Preparing this essay has been like finding a path through a wonderful garden. The deeper I walked into it, the more it turned it a maze. It’s only looking backward that the byways and sideways make sense and I can hardly see from a distance how one coils around the other in mutual influence.
The maze, therefore, will always be present on our journey - and equally reflected by the structure of the essay. The specific timespan we will examine is relatively short, it stretches from 469 until 291 BC, that is from the times of Socrates to the ones of Menandes. On our journey, however, we will move forward and backward in time as all paths of the maze coil around its centre. For this particular study the centre is the work of Plato - one of the most influential philosopher of all times - whose work not only became a cornerstone of Westernscience but also of the occult lore of Occident and Orient alike.
So before we walk out into the garden, let me share the milestones of the path I have laid out for us. As with the exploration of any maze, it can only be the starting point for your own adventures:
So in brief this will be our path. If you walk all the way with me to the centre of the maze, I’ll be delighted. What a wonderful garden it is.
May the serpent bite its tail.
To start out let us begin with something very simple. As so often Plato is a great source for making complex matters accessible for everyone:
“Concerning the immortality of the soul this is enough; but about its form we must speak in the following manner. To tell what it really is would be a matter for utterly superhuman and long discourse, but it is within human power to describe it briefly in a figure; let us therefore speak in that way. We will liken the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.” (Plato, Phaedrus, 246a/b)
So Plato compares the human soul to a charioteer and two winged horses. The charioteer can be identified with the rational mind or reason, the noble horse represents a concept called thumos - which we will explore shortly - while the unruly horse depicts our biological appetites, called eros.
When looking at the constitution of the human soul among the ‘Ancient Greeks’ this is as simple as it gets. Here is a more detailed explanation of Plato’s allegory by Mr.Greer from the fabulous Scarlet Imprint release ‘The Blood of the Earth’:
“One horse represents what we may as well call the biological self, guided by what Romantics called the instincts and Platonists called the appetites. The other horse, though, represents what the ancient Greeks called thumos, the spirited or irascible part of the self, the part that responds nonrationally to praise or blame from others, and more generally is guided by the pressures and influences of the community to which the individual belongs. To use a phrase Plato didn’t, where the first horse is the biological self, the second horse can be described as the social self.” (Greer, p.38f)
To better understand the interplay between these two non-rational aspects of ourselves, I strongly recommend reading the full chapter in Greer’s book. As simple as it might seem at first glance, it is an important element of the ‘Ancient Greek’s’ understanding of the soul.
Thumos or thymos can best be translated with the English spiritedness or courage. From an etymological point of view it indicates a physical association with breath or blood and is also used to express the human desire for social recognition. Thus the ‘noble’ of the two dominating non-rational driving forces in the human soul is intricately connected to the social environment anyone grew up in. As far as I know there is no analogy to this idea in neither Christianity, nor Judaism, nor Kabbala itself? What we find here is a term that describes the non-rational and nonverbal patterns in our behavior which are shaped and energetically charged by the specific social standards we are born into. Thus the collective being of a tribe or society leaves a significant imprint on the individual. In other words - it is in the thumos where the microcosm of ourselves reflects the social macrocosm we were brought up in. Again, let’s ensure we understand this idea thoroughly and look at what Mr.Greer has to say about it:
“This second horse (...) is as potent a force as the biological appetites, and tangles up with them in complicated ways - the intricacies of sexuality, for example, have a good deal more to do with the social self and influences absorbed in childhood than they do with the relatively simple biological drive to mate. In evolutionary terms, the social self (...) is a good deal older than the rational mind; we share it with the whole range of mammals that live in groups, and more especially with social primates such as chimps and baboons. (...) it is no easier to change it by rational thought than it is to turn the mating drive on and off the same way.” (Greer, p.39)
Now, this explains why according to Plato the thumos depicts the ‘noble’ horse. Nobility, honor, glory, virtues and even basic values are all results of social norms and interactions - condensed and imprinted into the thumos of our soul. Following its impulses, even if irascible, violent and untamed in their expression, was the only way to achieve social reputation. It is what drove warriors into battle and what was fueled by the gods in their devotees. (Note: For a more in depth look at the relation of the thumos and the fury of the warriors also compare the concept of ‘menos’ as located within the thumos, see Bremmer, p.58f). This is also why the thumos of a human should not be perceived as a social mark or construct only. Quite the opposite: it is the closest analogy we find in the ‘Ancient Greek’ conception of the soul to the idea of a divine life force. When the thumos left the body of a person it meant their immediate death.
