The Platonic Academy
Plato and Platonism
Plato and Platonism
The whole question of phenomena rests on the correct comprehension of old philosophies. Whither, then, should we turn, in our perplexity, but to the ancient sages, since, on the pretext of superstition, we are refused an explanation by the modern? Let us ask them what they know of genuine science and religion; not in the matter of mere details, but in all the broad conception of these twin truths — so strong in their unity, so weak when divided. Besides, we may find our profit in comparing this boasted modern science with ancient ignorance; this improved modern theology with the “Secret doctrines” of the ancient universal religion. Perhaps we may thus discover a neutral ground whence we can reach and profit by both.
It is the Platonic philosophy, the most elaborate compend of the abstruse systems of old India, that can alone afford us this middle ground. Although twenty-two and a quarter centuries have elapsed since the death of Plato, the great minds of the world are still occupied with his writings. He was, in the fullest sense of the word, the world’s interpreter. And the greatest philosopher of the pre-Christian era mirrored faithfully in his works the spiritualism of the Vedic philosophers who lived thousands of years before himself, and its metaphysical expression. Vyasa, Djeminy, Kapila, Vrihaspati, Sumati, and so many others, will be found to have transmitted their indelible imprint through the intervening centuries upon Plato and his school. Thus is warranted the inference that to Plato and the ancient Hindu sages was alike revealed the same wisdom. So surviving the shock of time, what can this wisdom be but divine and eternal?
Plato taught justice as subsisting in the soul of its possessor and his greatest good. “Men, in proportion to their intellect, have admitted his transcendent claims.” Yet his commentators, almost with one consent, shrink from every passage which implies that his metaphysics are based on a solid foundation, and not on ideal conceptions.
But Plato could not accept a philosophy destitute of spiritual aspirations; the two were at one with him. For the old Grecian sage there was a single object of attainment: REAL KNOWLEDGE. He considered those only to be genuine philosophers, or students of truth, who possess the knowledge of the really-existing, in opposition to the mere seeing; of the always-existing, in opposition to the transitory; and of that which exists permanently, in opposition to that which waxes, wanes, and is developed and destroyed alternately. “Beyond all finite existences and secondary causes, all laws, ideas, and principles, there is an INTELLIGENCE or MIND,[nous, the spirit], the first principle of all principles, the Supreme Idea on which all other ideas are grounded; the Monarch and Lawgiver of the universe; the ultimate substance from which all things derive their being and essence, the first and efficient Cause of all the order, and harmony, and beauty, and excellency, and goodness, which pervades the universe — who is called, by way of preeminence and excellence, the Supreme Good, the God, ‘the God over all.’ ” (Cocker: “Christianity and Greek Philosophy,” xi., p. 377) He is not the truth nor the intelligence, but “the father of it.” Though this eternal essence of things may not be perceptible by our physical senses, it may be apprehended by the mind of those who are not wilfully obtuse. “To you,” said Jesus to his elect disciples, “it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, but to them [the polloi] it is not given; . . . therefore speak I to them in parables [or allegories]; because they seeing, see not, and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand.” (Gospel according to Matthew, xiii. 11, 13.)
The philosophy of Plato, we are assured by Porphyry, of the Neoplatonic School was taught and illustrated in the MYSTERIES. Many have questioned and even denied this; and Lobeck, in his Aglaophomus, has gone to the extreme of representing the sacred orgies as little more than an empty show to captivate the imagination. As though Athens and Greece would for twenty centuries and more have repaired every fifth year to Eleusis to witness a solemn religious farce! Augustine, the papa-bishop of Hippo, has resolved such assertions. He declares that the doctrines of the Alexandrian Platonists were the original esoteric doctrines of the first followers of Plato, and describes Plotinus as a Plato resuscitated. He also explains the motives of the great philosopher for veiling the interior sense of what he taught.*
[*"The accusations of atheism, the introducing of foreign deities, and corrupting of the Athenian youth, which were made against Socrates, afforded ample justification for Plato to conceal the arcane preaching of his doctrines. Doubtless the peculiar diction or 'jargon' of the alchemists was employed for a like purpose. The dungeon, the rack, and the fagot were employed without scruple by Christians of every shade, the Roman Catholics especially, against all who taught even natural science contrary to the theories entertained by the Church. Pope Gregory the Great even inhibited the grammatical use of Latin as heathenish. The offense of Socrates consisted in unfolding to his disciples the arcane doctrine concerning the gods, which was taught in the Mysteries and was a capital crime. He also was charged by Aristophanes with introducing the new god Dinos into the republic as the demiurgos or artificer, and the lord of the solar universe. The Heliocentric system was also a doctrine of the Mysteries; and hence, when Aristarchus the Pythagorean taught it openly, Cleanthes declared that the Greeks ought to have called him to account and condemned him for blasphemy against the gods," -- ("Plutarch"). But Socrates had never been initiated, and hence divulged nothing which had ever been imparted to him.]
As to the myths, Plato declares in the Gorgias and the Phaedon that they were the vehicles of great truths well worth the seeking. But commentators are so little en rapport with the great philosopher as to be compelled to acknowledge that they are ignorant where “the doctrinal ends, and the mythical begins.” Plato put to flight the popular superstition concerning magic and daemons, and developed the exaggerated notions of the time into rational theories and metaphysical conceptions. Perhaps these would not quite stand the inductive method of reasoning established by Aristotle; nevertheless they are satisfactory in the highest degree to those who apprehend the existence of that higher faculty of insight or intuition, as affording a criterion for ascertaining truth.
Basing all his doctrines upon the presence of the Supreme Mind, Plato taught that the nous, spirit, or rational soul of man, being “generated by the Divine Father,” possessed a nature kindred, or even homogeneous, with the Divinity, and was capable of beholding the eternal realities. This faculty of contemplating reality in a direct and immediate manner belongs to God alone; the aspiration for this knowledge constitutes what is really meant by philosophy — the love of wisdom. The love of truth is inherently the love of good; and so predominating over every desire of the soul, purifying it and assimilating it to the divine, thus governing every act of the individual, it raises man to a participation and communion with Divinity, and restores him to the likeness of God. “This flight,” says Plato in the Theaetetus, “consists in becoming like God, and this assimilation is the becoming just and holy with wisdom.”
The basis of this assimilation is always asserted to be the preexistence of the spirit or nous. In the allegory of the chariot and winged steeds, given in the Phaedrus, he represents the psychical nature as composite and two-fold; the thumos, or epithumetic part, formed from the substances of the world of phenomena; and the thumoeides, the essence of which is linked to the eternal world. The present earth-life is a fall and punishment. The soul dwells in “the grave which we call the body,” and in its incorporate state, and previous to the discipline of education, the noetic or spiritual element is “asleep.” Life is thus a dream, rather than a reality. Like the captives in the subterranean cave, described in The Republic, the back is turned to the light, we perceive only the shadows of objects, and think them the actual realities. Is not this the idea of Maya, or the illusion of the senses in physical life, which is so marked a feature in Buddhistical philosophy? But these shadows, if we have not given ourselves up absolutely to the sensuous nature, arouse in us the reminiscence of that higher world that we once inhabited. “The interior spirit has some dim and shadowy recollection of its ante-natal state of bliss, and some instinctive and proleptic yearnings for its return.” It is the province of the discipline of philosophy to disinthrall it from the bondage of sense, and raise it into the empyrean of pure thought, to the vision of eternal truth, goodness, and beauty. “The soul,” says Plato, in the Theaetetus, “cannot come into the form of a man if it has never seen the truth. This is a recollection of those things which our soul formerly saw when journeying with Deity, despising the things which we now say are, and looking up to that which REALLY is. Wherefore the nous, or spirit, of the philosopher (or student of the higher truth) alone is furnished with wings; because he, to the best of his ability, keeps these things in mind, of which the contemplation renders even Deity itself divine. By making the right use of these things remembered from the former life, by constantly perfecting himself in the perfect mysteries, a man becomes truly perfect — an initiate into the diviner wisdom.”
Hence we may understand why the sublimer scenes in the Mysteries were always in the night. The life of the interior spirit is the death of the external nature; and the night of the physical world denotes the day of the spiritual. Dionysus, the night-sun, is, therefore, worshipped rather than Helios, orb of day. In the Mysteries were symbolized the preexistent condition of the spirit and soul, and the lapse of the latter into earth-life and Hades, the miseries of that life, the purification of the soul, and its restoration to divine bliss, or reunion with spirit. Theon, of Smyrna, aptly compares the philosophical discipline to the mystic rites: “Philosophy,” says he, “may be called the initiation into the true arcana, and the instruction in the genuine Mysteries. There are five parts of this initiation: I., the previous purification; II., the admission to participation in the arcane rites; III., the epoptic revelation; IV., the investiture or enthroning; V. — the fifth, which is produced from all these, is friendship and interior communion with God, and the enjoyment of that felicity which arises from intimate converse with divine beings. . . . Plato denominates the epopteia, or personal view, the perfect contemplation of things which are apprehended intuitively, absolute truths and ideas. He also considers the binding of the head and crowning as analogous to the authority which any one receives from his instructors, of leading others into the same contemplation. The fifth gradation is the most perfect felicity arising from hence, and, according to Plato, an assimilation to divinity as far as is possible to human beings.” (See Thomas Taylor: “Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries,” p. 47. New York: J. W. Bouton, 1875.)
Such is Platonism. “Out of Plato,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, “come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.” He absorbed the learning of his times — of Greece from Phiolaus to Socrates; then of Pythagoras in Italy; then what he could procure from Egypt and the East. He was so broad that all philosophy, European and Asiatic, was in his doctrines; and to culture and contemplation he added the nature and qualities of the poet.
The followers of Plato generally adhered strictly to his psychological theories. Several, however, like Xenocrates, ventured into bolder speculations. Speusippus, the nephew and successor of the great philosopher, was the author of the Numerical Analysis, a treatise on the Pythagorean numbers. Some of his speculations are not found in the written Dialogues; but as he was a listener to the unwritten lectures of Plato, the judgment of Enfield is doubtless correct, that he did not differ from his master. He was evidently, though not named, the antagonist whom Aristotle criticised, when professing to cite the argument of Plato against the doctrine of Pythagoras, that all things were in themselves numbers, or rather, inseparable from the idea of numbers. He especially endeavored to show that the Platonic doctrine of ideas differed essentially from the Pythagorean, in that it presupposed numbers and magnitudes to exist apart from things. He also asserted that Plato taught that there could be no real knowledge, if the object of that knowledge was not carried beyond or above the sensible.
