The Magic of Philosophy, Part Two
By John R. White, Ph.D.
In my previous post (The Magic of Philosophy, Part One) I described the ancient conception of the philosopher and also suggested that, once we understand what it means to be a “philosopher” in the ancient sense, we see why the philosophers were the natural carriers of the Hermetic tradition. The implication I wanted to draw from those points is that, while it is of no real importance for our esoteric work whether we know much by way of current academic philosophy, it is of great importance for our esoteric work whether we approximate what the ancients meant by “the philosopher.” The ancient conception of the philosopher is of a spiritual seeker who (1) seeks passionately (“erotically”) a higher, cosmic wisdom through participation in the divine and divine things; (2) treats this higher wisdom not simply as an end, but also and primarily as a means to living a life embodying that wisdom, enabling, as it were, the release of the Divine Spark within the soul; (3) is willing to sacrifice lower pleasures for the sake of the higher delights associated with this living wisdom; (4) can recognize the work of the sophists, so as not to be drawn into their attempts to derail this basic drive toward the divine.
While there is much that could be said concerning each of these points, perhaps Plato’s most valuable articulation of these issues is posed in the form of an image, one we can call the Parable (sometimes called the “Allegory”) of the Cave. I will describe the Parable in my own words and offer some comments by way of interpretation.
Plato, speaking through the character of Socrates in his Republic, imagines an underground cave where a number of people are locked and chained into position, facing a wall, unable to move their heads in any other direction. We can quite rightly call these people “prisoners,” though, in a way, they are even worse off than prisoners because they are not only locked and chained but are also unaware that they are locked and chained. On the wall they face there are a number of shadows moving which, unbeknownst to them, are produced by people behind them, using cutouts of figures (e.g. cutouts of animals and plants) to cast shadows via the light from a fire. These people also make sounds and noises correlating to the movements among the shadows. Since the prisoners are locked in and can see nothing but the wall in front of them, they understandably assume that what they see is the whole of reality. For example, any sounds they hear they attribute to the shadows, not knowing of any other source from which the sounds might have originated. Consequently, since the shadows appear to be the whole of life, the prisoners compete with each other in contests to see who can name what each shadow is, and they offer prizes to those who succeed at the contest.
This, Plato thinks, is an apt metaphor for the way most people live and of what life without philosophy looks like: it is a life which confuses the shadow of things for reality, which leaves one open to profound deception concerning both oneself and the world, and which has an almost addictive tendency to draw people into its basic illusion, namely, that the shadows constitute the primary part or indeed even the whole of reality.
Plato then imagines that some mysterious and unnamed force loosens the chains on one of these prisoners. This prisoner, suddenly realizing he is no longer locked in and that he is in some sense liberated from what he previously took to be a necessity, turns and looks first from side to side and then, ultimately, behind him. This gesture on his part forces him to recognize things he did not previously think possible. Among them (1) that there is more to life than the shadows he took to be the whole of reality; (2) that the shadows, though in some sense real, are the least real of all things; and (3) that there appear to be interested parties manipulating the prisoners into thinking that the shadows are the entirety of life.
In the last post, we saw something of Plato’s description of those manipulating the masses: he called them “sophists,” a term which Plato uses less to refer to the actual people of his time who called themselves “sophists,” than to a certain state of soul that anyone may have. And what is that state of soul? The sophist is like the philosopher in that the sophist has some sense for wisdom; but the sophist is also the opposite of the philosopher because he or she only recognizes wisdom to the extent that it can be used for power, money and/or material gain. Furthermore, the sophist understands enough of wisdom to recognize what we might call “the Great Deception” (not Plato’s language) which consists in this game of shadows occurring in the cave. Yet the sophist is more than happy to leave others in their state of imprisonment and even to ensure their imprisonment, as long as the sophist benefits from it. It is therefore a body of sophists who are in practice keeping these prisoners enchained, i.e. people with just enough of wisdom to know how to make the prisoners the moving pieces of their game. For this reason too, we know that the mysterious and unnamed force that released the prisoner was not someone from among this group of sophists, for the latter seek their own gain through the ongoing deception, whereas this mysterious force released the prisoner and gave the latter the opportunity to recognize that he was imprisoned.
Once the liberated prisoner recognizes the state of affairs he is in, namely, that he has been deceived but also – and this is the far more painful part – that he himself has actually colluded in the deception, by neither wondering nor questioning but simply accepting that things are as he has been told, he begins now to question the nature of things; this is the beginnings of the “passionate seeking” mentioned above. In this respect, we might say that the man once a prisoner becomes no longer a prisoner, not only because he was released but also because he learns how to question: he realizes not only that interested parties were trying to deceive him but that he participates in the deception through self-deception, i.e. through neither knowing himself properly (e.g. his tendency to allow himself to be deceived) nor questioning what others are telling him count as reality (e.g. that the shadows are the whole of reality). Indeed, he now realizes not only that he can question, but that it is his responsibility to question: only through questioning can the liberated prisoner continue the work of the mysterious and unnamed force which released him.
