Indo-European Philosophy: On the Soul

There are many parallels that can be drawn between early Hellenic and Upanishadic philosophy.  In particular, we find many similarities between the philosophy presented by Plato in his Middle Period as he developed and fine-tuned his theory of forms – in particular as presented in the Phaedo – and much of what we find in the Upanishads.  In fact this is the impetus of the seminal works of M. L. West (Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford University Press 1971) and Thomas McEvilley (The Shape of Ancient Thought, Allworth Press, 2002), two of the most comprehensive works that outline not just the similarities of the two respective philosophical traditions, but attempt to establish direct links between the traditions themselves via some form of cultural and intellectual diffusion, both in the early period as the respective philosophic traditions evolve into their initial form in the first half of the first millennium BCE, and also as they evolve into more mature forms in the second half of the first millennium BCE and into the first millennium CE.

What both of these works allude to however, even though this hypothesis is for the most part rejected by both authors, is that these parallels and similarities could be the result of not simply intellectual borrowing and direct contact between the founders and initial shapers of the respective traditions, but ultimately could be that the two traditions emanate and originate from a common source.  This hypothesis not only would explain the glaring similarities of the two systems of thought (if we can categorize them into such neat little boxes), but also would not require that direct contact between the two cultures and intellectual traditions existed, a fact which although each of the two authors make a valiant attempt to establish but nonetheless we have virtually no direct evidence of.

All of the evidence presented by the two authors and scholars in fact is circumstantial.  In other words, their theory of direct contact of the Pre-Socratics and the Upanishadic philosophical tradition is based upon the similarities and parallels of the traditions, not based upon evidence of direct contact itself – from either the archeological, linguistic or historical evidence that is extent.  And while certainly the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, the best theory of how these similarities came to be would seem to be that they share a common origin rather than the two systems of thought developed in parallel to each other with some sort of direct contact through the Sumer-Babylonian, Assyrian and then Persian Empires which did at least geographically speaking touch the outskirts of Ionia to the West and the Indian subcontinent to the East.

A theory of common origins is aligned with the linguistic evidence in fact[1], but this theory requires an adjustment and recalibration of the mind of ancient man in the first millennium BCE.  In other words, the direct contact and cultural diffusion hypothesis is convenient because it assumes that the underlying content of these philosophical systems is actually invented, i.e. does not exist prior to, the first half of the first millennium BCE as the various works that represent what we have come to understand as early Greek and Upanishadic philosophy were crafted and written down.

But a more reasonable hypothesis, and again one that is better aligned with the evidence and what we know about how “philosophy” – the ancients understanding of reality from a metaphysical perspective – was handed down was that in fact these ideas that we find in the Upanishads and the early Greek philosophic works had existed for centuries, and were passed down orally through various teacher and student settings as we know was common throughout antiquity, prior to them being written down and captures in the various treatises that have come to represent these respective traditions.

For it is well established that the seeds of many of the ideas present in the Upanishads can also be found in Vedas, works which although have a different emphasis that the Upanishads, nonetheless reflect the intellectual and theological (we hesitate to use the term religious) tradition of the so-called Indo-Aryans from at least the second millennium BCE.  So the idea that the philosophy as presented and compiled in the Upanishads in the first half of the first millennium BCE did not exist until these works were actually compiled (based upon the linguistic evidence as they were probably not written down until the second half of the first millennium BCE at the earliest) presumes that the authors of the Upanishads were “inventors” of a new mode of thinking.  But the works themselves say no such thing.  The Upanishads speak to a perennial philosophy that was identified and “discovered’, i.e. “revealed” by the great rishis, sages or seers, who established the Indo-Aryan civilization as it is reflected by the Vedas, which they are simply recording and conveying in a different form as it were.  In other words, there is nothing to say – and in fact the tradition itself speaks to this very point – that the philosophy of the Upanishads was not “existent” and “taught”, and ultimately originated from intellectual developments that were in fact much earlier than when these treatises were actually compiled.

