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St. Macrina’s Exegesis of the Parable of the Sower

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Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

The following allegorical interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Matt.13: 24 -30) comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Soul and the Resurrection, which describes a conversation St. Gregory had with his sister, St. Macrina, shortly before her death. Platonic philosophy is discussed throughtout the work. It has been called Phaedo Christianus due to its similarities in theme and setting to Plato’s Phaedo, which records discussions of Socrates on the soul before he drank the hemlock.

“To Macrina, the good seeds are the impulses of our soul which are capable, when directed towards the good (i. e., God), of producing virtue. The bad seed is sin, which is construed as a confusion of our judgment of what is, in fact, good.” (Matz, p. 278).

[24] Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
[25] But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
[26] But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
[27] So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
[28] He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
[29] But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
[30] Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

AND who, she replied, could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of Scriptural testimony is set? So, if it is necessary that something from the Gospels should be adduced in support of our view, a study of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares will not be here out of place. The Householder there sowed good seed. …  But the “enemy,” having watched for the time when men slept, sowed that which was useless in that which was good for food, setting the tares in the very middle of the wheat. The two kinds of seed grew up together; for it was not possible that seed put into the very middle of the wheat should fail to grow up with it. But the Superintendent of the field forbids the servants to gather up the useless crop, on account of their growing at the very root of the contrary sort; so as not to root up the nutritious along with that foreign growth.

Now we think that Scripture means by the good seed the corresponding impulses of the soul, each one of which, if only they are cultured for good, necessarily puts forth the fruit of virtue within us. But since there has been scattered amongst these the bad seed of the error of judgment as to the true Beauty which is alone in its intrinsic nature such, and since this last has been thrown into the shade by the growth of delusion which springs up along with it (for the active principle of desire does not germinate and increase in the direction of that natural Beauty which was the object of its being sown in us, but it has changed its growth so as to move towards a bestial and unthinking state, this very error as to Beauty carrying its impulse towards this result;

and in the same way the seed of anger does not steel us to be brave, but only arms us to fight with our own people; and the power of loving deserts its intellectual objects and becomes completely mad for the immoderate enjoyment of pleasures of sense; and so in like manner our other affections put forth the worse instead of the better growths),— on account of this the wise Husbandman leaves this growth that has been introduced amongst his seed to remain there, so as to secure our not being altogether stripped of better hopes by desire having been rooted out along with that good-for-nothing growth.

If our nature suffered such a mutilation, what will there be to lift us up to grasp the heavenly delights? If love is taken from us, how shall we be united to God? If anger is to be extinguished, what arms shall we possess against the adversary?

Therefore the Husbandman leaves those bastard seeds within us, not for them always to overwhelm the more precious crop, but in order that the land itself (for so, in his allegory, he calls the heart) by its native inherent power, which is that of reasoning, may wither up the one growth and may render the other fruitful and abundant: but if that is not done, then he commissions the fire to mark the distinction in the crops. If, then, a man indulges these affections in a due proportion and holds them in his own power instead of being held in theirs, employing them for an instrument as a king does his subjects’ many hands, then efforts towards excellence more easily succeed for him. But should he become theirs, and, as when any slaves mutiny against their master, get enslaved by those slavish thoughts and ignominiously bow before them; a prey to his natural inferiors, he will be forced to turn to those employments which his imperious masters command. This being so, we shall not pronounce these emotions of the soul, which lie in the power of their possessors for good or ill, to be either virtue or vice. But, whenever their impulse is towards what is noble, then they become matter for praise, as his desire did to Daniel, and his anger to Phineas, and their grief to those who nobly mourn. But if they incline to baseness, then these are, and they are called, bad passions.


Callahan, Virginia Woods (Trans.). On the Soul and the Resurrection. In: Virginia Woods Callahan, Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works. (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 58). Washington DC: CUA Press, 1967.

Matz, Brian J.  Ascetic Readings of the Agricultural Parables in Matt 13:1-48 in the Cappadocians. In: Ed. Hans-Ulrich Weidemann, Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. pp. 268−283.

St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection (De anima et resurrectione).  Migne Patrologia Graeca vol. 46, cols. 11−160. Paris: 1863. [Greek text]

St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection. Trans. William Moore, Henry Austin Wilson. In: Eds. Philip Schaff & Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series 2, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa (NPNF2-5‎). New York: Scribner, 1917 (orig. ed. 1893).

