Swan Songs

Pherecyde of Syros, the uncle and tutor of Pythagoras, active in the 6th century B.C., was the first to affirm that the souls of men are eternal, according to Ciceroi . However I presume that he must have been preceded by many shamans of ancient times, for whom eternity of souls was obvious, because they had personally experienced that human souls can travel between worlds, those of the living and those of the dead, under certain conditions.

Pherecyde wrote of a dead hero: « His soul was sometimes in Hades and sometimes in the places above the earth »ii . Did he have first-hand experience of these strange phenomena? Or was he just repeating stories he had heard from elsewhere ?

According to Suidas, Pherecyde had been influenced by the secret cults of Phoenicia. Many other Greeks, for their part, fell under the spell of the Chaldean rites, as reported by Diodorus of Sicily, or those of Ethiopia, described by Diogenes Laertius, or were fascinated by the depth of the ancient traditions of Egypt, reported by Herodotus with great detail. Many peoples have cultivated religious mysteries. The Magi of Persia loved the dark caves for their sacred celebrations; the Hebrews practiced the mysteries of the Kabbalah, probably long before their late medieval development; Caesar, in his Gallic Wars, describes those of the Druids.

Benjamin Constant devotes part of his book on « Religion, considered in its source, its forms and its development », to this transnational, multicultural, and several thousand year old phenomenon. « The mysteries of Eleusis were brought by Eumolpe, from Egypt or Thrace. Those of Samothrace, which served as a model for almost all those of Greece, were founded by an Egyptian Amazon (Diodorus of Sicily 3.55). The daughters of Danaus established the Thesmophoria (Herodotus 2:171; 4:172) and the Dionysians were taught to the Greeks by Phoenicians (Herodotus 2:49) or Lydians (Euripides, The Bacchaeans, 460-490). The mysteries of Adonis penetrated from Assyria through the island of Cyprus into the Peloponnese. The dance of the Athenian women to the Thesmophoria was not a Greek dance (Pollux, Onomast. 4) and the name of the Sabarian rites brings us back to Phrygia.» iii

Benjamin Constant notes that the names Ceres and Proserpine in the language of the Cabirs are identical to those of the Queen of the Underworld and her daughter among the Indians, Ceres deriving from Axieros and Asyoruca, and Proserpine from Axiocersa and Asyotursha. He quotes Creutzer who asserts, in his Mithraics (III,486), that the formulas with which the Greek initiates were consecrated (« Konx, Om, Pax ») are in reality Sanskrit words. Konx (κονξ) comes from Kansha (the object of desire), Om is the famous Vedic monosyllable, and Pax (παξ) comes from Pasha (Fortune).

Other similarities are worth noting, such as the role of the (stylized) representation of the sexual organs in Vedic and Greek cults. Constant indicates that the Pelagi in Samothrace worshipped the phallus, as reported by Herodotusiv, and that in the Thesmophoria a representation of the cteisv was staged. The Dionysian Canephores, young virgins chosen from the best families, carried the sacred phallus on their heads in baskets and brought it close to the lips of the candidates for initiation. »vi It was through the Lernéan mysteries that were celebrated in Argolide in honor of Bacchus, that the practice of planting phallus on the tombs was introduced »vii, symbols of genetic power, but also of the immortality of the soul and metempsychosis. Cicero speaks of the infamy of the Sabarian mysteriesviii, Ovid and Juvenal describe the obscene ceremonies of the feasts of Adonisix. Tertullian condemns: « What the mysteries of Eleusis have of more holy, what is carefully hidden, what one is admitted to know only very late, it is the simulacrum of the Phallus. » x

Eusebius of Caesarea is also interested in these ancient orgies and quotes Clement of Alexandria, a well-informed source, who does not hide his indignation: « Do you want to see the orgies of the Corybantes? You will see only assassinations, tombs, laments of priests, the natural parts of Bacchus with his throat cut, carried in a box and presented for adoration. But don’t be surprised if the barbaric Tuscans have such a shameful cult. What shall I say of the Athenians and the other Greeks, with their mysteries of Demeter? »» xi.

