Keeping It Real
It can seem astounding that something said thousands of years ago can be so relevant to our lives right now. Socrates, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E, was known in his own time and still today as a philosopher. “Philosopher” in its truest sense, in direct translation from the Greek, means a lover of wisdom. It wasn’t worldly wisdom that Socrates was in love with, but the pure wisdom or truth that only the soul can experience.
It was Plato, a follower of Socrates, who preserved the teachings of his master, making these ideas available to others to understand and follow down the ages. Plato wrote many dialogues, representing the conversations that Socrates would have with his disciples, delving into the depths of the human psyche and human reality.
Greek philosophers such as Socrates didn’t just talk about wisdom but also practised it in their daily lives, bringing it into everything they did. Robin Waterfield, a prominent translator of Plato’s works, explains how Socrates’ philosophy was as much a way of living as a system of ideas:
It is important to remember that philosophy for Plato was not, or not just, confined to lectures and books: it was a way of life. His purpose was to get his readers to change their lives, to undertake the pursuit of assimilation to God.
Socrates understood that to get to the absolute truth you have to look beyond this world, which he saw as a world of illusions. His allegory of the cave, in Plato’s most popular work, Republic, uses a metaphor to illustrate the illusory nature of human reality. It describes a cave in which prisoners have been tied up all their lives. All they can see is a blank wall on which shadows move, made by things passing in front of a fire behind them. Because they cannot see the things themselves but only their shadows, the reality of the shadows is the only reality in which these prisoners can believe.
Socrates says this situation is an analogy for the human condition. How perfectly he describes us as prisoners in a world of darkness, full of shadows. We see only what passes in front of us, unable to view things from a truer perspective and as they really are. We believe that these shadows are the truth and it does not even occur to us to imagine they might be a mere shadow of reality.
Plato goes on to describe in the Republic how, when a prisoner is set free from the cave and sees where the shadows are being projected from, he is “too dazzled to be capable of making out the objects whose shadows he’d formerly been looking at”. When we, like the freed prisoner, catch a glimmer of the real, we may be taken aback and stumble back into our cave, not wanting to destroy the illusion we have been living in since birth.
Even when we see the truth with our very own eyes, we may still be unable to trust or believe in it, because we are grasping hold of the shadows so tightly. We are comfortable in ignorance. Our whole life is just shadows, and in another sense it is also only a shadow of a shadow of what it could be.
We are so burdened with the karma which has clouded our vision, that we can no longer imagine (let alone see) that anything could be more beautiful than what we see before us every day. Socrates believed that it was the body, and everything attached to it, that tainted us and imprisoned us like shellfish. As Plato writes in the Phaedo:
Every seeker after wisdom knows that up to the time when philosophy takes it over his soul is a helpless prisoner, chained hand and foot in the body, compelled to view reality not directly but only through its prison bars, and wallowing in utter ignorance.
The writings of Plato repeatedly use the image of the world as a jail house in which the soul is held captive and chained. But he believed that there was a way out. Plato explains on numerous occasions that it is the duty of every philosopher - every lover of wisdom - to free the soul from the body and its worldly ties, saying in the Phaedo that … in fact the philosopher’s occupation consists precisely in the freeing and separation of soul from body."
Plato believed that release from this world was a long, hard process. This is true. But how lucky for us that, once we have found our Master and been initiated, the long part is over! From this point on, it is just a matter of time and effort. This effort consists in fulfilling our duty and trying to become true philosophers, true lovers of wisdom, living that wisdom in our everyday life, every day. And in having faith in the Master.
We need to remind ourselves sometimes that what we see in the world is only shadows. But if even these shadows can be so beautiful -and the world has much beauty in it - then how awesome must true beauty be! And gradually we will move away from the shadows, unbind ourselves from our body day by day, thought by thought, until one day at last we are able to see the source of all shadows, and thereby gain true understanding and true bliss. As Plato says in the Republic:
And at last … he’d be able to discern and feast his eyes on the sun - not the displaced image of the sun in water or elsewhere, but the sun on its own, in its proper place.