Thomas Taylor’s Panegyric to Floyer Sydenham

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BEFORE Thomas Taylor there was Floyer Sydenham.

Sydenham (1710−1787) was the preeminent British translator of Plato in the 18th century, but suffered from obscurity and poverty — even more so than Thomas Taylor, whose own tragic and difficult life was at least compensated for by posthumous fame and influence.

Sydenham was an excellent Greek scholar and devoted himself to the task of translating the works of Plato.  Between 1759 and 1780, he translated and published 9 of Plato’s dialogues, including the Banquet (Symposium), Philebus, Meno, and the First and Second Alcibiades; these translations were included in Thomas Taylor’s famous 1804 edition of the Works of Plato — the first English version of Plato’s complete works (properly called the Taylor & Sydenham edition, with contributions by Harry Spens).

Sydenham’s essay, A Synopsis or General View of the Works of Plato (1759), remains valuable and merits modern study.

Despite his skill as a translator (he was better educated and, by most estimates, a more able translator than Taylor), so many of his subscribers, victims of a chaotic British economy, defaulted payment that he was sentenced to debtors prison in 1787 and subsequently died.   In consequence of his unfortunate treatment and tragic death, the Royal Literary Fund (1790) was founded for the relief of authors in distress.

Taylor paid posthumous tribute to Sydenham with the following memorial, which he published in 1790, and again, in revised form, in 1805.


A Panegyric on Floyer Sydenham

by Thomas Taylor


HILE vulgar souls the public notice claim,
And dare to stand as candidates for fame;
While Sydenham’s worth in shameful silence lies,
Who liv’d unnotic’d and neglected dies;
My Muse indignant wakes her dormant fire,
And, rous’d by Friendship, boldly strikes the lyre.
Ye liberal few, who in his footsteps tread,
Rise, and assert the honours of the dead;
Genius sublime; who from barbaric night,
Led Wisdom forth, far beaming heav’nly light;
Whose skill great Plato’s elegance commands,
His graces copies and his fire expands.
For this shall future Bards his worth prolong,
Example bright and theme of lib’ral song!
O! hadst thou liv’d in those exalted days,
When Monarchs crown’d Philosophers with bays;
When Alexandria’s god-like sons appear’d,
And Truth restor’d, her head majestic rear’d;
Who rose unveil’d perspicuous to the wise,
Though by the vulgar seen in dark disguise:
Then had thy mind with native worth elate,
Shone through the ruins of a falling state;
And far extended Wisdom’s endless reign,
O’er Rome’s wide-spreading, tottering domain;
Then had thy genius met its just reward,
Awe from the vulgar, and from kings regard;
Then had thy days with plenteous ease been crown’d,
Thy pupils noble, and thy name renown’d;
Thy death lamented through immortal Rome,
And the fair column planted o’er thy tomb.
But doom’d to live where Truth’s refulgent light
Yet scarcely glimmers through Oblivion’s night;
Where genuine Science scarcely lifts her head,
For ages buried with the mighty dead;
Where Wealth, not Virtue, is the road to Fame;
And ancient Wisdom is an empty name;
Where Plato’s sacred page neglected lies,
And words, not things, are studied to be wise.
Here shone thy Wisdom o’er this sea of life,
Rous’d with perpetual storms of grief and strife;
Like some fair lamp whose solitary light,
Streams from a watch-tower through the gloom of night,
And shines secure, though raging waves surround,
Its splendours beaming o’er the dark profound.
Here, while alive, thy genius was alone;
Thy worth neglected, and almost unknown:
Here thy disciples, and thy friends were few;
Nor these all just, magnanimous, and true:
For some whom Heav’n had blest with wealth and pow’r,
Turn’d mean deserters in the needful hour;
While others prais’d thy genius and admir’d,
But ne’er to ease thy wretched state desir’d,
Basely contended Wisdom to receive;
Without a wish its author to relieve.
Such was thy fate, while matters drowsy ties
Held thee an exile from thy native skies.
But now emerg’d from sense, and error’s night,
Thy soul has gain’d its ancient orb of light;
Refulgent shines in Truth’s immortal plain,
And scorns dull body, and her dark domain.
No gloomy clouds those happy realms assail;
And the calm aether knows no stormy gale;
No vain pretenders there, no faithless friends;
No selfish motives, no ignoble ends.
O! may some spark of Truth’s celestial fire,
My breast, like thine, with sacred warmth inspire.
Teach me like thee, with vigour unconfin’d,
To soar from body to the realms of mind;
To scorn like thee, wealth’s despicable race,
The vain—the sordid—impudent, and base.


