36. The Initiation of Plato and the Birth of Platonic Philosophy

Three years after Plato had become Socrates' pupil, the latter was condemned to death by the Areopagus, and died, surrounded by his disciples, after drinking the hemlock.

Few historical events have been as frequently described as this. However, few happenings have occurred whose causes and significance are so little understood. Today it is believed that the Areopagus was right to condemn Socrates as an enemy of the state religion because in denying the gods, he was attacking the foundation of the Athenian republic. We shall show that this assertion contains two major errors. Let us first recall what Victor Cousin wrote at the beginning of The Apology of Socrates in his beautiful translation of Plato's works: "Anytus, it must be said, was a commendable citizen; the Areopagus, an equitable and temperate tribunal; and, if anything is to be wondered at, it is that Socrates was not accused long before, and that he was not condemned by a larger majority." The philosopher, a Minister of Public Education, did not see that if he was right they should have condemned both philosophy and religion in order to glorify only the politics of lying, violence and absolutism. For if philosophy inevitably destroys the foundations of the social state, it is merely a pompous folly, and if religion can exist only by suppressing the search for truth, it is but a sinister tyranny. Let us try to be fairer to Greek religion and to Greek philosophy.

There is a vital and significant fact which has escaped the attention of most modern historians and philosophers. Persecutions in Greece, which were very rarely aimed toward philosophers, never originated in the temples, but always arose among those engaged in politics. Greek civilization did not know that struggle between priests and philosophers which has played such a great role in our civilization since the destruction of Christian esoterism in the second century of our era. Without interference Thales could teach that the world comes from water, Heraclitus, that it comes from fire; Anaxagoras could say that the sun is a mass of incandescent fire; Democritus could claim that all comes from atoms. No temple was disturbed, for in their sanctuaries all this was known, and more besides. It was also realized that the so-called philosophers who denied the gods could not eradicate them from the national consciousness, and that true philosophers believed in them in the manner of initiates, seeing in them the symbols of the great ranks of the spiritual Hierarchies, of the Divine that penetrates nature, of the Invisible that governs the visible. Esoteric doctrine therefore served as the link between true philosophy and true religion. This is the deep, primordial and final fact which explains their hidden significance in Hellenic civilization.

Who, therefore, accused Socrates? The priests of Eleusis, who had cursed the authors of the Peloponnesian War, shaking the dust from their robes toward the Occident, uttered no word against him. As for the temple of Delphi, it gave him the most beautiful tribute that can be paid to any man. Pythia, asked what Apollo thought of Socrates, answered, "There is no man more free, more just, more intelligent." The two indictments leveled against Socrates: of corrupting youth and of not believing in the gods, were therefore, only pretexts. With regard to the second accusation, Socrates victoriously answered his judges, "I believe in my personal spirit. Therefore I have all the more reason to believe in the gods, who are the spirits of the universe!" Then why this implacable hatred against the sage? He had fought injustice, unmasked hypocrisy, shown the falseness of so many vain pretentions. Men pardon all the vices and all the atheisms, but they do not pardon those who expose them. This is why the real atheists who were sitting in the Areopagus caused the death of the just and innocent, by accusing him of the crime they themselves had committed. In his admirable defense, recorded by Plato, Socrates himself explains this with perfect simplicity, "These are my fruitless searches for wise men among the Athenians who have aroused so much dangerous hostility against me. Hence all the calumnies spread on my account. Intriguers, active and numerous, speaking about me according to a concerted plan and with a very appealing eloquence, for a long time have filled your ears with the most perfidious rumors, ceaselessly pursuing their system of calumny. Today they have won from me Melitus, Anytus and Lycon. Melitus represents the poets; Anytus, the politicians and artists; Lycon, the orators." A tragic poet without talent, a wicked, fanatical man of wealth, a brazen-faced demagogue succeeded in having the best of men condemned to death. But that death made him immortal. Proudly he could say to his judges, "I believe more firmly in the gods than do any of my accusers. It is time for us to leave each other, I to die, and you to live. Which of us has the better part? No one knows but God."

