Archive for the ‘Plato’ Category
HROUGHOUT Plato’s dialogues, and especially in the Phaedo (which describes Socrates’ final conversations), the celestial philosopher presents many logical arguments and proofs for the immortality of the human soul. He also implies that we ought to be convinced that the soul is immortal. Yet, in truth, his arguments and proofs are not fully persuasive at the logical level. Sometimes the premises of his arguments are open to question, and other times the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premises.
This has puzzled many scholars, and some have gone to great lengths to reconcile Plato’s assertion of confidence with the seemingly flawed arguments. The logical gaps are plain enough that surely even Plato sees them. So what’s going on?
I think the answer partly lies in Plato’s unique teaching method, which we might sum up in two words: dialectic and anamnesis. Dialectic is the term Plato uses for his general method for approaching philosophical and moral problems. Through the conversations between Socrates and other characters in the dialogues, Plato likes to approach problems methodically and analytically, often using specific techniques like division, collection or aggregation, contradiction, and so on. His real aim, however, is not by such methods to come up with a specific logical answer. In fact, we find that Plato’s dialogues often end in a condition of what is called aporia, or perplexity, in which none of the various solutions proposed seem correct or fully satisfactory.
But that is precisely Plato’s purpose. For him the real aim of dialectic is not to deduce an answer, but to focus ones attention, intentions, and Intellect on a problem. In making that strenuous mental effort, one may find that a spontaneous insight into the problem being considered arises. One catches a fleeting but definitive glimpse of some important thing, say the beauty of Moral Virtue.
This flash of insight Plato calls anamnesis. Etymologically, this means recollection or un-forgetting (an = not, amnesis = forgetting). Taken literally, it implies that the insight is not something seen for the first time, but is actually a remembering of a truth previously known. That has implications, some perhaps controversial, concerning other aspects of Plato’s theories, which there is no need to consider here. It suffices to note that a hallmark formula for Plato is: perform dialectic to produce anamnesis.
With this principle in mind, Plato’s seemingly less-than-perfect arguments for the soul’s immortality make more sense. We wouldn’t expect him to prove by deductive logic that the soul is immortal. Rather, it is more characteristic of his modus operandi to use the outward form of a logical argument as an exercise of dialectic, the real aim being to have us see the true nature of the soul. And in doing this, we may see that the soul is divine and immortal.
Again, I present this only as a proposal or conjecture. The best or perhaps only way to verify it is to study Plato’s arguments, become engaged with them, and see if they may indeed elicit some experiential insight into the soul’s divine nature.
As noted, this view comports with Plato’s general didactic method (whereas an attempt to logically prove the soul’s immortality would not). Some corroboratory evidence comes from Plotinus, in Enneads 4.7. In this treatise, Plotinus reviews arguments for the immortality of the soul. In section 4.7.1 he says:
To know the nature of a thing we must observe it in its unalloyed state, since any addition obscures the reality. Clear, then look: or, rather, let a man first purify himself and then observe: he will not doubt his immortality when he sees himself thus entered into the pure, the Intellectual. For, what he sees is an Intellectual-Principle looking on nothing of sense, nothing of this mortality, but by its own eternity having intellection of the eternal: he will see all things in this Intellectual substance, himself having become an Intellectual Kosmos and all lightsome, illuminated by the truth streaming from The Good, which radiates truth upon all that stands within that realm of the divine. (Plotinus, Enneads 4.7.10; MacKenna translation)
This comes just after Plotinus has referred to some of Plato’s logical arguments for the soul’s immortality. Plotinus’ language is, as is often the case, a bit obscure, but it seems he is basically saying: “If you want to know without doubt that the soul is immortal, see it.” (cf. “Know Thyself”), which I take to generally support the claim I’m raising.
It also seems fitting to note a comment Cicero makes in Book 1 of the Tusculan Disputations. (The latter part of this Book is in many respects a commentary on Plato’s Phaedo.)
Even if Plato gave no reasons for his belief—see how much confidence I have in the man—he would break down my opposition by his authority alone; but he brings forward so many reasons as to make it perfectly obvious that he is not only fully persuaded himself, but desirous of convincing others. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.21; Peabody translation.)
In other words, even if his arguments are not fully convincing at the logical level, we sense the conviction of Plato in the skillful and earnest way that he presents the issue to us, and this itself is evidence that his beliefs in the soul’s immortality are correct.
I hope in future posts to list, categorize and summarize all of Plato’s arguments for the soul’s immortality, and perhaps to explore some of them in detail. It might be mentioned that the four main arguments in the Phaedo for the immortality of the soul are the cyclicity argument, the recollection argument, the affinity argument, and the Form of Life argument. A good summary of these can be found here. Other major proofs Plato presents include the self-moved mover argument of Phaedrus 245c–246a, and the vitiating principle argument of Republic 10.608e–10.611a.
A few hours after writing the above, the thought occurred — in connection with a different project — to consult Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology. There I was surprised to learn that its full title is actually The Platonic Theology: On the Immortality of the Soul (Theologia Platonica De immortalitate animorum). He says much of value in the proem, for example:
Whatever subject he [Plato] deals with, be it ethics, dialectic, mathematics or physics, he quickly brings it round, in a spirit of utmost piety, to the contemplation and worship of God. He considers man’s soul to be like a mirror in which the image of the divine countenance is readily reflected; and in his eager hunt for God, as he tracks down every footprint, he everywhere turns hither and thither to the form of the soul. For he knows that this is the most important meaning of those famous words of the oracle, “Know thyself,” namely “If you wish to be able to recognize God, you must first learn to know yourself.” So anyone who reads very carefully the works of Plato that I translated in their entirety into Latin some time ago will discover among many other matters two of utmost importance: the worship of God with piety and understanding, and the divinity of souls. On these depend our whole perception of the world, the way we lead our lives, and all our happiness. (Marsilio Ficino, The Platonic Theology, proem; Allen translation)
Ficino also says that “in the sphere of moral philosophy one must purify the soul until its eye becomes unclouded and it can see the divine light and worship God,” and that it is a mistake to “divorce the study of philosophy from sacred religion.” (Ibid.)