But Aristotle was no trustworthy witness. He misrepresented Plato, and he almost caricatured the doctrines of Pythagoras. There is a canon of interpretation, which should guide us in our examinations of every philosophical opinion: “The human mind has, under the necessary operation of its own laws, been compelled to entertain the same fundamental ideas, and the human heart to cherish the same feelings in all ages.” It is certain that Pythagoras awakened the deepest intellectual sympathy of his age, and that his doctrines exerted a powerful influence upon the mind of Plato. His cardinal idea was that there existed a permanent principle of unity beneath the forms, changes, and other phenomena of the universe. Aristotle asserted that he taught that “numbers are the first principles of all entities.” Ritter has expressed the opinion that the formula of Pythagoras should be taken symbolically, which is doubtless correct. Aristotle goes on to associate these numbers with the “forms” and “ideas” of Plato. He even declares that Plato said: “forms are numbers,” and that “ideas are substantial existences — real beings.” Yet Plato did not so teach. He declared that the final cause was the Supreme Goodness – to agathon. “Ideas are objects of pure conception for the human reason, and they are attributes of the Divine Reason.” (Cousin: “History of Philosophy,” I., ix.) Nor did he ever say that “forms are numbers.” What he did say may be found in the Timaeus: “God formed things as they first arose according to forms and numbers.”
It is recognized by modern science that all the higher laws of nature assume the form of quantitative statement. This is perhaps a fuller elaboration or more explicit affirmation of the Pythagorean doctrine. Numbers were regarded as the best representations of the laws of harmony which pervade the cosmos. We know too that in chemistry the doctrine of atoms and the laws of combination are actually and, as it were, arbitrarily defined by numbers. As Mr. W. Archer Butler has expressed it: “The world is, then, through all its departments, a living arithmetic in its development, a realized geometry in its repose.”
The key to the Pythagorean dogmas is the general formula of unity in multiplicity, the one evolving the many and pervading the many. This is the ancient doctrine of emanation in few words. Even the apostle Paul accepted it as true. “Out of him and through him and in him all things are.” This, as we can see by the following quotation, is purely Hindu and Brahmanical:
“When the dissolution — Pralaya — had arrived at its term, the great Being — Para-Atma or Para-Purusha — the Lord existing through himself, out of whom and through whom all things were, and are and will be . . . resolved to emanate from his own substance the various creatures” (Manava-Dharma-Sastra, book i., slokas 6 and 7).
The mystic Decad 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10 is a way of expressing this idea. The One is God, the Two, matter; the Three, combining Monad and Duad, and partaking of the nature of both, is the phenomenal world; the Tetrad, or form of perfection, expresses the emptiness of all; and the Decad, or sum of all, involves the entire cosmos. The universe is the combination of a thousand elements, and yet the expression of a single spirit — a chaos to the sense, a cosmos to the reason.
The whole of this combination of the progression of numbers in the idea of creation is Hindu. The Being existing through himself, Swayambhu or Swayambhuva, as he is called by some, is one. He emanates from himself the creative faculty, Brahma or Purusha (the divine male), and the one becomes Two; out of this Duad, union of the purely intellectual principle with the principle of matter, evolves a third, which is Viradj, the phenomenal world. It is out of this invisible and incomprehensible trinity, the Brahmanic Trimurty, that evolves the second triad which represents the three faculties — the creative, the conservative, and the transforming. These are typified by Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, but are again and ever blended into one. Unity, Brahma, or as the Vedas called him, Tridandi, is the god triply manifested, which gave rise to the symbolical Aum or the abbreviated Trimurty. It is but under this trinity, ever active and tangible to all our senses, that the invisible and unknown Monas can manifest itself to the world of mortals. When he becomes Sarira, or he who puts on a visible form, he typifies all the principles of matter, all the germs of life, he is Purusha, the god of the three visages, or triple power, the essence of the Vedic triad. “Let the Brahmas know the sacred Syllable (Aum), the three words of the Savitri, and read the Vedas daily” (Manu, book iv., sloka 125).
“After having produced the universe, He whose power is incomprehensible vanished again, absorbed in the Supreme Soul. . . . Having retired into the primitive darkness, the great Soul remains within the unknown, and is void of all form. . . .
“When having again reunited the subtile elementary principles, it introduces itself into either a vegetable or animal seed, it assumes at each a new form.”
“It is thus that, by an alternative waking and rest, the Immutable Being causes to revive and die eternally all the existing creatures, active and inert” (Manu, book i., sloka 50, and others).
He who has studied Pythagoras and his speculations on the Monad, which, after having emanated the Duad retires into silence and darkness, and thus creates the Triad can realize whence came the philosophy of the great Samian Sage, and after him that of Socrates and Plato.
Speusippus seems to have taught that the psychical or thumetic soul was immortal as well as the spirit or rational soul, and further on we will show his reasons. He also — like Philolaus and Aristotle, in his disquisitions upon the soul — makes of aether an element; so that there were five principal elements to correspond with the five regular figures in Geometry. This became also a doctrine of the Alexandrian school. (“Theol. Arithme,” p. 62: “On Pythag. Numbers.”) Indeed, there was much in the doctrines of the Philaletheans which did not appear in the works of the older Platonists, but was doubtless taught in substance by the philosopher himself, but with his usual reticence was not committed to writing as being too arcane for promiscuous publication. Speusippus and Xenocrates after him, held, like their great master, that the anima mundi, or world-soul, was not the Deity, but a manifestation. Those philosophers never conceived of the One as an animate nature. (Plato: “Parmenid.,” 141 E.) The original One did not exist, as we understand the term. Not till he had united with the many — emanated existence (the monad and duad) was a being produced. The timion, honored — the something manifested, dwells in the centre as in the circumference, but it is only the reflection of the Deity — the World-Soul. (See Stoboeus’ “Ecl.,” i, 862.) In this doctrine we find the spirit of esoteric Buddhism.
A man’s idea of God, is that image of blinding light that he sees reflected in the concave mirror of his own soul, and yet this is not, in very truth, God, but only His reflection. His glory is there, but, it is the light of his own Spirit that the man sees, and it is all he can bear to look upon. The clearer the mirror, the brighter will be the divine image. But the external world cannot be witnessed in it at the same moment. In the ecstatic Yogin, in the illuminated Seer, the spirit will shine like the noonday sun; in the debased victim of earthly attraction, the radiance has disappeared, for the mirror is obscured with the stains of matter. Such men deny their God, and would willingly deprive humanity of soul at one blow. . . .
Though some have considered Speusippus as inferior to Aristotle, the ‘world is nevertheless indebted to him for defining and expounding many things that Plato had left obscure in his doctrine of the Sensible and Ideal. His maxim was “The Immaterial is known by means of scientific thought, the Material by scientific perception.” (Sextus: “Math.,” vii. 145.)
Xenocrates expounded many of the unwritten theories and teachings of his master. He too held the Pythagorean doctrine, and his system of numerals and mathematics in the highest estimation. Recognizing but three degrees of knowledge — Thought, Perception, and Envisagement (or knowledge by Intuition), he made the former busy itself with all that which is beyond the heavens; Perception with things in the heavens; Intuition with the heavens themselves.
We find again these theories, and nearly in the same language in the Manava-Dharma-Sastra, when speaking — of the creation of man: “He (the Supreme) drew from his own essence the immortal breath which perisheth not in the being, and to this soul of the being he gave the Ahancara (conscience of the ego) sovereign guide.” Then he gave to that soul of the being (man) the intellect formed of the three qualities, and the five organs of the outward perception.”
These three qualities are Intelligence, Conscience, and Will; answering to the Thought, Perception, and Envisagement of Xenocrates. The relation of numbers to Ideas was developed by him further than by Speusippus, and he surpassed Plato in his definition of the doctrine of Invisible Magnitudes. Reducing them to their ideal primary elements, he demonstrated that every figure and form originated out of the smallest indivisible line. That Xenocrates held the same theories as Plato in relation to the human soul (supposed to be a number) is evident, though Aristotle contradicts this, like every other teaching of this philosopher. (“Metaph.,” 407, a. 3.) This is conclusive evidence that many of Plato’s doctrines were delivered orally, even were it shown that Xenocrates and not Plato was the first to originate the theory of indivisible magnitudes. He derives the Soul from the first Duad, and calls it a self-moved number. (Appendix to “Timaeus.”) Theophrastus remarks that he entered and eliminated this Soul-theory more than any other Platonist. He built upon it the cosmological doctrine, and proved the necessary existence in every part of the universal space of a successive and progressive series of animated and thinking though spiritual beings. (Stob.: “Ecl.,” i., 62.) The Human Soul with him is a compound of the most spiritual properties of the Monad and the Duad, possessing the highest principles of both. If, like Plato and Prodicus, he refers to the Elements as to Divine Powers, and calls them gods, neither himself nor others connected any anthropomorphic idea with the appellation. Krische remarks that he called them gods only that these elementary powers should not be confounded with the daemons of the nether world (the Elementary Spirits). (Krische: “Forsch.,” p. 322, etc.) As the Soul of the World permeates the whole Cosmos, even beasts must have in them something divine. (Clem.: “Alex. Stro.,” v., 590.) This, also, is the doctrine of Buddhists and the Hermetists, and Manu endows with a living soul even the plants and the tiniest blade of grass.
The daemons, according to this theory, are intermediate beings between the divine perfection and human sinfulness (Plutarch: “De Isid,” chap. 25, p. 360), and he divides them into classes, each subdivided in many others. But he states expressly that the individual or personal soul is the leading guardian daemon of every man, and that no daemon has more power over us than our own. Thus the Daimonion of Socrates is the god or Divine Entity which inspired him all his life. It depends on man either to open or close his perceptions to the Divine voice. Like Speusippus he ascribed immortality to the psyche, psychical body, or irrational soul. But some Hermetic philosophers have taught that the soul has a separate continued existence only so long as in its passage through the spheres any material or earthly particles remain incorporated in it; and that when absolutely purified, the latter are annihilated, and the quintessence of the soul alone becomes blended with its divine spirit (the Rational), and the two are thenceforth one.
Zeller states that Xenocrates forbade the eating of animal food, not because he saw in beasts something akin to man, as he ascribed to them a dim consciousness of God, but, “for the opposite reason, lest the irrationality of animal souls might thereby obtain a certain influence over us.” (“Plato und die Alt. Akademie.”) But we believe that it was rather because, like Pythagoras, he had had the Hindu sages for his masters and models. Cicero depicted Xenocrates utterly despising everything except the highest virtue (“Tusc.,” v., 18, 51.); and describes the stainlessness and severe austerity of his character. (Ibid. Cf. p. 559.) “To free ourselves from the subjection of sensuous existence, to conquer the Titanic elements in our terrestrial nature through the Divine one, is our problem.” Zeller makes him say: “Purity, even in the secret longings of our heart, is the greatest duty, and only philosophy and the initiation into the Mysteries help toward the attainment of this object.” (“Plato und die Alt. Akademie.” ) Crantor, another philosopher associated with the earliest days of Plato’s Academy, conceived the human soul as formed out of the primary substance of all things, the Monad or One, and the Duad or the Two. Plutarch speaks at length of this philosopher, who like his master believed in souls being distributed in earthly bodies as an exile and punishment.