While this idea, this notion that Upanishadic philosophy is a 2nd millennium BCE, or even 3rd millennium BCE construct, one that is co-existent with the Indo-Aryan peoples and culture and one that is not just seeded by the Vedas but in fact existed and was taught by the sages and seers of the early Indo-Aryans as the Upanishads attest to, implies that the similarities between the early Hellenic philosophical tradition and Upanishadic philosophy must be due to common origins, effectively ruling out the possibility of the similarities being due to direct cultural or intellectual contact.

This common origins hypothesis, if true (and again it is the theory which most closely aligns with the evidence at present) which is what the author is proposing here does two things – 1) it rules out the theory of direct contact between the Pre-Socratics and the Indo-Aryans which again is consistent with the evidence which is altogether lacking in this regard (again similarities between the two traditions are just as easily, and arguably more coherently, explained by a common origin hypothesis), and 2) it implies that these intellectual traditions, these theo-philosophical systems of thought, which we find present in the early thinkers and writers in the Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent in the first millennium BCE, must have been around, existent in some form or another, much earlier than is typically thought.  So common origins presupposes, in fact depends upon categorically, the existence of these belief systems – at least the ones that we find present in both traditions – at a much earlier time frame in the history of man than is typically supposed by modern scholars.

This a very important and arguably revolutionary notion regarding ancient man that follows from this common origin hypothesis, i.e. our Laurasian hypothesis, is that these ancient peoples were in fact much more intelligent than we give them credit for being.  That the ideas that they present in the respective traditions as writing is invented in the first millennium BCE actually reflect a tradition, a belief system, that does not just pre-date the compilation of the various texts – that Plato in fact conceptually “borrowed” from Heraclitus, Pythagoras and Parmenides for example which is basically considered to be a fact at this point – but that these Pre-Socratics which influenced Plato in fact drew from a much earlier theo-philosophical tradition which did not just “borrow” or was somewhat influenced from “Oriental” theo-philosophical traditions (which also is considered to be a fact at this point and again is the primary thrust of the works of McEvilley and West), but that in fact they were drawing from a much earlier tradition that was present in the Mediterranean and Near East in the first half of the first millennium BCE which was “Indo-European”.  We call this belief system “Indo-European” in the sense that it was co-existent with the linguistic influence of the Indo-European language which we know, from the linguistic evidence, represents the parent linguistic systems of both the Indo-Aryan people as well as the Greeks, as well as the Indo-Iranians (i.e. the Persians).

 

Starting with this premise then, let’s look again at the similarities between the early Hellenic philosophical tradition and Upanishadic philosophy, but instead of trying to establish direct connections and parallels to the “founders” or “inventors” of the respective traditions as McEvilley and West do[2], we consider that Plato “expresses” and articulates this distinctive Indo-European philosophy in his works in Greek in the late 5th and early 4th century BCE just as the authors of the Upanishads “express” this Indo-European philosophy in Sanskrit, each using different words and symbols from their respective linguistic traditions (speaking and writing systems) but each expressing the same theo-philosophical principles more or less.

In other words, inverting the logic so to speak, if one starts with the assumption that there did indeed exist some form of Indo-European philosophy which was co-existent with the Indo-European people and language from which the Greeks and Indo-Aryans (and Indo-Iranians) descend – which again is the theory which aligns best with the evidence and best explains the similarities between the early Greek philosophical tradition and the theo-philosophical tradition present in the Upanishads – then we can ascertain the characteristics of this belief system, one which we can roughly date along with the parent of the Indo-European language family itself (i.e. roughly end of 4th to middle 3rd millennium BCE or so), by comparing and contrasting the two belief systems in their “mature” form.  Characteristics that they share can be said to be in all likelihood of common origin and characteristics which are distinct can be said to be local variants, just as the linguistic theory holds.

To accomplish this, instead of taking broad strokes across the entire Pre-Socratic and Platonic intellectual landscape and comparing the various belief systems with counterparts from the “Orient” (which is code for the geographic regions to the East of Ionia, which is where many of the Pre-Socratics heralded from, i.e. what is referred to as the “Near East” which effectively describes areas of Sumer-Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian influence) which is the approach that McEvilley, West and Burkert take effectively, what we will do is look at two specific works that essentially reflect the core theo-philosophical traditions of the Platonic and Upanishadic traditions respectively in their most “mature” form in the middle of the first millennium BCE and deconstruct them so to speak to look at just how similar the doctrines are.  We perform this analysis keeping in mind that while the treatises were written in geographical regions for which there is no evidence of intellectual contact (despite the Sumer-Babylonian and Persian theory of contact put forward by West and McEvilley which we reject for the more reasonable hypothesis that the similarities are due to common origins) and which were compiled in different languages and herald from different but ultimately related mythical and theological traditions.