Divinus Plato: Is Plato a Religious Figure?
SHOULD we view Plato only as a philosopher, or may we also approach him as a religious figure: a prophet, sage, priest, or shaman, who is in some sense divinely inspired, and whom a superintending Providence supplied for the benefit of humanity? Historically, the view of Plato as a religious figure has been common, but in recent centuries it has been dismissed by a prevailing narrow rationalism in academic and scholarly circles. Perhaps it is time to re-open the question. We review arguments supporting the proposition that Plato is a figure with religious significance. The aim is not to settle the question here, but to pave the way for continued discussion. (Abstract)
Read full paper here: http://goo.gl/iWP8Mm (if clicking link doesn’t work, try right-click, Save link as)
S described in the previous post, Porphyry reports that, after Plotinus died, Amelius asked an oracle of Apollo (generally assumed to be that of Delphi) about the fate of Plotinus’ soul. In section 22 of Life of Plotinus, Porphyry supplies the oracular response. It isn’t fully clear whether this eulogy of Plotinus was actually composed by the oracle. Another view is that Plotinus’ associates composed it, and then submitted it to the oracle for approval. In either case, it is clearly a work of some interest and importance.
In section 23 of Life of Plotinus, Porphyry goes on to supply an excellent summary of the oracle, and this is also of interest. For one thing, it is here that Porphyry mentions Plotinus’ mystical experiences of Union with the Absolute. First Porphyry’s remarks are supplied below, then we will make several observations concerning his remarks.
Note, incidentally, that Plotinus’ discussion of mystical experiences in the Enneads (e.g., in 1.6, On Beauty) strongly influenced St. Augustine, who reports his own such experiences in the Confessions.
The translation of Stephen MacKenna (1917) is used, except that passages which quote verbatim or closely paraphrase the oracle are placed in italics. (Comments in square brackets are mine.)
Good and kindly, singularly gentle and engaging: thus the oracle presents him, and so in fact we found him. Sleeplessly alert — Apollo tells — pure of soul, ever striving towards the divine which he loved with all his being, he laboured strenuously to free himself and rise above the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life:
Ἐν δὴ τούτοις εἴρηται μὲν ὅτι ἀγανὸς γέγονε καὶ ἤπιος καὶ πρᾶός γε μάλιστα καὶ μείλιχος, ἅπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς οὕτως ἔχοντι συνῄδειμεν· εἴρηται δ᾽ ὅτι ἄγρυπνος καὶ καθαρὰν τὴν ψυχὴν ἔχων καὶ ἀεὶ σπεύδων πρὸς τὸ θεῖον, οὗ διὰ πάσης τῆς ψυχῆς ἤρα, ὅτι τε πάντ᾽ ἐποίει ἀπαλλαγῆναι, πικρὸν κῦμ᾽ ἐξυπαλύξαι τοῦ αἱμοβότου τῇδε βίου.
and this is why to Plotinus — God-like and lifting himself often, by the ways of meditation and by the methods Plato teaches in the Banquet [Symposium], to the first and all-transcendent God — that God appeared, the God who has neither shape nor form but sits enthroned above the Intellectual-Principle and all the Intellectual-Sphere.
Οὕτως δὲ μάλιστα τούτῳ τῷ δαιμονίῳ φωτὶ πολλάκις ἐνάγοντι ἑαυτὸν εἰς τὸν πρῶτον καὶ ἐπέκεινα θεὸν ταῖς ἐννοίαις καὶ κατὰ τὰς ἐν τῷ Συμποσίῳ ὑφηγημένας ὁδοὺς τῷ Πλάτωνι ἐφάνη ἐκεῖνος ὁ θεὸς ὁ μήτε μορφὴν μήτε τινὰ ἰδέαν ἔχων, ὑπὲρ δὲ νοῦν καὶ πᾶν τὸ νοητὸν ἱδρυμένος.
There was shown to Plotinus the Term [i.e., goal] ever near: for the Term, the one end, of his life was to become Uniate [i.e., united with God], to approach to the God over all: and four times, during the period I passed with him, he achieved this Term, by no mere latent fitness but by the ineffable Act.
To this God, I also declare, I Porphyry, that in my sixty-eighth year I too was once admitted and entered into Union.
Ὧι δὴ καὶ ἐγὼ Πορφύριος ἅπαξ λέγω πλησιάσαι καὶ ἑνωθῆναι ἔτος ἄγων ἑξηκοστόν τε καὶ ὄγδοον. Ἐφάνη γοῦν τῷ Πλωτίνῳ σκοπὸς ἐγγύθι ναίων. Τέλος γὰρ αὐτῷ καὶ σκοπὸς ἦν τὸ ἑνωθῆναι καὶ πελάσαι τῷ ἐπὶ πᾶσι θεῷ. Ἔτυχε δὲ τετράκις που, ὅτε αὐτῷ συνήμην, τοῦ σκοποῦ τούτου ἐνεργείᾳ ἀρρήτῳ καὶ οὐ δυνάμει.