Herakleides, though some critics do not believe him to have strictly adhered to Plato’s primal philosophy (cf. Ed. Zeller: “Philos. der Griech.”) taught the same ethics. Zeller presents him to us imparting, like Hicetas and Ecphantus, the Pythagorean doctrine of the diurnal rotation of the earth and the immobility of the fixed stars, but adds that he was ignorant of the annual revolution of the earth around the sun, and of the heliocentric system. (“Plato und die Alt. Akademie.”) But we have good evidence that the latter system was taught in the Mysteries, and that Socrates died for atheism, i.e., for divulging this sacred knowledge. Herakleides adopted fully the Pythagorean and Platonic views of the human soul, its faculties and its capabilities. He describes it as a luminous, highly ethereal essence. He affirms that souls inhabit the milky way before descending “into generation” or sublunary existence. His daemons or spirits are airy and vaporous bodies.
In the Epinomis is fully stated the doctrine of the Pythagorean numbers in relation to created things. As a true Platonist, its author maintains that wisdom can only be attained by a thorough inquiry into the occult nature of the creation; it alone assures us an existence of bliss after death. The immortality of the soul is greatly speculated upon in this treatise; but its author adds that we can attain to this knowledge only through a complete comprehension of the numbers; for the man, unable to distinguish the straight line from a curved one will never have wisdom enough to secure a mathematical demonstration of the invisible, i.e., we must assure ourselves of the objective existence of our soul (astral body) before we learn that we are in possession of a divine and immortal spirit. Iamblichus says the same thing; adding, moreover, that it is a secret belonging to the highest initiation. The Divine Power, he says, always felt indignant with those “who rendered manifest the composition of the icostagonus,” viz., who delivered the method of inscribing in a sphere the dodecahedron (one of the five solid figures in Geometry.).
The idea that “numbers” possessing the greatest virtue, produce always what is good and never what is evil, refers to justice, equanimity of temper, and everything that is harmonious. When the author speaks of every star as an individual soul, he only means what the Hindu initiates and the Hermetists taught before and after him, viz.: that every star is an independent planet, which, like our earth, has a soul of its own, every atom of matter being impregnated with the divine influx of the soul of the world. It breathes and lives; it feels and suffers as well as enjoys life in its way. What naturalist is prepared to dispute it on good evidence? Therefore, we must consider the celestial bodies as the images of gods; as partaking of the divine powers in their substance; and though they are not immortal in their soul-entity, their agency in the economy of the universe is entitled to divine honors, such as we pay to minor gods. The idea is plain, and one must be malevolent indeed to misrepresent it. If the author of Epinomis places these fiery gods higher than the animals, plants, and even mankind, all of which, as earthly creatures, are assigned by him a lower place, who can prove him wholly wrong? One must needs go deep indeed into the profundity of the abstract metaphysics of the old philosophies, who would understand that their various embodiments of their conceptions are, after all, based upon an identical apprehension of the nature of the First Cause, its attributes and method.
Again when the author of Epinomis locates between these highest and lowest gods (embodied souls) three classes of daemons, and peoples the universe with invisible beings, he is more rational than our modern scientists, who make between the two extremes one vast hiatus of being, the playground of blind forces. Of these three classes the first two are invisible; their bodies are pure ether and fire (planetary spirits); the daemons of the third class are clothed with vapory bodies; they are usually invisible, but sometimes making themselves concrete become visible for a few seconds. These are the earthly spirits, or our astral souls.
It is these doctrines, which, studied analogically, and on the principle of correspondence, led the ancient, and may now lead the modern Philaletheian step by step toward the solution of the greatest mysteries. On the brink of the dark chasm separating the spiritual from the physical world stands modern science, with eyes closed and head averted, pronouncing the gulf impassable and bottomless, though she holds in her hand a torch which she need only lower into the depths to show her her mistake. But across this chasm, the patient student of Hermetic philosophy has constructed a bridge.
— from Isis Unveiled by H. P. Blavatsky Volume 1:xi-xxii
The Age of the Tyrants, which produced the “Seven Wise Men,” the early Ionian School and the Pythagorean School, ended about 500 B.C. Shortly afterward Greece was invaded by the Persians under Darius and Xerxes, who left Athens in ruins and the Greeks more closely united than ever before. In 460 B.C. Pericles assumed the leadership of the progressive party, gathering around him a glittering galaxy of statesmen, philosophers, dramatists and artists. Aided by the immortal Phidias, he undertook to restore the smoke-blackened Acropolis. Slowly arose the Parthenon, with the magnificent frieze by Phidias inside the colonnades. Ten centuries later the Emperor Theodosius, dictator of the Western world, turned it into a Christian Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In 1687, while the Turks were using it as a powder magazine, a German lieutenant fired the fatal shot which reduced this crowning glory of Grecian art to a mere skeleton.
In 469 B.C. Phaenarete, the wife of an Athenian sculptor, gave birth to her son Socrates, whose fame was immortalized by his pupils, Xenophon and Plato. Despite his poverty, Socrates participated freely in all the cultural advantages of the city, from which not even the humblest citizen was debarred. After spending several years in his father’s workshop, he decided that his mission in life was not to be a sculptor of figures, but a moulder of souls. This conviction came to him after hearing that the Delphic Oracle had described him as the wisest man in Greece. Failing to understand the Oracle’s statement, yet not daring to contradict it, Socrates went among his learned friends, contrasting their knowledge with his own. He soon realized that they were all as ignorant as he, the only difference being that they were unaware of their ignorance, while he, at least, knew that he knew nothing. He therefore concluded that the Oracle had chosen him as an instrument to prick the bubble of self-deception and conceit which permitted ignorance to parade itself in the borrowed garments of wisdom.
Socrates carried out his mission with no background of wealth, social position or personal charm to aid him. In appearance he was the exact opposite of the Greek ideal of beauty, his thick lips, protruding eyes, snub nose and shambling gait making him the laughing stock of Athens. Poverty was his bosom friend, frugality his boon companion. He walked through the streets of Athens barefoot, clad in a single threadbare garment which served for summer and winter alike. Between his life at home with Xantippe and the wars of the Greeks abroad in which he participated, Socrates found little opportunity for quiet study. Despite these obstacles, he has come down in history as a model of the virtues. Xenophon wrote:
No one ever heard or saw anything wrong in Socrates. So just was he that he never injured anyone in the least; so master of himself that he never preferred pleasure to goodness; so sensible that he never erred in his choice between what was better and what was worse. In a word, he was of men the best and wisest.
The Phaedo, in which Plato describes the last hours of Socrates on earth, closes with these words: “Such, Echecrates, was the end of our associate, a man, as we should say, the best and also the wisest and most righteous of his time.”
Our knowledge of Socrates is almost altogether based on the dialogues of Plato. The best of modern scholars now regard the picture of the sage presented by Xenophon as drawn from Platonic sources. The only other source of any importance is the caricature of Socrates made by Aristophanes in the Clouds – material hardly suitable for accurate biography. John Burnet, in the first volume of his Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato, observes:
Like Shakespeare, Plato had a marvellous gift of suppressing his own personality when engaged in dramatic composition. That is why his personality is so elusive, and why that of Socrates has so often been substituted for it (p. 149).
It would be natural for an initiate — which Plato was — to “suppress his own personality,” allowing the figure of his teacher to appear as the author of the sublime philosophy which Plato recorded. Plato was only following the ancient practice of prefacing all teaching with the Buddhist formula, “Thus have I heard,” and observing the occult injunction: “That power which the disciple shall covet is that which shall make him appear as nothing in the eyes of men.”
Mr. Burnet shows how difficult it is to separate the “real” Socrates from the Platonic account. Xenophon, he points out, is far from trustworthy, and quite inadequate. Following is the view of this authority, after a quarter of a century devoted to the study of this and similar problems:
…in practice every writer fills in the outline with as much of the Platonic Socrates as happens to suit his preconceived ideas of the man. Such a procedure is hopelessly arbitrary, and can only land us in unverifiable speculations. It would be far better to say at once that we cannot know anything about Socrates, and that for us he must remain a mere x. Even so, however, the Platonic Socrates is actual enough, and he is the only Socrates we can hope to know well. If he is a fictitious character, he is nevertheless more important than most men of flesh and blood (pp. 127-8).
The outline of the life and thought of Socrates here presented is therefore of Platonic origin. This is the Socrates who has had such enormous influence on all subsequent philosophy, which was what Plato intended, and it would be fruitless to attempt to “improve” on Plato.
Socrates is frequently described as a “mystic,” the meaning of this term varying with the biographer. It is well known that he was subject to ecstatic trances, that for hours he would stand still in some subjective state, his friends knowing better than to disturb him. During the military operations of the Athenians at Potidæa, when Socrates was not quite forty years old, he remained standing motionless in one place from early morning of one day until sunrise on the next, unaffected by a hard frost during the night. He had an inner “voice,” or daemon, whose injunctions he followed. According to Plato, the daemon gave only negative admonitions, which may account for the theory of some writers that the “voice” was merely that of conscience. H. P. Blavatsky wrote that “the Daimonion of Socrates is the god or Divine Entity which inspired him all his life.” Nevertheless, because of the passive nature of this relationship, Socrates is chosen by her to illustrate the danger of untrained mediumship. “The old Grecian philosopher,” she says, “was a ‘medium’; hence he had never been initiated into the Mysteries; for such was the rigorous law.” (Isis Unveiled I, xx; II, 117.) This pure and unselfish psychic, then, was idealized by Plato, who thus showed reverence and love for the teacher of his early years by making him appear as the channel through which the ancient wisdom was revealed to the western world.
Socrates started his life-work by carefully investigating the various scientific and philosophical systems of the day, finding in Anaxagoras the nearest approach to his own concepts. As he was reaching maturity, the Sophists came into power. Their leader, Protagoras, denied the existence of the human soul, declaring that “the soul is nothing more than the sum of the different moments of thinking.” Gorgias derided morality and tried to prove by metaphysical deduction that nothing really exists. Socrates, opposing these materialistic thinkers, became the leader of a new movement in which the existence of real knowledge and the inherent dignity of the human soul were the leading ideas.