The two works we will look at have a very similar narrative and a very similar context and topic/theme and therefore provide a sound basis for comparison and general summation of the metaphysics and philosophy of the respective traditions as a whole.  They are the Katha Upanishad and the Phaedo, each which deals very directly and specifically with the notion of death and the question of what if anything that persists after it, i.e. the immortality of the soul, as well as the nature of reality and the means by which such knowledge can be revealed.  The similarities between the two narratives, as well as of course the content which will be explored in depth below, speaks to and in and of itself a core piece of evidence for the common origins of the theo-philosophical doctrines presented therein.

The Katha Upanishad is one of the primary (Mukhya) Upanishads embedded in the last part of the Yajurveda and consists of two chapters (Adhyāyas), each divided into three sections or Vallis. The narrative starts with the story of a boy Nachiketa, who asks his father to whom he shall be given to knowing that his father, as a sage, is to give up all his worldly possessions.  After asking his father, the sage Vajasravasa, three times to whom he shall be given to, his father states emphatically (no doubt with some level of annoyance at his son as any father can relate to), “to Death I shall give you”.  Now given that Vajasravasa is a sage and therefore must be true to his word, and Nachiketa being the obedient son that he is, he takes his father quite literally and he travels to the land of the dead, a realm ruled by the Hindu deity Yama.[3]

But when Nachiketa arrives in the realm of the dead, Yama is not there.  He therefore must wait for him.  He waits for three nights, each without food or refreshments, and therefore when Yama finally returns, he grants Nachiketa three boons or wishes, one for each night that he waited as a guest without his host being present.  The first boon Nachiketa asks for requests is that his father no longer be angered with him, and the second is for the secret of the fire sacrifice, which leads to heaven and a world without hunger or thirst and beyond the reach of sorrow.  Yama grants both boons, and teaches him about the bricks that must be constructed and laid out upon the altar properly and precisely how the sacrifice (Agni sacrifice as it is referred to in the Vedas) is to be performed in order that it be effective such that the realm of heaven can be attained.

The last boon Nachiketa requests is the knowledge of whether or not the Soul lives on beyond death, a request that Yama pleads with him not to pursue, given the subtlety and rarity of such knowledge, knowledge that is even rare among the gods.  As Nachiketa puts it, “There is that doubt, when a man is dead –some saying, he is; others, he is not.  This I should like to know, taught by thee; this is the third of my boons.”[4]  Despite the prodding of Yama to choose another boon, anything at all except the nature of the Soul beyond death, Nachiketa persists and so begins the teachings of Yama about the nature of the Soul.

The Phaedo on the other hand, is presented by Plato as a conversation regarding the discussion with Socrates having taken place on the morning of the day when he is to die, as presented by Phaedo who was supposedly present on that day, hence the name of the dialogue (although it circulated in antiquity with the title On the Soul as well).  The dialogue starts with some of his followers arriving in his prison cell to find his wife, Xanthippe, as well as his son, present and very emotional of course about his impending death.  Socrates sends them away however, after which he states cryptically, “What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure!  How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head.[5].

The battle lines being drawn as they were, the topic of taking one’s own life comes up, upon which Socrates tells the listeners that it is not proper for a man to do so, even a philosopher who deals directly with, metaphorically and intellectually speaking, the notion of death quite directly.[6]  This view is challenged by two of his students that are present however, and as such, Socrates is forced to lay out a stronger argument to defend his case as to why a) the philosopher should not fear death, and b) why it is that he at the same time it is not proper that he take his own life.

Socrates then lays out a very direct argument for death being the separation of the Soul from the body, the philosopher as one who is interested in the realm of the Soul rather than the physical realm of desire and sensation as governed by the body, as well as the acquisition of “pure knowledge” as distinct from the realm of the body, laying out as such his basic argument for the theory of forms that comes to represent the core part of Plato’s metaphysics upon which it can be said that his whole philosophy in no small measure rests.

