A man cannot bury his meanings
so deep in his book
but time and like-minded men will find them.
Plato had a secret doctrine, had he?
R. W. Emerson
I feel as though I have just been ambushed by truth. Fair enough, if I pick up the writings of some eastern mystic, I can expect to be inundated with references to inner light. But when I leaf through my Plato, I hardly expect to find him recommending the same yoga that Krishna taught his disciple Arjuna. Plato? Surely not. And yet there it is, in the middle of the Republic:
"In every man there is an eye of the soul which, when by other pursuits lost and dimmed, is by these purified and re-illumined; and is more precious far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone is truth seen."
Before we go any further, I must of course admit that many thousands of people have happily read Plato without once suspecting him of preaching yoga. Plato, like the New Testament, is capable of answering to the interpreter's preferences. Indeed it may be worth considering for a moment, how widespread this tendency for research to echo the researcher has recently become. The astrophysicist Kim Malville has said that under lab conditions, light is extraordinarily eager to please: "if you ask it if it is a wave, if you ask a wave-evocative question, you get a wave back. If you ask a question evoking a particle, you get a particle …" And the same pattern crops up in experimental psychology. Sidney Cohen notes that patients whose analysts are Freudians dream Freudian dreams, while patients with Jungian analysts dream Jungian ones. The dreams attempt to please the psychiatrists.
I must agree that my reading of Plato is likely to be colored by my reading of the world at large, and that a majority of Plato lovers may "read quite a different meaning" into his text. But then again, as Emerson reminds us, "there are not in the world at any one time more than a dozen persons who read and understand Plato." So I may be but one among many who misinterpret him. Or I may be one of the twelve chosen ones. Caveat emptor. Let the reader decide.
Let us consider what Socrates calls "the only subject of which I profess to have knowledge," the subject of love.
Socrates learned about love from Diotima of Mantineia. Plato in the Symposium tells us that Socrates approached her with the words "my ignorance is the reason why I come to you: for I am conscious that I want a teacher," and that she taught him at various times, speaking to him of the nature of love. Finally she tells him bluntly, "These are the lesser mysteries of love, into which even you, Socrates, may enter; to the greater and more hidden ones which are the crown of these, and to which, if you pursue them in a right spirit, they will lead, I know not whether you will be able to attain. But I will do my utmost to inform you, and do you follow if you can."
She tells him that he who is rightly guided will "create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom, until at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere." For "this, my dear Socrates, is the life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute." She goes on to say that "in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind," can man "bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities."
The Phaedrus is the other Platonic dialogue with love for its main theme. In it, Socrates tells us that "he who has not been lately initiated, or who has become corrupted, is not easily carried out of this world to the sight of absolute beauty in the other." This initiation of which he speaks, then, leads us back to that "heaven which is above the heavens," where "there abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned." Few people can recall the time before they were born, when they "beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery most blessed" and "were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb," the body.
But he who "employs right these memories is ever being initiated into perfect mysteries and alone becomes truly perfect."
In the Republic, Plato sets forth what he considers to
be the necessary first step, if peace is to be established on earth:
"Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy … cities will never have rest from their evils, no, nor the human race …" Are we to imagine a country ruled by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who used to play himself piano concertos without any keyboard, to pass the time on long train journeys? Nietzsche? Or Jean Paul Sartre? Each one would add his own distinct flavor to the practice of government. Or does he mean someone more like Chuang Tzu's Nameless Man, whose advice is "Blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are, and make no room for personal views then the world will be governed."
We must look a little closer, and see what type of philosopher Plato means. "Who are the true philosophers?" Socrates asks. "Those who are lovers of the vision of truth." He distinguishes between "the sight-loving, art-loving, practical class," and "those who are alone worthy of the name of philosophers." The former are "fond of fine tones and colors and forms and all the artificial products that are made out of them," but are "incapable of seeing or loving absolute beauty." These people, who "neither see absolute beauty, nor can follow any guide who points the way thither … may be said to have opinion but not knowledge." For "knowledge is to know the nature of being," and "those who see the absolute and eternal and immutable may be said to know, and not to have opinion only."
Socrates defines philosophical minds as those which "always love knowledge of a sort which shows them the eternal nature," and declares that "philosophers only are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable, and those who wander in the region of the many and variable are not philosophers." Everything depends on the vision of the soul:
"And the soul is like the eye: when resting upon that on which truth and being shine, the soul perceives and understands and is radiant with intelligence; but when turned towards the twilight of becoming and perishing, then she has opinion only." The philosopher-ruler must be one who has attained the vision of the eternal.
Here socrates gives his famous and much interpreted Allegory of the Cave. In his own words, "you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world … the world of knowledge." We should remember here that this is the world of vision, where "the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and the lord of light in this visible world" is seen. He continues "you must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world …" Perhaps we can find here an echo of the reply of Chuang Tzu's Nameless Man, when he was first asked how to rule the world: "What kind of a dreary question is that! I'm just about to set off with the Creator. And if I get bored with that, then I'll ride on the Light-and-Lissome Bird out beyond the six directions." It will be quite an entertaining task, persuading the visionary philosopher to attend to the burdens of public office.
But all this should not distress us, for "the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed," and the philosophers will not finally "refuse to take their turn at the toils of State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of their time with one another in the heavenly light."
Does Plato really have a secret doctrine? Is there really a heavenly light? Socrates remarks "I quite admit the difficulty of believing that in every man there is an eye of the soul … more precious far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone is truth seen." But "that knowledge only which is of being and of the unseen can make the soul look upwards," and without that knowledge, the vision of truth cannot be obtained. Thus Socrates, after a long period of studies and discipline designed to concentrate the mind, tells his students "the time has now arrived at which they must raise the eye of the soul to the universal light which lightens all things, and behold the absolute good."
Is this perhaps the same light of which St. John speaks, which "lighteth every man that cometh into the world …"