True wisdom, Socrates said, consists in the knowledge of the essence of things. This form of knowledge cannot be acquired from without, but must be sought within the soul itself. His first aim, therefore, was to train men to think, and by thinking to reach the source of knowledge within themselves.
Socrates taught the existence of a real world above the world of sense — a world subject neither to generation nor to decay. This real world he considered as the underlying Unity behind all diversity. But he also believed that, in order to know the Truth about all things, man must start by knowing himself. He taught that self-knowledge is based upon the conviction that man is an immortal entity, a soul which is a spark of the Universal World-Soul. This soul, he said, is entombed in a body, and evolves through the process of reincarnation. Taking his clue from Anaxagoras, he taught that the nous in man is able to penetrate into the region of noumena, the true source of wisdom.
It must not be concluded, however, that Socrates, and not Plato, was the author of the “Theory of Ideas.” Strictly speaking, of course, Plato was the author of none of his doctrines, which are identical with the wisdom revealed by the ancient Hindu sages. The Platonic forms or archetypes were representations of the world as it existed in Universal Mind, as pointed out in The Secret Doctrine I, 200. Mr. Burnet’s fidelity to the Platonic account of Socrates makes him suppose that the Theory of Forms or Ideas was an invention of Plato’s teacher, because the doctrine is enunciated by Socrates in the dialogues. It seems probable, however, that this highly metaphysical explanation of the nature of things originated with Plato and merely was represented by him as being taught by Socrates. Aristotle, who had no reason to conceal the truth of this matter, says in his Metaphysics that Socrates occupied himself only with questions of moral philosophy, and that Plato introduced both the name and the conception of the “Ideas.” We repeat, the Socrates here pictured, insofar as philosophical teaching is concerned, is Socrates as he appears in Plato’s writings, and not Socrates the historical character.
Socrates considered the moral and intellectual worlds as inseparable. He could not conceive of true knowledge existing apart from virtue, or of virtue without knowledge. He who knows himself, Socrates said, will of necessity perform right actions. Conversely, he who is unacquainted with his own spiritual nature will, without fail, perform wrong actions. With Socrates, as with Kant, the development of morality was the aim and end of philosophy.
Virtue, said Socrates, is based upon knowledge. He considered all knowledge to be contained in the soul, it needing only to be remembered. As Mr. Judge puts it, “Getting back the memory of other lives is really the whole of the process.” How can that knowledge be recovered save by entering into the storehouse of Manas, where the thoughts of all lives are carefully preserved?
This idea brought Socrates into immediate conflict with the Sophists. They imparted information, while Socrates tried to stimulate thought. They demanded money for their instruction; Socrates taught without remuneration. They imposed their own views upon their pupils; Socrates tried to draw out the inner convictions of his pupils and, by the process of reasoning, to replace false ideas with true. Every day he could be seen wandering through the market places and public walks of Athens, always ready for a word with friend or stranger, always eager to turn a trivial conversation into intellectual or moral channels. Often those who talked with him once came back the following day. After a while a group of young men began to speak of themselves as his pupils. This loosely connected group was the Socratic School.
His mode of instruction, known as the Socratic method, was conversational. Socrates would approach a person and ask a question. In the answer given he found material for another question, this one being a little more profound. Boring deeper and deeper below the surface of popular ideas, like a miner he exposed not only the rocks and debris of false ideas, but also the golden nuggets of true wisdom. The false ideas, which he called notions or opinions, were then discarded; the true ideas, which he called concepts, retained. Thus sorting and eliminating, he led his pupil by gradual stages to the universal truth lying within every proposition. This fundamental truth he called the essence.
Although Socrates refused to enter into politics, he entertained a high opinion of statesmanship. He performed his own civic duties with unswerving fidelity, enduring even death in order not to violate the laws of his country. Believing that the well-being of the state depends upon the integrity of its leaders, he used every opportunity to enlist the able into the service of the state, to deter the incompetent from assuming office, to awaken officials to a sense of their responsibility and to give them whatever help he could in the administration of their offices. He insisted that every man who aspired to the position of statesman should prepare himself for his calling by a thorough course of self-examination and study. He demanded an aristocracy based not upon wealth or birth but upon knowledge and virtue. Instead of the ordinary citizen-rulers, he insisted upon statesmen who were morally without reproach and who had developed the power to think for themselves. The politicians of his day believed in doing good to friends and harm to enemies. Socrates insisted upon universal brotherhood, teaching that it is wrong to injure any person, even a bitter enemy.
Plato gives the Socratic conception of political ideals in Rebublic. There Socrates says:
Unless it happen either that philosophers acquire the kingly power in states, or that those who are now called kings and potentates be imbued with a sufficient measure of genuine philosophy, that is to say, unless political power and philosophy be united in the same person … there will be no deliverance … for cities, nor yet, I believe, for the human race.
This idea is as important today as it was 2,500 years ago. Both good and evil — whether they find their expression in city, state or nation — have their roots in human character. The progress of any nation depends entirely upon the development of the nobler qualities in the citizens themselves.
The blunt criticisms of existing conditions made by Socrates brought out a horde of enemies in both the educational and political fields. Few people are able to bear an exposure of their shortcomings with equanimity. Few statesmen are able to smile when their mental and moral weaknesses are held up for public inspection. The unswerving devotion of the sage to what he considered as his mission sometimes made him careless of the resentment he might arouse. His uncompromising analysis of the government made the Athenians suspicious of his motives. His denunciation of the gods aroused the enmity of those who followed in the old ways. His new system of education fanned the anger of the Sophists to fever heat.
When Socrates was seventy years old, he was publicly accused of atheism and of exerting a harmful influence upon the youth of the land. Although realizing the seriousness of the accusation, Socrates refused to defend himself. The Apology, as we have it in Plato, is rather an unequivocal affirmation of the Socratic philosophy, than a “defense.” At his trial Socrates made no plea for pardon and offered no excuse for his actions. The result was what might have been expected. His proud and dignified bearing offended the popular tribunal, and those who might have been clement to a cringing and apologetic man were merely irritated by the poise and self-assurance of Socrates. After a short deliberation, a verdict of guilty was returned.
Asked if he were willing to give up his former mode of life if he were pardoned, he refused, although he offered to pay a small fine. The judges regarded this as incorrigible obstinacy as well as contempt of court, and sentenced him to die. He was then sent to prison for thirty days. During this period he held his customary conversations daily with his friends and pupils and maintained his usual cheerfulness and unclouded brightness of disposition. His last day on earth was spent in quiet philosophical conversation. When the evening came and the cup of hemlock was presented to him, he drank it with a strength of mind so unshaken and a resignation so complete that the grief of his friends was turned into wonder and admiration.
It is very plain that the recorded charges of irreligion and of corrupting the youth of Athens were not the real reason for the condemnation of Socrates. The accusation of disrespect for the gods, or disbelieving in the mythological accounts of their activities, could not have been so seriously regarded. The comedies of the time treat these matters very lightly, and no one was ever prosecuted for religious opinions. “Socrates,” writes H.P.B., “invariably refused to argue upon the mystery of universal being, yet no one would ever have thought of charging him with atheism, except those who were bent upon his destruction.” (Isis Unveiled II, 264.) John Burnet concludes his discussion of the problem by showing how vague were the Athenians themselves as to the offense of Socrates:
In fact, everyone speculates about the meaning of the charge, and the one fact that stands out clearly is that no one — not even the prosecutor — seems to know it. It surely follows that the charge of introducing new divinities, though stated in the indictment, was neither explained nor justified at the trial.
Mr. Burnet supposes that because the Socrates of the dialogues tried to revive the Orphic theory of the soul and the Pythagorean teachings, he had been initiated in the Orphic mysteries at an early age, before the degeneration of the secret schools. But this was rather an effort of Plato, who had been initiated, to establish in philosophy the truths of Orphicism. As H.P.B. observes, the downfall of the principal sanctuaries had already begun in Plato’s time. (Isis Unveiled II, 305.) The Athenians probably refrained from speaking clearly of the charge against Socrates because this would involve mentioning the mystery teachings. The real offense of Socrates was in teaching to his disciples the arcane doctrines of the Mysteries, betraying secrets which were “never to be revealed under the penalty of death.” But Socrates had never been initiated and is hardly to be regarded as guilty of intentional profanation. For, as H.P.B. explains, “The old sage, in unguarded moments of ‘spiritual inspiration,’ revealed that which he had never learned; and was therefore put to death as an atheist.” (Isis Unveiled II, 118.)
It seems just to observe that various other causes contributed to his condemnation. He had many enemies — among them the Athenian politicians whose faults he had exposed, and among the Sophists, whose ignorance and insincerity he had attacked. Everyone knew that Socrates thought the existing Athenian constitution was a complete failure. He had openly declared that the power of state should not be awarded by lot or election, but should be decided by the moral and intellectual qualifications of the candidates for office. But none of these reasons or all of them together, were sufficient cause for demanding his death. The charge of profanation alone provided a suitable pretext for his enemies. Even the initiate Aeschylus was accused of sacrilege and narrowly escaped being stoned to death because the Athenians believed he had exposed a portion of the Eleusinian teaching in his trilogies performed before the public.
The tragedy of Socrates teaches a mighty lesson as to the dangers of passivity, showing also the wisdom of the rule which does not permit the initiation of mediums. The medium delivers himself into the control of his “familiar spirit,” and one who thus surrenders the sovereignty of self-control to an outside force can not be trusted to keep the rules of initiation — in particular, the rule of secrecy. Socrates was the victim of both himself and his times. His death was not, from the appearance of things, just; but in the larger view — the view which comprehends the working of Karma and the necessity of the Soul to learn from experience, it may have been precisely what was needed to awaken that noble ego from its passive tendencies.
— THEOSOPHY, Vol. 27, No. 9, July, 1939, Pages 387-394
Plato and Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle
When Socrates was sixty years old, Plato, then a youth of twenty, came to him as a pupil. When Plato was sixty years old, the seventeen-year-old Aristotle presented himself, joining the Teacher’s group of “Friends,” as the members of the Academy called themselves. Aristotle was a youth of gentle birth and breeding, his father occupying the position of physician to King Philip of Macedon. Possessed of a strong character, a penetrating intellect, apparent sincerity, but great personal ambition. Aristotle was a student in the Academy during the twenty years he remained in Athens. His remarkable intellectual powers led Plato to call him the “Mind of the School.”
