427 – 347 BCE
Biographical Sketch by Universal Theosophy
From the Theosophical Glossary:
Plato. An Initiate into the Mysteries and the greatest Greek philosopher, whose writings are known the world over. He was the pupil of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. He flourished over 400 years before our era.
See also: Agathon, Agnoia, Anoia, Atlantidæ, Atlantis, Dodecahedron, Neo-platonism, Nous, Okhema, Poseidonis, etc.
Articles on Plato and his Teachings
Biography from Theosophy Magazine
Theosophy, August, 1939
One night in the year 407 B.C., Socrates had a dream. He saw a graceful white swan flying toward him with a melodious song trilling from its throat. The next morning Plato came to him and asked to become his pupil. Socrates saw before him a handsome youth of twenty years, with the broad shoulders of an athlete, the noble brow of a philosopher and the limpid eyes of a poet. He knew that Plato belonged to one of the most illustrious families of Greece, being descended, on his mother’s side, from the house of Solon, and with the blood of the ancient Kings of Attica flowing through his veins. This was the beginning of a tender and intimate relationship which lasted until the day of Socrates’ death. While other pupils formulated one-sided systems which but partially represented the ideas of Socrates, Plato used those ideas as seeds which he planted, nourished and developed in the rich soil of his own superior mind, making the full-blown blossoms a memorial offering to the simple nobility of his teacher.
After the death of Socrates, Plato went to Megara and joined the Socratic School of Euclid (not the famous geometer, who lived in Alexandria in the time of Ptolemy I, but a disciple of Socrates who excelled in logical disputation). From there he went to Cyrene, where Theodorus instructed him in mathematics. Thence to southern Italy, where he studied the science of numbers under the three most famous Pythagoreans of the day. Then into Egypt, to receive the instructions of the learned doctors and priests of that ancient land. Some say that he visited Persia and Babylonia, where he was initiated into the Chaldean Mysteries. Others say that he went as far as India.
Plato claimed no originality for his ideas. He was, in every sense, the world’s interpreter. He, like H.P.B., gave a new unity to ancient and scattered truths — his work was the string which tied together the nosegay of precious blossoms which had been culled from the gardens of the world’s best thinkers. Without Plato, the Socratic method of education would be unknown. Without Plato, the abstruse numerical system of Pythagoras would have remained unintelligible to the average mind. Without Plato, the philosophical and psychological systems of Patanjali, Kapila and Vyasa, the laws of Manu and the Buddhistic doctrine of emanation, would have remained hidden from the Western world. Plato was the link between the East and the West. As Emerson says, “The excellence of Europe and Asia is in his brain. Metaphysics and natural philosophy expressed the genius of Europe; he substructs the religion of Asia as the base.”
As an Initiate of the Mysteries, Plato was obliged to veil many of his more abstruse teachings in symbolical language. His great veneration for the Mysteries and the responsibility he felt toward them made him guard their inmost secrets with jealous care. Once, when he was accused of making a vague communication, he answered, “I purposely spoke enigmatically, that in case the tablet should have happened with any accident, a person without some previous knowledge of the subject might not be able to understand its contents.” He communicated his most profound teachings orally and only to his initiated disciples, who in turn passed them down from generation to generation of similarly pledged disciples.
After travelling for ten or twelve years, Plato returned to Athens and founded a School in the gardens of his own private estate. This School attracted students from every part of the Hellenic world and eventually became the educational center of Greece. His mode of teaching combined the conversational method of Socrates, the system of discourse used by the ordinary university professor, and the mental and moral discipline of the Mystery Schools. His instruction, needless to say, was given without remuneration.
Music was the first subject presented to his pupils, as Plato believed that the study of this art offers the best preparation for philosophy. “Musical training,” he said, “is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten.” To this he added gymnastics, insisting, however, that even physical exercise should be performed for the benefit of the soul, since the soul demands a temple worthy of its occupancy. The combination of music and gymnastics, he said, produces a harmonious balance between soul and body. Physical training develops courage and fortitude; music develops a love of the beautiful, and affords the mental and moral discipline necessary to the acquirement of philosophical knowledge. He considered music, however, as the more important of the two, describing it as the fortress of the State. He warned all intelligent rulers to pay careful attention to the development of music in their state, never allowing bad qualities to creep into it, as these would affect the mental and moral stamina of the citizens who listened to it. Finally he insisted that all art be subordinated to ethics and used as a means of moral education.
Plato presented his philosophy in the form of dramatic dialogue. He spreads the charm of an exhaustless fancy over the subtle controversies of his characters, filling them with humor, exuberant imagery, delicate sarcasm and friendly banter. Throughout his lines, however, runs the unbroken thread of a deep and penetrating philosophy based upon Dialectics, which he considered as the science of all sciences. Starting with universal principles and descending therefrom into particulars, he developed a system of thought which embraced the evolution of worlds and species, the correlation and conservation of forces, the development and transmutation of physical forms, the indestructibility of both spirit and matter.
