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Christianity as Mystical Fact
GA 8

III. The Greek Sages Before Plato in the Light of Mystery Wisdom

Numerous facts combined to show us that the N philosophical wisdom of the Greeks rested on the same mental basis as mystic knowledge. We understand the great philosophers only when we approach them with feelings gained through study of the Mysteries. With what veneration does Plato speak of the “secret doctrines” in the Phædo! “And it almost seems,” he says, “as though those who have appointed the initiations for us are not such bad people after all, and that for a long time they have been enjoining upon us that anyone who reaches Hades without being initiated and sanctified falls into the mire; but that he who is purified and consecrated when he arrives dwells with the gods. For those who have to do with consecrations say that there are many thyrsus-bearers,1Thyrsus, a staff entwined with ivy and surmounted by a pine-cone, or by a bunch of vine or ivy leaves, with grapes or berries. It is an attribute of Dionysos, or the Satyrs. but few really inspired. These latter are, in my opinion, none other than those who have devoted themselves in the right way to wisdom. I myself have not missed the opportunity of becoming one of these, as far as I was able, and have striven after it in every way.”

It is only a man who is placing his own search for wisdom entirely at the disposal of the condition of soul created by initiation who could thus speak of the Mysteries. And there is no doubt that a flood of light is shed on the words of the great Greek philosophers when we illuminate them from the Mysteries.

The relation of Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 B.C.) to the Mysteries is plainly given us in a saying about him, to the effect that his thoughts “were an impassable road”, and that anyone entering upon them without ‘ being initiated found only “dimness and darkness”; but that, on the other hand, they were “brighter than the sun” for anyone introduced to them by an initiate. And when it is said of his book that he deposited it in the temple of Artemis, this simply means that initiates alone could understand him.2Edmund Pfleiderer has already collected the historical evidence for the relation of Heraclitus to the Mysteries. Cf. his book: Die Philosophie des Heraklit von Ephesus im Lichte der Mysterienidee, Berlin, 1866. Heraclitus was called “The Obscure”, because it was only through the Mysteries that light could be thrown on his views.

Heraclitus comes before us as a man who took life with the greatest seriousness. Even his features show us, if we can recall them, that he bore within himself intimate knowledge which he knew words could only suggest, not express. Out of this background arose his celebrated utterance, “All things are in flux,” which Plutarch explains thus: “We do not dip twice into the same wave, nor can we twice come in contact with the same mortal existence. For through abruptness and speed it disperses and brings together, not in succession but simultaneously.”

A man with such views has penetrated the nature of transitory things, for he has felt impelled to characterize the essence of transitoriness itself in the clearest terms. Such a description as this could not be given unless the transitory were being measured by the Eternal; and in particular, it could not be extended to man without an insight into his inner nature. Heraclitus has extended his characterization to man: “Life and death, waking and sleeping, youth and age are the same; this in changing is that, and that again this” In this sentence there is expressed full knowledge of the illusory nature of the lower personality. He says still more forcibly: “Life and death are found in our living even as in our dying.” What does this mean but that only a point of view based on the transitory can value life more than death? Dying is to pass, in order to make way for new life, but the Eternal lives in the new life, as in the old. The same Eternal appears in transitory life as in death. When we grasp this Eternal we look upon life and death with the same feeling. Life has a special value only when we have not been able to awaken the Eternal within us. The saying, “All things are in flux,” might be repeated a thousand times, but unless said in the mood of this feeling, it is empty sound. The knowledge of eternal growth is valueless if it does not detach us from temporal growth. It is the turning away from that love of life which impels toward the transitory that Heraclitus indicates in his utterance: “How can we say of our daily life, ‘We are;’ when from the standpoint of the eternal we know that ‘We are and are not’?”3Cf. Fragments of Heraclitus, No. 81. “Hades and Dionysos are one and the same,” says one of the Fragments. Dionysos, the god of joy in life, of germination and growth, to whom the Dionysiac festivals are dedicated is, for Heraclitus, the same as Hades, the god of destruction and annihilation. Only one who sees death in life and life in death, and in both the Eternal, high above life and death, can view the merits and demerits of existence in the right light. Then even imperfections become justified, for in them, too, lives the Eternal. What they are from the standpoint of the limited lower life they are only in appearance: “The gratification of men’s wishes is not necessarily a happiness for them. Illness makes health sweet and good, hunger makes food appreciated, and toil, rest” “The sea’s water is the purest and impurest, drinkable and wholesome for fishes, it is undrinkable and injurious to human beings.” Heraclitus is not primarily drawing attention to the transitoriness of earthly things, but to the splendor and majesty of the Eternal.

