Plato’s Vision for the Philosophic Empire (2 of 6)
Part 2: The Orphic Mysteries and the Foundations of Greek Philosophy
This article is the second in a six-part series on the life, times, and teachings of Plato, the great philosopher and initiate of ancient Athens.
It follows part one, which focused on the economic, political, and sociological dynamics of Axial Age empires - a vital period of human history that Plato lived during, in a region that was in many ways at the epicenter of the events taking place during this age: Greece.
This article picks up where that article left off, discussing in further detail the historical context of what was transpiring in and around Greece during the time that Plato lived. After this introduction, we move into a discussion of who Plato was, what his intellectual influences were, and what makes his teachings so memorable and remarkable.
11. Greece in the Time of Plato (pt. 1): An Age of Empire
Plato was born in the 5th century BC in Greece, placing him right square in the middle of the drama of the Axial Age empires.
The story of ancient Greece imitates the large historical pattern that we tracked in our previous article, with civilization beginning with monarchy and credit before moving into oligarchy and debt. Anthropologist and historian David Graeber explains that the early history of Athens during the centuries preceding the sixth century BC is one in which the city-state faced a series of debt crises as a consequence of usury. These early crises “seem to have preceded the advent of currency. But, in each case, coinage became the solution.”
As we previously explored, during the Axial Age the states of Eurasia all fell under the political influence of war-profiteering oligarchs, who grew powerful by installing privatized, debt-based hard currency regimes (e.g. silver coins) which they and not the state controlled.
In an attempt to find a solution to its internal domestic crises caused by compounding interest and debt, the Athenian leadership made the same compromise that many states during this time period made: it made a “bargain with the devil” and implemented an oligarchy-controlled hard currency regime at home.
For states like Athens who implemented this system, its adoption came with a series of accompanying factors, including perpetual war, mercenary armies, slavery, entrenched aristocracies, debt peonage, social destabilization, and economic atrophy.
Soon after the rise of oligarch-controlled economies within the ancient Greek states, the evils associated with empire began to rear their ugly heads.
To give an example, the famous war between Athens and Sparta was actually the story of a war-profiteering financial oligarchy, having initially captured Athens, moving to then spread its tentacles to latch onto Sparta as a future host for itself.
As Joseph Farrell informs us, “Sparta was the state that rejected the international money power.” They resisted using hard currencies and protected their peasant classes from usury. Consequently, the real underlying purpose behind the Peloponnesian War was for the financial oligarchy behind Greece to overthrow the governance regime of Sparta in order to implement their military-coinage-slavery model of empire there.
The ultimate aim of these oligarchs “was to establish a private common money market across the Greek world totally controlled by the bankers.”
Centuries later, Rome would follow a similar trajectory as Athens. Here, like in Greece, history begins with an entrenched aristocratic class causing a domestic crisis through usurious lending policies. In an effort to preserve the wealth and privilege it had accrued as a result of its unfair and unjust lending practices, the aristocratic caste convinces the state to forgo declaring a debt cancellation and instead to go the imperial route as a means of solving its financial problems. Soon after, the characteristic attributes of imperial overreach set in.
In Debt: the First Five Thousand Years, David Graeber summarizes the story of Rome, writing: “The story of Rome is similar to that of Athens. Its early history … is one of continual struggles between patricians and plebians, and of continual crises over debt. ... Here, the patricians were ultimately faced with a decision: they could use agricultural loans (i.e. rural usury) to gradually turn the plebian population into a class of bonded laborers on their estates, or they could accede to popular demands for debt protection, preserve a peasantry, and employ the younger sons of free farm families as soldiers.”
Graeber continues: “As the prolonged history of crises, secessions, and reforms makes clear, the choice was made begrudgingly. The plebs practically had to force the senatorial class to take the imperial option. Still, they did, and over time they gradually presided over the establishment of a welfare system that recycled at least a share of the spoils to soldiers, veterans, and their families. In fact, the entire Roman empire, at its height, could be understood as a vast machine for the extraction of precious metals and their coining and distribution to the military - combined with taxation policies designed to encourage conquered populations to adopt coins in their everyday transactions.”
