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Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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Plato, Neoplatonism and the Renaissance (Part Two)

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, October 09, 2011

Anybody who has taken up a university or college class in philosophy or classics knows about the Platonic Forms–first patterns or blueprints that exist in an eternal, undefiled and wholly integrated zone and project archetypal emanations in the temporal, ever-fluctuating world of Nature. But how did the genius of Plato (427-347BCE) conceptualise this idealistic marker of reality? As history will show, spontaneous insights gained through mysticism are rarely the order of the day. Following in the footsteps of Mother Nature and her tools of natural selection, venturesome humans have always tended towards mastering the art of imitation which is, dare I say, far easier to emulate than the art of originality and creativity. When it comes to Platonic cosmology it’s far more likely that Plato would have been following century-old premises thrown about and brooded on by the Ionian pre-Socratics in their bid to discover the true nature of the base substance of which the entire cosmos is hewn.

Thus to create the binocular vision of reality that he has come to be associated with today,  Plato borrowed Anaximenes’s vision of the First Cause as an ethereal fire or ether of some kind and married it with Pythagorean mystical insights that defined the First Cause in strictly qualitative and geometrical terms. If the uncreated was an undifferentiated, spherical speck of light or fire which mysteriously took on a plethora of forms when it differentiated into other substances and qualities, and if everything that had been created was interconnected and infused with the same life force which emanated from the primeval time origin, then the obvious deduction would be to conceive reality as being two-fold; somewhere out there existed a world of ideal forms or “being” which stood apart from and underpinned the world of “becoming” expressed by the sphere of created Nature. In addition, it appeared that a fundamental principle, the law of time, separated the two worlds. Time set forth the wheel of change, and change he understood to mean an adherence to the cycles of birth, growth and death which empowered everything in Nature with a potentiality and desire to strive for perfection, to seek its ultimate Form.

If we could somehow build a time-travelling device and teleport ourselves back twenty-four centuries to a beautiful Athenian temenos on which Plato conferred upon his disciples his philosophical dialogues relating to the nature of reality, we would no doubt materialise beside the genius as he engaged his audience with this, the most famous of his doctrines. To illustrate his idealistic conception, he might allude to the blue and crème bird-of-paradise flower which resembles the feathered yellow crest of a cockatoo and sprouts from the branches of the bird-of-paradise plant in spring. He would dutifully inform that the blue and crème flowers of this tropical plant are merely imperfect copies of a supernal equivalent that exists in the eternal realm of “being”. Millions of bird-of-paradise flowers sprout from the stems of their hosts before proceeding to maturity. After a short time, they begin to wither and die. The process repeats itself over and over and over again, like the waning and waxing of the moon and the light cycles of Venus. In the world of “being”, on the other hand, this same flower remains a fully mature, blue and white-petalled flower defined by a perfect symmetry of form and free of any temporal handicap for all eternity. All earthly versions of the flower yearn to replicate their Platonic equivalent in the realm of “being” but few, if any, actually succeed.

For Plato, the science of multiplication which resulted in the majestic cosmos with its celestial inhabitants, the stars and planets, as well as its earthly counterparts, the forests, mountains, rivers, seas, deserts and caves, was a gesture that illuminated the benevolence of God. Plato believed that God existed above and beyond or separate to the world of Ideas and Forms, a seed of fire that was wholly noble, benevolent and undefiled because it had remained undifferentiated. When a being, any being for that matter, loves itself, it seeks expression in the cosmos. It yearns to generate more of its own essence, to multiply its essence. If we follow this train of thought then it would make sense to believe that divine cogitation is an act of self-love. Closely aligned to the Platonic ideology is the Egyptian creation myth of Heliopolis, which inverts the esoteric concept into a literal one and lays it bare for all to see. In the myth the deity Atum emerges from the primordial soup and brings forth the entire cosmos from within his own being by masturbating. Being a miniature replica of the macrocosm, we ourselves imitate this act of self-love every time we think, prey or ponder something. Mental activity spurs emotion and generates actions, and actions themselves are individual shards of a mirror that, when combined, accurately reflect the nature of the being enacting them.

The Platonic and Pythagorean conception of Creation definitely rings true for me. Constructing an inner mental picture and then brooding on it with the unconscious will can, in great many instances, cause the emerging thought form or desire to take on a life of its own. These self-generated vortices of psychic energy are composed of Neotic matter, the prima materia or base substance of the information universe. To our untutored mindset this concept may seem bizarre and eerie but in Tibet, where the invocation of though forms are common, apparition of this sort are called tulpas. Among many other things, their creation and destruction was a primary concern for the medieval alchemists who called them homunculi. Alternatively, thought forms that have acquired autonomy through the collective brooding of persons united by common aims, agendas or purposes are called egregores (ἐγρήγοροι). All such thought-desires, being elementally psychic in nature, are either positively-charged or negatively-charged; the former includes sentiments like love, lust and platonic affinity, whilst the latter encompasses the qualities of envy, jealousy and hatred. Once these entities separate from their parent-consciousness, they seek out and affect the psyche of their subject but sooner or later return to their primeval time origin, that being the individual who created them.   

