The Gnosis according to Plato

By W. T. S. Thackara 

The words gnosis and Gnosticism have come into our thinking these days largely because of the discoveries of a Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, and of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 -- texts which are casting a searching light on gnostic elements in early Christianity and the Judaism of that era. However, while Gnosticism is related to our subject, our interest here is in the gnosis as a Greek term for "knowledge" and the Way of Truth outlined by Plato in his dialogues and letters.

Plato did not invent his philosophy, nor did he write merely as the disciple of Socrates; rather, his works are imbued with the concepts and characteristics of a universally-diffused wisdom-tradition, a primordial gnosis, to which all major religions have given expression. Alive with the timeless spirit of the perennial philosophy [see "The Perennial Philosophy," SUNRISE, April/May 1984]. Plato's message reads as modernly today as it has to every previous generation which had access to his writings. But, we may ask ourselves, just what is the gnosis and why is it central to Plato's philosophy?

In every gnostic system, gnosis is virtually synonymous with spiritual enlightenment. Gnosis, however, is not ordinary knowledge, but connotes direct experience of divine reality. As such, it is esoteric or secret to the worldly man because he does not possess "the eyes to see or the ears to hear," his intuitive faculties are not yet awakened. Nevertheless, this knowledge is accessible to all who earn their way into its sacred precincts. The gnosis is also soteric, that is, "saving" or healing in the sense of bestowing wholeness: it carries the power to transform and reintegrate one's life. Faith alone cannot save; one must also know and practice the alchemy of redemption.

Knowledge of divinity, of the origin, present condition, and destiny of man, and of the discipline which prepares one for the reception of the gnosis are important themes in Plato's philosophy. As in other gnostic systems, ascent to the divine realm is a major goal, too: we should strive towards a "likeness to Divinity" (Theaetetus, 176b), for in this way we discover the reality behind outer appearances. However, whereas many gnostics have preached transcendence as the ultimate achievement, Plato clearly emphasizes that gnosis is not an end in itself. Rather, it should be put in service for the common welfare, for creating a just and beneficent polity on earth. Divine wisdom is meant to glorify the whole of cosmos, not just a part (Timaeus, 29e-31a).

Plato has left a rich legacy of around thirty dialogues and just over a dozen letters which beckon us to the philosophic life, yet he wrote nothing about the inner reaches of the gnosis, and explains why:

This knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself. -- Seventh Letter, 341 c

He adds that "no sensible man will venture to express his deepest thoughts in words, especially in a form which is unchangeable, as is true of written outlines" (343a) -- an allusion to the dangers of misinterpretation and misapplication should such empowering knowledge fall into the wrong hands. Similar thoughts are expressed elsewhere in his writings and, when taken together with what is known about Plato's "unwritten doctrines," they reflect the esotericism of one initiated into the Mysteries. As such, he would have been obligated never to reveal publicly the teachings of the Sanctuary. In his time the Mysteries had become a State-sanctioned institution and betrayal meant death or banishment. Therefore, much of what was written had to be veiled. This may explain, in part, why Plato, just as he is about to clinch an argument or say something definite about deeper matters, often turns to allegory or myth -- which is universally the language of the Mysteries.

Yet there are other, equally important reasons for Plato's reticence. One of them is the danger of dogmatism. Orthodoxy, in the modern sense, is foreign to him. Consequently, he rarely if ever defines a concept with precision. We are never told exactly what justice is, or virtue, or the good, and so forth. Invariably the definitions are left incomplete, open-ended; deliberately so, in order to give our minds room to grow. Plato wants us to think for ourselves, to use intuition as well as intellect. The dialogues are not meant to be a revelation, but a vehicle for understanding the grand purposes of man and cosmos. The revelation is to come from within.

Moreover, the dialogues may be interpreted allegorically as well as literally; several levels of meaning run concurrently through the narratives. This is especially true of Plato's many references to the State, which may also be seen as a symbol of man -- man being a republic within himself composed of many citizens. He reiterates the homology between the individual, the state, and the cosmos, similar to the Hermetic principle of analogy: "As above, so below."

