Sie sind auf Seite 1von 20

PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

Author(s): J. V. Luce
Source: Hermathena, No. 96 (July 1962), pp. 73-91
Published by: Trinity College Dublin
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23039533
Accessed: 20-08-2019 04:46 UTC

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at
https://about.jstor.org/terms

Trinity College Dublin is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to
Hermathena

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
t 73 ]

PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE1

The object of this paper is to try to chart the cours


Plato's spiritual pilgrimage, and to attempt to infer f
his writings something of the inner nature of the experie
which produced his religious outlook.
For this purpose we need a definition of person
religion as distinct from religion in its theologica
institutional aspects. William James in The Varieties
Religious Experience satisfies this need when he def
religion as : ' The feelings, acts and experiences of
vidual men in their solitude, so far as they appreh
themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may con
the divine.' (my italics).
The last clause of the definition is especially import
for my investigation. Philosophy for Plato was a que
for the permanent, and to the Greek mind ' permane
and ' divine ' tended to be synonymous. Plato beli
that through philosophy he could make contact w
supernatural or divine order of Being. So, when serio
philosophising, he was entering into a relationship w
what he considered divine, and therefore, in accordance
with James's definition, having a religious experience.
We need not, and should not, discriminate too sharply
between Plato's philosophical and religious experiences.
His experience was a concrete whole with two main aspects:
a logical intellectual aspect, which we may label ' meta
physical and an intuitive, emotional aspect, which we
may call ' religious '. I intend to stress the emotional
rather than the intellectual aspect, but would emphasise
that the experience forms a totality. Plato's religion is
simply his metaphysics at a higher temperature. His own
name for the totality is ' philosophy which was for him
1 The paper was delivered substantially in its present form as the Moore
Greek Lecture for 1961 at Trinity College, Hartford, U.S.A.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
74 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

a way of life characterised by a passionate devo


unseen order of things, an amor intellectualis
I have sought the evidence for my reconstru
those passages of the dialogues which are marked by
exceptional emotional fervour. My assumption is that we
there detect a reflection of Plato's own inner life and
experience. I assume also the genuineness of the Jth
Letter. This important document contains for me a precious
fragment of Platonic autobiography.
I am not attempting to give a systematic account of
Plato's religious beliefs—an immense and controversial
subject. For my purpose it is sufficient to postulate that
Plato did believe in what St. Paul calls ' the invisible things
of God', and that he was convinced of the immortal
destiny of the soul. My aim is rather to investigate the
growth of these beliefs in his mind and to trace the steps
by which they developed into intense and dominating
convictions.
In considering the formative years of Plato's life as he
grew from boyhood into early manhood, we may note
three influences which developed his capacity for religious
experience.
Firstly, there was family worship in his home. Wilamo
wit? drew attention to this factor in his great biography,
and I agree that it was important3. It seems that the
religious rituals of his own household made a profound
impression on Plato's boyish mind, and that he never forgot
those early lessons in piety. At the close of his life he
wrote : ' There is a spectacle which gives intense delight
to the eye and ear of children, as it is enacted at a sacrifice,
the spectacle of our parents addressing their gods, with
assured belief in their existence, in earnest prayer and
supplication for themselves and their children.'4 There is
clearly an autobiographical note in this passage.

2 In the [Platonic] Definitions the first of three definitions of <pi\otro<pla.


is : tt)s tGov ivrtav ael iirnrritfiTis cpe£is.
3 Platon, I, 40.
4 Laws 887d.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 75