Plato knew that the Higher Self in man is concerned with causes rather than effects. It is the presence of this Higher Self which makes a man ask the immediate cause of a certain effect, then for the cause of that, until he finally arrives at that Cause which lies behind all others. Although postulating the existence of this Causeless Cause, Plato wisely refrained from any description of its nature. The Theosophical student, however, will recognize in Plato’s “Unchangeable Existence” the “Be-ness” of The Secret Doctrine, the SAT of Eastern philosophy which at stated intervals becomes the cause of the Becoming.
Barely mentioning this Absolute Negation, Plato started by considering its two aspects, which constitute the basis of conditioned existence. He described the universal substratum of primordial substance as the “Unlimited,” considering it as that indefinable “Something” from which all forms of matter emanate and into which they will eventually return. “That in which all things appear, grow up and disappear is Space,” he said, at the same time making it clear that Space is animated by eternal, ceaseless Motion. He did not conceive this Motion, however, as a blind, unreasoning force, but identified it with Deity, tracing the word theos back to a verb meaning “to move.”
Plato taught that the visible universe is but the concrete image of an ideal abstraction, built on the model of the first Divine Idea. We find him distinctly stating that everything was evolved out of the eternal and invisible WILL, which contains within itself the Idea of the world to be created, the Idea being produced out of itself. He declared that behind all existences and secondary causes, behind all laws, ideas and principles, there is Intelligence. This is the Universal Mind in its Cosmic aspect, reflecting itself as the Higher Ego in man.
The immortality of the soul forms the central theme of Plato’s philosophy. In his Phaedo he unfolds all the arguments in favor of this premise, and refutes all objections. He shows that the soul is neither dependent upon the body for its existence nor affected by its dissolution. With irrefutable logic he demonstrates the necessity for reincarnation, and shows that knowledge itself is nothing more than reminiscence. The doctrine of Karma runs like a golden thread throughout his writings. Although admitting that man is seemingly the victim of circumstances, he proves that in reality man is their master.
The Theosophical student of Plato is sometimes confused by the different terms used in describing the various aspects of the soul. What Theosophy calls Buddhi, Plato describes as the rational spiritual soul, defining it as the “motion that is able to move itself.” When he says that “soul is the most ancient of all things,” he is referring to Atma-Buddhi. When he speaks of the nous in man, he is describing Manas, the reincarnating Ego. Sometimes Plato divides the soul into two parts, at other times into three. His twofold division of soul refers to the dual Manas, the higher part being divine and immortal, the lower material and perishable. The Theosophical student understands this statement, for he knows that the lower, personal “astral soul” perishes after the death of the body as the Kama-Rupa, while the incorruptible “Spiritual Soul,” or Buddhi-Manas, becomes more purified with each incarnation.
Following the method used in the Mysteries, Plato’s pupils began their discipline by trying to purify the external soul, or astral body. If that is purified, it strengthens the lower mind, or the “mortal soul.” Thus strengthened, the lower mind naturally gravitates toward its “Father,” of which it is a ray. Plato promised his pupils that this form of discipline would eventually free them from the bonds of sense. But he also warned them that if this discipline were neglected and the soul allowed to sink deeper and deeper into matter, the time would come when the soul itself would be lost.
Although Plato is not renowned as a scientist, a careful analysis of his writings will reveal the germs of many “modern” discoveries. For instance, he taught that gravitation is not merely the law of the attraction of lesser bodies to greater, but a magnetic repulsion of similars and attraction of dissimilars. Although Aristotle taught that the world is the center of the universe, Plato, the Pythagorean, was well versed in the heliocentric system. Antedating Paracelsus by 2,000 years, Plato traced all diseases back to their psychological causes. He hinted at the secret teachings concerning the earlier races upon this globe, describing the “winged” and androgynous races which “preceded the earthly human race, in which the primitive history was gradually forgotten and men sank deeper and deeper.” He likewise mentioned the various deluges which have destroyed former continents, and in Timaeus and Critias gives a detailed description of the last island-remnant of Atlantis, which sank some 9,000 years before he was born.
Plato’s philosophy is ethical above all else, based upon the idea of man’s free will and power of choice. He claims that it is this power of choice which determines a man’s parentage, his hereditary tendencies, his physical constitution and his early education, since all of these things are merely the effects of choices made in former lives. These choices also determine the man’s stage of evolution, show the position he should occupy in the well-ordered state, and indicate the particular virtue necessary for his immediate development. The whole problem of evolution, according to Plato, is one of ethics. As the ultimate aim of every man is to free himself from the tyranny of his lower nature, and as this can be accomplished only through the efforts of the individual, each man must start where he is, and develop that virtue which is most necessary for him.
The natural inequalities among men, due to their past choices, divides them, in Plato’s view, into three classes. The first class lives in its sensations. The particular virtue to be developed by this class of people is temperance, or moderation. The second class is entangled in its passional nature. These people are the slaves of their pains and pleasures, their hopes and fears. They must develop courage and fortitude, virtues which will enable them to meet all the vicissitudes of life with an equal mind. The third and highest class is made up of those men who have gained control over their lower nature and who live naturally in the higher mind. These men should aspire to wisdom, or spiritual knowledge.
