You are here

Lecture 19: Plato (continued)


THE subject which principally occupied our attention in the last lecture was Plato's “probable story” of the creation of the world. To-day we pass from the Macrocosm to the Microcosm—from the Universe to Man. Here again the Timaeus provides the most convenient point of departure; but we must first retrace our steps a little, and briefly examine what is said about the minor or created Gods, to whom is entrusted the task of framing the human body, and also, except in the one essential part of it, the human soul.

We have seen that the Demiurgus or Creator is represented in the Timaeus as the first or highest God, the universal Father, and the World as his divine son, standing second to him in rank and honour. Besides the World itself, Plato recognises several subordinate or “created Gods.” First in order come the Sun, Moon, and Planets, who are jointly the creators of Time. Plato's definition of Time as the “moving image of Eternity” may be illustrated by the lines of Henry Vaughan:

“I saw Eternity the other night.

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright;

And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,

Driven by the spheres,

Like a vast shadow moved; in which the World

And all her train were hurl'd.”1

We may say, perhaps, that Time, in Platonism, has the same relation to Eternity as the particular has to the Idea. The next of the created Gods whom Plato mentions are the fixed stars; and finally, with ironical acquiescence, he admits into his Pantheon the Gods of the poetical cosmologies, Earth and Heaven with all their multitudinous descendants from Oceanus and Tethys downwards.2 In making room for the last of these three classes, Plato has in view the Delphic and Socratic precept to worship God according to the usage of the State;3 but his tone is that of a disbeliever. With regard to the first and second classes, on the other hand, there is little doubt that, in common with the rest of his countrymen, he really looked on the heavenly bodies as “visible gods”; and it is worthy of notice that some of the early Christian Fathers appear to have shared this belief.4

What concerns us chiefly in connection with these minor deities is the office they fulfil in the making of mankind. These are the words in which the Demiurgus appoints their task.

“Three kinds of mortal beings have still to be created” (viz. the animals that dwell on land, in water, and in the air). “Without these the Universe will be incomplete; for it will not have within it all kinds of living creatures, as it must have, if it is to be complete. Howbeit, if these were created by me and received their life from me, they would be made equal to Gods.5 In order, then, that they may be mortal, and that this All may truly be all, do ye according to nature apply yourselves to the creation of living creatures, imitating my power as shown in generating you. Such part of them as is worthy to share the name of the immortals, the part that is called divine and governs in those who are willing always to follow justice and you—of this I will sow the seed and then ye shall take over the work I have begun. For the rest, weaving mortality with immortality, do ye make and beget living creatures, and give them food that they may grow, and receive them back again at death. Having thus spoken, again into the same cup in which he had blended and mingled the soul of the Universe the Creator poured what was left of the elements, mingling them in much the same manner, yet no longer so pure as before, but one or two degrees less pure. And when he bad made the whole compound, he divided it into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star, and placing them in the stars as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the Universe, and told them the laws of Fate—how that their first birth would be ordained the same for all, lest any should suffer wrong at his hands; and how, after being sown into the instruments of time, each into that appropriate to it, they must be born the most God fearing of animals.”6

The main idea which Plato here expresses is that in every human soul there is an element of the divine, proceeding from the supreme God himself. We have repeatedly met with the doctrine of the soul's celestial birth and kinship in Greek literature, more especially among those writers who are influenced by Orphic and Pythagorean views; but in Plato it is not the soul, but only the rational part of the soul, which is in the strictest sense divine. “As concerning the sovereign part of soul within us, that which we say, and say truly, dwells at the top of the body and raises us from earth towards our heavenly kindred, forasmuch as we are a heavenly and not an earthly plant,—φντόν οὐκ ἔγγϵιον, ἀλλ΄ οὐράνιο ν,—we ought to believe that God has given it to each of us as a daemon7—a kind of genius or guardian angel for the direction of our lives. In the Republic, Plato speaks of Reason as the “eye of soul,” akin “to the divine and immortal and ever-existent.”8 The Phaedo is from beginning to end pervaded by the same belief;9 and indeed it is on this conviction, far more than on any positive arguments, that Plato's faith in immortality is based. Not only does he intellectualise this ancient doctrine, by endeavouring to confine the attribute of divinity, strictly understood, to Nous or Reason, but he further implies in more than one passage of the Republic that it is just the presence of this divine element which makes us truly and specifically human.10 He emphatically believed that what is best in us constitutes our true and essential nature; so that to follow sense and sensual things is to be false to ourselves, to lead a life that is not our own: our duty rather is, by leading the life of reason, to enter on our heritage of immortality, so far as may be, even now: ϵ̓φ΄ ὅσον ϵ̓νδϵ̀χϵται, ἀθανατίζϵιν.

