This article is the third installment of my translation of Plato’s Phaedo. Please read the previous installment before continuing. If you are just jumping in, please begin with my introduction.

This section of the dialogue seems simple and uneventful enough, but that is only if we don’t understand the context that is the Elysian Mysteries, and the relationship of the laws surrounding the Mysteries to Socrates’ death. One of the reasons why the Athenians chose to put Socrates to death was because he was accused of speaking about what happens in the Mysteries. It was forbidden by death to speak about, teach or enact any of the Mysteries. This is why we don’t have an historical record of what exactly took place during the annual pilgrimage along the Sacred Way to, at the very end, experience the great mysteries and “wonders” of life. We do know that the Mysteries claimed to facilitate, through experience of wonderous sights and sounds, a lifting of all fear around death and the afterlife, by means of a sacred expression of the story of Demeter, her daughter Persephone, and her abductor, Hades. Plutarch, in a letter, wrote:


“…because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries…we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. Let us behave ourselves accordingly…When a man dies, he is like those who are initiated into the mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting, it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparitions”

Hamilton, E. The Greek Way. W. W. Norton & Company, 1930.

In this dialogue about the Soul, about a man who achieved fearlessness in the face of death, we can witness the possibility of achieving absolute freedom from fear without entering the Mysteries. Phaedo expresses, in this section, the experience of wonderment, because he was entirely present to who Socrates was. As the dialogue progresses, it’s important to keep in mind that Socrates taught that wisdom cannot be taught, and so too the great Mysteries. What this means is that for Plato, Socrates was put to death for doing something that’s not humanly possible, by those who believe they are sanctioned by the divine to do everything divinely possible. Religions of all kinds play this kind of role in the history of humanity, and many a human being takes it upon himself to kill or murder or curse others because they believe that the divine requires such defending from humans. This kind of arrogance, which the Greeks called hybris, is a direct result of humans not understanding the limitations of their knowledge, the nature of the divine, and the nature of the mind. What religion generally creates is a simulation of the divine that serves those human beings that wish to be seen as sanctioned by God himself. However, the only God that would sanction such behavior, all its war and salaciousness, would be Lucifer himself. That is why people should wonder why Satanic symbols are found all over the Vatican.

In the section below, Phaedo briefly describes his experience of bliss. But he also briefly describes the state of the others. None of them were experiencing the bliss of Socrates at all. In fact, that we were experiencing emotional duality/polarity: feeling happy one minute and sad that next, laughing and crying, creating confusion for all. That is the nature of unity when we attempt to impose it in physical reality – a ball of confusion, emotional triggers, and a consequent loss of awareness. It’s a spiritual form of drowning in the wild waves of life, unable to maintain true grounded composure. The awareness that this life is just a small experience of our soul, would alleviate all fear and confusion. However, although every single one of these men present at Socrates death were participants of the Mysteries, none of them appear to have retained that wisdom and continued to indulge themselves in emotional drama, not even enjoying their usual philosophical discourse, as Phaedo mentions.

There are many books written about the Mysteries, how drugs were used to help people achieve the desired state of awareness. This was probably true, because the masses of Athenians could not retain the teaching and needed to alleviate their natural emotional polarized state through mushrooms. It is for this reason, Plato didn’t consider the Mysteries to be true spiritual centers but were instead actually tools of manipulation by the elite priests over the masses, in service of the political class.

It needs to be mentioned that by the time of the Roman empire, the Mysteries had further declined into orgy and drug fueled binges, very far from the way of spiritual awakening and enlightenment. This section has Execrates ask Phaedo to focus on the speeches, the logoi (reason/words/logic/understanding), and not the actions and sufferings of the players. The logoi, the substantial elements of the dia-log-ue, are the key to awareness, and not the physical witnessing of that is emphasized in the Mysteries. Many a spiritual guru has fallen into sexual depravity due to his/her emphasis on physical witnessing of union energy (being/unity). Plato and his students refined that erotic impulse towards the other direction…and took to the way of dialogue.

I do not translate the word logoi in this dialogue. There is no English equivalent. Logoi is often translated as speeches, and that is one aspect of them, but the word speeches focuses more on the “word” aspect, and so the intellectual understanding of words as speeches. Logoi refers to the words as concepts/reason, the invisible veil of reason which could consist of logic, mathematics, and geometrical shape. Essentially, logoi are the invisible boundaries that are the definitions of things, definitions that can expanded or contracted, including the blurry logic of the ego, concepts of good and evil, the confusion of which always shows up when we start engaging in the dialogue, the intersection of a number of logoi, called a conversation, which always begins in confusion, contradiction, and difficulty.

The goal, however, of the dialogue, is to find the unity from within the apparent polarity and war of the different logoi or opinions. That is the ultimate goal, to find the unity from within ourselves, within the contrary currents of our emotions, thoughts and drives. That is the way of freedom, and the way of freedom from fear.



