Plato as a
We can only understand Plato if we recognize him as a Perennialist teacher, not a conventional teacher in the contemporary academic sense. Comprehending the extraordinary characteristics of a Perennialist master is a difficult task, since these characteristics are very much out of vogue in the world today.
In previous sections of this book, we've examined certain aspects of Perennialist teaching. In the Introduction, we saw that Perennialist teaching material and teaching methods are the outcome of creative adaptation by the initiated teacher of the identical stream of Perennialist truth to contemporary needs. Perennial Tradition teachings point to a new way of discerning the world, different from ordinary intellect or reason, requiring training in this way of Higher Cognition.
In Chapter One, we saw that because scholastics and sensation seekers adopt a totally different viewpoint and methodology, they cannot possibly comprehend a Perennialist teacher such as Plato, Jesus, or Shahabudin Suhrawardi. Most scholarly books written about Perennialist teachers assume that they can be understood only through scholastic methods:
- Analyzing specific doctrines in their teachings
- Collating doctrines shared with other teachers to determine intellectual lineage
- Creating vast systems of "interconnections"
- Ignoring the teachers' practices as irrelevant
- Omitting the organic element, i.e., that teachings are nutrients meant to be metabolized, not to remain in their original, unaltered state
Perennialist teachers always work within the esoteric or "secret" component of any religion or philosophy, because teachings concerning the development of higher states of consciousness can only be made available to select seekers who have completed initial training exercises.
Perennialist teachers insist "that mystical experience and enlightenment cannot come through a rearrangement of familiar ideas, but through a recognition of the limitations of ordinary thinking, which serves only for mundane purposes." 1
"Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?"
Tao Te Ching
The Perennialist teaching maintains--in all its embodiments--that the seeker must divorce himself from believing that he understands--and begin to understand in an authentic way. The process is first to recognize that one is ignorant of his own ignorance, believing he knows things which he does not actually know.
A seeker is first helped to understand that she is "out of contact with complete reality, even though ordinary life seems to be the totality of reality itself." 2 The student is enabled to "become aware of states of mind and conditions of reality which are only crudely grasped by the ordinary mind." 3
The Perennialist teacher places special emphasis on concepts and words because he struggles "against the use of words to established patterns of thinking whereby mankind is kept at a certain stage of ineptitude; or made to serve organisms which are ultimately not of evolutionary value." 4
What we must comprehend, if we are to understand Plato, is that his view of philosophy (the love of and search for wisdom) is totally different from the scholastic view.
Wisdom for Plato was not just highly-compressed human erudition or potted profundity, as it is currently viewed. Wisdom was the soul's experience of "returning into herself" and reflecting, passing "into the realm of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives, when she is by herself and is not let or hindered; then she ceases from her erring ways, and being in communion with the unchanging is unchanging. And this state of the soul is called wisdom." 5
The difficulty is that since the time of Aristotle, what has been called philosophy is but the distant echo of what it was to Plato. Beginning with Aristotle, "philosophy" has become nothing more than the intellectual analysis and synthesis of concepts into systems of thought which other later "philosophers" can then analyze and critique, building their own superstructures of conjecture.
Having recently read dozens of books and Web sites about Plato, I became convinced that of the making of unenlightened, unenlightening material about Plato's "philosophy" there appears to be no end. Each scholastic "Plato expert" (self-appointed) attempts to stretch Plato's body of works on a procrustean bed and mangle the corpse until it fits the author's presuppositions and prejudices.Michel de Montaigne, the French essayist, observed that many sorts of "learned authors" refer to such authoritative texts as Plato's dialogues, as little more than rhetorical ballast for their own views."See how Plato is tossed and turned about. All are honored to have his support, so they couch him on their own side. They trot him out and slip him into any new opinion which fashion will accept. When matters take a different turn, then they make him disagree with himself." 6From the death of Plato, scholars have tried to interpret and explain Plato's "philosophical system." Beginning with Aristotle, scholastic philosophers have seen philosophy as nothing more than the dissolution and rebuilding of concepts by the rational understanding. Thus we have a sub-library brimming over with unreadable tomes "explaining" Plato's "philosophy" in terms completely alien to Plato. Anyone who makes an honest effort to read Plato on his own terms recognizes at once that this is a different kettle of fish--this is not what you get in Philosophy 101 at the state university today.
Not only are Plato's words and ideas those of a mystic, not a scholar, the very way he writes identifies him as a dramatic artist painting word pictures, not an academic. The very structure which he uses for most of his writings--the dialogue form--makes it clear that Plato is not interested in creating a scholarly SYSTEM which can then be used as the corpus for scholarly study by "learned" pedants.
