Plato's Mystical Science
of Dialectical Interchange


Prerequisite Reading

Dialectical Relationships 

Preparatory Study

Nature of Essay

     Plato's esoteric teachings in his written dialogues are hidden in plain sight. However, discerning their meaning requires proficiency in a special tradition. 1  As we saw in an earlier essay, Plato's teaching about the esoteric nature of philosophy is plainly referred to in his Phaedo:
"For I deem that the true disciple of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is ever pursuing death and dying . . . the separation of soul and body . . . when the soul lives in herself, and is parted from the body. . .

"In matters of this sort philosophers, above all other men, may be observed in every sort of way to dissever the soul from the body."

     Here Plato is referring to the teaching concerning "dying before you die" which is one of the central concepts of the Perennial Tradition. Philosophy, the love of and the search for wisdom, is the actual practice of learning to leave the physical body and live in the soul, the spiritual body.

     The philosopher--seeker after wisdom--lives in her soul, the higher consciousness. Discerning the essence of philosophy, we now have important clues as to the nature of Plato's mystical science--what he called Dialectic--and described as maieutic psychagogy:
  • Maieutic: maieûtikos, midwife, one who assists in the delivery of a new being

  • Psychagogy: psuchagôgê, from Greek, psûchê, soul, and agogê, transport to or lead out of; the science of helping to bring out (give birth to) new elements (ideas, beings) from a person's soul or to bring into (transmit to) a person's soul, elements from a higher level of being

     Plato's Socrates, in the dialogues, practiced an extraordinary kind of shared mystical experience in which he served as a psychagogic midwife, overseeing the process of the divulgence of, the bringing into being of new elements: ideas, feelings, inspirations, and images.

"The new order [created by Socrates' life and death] is understood secretly even by those who meet it with sulkiness and recalcitrance, for this secret understanding binds the partners of the dialogue together at least for its duration. We remember the passage of the Cratylus. The 'desire for virtue' is present even if it is obscured by the mania of the body; and it will reign freely when the obstacle of the body is removed. In so far as the dialogue is an attempt at existential communication, it is an attempt to liberate the soul from its passions, to denude it of its body. Socrates speaks to his interlocutors as if they were 'dead' souls, or at least, as if they were souls who are capable of death. On the part of Socrates, the dialogue is an attempt to submit the others, at least tentatively, to the catharsis of death. The judgment of the dead is thus enacted in part in the dialogue itself, concretely, in the attempt of Socrates to pierce through the 'body' of his interlocutors to their naked souls. He tries to make die, and thereby to make live, those who threaten him with death. "

Eric Voegelin, Plato

      Both Socrates and the other participants in the dialogues were in an altered state of consciousness. Socrates at times had to work to bring other participants into a heightened state, since they were largely unfamiliar with the experience. But his presence and his actions were able to bring them into this higher state--so much so that the participants sometimes spoke of being entranced, charmed, or bewitched, as in this passage from the Meno.
Menon: You seem to me to be a veritable wizard, casting your spells over me, and I am truly getting bewitched and enchanted, and YOU HAVE STOPPED MY WORLD. And if I may venture to make a jest about you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish [electric eel], who torpifies those who come near him and touch him, as you have now STOPPED MY WORLD. . . . And I think that you are very wise in not venturing away from home, for if you performed your necromancy in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a sorcerer."

      As is clear from the Phaedo and other dialogues, Plato believed that we can only discover truth when we are in our higher consciousness.

"Then when does the soul attain truth?-for in attempting to consider anything in company with the ordinary bodily consciousness she is obviously deceived.

"Yes, that is true.

"Must it not, then, be by contemplating in our soul, if at all, that any of the things that possess true being become known to it?

"And surely the soul then contemplates best when none of these things disturb it--­neither hearing, nor sight, nor pain, nor pleasure of any kind; but it retires as much as possible within itself, taking leave of the body; and, so far as it can, not communicating or being in contact with it, it aims at the discovery of that which has true being." 2

     Such statements as this--occurring throughout Plato's dialogues--should make it clear to us that the search for truth cannot take place in the ordinary bodily consciousness. Yet academics and scholastics throughout history have ignored Plato's declaration and thoughtlessly gone ahead to assume that what Plato was describing in the dialogues was merely two or more people, in their ordinary state of consciousness, conversing about philosophical concepts.

     If we're to take Plato at his word, dialectical interchange involves the participants attempting to gain a genuine understanding of "that which has true being"--eternal Forms. Since Plato makes it clear that eternal Forms CANNOT be discovered or understood in the ordinary mind-state, dialectical interchange can occur only when the participants are in a heightened mode of consciousness.

     Plato makes this very clear in the Phaedo:
"Is there or is there not an absolute justice?

"Assuredly there is.

"And an absolute beauty and absolute good?

"Of course.

