Approaching World Religions by H1a4PA5Z



Preface: Concluding thoughts on Socrates

On Tuesday several people asked me after class what Socrates
meant by the word “God.” Well we are not sure exactly what he
meant. But we do know that it was not the monotheism of Judaism
and Christianity with their personal God. It seems to be the way
Socrates referred to the gods in general, to the whole divine world.
We really don’t know for sure what Socrates believed about the
gods. He seems to have, if nothing else conceded to do the general
and basic religious rites of his time but that is not the same as
saying he believed the myths about the various gods.

I want to add some remarks I didn’t get to about Socrates on
Tuesday that will also serve as a preface to Plato’s philosophy. As
stated earlier, Socrates was more interested in the questions than he
was in the answers. It seems questions are more likely to help
someone find truth and wisdom than just giving them the answers.

PP “Genuine knowledge was not something that could simply be
received from another secondhand like a purchased commodity, as
with the Sophists, but was rather a personal achievement, won only
at the cost of constant intellectual struggle and self-critical
reflection. ‘The life not tested by criticism,’ Socrates declared, ‘is
not worth living.’” (Tarnas, p. 35.)

There is something similar here to the initiations in the mystery
religions in that there is something we have to do ourselves in
gaining wisdom. It simply cannot, according to this way of looking
at the world, be given to us. Or if it is, ultimately, a true gift, then
this gift only arrives when we are ready to receive it, a readiness
that is brought about by this deep questioning of what is the true,
the good, and the beautiful. Before the cup can be filled it needs to
be emptied. Questioning empties the cup.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the importance of Socrates
was not so much in what he said as in who he was and how he
came across to those who loved him. It is in this sense that he has
almost the charisma of a religious leader. It was his presence that
so marked those who followed him. They believed that his process
of questioning led him to a profound self-knowledge that gave
what he taught such authority and forcefulness.

In summarizing Socrates, can we find any decisive philosophical
truth passed on by him today that we could think about? There
seems to be something there, but it is foggy because the more
specific we get the more we are probably hearing the voice of Plato
rather than Socrates. But it may also be true that Plato only brought
out what was already inherent in Socrates thinking and life.

This fundamental truth is that absolutes can be known. They are
known as archetypes (“ruling patterns”) and we can know them
through our intellect, spiritually rather than empirically. These are
sometimes called the “Universals” or “Ideas” of Plato. That is you
can’t know them through your senses. All you can know through
your senses are specific things, for example, a particular horse, but
not “horseness” whatever that is!

 Think about any specific thing (like a chair) and you don’t usually
think of only that one specific chair but you think of it in a general
sense as partaking in “chairness”. That is how you recognize chairs
that look different from one another as still being chairs. Well from
this very ordinary example we can also see how this might work
with very lofty ideas. We recognize truth because it partakes of the
archetype of truth; we recognize beauty because it partakes of the
archetype of beauty.

You can be led to this truth through clear thinking and dialectical
reasoning, but the final journey is more spiritual than merely
intellectual. Through a stripping away of all that hinders, the
philosopher is finally brought to the reality of these universals in
an awakening experience that is self-evident. With this
understanding the truth of the mythic past was again found, but on
another level.

In mythic times people believed the gods could be known and that
there was a truth that could be understood about life and how it
was to be lived. Then all that was shattered as the myths were
questioned, science was pursued, skepticism arose and the Sophists
took charge of education. But with the Archetypes, it was once
again possible to know what was absolute and through that
knowing to pursue a life of truth and ethics.

But because of its difficulty in being discovered it also became the
weakness for which Socrates and Platonic philosophy in general
continues to be challenged to this day. A gentleman came up
Tuesday and mentioned that it seems difficult to know when you
actually arrived at the truth. What would stop you from just
continuing to ask questions? This is a critical question. What stops
you is the realization that truth is not an “intellectual answer,” but
rather an undeniable experience. And from that experience which
is the goal of the philosophic journey one becomes a different
person. And it is as a different person that one is able to do the
good from the inside out. In other words, the Good becomes a part
of you.