Heraclitus speaks vehemently against Homer and Hesiod, and the learned men of his day. He wished to show up their way of thinking which clings to the transitory. He did not desire gods endowed with qualities taken from a perishable world, and he could not regard as supreme that science which investigates the laws of growth and decay of things. For him, the Eternal speaks out of the perishable, and for this Eternal he has a profound symbol. “The harmony of the world returns upon itself, like that of the lyre and the bow.” What depths are hidden in this image! By the pressing asunder of forces and by the harmonizing of these divergent forces, unity is attained. One tone conflicts with another, but together they produce harmony. If we apply this to the spiritual world we have the thought of Heraclitus: “Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living the death of mortals, dying the life of the immortals.”

It is man’s original guilt to cling with his cognition to the transitory. Thereby he turns away from the Eternal, and life becomes a danger for him. What happens to him comes to him through life, but its events lose their sting if he ceases to set unconditioned value on life. In that case his innocence is restored to him. It is as though he were able to return from the so-called seriousness of life to his childhood. The adult takes many things seriously with which a child merely plays, but one who really knows becomes like a child. “Serious” values lose their value when looked at from the standpoint of eternity. Life then seems like play. On this account does Heraclitus say: “Eternity is a child at play, it is the reign of a child.” Where does the original guilt lie? In taking with the utmost seri- ousness what ought not to be so taken. God has poured himself into the world of objects. If we take these objects and leave God unheeded, we take them in earnest as “the tombs of God”. We should play with them like a child, but at the same time should earn- estly strive to call forth from them the Divine that sleeps spellbound within them.

Beholding of the Eternal acts like a consuming fire on ordinary speculation about the nature of things. The spirit dissolves thoughts which come through the senses; it fuses them; it is a consuming fire. This is the higher meaning of the Heraclitean thought, that fire is the primary element of all things. This thought is certainly to be taken at first as an ordinary physical explanation of the phenomena of the universe. But no one understands Heraclitus who does not think of him in the same way as Philo, living in the early days of Christianity, thought of the laws of the Bible. “There are people,” he says, “who take the written laws merely as symbols of spiritual doctrines, who diligently search for the latter, but despise the laws them- selves. I can only reprove such, for they should pay heed to both, to an understanding of the hidden meaning and to the observation of the obvious one.” If the question is discussed whether Heraclitus meant by “fire” physical fire, or whether fire for him was only a symbol of Eternal Spirit which dissolves and rebuilds all things, then a wrong construction has been put upon his thought. He meant both and neither of these things; for spirit was also alive for him in ordinary fire, and the force that is physically active in fire lives on a higher plane in the human soul, which melts in its crucible mere sense-knowledge and engenders out of this the perception of the Eternal.

It is very easy to misunderstand Heraclitus. He makes strife the father of things, but only of “things”, not of the Eternal. If there were no contrasts in the world, no conflicting interests, the world of becoming, of transitory things, would not exist. But what is revealed in this antagonism, what is poured out into it, is not strife but harmony. Just because there is strife in all things, the spirit of the wise should pass over them like a breath of fire, and change them into harmony.