"But did you ever behold any of them with your eyes?
"Certainly not.

"Or did you ever reach them with any other bodily sense? (and I speak not of these alone, but of absolute greatness, and health, and strength, and of the essence or true nature of everything). Has the reality of them ever been perceived by you through the bodily organs? or rather, is not the nearest approach to the knowledge of their several natures made by him who so orders his intellectual vision as to have the most exact conception of the essence of that which he considers?"

Socrates is making it clear to them that they have had experience with Forms when in dialectical interchange with him, and since they could not have experienced Forms in their ordinary state of consciousness, it must have been in a higher state (even if they were unaware of it and in a limited way through Higher Reasoning).


"And he attains to the knowledge of Forms in their highest purity who goes to each of them with the soul alone, not allowing when in the act of contemplation the intrusion or introduction of sight or any other sense in the company of reason, but with the very light of the soul in her clearness penetrates into the very light of truth in each Form; is not this the sort of man who, if ever man did, is likely to attain the knowledge of true being?"

"Dialectic is the only philosophical process which seeks for wisdom by anagogically uplifting our Intellectual foundations so that our Higher Self ascends to the Origin." 3

Plato, The Commonwealth VII, 533d

The Mystical Dialectic

     We can identify other essential features of the Socratic shared mystical experience which Plato called dialectic or maieutic psychagogy:
  1. In the experience itself, participants were aware that they were in a state of heightened consciousness: inspiration or divine rapture

    "And now, dear Phaedrus, I shall pause for an instant to ask whether you do not think me, as I appear to myself, inspired?

    Phaedrus: Yes, Socrates, you seem to have a very unusual flow of words."

    Socrates: Listen to me, then, in silence; for surely the place is holy; so that you must not wonder, if, as I proceed, I appear to be in a divine fervor, for already I am getting into inspired poetry." [We must be aware that Socrates is speaking somewhat ironically. But he is also speaking of the reality of a heightened state of consciousness which participants experience in dialectic.]

  2. Maieutic psychagogy involves Socrates (or other advanced teacher) helping another participant to give birth to realities from within him. Plato believed that the human soul possesses latent knowledge, which could be brought out and elucidated by a special kind of interchange which he called dialectic--a bringing to birth from the depths of a person's higher being. The maieutic art of Plato's Socrates involved his drawing his interlocutors into stating and reflecting upon the implications of their uncritically held opinions and their joint examination of these opinions to see if they were stillborn or viable.

    "Indeed, the secret of your system has just this instant dawned upon me. I comprehend the principle you use in communicating your questions. You lead me through the field of my own knowledge, and then by pointing out analogies to what I know, help me understand that I really know some realities which hitherto, as I believed, I had no knowledge of."
    Xenophon, Oeconomicus

  3. In the shared mystical experience, Socrates and Plato acted as a spiritual midwife, assisting the other person to bring his own ideas into being, as we see in Theatetus:
"You are not bearing in mind, my friend, that I have no knowledge; I cannot claim any such ideas as my own? no, I am barren as far as they are concerned. But I am acting as your midwife, and that is why I am chanting and serving up morsels of my own wisdom for you to taste. This will continue until I have played my part in bringing your very own notion out into the world. Once that stage is over, I will examine the idea to see whether it turns out to be viable or stillborn."

"And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible."

Plato, The Commonwealth

  4. In the shared mystical experience of maieutic psychagogy, Socrates, Plato, or an equally advanced dialectician plants idea-seeds in other participants' souls and then watches as they come to fruition.
SOCRATES: Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power -- a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?

PHAEDRUS: Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?

SOCRATES: I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.

PHAEDRUS: You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image?

SOCRATES: But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them a seed which others brought up in different soils render immortal, making the possessors of it happy to the utmost extent of human happiness.
Plato, Phaedrus

  5. Plato's explanation of the nature of maieutic psychagogy in his Seventh Letter makes it clear that dialectic is a mystical experience.
"After much effort, as names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another, in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will, with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem, and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest limits of human powers.  . . .  After long continued interchange between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of understanding, suddenly a light is kindled in the teacher's soul by a flame that leaps to the student's soul, and thereafter sustains itself." 341c

     The mystical aspect of dialectic is evidenced by the sudden flash that shines forth, the light that is kindled in one soul which leaps to another and then sustains itself. As a Master--such as Socrates or Plato--creates the dialectical atmosphere and brings his inner wisdom to bear on the shared mystical experience, a literal enlightenment takes place. Such an experience cannot be contrived by merely trying to set up a "debate" or a "philosophical conversation." There must be a real magician--a genuine philosopher-- present to bring about the flash of intuitive illumination eventuating in attunement with true reality, the "activation of the subtleties."

