35. The Youth of Plato and The Death of Socrates

Since we have attempted to make the greatest of the initiates of Greece live again in Pythagoras, and through him to examine the primordial and universal basis of religious and philosophic truth, it would be possible to omit mentioning Plato, who simply gave the truth a more imaginative and popular form. However, for this very reason we shall pause before the noble figure of the Athenian philosopher.

There is a basic doctrine and synthesis of religions and philosophies. It is developed and deepened in the course of ages, but the foundation and heart remain the same. We have presented its main aspects, and is this not sufficient? No. It still remains for us to show the providential reason for its diverse forms, according to races and times. It is necessary to re-establish the chain of the Great Initiates, who were the real initiators of mankind. The strength of each of them will then be multiplied by that of all the others, and the unity of truth will appear in the very diversity of its expression.

Like everything living, Greece had her aurora, her noon-time and her sunset. This follows the law of days, men, peoples, earths, heavens. Orpheus is the initiate of the dawn; Pythagoras, that of noontime; Plato, that of the sunset of Hellas, a sunset of glowing red, which in turn becomes the pink of a new dawn, the aurora of mankind. Plato follows Pythagoras, as in the Mysteries of Eleusis the torchbearer followed the hierophant. With him once again we shall enter by a new road, through the avenues of the sanctuary to the very heart of the temple, to the contemplation of the great arcanum.

Before traveling to Eleusis, however, let us listen to our guide, to the divine Plato. Let him cause us to see his native skies; let him tell us the story of his soul and lead us to his beloved master.

He was born in Athens, the city of the Beautiful and of humanity. Attica, exposed to all winds, sails like a ship in the Aegean Sea, and like a queen rules the islands, those white sirens lying on the deep blue of the waves. He grew up at the foot of the Acropolis under the eye of Pallas Athena, on that wide plain bordered by purple mountains and enveloped with a luminous blue, between the Pentelicus with its marble sides, the Hymette, crowned with scented pines where bees hum, and the quiet Bay of Eleusis.

Somewhat somber and troubled was the political horizon during Plato's childhood and youth. He passed his childhood during the dreadful Peloponnesian War, that fratricidal battle between Sparta and Athens which paved the way for the dissolution of Greece. The great days of the Medic wars had passed; the time of Marathon and Salamis had gone. The year of Plato's birth, 429 B.C., is that of the death of Pericles, the greatest statesman of Greece, as honest as Aristides, as clever as Themistocles, the most perfect representative of Hellenic civilization, the tamer of that turbulent democracy, the burning patriot who knew how to preserve the calm of a demi-god in the midst of general revolts. Plato's mother doubtless told her son about a scene she must have witnessed two years after the birth of the future philosopher. The Spartans had invaded Attica; Athens, its national existence already threatened, had fought through an entire winter, and Pericles was the soul of its defense. In that dark year an impressive ceremony took place in the Ceramicus. The coffins of warriors who had died for the country were placed on funeral chariots and the people were called together before the monumental tomb which was destined to unite them. This mausoleum seemed a magnificent and sinister symbol of the grave Greece was digging for herself by her criminal fighting. It was then that Pericles uttered the most beautiful speech that has been preserved from antiquity. Thucydides transcribed it on tablets of brass, and this address shines there like a shield on the pediment of a temple. "The tomb of heroes is the whole universe, not columns covered with insipid inscriptions." -- Does not the consciousness of Greece and her immortality breathe in this saying?

But with Pericles dead, what remained of the Greece who had lived in her men of action? Inside Athens were the discords of a demagoguery at bay; outside, the Lacedaemonian invasion ever at the gates, war on land and sea and the king of Persia's gold circulating like a corrupting poison in the hands of tribunes and magistrates. Alcibiades had replaced Pericles in the public favor. From a deceitful youth of Athens, this individual had become the man of the hour. Adventurer, politician, intrigant, charmer, he led his country to its ruin while he laughed. Plato had observed him well, for later he gave an excellent psychological study of this personality. He compares the mad lust for power which filled Alcibiades' soul with a great winged hornet "around whom the passions, crowned with flowers, perfumed with essences, intoxicated with wine and all the free pleasures which follow, come to buzz, goading him, elevating him and finally arming him with the fire of personal ambition. Then this tyrant of the soul, raging in madness, acts. If in himself he discovers thoughts and honest sentiments which can still evoke shame, he pursues and kills them. As a result he purges the soul of all temperance, filling it with the fury he has created."

The sky over Athens therefore was rather dark during Plato's youth. When he was twenty-five he took part in the capture of Athens by the Spartans, following the disastrous naval battle of Aigos Potamos. Then he saw the entrance of Lysander into his native city, which meant the end of Athenian independence. He saw the great walls, constructed by Themistocles, demolished to the sound of festive music and the triumphant enemy literally dance upon the ruins of the country. Then came the Thirty Tyrants and their proscriptions.