Phaedo
Now, I myself, since I was present, experienced wonders[1]  Pity for the death of a man dear to me didn’t even enter the scene[2]. To me, he appeared to be a blessed[3] man, Execrates, both in his manner and his words; and he completed his life so fearlessly[4] and nobly that it became clear to me that he was going to Hades[5] by the hand of the divine[6], and when he would get there, he would do quite well, better than anyone else could. Because of this, nothing piteous entered the scene, as would usually be the case in a public mourning; and neither was the usual pleasure in philosophy – even though there were some philosophical conversations going on.[7] Instead, there was an uncanny experience that came over me, an unusual mixture of equal parts of pain and pleasure, knowing full well in my heart that he was soon meant to complete his life. All of us there experienced the same thing: at one time laughing, and another time crying, each one of us and most especially Apollodorus[8], for you know the man and his ways.

Execrates
How could I not?

Phaedo
Well, he held[9] himself entirely in this way, and so I myself, as well as all the rest, were quite confused.[10]

Execrates
Who else was there, Phaedo?

Phaedo
Of those who usually frequent his company, Apollodorus himself of course was there, as well as Kritoboulos and his father, and still further there was Hermogenes, Epigenes, Aischines, and Antisthenes. Ktesippos the Paianeian was also there, as well as Menexenos and some other locals. I believe Plato was sick that day.

Execrates
Were any foreigners present?

Phaedo
Yes. Simmias the Theban, and Kebes and Phaedondes and Euklides of Megaros and Terpsion.

Execrates
Did Aristippos and Kleombrotos attend?

Phaedo
No. For they were said to be in Aegina.

Execrates
Was anyone else there?

Phaedo

I am pretty sure I accounted all of them.

Execrates
So what were the speeches (logoi) you are mentioning[11]?


[1] epathon thaumasia. “experienced wonders”. The experience of wonders is what initiates are said to have experienced during the Elysian Mysteries. Participants in the Mysteries were forbidden from speaking about their experience. Phaedo’s experience with Socrates is equal to that kind of experience: he has overcome the fear of death.

[2] eleos eisaiei. “pity entered the scene” This word, to enter can mean “to enter into the mind” or to enter on the stage, as in a chorus or an actor on the stage. Plato is suggesting that the pity is somehow related to the external drama of our mind. The tragic chorus did not enter the stage here because Socrates did not show up as a tragic figure to be pitied.

[3] eudaimōn. From the word daimōn, whom Socrates refers to in the Apology as being his spirit guide. eudaimōn means well-being, bliss, happiness, nirvana. It’s an adjective that is often associated with blessedness when returning to the isle of the gods.  Socrates appeared to be a man headed for nirvana. What’s to pity?

[4]adeōs. This adverb means fearlessly, and has a likeness to the world hēdeōs, which means pleasurably. hēdeōs is a word used by Execrates to express how pleasant it is to hear about Socrates. Nirvana, or blessedness, is somehow connected with achieving fearlessness before death. It also marks the surrender to divine fate, the surrendering over of the dualistic drama.

[5] First mention of Hades. Hades literally means “unseen” or “hidden”. Hades is the underworld, similar to the duat in Egyptian religion, or the realm beyond the physical and visible realm. In Greek mythology, Hercules was able to visit Hades when alive and returned because he passed the tests of virtue.

[6] Moira: Also means death, allotment, portion, fate, or part (one’s part in life, their lot).

[7] In all Platonic dialogues, philosophical dialogue is the main activity. Phaedo notes that philosophical discussion took a back seat when it came to the time of Socrates’ death. This makes the dialogue quite unusual. Speeches were not the focus. The experience is. It’s important to keep that in mind as we move through the rest of the dialogue. The mysteries are not something that can be spoken of, and so cannot even be mentioned in Platonic dialogue.

[8] Apollodorus means “gift of Apollo”. Apollo is the god that bought Socrates some time between his sentencing and his execution.

[9] εἶχεν. This verb means “he had”. The verb means to possess, hold (in a certain manner). It could easily translate “to be”. Plato is showing us that what we have we can often become.

[10] Emotional outbursts cloud the mind and cause confusion.

[11] The philosophical speeches mentioned above that took a back seat to the experience.

4 Comments »

  1. Love this:

    “In fact, that we were experiencing emotional duality/polarity: feeling happy one minute and sad that next, laughing and crying, creating confusion for all. That is the nature of unity when we attempt to impose it in physical reality – a ball of confusion, emotional triggers, and a consequent loss of awareness. It’s a spiritual form of drowning in the wild waves of life, unable to maintain true grounded composure. The awareness that this life is just a small experience of our soul, would alleviate all fear and confusion.”

    That is how we feel when we are in the confusion of duality. We can never be balanced and above the fray of the push me/pull me of polarity. So we are compelled by “our” emotions to react instead of being able to choose our state of being.

    Like

    • Exactly, and you know how challenging it would be if you told a drowning man, who never learned to swim properly, to simply choose to ride the waves, to be calm, and keep his head above the water. He most likely wouldn’t hear or wouldn’t listen. Panic takes over, and the waves pull him under. That is the state of many in the ebb and flow of life. Many just choose to stay out of the water altogether, which of course is a serious disservice to their capacity to learn.

      The first word I think of here is: complacency. Complacency is the real killer.

      Like

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