"To read a Platonic Dialogue is to participate in a dramatic experience, and what readers cull from these experiences and refer to as The Philosophy of Plato can never be stated in the indicative mood, as if it were so much objective information on matters of fact. Plato's 'secret' is not factual at all. No application of scholarly technique enables the reader to extract from The Dialogues a concentrate which can be distilled into a specific essence. Plato's 'philosophy' has no prescriptive formula. There is nothing, nothing whatever, which you might conceivably discover, write down, and pass around in a printed book which could be set upon library shelves and put into the hands of young students. It is like poetry or music. You have to experience it directly, in and for yourself. "

Rupert C. Lodge, The Philosophy of Plato, 1956

   6. Given the nature of the spiritual birth process in dialectic, only a prepared student can effectively participate. Plato makes this clear in his Seventh Letter:
"The process however of dealing with all of these, as the mind moves up and down to each in turn, does after much effort give birth in a well-constituted mind to knowledge of that which is well constituted. But if a man is ill-constituted by nature (as the state of the soul is naturally in the majority both in its capacity for learning and in what is called moral character)-or it may have become so by deterioration-not even Lynceus could endow such men with the power of sight"

   7. The mystical experience of maieutic pschagogy involves the participants in a process which teaches how to develop and take part in the process; it involves learning by doing. Socrates and Plato taught how the mystical dialectic can be entered into, how it can be carried out (allowing higher knowledge to flow through oneself), and how to continue this process in one's life. Something occurred within the dialectic experience which remained with those who were prepared to take up the philosophical-mystical life.

"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 sanctuaries 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

Why Dialectic Cannot Be Written

     There are a vast number of other fascinating and challenging aspects of the phenomenon of maieutic psychagogy--dialectic--and serious students will find that the clues within this essay will enable them to study Plato's writings in a new light.

     One of the interesting issues which these insights into dialectic help to clear up is Plato's insistence that he could not put his mystic science into written form.

     In the Phaedrus, Plato states that the philosopher does not put into writing the things "which are of greatest value." He confirmed this idea in his Seventh Letter.

     Through what we have been able to discern of the essence of dialectic, Plato's statements become clear. Dialectic is an interpersonal activity in which the leader and participants enter a higher state of consciousness, allowing psychic material to flow through them. They fly by the seat of their pants; they do not follow a script. In this dialectical drama, they write their own lines as they go. They gain union with their Higher Self and create new understanding by the interaction and coalescence of ideas from all active participants in the interchange.

     Hence, a person could certainly write a description or a record of this phenomenon of maieutic psychagogy--as Plato did in his dialogues. But it's factually impossible to write a spiritual experience; this is something which can only be lived.

"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, an 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."

Rudolph Steiner, Christianity as Mystical Fact

     In the Seventh Letter, Plato says clearly,
"I certainly have composed no work in regard to [dialectic], nor shall I ever do so in the future, for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies."
     He then elaborates:
"Thus much at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say they know the things to which I devote myself, whether by hearing the teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries-that according to my view it is not possible for them to have any real skill in the matter. There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge.

"Yet this much I know-that if the things were written or put into words, it would be done best by me, and that, if they were written badly, I should be the person most pained. Again, if they had appeared to me to admit adequately of writing and exposition, what task in life could I have performed nobler than this, to write what is of great service to mankind and to bring the nature of things into the light for all to see?

Plato here indicates that the special experience of higher knowledge CANNOT be transmitted through writing.

"But I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic-except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves.

There are a few people, Plato indicates, who can take a small amount of delineation of higher knowledge in written form and figure out the rest for themselves.

"As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty.

Most people, Plato says, would inspect any expression of higher knowledge in written form and either feel it to be inferior or consider it to be something already within their impressive store of knowledge.

"Further, on account of the weakness of language, these [i.e., the four: the name, the definition, the image, and the knowledge] attempt to show what each thing is like, not less than what each thing is. For this reason no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language, especially not in language that is unchangeable, which is true of that which is set down in written characters."

Here Plato indicates that the experience of Higher Knowledge cannot be expressed or encapsulated in a fixed form; that it is a living, organic interchange which evolves and requires that the Seeker evolve with it.
"Therefore every man of worth, when dealing with matters of worth, will be far from exposing them to ill feeling and misunderstanding among men by committing them to writing. In one word, then, it may be known from this that, if one sees written treatises composed by anyone, either the laws of a lawgiver, or in any other form whatever, these are not for that man the things of most worth, if he is a man of worth, but that his treasures are laid up in the fairest spot that he possesses. But if these things were worked at by him as things of real worth, and committed to writing, then surely, not gods, but men 'have themselves bereft him of his wits.'"

     Plato believed that the experiential interchange of which dialectic consists--including the recollection of previously unknown ideas within oneself--is a creative process which produces genuine knowledge. The "word graven in the soul" of the participant in dialectic is the only kind of authentic writing having to do with the process of dialectic.