We are told that often when he was leaving the way, the Gods set him on the true path again, pouring down before him a dense shaft of light; here we are to understand that in his writing he was overlooked and guided by the divine powers.
Καὶ ὅτι λοξῶς φερόμενον πολλάκις οἱ θεοὶ κατεύθυναν θαμινὴν φαέων ἀκτῖνα πορόντες, ὡς ἐπισκέψει τῇ παρ᾽ ἐκείνων καὶ ἐπιβλέψει γραφῆναι τὰ γραφέντα, εἴρηται.
In this sleepless vision within and without, the oracle says, your eyes have beheld sights many and fair not vouchsafed to all that take the philosophic path: contemplation in man may sometimes be more than human, but compare it with the True-Knowing of the Gods and, wonderful though it be, it can never plunge into the depths their divine vision fathoms.
Ἐκ δὲ τῆς ἀγρύπνου ἔσωθέν τε καὶ ἔξωθεν θέας ἔδρακες, φησίν, ὄσσοις πολλά τε καὶ χαρίεντα, τά κεν ῥέα οὔτις ἴδοιτο ἀνθρώπων τῶν φιλοσοφίᾳ προσεχόντων. Ἡ γὰρ δὴ τῶν ἀνθρώπων θεωρία ἀνθρωπίνης μὲν ἂν γένοιτο ἀμείνων· ὡς δὲ πρὸς τὴν θείαν γνῶσιν χαρίεσσα μὲν ἂν εἴη, οὐ μὴν ὥστε τὸ βάθος ἑλεῖν ἂν δυνηθῆναι, ὥσπερ αἱροῦσιν οἱ θεοί.
Thus far the Oracle recounts what Plotinus accomplished and to what heights he attained while still in the body: emancipated from the body, we are told how he entered the celestial circle where all is friendship, tender delight, happiness, and loving union with God, where Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, the sons of God, are enthroned as judges of souls — not, however, to hold him to judgement but as welcoming him to their consort
Ταῦτα μὲν οὖν ὅ τι ἔτι σῶμα περικείμενος ἐνήργει καὶ τίνων ἐτύγχανε δεδήλωκε. Μετὰ δὲ τὸ λυθῆναι ἐκ τοῦ σώματος ἐλθεῖν μὲν αὐτόν φησιν εἰς τὴν δαιμονίαν ὁμήγυριν, πολιτεύεσθαι δ᾽ ἐκεῖ φιλότητα, ἵμερον, εὐφροσύνην, ἔρωτα ἐξημμένον τοῦ θεοῦ, τετάχθαι δὲ καὶ τοὺς λεγομένους δικαστὰς τῶν ψυχῶν, παῖδας τοῦ θεοῦ, Μίνω καὶ Ῥαδάμανθυν καὶ Αἰακόν, πρὸς οὓς οὐ δικασθησόμενον οἴχεσθαι, συνεσόμενον δὲ τούτοις, οἷς καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι ὅσοι ἄριστοι.
to which are bidden spirits pleasing to the Gods — Plato, Pythagoras, and all the people of the Choir of Immortal Love, there where the blessed spirits have their birth-home and live in days filled full of joyous festival and made happy by the Gods.
Σύνεισι δὲ τοιοῦτοι Πλάτων, Πυθαγόρας ὁπόσοι τε ἄλλοι χορὸν στήριξαν ἔρωτος ἀθανάτου· ἐκεῖ δὲ τὴν γένεσιν τοὺς ὀλβίστους δαίμονας ἔχειν βίον τε μετιέναι τὸν ἐν θαλείαις καὶ εὐφροσύναις καταπεπυκνωμένον καὶ τοῦτον διατελεῖν καὶ ὑπὸ θεῶν μακαριζόμενον.
1. Porphyry tells us that Plotinus had at least four experiences of union with the Absolute, or God — in Platonic terms, the Form of the Good (Republic 6.507–6.509), or in Neoplatonic terms, the One beyond Universal Intellect (Nous) and beyond Being itself. In the literature of Western mysticism, this ultimate mystical experience is considered the fullest form of the beatific vision (literally, vision of the Good) one may have in this life. (We are also told here that Porphyry himself attained this experience).
Some esoteric and theosophical authors claim that Plotinus was one of a series of initiates into the “Greater Mysteries,” by which means he attained membership in the so-called Great White Brotherhood of Ascended Masters (whose other putative members include the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.) Whether there is such a thing as an Ascended Master is a question beyond our capacity to answer here. (It would certainly go against Christian doctrine to place Jesus in this category, which would seem to imply status as a highly evolved human being, and not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity). But in any case Porphyry makes it very clear that the Greater Mysteries into which Plotinus was ‘initiated’ — and by which means he attained the beatific vision — are not hidden, arcane rituals the existence of which are only revealed to a select group.
Quite the contrary, Porphyry explicitly states that Plotinus reached exalted mystical states using the method presented in Plato’s dialogue, the Banquet (or, the Symposium). He’s clearly referring to the second speech of the prophetess, Diotima of Mantinea, which Socrates relates, called the Ladder of Love (Symposium 211–212).
This contemplative exercise begins with conscious appreciation of physical beauty in some person or thing, and proceeds by degrees to eventually contemplate Beauty Absolute, and from there the source of Beauty Absolute, which is God.
This contemplative method is not a secret, except insofar as it is hidden in plain sight — for to grasp the significance of this section of the widely read work, Symposium, does indeed require rare earnestness and dedication in a spiritual seeker.
2. It perhaps reassures us to learn from Porphyry that, despite Plotinus’ remarkable purity of soul, he was in fact human, and, like us, subject to trials and tribulations. We should not, therefore, suppose that Plotinus’ merely sailed through life effortlessly to his goal; he experienced the waves and storms, too.