“(...) After Dioreus had been fatally hit ‘he fell backwards in the dust ... while he blew forth his thymos’. (...) Ajax hit Sarpedon’s comrade-in-arms Epikles, who ‘like an acrobat fell down from the high wall, and the thymos left his bones. (...) Diomedes slew the sons of Phaenops and ‘took out the thymos from both’.” (Bremmer, p.75)
A person dominated by their thumos thus was destined to become a soldier or warrior in life. On the other hand, a person dominated by the other horse, the unruly one was much more talented to become a successful merchant. It is noteworthy that the very word ‘eros’ which grew a thick thorn hedge of romantic associations around it over the last two millennials holds such an archaic origin. Here is how Plato describes this lower part of the soul in his Timaeus:
“The part of the soul which desires meats and drinks and the other things of which it has need by reason of the bodily nature, they placed between the midriff and the boundary of the navel, contriving in all this region a sort of manger for the food of the body; and there they bound it down like a wild animal which was chained up with man, and must be nourished if man was to exist.” (Tim,3.38, source)
In many aspects the eros - or epithumetikon as opposed to the thumetikon - can be imagined as the complete counterpart to the thumos. Where the thumos rules over the positive (social) emotions the eros sets free the (biological) desires and urges. Where the thumos represents the vitalizing force of spiritedness, the eros reveals our basic cravings - or appetites as the Greeks would say - for food, sex and shelter. Even the thumos was imagined to be of masculine sex, whereas the eros was supposed to be feminine (source). Slightly reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs we could summarize that while the thumos represented the higher, social needs, the eros was the source and container of the physiological ‘life energy’ - a term in which sense the word eros has often been used in Greek philosophy (source).
As we can see, both horses had a place and function in the soul of a human and the healthy mind achieved balance over both of them. For this the logos or charioteer was of utmost importance. This was the place where intellect held its human throne and reasoning and logic emerged from. Where the horses pulled into the directions of social status and biological needs, the logos desired nothing but learning and wisdom. Only by means of this mental function was the soul able to balance the impulses and urges of the two winged horses. According to the early Plato people dominated by the logos or logistikon made great philosophers or politicians.
At this point we encounter an interesting problem of Greek philosophy. The faculties of the soul we examined so far are all biased in one or another direction: Eros veils the sensual impressions of the world into bodily appetites wheres thumos clouds our perceptions by social norms and expectations. Logos on the other hand is a pure capacity for mental reflection and thus does not generate any perceptions on its own; it is the engine that runs on the input delivered by eros and thumos.
What we find here is the following: while our physical senses collect raw information about reality our soul isn’t capable of processing these without significantly altering or biasing them. What we truly touch, hear, smell, see is not what we realize in our mind once it has been processed by the inner organs of our soul. Thus we are caught in a world where the faculties of our soul distort perception according to their nature - and we are deprived of the ability to perceive nature as it truly is.
Think of your mind as foreigner in a far away culture whose language it doesn’t comprehend. It has two translators always by its side; yet neither of them is very reliable. One of them has the tendency to unnecessarily focus on physical appetites and desires; the other is rather obsessed with status and displaying the courage to climb the social ladder. As you have no means to communicate with the people around you directly, your interactions will all be distorted by the personal preferences of the two translators. After all you might find yourself on a journey that teaches you more about the preferences of your translators than the country you are traveling in? Such is the situation of the charioteer (logos) when it comes to objectively perceiving and making sense of the world we are thrown into. It is hugely dependent on functions that don’t provide accurate data. To make it even worse - indeed later philosophers argued that there is no accurate information out there at all. Rather than distorting it, the two translators are actually making a lot of the stories up they are telling our minds.
So how can we know what is real? Well, luckily there is a fourth function of the soul we haven’t discovered yet, called nous.
