Etiquettes of the Student

A man who honours himself by keeping his thoughts on divine principles with the help of his reason, his soul becomes illuminated and it shines as a brilliant beckon for mankind and attracts the love of gods and angels.

The Path of Study

What is involved in proper learning? Here are just some notes on how a student of divine knowledge should approach his or her studies. Boiled down, the following steps are basic:

1. Recognising One's Ignorance

The beginning of learning is the recognition that one needs to learn. But more than this, it is recognising that one must learn something of importance.

There are four areas of knowledge of which you will discover yourself to be ignorant: 1. that which is essential and which everyone should know (e.g., his power of reasoning, his own nature), 2. that which some men should know in order for society to function (e.g., medicine, engineering), 3. that which is useful to know but not essential (e.g., extra training in one's career), 4. that which is not useful and the study of which would distract from the study of more important things (e.g., exotic languages, celebrity gossip, etc.).

So when you discover your ignorance about something, you must establish which of these it is. If it is of the first type then it must be a priority to rectify, if of the next two types this depends on one's situation in life, and if of the last then it should be left alone while the others are needed.

Philosophy is the study of those things which have been found necessary, but which most individuals leave alone, to their own detriment. It covers the ability to think clearly, the knowledge of the universe in which one lives, the principles to live in harmony with nature and with others, and other essentials

2. Sincerely Seek to Rectify Ignorance

One's intention and motivation for one's studies is important. When studying, give up the fear of embarassment at being found to be wrong, give up the jealousy worry that others may be found superior in understanding, give up procrastination which avoids effort and change, give up being irritiated at needing repetitive explanations, give up praise and blame of yourself and of others, give up worrying that you are not spending your time doing something more "practical".

Further, when seeking to rectify one's ignornace, the student should be nonpartisan, that is, he should not take sides or be too attached to his philosophical or religious system and hostile to anothers. This kind of close-mindedness prevents him from finding truth and having tranquility in his soul. However, this does not mean that some systems are better than others, and a student must possess enough intelligence to discard poor doctrines and expanations for better ones.

A Note on Argumentiveness

Some passionate students develop the disease of argumentation. To seek knowledge just to argue and prove one's intelligence is a sign that the learner has no understanding of the value of his knowledge. His arrogance and lack of humility will drive others away in disgust. Further, his soul will not become illuminated for he is not concerned primarily with the light of divine contemplation. He values the shell of information, so that he will impress and correct his fellows, but he lacks respect for the inner core of understanding and wisdom.

If one must debate, to insure that one's debate is for virtue and not for sport or ostentation, certain conditions must be met: that the goal of the debate is a real and present one (not something hypothetical), that the debaters are willing to improve their position when their opponent has demonstrated a fault (this doesn't mean accepting the opponents position, just that he has raised a valid point requiring further investigation), that the debate is conducted with etiquette and reverence (the debaters are not to reduce themselves to a yelling mob), and that each will say what he has to say, letting each finish his position before responding. It is good practice for the answering party to paraphrase the statements of his opponent before presenting his own (this allows the opponent to confirm that his message was heard and to allow him to hear his own argument in fresh language).

One must refrain from trickery in one's discourse. As the Pythagoreans are oft to say, "Use lying like poison. To lie is to deceive in life, and to be deceived." The only kind of deception allowed in a debate, rather it is indeed a noble component, is to arrange matters so that the final truth of the matter comes from the mouth of your opponent, as if it was he that discovered the truth for you.

Our intention for seeking knowledge should be for the health and treatment of our souls, not for showing off. Plato often compares philosophy to surgery. When we seek to cure the diseases of our souls, we should consider ourselves as patients, with a serious illness, consider our teacher as a doctor, listening to his teachings and advice, consider his teachings to be our medicine, following the prescription fully and with esteem. Do not wait until your illness has turned terminal before taking one's prescribed regimen.

3. Research Sources and Teachers

The Platonist seeks Truth, and so he or she fills free to look into the truthful aspects of all other expressions of philosophy, be they Academic, Stoic, Aristotelian, Epicurean, Cynic, Skeptic, etc. Some may call this approach eclecticism, but the Platonists see it as embracing all the children of Plato's thought.

