The Socratics

The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is a collection of narratives which recollect imporant people and events in the history of the Jewish people. God appears in these narratives as a kind of super-being who plays a role in history. Something similar can be said about the myths and legends of the Greeks and Romans, the Teutons, the Norse, and indeed many other peoples.

When we look at the philosophic conception of God as developed by Plato and Aristotle (and by generations of subsequent Platonists) we find something radically and profoundly different. It is so radically and profoundly different (not to mention elegant) that each of the main religions of the medieval world - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - struggled to integrate the narrative God with the philosophic God.

The philosophic God of Plato is not a super-being who operates within narrative history. For Plato, God is the source of all that exists and the only reality. The world that we perceive is the shadow and logical consequence of higher, more fundamental principles or archetypes, principles which can be imagined as ideas in the mind of God. The first principle - God, The One, the Good, continuously and timelessly emanates all of existence. Everything that can exist (that is, its existence is not logically contradicted), does exist - this is the principle of plenitude. There is a hierarchy or chain of being that connects higher with lower. At the lowest point in the scheme is matter, which in its purest form is the antithesis of being.

The human soul spans the levels of being. At its highest it connects with the realm of pure ideas or forms that exist in the mind of God. At its lowest it apprehends the material world. The fundamental evil is ignorance of the nature of being - the soul is so trapped by the appearance of material reality and the passions of the body, it loses sight of its origin in the divine world.

A consequence of these beliefs was that truth was not to be found in the material world. Truth could be found by rational enquiry and by the contemplation of pure forms in the world of Ideals. The human soul was a natural inhabitant of this realm, and mysticism was thus a return to a higher level of being. For Plotinus, one the greatest of the later Platonists, this could be achieved by contemplation. For Iamblichus, another of the influential late Platonists of antiquty, the soul was so immersed in the material it required the use of the ritual techniques of theurgy (God-work) to awaken the soul to higher orders of being - a belief that one finds alive and well eighteen hundred years later as reinterpreted by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Although much mutated by Jewish traditions, most of these ideas can be found in Kabbalah. The workings of the historical God of the Bible are reinterpreted in terms of a divine realm that owes much to the ideas of late Platonism and Gnosticism. In fact, this is precisely what one finds in the Zohar: an exegesis of the Torah in terms of the divine realm of the partzufim and the sephiroth.

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