"One can only be thankful that for once in the history of the world Lady Philosophy learned to speak with utter charm the language of true poetry, and that Plato preferred the dramatic essay, with its personal touch, to dry-as-dust system-building."
William Chase Greene, "Introduction," The Dialogues of Plato
(Jowett translation), Liverright Publishing, 1927
As with all Perennialist teachers, Plato's purpose is to assist his students achieve a higher kind of knowledge: the direct perception of forms or ideas by the "eye of the soul." Plato will thus do or write whatever assists in achieving that goal.
If scholars paid more attention to Plato's own ideas expressed in his writings--instead of to their fantasy-castles of ethereal supposition--they would hear him tell them that only some of the ideas of a Perennialist teacher can be expressed in words, that the esoteric teaching can only be passed from teacher to student in oral transmission. 7
"Exiled from the true home of the spirit, imprisoned in the body, disordered by passion, and beclouded by sense, the soul has yet longings after that state of perfect knowledge, and purity, and bliss, in which it was first created.
"Its affinities are still on high. It yearns for a higher and nobler form of life. It essays to rise but its eye is darkened by sense, its wings are besmeared by passion and lust; it is 'borne downward until it falls upon and attaches itself to that which is material and sensual,' and it flounders and grovels still amid the objects of sense.
"And now, Plato asks: How may the soul be delivered from the illusions of sense, the distempering influence of the body, and the disturbances of passion, which becloud its vision of the real, the good, and the true?
"Plato believed and hoped that this could be accomplished by philosophy. This he regarded as a grand intellectual discipline for the purification of the soul. By this it was to be disenthralled from the bondage of sense, and raised into the empyrean of pure thought, 'where truth and reality shine forth.'
"All souls have the faculty of knowing, but it is only by reflection and self knowledge, and intellectual discipline, that the soul can be raised to the vision of eternal truth, goodness, and beauty--that is, to the vision of God."
B. F. Cocker, Christianity and Greek Philosophy, 1870
Once recognizing that Plato was a Perennialist teacher, we then stop expecting to find in his writings the usual system-building, logistical argumentation, or theoretical superstructure. In his writings, we look in upon Plato as he is conducting his teaching sessions via the written word. He does everything he can--the dialogue format, the continual admission by Socrates that he doesn't know something, the satirization of sterile scholastic argufying--to put the reader in a non-scholastic frame of mind.
What we find in reading scholars' learned studies of Plato's philosophy--or artists' visual depictions of him--are the results of a philosophical Rorschach test. Plato is a fathomless depth into which a pedant can put his own misconceptions and rationalizations. These scholarly studies, then, tell us only about the scholar, not about Plato.
A good example of this self-exposure is Immanuel Kant's pathetic attempt to vilify Plato as a metaphysical charlatan. Kant (note the very words he uses indict him) claims that Plato attempts to prove the existence of a priori notions that make synthetic statements possible through reference to perceptions that have their sources not in human understanding but in the primordial ground (Urgrund) of all things.
Kant accuses Plato of creating these "perceptions" out of thin air, mere subjective feeling. Plato's effort involves a "mystical illumination," which brands him as having fallen into Schwarmerei (the enthusiasm of visionary charlatans) that is "the death of all philosophy." Thus for Kant, Plato is the charlatan par excellence--nothing more.
Anyone who has found it required, for whatever reason (taking a graduate course at Yale in my case), to plod through the unreadable volumes of Kant's philosophy, comes away with the clear and distinct perception that the death of genuine philosophy is the work of scholastics such as Kant.
In line with the modern craze over supposed "artificial intelligence," scholars have created Project Archelogos, which aims at the construction of a database which will contain all the philosophical arguments of the works of Plato and Aristotle represented according to an artificial intelligence methods which make explicit their logical interconnections.
At least one contemporary interpreter of Plato sees him as a mystic of the jnani type.
"Evidence in favour of viewing the Socratic questioning as similar to the koan is this: they often leave the recipient stultified or confused. In the Meno the analogy with a stingray is used to describe this numbing or perplexing effect,  though with typical Socratic involution he accepts the analogy only if he is also numbed (rendered ignorant). In the Symposium Alcibiades tells us that the conversation of Socrates is 'utterly ridiculous' to the uninitiated."
Mike King, "Was Socrates a Mystic?"