Both sexes are publicly displayed in the sacred cults of the Dioscuri in Samothrace and Bacchus in the Dionysies. It is a « feast of raw flesh, » the interpretation of which can vary considerably. One may decide to see it as a simple allusion to the wine harvest: the torn body of Bacchus is the body of the grape pulled from the vine and crushed under the press. Ceres is the Earth, the Titans are the grape-pickers, Rhea gathers the members of the God torn to pieces, who is incarnated in the wine made from the juice of the grapes.

But the metaphor can be completely overturned, and one can read in it the profound message of a theophany of God’s death and sacrifice, of his dismembered body shared in communion, in a strange prefiguration of Christ’s death, and then of the communion of his flesh and blood by his faithful, even today, at the crucial moment of the Mass.

Always in a kind of pagan prefiguration of Christian beliefs, more than half a millennium ahead of time, we witness the death and resurrection of God: Attys, Adonis, Bacchus and Cadmille die and rise again, following the example of Osiris and Zagreus, avatar of the mystic Dionysus.

We can see that the mystery religions of the Greeks owe almost everything to much older cults, coming from Egypt, Phoenicia, Chaldea, Mesopotamia, and further east still.

This raises a question which is not without merit: to what extent was Christian worship, which appeared some seven or eight centuries later, influenced by those ancient pagan cults revering a God who died in sacrifice for men, and whose body and blood are shared in communion by them? « The Logos as son of God and mediator is clearly designated in all the mysteries. » Benjamin Constant affirms in this regard. xii

The protagonists of the initiation ceremonies, composed of many degrees, certainly did not ask themselves such questions at the time. The initiates to the small mysteries (μύσται, the « mystes ») remained confined to the vestibules of the temples, only the initiates to the great mysteries (ἐπόπται, the « epoptes », a name that later applied to Christian « bishops ») could enter the sanctuary.

But what was their motivation? What was this secret that was so difficult to obtain? What justified to stoically endure eighty degrees of trials (hunger, whip, stay in the mud, in the ice water, and other torments…) to be initiated, for example, to the mysteries of Mithra?

What is certain is that these systems of initiation were subversive, they ruined the bases of the established order, of public religions, making too many gods proliferate, too visible. Part of this last revelation, which it took so long to discover, was the idea of the non-existence of these Homeric gods, popular, multiplied, covering the peristyles of the cities, encouraged by the government of the plebeians. The radical negation of the existence of the national gods, was part of the truths finally revealed to only a very small number of chosen ones.

« The secret did not lie in traditions, fables, allegories, opinions, or the substitution of a purer doctrine: all these things were known. What was secret, then, was not the things that were revealed, but that these things were thus revealed, that they were revealed as the dogmas and practices of an occult religion, that they were revealed gradually. » xiii

The initiation was, well before the time of the modern Enlightenment, a conditioning, a training of the mind, an asceticism of the soul, an exercise in radical doubt, an absolute « mise en abîme ». It was a revelation of the inanity of all revelation. At the end of this long journey, there were no other established doctrines than the absence of any doctrine, only an absolute negation of all known assertions, those which the uneducated people were being fed with. There were no more dogmas, but only signs of recognition, symbols, rallying words that allowed the initiated to allusively share the feeling of their election to penetrate the ultimate ends.

But what were these? If we had to free ourselves from all known gods and dogmas, what was left to believe?

That men go to heaven, and that the Gods have gone to earth.

Cicero testifies to this, in an exchange with an initiate: « In a word, and to avoid a longer detail, was it not men who populated the heaven? If I were to delve into antiquity, and take it upon myself to delve deeper into the stories of the Greeks, we would find that even those of the Gods, who are given the first rank, lived on earth, before going to heaven. Find out which of these Gods, whose tombs are shown in Greece. Since you are initiated into the mysteries, remember the traditions. » xiv

Cicero encourages us to recognize that the greatest of mysteries is that of our soul, and that the most sacred sanctuary is therefore not so inaccessible, since it is so close, though buried in the depths of our intimacy, in the center of our very soul.