From this point there shines forth one of the great thoughts of Heraclitean wisdom. What is man as a personal being? From the point of view just stated Heraclitus is able to answer. Man is composed of the conflicting elements into which Divinity has poured itself. In this state he finds himself, and beyond this becomes aware of the spirit within him, the spirit which is rooted in the Eternal. But the spirit is born for man himself out of the conflict of elements, and it is the spirit also which has to calm them. In man, nature surpasses her creative limits. It is indeed the same universal force that created antagonism and the mixture of elements which afterwards by its wisdom is to do away with the conflict. Here we arrive at the eternal dualism which lives in man, the perpetual contrast between the temporal and the Eternal. Through the Eternal he has become something quite definite, and out of this he is to create something higher. He is both dependent and independent. He can participate in the Eternal Spirit whom he beholds only in the measure of the compound of elements which that Eternal Spirit has effected within him. And it is just on this account that he is called upon to fashion the Eternal out of the temporal. The spirit works within him, but works in a special way. It works out of the temporal. It is the peculiarity of the human soul that a temporal thing should be able to act like an eternal one, should work and increase in power like an eternal thing. This is why the soul is at once like a god and a worm. Man, owing to this, stands midway between God and the animal. The productive and active force within him is his daimonic element—that within him which reaches beyond himself.

“Man’s daimon is his destiny.” Thus strikingly does Heraclitus make reference to this fact.4Daimon is used here in the Greek sense. Today we would say “spirit”. He extends man’s vital essence far beyond the personal. The personality is the vehicle of the daimon, which is not confined within the limits of the personality, and for which the birth and death of the personality are of no importance. What is the relation of the daimonic element to the personality which comes and goes? The personality is only a form for the manifestation of the daimon.

One who has arrived at this wisdom looks beyond himself, backward and forward. The experience of the daimonic in himself proves to him his own immortality. And he can no longer ascribe to his daimon the sole function of occupying his personality, for the latter can be only one of the forms in which the daimon manifests itself. The daimon cannot be shut up within one personality; he has power to animate many. He is able to transform himself from one personality into another. The great idea of reincarnation springs as something obvious from the Heraclitean premises, and not only the idea, but the experience of the fact. The idea only paves the way for the experience. One who becomes conscious of the daimonic element within himself does not find it innocent and in its first stage: it has qualities. Whence do they come? Why have I certain propensities? Because other personalities have already worked upon my daimon. And what becomes of the work which I accomplish in the daimon if I am not to assume that its task ends with my personality? I am working for a future personality. Between me and the spirit of the universe, something interposes that reaches beyond me, but is not yet the same as Divinity. This something is my daimon. As my today is only the product of yesterday and my tomorrow will be the product of today, so my life is the result of a former and will be the foundation of a future one. Just as earthly man looks back to numerous yesterdays and forward to many tomorrows, so does the soul of the sage look upon many lives in his past and many in the future. The thoughts and aptitudes I acquired yesterday I use today. Is it not the same with life? Do not people enter upon the horizon of existence with the most diverse capacities? Whence this difference? Does it proceed from nothingness?

Our natural sciences take much credit to themselves for having banished miracle from our views of organic life. David Friedrich Strauss, in his Old and New Faith,5David Friedrich Strauss, Alter und Neuer Glaube. considers it a great achievement of our day that we no longer think that a perfect organic being is a miracle issuing from nothing. We comprehend perfection when we are able to explain it as a development from imperfection. The structure of an ape is no longer a miracle if we assume its ancestors to have been primitive fishes that have been gradually transformed. Let us at least accept as reasonable in the domain of spirit what seems to us to be right in the domain of nature! Is the perfect spirit to have the same antecedents as the imperfect one? Does a Goethe have the same antecedents as any Hottentot? The antecedents of an ape are as unlike those of a fish as are the antecedents of Goethe's spirit unlike those of a savage. The spiritual ancestry of Goethe’s spirit is a different one from that of the savage. The spirit has evolved as has the body. The spirit in Goethe has more progenitors than the one in a savage. Let us take the doctrine of reincarnation in this sense and we shall no longer find it unscientific. We shall be able to explain in the right way what we find in our soul, and we shall not take what we find as if it were created by a miracle. If I can write, it is owing to the fact that I learned to write. No one who has a pen in his hand for the first time can sit down and write offhand. But one who has come into the world with the stamp of genius, must he owe it to a miracle? No, even the stamp of genius must be acquired. It must have been learned. And when it appears in a person we call it spirit. This spirit too must have gone to school; its capacities in a later life were acquired in a former one.

In this form, and this form only, did the thought of Eternity live in the mind of Heraclitus and other Greek sages. There was no question with them of a continuance of the immediate personality after death. Compare some verses of Empedocles (490-430 B.C.). He says of those who accept the facts of existence as miracles:

Foolish and ignorant they, for they do not reach far with their thinking,
Who suppose that what has never been can really come into being,
Or that beings there be that die away and vanish completely;
It is ne’er possible for being to begin from what is non-being,
Quite impossible also that being can fade into nothing; For wherever a being is driven, there will it remain in being.
Never will those believe, who have in these things been instructed,
That the spirits of men live only while what is called life here endures,
That only so long do they live, receiving their joys and their sorrows,
But that ere they were born they were nothing, and after they die they are naught.

The Greek sage never even asked whether there was an eternal element in man, but only inquired of what this element consisted and how man can nourish and cherish it in himself. For from the outset it was clear to him that man is an intermediate creation between the earthly and the Divine. There was no thought of a Divine being outside and beyond the world. The Divine lives in man but lives in him only in a human way. It is the force urging man to make himself ever more and more divine, Only one who thinks thus can say with Empedocles:

When leaving thy body behind thee thou soarest up into the ether,
Then thou becomest a god, immortal, beyond the power of death.

What may be done for a human life from this point of view? It may be introduced into the magic circle of the Eternal; for in man there must be forces which the merely natural life does not develop, and the life might pass away fruitless if the forces remained idle. To release them, thereby to make man like the Divine, this was the task of the Mysteries. And this was also the mission the Greek sages set themselves. In this way we can understand Plato’s utterance that “he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the nether-world will lie in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods.” We have to do here with a conception of immortality the significance of which lies bound up within the universe. Everything man undertakes in order to awaken the Eternal within him he does in order to raise the value of the world’s existence. His enlightenment does not make him an idle spectator of the universe, imagining things that would be there whether he existed or not. The power of his insight is a higher one, a creative force of nature. What flashes up within him spiritually is something divine which was previously under a spell, and which, failing the knowledge he has gained, would have to lie fallow, awaiting some other exorcist. Thus the human personality does not live in and for itself but for the world. Life expands far beyond individual existence when looked at in this way. From within such a point of view we can understand utterances like that of Pindar, giving a glimpse of the Eternal: “Happy is he who has seen the Mysteries and then descends under the hollow earth. He knows the end of life, and he knows the beginning promised by Zeus.”

We understand the proud features and solitary nature of sages such as Heraclitus, They were able to say proudly of themselves that much had been revealed to them, for ‘they did not attribute their knowledge to their transitory personality, but to the eternal daimon within them, Their pride had as a necessary adjunct the stamp of humility and modesty, expressed in the words, “All knowledge of perishable things is in perpetual flux like the things themselves.” Heraclitus calls the eternal universe a game: he could also call it the most serious of realities. But the word “serious” has lost its force through being applied to earthly experiences, On the other hand, the game of the Eternal leaves man that sureness in life of which he is robbed by such seriousness as derives from the transitory.

A different conception of the universe from that of Heraclitus grew up, on the basis of the Mysteries, in the community founded by Pythagoras in the 6th century B.C. in Southern Italy. The Pythagoreans saw the basis of things in the numbers and geometrical figures into whose laws they made research by means of mathematics. Aristotle says of them: “They first developed mathematics; then, completely absorbed in it, they considered the roots of mathematics to be the roots of all things. Now as numbers are naturally the first thing in mathematics and they thought they saw many resemblances in numbers to things and to development,—more in numbers than in fire, earth, and water,—in this way one quality of numbers came to mean for them justice, another, the soul and spirit, another, time, and so on with all the rest. Moreover, they found in numbers the qualities and relations of harmony; and thus everything else, in accordance with its whole nature, seemed to be an image of numbers, and number seemed to be the first thing in nature.”

The mathematical and scientific study of natural phenomena must always lead to a certain Pythagorean habit of thought. When a string of a certain length is struck, a particular tone is produced. If the string is shortened in certain numeric proportions, other tones will be produced. The pitch of the tones can be expressed in figures. Physics also expresses color relations in figures. When two bodies combine into one substance, it always happens that a certain definite quantity of the one body, expressible in numbers, combines with a certain definite quantity of the other. The Pythagoreans’ sense of observation was directed to such arrangements of measures and numbers in nature. Geometrical figures also play a similar role in nature. Astronomy, for instance, is mathematics applied to the heavenly bodies. One fact became important to the thought life of the Pythagoreans: that man, quite independently and purely through his mental activity, discovers the laws of numbers and figures; and yet, that when he looks around in nature, he finds that things obey the same laws he has ascertained for himself in his own mind. Man forms the idea of an ellipse, and ascertains the laws of ellipses. And the heavenly bodies move according to the laws which he has established, (It is not, of course, a question here of the astronomical views of the Pythagoreans. What may be said about these may equally be said of Copernican views in the connection now being dealt with.) Hence it follows as a direct consequence that the achievements of the human soul are not an activity apart from the rest of the world, but that in those achievements the cosmic laws are expressed. The Pythagoreans said: “The senses show man physical phenomena, but they do not show the harmonious order regulating these phenomena.” The human spirit must first find that harmonious order within itself if this spirit wishes to behold it in the outer world. The deeper meaning of the world, that which holds sway within it as ap eternal, law-obeying necessity, this makes its appearance in the human soul and becomes a present reality there. The meaning of the universe is revealed in the soul. This meaning is not to be found in what we see, hear, and touch, but in what the soul brings to light from its own unseen depths. The eternal laws are thus hidden in the depths of the soul. If we descend there, we shall find the Eternal. God, the eternal harmony of the world, is in the human soul. The soul element is not limited to the bodily substance enclosed within the skin, for what is born in the soul is nothing less than the laws by which worlds revolve in celestial space. The soul is not in the personality. The personality only serves as the organ through which the order of pervading cosmic space may express itself. There is something in the spirit of Pythagoras in what one of the Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, said: It is said that human nature is something small and limited, and that God is infinite. But who dares to say that the infinity of the Godhead is limited by the boundary of the flesh, as though by a vessel? For not even during our lifetime is the spiritual nature confined within the boundaries of the flesh. The mass of the body, it is true, is limited by neighbouring parts, but the soul reaches out freely into the whole of creation by the movements of thought.”

The soul is not the personality, the soul belongs to infinity. From such a point of view the Pythagoreans must have considered that only “fools” could imagine the soul force to be exhausted with the personality.

For them, too, as for Heraclitus, the essential point was the awakening of the Eternal in the personal. Enlightened knowledge for them meant intercourse with the Eternal. The more man brought the eternal element within him into existence, the greater must he necessarily seem to the Pythagoreans. Life in their community consisted in holding intercourse with the Eternal. The object of Pythagorean education was to lead the members of the community to that intercourse. Education was therefore a philosophical initiation, and the Pythagoreans might well say that by their manner of life they were aiming at the same goal as that of the Mystery cults.