These spectacles saddened Plato's youthful soul, but they could not trouble it, for that soul was as gentle, as limpid, as open as the canopy of heaven above the Acropolis. Plato was a tall young man with broad shoulders; he was serious, meditative, almost always silent. However, when he opened his mouth an exquisite sensitivity, a charming gentleness streamed with his words. In him was nothing striking or excessive. His many capabilities were disguised, blended into the higher harmony of his being. A winged grace, a natural modesty hid the serious side of his mind; an almost feminine tenderness veiled the firmness of his character. In him, virtue was clothed with a smile and pleasure with an innocent purity. However, the dominant, extraordinary, unique characteristic of this soul was that in being born, it seemed to have made a mysterious pact with Eternity. Indeed, only the eternal seemed to live in the depths of his great eyes; other things pass away quickly like vain appearances in a deep mirror. Behind the visible, changing, imperfect forms of the world and its beings, the invisible, perfect, eternally radiant forms of these same beings, seen by the mind, and which are their everlasting achetypes, appeared to him. This is why the young Plato, without having formulated his doctrine, not even knowing that one day he would be a philosopher, was already aware of the divine reality of the Ideal and of its omnipresence. This is why upon seeing the processions of women, the funeral chariots, the armies, the festivals and mourning, his gaze seemed to see something else, and to say, "Why are they weeping? Why are they shouting with joy? They think they exist, yet they do not exist. Why can I not attach myself to what is born and to what dies? Why can I love only the Invisible which never is born, never dies, but remains forever?"

Love and harmony are the core of Plato's soul, but what harmony and what love? -- The love of that everlasting Beauty and Harmony which embrace the universe. The greater and deeper the soul, the longer the time required for it to know itself.

Plato's first enthusiasm was expressed in the arts. He was of fair and noble birth; his father claimed descent from King Codrus, his mother from Solon. His youth was that of a rich Athenian surrounded by the luxuries and seductions of an era of decadence. He enjoyed these without excess but without prudishness, living the life of his peers, enjoying a fine inheritance, surrounded and entertained by his many friends. So well has he described the passion of love in all its phases in his Phedre that it is impossible that he did not experience its transports and cruel disillusions. A single line, as passionate as a line from Sappho, as bright as a starry night on the sea of the Cyclades, has come down to us: "Would I were the heaven, thus to be all eyes, so that I might look at you!"

In his search for supreme Beauty through all the modes and forms of beauty, he studied painting, music and poetry. The latter clearly seemed to meet all his needs. It ended by determining his desires. Plato had a marvelous facility for all styles of poetry. With equal intensity he enjoyed amorous and dithyrambic poetry, the epic, the tragedy and even comedy with its finest Attic wit. What then did he lack in order to become another Sophocles, thus to rescue the theatre of Athens from its near decadence? This ambition tempted him; his friends were engaged in it. At twenty-seven he had composed several tragedies and was about to present one in a contest.

It was at this time that Plato met Socrates, who used to converse with young men in the gardens of the Academy. He spoke about the Just and the Unjust, about the Beautiful, the Good and the True. The poet listened to the philosopher, returning the next day and the following days. At the end of a few weeks, a complete revolution had taken place within him. The happy young man, the poet filled with illusions, no longer recognized himself. The course of his thoughts, the goal of his life had changed. Another Plato had been born in him at the word of the one who called himself "an accoucheur of souls." What had taken place? By what sorcery had this reasoner with the face of a satyr torn the handsome, genial Plato from luxury, pleasure and poetry in order to convert him to the great renunciation that is wisdom?

A very simple man, but a great oddity was this good Socrates. Son of a sculptor, he had carved the three Graces during his adolescence. Then he threw down the chisel, saying that he would rather carve his own soul than blocks of marble. From that moment he dedicated his life to the search for wisdom. He was seen in the gymnasia, on the public square, at the theater, chatting with young men, artists, philosophers and asking each of them to prove what he had affirmed.

For several years the Sophists had fought among themselves in the city of Athens like a cloud of grasshoppers. The Sophist is the counterfeit and living negation of the philosopher, as the demagogue is the counterfeit of the statesman, the hypocrite the counterfeit of the priest, the black magician the infernal counterfeit of the true initiate. The Greek type of Sophist is more subtle, more reasoning, more corrosive than the others, but the type itself is to be found in all decadent civilizations. The Sophists increased as fatally as the worms in a decomposing corpse. Whether they are called atheists, nihilists or pessimists, the Sophists of all centuries resemble one another. They forever deny God and the soul, that is, the supreme Truth and Life. Those of Socrates' time, like Gorgias, Prodicus and Protagoras, said that there is no difference between truth and falsehood. They were confident that they could prove any idea whatsoever, and also its opposite, stating that there is no justice other than force, no truth except the individual's opinion. With this, satisfied with themselves, setting high fees for their lessons, they incited young men to debauchery, intrigue and tyranny.

Socrates approached the Sophists with his insinuating gentleness, his subtle good nature, like an ignorant man who wishes to be taught. His eye shone with fire and benevolence: Then, from, question to question, he forced them to say the opposite of what they had first claimed and to confess candidly that they did not even know what they were talking about. Socrates then showed that the Sophists, who pretended to possess universal knowledge, knew neither the cause nor the principle of anything. Having thus reduced them to silence, he did not glory in his victory, but, smiling, thanked his adversaries for having taught him by their answers, adding that to know that one knows nothing is the beginning of real wisdom.