After analyzing the three divisions of the soul and the three classes of individuals who correspond to them, Plato then turns his attention to the State, which is merely a collection of individuals. The ideal state, he says, should be divided up into three classes of citizens, each class having its own particular duty to be performed and its special virtue to be developed. When each class concentrates upon its own duty and virtue, there will result a well-balanced and harmonious state in which all the citizens will work, not for the interests of itself, but for the common good of the whole.
The lowest class in Plato’s ideal state is composed of those men whose interests are centered in their sensations. These are the laborers and artisans, whose immediate task is to acquire skill in action upon the physical plane. The second class is composed of those men who, having dominant passional natures, are constantly at war in themselves. Plato would make these men the warriors of the nation, thus giving them the opportunity to develop the courage and fortitude necessary at their stage of evolution. The ruling class is made up of those men who have learned how to govern themselves, and are therefore fitted to govern others. As he says in the Republic, “unless philosophers become rulers or rulers become true and thorough students of philosophy, there will be no end to the troubles of states and of humanity.”
Plato’s ideal state was modelled after the form of government which prevailed in the Golden Age, when the young and growing nations were governed by wise King-Initiates. But nations, like children, grow up and must learn to do their own thinking; they must assume their own responsibilities. From this necessity democracy grew. The fact that Adepts stood behind the founding of the American Republic shows that the ideal form of government at the present day must be the government of a people by the people and for the people. It is obvious, however, that the men who are elected to stand at the head of affairs should be drawn from among those citizens who have proven that they are able to govern themselves, and are therefore fitted to govern others. The men who stand at the head of democratic governments should be the first to bravely and fearlessly uphold the principles of true democracy. Their lives should also be examples of the highest morality, a living pattern which others may safely follow. Thus might Plato’s ideal be fulfilled in our time.
Plato and Platonism
Plato and Platonism
The whole question of phenomena rests on the correct comprehension of old philosophies. Whither, then, should we turn, in our perplexity, but to the ancient sages, since, on the pretext of superstition, we are refused an explanation by the modern? Let us ask them what they know of genuine science and religion; not in the matter of mere details, but in all the broad conception of these twin truths — so strong in their unity, so weak when divided. Besides, we may find our profit in comparing this boasted modern science with ancient ignorance; this improved modern theology with the “Secret doctrines” of the ancient universal religion. Perhaps we may thus discover a neutral ground whence we can reach and profit by both.
It is the Platonic philosophy, the most elaborate compend of the abstruse systems of old India, that can alone afford us this middle ground. Although twenty-two and a quarter centuries have elapsed since the death of Plato, the great minds of the world are still occupied with his writings. He was, in the fullest sense of the word, the world’s interpreter. And the greatest philosopher of the pre-Christian era mirrored faithfully in his works the spiritualism of the Vedic philosophers who lived thousands of years before himself, and its metaphysical expression. Vyasa, Djeminy, Kapila, Vrihaspati, Sumati, and so many others, will be found to have transmitted their indelible imprint through the intervening centuries upon Plato and his school. Thus is warranted the inference that to Plato and the ancient Hindu sages was alike revealed the same wisdom. So surviving the shock of time, what can this wisdom be but divine and eternal?
Plato taught justice as subsisting in the soul of its possessor and his greatest good. “Men, in proportion to their intellect, have admitted his transcendent claims.” Yet his commentators, almost with one consent, shrink from every passage which implies that his metaphysics are based on a solid foundation, and not on ideal conceptions.
But Plato could not accept a philosophy destitute of spiritual aspirations; the two were at one with him. For the old Grecian sage there was a single object of attainment: REAL KNOWLEDGE. He considered those only to be genuine philosophers, or students of truth, who possess the knowledge of the really-existing, in opposition to the mere seeing; of the always-existing, in opposition to the transitory; and of that which exists permanently, in opposition to that which waxes, wanes, and is developed and destroyed alternately. “Beyond all finite existences and secondary causes, all laws, ideas, and principles, there is an INTELLIGENCE or MIND,[nous, the spirit], the first principle of all principles, the Supreme Idea on which all other ideas are grounded; the Monarch and Lawgiver of the universe; the ultimate substance from which all things derive their being and essence, the first and efficient Cause of all the order, and harmony, and beauty, and excellency, and goodness, which pervades the universe — who is called, by way of preeminence and excellence, the Supreme Good, the God, ‘the God over all.’ ” (Cocker: “Christianity and Greek Philosophy,” xi., p. 377) He is not the truth nor the intelligence, but “the father of it.” Though this eternal essence of things may not be perceptible by our physical senses, it may be apprehended by the mind of those who are not wilfully obtuse. “To you,” said Jesus to his elect disciples, “it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, but to them [the polloi] it is not given; . . . therefore speak I to them in parables [or allegories]; because they seeing, see not, and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand.” (Gospel according to Matthew, xiii. 11, 13.)
