Neglected Philosophies: Platonism as Therapy?


To call Plato’s philosophy neglected would be an act of temerity — nay — unmitigated gall.  Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of both.

Plato isn’t neglected, it’s just that most interpret his philosophy as theories of knowledge and/or ontologies.  Few interpret it as a therapy — a way to unconditional happiness.  Although this interpretation is debatable, there’s enough there — and enough parallels with some other sotoriological systems — to provide food for thought.

Let’s start with an abridged quote from a commentary on Phaedo.  Since Plato used Socrates as his mouthpiece, when you read of Socrates, think Plato:

[…] Additionally, since the bodily senses are inaccurate and deceptive, the philosopher’s search for knowledge is most successful when the soul is “most by itself.”

The latter point holds especially for the objects of philosophical knowledge that Plato later on in the dialogue (103e) refers to as “Forms.”  […] “in a word, the reality of all other things, that which each of them essentially is” (65d).  They are best approached not by sense perception but by pure thought alone.  […]

All told, then, the body is a constant impediment to philosophers in their search for truth: “It fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense, […] To have pure knowledge, therefore, philosophers must escape from the influence of the body as much as is possible in this life. Philosophy itself is, in fact, a kind of “training for dying” (67e), a purification of the philosopher’s soul from its bodily attachment.

Thus, Socrates concludes, it would be unreasonable for a philosopher to fear death, since upon dying he is most likely to obtain the wisdom which he has been seeking his whole life.  Both the philosopher’s courage in the face of death and his moderation with respect to bodily pleasures which result from the pursuit of wisdom stand in stark contrast to the courage and moderation practiced by ordinary people.

Tracing a Line of Thought

Soul was often used to mean something similar to mind.  So keeping that in mind (ha!) and using the above along with some common views, we can construct the following line of thought:

  1. Pain comes from attachment to senses.
  2. Fear of death comes from attachment to senses.
  3. Behind the multiplicity of phenomena there is a unity (The One/Form of the Good).
  4. The One is beyond senses.
  5. The One can only be reached mentally, preceded by withdrawing from the senses.
  6. Upon realizing The One, this world will seem like shadow (The Cave).
  7. The Philosopher’s goal is to experience The One.
  8. Therefore, the Philosopher won’t suffer or fear death.

While Plato had some specific things in mind when he wrote about The One and The Good, I’m going to abstract his views as they make a very useful “architecture of happiness” that can fit many paths.  In fact, his analogy of The Cave alone can serve as the template for transcendent experience.

Pain comes from attachment to senses: We experience reality through our senses (and memories thereof), so if pain comes from the outside, it still must come through our senses.  Likewise, mental pain is either the interpretation of this sense datum, or recollections thereof.  Either way, the more attached we are to senses, the more susceptible we are to pain.

Fear of death comes from attachment to senses: If we fear death itself (as opposed to an afterlife), then this is due to seeing death as the end of experience (at least as we know it).  Again, since our senses deliver experience, this works out to attachment to sense.

Behind the multiplicity of phenomena there is a unity: A variety of things fit this description. God, Emptiness (for Buddhists), laws of physics, mathematical structures…

The One is beyond senses: We can treat “beyond senses” not as a super-sensory claim, but as anything that is beyond our (unaided) senses.  This includes logical principles and inferences from sense data.

The One can only be reached mentally, preceded by withdrawing from the senses: depending on who you read, this may describe meditation, contemplation, or profound thought, all of which are aided by shutting off the distraction of the senses.

Upon realizing The One, this world will seem like shadow: realization doesn’t mean understanding, but an experience of this truth.  Examples of realizations are religious experiences, altered states of consciousness, or even epiphanies, although the latter may still be too intellectualizing.

The Philosopher’s goal is to experience The One: Philosophers love only wisdom (“Philosopher” literally means lover of wisdom).  Furthermore, Plato holds that true wisdom is knowledge of The One, and the only knowledge that can be had of it is to experience it. Philosophers are not the hair-splitting academics we see today, but those (even ordinary people) who have deeply committed to this contemplative path.

