In earliest times certain sages discovered the fundamental nature of ultimate reality. Through the centuries, their successors have taught select students how to reawaken organs of perception, resulting in a higher state of consciousness. This higher consciousness enables the seeker 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 seers 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, and Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, 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 Perennial Tradition is the hidden secret which has been transmitted through all the world's major mystical and esoteric systems. Thus we have this single stream of initiatory wisdom reintroduced in succeeding generations by teachers such as the author of the Bhavagad Gita, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Plato, Jesus, Rumi, and Francis of Assisi. This unitary line of 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 lost almost all 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 Commonwealth (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
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 Commonwealth, 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."
Mary 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."
Mary 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.
Immediately following Plato, beginning with his student Aristotle, the degradation of philosophia into "philosophy" began.
"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. in philosophy. But in all my studies there was never a hint that there was an esoteric strain within "philosophy"--because these renowned "philosophers" didn't know the true essence of philosophia themselves.
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 is one of the central concepts of the Perennial Tradition. 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 (the stem of this word is "to make as if dead").
"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 thought, if at all?
"And thought 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
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.
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."
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 3 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 4 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 As A Perennialist Teacher
We can only understand Plato if we recognize him as a teacher within the Perennial Tradition, 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.
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.
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:
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 successfully completed initial training exercises.
- 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
"Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?"
Tao Te Ching
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." 5
The seeker must recognize his ignorance of his own ignorance.
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." 6 The student is enabled to "become aware of states of mind and conditions of reality which are only crudely grasped by the ordinary mind." 7
- "The greatness of communication is not the mere fact of communication, but the creation of new understanding."
Stewart Edward White. The Unobstructed Universe
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." 8
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." 9
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." 10
From 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 was to assist his students achieve a higher kind of knowledge: the direct perception of forms or ideas by the "eye of the soul." Plato thus did or wrote whatever assisted 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. 11
"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 of his own ignorance, 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, claims Kant, 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. This "analytical" attempt to systematize Plato will surely fail, as have all previous efforts.
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 dear 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."
Plato was a citizen of Hellas, the province where Oracular precepts were engraved in Apollo's Temple at Delphi: "Know Thyself" and "Nothing in Excess".
This giant among men was born with the name Aristecles; Plato was his nickname.
He was described by others as broad-shouldered and broad-minded, so the nickname Plato, meaning "broad" became his honorific. As a young man, Plato wrote tragedies for the sacred performances on the hillside ampitheater below the Parthenon.
Plato lived during a golden age in Greece created by spiritual, intellectual, and artistic genuises--some still living during Plato's time, some recently dead:
The Mystery Temples at Delphi and Eleusis were in full flower and in the temple at Epidauros, Hippocrates performed Asklepian healing wizardry.
The era in which Plato lived was similar to the later Renaissance and Enlightenment periods which saw such luminaries as Shakespeare, Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, Newton, and Priestley in Europe; Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine in America.
We should not be surprised that modern scholastics (almost all philosophy instructors, classicists, experts in this or that philosopher or philosophy) misunderstand Plato, since they so egregiously misinterpret the thinkers who are now called the Pre-Socratics. Following the lead of Aristotle, thinkers throughout the centuries have seen the Pre-Socratics as a bunch of primitive physicists who created implausible theories about the basic substance of the physical universe.
"Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing.
Note that Aristotle sees these Pre-Socratic thinkers as materialists, nothing more. So, dutifully following the footsteps of Aristotle, modern academic philosophy fills its inane textbooks with descriptions of the Pre-Socratics' materialistic theories as to the ultimate substance of the universe:
- For Thales it was water.
- For Anaximenes it was air.
- For Heraclitus it was fire.
"What does the word physis denote? It denotes self-blossoming emergence (e.g. the blossoming of a rose), opening up, unfolding, that which manifests itself in such unfolding and perseveres and endures in it; in short, the realm of things that emerge and linger on. . .