Secondly, the poetry of Homer : Homer has


called the Greek Bible, and Plato knew this Bible, and
respected it enough to think it worth revising and refining.
In censorious mood he may propose to expurgate some
passages as morally or theologically objectionable, but at
other times Homeric quotations come readily to his lips
to illustrate his deepest convictions. Now in Homer the
gods form the ever present background to human life.
One of the highest commendations that can be given to a
man is to call him godlike or god-fearing. Pindar,
Aeschylus, and Sophocles all developed their attitude to
the gods from Homeric foundations. Though Plato some
times writes ironically about the traditional gods of myth
ology, I have little doubt that his mind was early and
deeply imbued with the essential reverence of the Homeric
tradition and spirit.
The third formative influence to be considered is the
personality and example of Socrates, that ai>r)p Saifiovios.
Socrates, already elderly before Plato was out of his teens,
must always have appeared to him a man of Homeric
dimensions with a truly heroic quality of soul. Like
Achilles, Socrates exemplified the simple but noble heroic
ideal : to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds. It
is surely significant that in the Apology, Socrates, as a
prelude to his defiant : ' I shall never stop philosophising ',
expounds at some length the psychology of Achilles's
attitude to death and honour.5
Just as the Homeric hero prayed and offered sacrifice,
and conversed face to face with the gods, so Socrates is
constantly depicted by Plato as religiously and devoutly
disposed towards the higher powers, and as possessed of a
privileged access to the will of heaven through his " divine
sign We are told that he was especially associated with
Apollo. From Apollo's oracle he derived his mission to the
Athenian people, and his gift of prophecy.
5 Apology 28b-d. In Crito 44 b he is summoned to his ' long home ' in
words originally addressed to Achilles.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
76 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

Apollo of Delphi was a great moral and re


authority, and had his i^yrjrai, or resident int
in many Greek cities. People with specific relig
lems used to consult these interpreters, the standard
formula being : ' What ought I to do about such and such
a matter ? '6 I wish to suggest that Plato regarded
Socrates as a sort of honorary Delphic The
great question which Plato puts repeatedly in his ethical
dialogues is : ' How ought a man to live ? ' This could
be regarded as a generalised form of the formula for con
sulting an i^rjyijTtis. It was a question that many besides
Plato must have put to Socrates. And in the answer that
Plato reports there is a clear indication that Socrates
echoed the Delphic commandment ' Know thyself '. If
Socrates was merely an argumentative sophist he would
never have been put to death. It is their prophets, not
their philosophers, that communities execute.
With the inspiring example of Socrate's faith and
heroism to follow, Plato was hardly likely to lapse into
cynicism or scepticism. Yet these influences surrounded
him on every side. His mother's cousin Critias was frankly
atheistic. His companion Cratylus was probably not
greatly distinguished for piety. Many a young Athenian,
in the vein of his brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon in
the Republic, must have been questioning the truth of the
old stories about the gods and doubting the value of
conventional piety.
It was natural that Plato should feel the tug of such
doubts and questionings ; and, in fact, he does voice some
criticisms of religious myth and ritual in the early dialogue
Euthyphro. He also satirises the pretensions of Euthyphro,
who, as a pavris, claims special expertise in religious
matters. Euthyphro has sometimes been taken as a repre
sentative of the ' orthodoxy ' which was responsible for
the death of Socrates. But, as Burnet has shown in his
edition of the dialogue. Euthyphro is a crank and sectary.

6 See, e.g., Plato, Euthphr. 4 c.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 77

He also expresses a high regard for Socrates's c


criticising him Plato is criticising the sophist
those who claimed a special revelation but were really
ignorant of the nature of spiritual values. He is also
exposing the superficial nature of Euthyphro's conception
of religion as a sort of mechanical technique for winning
the favour of the gods by prayer and sacrifice. In effect,
the dialogue contrasts the humility of Socrates with the
Phariseeism of Euthyphro. But the intellectual goal of the
dialogue—to establish a definition of piety—is not reached,
and the work ends inconclusively.
When we turn to the great dialogues of Plato's middle
period we find that a sense of certainty has replaced the
tentative questionings of his earlier work. There is still
much close-knit argumentation, but there is also an ' added
dimension of emotion', that ' joyous exaltation which
normally accompanies a new discovery or illumination
Dialectic has now become the handmaid of a dogmatic
system which Plato outlines in the imagery of Sun and
Cave, and in the great myths.
If dialectic destroys our cherished assumptions we must
not sit down in a forlorn scepticism. We must look for
new assumptions which will be more consonant with
reality. And if we persevere in this search Plato assures
us that our progress will culminate in the illumination of
infallible knowledge. What we see with the eye of reason
will become for us a fixed conviction, an irrefutable first
principle, an article of faith which will mould and colour
all our thinking about conduct in this life and the fate of
our soul in the next. In language reminiscent of a Pauline
epistle Plato at the close of the Phaedo myth exorts us to
strive diligently for virtue because ' our hope is great and
the prize is noble.'8
7 I owe these phrases to E. R. Dodd's edition of the Bacchae. They
were used by James Adam to characterise the play in his Religious Teachers
of Greece, 316 f.
8 Dialectic and first principle : Rep. 511b and 533 c, d. Pauline ex
hortation : Phd. 114c