     However, even though the process of dialectic cannot be written--since it must be experienced--the results, the record of dialectical interchanges can be recorded in written form. That is precisely what Plato's dialogues are: written chronicles of prior dialogical experiences, containing important knowledge acquired through dialectic.

     Some scholastics and academics have completely misconstrued Plato's statements concerning writing, assuming that he means that nothing of any importance can be recorded in a written form. What he was saying--on the contrary--was that the PROCESS of maieutic psychagogy, dialectic--cannot be transmitted through writing, since it requires that a person actually experience the dynamically unfolding procedure.

     Plato would not have written his dialogues and letters had he believed that writing could not transmit something of value. It was just that writing cannot convey the essential process--dialectic--through which genuine knowledge is initially divulged.

Plato succeeds in stimulating, in all of us, a way of looking at--whatever we are studying. He makes us perceptive: in a specific way. We call it 'intuitive'. Throwing our minds open to Platonic influence enables us to look beyond what is objectively present: present, that is, to our senses and to our analytical intelligence. We feel our way toward its 'inner essence', toward what would be its meaning 'in an ideal case'. We call this, looking for the 'Platonic idea' of the object."
Rupert C. Lodge, The Philosophy of Plato, 1956

Dialectic Involves a Primordial, Directer Language

     Platonic dialectic involves an intuitive mode of apprehension and communication, defining intuition as immediate apprehension or cognition, the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference. In the dialogues, we frequently find Socrates encouraging the other participants to speak what comes to them intuitively, without editing their ideas through rational reflection. He was aware that dialectic involves the primordial, directer "language" of intuitive apperception. This is part of the reason why Plato stated that dialectic could not be put into written form which has passed through intellectual reflection.

     In the ordinary state of consciousness, 4 intellectual expression of ideas in words always follows limpingly behind the fleeting meanings we wish to express and which thoughts and words can never fully embody or signify. Verbal expressions of thought can only fix glimpses and shadows of the original ideas. The things they can set down to examine are already shells from which life has all but flown.

      That is why an expression in words is always lacking in the vital principle; why it fixes merely a thing that has ceased to move. An idea that is living always moves, and can itself be embodied only in a thing that is similarly fluid and alive.

     The language we must use--to write, speak, or conceive--in seeking understanding of higher realities--is made up, not of words, but of those moving, ever-changing things known as actions--doings. Mere intellectual formulations of living ideas are only useful when we later wish to analyze them. In true dialectic or in spiritual meditation and contemplation, we act through inspiration. Inspired action is the instantaneous and directest expression of that which, when unperverted by false habits of mediating thought, comes to us directly from primal sources. Our inspirations are then undiluted by passage through the fixed and stationary medium of thought--and reasoned words--by which reflective wisdom is formulated. Participants in dialectic engage not in reflective, verbal deliberation, but in expressing immediate inspiration from the Source.

     Immediate inspiration is the language we speak and understand; a fluid, flowing language, ever-changing, ever moving in company with the ideas that it expresses. That is why in dialectic--and other forms of meditation and contemplation--we look, not to formulated belief for evidence of achievement, but to the living, moving force within us, which brings instantaneous illumination. Reflective thought--expressed in considered words--is an arrestation, a fixing of a dead thing, while the living thing wings its way out of sight. Immediate inspiration is an expression of what we experience, which we may not intellectually comprehend at the moment. In dialectic, meditation, and contemplation we free ourselves temporarily from the intellectual mechanism and engage in the language of immediate action--intuiting, allowing a free flow of ideas, speaking extemporaneously, inter-acting spontaneously, not-thinking. This kind of unrehearsed, unedited "doing" is the elemental mode of interaction and communication between persons and other realities. It is similar to the experience of not merely saying "I love you," but loving through action.

     In nature we have two useful examples of instant translation into action of direct impulse: a group of birds flocking, and a school of fish swarming. We often see a dense mass of birds such as sandpipers or pigeons wheeling, turning, changing direction in close formation, with the speed and precision of perfect coordination. The hesitation of a tenth of a second by any single member would inevitably throw the whole operation into jostling confusion.

     There is manifestly no room for the communication of an idea through any medium of expression, no matter how simple or instantaneous, through a mechanism such as a brain. The action of flocking or swarming must of itself be the reality. It is not a question of receiving an impulse and deciding to act on it; nor of receiving an impulse and diverting it into the groove of even long-established habit of thought or behavior. Such automatic action is necessarily the immediate external manifestation of an impulse.

     The rapid twinklings of birds flocking through space are phrases of the directer language of which dialectic speaks. This uninterrupted, primordial language is what Socrates taught the participants through dialectical interchange. At first, we may feel it to be almost impossible to obtain that flexibility of spirit which will receive accurately and undistortedly the immediate impulse from the depths of being--the impulse which will translate itself into the sure action that is its expression. We stammer and hesitate and use wrong "words" and "awkward phrases" in attempting any new or little-accustomed language.