Thought, the power to think was seen by Socrates as a vital force
for seeking and finding the truth, a truth that led to the
transformation of the truth seeker.
Yes, as we said at the beginning of Tuesday’s lecture, Greek
history and mythology is full of heroes on journeys. Socrates also
goes on an odyssey, but this time the odyssey is an intellectual and
spiritual one. Socrates becomes a new hero, a seeker of truth, the
archetype of the philosopher, the one who loves wisdom.


“Socrates often referred to himself as an intellectual midwife,
through his dialectical skill bringing to birth the latent truth in
another’s mind. Perhaps Platonic philosophy itself was the final
and fullest fruit of that labor” (Tarnas, pp. 39-40.)

“Socrates’s impact on the young Plato was potent enough that the
Platonic dialogues seem to bear the Socratic imprint on almost
every page, and making any final distinctions between the two
philosophers’ thought virtually impossible” (Richard Tarnas, The
Passion of the Western Mind, [New York: Harmony Books, 1991],
p. 39. Hereafter referred to in the lectures as Tarnas.)

The trial and death of Socrates was very disturbing to the relatively
young Plato (who was in his late twenties). Seeing the way his
master was treated caused Plato to distrust the government
politically and the Sophists philosophically. Plato wanted to find a
source of universal values that could not be overturned by the
newest philosophy or the most recent form of government.

In my lecture on Socrates, I talked at the end about Socrates belief
that he had found the Truth in the Archetypes that are accessible to
the philosopher through the process of questioning and seeking.
Socrates seemed to believe that thought itself was a vital
instrument in the search for truth and while it could get in the way,
it could also be used as a pointer. But it was left to Plato to work
out the details and make a philosophical system out of what was
implied by Socrates’ teaching.

Plato referred to Socrates archetypes as the Ideas. But for Plato
these ideas were not cold and abstract but warm and magnetic. The
philosopher is literally a “lover of wisdom” and it is with the same
intensity and passion as a lover that one must search to find the
ideas. They are not revealed to just anyone, but only to those who
are able to truly follow the philosophers way, which for Plato is
also the contemplative way. One finds the ideas the way a mystic
finds God, that is through a process of surrender and opening to
that which is greater.

Platonic Philosophy

It is important to realize that for Plato the Ideas are so essential to
the universe and to humanity that they are the most real things that
exists. Our normal waking consciousness is one of forgetfulness.
Plato believed that the soul was immortal and had been united with
the Ideas (think the Divine) before it was entrapped in a physical
body where it promptly forgot its former union. This world is a
veil that covers over reality. The goal for the philosopher is to
remember his or her origin and in doing so reunite with its essence.

To illustrate what he meant Plato told the story in his book the
Republic about the prisoners in a cave. In this story he says that
humans are like people trapped in a cave that can only look
forward toward a wall. Behind these folks is a fire and when things
outside the cave pass in front of the fire they appear as shadows on
the wall that the prisoners can see. The whole life of the prisoners
is devoted to understanding the shadows that it considers real.

One day a person escapes the cave and wanders outside. At first
the light of the sun blinds them but eventually their eyes adjust and
they see the real world for the first time. Never again do they want
to go back down into the cave! They are amazed that they ever
considered the shadows on the wall as real in the first place. If they
ever have to go back down into the cave and try to tell the other
prisoners that what they are looking at is unreal, and that a whole
other world exists outside the cave they will be ridiculed at best
and possibly even killed if they persist in trying to get the prisoners
to understand. Surely Plato must have had Socrates in mind when
he told this story!

This is of course a story to remind us that the real world is the
world of the Ideas. That is where we came from and our basic
human unhappiness is due to the fact that whether we realize it
consciously or not, we long to be reunited with our essential being
which is spiritual and thus experiences separation on the physical
level. The ideas are to the spiritual world what the sun is to the
physical world. Plato repeatedly refers to the Light and the True,
the Good, and the Beautiful in the same breath.

For Plato, philosophy is a way of life and a discipline that allows
one to make the strenuous effort to move past our attachments to
the physical and the material (the shadows on the wall) and find
our way to the world of the Ideas, the world of light and
contemplative vision. One must practice going past the surface of
things and trying to get to the essence. One of the ways you do this
is through the Socratic way of questioning yourself so that you go
past appearances. For example, Plato felt that the most accessible
Idea to us in our present state was the Idea of beauty.