The philosophy of Plato, we are assured by Porphyry, of the Neoplatonic School was taught and illustrated in the MYSTERIES. Many have questioned and even denied this; and Lobeck, in his Aglaophomus, has gone to the extreme of representing the sacred orgies as little more than an empty show to captivate the imagination. As though Athens and Greece would for twenty centuries and more have repaired every fifth year to Eleusis to witness a solemn religious farce! Augustine, the papa-bishop of Hippo, has resolved such assertions. He declares that the doctrines of the Alexandrian Platonists were the original esoteric doctrines of the first followers of Plato, and describes Plotinus as a Plato resuscitated. He also explains the motives of the great philosopher for veiling the interior sense of what he taught.*
[*”The accusations of atheism, the introducing of foreign deities, and corrupting of the Athenian youth, which were made against Socrates, afforded ample justification for Plato to conceal the arcane preaching of his doctrines. Doubtless the peculiar diction or ‘jargon’ of the alchemists was employed for a like purpose. The dungeon, the rack, and the fagot were employed without scruple by Christians of every shade, the Roman Catholics especially, against all who taught even natural science contrary to the theories entertained by the Church. Pope Gregory the Great even inhibited the grammatical use of Latin as heathenish. The offense of Socrates consisted in unfolding to his disciples the arcane doctrine concerning the gods, which was taught in the Mysteries and was a capital crime. He also was charged by Aristophanes with introducing the new god Dinos into the republic as the demiurgos or artificer, and the lord of the solar universe. The Heliocentric system was also a doctrine of the Mysteries; and hence, when Aristarchus the Pythagorean taught it openly, Cleanthes declared that the Greeks ought to have called him to account and condemned him for blasphemy against the gods,” — (“Plutarch”). But Socrates had never been initiated, and hence divulged nothing which had ever been imparted to him.]
As to the myths, Plato declares in the Gorgias and the Phaedon that they were the vehicles of great truths well worth the seeking. But commentators are so little en rapport with the great philosopher as to be compelled to acknowledge that they are ignorant where “the doctrinal ends, and the mythical begins.” Plato put to flight the popular superstition concerning magic and daemons, and developed the exaggerated notions of the time into rational theories and metaphysical conceptions. Perhaps these would not quite stand the inductive method of reasoning established by Aristotle; nevertheless they are satisfactory in the highest degree to those who apprehend the existence of that higher faculty of insight or intuition, as affording a criterion for ascertaining truth.
Basing all his doctrines upon the presence of the Supreme Mind, Plato taught that the nous, spirit, or rational soul of man, being “generated by the Divine Father,” possessed a nature kindred, or even homogeneous, with the Divinity, and was capable of beholding the eternal realities. This faculty of contemplating reality in a direct and immediate manner belongs to God alone; the aspiration for this knowledge constitutes what is really meant by philosophy — the love of wisdom. The love of truth is inherently the love of good; and so predominating over every desire of the soul, purifying it and assimilating it to the divine, thus governing every act of the individual, it raises man to a participation and communion with Divinity, and restores him to the likeness of God. “This flight,” says Plato in the Theaetetus, “consists in becoming like God, and this assimilation is the becoming just and holy with wisdom.”
The basis of this assimilation is always asserted to be the preexistence of the spirit or nous. In the allegory of the chariot and winged steeds, given in the Phaedrus, he represents the psychical nature as composite and two-fold; the thumos, or epithumetic part, formed from the substances of the world of phenomena; and the thumoeides, the essence of which is linked to the eternal world. The present earth-life is a fall and punishment. The soul dwells in “the grave which we call the body,” and in its incorporate state, and previous to the discipline of education, the noetic or spiritual element is “asleep.” Life is thus a dream, rather than a reality. Like the captives in the subterranean cave, described in The Republic, the back is turned to the light, we perceive only the shadows of objects, and think them the actual realities. Is not this the idea of Maya, or the illusion of the senses in physical life, which is so marked a feature in Buddhistical philosophy? But these shadows, if we have not given ourselves up absolutely to the sensuous nature, arouse in us the reminiscence of that higher world that we once inhabited. “The interior spirit has some dim and shadowy recollection of its ante-natal state of bliss, and some instinctive and proleptic yearnings for its return.” It is the province of the discipline of philosophy to disinthrall it from the bondage of sense, and raise it into the empyrean of pure thought, to the vision of eternal truth, goodness, and beauty. “The soul,” says Plato, in the Theaetetus, “cannot come into the form of a man if it has never seen the truth. This is a recollection of those things which our soul formerly saw when journeying with Deity, despising the things which we now say are, and looking up to that which REALLY is. Wherefore the nous, or spirit, of the philosopher (or student of the higher truth) alone is furnished with wings; because he, to the best of his ability, keeps these things in mind, of which the contemplation renders even Deity itself divine. By making the right use of these things remembered from the former life, by constantly perfecting himself in the perfect mysteries, a man becomes truly perfect — an initiate into the diviner wisdom.”
