|| Platonic Dialectic|| Dialectical Relationships
|| Preparatory Study
|| Nature of Essay
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, 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, [an entity depicted as having originated from the ground it inhabits, from itself; hence of independent origin] 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. [Author's translation]"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 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 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."
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 not in contact with ultimate reality, even though ordinary life seems to be the totality of reality. The student learns to achieve states of mind and conditions of reality which the ordinary mind does not understand at all.
- "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 to understand how certain words are used by propagandists to establish patterns of thinking which limit mankind to an infantile stage of mental development.
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." [Phaedo]
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."
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. [Protagoras, 347c-348a, Phaedrus, 274b-278e, Epistle VII, 341b-345a]
"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."