Theosophical Perspectives

On Plato's Theory of Ideas

By Grace F. Knoche
[Over the years questions on theosophy and its basic ideas have been received from readers in various parts of the world, and up to now these have been handled individually. However, as most of the subjects discussed are of universal interest, it is our hope henceforth to share some of these in SUNRISE. Questions as well as commentary on any aspect of theosophy and its impact on human experience will be welcome.]

A student at one of the Eastern colleges of the United States writes in that he has more questions than time to ask, and these mainly concerning his study of Plato. Probably few of the Dialogues have received from scholars and educators more serious discussion as to essential meaning than The Republic. We quote from the letter in part:

"How similar is Plato's theory of ideas found in The Republic to the teachings of Helena Blavatsky? As I understand it, he conceives the 'realm of ideas' to be where souls learn much wisdom, where perfection of all earthly objects and systems are seen, i.e. perfect truth, government, man. Then he speaks of various types of souls: gold (Au), silver (Ag), and lead (Pb), the gold having spent the longest time in higher planes, and lead the least; and the soul upon descending into the physical world becomes shrouded with ignorance, certain attributes of the perfect world being occasionally drawn out.
"My questions are these: Is it at all likely that Plato was referring to the mental world where the soul enters prior to its return to earth? It seems to me that with the greater number of incarnations and the longer stays in the higher worlds should come greater wisdom and unfoldment; therefore the gold soul idea appears viable. As the spark from the evolution from above unfolds, wouldn't man come closer to creating literally a 'heaven on earth' as he becomes more attuned with the higher planes? All of this is assuming that Plato was making reference to reincarnation and not rationalizing why the aristocracy should rule. Yet Plato's ideas seem very much aligned with what I perceive as truth."

Certainly Plato's theory of Ideas, more particularly his Idea of Good, has clear parallels, not only in theosophy but in every great religious philosophy. Do they not all posit deity, divine power, brahman, or That — however one terms the Infinite or the Supreme — as the primal fount of Being? You may recall how Timaeus carefully distinguishes between that which "always is and has no becoming," and that which "is always becoming and never is," adding that "the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible" (28c).

This is a rich field of inquiry, and it would seem as though Plato was but giving a new direction, a fresh interpretation, to what his predecessors, Heraclitus and other Greek philosophers of the 6th-5th centuries B.C., had conceived of as Mind, the primordial source of all, cognate with Fire — not the earthly fire, but its subtle originant. In other words, Plato's Idea of Good is suggestive of a divine model or archetype from which all springs and toward which all that has become must again return.

There is little doubt that Plato taught the rebirth of the soul, for in various of his dialogues he speaks of it as having an immortal essence, imperishable and lasting, "that there is a natural strength in the soul which will hold out and be born many times" (Phaedo, 88a); and a few pages earlier he has Socrates discourse at some length with Simmias on there being "an absolute essence of all things," an essence of beauty and of goodness, and that man has an innate recognition of these "essences," these "ideas" that exist prior to man's birth and therefore are his "inborn possession." In brief, true learning and the acquirement of knowledge of the Real consist in recalling this ancestral wisdom that was impressed, much as a seal on soft wax, in the deeps of our nature in ages long gone — a wisdom that we can draw upon, at will, once we determine to seek the nobler way rather than the lesser (cf. Meno).

In theosophical literature much is written on these themes, particularly on those 'innate ideas' or sacred truths that were implanted in the soul-substance of the early humans in their racial beginnings; implanted with so much power by the planetary spirit or rector that never would they be totally forgotten in future cycles. Plato was but echoing the same "exhaustless doctrine" of which Krishna speaks to Arjuna (Bhagavad-Gita, ch. iv) — received, he said, through a long line of rishis and sages before him directly from the sun itself. This tradition of an archaic wisdom-teaching imparted to man by the gods (whether solar or planetary is unimportant) is widespread. Every savior or avatara, indeed every sage, philosopher or 'lover of wisdom,' such as Plato, has drawn from the identic source, to sound the identic keynotes, for the identic purpose: that the people of their specific age and land might awaken anew to their divine calling, and re-collect, by force of aspiration and will, the knowledge that is their birthright. But again and again the vital message seems forgotten, buried in the miseries and corruption of earthly entanglements. How, then, can we extricate ourselves from the web of our own making?

Obviously, the purification and reorientation of the soul upward or inward cannot be accomplished in one brief earth-life, nor even in several incarnations. The realignment of the currents of one's nature toward the sun within, the proving of the 'gold' of character in the furnace of trial, is the fruit of ages.

You refer to Book III of The Republic (415a) where Plato speaks of souls who were of "mingled gold," and who therefore have the "greatest honor"; of other souls composed of silver, who will act as auxiliaries to the first class; and again, of other souls wrought of brass and iron. All this is reminiscent of Hesiod's four (or five if you count the generation of 'heroes' preceding our own) great races of men, the golden, silver, bronze and iron, each descending in spirituality until the present race or age, wherein materiality is rampant.