The first person to challenge Plato on his theory of forms was his student, Aristotle (384-322BCE). Whilst agreeing with the binocular division of reality into a realm of “being” and a realm of “becoming”, he rejected his teacher’s conviction that the Divine Mind or Intellect encompassed an autonomous existence outside of the Platonic forms, ideas and archetypes. For Aristotle, God wasn’t separate from the aforementioned qualities, he was them. Divine contemplation and self-love were one and the same, an activity which set the rotation of the heavenly spheres into motion and made the world go around. In fact, everything that transpired in the universe was merely a by-product of God’s mental activities. Thus, in a way, Aristotle was intimating that despite being omniscient and all knowing, God himself stood powerless in enacting change in the world of “becoming” entirely of his own volition seeing that he could not distance himself nor transcend the Platonic forms to which all his mental activity was confined. The same was true for human beings, who were merely miniature replicas of the greater cosmos. Further still, the indifference and cold-heartedness with which God probably regarded his own creation was ominous, for it wasn’t long before he withdrew his attention from it, leaving everything to the contingencies of matter acting upon matter. This completely destroyed Plato’s metaphysical idea that humans could manipulate the anima mundi (the World Soul) by tampering with the occult virtues or signatures of inert and animate bodies in the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms, signatures which united the intrinsic parts of Nature with the creative daemons and the eternal fire, the Divine Mind itself.

The schism initiated by Aristotle had the effect of permanently differentiating two streams of thought, Aristotelian materialism and Platonic idealism. Idealism in particular continued to emphasis the path of “knowing” through mystical insight which gelled well with fundamental streams of religion, and hence the tradition continued to survive into medieval times. Strictly speaking, the religious and mystical philosophy known as Neoplatonism was merely a system of orthodox Platonism. The movement solidified under Plotinus (205-70ce), a Greek-Egyptian from the Deltaic Lycopolis in Lower Egypt. After eleven years of critical inquiry, as well as a failed expedition to Persia to acquaint himself with Buddhist and Zoroastrian wisdom, Plotinus settled in Sicily and penned the fifty-four treatises of The Ennead, the core text of Neoplatonic metaphysical writings that greatly influenced theological doctrine in late antiquity. His closest disciple and biographer, the Lycian-born Porphyry (232-305ce) and the pagan philosopher Proclus of Constantinople (410-85ce) both consolidated and amplified his system of Neoplatonic ideas.

The Neoplatonic world didn’t stray too far from its Pythagorean antecedent. It was separated into a number of interconnected spheres with the highest one composed of absolute ether (spirit) and the lowest of absolute matter. At the topmost echelon of this multidimensional ladder lay the Empyrean of the One or God, the primary substance or etheric fire that made itself known in the mystical experience of apathanatismos. It was the primeval origin of the anima mundi (World Soul), the intangible electricity which infused created Nature with variant degrees of life and sentience. Directly below that was the primum mobile, the etheric substance which permeated the heavens and facilitated the rotation of the zodiac and the sphere of the fixed stars around the mooring post of the north celestial pole. Then came in descending (Ptolemaic or geocentric) order the spheres of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury and the moon, as well as the Aristotelian elements of fire, earth, wind and water which formed unique combinations and eventually manifested the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms. Whilst forming the a seven-stop shop whereby soul-sparks picked up their rudimentary character traits, the planetary spheres themselves also consisted of qualities like hot, cold, dry and moist, as well as sweet, sour, soft and hard. These were all virtues which had been infused into physical matter or the corpus mundi (the World Body) by the spiritus mundi (the World Spirit), thus enabling a manifestation of one created kingdom to seek it’s like or counterpart in another kingdom.

Plato reasoned that the individual spheres of the dimensional ladder could be grouped into three distinct clusters, and that all three are comprehensible to like-natured entities. Hence, the human body is sentient of material forms, the human soul is conscious of the psychic world of emotions and feelings, and the human intellect is able to grasp the Platonic forms. From this perspective, the geocentric and humanistic rendition of creation becomes much more credible; even though human beings suffered the misfortune of coming last in the creational order of things, their three-fold recognition of reality makes them miniature replicas of the whole and allows them to rise to the top of the cosmic totem pole. Hence, what was created last from the detritus of matter is now first, entirely receptive and in tune to the zodiacal and planetary energies which mediate their anatomy from the heavens above.