      When we begin learning to follow intuition in immediate dialectical interchange, we make many blunders and mistakes. This occurs for several reasons: because of the distortion of habits of thought, puzzlement as to what we're experiencing, or because before the first and pure impulse is brought to conscious attention, it's diluted by deliberation. Thought, for all its mechanical nature, is extraordinarily swift, and before the flash of perception has reached awareness it may unconsciously interpose a hundred considerations that modify it. What we think is the pure impulse has thus become a hybrid before it reaches its expression in action. Only with practice and with trial-and-error can fluency and accuracy in this language, as in all others, be obtained. But we can succeed in gaining proficiency in this primordial language of inspiration through persistence of effort.

     The spontaneity of dialectic is not, however, mere mindless blathering, bantering, or Freudian free-association of senseless mental effluence. We're learning to use the unfamiliar powers of intuition and inspiration, tapping into content already existent in a higher realm. Dialectic involves allowing this supersensible wisdom to flow through us in an untrammeled and unpremeditated way. Instead of the uprush of crude, raw discharge, we become unobstructed conduits for exalted, resplendent ideas and feelings.

We Can Only Investigate Human Nature Through the Use of Dialectic

     Whereas we can study the nature of ordinary physical objects through the use of science and mathematics, the essence of humans is not ascertainable through those means. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico della Mirandola makes it clear just what a different kind of reality humankind is:
"We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom and choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have power to degenerate into the lower forms of life which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul's judgement, to be reborn into the highest forms, which are divine."
     Because we humans are of a dual nature--earthly and divine--our ordinary procedures of investigation do not enable us to understand ourselves. The methodology of exploration must partake of the same nature as that of the reality explored.
"We cannot discover the nature of man in the same way that we can detect the nature of physical things. Physical things may be described in terms of their objective properties, but man may be described and defined only in terms of his consciousness. This fact poses an entirely new problem which cannot be solved by our usual modes of investigation. Empirical observation and logical analysis, in the sense in which these terms were used in pre-Socratic philosophy, here proved inefficient and inadequate. For it is only in our immediate intercourse with human beings that we have insight into the character of man. We must actually confront man, we must meet him squarely face to face, in order to understand him. Hence it is not a new objective content, but a new activity and function of thought which is the distinctive feature of the philosophy of Socrates. Philosophy, which had hitherto been conceived as an intellectual monologue, is transformed into a dialogue. Only by way of dialogical or dialectic thought can we approach the knowledge of human nature. Previously truth might have been conceived to be a sort of ready-made thing which could be grasped by an effort of the individual thinker, and readily transferred and communicated to others. But Socrates could no longer subscribe to this view. It is as impossible--says Plato in the Republic--to implant truth in the soul of a man as it is to give the power of seeing to a man born blind. Truth is by nature the offspring of dialectic thought. It cannot be gained, therefore, except through a constant cooperation of the subjects in mutual interrogation and reply. It is not therefore like an empirical object; it must be understood as the outgrowth of a social act. Here we have the new, indirect answer to the question 'What is man?' Man is declared to be that creature who is constantly in search of himself--a creature who in every moment of his existence must examine and scrutinize the conditions of his existence. In this scrutiny, in this critical attitude toward human life, consists the real value of human life."

Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man

"Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction."

Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

Dialectic Is Not Indoctrination

     Many pedants have mistakenly interpreted Plato's dialogues as instructional or indoctrinating devices, imposing ideas on student-participants. They have mindlessly coopted dialogue as an educational instrument through which to impose ideas on learners. The original Latin word, educere, means to draw out, which is one of the connotations of dialectic. But education has now largely devolved into nothing but training: conditioning hapless students into following selected ideas and behaviors.

     Plato knew that dialectic would be misconstrued as indoctrination, so in some of his dialogues he has Socrates making clear that he is NOT trying to impose his pre-conceived ideas on the participants. Maieutic psychagogy is the shared experience of seekers in discovering new understanding through an extemporaneous interchange of ideas and evaluations.

      A superficial reading of Plato's dialogues encourages the "learned" scholar to suppose that Socrates' claim that he was ignorant was merely a ploy, a pretence, nothing but word-play. Scholastics refuse to take seriously what Socrates himself said: that he possessed only the knowledge of what he did not know, that he had only the advantage of being aware of his own ignorance. Socrates was sincere in saying that he did not begin a dialogue with an agenda.

      Socrates quite honestly believed that he was ignorant, because he was seeking not just knowledge but wisdom: the art of discovering what things really are, what are their true relationships, their true value, and living in harmony with this wisdom. In the infinite realm of wisdom, it would be preposterous to think that one had ever reached the terminus point. A true seeker of wisdom reminds himself constantly that at an earlier stage he had assumed that he knew things of which he was actually ignorant. Also, he had assumed that he had reached the limit of what he could understand. He can expect a repetition of those experiences throughout his life--if he follows the path of philosophy. Each person, at whatever level of understanding he may be, must vanquish his own ignorance as he ascends the pathway to wisdom.

