Sri Aurobindo and Plato
By Pariksith Singh, MD
At the dawn of human reason came a mind limpid and clear, whose lucidity was reflected in his prose, and his love of mathematics and order. He established the first known western academy for education (for the Universities of Taxila and Nalanda had already established the principle and practical application of a cosmopolitan system of education in the Indian subcontinent) and was the first professor in western history. He was a bridge between the mysticism and intuitive approach of the past to the realism and rationality of the future. He was Plato, his name in Greek meaning ‘wide and broad’ quite appropriately.
Plato took the being of Parmenides and the becoming of Heraclitus and affirmed them both. Both eternal stability and eternal change are true, he said. And yet, he was not a Sankhya philosopher or a mystic such as Plotinus who saw the unchanging behind the flux. His eternal, perfect world behind the world of objects is an abstract, not experienced or experienceable, a world not unlike the world of arithmetic made of universals (although I have doubts about this definition of these Forms as being experienceable which I will discuss in the second half of this essay).
One may say that there can be no basis for this paradigm for a hidden world behind all things. But Plato believed in it, the ideal of a perfect place, like a heaven of mathematics and perfect order. Modern thought has moved us away from such a framework — that posits an apparent world of concrete objects known to sense which changes covering up an unchanging and unseen world of Forms or abstract shapes grasped by pure reason only. We may wince at such airy-fairy dreamworlds today but there was a time when it was the predominant philosophy of Europe and remained so for at least two thousand years.
It was only Edmund Husserl who bracketed the world of Idea and pushed it aside in an epoche-making radical break from the past — as he developed phenomenology and brought us back to awareness of appearance as it is about a hundred years ago. Alfred North Whitehead wisely commented that the safest general characterization of European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. After all, he and Bertrand Russel attempted to find a logical system that would need no outside justification or proof for its consistency and completeness as Plato’s descendants.
The Upanishads do talk of the subtle worlds behind the gross world — the manomaya and the pranamaya, the mind and the vital, but they are experienceable to any person with the slightest sensitivity. The ancient Indian rishis also talk of the even deeper and perfect vigyanamaya and anandamaya, and these too are beyond sensual experience, but are known intimately as oneself as one sheds identification with the world of gross and even subtler forms. But the subtle worlds of yoga are not abstractions or arithmetical Forms but felt and known as real and directly influencing the realm of the gross.
Plato’s mathematical approach is almost mystical like that of Pythagoras, who perceived all things as numbers and thought that the cosmos came from numerical principles. He also thought that mathematics and abstract thinking is a basis for philosophical thought and any worthwhile thesis in science and ethics. As a manifestation of a mathematical and perfect order, the world has a consistency and perhaps a divine power behind its existence.
This way of thinking was imbibed by Einstein later, and his stance even though grounded in Relativity, was yet Deterministic and Platonic. And when Einstein tried to discover the Unified Field Theory through advanced theoretical physics, he was emulating the same paradigm.
And yet, Plato’s achievements are significant not just in philosophy but also in political thought. The concept of a Philosopher King was an important step towards envisioning the politics of the future. Even though he failed as a politician, and his Republic as a community of like-minded people did not take off, the idea of defining an Ideal man and then creating a hierarchy with him at the top is enticing even today. The philosopher who loves the sight of Truth, and establishes justice for each, assigning to each his or her due is unrealistic in the practical affairs of men.
The Indian ideal, that of the Yogi Emperor, is a lineage of kings who are liberated from the world and themselves, who have mastered themselves and thus the world. Sri Aurobindo’s solution of a gnostic community of highly evolved beings who bring transformation with their presence is a quantum leap in socio-political thought and is an advance on Plato’s Dream and Idea.
The Allegory of the Cave as described in The Republic is a classic illustration of the human condition. Tied up and restricted utterly, exposed to stimuli themselves limited and of a partial kind, man does not have the data points to develop a full understanding of his situation. The awareness, taking these conditions as granted, looks at no other alternative explanations and treats the status of bondage as sole reality.
And yet, when a prisoner of this twilit screen of shadows with total inability to move, becomes free of his shackles and experiences the reality of fire or that of the Sun, he is initially blinded and confused. And, when he has become able to face the world of light, if he attempts to share it with his fellow prisoners, they are unwilling to listen to him and incapable of fathoming what he is attempting to describe.
This metaphor of human thralldom is apt and replete with suggestiveness, symbolism, and possible hope for the future. Sri Aurobindo, looking at the next dawn of the human cycle, attempts to bring man out of the cave, expose him to the world of light and make it natural for him. He stands too as a bridge but this time in reverse, between the dry stultifying rationality of the past and a luminous metamorphic intuitiveness of the future.
Bernard Shaw said that western philosophy had not progressed since Plato at all and had only been his repetition time and again. Modern thought has shifted from the Socratic dialectic with recent disruptions in philosophy by Husserl and Wittgenstein. And it seems that we have come full circle in returning to the fecundity and boldness of pre-Socratic thinkers.
