence of philosophia as nonsense. So only if we seriously began deconditioning ourselves from the blinding influence of the intellect could we hope to understand even the possibility of a genuine tradition of knowledge.
"It is a constant thought of Plato that the ordinary man is not truly awake, but is walking about, like a somnambulist, in pursuit of illusory phantoms. If the dream be taken for substance, as with most of us it happens, that is because the passions pervert our sense of values. 'The pleasures that men know are mixed with pains--how can it be otherwise? For they are mere shadows and painted pictures of the true pleasure, and are coloured by contrast, which so exaggerates both the light and the shade that in a careless mind they beget insane desire of themselves; and they are fought about, as Steisichorus says the Greeks fought about the shadow of Helen at Troy in ignorance of the true Helen.' Against this witchcraft of the passions the sentence of philosophy, that only Ideas are real, must be repeated by the soul to itself as a charm, until the shadows of the night pass away and in the dawn of another sun than ours we see no longer in signs and symbols, enigmatically, but face to face, as the gods see and know.
"The purging of the passions is thus an initiation into the mysteries of love, whereby the heart is gradually weaned from the obsession of earthly beauty and its progeny to desire of the sweeter loveliness of the virtues, and so to ever higher spheres, until we attain to knowledge of the divine beauty in its utter purity, clear and unalloyed, and not clogged with the pollutions and vanities of earth. Then, if it may be, mortal man becomes the friend of God, himself immortal, capable of bringing forth like God, not the ephemeral children of fashion, but undying realities."
Paul Elmer More. Christian Mysticism
There are three major intellect-created assumptions which cause us difficulty in understanding philosophia as an embodiment of the Perennial Tradition.
First, academic thinking has trained us to understand "philosophy" as shifting points of view created by individual scholars or schools of thought. But, as Perennialist writings indicate, the Perennial Tradition does not change its basic principles, only its outward forms. If we overcame our habitual assumption we might see that forms which seem to us different ideologies may be the varying expressions of the same fundamentals.
- For example, the seeming extreme disparity between Perennialist teachers might be merely the result of diverse expressions of the same underlying science of knowledge. In making this mental shift we could not assume, naively going to the opposite extreme, that all "philosophical" teachings are genuine expressions of the essence that was called philosophia. Some of those teachings might be primarily delusional.
Secondly, we could not assume that the Perennial Tradition would think it necessary to explain itself in rational, logical, or merely intellectual terms--even though we might insist that it should. Perennialist teachings 4 point to unrealized organs of understanding which the Perennial Tradition helps to awaken in us. It deliberately de-emphasizes the intellect in its clamoring for exclusive attention.
- Again, it would do us no good to try to explain these new organs of awareness in intellectual terms (intuition, mystical insight, astral projection, etc.); we would have to study whatever material is available to us and assist it to re-train our awareness of previously unrecognized realities.
We would find it necessary, thirdly, to overcome the conditioned assumption that philosophia would necessarily always have been in visible operation in the West. Until very recently, our political and religious orthodoxies have been so rigid and militant that a genuine tradition could not have operated openly in the West. The various Western religious traditions have been busy for centuries eradicating whatever heretics appeared and the academic tradition has excluded anything that didn't fit its scholastic Procrustean bed.
It is a serious question as to how many people could now undertake a genuine search for wisdom. As products of the academic tradition we have become locked into the "banking model" of non-learning, as Paulo Freire 5 so aptly describes it, in which the instructor merely deposits "facts" in passive students. Ordinary teachers would find it difficult to engage in any authentic search for self-knowledge because they are habituated to pontificating (not searching) and students now demand the easy method of non-learning in which they do no more than memorize "facts" (opinions) and blather during so-called "discussions."
While teaching in universities and colleges over the last thirty years--from Connecticut to California--I've discovered that only the first stages of preparation for real learning and searching can take place in academic classes. That is, only some students use the opportunity to explore their conditioned ideas and habits and begin deconditioning toward self-knowledge. Most students want what they get in academic classes: "facts" spouted by instructors, which they then memorize and return to said instructor, unassimilated. Students learn to play the game superbly and only a few really desire to prepare for real learning.
If we are to search for wisdom, the essence of philosophia, we will have to decondition ourselves. If we wish to see a portion of reality through a window pane we will have to clean and repair the glass, or else we will take the cracks, stains and tints for a part of reality when it is only a part of the pane. The essence once called philosophia, it appears clear from its writings, involves searching for self-knowledge, dying to self, and working toward a higher state of consciousness.
"Die while you're alive
and be absolutely dead.