But, the real gate to holy Philosophy is through the door of Plato's dialogues, through the removal obstacles which prevent sincere practice, and through the offering of prayers for divine assistance. In reading the dialogues, it is wise to consult the commentaries of the more mystical sages, like those of Proclus, Damascius, and the other Neoplatonists. It is a mistake to read the dialogues with an view that they are obvious in their meaning. Only by knowing that Plato intends to hint at hidden realities does one grasp the unity of his dialogues. The key to understanding the dialogues is to understand that their purpose is not to give information or to refute the view of rival opinions, but that they are books of instruction for practising the philosophic life. Plato did not seek to instill knowledge into others, rather he sought to activate the knowledge already present in their souls. If the student makes the mistake in thinking that the dialogues will just give them information then they have wasted their time and misunderstood the purpose of Plato's writing. Thus it is important to make oneself receptive to divine inspiration during one's reading. This is were piety and virtue and devotion to the divine makes its mark.

The Teacher:

We are all on our own journey, but we are all on the journey together. This means of course that all the insights of philosophy can only be experienced and known by the individual.

However, we all are seeking truth and can experience the joys of recollection together.

Because some are more familiar with the process of learning, they can assist those who are new to learning. They become teachers and guides; they have learned the art of philosophical navigation.

Because we are both individuals in learning and also travelling the waters of truth together, trusting a mentor gives us a lineage, a "golden chain" that links us to the sages of the past and gives us a communion with souls that have witnessed and known the Good and the Beautiful.

Find someone who has been where you wish to go, someone who is still learning, who is not invested in your success or attached to your achieving knowledge. Socrates is the examplar of such an individual.

If one is able, it is best to find spiritually minded philosophers to learn from. A teacher should possess the following qualities: he must (1) have reverence for knowledge and things divine, (2) possess discernment, (3) have experiential knowledge of his subject matter, (4) be just in his actions and in his teaching, and (5) care for the souls of his students.

The first quality (holiness) means that he cherishes and understand the depths of spiritual knowledge. He honours the divine, is prayerful, and he tries to teach his students to cultivate a sense of holiness and a sensitivity to the presence of the Sacred.

The second quality (discernment) means that he strives to understand the texture of a situation, knowing that every instant in our lives is both like and unlike others. He assesses what is before him or his student and, attempting to rise above simply stereotyping it or blowing it off, he uses prudence and experience to evaluate and approach it.

The third quality (knowledge) means that he teaches wisdom which he actually possesses. Only someone who has travelled the path himself can be a guide for others. Otherwise, if you find a teacher with only a theoretical grasp of philosophy, you will be like a buyer who goes to the market and finds an expert on the benefits of virgin olive oil; but when you ask him to sell you a jar, he replies that he has none, sending you elsewhere.

The fourth quality (justice) means that he practises what he teaches, and that he instructs his students to be responsible themselves for their actions, langauge and spiritual development. Further, he does not push his students into practices which are immoral or dubious. If your teacher instructs you to do what is not in accord with virtue, refuse politely with kind words. But do not let such an instruction cause you to speak ill of him or prevent you from listening to further instruction.

The fifth quality (concern) makes its presence felt in his teaching. Does he ask his students to be sincere and honest with themselves, or does he expect them simply to go through the motions of the practices? Does he ask them to look into their soul and see with their souls, or just to learn the materials taught and pass a test?

Choosing a teacher.

The good teacher has much to offer a student. If you desire to advance spiritually, there comes a time when you need to find someone who is ahead of you on the spiritual path. Take time to investigate a potential teacher. A teacher should be just, holy, patient, and generous. He should offer specific instruction in the branches of philosophy (epistemology, dialectics, metaphysics, ethics, etc.) and the various spiritual practices (contemplation, dialectics, prayer, ritual, etc.). He should offer wisdom, inspiration, motivation, spiritual guidance and answers to your questions. He should help you work through spiritual ups and downs, and help clarify religious and mystical experiences.