But to return to the Timaeus. The story proceeds as follows:

“Having ordained for his creatures all these laws, that so he might be guiltless of the evil there should hereafter be in them, God sowed some in the earth, some in the moon, and some in the other instruments of time. And the sequel to the sowing he committed to the younger Gods, that they should fashion mortal bodies, and having wrought all the remainder of the human soul that had still to be added, and everything in harmony therewith, should rule and guide the mortal creature as well and nobly as they could, except in so far as it brought evil on itself.”11

The duty of the created Gods is thus twofold—to fashion the perishable body and the perishable or mortal species of soul (τὸ τη̑ς ψυχη̑ς θνητὸν γϵ́ος).12 Borrowing from the body of the universe portions of earth, water, air and fire, on the understanding that they should be returned again, they welded them into mortal bodies for the reception of the immortal principle created and handed over to them by the Father. “Imitating the spherical shape of the Universe” (says Plato), “they imprisoned the two divine revolutions in a globe-shaped body, that which we now call the head, the divinest part and lord of all within us.”13 The rest of the body they made the vehicle or chariot (ὄχημα) of the immortal element;14 and at the same time they “built into the body another kind of soul, that which is mortal, having within itself dire and irresistible affections, first, pleasure, evil's most alluring bait; next, pain, averter of good; rashness, moreover, and fear, two foolish counsellors; anger, hard to assuage, and hope, that leads astray; these by irresistible laws, having mingled with reasonless sensations and all-daring love, they framed the mortal soul.” 15 In this inferior soul there is again a higher and a lower part. The higher, situated, according to the Timaeus, in the breast, is what in the Republic Plato calls θυμοϵιδϵ́ς, the source of anger, ambition, and courage. In the nobler type of man this element allies itself with the reason against the third and lowest part of soul, namely, the concupiscent or ϵϵ̓πιθυμητικόν, which is the source of desire, situated in the region below the diaphragm.16 It will be noticed that according to the Timaeus the perishable soul is an accompaniment of life in the body, and does not exist until the circle of incarnation begins; but although Plato calls it mortal, we are not to suppose that it necessarily perishes in each several dissolution: only that it must die before the immortal part of the soul returns to the place from whence it came.17

I have told the story as Plato tells it, without stopping to consider how much dogmatic significance he would have attached to the various details. In view, however, of certain pre-sophistic anthropological speculations, it appears to me more probable than not that he believed there was once a time when human creatures did not yet exist; and if the World-soul should be regarded as an emanation from the divine mind, there is no further difficulty in supposing that each particular immortal soul was conceived by Plato to have afterwards emanated from the same source. But for the correct appreciation of Plato's moral and religious teaching, the question whether his account of the soul's creation should be understood as mythical or otherwise, is of little importance; what really matters is that we should apprehend the nature and meaning of the dualism which affects the soul while present in the body. Ignoring for the moment the intermediate or “spirited” part of soul (τό θυμοϵιδϵ́ς), we have on the one hand reason, linking us to the immortal and divine, and on the other hand, all those irrational passions and desires which Plato attributes sometimes to the concupiscent part, sometimes, as in the Phaedo, directly to the body, and which we share in common with the lower or bestial creation. In this way man, according to Plato, is a compound of mortality and immortality—

“With th' one hand touching heav'n, with th' other earth.”18

From what has now been said, it will be obvious that the chains by which the prisoner in the cave is bound, are intended to symbolise the lower irrational or animal nature in man. In childhood and youth—so Plato implies19—the activity of Reason is checked by the demands of the appetitive element; but as we advance in years, Reason, if reinforced by education, may recover her true place. It has often been pointed out that Plato inverts the relation which Wordsworth and other Platonising poets are fain to establish between childhood and maturity. He does not believe that “Heaven lies about us in our infancy”; still less, when manhood comes, does he make the glory “die away and fade into the light of common day.” On the contrary, in Plato's way of thinking, we ought to be nearer to Heaven in manhood than in youth; for only as we grow older does Reason lift the veil which has descended on the pre-natal vision. But, of course, in many cases the fetters of the soul, instead of being loosened and removed as years advance, are still more firmly riveted by acts of self-indulgence and perverted ambition. We read in the Timaeus that when a man is always burrowing about the objects of ambition and desire, he must needs lose all that can be lost of immortality, forasmuch as he has cherished only the mortal part of his nature.20 In the Republic, Plato compares the lower impulses of humanity to leaden weights, which through gluttony and other sensual indulgences become as it were incorporate with the soul, and turn her vision downward.21 And besides the vicious influences that come from within, there is also the corrupting effect of bad government, bad education, and evil principles enunciated in private and public life, so that it is little wonder if the efforts of Philosophy to bring about the soul's deliverance are only too often frustrated.22