Source: Thomas Taylor, Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse, London: C. Whittingham, 1805 (pp. 37−40).

These verses first appeared in the General Advertiser in 1787, and were thence copied into “most of the evening papers.” Taylor made some minor alterations when he republished them in 1805.


Demetriou, Kyriakos N. Asking for Plato’s Forgiveness. Floyer Sydenham: A Platonic Visionary of 18th-century Britain. Quaderni di Storia, vol. 78, 2013, pp. 55-86.

Sydenham, Floyer.  A Synopsis or General View of the Works of Plato. London, 1759.

Taylor, Thomas; Sydenham, Floyer. The Works of Plato, 5 vols.  With Harry Spens (trans.). London: T. Taylor, 1804.

Uebersax, John.  Harry Spens and the First English Translation of Plato’s Republic.  Online article. .  Last updated: January 13, 2016.

Written by John Uebersax

January 31, 2017 at 3:50 am

A Beautiful Mind: Joseph Addison’s Religious Essays

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EADERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.



Plato’s 19 Proofs of the Immortality of the Human Soul

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William Blake, The Spirit of Plato Unfolds His Worlds to Milton in Contemplation

Is man immortal, or is he not? If he is not, all our disputes are mere amusements, or trials of skill. In this case, truth, reason, religion, which give our discourses such pomp and solemnity, are … mere empty sound, without any meaning in them. But if man is immortal, it will behove him to be very serious about eternal consequences; or, in other words, to be truly religious.
~ Edward Young, Night Thoughts

Art: William Blake, The Spirit of Plato unfolds his Worlds to Milton in Contemplation.

A SpectatorN earlier article proposed the cataloging of Plato’s various proofs for the immortality of the human soul. A fair effort to survey earlier literature has failed to uncover previous systematic attempts; the relative scarcity of studies on this topic generally is unfortunate (and not a little puzzling) given how central the soul’s immortality is for Plato’s philosophy.

As Plato’s proofs are many and subtle we shall proceed incrementally, adding little by little to the present article, until something like a thorough survey is accomplished.

To begin with, some general points.

First, we may in this context distinguish between two kinds of proofs: (1) logical arguments and (2) experiential demonstrations. By an argument we mean a set of propositions or premises, which, by formal rules of logic, imply a definite conclusion; or a set of propositions that together increase the probability that a conclusion is true (i.e., a probabilistic argument.)

By a demonstration we mean an attempt by Plato to bring to our conscious awareness an insight by means other than logical argument. In many cases with Plato this amounts to eliciting an anamnesis (an un-forgetting or recollection) of some previously known or latent knowledge. For example, we previously considered how Plato’s contemplation of the Form of the Good in Symposium 211–212 can be seen as a demonstrative proof of the existence of God. Similarly, some passages of Plato seem intended to evoke in the reader an experiential awareness of the soul’s immortality.

Second, some of Plato’s proofs are more distinct and easy to identify and characterize than others. What may at first seem a single proof may have several variations or senses that merit separate consideration. Here, inasmuch as we are approaching the topic at a data-gathering stage, we will incline more towards separating than aggregating potentially distinct proofs.

Third, some proofs appear in more than one dialogue. Initially we shall be content to, mostly, associate each proof with the dialogue in which it occurs most prominently.

A Bibliography, also to be developed over time, is added. In general the 20th century literature on immortality of the human soul is meager — an indication of the radical materialism that has lately dominated.

One motivation for pursuing the present project is to inform investigation of a related question, namely: have later philosophers introduced many new and original proofs for the immortality of the human soul, or have they, in this area as in many others, more or less only added ‘footnotes’ to Plato? To anticipate somewhat, it is tentatively proposed that one productive way to address this question is to consider three relevant works from different time periods: (1) Book 1 of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (which makes frequent reference to Plato’s main work on the soul, Phaedo), (2) Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology (prominently subtitled, On the Immortality of the Soul), and (3) Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (Nights 6 and 7; “Containing The Nature, Proof, and Importance of Immortality.”)

