A Casting of Light by the Platonic Tradition
Adapted by Guy Wyndham-Jones
Publisher: The Prometheus Trust: Wiltshire, UK 2012.
ISBN 978 1 898910572
A Casting of Light presents a selection of writings by Plato and other philosophers in the ancient Platonic tradition, as translated by the English mystic Thomas Taylor (1758-1835). Taylor’s translations, while scrupulously faithful to the original text, bring to light the deep spiritual essence of the Platonic writings.
The editor of this volume, Guy Wyndham-Jones, presents his selected passages in the format of short verse-like lines. This format not only makes comprehension easier but also sets a contemplative mood, inviting the reader to pause and reflect. He divides the selections into four sections, titled The Morning, The Afternoon, The Evening, and The Night, suggesting their use for one’s contemplative practice during those parts of the day. The original sources of all quotes are listed at the end of the book.
A spiritual seeker can draw powerful inspiration from this anthology. Passages from Platonists and Neoplatonists (as later philosophers in the tradition are known) such as Plato, Iamblichus, Damascius, Plotinus, Porphyry and Proclus inspire the reader to turn away from knowledge of the material world and seek the inner stillness that leads to communion with a reality beyond words. Proclus, for example, speaks of the stillness which leads to anagogy, a word with Greek origins meaning spiritual uplift, a lifting up to the heavenly realms:
Let us now, if ever,
abandon multiform knowledge….
Let not only opinion and phantasy
be at rest,
nor the passions alone which impede
our anagogic impulse to the first,
be at peace;
but let the air be still,
and the universe itself be still.
And let all things extend us
with a tranquil power
to communion with the ineffable.
To access the mystical depth of the collected texts, however, the reader must be aware that the words reason and soul are here used with meanings differing from those in common use today. Reason, as used by the Platonists, stands for intuitive understanding and the direct vision of reality, a level of spiritual perception existing only in a state of inner stillness. Soul (as the Greek word psyche is generally translated) refers to a level of consciousness lower than reason, the turbulent mental states prevailing before inner stillness has been achieved. For readers accustomed to using the word soul to denote a higher, eternal reality, and reason to mean a faculty of the cognitive mind, this can be confusing. Consider the following passage from Porphyry in which he speaks of the soul attaining stillness, becoming reason itself, and ultimately becoming one with the all:
The worthy soul becomes reason itself,
and what it is in itself
it demonstrates to others;
but in respect to itself
it is sight;
for it is now collected into one,
and perfectly quiet,
not only so far as pertains to externals,
but with reference to itself,
and is all things within itself.
This anthology offers a new perspective on ancient philosophy. Centuries of scholarly writings which interpreted philosophy as a purely intellectual endeavour, combined with early Christian writings criticizing the philosophers as pagans, have obscured the fact that many of these philosophers were mystics seeking to realize a divine reality they understood as One. While they inevitably used the common religious language of their time, that of pagan polytheism, their chief purpose clearly was to explain the inner mystic path leading beyond language and concepts to direct perception of the divine.
The following passage by Sextus, the Pythagorean, speaks of the dangerous trap of confusing God’s name, a concept shaped by our limited experiences, with the infinite and indivisible reality of the ineffable One. When one names an object, two entities come into being: the one giving the name and the one being named. Naming involves superiority to that which is named. But as to the divine, such a claim to superiority is false, and surrender to the divine requires giving up the desire to name. For us to fix names and terms for spirituality and the divine realm is therefore logically absurd.
Do not investigate the name of God,
because you will not find it.
For every thing which is called by a name,
receives its appellation from that which is
more worthy than itself,
so that it is one person that calls,
and another that hears.
Who is it, therefore, that has given a name to God?
God, however, is not a name to God,
but an indication of what we conceive
This passage is one of many in A Casting of Light opening a window into a world beyond words and names, accessible only to those who have developed inner spiritual sight.
Thomas Taylor, in addition to his many works translating the ancient philosophers, also composed hymns and essays of his own inspired by the Platonist philosophers, and Wyndham-Jones has included a few of these. Drawing upon a passage in the Phaedo where Plato called philosophy “the greatest music”, Taylor likens “true philosophy” to a melody that one encounters in solitude:
The lyre of true philosophy
Is no less tuneful in the desert than in the city;
And he who knows how to call forth
Its latent harmony in solitude,
Will not want the testimony of the multitude
To convince him that its melody
Is ecstatic and divine.
The Prometheus Trust plans to produce a series of anthologies of similarly formatted selections. The Song of Proclus containing excerpts from the writings of the 5th century Neoplatonist philosopher, Proclus, is already available for purchase. The next volumes in the series will focus on Plato, Plotinus and Thomas Taylor. These volumes can be ordered directly from the Prometheus Trust, http://www.prometheustrust.co.uk.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.