« And truly there is nothing so great as to see with the eyes of the soul, the soul itself. This is the meaning of the oracle, which wants everyone to know each other. No doubt Apollo did not pretend to tell us to know our body, our size, our figure. For he who speaks of us does not speak of our body; and when I speak to you, it is not to your body that I speak. When therefore the oracle says to us, ‘Know thyself,’ he hears, ‘Know thy soul. Your body is, so to speak, only the vessel, only the home of your soul. » xv

Cicero, at the peak of his art, is modest. He knows that he owes everything he believes to Plato. This can be summed up in a few incisive phrases, in precise, surgical logic: « The soul feels that she is moving: she feels that she is not dependent on a foreign cause, but that she is by herself, and by her own virtue; it can never happen that she misses herself, so she is immortal.» xvi

If one finds the elliptic reasoning, one can read the more elaborate version, as developed by Plato in the Phaedra, as cited by Cicero in his Tusculanes:

« A being that always moves, will always exist. But he who gives movement to another, and who receives it himself from another, necessarily ceases to exist, when he loses his movement. There is therefore only the being moved by his own virtue, who never loses his movement, because he never misses himself. And moreover he is for all other things that have movement, the source and principle of the movement they have. Now, who says principle, says what has no origin. For it is from the principle that everything comes, and the principle cannot come from anything else. It would not be a principle if it came from elsewhere. And since it has no origin, it will therefore have no end. For, being destroyed, it could neither be itself reproduced by another principle, nor produce another, since a principle presupposes nothing anterior. Thus the principle of movement is in the being moved by its own virtue. A principle that can be neither produced nor destroyed. Otherwise it is necessary that heaven and earth be turned upside down, and that they fall into eternal rest, without ever being able to recover a force, which, as before, makes them move. It is obvious, therefore, that that which is moved by its own virtue, will always exist. And can it be denied that the ability to move in this way is not an attribute of the soul? For everything that is moved only by a foreign cause is inanimate. But that which is animated is moved by its own virtue, by its inner action. Such is the nature of the soul, such is its property. Therefore, the soul being, of all that exists, the only thing that always moves itself, let us conclude from this that it is not born, and that it will never die ». xvii

Are we satisfied enough? Do we need more? We are still far from the Gods, or perhaps much closer than we think. « Immortality, wisdom, intelligence, memory. Since our soul gathers these perfections, it is therefore divine, as I say. Or even a God, as Euripides dared to say. » xviii

The soul is a sun. Cicero reports these last words of Socrates, a few moments before drinking the hemlock: « The whole life of philosophers is a continual meditation of death ». This was his swan song. The swans, by the way, were dedicated to Apollo, because they seem to hold from him the art of knowing the future. Foreseeing the benefits of following death, the swans die voluptuously, while singing. Likewise Socrates, who took the time to recall this metaphor in front of his assembled disciples, sang an unforgettable song, and pondered his ultimate doubt, in the face of imminent death, with the smile of a wise man: « When one looks too fixedly at the setting sun. One comes to see no more. And in the same way, when our soul looks at herself, her intelligence sometimes becomes blurred, so that our thoughts become blurred. We no longer know what to fix ourselves on, we fall from one doubt to another, and our reasoning has as little consistency as a ship beaten by the waves. »

This very doubt, this blindness, this ultimate blurring, when we approach revelation, comes only from the too great strength of this inner sun, which the weak eyes of the mind cannot bear.