After the death of his teacher, Aristotle, accompanied by Xenocrates, went to the court of Hermias, lord of Atarneus, whose sister he afterward married. When Aristotle was forty years old, Philip of Macedon engaged him as tutor for his son Alexander, then thirteen, whose later exploits gained for him the title of Alexander the Great. Philip became so interested in Aristotle that he rebuilt his native city and planned a school where the latter might teach. When Alexander started out to conquer the world, learned men accompanied him to gather scientific facts. After his Persian conquest Alexander presented his former tutor with a sum equivalent to a million dollars, which enabled Aristotle to purchase a large library and continue his work under the most ideal circumstances.
When Aristotle was forty-nine years old he returned to Athens and founded his own school of philosophy. It was known as the Peripatetic School because of Aristotle’s habit of strolling up and down the shaded walks around the Lyceum while talking with his pupils. In the morning he gave discourses on philosophy to his more advanced pupils, who were known as his “esoteric” students. In the afternoon a larger circle gathered around him, to whom he imparted simpler teachings. This was known as his exoteric group.
In passing from Plato to Aristotle, we at once become conscious of a distinct change in philosophical concepts and methods. This is all the more noticeable because of our ignorance of Aristotle’s complete system. The writings which have come down to us comprise only about a quarter of his works. These are all incomplete, some of them seeming to be notes intended for elaboration in his lectures. They are often sketchy and obscure, highly technical and full of repetitions. Sometimes they are so abstruse that we are obliged to call upon the imagination to supply the missing links of his deductions. Before reaching our Western scholars his works passed through too many hands to remain immaculate. From Theophrastus they passed to Neleus, whose heirs kept them mouldering in subterranean caves for a century and a half. After that his manuscripts were copied and augmented by Apellicon of Theos, who supplied many missing paragraphs, probably from his own conjectures. Although the Arabians were acquainted with Aristotle’s works from the eighth century onward, the Christian world paid little attention to them until three centuries later. In the eleventh century, however, the Aristotelian doctrine of Forms became the bone of contention which divided philosophers into two classes which, from that day to this, have remained separate. On the one side were the Nominalists, who maintained that Universals are mere names for the common attributes of things and beings. On the other side were the Realists, whose thought crudely resembled the Platonic doctrine of Ideas as independent realities.
It seems a great historic tragedy that Aristotle, who remained under the influence of Plato for nearly twenty years, failed to continue the line of teaching begun by Pythagoras and clarified by Plato. But Aristotle was not content to be a “transmitter.” Plato claimed no originality for his ideas, giving the credit to Socrates and Pythagoras. Aristotle’s failure in this direction may be due to the fact that, while both Pythagoras and Plato were Initiates of the Mysteries, Aristotle was never initiated and depended on logical speculation for the development of his theories. This accounts for his many divergences from the teachings of Plato, whose philosophy was based upon the wisdom of the ancient East. According to Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle fell away from his teacher while Plato was still alive, whereat Plato remarked, “Aristotle has kicked me, as foals do their mothers when they are born.” While there is evidence that Aristotle never lost his high personal regard for Plato, the fact remains that in his later writings he never mentions Plato except to refute his doctrines, maintaining that the Platonic method is fatal to science.
At every period of the world’s history some philosopher has asked the eternal question: Is there, in the universe or outside of it, an underlying Reality which is eternal, immovable, unchanging? The ancient Egyptians believed, as Hermes taught: “Reality is not upon the earth, my son. Nothing on earth is real. There are only appearances. Appearance is the supreme illusion.” In the still more ancient East, only the eternal and changeless was called Reality. All that is subject to change through differentiation and decay was called Maya, or illusion.
It is the task of Philosophy to investigate this all-important question: What is real? At first glance, Aristotle’s definition of philosophy seems to agree with Plato’s. Plato described philosophy as the science of the Idea, the science which deals with noumena rather than phenomena. Aristotle defined it as the science of the universal essence of that which is real or actual. Plato, the Initiate, taught that there is one Reality lying behind the numberless differentiations of the phenomenal world. Aristotle maintained that there is a graded series of realities, each step in the series revealing more and more those universal relationships which make it an object of true knowledge. At the end of the series, he said, lies that which is no longer relative, but absolute.
Plato taught that “beyond all finite existences and secondary causes, all laws, ideas and principles, there is an Intelligence, or Mind, the first principle of all principles, the Supreme Idea upon which all other ideas are grounded, … the ultimate substance from which all things derive their being and essence, the first and efficient Cause of all the order and harmony and beauty which pervades the Universe.” This he called the “World of Ideas.”
What, actually, is this Intelligence, this Cosmic Mind of which Plato spoke with such assurance? Theosophy explains that Universal Mind is not something outside the universe, but includes all those various intelligences which were evolved in a previous period of evolution. Evolution, therefore, is the further development of those intelligences. This unfolding is the result of conscious experience, beginning in the highest state of manifested matter and descending more and more into concrete forms until the physical is reached. Then begins the ascent, plus the experience gained.
Plato held that the Ideas, the Forms of things, are self-existent, and not dependent upon the ever-changing objects of the senses. The noumenon, according to Plato, is the real, the phenomenon only appearance. Aristotle wrote extensively in criticism of Plato’s doctrine of Ideas, affirming that “no universals exist over and above the individual objects and separate from them.” He refused any substantial reality to “the unity which is predicated of many individual things.” Universal principles, he held, are real, and are the objects of our reason, as distinguished from the physical objects of sense-perception. Yet universals are real only as they exist in individuals. “It is,” he said, “apparently impossible that any of the so-called universals should exist as substance.” This conflict between Plato and Aristotle on the subject of reality led to almost infinite controversy and confusion among later philosophers. To the extent that Aristotle endows universals with reality, he is Platonic in thought. His commentators have endeavored to interpret Aristotle according to their predilection. One writer maintains that “according to Aristotle, the formal aspect of universality is conferred by the mind, and therefore, the universal, as such, does not exist in individual things, but in the mind alone.” (William Turner, History of Philosophy, p. 132.) Another points out that while both the Categories and the Metaphysics are based on the assumption of the reality of individual substances, “the Categories (cap. 5) admits that universal species and genera can be called substances, whereas the Metaphysics (Z 13) denies that a universal can be a substance at all.” Yet Aristotle is constrained to regard as “substance” the universal essence of a species of substance, “because the individual essence of an individual substance really is that substance, and the universal essence of the whole species is supposed to be indivisible and therefore identical with the individual essence of any individual of the species.” (Encyc. Brit., “Aristotle,” 11th ed.)
In maintaining this Aristotle seems to invalidate all his arguments against the existence of universals independent of particulars. It was doubtless such difficulties in the comprehension of Aristotle’s real meaning that led H.P.B. to remark upon the abstruse character of his writings, asking, “What do we know so certain about Aristotle?” (Isis Unveiled I, 320.) It seems that in spite of his demand for research into particulars, Aristotle was forced to return to the Platonic view of origins. This is indicated by H.P.B.’s explanation of his theory of Privation, Form and Matter. As Lange points out in his History of Materialism, Aristotle’s admission of the reality of the universal, in things, “leads, in its logical consequences, little as Aristotle cared to trouble himself with these, to the same exaltation of the universal over the particular which we find in Plato. For if it is once conceded that the essence of the individual lies in the species, the most essential part of the species must again lie on a still higher plane, or, in other words, the ground of the species must lie in the genus, and so on.” (I, 88.) Thus, as one of Aristotle’s translators has observed, “he is ultimately driven back to the very standpoint he derides in Platonism.” This writer, Hugh Tredennick, makes clear the internal contradictions in Aristotle’s thought:
He is emphatic that form cannot exist in separation from matter; and yet the supreme reality turns out to be a pure form. He blames the Platonists for using metaphorical language, and yet when he comes to explain the ultimate method of causation he has to describe it in terms of love or desire. The truth is that Aristotle’s thought is always struggling against Platonic influences, which nevertheless generally emerge triumphant in his ultimate conclusions. His great contribution to philosophy was on the side of method; but it was Plato, acknowledged or unacknowledged, who inspired all that was best in the thought of his great disciple. (Metaphysics, Introduction, I, xxx.)
The structural stresses and strains in the philosophy of Aristotle are due to his attempt to subject to critical analysis according to his own theory of knowledge the principles and ideas he had learned from Plato. Aristotle, however, refused to recognize supersensible cognition as the source of knowledge, while the clairvoyant vision of the soul was the only channel to truth, according to Plato. But Aristotle had not this vision; hence his dependence on sense-perception and his elevation of the physical world to the status of reality. While admitting that knowledge must be in terms of concepts, of universals — thus escaping the chaos of mere empiricism — he held that we become aware of universals only by abstracting them from the phenomena of the senses. Thus principles or universals are in things, whether they be regarded as essences or as concepts. It seems almost as though Aristotle devoted his life to the task of showing that he, Aristotle, could point the way to final truth, without being initiated into the Mysteries, and that in order to do this he constructed a theory of knowledge which did not involve initiation as a prerequisite to real knowing. For the eye of wisdom he substituted the eye of sense. Hence he is truly spoken of as the Father of Modern Science.
Plato’s science of all sciences was Dialectic, the doctrine of the Idea in Itself, just as physics is the science of the Ideas manifesting in nature, and Ethics is the science of Ideas applied to human action. Aristotle’s science of sciences was Logic, the science of analysis, the weaknesses of which form the theme of Boris Bogoslovsky’s book, The Technique of Controversy.
Plato divided knowledge into two classes, the one dealing with the noumenal, the other with the phenomenal world. The first he called real knowledge, the second, opinion. In this statement we find a clear reiteration of the forty-ninth Aphorism of Patanjali. Speaking of Wisdom — that form of knowledge which is absolutely free from error — Patanjali says: “This kind of knowledge differs from the knowledge due to testimony and inference; because, in the pursuit of knowledge based upon these, the mind has to consider many particulars and is not engaged with the general field of knowledge itself.” (Bk. I.)
Considering real knowledge as the only object worthy of the attention of the true philosopher, Plato began by postulating certain universal principles as the basis for understanding all particular phenomena. Aristotle, on the other hand, began with particulars and proceeded by gradual stages to the consideration of universal principles, declaring that “our knowledge of the individual precedes our knowledge of the universal.”
The inductive method, which Aristotle established in the Western world — still slavishly followed by scientific thinkers — is defended on the supposition that it deals with things as they are. Knowledge gained through sense-perception, on which all learning is dependent, according to Aristotle, is therefore more reliable than any a priori concept of an ideal reality.