No longer a slave to the mechanical laws of inert matter, human beings were in a position to understand the underlying unity of all things in the One, and how created Nature might be manipulated. If one looked close enough, he or she might realize that there was something connecting inert forms to the creative daemons, the human soul to the starry firmament, the said qualities of matter to the anima mundi (the World Soul) and the primeval chaos. That something is cosmic sympathy, an all-encompassing virtue that might be defined as an immeasurable and invisible magnetic force that manifests as an external similarity of sorts between two inert or animate bodies. According to the legendary Renaissance alchemist Paracelsus of Hohenheim (1490-1541CE), every stone, gem, metal, plant, tree and star possessed an outward “signature” that formed part of the greater nervous system of Mother Nature. Correct interpretation of the natural hieroglyph revealed the occult virtue or inner essence of the object in question and allowed the knower, usually a practitioner of natural magic, to manipulate its sympathetic equivalents in the other kingdoms.

Knowing the sympathetic connections was, for most practitioners of magic, an entirely intuitive affair. Let’s take a brief look at objects that fall under the rulership of the moon, the sphere of the Great Mother Goddess, and see how their qualities might be connected. The owl, for instance, is associated with the moon because its phases affect the animal’s visual signaling habits. So too are women, seeing that their menstrual cycle is supposedly regulated by the lunar phases. This may be a core reason why the moon has always been believed to encompass a wholly feminine spirit. Silver, on the other hand, is the primary metal the Ephesians used in creating statues and images of the Great Mother in her guise of Artemis, a huntress equipped with bow and arrows. No doubt the people of Ephesus would have known that it is connected to the moon for a great many reasons. It receives light passively, mimicking its celestial counterpart which shines only by reflecting solar rays. Ample amounts of silver can be found in the oceans and seas, dominions which have been controlled by the moon for time immemorial.  Silver ions have anti-bacteria and other therapeutic properties and keep water fresh, a scientifically verifiable fact which reinforces the portrayal of the Great Mother as universal healer.

Water, of course, is connected to the moon because of the tides exerted by the lunar satellite. According to intellectually rebellious scholars like Jacques Benveniste (1935 -2004), the molecular structure of water has a ‘memory’ of sorts, as does silver, which forms an elementary component in photography and the creation of mirrors; the former a method whereby images of the past are preserved and the latter forming and light-reflecting an image of the present. Memories, past and present, as well as dreams which come under the romantic skies of a moonlit night are inexplicably linked with the sphere of fantasy and imagination, the ethereal realm in which poets and writers dabble in excessively. Let’s not forget that the Great Mother Goddess is the patroness of poets and writers and that a great many of them (too many for the phenomenon to be purely coincidental) are born under her astrological sign, Cancer the Crab.

Each of the seven planetary spheres–Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, the moon–assert rulership over particular bodies in the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms and understanding these laws of correspondence and their subtle energies is vital to both shamanic and magical practice, both of which attempt to generate quasi-material change in the corporeal world by intentionally manipulating sympathetically aligned entities. They were laws that stood at the heart of an objective reality descried by mystical insight, a mighty vision which we, as self-proclaimed inheritors of the classical world, appear to have lost or stumbled over in our endless search for the truth.  

I will conclude today’s post with a poem which attempts to make logical sense of the conspiracy theories that emerged as a consequence of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and dutifully dismisses them as products of overtly active imaginations. The philosophical overtones have been inspired by the myth of Plato’s Cave. 

 

 Out of the Darkness and Into the Light

 

There was once a wise man

who lived near Twin Towers and hence

found plenty of ruminating time

to acquire a grasp of logical sense.

He thought the events of nine-eleven

unravelled a rendition of the Fall

in which Americans were prison mates

forced to sit and stare at a wall.

Behind it nine conspiracy theories

kept the shining truth at bay,

amusing the ignorant with cut-outs

to give the illusion of foul play.

Absorbed in quixotic falsehoods

with all their friends in tow

“Truthers” won’t budge from their seats

since it’s all that they know.

But every so often one might

jerk his leg and spin right around,

realising that the jail’s just a front

and his mind’s now unbound.

Feeling his way through the dark

he discovers stairs that lead up to earth;

to a version of nine-eleven far simpler

than the sum of lives lost might be worth.

Gaping in awe he casts a glance

at the shadow play’s original form–

a matrix of towers, planes, pentagons,

Al-Qaeda and a terror-like storm.

The wise man harks back to the jail

Overcome by joy and grief–an infusion

spurred by empathy towards ignorance

and the will to dispel their illusion.

He re-enters to enlighten and teach

but most prefer to keep him at bay;

they cringe at the thought that somebody

could ever know better than they.

Failing to perceive the misinformation

through which nine-eleven myths stem,

“Truthers” may forever be doomed to wander

in the dark which surrounds them.

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