To detach the mind from the body is to learn how to die. Let us separate ourselves from our bodies by the power of the soul, and thus become accustomed to dying. By this means, our life will already hold a heavenly life, and we will be better prepared to take off when our chains break.


i« According to the written documents, Pherecyde of Syros was the first to have said that the souls of men are eternal. « Cicero, Tusculanes, I, 16, 38.

iiPherecyde of Syros, fragment B 22, trans. G. Colli, La sagesse grecque, t. 2, p. 103: scholies of Apollonius of Rhodes, I, 643-648.

iiiBenjamin Constant. Of religion considered in its source, its forms and its developments. 1831. Book 13, ch.12

ivHerodotus, Story 2:51: « The Greeks, then, hold these and many other rites among the Egyptians, of which I will speak later; but it is not according to these peoples that they give the statues of Mercury an indecent attitude. The Athenians were the first to take this custom from the Pelasians; the rest of Greece followed their example. The Pelasges remained in fact in the same canton as the Athenians, who, from that time, were among the Hellenes; and it is for this reason that they then began to be reputed as Hellenes themselves. Whoever is initiated into the mysteries of the Cabires, which the Samothracians celebrate, understands what I am saying; for these Pelasges who came to dwell with the Athenians used to inhabit Samothrace, and it is from them that the peoples of this island took their mysteries. The Athenians are thus the first of the Hellenes who learned from the Pelagiuses to make statues of Mercury in the state we have just represented. The Pelasges give a sacred reason for this, which is explained in the mysteries of Samothrace. « Pierre-Henri Larcher. Paris, Lefevre and Charpentier 1842.

vSee Theodoret, Serm. 7 and 12. The cteis is a Greek word which literally means « tooth comb » but which also figuratively designates the pubis of the woman, and also means « cup, chalice ».

viTheodoret, Therapeut. Disput. 1, cited by B. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2

viiB. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2

viiiCicero, De Nat. Deo III,13

ixOvid, De Art. Amand. I, 75. Juvenal Sat. VI. In op.cit

xTertullian. Ad. Valent.

xiQuoted by B. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2

xiiB. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.6

xiiiB. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.8

xivCicero. Tusculans I, 12-13

xvCicero. Tusculans I, 22

xviCicero. Tusculans I, 23

xviiCicero. Tusculans I, 23

xviiiCicero. Tusculans I, 26

Orpheus and Pythagoras

Orpheus descended to the Underworld and was initiated into the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris (those Gods called Demeter and Dionysus among the Greeks, Ceres and Bacchus, among the Romans). He established in Greece the cult of Hecate in Aegina, and that of Isis-Demeter in Sparta. His disciples, the Orphics, were at once marginal, individualistic, mystical, and loving life.

In contrast, the Pythagoreans, though also influenced by orphism, were « communist and austere », to use H. Lizeray’s formula. Socrates had said: « Everything is common, – between friends. »

If Pythagoras had a tendency towards « communism », and Orpheus towards « individualism”, what does it teach us, today, in terms of the fundamental aspirations of mankind?

A Very Long Journey

A Jewish historian, Artapanus, living in Alexandria under the Ptolemy, more than 2300 years ago, affirmed that Moses and Hermes Trismegistus were one and the same person. This provocative thesis is obviously controversial. But from the point of view of cultures quietly assuming their « symbiosis » (such as the one prevailing in the vibrant Alexandria of this time), this idea has the merit of being a pungent symptom.

Whether or not he was in fact Moses, the man named Hermes Trismegistus was a remarkable character. Almost two thousand years before Blaise Pascal, Hermes struck a famous formula, quoted in the Asclepius: « God, – a spiritual circle whose center is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere. »

His Poimandrès is also moving by his scope of vision, and the prophetic power of his intuitions. Here are the first lines.

« I was thinking about beings one day; my thoughts hovered in the heights, and all my body sensations were numb as in the heavy sleep that follows satiety, excess or fatigue. It seemed to me that an immense being, without defined limits, called me by name and said to me: What do you want to hear and see, what do you want to learn and know?

– Who are you, I answered?

– I am, he said, Poimandrès, the sovereign intelligence. I know what you want, and everywhere I am with you.

– I want, I replied, to be educated about beings, to understand their nature and to know God.

– Receive in your mind everything you want to know, » he said to me, « I will instruct you.