It is interesting that the Puranas of India record the same succession of descent of ages and races, from the krita. or satya yuga, the age of purity or truth in which the generations of beings knew no caste and were four-parts spiritual; and so on down to the fourth, the kali or 'black' yuga, our iron age, giving birth to a race of men in which scarcely a quarter-truth is recognized. Always the identic procession of descent: 4, 3, 2, 1. The Qabbalists likewise have a comparable series of descending worlds or 'olamim, the lowest being our earthly kingdom.

You understand, naturally, that Plato's various types of souls is but a colorful way of speaking, another instance of his use of the universal language of symbolism. Gold in practically every mystical system the world over stands for the sun, the solar spark or essence in man; silver for the moon, the psyche or human soul, dual in nature: its higher energies drawn sunwards, towards the nous, the knower within, its lower towards earth, the mortal, that which dies with the body. Iron and lead stood for the lower elements that must be transmuted. I might add that alchemy, in its pristine days, was a sacred art, to be undertaken only by those earnest in their purpose of transmuting the base metal of their natures into the gold of illumined selfhood; the actual physical labor of effecting a transformation of certain elements being largely stage-setting, or at least secondary to the extraction of the 'inward gold' from the caldron of the soul.

It is significant that in several places in The Republic, Plato makes a distinction between the "diviner metal," the 'gold' that is within everyone since "all are of the same original stock," and the "commoner metal," the gold of earth, which "has been the source of many unholy deeds" (III, 417a).

When we recall the age in which Plato was writing, with the fall of Athens (404 B.C.) and the death of Socrates shortly thereafter still fresh in memory, we can appreciate the depth of his inquiry into first principles. It was all too clear to him that Athens had suffered defeat primarily from within, and only secondarily from without. Where had the education of its youth gone wrong? Paideia — that beautiful Greek word for the nurturing of the soul from childhood on — had lost its luster. He sought, therefore, to restore it by formulating a scheme whereby children from infancy would be reared with the noblest ideals of honor, justice, and with frugality of mind and body, in order that they might become "true saviors and not the destroyers of the State" (IV, 421b). In his ideal government, the real guardian is he who "sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself" (IV, 443d), and because of this, in both his private and public responsibilities he will act wisely and for the good of all under his protection.

I am inclined to agree with Professor Werner Jaeger (cf. Vol. II, p. 199, Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture, in three volumes, translated from the German into English by Gilbert Highet, 1943) that "the ultimate interest of Plato's Republic is the human soul" and that everything else he talks about, such as the various "political patterns" and forms of government, are introduced by him "merely to give an 'enlarged image' of the soul and its structure." It was paideia, the education of the soul, that was his burning concern.

Moreover, Plato uses the word soul in a far larger context than is customary today, he giving it a stature equal almost to the spiritual or divine self in man. On the other hand, he also recognized that the human constitution was multiple in quality and function, there being "four faculties in the soul" (Republic, VI, 511e), these ranging in scale from noesis, the highest intelligence. His conception of the soul's taking on earthly imbodiment repeatedly and thus losing its wings periodically, and its eventual freeing itself by its own volition and its ultimate return into and union with the absolute essence of itself, is the subject of more than one dialogue (cf. Phaedrus in particular). This again closely parallels the theosophical view of the evolutionary pilgrimage of man, seen primarily as a monad or god-spark cycling down the arc of matter through a series of gradations until the lowest point is reached, and then, rounding the curve it begins the reascent, now with the light of the awakened mind and free will urging it up the arc of spirit, to regain the wings of its immortality and become a knowing god among gods.

There are many, many pointers in the dialogues, including the Seventh Letter, to remind us that Plato was an initiate of the Mysteries, and had received a larger vision of cosmic verities than otherwise would have been possible. Of necessity, due to the stringency of the rules, he was obliged to conceal much of what he knew in the form of myth and legend. It may be difficult at times to discern correctly what is poetic fantasy and what is a genuine mythos or Mystery-symbol enshrining a profound truth. In The Republic alone we have the parable of the Cave (Bk. VII) and the Vision of Er (Bk. X) — powerful reminders in themselves, of the deathless power within the soul to meet its own assessor and to know the inherent fitness and beauty of the universal design.

Abstruse as his images sometimes are, and seemingly far and away from the disorder of the times, there are lessons to learn from Plato. To read his vision of what the ideal government, the ideal man, the ideal guardian or ruler of other men, could be, is to realize that the simple ancient virtues of temperance, humility, justice, self-discipline — and probity — wear well. Indubitably, as they, like gold, prove themselves in the fires of daily testing.

(From Sunrise magazine, November 1973; copyright © 1973 Theosophical University Press)


Back Issues Menu