As noted in the previous post, the oracle draws parallels between Plotinus’ life and the adversities which beset Odysseus on the raft before he reached the happy land of the Phaeacians (Odyssey, Book 5).
3. But we also learn how Plotinus overcame these difficulties. The oracle explains that, when Plotinus seemed in danger of taking a wrong direction, benevolent gods sent to him “shafts of dense light,” by which means his course was made true again. What precisely this means — how literally or how metaphorically we take this description — is not revealed. Porphyry understands it as referring to inspired guidance Plotinus received when writing. But perhaps something more is meant: that, in times of doubt or discouragement, Plotinus was sent those sorts of experiences which we call epiphanies. We have all had such experiences, and know how beneficial they are. Sometimes they are manifest as physical light — the breaking of a sunbeam through a cloud to illumine the landscape; or an object, bathed in sunlight, suddenly taking on new meaning or significance. Then there are epiphanies that take the form of insights or moments of mental clarity, revelations or unveilings.
Such epiphanies play a triple role:
- They often have specific content — a definite new insight or revelation.
- They may serve to alter the nature of our mental state generally — for example, taking our attention away from unimportant and distracting thoughts, to remember again (anamnesis) that whole transcendent domain, that of Truth, Beauty, and Moral Goodness; and so redirecting our attention and intentions to these domains, upon which meaning and true success in life so intimately depend.
- We often experience these events as, literally, God-sends; we feel attended to and loved by God; we feel reassured, grateful, thankful, our faith renewed.
4. But if such experiences are what the oracle meant, we should note that Plotinus did not simply wait passively for them. Instead he is characterized as heroically vigilant — ever careful lest his attention, inner or outer, fall asleep. So too should we, when we feel ourselves, like Odysseus toss about and at the mercy of life’s storms, strive to remain alert to those graces, epiphanies, and “beams of light” which God does send!
First draft (14 Apr 2015)
Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.), Porphyry On the Life of Plotinus and the Order of His Works. In: Arthur Hilary Armstrong, Plotinus: Enneads. 7 vols. Loeb Edition. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA, 1966. (pp. 2–90)
MacKenna, Stephen (tr.), Porphyry: On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of his Work. In: Stephen MacKenna (tr.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 1st edition. London, 1917. Accessed from Internet Sacred Text Archive, April 10, 2015. <sacred-texts.com/cla/plotenn/index.htm>
Porphyry (author); Adolf Kirchoff? (ed.). Περι Του Πλωτινου Βιου Και Τησ Ταξεωσ Των Βιβλιων Αυτου. Accessed from remacle.org, April 10, 2015. <remacle.org/bloodwolf/philosophes/plotin/vieplotin.htm>
OME time after his death, one of Plotinus’ pupils, Amelius, consulted the oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi concerning the fate of his master’s soul. Porphyry (to whom we owe the transmission of the Enneads), recorded the oracular response in On the Life of Plotinus 22. Shown below is the prose translation of Stephen MacKenna, Thomas Taylor’s poetic version, and the Greek text. A followup post relates Porphyry’s analysis of the oracle and supplies some psychological observations.
Stephen MacKenna Translation
Source: Stephen MacKenna (‘Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus‘, The Enneads, vol. 1, London, 1917; Section 22 = pp. 22–23)
22. … Apollo was consulted by Amelius, who desired to learn where Plotinus’ soul had gone. And Apollo, who uttered of Socrates that great praise, ‘Of all men, Socrates the wisest’–you shall hear what a full and lofty oracle Apollo rendered upon Plotinus.
I raise an undying song, to the memory of a gentle friend,
a hymn of praise woven to the honey-sweet tones of my lyre
under the touch of the golden plectrum.
The Muses, too, I call to lift the voice with me
in strains of many-toned exultation,
in passion ranging over all the modes of song:
even as of old they raised the famous chant to the glory of Aeacides
in the immortal ardours of the Homeric line.
Come, then, Sacred Chorus,
let us intone with one great sound the utmost of all song,
I Phoebus, Bathychaites, singing in the midst.
Celestial! Man at first but now nearing the diviner ranks!
the bonds of human necessity are loosed for you
and, strong of heart, you beat your eager way
from out the roaring tumult of the fleshly life
to the shores of that wave-washed coast 
free from the thronging of the guilty,
thence to take the grateful path of the sinless soul:
where glows the splendour of God,
where Right is throned in the stainless place,
far from the wrong that mocks at law.
Oft-times as you strove to rise above
the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life,
above the sickening whirl, toiling
in the mid-most of the rushing flood
and the unimaginable turmoil,
oft-times, from the Ever-Blessed,
there was shown to you the Term still close at hand:
Oft-times, when your mind thrust out awry
and was like to be rapt down unsanctioned paths,
the Immortals themselves prevented, guiding you
on the straightgoing way to the celestial spheres,
pouring down before you a dense shaft of light
that your eyes might see from amid the mournful gloom.
Sleep never closed those eyes:
high above the heavy murk of the mist you held them;
tossed in the welter, you still had vision;
still you saw sights many and fair
not granted to all that labour in wisdom’s quest.
But now that you have cast the screen aside,
quitted the tomb that held your lofty soul,
you enter at once the heavenly consort:
where fragrant breezes play,
where all is unison and winning tenderness and guileless joy,
and the place is lavish of the nectar-streams the unfailing Gods bestow,
with the blandishments of the Loves,
and delicious airs, and tranquil sky:
where Minos and Rhadamanthus dwell,
great brethren of the golden race of mighty Zeus;
where dwell the just Aeacus,
and Plato, consecrated power,
and stately Pythagoras
and all else that form the Choir of Immortal Love,
that share their parentage with the most blessed spirits,
there where the heart is ever lifted in joyous festival.
