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Maurice Nicoll – Early Greek Teaching

Plato’s “Phaedrus”: “The Allegory of the Chariot and The Tripartite Nature of the Soul”.

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More sharing for the day from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, another excerpt from Maurice Nicoll’s ‘The Mark’, published by Vincent Stuart and Watkins in 1954. Reprinted in 1998 by Eureka Editions. It is found in the appendix, page 242, 243, 244.


Blessed is the man who has gained the notion of divine wisdom: wretched he who has a dim notion of the gods in his heart‘ (Empedocles: Fragment 132).

The whole idea of all the ancient divine philosophy influenced by Pythagorean teaching was purification and loosening, so that mind and heart were reopened to realities and truths that could be internally reached, and that daily life obscured.

The soul has fallen from a blessed state — a state of bliss – where the Eternal Realities were beheld, into the stream of time, into half-realities and confusion of the senses. So the meaning of earthly life is first to arouse the charioteer of the soul.

The ultimate aim is to regain the vision without which the soul dies. The method is by purification (catharsis) and loosening (lusis). It is not for those who ‘think that nothing exists save what they can grasp in their two hands’.

The pre-Pythagorean Orphic mystery seems to have contained the same idea. But it was popularly grasped as a religion in the ordinary sense, in which festivities were held, rites practised and sacrifices made for those in Hades; and a purely ceremonial instruction prescribed for those at an early stage of teaching and understanding.

Of these it was said that there were ‘Many who hear the word, but few Bacchi‘ (see note below) . Exactly the same idea and in a similar connection is expressed in the New Testament: ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ This remarkable interpretation of the meaning of life, which finds parallels in many ancient sources, has as its base the doctrine of evolution.

Man can evolve in a definite direction and towards a definite goal, which some have reached, and of these a few have left behind their instructions, which become usually turned into religions.

So the Greek philosophers despised the Orphic rites. They did so because they felt that only philosophy was the real way of preventing the soul’s re-incarnation into time, and effecting its return to the star which belongs to it. And by philosophy they meant first of all a continued state of attention, which Plato above all things has made clear in the person of Socrates.

In fact the whole of the dialogues can be seen in this light as a description of a means, used by the school of which Plato was a member.

This continued effort of the mind was accompanied by catharsis and lusis. We can at least understand what lusis meant. Literally, the verb from which the noun is derived means to loosen, and an important secondary meaning is ‘to ransom, to unbind by payment’.

Socrates was constantly shewn as loosening men from themselves — from their borrowed opinions, imagination and false assumption of knowing.

Everyone suffers from himself, which he does not see.

People remain ignorant because they imagine they already know. ‘We can draw a line which divides ignorance into halves, one a very great and bad sort. . . quite distinct from all other sorts . . . what is it? When a person supposes he knows, and does not know. This appears to be the great source of errors. . . . ‘ (Sophist, 229 B.C.)

To free men from the illusion of knowing was clearly one side of the loosening that frees the soul. This is a painful process that few can tolerate because it involves the action of another on the person himself — that is, in his intimate psychology, in the seat of his self-love and self-importance.

Many became offended, some furious. And a similar situation is mentioned in the Gospels more than once. People were nearly always offended by what Christ said. He said to the Pharisees: ‘If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.

Man is not equal to the development indicated in religion.

He cannot even see the idea concealed in its language. And he cannot make the necessary efforts.

He misunderstands the whole thing and believes that religion or creed at bottom is external worship and nothing more than a social or political invention for making people moral or obedient, or a sort of tenacious superstition.

He cannot understand that it is about super-psychology – that is, about real psychology, about the next state or level of man and what it is necessary to do and think and feel and imitate and understand in order to reach that level.

He does not see that all real religion, and this is its test, is not about another world, but about another man latent but unborn in every man, who is in another world of meaning, and that what it is talking about in parable, allegory and paradox, is this superman in man.

And this is why it talks in parable, allegory and paradox, because there is no way possible to describe the transformations leading to, and the states belonging to, a higher level when ordinary language itself is a function belonging to a lower level – the level of things seen.


  • Note: Plato writes in ‘Phaedo’,69d:
    ‘I conceive that the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated in a figure long ago that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. For “many,” as they say in the mysteries, “are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the Bacchants,”–meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers.’
“Let us all realize that Understanding, the most powerful force we can create in ourselves, always lies in seeing more and more deeply what we thought we understood.” (Maurice Nicoll, Psychological Commentaries, 1216). Picture at the Swedenborg Foundation in this article: ‘Gracing Maurice Nicoll ‘s garden of esoterica’.


More about Maurice Nicoll:
Maurice Nicoll – Early Greek Teaching

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