At these words, he changed his appearance, and immediately everything was discovered to me in a moment, and I saw an indefinable spectacle. »

There is something divine in Hermes, just like in Moses. Why hide it? Today, there are few men of this calibre. Does this make the world more difficult to live in? Less open to wisdom? This can be believed if we stick to Plato’s description of the philosopher.

« This is why the philosopher’s thought is the only winged one; for those higher realities to which he is constantly applied by memory to the extent of his forces, it is to these very realities that God owes his divinity. However, it is by straightforwardly using such means of remembrance that a man who is always perfectly initiated to perfect initiations, becomes, alone, really perfect. But as he departs from what is the object of human concern and applies to what is divine, the crowd shows him that he is disturbed in spirit; but he is possessed of a God, and the crowd does not suspect it! »i

Today, as in the past, the opinion of the crowd often prevails over that of the wise man. But the latter does not care. He is « possessed ».

There is nothing better, in order to understand an era, than to look at the forms of “possession”, of « disturbance », the ways of « delirium », which it condemns or recognizes.

In Poimandrès Hermes gives crucial indications in this regard on the concerns of his time. He describes his own transport in an immortal body, and the ecstasy of his soul.

In the Symposium, Plato recounts the dive of purified souls into the ocean of divine beauty. In the Epinomis, he explains how the soul can be united with God, then living through Him, rather than by herself.

It is difficult not to be struck by the incredible distance between the experience of these ancient thinkers and that of most intellectuals and other publicists at the beginning of the 21st century.

Few, it seems, can still get the faintest idea of what the experience of ecstasy was really like for Moses, for Hermes, or for Socrates.

« Modern thinkers » have almost completely severed the links with these multi-millennial experiments. We see in the media professionals of the sacredness, spokesmen for faith X, religion Y or spirituality Z, parading on stages, pulpits, platforms, or screens, proclaiming themselves guardians of divine laws, imposing sermons and homilies, launching anathema or fatwas.

The modern domain of the « sacred » forms a noisy, blurred, confused scene.This confusion hides a more substantial opacity. The untouched, unsuspected mystery still lies in the depths, much deeper than the spiritual night that surrounds us on all sides. Marsilio Ficino, one of the Renaissance thinkers who best resisted modern desiccation, then in genesis, described an interesting phenomenon, the path of the mind captured by the object of his research:

« By ardently loving this light, even if it is obscurely perceived, these intelligences are completely engulfed in its heat, and once they are engulfed, which is the hallmark of love, they are transformed into light. Strengthened by this light, they very easily become by love the very light they previously tried to follow with their eyes.»ii

Ficino, who seems to have experienced the thing for himself, believes that there are nine possible degrees of contemplation of God. Three are related to his goodness, three are related to his wisdom, and three are related to his power. But these approaches are not equivalent.

“We fear the power of God, we seek his wisdom, we love his goodness. Only the love of his goodness transforms the soul into God.”iii

Why all these ways, then, if there is only one effective? The symbolism of the number 9 is to be taken into account. Virgil used it, too. « The Styx, interposing itself nine times, locks them in. »iv

Ficino quotes Hesiod, Virgil, Ovid, Hermes Trismegistus, Plato. In the middle of the Renaissance, he dreams of the golden age, during which the mysteries had been contemplated.

The intelligence of men is bound and weak. To dream today of a new golden age is to believe once again in a possible leap, a huge leap, from this weakness, towards the vision of the high mysteries, or even their understanding.

