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 Aristocles; 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 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.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.
Medard Boss, A Psychiatrist Discovers India
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 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.
"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"
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."
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." [Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850]
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.