Episode 27: The Ideal and the Art of Dying, Part 3

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“…that a man ought to live always in perfect holiness.”  Plato, Meno

Socrates in a Basket, from "The Clouds" by Aristophanes

Socrates in a Basket, from "The Clouds" by Aristophanes

As we’ve seen by now, knowledge of the Ideal as the form of the Good–eternal yet omnipresent, disembodied yet all-pervasive–leads naturally to a recognition of the immortality of our souls and those of all other “individuals” we see.  In the passage in the Meno from which the above quote is taken, Socrates interrupts his inquiry into whether virtue can be taught and talks about what he has “heard from certain wise men and women who spoke of things divine,”

And they say–mark now and see whether their words are true–they say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed.  And the moral is that a man ought to live always in perfect holiness.  …The soul then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all….”

So Plato’s formulation of immortality is not like the one found in most religions where you are born as a blank slate, live, and spend eternity in some place of reward or punishment based on your good or evil actions during your one life.  It is more akin to the Eastern ideas of reincarnation, or eternal recurrence, where the soul goes “into” a body–maybe not even a human body–many times, but makes its own choice of body based on the experiences it has had in the previous one.  He says that we are given guidance, we are given examples, but ultimately it is up to us whether we follow them, and choose the kind of life which will enable us to pursue unity with the One.  In the Myth of Er in The Republic as well as other passages like the following from Phaedo, he makes it clear that we are in charge of our own destiny.

But then, O my friends, he (Socrates) said, if the soul is really immortal, what care should be taken of her, not only in respect of the portion of time which is called life, but of eternity! And the danger of neglecting her from this point of view does indeed appear to be awful. If death had only been the end of all, the wicked would have had a good bargain in dying, for they would have been happily quit not only of their body, but of their own evil together with their souls. But now, inasmuch as the soul is manifestly immortal, there is no release or salvation from evil except the attainment of the highest virtue and wisdom.

Virtue!  Wisdom!  Holiness!  I can hear the clicks now going off to check email.  This is of course the lament of the ego when faced with the prospect of having to change for the sake of attaining the bliss of the Good: you are trying to keep me from enjoying myself.  Let’s just keep this on a theoretical level where we can discuss indefinitely and I can go on doing whatever I want to do.  That’s what dialectic is about, right?  Blah blah blah?  Yadda yadda?  After all, if it’s all one, and it’s only a play, then it doesn’t really matter what I do, right?

Well, only if you’re not planning to leave the play, whether through dying or through unifying, the first of which is inevitable and the second (if we believe our Idealists) desirable.  So to paraphrase Socrates, the moral is that a man ought to live always in perfect readiness to be in the presence of the Good.¹

And of course we always are in its presence, but don’t usually realize it.  Then there are those moments when the ego-shell falls away and we experience our own “infinitude.”  We are happy for no other reason than that it is our natural state to be happy; we have love and compassion for all other beings for no other reason than that they are expressions of the One.  We lose all desires except the one that would have all beings feel this love and compassion.  We realize that not only do we not have a right to those we love, we don’t have a right to anything; that possession=theft.  We look with disbelief at the world of desire, anger, fear, division, and sorrow in which we spend most of our lives.  Even its happinesses are small compared to that unconditional happiness.  We feel we have come home, and wonder how we could ever leave.

Plotinus formulates it thus:

Medieval Illuminated Manuscript of Porphyry and Plotinus

Medieval Illuminated Manuscript of Porphyry and Plotinus

Anyone who has had this experience will know what I am talking about.  He will know that the soul lives another life as it advances toward The One, reaches it and shares in it.  Thus restored, the soul recognizes the presence of the dispenser of the true life.  It needs nothing more.  On the contrary, it must renounce everything else and rest in it alone, become it alone, all earthiness gone, eager to be free, impatient of every fetter that binds below in order so to embrace the real object of its love with its entire being that no part of it does not touch The One.²

And then he asks and answers the key question:

Why does a soul that has risen to the realm above not stay there?  Because it has not yet entirely detached itself from the things here below.³