Avoid false teachers. Signs are that they would have their students pay large fees or demand a percentage of their wages (even if it to purify their wealth or break their attachment to money); or, would have sexual relations with their students (and worse, justify it in the name of compassion, spiritual closeness or for psychic surrender); or, would ask the student to do purifications, tests or other exercises which threaten health or well-being; or, would encourage their student to compete for positions of honour within the school or with the teacher, becoming a kind of petty politics; or, would make students who did not conform to the image feel guilt. In such enviroments, virtues become distorted. Temperance and humility become lowliness and distain. Guidance becomes criticism. Love becomes control.

A seeker must be willing to trust his judgement and the dictates of Reason they show him that a particular school is foul or asymetrical.

However, do not look look for perfection. Choose the best teacher you can, understanding that your relationship with that teacher is not binding and forever. Remember, often students will have many teachers in the beginning, some these will be better than others, before they may find that one teacher that they recognise as being truly theirs.

You may notice faults in your current teacher. Do not fall into the trap of looking for and focusing on imperfections, for they will be found, but in doing so you put an obstacle on your progress. Avoid seeing your teacher as unqualified to teach you. Rather, focus on his good qualities and, most important, when you listen to him, focus on his message that you may rise to embrace your own divinity, without distracting yourself and obsessing about his peculiarities.

Every teacher is particular, with his own understanding and use of philosophy, religion, language, culture. He may be delightful or difficult, dry or funny, young or old, kind or merciless, poor or wealthy, famous or unknown. Whatever type of personality, it is important that you benefit as much as possible with the teacher that is available to you.

The goal of the relationship is to allow the divine light to be transferred from the teacher to the student, or rather to allow one to kindle the light already present in the other's soul.

The Student-Teacher Relationship.

For the Platonists, the relationship between student and teacher is more like an apprenticeship. Your teacher is not a 'guru' or a 'master'; he or she is not your superior nor is he infallible, and you owe him no bond of submission.

He is rather a spiritual director, a tutor, a guide, a mentor, an advisor. He knows first-hand the difficulties that will face you and may guide you through it. "Teaching," wrote Plotinus, "does not go beyond the limit of pointing out the way and the journey; but the vision is totally the personal task of those who have resolved to contemplate. (Enn. VI.9.4).

The unguided student often wastes much time on matters of little relevance to his progress, studying or practising ineffectually, or he may even fall into real practical or psychological difficulties. This is why relating one's thoughts and troubles to your teacher is important. It displays the sincerity and honesty of the student, and it allows the teacher to evaluate your understanding and progress.

About Evaluations. Know that a teacher is required to assess the capacities of their students. Students are expected to enter a period of purification and character development. A teacher must ask their students to investigage their activities and renounce those that they recognise as shameful and harmful to their soul. After completing this, the teacher re-assesses them for their readiness for detailed instruction in specific branches of knowledge.

Each student has his or her own learning style and speed. So a teacher is expected to instruct at their intellectual and emotional level. Some knowledge is not fit to be taught to some students. If they have not mastered the prerequisites of a science, then they are likely to misinterpret the teaching and dismiss it. A teacher is not expected not teach deep or complicated concepts to students who are not ready for it and, out of care for his students, he does not try to push new paradigms of thought on a person who is not emotionally ready to give up previous ways of seeing their world. At the same time, the teacher does not keep perceptive and talented students on an purely elementary level or leave them at a level which is too comfortable. This slows their grow and potential, and they will become bored and dissatisfied with Philosophy.

To exceed their capacities will set the students up for failure, and not to meet them will incline the students to boredom. In either case they will likely abandon their studies. Simplicius writes about the student who is beginning their studies, that "they must expect to relapse sometimes, and are not to be condemned so much for falling, as encouraged and commended when they rise again." He explaines the reason for this is because "for when we aim at something that exceeds our capacity, and find we cannot reach it, then troubles and disappointments and a sinking of our pirits, and sometimes a desponding mind, follow upon it. They that are violently bent upon things above their strength, condemn such as are proportionable to it, and think them vile and despicable, because they judge of them by way of comparison with higher. And yet it is only by small beginnings that we can ever arrive at great perfections; and before we can cope for things above us, we must practise upon the lower, and make ourselves masters of such as we are a match for" (A Commentary on Epictetus' Handbook, ch. VII).