“Now, how about the acquirement of pure knowledge? Is the body a hindrance or not, if it is made to share in the search for wisdom?  What I mean is this: Have the sight and hearing of men any truth in them, or is it true, as the poets are always telling us, that we neither hear nor see anything accurately?  And yet if these two physical senses are not accurate or exact, the rest are not likely to be, for they are inferior to these. Do you not think so?”

“Certainly I do,” he replied.

“Then,” said he, “when does the soul attain to truth? For when it tries to consider anything in company with the body, it is evidently deceived by it.”  “True.”

“In thought, then, if at all, something of the realities becomes clear to it?”

“Yes.”

“But it thinks best when none of these things troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor any pleasure, but it is, so far as possible, alone by itself, and takes leave of the body, and avoiding, so far as it can, all association or contact with the body, reaches out toward the reality.”

“That is true.”

“In this matter also, then, the soul of the philosopher greatly despises the body and avoids it and strives to be alone by itself?”

“Evidently.”

“Now how about such things as this, Simmias?  Do we think there is such a thing as absolute justice, or not?”

“We certainly think there is.”

“And absolute beauty and goodness.”

“Of course.”

“Well, did you ever see anything of that kind with your eyes?”

“Certainly not,” said he.

“Or did you ever reach them with any of the bodily senses?  I am speaking of all such things, as size, health, strength, and in short the essence or underlying quality of everything.  Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body?  Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?”

“Certainly.”

“Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom?  Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?”[7]

Herein we find not only the argument for the reality of Forms, or ideas, over the sensible or material realm – the argument for the actual existence of concepts such as “justice”, “health”, “beauty”, etc. – but also Plato’s assertion, as voiced through Socrates, as to the power of “pure reason” (logos) in the attainment of such wisdom (sophia), or the “highest form of knowledge”, a domain that is not just akin to, but in fact is fundamentally related to, the domain of the Soul, i.e. that which persists beyond death and that which can be said to be eternal and everlasting.

Here we find one of the major differences between the two traditions in fact, that Plato appeals to a faculty of man, even if it is ethereal or “divine”, in the sense that it is that which one can use this faculty to tap into the realm of the eternal and unchanging, whereas the Upanishads appeal to a more direct form of knowledge which lies beyond reason.  So while the parallels between lower and higher form of knowledge are clear, as is at a very basic level the means by which this higher form of knowledge is to be attained – i.e. again the withdrawal or rejection of the sensible realm which by its very nature is not eternal, not everlasting but perishable and always changing – there is a subtle distinction between the means by which this higher form of knowledge is to be realized.  This distinction, albeit subtle, comes to represent more or less the difference between these two philosophical traditions as they mature and evolve.  A more rationalistic bent in the Western philosophical tradition as it were, while the Upanishadic tradition emphasizes a more direct form of knowledge which is beyond reason itself, albeit nonetheless related to some form of intellectual faculty of man by which this knowledge is “perceived”.

Compare the ideas presented in the Katha Upanishad where this notion of worldly knowledge versus eternal knowledge, i.e. wisdom, is distinguished as well:

  1. Death said: ‘The good is one thing, the pleasant another; these two, having different objects, chain a man. It is well with him who clings to the good; he who chooses the pleasant, misses his end.’

  2. ‘The good and the pleasant approach man: the wise goes round about them and distinguishes them. Yea, the wise prefers the good to the pleasant, but the fool chooses the pleasant through greed and avarice.’

  3. ‘Thou, O Nakiketas, after pondering all pleasures that are or seem delightful, hast dismissed them all. Thou hast not gone into the road: that leadeth to wealth, in which many men perish.’

  4. ‘Wide apart and leading to different points are these two, ignorance, and what is known as wisdom. I believe Nakiketas to be one who desires knowledge, for even many pleasures did not tear thee away.

  5. ‘Fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with vain knowledge, go round and round, staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind.’