“(nous) is a philosophical term for the faculty of the human mind which is described in classical philosophy as necessary for understanding what is true or real, similar in meaning to intuition. It is also often described as a form of perception which works within the mind ("the mind's eye"), rather than only through the physical senses.” (source)
It is the function of nous that allows us to understand nature in an undistorted way and to achieve true insights about reality as it is. While the corporeal reality is constantly changing and our perceptions biased through eros and thumos can be misleading, it is nous that always remains pure and untouched by the tides of matter. Thus nous not only allows us to piece together the information received through our senses in an undistorted way, but it does so in adding a higher form of insight and knowledge. Nous can be translated both as understanding and intuition.
Plato uses two famous metaphors to describe the way the nous functions. In his metaphor of the sun he compares it to the sunlight that helps man’s eyes to see. In his Socratic dialogue Meno, however, he explains it as ideas embroidered into man’s soul which he might recall from previous lives. Either way, Plato makes it clear that this light which helps us seeing or these ideas which help us remembering is the only immortal part of our soul; all other parts vanish upon our death (source).
What both metaphors illustrate is the idea that the function of nous exceeds the realm of the material or even human level. It allows its human carriers to ascend beyond the limitations of illusionary reality and to glance behind the veils of matter. Nous often was understood as the divine or spiritual assistance (source) humans receive to comprehend reality. It is the living spiritual force that allows to draw true reasoning from flawed perceptions. Because of this it was also said that nous as a divine principle would never mix with any other substance but effortlessly penetrate all things created. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 BC wrote about the nous:
“All other things partake in a portion of everything, while nous is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any; for in everything there is a portion of everything, as has been said by me in what goes before, and the things mixed with it would hinder it, so that it would have power over nothing in the same way that it has now being alone by itself. For it is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength; and nous has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have soul [psyche].” (source)
According to Anaxagoras it was the nous itself that gave order and intelligence to creation. And as it wasn’t bound to any material shell it existed on many levels. Humans were understood to partake in the benefits of nous; yet at the same time the celestial spheres had their own nous or understanding. This concept becomes even more accessible when we examine the etymological connection of the Greek word nous (mind) to noesis (understanding, from noein to perceive) and ultimately gnosis, the divine knowledge.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider what we found: an ancient idea of an all permeating force that is too subtle to be contained or confined by any type of substance. Still, it is in the nature of this force to attach itself to individual objects as well as entire celestial realms and to grant them power of true insight and the creation of meaning. The name of the force is sometimes translated as ‘intellect’, sometimes as ‘understanding’ and in its most common form simply as ‘mind’. However, it exists discretely from the mental and spiritual functions of the being it attaches to as we found it to be different from logos, eros and thumos.
The same conception can still be found as an integral part of Western ritual magic two-thousand years later. It is still called ‘intelligence’ and we find many occult writers and practitioners, among them Agrippa of Nettesheim, explain its function in great detail:
“It is affirmed by Magicians, that there are certain tables of numbers distributed to the seven planets, which they call the sacred tables of the planets, endowed with many, and very great vertues of the Heavens, in as much as they represent that divine order of Celestiall numbers, impressed upon Celestials by the Idea's of the divine mind, by means of the soul of the world, and the sweet harmony of those Celestiall rayes, signifying according to the proportion of effigies, supercelestiall Intelligencies, which can no other way be expressed, then by the marks of numbers, and Characters. For materiall numbers, and figures can do nothing in the mysteries of hid things, but representatively by formall numbers, and figures, as they are governed, and informed by intelligencies, and divine numerations, which unite the extreams of the matter, and spirit to the will of the elevated soul, receiving through great affection, by the Celestiall power of the operator, a power from God, applyed through the soul of the universe, and observations of Celestiall constellations, to a matter fit for a form, the mediums being disposed by the skill, and industry of Magicians (...)” (Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, book II, chapter XXII)
By replacing the word ‘Intelligencies’ above with the Greek nous we rediscover a strand of occult philosophy that spans at least two millennia. The ‘celestial intellect’ of the planetary squares is the living, divine mind (nous) of the planet itself. This explains why its nous cannot be expressed other than through numbers and figures - the most abstract ways of conceptions for humans and as distinct from physical substance as possible. Just as we explained the function of nous in the human soul before - allowing man to unite the ephemeral nature of matter with the eternal spirit behind - Agrippa states that it is the celestial intelligence of each planet which is made to unite the extremes of matter and spirit.
