Christianity As Mystical Fact/Chapter IV
PLATO AS A MYSTIC
The importance of the Mysteries to the spiritual life of the Greeks may be realised from Plato's conception of the universe. There is only one way of understanding him thoroughly. It is to place him in the light which streams forth from the Mysteries.
Plato's later disciples, the Neo-Platonists, credit him with a secret doctrine which he imparted only to those who were worthy, and which he conveyed under the "seal of secrecy." His teaching was looked upon as mysterious in the same sense as the wisdom of the Mysteries. Even if the seventh Platonic letter is not from his hand, as is alleged, it does not signify for our present purpose, for it does not matter whether it was he or another who gave utterance to the view expressed in this letter. This view is of the essence of Plato's philosophy. In the letter we read as follows: "This much I may say about all those who have written or may hereafter write as if they knew the aim of my work,—that no credence is to be attached to their words, whether they obtained their information from me, or from others, or invented it themselves. I have written nothing on this subject, nor would anything be allowed to appear. This kind of thing cannot be expressed in words like other teaching, but needs a long study of the subject and a making oneself one with it. Then it is as though a spark leaped up and kindled a light in the soul which thereafter is able to keep itself alight." This utterance might only indicate the writer's powerlessness to express his meaning in words,—a mere personal weakness,—if the idea of the Mysteries were not to be found in them. The subject on which Plato had not written and would never write, must be something about which all writing would be futile. It must be a feeling, a sentiment, an experience, which is not gained by instantaneous communication, but by making oneself one with it, in heart and soul. The reference is to the inner education which Plato was able to give those he selected. For them, fire flashed forth from his words, for others, only thoughts.
The manner of our approach to Plato's Dialogues is not a matter of indifference. They will mean more or less to us, according to our spiritual condition. Much more passed from Plato to his disciples than the literal meaning of his words. The place where he taught his listeners thrilled in the atmosphere of the Mysteries. His words awoke overtones in higher regions, which vibrated with them, but these overtones needed the atmosphere of the Mysteries, or they died away without having been heard.
In the centre of the world of the Platonic Dialogues stands the personality of Socrates. We need not here touch upon the historical aspect of that personality. It is a question of the character of Socrates as it appears in Plato. Socrates is a person consecrated by his dying for truth. He died as only an initiate can die, as one to whom death is merely a moment of life like other moments. He approaches death as he would any other event in existence. His attitude towards it was such that even in his friends the feelings usual on such an occasion were not aroused. Phædo says this in the Dialogue on the Immortality of the Soul: "Truly I found myself in the strangest state of mind. I had no compassion for him, as is usual at the death of a dear friend. So happy did the man appear to me in his demeanour and speech, so steadfast and noble was his end, that I was confident that he was not going to Hades without a divine mission, and that even there it would be as well with him as it is with any one anywhere. No tender-hearted emotion overcame me, as might have been expected at such a mournful event, nor on the other hand was I in a cheerful mood, as is usual during philosophical pursuits, and although our conversation was of this nature; but I found myself in a wondrous state of mind and in an unwonted blending of joy and grief when I reflected that this man was about to die." The dying Socrates instructs his disciples about immortality. His personality, which had learned by experience the worthlessness of life, furnishes a kind of proof quite different from logic and arguments founded on reason. It seems as if it were not a man speaking, for this man was passing away, but as if it were the voice of eternal truth itself, which had taken up its abode in a perishable personality. Where a mortal being is dissolving into nothing, there seems to be a breath of the air in which it is possible for eternal harmonies to resound.
We hear no logical proofs of immortality. The whole discourse is designed to lead the friends where they may behold the eternal. Then they will need no proofs. Would it be necessary to prove that a rose is red, to one who has one before him? Why should it be necessary to prove that spirit is eternal, to one whose eyes we have opened to behold spirit? Experiences, inner events, Socrates points to them, and first of all to the experience of wisdom itself.