Unlike the True and the Good, beauty has a physical component.
But if we can go past specific beauty to seek what makes anything
at all beautiful in the first place, then we start to go past
appearances to the source and essence of things themselves. We all
have a sense of how to do this. For example, often when we are
younger we are very caught up in how we look and especially how
our partner looks. But eventually, if true love develops, you notice
less and less how someone appears and more who they are as a
person. You start to become interested in their mind and their
personality. This is a simple example of how we can do this and
how it is the power of love that provides the energy to do this.

So the primary goal of the philosopher is to train his mind and
feelings the way an athlete trains their body. The goal is that the
highly disciplined mind can penetrate into the spiritual world to
attain knowledge of what is real. A mind so trained will not stop
short or be distracted. The training was through the study of
various subjects, especially math and astronomy, and also
becoming proficient at the dialectical method made famous by
Socrates. I am sure we can all think of people we know with highly
trained minds. They can spot a fallacy in an argument, they can
listen carefully, and they find a way to get right to the heart of
what you are trying to say.

Education, therefore, should not simply be for practical use in life
as with the Sophists, but instead should be about bringing out the
wisdom of the soul that could both seek and then recognize the
truth when it was discovered. Like Socrates, Plato believed that the
truth was within us but needed to be “led out” which is still the
root meaning of education. Classical education “assumed the
deeper metaphysical and spiritual dimensions of the Academy, an
institution as much monastery as university, holding forth the ideal
of inner perfection realized through disciplined education” (Tarnas,
p. 43). Much like Gentrain!

In Plato, philosophy takes on a redemptive quality. For only as the
soul is led to recognize the eternal truths of the archetypes is it able
to discover its own immortality. In this sense Plato reveals his
affinity for, if not relationship with, the Mystery Religions rather
than traditional religion. Traditional religion drew a sharp
distinction between the immortal gods and mortal humans.
But the mystery religions, relying on a process of initiation and
secret instruction seemed to reveal to people, among other things,
their own immortality and in essence their union with the gods.
What was before external had now become internal. Remember
how Homer described the afterlife, a place (Hades) that a king
would rather leave to be a slave on Earth. By the time of Socrates
and Plato, the immortality of the soul and the release that death
brings, rather than a lost, is now center stage. Remember that this
life in a physical body is compared to a life in a dark cave trying to
understand shadows!

Obviously this leads to a type of dualism that will remain in
Western thought into modern times. We are all familiar with ideas
such as spirit over matter that was actually very new at this time.
Could this rejection of the world on a certain level be a result of
what Plato experienced in the Athens of his day, an Athens that
would put to death the best man he knew, that is Socrates? During
the wonderful time of Athens primacy in Greece it was possible to
believe that humans were progressing from what I called tribal
religions to a new sophisticated culture and society. But with the
breakdown of all that was considered good and stable, questioning
this sense of progress was high on Plato’s agenda.

It is not surprising that he gives new strength to the idea that
modern culture was actually devolving from a past golden age
when people “were better than ourselves and dwelt nearer the
gods” (Tarnas, p 44). A culture worth living in needed to be based
on eternal and absolute ideas of what was good and true and
needed to be led by a philosopher king, a person not only well
educated, but someone also at home in the spiritual world of the
Ideas. A philosopher king would understand that this world was
only a pale shadow of that other world where true happiness lay.
And as a result he would guide society into creating a world as
much like the divine world that stood behind and gave birth to this
world as possible.
Plato may come across more as a mystic than I intend to
demonstrate, but this is only because it is important to understand
that all of Plato’s very rational thoughts are built on a fundamental
optimism that springs not from the world he sees but from the
spiritual world, the world of the Ideas that he believes gives birth
to and supports this physical world. This is a world of Logos, or
Divine Reason. It is evident to him in the order of the heavens and
in the wonders of nature. This divine reason, or intelligence, is the
source of our own intelligence and is what gives it meaning.

However, Plato recognizes the place of irrationality, even evil, in
this world and he locates it in matter. In this sense he seems to be
going with an idea that is strong in the mystery religions and may
have well influenced him; that is that the spiritual world is separate
and above the physical world and the more physical something is
the further away it is from the divine world of the Ideas. Once
again this world is only a shadow of the divine world and thus it
will always fall short of perfection and that allows evil and the
irrational to take their place. But still we must keep this in the
context of a limited physical world in an unlimited divine world.
The odds are in favor of the divine world coming out stronger and
in some ways the limited world of daily existence actually
becomes the motivating force for the philosopher to seek out the
divine world, and thus live in harmony with the divine Logos.