Therefore, the Philosopher won’t suffer or fear death: Philosophers are not attached to the senses.  This non-attachment comes from their intentional sensory withdrawal, pursuit of a non-sensory goal and from their experiences with The One.  The One is said to be perfection and far better than what this world has to offer.  Therefore, experiencing it makes the rest of the Philosopher’s (worldly) experience seem shallow by comparison (“shadows” in his Cave allegory).  Naturally, the Philosopher would further (naturally) withdraw from the senses as a result.  Since pain and fear of death come from attachment to senses, this means the Philosopher is immune to those things to the extent s/he has experienced The One.

Tantalizing Parallels

These outlines have some striking similarities to some other schools of thought.  For instance, a deep mental practice leading to an experience of a unity that ends pain and encourages non-attachment sounds like an outline of Hinduism or Buddhism.  Further, since the perfection of The One brings the imperfection and shallowness of the world into relief, this recalls Buddhism’s First Noble Truth and the view of the world as Maya (or illusion) in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Furthermore, Buddhism’s Emptiness (which leads to Impermanence and “No-Self”) can arise from such contemplation, as hinted at from this Wikipedia article:

The primary concept is the Theory of Forms. The only true being is founded upon the forms, the eternal, unchangeable, perfect types, of which particular objects of sense are imperfect copies. The multitude of objects of sense, being involved in perpetual change, are thereby deprived of all genuine existence. The number of the forms is defined by the number of universal concepts which can be derived from the particular objects of sense.

But was this The Point?

However, was this the point of Platonism?  A therapy is explicit in its goal to dissolve pain, yet Platonism stresses knowledge; the dissolution of pain is a side-effect.  Can Platonism be described as a therapy with that kind of focus?

Maybe. Perhaps Platonism was a way out of a trap.

Non-attachment can turn into attachment if one isn’t careful, for one can end up fleeing instead of simply non-attaching.  Fleeing is itself a form of attachment. A way around this trap is to simply seek something else, and naturally lose interest (and hence naturally lessen attachment) to the original object.

The object sought should be immune to the possibility of loss, frustration or disappointment in order to avoid the negativity of attachment (including worry).  Furthermore, if the world is put in a subordinate relationship to this object (such as being an imperfect copy of it), then the world can become part of the practice.  This not only stresses the imperfection of the world (thus further lessening attachment to it), but recruits daily experience into the search.  Since this experience is a means to a higher end, one’s relationship to experience is transformed, and further non-attachment results. This non-attachment (renunciation) lessens distractions, thus allowing for an even deeper experience of the object, thus forming a feedback loop.

So it’s plausible that a teacher who wishes to liberate people — but who is aware of the trap of consciously seeking non-attachment —  may choose to “trick” them instead by diverting them to search for something else.

Pure speculation of course.


 Further Reading

The Shape of Ancient Thought by Thomas McEvilly (especially Chapters 5 and 25)

6 thoughts on “Neglected Philosophies: Platonism as Therapy?

  1. Seems plausible to me. Plato does seem to get a raw deal sometimes, and this is a generous interpretation.

    1. True. Plato’s theory of forms is often treated as a theory of knowledge, wherein it’s pretty much torn apart. What’s more, The Republic gets torn down by some as a nightmarish political vision.

      You’re also right that mine is a generous interpretation. I’m being very abstract and thus interpreting Plato’s views as a structural outline for a type of philosophical therapy.

  2. Interesting, and a novel approach to Plato. Although what I was currently writing isn’t directly related to your post, reading this jogged me into realising that Platonism vs Aristotelianism was directly relevant to what I wanted to say – which was very helpful – thanks!

  3. I think the neoplatonists would agree with you, Plotinus in particular. I also remember that Aristotle thought that the only part of our personal selves that would survive death would be our reason. He was a pupil of Plato after all. I hope this recollection of Aristotle is correct.

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