Plato sees himself becoming free of his cave finally and ascending to stagger into the world of dazzling sunlight. This time it may not be difficult to explain to his fellow humans the radical new world he has seen. For the ground has been prepared and Being and Becoming are no longer irreconcilable as in his immediate past. Sri Aurobindo has given us in his thought a mind as limpid and clear, in prose as lucid and flowing, this time though with a love not for mathematics but of poetry. One of the greatest writers of prose finds completion in another just as great and as crystalline.
A Reappraisal of Plato
I have often wondered if Plato has been misunderstood by conventional western thought. How did one of the foremost thinkers and writers make such cardinal mistakes? So much so that the last hundred years of Western Philosophy has focused almost exclusively on undoing him. Yes, Plato, the philosopher who is deemed one of the greatest western philosophers of all time stands discredited of his most significant contribution to metaphysics, and that is his conception of the world of Form or Idea. It is his description of an abstract, rarefied world that is behind the world of gross appearance, that is far truer and closer to the universal reality covered up by sensory phenomenon according to him.
The phenomenologists led by Husserl and followed by Sartre, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty in the last century rejected this Platonic world outright and initiated a new way to approach philosophy. Wittgenstein questioned the verbal games played by metaphysicians and how language itself creates the paradigms it later goes on to prove. The Structuralists and Post-Structuralists changed the paradigm entirely and moved away further from the world of Idea. So did the Pragmatics led by Charles Pierce and William James.
But to my mind that is an absurdity too. For Plato’s was not a superficial or imaginative construct? And, if so, what does it say of Socrates, whose words Plato turned into his dialogues? If one can see what Plato is describing, a different picture may emerge. It seems to me that Plato was describing another order, a world described by the Indian metaphysics since its early days more than 6000 years ago as the sukshma jagat or the subtle world. This world is not ordinarily available or accessible to our physical senses but is intimately experienceable and knowable to those who have learnt to refine their senses and sensibility. It is obvious to anyone who has had the slightest development in developing an awareness of his or her own mind and feelings, thoughts, and emotional movements. In short, those who are open to what is often termed as the inner worlds.
But these ‘inner worlds’ are not inside anything. For to the adept and the conscious, these inner worlds are not swarming inside their heads or some vague center inside the chest. Nor are these worlds nebulous and imaginary but are as obvious and clear to one who can see with a greater totality of awareness and a mind that has grown silent and free of its own chaos and noise. And these worlds have too the highest pragmatic value such that a John Dewey would be proud of and their own science which though not measurable on physical instruments is universal, predictable, and rational, or shall we say, supra-rational. These Forms or Ideas transcend subject and object, the thinker and the thought, and are eternal entities that are psychological, metaphysical, anthropological, cultural, perhaps archetypal, formations having a presence and impact in our daily lives.
If we understand Plato in this light, we can see that he was a mystic who was attempting to put his realizations in a mental language. Perhaps he was the last mystic in an age that saw human intuition and innate wisdom slowly diffusing itself into the intellectual sphere and disappearing almost entirely. The pre-Socratic mystics like Parmenides and Heraclitus were brought to a new synthesis by Plato and he attempted to preserve their essence by a unique metaphysics. But, if my submission is true, that Plato described the subtle worlds as the world of Idea, what are called the pranamaya jagat and manomaya jagat by the Indians, then it all falls in place. Plotinus, the greatest exponent of Plato, interpreted him too as a mystic who was profoundly aware of the unseen Universe right up to the greatest summits of The One (To hen in Greek) or the Good and who had described each level up to the peaks of spirituality in his metaphysics.
If the above is accepted as a possibility, then Plato still stands and stands very tall in the realm of philosophy. His allegory of the cave makes complete sense since he is describing an adept who has evolved to a new way of seeing and is able to discern the worlds that we do not notice in our complete absorption with materialism and its puerile frameworks. Even quantum physics in its description moves beyond the sensory data into a world that is mathematically consistent and can describe and explain physical phenomenon better than the Newtonian models. While Plato would not and could not have conceived of a subatomic world, he was keenly cognizant of other Universes interacting, impacting, overlapping and manifesting in our physical world.
In this light, the concept of the Philosopher King makes more sense. For the philosopher is not merely an intellectual with his ivory tower constructs or a lotus-eating dweller of unverifiable truths. But a true philosopher is one who is aware of the hidden movements that impact our life more than physical forces and is able to act on them through a profound understanding of human psychology. Ken Wilber has shrewdly noted that Plato stands at the crossroads of philosophies that look outward at the world of matter and those that turn inward into the realms of spirit and subjective domains. Plato is a great integrator of diverse, even opposing, systems like Sri Aurobindo. The great difference is that Plato used reason for his integration, as S.K. Maitra astutely remarks in his essay on Sri Aurobindo and Plato, and Sri Aurobindo synthetizes in the light of intuition and over-mental thought.
And in the same breath, the concept of justice too makes sense. Otherwise, Plato’s definition of justice is very strange, when he says that justice is to assign each thing its true value. This definition would almost be laughable if a sophomore uttered it in his fraternity. But with the greater domain that swims in front of the eye if one can begin to appreciate the profundity of Plato, one can see that it is an entirely valid and ‘justifiable’ definition. For Plato’s philosopher then comes closer to the Indian concept of darshanik, one who can behold the truth. And the darshanik does not impose artificial value upon things. He can see behind the scenes as it were, see the relative or absolute value of each movement, form, or name, and is aware of the significance of each entity, relationship, impulse, result, occurrence or force.