Detachment.  One of the trickiest words in the spiritual vocabulary.  The ego hears it and thinks “aloof, remote, above it all.”  But I believe it has more to do with this idea of ownership, of claiming rights to 1) our stuff and 2) our feelings about the stuff.  We mistake the things we see as reality and we think if we can possess more things we will be more happy, in the way that some people want to possess great works of art or places of natural beauty.  This is a sure sign of ego at work.  Similarly, there is our attachment to a whole range of negative feelings engendered by this desire to possess.  (“My preciousssss!”)  Most of us have no problem with viewing the Grand Canyon, feeling awestruck, and then walking away with no need to own it.  But it’s different with the things we do “possess;” my body, my house, my spouse, my children, my opinions, my religion.  Detachment, though, would teach us to view them in the same way as the Canyon, with enjoyment, a sense of amazement, wonder, love, and humility.  And the realization that we do not own any of them, and will have to give them up at some point whether we want to or not: there is no baggage check-in for Heaven (but by the same token, no security check either).

It’s the same with those negative feelings that pull and push us away from the unified “presence;” anger, jealousy, resentment, envy, lust, greed, self-pity and self-aggrandizement.  It is self-evident that these are totally incompatible with the state of happiness we are describing, but we allow them to run our lives anyway; we let people “make” us angry, we are jealous of another’s good fortune, we are never satisfied with what we have but we fear we will lose it.

Pierre Hadot puts it this way, using the term “contemplation” for the state of unification:

How then should we live?  For Plotinus, the great problem is to learn how to live our day-to-day life.  We must learn to live, after contemplation, in such a way that we are once again prepared for contemplation.  We must concentrate ourselves within, gathering ourselves together to the point that we can always be ready to receive the divine presence, when it manifests itself again. We must detach ourselves from life down here to such an extent that contemplation can become a continuous state.  Nevertheless, we still have to learn how to put up with day-to-day life; better still, we must learn to illuminate it with the clear light that comes from contemplation.4

So just knowing about (gnosis) is not enough–we must also learn to live well, avoid duplicity, and bring our desires, thoughts and actions into harmony.  As Plotinus says in Ennead II 9 Against the Gnostics:

To say “look to God” is not helpful without some instruction as to what this looking imports: it might be very well said that one can “look” and still sacrifice no pleasure, still be the slave of impulse, repeating the word “God” but held in the grip of every passion and making no effort to master any.  Virtue, advancing towards this Term and, linked together with thought, occupying a soul makes God manifest: “God” on the lips without a good conduct of life, is (only) a word.5

So a good first step is to become aware of these negative feelings when they present themselves, and just observe them instead of being swept away.  Give up the idea that you are helpless before them; that your reaction, because it is automatic, is inevitable.  See how they limit you and serve only the ego.  Ask if this feeling perpetuates your illusion of limited selfhood.  Ask if it is transitory, or permanent.  Detach from these, says Plato, says Plotinus, says Ficino, and you will begin to “live in perfect holiness,” practicing the art of dying, but neither fearing it nor desiring it.

For the last word, again, Emerson (Self-Reliance):

The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well. Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea,–long intervals of time, years, centuries,–are of no account. This which I think and feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹”…we ought to fly away from the earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to fly away is to become like God, as far as this is possible: and to become like him, is to become holy, just, and wise.  But, O my friend, you cannot easily convince mankind that they should pursue virtue or avoid vice, not merely in order that man may seem to be good, which is the reason given by the world, and in my judgment is only a repetition of an old wives’ fable.  Whereas, the truth is that God is never in any way unrighteous–he is perfect righteousness, and he of us who is the most righteous is most like him.”  Plato, Theaetetus

²Plotinus, The Essential Plotinus,  translation by Elmer O’Brien, S. J., 1964, Hackett Publishing, p. 86

³Plotinus, op. cit.  MacKenna’s translation (Penguin, 1991) is more forceful: “escaped.”

4Pierre Hadot, Plotinus, or the Simplicity of Vision, Michael Chase, trans., University of Chicago, 1993

5Plotinus,The Enneads, translated by Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, 1993, p. 127  I might also say that I find the opposite problem with the Stoics (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, etc.): they teach us to bear hardships and make sacrifices, but without acknowledging that we do so to discover the Ideal within us.