  6. ‘The Hereafter never rises before the eyes of the careless child, deluded by the delusion of wealth. “This is the world,” he thinks, “there is no other;”–thus he falls again and again under my sway.’[8]

In the Katha Upanishad, knowledge of material world, which keeps people under the sway of death, is contrasted to a “higher” form of knowledge.  These two forms of knowledge are distinguished, as they are in Plato’s Phaedo, along the lines of that which is perceived by the senses, i.e. the material world, versus the “eternal” world, a world governed by the Soul, what is referred to as Ātman, typically translated as “the Self” in the Upanishadic philosophical tradition.  Withdrawal from the realm of the senses – the realm governed by the body – is called out specifically in the Katha Upanishad as well as the means by which this eternal wisdom, this higher form of knowledge, is to be attained.

  1. ‘The wise who, by means of meditationon his Self, recognizes the Ancient, who is difficult to be seen, who has entered into the dark, who is hidden in the cave, who dwells in the abyss, as God, he indeed leaves joy and sorrow far behind.’

  2. ‘A mortal who has heard this and embraced it, who has separated from it all qualities, and has thus reached the subtle Being, rejoices, because he has obtained what is a cause for rejoicing. The house (of Brahman) is open, I believe, O Nakiketas.’

  3. Nakiketas said: ‘That which thou seest as neither this nor that, as neither effect nor cause, as neither past nor future, tell me that.’[9]

The means by which this eternal wisdom is attained is describe by Plato as “pure reason”, what comes to be known as Logos, or Nous, in the Hellenic philosophical tradition as it matures in classical (Western) antiquity, which is slightly more nuanced and specific than what is called out in the Upanishadic tradition which is somewhat more indirect, i.e. to be attained by this withdrawal of the senses upon which, after instruction and guidance from a competent teacher, eternal wisdom and “knowledge” of that which persists beyond death, i.e. again “Ātman”, is “attained” or “realized”.

We see here that causality, and physical reality bound by time, is specifically called out as separate from, or distinct from, this higher form of knowledge.  In the Hellenic philosophical tradition, specifically the teachings of Aristotle however, causality becomes a cornerstone of philosophical inquiry.  That which defines existence, what has come to be known as Aristotle’s notion of being qua being.

However, what binds the two traditions, and really characterizes all early philosophical intellectual developments not on in the Mediterranean, Near East and Indian subcontinent – what we here are calling “Indo-European philosophy” – but also ancient Chinese philosophy as well is the search for, and definition of, that which is changeless and eternal versus that which is subject to change, destruction and decay.

  1. ‘The knowing (Self) [Ātman] is not born, it dies not; it sprang from nothing, nothing sprang from it. The Ancient is unborn, eternal, everlasting; he is not killed, though the body is killed.’

  2. ‘If the killer thinks that he kills, if the killed thinks that he is killed, they do not understand; for this one does not kill, nor is that one killed.’

  3. ‘The Self [Ātman] smaller than small, greater than great, is hidden in the heart of that creature. A man who is free from desires and free from grief, sees the majesty of the Self by the grace of the Creator.’

  4. ‘Though sitting still, he walks far; though lying down, he goes everywhere. Who, save myself, is able to know that God who rejoices and rejoices not?’

  5. ‘The wise who knows the Self as bodiless within the bodies, as unchanging among changing things, as great and omnipresent, does never grieve.’

  6. ‘That Self cannot be gained by the Veda, nor by understanding, nor by much learning. He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self can be gained. The Self chooses him (his body) as his own.’

  7. ‘But he who has not first turned away from his wickedness, who is not tranquil, and subdued, or whose mind is not at rest, he can never obtain the Self (even) by knowledge!’[10]

To the authors of the Upanishads, this realm is defined by the Soul, i.e. Ātman, and its fundamental identity with the ever present and immanent Brahman, what in the Hellenic philosophical tradition comes to be known as the World Soul.

  1. ‘Beyond the senses there are the objects, beyond the objects there is the mind, beyond the mind there is the intellect, the Great Self is beyond the intellect.’

  2. ‘Beyond the Great there is the Undeveloped, beyond the Undeveloped there is the Person (Puruṣa). Beyond the Person there is nothing–this is the goal, the highest road.’