What does he desire who aspires after wisdom? He wishes to free himself from what the senses offer him in every-day perception. He seeks for the spirit in the sense-world. Is not this a fact which may be compared with dying? "For," according to Socrates, "those who occupy themselves with philosophy in the right way are really striving after nothing else than to die and to be dead, without this being perceived by others. If this is true, it would be strange if, after having aimed at this all through life, when death itself comes they should be indignant at that which they have so long striven after and taken pains about." To corroborate this, Socrates asks one of his friends: "Does it seem to you befitting a philosopher to take trouble about so-called fleshly pleasures, such as eating and drinking? or about sexual pleasures? And do you think that such a man pays much heed to other bodily needs? To have fine clothes, shoes, and other bodily adornments,—do you think he considers or scorns this more than utmost necessity demands? Does it not seem to you that it should be such a man's whole preoccupation not to turn his thoughts to the body, but as much as possible away from it and towards the soul? Therefore this is the first mark of the philosopher, that he, more than all other men, relieves his soul of association with the body."
On this subject Socrates has something more to say, i.e., that aspiration after wisdom has this much in common with dying, that it turns man away from the physical. But whither does he turn? Towards the spiritual. But can he desire the same from spirit as from the senses? Socrates thus expresses himself on this point: "But how is it with reasonable knowledge itself? Is the body a hindrance or not, if we take it as a companion in our search for knowledge? I mean, do sight and hearing procure man any truth? Or is what the poets sing meaningless, that we see and hear nothing clearly?... When does the soul catch sight of truth? For when it tries to examine something with the help of the body, it is manifestly deceived by the latter."
Everything of which we are cognisant by means of our bodily senses appears and disappears. And it is this appearing and disappearing which is the cause of our being deceived. But when with our reasonable intelligence we look deeper into things, the eternal element in them is revealed to us. Thus the senses do not offer us the eternal in its true form. The moment we trust them implicitly they deceive us. They cease to deceive us if we confront them with our thinking insight and submit what they tell us to its examination.
But how could our thinking insight sit in judgment on the declarations of the senses, unless there were something living within it which transcends sense-perception? Therefore the truth or falsity in things is decided by something within us which opposes the physical body and is consequently not subject to its laws. First of all, it cannot be subject to the laws of growth and decay. For this something contains truth within it. Now truth cannot have a yesterday and a to-day, it cannot be one thing one day and another the next, like objects of sense. Therefore truth must be something eternal. And when the philosopher turns away from the perishable things of sense and towards truth, he is turning towards an eternal element that lives within him. If we immerse ourselves wholly in spirit, we shall live wholly in truth. The things of sense around us are no longer present merely in their physical form. "And he accomplishes this most perfectly," says Socrates, "who approaches everything as much as possible with the spirit only, without either looking round when he is thinking, or letting any other sense interrupt his reflecting; but who, making use of pure thought only, strives to grasp everything as it is in itself, separating it as much as possible from eyes and ears, in short from the whole body, which only disturbs the soul and does not allow it to attain truth and insight when associated with the soul.... Now is not death the release and separation of the soul from the body? And it is only true philosophers who are always striving to release the soul as far as they can. This, therefore, is the philosopher's vocation, to deliver and separate the soul from the body.... Therefore it would be foolish if a man, who all his life has taken measures to be as near death as possible, should, when it comes, rebel against it.... In truth the real seekers after wisdom aspire to die, and of all men they are those who least fear death." Moreover Socrates bases all higher morality on liberation from the body. He who only follows what his body ordains is not moral. Who is valiant? asks Socrates. He is valiant who does not obey his body but the demands of his spirit when these demands imperil the body. And who is temperate? Is not this he who "does not let himself be carried away by desires, but who maintains an indifferent and moral demeanour with regard to them. Therefore are not those alone temperate who set least value on the body and live in the love of wisdom?" And so it is, in the opinion of Socrates, with all virtues.
