In the Phaedo Socrates first describes the summit of the mundane world as it is seen by the gods - or by those souls who have reached far beyond the ordinary life. The earth is spherical, he says, suspended in the middle of the heavens and balanced there in perfect harmony. From a distance it may be seen as a twelve-sided dodecahedron of various colours, including purple, gold and white. Trees, flowers and fruits grow to perfection according to the nature of earth. The gemstones found in the mountains are pure of colour, uncorrupted by the filth and disease of our own world. Air is to them as water is to us and aether is to air; animals and men dwell on land or on islands surrounded by air as we are by the sea. The seasons are gentle, there is no disease and its inhabitants live long and happy lives. They surpass us in wisdom and keenness of the senses, they need little sleep and their deaths are blissful. They associate with the gods who dwell in reality in their temples and groves. Everything is seen as it truly is. It is the ideal earth - the idea of earth itself.
Platonically, an idea is a single unit – and from this oneness all manifestations of that idea proceed into creation. For instance Beauty may be seen in a myriad of forms but ultimately there is only one beautiful form – Beauty herself. Therefore the whole world and its cosmos is in essence one idea – the idea of the world itself. This is what is in the Creator’s mind at the beginning of creation and from this one idea springs the multiplicity of all earthly forms.
The true vision of the earth, says Socrates, is the abode of those who have spent their previous lives in purity and moderation. However the major part of the human race inhabits the hollows of the earth - places of water, mists and air - the 'dregs of this pure earth' where, as he says, everything is 'corrupted and gnawed'.1 We are ignorant that we dwell in a shadow-land, believing it to be real. It is as if we live in the sea and perceive sun and stars through the water, imagining that to be the sky. But if we were to swim like fishes to the surface we might see our world as it really is. If the nature of a human being were sufficient for such an elevated survey, Socrates said, ‘he would know that the heavens which he there beheld were the true heavens and that he perceived the true light and the true earth’.2
Socrates' fable explains how one’s perception of the universe varies according to the level of one’s development. Most of us live in the hollows of the earth - the mundane world. Sometimes, maybe, we have glimpses of the purer higher world but mostly we live believing the world we inhabit to be the reality. Socrates ends by explaining that although it is only a fable, our souls are indeed immortal and we should hazard the truth of it. We should do all we can to participate of virtue and prudence in the present life so as to gain our proper habitation in the next - 'for the danger is beautiful and it is necessary to allure ourselves with things of this kind'.3
Plotinus, a Platonist who lived several hundred years after Plato, had a similar vision. He describes three sorts of men: the first sees no further than the world of the senses and is content to remain there, while another who realises that there is a higher world strives heavenward for a time before he gives up. The third is the man who will reach the true world that Socrates described:
But there is a third kind of god-like men who, by their greater power and the sharpness of their eyes as if by a special keen-sightedness, see the glory above and are raised to it as if above the clouds and the mist of this lower world and remain there, overlooking all things here below and delighting in the true region which is their own, like a man who has come home after long wandering to his own well-ordered country.4
While Socrates clearly relishes describing the appearance of these worlds, it is not so much the worlds themselves but how they are perceived that is important. As the vision of those who have chosen to follow a spiritual path becomes clearer so their perception of reality changes and they begin to see the earth in its full glory. Although human souls cannot live permanently on the true earth until after they have died, they may be granted a glimpse of it from time to time - doubtless to encourage their endeavours. For in order to describe it Socrates must have had a vision of this world himself - one that he knows he will inhabit after the death of his mortal body.
Beneath the hollows of the mundane world inhabited by most human beings lie many caverns and chasms through which flow great quantities of water - hot and cold - and rivers of mud and of fire. Of all these rivers there are four in particular that weave through and around the earth - they are the great underground streams that lead - at varying depths - to Hades.
The greatest and outermost - whose element is water - is Ocean. It flows circularly around the world and takes with it those souls who will ascend to higher worlds. Acheron - having the element air - flows in a contrary direction to Ocean - under the earth - towards the Acherusian marsh through which most of the dead souls pass. It was given the name - Acerwn - meaning river of woe. (Sadness for the souls it carries or for those they have left behind?) Here they remain for a greater or lesser length of time - according to their need - before returning to the mundane world.
The other two lead down to the deepest chasms of Tartarus. Pyriphlegethon (Purijlegeqwn - meaning fire-blazing, from puri meaning 'fire' and jlegeqw - 'to burn') hurls itself deep down into the earth - burning with elemental fire - passing the Acherusian marsh but not mingling with its waters. The souls it carries are punished through fire. The fourth river is the Cocytus (KwkutoV meaning 'shrieking or wailing') or Styx (Stuc - meaning the hateful, from stugew - 'to hate, abhor, abominate). Endowed with the element earth, it falls into a wild and dreadful place to mingle its waters with the Stygian marsh. Then, flowing in the opposite direction to the third river, it passes the Acherusian marsh before hurling itself into Tartarus where the souls it bears are punished through cold. I find it interesting that the idea of hell fire passed into Christianity although cold as the worst punishment of all did not. However Dante, who was both a Christian and a Platonist, used the image of Satan frozen in a block of ice in the last and deepest circle of his Inferno.
Damascius (Com II, 145) states that the depth of each river indicates the position of the souls it carries. While the two lower rivers carry souls who need punishment for their lives, most souls pass through Acheron before returning to the world. It is only 'those who have lived most excellently with respect to piety' that are carried by the waters of Ocean and move to the purer worlds above.