"'Critias, you act as though I professed to know the answers to the questions I ask you, and could give these to you if I wished. It isn't so. I inquire with you . . . because I don't myself have knowledge' (Chrm. 165D).

   "Can he really mean this? He can, if in such passages he is using 'knowledge' in a sense in which the claim to know something implies the conviction that any further investigation of its truth would be superfluous. This is the sense in which the word 'knowledge' is used in formal contexts by earlier philosophers, and nothing gives us a better sense of the dogmatic certainty implied by their use of it than the fact that one of them, Parmenides, presented his doctrine in the guise of a divine revelation. . . This, I suggest, is the conception of wisdom and knowledge Socrates has in mind in those contexts where he disclaims it. When he renounces 'knowledge' he is telling us that the question of the truth of anything he believes can always be sensibly re-opened; that any conviction he has stands ready to be re-examined in the company of any sincere person who will raise the question and join him in the investigation."

Gregory Vlastos, editor, The Philosophy of Socrates, 1980

     We can experience Plato's dialogues as noetic dramatizations of dialectical interactions which hold in suspension the question of the validity or invalidity of the counter-claims, while allowing us to feel the full force of the arguments. The dialogues allow us to see that philosophy, for Plato and Socrates, was not a body of true or false doctrines, of sound or unsound arguments. Philosophy, Plato makes clear, is not the power, rhetorical or logical, to win arguments or to make the weaker case appear the stronger, which it was for the Sophists such as Zeno and Protagoras. We can experience dialogue as a means of learning to philosophize dialectically and as meditation exercises on essential philosophic themes.

     Practicing genuine dialectic requires that there be at least one person at an advanced level within the Perennial Tradition, and prepared participants willing and able to actively engage in the experience to the fullest extent. Such dialogues require that each participant speak openly and honestly, holding nothing back out of fear of contradiction or personal criticism. A person cannot participate in a true dialogue if he tries to plan his tactics ("I'll hold back on this argument until the end of the debate. . ."), hedge his bets ("I dare not say that, because they would criticize me for such a weak argument. . ."), or seek to defeat an opponent ("His argument on this point is so weak; I'll hit him with this overwhelming fact. . .").

      The participants within a true dialogue reside in a higher Intellectual dimension. The power of genuine dialectic occurs because all persons are fully and honestly invested in what they're saying. Their divergent contributions vigorously collide, then coalesce in a higher united understanding--even if it's an understanding that they don't understand. Each participant must, like Zorba dancing, 5 "undo his belt" and surrender to a higher sway, allowing the free flow of the give-and-take of the dialogue to lead whither it will. The most fruitful dialogues of this nature are those in which more than one participant is an advanced teacher.

"Why rank that method [dialectical interchange] among the great achievements of humanity? Because it makes moral inquiry a common human enterprise, open to every man. Its practice calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech. And this is as it should be, for how men should live is every man's business, and the role of the specialist and the expert should be only to offer guidance and criticism, to inform, and clarify the judgment of the layman, leaving the final decision up to him. But while the Socratic method makes moral inquiry open to everyone, it makes it easy for no one. It calls not only for the highest degree of mental alertness of which anyone is capable, but also for moral qualities of a high order: sincerity, humility, courage. Socrates expects you to say what you really believe about the way man should live; which implies, among other things, about the way you should live. His method will not work if the opinion you give him is just an opinion, it must be your opinion: the one you stand ready to live by, so that if that opinion should be refuted, your own life or a part of it will be indicted or discredited, shown up to be a muddle, premised on a confusion or a contradiction. To get into the argument when you realize that this is the price you have to pay for it--that in the course of it your ego may experience the unpleasant sensation of a bloody nose--takes courage. To search for moral truth that may prove your own life wrong takes humility, that is not afraid of humiliation. These are the qualities Socrates himself brings to the argument. . ."

Gregory Vlastos, editor, The Philosophy of Socrates, 1980

Inner Dialectic

     The Greek word dialectic (dialektos) refers to reciprocal interchange between persons or aspects of a person. One of the extraordinary elements Plato introduces is locating dialectic both in outer discourse and in inner dialogue.