Thence Socrates goes on to characterise intellectual cognition. What is it after all, to cognise? Undoubtedly we arrive at it by forming judgments. I form a judgment about some object; for instance, I say to myself, what is in front of me is a tree. How do I arrive at saying that? I can only do it if I already know what a tree is. I must remember my conception of a tree. A tree is a physical object. If I remember a tree, I therefore remember a physical object. I say of something that it is a tree, if it resembles other things which I have previously observed and which I know to be trees. Memory is the medium for this knowledge. It makes it possible for me to compare the various objects of sense. But this does not exhaust my knowledge. If I see two similar things, I form a judgment and say, these things are alike. Now, in reality, two things are never exactly alike. I can only find a likeness in certain respects. The idea of a perfect similarity therefore arises within me without having its correspondence in reality. And this idea helps me to form a judgment, as memory helps me to a judgment and to knowledge. Just as one tree reminds me of others, so am I reminded of the idea of similarity by looking at two things from a certain point of view. Thoughts and memories therefore arise within me which are not due to physical reality.
All kinds of knowledge not borrowed from sense-reality are grounded on such thoughts. The whole of mathematics consists of them. He would be a bad geometrician who could only bring into mathematical relations what he can see with his eyes and touch with his hands. Thus we have thoughts which do not originate in perishable nature, but arise out of the spirit. And it is these that bear in them the mark of eternal truth. What mathematics teach will be eternally true, even if to-morrow the whole cosmic system should fall into ruins and an entirely new one arise. Conditions might prevail in another cosmic system, to which our present mathematical truths would not be applicable, but these would be none the less true in themselves.
It is only when the soul is alone with itself that it can bring forth these eternal truths. It is at these times related to the true and eternal, and not to the ephemeral and apparent. Hence Socrates says: "When the soul returning into itself reflects, it goes straight to what is pure and everlasting and immortal and like unto itself; and being related to this, cleaves unto it when the soul is alone, and is not hindered. And then the soul rests from its mistakes, and is like unto itself, even as the eternal is, with whom the soul is now in touch. This state of soul is called wisdom.... Look now whether it does not follow from all that has been said, that the soul is most like the divine, immortal, reasonable, unique, indissoluble, what is always the same and like unto itself; and that on the other hand the body most resembles what is human and mortal, unreasonable, multiform, soluble, never the same nor remaining equal to itself.... If, therefore, this be so, the soul goes to what is like itself, to the immaterial, to the divine, immortal, reasonable. There it attains to bliss, freed from error and ignorance, from fear and undisciplined love and all other human evils. There it lives, as the initiates say, for the remaining time truly with God."
It is not within the scope of this book to indicate all the ways in which Socrates leads his friends to the eternal. They all breathe the same spirit. They all tend to show that man finds one thing when he goes the way of transitory sense-perception, and another when his spirit is alone with itself. It is to this original nature of spirit that Socrates points his hearers. If they find it, they see with their own spiritual eyes that it is eternal. The dying Socrates does not prove the immortality of the soul, he simply lays bare the nature of the soul. And then it comes to light that growth and decay, birth and death, have nothing to do with the soul. The essence of the soul lies in the true, and this can neither come into being nor perish. The soul has no more to do with the becoming than the straight has with the crooked. But death belongs to the becoming. Therefore the soul has nothing to do with death. Must we not say of what is immortal, that it admits of mortality as little as does the straight of the crooked? Starting from this point, "must we not ask," adds Socrates, "that if the immortal is imperishable, is it not impossible for the soul to come to an end when death arrives? For from what has been already shown, it does not admit of death, nor can it die any more than three can be an even number."
Let us review the whole development of this dialogue, in which Socrates brings his hearers to behold the eternal in human personality. The hearers accept his thoughts, and they look into themselves to see if they can find in their inner experiences something which assents to his ideas. They make the objections which strike them. What has happened to the hearers when the dialogue is finished? They have found something within them which they did not possess before. They have not merely accepted an abstract truth, but they have gone through a development. Something has come to life in them which was not living in them before. Is not this to be compared with an initiation? And does not this throw light on the reason for Plato's setting forth his philosophy in the form of conversation? These dialogues are nothing else than the literary form of the events which took place in the sanctuaries of the Mysteries. We are convinced of this from what Plato himself says in many passages. Plato wished to be, as a philosophical teacher, what the initiator into the Mysteries was, as far as this was compatible with the philosophical manner of communication. It is evident how Plato feels himself in harmony with the Mysteries! He only thinks he is on the right path when it is taking him where the Mystic is to be led. He thus expresses himself on the subject in the Timæus. "All those who are of right mind invoke the gods for their small or great enterprises; but we who are engaged in teaching about the universe,—how far it is created and uncreated,—have the special duty, if we have not quite lost our way, to call upon and implore the gods and goddesses that we may teach everything first in conformity with their spirit, and next in harmony with ourselves." And Plato promises those who follow this path, that divinity, as a deliverer, will grant them illuminating teaching as the conclusion of their devious and wandering researches.