By expanding empire, occupying lands, capturing slaves, and extracting resources and wealth to redistribute back home, the Greeks and Romans were able to find a temporary solution to their domestic economic and political crises, while also feeding their military machine and opening up new profit opportunities for its aristocratic classes to channel their interest-bearing investments into.
But the oligarchy’s plan requires perpetual war to maintain itself. It was like a war-based pyramid scheme: through conquer and conquest, the empires of this period were able to obtain precious metals and slaves, which allowed them to mint more money and purchase more military arms and soldiers, which then allowed them to repeat the cycle and spread the reach of their financial empire further.
In short, states controlled by the oligarchy found themselves in a trap, where they needed money to pay armies to extract resources and capture slaves, who were then used to mine more gold or silver to pay for more armies to extract more wealth.
Graeber observes that in neither Rome nor Athens (nor any of the other Axial Age empires) did this model of extractive empire prove workable or sustainable over the long run:
“In Greece, as in Rome, attempts to solve the debt crisis through military expansion were always, ultimately, just ways of fending off the problem - and they only worked for a limited period of time. When expansion finally stopped, everything returned to as it had been before.”
“By the end of the Rome Empire, most people in the countryside who weren’t outright slaves had become, effectively, debt peons to some rich landlord, a situation in the end legally formalized by imperial decrees, binding peasants to the land. Without a free peasantry to form the basis of the army, the state was forced to rely more and more on arming and employing (mercenaries) from across the imperial frontiers.”
Summarizing the financial nature of these two important Axial Age empires, while comparing and contrasting them with what came before, David Graeber writes:
“The main difference between Greek and Roman economies and those of the Ancient Near East was the absence of debt relief, resulting in a long series of political crises extending from the 7th-century BC from classical Sparta and Corinth down to Rome in the 1st century BC.”
Ultimately, “it was not money, coinage or even interest-bearing debt by themselves that caused the polarization of society under antiquity’s creditor oligarchies.” Instead, “the problem was the way in which society handled the proliferation of interest-bearing debt.”
While “Mesopotamia had usury and debt bondage, its rulers managed to avoid the irreversible disenfranchisement and ultimate serfdom that plagued the Mediterranean lands. The Near Eastern aim was to preserve a land-tenured citizenry who could supply the palace with labor and military service. Despite the palace’s role as the major creditor, it protected debtors by debt amnesties that undid the polarizing effect of interest-bearing debt.”
“Since most debts in early Mesopotamia were owed to the palace, its rulers basically were cancelling debts owed to themselves and their collectors when they proclaimed Clean Slates that saved their economies from widespread debt bondage that would have diverted labor to work for creditors at the expense of the palace. But as debts came to be owed mainly to Greek and Roman oligarchies, debts no longer were canceled except in military or social emergencies to maintain the army’s loyalty. What came to be ‘sanctified' was the right of creditors to foreclose, not cancelling debts to restore economic balance.”
Overall, “money and debt in Greece and Rome followed a different trajectory from its origins in Mesopotamia.”
“As credit was increasingly privatized, debt became a dynamic powerful enough to dissolve the checks and balances that had shaped the social context in which money first developed.” Most notably, “oligarchies gained sufficient power to stop civic debt cancellations. Rural usury in Greece and Rome expropriated indebted citizens from their land irreversibly, typically to become mercenaries in armies formerly manned by self-supporting citizens.”
This whole process culminates in the inevitable fall of the empire. Using Rome as an example, Graeber concludes that “by the closing centuries of the Roman Empire, wealthy elites had monopolized the land and stripped the economy of resources, spending most of what they had on imports that drained monetary silver and gold to the East and leaving an impoverished barter economy in its wake.” In this way, the Axial Age came finally to its ultimate end, with a dark ages descending across much of Eurasia in the centuries following as a consequence of the demise of the great empires that once dominated this important historical era.
12. Greece in the Time of Plato (pt. 2): Grecian Culture
One reason that oligarchy thrived in Greece is that its unique geography prevented political unification among its various city-states. Greek city-states and their colonies remained forever either at war or forming alliances and trade relationships with one another. This created a condition favorable for a cartel of war-profiting oligarchs to move in and impress their hegemony over the disunited Greek states, with their goal being the establishment of a common money market between them.