Before proceeding to the next division of our subject, in which we must treat of the way in which the imprisoned soul is released from chains and led upwards to the light, it may be permitted to draw attention to the parallel between Plato and St. Paul in respect of their conception of man. Under the name of πνϵυ̑μα or “spirit,” St. Paul, as is well known, recognised in human nature an element corresponding to the Divine Spirit and fitted to be the sphere of His operations.23 This highest part of us, the ππνϵυ̑μα, “is what it is by virtue of its affinity with God”;24 and so far it corresponds to Nous in Platonism, though, of course, the Platonic Nous is primarily “intellect” rather than “spirit.” St. Paul, however, is not more rigid in his terminology than Plato; and he occasionally designates the higher principle by the Platonic term: for νοννς in St. Paul would seem to be nothing but “the πνϵυ̑μα operative as a faculty of knowledge directed toward Divine things.”25 “I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind” (του̑νοός μου). “I myself with the mind (τῳ̑ μϵ̀ν νοΐ) serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”26 A further analogy reveals itself when we examine St. Paul's conception of the lower side of human nature. Usually it is called by him “the flesh” (σάρξ); in a few passages, where he speaks of the opposition between the “spiritual” and the “natural man”—the πνϵυματικός and the ψυχικός—it appears as ϋνχή, that is, the existence which we share in common with the beast, the merely animal life, with the further implication of carnality and sensualism. In. the Phaedo of Plato, although σω̑μα, and not ψυχή, is the word employed, the opposition between the body and reason is not less striking than the antagonism of flesh and spirit in St. Paul. “The flesh,” says the apostle, “lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh: for these are contrary the one to the other.”27 This sentence might serve as a motto for the ethical part of the Phaedo, if we substituted “mind” for “spirit” and “body” for flesh. In like manner, the Pauline use of ψυχικός, when contrasted with πνϵυματικός cannot but suggest to the student of Greek philosophy, Plato's so-called mortal part of soul, between which, or rather between the lower portion of which, and reason, there is an internecine feud. The different ways in which the two thinkers develop their dualism should not be allowed to blind us to what is after all a real affinity of thought.

We have next to consider the means by which the prisoner's release is accomplished. How are we to “move upward, working out the beast, and let the ape and tiger die.” I will not endeavour to force into a co-ordinated dogmatic theory all that Plato says upon the subject; we shall better apprehend his meaning if we successively examine the most characteristic aspects in which he depicts the soul's ascent into the realm of Being.28 The three discourses with which we have chiefly to deal are the Phaedo, the Symposium, and the Republic.

Throughout the Phaedo, Plato attributes evil to the body, rather than to the lower part of soul, and indeed ψυχή, in that dialogue, is virtually a synonym for νου̑ς, the celestial element in man. In harmony with Orphic and Pythagorean views, the body appears as a prison-house in which the soul is immured.29 Out of this dungeon Philosophy tried to set her free (λλύϵιν ϵ̓πιχϵιρϵι̑), by showing that “what delights the sense is false and weak,” and by exhorting her “to be gathered and concentrated within herself and trust none other, believing only in that which by herself alone she grasps through the power of Reason, even as the object of knowledge is likewise self-existent.” Nothing is to be considered true except what the soul apprehends by herself without the aid of the senses—in other words, only the intelligible and invisible. The aim of Philosophy is thus to lead us from the seen to the unseen, from the temporal to the eternal; and perceiving this, “the soul of him who truly loves Wisdom withholds herself from pleasures and desires and pains and fears as far as she can,” knowing that every new indulgence will add to the chains from which she desires to be released.30 Thus the true philosopher is one who mortifies the body for the sake of the soul; his entire life is indeed a μϵλϵ́τηθανάτου—a study, or rather rehearsal, of death.

Let us see how Plato develops this famous idea, to which there is nothing precisely parallel in Greek literature before his time, although it is closely related to the Orphic doctrine of the body as the sepulchre of the soul.31 “Psychology,” says a recent writer, “has effectually disposed of what Professor James calls ‘the whole classic platonising Sunday-school conception’ of the soul and body as two separate things, of which the body is necessary to the soul only in this world of sense.”32 Be this as it may, Professor James' description applies exactly to the Phaedo, throughout which dialogue the temporary union of a particular soul with a particular body is held to constitute life, while death is the separation of the two elements (λάσις καὶ χωρισμός ψυχη̑ς ἀπό σώματος).33 The word “death” bears this meaning in Plato's definition of Philosophy as a “rehearsal of death.” The lover of Wisdom tries to “separate” as far as possible his soul from communion with the body,34 by holding aloof from corporeal pleasures and from the distracting and delusive representations of the senses: whence it may truly be said that he dies every day he lives. To call the philosophic life a process of κάθαρσις, or “purification,” is only another method of conveying the same lesson; for, according to Plato, the true meaning of this ancient watchword is that we should keep ourselves pure from the contamination of the body, until God shall finally accomplish our deliverance.35