Plato’s Proofs of Immortality

1. Cyclicity argument.

Source: Phaedo 70c–72e.

Summary: All things proceed from their opposites. Just as death proceeds from life, life must proceed from death. Therefore the soul cannot permanently perish.

2. Recollection (or innate knowledge) argument.

Source: Phaedo 72e–77d; cf. e.g., Meno.

Summary: It appears that we know things that we have not learned in this lifetime — as shown by the fact that when they are made salient, we grasp them immediately and they seem already familiar. This suggests to Plato that we have lived before in a pre-existence; and if our souls existed before this life, they will exist after this life.

3. Affinity argument.

Source: Phaedo 78b–84b.

Summary: There are two levels of reality — the temporal and changing, and the Eternal and immutable; the soul has an innate affinity for eternal things (e.g., Platonic Forms; Truth, Beauty and Moral Goodness; mathematical and religious truths); therefore its own nature must be eternal.

4. Form of Life argument.

Source: Phaedo 102b–107b.

Summary: The soul is not only alive itself, but gives life to the body. Therefore it is intimately connected with the essence or Form of Life. Hence it would be illogical or inconsistent for the soul itself to perish.

5. Vitiating principle argument.

Source: Republic 10.608e–611a.

Summary: Every thing has its own principle of destruction, unique to it and innate (e.g., for a body, disease); if a thing is destroyed, it is only by this unique, endogenous principle. The soul has a unique destructive principle, namely vice; yet even the worst vice is not sufficient to completely kill the soul; and since nothing else besides a thing’s internal destructive principle can make it totally perish, the soul must be immortal.

6. Justice argument.

Source: Republic, Book 10 (e.g., 10.612−4, and the Myth of Er that follows).

Unless there are rewards or punishments after this life, it would violate our innate sense of justice. For example, an evil man could avoid punishment for misdeeds by dying. In short, an afterlife of the soul is required to reconcile our strong and innate sense of fairness with the seeming disregard of Fate to moral justice in this life.

7. Simplicity argument.

Source: Republic 611b, Phaedo 78b-d; cf. Plotinus, Enneads 1.1.2, 1.1.9, 1.1.12.

Summary: A thing composed of many elements is susceptible to decomposition; but the soul is a single substance, uncompounded and hence incorruptible.

8. Self-moved mover.

Source: Phaedrus 245c–246a.

Summary: While the soul moves the body, and it moves itself, it is itself not moved by anything external to it. Since being destroyed would imply movement of some sort, the soul, not moved by anything extrinsic, cannot be destroyed and must be imperishable.

9. Universal interest and yearning.

Source: Symposium 201–212.

Diotima’s speeches in Symposium revolve around the subject of immortality. Several senses of immortality are pursued, such as the begetting of children and the imparting of ideas or virtue to other people, leading up to the addressing of immortality in the religious sense. The overall drift is that human beings seem exceptionally interested in immortality and orient much of their lives to striving for it. This would not be logical unless immortality is possible.

10. Proof via purification.

Source: Republic 10.611b–612a; cf. Plotinus Enneads 1.1.12 and especially 4.7.10.

A proof by demonstration. One who is suitably purified, intellectually and morally, may obtain immediate awareness of the soul’s true nature and its immortality.

11. Replenishment argument.

Source: Phaedo 72a-e; cf. Republic 10.611b-d
Summary: Unless the world were not replenished with living souls, eventually all things would be dead; rather, the world is continually replenished with living souls, who must exist somewhere outside of this world before entering. As Socrates puts it, ” if all things that have life should die, and, when they had died, the dead should remain in that condition, is it not inevitable that at last all things would be dead.” (Phaedo 72c). Whether this is merely another statement of, or implicit in, the cyclicity argument is a topic for further consideration.

12. Afterlife testimonies.

Source: Republic Book 10 (Myth of Er).

If we take the Myth of Er literally, then it purports to be an eye-witness account of someone who has personally observed the extra-mundane life of souls. It seems fairly clear that Plato intend us to take the Er myth more than literally; nevertheless, it does serve more or less as an implicit reference by Plato to the genre of survival testimony, of which numerous examples, ancient and modern, exist.

