Theosophical Encyclopedia



TE 4 Plato

An ancient Greek philosopher (circa 428-348 or 347 B.C.), one of only two whose writings are still extensively studied today (the other being his pupil Aristotle). He is referred to more frequently in Helena P. Blavatsky’s writings than any other philosopher and is identified, as is Confucius, both there and in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, as a “fifth Round man,” far advanced “psychically, mentally and spiritually” of the average person today (SD 1:162; Mahatma Letter 66 [Barker, 14]). His philosophical ideas are presented in a series of twenty-four dialogues, in most of which the main character is his teacher, Socrates. Thirteen letters are also attributed to him, though scholars believe most are forgeries, except the largely autobiographical seventh (and, some believe, at least parts of the third, eighth, and thirteenth). Plato also wrote a funeral oration, Menexenus, traditionally included in the seventh tetralogy along with the Greater and Lesser Hippias and the Ion. The speakers are Socrates and Menexenus, who is not to be confused with Socrates’s son of the same name (Wikipedia). The literary quality of his dialogues, especially from the early and middle periods, are unexcelled by any other Western philosopher, although some (notably Berkeley and Hume) attempted to write philosophy in that style.

Plato was born and lived most of his life in Athens. He was educated, as were all upper class Athenians, in what we would now consider the liberal arts, including cosmological speculation, mathematics, and rhetoric. In 407 B.C., he became a pupil and follower of Socrates (469-399 B.C.), who devoted most of his life to questioning the noble men of his day about their beliefs. Raised the son of a sculptor and actually practicing that art for a time, Socrates attracted a loyal group of young followers, but also managed to offend many wealthy aristocrats by exposing their ignorance about subjects in which they considered themselves experts. Democracy was restored in Athens in 399 B.C., after a period of autocracy, and then Socrates was brought to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. The record of the trial is recounted in Plato’s dialogue “Apology” and reads like an eyewitness account. Although the charges were ridiculous, Socrates was found guilty and condemned to death. Plato’s “Phaedo” purports to be an account of Socrates’s last day before drinking poison hemlock, to carry out the sentence. Blavatsky claims that the real reason Socrates was condemned was that he divulged secrets of the Mystery schools of his day, such as the heliocentric theory of the solar system, which he had apparently gotten through his own insights, because he was not an initiate of those schools (IU 1:xxi). There is no way to confirm her claim, but it seems improbable because there is better evidence to support the charge of heresy made against him (not believing in the gods of Greek religion). Plato, who was an initiate of the Mysteries, thereafter became a fervent opponent of democracy, on the grounds that ordinary citizens were too swayed by emotion to make rational decisions about government. That is better understood in light of the fact that it was a democracy which killed his teacher.

We know relatively little about Plato’s life. He came from an aristocratic family and never married. He saw military service, as did Socrates, in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta (431-404 B.C.). Exactly when he became an initiate into the Greek Mystery schools is unknown. About 388 B.C., Plato went to the court of Dionysius the Elder, military governor (or tyrant) of Syracuse in Sicily, apparently in an effort to persuade the ruler to adopt his ideas for government. Upon returning to Athens, Plato (about 364 B.C.) founded a school, called the Academy (or akadēmia, named after the grove of trees where Plato’s home was located in a suburb of Athens). In addition to teaching his own philosophic ideas, he hired noted mathematicians, astronomers, and physicians as teachers. One of his early pupils (then aged seventeen) was Aristotle, not an initiate into the Mysteries, who was later hired to teach his own philosophic ideas, even though they differed in significant ways from those of Plato. In 367 and 361 B.C., Plato again visited Syracuse, trying without success to convince Dionysius the younger to adopt his ideas. Thereafter Plato abandoned his model of the ideal political system based on a philosopher-king, as detailed in the Republic, and worked on the framework for a political system based on law. He was still working on his final dialogue, Laws, when he died. By this time, his Academy had been put under the control of a board of trustees and Plato died a relatively poor man. After his death, the school was headed by Plato’s nephew, Speusippus, then by Xenocrates. They, however, did not share Plato’s tolerance for Aristotle’s views and so Aristotle, then aged thirty-seven, was forced to leave the Academy and start his own school.