One of the things Plato recognized that the Pythagoreans had right
was their interest in numbers and understanding of math.
Pythagoras was supposedly the one who was able to put numbers
to something like music and thus show that the very nature of the
universe could be studied mathematically. This discovery was yet
another source of evidence that the nature of the universe was
intelligent and orderly. It was believed the harmony witnessed in
the heavens would be able to be understood mathematically and
thus the mastery of numbers was required in Plato’s academy
before you could study philosophy!

What is especially significant about this is that these mathematical
discoveries first happen in the mind. A person must first think
about this and then see if it applies to the external world. When it
was found that it did then the search for the meaning of the cosmos
began to take on new meaning. Humans are able to realize that
their own intelligence gives evidence that it is the same as the
intelligence in the universe, that it is related and part of the
universal intelligence or Logos.

It then becomes a simple step to assume that the meaning of the
universe can be found within. It some ways this distinguishes Plato
(and Socrates) from the pre-Socratic philosophers who looked for
the meaning and unifying principle in the universe in the outside
objective world. Beginning with Socrates there is a turn to look for
meaning in the subjective world.

Through the philosophical discipline established by Socrates and
then Plato a person could study and contemplate the nature of the
cosmos through math and come to see that the organization,
wholeness, and beauty of the universe outside was the same as the
soul’s inner landscape. The microcosm and the macrocosm were
related. Socrates adherence to the Delphic Motto “know thyself”
takes on cosmic significance. To truly know oneself was to know
the nature of reality as well!

Hellenistic philosophy would be permeated forever with the terms
Logos and Nous (mind) and often used interchangeably. The order
of the universe was the same order in the human mind. The
rational principle that gave wholeness and organization to the
cosmos was the same rationality that allowed the mind to discover
truth in the first place. And thus a person’s intelligence, their
ability to think deeply and clearly became an instrument to both
know and be known by the divine world of the archetypes.

Summary: Four ways to approach the world of the Ideas

If the world of the Ideas is so foundational to Plato’s philosophy
then how are we to know this world actually exists? How was one
to really approach this world of Ideas, the true source of wisdom
and knowledge? Plato’s epistemology, that is his theory of how we
know, took a few different forms. I want to share four of them:

First, the Ideas could best be known through a direct experience of
them, which happened through an intuitive leap, which was also at
the same time an act of remembering, for the soul was immortal
and had this knowledge before it fell into forgetfulness with human
incarnation as a physical being.

Second, the logical need for the transcendent archetypes could be
discovered through Socrates’ dialectic and through the study of

Third, Plato was immensely interested in the study of astronomy
and felt that his philosopher king would have to be a master
astronomer. For only by understanding the order of the heavens
would a ruler know how to bring order to this world. The heavens
were a sign of the divine order and by studying and understanding
astronomy one would become aware of the underlying order of the
universe. This underlying order, or Logos, was also an entrance
into the unity that was in fact a manifestation of the Ideas, the ideal
mathematical Forms.

Fourth, one could come into contact with the Ideas through the
physical and empirical sensation and apprehension of beauty. That
is, following beauty (which can actually be seen with the eyes
physically) to its essential core one becomes aware of the
archetype of Beauty and therein enters the world of the Ideas.

In turning philosophy to a profound appreciation of the power of
thought and the subjective soul experience of humans, Plato tended
to downplay the role of empirical studies. Empirical studies,
especially without the use of the advanced instruments we have
today, were often confusing and contradictory. Plato needed proof
that the world of Ideas was true so that his ethics and society
would have a firm foundation. Plato was looking for a certainty
that empiricism could not offer, or so he thought. So it was left to
Plato’s most outstanding student, Aristotle to take up and
strengthen that aspect of Plato’s philosophy. Without losing
appreciation for the subjective, Aristotle would once again look in
the same direction as the pre-Socratic philosophers, and study the
objective world. We will discuss Aristotle and science next week.

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