13. Trusted authority.

Source: Meno 81a-b.

Among the Plato’s lesser arguments for the soul’s immortality is an appeal to authority: honored and trustworthy figures of the past have taught it.  The wisest and best of men are the most confident of survival of soul.

14. Tradition and custom.

Source: ?

Widespread or universal tradition implies that belief in immortality is in our common human nature.   This is conceptually different from the proof by trusted authority, though the two clearly go together. (E.g., one function of trusted authority is precisely to articulate most clearly the common knowledge or tradition.) I do not have a definite source for this in the dialogues, but include it here, tentatively, because another source mentioned it in connection with Plato. (Both the tradition and the trusted authority proofs, however, are taken up by Cicero.)

15. Limitless capacity.

Source: ?

Human beings seem to have a limitless capacity for knowledge, which would serve no purpose if the soul did not outlive the body. Here again, I have no definite source for this yet, but the idea is implicit in Plato’s general view of Man’s innate divinity and noetic and moral capabilities; and the Neoplatonist view (derived from Plato) that each human soul contains a copy of all Forms.

16. Example of Socrates.

Source: Apology, Phaedo, Crito.

Socrates’ absolute and unfeigned confidence in the face of death, his nonchalance, and what even approaches an eagerness to shuffle off the mortal coil constitute a demonstrative proof. His actions, that is, testify at least as eloquently as his words to the soul’s immortality.

17. Socrates’ desire to convince others.

Source: Phaedo

Beyond his own confidence in immortality, Socrates is intensely concerned to convince others of it. Such benevolent zeal is indicative of well-founded sincerity and possession of an important truth.

18. Socrates’ sign.

Source: Apology.

One reason Socrates gives for his confidence is that his habitual sign or daemon, which customarily warns him in case of danger, did not oppose him in attending his trial. This, Socrates, fully expecting a death sentence, took as strong evidence that his execution posed no harm. Insofar as Socrates believed his sign, and Socrates is a trusted source, this constitutes evidence for the immortality of the soul. Moreover, insofar as, from the testimony of others, we are persuaded of the sign’s trustworthiness independently of Socrates’ own evaluation of it, that is additional positive evidence for immortality.

19. Conviction of Plato.

Plato also seems intensely concerned with convincing readers of the soul’s immortality. His arguments are clearly presented in a spirit of something more than detached speculation. Cicero puts it well.

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, Tusc. Disp. 1.21.49

Thus Cicero alludes here to two different proofs:  Plato’s authority, and his desire to convince others; and the sheer number or proofs Plato produces is seen as evidence of the latter.


Suggestions are welcome. The goal, however, is not to produce a comprehensive bibliography, but mainly to include works that attempt to consider Plato’s arguments in their totality.

Apolloni, David. Plato’s Affinity Argument for the Immortality of the Soul. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 34(1), 1996, 5–32. (Study of the argument in Phaedo 78b-80d.)

Bett, Richard. Immortality and the Nature of the Soul in the PhaedrusPhronesis, 31(1), 1986, 1–26.

Chase, Thomas. Cicero on the Immortality of the Soul. Cambridge, MA 1851 (repr. 1872).

Connolly, Tim. Plato: Phaedo. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web, 13 June 2015. (See also References therein.)

Cornford, Stephen (Ed.). Edward Young: Night Thoughts. Cambridge, 1989 (repr. 2008).

DeGraff, Thelma B. Plato in Cicero. Classical Philology, 35(2), 1940, 143–153.

Elton, Matthew. The Role of the Affinity Argument in the Phaedo. Phronesis, 42(3), 1997, 313–316.

Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology, On the Immortality of the Soul. Michael J. B. Allen (Trans.), James Hankins (Ed.). 6 vols. Cambridge, MA, 2001–2006.

Frede, Dorothea. The Final Proof of the Immortality of the Soul in Plato’s Phaedo 102a–107a. Phronesis, 23(1), 1978, 27–41.

Gallop, David. Plato’s ‘Cyclical Argument’ Recycled. Phronesis, 27, 1982, 207–222.

Gaye, Russell K. The Platonic Conception of Immortality and its Connexion with the Theory of Ideas. Cambridge, 1904 (repr. 2014).