The banning of debt bondage required the state to position itself against the oligarchy, holding its most extreme impulses in check. The challenge for the early Greek states was to come up with a model of governance in which the oligarchy’s interests could be held in some measure of balance in relation to those of the larger collective.
Geographer Felipe Fernandez-Armesto summarizes the situation: “In Greece, a variety of political experiments unfolded, including republican, aristocratic and even democratic systems. Aristotle … thought monarchy was the best system in theory, but not in practice, because it was impossible to ensure that the best man would always be the ruler. More practical was aristocratic government, in which a manageable number of superior men administered the state. But it tended to degenerate into the self-interested rule of the wealthy or permanent power for a hereditary clique. Democracy, meanwhile, could lead to demagogues and mob rule. For him, the best system was a carefully crafted mixture in which aristocracy predominated under the rule of law. Broadly speaking, this was embodied in the Roman state of the second half of the millennium, which became, in turn, the model for” the republics of Western civilization.
By the 7th century BC oligarchies in several greek city-states were overthrown and driven into exile by populist leaders who cancelled the debts of their supporters and redistributed the land of debt-exiled families. “One of the last cities to experience a debtors’ revolt was in Athens, where Solon lay the foundations for economic democracy by banning debt bondage in 594 BC.”
While democratic institutions emerged in Greece as a solution to keep the oligarchs in check, they applied only to a portion of the population and did not replace completely the power of the aristocrats. Despite its progressive domestic politics and impressive cultural institutions, the Athenian state never fully extracted itself from the imperial model of the oligarchs or the state of perpetual war it desired.
At the same time that forward-thinking experiments in domestic political organization were taking place in Greece, its economy remained tethered to the spoils of colonization. Consequently, it never fully extracted itself from the bonds of oligarchy.
Even as a republic with democratic institutions, Greece remained a colonizing people, one whose society, despite its support of an elite philosophical and intellectual class, remained oriented toward private wealth, war, and slavery. For example, during the “Golden Age” of Greek philosophy, the population of Athens was comprised of 40% slaves.
It was a culture of large extremes: high highs and low lows. Geographer Fernandez-Armesto explains that, despite the high attainments of its greatest minds, much of Greek society remained uncultured: “The average Greek’s social attitudes were different from the philosophers” and were “run not by reason but by weird and bloody rites, goat dances, orgiastic worship, sacrifices, signs, and omens.”
Manly Hall concurs, noting that, for the average Greek of the period, “their religious life was simple, literal, and obvious. They performed the rites and rituals prescribed by the priests, paid their taxes, and stood ready to be drafted when neighboring states made war. Slavery was extensively practiced, as was debt peonage.”
The philosophical schools of the period frequently came into conflict with the members of the powerful aristocratic class.
The demise of the original Pythagorean school is illustrative of the violence and savagery that existed just below the surface of Grecian culture and the way it worked against the spiritual progress of its people. In his book Journey in Truth, Manly P. Hall offers an account of the school’s destruction:
“The manner by which Pythagoras himself met his death is obscured by a number of contradictory accounts. The most common and accepted story involves a certain Cylon, an aristocrat. He sought admission into the inner school, but was unable to pass the examinations; he possessed no aptitude for higher learning, nor did he cultivate the moral or physical virtues. His was an evil disposition and a revengeful spirit, and when he was refused initiation into the brotherhood at Crotona his rage knew no bounds. Thereafter, he concentrated on the destruction of the master and his school. Favored by his wealth and worldly position he agitated the populace against Pythagoras and finally one day led a revolt against the philosopher and his disciples. A mob of hired vandals descended upon the school and burned its buildings to ruins. Pythagoras and about forty of his closest disciples are said to have perished in the flames.”
While the typical evils and psychological obsessions associated with rise and fall of Axial Age empires existed within Greece, for a relatively short period a social space was created within its culture where the blossoming of art, philosophy, and culture could be cultivated and given room to grow and develop.
The cultural institutions that developed within Greece and other Axial Age empires during this period are one that would outlive the decline of their host civilizations. These empires created a period of relative stability in which important new institutions could emerge and be given space to blossom.
Therefore, we can conclude that a high degree of culture and civilization was achieved in Greece not because of its imperial tendencies but despite of it. The same came be said for China, India, and Mesopotamia: in each, a relatively small number of intellectual giants achieved great cultural feats, while the majority of people fell under the sway of imperialism and the materialistic psychological obsessions that go along with it.