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
78 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

What has happened to turn neophyte into


Whence this note of enthusiasm and assurance
that the clue to the transformation is to be found in the
nature of the experiences which came to Plato at about
his 40th year when he made his first journey to the opulent
western Greek world of South Italy and Sicily. As a
result of this journey, I believe, Plato experienced what
can best be described as a conversion, and since this
experience is crucial in his religious life we must examine
it in detail.
What is conversion? William James again supplies us
with a useful working definition of conversion as ' the
process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided,
and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes
unified and consciously right superior and happy, in conse
quence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.'9
This definition implies three main stages in the process
of conversion : (i) a divided and unhappy self ; (ii) a
spiritual illumination ; (iii) a harmonious integrated per
sonality. We must therefore look to see whether there is
evidence of a time in Plato's life when his self was divided,
and when he felt that perplexity and frustration which
appear to be the necessary antecedents of conversion. And
we find this evidence most obviously in the yth Letter. Plato
there writes most feelingly of the conflict of motives and
emotions which vexed his early manhood : on the one hand
the eager idealistic impulses spurring him on to take an
active part in the political life of Athens, and on the other
hand the disappointment and disgust with which he viewed
the excesses of the tyrant Critias and his associates. Nor
was the restored democracy more palatable to him, for
the trial and execution of Socrates took place under that
regime.10
He tells us of his bemused state of mind as he reviewed
these events, his hesitations, and his pessimistic assessment
of political life and institutions which in his view were ' sick
9 The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture IX.
10 Ep. vii 324b-325c.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 79

past recovery He kept hoping for a favoura


tunity to enter politics, but the opportunity n
and we may picture him living somewhat aiml
year to year as he passed out of his twenties into h
brooding on the vanished glories of Periclean Athens,
sharing in the post-war neurosis of a defeated city—a sad
frustrated, and disharmonious personality.11
Now, for contrast, examine the portrait of the true
philosopher which is given in the 6th book of the Republic.12
Here is a man whose consuming passion for truth has
integrated his personality. The stream of his desires has
been concentrated into a single channel and the springs of
self-indulgence have dried up. Disdaining the paltry
concerns of workaday human life he takes a long and splen
did look at all Time and all Being, and displays a nature
which is gentle, well-balanced, and full of charm and
grace. In contemplating the immortal and invisible realm
of Ideas he attains the highest felicity.
It is reasonable to suppose that this account of the
power and effect of philosophy is based on personal
experience. If so, it follows that between the divided self
of that troubled post-war decade, and the self-confident
author of the Republic lies a crucial experience of conversion
through philosophy.
A number of questions arise in regard to this postulated
conversion.

(i) Is there any direct evidence for it in Plato's writings ?