"If, as is usually done, physis is taken not in the original sense of the power to emerge and endure, but in the later and present signification of nature; and if moreover the motion of material things, of the atoms and electrons, of what modern physics investigates as physis, is taken to be the fundamental manifestation of nature, then the first philosophy of the Greeks becomes a nature philosophy, in which all things are held to be of a material nature."The Greek concept of physis (fusis) refers to a process of emerging into being, a self-revealing reality which is constantly unfolding. This understanding of being was masterfully explicated by an Indian seer to a Western psychiatrist.
"Let us now meditate on the fundamental outlook which from time immemorial has induced Indian thinkers to experience all beings not as something made from the outside, but as something appearing, emerging, growing from within as beings released out of Brahman into existence. They have not seen beings as things to be represented in the consciousness of an ego-centred human subject in the forms of inner-psychic pictures, but as things revealing themselves directly to the human existence. This approach can not be a mere astonishment and amazement at the fact that something is-and how it is. Nor can it be a doubting of the reality of the world. Only a human being who is deeply moved by awe and who remains in a state of reverence does not fall prey to the will-to-explore-and-dominate that which shows itself to him, but remains all ears and eyes for the summons of the awe-inspiring phenomena. The awe-inspired person does not want to get hold of or to possess what he reveres, with the aid of his intellectual concepts. He seeks only to get himself into the frame of mind appropriate to the revered object--one which renders him open to its summons and makes his vision clear for its beckonings. He knows: if he manages to comply with the phenomenon that is worthy of his awe so perfectly that he catches sight of its entire truth, he has succeeded also in releasing himself from the chaos of all delusions.
Medard Boss, A Psychiatrist Discovers India 12
Presumptuous modern "philosophers" who misinterpret the Pre-Socratics as amateur scientists--"Heraclitus said that the ultimate substance was fire"--assume a superior knowledge of reality provided, they suppose, by their grasp of modern science.
The Pre-Socratics--as well as Socrates and Plato--saw philosophy as a search for wisdom, not a search for scientific elements (as modern science now calls the building-blocks of the universe). They were trying to understand man's relationship to deity and the universe--so they could realize a higher understanding.
"Fools are those who are not in constant intercourse with their own divine nature."
Instead of the modern "philosopher's" simplistic idea that Heraclitus believed fire to be the ultimate substance of the universe, we would study Heraclitus' own statement:"This cosmos, the same for all, was not made by gods or men, but always was and is and ever shall be ever-living fire, igniting in measures and extinguishing in measures."In the 1950's, Heisenberg seriously examined Heraclitus' concept of fire in relation to modern physics.
As with most early Greek philosophers, we can only describe them in such modern terms as mystic, shaman, sorcerer, cabalist, or magician. Heraclitus' understanding of the common man was profound:
- "Most people do not understand the things they experience, nor do they know what they have learned; but they seem to themselves to have done so."
- "Those who do not understand, when they hear are like the deaf."
- "What sense or thought do they have? They follow the popular singers, and they take the crowd as their teacher."
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 13 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 depth, while the Form, "triangle," exists on a plane without elevations or depressions. 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 Commonwealth.
"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 The Commonwealth, 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. . . . It is apt to say that known entities not only come to be known through Goodness, but they also owe their existence to Goodness. We must distinguish Goodness from existence, because Goodness is ontologically superior to existence in rank and power." Commonwealth, my own translation from the Greek"
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 Commonwealth, 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 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 Commonwealth, ". . . 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.
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
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 Commonwealth: "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 realized, 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 ethereal 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." 14
Plato's Contribution to Human Evolution
As an illustration of the impact of Perennialist teachings on humankind's intellectual and social evolution, we can focus on the teachings and activities of Plato. As a Perennialist master, Plato made certain knowledge available which has been instrumental in the development and improvement of Western civilization.
"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929
We can expand Whitehead's statement to say that the essence of what we know as Western civilization derives from Plato and the other teachers within the Perennial Tradition.
It's easy enough to understand that technological objects--such as a computer--and social structures--such as democracy--are human inventions: at one time these things did not exist and some person, or group of persons, thought of them and developed them.