The testimony of the great elders on this subject is invaluable. They say the leap is possible. They suggest that this experience is always open to anyone who undertakes this journey with determination. We must rely on the general strengths of universal symbiosis to help us through the difficult stages that await the Argonauts of life. Orpheus warns: « It is impossible to force the gates of the kingdom of Pluto; inside lives the people of dreams.»v

But these doors can be opened, as if by magic. How? Orpheus entrusts his method: « Daughters of Mnemosyne and Jupiter, O famous and illustrious Muses, goddesses who will generate all the arts, nourish the spirit, inspire right thoughts, wisely rule the souls of men and have taught them divine sacrifices; Clio, Euterpe, Thalie, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Urania and Calliope, come with your august mother; come to us and be favourable to us, bring us the Almighty Glory and Wisdom.»vi

For those who would have a sensitivity to immanence, Orpheus proposes to invoke the « universal substance »:

« I invoke Pan, the universal substance of the world, of the sky, of the deep sea, of the earth of various forms and of the imperishable flame. These are just scattered members of Pan. Pan at the feet of goats, wandering god, master of storms, who drives the stars and whose voice represents the eternal concerts of the world, god loved by herdsmen and pastors who love the clear fountains, fast god who inhabits the hills, friend of sound, dear god of nymphs, god who generates all things, procreative power of the universe.»vii

For those who prefer to put themselves under the shadow of the Law, Orpheus also has a sign:

« I invoke the divine Law, the genius of men and immortals; the heavenly goddess, governing the stars, the common sign of all things, the foundation of nature, the sea and the earth. A constant Goddess, keeping the eternal laws of heaven and faithfully carrying out her immense revolutions; you who grant mortals the benefits of a prudent life and govern all that breathes; you whose wise counsel directs all things according to equity, goddess always favourable to the just, but overwhelming the wicked with severe punishments, sweet goddess who distributes goods with delicious largess, remember us and speak our name with friendship.»viii

The journey has only just begun. It has no end. Any vessel will do, to the one who knows the bearings, even fuzzily. Only imagination and hope are likely to be in short supply. And courage.

i Phaedrus, 249, c-d

iiMarsilio Ficino, Th. Plat. 18,8


iv Georg. IV, 480

v Argonaut., 1142

vi Argonaut., 1142

vii Orpheus, Hymns, X

viii Hymns, LXI

In the Mire, Drowning Angels.

We humans are fundamentally nomads, – with no nomosi. We are forever nomads with no limits, and no ends.

Always dissatisfied, never at peace, never at rest, perpetually on the move, forever in exile.

The Journey has no end. Wandering is meaningless, without clues. The homelands are suffocating. Landscapes are passing by, and we have no roots. No abyss fulfills us. The deepest oceans are empty. The skies, down there, are fading. The suns are pale, the moons dirty. The stars are blinking. We can only breathe for a moment.

Our minds would like to look beyond the diffuse background, behind the veiled Cosmos. But even an infinitely powerful Hubble telescope couldn’t show us anything of what’s behind. Cosmology is a prison, only vaster, but still finite, bounded, and we are already tired of endless, useless, multiverses, and weary of their aborted drafts.

The worried soul « pursues an Italy that is slipping away », but Virgil is not anymore our vigilante, and Aeneas is not our elder. Rome has forgotten itself. Athens has died out. Jerusalem, we already have returned there, – so they say.

Billions of people live, dream and die on the Promised Land.

They try, every night, to drink the water of the Lethe and the Cocyte, without being burnt by the Phlegethon. When they wake up, they are always thirsty for new caresses, they want again to smell myrrh, to taste nectars.

They try to avoid the icy skin of mirrors. They desperately scan the hairy mountains, the undecided rivers, the bitter oranges. They follow the hard curve of the fruits, the orb of the colors.

But at one point the heart hits, the body falls. At any moment, the final night will cover the sun. Forgetting all will come without fail.

Euripides called life: « the dream of a shadow ».ii

This shadow has two wings, – not six, like Ezekiel’s angels.

Intelligence and will are our wings, says Plato.

With one wing, the shadow (or the soul) sucks in, breathes in. The world comes into her.

With the other wing, she goes to all things, she flies freely, anywhere.

When the two wings flap together, then anything is possible. The soul can evade anywhere, even out of herself, and even from God Himself. As Marsilio Ficino says: « Animus noster poterit deus quidam evadere ».

There is a mysterious principle at the heart of the soul: she becomes what she’s looking for. She is transformed into what she loves.