The Platonic meditatio mortis is therefore no mere theoretical dogma, but a practical rule of conduct. Like the apostle Paul, we are to “die daily”—die, that is, to the body with its affections and lusts. But the precept acquires a new significance, when we consider it in the light of the doctrine that the body is the tomb of the soul (σω̑μα ση̑μα). If life in the body is the death of the soul, and the death of the body the life of the soul,36 the μϵλϵ́τη θανάτου of which Plato speaks ceases to be a consuetudo moriendi, and becomes rather a consuetudo vivendi, the practice or habitude of life in the truest meaning of the word, that is to say, spiritual, or as Plato would rather say, noetic life, the life of the immortal and divine part of our nature. Further, according to the σωνμα σηνμα theory, it is obvious that Death may be regarded as the resurrection of the soul. It follows that the meditatio mortis of the true philosopher is in reality a means of spiritual resurrection during life —a beginning of that complete deliverance from the bodily tomb which the soul hopes to attain at death.

Let us turn now to the Pauline Epistles, and see what analogies they furnish to the doctrine of the Phaedo. The apostle sometimes appears to represent the body as virtually a kind of prison. He calls it “the earthly house of our tabernacle” in which “we groan, being burdened” (στϵνάζομϵν βαρούμϵνοι).37

The Platonic μϵλ ϵ́τηθανáτον is also strikingly parallel to many exhortations in St. Paul. “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth”: νϵκρώσατϵ οὐ̑τά μϵ́λη ὑμω̑ν τά ϵ̓πὶ τη̑ς γη̑ς.38 “I buffet my body and bring it into bondage.”39 Fire are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh: for if ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the spirit ye mortify the deeds of the body (τάς πράξϵι ς του̑ σώματος θανατου̑τϵ), ye shall live.”40

It will scarcely be denied that in point of doctrine as well as phraseology, these passages naturally recall to us the teaching of the Phaedo; but among other points of difference, the Pauline conception of Necrosis involves a new and distinctive element, which at once differentiates the religion from the philosophy. The sum and substance of this new element cannot be expressed more clearly or concisely than in the words of Matthew Arnold: “to die with Christ to the law of the flesh, to live with Christ to the law of the mind.” 41 The same writer has remarked that in St. Paul the words “life” and “death” often mean something different from “the ordinary physical life and death. Death, for him, is living after the flesh, obedience to sin; life is mortifying by the spirit the deeds of the flesh, obedience to righteousness. Resurrection, in its essential sense, is therefore for Paul the rising, within the sphere of our visible earthly existence, from death in this sense to life in this sense.” 42 I have pointed out that the Platonic meditatio mortis, when interpreted by the light of the σω̑μα ση̑μα doctrine, contains the germ of this idea of a spiritual resurrection; but Platonism lacks, of course, the motive power of a divine yet human personality in whose life we live by dying unto sin. “Socrates inspired boundless friendship and esteem; but the inspiration of reason and conscience is the one inspiration which comes from him, and which impels us to live righteously as he did. A penetrating enthusiasm of love, sympathy, pity, adoration, reinforcing the inspiration of reason and duty, does not belong to Socrates. With Jesus it is different. On this point it is needless to argue; history has proved.”43

From the Phaedo we now pass to the Symposium. The Symposium describes the prisoner's release positively rather than negatively, laying stress not upon asceticism and self-suppression, but upon the love of Beauty and Goodness as the ladder by which we are to climb from earth to heaven. If the Phaedo represents the quasi-ascetic side of Platonism, the Symposium, more than any other dialogue, more even than the Phaedrus, represents its imaginative and artistic, perhaps we may say, its nuptial side.

We may find a point of union between the Phaedo and the Symposium in the saying that “Philosophy is the highest Music”—φιλοσοφία μϵγίστη μουσική.44 In its wider sense, the word “Music” meant to a Greek intellectual culture, or rather the culture, not merely of the intellect, but of the character also; and it is in this extended signification that Plato here employs the term.

What the sentiment precisely means, we may learn from the Republic, where it is said that “musical education should culminate in the love of the beautiful”: δϵι̑ δϵ́ πουτϵλϵ ;υτα̑ντὰ μουσικὰ ϵἰς τὰ του̑ καλου̑ ϵ̓ρωτικά.45 This is the dominant idea in the Symposium; and it is by gradually rising from stage to stage in the pursuit of Beauty that the Soul at last succeeds in regaining the freedom she forfeited at birth.