I suggest that we have such evidence in the well-known
passage of the Phaedrus in which Plato describes the
psycho-pathology of Eros. This suggestion may gain in
plausibility when certain passages of the Phaedrus are
compared with a detailed account of a modern conversion
given by a Mr. Stephen H. Bradley who lived in Connecticut
in the opening years of the 19th century.13
11 Ep. vii 325e-326a.
12 Rep. 485a-487a. , ,
13 A Sketch of the life of Stephen H. Bradl
. cit, Lecture IX,

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
80 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

Mr. Bradley relates how on two successive eve


went to hear an eloquent Methodist preacher. Th
described the day of the last judgment in such
and terrifying manner that it made him ' trem
bench where he was sitting.' That evening afte
to rest, he had the following experience : ' I beg
my heart beat very quick all on a sudden ...
feel exceedingly happy and humble, and such a
unworthiness as I never felt before . . . meanwhile there
was a stream (resembling air in feeling) came into my
mouth and heart in a more sensible manner than that of
drinking anything ... It took complete possession of my
soul . . . My heart seemed as if it would burst, but the
stream did not stop until I felt as if I were unutterably
full of the love and grace of God.
' While thus exercised a thought arose in my mind, What
can it mean ? And all at once, as if to answer it, my memory
became exceedingly clear, and it appeared to me just as if
the New Testament were placed open before me, eighth
chapter of Romans, and a light as if some candle was held
for me to read the 26th and 27th verses of that chapter,
and I read these words : ' The Spirit helpeth our infirmities
with groanings which cannot be uttered.' And all the time
my heart was a-beating it made me groan like a person in
distress, and my brother being in bed in another room
came and opened the door, and asked me if I had got the
toothache. I told him No, and that he might get to sleep.'
I pass on in Mr. Bradley's account to his experiences
on waking the next morning. ' I then got up to dress
myself and found to my surprise that I could but just
stand. It appeared to me as if it was a little heaven upon
earth. My soul felt as completely raised above the fears
of death as of going to sleep : and, like a bird in a cage, I
had a desire ... to get released from my body and to dwell
with Christ, though willing to live to do good to others and
to warn sinners to repent.'
This narrative shows many remarkable coincidences in
detail with Socrates's account of Eros in the Phaedrus, and

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 81

these are the more significant because Mr. Bradl


unlettered man, and, I am sure, had never read a
Mr. Bradley's preliminary symptom was a fit of
tary trembling as he listened to the preacher's de
of the last judgment. Plato says of a man newly
experiencing the power of Eros : ' Intense shuddering
passes over him and something of those former terrors
returns to his soul.' Then, as he looks at the face whose
beauty has triggered off this reaction, ' he reveres it as a
god, and did he not fear to be thought completely demented,
he would make sacrifices to his darling as to the statue of
a god.'14
These latter words express the same complex blend of
happiness, humility, and sense of unworthiness felt by Mr.
Bradley, and express it in religious imagery.
For a parallel to the stream which flowed into Mr.
Bradley's mouth and heart, consider the following : ' The
soul receives the effluences of beauty which flow in a stream
towards it, and is watered and warmed thereby and finds
relief from pain and rejoices.'15
The sudden clearing of Mr. Bradley's memory, and the
vision of the verses of scripture recall the emphasis which
Plato places on recollection and memory as essential
disciplines for the soul seeking to recover its lost wings.16
And finally, there are two remarkable coincidences in
subsidiary details. Mr. Bradley's brother asked him if he
had toothache. Plato compares the organic malaise of
emotional disturbance to the pain and distress of cutting
a tooth.17
And again, Mr. Bradley, when he awoke in the morning,
records that ' like a bird in a cage I had a desire to get
release from my body.' Similarly, Plato writes of the soul
' looking up like a bird, and despising the things below.'18
Plato in the Phaedrus is admittedly not writing auto
biographically. He is composing a carefully articulated
panegyric on Eros. But the detailed agreements with Mr.
14 Phdr. 251a. 16 Phdr. 251c. 16 Phdr. 249c.
« Phdr. 251c. « Phdr. 249e.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
82 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

Bradley's untutored narrative incline me stron


opinion that Plato has worked into the textu
discourse much that stems from his own emoti
iences—experiences to which we can hardly r
epithet religious, and which I would class as pa
conversion process.
Here, then, is the answer to my first questi
direct evidence for the striking emotional experien
normally accompany the crisis of conversion can b
in the Phaedrus.

