The Magic of Philosophy, Part One
By John R. White, Ph.D.
The Hermetic tradition, insofar as it became a Hellenic tradition, was carried forward through the centuries, both immediately before and immediately after the Common Era, by a group of people who became known as “philosophers.” The term “philosophy” was coined by Pythagoras – perhaps the first Greek initiate into the Egyptian mysteries – and became used widely throughout the Hellenic and post-Hellenic world thanks largely to Plato (who was also an initiate) and the various streams Neo-Platonism (see The Divine Arcana of the Aurum Solis and Rediscover the Magick of the Gods and Goddesses of Jean-Louis de Biasi). Though not chronologically the first philosopher (depending on your understanding of philosophy), Plato set both the tone and intellectual context in which philosophy was practiced for the next two thousand years, due not only to the sophistication of his thought but also due to the striking image and ideal of philosophy he illustrated in the portrayal of his philosophical mentor, Socrates. Even in eras like the early Middle Ages, when Plato’s texts were no longer extant in the western Europe, the images, ideas, problems, solutions and terminology of philosophy were still largely drawn from Plato.
This connection between philosophy and the transmission of the mysteries is not a mere accident of history. Rather, there is a kind of essential connection between philosophy and esoteric practices, a connection which is perhaps difficult to bring into focus in the 21st century, in part because philosophy has become an academic discipline far removed from its original moorings. Especially academic philosophy in the English-speaking world is at times little more than advanced logic chopping, often using quasi-mathematical symbols to parse statements and arguments, rather than a discipline which understands and enacts the psychological and spiritual essence that was once philosophy. Academia by nature domesticates genuine radicalism, by institutionalizing and containing it, as well as by incentivizing control over its employees via money and status. Genuine philosophy, in contrast, is properly “radical” in that it by nature challenges the uncritical assumptions of the age in light of a higher truth. The term “radical” is derived from the Latin word “radix,” which means “root.” At its best, philosophy critiques idols of any given age by being rooted in a timeless wisdom implicit in both the deeper strata of the human psyche and in the higher planes of spiritual reality.
One thing that clearly differentiates the ancient philosophers like Plato from most of our philosophical contemporaries is that philosophy was not first and foremost defined in its own terms; rather, philosophy was defined in terms of its practitioners. In other words, though we might in our own time assume that philosophy is best defined, like other scientific and humanistic disciplines, with reference to ideas, theses, assumptions or methods, for Plato as for many of the ancient philosophers the far more crucial issue concerned who and what sort of a person the philosopher is. The person who will count as a “philosopher” will then be determined less by the ideas he or she happens to hold than by the types of experiences, character, virtues and attitudes that make such a person up.
What are those characteristics of the philosopher? As is well known, the etymology of “philosopher” is “lover or seeker of wisdom,” suggesting that one such characteristic is that the philosophical life consists in the seeking of some ultimate knowledge or truth (“wisdom”) by which to guide one’s life and the life of others. Notice that the philosopher will therefore not be the sort of person we see frequently in our own time who essentially treats ideas, knowledge, truth-claims, spiritual ideals etc. as a mere set of commodities for sale and open to any combination, according to anyone’s tastes or preferences. Rather, the philosopher, by seeking a higher – we might even say a cosmic – knowledge, truth and wisdom, subordinates personal tastes and preferences to an order present in the cosmos, a divine order. Like any seeking, this seeking aims at discovery, in this case the discovery of the divine and cosmic order in which the philosopher partakes through this wisdom, as also through love (desirous seeking) and power (virtuous action). Further, such seeking often entails personal sacrifices, not only through the investment of time and energy but also through a somewhat ascetic life, subordinating or giving up lesser aims and satisfactions in favor of the commitment to the higher aim of attaining this cosmic wisdom. While at times such a seeking requires a willingness to sacrifice certain personal preferences, desires or satisfactions, the philosopher as a rule does not consider those to be significant losses, because of a deeper satisfaction gained through consciously, intentionally, and lovingly partaking of the discovered divine order. Thus, the end or purpose of philosophy was not knowledge per se; knowledge was the means. The purpose of philosophy was understood to be a transformation of the psyche and of what we would nowadays call the “personality” through a fuller and richer participation in the divine and the divine order, not only through knowledge but especially through virtue, i.e., through cultivating and ordering the soul according to the divine order the philosopher discovers, and through love.
Interestingly enough, philosophical seeking and searching, according to Plato is a form of eros – indeed, its highest form. Since Freud, there has been a tendency to reduce all eros to genital sexuality whereas, though the latter was certainly understood to be one form of eros, eros for the ancients also took on other forms. Virtually any seeking for union was considered a form of eros and, thus, pursuing the studies and virtues which result in a richer and fuller participation in and union with the divine and the divine order through philosophizing was conceived of as the highest form of eros (compare Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Ioan Couliano). There is therefore a kind of mystic ascent to the divine, based on love, which characterizes the Platonic ideal of philosophy. This should not, however, be confused with a mystical quietism which avoids the world. The ascent to ultimate reality, which is illustrated in Plato’s Parable of the Cave, is followed by a descent back into the Cave, in order to aid others in a similar process.