O Blessed One,
you have fought your many fights;
now, crowned with unfading life,
your days are with the Ever-Holy.
let us stay our song and the subtle windings of our dance;
thus much I could but tell, to my golden lyre,
of Plotinus, the hallowed soul.
1. Armstrong (p. 66, n1) notes: “The oracle is full of Homeric tags: here we have a reminiscence of Odyssey 5, 399,” and “this whole passage seems to be based on an allegorical interpretation of Odysseus’s swim ashore after the wreck of his raft.” Cf. Enneads 1.6.8 for Odysseus’ voyages as an allegory of the soul’s journey. Source: Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.). Plotinus. The Enneads, in 7 vols., (Loeb Classical Library), vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass., 1966 .
Thomas Taylor translation
Source: Thomas Taylor, Select Works of Plotinus. London, 1817; repr. 1895 (G. R. S. Mead, ed.), pp. lxvi–lxvii.
To strains immortal full of heav’nly fire,
My harp I tune well strung with vocal wire ;
Dear to divinity a friend I praise,
Who claims those notes a God alone can raise.
For him a God in verse mellifluous sings,
And heats with golden rod the warbling strings.
Be present Muses, and with general voice
And all the powers of harmony rejoice ;
Let all the measures of your art be try’d
In rapt’rous sounds, as when Achilles dy’d.
When Homer’s melody the band inspir’d,
And god-like furies every bosom fir’d.
And lo ! the sacred choir of Muses join,
And in one general hymn their notes combine.
I Phoebus in the midst, to whom belong
The sacred pow’rs of verse, begin the song.
Genius sublime! once bound in mortal ties,
A daemon now and more than mortals wise.
Freed from those members that with deadly weight
And stormy whirl enchain’d thy soul of late;
O’er Life’s rough ocean thou hast gain’d that shore,
Where storms molest and change impairs no more;
And struggling thro’ its deeps with vig’rous mind,
Pass’d the dark stream, and left base souls behind.
Plac’d where no darkness ever can obscure,
Where nothing enters sensual and impure ;
Where shines eternal God’s unclouded ray,
And gilds the realms of intellectual day.
Oft merg’d in matter, by strong leaps you try’d
To bound aloft, and cast its folds aside ;
To shun the bitter stream of sanguine life,
Its whirls of sorrow, and its storm of strife.
While in the middle of its boist’rous waves
Thy soul robust, the deep’s deaf tumult braves;
Oft beaming from the Gods thy piercing sight
Beheld in paths oblique a sacred light:
Whence rapt from sense with energy divine,
Before thine eyes immortal splendours shine;
Whose plenteous rays in darkness most profound,
Thy steps directed and ilium in ‘d round.
Nor was the vision like the dreams of sleep,
But seen while vigilant you brave the deep;
While from your eyes you shake the gloom of night,
The glorious prospects burst upon your sight;
Prospects beheld but rarely by the wise,
Tho’ men divine and fav’rites of the skies.
But now set free from the lethargic folds,
By which th’ indignant soul dark matter holds;
The natal bonds deserted, now you soar,
And rank with daemon forms a man no more.
In that blest realm where love and friendship reign,
And pleasures ever dwell unmixt with pain;
Where streams ambrosial in immortal course
Irriguous flow, from deity their source.
No dark’ning clouds those happy skies assail,
And the calm aether knows no stormy gale.
Supremely blest thy lofty soul abides,
Where Minos and his brother judge presides;
Just AEacus and Plato the divine,
And fair Pythag’ras there exalted shine;
With other souls who form the general choir
Of love immortal, and of pure desire ;
And who one common station are assign’d,
With genii of the most exalted kind.
Thrice happy thou! who, life’s long labours past,
With holy daemons dost reside at last;
From body loosen’d and from cares at rest,
Thy life most stable, and divine thy feast.
Now ev’ry Muse who for Plotinus sings,
Here cease with me to tune the vocal strings;
For thus my golden harp, with art divine,
Has told—Plotinus! endless bliss is thine.
This is from the French/Greek online edition of the Enneads at the Ancient Greek and Latin website of Philippe Remacle et al. The source is possibly Creuzer (1835) or Kirchoff (1856).Line numbers have been added and a couple of vowels changed to conform to the Loeb edition (Armstrong, 1966).
Ὁ γὰρ δὴ Ἀπόλλων ἐρομένου τοῦ Ἀμελίου,
ποῦ ἡ Πλωτίνου ψυχὴ κεχώρηκεν, ὁ τοσοῦτον
εἰπὼν περὶ Σωκράτους·
Ἀνδρῶν ἁπάντων Σωκράτης σοφώτατος,
ἐπάκουσον, ὅσα καὶ οἷα περὶ Πλωτίνου ἐθέσπισεν·
Ἄμβροτα φορμίζειν ἀναβάλλομαι ὕμνον ἀοιδῆς
ἀμφ᾽ ἀγανοῖο φίλοιο μελιχροτάτοισιν ὑφαίνων
φωναῖς εὐφήμου κιθάρης χρυσέῳ ὑπὸ πλήκτρῳ.
Κλῄζω καὶ Μούσας ξυνὴν ὄπα γηρύσασθαι
παμφώνοις ἰαχαῖσι παναρμονίαισί τ᾽ ἐρωαῖς,
οἷον ἐπ᾽ Αἰακίδῃ στῆσαι χορὸν ἐκλήιχθεν
ἀθανάτων μανίαισιν Ὁμηρείαισί τ᾽ ἀοιδαῖς.
Ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε Μουσάων ἱερὸς χορός, ἀπύσωμεν
εἰς ἓν ἐπιπνείοντες ἀοιδῆς τέρματα πάσης·
ὕμμι καὶ ἐν μέσσαισιν ἐγὼ Φοῖβος βαθυχαίτης·
δαῖμον, ἄνερ τὸ πάροιθεν, ἀτὰρ νῦν δαίμονος αἴσῃ
θειοτέρῃ πελάων, ὅτ᾽ ἐλύσαο δεσμὸν ἀνάγκης
ἀνδρομέης, ῥεθέων δὲ πολυφλοίσβοιο κυδοιμοῦ
ῥωσάμενος πραπίδεσσιν ἐς ᾐόνα νηχύτου ἀκτῆς
νήχε᾽ ἐπειγόμενος δήμου ἄπο νόσφιν ἀλιτρῶν
στηρίξαι καθαρῆς ψυχῆς εὐκαμπέα οἴμην,
ἧχι θεοῖο σέλας περιλάμπεται, ἧχι θέμιστες
ἐν καθαρῷ ἀπάτερθεν ἀλιτροσύνης ἀθεμίστου.
Καὶ τότε μὲν σκαίροντι πικρὸν κῦμ᾽ ἐξυπαλύξαι
αἱμοβότου βιότοιο καὶ ἀσηρῶν εἰλίγγων
ἐν μεσάτοισι κλύδωνος ἀνωίστου τε κυδοιμοῦ
πολλάκις ἐκ μακάρων φάνθη σκοπὸς ἐγγύθι ναίων.
Πολλάκι σεῖο νόοιο βολὰς λοξῇσιν ἀταρποῖς
ἱεμένας φορέεσθαι ἐρωῇσι σφετέρῃσιν
ὀρθοπόρους ἀνὰ κύκλα καὶ ἄμβροτον οἶμον ἄειραν
ἀθάνατοι θαμινὴν φαέων ἀκτῖνα πορόντες
ὄσσοισιν δέρκεσθαι ἀπαὶ σκοτίης λυγαίης.
Οὐδέ σε παμπήδην βλεφάρων ἔχε νήδυμος ὕπνος·
ἀλλ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀπὸ βλεφάρων πετάσας κληῖδα βαρεῖαν
ἀχλύος ἐν δίνῃσι φορεύμενος ἔδρακες ὄσσοις
πολλά τε καὶ χαρίεντα, τά κεν ῥέα οὔτις ἴδοιτο
ἀνθρώπων, ὅσσοι σοφίης μαιήτορες ἔπλευν.
Νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ σκῆνος μὲν ἐλύσαο, σῆμα δ᾽ ἔλειψας
ψυχῆς δαιμονίης, μεθ᾽ ὁμήγυριν ἔρχεαι ἤδη
δαιμονίην ἐρατοῖσιν ἀναπνείουσαν ἀήταις,
ἔνθ᾽ ἔνι μὲν φιλότης, ἔνι δ᾽ ἵμερος ἁβρὸς ἰδέσθαι,
εὐφροσύνης πλείων καθαρῆς, πληρούμενος αἰὲν
ἀμβροσίων ὀχετῶν θεόθεν ὅθεν ἐστὶν ἐρώτων
πείσματα, καὶ γλυκερὴ πνοιὴ καὶ νήνεμος αἰθήρ,
χρυσείης γενεῆς μεγάλου Διὸς ἧχι νέμονται
Μίνως καὶ Ῥαδάμανθυς ἀδελφεοί, ἧχι δίκαιος
Αἰακός, ἧχι Πλάτων, ἱερὴ ἴς, ἧχί τε καλὸς
Πυθαγόρης ὅσσοι τε χορὸν στήριξαν ἔρωτος
ἀθανάτου, ὅσσοι γενεὴν ξυνὴν ἐλάχοντο
δαίμοσιν ὀλβίστοις, ὅθι τοι κέαρ ἐν θαλίῃσιν
αἰὲν ἐυφροσύνῃσιν τ᾽ ἰαίνεται. Ἆ μάκαρ, ὅσσους
ὀτλήσας ἀριθμούς ἀέθλων μετὰ δαίμονας ἁγνοὺς
πωλέεαι ζαμενῇσι κορυσσάμενος ζωῇσι.
Στήσωμεν μολπήν τε χοροῦ τ᾽ εὐδίνεα κύκλον
Πλωτίνου, Μοῦσαι, πολυγηθέος· αὐτὰρ ἐμεῖο
χρυσείη κιθάρη τόσσον φράσεν εὐαίωνι.
There is confusion about the Platonic Triad of higher Forms. Let’s clear this up.
- Often the Triad is given as Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Because these are all Forms, it might be more technically accurate to refer here to the Form (meaning eternal essence or Ideal) of Truth, the Form of Beauty, and so on. But for simplicity, we simply say here Truth and not the Form of Truth, Beauty, and not its Form, etc.
- Within this formulation, naming the first two Truth and Beauty is fine, but calling the third Goodness is incorrect.
- The problem is that these three occupy only the second-highest tier in the realm of Platonic Forms. Above all three (and this is of central importance) is the Form of the Good. The very point is that by contemplation any of these second-tier forms (or all together), our minds are drawn upwards to contemplate or intuit the Form of the Good, or God. To call the third Form of the Triad “Goodness” therefore confounds levels. It places Goodness, or the Form of the Good on the second tier along with Truth and Beauty, yet also above Truth and Beauty. This is not only ambiguous, but contradicts what Plato actually wrote.