(2) Was Plato's conversion sudden or gradual ? This


antithesis is not as sharp as it appears at first sight. St.
Paul's conversion is the classic case of a sudden conversion.
Having set out to persecute the Christians in Damascus
he arrived in the city a convert. But it is clear that he
had been kicking against the pricks of conscience for some
time previously. In a sense, no conversion is sudden
because the processes of thought and emotion which lead
up to conversion must be given time to mature. So-called
' sudden ' conversions are those in which long pent-up
forces, inward or even subconscious, suddenly burst out
and come into public view.
On the other hand, so-called ' gradual' conversions come
to a head and reach a climax, just as a toiling climber
eventually breasts the last ridge and sees the chequered
counties spread out before his astonished gaze.
In my view, Plato's conversion did not come with the
suddenness of an eruption or tidal wave. It was much
more analogous to the mountain climbing process. I con
ceive of it as starting when Socrates first laid his hand on the
shoulder of the chained prisoner, and directed his attention
towards a new set of values, but then continuing in a long
uphill climb towards the light of truth. It was a process
of constant struggle towards an ideal adequate for the
conduct of his life. To this extent it was gradual.
But I believe that the long uphill march was greatly
accelerated by the first visit to Italy and Sicily. There he

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 83

received much new information about Pythagore


matics and religious belief, and there he unde
number of exciting emotional experiences. These two
factors, intellectual stimulus and emotional stimulus, have
often been recognised as operative in bringing conversion
processes to a head.
The intellectual stimulus doubtless came chiefly from
his meetings with Archytas of Tarentum, a great statesman
and a great scientist, who was a living embodiment of the
ideal of philosopher king.
The emotional experiences were complex ; partly a
feeling of disgust and revulsion from the extreme self
indulgence of the western Greek way of life, partly a glow of
warm attachment and loving friendship with the young
Syracusian nobleman Dion.19 In the yth Letter he designates
his meeting with Dion as the ' beginning of everything '. 20
Dion sat at his feet and drank in his ethical teaching more
avidly than anyone Plato had ever met. As a result of
his meeting with Plato he completely changed his whole
way of life.
Did Plato then realise, fully and finally, that the mantle
of Socrates had fallen on his shoulders, and that he had
the power to kindle the flame of philosophy in men's hearts?
Was this the decisive call to intellectual apostleship ? Was
it then that he finally renounced all hope of a political
career, and dedicated himself to the higher statesmanship
of education ?
I suspect that such was the case. I suspect that his
divided ambitions were now unified in a new sense of pur
pose and mission. I suggest that the processes of history
were now transfigured before his gaze by the illumination
of the Idea of the Good. This, I believe, was the climax
of his conversion.

19 In one of the epigrams attributed to Plato, which some critics accept


as genuine occurs the line : " 0 Dion, you who fired my heart with passion
ate love."
20 Ep. viii 326e-327a.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
84 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

(3) Was Plato's conversion a religious experi


the outset of this paper I in effect sidestepped the
by refusing to draw a sharp distinction betwee
philosophy and his religion. Here I will conten
with reinforcing this point of view by two quotat
the Republic.
In reference to the corruptions which so often i
philosophic temperament Plato states with solemn
' Be assured that ... if a philosopher's nature is saved,
and develops as it should, you will be correct in attributing
its salvation to divine providence.'21 And again he writes
in effect : ' Only the man who becomes a slave to philos
ophy can win the perfect freedom of the sage.'22 This
latter statement is couched in the paradoxical language
typical of religious utterance. Together with the realis
ation of divine grace expressed in the first quotation it
leaves no doubt in my mind that for Plato conversion
through philosophy was a genuine religious experience.
With the insight and vision brought by conversion he
now saw the traditional beliefs and rituals of Greek religion
in a new light. Old forms took on new life and significance
in his mind. He saw that immortality was not just
survival after death but could begin here and now for the
soul which realised its true nature through philosophy. He
saw that purification must be moral not physical, inward
not external. He realised that the mysteries of philosophy
were open only to the fervent in spirit. Then, with the
missionary zeal of the recent convert he returned to Athens
determined to propagate the gospel of salvation through
rationality.