  3. ‘That Self is hidden in all beings and does not shine forth, but it is seen by subtle seers through their sharp and subtle intellect.’

  4. ‘A wise man should keep down speech and mind; he should keep them within the Self which is knowledge; he should keep knowledge within the Self which is the Great; and he should keep that (the Great) within the Self which is the Quiet.’

  5. ‘Rise, awake! having obtained your boons, understand them! The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path (to the Self) is hard.’

  6. ‘He who has perceived that which is without sound, without touch, without form, without decay, without taste, eternal, without smell, without beginning, without end, beyond the Great, and unchangeable, is freed from the jaws of death.”[11]

Immortality of the Soul, knowledge of Self – Ātman –  cannot be obtained by learning or lower forms of knowledge, or by performing of the sacred rituals or sacrifice, but only by those who have turned away from wickedness, who is tranquil and subdued, not moved by worldly desires, whose mind is at rest.

  1. ‘Having understood that the senses are distinct (from the Âtman), and that their rising and setting (their waking and sleeping) belongs to them in their distinct existence (and not to the Âtman), a wise man grieves no more.’

  2. ‘Beyond. the senses is the mind, beyond the mind is the highest (created) Being, higher than that Being is the Great Self, higher than the Great, the highest Undeveloped.’

  3. ‘Beyond the Undeveloped is the Person, the all-pervading and entirely imperceptible. Every creature that knows him is liberated, and obtains immortality.’

  4. ‘His form is not to be seen, no one beholds him with the eye. He is imagined by the heart, by wisdom, by the mind. Those who know this, are immortal.’

  5. ‘When the five instruments of knowledge stand still together with the mind, and when the intellect does not move, that is called the highest state.’[12]

Plato’s ethics, epistemology and worldview rests on this theory of forms, or ideas, as reflected by the Allegory of the Cave and his views on knowledge as reflected in the analogy of the divided line.  His belief in the immortality of the soul and its superiority to the physical body, the idea that evil was a manifestation of the ignorance of truth, that only true knowledge can revealed by true virtue, all of these tenets stemmed from this idea that the abstract form or idea of a thing was a higher construct than the physical thing itself, and that the abstract Form of a thing was just as true and real, if not more so, that the concrete thing itself from which its Form manifested.

Furthermore, Plato rests his case as it were, upon the reality of ideas or concepts in and of themselves upon which anything in the material world can be known, or depends upon.  It is ideas, forms, such as absolute beauty or absolute goodnesss – or absolute justice in the Republic – upon which not only his argument for the immortality of the Soul rests but upon which his entire theory of forms consists of.

“But my friends,” he said, “we ought to bear in mind, [107c] that, if the soul is immortal, we must care for it, not only in respect to this time, which we call life, but in respect to all time, and if we neglect it, the danger now appears to be terrible.  For if death were an escape from everything, it would be a boon to the wicked, for when they die they would be freed from the body and from their wickedness together with their souls.  But now, since the soul is seen to be immortal, it cannot escape [107d] from evil or be saved in any other way than by becoming as good and wise as possible.  For the soul takes with it to the other world nothing but its education and nurture, and these are said to benefit or injure the departed greatly from the very beginning of his journey thither.  And so it is said that after death, the tutelary genius of each person, to whom he had been allotted in life, leads him to a place where the dead are gathered together; then they are judged and depart to the other world [107e] with the guide whose task it is to conduct thither those who come from this world; and when they have there received their due and remained through the time appointed, another guide brings them back after many long periods of time.  And the journey is not as Telephus says in the play of Aeschylus; [108a] for he says a simple path leads to the lower world, but I think the path is neither simple nor single, for if it were, there would be no need of guides, since no one could miss the way to any place if there were only one road.  But really there seem to be many forks of the road and many windings; this I infer from the rites and ceremonies practiced here on earth.  Now the orderly and wise soul follows its guide and understands its circumstances; but the soul that is desirous of the body, as I said before, flits about it, and in the visible world for a long time, [108b] and after much resistance and many sufferings is led away with violence and with difficulty by its appointed genius.  And when it arrives at the place where the other souls are, the soul which is impure and has done wrong, by committing wicked murders or other deeds akin to those and the works of kindred souls, is avoided and shunned by all, and no one is willing to be its companion or its guide, [108c] but it wanders about alone in utter bewilderment, during certain fixed times, after which it is carried by necessity to its fitting habitation.  But the soul that has passed through life in purity and righteousness, finds gods for companions and guides, and goes to dwell in its proper dwelling…”[13]