This labyrinthine underworld brings to mind the labyrinth in which Theseus killed the Minotaur - of which we are reminded at the start of the dialogue with the reference to the festival celebrating this event. In this Theseus represents the living soul that descends into embodiment in matter and finally overcoming the ravening beast of sensual desires returns, as Plotinus describes it, to 'his own well ordered country'.
The scene for the dialogue is thus set with the implied outward and return journey of the life of a soul in a material body. It ends with a description of another labyrinth - an apparent reflection of the first - but this time it is in death and the soul passes through without a body. With no body the soul is helpless - relying on its guardian daemon to lead it to its rightful place from whence - unless it is condemned to the everlasting punishments of Tartarus - it will be led in time to another life and another body.
Tartarus - says Damascius - is the extremity of the universe and subsists opposite to Olympus. But Tartarus is a god - the watchful guardian of that which is last in every order. The god appears in three forms - in each case it conceals that which it has generated. In its celestial form it is that within which heaven, Uranus, conceals its offspring - keeping Saturn/Cronos hidden. In its Saturnian form it is that in which its offspring, Zeus, is concealed and in its Jovian form - that of Zeus the demiurge - it conceals the world of generation from which the souls of the dead, while they are in Tartarus, are excluded. Thus any generation or growth - of body or mind - is impossible as long as the soul remains in Hades.
In life Ariadne's thread - the golden thread of philosophy - will lead the good and righteous soul to higher worlds. In death its daemon leads the righteous soul along the river of the Ocean away from Tartarus to its true country on the summit of the earth - or to even higher worlds.
'Those who shall appear to have lived most excellently,' says Socrates, 'with respect to piety - these are they, who being liberated and dismissed from these places on the earth, as from the abodes of a prison, shall arrive at the pure habitation on high, and dwell on the aetherial earth. And among these, those who are sufficiently purified by philosophy, shall live without bodies, through the whole of the succeeding time, and shall arrive at habitations yet more beautiful than these'' (114b-c). Socrates appears to have knowledge of these too - for he adds that they are neither easy to describe nor is the present time sufficient for such an undertaking.
In order to make any spiritual progress the soul needs a body and so when the body dies the most it can do in Hades is to allow itself to be led by its daemon to its allotted place. For most souls that is to where they may make atonement for their sins and in due course the passage of Time will return them to other bodies in which they may begin another journey towards a better death and a better life. Although the souls of the dead can apparently appear in the forms of their previous lives, seen by those mythical living men such as Orpheus, Odysseus and Aeneas who descend into Hades, it is in appearance only - purely for the purpose of recognition by a living being - for they have no physical substance.
In his myth of the true earth Socrates spoke of the twelve-sided dodecahedron that were seen to cover the mundane world. Damascius, a later leader of the Platonic Academy who wrote a commentary on the Phaedo,5 noted that while each of the elements making up the mundane world has a form, the earth being a cube, water an icosahedron, air an octahedron and fire a pyramid, when it is seen from the super-mundane world all the elements appear in the form of a dodecahedron. This is another stage of perception and is preparatory to the whole earth being seen as a sphere. It is the view from the world of Intellect where the forms themselves are seen and from where, says Socrates, the soul participates in the spherical itself and perceives all the elements as One. It is from this perception of unity that the true earth is revealed. Aristotle identified the Earth with the goddess Hestia , from 'est' meaning ‘to be’ or that which 'is'. To see the goddess Hestia as she truly is, is to rest in the essence of being. This is the divine vision of real being.
The Phaedo is a wonderful exposition of the human soul. After Phaedo’s introduction in which he refers to the myth of Theseus that we know represents the descent and re-ascent of the soul, Socrates proves to his followers that the soul is immortal. By ending with his vision of the true earth, he gives encouragement to all those following the path of philosophy. He admits that it is but a fable he has told and that 'to affirm that these things subsist exactly as I have described them is not the province of a man endued with intellect … but since our soul appears immortal … it deserves to be hazarded by him who believes in its reality … for the danger is beautiful, and it is necessary to allure ourselves with things of this kind'.6 With gentle encouragement Socrates tells us that if we can ornament our souls with the virtues of temperance and justice, fortitude, liberty and truth, we may be ready when the time comes to follow him to Hades and from thence to a better life.
But this is also a fable for the living and all these levels of perception are available to us in our present life. We may not live continuously at such a high level of being but from time to time the soul may be granted a glimpse of these worlds and when it truly perceives, knows and understands it will enter its own vision of the true earth and there take up its abode. Socrates’ own knowledge that it is waiting to receive him in the next life is absolute and one may conjecture that his soul will reach still further into the worlds of the gods and beyond.
Two thousand years later Ficino, like Socrates, was urging his own followers to reach the same vision of the true earth:
Seek yourself beyond the world. To do so and to come to yourself you must fly beyond the world and look back on it. For you are beyond the world while you yourself comprehend it. But you believe yourself to be in the abyss of the world simply because you do not discern yourself flying through the heavens, but see your shadow, the body, in the abyss.7
Many others have written of their vision of the true earth. It has been called Atlantis and the Garden of Eden, Arcadia and the Celestial City, while Blake's vision was of 'Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land' and Shakespeare’s of a ‘precious stone set in a silver sea’. But although these represent the world in its perfection, they still subsist within time. As Socrates hinted, the eternal resting place of the soul lies beyond.
1 Phaedo 110a
2 Phaedo 109e
3 Phaedo 114d
4 Plotinus Enn. V, 9,I
5 Damascius, Commentary II, 132.
6 Phaedo 114d
7 Marsilio Ficino, Letters, Vol 1, Shepheard-Walwyn 1975, lette.110
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