Given this situation, we can see why Plato’s student Aristotle would say “philosophy begins in wonder.” One can only sincerely question what one wonders about. Indeed, we might even say that the point of the game of shadows the sophists play is to tempt the prisoners to be satisfied enough with banal pleasures that they avoid any questioning, since the latter might bring with it the discomfort of also questioning the banal pleasures.
However, the liberated prisoner, having learned to question, is not satisfied simply with understanding the deception of the sophists, in part because he recognizes a further point: the cutout figures being used to cast the shadows, though not themselves shadows, are also not the real thing. Analogously, the sophists who are doing the deceiving are acting as if they are wise; yet they, too, are not the real thing. The cutouts of the animals are not themselves animals and the sophists are more “wise guys” than “wise men.” Consequently, the liberated prisoner begins to question even the bits of wisdom to be found in the sophists, because it seems as if there must be a fuller and a higher wisdom on which it is based, one which the sophists represent only vaguely, but which must stand behind even their ability to deceive.
Thus, through his questioning, the liberated prisoner begins to move beyond the sophists, the fire and the cutouts. He undertakes a difficult journey and one difficult to comprehend, given his background: he ascends from the underground cave and seeks the higher light. Plato indicates that this journey is arduous and fraught with dangers, not only internal (such as the destruction of our usually inflated self-images) but also external (the sophists can be ruthless in their will to control and, if necessary, in their willingness to destroy their opponents). Furthermore, like the original liberation from the chains, that same mysterious force also continues to pull the liberated prisoner as he makes his way out of the cave, toward the higher world.
The most striking thing that first occurs for the liberated prisoner as he transitions out of the cave – or we might just call him a philosopher – is that he moves from the darkness of the cave to the light of the outer and, indeed, higher world. He is at first blinded, a symbol of what happens when one finds oneself in the presence of the Divine Light, and thus he can’t yet look upward. With what tools he has been given, how is he to see what the outer world really is or interpret it in some reasonable way? Only if he develops new organs of perception will he be able to adjust to the new situation. At first, therefore, he can only see the forms that were being imitated by the cutouts, such as real plants, real animals, and so forth. After some time of contemplating these real entities, however, his eyes begin to adjust and he can also look upward toward the light and recognize the Sun, the symbol of the Origin and Fount of all things and the Highest Good. Once his eyes adjust, in fact, he can recognize the basic principle of wisdom, namely, that whether or not one looks directly at the Sun, it is only in its light that one sees. Even the fire back in the Cave is a mere imitation of the Sun and has its source in realities which exist only by virtue of the action of the Sun. Hence, once the philosopher can in some limited measure understand the Sun, he can also at least in principle understand other things in its light. Yet it is only through that process – the experience of liberation from the cave, from being blinded by the Sun, and by adjusting to participation in the Sun’s Light – that one recognizes something of the true nature of things. This is, in its essence, the meaning of Illumination.
Let’s pause for a moment before continuing with Plato’s story, to reconsider what this image tells us about Illumination.
First of all, it should be noted that Plato sees Illumination as a process. It is not something that happens, for example, in the twinkling of an evangelical eye, as if one is suddenly more or less wholly illuminated. Rather, Illumination is an ongoing process which, for heuristic purposes, we could divide into two basic steps: first, being released from the shadows and, second, climbing out of the cave into the authentic Light.
Traditionally, these two steps in Plato’s analysis have sometimes been called “moving from double ignorance to single ignorance” and “moving from single ignorance toward wisdom.” “Double ignorance” describes the prisoners locked and chained in the cave: they are ignorant, but do not know they are ignorant. They are, as I mentioned above, in some ways worse off than being prisoners, because they are ignorant twice-over: they both mistake the shadows for the whole and the best of reality and, further, imagine that, by virtue of that belief, they are not ignorant.
The first release of the prisoner, therefore, is not a release into wisdom proper; it is first a release from the ignorance of thinking that one knows to the realization that one does not. The destabilizing effect of this first liberation impacts the liberated prisoner greatly, because it widens his horizons but it also humiliates him in some fashion, through his having to acknowledge that he actually does not know all – or perhaps anything – that he thought he did. But when the liberated prisoner can recognize his situation and can see its value, he moves from double ignorance to single ignorance: that is to say, he moves from knowing nothing but thinking he knows all (double ignorance) to the recognition that, in fact, he actually knows very little – but at least he knows that (single ignorance).