Hence we may understand why the sublimer scenes in the Mysteries were always in the night. The life of the interior spirit is the death of the external nature; and the night of the physical world denotes the day of the spiritual. Dionysus, the night-sun, is, therefore, worshipped rather than Helios, orb of day. In the Mysteries were symbolized the preexistent condition of the spirit and soul, and the lapse of the latter into earth-life and Hades, the miseries of that life, the purification of the soul, and its restoration to divine bliss, or reunion with spirit. Theon, of Smyrna, aptly compares the philosophical discipline to the mystic rites: “Philosophy,” says he, “may be called the initiation into the true arcana, and the instruction in the genuine Mysteries. There are five parts of this initiation: I., the previous purification; II., the admission to participation in the arcane rites; III., the epoptic revelation; IV., the investiture or enthroning; V. — the fifth, which is produced from all these, is friendship and interior communion with God, and the enjoyment of that felicity which arises from intimate converse with divine beings. . . . Plato denominates the epopteia, or personal view, the perfect contemplation of things which are apprehended intuitively, absolute truths and ideas. He also considers the binding of the head and crowning as analogous to the authority which any one receives from his instructors, of leading others into the same contemplation. The fifth gradation is the most perfect felicity arising from hence, and, according to Plato, an assimilation to divinity as far as is possible to human beings.” (See Thomas Taylor: “Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries,” p. 47. New York: J. W. Bouton, 1875.)
Such is Platonism. “Out of Plato,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, “come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.” He absorbed the learning of his times — of Greece from Phiolaus to Socrates; then of Pythagoras in Italy; then what he could procure from Egypt and the East. He was so broad that all philosophy, European and Asiatic, was in his doctrines; and to culture and contemplation he added the nature and qualities of the poet.
The followers of Plato generally adhered strictly to his psychological theories. Several, however, like Xenocrates, ventured into bolder speculations. Speusippus, the nephew and successor of the great philosopher, was the author of the Numerical Analysis, a treatise on the Pythagorean numbers. Some of his speculations are not found in the written Dialogues; but as he was a listener to the unwritten lectures of Plato, the judgment of Enfield is doubtless correct, that he did not differ from his master. He was evidently, though not named, the antagonist whom Aristotle criticised, when professing to cite the argument of Plato against the doctrine of Pythagoras, that all things were in themselves numbers, or rather, inseparable from the idea of numbers. He especially endeavored to show that the Platonic doctrine of ideas differed essentially from the Pythagorean, in that it presupposed numbers and magnitudes to exist apart from things. He also asserted that Plato taught that there could be no real knowledge, if the object of that knowledge was not carried beyond or above the sensible.
But Aristotle was no trustworthy witness. He misrepresented Plato, and he almost caricatured the doctrines of Pythagoras. There is a canon of interpretation, which should guide us in our examinations of every philosophical opinion: “The human mind has, under the necessary operation of its own laws, been compelled to entertain the same fundamental ideas, and the human heart to cherish the same feelings in all ages.” It is certain that Pythagoras awakened the deepest intellectual sympathy of his age, and that his doctrines exerted a powerful influence upon the mind of Plato. His cardinal idea was that there existed a permanent principle of unity beneath the forms, changes, and other phenomena of the universe. Aristotle asserted that he taught that “numbers are the first principles of all entities.” Ritter has expressed the opinion that the formula of Pythagoras should be taken symbolically, which is doubtless correct. Aristotle goes on to associate these numbers with the “forms” and “ideas” of Plato. He even declares that Plato said: “forms are numbers,” and that “ideas are substantial existences — real beings.” Yet Plato did not so teach. He declared that the final cause was the Supreme Goodness — to agathon. “Ideas are objects of pure conception for the human reason, and they are attributes of the Divine Reason.” (Cousin: “History of Philosophy,” I., ix.) Nor did he ever say that “forms are numbers.” What he did say may be found in the Timaeus: “God formed things as they first arose according to forms and numbers.”
It is recognized by modern science that all the higher laws of nature assume the form of quantitative statement. This is perhaps a fuller elaboration or more explicit affirmation of the Pythagorean doctrine. Numbers were regarded as the best representations of the laws of harmony which pervade the cosmos. We know too that in chemistry the doctrine of atoms and the laws of combination are actually and, as it were, arbitrarily defined by numbers. As Mr. W. Archer Butler has expressed it: “The world is, then, through all its departments, a living arithmetic in its development, a realized geometry in its repose.”
The key to the Pythagorean dogmas is the general formula of unity in multiplicity, the one evolving the many and pervading the many. This is the ancient doctrine of emanation in few words. Even the apostle Paul accepted it as true. “Out of him and through him and in him all things are.” This, as we can see by the following quotation, is purely Hindu and Brahmanical:
“When the dissolution — Pralaya — had arrived at its term, the great Being — Para-Atma or Para-Purusha — the Lord existing through himself, out of whom and through whom all things were, and are and will be . . . resolved to emanate from his own substance the various creatures” (Manava-Dharma-Sastra, book i., slokas 6 and 7).
The mystic Decad 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10 is a way of expressing this idea. The One is God, the Two, matter; the Three, combining Monad and Duad, and partaking of the nature of both, is the phenomenal world; the Tetrad, or form of perfection, expresses the emptiness of all; and the Decad, or sum of all, involves the entire cosmos. The universe is the combination of a thousand elements, and yet the expression of a single spirit — a chaos to the sense, a cosmos to the reason.