Let us consider the doctrine of the Symposium a little more in detail. A succession of speeches is delivered in praise of the God Love. For the kernel of the dialogue, we must look, of course, to the conversation which the Platonic Socrates professes to have had with Diotima; but some of the earlier speeches contain ideas and suggestions that prepare the way for Diotima's rhapsody. By Phaedrus, with whose discourse the dialogue proper begins, Love is represented primarily as the passionate sentiment of devotion awakened by the sight of physical beauty. At the same time, that which he chiefly emphasises is the power of this sentiment to inspire us to deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice: so that Love is idealised from the very first. “The God Love,” says Phaedrus, “is not only the oldest and most honoured of the Gods, but also the most powerful agent in imparting excellence and happiness to human beings both in life and after death.”46 Pausanias, who follows Phaedrus, blames his predecessor for treating of Love as a single undifferentiated notion. He maintains that there are two different Gods called by the name of Eros, the earthly and the heavenly. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the heavenly Eros is that its votaries love beauty of soul more than beauty of body: so that a kind of intellectual union is created for the cultivation of virtue, analogous to the relation which the historical Socrates desired to establish between the teachers and the taught. Up to this point, Love has been regarded as a principle affecting only human nature, but Eryximachus enlarges the connotation of the word; and Love now becomes a universal or cosmic principle, or rather it represents two cosmic principles, the one evil and the other good; for the two kinds of Love are still kept separate. The idea underlying the extravagant and truly Aristophanic speech of Aristophanes is that Love effects a temporary return to the state of bliss in which man lived till overweening ambition brought about his fall. Aristophanes' discourse is a kind of anticipatory burlesque in a grossly materialistic vein of the spiritual conception of Eros which Diotima afterwards unfolds in her dialogue with Socrates. The speech of Agathon is an elegant scholastic exercise after the style of Prodicus, without any philosophical significance; and we may now turn to the speech of Diotima.

The prophetess begins by protesting against the ordinary Greek view, that Eros is a God. Since Love is desire of the beautiful, he cannot, she says, be himself possessed of that Beauty which he desires; and consequently he is not, strictly speaking, divine: for the divine is always beautiful. Nor yet, on the other hand, is Love endowed with a merely mortal nature. The truth is that he stands midway between the mortal and the immortal. He belongs to the category of daemons, angels, as we should say, or spirits, whose function it is to act as messengers between Gods and men, conveying men's prayers and sacrifices to heaven, and bringing back from heaven the commands and recompenses of the Gods, as it were spanning the distance which separates the human from the divine.47 Love may therefore be regarded as a kind of golden chain linking the finite to the infinite.

In like manner, Love is neither altogether wise nor altogether foolish, but occupies an intermediate position between knowledge and ignorance. Were he a God, and not merely a daemon, he would be already wise. As it is, he is φιλόσοφος—a seeker after Wisdom. “For Wisdom” (Plato says) “is a thing most beautiful; and Love is love of the beautiful; so that Love must needs be a philosopher or lover of Wisdom.”48 In this way Plato identifies Love with the philosophic impulse—the Drang nach Wahrheit which he holds to be part of the original endowment of the soul. We may compare one of the many Platonising passages in the Wisdom of Solomon: “Her I loved and sought out from my youth, and I sought to take her for my bride, and I became enamoured of her beauty—ϵ̓ραστ ὴς ϵ̓γϵνόμην του̑ κάλλουςαὐτη̑ς.”49

From another point of view Love (continues Diotima) is the desire of immortality. All men desire to possess the good, and not only so, but to possess it for ever; so that immortality, taking the word in its strict etymological sense of exemption from death, is among the objects to which Love aspires. It is in this instinctive hatred of death and longing for life—this innate yearning of mortality for immortality—that Diotima finds the key to the extraordinary power of Love throughout the whole domain of Nature. Mortal creatures cannot, indeed, become immortal in their own persons; but they can attain to immortality through generation: for the father still lives in his children and children's children. There is, however, another and higher form of immortality—that which comes from the begetting of spiritual children, that is to say, deeds of high emprise and words and thoughts of virtue, such as bring an immortality of fame and influence among contemporaries and posterity. As represented by Diotima, these children are the offspring of a kind of spiritual union between two minds50—a glorified and transfigured form of the Socratic notion of teacher and pupil united in a common search for truth and virtue.51

Up to this point, we have described what Diotima calls by implication the lesser mysteries, now we enter on the higher. The keynote of this portion of Diotima's speech may be expressed in the words of Milton:

“Love…is the scale

By which to heavenly Love thou may'st ascend.”52

I will translate the sections with which we are chiefly concerned.

“He who would proceed correctly in this matter,” that is, in the pursuit of the beautiful, “should commence in youth by paying court to beautiful bodies. And first, if his guide directs him rightly, he will love a single body out of all the number, and make it the mother of beautiful discourses” (ϵ̓νταυ̑θ α γϵννα̑ν λόγους κα λούς).53 Thereafter he will of himself discover that the beauty in any particular body is sister to the beauty in another, and that if he is to pursue the beautiful in form, it is the height of folly not to believe in the unity and identity of all physical beauty. When he has observed this truth, he will become a lover of all beautiful bodies, and abate his consuming passion for one, as something trivial and unworthy: after which he will consider the beauty of the soul more precious than that of the body, and be satisfied with one whose soul is virtuous, although his bloom of body be but small; and he will love him and cherish him, and search out and bring to birth such words and thoughts as shall improve the young, that he may be constrained to rise yet higher and contemplate the beautiful in institutions and in laws, and perceive that it is all of one family with itself, and so may consider bodily beauty a trivial thing. And after he has surveyed institutions, he will be led to the sciences, that he may now perceive the beauty of knowledge, and looking at last on the fulness of beauty may no more be an unworthy trifler, no more enslaved like a menial to beauty dwelling in a single object…but facing the full sea of the beautiful and gazing thereon, may by bountiful Philosophy become the father of many words and thoughts full of beauty and scope sublime. And when he has gained strength and stature here, he will descry a single science, such as treats of the Beauty I shall next describe.” 54