Considering the above it is of no surprise to find a strong tendency in Plato’s writing of deifying the spiritual nature of nous (Burkert, p.331). According to him nous was planted into man as something divine, “a daimon in man” (Burkert, p.328). Following Plato’s principle of giving each thing the food that is natural to it (Tim, 90a), man could increasingly align the state of his own soul to the nature of this daimon. All that was needed was a life led according to the principles of divine understanding:
“But he who has been earnest in the love of knowledge and of true wisdom, and has exercised his intellect (i.e. nous - ed.Acher) more than any other part of him, must have thoughts immortal and divine, if he attain truth, and in so far as human nature is capable of sharing in immortality, he must altogether be immortal; and since he is ever cherishing the divine power, and has the divinity within him in perfect order, he will be perfectly happy.” (Tim, 90a)
What we discover here is a process of co-creation between the external forces of the nous and the internal forces of the human logos. Harmonisation and approximation between these two is only achieved through mutual approach: Just as the daimon of nous is directing us “upward from earth to kinship with heaven” (Tim, 90a) so must our own logos tame the horses of thumos and eros and actively ascend this ladder by pursuing knowledge and true wisdom. The spiritual relationship between the daimon of nous and human logos is an interdependent one: Even though separated by nature true fulfillment of their nature can only be achieved through each other.
Someone once said to me: ‘It’s the nature of our Holy Guardian Angel that since the day of our birth it is constantly praying down to us. We can meet it in the middle though if we start praying upwards to it.’ We can still hear the echo of Plato’s thoughts in this analogy who described humans as ‘plants of heaven on earth’ (Burkert, p.328).
The intricate connection of the human soul with the celestial sphere is further strengthened by Plato explaining that each soul has its own native star from which it has come and will return to after death (Tim, 42b; Burkert, p.328). A thought whose echo we still find in Crowley’s famous expression ‘Every man and woman is a star’:
“And having made [the soul mixture, the Demiurge] divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny ... He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence.” (Plato, Timaeus, 41 d-e)
Thus the role of the daimon of nous can be understood as a mediator between the celestial sphere we stem from and ultimately will return to. According to this idea we could go so far as explaining the daimon of nous as a living, spiritual chain that connects man to his eternal higher self. It is this mediating function that represents the essential nature of daimons among the ‘Ancient Greeks’ (Plato, Symposium 202e).
Just as its precise meaning the etymological origin of the word daimon has been lost in the dark of ancient history. Our current common understanding of the term - “a lowly spiritual being of a preponderantly dangerous and evil character” (Burkert, p.179) - has strongly been influenced by Plato’s and Xenocrates’ writings (396/5 – 314/3 BC). The meaning of the word before this time is much more ambiguous, however.
To get a better understanding of the ancient meaning before the times of Plato we need to peel away three distinct layers of connotations that have become closely connected to the word daimon over the last two and a half millennia. According to Walter Burkert (Burkert, p.180) and many other scholars the early use of the word daimon
If we free the word from these more recent connotations we discover a highly diverse field of meaning. Its application is best illustrated by a few examples taken from ancient Greek literature:
“In the Iliad, the gods assembled on Mount Olympus can be called daimones, and Aphrodite leads the way ahead of Helen as daimon. A hero may rush headlong ‘like daimon’ and still be called god-like, isotheos. Conversely, the demons that fly from Pandora’s jar are personified ‘illnesses’, nousoi, but are not called daimones; the death-bringing spirits of destruction, keres, are called theoi, as are the Erinyes in Aeschylus. Possession, too, is the work of a god.” (Burkert, p.180)
What we discover is that the semantic field of the word daimon originally didn’t describe any types of spiritual beings but a peculiar mode of activity instead (Burkert, p.180). Being under the influence of a daimon originally meant to have entered a certain state of being. Just like we distinguish in our current Western magical lore different states of trance and gnosis from the state of the normal waking mind, so did the ‘Ancient Greeks’ use the word daimon to indicate a specific state of being that was differentiated from normal everyday consciousness. This state of being was not confined to human experience, yet almost anything could be affected by it - humans, heroes and even the gods.
“Even if all statements about it (the daimon, ed. Acher) may be very difficult, it is the definition that helps to approach the topic that understands it as an immense driving force, neither good nor evil, which increases the level of experience through a dangerous tension.” (Müller-Sternberg p.82)
Unfortunately we know very little about the specific experience of this state of being. What we do know, however, is that the daimon always represented an occult force in itself: A nameless power that overcame people like a dark wave and withdrew them from the bright lights of social encounters. Instead under the influence of the daimon the causes of their actions became arcane and veiled to the realm of humans. Something took hold of them and started to work through them. It was the power of the daimon that could turn anyone from a self-determined being into a willing agent of its occult cause (Müller-Sternberg, p.37).
