Plato's Esoteric Science
of Dialectical Interchange
Plato teaches that Dialectical Interchange is esoteric in several different senses. First, the true meaning and transformative power of Dialectical Interchange can only be unlocked and applied by a Perennialist savant, and persons can only effectively participate in dialectic if they have effective knowledge of the Perennial Tradition. 1
"Esoteric knowledge can be given only to those who seek, only to those who have been seeking it with a certain amount of consciousness, that is, with an understanding of how it differs from ordinary knowledge and how it can be found . . . This preliminary knowledge can be gained by ordinary means, from existing and known literature, easily accessible to all. And the acquisition of this preliminary knowledge may be regarded as the first test. Only those who pass this first test, those, that is, who acquire the necessary knowledge from the material accessible to all, may hope to take the next step, at which point direct individual help will be accorded them. A man may hope to approach esotericism if he has acquired a right understanding from ordinary knowledge, that is, if he can find his way through the labyrinth of contradictory systems, theories and hypotheses, and understanding their general meaning and general significance. This test is something like a competitive examination open to the whole human race, and the idea of a competitive examination alone explains why the esoteric circle appears reluctant to help humanity. It is not reluctant. All that is possible is done to help men, but men will not or cannot make the necessary efforts themselves. And they cannot be helped by force."Dialectical Interchange involves an advanced, esoteric knowledge about how to achieve "the separation of the soul and body." Plato's teachings concerning Dialectical Interchange are esoteric in that their discernment requires advanced personal development in comprehension of and practice of the Perennial Tradition, the only source of this wisdom.
P. D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe, 1931
Plato teaches that Dialectical Interchange is esoteric, secondly, in that it is personal. Platonic dialectical interchange, as practiced by a Perennialist teacher, inevitably brings out both the best--and the worst--in its participants. A person may appear, during certain moments in dialectical interchange, to be a rational, intelligent, loving person. But, the magic of dialectical interchange may reveal that that person is also (or actually) an irrational, stupid, unloving person. Within the Perennial Tradition, an advanced Perennialist teacher develops knowledge about an individual from the teacher's assessment of the person's entire mental, emotional, physical, psychic, and spiritual being. Some of this knowledge derives from the teacher's dialectical interchange with the student. Such personal knowledge of the individual is treated as private or esoteric knowledge.
Such esoteric knowledge about an individual originates from a Perennialist teacher assessing an individual's reactions to and interactions with the teacher's actions, interchanges, ideas, assessments, diagnoses, statements, writings, and assignments, and distilling the essence of what the individual's reactions and interactions reveal about that person. Such esoteric knowledge is potentially dangerous, if used improperly, so it is not even shared with the person unless:
- The individual requests the information and
- The teacher assesses that the individual is capable of:
If esoteric, personal knowledge were made available to persons under mental and psychic bondage to their debilitating selves, they might allow themselves to become so despondent about their intellectual, moral, or spiritual state that they might judge themselves to be of no worth or incapable of improvement. Or, alternately, they might cling to their pompous, ignorant over-estimation of themselves and dismiss, out of hand, a more knowledgeable assessment of their being.
- Receiving the information without negative effect: e.g. emotional turmoil: depression, hyper-elation; misinterpretation; misuse; etc.
- Using the information to positive effect: e.g. realistic self-assessment and genuine self-transformation
Some persons might misuse esoteric information as an excuse for rejecting the teacher, his assessment of their state of being, or his recommended remedial assignments, when carefully considering and valuing the teacher's knowledge and actions would be the only real chance the individual would have of ever achieving enlightenment, personal transformation, or even a productive life.
Esoteric knowledge is the essence of Dialectical Interchange: participants sharing esoteric information with one another. This is why Dialectical Interchange is perilous and why an advanced teacher only allows persons to participate in it who have achieved a specific level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual attainment.
Plato's esoteric teaching concerning Dialectical Interchange refers to one of the central concepts of the Perennial Tradition: "dying before you die". Philosophy, the love of and the search for wisdom, is actually practiced through Dialectical Interchange which results in learning to leave the physical body and live in the soul, the spiritual body.
The philosopher--seeker after wisdom--lives in her soul, the higher consciousness. Discerning the essence of philosophy, the seeker gains important clues as to the nature of Plato's esoteric science--what he called Dialectic--and described as maieutic psychagogy:
Plato's Socrates, in the dialogues, practiced an extraordinary kind of shared mystical experience in which he served as a psychagogic midwife, overseeing the process of the divulgence of, the bringing into being of new elements: abilities, ideas, feelings, characteristics, inspirations, and images.