Gertz, Sebastian Ramon Philipp. Death and Immortality in Late Neoplatonism: Studies on the Ancient Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo. Leiden, 2011.

Geddes, W(illiam) D(uguid). Platonis Phaedo. 2nd ed. London: MacMillan, 1885.

Gilfillan, George (Ed.) Young’s Night Thoughts. Edinburgh, 1853.

Gould, Richard. Cicero’s Indebtedness to the Platonic Dialogues in Tusculan Disputations I. Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1968.

Hackforth, R. Immortality in Plato’s Symposium. Classical Review, 64(2), 1950, 43–45.

King , J. E. (Trans.) Cicero: Tusculan Disputations. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, 1927 (rev. 1945).

MacKenna, Stephen (Trans.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 1st edition. London, 1917. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Web, 16 June 2015.

MacKenna, Stephen (Trans.); Page, B. S. (Ed.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 2nd edition. London, 1956.

O’Brien, Michael J. Becoming Immortal in Plato’s Symposium. In: Douglas E. Gerber (Ed.), Greek Poetry and Philosophy: Studies in Honour of Leonard Woodbury. Chicago, 1984, pp. 185–205.

Patterson, Robert Leet. Plato on Immortality. University Park, PA, 1965.

Peabody, Andrew P. (tr.) Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. Boston, 1886.

Shorey, Paul. Review of The Platonic Conception of Immortality, and its Connexion with the Theory of Ideas, by R. K. Gaye. Philosophical Review, 14(5), 1905, 590–595.

Shorey, Paul (Tr.). Plato’s Republic. 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6). Cambridge, MA, 1935 (repr. 1969).

Smith, John. A Discourse Demonstrating the Immortality of the Soul. In: John Smith, Select Discourses, London J. Flesher, 1660; repr. in E. T. Campagnac (ed.), The Cambridge Platonists, Oxford, 1901, pp. 99-157.

Snyder, James G. Marsilio Ficino. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web, 22 June 2015.

Spring, Charles. On the Essence and Immortality of the Soul. London, 1865.

Stanford, Charles S. A Catalogue of Books Treating on the Immortality of the Soul. New York, 1853. (Also appended to: Charles S. Stanford, Phaedo: Or, The Immortality of the Soul, New York, 1854.)

Stuart, Moses. Cicero on the Immortality of the Soul (Questionum Tusculanaram, Liber 1). With Notes and Appendix. Andover, MA, 1833.

Stull, William. Reading the Phaedo in Tusculan Disputations 1. Classical Philology, Vol. 107, No. 1 (January 2012), pp. 38-52.

Uebersax, John S. Plato Divinus: Is Plato a Religious Figure? Web, 15 June 2015.

Westerink, Leendert. G. (Trans.). The Greek Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo. Vol. 1 (Olympiodorus) & Vol 2 (Damascius). Prometheus Trust, 2009.

Written by John Uebersax

September 8, 2015 at 1:00 am

The Purpose of Plato’s Arguments for the Immortality of the Human Soul

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ucase-T- angelsHROUGHOUT 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 anamnesisDialectic 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.)


Written by John Uebersax

June 17, 2015 at 2:06 am

Divinus Plato: Is Plato a Religious Figure?

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Divinus Plato: Is Plato a Religious Figure?

Divinus_Plato_Philipp-Kilan_per_Joachim-von-SandrartSHOULD 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: (if clicking link doesn’t work, try right-click, Save link as)

Update (March 2017):  An updated version has now been published in the Kronos Philosophical Journal.

Written by John Uebersax

June 15, 2015 at 8:52 pm

Porphyry on the Mystical Experiences and Initiation of Plotinus

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fancy_dc_AS 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.

Besides the Symposium, important touchstones for the Ladder of Love as a spiritual exercise are Enneads 1.6 (On Beauty), 5.8 (On Intelligible Beauty), and 1.3 (On Dialectic; chapters 1 and 2).

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. <>

Porphyry (author); Adolf Kirchoff? (ed.). Περι Του Πλωτινου Βιου Και Τησ Ταξεωσ Των Βιβλιων Αυτου. Accessed from, April 10, 2015. <>


Written by John Uebersax

April 14, 2015 at 9:15 pm