What did Socrates himself believe and teach? He did not deny the gods; he rendered them the same worship as did his fellow citizens, but he said that their nature was impenetrable and confessed that he understood nothing of the physics or metaphysics which were taught in the Schools. The important thing, he said, is to believe in the Just and True and apply it in one's life. His discussions carried great weight for he himself furnished the example, since he was an irreproachable citizen, an intrepid soldier, honest judge, faithful and impartial friend, the absolute master of all his passions.

Thus the tactics of moral education change according to time and place. In the circle of his initiate disciples, Pythagoras derived morality from the heights of cosmogony. In Athens, on the public square, among men like Cleon and the Gorgias, Socrates spoke of the innate sense of the Just and True in order to rebuild the world and the weakened social state. And both Pythagoras and Socrates, the one in the descending order of principles, the other in the ascending order, affirmed the same truth. Pythagoras represents the principles and method of the highest initiation; Socrates announces the age of open science. In order not to forsake his role as a public exponent, Socrates refused to have himself initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis; on the other hand, he understood and believed in the total and supreme Truth which the great Mysteries taught. When he spoke of them, the expression of the good, spirited Socrates changed like an inspired faun, possessed by a god. His eyes lighted up, color passed over his face and from his lips fell one of those simple, luminous statements which reveal the very foundations of things.

Why was Plato so irresistibly charmed and captivated by this man? In seeing him, Plato understood the superiority of the Good over the Beautiful. For the Beautiful accomplishes the True only in the mirage of art, while the Good is brought about in the depths of souls. Rare and powerful is this charm, for the senses have no share in it. The sight of a truly just man made the shimmering splendors of visible art fade in Plato's soul, finally to disappear in presence of a diviner dream.

This man showed him the inferiority of that beauty and glory he had believed in until then, when compared with the beauty and glory of the active soul, which forever attracts other souls to the same Truth. On the other hand, the pomp of art merely succeeds in reflecting for an instant a deceptive truth, under a disguise. This shining, eternal Beauty, "the splendor of the True," killed the changing, deceptive beauty in Plato's soul. Thus, abandoning and forgetting all he had loved previously, Plato gave himself to Socrates in the flower of his youth, with all the poetry of his soul. This great victory of Truth over Beauty had incalculable consequences for the history of the human spirit.

Meanwhile, Plato's friends were waiting for him to make his debut in poetry on the tragic stage. He invited them to his house for a great celebration, and all were astonished that he wanted to give this festival at that time, for it was customary to give it only after having won the prize, and when the winning tragedy had been played. But none refused an invitation to the home of a son of a rich nobleman, where the Muses and Graces met in the company of Eros. For a long time his house had been a rendezvous for the elegant youth of Athens.

Plato spent a fortune on the banquet. The table was set in the garden. Young men with torches lighted the way for the guests. The three most beautiful hetaerae of Athens attended. The banquet continued all night. Hymns to Love and Bacchus were sung. The flute players danced their most voluptuous dances. At last, Plato himself was asked to recite one of his dithyrambics. Smiling, he arose and said, "This banquet is the last I shall give. Beginning today I renounce the pleasures of life in order to dedicate myself to wisdom, and to follow the teachings of Socrates. Know then: I even renounce poetry, for I have recognized its inability to express the Truth I seek. No longer will I write verses, and in your presence I am about to burn all those I have composed."

A loud cry of amazement and protest arose from the table, around which the guests, wearing crowns of roses, were lying upon sumptuous couches. These faces, red with wine, gaiety and light table talk, expressed surprise and indignation. Among the gentlemen and Sophists were laughs of incredulity and scorn. They considered Plato's project folly and sacrilege; they challenged him to take back what he had said. But Plato confirmed his decision with a calmness and assurance which would tolerate no turning back. He concluded by saying, "I thank all those who have wished to take part in this farewell celebration, but I shall keep near me only those who wish to share my new life. From now on Socrates' friends will be my only friends."

His words passed like a cold breath over a field of flowers. To happy faces they suddenly brought the sad, troubled look of people in a funeral procession. The courtesans arose and had themselves carried away on their litters, casting hateful glances at the master of the house. The Sophists disappeared with ironic and sportive words: "Farewell, Plato! Be happy! You will come back to us. Farewell! Farewell!" Two serious young men remained with him. He took these faithful friends by the hand, and leaving the half-empty jugs of wine, the roses, the lyres and flutes overturned, the full cups, Plato led them into the inner court of the house. There they saw piled up on a small altar a pyramid of papyrus scrolls. These were Plato's poetic works. Taking a torch, the smiling poet set fire to the pile, saying, "Vulcan, come here! Plato needs you!"

When the flames finally had flickered out, the friends with tears in their eyes silently said farewell to their future teacher. But Plato, remaining alone, did not weep. A peace, a wonderful serenity filled his whole being. He thought of Socrates whom he was going to see. The light of dawn touched the terraces of the houses, the columns and pediments of the temples; soon the first ray of the sun made Minerva's helmet glisten on the top of the Acropolis. . . .


36. Initiation of Plato

The Great Initiates