- Maieutic: maieûtikos, midwife, one who assists in the delivery of a new being
- Psychagogy: psuchagôgê, from Greek, psûchê, soul, and agogê, transport to or lead out of; the science of helping to bring out (give birth to) new elements (ideas, characteristics, capabilities) from a person's soul or to bring into (transmit to) a person's soul, elements from a higher level of being
" On the part of Socrates, the dialogue is an attempt to submit the others, at least tentatively, to the catharsis of death. The judgment of the dead is thus enacted in part in the dialogue itself, concretely, in the attempt of Socrates to pierce through the 'body' of his interlocutors to their naked souls."
Eric Voegelin, Plato
Both Socrates and the other participants in the dialectical interchange were in a higher state of consciousness. Socrates at times had to work to bring other participants into a higher state, since they were largely unfamiliar with the experience. But his presence and his actions were able to bring them into this higher state--so much so that the participants sometimes spoke of being entranced, charmed, or bewitched, as in this passage from the Meno.
Menon: "You seem to me to be a veritable wizard, casting your spells over me, and I am truly getting bewitched and enchanted, and YOU HAVE STOPPED MY WORLD. "As is clear from the Phaedo and other dialogues, Plato believed that we can only discover truth when we are in a higher consciousness.
"Then when does the soul attain truth?-for in attempting to consider anything in company with the ordinary bodily consciousness she is obviously deceived."
"Must it not, then, be by contemplating in our soul, if at all, that any of the things that possess true being become known to it?
"And surely the soul then contemplates best when none of these things disturb it--neither hearing, nor sight, nor pain, nor pleasure of any kind; but it retires as much as possible within itself, taking leave of the body; and, so far as it can, not communicating or being in contact with it, it aims at the discovery of that which has true being." 2
Such statements as this--occurring throughout Plato's dialogues--should make it clear to us that the search for truth cannot take place in the ordinary bodily consciousness. Yet academics and scholastics throughout history have ignored Plato's declaration and thoughtlessly gone ahead to assume that what Plato was describing in the dialogues as Dialectical Interchange was merely two or more people, in their ordinary state of consciousness, conversing normally about philosophical concepts.
If we're to take Plato at his word, dialectical interchange involves the participants attempting to gain a genuine understanding of "that which has true being"--eternal Forms. Since Plato makes it clear that eternal Forms CANNOT be discovered or understood in the ordinary mind-state, dialectical interchange can occur only when the participants are in a heightened mode of consciousness. This higher state of consciousness can be active at the same time as a person's "ordinary" consciousness and the student or initiate may be unaware that he is a higher state of consciousness.
Plato makes this very clear in the Phaedo:"Is there or is there not an absolute justice?
"Assuredly there is.
"And an absolute beauty and absolute good?
"But did you ever behold any of them with your eyes?
"Or did you ever reach them with any other bodily sense? (and I speak not of these alone, but of absolute greatness, and health, and strength, and of the essence or true nature of everything). Has the reality of them ever been perceived by you through the bodily organs? or rather, is not the nearest approach to the knowledge of their several natures made by him who so orders his intellectual vision as to have the most exact conception of the essence of that which he considers?"
|Socrates is making it clear to them that they have had experience with Forms when in dialectical interchange with him, and since they could not have experienced Forms in their ordinary state of consciousness, it must have been in a higher state (even if they were unaware of it).|
In other words, it is possible for a person to participate in dialectical interchange with a True Philosopher and be unaware that they are in a higher state of consciousness.
"And he attains to the knowledge of Forms in their highest purity who goes to each of them with the soul alone, not allowing when in the act of contemplation the intrusion or introduction of sight or any other sense in the company of reason, but with the very light of the soul in her clearness penetrates into the very light of truth in each Form; is not this the sort of man who, if ever man did, is likely to attain the knowledge of true being?"
| "Dialectic is the only philosophical process which seeks for wisdom by |
anagogically uplifting our Intellectual foundations so that our Higher Self ascends to the Origin." 3
Plato's explanation of the nature of maieutic psychagogy in his Seventh Letter makes it clear that dialectic is a mystical interchange between teacher and student or between leader and participant.In the Sophist, the Eleatic Stranger states that thinking and discourse are the same thing, except that what we call thinking is, precisely, the inward dialogue carried on by the mind with itself without spoken sound. (263e) He also asserts that there is true and false speech, that thinking is the soul's conversation with itself, that belief is the conclusion of thinking, and that what we call appearing is the blending of perception and belief. [264b]"After much effort, as names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another, in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will, with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem, and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest limits of human powers. . . . After long continued interchange between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of understanding, suddenly a light is kindled in the teacher's soul by a flame that leaps to the student's soul, and thereafter sustains itself." 341c
The mystical aspect of dialectic is evidenced by the sudden flash that shines forth, the light that is kindled in one soul which leaps to another and then sustains itself. As a Master--such as Socrates or Plato--creates the dialectical atmosphere and brings his inner wisdom to bear on the shared mystical experience, a literal enlightenment takes place. Such an experience cannot be contrived by merely trying to set up a "debate" or a "philosophical conversation." There must be a real magician--a genuine philosopher-- present to bring about the flash of intuitive illumination eventuating in attunement with true reality, the "activation of the subtleties."