At this stage of the exposition a strict adherence to our plan would require us to desist; for the Beauty of which Diotima proceeds to speak is the transcendental idea of Beauty; and we have reserved the ideas for subsequent treatment. But we can hardly understand the religious significance of the upward progress here described unless we follow it to the end; and on other grounds it is desirable that we should now make a preliminary survey of the land to which the soul is travelling. Diotima thus continues:

“He who has been thus far instructed in Love's mysteries, beholding things beautiful in proper sequence and after the right method, on approaching the end of his initiation will suddenly descry a wondrous Beauty, even that for the sake of which all his former toils were undertaken. The Beauty in the first place is ever-existent, untreated and imperishable, knowing neither increase nor decay; in the second place, it is not beautiful in one way and ugly in another, or beautiful at one time and ugly at another, or in one relation beautiful and in another ugly, or beautiful here and ugly there, as if beautiful in some men's eyes, and ugly in the eyes of others. Nor will he imagine that the Ideal Beauty is like unto a face or hands or any other portion of the body, or any discourse or science, or that it dwells somewhere in something other than itself, as, for example, in an animal, or in earth or heaven, or in aught else, but rather that it is separate and self-existent, simple and everlasting, while all other beautiful objects participate therein, yet in such a manner that although beautiful particulars are generated and perish, the Ideal Beauty neither waxes nor wanes, and changes not in any way.55 … Suppose it were permitted to one to behold the Beautiful itself, clear and pure and unalloyed, not tainted by human flesh or colours or any of the manifold varieties of mortal existence, but the divine Beauty as it really is in its simplicity, do you think it would be an ignoble life that one should gaze thereon and ever contemplate that Beauty and hold communion therewith? Do you not rather believe that in this communion only will it be possible for a man, beholding the Beautiful with the organ by which alone it can be seen, to beget, not images of virtue, but realities, for that which he embraces is not an image but the truth, and having begotten and nourished true virtue, to become the friend of God and attain to immortality, if ever mortal has attained?”56

In his recent Gifford Lectures, Dr. Caird has said that “if we look to the development of thought after Plotinus, we can see that it was mainly through him, and through St. Augustine as influenced by him, that Mysticism passed into Christian Theology and became an important element in the religion of the Middle Ages and of the modern world.”57 This statement is, no doubt, historically true; but the passage which I have just translated contains a number of ideas to which close parallels occur in Christian mysticism, and to some of these parallels I will now briefly call your attention.58

It will be observed, in the first place, that according to Plato the Divine or Ideal Beauty is not only transcendent, but also immanent in the world; for it is by “participating” in the Idea of Beauty, in other words, by the “presence” of Ideal Beauty in them, that all things beautiful are rendered beautiful. The form in which this doctrine appears in Christian thinkers may be illustrated by the remark of St. Augustine, that “all that is beautiful comes from the highest Beauty, which is God.”59 In a poem entitled “Seraphic Love,” by John Norris, one of the last of the Cambridge seventeenth-century Platonists, it is said that

“All mortal beauty's but a ray

Of His bright, ever-shining day”;

and God is expressly identified with

“the light archetypal,

Beauty in the original.”

Here, as elsewhere, it is clear that Platonism is being grafted upon Christianity.

A further point of contact between the Symposium and Christian mysticism is the notion of a ladder or scala perfectionis up which the soul must travel in order to attain that union with the divine which is the ultimate goal of the mystic. As Mr. Inge has pointed out,60 St. Augustine, following Plotinus, distinguishes in the ascending scale three grades of Beauty, “corporeal, spiritual, and divine.” The Platonic classification is virtually the same—first beauty of body, next beauty of soul and spiritual things, and, finally, the divine or Ideal Beauty. According to the Christian view, “our guide on the upward path, the true hierophant of the mysteries of God, is love.”61 There is, of course, a world of difference between the New Testament conception of love and the Eros of Plato; but in this instance we should look for parallels, not to the earlier Christian teachers, but rather to the sonnets of Michael Angelo, and to the Platonising poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in our own country, more especially Spenser, whose “Hymnes” have truly been called “the most comprehensive exposition of love in the light of Platonic theory in English.”62

“Love fits the soul with wings, and bids her win Her flight aloft nor e'er to earth decline; 'Tis the first step that leads her to the shrine Of Him who slakes the thirst that burns within.”63