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It is especially the Timæus that reveals to us how the Platonic cosmogony is connected with the Mysteries. At the very beginning of this dialogue there is mention of an initiation. Solon is initiated by an Egyptian priest into the formation of the worlds, and the way in which eternal truths are symbolically expressed in traditional myths. "There have already been many and various destructions of part of the human race," says the Egyptian priest to Solon, "and there will be more in the future; the most extensive by fire and water, other lesser ones through countless other causes. It is also related in your country that Phaëthon, the son of Helios, once mounted his father's chariot, and as he did not know how to drive it, everything on the earth was burnt up, and he himself slain by lightning. This sounds like a fable, but it contains the truth of the change in the movements of the celestial bodies revolving round the earth and of the annihilation of everything on the earth by much fire. This annihilation happens periodically, after the lapse of certain long periods of time." This passage in the Timæus contains a plain indication of the attitude of the initiate towards folk-myths. He recognises the truths hidden in their images.
The drama of the formation of the world is brought before us in the Timæus. Any one who will follow up the traces which lead to this formation of the cosmos arrives at a dim apprehension of the primordial force from which all things proceeded. "Now it is difficult to find the Creator and Father of the universe, and when we have found Him, it is impossible to speak about Him so that all may understand." The Mystic knew what this "impossibility" means. It points to the divine drama. God is not present in what belongs merely to the senses and understanding. In those He is only present as nature. He is under a spell in nature. Only one who awakens the divine within himself is able to approach Him. Thus He cannot at once be made comprehensible to all. But even to one who approaches Him, He does not appear Himself. The Timæus says that also. The Father made the universe out of the body and soul of the world. He mixed together, in harmony and perfect proportions, the elements which came into being when He, pouring Himself out, gave up His separate existence. Thereby the body of the world came into being, and stretched upon it, in the form of a cross, is the soul of the world. It is what is divine in the world. It found the death of the cross so that the world might come into existence. Plato may therefore call nature the tomb of the divine, a grave, however, in which nothing dead lies but the eternal, to which death only gives the opportunity of bringing into expression the omnipotence of life. And man sees nature in the right light when he approaches it in order to release the crucified soul of the world. It must rise again from its death, from its spell. Where can it come to life again? Only in the soul of initiated man. Then wisdom finds its right relation to the cosmos. The resurrection, the liberation of God, that is wisdom. In the Timæus the development of the world is traced from the imperfect to the perfect. An ascending process is represented imaginatively. Beings are developed. God reveals Himself in their development. Evolution is the resurrection of God from the tomb. Within evolution, man appears. Plato shows that in man there is something special. It is true the whole world is divine, and man is not more divine than other beings. But in other beings God is present in a hidden way, in man he is manifest. At the end of the Timæus we read: "And now we might assert that our study of the universe has attained its end, for after the world was provided and filled with mortal and immortal living beings, it, this one and only begotten world, has itself become a visible being embracing everything visible, and an image of the Creator. It has become the God perceptible to the senses, and the greatest and best world, the fairest and most perfect which there could be." But this one and only begotten world would not be perfect if the image of its Creator were not to be found amongst the images it contains. This image can only be engendered in the human soul. Not the Father Himself, but the Son, God's offspring, living in the soul, and being like unto the Father, him man can bring forth.
Philo, of whom it was said that he was the resurrected Plato, characterised as the "Son of God" the wisdom born out of man, which lives in the soul and contains the reason existing in the world. This cosmic reason, or Logos, appears as the book in which "everything in the world is recorded and delineated." It also appears as the Son of God, "following in the paths of the Father, and creating forms, looking at their archetypes." The platonising Philo addresses this Logos as Christ, "As God is the first and only king of the universe, the way to Him is rightly called the 'Royal Road.' Consider this road to be philosophy ... the road which the company of the ancient ascetics took, who turned away from the entangling fascination of pleasure and devoted themselves to the noble and earnest cultivation of the beautiful. The law names this Royal Road, which we call true philosophy, God's word and spirit."
