Plato’s Phaedo: The Sacred Mysteries and the Something that is Death(63e-64d)

This article is the eighth 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.

The next section of this dialogue is designed to show us the nature of truth and its relationship to the initiates of the mysteries. The Great Mysteries of Eleusis, the Great Mysteries of Freedom, and the path to freedom of the soul on this earth plane, are shrouded in secrecy. There are very few sources or information on these mysteries, due to the fact that secrecy was required on punishment of death. Understanding the nature of that punishment is also part of the mysteries, and I will leave it at that for now, keeping in mind that the Phaedo is a dialogue on the nature of Death in relationship to the Soul of mankind.

In this passage, Socrates refers to the death of the philosopher, not by using a word derived from the very common roots -thn– or -than-, words that always refer to physical death and mortality. The death of the philosopher begins with the practice of learning how to die in order to prepare for initiation into the mysteries, which gives in the initiate passage into the “higher world” or the blessed isles of the gods. As such, Socrates uses words derived from the root -tel-, from which the English word teleological is derived. In the Greek, the word is used to refer to initiates or those on the road to completion, wholeness, and perfection.

This passage also reveals that the initiation process is the process of learning how to let go of the physical earthly realm, commonly known as “attachment”. We will learn more about this later, but for now, this part of the dialogue is illuminating the hard truth that these initiation rights are not understood by all, and are far from common, even though the mysteries themselves, like the church, is available to all everywhere. In this dialogue, we learn that true initiation is not something the multitude is ready or prepared for. The public is represented by the man who is preparing Socrates hemlock, the lethal potion that brings Socrates death. This kind of death, the cause of which is poison, has very little to do with the death as practiced by those on the path to true illumination through the Mysteries.

As I have said before, Plato’s entire corpus is written to continue to the true tradition of the Mysteries. It is not meant to be read or understood by all and it carries the most sacred of teachings. These teachings are so sacred that it is not possible to articulate them in public without distorting their true essence. It is truly, as this passage also reflects, for those who know that Death is not nothing at all.

“Just let him be[1],” said Socrates. “After all, it’s for your benefit, the judges and jury, that I am willing to make my argument(logos) about how it’s entirely typical that a man, who’s spent his life in philosophy, could, while cognizant of his inevitable death, still be courageous enough to expect that he’ll receive the greatest goods when he finally fulfills his life[2].  How in the world this is possible, Simmias and Cebes, I will attempt to say.

Those who have happened to become correctly absorbed in philosophy, are concealed[3] from [non-philosophical] others in that what they are actually doing is practicing the process and the act of dying. Now if this were clear[4],  it would indeed be strange to put their life’s work and attention into something which, when it finally arrived, get angry at its arrival, the very thing that they have worked so hard for!”

And Simmias said, laughing, “By Zeus, Socrates!  I didn’t want to laugh, but you made me do it!  I believe that the many- and these are human beings that live amongst us -, when hearing this, would think you are speaking quite accurately about those who philosophize – and they would all agree that those who practice philosophy desire to die.  Furthermore, it isn’t hidden from them in the least that philosophers deserve to suffer this [dying].

And they would speak truth, Simmias, except the part about it not being hidden from them.  What is hidden from is in what manner true philosophers wish to die, are worthy of death, and the kind of death. For that reason, let’s just speak amongst ourselves, and let those others go to enjoy themselves.[5] For we do believe death to be something, yes?[6]

“Absolutely”, Simmias chimed in.

[1] Here Socrates makes it clear that philosophical speeches and speeches about the nature of philosophy and its relationship to death are not meant for all ears. In this case, the one they are letting be is the man who is concerned about and preparing Socrates’ lethal potion. That type of death is not what Socrates is talking about with his “fellow judges and jury”.

[2] Teleusis. Commonly translated as “dying”. However, here it is referring to the process of initiation into the mysterious and the arrival at their consummation. The initiate practices the release of the body and the physical world in order to be ready to for the completion of their initiation here on earth.

[3] Lelethenai. This word contains a very important root that is central to the mysteries. -lethe- means forgetfulness, something that has been lost in the memory (of humankind), or something hidden. a-lethe, which is usually translated into the English word “truth” is the revelation of what was once hidden.

[4] Aletheia.  This can be translated in the optative sense (because we know it is not actually clear), and so this is what I did.Most commonly translated as “truth”. Here it is clearly related to the verb Socrates uses in the previous sentence, lelethenai.  Aletheia’s meaning is something more akin to “revelation” and so is a process of experience in the mysteries. Truth is not opposite of false, but is actually the process of unveiling something that was once hidden, forgotten, or buried. In this case, the truth about what Socrates says about the hidden nature of philosophy.

[5] Again, Socrates is narrowing down the audience to those who understand that death is not emptiness, nothing, void, or something to be feared. This awareness of course, is the essence of the mysteries, and cannot be remain so.

[6] Many human beings see philosophy as worthless, and see death as equally worth nothing. What is perceived as “nothing” is what the philosopher occupies him/herself with. This conversation cannot happen with those who see it as not worth anything. Being lit by the fire of philosophy is to begin to see that what seemed to be nothing, is actually the most valuable thing of all.

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