Then do whatever you want:
it's all good."
Japanese Zen Master
Plato's Forms and the Western Tradition of Natural Law
One of Plato's most important contributions to Western thought was his conception of Forms (ideai, eide). Plato saw ultimate reality composed of two distinct "worlds," dimensions of being. The world of physical objects in space and time is known through sense perception and ordinary thought. Apart from this is the nonphysical, nonspatial, nontemporal, universal, eternal metaphysical 6 world of Forms known only through philosophic reflection.
To explain what he meant by Forms, Plato referred to such entities as "triangle," "justice," "beauty," and "the good." "Triangle," for example, is that metaphysical entity which is known by a geometrician when he examines physical triangles drawn in chalk or ink or referred to in ordinary thought as "a plane figure enclosed by three straight lines."
Physical triangles are representations on blackboards and pieces of paper that are never perfect planes; our chalk or ink lines have some breadth, while the Form, "Triangle," has only one dimension, length. So while a physical triangle is never identical to the Form "Triangle" it does have some resemblance and can help us reflect on it. The Form "Triangle" is universal and metaphysical, not just a physical entity at a particular time and place.
Plato distinguishes between the two worlds in terms of what kind of knowledge is possible in each and what entities are used to gain this knowledge. In reference to the higher, metaphysical world, we have a Higher Self or Soul which enables us to to gain true understanding and genuine knowledge. The bodily senses and the ordinary intellect which report about the physical world, provide only belief and opinion. Plato provides further explanation in the Republic.
"When its [the soul's] gaze is fixed upon an object irradiated by truth and reality, the soul gains understanding and knowledge and is manifestly in possession of intelligence. But when it looks towards that twilight world of things that come into existence and pass away, its sight is dim and it has only opinions and beliefs which shift to and fro, and now it seems like a thing that has no intelligence. . . .Plato viewed the unchanging world of Forms as constituting a system of eternal principles emanating from Absolute Good which the present world merely shadows. Hence, Plato's Republic, his ideal state, was to be lead by Philosopher-Kings who through their education were prepared "to know the Good through rational insight and embody its ideals by ruling directly over the social order."
"This, then which gives to the objects of knowledge their truth and to him who knows them his power of knowing, is the Form or essential nature of Goodness. It is the cause of knowledge and truth; and so, while you may think of it as an object of knowledge, you will do well to regard it as something beyond truth and knowledge and precious as these both are, of still higher worth. . . . So with the objects of knowledge: these derive from the Good not only their power of being known, but their very being and reality; and Goodness is not the same thing as being, but even beyond being, surpassing it in dignity and power."
Based on Plato's conception of Forms as residing in a supersensible, metaphysical realm, Western thinkers have developed the system of thought called Natural Law.
"Human laws are only copies of eternal laws. Those eternal laws are peculiar to man, for only man, on earth, is a rational being. The test of validity for the state's laws is their conformity to reason. . . . Learned men know that 'Law is the highest reason, implanted in Nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. This reason, when firmly fixed and fully developed in the human mind, is Law. And so they believe that Law is intelligence, whose natural function it is to command right conduct and forbid wrongdoing."
Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order
The alternative view of the social order, Plato pointed out, is anomie: a state of society in which normative standards of conduct and belief are weak or lacking. In the Republic, Plato explains the reigning frame of mind within an anomic environment. In the discussion between Socrates and Thrasymachus as to what justice is, Thrasymachus asserts that "justice means nothing else than what is to the interest of the stronger party."
"Rulers may say that they rule in the interest of their people, but the laws they promulgate are ones which they believe to be to their own advantage. And the same is true when the people rule. The laws differ because the interest differs, but what men call 'justice'--the law as it appears on the statute book--is to the interest of whoever has sufficient authority to get it inscribed there. The whole dispute about justice, therefore, is merely verbal except so far as it is reducible to a struggle for power. The enlightened man knows this and acts accordingly. He thus has a great advantage over the naive and simple-minded who still believe that shibboleths like 'justice,' 'honesty,' 'loyalty,' have a real meaning. The enlightened man knows that these are mere words which he can turn to his advantage. The only restraint on his conduct is set by his circumstances. Whatever ruthlessness and ingenuity can obtain, whatever he has strength or cleverness enough to secure--that is his by the 'right' of the stronger."
W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy
The concept of Natural Law has influenced most societies within Western Civilization, but nowhere was it embodied more fully than in the American Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Thomas Jefferson explained how this concept of Natural Law had been the foundation of the Declaration of Independence:
"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.
Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Henry Lee"
[May 8, 1825] in Thomas Jefferson, Writings
"That is justice, when by a complete self-knowledge a man has become master of himself (or 'better than himself,' kreitton hautou, as the phrase runs with a significant and beautiful ambiguity); that is happiness, eudaimonia, when there is no longer a hostile division of the powers within the soul, like a faction within a city, but a measured harmony and the unity of subordination."
Paul Elmer More, The Religion of Plato
When societies such as that of the United States forget their true foundations in Natural Law and move to an anomic "law of the jungle," they devolve to a total state of barbarism. We are now seeing this in the attacks on American Constitutional liberties under the Patriot Act, the mounting of an internationally illegal preemptive war against Iraq, and the destruction of democracy through a coup d'etat: election fraud and the appointment of a president by a partisan Supreme Court.
In such an anarchical environment, as Plato explained in the Republic, ". . . in politics, the genuine ruler regards his subjects exactly like sheep, and thinks of nothing else, night and day, but the good he can get out of them for himself."
"It is this tradition, Platonic and Christian at the centre, this realization of an immaterial life, once felt by the Greek soul and wrought into the texture of the Greek language, that lies behind all our western philosophy and religion. Without it, so far as I can see, we should have remained barbarians; and, losing it, so far as I can see, we are in peril of sinking back into barbarism."
Paul Elmer More, The Religion of Plato
A major contribution of the Perennial Tradition to human evolution is its preservation of fundamental human principles in all aspects of existence. When a culture such as the United States goes through a period of imperialistic dictatorship, for example, it is necessary that the original principles on which the nation was founded be preserved and the people provided a means through which to rediscover its democratic heritage. I have attempted in my earlier book, America, Awake! to provide such a means.
This current book attempts to present a synopsis of the elemental foundation-points of the human heritage: the Perennial Tradition. It also includes, in its esoterica, clues which the discerning reader can use to develop a higher awareness.
The Genuine Tradition of Philosophia Persists
We must realize that genuine philosophy does not involve a superficial glossing over of the received writings of Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or Kant, with the presumption that we can understand everything there is in them with our present intellectual abilities or that they represent the genuine tradition of philosophy.
- Contemporary academic disciplines condition us to assume that we can gain genuine understanding of anything through the mere study of the writings and traditions we now possess. Our present educational system is based on the Medieval scholastic model which came into being primarily through the rediscovery of classical written material and the exegetical substantiation of "revealed Truth."
"One who seeks God through logical proof is like someone searching for the sun with a lamp."
Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154-1191),
The Wisdom of Illuminism
The tradition called philosophia was never intended to become, exclusively, a written course of study. Authentic philosophers always include both exoteric as well as esoteric strands in their teaching. Philosophia assists people to break through delusions to a grasp of truth. Its written and oral expressions are not intended to become fossilized "scriptures" or university textbooks on which to build systems of dogma. Something life-giving is not expressed in ways intended to become academic "holy writ," to serve as proof-texts and excuses for mere pedantry and dilettantish blather. Any real Perennialist teaching is an organic process which is assimilated rather than twisted into a totem.
"For the Peripatetics writing philosophy was a matter of recording arguments and conclusions in proper syllogistic form, but Pythagoras had shown the unwisdom, and Plato the impossibility, of recording the deepest philosophical teachings in writing. The writing of philosophy was a dialectical endeavor, requiring both knowledge and a subtle sense of how to guide the student through the various levels of knowledge. The books were never intended to be used alone to teach the full Illuminationist philosophy."
John Walbridge. The Leaven of the Ancients:
Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks
- This book--an elucidation of the Perennial Tradition--pertains to all of its embodiments, including philosophia, the love of and the search for wisdom. As has been made clear, the original tradition of philosophia is completely different from what is now called "philosophy" in modern universities.
"In regard to few professional philosophers and men of letters is there any evidence that they did very much in the way of fulfilling the necessary conditions of direct spiritual knowledge. When poets or metaphysicians talk about the subject matter of the Perennial Philosophy, it is generally at second hand. But in every age there have been some men and women who chose to fulfill the conditions upon which alone, as a matter of brute empirical fact, such immediate knowledge can be had; and of these a few have left accounts of the Reality they were thus enabled to apprehend and have tried to relate, in one comprehensive system of thought, the given facts of this experience with the given facts of their other experiences." Aldous Huxley The Perennial Philosophy
Even during Plato's time, philosophy had been deformed by the sophists into a pandering to the emotions of the masses. Socrates explained in the Republic: "I do not wonder that the many refuse to believe; for they have never seen that of which we are now speaking realized; they have seen only a conventional imitation of philosophy, consisting of words artificially brought together. . ."
