During the lifetime of Plato there was little if any dissension among his pupils. But after his death in 347 B.C. a decided breach occurred. Aristotle set up his own school in opposition to the Platonic Academy, his pupils recognizing him as Plato’s successor. Meanwhile the loyal pupils of Plato endeavored to carry on his teachings along the lines laid down. But in the course of time even in that school, which was known successively as the Old Academy, the Middle Academy and the New Academy, the spiritual ideals of the Teacher grew dim, until they were revived by the Neoplatonists.
The Laws of Plato, a work not made public until after his death, shows how Plato gravitated more and more toward the Pythagorean doctrines in his later years. The Old Academy, therefore, is distinguished by its interpretation of Plato’s theory of Ideas in accordance with the number theory of Pythagoras.
The guidance of the Platonic School passed from Plato to his nephew Speusippus, who, according to Diogenes Laertius, received his appointment directly from the Teacher. Speusippus developed the Pythagorean aspect of the Platonic teachings, and the world is indebted to him for defining and expounding many things which Plato had left obscure in his doctrine of the Sensible and the Ideal.
Speusippus was followed by Xenocrates, who continued the Pythagorean and Platonic line without a shadow of turning. The teachings of Xenocrates also show a strong Oriental influence, and many of his ideas may be traced directly to their Eastern origin. He taught that there are three degrees of knowledge—thought, perception and envisagement (knowledge by intuition). The source of these divisions is found in that part of the Mânava Dharma Shâstra which describes the creation of man. Brahmâ, or Mahat, the Universal Soul, draws from its own essence the Spirit, the imperishable immortal breath in every human being. To the lower soul Brahmâ gives Ahânkara, the consciousness of the Ego. To this is added “the intellect formed of the three qualities”—Intelligence, Conscience, and Will, answering to the Thought, Perception and Envisagement of Xenocrates.
The relation of numbers to Ideas was developed by Xenocrates still further than by Speusippus, and according to H.P.B. he surpassed even Plato in his definition of the doctrine of Invisible Magnitudes. Xenocrates regarded the soul as a “self-moving number” and maintained the doctrine of intuition and innate ideas. He revived the ancient Buddhistic and Hermetic teachings by declaring that, as the World-Soul permeates the entire Cosmos, even the beasts have something of divinity in them. Building his whole theory of cosmogony on the theory of the World-Soul, he taught that Space is filled with a successive and progressive series of animated and thinking beings. This is a faithful reflection of the doctrine of Manu, who endows even the tiniest blade of grass with a living soul.
Xenocrates forbade the eating of animal food, not solely because of the cruelty inflicted upon the animals, but also “lest the irrationality of animal souls might thereby obtain a certain influence over us.” This theory was elaborated 1800 years later by Paracelsus. It is a clear indication that Xenocrates, like Pythagoras, had the Hindu Sages for his Masters and Models. Cicero speaks of his stainless character and Zeller records his statement that “Purity, even in the secret longings of our heart, is the greatest duty, and only Philosophy and Initiation into the Mysteries help toward the attainment of this object.”
Herakleides, friend of Plato and member of the Academy, continued the Pythagorean and Platonic doctrines in all their purity. The unknown author of the Epinomis, a Platonic treatise, says that only knowledge of numbers can prove immortality, and that the soul must be understood before the Spirit can be comprehended. Iamblichus said the same thing five hundred years later, adding, however, that the mystery of immortality is a secret belonging to the highest initiation. The Epinomis considers the universe as a living organism, every star having a soul of its own. This, again, is merely a repetition of the ancient Hermetic doctrine that every atom in the universe, being impregnated with the divine influx of the World-Soul, is a living entity which feels, suffers and enjoys life in its own way.
With the passing of Athenian independence, a change took place in the attitude and emphasis of Greek philosophy. The social philosophy represented in Plato’s Republic gave way to the individualism which seems always to emerge in times of political disintegration. Whenever possible, the true philosopher strives to make his principles the basis of common constructive activity, but during a period of rapid social decline, often his only course is to demonstrate that there is no need for the individual to suffer moral and cultural death along with the community. He can be an exemplar as a single man when the temper of the day makes the application of social ideals impossible. Such an objective naturally produces an especial emphasis on conduct, as distinguished from the metaphysical doctrines which provide the rational basis for right action. Thus, we find the “practical” philosophies of the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics becoming the leading patterns of thought after Greece had succumbed to the Macedonian and Roman conquests.
Zeno, the founder of the Stoics, was at one time a pupil of Xenocrates. About 310 B.C. he founded a school in Athens. Because of his habit of teaching in the Painted Porch, or Stoa, it became known as the Stoic School. Basing his teachings on the Socratic axiom that knowledge is virtue, Zeno made the pursuit of knowledge synonymous with the cultivation of virtue. Combining that axiom with the Aristotelian idea that all knowledge comes from sense-perception, the Stoics have come down in history as the greatest materialists of ancient days.
Although the Stoics maintained that the material alone is real, distinguishing corporeal and incorporeal being as coarser and finer degrees of matter, an examination of Zeno’s doctrines reveals the fact that the Stoics were acquainted with the three fundamental propositions of Theosophy. They acknowledged the presence of an invisible Principle, or Divine Energy, which permeates nature, and spoke of matter as but the passive agent through which that Principle expresses itself. They taught the emanation of the visible world from the invisible, and the final absorption of the universe into its original source. Seneca, one of the later Stoics, asked: “What is God? The Mind of the Universe. Where is He? In everything you see and everything you do not see.” They likewise taught that all is governed by the Law of Cause and Effect and that nothing happens by chance. They considered the soul of man as a spark of Deity which at death is returned to its original essence. They therefore trained themselves to be indifferent to death, to pleasure and pain, and to exercise their philosophy in the form of altruism and compassion. “Nature bids me to be good to mankind,” Seneca wrote. “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for benefit.” The Stoics also practiced the “nightly review” which formed part of the discipline of the Mysteries. Epictetus has left us the ethical standard adopted by the Stoic: “…that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, says nothing about himself as being anybody or knowing anything.” Seneca added that “the Stoic view of life is to be useful and helpful, and not to look after ourselves, but after the individual and common interests of mankind.”
The Epicureans differed sharply from the Stoics in their answer to the problems of life. The personality of Epicurus was almost worshipped by his pupils. His words were memorized down to the smallest detail and accepted without question. Pleasure, said Epicurus, is the highest virtue, and virtue is impossible without pleasure. Although he admitted that intellectual pleasures are the most satisfying, he did not direct the intellect toward any soul-disturbing search for fundamental truths. His message was, like that of Rousseau, a summons to return from the complexities of civilization to the natural pleasures of life. His philosophy appealed to the average man. It was, as Cicero says, at best a bourgeois philosophy, demanding neither heroism nor sacrifice, appealing primarily to a world-weary society whose ideals had already been dulled by indolence and corruption.
But despite these general tendencies, there were, as H.P.B. says, no Atheists in those days of old; no disbelievers or materialists, in the modern sense of the word, as there were no bigoted detractors. Writing in Isis Unveiled, she makes clear that even Pyrrho, the great skeptic, was not the extreme denier that he seems to modern scholars.
He who judges the ancient philosophies by their external phraseology, and quotes from ancient writings sentences seemingly atheistical, is unfit to be trusted as a critic, for he is unable to penetrate into the inner sense of their metaphysics. The views of Pyrrho, whose rationalism has become proverbial, can be interpreted only by the light of the oldest Hindu philosophy…. Notwithstanding that he and his followers are termed, from their state of constant suspense, “skeptics,” “doubters,” inquirers, and ephectics, only because they postponed their final judgment on dilemmas, with which our modern philosophers prefer dealing, Alexander-like, by cutting the Gordian knot, and then declaring the dilemma a superstition, such men as Pyrrho cannot be pronounced atheists. No more can Kapila, or Giordano Bruno, or again Spinoza, who were also treated as atheists; nor yet, the great Hindu poet, philosopher, and dialectician, Veda-Vyasa, whose principle that all is illusion—save the Great Unknown and His direct essence—Pyrrho has adopted in full. (II, 530-31.)