- The third Form of the Triad would be more properly called Moral Goodness. That is, it refers to the Goodness of the moral realm. Here ‘moral’ means something much greater than its colloquial use associated with ethical actions and choices; rather it encompasses everything that concerns meaning, value, and virtue in our life.
- Yet the term Moral Goodness is arguably not a prefect choice here. It might be misunderstood as suggesting that what it denotes has a greater or more direct connection to Goodness than Truth and Beauty. But such is not true; for we could as easily call the other two Truth Goodness and Beauty Goodness.The issue then is simply a limitation in vocabulary; we seem to lack a single word that means Moral Goodness.
- Now in truth we have such a word: Justice. So a faithful expression of the Platonic Triad could be Truth, Beauty, and Justice. However the word ‘justice’ in English carries certain connotations because of its other uses. For example, people today may associate justice with courts, laws, and retributive justice — associations which obscure the meaning of Justice here. What is meant in the present case is a Justice that is is inseparable from peace, harmony, moderation and right measure. Perhaps we could call it ‘just rightness,’ as in the sense of that special satisfaction felt when we get something just rightness.
- Therefore, with the qualification that one understands this fuller and nobler meaning of Justice, we can give the Platonic Triad as (the Forms of ) Truth, Beauty, and Justice (or Measure, or Virtue, or Excellence).
- Plato describes three corresponding means of ascent to contemplation of the Form of the Good: i.e., via Truth (dialectical ascent in Book 7 of Republic), Beauty (Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium), and Moral Goodness (the Phaedrus Chariot Allegory).
- This Triad is not to be confused with the Neoplatonist “trinity” of the One, the Good, and Intellect or Mind (Nous). In the Neoplatonist model, as first described by Plotinus, the One is the ultimate level, from which proceed or emanate in a cascading sequence the Good, and then Intellect from the Good, then Soul from Intellect, then Body from Soul.
Update: Plato seems to come as close as anywhere in his writings to explicitly stating this triad in Philebus 61a–66b, especially 64d–65a: Beauty, Truth, and Measure (metriotes) or Proportion (symmetria). In view of this new information I would be less eager to call the third member of the triad Moral Goodness, as that seems to specific. Principles like Measure, Justice/Justness/’Just right’-ness, Excellence, Proportion and Moderation all seem to apply. There is perhaps no single English term that expresses the essence of all these, which is perhaps what Plato means here. The Egyptians elevated this cosmic principle to the status of a goddess, Ma’at (Measure), who also corresponds to the Greek goddess Themis.
Applying the Platonic Triad
Here’s how we put the Platonic Triad to practical use in our life. When, say, one is struck with the beauty of some beautiful thing, (or the virtue of some virtuous person or action, or truth of some truth), one lets ones mind rise to consider Beauty (or Moral Goodness, or Truth) itself: How all things deemed beautiful must share some common essence, Beauty; how this essence, Form, or Ideal of Beauty is something real; how it is changeless and eternal; how it is more perfectly beautiful than any actual object. For example, for any beautiful object, we see notice slight flaws or imperfections and can imagine how it could be still more beautiful. The perfect beauty towards which our mind inclines is the Form of Beauty, or Beauty.
And then consider how Beauty itself is merely one species of Goodness. Truth and Justice are also good. So there must be some essence, Form, or Ideal which all have in common. This is the Form of the Good.
Such considerations may enable the mind to rise, then, higher than Beauty itself, to glimpse with ones soul the Form of the Good.
Adepts in the art of contemplation may then dwell on this sight, or rise still higher, learning more of the Form of the Good. And, it is said, a person’s mind can ascend still higher, beyond the Good — to the One beyond all differentiation. That brings us to the subject of so-called apophatic mysticism. This highest form of contemplation is called dark knowing, because it is beyond all concepts.
But others of us who are not contemplative monks and deal with the practicalities of daily social life may, alternatively, draw from a glimpse of the Form of the Good the immediate intuition of what it implies for practical affairs. We may see a certain activity or task, for example, “in the light of” the Good; and this may help us to simplify problems, remove obstacles, pursue plans with much greater efficiency and effect, etc.
Thus while some forms of the vision of the Good (the famous visio beatifica) are immensely profound and exceedingly rare, others are within our reach on a daily basis and can be of great value in ordering our practical affairs and lives. This is the goal of a good Platonic or Christian (or other religious) life. A personality built on this principle is the real meaning of Plato’s Republic: a city of soul where all the citizens — our numerous subpersonalities, passions, and dispositions — are ruled by love of Wisdom and love of the Good. Then our personality is a harmonious, integrated whole, and not an unruly mob of conflicting subpersonalities, each ruled by its own narrow desires and schemes.
Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?
Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.
To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.
Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?
Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our ideal or intended state, what ADD is relative to our habitual state. That is, many of the same cognitive abilities that are impaired in ADD are also impaired in our ordinary fallen state — to a lesser, but still to a very serious degree.
Another analogy is to intoxication. If one can achieve the higher level of mental function Platonism aims for, one’s ordinary state of mind may seem as one of comparative drunkenness.
But rather than list the problems of our ordinary state, which are only too evident and familiar, it is better to examine the nature of the healed, ‘saved’, or ‘redeemed’ state.
Q: What are qualities of this healed or ‘saved’ mental condition?