Let us now venture into Plato's world, Athens around 400 B.C., where we meet Socrates, Plato's friend and early mentor, who is made to be our guide through most of the dialogues. In the Apology, we find Socrates on trial for his life, charged with impiety, introducing new gods, and corrupting the youth of Athens. These accusations, he believes, were trumped up by a few unhappy men who were offended by his way of searching into himself and others -- the philosopher's mission he calls it. Socrates is sorry that his enemies think so meanly of him; he has no ill-will, nor could he have acted in any other way. Yes, he was at times like a persistent gadfly, ordained to stir up the slow and tardy beast of State; but

while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, . . . persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. -- 29d, 30a
And if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. -- 38a

The unexamined life is not worth living: Socrates would have us understand his immortal declaration in light of the Delphic commandment: Gnothi Seauton. The word gnothi comes from the same root as gnosis, and the phrase simply means:

"Know Thyself " For Socrates, and for Plato, this is the prescription for life and happiness -- and the starting point of philosophy.

Plato's writings group naturally into early, middle, and late periods of composition. Following the initiatic pattern of the Mysteries, they were probably intended to be read in that approximate order. The early dialogues are a preparation for philosophy, concentrating on ethics, virtue, and issues concerning life and immortality. The first major step to wisdom is a catharsis: a purging from our minds of the rubbish of false ideas by cultivating a discerning moral outlook. The middle dialogues, especially the Republic, outline the discipline of the philosopher, revealing the way -- at least a way -- into the inner precincts of truth. They also provide keys to understanding the later, more technical dialogues, which cloak arcane teachings from the Mysteries.

Plato intimates that the path to truth is not only a way of knowledge; it is equally a way of love and a way of death.

It is probable that people in general do not realize that all who betake themselves to philosophy in the right way are engaged in one thing only, namely training themselves for dying and being dead. -- Phaedo, 64a

The philosophic life leads to the death of ignorance and selfishness, and we may see in this cryptic sentence an allusion to spiritual rebirth. Although Plato occasionally gives hints about the divine communion, nowhere does he tell us the precise nature of this experience. That would be contrary to his purpose. He is rather the Socratic midwife, who would help us to give birth to our own understanding, just as Socrates helped the slave boy in the Meno recollect or "remember" knowledge residing in the immortal part of his soul.

The way of love is also a recurring theme, and is summarized with transcendent imagery in the Symposium. Here the prophetess Diotima instructs Socrates in the mysteries of Eros (Love).

"What is Love?" asks Socrates, "Is he mortal?"

"No," replies Diotima,

he is neither mortal nor immortal; . . . He is a great spirit, and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal, he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, For God [theos] mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse and converse of god with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom . . . is mean and vulgar. 202d

"Wisdom," Diotima continues, "is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the Beautiful" (204a). Therefore a man who would give birth to divine wisdom should begin in youth to visit beautiful ideas, and, if properly guided by his mentor, he will come to see that the beauty of one idea is akin to the beauty of all other beautiful ideas, and that beauty of the soul is more honorable than physical beauty. In progressive stages of awakening, the philosopher will proceed from the beauty of individual things to that of laws and institutions, and on to that of sciences, with each step enlarging his horizon of understanding. Then,

drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong. And at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science which is the science of beauty everywhere. -- 210d

And just what is the nature of this "single science," the revelation of which enables the truth-seeker "to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities . . . and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal"? (2I2a)

For this we should turn to the way of knowledge as described in the Republic. The dialogue opens with a light-hearted conversation between Socrates and the elderly Cephalus, who speaks of the blessings of wealth. Riches, he explains, have brought him peace of mind and hope because the have enabled him to pay his debts and live without deceit:

When a man thinks himself to be near death, fears and cares enter into his mind which he never had before; the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there of deeds done here were once a laughing matter to him, but now he is tormented with the thought that they may be true: either from the weakness of age, or because he is now drawing nearer to that other place, he has a clearer view of these things; . . . But to him who is conscious of no sin, sweet hope, as Pindar charmingly says, is the kind nurse of his age. "Hope cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness, hope, which is mightiest to sway the restless soul of man." How admirable are his words! 330e

"Well said, Cephalus," replies Socrates, "but as concerning justice, what is it? -- to speak the truth and to pay your debts -- no more than this?"

Although Cephalus concurs with Socrates that the definition is inadequate, he retires from the scene, possibly not wanting his simple faith disturbed. The younger men, however, wish to press on with the inquiry. Socrates readily obliges and eventually proposes that they examine whether the just or the unjust have "a better and a happier life . . . for no light matter is at stake, nothing less than the rule of human life" (352e).