This first step might appear like it is a small gain, but it is in fact a great gain indeed. Plato’s analysis here suggests that most people live in the state of double ignorance, deceived by sophistic influences and, worse, allowing themselves to be so deceived. Plato values this first movement so highly, in fact, that many of his greatest dialogues (his philosophical texts were mostly written in dialogue form) end precisely at this point, where the philosopher (usually Socrates) has proved to his interlocutor who thought he knew how things worked that he in fact understood nothing of what he claimed to know. Further, in many of these dialogues, this revelation to the dialogue partner which brings the latter from double to single ignorance is not welcomed. All too often, people experience such insight as a humiliation, rather than as a call to humility. Most people, Plato believed, are content to live in the prison of double ignorance, providing their instinctual needs are satisfied: liberation to a deeper and richer wisdom brings with it both the painful loss of one’s cherished self-deceptions and also a certain level of responsibility to aid others in their liberation. We will return to this problem below.
But we also need to see that, as painful, destabilizing, and humiliating as the move from double to single ignorance can be, it is the unavoidable first step toward wisdom and Illumination. We cannot be generally wise until we have sufficiently freed ourselves of the Great Deception, recognizing we are being deceived and allowing ourselves to be so. Every age has its various ways of producing the deception that keeps prisoners enchained at the level of soul, whether through false religions, false patriotisms, false nationalisms, rampant consumerism, and other sources. In our time entire industries dedicated to mass deception, such as advertising, entertainment, and a “news industry” and “political process” modeled precisely on the advertising and entertainment industries are also examples. This is not to say that these industries might not have some level of value; sometimes their content has some definite value – just like there are bits of wisdom among the sophists. But the intentions of these industries highlight the problem: on the one hand, to maneuver one into total dependence on their “information” and their powerfully materialist and instinctual slant, leading to emotional indifference and complacency about seeking higher Light; and, on the other, to act as a technology for molding desires into supposed reasons for purchasing the material goods they sell. This latter is the real “invisible hand” which the sophists want all of us to ignore. Hence the consistent need of these industries to try to convince people that there are always and only two sides to every issue, allowing Us always to be self-righteously correct and Them always to be “the problem.” There’s no better way to be sure that no one takes responsibility for their own game of shadows, let alone leave the cave entirely, when one can put the responsibility for society’s ills on Them and leave Us free of any blame. And, of course, by means of these easy binaries, one can ignore the way the entire system is rigged by the sophists in the first place, no matter what side they happen to favor at the moment. On Plato’s account, only if one has the courage to recognize the deception running throughout the whole and also has the fortitude to sacrifice sometimes worthwhile or cherished illusions for the higher delights of wisdom and Illumination will one be able to move beyond single ignorance to genuine wisdom.
This is, in fact, the second step in the process: the movement from single ignorance – recognizing that I in fact know very little – to wisdom. One cannot seek wisdom in truth unless one clearly recognizes that one does not already possess it. If Plato’s analysis is basically on target, most people cannot seek wisdom because they cannot countenance the insight that they in fact know little and they cannot stomach the humiliation of recognizing that what they took for wisdom was basically only “winning the prize among the shadows,” i.e. by happening to be the best at working with the materials of deception already given. Illumination, in contrast, requires being willing to give over even one’s pet “prizes” in the game, such as social status, money, power, and other materialistic tidbits, if they are also obstacles to seeking wisdom. Indeed, some of the characters in Plato’s dialogues get to the point of single ignorance but, like the rich man in the Gospel, “go away sad,” because they wanted a wisdom that did not demand that, at times, they give up some of their “prizes” for something better.
Yet, as the Parable suggests, there is a mysterious, invisible force which also pulls on us to make this movement from double ignorance all the way to wisdom. This pull is invisible and unnamed because it is a divine movement that impels the soul in the direction of wisdom. The ancient philosophers typically described the divine as “pulling” on the soul, drawing the soul toward wisdom and the participation in the divine and divine things. Aristotle’s concept of the divine as the “final cause” drawing all of being toward itself is only the most famous example of a set of symbols that runs throughout the ancient philosophers. But while those in double ignorance can be drawn by this divine pulling – whether it is understood to be God or a god or one’s holy guardian angel or what have you – they do not yet have the experiences by which to understand it. Only in the movement toward wisdom, toward understanding the ultimate principles – or what Plato, Carl Jung, and many esoteric traditions call the “archetypes” – can one manage to recognize something of the nature of the divine impulse which tugs on the soul.
Consequently, the person who undertakes this pursuit is not only after a wisdom that looks like knowledge. This wisdom consists in an attunement to the divine and to divine things. Hence it is certainly a kind of knowledge, but it is more importantly a certain way of life, a way of being, and consists in large measure in the development of the virtues conducive to living a life of wisdom. On this model, the divine becomes the primary ordering principle of the soul, which entails not only a knowing but a releasing of the latent Divine Spark within.