It is like an initiation to Philo when he enters upon this path, in order to meet the Logos who, to him, is the Son of God. "I do not shrink from relating what has happened to me innumerable times. Often when I wished to put my philosophical thoughts in writing, in my accustomed way, and saw quite clearly what was to be set down, I nevertheless found my mind barren and rigid, so that I was obliged to desist without having accomplished anything, and seemed to be hampered with idle fancies. At the same time I could not but marvel at the power of the reality of thought, with which it rests to open and to close the womb of the human soul. Another time, however, I would begin empty and arrive, without any trouble, at fulness. Thoughts came flying like snowflakes or grains of corn invisibly from above, and it was as though divine power took hold of me and inspired me, so that I did not know where I was, who was with me, who I was, or what I was saying or writing; for just then the flow of ideas was given me, a delightful clearness, keen insight, and lucid mastery of material, as if the inner eye were able to see everything with the greatest distinctness."
This is a description of a path to knowledge so expressed that we see that any one taking this path is conscious of flowing in one current with the divine, when the Logos becomes alive within him. This is also expressed clearly in the words: "When the spirit, moved by love, takes its flight into the most holy, soaring joyously on divine wings, it forgets everything else and itself. It only clings to and is filled with that of which it is the satellite and servant, and to this it offers the incense of the most sacred and chaste virtue."
There are only two ways for Philo. Either man follows the world of sense, that is, what observation and intellect offer, in which case he limits himself to his personality and withdraws from the cosmos; or he becomes conscious of the universal cosmic force, and experiences the eternal within his personality. "He who wishes to escape from God falls into his own hands. For there are two things to be considered, the universal Spirit which is God, and one's own spirit. The latter flees to and takes refuge in the universal Spirit, for one who goes beyond his own spirit says that it is nothing and connects everything with God; but one who avoids God, abolishes the First Cause, and makes himself the cause of everything which happens."
The Platonic view of the universe sets out to be knowledge which by its very nature is also religion. It brings knowledge into relation with the highest to which man can attain through his feelings. Plato will only allow knowledge to hold good when feeling may be completely satisfied in it. It is then more than science, it is the substance of life. It is a higher man within man, that man of which the personality is only an image. Within man is born a being who surpasses him, a primordial, archetypal man, and this is another secret of the Mysteries brought to expression in the Platonic philosophy. Hippolytus, one of the Early Fathers, alludes to this secret. "This is the great secret of the Samothracians (who were guardians of a certain Mystery-cult), which cannot be expressed and which only the initiates know. But these latter speak in detail of Adam, as the primordial, archetypal man."
The Platonic Dialogue on Love, or the Symposium, also represents an initiation. Here love appears as the herald of wisdom. If wisdom, the eternal word, the Logos, is the Son of the Eternal Creator of the cosmos, love is related to the Logos as a mother. Before even a spark of the light of wisdom can flash up in the human soul, a dim impulse or desire for the divine must be present in it. Unconsciously the divine must draw man to what afterwards, when raised into his consciousness, constitutes his supreme happiness. What Heraclitus calls the "daimon" in man (see p. 49) is connected with the idea of love. In the Symposium, people of the most various ranks and views of life speak about love,—the ordinary man, the politician, the scientific man, the satiric poet Aristophanes, and the tragic poet Agathon. They each have their own view of love, in keeping with their different experiences of life. The way in which they express themselves shows the stage at which their "daimon" has arrived (cf. p. 49). By love one being is attracted to another. The multiplicity, the diversity of the things into which divine unity was poured, aspires towards unity and harmony through love. Thus love has something divine in it, and owing to this, each individual can only understand it as far as he participates in the divine.
After these men and others at different degrees of maturity have given utterance to their ideas about love, Socrates takes up the word. He considers love from the point of view of a man in search of knowledge. For him, it is not a divinity, but it is something which leads man to God. Eros, or love, is for him not divine, for a god is perfect, and therefore possesses the beautiful and good; but Eros is only the desire for the beautiful and good. He thus stands between man and God. He is a "daimon," a mediator between the earthly and the divine.