The whole of this combination of the progression of numbers in the idea of creation is Hindu. The Being existing through himself, Swayambhu or Swayambhuva, as he is called by some, is one. He emanates from himself the creative faculty, Brahma or Purusha (the divine male), and the one becomes Two; out of this Duad, union of the purely intellectual principle with the principle of matter, evolves a third, which is Viradj, the phenomenal world. It is out of this invisible and incomprehensible trinity, the Brahmanic Trimurty, that evolves the second triad which represents the three faculties — the creative, the conservative, and the transforming. These are typified by Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, but are again and ever blended into one. Unity, Brahma, or as the Vedas called him, Tridandi, is the god triply manifested, which gave rise to the symbolical Aum or the abbreviated Trimurty. It is but under this trinity, ever active and tangible to all our senses, that the invisible and unknown Monas can manifest itself to the world of mortals. When he becomes Sarira, or he who puts on a visible form, he typifies all the principles of matter, all the germs of life, he is Purusha, the god of the three visages, or triple power, the essence of the Vedic triad. “Let the Brahmas know the sacred Syllable (Aum), the three words of the Savitri, and read the Vedas daily” (Manu, book iv., sloka 125).
“After having produced the universe, He whose power is incomprehensible vanished again, absorbed in the Supreme Soul. . . . Having retired into the primitive darkness, the great Soul remains within the unknown, and is void of all form. . . .
“When having again reunited the subtile elementary principles, it introduces itself into either a vegetable or animal seed, it assumes at each a new form.”
“It is thus that, by an alternative waking and rest, the Immutable Being causes to revive and die eternally all the existing creatures, active and inert” (Manu, book i., sloka 50, and others).
He who has studied Pythagoras and his speculations on the Monad, which, after having emanated the Duad retires into silence and darkness, and thus creates the Triad can realize whence came the philosophy of the great Samian Sage, and after him that of Socrates and Plato.
Speusippus seems to have taught that the psychical or thumetic soul was immortal as well as the spirit or rational soul, and further on we will show his reasons. He also — like Philolaus and Aristotle, in his disquisitions upon the soul — makes of aether an element; so that there were five principal elements to correspond with the five regular figures in Geometry. This became also a doctrine of the Alexandrian school. (“Theol. Arithme,” p. 62: “On Pythag. Numbers.”) Indeed, there was much in the doctrines of the Philaletheans which did not appear in the works of the older Platonists, but was doubtless taught in substance by the philosopher himself, but with his usual reticence was not committed to writing as being too arcane for promiscuous publication. Speusippus and Xenocrates after him, held, like their great master, that the anima mundi, or world-soul, was not the Deity, but a manifestation. Those philosophers never conceived of the One as an animate nature. (Plato: “Parmenid.,” 141 E.) The original One did not exist, as we understand the term. Not till he had united with the many — emanated existence (the monad and duad) was a being produced. The timion, honored — the something manifested, dwells in the centre as in the circumference, but it is only the reflection of the Deity — the World-Soul. (See Stoboeus’ “Ecl.,” i, 862.) In this doctrine we find the spirit of esoteric Buddhism.
A man’s idea of God, is that image of blinding light that he sees reflected in the concave mirror of his own soul, and yet this is not, in very truth, God, but only His reflection. His glory is there, but, it is the light of his own Spirit that the man sees, and it is all he can bear to look upon. The clearer the mirror, the brighter will be the divine image. But the external world cannot be witnessed in it at the same moment. In the ecstatic Yogin, in the illuminated Seer, the spirit will shine like the noonday sun; in the debased victim of earthly attraction, the radiance has disappeared, for the mirror is obscured with the stains of matter. Such men deny their God, and would willingly deprive humanity of soul at one blow. . . .
Though some have considered Speusippus as inferior to Aristotle, the ‘world is nevertheless indebted to him for defining and expounding many things that Plato had left obscure in his doctrine of the Sensible and Ideal. His maxim was “The Immaterial is known by means of scientific thought, the Material by scientific perception.” (Sextus: “Math.,” vii. 145.)
Xenocrates expounded many of the unwritten theories and teachings of his master. He too held the Pythagorean doctrine, and his system of numerals and mathematics in the highest estimation. Recognizing but three degrees of knowledge — Thought, Perception, and Envisagement (or knowledge by Intuition), he made the former busy itself with all that which is beyond the heavens; Perception with things in the heavens; Intuition with the heavens themselves.
We find again these theories, and nearly in the same language in the Manava-Dharma-Sastra, when speaking — of the creation of man: “He (the Supreme) drew from his own essence the immortal breath which perisheth not in the being, and to this soul of the being he gave the Ahancara (conscience of the ego) sovereign guide.” Then he gave to that soul of the being (man) the intellect formed of the three qualities, and the five organs of the outward perception.”