We have seen that Love, in Plato, is not only φιλόκαλος, but also φιλόσοφος—a seeker after Wisdom (σοφία or φρόν ησις). Similarly, in later religious thought, the Divine Wisdom is frequently personified as the object of man's passionate adoration and love. I have already cited one example from the Wisdom of Solomon.64 It was the vision of this celestial Wisdom that inspired the mystic Suso in the fourteenth century;65 and Spenser devotes a part of his “Hymne of Heavenly Beautie” to celebrating her praises in language which sometimes suggests that he is thinking of the Logos. The figure of Una in the allegory of the Faerie Queene is also, as Mr. Harrison has pointed out,66 a kind of hypostatised Platonic Wisdom. The same writer has drawn attention to another interesting though somewhat fanciful application by Spenser of a doctrine contained in the Symposium. Identifying God with the Highest Beauty, and at the same time combining the Christian conception of the Godhead as Love with the Platonic view that Love is the desire of fatherhood in the beautiful (τόκος ϵ̓ν τῳ̑ καλῳ̑), Spenser makes the “High Eternall Powre,” through love of His own beauty, beget, first the Son, afterwards the Angels, and finally Man.67 But the most important analogy between Platonic and Christian mysticism relates to the final stage in which the soul is united with the divine.

In Plato the Nous or rational part of soul, itself, as we have seen, of heavenly origin and nature, “draws nigh unto and marries” the ultimate object of desire and thought, called in the Republic Being,68 and in the Symposium Beauty. Then only does the soul find life—true life and nourishment.69 Already in St. Paul the symbol of marriage is once or twice employed to express the relation of the believer's soul to the divine;70 but for the most part he makes use of this figure only when speaking of the mystical union between Christ and the Church.71 Later Christian mysticism often recognised three main stages in the progress of the soul—the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive:72 the last of which is sometimes represented as a kind of spiritual marriage between the soul and God, more especially in the devotional poetry of the seventeenth century. Mr. Inge is disposed to think that the metaphor in question was introduced into Christian thought from the mysteries, through the medium, perhaps, of Alexandrian Judaism.73 It seems to me not unlikely that the influence of Plato was also operative to some extent, although here, as in other parts of his religious symbolism, Plato himself no doubt owed something to the Eleusinian rites.74

Taking a retrospective view of the kind of spiritual ascent described in the Symposium, we can hardly fail to note that it combines two features not altogether easy to reconcile with one another. The speech of Diotima reveals, on the one hand, a strong bias towards intellectualism. The Love of which she speaks is primarily an amor intellectualis, and aims at accomplishing a union between Nous and the highest of its objects, a union whose offspring are Truth and Reason, or rather, the active exercise of Reason, Reason actualised into νόησις, together with true virtue, by which Plato means the virtue which is based on knowledge, and not upon “opinion” or belief.75 In the very climax of her rhapsody, Diotima is careful to point out that the Ideal Beauty is to be learnt by means of a certain science, that is, as will afterwards be seen, Dialectic; and the proximate stage to the discovery of the Highest Beauty is the beauty of the sciences. So far, therefore, we seem to have only a kind of overwhelming zeal for knowledge, and nothing more, the sort of “passion of the reason” which may perhaps, as Jowett says, belong to “one or two in a whole generation, in whom the light of truth may not lack the warmth of desire.”76 On the other hand, we cannot but feel that the enthusiasm which animates Diotima springs from religious at least as much as scientific inspiration. It is not without reason that Plato makes Diotima a prophetess, and puts the kernel of her discourse into a framework borrowed from the Eleusinian mysteries. The instantaneous character of the illumination, the beatific vision itself, the mystical union with changeless and Eternal Beauty whence arises the virtue by which we become the friends of God and attain to immortality—all these are what we should call religious rather than scientific conceptions. But the truth is that from Plato's point of view there is at bottom no fundamental difference between the enthusiasm of religion and the enthusiasm of science. The φιλοσοφία, or love of knowledge, on which Plato so constantly insists, is of necessity and from the first a religious aspiration, because of the way in which he regards not only the organ, but also the object of knowledge. The realm of sensibles—the twilight land which lies between the darkness of Not-Being and the light of Being—can never be known; of the seen and temporal there is no knowledge, but only, at best, “opinion”; that which alone we can know, is the unseen, the eternal, the divine; in the last resort, as we shall afterwards see, the Idea of Good or God. In this way the lover of knowledge in Plato inevitably becomes a seeker after God.

  • 1.

    The World; quoted by Harrison, l.c. p. 208.

  • 2.

    Tim. 37 C–41 A.

  • 3.

    ϵ̔πομϵ́νους τῳ̑ νόμῳ, 40 E.

  • 4.

    e.g. Origen. See Inge, Christian Mysticism p. 29n.

  • 5.

    Cf. Gen. iii. 4, 22.

  • 6.

    Tim. 41 B–42 A.