We are most fortunate to have the writings of Plato, because through a discerning study of their content and process, we can rediscover just how the Perennial tradition operates in its initiatory mode.
"Let us review the whole development of this dialogue [Phaedo], in which Socrates brings his hearers to behold the eternal in human personality. The hearers accept his thoughts, and they look into themselves to see if they can find in their inner experiences something which assents to his ideas. They make the objections which strike them. What has happened to the hearers when the dialogue is finished? They have found something within them which they did not possess before. They have not merely accepted an abstract truth, but they have gone through a development. Something has come to life in them which was not living in them before. Is not this to be compared with an initiation? And does not this throw light on the reason for Plato's setting forth his philosophy in the form of conversation? These dialogues are nothing else than the literary form of the events which took place in the sactuaries of the Mysteries. We are convinced of this from what Plato himself says in many passages. Plato wished to be, as a philosophical teacher, what the initiator into the Mysteries was, as far as this was compatible with the philosophical manner of communication. It is evident how Plato feels himself in harmony with the Mysteries! He only thinks he is on the right path when it is taking him where the Mystic is to be led."
Rudolph Steiner, Christianity as Mystical Fact
The deeper meaning of Plato's philosophy is not easy to discern, requiring dedicated study and a learned ability to balance between extremes. But when discernment begins to be felt, the sheer magic of Plato's Higher World of Ideas becomes progressively more clear.
"Even as I write these words, sitting in a study surrounded by books, this is how the truth of his [Plato's] doctrine comes home to me. What is the reality? I ask myself. Surely not these material volumes arranged in lines upon their shelves. Merely as objects made of paper and ink and cardboard and leather, though they impress themselves upon the eye as substantial, though they are palpable to the hand, yet they awaken little or no interest, respond to no vital need, and of themselves have no significance. So far as they possess reality, it is by their content of Ideas, the inner life of their authors gone out into image and story and conjecture, which for all these years has been the material of my thought and the food of my own deeper life. In this sense the intangible Ideas, somehow caught in the printed word and somehow released by the act of perusal, are alive as prisoners are alive in their cells, who by the magic opening of doors are set free. Almost they seem to flutter about me here in the light of day, to brush my cheek with delicate fingers, to take form and fashion and quaint design, to speak with audible breath, to woo me forth from the body into their own more etherial world. They were the same yesterday as today, while the printed record has been crumbling away; they may abide when the solid-seeming books have fallen into dust. Yet how and where, in the interval between their setting down and their taking up, do they abide? By what secret tract is their existence in the mind of the author connected with their resuscitation in the mind of the reader? Why at the sight of certain lines and figures on the voiceless page do these particular thoughts spring up into renewed activity? What is the indiscoverable nexus between the physical vibrations of light and these immaterial substances of our noetic life? . . . By such distinctions I lay hold of a strange philosophy which tells me that the soul's assurance of truth is not a dream evoked arbitrarily by any man's imagination, but an intuition more or less perfectly grasped of veritable realities. These books on which I depend for most of my noetic life are effective just as they are a history of what has been known of these realities by other souls in the past and set down for the recreation of any who can spell out the record. So do they charm into peace because they lure us to the belief that some time, if not here and now, our soul may be lifted to that world of immutable Ideas which lie in all their splendour before the eye of Plato's God."
Paul Elmer More. Christian Mysticism
Whatever may be going on in the ordinary world, the real practitioners of philosophia continue the genuine work of acquiring enhanced capabilities of apprehension, using completely different terms and names--thereby becoming unrecognizable to the heedless.
- That philosophia, the genuine love of wisdom, is practically unknown by modern man does not mean that it is not still practiced in its essence, the "exact science of the regeneration of the human soul from its present sense-immersed state into the perfection and nobility of that divine condition in which it was originally created." 7
1 An entity depicted as having originated from the ground it inhabits, from itself; hence of independent origin
2 I have followed the translations of Professor Benjamin Jowett in most instances, but have made my own translation in specific instances when I felt it was necessary to focus on a particular meaning of the original Greek word or concept.
3 Chapter Two: Distinctive Themes of the Perennial Tradition
4 Shah, Idries. (1978). The Perfumed Scorpion, London: Octagon Press
". . . Humanity having the capacity to perceive that which is beyond the range of conventionally experienced physics."
"You must conceive of possibilities beyond your present state if you are to be able to find the capacity to reach towards them."
5 Freire, Paulo. (1973). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Seabury
6 Of or related to that which is beyond ordinary experience, requiring special capabilities to apprehend
7 M. A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850