No student of Theosophy would deny the value of reasoning on the basis of many observed particulars. But he would add that this value is lost when the observer is ignorant of the fact that the phenomenal universe is in a constant state of change. How can changing phenomena be properly evaluated unless there is something changeless with which they may be compared? Philosophy, like Physics, must have its “whereon to stand.” As Dr. A. Gordon Melvin observes in his latest book, The New Culture,
The Aristotelian tends to be cocksure. He knows what he is talking about, but he does not talk about anything of importance. For the characteristic limitation of this type of search is that it apprehends bit by bit. It knows a corner of the world as long as that corner remains stationary. But it does not know wholes or fundamentals. The veil of matter is a particularization of truth, not its full realization.
Once we admit that real knowledge does exist, our next question will be: How can it be acquired? Aristotle answered the question by declaring that real knowledge can be gained only through, although not from, the senses. The intellectual faculty discerns the principles of things in the objects of the senses, and knowledge is the product of this abstraction. There are both external and internal senses, according to Aristotle. Memory and imagination are defined as internal senses, as is also the “sense” of self-consciousness. This latter sense, he said, resides in the heart. There is no room in Aristotle’s philosophy for the doctrine of innate ideas. Considering that there is nothing in the mind which is not first an image acquired through the senses, he taught that mind itself is only the potential power to think. All objects of thought are sensuous.
Plato answered the question in another manner. He taught that the nous of man, being “generated by the divine Father,” possesses a nature akin to and homogeneous with the Divine Mind, and is therefore capable of beholding Reality. The faculty by which Reality is perceived is not a sense faculty, but one which belongs to the Soul. Theosophy describes this faculty as Intuition, by which a man may gaze directly upon ideas. Intuition is thus beyond and above the reasoning faculty, and is not dependent upon it. The use of that faculty is gained through the form of concentration described by Patanjali in his Yoga Aphorisms. When this form of concentration is perfected one is able to cognize all the inherent qualities of any object whatsoever, becoming completely identified with the thing considered and experiencing in himself all the qualities exhibited by the object. Plato knew that the best way to awaken that faculty is by turning the mind toward universal ideas; only such sublime objects of thought can produce the steadiness necessary for true contemplation.
In many cases, the teaching of Aristotle may be regarded as the exoteric version of Platonic truth. From the same ontological principles as his teacher, Aristotle reasoned to certain conclusions which to him seemed to follow necessarily, although resulting in a contradiction with one or another of Plato’s doctrines. An instance of this kind is explained by H.P.B.:
Aristotle argued that the world was eternal, and that it will always be the same; that one generation of men has always produced another, without ever having had a beginning that could be determined by our intellect. In this, his teaching, in its exoteric sense, clashed with that of Plato, who taught that “there was a time when mankind did not perpetuate itself”; but in spirit both doctrines agreed, as Plato adds immediately: “This was followed by the earthly human race, in which the primitive history was gradually forgotten and man sank deeper and deeper”; and Aristotle says: “If there has been a first man he must have been born without father or mother — which is repugnant to nature. For there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg.” The same he held good for all species, believing, with Plato, that everything before it appeared on earth had first its being in spirit. (Isis Unveiled I, 428.)
Every natural body, according to Aristotle, is brought into existence by three principles: Privation, Form, and Matter. Privation, says H.P.B., “meant in the mind of the great philosopher that which the Occultists call the prototypes impressed in the Astral Light — the lowest plane and world of Anima Mundi.” (S.D. I, 59.) Privation is not, however, “considered in Aristotelic philosophy as a principle in the composition of bodies, but as an external property in their production; for the production is a change by which the matter passes from the shape it has not to that which it assumes.” (Isis Unveiled I, 310.) As to Form, “His philosophy teaches that besides the original matter, another principle is necessary to complete the triune nature of every particle, and this is form; an invisible, but still, in an ontological sense of the word, a substantial being, really distinct from matter proper.” (Ibid. I, 312.) This substantial form Aristotle called the soul.
Plato, starting with universal principles, declared that the soul of man is derived from the Universal World-Soul, and is therefore identical in essence with that which is a radiation of the ever-unknown Absolute. Aristotle, starting from below, approached the subject of the soul by eliminating one by one those things which the soul is not. The conclusion he finally reached was that the soul is the form of the body. This soul, however, is plainly the astral or psychic principle, for Aristotle says in De Anima, “It cannot be that the body is the full realization or expression of the soul; rather on the contrary it is the soul which is the full realization of some body.” (It may be noted that the term Entelechy, which is here translated “full realization,” has been borrowed by members of the modern vitalist school of Biology to represent the formative principle of organic life.) Besides the psyche or mortal soul, Aristotle taught that there is in man a rational soul, the “creative reason,” and with Plato held this Nous to be pre-existing and eternal, although he denied that the mind-principle carries with it the knowledge gained by individual experiences in the past, speaking of metempsychosis as “absurd.” Thus, with Aristotle, the immortal element in man seems to lose its individual character on the death of the body.
Aristotle’s cosmological speculations were in many cases opposed to the teachings of Plato. Plato, for one thing, was well versed in the heliocentric system. Aristotle adopted the astronomy of Eudoxus, which taught that the world is the center of the universe, and that it is round and stationary. He described the earth as being surrounded by a sphere of air and a sphere of fire, saying that the heavenly bodies are fixed in these spheres.
In formulating his ethical system Aristotle started with Plato’s query: What is the end of life, the highest good toward which a man can aspire? Reasoning inductively, Aristotle showed that a man’s highest aim is not merely to live, for that aim he shares with the whole of nature. Nor is it to feel, for that is shared with the animals. As man is the only being in the universe who possesses a rational soul, Aristotle concluded that man’s highest aim is the activity of the soul in conformity with reason. Although Plato taught that every man should concentrate upon the particular virtue which was most necessary for him at his own stage of evolution, he declared that Justice is the highest of all virtues, being inherent in the soul itself. That idea is clarified by Mr. Judge’s statement that “all is soul and spirit ever evolving under the rule of law (or Justice) which is inherent in the whole.” Aristotle, on the other hand, taught that the highest virtue is intellectual contemplation.
True happiness, according to Plato, is found only in the performance of one’s own duty, which is determined individually by the degree of evolution achieved, and politically by the position one occupies in the State. Aristotle disagrees with Plato’s view that individual happiness should be sacrificed for the good of the community. He believes that individual happiness depends not only upon virtue, but also upon wealth, pleasure and the opportunity for leisure. He does not advocate spending those leisure hours in the cultivation of any art, as he considers that artistic craftsmanship belongs to the field of manual labor, and that professional skill in any of the arts is a disgrace to a free citizen. The ideal life, from Aristotle’s point of view, seems to be one which is given over entirely to intellectual research and contemplation — the life of a cultivated and reflective country gentlemen, remote from the workaday world.
— THEOSOPHY, Vol. 27, No. 11, September, 1939, Pages 483-491
From Plato to the Neoplatonists
From Plato to the Neoplatonists
During the lifetime of Plato there was little if any dissension among his pupils. But after his death in 347 B.C. a decided breach occurred. Aristotle set up his own school in opposition to the Platonic Academy, his pupils recognizing him as Plato’s successor. Meanwhile the loyal pupils of Plato endeavored to carry on his teachings along the lines laid down. But in the course of time even in that school, which was known successively as the Old Academy, the Middle Academy and the New Academy, the spiritual ideals of the Teacher grew dim, until they were revived by the Neoplatonists.
The Laws of Plato, a work not made public until after his death, shows how Plato gravitated more and more toward the Pythagorean doctrines in his later years. The Old Academy, therefore, is distinguished by its interpretation of Plato’s theory of Ideas in accordance with the number theory of Pythagoras.
The guidance of the Platonic School passed from Plato to his nephew Speusippus, who, according to Diogenes Laertius, received his appointment directly from the Teacher. Speusippus developed the Pythagorean aspect of the Platonic teachings, and the world is indebted to him for defining and expounding many things which Plato had left obscure in his doctrine of the Sensible and the Ideal.
Speusippus was followed by Xenocrates, who continued the Pythagorean and Platonic line without a shadow of turning. The teachings of Xenocrates also show a strong Oriental influence, and many of his ideas may be traced directly to their Eastern origin. He taught that there are three degrees of knowledge — thought, perception and envisagement (knowledge by intuition). The source of these divisions is found in that part of the Mânava Dharma Shâstra which describes the creation of man. Brahmâ, or Mahat, the Universal Soul, draws from its own essence the Spirit, the imperishable immortal breath in every human being. To the lower soul Brahmâ gives Ahânkara, the consciousness of the Ego. To this is added “the intellect formed of the three qualities” — Intelligence, Conscience, and Will, answering to the Thought, Perception and Envisagement of Xenocrates.
The relation of numbers to Ideas was developed by Xenocrates still further than by Speusippus, and according to H.P.B. he surpassed even Plato in his definition of the doctrine of Invisible Magnitudes. Xenocrates regarded the soul as a “self-moving number” and maintained the doctrine of intuition and innate ideas. He revived the ancient Buddhistic and Hermetic teachings by declaring that, as the World-Soul permeates the entire Cosmos, even the beasts have something of divinity in them. Building his whole theory of cosmogony on the theory of the World-Soul, he taught that Space is filled with a successive and progressive series of animated and thinking beings. This is a faithful reflection of the doctrine of Manu, who endows even the tiniest blade of grass with a living soul.
Xenocrates forbade the eating of animal food, not solely because of the cruelty inflicted upon the animals, but also “lest the irrationality of animal souls might thereby obtain a certain influence over us.” This theory was elaborated 1800 years later by Paracelsus. It is a clear indication that Xenocrates, like Pythagoras, had the Hindu Sages for his Masters and Models. Cicero speaks of his stainless character and Zeller records his statement that “Purity, even in the secret longings of our heart, is the greatest duty, and only Philosophy and Initiation into the Mysteries help toward the attainment of this object.”
Herakleides, friend of Plato and member of the Academy, continued the Pythagorean and Platonic doctrines in all their purity. The unknown author of the Epinomis, a Platonic treatise, says that only knowledge of numbers can prove immortality, and that the soul must be understood before the Spirit can be comprehended. Iamblichus said the same thing five hundred years later, adding, however, that the mystery of immortality is a secret belonging to the highest initiation. The Epinomis considers the universe as a living organism, every star having a soul of its own. This, again, is merely a repetition of the ancient Hermetic doctrine that every atom in the universe, being impregnated with the divine influx of the World-Soul, is a living entity which feels, suffers and enjoys life in its own way.