Plato was conscious that this vision of the philosopher would be ignored by most people and that, until such time as philosophers were also “rulers,” i.e. the leading and exemplary figures in a society, that society would in general neither appreciate nor desire the picture that he drew. Indeed, Plato was so certain of this fact that he sets his analysis of the philosopher in contrast to another sort of person, the sort who was ruling the day in Athens, the “sophist.” Though the Greek word sophia (“wisdom”) is the root of both “philosopher” and of “sophist,” these two are in fact opposite types of persons for Plato. Unlike the philosopher who, among other things, is humbled by this process of wisdom seeking, the sophist has the character of the “know-it-all” or “wise guy,” one who peddles real or supposed knowledge in order to obtain benefit in material life and, above all, to obtain power. The sophist is like the philosopher insofar as there is some measure of wisdom-seeking, but they are opposites in their orientation, i.e. in what they seek to do with what wisdom they have. The sophist uses wisdom primarily as a means for material gain and power and for teaching others how to gain the same. In contrast, though the philosopher too may gain materially from wisdom seeking, he or she is defined not by seeking or even wanting much by way of material gain but by seeking an ultimate reality by which to guide life and to find a deeper happiness than material pleasures alone can bring. The philosopher is therefore not a power-seeker, because the philosopher recognizes the deeper satisfactions of spiritual union with the divine are usually significantly hindered by the desire for power. Indeed, Plato thought that a genuine philosopher would have to be persuaded and cajoled into taking positions of power and would do so only for the sake of the community; he or she would not willingly do it, for fear that the power complex (see my previous post, “Esoteric practices and the power complex”) might snuff out higher aspirations.
Plato recognized that the majority of people will more likely follow the sophist than the philosopher and the philosophical life he outlined. This is certainly to be expected, in our time as well. In an age in which the attitudes and assumptions of consumer capitalism have in essence colonized our souls, how are we for example to experience anything like an awareness of higher planes of Being – of a kind of reality which cannot be commodified? Even if we have such experiences, we will tend to interpret them in purely subjective terms and value them only for the material gain, positive feelings, or power they might give. Or how are we in our time to understand the idea of virtue or the idea that the wisdom-seeker sacrifices preferences and tastes for a kind of higher satisfaction in a society whose economy hinges on giving in to unrestrained impulses and idolizes excesses in the material order? The majority of social forces in our times press us toward materialism and consumerism and away from the philosophical impulse. The latter includes an appreciation for material reality without turning it into an obsession or fetish, since the meaning of the material world is equally bound up with higher planes of reality.
This being the case, we can perhaps begin to see why many of the Hermetic practitioners were philosophers: not all philosophers were Hermetic practitioners, but all Hermetic practitioners were philosophers and usually philosophers in precisely the Platonic sense of the term. The above sketch should give us some clues as to why the connection between Hermetic and Platonic philosophy was so robust.
For one, the basic drive of the Platonic philosophy correlates substantially with theurgy. If theurgy consists in the release and activation of the divine spark within, then the illuminated knowledge of and conscious participation in the divine order and the practice of virtue associated with philosophical eros are each an indicator that the work of theurgy is in some measure working effectively. Theurgy naturally expresses itself in philosophy and the Platonic philosophy, for its part, is a natural receptor as well as an apt preparation for the work of theurgy.
Further, the Platonic philosophy was bound up with the exploration of the soul and its powers (“knowledge of self”), focusing among other things on how the soul is a sensorium of the divine, a locus of divine action within the human being. Esoteric practices, to the extent that they recognize this correlative action of divine and human – divine spark and human soul – and, further, insofar as they work on the basis of the mutual resonance of microcosm and macrocosm, require in some measure a philosophical approach and philosophy’s meditations on the nature of the soul, the cosmos, and God, which were typical of Plato and the Platonic tradition.
Finally, we can perhaps see why many of the leading esotericists in the tradition called themselves “philosophers” and their work “philosophy.” The Great Work is “philosophy” not because it is just another sort of academic knowledge, but because it is a wisdom born, on the one hand, of conscious participation in the divine order and, on the other hand, the ordering of one’s soul according to that divine and cosmic order.
In part 2, we will look at Plato’s Parable of the Cave and what it might teach to esoteric practitioners.
John R. White, Ph.D. (Pittsburgh, PA) is a Jungian psychoanalyst and mental health counselor. He was a philosophy professor for twenty years, prior to becoming a psychoanalyst, and his current research interests include the various links among psychology, parapsychology, philosophy and esotericism. He has been a student of several esoteric traditions.