Far from attacking true religion and its national symbols, Socrates had done everything possible to strengthen them. He would have been the greatest support of his country, if his country had known how to understand him. Like Jesus, he died forgiving his executioners, and became the model of martyred sages for all mankind. For Socrates represents the definitive appearing of individual initiation and open science.

The serene picture of Socrates dying for truth, spending his last hour discussing the immortality of the soul with his pupils, imprinted this most beautiful of spectacles and holiest of Mysteries upon Plato's heart. This was his first, his great initiation. Later he was to study physics, metaphysics and many other sciences, but always he remained Socrates' pupil. He willed us his living image by putting into the mouth of his teacher the treasures of his own thought. This flower of modesty makes him the ideal of the disciple, his fire of ecstasy makes him the poet of philosophers. Regardless of the fact that we know he did not establish his school until he was fifty, and that he lived to be eighty, we can imagine him only as young. For eternal youth is the inheritance of souls who unite divine honesty with depth of thought.

Plato had received from Socrates the great impetus, the active male principle of his life, his faith in justice and truth. He owed the science and substance of his ideas to his initiation into the Mysteries. His genius consists in the new form -- at once poetic and dialectic -- which he knew how to give them. He did not take this initiation from Eleusis only. He sought it in all the accessible sources of the ancient world. After Socrates' death, Plato began to travel. He studied with several philosophers of Asia Minor. From there he went to Egypt to establish a relationship with its priests, going through the initiation of Isis. Unlike Pythagoras, he did not reach the higher stage where one becomes an adept, where one acquires the effective, direct view of divine Truth and supernatural powers. He stopped at the third stage, which confers perfect intellectual clarity and dominion of intelligence over soul and body. Then he went to southern Italy to talk with the Pythagoreans, knowing full well that Pythagoras had been the greatest of Greek sages. He purchased one of the master's manuscripts at a high price. Thus having dipped into the esoteric tradition of Pythagoras at its very source, he borrowed the main ideas and framework of his system from that philosopher.

Returning to Athens, Plato established his school which has become famous under the name of the Academy. In order to continue Socrates' work, it was necessary to propagate truth. But Plato could not teach the things publicly which the Pythagoreans covered with a threefold veil. The vows, prudence and his goal itself prevented him from doing so. It is really esoteric doctrine which we find in his Dialogues, but disguised, altered, charged with a rational dialectic like something foreign, concealed in legend, myth, parable. The esoteric teaching is no longer presented in Plato with the impressive totality Pythagoras gave it, and which we have tried to reconstruct, an edifice established on a firm foundation -- all parts of which are strongly cemented, but in analytic fragments. Plato, like Socrates, bases himself on the ground of the young men of Athens, on the worldly attitude of the rhetoricians and Sophists. He fights them with their own weapons. But his genius is always present; at every point he breaks the network of their dialectic to rise like an eagle in a bold flight into the sublime truths which are his home, his native atmosphere. These dialogues have an incisive, singular charm; in addition to the ecstasy of Delphi and Eleusis, here one enjoys marvelous clarity, Attic wit, the malice of the good-natured Socrates, the fine, winged irony of the sage.

Nothing is easier than to discover the different points of esoteric doctrine in Plato and at the same time to observe where he found them. The doctrine of the archetypes of things, expounded in Phedre is a corollary of Pythagoras' doctrine of Sacred Numbers. The Timeus gives a very confusing explanation of esoteric cosmogony. As for the doctrine of the soul, its migrations and its evolutions, this is to be found in all the works of Plato, but nowhere is it more clearly expressed than in the Banquet, in Phaedo, and in The Legend of Er, placed at the end of that dialogue. We see Psyche beneath a veil, but how beautiful and appealing she is in her exquisite form and divine grace!
We have seen that the key to the cosmos, the secret of its constitution, is found in the principle of the three worlds reflected by the microcosm and macrocosm in the human and divine ternary. Pythagoras masterfully formulated and summed up this doctrine in the symbol of the sacred Tetrad. This doctrine of the eternally living Word constituted the great arcanum, the source of magic, the shining temple of the initiate, his invincible citadel far above the ocean of things. Plato neither could nor wished to reveal this mystery in his public teaching. In the first place the oath of the Mysteries kept him silent. In addition, all would not have understood; the common man would have unworthily profaned this theogonic mystery, which embraces the generation of the worlds. In order to fight the corruption of custom and the unleashing of political passions, something different was necessary. The door to the Beyond was about to close, and with it the great initiation, the door to which opens fully only to the great prophets, to the very rare, true initiates.