Returning to the Cave
Plato’s narrative does not end therefore with the attainment of wisdom for, having a soul more and more ordered to the divine through the process of Illumination, the philosopher feels an increased connection to and concern for those who are still locked up in the cave, gazing at the shadows. Some of kind existential philia, i.e. a profound and general love of one’s fellow human beings, drives the philosopher to enter back into the cave, though he would much rather remain outside it, in the hope of aiding those who remain enslaved by the game of shadows, the Great Deception. Yet, as Plato notes, when the philosopher does this, he will typically be ignored, ridiculed, or even killed as a nuisance. Just as Socrates was killed for “corrupting the youth” though in fact he was simply highlighting the deceptive ways and culture of the Athens of his time, so Socrates’ death will be a paradigm case for philosophers throughout the ages, who will consistently pay a high price for seeking wisdom and for attempting to aid others in the process of Illumination. Both the commitment to purely sensuous pleasures on the part of the prisoner and the interests of the sophists generating the shadows result in an unwillingness to listen to the philosopher and a boundless fury at the philosopher for trying to awaken the prisoners from their mindless slumber.
Philosophy and esoteric practice
Seeking wisdom and Illumination, on Plato’s account, is an arduous – indeed, it can even be a bloody – business, not made for the weak of heart. Yet it was not without reason that the Hermetic practitioners were also philosophers in Plato’s tradition.
- Knowledge of self is the Alpha and Omega of esoteric practice. Yet there are in fact many ways of knowing oneself that are essential to esoteric practices and one of those ways is exemplified in the Parable of Cave: the recognition of where one is self-deceived. Any movement toward wisdom and Illumination requires a prior effort to free oneself from self-deception.
How does one do that? The Parable hints that the portal to liberation is through recognizing where the divine “pulls” at the soul. Wherever one feels the impulse towards wonder or questioning with an eye toward expanding one’s intellectual, moral or spiritual view or wherever a dissatisfaction with the status quo leads one not just to complaining and cynicism but to recognizing a potentially higher life behind what one sees, one should assume that there is a divinely-inspired impulse there. This is not so much a movement toward a general skepticism of the world as a recognition that appearances can only be understood in the light of higher planes of Being. Following such impulses, carefully and thoughtfully, can give one a context in which to understand the Great Deception and thereby in some measure leave the game of shadows, in the direction of single ignorance.
That this step of the process is important for esoteric practitioners should be clear. For example, since esoteric practices as a rule increase one’s power to achieve ends as well as evoke certain powers of the psyche not typically in use by contemporary humanity, being caught in the game of shadows will at best lend confusion and at worst lead to unintended and potentially quite negative effects – or to discovering that one’s practice has been intensifying rather than mitigating the sophistical game of shadows.
- The movement out of the cave, i.e. the movement from single ignorance toward wisdom and Illumination, should be understood as correlating to the release of the Divine Spark within. This second stage of the illuminative process suggests an ever-deepening participation in divine life and being, to the point of experiencing all things in the divine light. This too is a kind of self-knowledge. It is not the knowledge of self-deception and of the vices which arise in its wake, however, characteristic of the first stage of illumination, but a knowledge and experience of the Higher Self within. What better image of adepthood could there be than living and experiencing life wholly in the divine light?
One can easily see how this stage of the process correlates in some ways to theurgic practices. If we image the latter as in some way a “descent” of the divine into us, the philosophical work is the correlating “ascent” from the cave into the light. Similar symbols have been used for illumination in other traditions. For example, St. Bonaventure offers a Christian version of this duality of illuminative descent-ascent in terms of the image of Jacob’s ladder, on which the angels both descend and ascend. These first two steps reveal why a philosophical attitude is crucial for Illumination and also something of why theurgy should have a primacy over other kinds of esoteric practice.
- The movement back into the cave, the third step, suggests a re-engaging with the shadows, but from the new, more illuminated point of view. An important piece of this movement is the love for humanity which impels one back into the cave, a symbol of the responsibility for the well-being of others that comes with philosophy and also with adepthood. A further dimension of this movement is that it suggests that the philosopher becomes an agent of the divine, through the participation in the light of the Sun. The genuine philosopher, one might say, collaborates with the invisible divine movement attempting to release others from the shadows of the cave, by using his or her experience of both life within the cave and life without it to persuade (and not to force) others to follow the divine pulling.
This third step suggests that a genuine philosopher and the genuine adept does not seek the power associated with Illumination only for his or her own purposes, but also for the aid and liberation of the world.
- However, though the image gives a more or less linear description of illumination, as if it is simply a three-step process, in practice it is more properly an ongoing and cyclical process. That is to say, this movement back into the cave is not just for others but also for oneself: it is a re-descending into places in our own soul where there are still lurking shadows and undertaking anew the illuminative process with respect to those things. One is never just illuminated or not illuminated; it is always a question of degrees and further illumination is also always possible.
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