Sunday, September 2, 2007

My Reflections of Phaedo

[Note to the reader: This post probably reads a little cryptic but some readers might appreciate the parallels between Socrates' asceticism and cosmological myth and the Mormon temple experience which most Latter-day Saints take to be literally true while a minority take it as metaphor. I fall in the latter group. Most readers will understandably overlook this post but this one is dear to my heart.]

My Relections of Phaedo

I recently read Plato’s Phaedo, an account of the dialogues between Socrates and his friends just before Socrates was executed. This story has stayed with me for days and has stirred many spiritual thoughts within me. What follows are a few of my reflections.

Socrates said,
“For ‘many,’ as they say in the mysteries, ‘are the thyrsus-bearers, but few are the mystics,’—meaning, as I interpret the words, ‘the true philosophers.’”

I find it interesting that Socrates refers several times to the “mysteries” (see the Eleusinian, Orphic, Mithraic Mysteries, etc.) because I consider the LDS temple ceremony to be related to the traditions of such mysteries, at least somewhat in its style.

“Thyrsus-bearers” are scepter holders or, in LDS language, “priesthood holders.” The “mystics” are “true philosophers” who “care not for the “pleasures of eating, drinking,…love,… the acquisition of costly raiment(see Matt. 6:25),…or other adornments of the body…he is entirely concerned with the soul and not with the body…he would like, as far as he can, to get away from the body and to turn to the soul…the real philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to obtain the greatest good in the other world.”

(It appears, at least from my 21st century perspective, that Platonic philosophy was the channel through which eastern asceticism exerted its influence in the western Judeo Christian religions as well as Islam.)

Now to restate Socrates more succinctly: “For many are the thyrsus-bearers, but few are the mystics.” In other words, “For many are the scepter-holders, but few the philosophers.” The concept can also be found in Hinduism, for many quest for moksha, but few find liberation from samsara and find nirvana. In Matthew 22:14, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Joseph Smith put it this way in D&C 121:34-35:
34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson…”
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

Joseph Smith’s version agrees with Plato but has a more Latter-day appeal.

In other paragraphs Socrates mentioned, the “spirit of prophecy,” “light of truth,” and seeing “through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). All three of these terms should be familiar to scripture readers.

It appears that Socrates was influenced by eastern philosophy, that Matthew and Paul read Plato, and that Joseph Smith read Matthew.

Socrates points out that the “rest of the world are of the opinion that to him who has no sense of pleasure and no part in bodily pleasure, life is not worth having; and that he who is indifferent about them is as good as dead.” But the reason for such denial is to disentangle the body from the soul “because each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body.” Therefore the nails of “fear or pleasure or pain” need to be purged by “temperance, and justice, and courage, and wisdom.” (Reminds me of Gnostic asceticism.)

Socrates makes reference again to the “founders of the mysteries” and regarding their rites “were not talking nonsense when they intimated in a figure long ago that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will lie in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods.” (Reminds me of LDS endowment ceremony.)

Socrates called such “sanctification” and “initiation,” purification, “And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body.” The souls who fail to completely disentangle themselves from their bodies take on a ghostly appearance and may haunt tombs. They are “compelled to wander about such places in payment of the penalty of their former evil way of life; and they continue to wander until through the craving after the corporeal which never leaves them, they are imprisoned finally in another body…” (Gnosticism, spirit prison, reincarnation)

The prisons are animal bodies such as asses, wolves, and hawks for the gluttonous, wanton, and drunkard. Better souls can hope for a relatively happy communal existence as a bee, wasp, ant, or human. (Think about the deemphasized doctrine of valiancy in the preexistence.)
“No one who has not studied philosophy and who is not entirely pure at the time of his departure is allowed to enter the company of the gods, but the lover of knowledge only. And this is the reason…why the true votaries of philosophy abstain from all fleshly lusts.” (Gods plural, Greek Pantheon of Gods)

Socrates believed the body to be mortal and the soul to be immortal although he could not prove to himself that the soul could never die. He worried that the soul might grow “weary in the labours of successive births, and may at last succumb in one of her deaths and utterly perish.”