Plato replaced the doctrine of the three worlds with three concepts which, in the absence of organized initiation, remained for two thousand years as three roads leading to the supreme goal. These three concepts refer equally to the human world and the divine world; they have the advantage of uniting them, although in a somewhat abstract manner. Here Plato's creative genius is seen. He threw great light upon the world by placing the ideas of the True, the Beautiful and the Good on the same level. Clarifying them one by one, he proved that they are three rays from the same Source which, when united constitute this Source Itself, that is, God.

In seeking the Good, that is, the just, the soul becomes purified; it prepares itself to know truth. This is the first, indispensable condition of the soul's development. By following and enlarging the idea of the Beautiful, it attains the intellectual Beautiful, that intelligible light, that mother of things, that animator of forms, that substance and instrument of God. By plunging itself into the World-Soul, the human soul feels an expansiveness. By pursuing the idea of the True, it attains pure Essence, the principles contained in pure Spirit. It recognizes its immortality by the identity of its principle with the divine Principle. Thus perfection is attained; this is the Epiphany of the soul.

By opening these broad paths to the human spirit, Plato defined and created, outside the narrow systems of particular religions the category of the Ideal, which was to replace organic initiation for centuries down to our own day. He marked out the three paths which lead to God like the sacred way from Athens to Eleusis by way of the Gate of Ceramicus. Having entered the temple with Hermes, Orpheus and Pythagoras, we are well able to judge the solidity and rightness of the broad roads built by Plato, the divine engineer. Knowledge of initiation gives the justification and reason for the being of Idealism.

Idealism is a bold affirmation of the divine truths by the soul, which in its solitude questions itself and judges celestial realities by its own intimate faculties and its inner voices. Initiation is the penetration of these same truths by the experience of the soul, by direct vision of the spirit, by inner awakening. At the highest stage it is the communication of the soul with the divine world.

The Ideal is an ethic, a poetry, a philosophy; Initiation is an action, a vision and a sublime presence of truth. The Ideal is the dream and the longing for the divine homeland; Initiation, the temple of the elect, is the clear remembering and even the possessing of it.

In creating the category of the Ideal, the initiate Plato created a refuge and opened the way of salvation to millions of souls who cannot attain direct initiation in this life, but painfully strive for truth. Thus Plato made philosophy the foyer to a future sanctuary by inviting into it all men of good will. The idealism of his many pagan or Christian sons appears like the preliminary as it were, to the great initiation.

This explains the immense popularity and radiant power of Platonic ideas. This power lies in their esoteric basis. This is why the Academy of Athens, founded by Plato, lasted for centuries and extended into the great Alexandrian School. This is why the first Church Fathers paid homage to Plato; this is why St. Augustine took two-thirds of his theology from him.

Two thousand years had passed since Socrates' disciple had breathed his last sigh in the shadow of the Acropolis. Christianity, the barbaric invasions, the Middle Ages, had passed over the world. But antiquity was born again out of its own ashes. In Florence the Medici wished to establish an Academy, and invited a Greek scientist, exiled from Constantinople, to organize it. What name did Marsilio Ficino give it? He called it The Platonic Academy. Today, after so many philosophical systems, built one upon another, have crumbled into dust, today, when science has searched for the ultimate transformations of matter, finding itself before the unexplained and invisible, still today, Plato comes to us. Forever simple and modest, but shining with eternal youth, he holds out the sacred branch of the Mysteries to us, the branch of myrtle and cypress, with the narcissus, the flower of the soul, promising a divine renaissance in a new Eleusis.


37. The Mysteries of Eleusis

The Great Initiates