In answering this question we are helped considerably by the writings of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow noted that many people have, either through meditation or other spiritual practices, or else sometimes spontaneously in connection with love, nature, or art, certain heightened experiences. Sometimes these are very brief and intense (peak experiences), and sometimes less intense but of longer duration (plateau experiences). For details, interested readers may consult Maslow’s works (especially Maslow, 1968; 1971). It suffices here to note that peak and plateau experiences are associated with increased sensory and mental clarity, aesthetic appreciation, bliss, insight, and absence of disturbing thoughts or emotions. Maslow summarized this condition by calling it one of Being, as contrasted with our usual condition of becoming. [Note: Few people realize that these terms are explicit references to Platonism, the source of the Being–becoming distinction.]
While peak and plateau experiences are of limited duration, Maslow also noted that over time a person may become more adept at bringing them about. As they become a more common feature in one’s life a general positive transformation of personality may occur.
Maslow, however, operating in the scientific-positivistic climate of the 1950’s and 1960’s, did not sufficiently emphasize the moral or spiritual aspects of the Being state.
Q: Can you elaborate on the moral aspects?
Yes, and this is very important. There is an unfortunate tendency today to confuse morality with moralism. The latter is a rigid frame of mind which seeks to conform all behavior to fixed rules, largely proscriptive (“thou shalt not…”). This legalistic approach does little to develop ones innate moral sense. Rather, it is often yet another manifestation of the fallen condition of the mind.
Morality is something different, something positive. It affirms that human beings are designed to be moral; and that moral actions and virtue come naturally and instinctively, and are essential to ones happiness, well-being, and integrity of personality.
Platonism sees an integral connection between intellectual and moral life. Moral development comes from intellectual or illuminative insights into ones own nature. Platonism seeks to cultivate the life of ones higher mind, the source of these intellectual and moral insights. This has two components, the purgative and the illuminative. The purgative part of Platonism seeks to correct our habitual forms of negative thought and emotions, which impair our ability to consult our higher mind. The illuminative part is concerned with actually accessing the higher mind.
Q: And the spiritual aspect?
The spiritual aspect of Platonism is what some writers call the unitive life. It is, of course, something understood by experience, not description. However certain leading principles of this state can be noted.
In general, we could describe this state as a form of humility, in which the ego no longer seeks to be ruler of ones psyche, but rather is content in the role of helper to something greater than itself. Now as to what this other entity is, opinions vary. The traditional view, of course, is that it is God. Some, however, such as Jungian psychologists, understand this other as a higher self or Self. To some extent this distinction doesn’t matter — provided that the ego has sufficient respect for this ‘other’ that it relates to it as something holy and sacred. The proper relationship of the ego to this entity, whatever it is, is one of piety and trust.
In this way a person is no longer constrained by the limitations of egoistic over-control, and the various forms of mischief the ego can create. One is more creative and spontaneous, and, in a word, more happy. Various names given to this condition are self-actualization, self-realization, and individuation.
Another way of seeing things is that Platonism is a form of yoga. Etymologically, the word yoga is related to the word yoke. It refers to establishing an ongoing connection or yoke between the ego and this higher ‘thing’ which is God or a higher Self. Note that the word religion has the same meaning of re-connection, as the stem ligio means to connect or bind, and is related to the word ligament.
So we see that, despite certain differences, Platonism, yoga, and traditional religion all aim to restore a kind of natural state or harmony of soul in which the ego finds its proper role. All of these traditions express a kind of instinctive knowledge human beings have that their ordinary state, where the ego is out of control, is unnatural, but can be corrected.
Q: What then is the relationship between Platonism and religion?
Platonism overlaps with that part of traditional religion concerned with Wisdom. Wisdom is an important part of religion, but it is not the only part.
Nevertheless, Platonism complements and may enhance ones experience as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers throughout the centuries were also Platonists — for example St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus Confessor in the East. Traditionally, Greek philosophy has been called the handmaid of theology, and this is an apt description of Platonism.
Q: Is Platonism for everybody?
Each person is a unique individual, with their own preferred ‘yoga’. For some a yoga of the heart (e.g., charity and service) is best; for others a yoga of Wisdom such as Platonism is more suitable. In general Platonism will appeal most to people who already have a strong intellectual inclination. It is my observation that in modern times people are overall becoming more intellectual, so that Platonism may have broader appeal today than in earlier centuries.
Q: Very well. How does one go about learning Platonism?
First you should know that most of what is written about Platonism, especially in modern times, is of dubious value. Modern philosophers, generally speaking, no longer understand philosophy as a form of psychotherapy, but see it only as an arena for abstract speculation, controversy, and other forms of self-aggrandizement.
For this and other reasons, there is no substitute for reading Plato’s own works. This is made easier by the fact that Plato was great literary genius as well as a philosopher. Once you get accustomed to them, Plato’s dialogues are very easy and enjoyable to read.
I would recommend starting with one or two of Plato’s early dialogues, such as Charmides or Lysis. These make for pleasant reading and, while they are not his greatest works, help one get a ‘feel’ for Plato.
Eventually one will want to work up to his more significant works: Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo, and of course what is perhaps his greatest, The Republic.
After reading one or two of his dialogues, you might want to read some of the myths which Plato placed in several of his works. This may help give you an appreciation of Plato’s mystical and intuitive side, which complements the more analytical style found in his prose.
Not all translations of Plato’s works are of equal value. While some modern translations are excellent, others are not. I generally find older translations, especially those of Benjamin Jowett, and those the Loeb Classical Library, more than satisfactory. The Jowett translations, all in the public domain, can be readily be found online. Many of the Loeb editions are also in the public domain and can be found at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.
I have also provided short explanations of certain key terms found in Plato’s works which may assist you.
Cushman, Robert Earl. Therapeia: Plato’s Conception of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Westport, CT, 1976.
Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.
Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.