“For daimon (...) is more reproach than praise, and therefore certainly does not mean divine; it is used when the speaker does not understand what the addressee is doing and why he is doing it. Daimon is occult power, a force that drives man forward where no agent can be named. The individual feels as it were that the tide is with him, he acts with the daimon, syn daimoni, or else when everything turns against him, he stands against the daimon, pros daimona (...).” (Burkert, p.180)
We can now understand how important it was to be on good terms with the daimon. This occult, invisible force could only be grasped by its acts and effects. It was the driving power behind the tides of fate and ultimately behind a happy or unhappy life. It is from this notion only we come to understand why the average man experienced the daimon not only as deeply uncanny but mostly as something to be feared. Not because it was attached to any specific type of spiritual being nor moral category, but simply because it was completely unknown and beyond human control. The daimon appeared out of darkness, took hold of the beings it used as its agents for a period of time and disappeared again.
It was for man to hope, not to control wether he was subject to a good or an evil daimon, a happy or unruly fate. This is how the terms of the ‘good and evil daimon’, the agathos daimon and kakodaimon need to be understood: Originally they did not classify different categories of spiritual beings, yet the feared or hoped for effect the occult tides of the daimon would have on one’s personal life. The daimon defined the quality of one’s fate (Müller-Sternberg, p.57). It was only at a later point in the evolution of Greek philosophy that this understanding led to the assumption of different categories of spiritual beings that could take control of our lives.
“Wether he is happy or unhappy is not something which lies in man’s control; the happy man is the one who has a good daimon, eudaimon, in contrast to the unhappy man, the kakodaimon, dysdaimon. (...) A general belief in spirits is not expressed by the term daimon until the fifth century (BC. - ed. Acher).” (Burkert, p.181)
It was only with Socrates and subsequently Plato that the idea of a personal daimon became more public, yet most likely taken from much earlier tradition (Burkert, p.181).
While Socrates’ confident claim of a personal daimonion that advised him throughout his life ultimately led to his death sentence, he refused to give details about this being or inner voice during an apologia at court. Instead his daimonion had advised him not to defend himself and thus he appeared unprepared during his trial and even rejected an apologia prepared by the speaker Lysias. (du Prel. p.125). The most interesting aspect of Socrates’ daimonion which has been researched widely is that it would never encourage him to any actions, but only warn and withhold him. Or as Plato put it: “To confine the daimonion coerces me, to create it refuses me.” (Platon: Theaetet 7; acc. to du Prel, p. 125, translation by Fra.Acher)
But what exactly do we know about Socrates’ understanding of his personal daimonion - a concept that despite the dreadful sentence it brought upon Socrates should prove to become so widespread and well known in later centuries.
First of we have to notice that Socrates always used a particular Greek word to denote this supporting inner agency; he called it daimonion and never daimon. The difference lies in the grammatical form of the same noun. Socrates chose a neutral form indicating a daimonic something or even divine sign rather than necessarily a conscious entity in itself (du Prel, p.122). That this specific verbal expression was grounded in his inner experience we can only assume. The accusation he faced in trial was based on the charge of introducing new gods rather than devoting himself to the old ones. In light of this his choice of a neutral form to denote this enigmatic inner voice becomes more obvious.
Furthermore Socrates clarifies that the inner voice wasn’t something he gained access to through conscious practice, spiritual devotion or any types of religious rituals. Instead it had been with him since childhood and (Apol. Plato 31; Volquardsen, p.8) often withheld him from doing certain things, yet never actively encouraged him to pursue a specific direction or action.
In this sense in particular Socrates daimonion exemplifies the function of an inner guardian. His inner voice actively watched over the choices he made in life - irrespective of their seeming significance or insignificance. Its only mode of operation was to ensure Socrates stayed on a certain path assigned to him by the gods. The daimonion was the inner guardian that led Socrates to fulfill his fate - a significant one as we know today looking back on two-thousand-five-hundred years of philosophic tradition in his shadow.