Who said that? A litany of impressive thinkers. Zoroaster, King David. Plato, Porphyry, Augustine. Paul put it that way: « And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory. »iii

It is indeed a mysterious principle.

The word ‘mystery’ comes from the Greek μύω, to close. This verb was originally used for the eyes, or for the lips. Closed eyes. Closed lips. The religious meaning, as a derivative, describes an ancient problem: how could what is always closed be ever opened?

Zoroaster found an answer, kind of: « The human soul encloses God in herself, so to speak, when, keeping nothing mortal, she gets drunk entirely on the divinity”.iv

Who still reads or pays attention to Zoroaster today?

Nietzsche? But Nietzsche, the gay barbarian, joyfully ripped away his nose, teeth and tongue. After that, he pretended he could speak on his behalf. Also Sprach Zarathustra. Ach so? Wirklich?

There are two kinds of thinkers.

There are the atrabilaries, who distill their venom, their suspicions, their despair, or their limitations, like Aristotle, Chrysippus, Zeno, Averroes, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche.

And there are the optimists, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, or Apollonius of Thyana. They believe in life and in everything that may flourish.

We’ll rely on Heraclitus for a concluding line: “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail”. (Fragm. 18)

What can we learn from that fragment?

Without hope, everything is and will stay forever mud, mire, or muck. We have to search for the unexpected, the impossible, the inaccessible… What on earth could it be? – Gold in the mud, – or in the mire, drowning angels?

iNomos (Greek) = Law

ii Medea, 1224

iii2 Co 3,18

iv ChaldaicOracles V. 14.21

The Absurd Reason

The prophet Daniel speaks as a seer: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever. » (Dan. 12,2-3)

This saying refers to the « wise » and to the “righteous”. It is not just a question of knowledge, but of justice, of a wisdom that is less human than divine. How to reach it? How to access these high places?

Many are those who doubt their own divinity, those who have never turned their eyes to the splendour of intelligence, of wisdom. There are even more who prefer the mist of the senses, the thickness of the bodies, to the thin acuity of the soul.

How would they achieve the wisdom and justice that Daniel is talking about?

Plato, who was not a prophet, but no less a seer, advises us to meditate unceasingly on death.

“Either in no way can we ever acquire knowledge, or it is for us only once we have passed away.”i

The way to be as close to divine knowledge as possible is to have as little trade as possible with the body. Going to the limit, we deduce that death only is the kingdom of true knowledge. This is the « immense hope » that Socrates joyfully shares with his afflicted friends, shortly before drinking the hemlock.

What is this hope based on? It is based on an idea as anti-modern as possible: « We are divine beings ». How can such a statement be made? “Because, momentarily deprived of our heavenly abode and homeland, that is, as long as we are on earth God’s substitutes, we are constantly tormented by the desire of this heavenly homeland and no earthly pleasure can console in the present exile the human intelligence desiring a better condition.”ii

This immense hope, without reason, is based – it is a paradox – on the sole activity of reason.

Marsilio Ficino gives this explanation:

“The hope of immortality results from a surge of reason, since the soul hopes not only without the help of the senses, but despite their opposition. That is why I find nothing more admirable than this hope, because, while we live incessantly among ephemeral beings, we do not cease to hope.”iii

These unreasonable ideas have been shared by thinkers as diverse as Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaopheme, Pythagoras, Plato… They have created schools of thought, their disciples have proliferated: Xenocrat, Arcesilas, Carneade, Ammonius, Plotinus, Proclus…

On a philosophical level, Socrates’ argument seems to have a certain scope. Reason says that there are only two hypotheses: either knowledge is not possible at all, or it is only possible after death.

If we decide to ignore the Socratic, resolutely optimistic point of view, absolute horror would therefore resemble this: to see clearly with the eyes of pure reason the absurdity and inanity of a human condition, capable of reason, and capable of drawing from it the most crazy, most absurd hypotheses.

iPhaedo, 66 e

ii Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology Book XVI