It's difficult for us to realize that the powers of mind that we call " rational intelligence" were actually invented by Plato and the thinkers who followed in his path. When it comes to critical thinking we find it hard to understand that at one time this capability of the human mind did not exist and had to be deliberately invented.
It's also a challenge to understand that humankind's capability of critical thinking is a proficiency that can be LOST. That is, reason and reflection can become no longer available to a particular culture if the capability of critical thinking is destroyed or abandoned.
"Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Western culture we define intelligence as:
- "The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations"
- Reason and "the skilled use of reason"
- "The ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria"
- "Understanding, comprehension"
How Greece Transmitted Its Culture
In each society, the public meanings, ideas, and skills are transmitted through cultural institutions (theaters, schools, academies, monasteries, universities) and through the media (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, Internet).
A culture is formed around a distinct ethos: a collection of public and private mores expressive of its coherence as a social unit. This ethos or "tradition" requires embodiment in formulations which both delineate and enforce the normative behavior patterns.
By adherence to and preservation of these formulations the culture develops a common consciousness and a distinctive set of values. The ethos is embodied in verbal expressions such as constitutions, laws, literature, and drama. The normative archetypes of the ethos become the content of education, entertainment, and human behavior.
Prior to Plato (347-427 B.C.E) Greece had transmitted its cultural ethos through the oral tradition of the major Greek "poets" from Homer to Euripides. In such a preliterate society the ethos must be preserved and transmitted in the memories of successive generations.
A preliterate culture's survival depends on its collective social memory, which must be passed down in a linguistic form which can be memorized and constantly re-presented.
The verbal configuration that guarantees the preservation of a preliterate culture is rhythmic statements in metrical patterns unique enough to retain their shape as they pass from mind to mind. In other words, Greek lyric and epic poetry, music, and drama!
This is the phenomenon the Greeks called mimesis presently defined as "art’s imitation of life: the imitation of life or nature in the techniques and subject matter of art and literature." Contemporary scholars sometimes misidentify mimesis with "poetry," "music," and "drama" in our current meaning of those terms
Once we recognize the comprehensive reach of the Greek term mimesis, which encapsulates all verbal and behavioral formulations of the ethos, we can understand that Plato was referring to something much different--and more inclusive--than our term "poetry."
"All human civilisations rely on a sort of cultural 'book', that is, on the capacity to put information in storage in order to reuse it. Before Homer's day, the Greek cultural 'book' had been stored in oral memory. . . . Between Homer and Plato, the method of storage began to alter, as the information became alphabetized, and correspondingly the eye supplanted the ear as the chief organ employed for this purpose."
Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato
When we read The Commonwealth, Plato's discussion of an ideal society, it's possible to be shocked by his insistence that "poets" and "poetry" are not to be allowed, unless we realize that Plato was referring to "poets" and "poetry" not in our sense but in his sense of the "oral state of mind."
"Once it is accepted that the oral situation had persisted through the fifth century, one faces the conclusion that there would also persist what one may call an oral state of mind as well; a mode of consciousness so to speak, and . . . a vocabulary and syntax, which were not that of a literate bookish culture. And once one admits this and admits that the oral state of mind would show a time lag so that it persisted into a new epoch when the technology of communication had changed, it becomes understandable that the oral state of mind is still for Plato the main enemy.
"Plato characterized the oral state of mind as 'a crippling of the mind.' It is a kind of disease, for which one has to acquire an antidote. The antidote must consist of a knowledge 'of what things really are'. In short, poetry is a species of mental poison, and is the enemy of truth. This is surely a shocker to the sensibilities of any modern reader and his incredulity is not lessened by the peroration with which, a good many pages later, Plato winds up his argument: 'Crucial indeed is the struggle, more crucial that we think--the choice that makes us good or bad--to keep faithful to righteousness and virtue in the face of temptation, be it of fame or money or power, or of poetry--yes, even of poetry.' If he thus exhorts us to fight the good fight against poetry, like a Greek Saint Paul warring against the powers of darkness, we can conclude either that he has lost all sense of proportion or that his target cannot be poetry in our sense, but something more fundamental in the Greek experience, and most powerful."
Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato
Given that a preliterate culture's ethos must be preserved and transmitted to and by each generation, how did an individual Greek citizen memorize the dramatic formulations--Homer and the other Greek "poets" and dramatists--so as to retain in his memory the verbal tradition on which his culture depended?
He imbibed Greek poetry and drama which was constantly performed in the theaters, recited by his family and friends, portrayed in paintings and murals, represented in pottery, and referred to in his school lessons. He then repeated it and added to his repertoire to the the limits of his mental capacity.
The primary psychological factors that helped the Greek layman to retain at least a minimal grasp of the cultural ethos were a state of total personal involvement and the resultant emotional identification with the essence of the poetized drama that he was required to keep in memory.
He identified with the words and actions of the poetic drama as an actor does with his lines. He "became" Achilles, he identified with his grief and his anger. Years later he could still automatically recite what Achilles said and recall what heroic acts he performed.
As Plato points out, such enormous feats of memorization resulted in the total loss of objectivity. You did not think about the drama; you merely memorized it. Plato recognized that this was a cultural indoctrination procedure, an entire way of life inimical to reflection and reason.
The Athenian ruler Pisastratus gave state support for stage plays. Many of these dramatic performances "spoke" in a dialect closer to the vernacular. These became a kind of supplement to Homer as a way to preserve the cultural memory. The plays were memorised, taught, quoted and recited in everyday conversation. Each dramatic performance was a lesson in the wit and wisdom of the Hellenic culture.
"We must realise that works of genius, composed within the semi-oral tradition, though a source of magnificent pleasure to the modern reader of ancient Greek, constituted or represented a total state of mind which is not our mind and which was not Plato's mind; and that just as poetry itself, as long as it reigned supreme, constituted the chief obstacle to the achievement of effective prose, so there was a state of mind which we shall conveniently label the 'poetic' or 'Homeric' or 'oral' state of mind which constituted the chief obstacle to scientific rationalism, to the use of analysis, to the classification of experience, to its rearrangement in sequence of cause and effect. That is why the poetic state of mind is for Plato the arch-enemy and it is easy to see why he considered this enemy so formidable. He is entering the lists against centuries of habituation in rhythmic memorised experience. He asks of men that instead they should examine this experience and rearrange it, that they should think about what they say, instead of just saying it. And they should separate themselves from it instead of identifying with it; they themselves should become the 'subject' who stands apart from the 'object' and reconsiders it and analyses it and evaluates it, instead of just 'imitating' it."
Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato
Plato's momentous contribution to the evolution of the human mind was in replacing the "oral state of mind"--memorisation through association--with his conception of the process of reasoned reflection.
"Control over the style of a people's speech, however indirect, means control also over their thought. The two technologies of preserved communication known to man, namely the poetised style with its acoustic apparatus and the visual prosaic style with its visual and material apparatus, each within their respective domains control also the content of what is communicable. Under one set of conditions man arranges his experience in words in some one given way; under the second set of conditions he arranges the same experience differently in different words and with different syntax and perhaps as he does so the experience itself changes. This amounts to saying that the patterns of his thought have historically run in two distinct grooves, the oral and the written. . . . Plato . . . seems to have been convinced that poetry and the poet had exercised a control not merely over Greek verbal idiom but over the Greek state of mind and consciousness. The control in his view had been central and he describes it as though it were monopolistic."
Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato
Aldous Huxley reminds us that "certain thoughts are practically unthinkable except in terms of an appropriate language and within the framework of an appropriate system of classification. Where these necessary instruments do not exist, the thoughts in question are not expressed and not even conceived. Nor is this all: the incentive to develop the instruments of certain kinds of thinking is not always present." [The Perennial Philosophy]
"The Greek tongue therefore, as long as it is the speech of men who have remained in the Greek sense 'musical' and have surrendered themselves to the spell of the tradition, cannot frame words to express the conviction that 'I' am one thing and the tradition is another; that 'I' can stand apart from the tradition and examine it; that 'I' can and should break the spell of its hypnotic force; and that 'I' should divert some at least of my mental powers away from memorisation and direct them instead into channels of critical inquiry and analysis. The Greek ego in order to achieve that kind of cultural experience which after Plato became possible and then normal must stop identifying itself successively with a whole series of polymorphic vivid narrative situations; must stop re-enacting the whole scale of the emotions, of challenge, and of love, and hate and fear and despair and joy, in which the characters of epic become involved. it must stop splitting itself up into an endless series of moods. It must separate itself out and by an effort of sheer will must rally itself to the point where it can say 'I am I, an autonomous little universe of my own, able to speak, think and act in independence of what I happen to remember'. This amounts to accepting the premise that there is a 'me', a 'self', a 'soul', a consciousness which is self-governing and which discovers the reason for action in itself rather than in imitation of the poetic experience. The doctrine of the autonomous psyche is the counterpart of the rejection of the oral culture."
Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato
Plato's momentous contribution to humankind's development was in creating or expanding:
- The activity of sheer thinking
- Words and concepts having to do with critical, autonomous thinking
- The conception of a personality who thinks and knows
- The notion of an independent, invisible, timeless body of knowledge which is thought about and known
How Human Intelligence Can Be Lost
Our study of Plato's struggle to replace the "oral state of mind" with a rational mind-set is particularly timely because the twenty-first century is experiencing precisely the opposite trend: the deliberate destruction of the rational mind-set and devolution to the "oral state of mind."
In the new "oral tradition" that has overwhelmed our culture, we have a new Homer. Homer Simpson serves as a clear representation of the current "imitative," anti-intellectual, "whatever-feels-good," anti-mind, "truth-is-relative," barbarism.
Plato saw the oral, non-literate state of consciousness as a crippling or poisoning of the mind, the creation of a false "reality" which individuals are made to believe in. In our current TV-movie-music culture a total counterfeit "reality" is created, people do not see what is really going on--only what the media tells them is happening.
This is why Homer Simpson is a revealing icon for the contemporary retrogression to a state of "exuberant ignorance." Homer is not only a TV character--one step from reality, he is also a cartoon character--another step removed. The fact that people watch this cartoon character means that they have become entranced by a shadow on Plato's cave, a phantom specter. They are losing any taste for reality.
"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk: culture-death is a clear possibility."
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Plato clearly recognized that man's evolutionary advancement required that he come out of the primitive mind-set and gain the capabilities of rational thought and self-consciousness. Plato had experienced first hand how anti-intellectual drama can cause terrible havoc. In 419 B.C.E, Aristophanes had written a treacherous play entitled "The Clouds" featuring a character by the name of Socrates who is a sophist, does not believe in Zeus or the Olympian gods, who introduces new gods, and who corrupts young people by teaching them tricks of rhetoric and setting them against their elders. This ridiculous, deliberately false image of "Socrates," created merely for the amusement of the theater audience, became part of the basis for the Athenian prosecutors' indictment of the real Socrates.
At the start of his self-defense, Plato's Socrates complains that his reputation has been smeared, and that the charges against him really came from Aristophanes' murderous caricature of him:"I have had many accusers, who accused me of old, and their false charges have continued during many years; and I am more afraid of them than of Anytus and his associates, who are dangerous, too, in their own way. But far more dangerous are these, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. These are the accusers whom I dread; for they are the circulators of this rumor, and their hearers are too apt to fancy that speculators of this sort do not believe in the gods. And they are many, and their charges against me are of ancient date, and they made them in days when you were impressionable in childhood, or perhaps in youth, and the cause when heard went by default, for there was none to answer. And, hardest of all, their names I do not know and cannot tell, except in the case of a comic poet."Plato had seen first hand the power of destructive burlesque to form prejudices based entirely on lies and falsehoods. Little wonder that Plato feared the corrupting influence of art on society!