The social and political circumstances existing around the time period when philosophy first emergences may not be ideal, but at this stage of humanity’s evolution, it is all we were prepared to offer. It was only by means of these empires that a certain level of cultural and economic complexity was able to be achieved whereby a public intellectual class could emerge. It was from this class of educated individuals that the first philosophical students would be cultivated; without them, the philosophical schools would have had no students to populate its academies.
Cultural institutions like philosophy require resources and a free class of individuals able to populate them. The Axial Age empires provided the resources and a free class of aristocratic noblemen who possessed the time, resources, and education necessary to advance in philosophical instruction. This situation may not be desirable, but at the time it was seemingly the only option available. In this way, the oligarchies of the age made space for a high advancement of culture to take place, but this lasted only for a time, as the economic and political foundations of the empires they built were inherently unstable.
During its heyday, the philosophical schools were realistically made available only to certain select segments of society. In theory, their schools were open to anyone who qualified for entry, but realistically, slaves and subsistence farmers wouldn’t have the time, availability, or resources to be educated at the level required for deep advancement in their degree programs.
13. Greece in the Time of Plato (pt. 3): The Orphic Mysteries
In Greece during the Axial Age, the state religion and its inner network of Mystery Schools were rooted in the religious philosophy of the Orphic sect.
The Orphic Mysteries were initially brought into Greece at some point between 1400 and 1200 BC by the legendary “Orpheus”, who is probably not one figure but a line of teachers who taught a common doctrine of philosophical teachings.
The teachings that these prophets brought into the region originally came from the East as part of a very ancient lineage of wisdom teachings whose origin stretches back to prehistoric North Asia (i.e. the Arya). Through the original Orphic line of teachers, the wisdom teaching of this ancient Eastern tradition moved into and mingled with the symbolism of the primitive native religion of Greece. From this union was born the Orphic body of Greek mythology that we know today, with Zeus and his attendants symbolically residing on Mount Olympus, ruling over the fate of mortals.
The mythological structure of the Orphic system became the foundation of Greek religion, including not only its seasonal patterns of rituals and festivals, but also its network of temples complexes, each being dedicated to a particular god of the Orphic mythological system.
The Mystery Schools that existed within these various temple complexes orchestrated their initiation rites to align with these myths, with festivals and pageants celebrating particular gods celebrated in the Lesser Mysteries, and the revelation of the psychological mystery behind the symbolism of these myths revealed during the initiations of the Greater Mysteries.
To reemphasize, the Orphic body of wisdom teachings and their pattern of Mystery Schools were brought into Greece from an outside source; they were not a domestic invention.
Greek culture was thus formed as a hybrid system, combining native traditions with the influence of an ancient pattern of Aryan wisdom teachings which originally descended from a remote source in North Asia. Egyptian influences are also infused into the Greek pattern.
Describing the change that took place within Greek culture as a result of its encounter with the Orphic teachings, Manly Hall writes that “the early Greeks were not a philosophic people and their culture can be described as aesthetic materialism. The old Gods were luxurious divinities interested primarily in the enjoyment of their Olympian pleasures. There is little of divine justice to be found in the myths and fables of the old Greeks.”
The Orphics came in and re-arranged the old mythological structure so that the hierarchy of gods on Mt. Olympus were given new symbolic meaning. Hall elaborates: “The Orphics appear to have been the first among the Grecians to attribute secret and sacred philosophical meaning to the Hellenic mythology. They taught that the gods and heroes were to be understood as Universal Laws and Principles. In this way, they purified the religious thought of the Greeks, elevating their theology from a literal to an allegorical plane.”
The Orphics designed the symbolism of their myths to contain to two primary, opposing levels of allegorical interpretation, one exoteric and the other esoteric.
At the most simple and superficial level - the one suitable for the masses - there is an outer or exoteric form of the myths. These involve the simple interpretations of Greek myths (like that of Narcissus or Cupid), which become celebrated within popular culture and general society and become incorporated into public rituals and festivals.