(4) What were the fruits of Plato's conversion ? The


answer lies simply in the foundation of the Academy with
all the immense labour of teaching and writing that this
was to involve. Formally speaking, the Academy was a
religious association. It was dedicated to the production
of those same insights which had brought Plato from the
21 Rep. 492e. 22 Rep. 494d, with 486a-b.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 85

foothills of frustration to the heights of inspired kn


As head of the Academy Plato wrote those great
masterpieces which constitute a prospectus and m
for his new brand of culture. In these dialogues
living heart of Platonism. In them the chop log
elenchus is at a discount, and the daemonic element of
enthusiasm is constantly bursting through into the style
like Alcibiades into the Banquet. Here, in the accounts of
initiation into the philosophic life, we find that vital warmth
and happy sense of purpose which derive from the great
experiences through which Plato had recently come.
Were these experiences also mystical experiences ? Was
Plato a mystic ? This question has often been asked, and
can, I think, be answered, provided certain distinctions are
kept in mind.
If by a ' mystic ' you mean merely a person unusually
susceptible to the inner message of poetry or music, a person
who is constantly striving to pierce through the veil of
illusion, a person who, like Wordsworth, is abnormally
conscious of a ' something far more deeply interfused
then Plato was indeed a mystic. But in this sense there
will be few of my readers who have not had their mystic
moments ; few who have not suddenly seen a richer
meaning in a familiar phrase, or felt an uncanny sense of
having been here before, or in a moment of insight, glimpsed
one of the deeper secrets of the universe. In these senses
we are all mystics. But then the term loses its cutting edge
and is little use for characterising the religious experiences
of Plato.

But if by ' mystic ' you mean a person who regularly


practices certain techniques of meditation and concen
tration in order to withdraw his mind from the sensible
world and achieve a special relationship with his god, then
the question of Plato as a mystic is not so easy to answer.
There are a number of elements in Platonism which
appear to be characteristic of what we may call professional
mysticism. These have been effectively listed by Paul

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
86 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

Friedlander in his Plato23. The pilgrimage of th


begins when he renounces the flesh, severs the bon
sensual world, and reorients his soul towards God. His
way is marked by anguish of spirit, and he attains his goal
suddenly and often unexpectedly. And if he attempts to
express what he has experienced he is prone to indulge
freely in the sort of paradoxes which we associate with
Indian philosophy or negative theology.
Platonism exhibits all these features more or less clearly
and decidedly. But, despite the similarities, Friedlander
concludes, and I agree, that Plato was not after all a mystic.
He was inhibited from being one by his intellectually
disciplined approach to Reality, and by his refusal to allow
his soul to be merged and obliterated in a colourless sea
of Being. In short, he was a Greek, and not a Buddhist,
or even a neo-Platonist. ' To become God ' is the self
expressed longing of Plotinus. Plato's object is to be loved
of God, and to grow in the image of God, but he is too form
conscious to permit his soul to be dissolved into form
lessness.
In confirmation of this conclusion I may mention two
practical points. First, the soul of the genuine mystic is
lonely and aloof. But for Plato search for the Truth is a
communal undertaking to be shared with kindred spirits.
Secondly, the so called ' trance ' of Socrates described
in the Symposium cannot have been a genuine mystic trance
for these as recorded have always been of comparatively
short duration, rarely exceeding one hour. But Socrates
stood motionless from one sunrise to the next. Socrates
was lost in thought, not lost in God. Similarly I conceive
that Plato's mountain-top vision was seen with the eye of
the fully conscious mind.
Plato was not, then, a mystic, but the structure of the
experience which he outlines in Phaedo, Symposium and
Phaedrus, and describes as an initiation into the mysteries
of philosophy, has much in common with the mysticism
of Christianity and other religions.
23 Vol. I, tr. Meyerhoff, 74-76.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 87

