Plato 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. Why? 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. Introduction “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 math. 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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