But behind this outer form of mythic interpretation existed also an esoteric method of analysis. Here, the focus of the symbolism of the myth is shifted to a psychological level, where the myth becomes a psychological allegory of divine processes taking place within the soul of both the world and man. In this way, the myth presents elements of an ancient and sacred body of wisdom teachings for the student to contemplate and internalize.
In the Mystery Schools, the initiate is intended to unravel and make sense of the inner, philosophic meaning of the myth; his initiation is dependent upon his or her ability to successfully do so.
It was in the Greek Mystery Schools that this esoteric, psychological interpretation of myth took place. Here, religion shifts from “a worship of divine history” to “the interpretation of a divine mystery”, with the gods of myth rediscovered "as experiences of consciousness.”
When perceived through an esoteric or psychological lens of interpretation, “the mythical histories were revealed as spiritual, philosophical, and moral fables. The inquiring mind was challenged to interpret these fables. Naturally this bestowed a powerful emphasis upon abstract speculation and was responsible for the almost immediate rise of the Greek schools of speculative philosophy. … It released a group of mental faculties which had not previously been challenged by problems of abstract thinking.”
In the lower degrees of the Orphic Mysteries, candidates participated in sacred rituals or pageants, which were organized and carried out by the priesthood and higher initiates at regular stated intervals.
These rituals, which were based around certain important symbolic myths from the Greek pantheon, were seen as an integral part of one's religious practices. Candidates in these “Lesser Mysteries” also practiced rites of self-purification, while also beginning their studies to engage with the Orphic mythology on a deeper symbolic level.
Hall elaborates: “The Lesser Mysteries introduced the mind to fundamental concepts of philosophy, ethics, and morality. … Its candidates also received certain instructions principally concerned with the purification of the body, the emotions, and the mind.” Overall, the candidates of the lesser mysteries were “spectators - not participators - in the body of the mystical doctrine.”
Beyond the Lesser Mysteries were the Greater Mysteries. Hall notes that, in the Lower Mysteries five degrees are mentioned; only those who reached the fifth degree were eligible to receive the Greater Mysteries.” These graduates were called the mystae and they become the initiates of the higher mystical rites of the Orphic tradition, where they were initiated into the inner esoteric secrets behind the Aryan wisdom teachings.
Participation in the esoteric and mystical aspects of the Orphic doctrine is what disciples were initiated into in the Greater Mysteries. To get to this level, one had to first graduate beyond the various degrees of the Lower Mysteries, something only a relatively small number of candidates achieved.
As Hall describes them, “The Greater Mysteries were celebrated with impressive rites and public spectacles. It is obvious that those seeking admission had properly received and profited by the Lesser Mysteries. Preparation included fasting and at least temporarily vegetarianism.”
In the case of the Eleusinian rites, the Greater Mysteries climaxed with “an apocalyptic revelation of the Divine Plan. As in the case of a High Mass, the beholders were lifted up by a mystical experience into the realms of the World Soul. They experienced within themselves the eternal drama of unfolding life and beheld the gods as personifications of the eternal principles which govern existence.”
This initiation experience “united the earth with the lofty peak of the spiritual Olympus. It accomplished the resurrection of the divinity buried in the sepulcher of mortality. Those who passed through this ceremony were said to have been spiritually reborn.”
Having passed through these rites, the initiates returned to their usual labors, but "with a new vision of their responsibilities. … They worked now from a master plan to which their intellects had been converted. They did not reject their former insights but ensouled them with the vision of the restoration of the Golden Age.”
Meanwhile, the common people who were outside of the Mystery Schools (which was the vast majority) remained entirely unaware of the possibility of this level of religious experience. Instead, theirs was a simple, literal, ritualistic engagement with the Orphic myths, celebrating their gods primarily through “festivals, processions, and various public exhibitions.”
This is not different than what we find today, with the majority of people practicing their religion through the ritualism of its outer, institutional body but not necessarily “living it” as a life discipline or experiencing it as a revelation of divine consciousness.
To make this leap into a deeper engagement with one’s religion is to enter the Schoolhouse of the Mysteries. Simply put, the vast majority of humans are not ready to make that great step forward and consequently most engage with their religion primarily through its outer symbolism and ritualism.
The deeper psychological understanding of myth was not appreciated in the “exoteric” religion followed by the public. Instead, one had to prepare oneself and apply to be a candidate of the Mysteries in order to receive this deeper level of instruction.