Defining the quality of justice in a man proves elusive, and Socrates accordingly suggests that they might discern it more easily in a larger being, i.e., in a political state. As the dialogue progresses, they come to agree that an ideally just state depends upon enlightened leadership as well as harmonious cooperation among its citizens. But in order to rule justly, those selected to govern must know what justice actually is. Socrates informs us that such knowledge is achieved through a special education. The king must be a lover of wisdom, that is, a philosopher, and his training will include making his nature akin to justice. Then only is a true gnosis possible. Socrates explains:

Justice and other virtues can be known only in the light of "something greater than themselves." Like physical objects which may be seen by the light of the sun, the greatest object of study is the Idea of the Good -- from which everything that is good and right receives its value. In describing how the philosopher comes to know the Good, and therefore to know justice, Socrates employs the figure of a divided vertical line to illustrate the stages of the soul's ascent from ignorance to knowledge. The lower half of the line represents our physical cosmos, the world of Becoming; because its objects are ever-changing, one's perceptions of it are in a sense illusory. As the philosopher's mind matures, nurtured by wisdom and other virtues, he is made aware of a higher order of knowing, and begins to discern a universe of eternal Being, represented by the upper half of the line. As he rises to this stage of gnosis, the philosopher first beholds "images of truths," derived from intellection, i.e., reasoning from hypotheses, as in mathematics. Lastly and uppermost, there is noesis, intuition, the direct perception of truth by the nous, the divine faculty of knowing.

Recognizing that his concept of knowledge is difficult to comprehend, Socrates elucidates his theme with the famous parable of the cave. Here, in an underground den, men are bound in chains, perceiving nothing but the shadows cast by the fire which burns behind them. Prevented since childhood from seeing anything else, not even each other, the inhabitants believe the shadows are the sole realities of life. One of them, however, is released, then compelled to stand up, turn round, and walk towards the light coming from the cave's entrance. Although initially distressed by the glare, he soon discovers the shadows are not realities at all, but only the absence of light. After a steep and rugged ascent he emerges into the world outside the cave. The intense sunlight temporarily blinds him, and he must gaze downward. At first he can see only the shadows and reflections of the objects of this upper world. Gradually, though, he is able to raise his eyes upward and look at the objects themselves, then the moon and stars by night, and at length he is able to gaze upon the sun directly -- "and contemplate him as he is." (516b)

Referring back to the previous illustrations, Socrates explains that the prison-house represents life in our world, the light of the fire is the physical sun, and the journey upwards may be interpreted as the ascent of the soul into the noetic realm. Here in this "world of knowledge"

the idea of the Good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the [noetic world]; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed. -- 517b

Socrates then poses the dilemma -- and temptation -- faced by every seeker of the gnosis: Would not the illumined soul prefer to remain in this transcendent world, freed of the trammels of matter and ignorance? Possibly not, for such a man would certainly feel pity for the prisoners below and want to help them. But he might also reason that if he returned to tell his friends what he had seen, they would think he had lost his senses, that it is positively dangerous to make such an ascent. Woe then to anyone who would liberate a fellow prisoner. If they were to catch the offender they would surely put him to death!

On the threshold of eternal bliss, yet moved by compassion, the candidate to divine wisdom faces his greatest trial. And here, at this crucial point in the dialogue, Socrates reminds us about the reverse face of compassion, which is duty (justice). The founders of the State, who have compelled the best minds to attain this knowledge, must also make them return to the cave, there to partake of its labors and honors. For the Lawgiver did not "aim to make any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another" (519e).

There is no injustice, therefore, in requiring the philosopher so educated to have "a care and providence of others." Noblesse oblige -- nobility of soul obligates:

Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. -- 520ab

With these thoughts about obligation and compassion -- so reminiscent of the bodhisattva who sacrifices eternal bliss to work eternally for the illumination of all beings -- we have the central message of Plato: that philosophy is not only the "love of wisdom," it is also the union of love and wisdom, an active and enlightened caring for all.

Dillon, John, The Middle Platonists, 80 B. C. to 220 A.D., Cornell University Press, 1977.
Friedlander, Paul, Plato, trans. by Hans Meyerhoff, Vol. I, Harper and Row, 1958; Vol. 2, Pantheon Books, 1964; Vol. 3, Princeton University Press, 1969.
Hackforth, R., Plato's Phaedo, trans. and comm., Cambridge University Press, 1955.
Jowett, Benjamin, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, 2 vols., Random House, 1937.
Morrow, Glenn R., Plato's Epistles, trans. and comm., Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.
Mylonas, George, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Princeton University Press, 1961.
Robinson, James M., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper & Row, 1978.
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Urwick, E. J., The Message of Plato: a Re-Interpretation of the "Republic," Methuen, 1920.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1986; copyright © 1986 Theosophical University Press)

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