These three qualities are Intelligence, Conscience, and Will; answering to the Thought, Perception, and Envisagement of Xenocrates. The relation of numbers to Ideas was developed by him further than by Speusippus, and he surpassed Plato in his definition of the doctrine of Invisible Magnitudes. Reducing them to their ideal primary elements, he demonstrated that every figure and form originated out of the smallest indivisible line. That Xenocrates held the same theories as Plato in relation to the human soul (supposed to be a number) is evident, though Aristotle contradicts this, like every other teaching of this philosopher. (“Metaph.,” 407, a. 3.) This is conclusive evidence that many of Plato’s doctrines were delivered orally, even were it shown that Xenocrates and not Plato was the first to originate the theory of indivisible magnitudes. He derives the Soul from the first Duad, and calls it a self-moved number. (Appendix to “Timaeus.”) Theophrastus remarks that he entered and eliminated this Soul-theory more than any other Platonist. He built upon it the cosmological doctrine, and proved the necessary existence in every part of the universal space of a successive and progressive series of animated and thinking though spiritual beings. (Stob.: “Ecl.,” i., 62.) The Human Soul with him is a compound of the most spiritual properties of the Monad and the Duad, possessing the highest principles of both. If, like Plato and Prodicus, he refers to the Elements as to Divine Powers, and calls them gods, neither himself nor others connected any anthropomorphic idea with the appellation. Krische remarks that he called them gods only that these elementary powers should not be confounded with the daemons of the nether world (the Elementary Spirits). (Krische: “Forsch.,” p. 322, etc.) As the Soul of the World permeates the whole Cosmos, even beasts must have in them something divine. (Clem.: “Alex. Stro.,” v., 590.) This, also, is the doctrine of Buddhists and the Hermetists, and Manu endows with a living soul even the plants and the tiniest blade of grass.
The daemons, according to this theory, are intermediate beings between the divine perfection and human sinfulness (Plutarch: “De Isid,” chap. 25, p. 360), and he divides them into classes, each subdivided in many others. But he states expressly that the individual or personal soul is the leading guardian daemon of every man, and that no daemon has more power over us than our own. Thus the Daimonion of Socrates is the god or Divine Entity which inspired him all his life. It depends on man either to open or close his perceptions to the Divine voice. Like Speusippus he ascribed immortality to the psyche, psychical body, or irrational soul. But some Hermetic philosophers have taught that the soul has a separate continued existence only so long as in its passage through the spheres any material or earthly particles remain incorporated in it; and that when absolutely purified, the latter are annihilated, and the quintessence of the soul alone becomes blended with its divine spirit (the Rational), and the two are thenceforth one.
Zeller states that Xenocrates forbade the eating of animal food, not because he saw in beasts something akin to man, as he ascribed to them a dim consciousness of God, but, “for the opposite reason, lest the irrationality of animal souls might thereby obtain a certain influence over us.” (“Plato und die Alt. Akademie.”) But we believe that it was rather because, like Pythagoras, he had had the Hindu sages for his masters and models. Cicero depicted Xenocrates utterly despising everything except the highest virtue (“Tusc.,” v., 18, 51.); and describes the stainlessness and severe austerity of his character. (Ibid. Cf. p. 559.) “To free ourselves from the subjection of sensuous existence, to conquer the Titanic elements in our terrestrial nature through the Divine one, is our problem.” Zeller makes him say: “Purity, even in the secret longings of our heart, is the greatest duty, and only philosophy and the initiation into the Mysteries help toward the attainment of this object.” (“Plato und die Alt. Akademie.” ) Crantor, another philosopher associated with the earliest days of Plato’s Academy, conceived the human soul as formed out of the primary substance of all things, the Monad or One, and the Duad or the Two. Plutarch speaks at length of this philosopher, who like his master believed in souls being distributed in earthly bodies as an exile and punishment.
Herakleides, though some critics do not believe him to have strictly adhered to Plato’s primal philosophy (cf. Ed. Zeller: “Philos. der Griech.”) taught the same ethics. Zeller presents him to us imparting, like Hicetas and Ecphantus, the Pythagorean doctrine of the diurnal rotation of the earth and the immobility of the fixed stars, but adds that he was ignorant of the annual revolution of the earth around the sun, and of the heliocentric system. (“Plato und die Alt. Akademie.”) But we have good evidence that the latter system was taught in the Mysteries, and that Socrates died for atheism, i.e., for divulging this sacred knowledge. Herakleides adopted fully the Pythagorean and Platonic views of the human soul, its faculties and its capabilities. He describes it as a luminous, highly ethereal essence. He affirms that souls inhabit the milky way before descending “into generation” or sublunary existence. His daemons or spirits are airy and vaporous bodies.
In the Epinomis is fully stated the doctrine of the Pythagorean numbers in relation to created things. As a true Platonist, its author maintains that wisdom can only be attained by a thorough inquiry into the occult nature of the creation; it alone assures us an existence of bliss after death. The immortality of the soul is greatly speculated upon in this treatise; but its author adds that we can attain to this knowledge only through a complete comprehension of the numbers; for the man, unable to distinguish the straight line from a curved one will never have wisdom enough to secure a mathematical demonstration of the invisible, i.e., we must assure ourselves of the objective existence of our soul (astral body) before we learn that we are in possession of a divine and immortal spirit. Iamblichus says the same thing; adding, moreover, that it is a secret belonging to the highest initiation. The Divine Power, he says, always felt indignant with those “who rendered manifest the composition of the icostagonus,” viz., who delivered the method of inscribing in a sphere the dodecahedron (one of the five solid figures in Geometry.).
