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Some Thoughts on a Chaldean Fragment concerning Death

John Bee

There is a curious fragment of the Chaldean Oracles which has caused some disagreement between its translators: it is also open to misunderstanding because of a religious concept which has come into focus in recent times.  The fragment reads, in Greek, "bi swma lipontwn yucai kaarwtatai."  (Fragment no. 27 in the recent edition of the Thomas Taylor Series - p. 13 in both the first and the second editions - and number 159 in the Majercek translation.)

Thomas Taylor translates this fragment as "those souls that leave the body with violence are most pure" while Majercek translates with a very different "because the souls of men who have left the body by force are accursed"!  Majercek in her notes discusses the word kaarwtatoi, "accursed" - and kaarwtatai, "most pure" either of which could have been the original word used and which is the cause of the very different translations.  She mentions, too, Lewy's interpretation that the fragment is concerned with "mystic voluntary suicide" but although Lewy comes closest to the meaning here, Majercek dismisses it because Dodds makes a very reasonable - but irrelevant - distinction between theurgic death and suicide. We need to go back and re-examine the fragment and its implications.

The word  bi is, I think, the word which is actually causing the problem here: Liddell & Scott give this entry for the word:

"1 Bodily strength, force, power, might, especially of men and animals, also of winds; 2 in Homer . . . frequently of strong men, bi Hraklheij [mighty Heracles] . . . but also strength of wind."  The entry ends by quoting Xenophon, who uses the word in a phrase which translates as "to make a thing one's own perforce."

 What we need to see here then is that in the fragment bi can mean strength, rather than violence, and that actually what it is referring to is the strength of the soul which is to leave the body, so that a full translation of the fragment would read "the souls that leave the body by [their own] strength are the most pure."  This certainly removes the possibility that the fragment can be connected with the idea that those that die on the battlefield are more pure than those that die through sickness: the idea that paradise awaits those who have embraced the philosophy of violence is not supported by the Oracle.

If we are to accept my interpretation of the fragment we need to look at what theurgic death really is, since this is so obviously misunderstood by Majercik.  In such situations it is always good to return to Plato as our starting point, and in this case much material from the Phaedo is of importance: Socrates (at 64a) says in this dialogue "Those who are conversant with philosophy in a proper manner seem to have concealed from others that the whole of their study is nothing else than how to die and be dead" and later (at 67e) "those who philosophize rightly will meditate how to die and to be dead will be to them of all men a thing the least terrible."  From here Socrates moves his disciples to consider that philosophers alone are able to recognise and pursue what is true, and in particular true virtue, and says (at 69c) that "true virtue is a purification from every thing of this kind [shadowy appearances] and temperance and justice, fortitude, and prudence itself, are each of them a certain purification.  And those who instituted the mysteries for us appear to have been by no means contemptible persons, but to have really signified formerly, in an obscure manner, that whoever descended into Hades uninitiated, and without being a partaker of the mysteries, should be plunged into mire; but that whoever arrived there, purified and initiated, should dwell with the Gods."

In philosophy we approach every manifested idea and strip away the clothing of particularity: the philosopher sees particular instances of justice, for example, and looks for the essential idea of justice - the universal which particulars embody.  We seek, then, the very soul of justice rather than any particular manifestation of it, understanding that once Justice Herself is with us our lives will be, by the power of the Goddess Dike, just.  But this movement which strips away particularity - true philosophy - carries with it many of the pains which we associate with death, especially when it is our own soul which we seek: the removal of illusion is often the most unnerving of activities, and demands the exercise of fortitude.  It requires, of course, the other primary virtues: temperance, by which we ensure that our desires are properly directed according to right reason; wisdom, by which we are able to act as intellectual beings; and justice, by which we are able think and act in a balanced way.

It is the exercise of virtues as an integral part of philosophy which makes true Platonism so distinct from philosophy as taught in the vast majority of modern institutions.  This is especially the case when these virtues are moved inwards and bind the meditative and contemplative processes of the human soul to their divine paradigms.  How is this accomplished?  I think the dialogues of Plato give us a very clear hint: in most of the dialogues after the initial scene-setting and establishment of a theme there is a central section in which the logical faculties of the student are given proper exercise, and then once this has been accomplished there is a usually a mythological re-enactment which allows the intuitive faculty of the soul to be unfolded.  Each of these two different approaches are essential to the philosopher: either one without the other is likely to produce at best a half-formed wisdom which is likely to be discovered when life presents one of its major trials.

In our inductive thinking we start with the outward manifestation of an idea and remove the initial layer of its "clothing" and arrive at a more essential understanding of the idea.  This understanding may serve us for some time before we are ready to remove the next layer; with good fortune we are prompted to do this through the questioning of a Socrates.  Otherwise we may get forced into this process by hard circumstances.  Of course the true philosophic training should lead to every human being becoming his or her own questioner, so that nothing escapes such philosophic examination.  At each stage we leave something of the body (that is, the outward manifestation) behind, and die a small death.

But our deductive thinking can start with the very highest and universal ideas - the very light of the Gods - which can be traced downwards towards particular manifestation.  Here we must begin with the worship of the Gods, for to attempt to start with the highest without proper worship only invites the purification of the god Hubris.  In worship, again, we cast away the smallness of self in order to turn to the Self who illuminates the  universe - we die to our merely personal desires and find the supra-personal self.

In each case the philosopher must undergo a loss before a greater gain is made.  Small concepts must be extinguished in order that great ideas can be received; the illusion of what we think we are must be surrendered in order to find out what we truly are.

The philosophic death and the theurgic death (the one arising as thoughts move inward, the other arising as we accept the overshadowing of the Gods in worship) have nothing to do with the literal death of the body.  As Porphyry says in his Auxiliaries to the Perception of Intelligibles: "The soul is bound to the body by a conversion to the corporeal passions; and again liberated by becoming impassive to the body.  That which nature binds, nature also dissolves: and that which the soul binds, the soul likewise dissolves.  Nature, indeed, bound the body to the soul; but the soul binds herself to the body.  Nature, therefore, liberates the body from the soul; but the soul liberates herself from the body. Hence there is a twofold death; the one, indeed, universally known, in which the body is liberated from the soul; but the other peculiar to philosophers, in which the soul is liberated from the body.  Nor does the one entirely follow the other."  The death through which the soul liberates herself from the body is not necessarily coincident with the physical death, and it is quite possible for the theurgic philosopher to become impassive to the body while still inhabiting it.

Damascius in his commentary on the Phaedo (I, 51) picks up on the phrase that Socrates uses twice - "to die and to be dead" and points out that to die is not the same as to be dead; he suggests that the carthartic virtues are the province of the philosopher who is "to die" but the theoretic virtues are those which are exercised by the philosopher who "is dead."  In the Chaldean fragment we are looking at the process of (philosophically) dying and so, naturally, the Oracle says that the soul who leaves the body by her own strength is "most pure" - the word cathartic meaning, of course, purifying.  Once the reader stops thinking in terms of the literal death, the meaning of the Oracle is clear and concise.

One final point, which students of the highest philosophy may like to consider is that the word bi is so often used to indicate a strong wind.  Now the original meaning of psyche, soul, was breath, or wind: how perfectly the Chaldean theurgists describe the object which must purify itself.


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