Philosophy emerged during the Axial Age throughout the major civilizations of Eurasia as a solution to this problem: it brought the core doctrine of wisdom teachings outside of their previous confines within the temple walls and gave them a new form, one that could be made accessible in potential to everyone, extending itself down to all castes so that each may benefit from its wisdom at their own level.
In the Greek states, Pythagoras was the Hero who first brought the Orphic doctrine of religious philosophy to the people, externalizing its teachings out from the temple and the exclusive possession of the priesthood.
His was a deliberate project: he was an initiate of the Orphic Mysteries (among many others) and was chosen by the upper echelons of this esoteric priesthood to be an ambassador of its teachings. His mission was to clothe the Aryan wisdom teachings in a new, quasi-secular form, so that they may survive the eventual collapse of Greek civilization and live on into future ages that would extend beyond.
After the decline of the original Pythagorean school and the scattering of its student body, the Aryan wisdom tradition was resurrected and elaborated upon by Plato, who was born about a hundred years after the death of Pythagoras.
Before we turn our attention to Plato and the fundamentals of his philosophical doctrine, let’s first outline the basics of the Orphic teachings. In this way, when approaching Plato’s teachings, we can be familiar with the way of thinking that he was originally initiated into as a disciple of the Orphic Mysteries.
14. The Orphic Foundations of Platonic Philosophy
When we think of the golden age of Greek philosophy and culture, what we are really admiring is the greatness of the central institution that inspired these achievements: the Orphic Mysteries. Similarly, when we admire Plato and Pythagoras, we are admiring the minds and works of two spiritual giants who were made what they were in part because of their association with the Orphic wisdom tradition.
Therefore, to understand the foundations of Plato's philosophy of life, we should understand something of the Orphic system of religious philosophy that he was raised in.
The philosophic worldview taught in the Orphic Mysteries is based on the premise that “Space and Spirit are identical,” with creation coming as a motion taking place within Space by means of the power of Mind. The descent of gods from Mount Olympus represents the descent of spiritual powers within Space, as its underlying unity is gradually stepped down into the creation of a world of diverse material forms.
In the Orphics’ view, the material body of the physical universe is fashioned by a superior Divine Mind for a purpose: that it may serve as “the mortal body of an immortal divinity”. Mankind is part of this material creation and therefore exists as “a degree or level of spiritual activity within the consciousness of this God.”
Within this context, the Orphics viewed religion, science, and philosophy as intimately connected. They synthesized all three institutions together, with the idea that, in practice, none could be separated from the others.
In their view, “religion is the science of approaching God by the inner experience of realization,” while Science is the inverse: it involves “the accumulation of physical facts which bear witness to the operation of divine law in the material world.” Philosophy, meanwhile, serves as the synthesis between them. It involves “the discovery of the Divine Plan through the intellectual contemplation of nature and man.”
For the initiate of the Orphic Mysteries, “always, the end to be attained is the discovery of the nature of First Cause.” Building on this theme, the master science followed by the initiates of this sect is that of "interpreting correctly the World’s symbolism in order to discover the substance behind the shadow.”
The Orphics emphasized, within their inner esoteric orders, the doctrine of reincarnation - a tradition that originally came to Greece from the East. As initiates of the Orphic Mysteries, Pythagoras and Plato also emphasized reincarnation in their respective teachings.
The doctrine of reincarnation was not previously featured in the older framework of Greek mythology; it came into Greece via the first line of Orphic teachers. As Many Hall explains, “prior to the Orphic dispensation the Greeks possessed only an immature concept of the state of the soul after death. To the prehistoric Hellenes, the dead wandered endlessly in a subterranean shadowland; the hero and the slave came to a common end. Neither virtue of action nor profundity of thinking could rescue the soul from its hopeless roaming in the abode of shadows.”
With the coming of the Orphic tradition down from the mountains of North Asia, this ancient system of beliefs was completely overhauled. “Orpheus taught metempsychosis, or the periodic return of the soul to the material world.” In his teachings, “rebirth was necessary because of the materiality in the soul, which did not die with the dissolution of the body.”