The duties of a Teacher.

He must be sincere in his desire to teach, not for fame or wealth, but for the sake of benefiting his fellow souls. He will regard his students like his own children.

He should recognise the difficulties of his students; be empathetic to them, and show kindness for those under his care.

He must keep the student on task by discouraging them from studying subjects which are of lesser benefit. Students often want to leave a foundational subject to look into one that appears more fascinating. At the same time, he gives them tidbits of what is to come to give them encouragement during these more burdensome topics.

He should instil in them motivation and optimism.

He should be a consellor. Teachers, when sought for personal help, may freely assist in the student's personal life (if they are able and deem it proper), in areas like work, marriage, family and living. This he does from a position of caring, for the teacher understands that the student's success requires all the aspects of his life to be conducive towards his spiritual advancement.

The student and the teacher commit to each other. He believe in his students' ability to advance in spiritual understanding and virtue, and the students believe in his ability to help him do so.

Most importantly, he must allow the students to take the lead in their studies. In teachings, there is one major rule that a Platonic teacher follow, that is, he teaches or offeres advice only when it is requested, and not before. He does not give advice to people if they are not open to it. They will not listen fully, or they may misconstrue the content or his intention for offering it. He allows the students to recognise their ignorance first, which is the first step in learning (see above). When they have done so, and only when they have come for answers, will they be open to learning.

So, do not expect that a teacher will come and guide you hand and foot. You are in control of your own education.

4. Ask and Research Properly

Anthony Lloyd, mentioning the methods of teaching in traditional Platonic schools, tells us that, "Of all teachers, the Platonist was the most likely to leave room for students' questions; and he did" even though sometimes it was after the lecture (Anatomy of Neoplatonism, p. 7).

Asking and researching properly involves asking the right questions and listening attentively and respectfully to the answers.

When asking a question, be clear about what it is you are seeking to know. Do not be afraid about looking foolish. Do not ask questions because you think these are the kinds of questions that should be asked, rather ask about what bothers your personally. Listening respectfully means actively paying attention, with a posture that demonstrates your sense of reverence for the teacher and his knowledge.

When asking a question, know that your teacher is a Platonist, and he follows the methods of our Socrates. So, do not expect that the answer will be given in the time or manner you anticipated. He may answer you the way you expected; he may not answer you now; he may not answer the question at all; or he may answer with a question. He may not know the answer himself...he may know it but also know that you are not ready for it...or (as is most likely the case) he knows that you yourself know the answer, but that you need to seek and work it out in your own way.

Listening can be difficult though, especially if the answer is in words that may cloud its beauty. For instance, Aristotle is sometimes, well, tiresome to read. But, it is only working through his texts that one can really understand the way Aristotelian philosophy helps establish Neoplatonic metaphysics, the backbone of mystical theology. (Also, students who were able to study the corpus of Aristotle, itself called an strenuous initiatory rite, and survived it must have mastered a level of concentration and endurance to make Buddhist monks envious!)

But the point of all this is that the proper method of study is to find those resources that are deep and to the point. You can waste a great deal of time reading shallow books, or books that stay that the introductory or elementary level, never delving into the more difficult areas.

Note on Etiquette

Reverence for the knowledge one is learning is key. The philosophers, before they went to study the divine sciences, and especially higher theology, would purify themselves with lustrations (washings), don clothes that were pure, and offer prayers to the gods, so preparing an atmosphere of reverence. The student should invite the gods, angels and other divine beings to assist him in his education, praying that they may help prevent him from cultivating pride and arrogance, that they may instil in him a love of learning and improve his faculties of perception, memory and understanding, may they may reward him for his sincerity and his labour with the goal of divine union.

A student must be organised, and this is enhanced by a sense of ritual and a purity of habit.

A student must cultivate a love of the subject studied.

