A pathway to the perfect philosophical life…


There are precise steps to follow the pathway leading to a perfect philosophical life, and these are explained very well in the commentary to the Alcibiades. First we are encouraged to flee from the unphilosophical “masses who roam around in herds” and not to partake in their way of life or in their opinions. In a sense, this is the same thing Callimachus says in his hymn to Lady Demeter: “O Demeter, never may be my friend that man who is hateful to thee, nor ever may he share banquets with me; because I abhor bad neighbors.”

In the same way Proclus thus prays to the Muses: “that the race of men without fear for the Gods may not lead me away from the most divine and brilliant path with its splendid fruits”. Such people have completely lost themselves in the enjoyments of the material world – we should rather flee from the “irrational pleasures (edonàs alogous)” and the “multifarious desires that divide us in the body” and the sensory perception that leads our thinking astray. “Once we have fled these divided and diversified conditions of life, let us ascend to science (episteme) itself”.

Here we must remember the image of the winged charioteer (Plato, Phaedrus) who manages to always follow the Gods toward the vision of the Forms, and thus “with it (the nous in us) we should contemplate the intelligible beings, being initiated in the vision of simple, immobile and undivided sorts of beings by means of simple and undivided intuitions (tas aplàs epibolàs)”. The soul that has been able to contemplate the Forms is exempt from the Law of Fate (Heimarmene and Ananke) that rules over mankind and ties human beings to the world of genesis: this is the end of our wanderings, as we are no longer forced to be reborn again. This is clearly stated by the Chaldean Oracles, where one of the Gods says: “do not add to increasing Destiny” and “do not gaze at Nature: Her name is Destiny (Heimarmene)”; Proclus comments on this by saying: “the Source of Nature, the very first Destiny, is named by the Gods Themselves”. Further the Gods say: “Seek out the channel of the soul, from where it (descended) in a certain order to serve the body; (and) seek (how) you will raise it up again to its order by combining ritual action with sacred word” and Proclus explains: “that is, seek the source of the soul, from where the soul has been led away is the service of the body, and see how someone, raising it up and awakening it by means of the telestic rites, might lead it back to where it has come from.”

This eschatological promise is found in the Chaldean Oracles of Platonic background, in the Orphic doctrine, in the Pythagorean school and, of course and above all, in the Mysteries of the Mother – of Kore and Dionysos. Pindar offers a similar image in his Second Olympian Ode, in which he describes how those who have lived three pure lives can journey along the road of Zeus to the Blessed Isles, where, together with the Heroes of the epics, they are ruled by Kronos. This is also confirmed in Phaedrus, where those who dedicated themselves to philosophy during three lifetimes can escape from the cycle of generation.

Here Pindar seems to propose the same ideas expressed in all the Orphic tablets, that those who are specifically qualified can journey together along the sacred road (the Hierà Odos leading to Eleusis?) and arrive at the Blessed Isles to live among the Heroes. However, while Pindar speaks of those who have kept their souls away from unjust deeds, the tablets speak specifically of initiates, implying that the journey to this destination is made possible through some rites of initiation: “O happy and blessed one, you will be a God and not a mortal.” The last example in the Orphic tablets promises the apotheosis for the deceased: “Caecilia Secundina, come, you have become a Goddess according to the Law.”

What does it mean for a mortal to become a God? One explanation focuses on the immortality of the soul, arguing that the transformation from mortal to God is a representation of the permanent and divine nature of the individual soul. Either the soul is an immortal entity being punished for some misdeed by being subjected to a mortal incarnation, from which it is now emerging, or the human soul is a potentially divine being that seeks to realize its own divine nature. The soul of the individual is depicted in myth as a higher being, condemned for past crimes to suffer the exile of mortality.

Accordingly, Iamblichus explains that the soul lives at two different levels: one along with the body and one separate from everything corporeal. For example, during sleep this hidden aspect of the soul is set free from its fetters and thus activates the divine life that is separated from the sphere of the embodied existence: “the form of ideal life, the spiritual or divine life, is awakened in us and manifests its energy according to its own nature.”

This belief also seems to be the foundation of Empedokles’ famous statement: “I stand before you as an immortal God, no longer a mortal”. The idea of the mortal body as a prison, in which the soul suffers for its past misdeeds, is attributed in Plato’s Phaedo to the “mysteries” and in the Cratylus to “those near Orpheus” (hoi amphí Orphea), and it is used by Plato to argue that the immortal soul undergoes a series of reincarnations.

In the Orphic tablets, the deceased says: “I have flown out of the circle of wearisome and heavy grief”. This circle has most often been interpreted as a cycle of rebirths undergone by the soul in the process of metempsychosis. The initiate has escaped from the necessity of being reborn, so that he/she is free from the sorrows of repeated incarnations.

This kyklos of reincarnations is similar to the kyklos anagkes, “the cycle of Necessity” (the Law of Fate). Also, think about the relation between Ananke and the Moirai attributed by Diogenes Laertius to Pythagoras’ doctrine regarding the cause of rebirths. The Neo-Platonists Simplicius and Proclus, in discussing the cycle of births (kyklos geneseos), attribute to Orpheus a prayer in the rites of Dionysos and Kore that asks for relief from the cycle of evils, i.e. the grievous cycle of rebirths: “Tell Persephone that Bakchos himself has freed you”, (Eubouleos-Bakchos Lysios). Plutarch refers to Eubouleus as an ancient name for Dionysos (in Quaestiones Conviviales VII.9), and we know from the Orphic Hymns that this name is common to Plouton, Dionysos and Adonis.

In his commentary on Plato’s Phaedo, Damascius quotes Orpheus on the nature of this aspect of Dionysos: “Dionysos is responsible for the release of the soul, and because of this the God is called ‘the Deliverer’”. And Orpheus says: “People offer perfect hecatombs in all seasons throughout the year and perform rites, seeking release for their lawless ancestors. But you, having power over them, will release whomever you wish from harsh suffering and boundless frenzy.” We may also quote the beautiful hymn of Aristophanes in the Frogs: “Iakchos of many honors, who has invented the sweet song of the celebration, come with us to the Goddess and show how you effortlessly travel through a long road. O Iakchos lover of dances, accompany me!”

Finally, the soul should awaken to the highest mode of existence (tèn akran hyparxin) it is capable of. This mode of existence is referred to as the “one in us” and the “flower of our being” (a term borrowed from the Chaldean theology). It is through this faculty of the soul that we make contact with the Divine “as like should always be grasped by like”: therefore the most unified measures of reality are grasped by the One in us. Proclus here refers to the Henads, the Deities representatives of the One; this One cannot be partaken of, but through the alliance of the Henads, this highest union becomes actually possible. We thus become one with the Gods and we finally function in a unified manner, completely purified and free from all contamination. This is the goal of the philosophical life, the real happiness of the initiates: “Because only for us is the sacred light of the Sun (helios kaì pheggos hierón estin), for us we who were initiated into the Mysteries.” See also these wonderful verses by Pindar: “Happy is he who has assisted to the Rite before going below the earth: he knows the end and goal of life, he knows the beginning given by Zeus.”



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