Here we find, in an albeit allegorical passage of sorts, the notion of ethics and morality presented by Plato that rests on the assertion of the reality of forms and through its affiliation with the Soul, which he argues is eternal and “immortal”, i.e. undying.  This concept of morality which is based upon the immortality of the Soul, where the Soul reaps that which it sows in life in the “afterlife” as a permeating theme across not just early Hellenic philosophy but also in ancient Egypt as well as in early Indian philosophy as reflected in the Vedas and Upanishads.  This notion of karma alongside the doctrine of reincarnation is in fact one of the key theo-philosophical notions that underlies early Indian philosophy, and one which we find clear parallels with in Plato’s Middle dialogues, again most notably Phaedo as indicated in the passages above.[14]  In this sense, the notion of the Immortality of the Soul can be viewed as the core binding theo-philosophical principle which underlies Indo-European philosophy in virtually all its forms.

 

No matter what dating of the Upanishads you ascribed to, either a as far back as the early part of the second millennium BCE as indicated by some of the more arcane references in the Vedas and corresponding archeological evidence, or as a production in the later part of the first millennium BCE which is when the text is thought to been initially transcribed, it was clear that the Upanishadic philosophical tradition of the Indo-Aryans, namely Vedānta, preceded its Hellenic counterpart by some centuries at least.  To what extent the Hellenic philosophical systems that blossomed in the second half of the first millennium BCE in Greece borrowed from their Indo-Aryan brethren, rather than arising independently and spontaneously as a result of the same rebellious forces to religious orthodoxy, is open to scholarly debate.  Nonetheless, it would very be hard to argue that both of these rich theo-philosophical systems which developed in the second half of the first millennium BCE – one from the Mediterranean under primarily Greek influence and another in the Indian subcontinent under primarily Indo-Aryan influence – did not spring from the same common quest for true knowledge and understanding of the origins of the cosmos and mankind’s place in it by use of power of the human mind (and by extension the human spirit), rather than the predisposition to blind faith in age old mythological traditions that were protected and guarded by the elite and ruling classes and had been the hallmark of religious and political developments since the dawn of civilization.[15]

It is certainly safe to say that the idea of man being created in the image of God, from which Logos as a theological and philosophical construct effectively comes to represent, goes much further back in antiquity than Plato, even if it is in Plato’s dialogues that we find the first real systemic treatment of this connection.  Theology, in an anthropomorphic context, was the source from which the natural world was born in Plato’s view then, even though he points directly to the fundamental unknowable nature of the universe, stating that we can only know what it is “like” rather than its true nature.  Furthermore, by establishing the critical and comprehensive role of the Soul, both of an individual and for the world at large, Plato rooted his ethical and moral framework within his cosmological narrative, i.e. a reason to be good that did not necessarily rely on a concept of an afterworld, or hell in the Judeo-Christian (and Zoroastrian) context, as motivation for his ethics.  In other words, virtue and justice, their eternally existent forms as it were, and their relationship to happiness and the “good life”, are means and worthwhile pursuits in and of themselves, given the Soul is immortal and given that the just and virtuous life is more pleasant, more rewarding, than the unjust and immoral life.[16]

While this view of the world being fashioned in the image of the creator, so to speak, is reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian cosmogonic account as reflected in Genesis, it is also at the same time markedly different in its specificity within which its metaphysical framework rests and at the same time explicitly calls out the fundamental limits of what can be altogether known about how the universe has come into existence or the nature of the creative process as well as what entity or being, anthropomorphic or otherwise, guided this creative process.  He simply argues that a) because the world of Becoming is subject to change it must have a beginning and b) that there must be a changeless and eternal model from which the world of Becoming is shaped from.

 

 


[1] See the chapter in this work on the Origins of Greek Philosophy.