Socrates looked forward to his death with rejoicing because he was anxious to attain that which has been the pursuit of his life. “And therefore I go on my way rejoicing, and not I only, but every other man who believes that his mind has been made ready and the he is in a manner purified.” (Evangelical zeal)

The story took a turn when Socrates started to recount a cosmological myth that enthralled his listeners and filled them with inexplicable joy and hope. On the bottom of eight pages I wrote, “WOW!!!” to describe my reaction to Socrates story. I was equally caught up, quite unexpectedly, by the grandeur of this myth. (Creation myth)

Socrates explained that he had something like a daydream wherein he imagined that he was speaking with Anaxagoras who had all the answers that Socrates desired to know. Socrates imagined that he would first ask Anaxagoras “whether the earth is flat or round.” Then Socrates would next ask about the nature of what is known today as biology, physics, geology, and astronomy. “These hopes [knowledge] I would not have sold for a large sum of money, and I seized the books and read them as fast as I could in my eagerness to know the better and the worse.” Socrates’ hunger for knowledge resonates with me and I reflect that much, but not all, of what Socrates desired to know is available to me in this modern age and I share Socrates’ desire to learn these same things and I have diligently pursued them, in my own way, my entire life.

Socrates described in captivating detail the four principal rivers that circulate oceans above and beneath the earth as they are pushed about by the winds that act like pumps in a manner similar to respiration. There are lakes where souls congregate. There are also lava flows and lava lakes. Souls journey about the underworld—some guided, some unguided. After death all souls who need to be reborn will need to make a journey to a particular lake that serves as a staging are for souls waiting to be reborn. The good souls need a guide to this lake because the path is not well trodden. The bad souls get no such guide and that is why it takes them longer to get back to the staging area.

Socrates calls this process of being “born again from the dead” an ancient doctrine. It is impossible not to see the similarities to the Hindu ideas of samsara, reincarnation, and karma. (Resurrection)


Imagine the stone silence of Socrates’ friends as they listened enthralled. Then Socrates broke the spell of the myth and bore humble testimony that even though the myth was not literally true, the truth had to be something like it. Socrates’ own words are worthy of being quoted at length but I realize that a person without my background may not get nearly the same impact from them. The following quotes really spoke to me:
“A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say…that something of the kind is true. The venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why I lengthen out the tale. Wherefore, I say, let a man be of good cheer about his soul.”

“In the number of the [true philosophers] whom, during my whole life, I have been seeking, according to my ability, to find a place:--whether I have sought in a right way or not, and whether I have succeeded or not, I shall truly know in a little while, if God will, when I myself arrive in the other world—such is my belief…for I believe that I shall equally find good masters and friends in another world.”

“…the soul is in the very likeness of the divine,…”

“…and for ever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.”

Then Socrates warns his intellectual followers about becoming cynical, although he couldn’t have used that word yet as the cynics hadn’t been established. I will quote Socrates again at length because his words resonate with me in ways that I have not yet been able to articulate adequately.
“…when a simple man who has no skill in dialectics believes an argument to be true which he afterwards imagines to be false, whether really false or not, and then another, and then another, he has not longer any faith left, and great disputers, as you know, come to think at last that they have grown to be the wisest of mankind; for they alone perceive the utter unsoundness and instability of all arguments, or indeed, of all things, which, like the currents in the Euripus, are going up and down in never-ceasing ebb and flow.”

…and how melancholy, if there be such a thing as truth or certainty or possibility of knowledge—that a man should have lighted upon some argument or other which at first seemed true and then turned out to be false, and instead of blaming himself and his own want of wit, because he is annoyed, should at last be too glad to transfer the blame from himself to arguments in general: and for ever afterwards should hate and revile them, and lose truth and the knowledge of realities.

“…but if there be nothing after death, still, during the short time that remains, I shall not distress my friends with lamentations, and my ignorance will not last, but will die with me, and therefore no harm will be done.

“…that I may not deceive you as well as myself in my enthusiasm, and like the bee, leave my sting in you before I die.”

The End.