According to this view, one that the Orphics shared in common with the Hindus and Buddhists, Man will continue to re-incarnate in this material sphere “until the sensory impulses are overcome at their source, the appetitive nature” (i.e. the principle of Self).
Hall elaborates on this teaching, noting that: “the passions, appetites, and irrationalities of the soul are not physical, although they are usually dependent upon physical life for their gratification. The death of the body left the (super-physical) entity (i.e. the “Higher Self” or “Super-Ego”) with its physical appetites still complete and intense. It is inevitable, therefore, that these appetites should draw the entity back again into physical life. … The physical world exercises a gravitational pull on all natures in which worldliness is dominant.”
This view of reincarnation fits into a rational justification for the existence of the Mystery Schools: “These institutions sought to purify the inner life so that man, overcoming his own animal soul, might at death become a blessed spirit ‘and verge toward the gods,’ drawn thereto by the godliness in his own being.”
Pythagoras and Plato were both initiated into the esoteric doctrine of the Orphic sect; consequently, the core framework of the Orphic tradition is embedded at a foundational level within the philosophical doctrines espoused by both teachers.
For example n regards to Plato, Hall writes that “without knowledge of the Orphic Mysteries it is impossible to interpret the more profound aspects of Plato’s thought. His gods were the Orphic divinities, and the whole framework of his metaphysical system was derived from the sublimity of the Orphic conception.”
Having now established his connection to the Orphic Mysteries, we will now turn our attention to Plato and the fundamentals of his philosophical teachings.
15. Plato, the Sage of Athens
The Greek sage and philosopher Plato was born 427 BC “of an illustrious (i.e. aristocratic) family on the island of Aegina on the day of the Feast of Apollo.”
Manly Hall intimates that, like the other great teachers of the Axial Age (Gautama Buddha, Lao Tzu, Pythagoras, etc.), Plato was of divine birthright - meaning, he was a highly evolved soul who was born to carry out an objective on behalf of the Esoteric Schools and the Spiritual Hierarchy they serve.
He writes that “a number of the earlier Platonists believed the great philosopher to be the son of no mortal man but of the Holy Spirit which manifested itself in the luminous shape of Apollo.”
According to Hall, Plato was built of heroic proportions and possessed one of the finest minds the species has yet produced. In fact, the name Plato is not his birth name (which was Aristocles) but rather a nickname that means “breadth”, referring doubly to the largeness of his physique and intellect.
After showing much talent and promise in both athletics and intellectual studies as a youth, Plato became a disciple of the self-taught Greek sage Socrates when he was twenty years of age, remaining with him for eight years.
Socrates, not being an initiate of the Orphic Mysteries but rather deriving his wisdom from within himself, could not provide Plato with knowledge of the deeper esoteric sciences concealed within the Mystery Schools. Thus, Plato resolved to, like Pythagoras, journey and seek initiation into the Esoteric Schools of not only the Orphic Mysteries in Greece but also of the other great Eurasian cultures he could gain access to.
Manly Hall describes Plato’s spiritual pilgrimage: “Having dedicated his life to the discovery of Truth, Plato was resolved to travel into any country where wisdom might be found, even if it be to the furthermost parts of the Earth. Therefore, it was natural that he should go to Italy where he could attach himself to the disciplines of the Pythagoreans.” He then moved on and received initiation into “the Mosaic traditions of the Jews, … as well as the numerous instituted Mysteries of the Greeks. … Next he went to Egypt to study astrology with their priests. Having surveyed the whole of Egypt, he settled finally in the province of Sais, where he studied with the wise men concerning the origin of the universe, the immortality of the soul, and the transmigrations of the soul through earthly bodies.”
Regarding his involvement with the Orphic Mysteries, Hall writes that “Plato, unlike his own teacher Socrates, was an initiate of the State Mysteries and had witnessed the pageantry of the Orphic Pantheon. As Apulius later wrote, he had ‘trodden upon the threshold of Persephone’, beheld the great assemblage of gods, and seen the sun at midnight beneath his feet, shining through the body of the Earth. These obscure statements implied a development of psychic faculties as taught by the priests, by which Plato had experienced the mystery of death (i.e. ‘the threshold of Persephone’) and returned again to the world of the living as a man twice born.”