"To read a Platonic Dialogue is to participate in a dramatic experience, and what readers cull from these experiences and refer to as The Philosophy of Plato can never be stated in the indicative mood, as if it were so much objective information on matters of fact. Plato's 'secret' is not factual at all. No application of scholarly technique enables the reader to extract from The Dialogues a concentrate which can be distilled into a specific essence. Plato's 'philosophy' has no prescriptive formula. There is nothing, nothing whatever, which you might conceivably discover, write down, and pass around in a printed book which could be set upon library shelves and put into the hands of young students. It is like poetry or music. You have to experience it directly, in and for yourself. " Rupert C. Lodge, The Philosophy of Plato, 1956
Given the nature of the spiritual birth process in dialectic, only a prepared student can effectively participate. Plato makes this clear in his Seventh Letter:"The process however of dealing with all of these, as the mind moves up and down to each in turn, does after much effort give birth in a well-constituted mind to knowledge of that which is well constituted. But if a man is ill-constituted by nature (as the state of the soul is naturally in the majority both in its capacity for learning and in what is called moral character)--or it may have become so by deterioration--not even Lynceus could endow such men with the power of sight"As Plato indicates, not even a great Teacher such as Lynceus can do much to help improve persons with minds "ill-constituted by nature" or minds crippled and corrupted by persons' own depridations. But a Perennialist teacher must give even such persons every chance to attain self-awareness and self-improvement. So, even if it risks persons rejecting the teacher and his assistance, the teacher must share his assessments and his recommended assignments with such persons, because this is likely the only real chance they have for overcoming enslavement to their debilitating selves and improving intellectually, morally, spiritually, and physically. Persons must remain in dialectical interchange with a teacher only because they are convinced that the teacher's "diagnoses" [assessments] of their being are correct--and more discerning and correct than their own personal assessments--and that the teacher's "prescriptions" [recommended activities] are beneficial in that they produce genuine, positive improvement.
If any element (action, person, situation, event, etc.) can keep persons away from interchange with a teacher, they must be allowed to do so. Engagement in dialectical interchange with a teacher must be seen by students as an essential, life-sustaining element which they are undeservedly privileged to have been provided by the teacher.
The mystical experience of maieutic psychagogy, Dialectical Interchange, involves the participants in a process which teaches how to develop and take part in such a process; it involves learning by doing. Socrates and Plato taught how the mystical dialectic can be entered into, how it can be carried out (allowing higher knowledge to flow through oneself), and how to continue this process in one's life. A beneficence occurs within the dialectic experience which remains with those who are prepared to take up the philosophical-mystical way of life.
"Let us review the whole development of this dialogue [Phaedo], in which Socrates brings his hearers to behold the eternal in human personality. The hearers accept his thoughts, and they look into themselves to see if they can find in their inner experiences something which assents to his ideas. They make the objections which strike them. What has happened to the hearers when the dialogue is finished? They have found something within them which they did not possess before. They have not merely accepted an abstract truth, but they have gone through a development. Something has come to life in them which was not living in them before. Is not this to be compared with an initiation? And does not this throw light on the reason for Plato's setting forth his philosophy in the form of conversation? These dialogues are nothing else than the literary form of the events which took place in the sanctuaries of the Mysteries. We are convinced of this from what Plato himself says in many passages. Plato wished to be, as a philosophical teacher, what the initiator into the Mysteries was, as far as this was compatible with the philosophical manner of communication. It is evident how Plato feels himself in harmony with the Mysteries! He only thinks he is on the right path when it is taking him where the Mystic is to be led."
Rudolph Steiner, Christianity as Mystical Fact
Practicing genuine Platonic dialectic requires that there be at least one person at an advanced level within the Perennial Tradition, and prepared participants willing and able to actively engage in the experience to the fullest extent. Such interchange require that each participant speak openly and honestly, holding nothing back out of fear of contradiction or personal criticism. A person cannot participate in true dialectic if he tries to plan his tactics ("I'll hold back on this argument until the end of the debate. . ."), hedge his bets ("I dare not say that, because they would criticize me for such a weak argument. . ."), or seek to defeat an opponent ("His argument on this point is so weak; I'll hit him with this overwhelming fact. . .").