[2] Or as Walter Burkert does in his chapter entitled “Prehistory of Presocratic Philosophy in an Orientalizing Context” from the Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, Oxford University Press 2008.

[3] There are two hymns to Yama in the Rigvéda, both from Book 10, supposedly the latest layer of the Rigvéda – hymns CXXXV and XIV (and X which alludes to him indirectly).  Yama is spoken of as the first being to establish the realm of the underworld, the dwelling of the ancestors.  In the most ancient strata of Indo-Iranian lore, there exists another deity called Yima, who is also the son of the Sun (Sūrya in Sanskrit) who is the protogenital man.  In the Rigvéda, the realm of the underworld is spoken of as being guarded by two dogs, reminiscent of the two-headed dog Cerberus of Greek mythology who guards the realm of the dead as well.  Similarities between Hades and Yama abound, they are almost direct counterparts.

[4] Katha-Upanishad.  FIRST ADHYÂYA.  First VALLÎ.  Verse 20.  The Upanishads, Part 2 (SBE15), by Max Müller, [1879], at sacred-texts.com.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15010.htm.

[5] Plato, Phaedo 60b.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Apage%3D60

[6] The argument for not doing so as it turns out, is based upon a notion of piety for the gods, to which the Soul as Socrates puts it, one’s human life, is ultimately bound and “owned” just as livestock is owned by a man and as such it would not be proper for the livestock to take its own life without their master’s permission.  Generally, this theme is present throughout Plato’s works, one where he is by no stretch of the imagination a “theist”, but at the same time he is not an “atheist” either.  He does not reject the gods as non-existent, and occasionally – as he does here – he does appeal to them for justification and rationale for a given argument.  He appeals to the mysteries and the Homeric tradition as well at times, again more so adopting the eternal wisdom present in the mythological lore that preceded him rather than rejecting it outright as “myth” and fancy.

[7] Plato, Phaedo 65b – 66a.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Apage%3D65

[8] Katha-Upanishad.  FIRST ADHYÂYA.  Second VALLÎ.  The Upanishads, Part 2 (SBE15), by Max Müller, [1879], at sacred-texts.com.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15011.htm

[9] Katha-Upanishad.  FIRST ADHYÂYA.  Second VALLÎ.  The Upanishads, Part 2 (SBE15), by Max Müller, [1879], at sacred-texts.com.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15011.htm

[10] Katha-Upanishad.  FIRST ADHYÂYA.  Second VALLÎ.  The Upanishads, Part 2 (SBE15), by Max Müller, [1879], at sacred-texts.com.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15011.htm

[11] Katha-Upanishad.  FIRST ADHYÂYA.  Third VALLÎ.  The Upanishads, Part 2 (SBE15), by Max Müller, [1879], at sacred-texts.com.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15012.htm

[12] Katha-Upanishad.  SECOND ADHYÂYA.  Sixth VALLÎ.  The Upanishads, Part 2 (SBE15), by Max Müller, [1879], at sacred-texts.com.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15015.htm

[13] Phaedrus, 107b-108c.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Apage%3D107

[14] There is some debate among modern scholars as to whether or not reincarnation as a doctrine, that we see traces of in some of Plato’s works and which is also associated with the Pythagorean as well as Orphic tradition, was held in in ancient Egypt or whether or not it was an “Oriental”, i.e. “Eastern” construct that the early Hellenic philosophers adopted.  For a detailed account, see McEvilley, the Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Chapter 4, “The Doctrine of Reincarnation”, pgs 98ff.  Allworth Press, 2002.

[15] There is some historical evidence that suggests that Indian sages and Vedic philosophers visited Ancient Greece in the first millennium BC, and certainly one could argue that some of the ideas put forth in Plato’s dialogues have Indian counterparts, but this connection is loose at best and does not rule out by any means that the metaphysical constructs and frameworks developed independently from each other.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upanishads for details on common dating of the Upanishadic sources as well as footnotes and references for further study on scholarship that links the Vedic and Hellenic philosophical traditions.

[16] For a review of Plato’s ethical framework and its evolution throughout his works, see Plato’s Ethics: An Overview at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Frede, Dorothea, Plato’s Ethics: An Overview, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/plato-ethics/&gt;.



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