Finally, after his many travels and initiations, Plato returned to Athens, where he established his Academy in the suburbs of the city. Here, Plato, following in the footsteps of Pythagoras, set about founding a philosophical school whose design would exist as a recreation of the basic pattern of the Mystery Schools he had previously been initiated into.
In his doctrine of teachings, Plato offered a synthesis of the various wisdom traditions he had been exposed to. However, as Manly Hall describes, the philosophical system he created “should not be accepted as a mere compilation. Everywhere throughout his writings is evidence of a master intellect digesting, assimilating, and arranging, so that all ideas become part of one idea, and all knowledge becomes part of one magnificent summary.”
Hall continues: “Plato was an inclusive thinker, the finest type of mind the human race has produced. He synthesized the arts, sciences, philosophies, and religions, uniting them all and forming from their compound the enlightened man’s philosophy of life.”
The essence of Plato's philosophy of life is simple but inspiring. As Manly Hall informs us, “Platonic wisdom is to love men, love life, love the wise, serve all things, love all that we serve, see good in everything, and share all good with everyone. These were Plato’s ideals, and they are the absolute prerequisite of an intelligent, philosophic viewpoint.”
To Plato, the world is everywhere ensouled. Here, “each shares with all living things a common fraternity. The sands of the sea, the plants, the winds, the storms, the beasts of the field, all these are worthy of veneration in the sense they all participate in the life of Divinity. Therefore, all forms of life must be regarded as sacred.”
According to Plato, the sacredness of life comes from its foundation in unity. In Plato’s teachings, the living Unity from which all diversity is suspended is called the World Soul.
The World Soul binds all parts together into a whole. Within the all-encompassing space of its life pattern, the human, the plant, the animal, and the mineral are united as one.
It is with this foundational concept that Plato's entire framework of reasoning descends, with the idea being that one’s thinking should begin with universals (the World Soul) before moving down into the consideration of particulars (individual souls).
In technical terms, this method of reasoning is called “deduction”. Here, one begins with the consideration of Unity and the first principles that emerge within it before moving in and investigating the nature of the material world of diverse life forms that extend out from these principles.
In thinking of Plato, Unity is primary and diversity secondary, for the reason that diversity always exists within the context of an encompassing Unity, while Unity can exist in and of itself, independent of diversity.
Manly Hall further unpacks the importance of Unity to Plato’s philosophy of life, writing: “Plato’s philosophy surrounds the principle of Unity. To him, the concept of Unity was all-pervading, everywhere present and evident. Division was illusion. Therefore, to accept a philosophy of division was ignorance.”
In Plato's thinking, “Unity was reality and the doctrine of Unity was truth. Ignorance sees many separate things in the world; wisdom sees only the many parts of one thing.” Thus, “God, man, and the universe are related fragments of a common Unity”.
Manly Hall describes Plato's deductive method of reasoning as being like that of taking a “birds-eye view” of life.
“In matters of thinking Plato took his disciples into high mountain places where, standing aloof, they could look down upon the world. Below them stretched the plains, dotted with cities, towns, and villages. From such an elevated and detached position it was possible to gain that peculiar perspective which is termed philosophic insight.”
In this way, “Plato reasoned from generals to particulars. … He reasoned downward from divine concerns, and discovered the world by discovering God. He estimated all material matters from the standpoint of their divine origins. In this attitude, he was a true metaphysician.”
Hall writes that the religious concept implied by this way of thinking reveals “a true monotheism, for monotheism is more than admitting the existence of one God - it is the realization of the existence of one life of which all things are part.”
Within this context, the purpose of science is entirely reframed. Its task is to study relationships in nature, with the idea that all parts work together to serve the composite life of one wholeness. Thus, scientific learning should not be about “the analysis of isolated natures” but rather “to understand the part or role that each plays in the drama of the whole.”
Here, science works with and informs religion, rather than working against it.
Based on their scientific exploration of man’s physical and mental anatomy, the Esoteric Schools devised programs of esoteric instruction designed to elevate the consciousness of their initiates and disciples to an exalted state, where would attain an experience of consciousness at the level of Unity.
This experience of Unity is the foundation of the religious experience. It is also the source of the system of revealed knowledge or wisdom teachings that the Esoteric Schools perpetuate here on Earth.
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