It is significant that Socrates does not claim to be giving his own thoughts when speaking of love. He says he is only relating what a woman once imparted to him as a revelation. It was through mantic art that he came to his conception of love. Diotima, the priestess, awakened in Socrates the daimonic force which was to lead him to the divine. She initiated him.
This passage in the Symposium is highly suggestive. Who is the "wise woman" who awakened the daimon in Socrates? She is more than a merely poetic mode of expression. For no wise woman on the physical plane could awaken the daimon in the soul, unless the daimonic force were latent in the soul itself. It is surely in Socrates' own soul that we must also look for this "wise woman." But there must be a reason why that which brings the daimon to life within the soul should appear as an outward being on the physical plane. The force cannot work in the same way as the forces which may be observed in the soul, as belonging to and native to it. We see that it is the soul-force which precedes the coming of wisdom which Socrates represents as a "wise woman." It is the mother-principle which gives birth to the Son of God, Wisdom, the Logos. The unconscious soul-force which brings the divine into the consciousness is here represented as the feminine element. The soul which as yet is without wisdom is the mother of what leads to the divine. This brings us to an important conception of mysticism. The soul is recognised as the mother of the divine. Unconsciously it leads man to the divine, with the inevitableness of a natural force.
This conception throws light on the view of Greek mythology taken in the Mysteries. The world of the gods is born in the soul. Man looks upon what he creates in images as his gods (cf. p. 33). But he must force his way through to another conception. He must transmute into divine images the divine force which is active within him before the creation of those images. Behind the divine appears the mother of the divine, which is nothing else than the original force of the human soul. Thus side by side with the gods, man represents goddesses.
Let us look at the myth of Dionysos in this light. Dionysos is the son of Zeus and a mortal mother, Semele. Zeus wrests the still immature child from its mother when she is slain by lightning, and shelters it in his own side till it is ready to be born. Hera, the mother of the gods, incites the Titans against Dionysos, and they tear him in pieces. But Pallas Athene rescues his heart, which is still beating, and brings it to Zeus. Out of it he engenders his son for the second time.
In this myth we can accurately trace a process which is enacted in the depths of the human soul. Interpreting it in the manner of the Egyptian priest who instructed Solon about the nature of myths (cf. p. 78 et seq.), we might say, it is related that Dionysos was the son of a god and of a mortal mother, that he was torn in pieces and afterwards born again. This sounds like a fable, but it contains the truth of the birth of the divine and its destiny in the human soul. The divine unites itself with the earthly, temporal human soul. As soon as the divine, Dionysiac element stirs within the soul, it feels a violent desire for its own true spiritual form. Ordinary consciousness, which once again appears in the form of a female goddess, Hera, becomes jealous at the birth of the divine out of the higher consciousness. It arouses the lower nature of man (the Titans). The still immature divine child is torn in pieces. Thus the divine child is present in man as intellectual science broken up. But if there be enough of the higher wisdom (Zeus) in man to be active, it nurses and cherishes the immature child, which is then born again as a second son of God (Dionysos). Thus from science, which is the fragmentary divine force in man, is born undivided wisdom, which is the Logos, the son of God and of a mortal mother, of the perishable human soul, which unconsciously aspires after the divine. As long as we see in all this merely a process in the soul and look upon it as a picture of this process, we are a long way from the spiritual reality which is enacted in it. In this spiritual reality the soul is not merely experiencing something in itself, but it has been released from itself and is taking part in a cosmic event, which is not enacted within the soul, in reality, but outside it.
Platonic wisdom and Greek myths are closely linked together, so too are the myths and the wisdom of the Mysteries. The created gods were the object of popular religion, the history of their origin was the secret of the Mysteries. No wonder that it was held to be dangerous to "betray" the Mysteries, for thereby the origin of the gods of the people was "betrayed." And a right understanding of that origin is salutary, a misunderstanding is injurious.
- Everything that relates to knowledge gained through the "eyes of the spirit" is called by ancient mysticism "Mantik." "Telestik," on the other hand, is the indication of the ways which lead to initiation.