Plato’s philosophic views as well as his method of presenting them evolved over his lifetime, as indicated by the style of and topics covered in his dialogues. It is impossible to date the dialogues with any certainty, but scholars group them into three categories: early, middle, and late. In the first group are Lysis, Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro, Ion, Hippas Major and Hippas Minor, Gorgias, Euthydemus, Apology, and probably also Crito and the first book of the Republic, as well as Alcibiades 1 and 2, if Plato actually wrote them. Socrates is the major figure, portrayed as questioning important nobles about the definition of various virtues. This Socratic method is also known as a dialectic or elenchus (“refutation”). For example, the Euthyphro purports to record a conversation about piety which Socrates had with Euthyphro as the two were about to go into court, Socrates to defend himself against the charge of impiety and Euthyphro to bring suit against his own father (unheard of in ancient Athens) for causing the death of a slave. Euthyphro is convinced he knows what piety is and offers several definitions, none of which Socrates shows to be adequate. The Apology contains not only Socrates’s very cogent, but unfortunately unpersuasive, arguments in his defense, but also a reference to his daimon or daimonion, and which the Mahātma Koot Hoomi (Mahatma Letters, 11; Barker 28) and most scholars interpret as the voice of his conscience. It only warned him what not to do. Crito purports to be a conversation between Socrates in prison and his rich friend Crito, who has come to bribe Socrates’s way out of jail, an offer Socrates refuses by offering cogent arguments against those of Crito.

The middle dialogues present some of Plato’s most characteristic doctrines, again using Socrates, most certainly now anachronistically, as their principle character. These include Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Philebus, Symposium, Republic, and Timaeus. The Meno, which some scholars consider an early dialogue, addresses the question of whether virtue can be taught and introduces the characteristic Platonic doctrine of anamnesis or “recollection” in a famous scene in which Socrates, by questioning Meno’s slave boy, proves that the boy can figure out a difficult geometric problem, although he has been taught no geometry in his present life. That leads Socrates to conclude that he must have learned it in a previous life. Since there is no indication that Socrates actually believed in reincarnation (Greek metempsychōsis), this must represent Plato’s development of Socrates’s ideas. It leads to the Platonic doctrine that all learning is recollection, although it is difficult to determine whether Plato meant just all moral knowledge or all knowledge in general. The argument for reincarnation is further developed in the Phaedo, in which a group of Socrates’s friends plus two disciples of Pythagoras conduct a philosophic debate during Socrates’s last day in prison. One of the arguments, repeated centuries later by Descartes, is that since the soul and body are different and the body is mortal, the soul must be immortal. The dialogue also contains Plato’s view that a true philosopher — that is, lover of wisdom — looks forward to death because it frees him from the limitations and distractions of the body and brings him in contact with all the great thinkers of the past. The final scene of the dialogue, in which Socrates cheerfully drinks the hemlock, is one of the most moving in all philosophic literature.

The Republic is a lengthy dialogue attempting to define the meaning of justice, which Plato takes to be the appropriate working of a well-ordered socio-political system. It contains, among other things, a full development of Plato’s doctrine of Forms, that there exists a conceptual realm, objective in nature, where the realities of all things, sensory and mental, exist and of which our perceptual world is an imperfect copy. It is suggested that this realm of Forms is hierarchical in nature, with the Form of the Good at the apex, and that the true philosopher or lover of wisdom is constantly trying to achieve direct realization of that realm. The dialogue contains the famous allegory of the cave wherein Plato suggests that our perceptual realm consists of the mere shadows of copies of reality, a doctrine very reminiscent, Blavatsky reminds us, of the doctrine of māyā in Vedānta philosophy (IU 1:xiii-xiv). We are like prisoners in a cave, chained to pillars able to perceive only these faint semblances of reality; the philosopher is like one who has unshackled himself and climbed out of the cave to view the sun (that is, the Form of the Good).

Therefore, Plato argues, because a philosopher, using the term in Plato’s sense, has apprehended the truth directly, he should be the ruler (or king), even though he will have to be persuaded against his will to accept such a responsibility. Plato outlines in the Republic a system of education, open to both males and females, in which people will determine by their own abilities (or lack of them) what role they will play in society, which he envisions as divided into categories reminiscent of the Hindu caste system (IU 1:271), but not based on heredity. The purpose of education would be to produce philosophers, though he realized that very few can actually attain a vision of reality that would authenticate their wisdom.

Timaeus is Plato’s outline of cosmology and contains his description of a lost continent called Atlantis. It is the dialogue most frequently cited in Theosophical literature. Its scientific speculation, put forth by Timaeus, is drawn almost entirely from Italian and Sicilian sources so must have been written after one of Plato’s trips to Syracuse. Plato may have intended it as a text on science for use in his Academy, but even so in the dialogue Timaeus puts it forth only as probable or speculative. One interesting feature of this dialogue, as well as several others, is Plato’s use of a myth to expound some important idea. Scholars have interpreted this as an indication that Plato did not have cogent arguments for his point and so resorted to that device to forestall criticism. A more plausible explanation is that such myths were intended to remind his readers, some of whom would also have been initiates of the Mystery schools, of doctrines that were esoteric and not allowed to be spoken of openly in public.

There is little of philosophic interest in Phaedrus or Symposium, the latter consisting mainly of a series of banquet orations given by seven different speakers. The Philebus, which contains a discussion of the doctrine of Forms, is dated by some scholars as a late dialogue, which would mean that Plato held that doctrine throughout his life. Others, however, identify it as a middle dialogue and claim that Plato abandoned his most characteristic doctrine later in his life, since it seems to be criticized in some later dialogues and not mentioned at all in the generally unphilosophical Laws.

Along with Laws, Plato’s third-period dialogues are identified by scholars as Theaetatus, Sophist, Parmenides, Politicus, and probably Cratylus. The Parmenides contains a famous “third man” argument against the doctrine of Forms and is interpreted as an indication that Plato eventually rejected the doctrine. Plato had earlier argued that for us to realize that two things had something in common or that some action exemplified a virtue must mean that we perceived the conceptual reality, that is, the Form, of the virtue or whatever they had in common, since two things or acts are not identical or perfect exemplifications of whatever they have in common. How else, he asked, would we be able to perceive commonality? The Greek philosopher Parmenides, after whom the dialogue is named, argues that Plato’s theory would involve an infinite regress. In order to know whether the Form of, say, Man really resembled a particular man, there would have to be another Form, say Man2, which Man1 and the particular man had in common. That, in turn would require another Form, say Man3, etc. Parmenides’s argument is a form of reductio ad absurdum. Plato offers no counter-argument in the dialogue. But the argument is so obviously fallacious that apparently he felt he did not need to. Individual men have a body, arms, legs, etc., but the idea or Form of Man does not; it is a conceptual entity. So the two do not resemble each other in the way that two individual men do — so do not need another Form to explain their resemblance. No such resemblance exists. It thus seems likely that Plato did not abandon the doctrine, as some scholars believe, but merely turned his attention to other philosophic problems. As an initiate of the Mystery schools of his day, he certainly did not abandon his belief in reincarnation, which is associated in his dialogues with doctrines of anamnesis and Forms.

HPB commends Plato for his methodology, which, she points out, was to start with universals and descend from them to particulars, the opposite of Aristotle’s method (CW 3:196). She states that Plato “fully embraced the ideas of Pythagoras — who had brought them from India,” but “compiled and published them in a form more intelligible than the mysterious numerals of the Greek Sage” (SD 1:348). She also mentions with approval Plato’s concept of the soul, which he claimed was dual, one part mortal (what in Theosophical literature would be identified as astral or kāma-manas), the other immortal (the monad or ātman, possibly the triple spirit: ātma-buddhi-manas). She states that the former was created by “intelligent forces in nature” and the latter is “an emanation from the supreme Spirit” or Parabrahman (CW 2:16). It is the latter which is responsible for our well-being, but is often overruled by our animal desires, creating continually unsatisfied longing, coupled with regret and despair, citing Plato’s Protagoras as a defense of this idea (SD 2:412). HPB also points out that Plato’s concept of a Demiurge, mentioned in Timaeus, is not at all the same as the orthodox Christian concept of a personal God, since “Plato having been initiated, could not believe in a personal God — a gigantic shadow of Man. His epithets of ‘Monarch and Lawgiver of the Universe’ bear an abstract meaning well understood by every Occultist, who, no less than any Christian, believes in the One Law, that governs the Universe, recognizing it at the same time as immutable” (SD 2:554). Furthermore, that in Cratylus, he appropriately derives the word theos from the verb théein, “to move” or “to run,” based on its creative nature (SD 1:2 fn.; 2:545). Contrast that with Aristotle’s idea of a remote and abstract “Prime Mover.” HPB reminds us of a characteristic Platonic idea, the five Platonic solids, when she notes that Timaeus 55c says that the concrete form of the universe, “first begotten” as an idea or Form, “was constructed on the geometrical figure of the dodecahedron” (SD 1:340). Actually, the Platonic solids are found in Greek mythology as toys of Bacchus. She also cites Plato’s story in Laws about an earlier golden age on earth when men were governed by rulers who had a daimonion (an inward mentor) and that people in those days would no more allow ordinary men to rule them than they would allow a bullock or ram to rule over other bullocks or rams (SD 2:372-373). The decline of that age occurred during the Atlantean period, coming to an end, as Plato points out, with the sinking of Poseidon. But she explains Plato’s reference, in Critias (108e) and Timaeus (23e) to the sinking of Atlantis as occurring 9,000 years before his time as meaning millennial years, hence 900,000 years, closer, she points out, to the occult tradition (SD 2:394-395). She comments, in a footnote, that Plato had learned of Atlantis as a child from his grandfather, Critias, then aged ninety; and that Critias had heard it in his youth from the Greek sage Solon, adding, “ No more reliable source could be found, we believe” (SD 2:743fn), because Solon had heard it from “the priests of Egypt” (ibid, p. 266). Plato then, “as every Initiate would” intentionally confused the sinking of the large continent of Atlantis with the much later sinking of its last small remnant, Poseidon (SD 2:767). These ideas should be kept in mind when Theosophists or scholars attempt to verify — or refute — the existence of Atlantis.

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