Reflecting back on the ancient notion of the term daimon - an occult force that divided the happy man’s from the unhappy man’s lives - Socrates’ explanation of his inner voice reads very consistent. Wether expressed as a subjective entity (daimon) or as a neutral inner voice (daimonion) the daimonic remained an occult force intrinsically connected to the qualities we experienced in our lives. Where in the former case it took hold of people in mysterious ways and made them act under its influence without seeming reason, in the latter form it proactively and consciously advised its host to stay on an assigned path. The difference lies in the conscious bond Socrates had been granted with his inner guardian: where for average man the daimon revealed itself outside of one’s personal control as the blow of fate or a string of good luck, Socrates experienced it as an intimate inner relationship that he valued so much he didn’t hesitate to call it divine (Volquardsen, p.8/9).
“Even you, Euthydem, will realize that my faith in the daimonion and divine mentorship is true, if you’ll honor and serve the gods and realize them in their deeds instead of waiting to perceive them incarnated face to face.” (Socrates Mem. IV, 3, 13, after Volquardsen, p.18)
This quote allows us to tell that Socrates believed a similar bond as he had achieved with his daimonion was accessible to any other man as well. Even though he had been granted this gift from childhood on, he shares clear guidance on how to create this inner contact: by understanding the world and experiences within as direct expressions of the gods, by realizing the divine spirits according to their deeds and creations and not to wait to be granted direct vision of them. Thus next to dreams and oracles (Volquardsen, p.18) any experience in life can become an encounter with the divine. Hidden in the book of nature is the voice of our daimonion.
Interestingly, there is a modern parallel to this explanation of attaining communion with one’s daimonion that we should highlight here. In the magical tradition of the Golden Dawn the initiate needs to take several oaths when progressing through liminal grades. Next to oaths such as the ones of Adeptus Minor and Adeptus Major we find a final one which becomes only relevant when the adept is aspiring to walk on from Chesed (7=4) to Binah (8=2) and cross the Abyss. This Oath of the Master of the Temple concludes with the following statement:
“I swear to interpret every phenomenon as a particular dealing of God with my soul.” (Crowley, Chap.7)
What we find here is a striking similarity to Socractes‘ guidance on how to achieve communion with one’s daimonion or divine mentor: to realize the gods in their actual deeds as expressed in the world that surrounds us - and not to wait until they reveal themselves in physical forms. For over two-thousand-five-hundred years we hear the same echo calling back to the spiritual seeker. An echo that the ancient Kabbalists came to express as simple as: ‘Kether is in Malkuth and Malkuth is in Kether, but after another manner.’
After having explored the ancient origin of the Greek word daimon and Socrates’ particular take on the daimonion, we return to Plato with whose analogy of the soul we started out. It is in Plato’s writings and his unparalleled influence on both Western and Arabic thought that we’ll discover the foundation of the concept of the Holy Guardian Angel as it evolved in later centuries.
“Since Plato and through him, religion has been essentially different from what it had been before. For the Greeks as we know them since Homer, religion had always meant acceptance of reality, in a naive and yet adult way, acceptance of a reality that included corporeality, transitoriness, and destruction, in heroic defiance or in tragic insight. Through Plato reality is made unreal in favor of an incorporeal, unchangeable other world which is to be regarded as primary. The ego is concentrated in an immortal soul which is alien to the body and captive in it. ‘Flight from the world’ is a watchword which actually occurs in Plato.” (Burkert, p.322)
For the first time in Greek philosophy truth and ontological reality shifted outside of corporeal reality. Where gods had seamlessly mingled with humans, shifted shapes and taken animal, plant, stone and sea forms the abstract idea started to displace the direct experience of the divine through the material world. Instead true being and ontological reality were only to be found behind the veils and analogies of nature.
Plato derived many of his original thoughts from mathematics, a science that was strongly on the rise during his days (Burkert, p.322). Fascinated by the fact that humans couldn’t experience mathematical truth directly through physical senses but that they had to leverage their rational minds to pierce through the effects caused by hidden laws, Plato applied the same principle to philosophy. The result was a revolutionary take on where truth actually was to be found: Just as in mathematics the seekers of wisdom had to use the force of their logos to pierce through the phenomena of the material world to discover the eternal ideas and living substance hidden behind these.