With the passing of Athenian independence, a change took place in the attitude and emphasis of Greek philosophy. The social philosophy represented in Plato’s Republic gave way to the individualism which seems always to emerge in times of political disintegration. Whenever possible, the true philosopher strives to make his principles the basis of common constructive activity, but during a period of rapid social decline, often his only course is to demonstrate that there is no need for the individual to suffer moral and cultural death along with the community. He can be an exemplar as a single man when the temper of the day makes the application of social ideals impossible. Such an objective naturally produces an especial emphasis on conduct, as distinguished from the metaphysical doctrines which provide the rational basis for right action. Thus, we find the “practical” philosophies of the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics becoming the leading patterns of thought after Greece had succumbed to the Macedonian and Roman conquests.
Zeno, the founder of the Stoics, was at one time a pupil of Xenocrates. About 310 B.C. he founded a school in Athens. Because of his habit of teaching in the Painted Porch, or Stoa, it became known as the Stoic School. Basing his teachings on the Socratic axiom that knowledge is virtue, Zeno made the pursuit of knowledge synonymous with the cultivation of virtue. Combining that axiom with the Aristotelian idea that all knowledge comes from sense-perception, the Stoics have come down in history as the greatest materialists of ancient days.
Although the Stoics maintained that the material alone is real, distinguishing corporeal and incorporeal being as coarser and finer degrees of matter, an examination of Zeno’s doctrines reveals the fact that the Stoics were acquainted with the three fundamental propositions of Theosophy. They acknowledged the presence of an invisible Principle, or Divine Energy, which permeates nature, and spoke of matter as but the passive agent through which that Principle expresses itself. They taught the emanation of the visible world from the invisible, and the final absorption of the universe into its original source. Seneca, one of the later Stoics, asked: “What is God? The Mind of the Universe. Where is He? In everything you see and everything you do not see.” They likewise taught that all is governed by the Law of Cause and Effect and that nothing happens by chance. They considered the soul of man as a spark of Deity which at death is returned to its original essence. They therefore trained themselves to be indifferent to death, to pleasure and pain, and to exercise their philosophy in the form of altruism and compassion. “Nature bids me to be good to mankind,” Seneca wrote. “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for benefit.” The Stoics also practiced the “nightly review” which formed part of the discipline of the Mysteries. Epictetus has left us the ethical standard adopted by the Stoic: “…that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, says nothing about himself as being anybody or knowing anything.” Seneca added that “the Stoic view of life is to be useful and helpful, and not to look after ourselves, but after the individual and common interests of mankind.”
The Epicureans differed sharply from the Stoics in their answer to the problems of life. The personality of Epicurus was almost worshipped by his pupils. His words were memorized down to the smallest detail and accepted without question. Pleasure, said Epicurus, is the highest virtue, and virtue is impossible without pleasure. Although he admitted that intellectual pleasures are the most satisfying, he did not direct the intellect toward any soul-disturbing search for fundamental truths. His message was, like that of Rousseau, a summons to return from the complexities of civilization to the natural pleasures of life. His philosophy appealed to the average man. It was, as Cicero says, at best a bourgeois philosophy, demanding neither heroism nor sacrifice, appealing primarily to a world-weary society whose ideals had already been dulled by indolence and corruption.
But despite these general tendencies, there were, as H.P.B. says, no Atheists in those days of old; no disbelievers or materialists, in the modern sense of the word, as there were no bigoted detractors. Writing in Isis Unveiled, she makes clear that even Pyrrho, the great skeptic, was not the extreme denier that he seems to modern scholars.
He who judges the ancient philosophies by their external phraseology, and quotes from ancient writings sentences seemingly atheistical, is unfit to be trusted as a critic, for he is unable to penetrate into the inner sense of their metaphysics. The views of Pyrrho, whose rationalism has become proverbial, can be interpreted only by the light of the oldest Hindu philosophy…. Notwithstanding that he and his followers are termed, from their state of constant suspense, “skeptics,” “doubters,” inquirers, and ephectics, only because they postponed their final judgment on dilemmas, with which our modern philosophers prefer dealing, Alexander-like, by cutting the Gordian knot, and then declaring the dilemma a superstition, such men as Pyrrho cannot be pronounced atheists. No more can Kapila, or Giordano Bruno, or again Spinoza, who were also treated as atheists; nor yet, the great Hindu poet, philosopher, and dialectician, Veda-Vyasa, whose principle that all is illusion — save the Great Unknown and His direct essence — Pyrrho has adopted in full. (II, 530-31.)
Side by side with the decline of Athens, a new center of culture was arising on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Two years before the death of Plato, Philip, the young King of Macedonia, had married a young novice in the Mystery School of Samothrace, and from their union sprang Alexander the Great. In 331 B.C. the walls of Alexandria were marked out, and within a comparatively short time the spirit of Athens reincarnated in the Egyptian city. The first Ptolemy, like Alexander, had been a pupil of Aristotle, and started out with the aim of making Alexandria a second Athens. The Museum, founded by Ptolemy Soter, became the world’s most famous University, and the library contained all that was best in Grecian, Roman, Jewish, Persian, Babylonian, Phoenician and Hindu literature. There were found the works of Hesiod and Homer, of Pythagoras and Plato, of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, as well as the large library which had once belonged to Aristotle. Ptolemy maintained a vast army of scholars in the Museum, who spent their time studying and translating the ancient texts. In addition, the Museum supported numerous lecturers who drew students from every part of the world. This brought about a new phase of philosophical thought, in which an attempt was made to unite the philosophies of the East and the West by showing their similarities and thus proving their common origin.
The larger Mystery Schools were by this time gradually declining, being replaced by smaller gnostic groups, each of which concentrated upon some special phase of the gnosis, or ancient wisdom. In Ephesus there was a great gnostic College, where Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and the Chaldean system were taught side by side with the Platonic philosophy. In Aegea another gnostic school devoted itself to the doctrines of Pythagoras. Egypt was full of these gnostic schools, many of which were affiliated with Judaism. The Egyptian Mysteries were being perpetuated by the Essenes in their “greater” and “lesser” Mysteries. There was also a Pythagorean branch of the Essenes, known as the Koinobi, as well as the Gymnosophists. In Alexandria a Pythagorean group called the Therapeutae spent their lives in contemplation upon the higher problems of philosophy. In addition to these various Jewish-Pythagorean groups, there were also many individual Jews who tried to show the close relationship between the Hebrew and Greek teachings. Aristobulus pointed to the similarity between the ethics of Aristotle and the Laws of Moses. Philo Judaeus sought to reconcile the Pentateuch with the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy. The translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint brought the Hebrew Scriptures within the reach of Greek scholars.
It was in some of these gnostic schools — all of which were remnants of the Mysteries — that Jesus received his knowledge. By establishing connection with the Koinobi, the Pythagorean branch of the Essenes, he was initiated into the secrets of the Egyptian Mysteries. All of the sayings attributed to Jesus are in the Pythagorean spirit, when not verbatim repetitions. An interesting corroboration of this statement will be found in Isis Unveiled II, 338. After his years of study in Egypt, Jesus returned to Judea, where he was initiated into the Chaldean Mysteries by the Nazars, or Magi, who built the ancient city of Nazara (afterward Nazareth) where they held their secret rites of initiation. The stories of Jesus’ birth, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection are all allegories belonging to the Mysteries. Even his title of Chrestos, or Christos, comes from the same source. In the days of Homer the city of Chrisa was mentioned as celebrated for its Mysteries, and the word chrestos was used to describe a disciple on probation. The same word is frequently found in the works of Plato, Demosthenes, Euripides, Aeschylus and Herodotus, clearly showing that it is not of Christian origin. In the Mysteries, when a chrestos had successfully passed through his probationary period, he was anointed with oil and given the title of Christos, the “anointed” or “purified.” Two Initiates followed after Jesus, each in his own way trying to perpetuate the Mystery Teachings. The first was Paul, who was partially, if not completely initiated. This is shown by his language, his peculiar phraseology, and the use of certain expressions known only in the Mysteries. His hair, shorn because he had taken a vow, shows that he was initiated into the Chaldean Mysteries, where the neophyte was obliged to sacrifice his locks on the altar. His calling himself a “Master Builder” indicates that he was also initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the epoptae were known by that title. If the first five verses of the twelfth Chapter of Second Corinthians are read carefully, they will be found to contain a cautious description of Paul’s initiation into the Mysteries.
The other great Initiate of the first century A.D. was Apollonius of Tyana, who studied first with the Pythagorean group at Aegea, then with the Persian Magi, and finally with the great Sages of Kashmir. Upon his return to Europe, he revitalized the great occult centers by lecturing on the Island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born, by speaking in the garden where Plato had taught, and by giving instruction in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi and in the Temple of Serapis of Alexandria. By thus keeping alive the Wisdom-Religion in the western world Apollonius prepared the way for Ammonius Saccas and the Neoplatonic Movement.
— THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 1, November, 1939, Pages 3-8
The Teachings of Plato
The Teachings of Plato
“‘Eagle! why soarest thou above that tomb?
To what sublime and starry-paven home
‘I am the image of great Plato’s spirit
Ascending heaven; Athens doth inherit
His corpse below.’”
“Out of Plato” says Ralph Waldo Emerson “come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.” All else seems ephemeral, perishing with the day. The science and mechanic arts of the present time, which are prosecuted with so much assiduity, are superficial and short-lived. When Doctor James Simpson succeeded his distinguished uncle at the University of Edinburgh, he directed the librarian to remove the text-books which were more than ten years old, as obsolete. The skilled inventions and processes in mechanism have hardly a longer duration. Those which were exhibited at the first World’s Fair in 1851 are now generally gone out of use, and those displayed at the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 are fast giving place to newer ones that serve the purposes better. All the science which is comprised within the purview of the senses, is in like manner, unstable and subject to transmutation. What appears today to be fundamental fact is very certain to be found, tomorrow, to be dependent upon something beyond. It is like the rustic’s hypothesis that the earth stands upon a rock, and that upon another rock, and so on; there being rocks all the way down. But Philosophy, penetrating to the profounder truth and including the Over-Knowledge in its field, never grows old, never becomes out of date, but abides through the ages in perennial freshness.
The style and even the tenor of the Dialogues have been criticised, either from misapprehension of their purport or from a desire to disparage Plato himself. There is a vanity for being regarded as original, or as first to open the way into a new field of thought and investigation, which is sometimes as deep-seated as a cancer and about as difficult to eradicate. From this, however, Plato was entirely free. His personality is everywhere; veiled by his philosophy.