      In Theatetus, Plato defines thinking as:
"a talk which the soul has with itself about the objects under its consideration. . . It seems to me that the soul when it thinks is simply carrying on a discussion in which it asks itself questions and answers them itself, affirms and denies. And when it arrives at something definite, either by a gradual process or a sudden leap, when it affirms one thing consistently and without divided counsel, we call this its judgment. So, in my view, to judge is to make a statement, and a judgment is a statement which is not addressed to another person or spoken aloud, but silently addressed to oneself." [189e-190a]

     In the Sophist, the Eleatic Stranger states that thinking and discourse are the same thing, except that what we call thinking is, precisely, the inward dialogue carried on by the mind with itself without spoken sound. (263e) He also asserts that there is true and false speech, that thinking is the soul's conversation with itself, that belief is the conclusion of thinking, and that what we call appearing is the blending of perception and belief. [264b]

Thinking as Inner Dialectic

     According to Plato, conceiving or thinking is the conversation the soul has with itself in considering things, asking itself questions and answering them. It is possible to practice dialectic as an inner dialogue with one's soul.

     Plato's written dialogues are dramatic representations of "outer dialectic," to help us learn how to create an "inner dialectic" indispensable for attaining wisdom. The Greek concept of dialogue (dialogos), is composed of the word logos meaning communication or divulgence and dia which means "through"--not "two." A dialogue, then, can be among any number of people, not just two, and a single person can experience dialogue within herself.

     Dialogue is conversation focused on specific issues or questions, engaged in deliberately with the goal of increasing understanding, investigating issues, and examining thoughts and actions. Dialogue engages the heart as well as the mind. It is not merely ordinary, everyday conversation; it has a focus and a purpose. Dialogue differs from debate, in which two points of view vie with each other to prove the correctness or superiority of one viewpoint over the other. Real dialogue presupposes an openness on the part of the participants to modify deeply held beliefs. In a true dialogue, whenever a false belief is discovered on the part of any one person, everybody gains increased understanding. Participants in dialectic do not play a game against each other, but investigate crucial issues with one another in a joint effort to attain knowledge.

     Plato's written dialogues not only record specific inquiries into philosophical problems but also instruct us in the dialectical process. The dialogues are object-lessons, living models of the dialectical method. They exemplify how participants in dialectic learn through directed interchange of ideas. This allows persons learning to engage in philosophic dialectic to continue the process of discovery beyond the actual presence of the written dialogue. Plato's method of presenting written dialogues is instruction in a way of life (agôgê) for the budding philosopher, and not merely the acquisition of specific knowledge. The written dialogues lead the seeker, but at the same time allow her to internalize the dialectic process; they allow self-discovery and assimilation of the process of philosophic inquiry. The process of dialectic thus becomes habitual and dialectic is then used in forming well-founded beliefs and acting in principled ways.

     Dialectic is, in a mysterious way, part of the very essence of Reality.

"It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity. The process by which the externalized products of human activity attain the character of objectivity is objectivation. The institutional world is objectivated human activity, and so is every single institution. In other words despite the objectivity that marks the social world in human experience, it does not thereby acquire an ontological status apart from the human activity that produced it. The paradox that man is capable of producing a world that he then experiences as something other than a human product will concern us later on. At the moment, it is important to emphasize that the relationship between man, the producer, and the social world, his product, is and remains a dialectical one.

"That is, man (not of course, in isolation but in his collectivities) and his social world interact with each other. The product acts back upon the producer. Externalization and objectivation are moments in a continuing dialectical process, which is internalization (by which the objectivated social world is retrojected into consciousness in the course of socialization), will occupy us in considerable detail later on. It is already possible, however, to see the fundamental relationship of these three dialectical moments in social reality. Each of them corresponds to an essential characterization of the social world. Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product. It may also already be evident that an analysis of the social world that leaves out any one of these three moments will be distortive. One may further add that only with the transmission of the social world to a new generation (that is, internalization as effectuated in socialization) does the fundamental social dialectic appear in its totality. To repeat, only with the appearance of a new generation can one properly speak of a social world."

Peter L. Berger & Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality

     Along with Berger and Luckman, Ernst Cassirer was able to see that dialectic is in actuality the manner in which reality manifests itself.

"Myth, art, language and science appear as symbols; not in the sense of mere figures which refer to some given reality by means of suggestion and allegorical renderings, but in the sense of forces each of which produces and posits a world of its own. In these realms the spirit exhibits itself in that inwardly determined dialectic by virtue of which alone there is any reality, any organized and definite Being at all. Thus the special symbolic forms are not imitations, but organs of reality, since it is solely by their agency that anything real becomes an object for intellectual apprehension, and as such is made visible to us. The question as to what reality is apart from these forms, and what are its independent attributes, becomes irrelevant here. For the mind, only that can be visible which has some definite form; but every form of existence has its source in some peculiar way of seeing, some intellectual formulation and intuition of meaning."

Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth

The Contemporary Operation of Plato's Mystical Science

     In previous studies, we've seen that Perennialist teachers--such as Plato--adapt higher knowledge to their own time and place and to the capabilities of the people with whom they're dealing. In Plato's time--and until very recently--written engagement in dialectic was impossible.