"This was indeed the Socratic understanding, the teacher stands in a reciprocal relation, in that life and its circumstances constitute an occasion for him to become a teacher, while he in turn gives occasion for others to learn something. He thus embodies in his attitude an equal proportion of the autopathic and the sympathetic. Such also was the Socratic understanding, and hence he would accept neither praise nor honors nor money for his instruction, but passed judgment with the incorruptibility of a departed spirit. Rare contentment! Rare especially in a time like ours, when no purse seems large enough nor crown of glory sufficiently glittering to match the splendor of the instruction; but when also the world's gold and the world's glory are the precisely adequate compensation, the one being worth as much as the other. To be sure, our age is positive and understands what is positive; Socrates on the other hand was negative. It might be well to consider whether this lack of positiveness does not perhaps explain the narrowness of his principles, which were doubtless rooted in a zeal for what is universally human, and in a discipline of self marked by the same divine jealousy as his discipline of others, a zeal and discipline through which he loved the divine. As between man and man no higher relationship is possible; the disciple gives occasion for the teacher to understand himself, and the teacher gives occasion for the disciple to understand himself. When the teacher dies he leaves behind him no claim upon the soul of the disciple, just as the disciple can assert no claim that the teacher owes him anything. And if I were a Plato in sentimental enthusiasm, and if my heart beat as violently as Alcibiades' or more violently than that of the Corybantic mystic while listening to the words of Socrates; if the passion of my admiration knew no rest until I had clasped the wondrous master in my arms -- Socrates would but smile at me and say: "My friend, how deceitful a lover you are! You wish to idolize me on account of my wisdom, and then to take your place as the friend who best understands me, from whose admiring embrace I shall never be able to tear myself free -- is it not true that you are a seducer ?" And if I still refused to understand him, he would no doubt bring me to despair by the coldness of his irony, as he unfolded to me that he owed me as much as I owed him. Rare integrity, deceiving no one, not even one who would deem it his highest happiness to be deceived! How rare in our age, when all have transcended Socrates -- in self-appreciation, in estimate of benefits conferred upon their pupils, in sentimentality of intercourse, in voluptuous enjoyment of admiration's warm embrace! Rare faithfulness, seducing no one, not even him who exercises all the arts of seduction in order to be seduced!"
Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments
Recognizing Plato as a teaching master in the mystical tradition, we see that the past and present efforts of scholars to discover and expose faults and inconsistencies in Plato's supposed philosophical arguments are misdirected--based on ignorance of who Plato really was.
A part of Plato's purpose in his writings is to paint a portrait of a living incarnation of the ideal of the philosophical life: Socrates.
Recognizing Plato to be a Perennialist teacher, we expect to find unusual aspects in his writings which are never fully explained. Of the many such aspects, Plato's extraordinary emphasis on mathematics and geometry is one of the most fascinating. It is likely that much of this focus on mathematics came from Plato's study of the writings of Pythagoras. Plato went so far as to maintain that the Dodecahedron was the geometrical figure employed by the Demiurgus in constructing the universe.
In trying to understand Plato's idea that mathematics was somehow ontologically involved in the very nature of reality, this story best illustrates both how a Perennialist teacher operates and how numbers somehow possess a magical quality.
If we are to liken Plato's writings to other expressions of the mystical tradition, we might say that they are a kind of verbal Mystery initiation. In such countries as Egypt and Greece, the Mysteries were dramatic performances in which esoteric knowledge about human re-birth was personified by the priests and neophytes, who enacted the parts of various gods and goddesses, performing allegorical scenes from their lives. These initiatory rites explained the hidden meanings of the self and the soul to the candidates for initiation and facilitated psychological and psychic experiences of higher states of consciousness.
"Like the adherents of the various mystical sects, Orphic and Eleusinian and Dionysian, Plato longed to be free from the trammels of the senses and almost as in the act of dying to find union with the eternal goodness in the universe. Thus the ideas may become the object of immediate mystical intuition; and Plato's thought is often permeated with the very language of the mysteries, imaginative or even ecstatic."
William Chase Greene, "Introduction," The Dialogues of Plato
(Jowett translation), Liverright Publishing, 1927
Understanding that Plato was a Perennialist teacher, thus viewing his writings as the works of a mystic savant assisting students to achieve a higher state of consciousness, the best way to approach Plato's works are as contemplation pieces which one can use in meditation exercises.
"But what if man had eyes to see true beauty--divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colors and vanities of human life--thither looking, and holding converse with true beauty simple and divine? Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the soul, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may."
1 Idries Shah, The Sufis, Octagon Press, p. 76
2 Idries Shah, The Sufis, Octagon Press, p. 123
3 Idries Shah, The Sufis, Octagon Press, p. 303
4 Idries Shah, The Sufis, Octagon Press, p. 347