The assumption of an abstract reality that was assumed to be more real and ideal than corporeal creation is one of the most influencing thoughts Plato introduced to oriental and occidental philosophy. We already explored the inner function of the soul by which humans could approach and access this occult reality, it is the nous as an external counterweight to the subjective influences of eros and thumos.
Other philosophers such as Parmenides had assumed a deeper, timeless ontological reality behind the veils of nature before Plato. However, it was Plato who broadened and diversified this idea and postulated that there was not one absolute source of being beyond matter, but that there were as many as beings created (Rohde, p.278). Just as each human being had unique facial features, so was there an eternal idea assigned to them in which only they participated (Burkert, p.323). Thus it was Plato who introduced the philosophical idea of deifying all beings through a direct personal bond with divine reality.
At the same time singlehandedly he also turned the human soul immortal - or at least the very part that participated in the eternal idea from which it had emerged from. Plato himself assured that during his days it was common belief that the soul upon leaving the body in the moment of death was grasped by the wind and diffused in all direction of the sky (Rohde, p.264). Even today we can still find traces of this ancient belief in the European myth that upon the death of the hanged man a storm will rise and take his soul away - most likely in the form of the storm-ghosts of the Wild Hunt (Rohde, p.264).
In Plato’s own approach, however, he took essential elements of the mystery schools and earlier tradition such as the Orphic and combined these with his own metaphysical concept of a realm of pure and eternal ideas beyond physical matters (Rohde, p.279). In his cosmology the fixed stars were the closest physical representation of the realm of the eternal ideas and considered to be unchangeable, divine living beings. Below these we find the planets which already partake stronger in the principles of creation, of change and development. Below these again we find a vast sphere filled with daimones or cult gods, which are represented by the classical Greek gods as we know them among many others.
The status of these divine beings - sometimes called gods and sometimes referred to as daimones - has sunken considerably in Plato’s approach compared to earlier Greek cosmologies. However, it is them together with the influence of the stars and planets that shape all things created to take their respective forms and states of being (Burkert, p.328/332). The daimones in this approach turn into active mediators between the sphere of the planetary and fixed star gods and the sublunar realm of men.
Earlier we already discovered a a similar principle in the human soul that allows man to free himself from the bonds of matter and reach out into the transcendental realm of truth and eternal being, the nous. Just like the classical Greek gods can effect the physical realm but don’t belong there, so does the nous penetrate through all physical matter and speak to man in his mind and heart, yet doesn’t belong there. The highest function of the human soul thus turns into a daimon itself: an intermediary being building a living bridge between man caught in matter and the eternal star assigned to him by birth. By deifying the nous Plato laid the foundation for millennia of philosophical and occult tradition that know a personal and immortal divine being assigned to and watching over each man and woman (Burkert, p.328/331).
This tutelary genius (Lat. for Greek daimon or daemon) remains invisible and veiled as the personal nous-daimon while humans are alive. During this time interaction takes place through inner dialogue and divine intuition. It’s only after death that the guardian daimon of man becomes perceivable as an entity, a living being in its own right - equally bound to as well as separated from the incarnated being it watched over. Plato describes this very clearly in two sections of his Phaedo and the Laws which we shall quote in full length:
“And so it is said that after death, the tutelary genius of each person, to whom he had been allotted in life, leads him to a place where the dead are gathered together; then they are judged and depart to the other world with the guide whose task it is to conduct thither those who come from this world; and when they have there received their due and remained through the time appointed, another guide brings them back after many long periods of time.” (Plato, Phaedo 107d/e)
“Cronos was aware of the fact that no human being (...) is capable of having irresponsible control of all human affairs without becoming filled with pride and injustice; so, pondering this fact, he then appointed as kings and rulers for our cities, not men, but beings of a race that was nobler and more divine, namely, daemons. He acted just as we now do in the case of sheep and herds of tame animals: we do not set oxen as rulers over oxen, or goats over goats, but we, who are of a nobler race, ourselves rule over them. In like manner the God, in his love for humanity, set over us at that time the nobler race of daemons who, with much comfort to themselves and much to us, took charge of us and furnished peace and modesty and orderliness and justice without stint, and thus made the tribes of men free from feud and happy (Plato, the Laws, 713 c-e)
By reflecting on the nature of the nous-daimon and the tutelary daimon described in these quotes we come across another point in Plato’s influence on our current concept of the HGA. What we can take from his writings is a twofold perspective on the nature of our daimones - an outer and an inner perspective, one related to the realm of physical matter and one free from it: While we are bound to physical bodies our daimones appear to us as parts of our own souls. Only while we are set free from our bodies by death or in vision they become visible for what they equally are in another realm - divine living beings assigned to us.