At the time when Plato flourished, the Grecian world had undergone great revolutions. The former times had passed away. Herakles and Theseus, the heroes of the Myths, were said to have vanquished the manslaying monsters of the worship of Hippa and Poseidon, or in other words supplanting the Pelasgian period by the Hellenic and Ionian. The arcane rites of Demeter had been softened and made to represent a drama of soul-history. The Tragedians had also modified and popularized the worship of Dionysos at the Theatre-Temple of Athens. Philosophy, first appearing in Ionia had come forth into bolder view, and planted itself upon the firm foundation of psychologic truth. Plato succeeded to all, to the Synthetists of the Mysteries, the Dramatists of the Stage, to Sokrates and those who had been philosophers before him.
Great as he was, he was the outcome of the best thought of his time. In a certain sense there has been no new religion. Every world-faith has come from older ones as the result of new inspiration, and Philosophy has its source in religious veneration. Plato himself recognized the archaic Wisdom-Religion as “the most unalloyed form of worship, to the Philosophy of which, in primitive ages, Zoroaster made many additions drawn from the Mysteries of the Chaldeans.” When the Persian influence extended into Asia Minor, there sprung up philosophers in Ionia and Greece. The further progress of the religion of Mazda was arrested at Salamis, but the evangel of the Pure Thought, Pure Word, and Pure Deed was destined to permeate the Western World during the succeeding ages. Plato gave voice to it, and we find the marrow of the Oriental Wisdom in his dialectic. He seems to have joined the occult lore of the East, the conceptions of other teachers, and the under-meaning of the arcane rites, the physical and metaphysical learning of India and Asia, and wrought the whole into forms adapted to European comprehension.
His leading discourses, those which are most certainly genuine, are characterized by the inductive method. He displays a multitude of particulars for the purpose of inferring a general truth. He does not endeavor so much to implant his own conviction as to enable the hearer and reader to attain one intelligently, for themselves. He is in quest of principles, and leading the argument to that goal. Some of the Dialogues are described as after the manner of the Bacchic dithyrambic, spoken or chanted at the Theatre; others are transcripts of Philosophic conversations. Plato was not so much teaching as showing others how to learn.
His aim was to set forth the nature of man and the end of his being. The great questions of who, whence and whither, comprise what he endeavored to illustrate. Instead of dogmatic affirmation, the arbitrary ipse dixit of Pythagoras and his oath of secrecy, we have a friend, one like ourselves, familiarly and patiently leading us on to investigation as though we were doing it of our own accord. Arrogance and pedantic assumption were out of place in the Akademe.
The whole Platonic teaching is based upon the concept of Absolute Goodness. Plato was vividly conscious of the immense profundity of the subject. “To discover the Creator and Father of this universe, as well as his operation, is indeed difficult; and when discovered it is impossible to reveal him.” In him Truth, Justice and the Beautiful are eternally one. Hence the idea of the Good is the highest branch of study.
There is a criterion by which to know the truth, and Plato sought it out. The perceptions of sense fail utterly to furnish it. The law of right for example, is not the law of the strongest, but what is always expedient for the strongest. The criterion is therefore no less than the conceptions innate in every human soul. These relate to that which is true, because it is ever-abiding. What is true is always right — right and therefore supreme: eternal and therefore always good. In its inmost essence it is Being itself; in its form by which we are able to contemplate it, it is justice and virtue in the concepts of essence, power and energy.
These concepts are in every human soul and determine all forms of our thought. We encounter them in our most common experiences and recognize them as universal principles, infinite and absolute. However latent and dormant they may seem, they are ready to be aroused, and they enable us to distinguish spontaneously the wrong from the right. They are memories, we are assured, that belong to our inmost being, and to the eternal world. They accompanied the soul into this region of time, of ever-becoming and of sense. The soul, therefore, or rather its inmost spirit or intellect, 1 is of and from eternity. It is not so much an inhabitant of the world of nature as a sojourner from the eternal region. Its trend and ulterior destination are accordingly toward the beginning from which it originally set out.
The Vision of Eros in the tenth book of the Republic suggests the archaic conception generally entertained that human beings dying from the earth are presently born into new forms of existence, till the three Weird Sisters shall have finished their task and the circle of Necessity is completed. The events of each succeeding term of life take a direction from what has occurred before. Much may be imputed to heredity, but not all. This is implied in the question of the disciples to Jesus: “Which sinned, this person or his parents, that he should be born blind.” We all are conscious of some occurrence or experience that seems to pertain to a former term of life. It appears to us as if we had witnessed scenes before, which must be some recollection, except it be a remembrance inherited from ancestors, or some spiritual essence has transferred it as from a camera obscura into our consciousness. We may account it certain, at any rate, that we are inhabitants of eternity, and of that eternity Time is as a colonial possession and distinct allotment.
Every thing pertaining to this world of time and sense, is constantly changing, and whatever it discloses to us is illusive. The laws and reasons of things must be found out elsewhere. We must search in the world which is beyond appearances, beyond sensation and its illusions. There are in all minds certain qualities or principles which underlie our faculty of knowing. These principles are older than experience, for they govern it; and while they combine more or less with our observations, they are superior and universal, and they are apprehended by us as infinite and absolute. They are our memories of the life of the eternal world, and it is the province of the philosophic discipline to call them into activity as the ideals of goodness and truth and beauty, and thus awaken the soul to the cognizing of God.
This doctrine of ideas or idealities lies at the foundation of the Platonic teachings. It assumes first of all, the presence and operation of the Supreme Intelligence, an essence which transcends and contains the principles of goodness, truth, and order. Every form or ideal, every relation and every principle of right must be ever present to the Divine Thought. Creation in all its details is necessarily the image and manifestation of these ideas. “That which imparts truth to knowable things,” says Plato, “that which gives to the knower the power of knowing the truth, is the Idea of the Good, and you are to conceive of this as the Source of knowledge and truth.”
A cognition of the phenomena of the universe may not be considered as a real knowing. We must perceive that which is stable and unchanging, — that which really is. It is not enough to be able to regard what is beautiful and contemplate right conduct. The philosopher, the lover of wisdom, looks beyond these to the Actual Beauty, — to righteousness itself. This is the episteme of Plato, the superior, transcendent knowing. This knowledge is actual participating in the eternal principles themselves — the possessing of them as elements of our own being.
Upon this, Plato bases the doctrine of our immortality. These principles, the ideals of truth, beauty and goodness are eternal, and those who possess them are ever-living. The learning of them is simply the bringing of them into conscious remembrance. 2
In regard to Evil, Plato did not consider it as inherent in human nature. “Nobody is willingly evil,” he declares; “but when any one does evil it is only as the imagined means to some good end. But in the nature of things, there must always be a something contrary to good. It cannot have its seat with the gods, being utterly opposed to them, and so of necessity hovers round this finite mortal nature, and this region of time and ever-changing. Wherefore,” he declares, “we ought to fly hence.” He does not mean that we ought to hasten to die, for he taught that nobody could escape from evil or eliminate it from himself by dying. This flight is effected by resembling God as much as is possible; “and this resemblance consists in becoming just and holy through wisdom.” There is no divine anger or favor to be propitiated; nothing else than a becoming like the One, absolutely good.
When Eutyphron explained that whatever is pleasing to the gods is holy, and that that which is hateful to them is impious, Sokrates appealed to the statements of the Poets, that there were angry differences between the gods, so that the things and persons that were acceptable to some of them were hateful to the others. Everything holy and sacred must also be just. Thus he suggested a criterion to determine the matter, to which every god in the Pantheon must be subject. They were subordinate beings, and as is elsewhere taught, are younger than the Demiurgus.
No survey of the teachings of the Akademe, though only intended to be partial, will be satisfactory which omits a mention of the Platonic Love. Yet it is essential to regard the subject philosophically. For various reasons our philosopher speaks much in metaphor, and they who construe his language in literal senses will often err. His Banquet is a symposium of thought, and in no proper sense a drinking bout. He is always moral, and when in his discourse he begins familiarly with things as they existed around him, it was with a direct purpose to lead up to what they are when absolutely right. Love, therefore, which is recognized as a complacency and attraction between human beings, he declares to be unprolific of higher intellect. It is his aim to exalt it to an aspiration for the higher and better. The mania or inspiration of Love is the greatest of Heaven’s blessings, he declares, and it is given for the sake of producing the greatest blessedness. “What is Love?” asked Sokrates of the God-honored Mantineke. “He is a great daemon,” she replies, “and, like all daemons, is intermediate between Divinity and mortal. He interprets between gods and men, conveying to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods. He is the mediator who spans the chasm that divides them; in him all is bound together and through him the arts of the prophet and priest, their sacrifices and initiations and charms, and all prophecy and incantation find their way. For God mingles not with men, but through Love all the intercourse and speech of God with men, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of arts or handicrafts, is mean and vulgar. Now these spiritual essences or intermediaries are many and diverse, and one of them is Love.”
It is manifest then, that Plato emulates no mere physical attraction, no passionless friendship, but an ardent, amorous quest of the Soul for the Good and the True. It surpasses the former as the sky exceeds the earth. Plato describes it in glowing terms: “We, having been initiated and admitted to the beatific vision, journeyed with the chorus of heaven; beholding ravishing beauties ineffable and possessing transcendent knowledge; for we were freed from the contamination of that earth to which we are bound here, as an oyster to his shell.”
In short, goodness was the foundation of his ethics, and a divine intuition the core of all his doctrines.
When, however, we seek after detail and formula for a religious or philosophic system, Plato fails us. Herein each must minister to himself. The Akademe comprised method rather than system; how to know the truth, what fields to explore, what tortuous paths and pitfalls to shun. Every one is left free in heart and mind to deduce his own conclusions. It is the Truth, and not Plato or any other teacher, that makes us free. And we are free only in so far as we perceive the Supernal Beauty and apprehend the Good.
I. The Idea of Absolute Truth. This is developed in the human intelligence in its relation with the phenomenal world, as 1, the Idea of Substance; 2, the Idea of Cause; 3, the Idea of Identity; 4, the Idea of Unity; 5, the Idea of the Infinite.
II. The Idea of Absolute Beauty or Excellence. This is developed in the human intelligence in its relation to the organic world, as 1, the Idea of Proportion or Symmetry; 2, the Idea of Determinate Form; 3, the Idea of Rhythm; 4, the Idea of Fitness or Adaptation; 5, the Idea of Perfection.
III. The Idea of Absolute Good — the first cause or reason of all existence, the sun of the invisible world that pours upon all things the revealing light of truth. This idea is developed in the human intelligence in its relation to the world of moral order, as 1, the Idea of Wisdom or Prudence; 2, the Idea of Courage or Fortitude; 3, the Idea of Self-Control or Temperance; 4, the Idea of Justice. Under the head of justice is included equity, veracity, faithfulness, usefulness, benevolence and holiness.
— Alexander Wilder, Theosophy, July 1897