The idea that “numbers” possessing the greatest virtue, produce always what is good and never what is evil, refers to justice, equanimity of temper, and everything that is harmonious. When the author speaks of every star as an individual soul, he only means what the Hindu initiates and the Hermetists taught before and after him, viz.: that every star is an independent planet, which, like our earth, has a soul of its own, every atom of matter being impregnated with the divine influx of the soul of the world. It breathes and lives; it feels and suffers as well as enjoys life in its way. What naturalist is prepared to dispute it on good evidence? Therefore, we must consider the celestial bodies as the images of gods; as partaking of the divine powers in their substance; and though they are not immortal in their soul-entity, their agency in the economy of the universe is entitled to divine honors, such as we pay to minor gods. The idea is plain, and one must be malevolent indeed to misrepresent it. If the author of Epinomis places these fiery gods higher than the animals, plants, and even mankind, all of which, as earthly creatures, are assigned by him a lower place, who can prove him wholly wrong? One must needs go deep indeed into the profundity of the abstract metaphysics of the old philosophies, who would understand that their various embodiments of their conceptions are, after all, based upon an identical apprehension of the nature of the First Cause, its attributes and method.
Again when the author of Epinomis locates between these highest and lowest gods (embodied souls) three classes of daemons, and peoples the universe with invisible beings, he is more rational than our modern scientists, who make between the two extremes one vast hiatus of being, the playground of blind forces. Of these three classes the first two are invisible; their bodies are pure ether and fire (planetary spirits); the daemons of the third class are clothed with vapory bodies; they are usually invisible, but sometimes making themselves concrete become visible for a few seconds. These are the earthly spirits, or our astral souls.
It is these doctrines, which, studied analogically, and on the principle of correspondence, led the ancient, and may now lead the modern Philaletheian step by step toward the solution of the greatest mysteries. On the brink of the dark chasm separating the spiritual from the physical world stands modern science, with eyes closed and head averted, pronouncing the gulf impassable and bottomless, though she holds in her hand a torch which she need only lower into the depths to show her her mistake. But across this chasm, the patient student of Hermetic philosophy has constructed a bridge.
— from Isis Unveiled by H. P. Blavatsky Volume 1:xi-xxii
The Teachings of Plato, by Alexander Wilder
Platonic Demonstration of the Immortality of the Soul, by Thomas Taylor
On Plato’s Theory of Ideas, by Grace F. Knoche
Plato on Intelligent Design: Truth, Beauty, and the Good, by W. T. S. Thackara
Plato’s Myths and the Mystery Tradition, by W. T. S. Thackara
The Gnosis according to Plato, by W. T. S. Thackara
Plato on Two World-Souls, from Studies in Occult Philosophy, by G. de Purucker
Traditional Biographical Sources
Life of Plato, by Olympiodorus (tr. Thomas Taylor)
Modern Biographies & Studies
Plato (drawn from from volume 3 of Order and History), by Eric Voegelin (1957)
Biography of Plato, from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Plato (biography and articles), from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Selected Quotes from Plato
On First PrinciplesEvery man should expend his chief thought and attention on the consideration of his first principles:— are they or are they not rightly laid down? and when he has duly sifted them, all the rest will follow. — Cratylus
Selected Quotes on Plato
On Plato and Western Philosophy
So far as concerns philosophy only a selected group can be explicitly mentioned. There is no point in endeavoring to force the interpretations of divergent philosophers into a vague agreement. What is important is that the scheme of interpretation here adopted can claim for each of its main positions the express authority of one, or the other, of some supreme master of thought - Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant. But ultimately nothing rests on authority; the final court of appeal is intrinsic reasonableness. The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. — Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), Process and Reality, Page 39.
On the Timelessness of Plato
Although twenty-two and a quarter centuries have elapsed since the death of Plato, the great minds of the world are still occupied with his writings. He was, in the fullest sense of the word, the world's interpreter. And the greatest philosopher of the pre-Christian era mirrored faithfully in his works the spiritualism of the Vedic philosophers who lived thousands of years before himself, and its metaphysical expression. — H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, Volume 1, Page xi
From Universals to Particulars
The wiseacres of our generations raise daily the cry that science and metaphysics are irreconcilable; and facts prove as daily that it is but one more fallacy among the many that are uttered. The reign of exact science is proclaimed on every housetop, and Plato who is said to have trusted to his imagination is sneered at, while Aristotle's method built on pure reason is the one accepted by Science. Why? Because "the philosophical method of Plato was the inverse of that of Aristotle." Its starting-point was universals ... and from these it descended to particulars, or details. Aristotle, on the contrary, "rose from particulars to universals, advancing to them by inductions" (Conflict between Religion and Science).We humbly answer to this, that mathematics, the only exact and infallible science in the world of sciences - proceeds from UNIVERSALS. — H.P. Blavatsky, Article "Stars and Numbers", Theosophist,June, 1881