     Part of the difficulty with written expressions of dialectic, during Plato's time, was that they could "neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others." Written expositions couldn't interact with the reader. During Plato's era, it was correct to say (as he does in Phaedrus):
"Only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness."

     However, Plato was aware that even in his day writing possessed the hypomnematic function of bringing essential concepts to mind for those who were already prepared and possessed basic knowledge.

     With the introduction of the Internet, the nature of written expression of ideas has undergone a revolutionary transformation. The Perennialist Teacher and the seeker can interact in a real-time environment, exchanging ideas and evaluations in synchronous or asynchronous mode.

     As is the case in all genuine learning environments, only those students who have the necessary moral and intellectual capabilities are able to pursue the path of knowledge in all its manifestations and achieve understanding of higher consciousness. Of equal importance, only an adept in the Perennial Tradition can initiate a genuine dialectic, since only she possesses the requisite capabilities to make it operative in its higher mode. In the last stage of dialectic, the Teacher and the seeker must come into physical contact to complete the process.

     The New Dialectic is focused interchange, engaged in intentionally with the goal of increasing understanding, exploring issues, and evaluating thoughts or actions.

     The author has engaged in psychagogic dialectic throughout a period of over forty years and is now working with the New Dialectic personally 6 and through the Internet. This unique, innovative process has proven to be effective and productive in all aspects.


If you have studied this essay as part of your application for acceptance into the Cooperative Commonwealth Community enterprise, and you wish to take the test over this essay, go here.

* Anagogical: from the Greek anagein; to lift up, the word denotes any element (entity or experience) through which a person's actions, thoughts and feelings are lifted up from worldly sense experience to realize an experiential participation in the spiritual realm

See the author's recently published book, The Perennial Tradition

2 I am using the translations of Thomas Taylor, Benjamin Jowett, Henry Cary, Paul Shorey, G. M. A. Grube, and my own rendering of Plato's dialogues from the original Greek, to arrive at what I consider to be the essence of Plato's thought

Dialectic: three translations from a passage in The Commonwealth VII, 533d














philosophical process

seeks for, pursues


this (wisdom)

(anagogically) upliftting (carrying to a higher domain)


Intellectual foundations


along with

Higher Self



"Dialectic is the only philosophical process which seeks for wisdom by (anagogically) uplifting our Intellectual foundations so that our Higher Self ascends to the Origin." my translation

"'Then,' said I, 'is not dialectics the only process of inquiry that advances in this manner, doing away with hypotheses, up to the first principle itself in order to find confirmation there?'" translated by Paul Shorey

"Then dialectic, and dialectic alone, goes directly to the first principle and is the only science which does away with hypotheses in order to make her ground secure; the eye of the soul, which is literally buried in an outlandish slough, is by her gentle aid lifted upward. . ." translation by Benjamin Jowett

4 An author able to achieve union with her Higher Consciousness is capable of communicating (speaking and writing) in a manner to transmit primordial meanings to another person. The usual limitations of words and thoughts are overcome and a higher language with (literally) higher meanings comes into play.

Zorba: "Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble."

The author experiences the most transformative dialectic (maieutic psychagogy) in free-flowing interchange with his wife, Michelle Mairesse. It's impossible to record all these astounding dialogues, but a brief snippet from a recent interchange will give you a glimpse of what stupendous--and mystagogic--divulgence can occur:

Michelle: "How do you know what you just said is true?"

Norman: "How can you ask such a question?"

Michelle: "Words. Words. Words."

Norman: "Will must be authoring this dialogue!"

Michelle: (pregnant silence mystically giving birth to new meanings)

Norman: Suddenly transmogrified into the Avatar Elmer Weishaupt Gantry: (occult silence maintained through Herculean restraint, eventuating in a wan smile)


Examples of Dialectic:

    These three examples assist interested persons in attaining a "sense" of what should or should not occur in dialectical interchange at various levels. Each interchange is made up of an entirely unique configuration of ideas, communications, and interactions--as the event unfolds. You will need to read these examples if you wish to participate in dialectical interchange.
  1. This is a session in which the participant has clearly not adequately prepared to effectively take part in a dialectical interchange. This kind of unprepared person would not be allowed to participate, so this example should be construed as representing a counterindicative episode that would not ordinarily take place. This illustration can help prospective participants prepare for a dialectical interchange in the sense of seeing how necessary it is to move out of the cliched, hackneyed, academic, scholastic communication mode to be able to participate successfully. In this sample session, it is clear that the participant has not succeeded in making the necessary prerequisite changes in his thoughts and feelings to enable him to participate in an altered mode of interchange.

    In the other two examples below, an altered state of consciousness is markedly in evidence during the interchange.

  2. This is a modern dialectical interchange between Diotima and Socrates, providing an illustration of how dialectic eventuates at an advanced level

  3. In this third example, the interchange occurs at an exceptionally high level, with understanding being "produced" through the dialectical process.