In most cultures, the "ruling ideas" have fostered violence and class warfare. In only a few instances in history, have the "ruling ideas" fostered the betterment of common people and society at large. One example of such a benevolent era was the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which encouraged humans to develop broad understanding in all fields of knowledge. Highly educated, intelligent groups in Europe and America developed toward a democratic way of life, created constitutions, and founded institutions for public education.
During this Enlightenment period, words and phrases such as "liberty," "freedom," "natural rights," "pursuit of happiness," "consent of the governed," "informed citizenry," came into being for the first time or were first understood by humans through their own experience.
America has served as the beacon of these Enlightenment ideals, maintaining its faith in "the power of knowledge and reason in self-determination."
"There can be no real question that the Enlightenment promoted the cause of freedom, more widely, directly, positively than any age before it. It not only asserted but demonstrated the power of knowledge and reason in self-determination, the choice and realization of human purpose.
"For the first time in history it carried out a concerted attack on the vested interests that opposed the diffusion of knowledge and the free exercise of reason.
"As thinkers the men of the Enlightenment were conscious revolutionaries, very much aware of a 'new method of philosophizing' that amounted to a new living faith, the basis for a new social order."
Herbert J. Muller. (1964). Freedom in the Western World
Culture as a creation of humankind is a neutral element--it can be used for positive or negative ends. Through the process of acculturation, the process beginning at infancy by which human beings acquire the culture of their society, individuals are stamped with social norms.
Vested, monied interests have constantly sought to demolish the American traditions of democracy, plotting to destroy the enlightening "diffusion of knowledge and the free exercise of reason." Their method of rule is not by "consent of the governed" or rational discourse, but by arbitrary dictate of a tyrant's fascistic tactics.
Humankind's Evolution and Possible Devolution
ment of Language
The Oral Frame of Mind Man's Achieve-
ment of Reason
The Enlightenment Reversion to Oral Frame of Mind Back to the Stone Age
As our contemporary American culture devolves to the Homer Simpson "oral frame of mind," people are beginning to lose the very capabilities which have distinguished them from the lower animals: language and critical awareness.
"On every societal front, nonsense is replacing good sense in our once-pragmatic nation. It is accompanied by a distortion of thought that weakens our ability to distinguish truth from falsity, the basic skill of a civilized society."
Martin L. Gross. (1997). The End of Sanity:
Social and Cultural Madness in America
Humans today are rapidly losing the intellectual ability to realize or be concerned that their very lives are threatened by the loss of the ability to use language to understand and communicate. As Thomas Jefferson made clear, "no people can be both ignorant and free."
Among a large number of studies of the contemporary "oral" MTV culture of illiteracy, violence, and anti-intellectualism, two books stand out in exposing the ruinous nature of this barbarity:
- Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: "In saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?"
- Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: "Students have not the slightest notion of what an achievement it is to free oneself from public guidance and find resources for guidance within oneself. From what source within themselves would they draw the goals they think they set for themselves? Liberation from the heroic only means that they have no resource whatsoever against conformity to the current 'role models.' . . . They unconsciously act out the roles of the doctors, lawyers, businessmen or TV personalities around them."
The invention of language enabled a species of ape to evolve into humans. Language, like any technology, can be used for creative or destructive ends:
- Enabling humans to develop enhanced consciousness and continue human evolution
- Enabling a debased cabal of obscenely wealthy people to manipulate and control others, leading to a degenerate species obsessed by egomania and greed
"So essential is language to man's humanness, so deep a source is it of his own creativity, that it is by no means an accident in our time that those who have tried to degrade man and enslave him have first debased and misused language, arbitrarily turning meanings inside out. "
Lewis Mumford. The Conduct of Life
We are allowing our institutions of "learning" to deteriorate to the point that ordinary citizens are progressively losing the ability to use language effectively. We allow communication media to condition us with their truncated lexicon of meanings so that we lose even the awareness of essential concepts such as "inspiration."