The participants within true dialectic reside in a higher intellectual dimension. The power of genuine dialectic occurs because all persons are fully and honestly invested in what they're saying. Their divergent contributions vigorously collide, then coalesce in a higher united understanding--even if it's an understanding that they don't fully understand. Each participant must, like Zorba dancing, 4 "undo his belt" and surrender to a higher sway, allowing the free flow of the give-and-take of dialectic to lead whither it will. The most fruitful dialogues of this nature are those in which more than one participant is an advanced teacher.
"Why rank that method [dialectical interchange] among the great achievements of humanity? Because it makes moral inquiry a common human enterprise, open to every man. Its practice calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech. And this is as it should be, for how men should live is every man's business, and the role of the specialist and the expert should be only to offer guidance and criticism, to inform, and clarify the judgment of the layman, leaving the final decision up to him. But while the Socratic method makes moral inquiry open to everyone, it makes it easy for no one. It calls not only for the highest degree of mental alertness of which anyone is capable, but also for moral qualities of a high order: sincerity, humility, courage. Socrates expects you to say what you really believe about the way man should live; which implies, among other things, about the way you should live. His method will not work if the opinion you give him is just an opinion, it must be your opinion: the one you stand ready to live by, so that if that opinion should be refuted, your own life or a part of it will be indicted or discredited, shown up to be a muddle, premised on a confusion or a contradiction. To get into the argument when you realize that this is the price you have to pay for it--that in the course of it your ego may experience the unpleasant sensation of a bloody nose--takes courage. To search for moral truth that may prove your own life wrong takes humility, that is not afraid of humiliation. These are the qualities Socrates himself brings to the argument. . ." Gregory Vlastos, editor, The Philosophy of Socrates, 1980
The Greek word dialectic (dialektos) refers to reciprocal interchange between persons or aspects of a person. One of the extraordinary elements Plato introduces is locating dialectic both in outer discourse and in inner dialogue.
In Theatetus, Plato defines thinking as:"a talk which the soul has with itself about the objects under its consideration. . . It seems to me that the soul when it thinks is simply carrying on a discussion in which it asks itself questions and answers them itself, affirms and denies. And when it arrives at something definite, either by a gradual process or a sudden leap, when it affirms one thing consistently and without divided counsel, we call this its judgment. So, in my view, to judge is to make a statement, and a judgment is a statement which is not addressed to another person or spoken aloud, but silently addressed to oneself." [189e-190a]
"Only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness."However, Plato was aware that even in his day writing possessed the hypomnematic function of bringing essential concepts to mind for those who were already prepared and possessed basic knowledge.
seeks for, pursues
(anagogically) upliftting (carrying to a higher domain)
"Dialectic is the only philosophical process which seeks for wisdom by (anagogically) uplifting our Intellectual foundations so that our Higher Self ascends to the Origin." my translation
"'Then,' said I, 'is not dialectics the only process of inquiry that advances in this manner, doing away with hypotheses, up to the first principle itself in order to find confirmation there?'" translated by Paul Shorey
"Then dialectic, and dialectic alone, goes directly to the first principle and is the only science which does away with hypotheses in order to make her ground secure; the eye of the soul, which is literally buried in an outlandish slough, is by her gentle aid lifted upward. . ." translation by Benjamin Jowett
4 Zorba: "Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble."
5 The author has engaged in dialectical interchange with a number of teachers over this 65 year period.
1. Dialectical interchange in person:
2. Dialectical interchange with these persons through their writings:
- Paul Gary, Phillips University, Enid, Oklahma
- William Christian, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut
- Brand Blanshard, Yale Graduate School, New Haven, Connecticut
- Paul Weiss, Yale Graduate School, New Haven, Connecticut
- John Smith, Yale Graduate School, New Haven, Connecticut
- Paul Brunton, (I visited with Mr. Brunton in New York City in 1958)
- Idries Shah, (I visited with Shah in Tunbridge Wells, England in 1964)
- Michelle Mairesse, Vista, California
- Betty White and Stewart Edward White
- John Stuart Mill
- The writers of the canonical and extra-canonical Christian Gospels
- Aldous Huxley (I also attended a lecture by Huxley at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1965)
- Mary A. Atwood
- Paulo Freire
- Alfred North Whitehead
- The author of The Bhagavad Gita
- Erich Fromm
- P. D. Ouspensky
- Wilhelm Reich
- Jane Austen
- Charlotte Bronte
- Carlos Castaneda
- Upton Sinclair