He emphasises Eros as the force which draws the s


of itself and makes it aspire towards the divine world
Eros is a species of madness, bestowed on men by t
of God, and leading ultimately to the greatest ha
But before the soul aspiring in love can achieve the b
vision of the Ideas Plato teaches that it must endure
extreme trouble and anguish.
I believe that Plato in this teaching is drawing on
personal experience, that he himself had known great fear
and tribulation of soul as he wrestled, like Jacob, through
the dark night of ignorance to a closer and clearer appre
hension of reality.24
In the Phaedrus the description of the growth of the
wings of the philosopher's soul is as intense and direct as
an ode of Sappho. He shudders, he sweats, he feels the
stab and throb of passionate longing. His passion is
incurable and inconsolable unless he can contemplate the
object of his desire. The language here is that of physical
passion, but it is used to characterise the mental anguish
of the philosopher as he strives to recall the ' vision splendid'
and recapture that Beauty ' late sought and long desired '.
The clinical elaboration of the description is relieved,
and as it were sanctified, by repeated use of religious
imagery. And this imagery culminates in a figure drawn
from that most venerated of all Greek cults, the sacred
mysteries of Eleusis. When from the contemplation of
human beauty the philosopher is rapt away in thought to
the Beauty which is Truth, Plato describes him as becoming
an initiate in the most felicitous of all mysteries, and being
confronted in a blaze of light with a shining pageant of
splendid Forms.25
With the passage of time, the inspiration faded some
what, but not the sense of assurance. If Plato grew sadder
in his old age, he also became more conformist in his
religious outlook. He tended to set increasing store by the
traditional elements in Greek belief and cult.
24 Cf. 7rpbs bv . . . auiWacrdai. Rep. 490a.
25 Phdr. 250b-c.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
88 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

In this respect he would seem to have followed


what the same path as Tolstoy. Like Plato, Tolsto
example of the long and gradual integration of a
personality. Tolstoy tells us how he pursued his
ings from year to year, and seemed to come to on
after another. But, paradoxically, these insights w
further removed from common experience bu
brought him closer to the common faith by which m
has always lived—the conception of an infinite Go
immortality of the soul, and of the connection of
affairs with God. Tolstoy writes : ' I began to und
that in the answers which faith gave there was p
the profoundest wisdom of humanity.'26 In simi
Plato writes at the end of his long life : ' One mus
believe the ancient and sacred traditions which reveal that
the soul is immortal and has judges and pays the greatest
penalties whenever it is parted from the body.'27
Like Tolstoy also, Plato would seem to have been a prey
to occasional fits of melancholy and disillusionment. In
many dialogues there are statements to the effect that the
body is a prison, that appearances are illusory, that life is
unreal, that men are mere shadows and puppets. This
sort of melancholy sometimes results in loss of faith and in
reckless abandonment to the pleasures of the moment.
But with Plato it took a religious course. He turned his
back on the illusion which was art, the deception which was
politics, the self-indulgence which was a prison. He
renounced the sophists and all their works, And he won
through his depressions to the deeper and more complex
happiness of the twice-born. The psychology of his melan
choly is most obvious in the Gorgias where he takes such
a sour view of the glories of Athenian statesmanship and
such a puritanical attitude to pleasure. And the religious
bias is clear in his approving quotation of the celebrated
question of Euripides : ' Who knows if life be death and
death life ? '28

26 My Confession, tr. L. Wiener, ch. IX.


27 Ep. vii. 335a. 28 Gorg. 492e.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO*S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 89