An increasing number of people have no understanding of or competency in language and communication:
- Increasing numbers of high schools and college students are effectively illiterate
- Multiculturalism is creating a Tower of Babel, with, for example, twelve different languages being taught in Los Angeles schools
"In confronting an environment, the superiority of the individual, of the population, of the race at our stage of human history must rest in large portion on the capacity to learn."
Robert Ardrey. The Social Contract
The Next Step in Human Evolution
The Perennial Tradition distinguishes two different strains or "types" within the human species:
- Ordinary human beings within a culture
- Human beings who have undergone a spiritual transformation through initiation into the Perennial Tradition
I am using the word "type" in a very specific manner, referring to "the general form, character, or structure distinguishing a particular kind, group, or class of beings or objects; hence, a pattern or model after which something is made." [Oxford English Dictionary]
The Perennial Tradition has used different terms to refer to this advanced "type" of human:
- "Priests of the Living God" -- the designation given to adepts in the Hermetic tradition
- "Sons of God" or the "New Men" -- the terms used by Jesus, the apostles, and Paul in referring to those Christians who had experienced rebirth
- "True Gnostics" -- the title Clement of Alexandria gave to initiates in the Perennial Tradition, those who, according to Clement, "have already become God"
- "Pneumatics" -- Origen's term to refer to Christian gnostics who had been initiated into the mystical meaning of Perennialist writings
- "Philosophers" [lovers and seekers of wisdom] - the designation Plato gave to initiates in the Perennial Tradition
"True Gnostics" (to use Clement of Alexandria's term) are not just superficially different in degree from ordinary humans; they are a different "type" altogether. They represent a distinct "type" within the Man (Homo) genus and the Homo sapiens species. They are distinguished from ordinary Homo sapiens by their:
Outwardly, participants in the Perennial Tradition appear the same as ordinary human beings; they become invisible. The difference between them and other humans is internal and spiritual and can only be discerned by members of the same "type."
- Achievement of a higher understanding
- Experience of a spiritual transformation
- Ability to live in both the terrestrial and the spiritual world simultaneously
In each era of human history, adepts in the Perennial Tradition have made exoteric knowledge available to the people in general. This knowledge has served as the basis for periodic social advancement, as in Pythagoras' cultural center at Croton, Plato's Academy, and the eighteenth century Enlightenment in Europe and America. To specific students, they have taught the esoteric knowledge of spiritual regeneration.
Perennialists books and symbols contain, in an "invisible" manner, knowledge of the secret processes by which the regeneration of individuals and humanity in general is to be accomplished. These works usually contain both exoteric and esoteric strains and also serve as the key to other Perennialist writings.
We must regain the understanding, taught by Perennialist sages throughout the ages, that there is a magic in language which contributes to human evolution. Language in some way creates the very reality in which we live. Words and concepts point to realities beyond the sensory world and assist us in making contact with a higher dimension.
Intangible Ideas, in Plato's conception--supersensible realities beyond human thought--are appropriated through words, as birds in our hands, and released by the act of discernment, setting the birds free. These Ideas reside in the words independent of the books or the sounds in which the words are encased. Through a knowledgeable study of Plato's timeless ideas, we can achieve cultural re-enlightenment and personal illumination.
Norman D. Livergood
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. For a comparison of several translations of this passage, see this table.
3 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."
4 Freire, Paulo. (1973). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Seabury
5 Idries Shah, The Sufis, Octagon Press, p. 76
6 Idries Shah, The Sufis, Octagon Press, p. 123
7 Idries Shah, The Sufis, Octagon Press, p. 303
8 Idries Shah, The Sufis, Octagon Press, p. 347
9 Plato, Phaedo, Dolphin Books, p. 513
10 Montaigne, The Complete Essays, Penguin, p. 662
11 Protagoras, 347c-348a, Phaedrus, 274b-278e,
Epistle VII., 341b-345a
12 For a more complete version of the Indian seer's understanding, go here.
13 Of or related to that which is beyond ordinary experience, requiring special capabilities to apprehend
14 Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850