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.