Life was not all dark for him. As head of the Acade
he won great kudos, and doubtless a satisfying measur
inner contentment. But the iron had entered into his soul
in his youth, and with advancing years, he tended to take
a more and more pessimistic view of human nature. He
was one of those Wordsworthian souls who had ' felt the
weight of too much liberty
To point this judgment I summarise a characteristic
and significant passage from the Laws. ' The affairs of
mankind he writes, ' are not worth serious consideration,
but yet one is compelled to be serious about them ; this
is an unhappy situation.'29
This is a sincere and poignant expression of the malaise
which was always lurking in the recesses of Plato's heart.
It seems to me to provide a clue to the understanding of
those puzzling inconsistencies in so many of his thoughts
and actions. Here is the face of tragedy beneath the mask
of irony.
' We must ', he goes on, ' be intensely serious about
God—as for man he is just a mechanical toy constructed by
God for his amusement, and we can best fulfil our purpose
in life by dancing elegantly when God pulls the strings.'30
The Spartan Megillus remonstrates with him: 'Athenian
friend', he says, ' you are thoroughly disparaging our
human race.' Plato replies : ' Don't be amazed at me,
Megillus, but rather pardon me. When I spoke just now I
was lost in contemplation of God. Well, then let our race
be not worthless, but worthy of serious attention, if you
would have it so.'31
We can detect in this passage some of the elements
which Gilbert Murray, in his Five Stages of Greek Religion,
finds characteristic of Hellenistic as opposed to classical
Greek thought: pessimism, failure of self-confidence, loss of
hope in this life, loss of faith in normal human effort, in
difference to the welfare of the state, a conversion of the
soul to God.

29 Laws 803b. 30 Laws 803c. 31 Laws 804b.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
90 PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

But, on the whole, this is the minor key in P


philosophical music. Generally speaking, brisk
brighter notes dominate his work. He does not d
the -polls. He is not indifferent to the welfa
citizens. He retains his faith in reason, in the ef
patient enquiry to reach truth, and at least in t
bility of bringing men to the light.
It is the work of philosophy to convert the s
bring it to a knowledge of the ultimate source of
and all reality32. That is the essence of his cree
heart of his practice. Only philosophy can free
from the bonds of passion and the leaden weights o
and awaken it to a realisation of its glorious du
destiny to become as far as possible like God. P
was wrong, God, not man, is the measure of all
The philosopher must work out his salvation alo
road, and as he does so he may be enabled, thro
cation, to ' make man in God's image '34.
The close affinity between Plato's religious an
sophical points of view is especially apparent in the
which represents the culmination of his thought
universe. There we find a strange blend of piety and
mathematics which was probably typical also of early
Pythagoreanism. The ' prelude ' of Timaeus's exposition
is imbued with the spirit of devotion as he piously invokes
gods and goddesses to further his designs35. This approach
is comparable to the spirit in which Renaissance astron
omers worked and wrote.
We have been taught by Kant to make a sharp division
between the practical reason and the theoretical reason,
and we study the moral law in complete isolation from the
starry heavens. To appreciate Plato we must realise that
for him, as for the psalmist, the heavens declare the glory
of God, and the firmament showeth His handywork.
Plato's God is both a mathematician and a craftsman, and

32 This theme is thoroughly explored in R. E. Cashman's Therapeia :


Plato's Conception of Philosophy. 33 Laws 716c.
34 Rep. 501ar-b. 36 Tim. 27c.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
PLATO'S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 91

the natural order a work of divine artistry.


for Addison, the heavenly bodies rejoiced in
and the spirit, freed from the muddy vestur
could listen to the music of the spheres.
One of the most impressive passages in the
is where Plato directs our gaze to the ' pattern
as the prototype of the well-ordered soul36
here he means the visible heaven with stars a
revolving with ordered motions in harmonio
ships. This is the glorious sight that makes Satan
in despair. In Plato's view, moral evil is subdu
the Church militant, but by the philosopher c
Plato, unlike Socrates, was not called to die fo
Appropriately he died at his desk, pen in han
writings live on. He was a man who strenu
vated virtue, a virtue grounded on the bed
finest Greek traditions, and illuminated by the l
eternal Sun of souls.

J. V. Luce

36 Rep. 592b.

This content downloaded from 34.192.2.131 on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 04:46:44 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms