Platonic Praxis

In addition to learning about principles of Platonistic thought, the student will best understand the universe as the Platonists see it, if they "don the philosopher's cloak" and take up the philosophic life. The life of practice is what makes the theory learnt into a reality for the soul, a divine illumination and perfection of the philosopher’s being.

The Platonists of late antiquity ranked the steps of the philosophical life into seven stages, each activating a mode of intelligence and manifesting a mode of excellence or virtue.

The modes of intelligence (cf. Shepard, "Influence", 104) are traditionally called:

  1. The Desire (epithumia)
  2. The Spirit (thumos)
  3. The Imagination (phantasia)
  4. The Opinion (doxa)
  5. The Reason (dianoia)
  6. The Intellect (nous)
  7. The One of the Soul (hen tes psukhes)

The manifestations of excellences or virtues (aretai) (Damascius, On the Phaedo, I.138-144) are:

  1. The Natural (phusikai)
  2. The Moral (ethikai)
  3. The Constitutional (politikai)
  4. The Purificatory (kathartikai)
  5. The Contemplative (theoretikai)
  6. The Archetypal (paradeigmatikai)
  7. The Holy (hieratikai)

∼ Mania ∼

For the Platonists, especially the theurgists amongst them, the efforts of the philosopher alone are not enough to guaranty progress up the scale of intelligences and virtues. Rather the divine itself is what effects such change in the soul. The state of such effects was called divine madness or mania by Plato. Hermeias in his Commentary on Plato's Phaedrus (II.1-2) arranges the four divine manias mentioned by Plato in order of their progressive effects on the soul:

  1. “Poetic” mania brings the disordered parts of the soul into harmony
  2. “Telestic” mania makes the harmonised soul into a whole and elevates it to Intellect
  3. “Mantic” mania concentrates the soul into a unity
  4. “Erotic” mania conjoins the one of the unified soul to the gods and to intelligible Beauty, effecting divine union

∼ Purification ∼

But before such manias may occur, the soul must desire purity. Porphyry states that purification is spoken of most by the sages because without it, all further stages are impossible (Launching Points, 27). As Damascius points out, though, purity is not something added to the soul, rather purity is the state of the soul when all that is foreign is removed from her (cf. On the Phaedo, I.124).

Damascius said that "the life of purification has three degrees:

  1. discarding all the confusion of genesis, which has attached itself to our true being,
  2. meeting one's own pure self,
  3. being united with one's own cause by returning to that which is purest in oneself" (On Plato's Phaedo, I.67, Westerink).

He further says:

"Soul has a threefold activity, the object being both the soul itself and what exists on either side, the lower and the higher; hence the three levels of life. In each of these the soul can choose three different ways, as we have said already [quoted above]: (1) in social life that of ruling the lower, or (2) of finding within itself the principles of its actions, or (3) of looking up towards causes higher than soul; in the life of purification there are the ways of (1) drawing back from the lower, (2) of developing its own essential type, or (3) of seeking the principles from which it has sprung; and the same obviously holds of the contemplative life, in which the soul considers the superior entities either as (1) exerting providence over the lower degrees of being, or as (2) remaining within themselves, or as (3) connected with what is beyond" (I.74).

In purifying the passions and emotions, Damascius says that the student practices these three degrees of purification by (1) moderating the passions, (2) avoiding them, or (3) becoming completely ignorant of them, as far as possible (I.75).

Damascius lays out six steps in complete purification:

  1. Remove from herself pleasure and pain as far as possible
  2. Eat only food which is simple, non-luxuriant, vegetarian, sanctified, and traditional
  3. Suppress aimless and irrational appetite, following the dictates of reason
  4. Detach herself from sense-perception and imagination, except when it is necessary to use them
  5. Keep himself from the multifarious variety of opinion
  6. Escape from "the complexity of discursive thought and seek the simpler forms of demonstration and division as a preparation for the undivided activity of the intellect" (I.120, Westerink).

However, we must not forget that purification is not just about the soul, but also about our way of life. Damascius says that we must not only purify our soul, but also our body and our possessions, for we must "strive for all of these, so that everything, not just ourselves, but our tools also, may be flooded by divine illumination, that no demoniac darkness may settle on our soiled tools, turning away our sight from the Gods, and that our soul may travel lighter on her way to the divine and, so far from being burdened by those tools, by derive strength from them for the upward journey, since she is still tied to them as far as natural life is concerned." But the soul is still most important, for he adds, "If, on the other hand, we come to God with an impure mind, though pure externally, we lose our efforts; for then the soul by her way of life remains chained to the evil demon she resembles" (On Plato's Phaedo, I.123).