  • 7.

    Tim. 90 A.

  • 8.

    vii. 518 C, 540 A, 611 E.

  • 9.

    See more especially 79 A ff., 80 A, B, and cf. Laws x. 899 D.

  • 10.

    vi. 501 B, ix. 589 A–D.

  • 11.

    42 D, E.

  • 12.

    Tim. 69 E.

  • 13.

    Tim. 44 D.

  • 14.

    69 C.

  • 15.

    69 C, D.

  • 16.

    69 E–70 A.

  • 17.

    cf. Phaed. 81 B ff.

  • 18.

    George Herbert, Man's Medley.

  • 19.

    Tim. 43 A ff.

  • 20.

    90 B.

  • 21.

    vii. 519 A f., cf. x. 611 C ff.Cf. also vii. 533 D, and Phaed.83 C f.

  • 22.

    Tim. 87 B.

  • 23.

    Swete in Hastings' Dict. of the Bible ii. p. 409.

  • 24.

    Sanday and Headlam, Romans p. 196.

  • 25.

    Findlay in Hastings, l.c. iii. p. 720b.

  • 26.

    Rom. vii. 23, 25.

  • 27.

    Gal. v, 17.

  • 28.

    του̑ ὄντος ϵ̓πάνοδον, ἣν δὴ φιλοσοφίαν ἀληθη̑ φήσομϵν ϵἰ̑ναι vii. 521 C.

  • 29.

    Phaed. 62 B, 82 E.

  • 30.

    Phaed. 83 A ff.

  • 31.

    See p. 97 above.

  • 32.

    S. H. Mellone, Hibbert Journal, July, 1904, vol. ii. p. 733 f.

  • 33.

    67 D al.

  • 34.

    Phaed. 64 E.

  • 35.

    67 A f., 69 C ff., 82 D ff.

  • 36.

    Cf. Gorg. 493 A, quoted above, p. 97.

  • 37.

    2 Cor. v. 1–4. Much more Platonic, however, is the sentence which St. Paul seems here to have in mind: φθαρτόν γάρ σω̑μα βαρύνϵι ψυχήν, καὶ βρίθϵι τό γϵω̑δϵς σκη̑νο νου̑ν πολυφρόντιδα (Wisd. ix. 15). Cf. Rom. vii. 24.

  • 38.

    Col. iii. 5.

  • 39.

    1 Cor. ix. 27.

  • 40.

    Rom. viii. 12, 13.

  • 41.

    St. Paul and Protestantism p. 51, ed. 1889.

  • 42.

    l.c. p. 57.

  • 43.

    Matthew Arnold, l.c. p. 53.

  • 44.

    Phaed. 61 A.

  • 45.

    iii. 403 C.

  • 46.

    Symp. 180 B.

  • 47.

    Symp. 201 E–203 A.

  • 48.

    203 E–204 B.

  • 49.

    viii. 2.

  • 50.

    τόκοςϵ̓ν καλῳ㬑, 206 B.

  • 51.

    206 A–207 A.

  • 52.

    Paradise Lost viii. 589 ff.

  • 53.

    ϵ̓νταυ̑θα=ϵ̓ν τούτῳ. Cf. τίκτϵινϵ̓ν, 210 D ; τόκος ϵ̓ν τῳ̑καλῳ̑, 206 E.

  • 54.

    Symp. 210 A–210 D.

  • 55.

    210 E–211 B.

  • 56.

    211 D–212 A.

  • 57.

    Evolution of Theology etc. ii. p. 210.

  • 58.

    In what follows it will be seen that I am largely indebted to Mr. Inge's Bampton Lectures, and also to Mr. Harrison's Platonism in English Poetry.

  • 59.

    Quoted by Inge, Christian Mysticism p. 130.

  • 60.

    l.c. p. 129.

  • 61.

    Inge, l.c,. p. 8.

  • 62.

    Harrison, l.c. p. 122.

  • 63.

    Michael Angelo, Sonnet 53, tr. Symonds. Cf. Spenser's “Hymnes in honour of Heavenly Love and Heavenly Beautie,” passim.

  • 64.

    See p. 389.

  • 65.

    See Inge, l.c. p. 172 ff.

  • 66.

    l.c. p. 2.

  • 67.

    “Hymne of Heavenly Love,” 29 ff.

  • 68.

    vi. 490 A ff.

  • 69.

    Rep. l.c. Cf. Symp. 211 D ff.

  • 70.

    1 Cor, vi. 17; perhaps also iv. 15 (cf.τίκτϵινϵ̓ν, Symp. 210 D).

  • 71.

    See Inge, l.c., Appendix D.

  • 72.

    Inge, l.c. P. 9 ff.

  • 73.

    l.c. p. 369.

  • 74.

    See p. 430.

  • 75.

    Rep. vi. 490 B; Symp. 212 A.

  • 76.

    The Dialogues of Plato i. p. 533.