And in this paradigm, Plato’s injunction against owning personal property, lodging or storehouse makes sense as quoted in From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest by TZ Lavine. For Plato is still influenced by the mystics who are free of the sensual and the sensory and instruct their disciples to liberate themselves from the world of gross matter and happenings. Plato is secretly an ascetic in the spiritual mold of the pre-Socratics. Which is why he sees democracy as corruption for he knows that truth is known to a select few and his solution was to take these leaders of the subtle worlds the leaders of society and communities. For these men, according to him, would be wise and free of attachments and would have the insight to do what is right for all, and create a world of men that is just. That he failed utterly is another matter. Plato’s aristocracy is not the aristocracy of birth or riches but of an elevated and refined nature and consciousness.
And suddenly, the great revelation of Socrates that “the only true wisdom consisted in knowing that you know nothing” makes sense. For the moment the philosopher becomes a darshanik and grows aware and looks with complete attention burning the dross of his own prejudices and limited perspectives, he realizes that the mind or intellect really knows nothing. The mind can analyze data but only in a manner that is second-hand and reductionistic. And the moment one knows the limits of mental knowing one opens oneself to a wisdom that is not complacent, arrogant, or untrue. How close to the Indian mind which describes the ultimate reality as anirvacaniya, that which cannot be talked about, and which calls its highest philosophy Vedanta, literally ‘the end of knowing’. Similarly, when Socrates says that wisdom and truth are the highest good, as quoted by TZ Lavine, that too fits in with our understanding that Plato is describing the world from a deeper way of seeing. For, as the Indian tradition maintained, whatever the enlightened man did would be shubha and kalyanmayi, beneficent, wholesome, and auspicious, for the world.
And when Socrates says that “virtue is knowledge,” that too makes complete sense. For, according to him, “to know the good is to do the good.” Once one begins to see and know in a manner different from the gross sense and the unrefined mind, that knowing is a liberation from one’s egoistic preoccupations. And the one who is truly liberated is unable to “do evil voluntarily.” But this seeing or knowing is total and not a superficial and fleeting cognizance as J. Krishnamurti used to bring out in his talks constantly. As TZ Lavine points out, Socrates believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This examination is not a Freudian analysis or a logical interpretation but that of a supra-intellectual way of seeing and watching and an examination that frees one from the encumbrances of the past or limited perspectives.
Thus, Socrates’ philosophy is not a rationalistic moral philosophy at all, as TZ Lavine claims in From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. Socrates is looking at the world in a manner radically different from the logician or the rationalist. And, if we can see with him, in a flash we can understand his “blueprint for an ideal government of an ideal society” in The Republic. Plato is one of the few western philosophers who dared to offer his vision of what man is capable of bringing on earth. If we look at Sri Aurobindo’s solution of the Gnostic community of spiritually evolved beings (different from the Christian Gnostics attacked by Plotinus since, in his mind, they had perverted Plato), working together to bring a higher light and awareness to human life, Plato begins to make sense. The Philosopher-King unites in himself wisdom and power but is not like the Nietzschean ubermensch but more a yogi and an elevated being, who brings a global perspective to the problems of living in flesh and in this world of dukkha and samsara.
S.K. Maitra in The Meeting of the East and the West in Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy criticizes Plato’s theory of ideas by pointing out that his view of them is static, “devoid of all power of self-generation or creation.” To my mind, that is true, for Plato is a great synthesizer of diverse viewpoints, including those of Parmenides and Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and Protagoras. And in his attempt to synthetize them, he never achieved a complete fusion since his attempt was intellectual unlike that of Sri Aurobindo. S.K. Maitra notes that “Plato’s philosophy, thus, is haunted by a sense of its incompleteness: its intuition and reason cannot be reconciled with each other. Sri Aurobindo… avoids Plato’s tragedy not by lowering the intuitions, nor by raising the logic, but by still further raising the intuitions…. Plato’s intuitions were imperfect… It is impossible with such a principle (as Plato) to have any kind of relationship with the world of sensible experience. It is dead before it is born, and it is useless to try to make it work by offering it a more suitable logic. The only remedy is to raise it to the position of a concrete universal.” In Sri Aurobindo’s synthesis, the experiential distinction between the world of oneness and diversity, the world of gross matter and the subtle realms, is unified in a paradigm that accepts all and rejects none in a deeper, vaster synthesis that is lived and livable.
Sri Aurobindo’s darshan is perhaps the most comprehensive, systematic, and consistent, grounded in earth, pragmatic in outlook, while reconciling the profoundest and subtlest realizations of the mystics, rishis and visionaries, and the diverse truths of idealism, existentialism, structuralism, empiricism, transcendentalism, and materialism in a dynamic synthesis that is not abstract or artefactual but based on the real. Our appraisal of Plato is not lowered but enhanced on studying it in the light of Sri Aurobindo vast vision. And this applies not just to Plato but all western philosophy.