Side by side with the decline of Athens, a new center of culture was arising on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Two years before the death of Plato, Philip, the young King of Macedonia, had married a young novice in the Mystery School of Samothrace, and from their union sprang Alexander the Great. In 331 B.C. the walls of Alexandria were marked out, and within a comparatively short time the spirit of Athens reincarnated in the Egyptian city. The first Ptolemy, like Alexander, had been a pupil of Aristotle, and started out with the aim of making Alexandria a second Athens. The Museum, founded by Ptolemy Soter, became the world’s most famous University, and the library contained all that was best in Grecian, Roman, Jewish, Persian, Babylonian, Phoenician and Hindu literature. There were found the works of Hesiod and Homer, of Pythagoras and Plato, of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, as well as the large library which had once belonged to Aristotle. Ptolemy maintained a vast army of scholars in the Museum, who spent their time studying and translating the ancient texts. In addition, the Museum supported numerous lecturers who drew students from every part of the world. This brought about a new phase of philosophical thought, in which an attempt was made to unite the philosophies of the East and the West by showing their similarities and thus proving their common origin.
The larger Mystery Schools were by this time gradually declining, being replaced by smaller gnostic groups, each of which concentrated upon some special phase of the gnosis, or ancient wisdom. In Ephesus there was a great gnostic College, where Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and the Chaldean system were taught side by side with the Platonic philosophy. In Aegea another gnostic school devoted itself to the doctrines of Pythagoras. Egypt was full of these gnostic schools, many of which were affiliated with Judaism. The Egyptian Mysteries were being perpetuated by the Essenes in their “greater” and “lesser” Mysteries. There was also a Pythagorean branch of the Essenes, known as the Koinobi, as well as the Gymnosophists. In Alexandria a Pythagorean group called the Therapeutae spent their lives in contemplation upon the higher problems of philosophy. In addition to these various Jewish-Pythagorean groups, there were also many individual Jews who tried to show the close relationship between the Hebrew and Greek teachings. Aristobulus pointed to the similarity between the ethics of Aristotle and the Laws of Moses. Philo Judaeus sought to reconcile the Pentateuch with the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy. The translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint brought the Hebrew Scriptures within the reach of Greek scholars.
It was in some of these gnostic schools—all of which were remnants of the Mysteries—that Jesus received his knowledge. By establishing connection with the Koinobi, the Pythagorean branch of the Essenes, he was initiated into the secrets of the Egyptian Mysteries. All of the sayings attributed to Jesus are in the Pythagorean spirit, when not verbatim repetitions. An interesting corroboration of this statement will be found in Isis Unveiled II, 338. After his years of study in Egypt, Jesus returned to Judea, where he was initiated into the Chaldean Mysteries by the Nazars, or Magi, who built the ancient city of Nazara (afterward Nazareth) where they held their secret rites of initiation. The stories of Jesus’ birth, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection are all allegories belonging to the Mysteries. Even his title of Chrestos, or Christos, comes from the same source. In the days of Homer the city of Chrisa was mentioned as celebrated for its Mysteries, and the word chrestos was used to describe a disciple on probation. The same word is frequently found in the works of Plato, Demosthenes, Euripides, Aeschylus and Herodotus, clearly showing that it is not of Christian origin. In the Mysteries, when a chrestos had successfully passed through his probationary period, he was anointed with oil and given the title of Christos, the “anointed” or “purified.” Two Initiates followed after Jesus, each in his own way trying to perpetuate the Mystery Teachings. The first was Paul, who was partially, if not completely initiated. This is shown by his language, his peculiar phraseology, and the use of certain expressions known only in the Mysteries. His hair, shorn because he had taken a vow, shows that he was initiated into the Chaldean Mysteries, where the neophyte was obliged to sacrifice his locks on the altar. His calling himself a “Master Builder” indicates that he was also initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the epoptae were known by that title. If the first five verses of the twelfth Chapter of Second Corinthians are read carefully, they will be found to contain a cautious description of Paul’s initiation into the Mysteries.
The other great Initiate of the first century A.D. was Apollonius of Tyana, who studied first with the Pythagorean group at Aegea, then with the Persian Magi, and finally with the great Sages of Kashmir. Upon his return to Europe, he revitalized the great occult centers by lecturing on the Island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born, by speaking in the garden where Plato had taught, and by giving instruction in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi and in the Temple of Serapis of Alexandria. By thus keeping alive the Wisdom-Religion in the western world Apollonius prepared the way for Ammonius Saccas and the Neoplatonic Movement.