A student must respect their own limits in learning and gaps in knowledge.

A student must not try to take up all the branches of knowledge at the same time. If he does so his knowledge in any one field will be shallow. Rather he should devote himself to one subject at a time, and preferably to the most important subject at that time, and gain mastery in it (or to the level of proficiency that he requires). Only then will his knowledge become deep and penetrating.

He does not learn a branch of knowledge until he has learned its prerequisites, or he will suffer much confusion when his encounters of complex ideas and techniques which have been built upon those that he should have mastered previously.

5. Fortify Your Understanding

During your studies, you must fortify your understanding. To do so you must learn the rationales of the doctrines being learned. Investigate them. Understand why a doctrine is as it is, and why is it not rather something different. Then, try to put the doctrine into your own words. If you cannot, or if it falls apart because it lacks coherence, then ask for clarification.

Most importantly, a student must know that the most important facts of knowledge will not be found in his books or even from his teacher. They will only be found in observing the depths of his soul and in the great theophany of the Gods, i.e., in the manifest and secret aspects of the universe.

In all this, he must remember that his goal is the happiness that comes with the acquisition of truth and virtue so that, in his next life, his soul does not fall precariously back into the physical realm, but rather raises to join the gods in their heavenly circuits and govern the cosmos with them. It is the fulfilment of the purpose for which he was created, and all his choices here and now must, in some way, reflect this end.

All this however will only be understood when one has a full and thorough understanding of first principles.

6. Apply that Knowledge

A poor student is the one who believes the notion that it is best to begin practising only after one has completely mastered his full education. He is like a man who must have everything conceivable in his luggage before travelling abroad, fearing that he is lacking something he needs. Such a student will never begin, being always in the process of preparing to work, and in the end will die having done nothing. As the Pythagorean precept goes: "To be always intending to act renders action imperfect."

The application of knowledge, as one is learning it, is the ultimate from of fortification. This is because, it is only by practising something that you come to know it fully, and only by attempting to practise it you find those areas in which your knowledge is lacking.

A man of piety is one whose actions and words and understanding are all in harmony. One cannot know if one's beliefs are harmonious until one has put them to the test.

Then there is the distinction between outward knowledge and inward wisdom. The second only comes from direct experience. Learning and applying correctly the knowledge of the outward removes the darkness from one's life, and this leads to a knowledge that is inward which fills the soul with light. Outward knowledge (book knowledge) is easier to learn, while inward knowledge (experiential understanding) takes time and a special dedication. A scholar of outward knowledge may have answers that may be detailed and intricate, but ask him a question on the states of the heart and he falters and his way of answering you will betray his unfamiliarity with the deeper aspects of practice.

7. Evaluate that Knowledge

Evalutate your knowledge often. As you practice, somethings you were taught will not seem as real or true as it did at first. Ask yourself often if this knowledge works or not in your relationship with the universe. This does not necessarily mean that what you were taught was wrong, it just means that your understanding of its truth changes.

The more higher the level of knowledge, the more elusive it can be to understand. By testing your knowledge, the clearer you see that understanding does not come by knowing the definitions of things or descriptions of processes or actions. Rather, higher understanding comes from being present in the truth of things, and this is most often beyond words and expression.

8. Teaching that Knowledge to Others

Your time with your teacher eventually fosters independence. When the time comes and the teacher is pleased with your progress, he will indicate to you when it is time to pass on your knowledge to others.

The Platonic tradition is filled with examples of teachers instructing their students to formulate their own ideas and teach independently. Plotinus instructed his students Amelius and Porphyry, when they differed on a particular issue on metaphysics, to think out and try to pursuade each other with proofs. Proclus held the office of senior lecturer within the school of his own teacher Syrianus. Thus, the student is tutored by the teacher to a point were the student is able to becomes an independent philosopher, and can begin having students of their own.

After you have learned your subject, applied and mastered it, then the act of teaching allows one to sift throught the most subtle truths you have yet to learn about philosophy. You may feel you understand somthing, but when someone comes asking you sincere questions concerning it, you may often discover how narrow or hole-filled you knowledge is.