In our history of Western occult lore we come across several accounts of a complementary being to the daimon of nous, a so-called evil daimon. Where the good genius helps us to break through the biased veils of sensual perception and reconnect to an eternal realm of truth and being, the latter or evil daimon tries to hinder us in these efforts and pull us back behind the veils of matter.
As an example we can find the following explanation of this evil daimon in the Divine Pymander:
“But to the foolish, and evil, and wicked, and envious, and covetous, and murderous, and profane, I am far off, giving place to the revenging Demon, which applying unto him the sharpness of fire, tormenteth such a man sensible, and armeth him the more to all wickedness, that he may obtain the greater punishment. And such an one never ceaseth, having unfulfiled desires, and unsatisfiable concupiscences, and always fighting in darkness; for the Demon always afflicts and tormenteth him continually, and increaseth the fire upon him more and more.” (Divine Pymander, Book II, 56/57)
Agrippa of Nettesheim in his De Occulta Philosophia describes nine orders of evil spirits counterbalancing the nine celestial orders of angels. The last rug of this infernal ladder being reserved for the evil daimon assigned to each man and woman:
“Moreover the Tempters and Ensnarers have the last place, one of which is present with every man, which we therefore call the evill Genius, and their Prince is Mammon, which is interpreted as covetousness (...)” (Agrippa, Book III, chap. XVIII)
In chapter XXVI of the same book Agrippa even explains the rules according to the Arabians on how to draw out the name of the good and evil genius from one’s astrological chart. (Note: quite a complex matter which anybody interested can find in an automated template in the download section for free.)
Given such a widespread belief in a twofold daimonic presence with each human being, let’s explore what we can learn from the ‘Ancient Greeks’ about its potential origins. First of we need to remind ourselves what we found in the chapter on the ancient idea of the daimon: being defined as an occult force that stroke people out of darkness and held the power to turn their fate in all directions. This force had proven to be beyond control for humans as even gods and heroes were affected by it. Thus in the early stages of Greek philosophy we find little if no clues of a concept of an evil daimon. The nature of the daimonic wasn’t defined as a moral category but as a state of being or activity. The daimon didn’t insinuate good or evil thoughts to man, yet it seized him, it enchanted his whole presence in a strange rhythm that held the power to change the tides of his life (Müller-Sternberg, p-244).
From this early understanding of the daimon as we find it in the epics of Homer we have to fast forward several hundred years to find the origin of the demonic as we know it today. Whereas it might have been widespread and common in folk belief for centuries before, it was only a pupil of Plato, Xenocrates who introduced this new perspective on the daimonic into Greek philosophy.
In the shadow of Aristoteles’ dominating presence, flawless logic and precision of argument Xenocrates took a very different approach on the material left behind by their teacher. It was an approach of exegesis that seemed anachronistic even in his own days. It was so contrary to the principles of philosophy laid out by Aristoteles that the latter in his own writings didn’t even bother to address the mythical elements of Xenocrates’ teachings. In a time where mathematics and science had become the unquestioned basis for philosophy, Xenocrates turned back to the old mystery cults, the ancient religion of the Greeks and pursued to integrate these with Plato’s teachings on the occult (Heinze, p.VII).
In doing so Xenocrates’ thought was much rougher and more concrete than not only Plato’s but also many of his successors: Where Plato left it deliberately ambiguous wether the highest god was a philosophical principle or a living being indeed, Xenocrates called him ‘Zeus’ and saw him sitting on a throne next to the all-mother, which personified the soul of all things created (Heinze, p.VIII). It is this tendency of Xenocrates to simplify complex spiritual matters that we also find in his approach to the daimonic.
Until Xenocrates there hadn’t been an articulated doctrine of the daemonic. In it’s uncanny and elusive manner it had been woven into the early epics, the philosophies of Socrates, Platon and many other philosophers. Yet none of them had given it a defined place, function and profile in their cosmologies. With his bias towards simplifying the abstract it was Xenocrates who introduced such doctrine of the daimonic to Ancient Greek philosophy (Heinze, p.VIX).
In accordance with Plato’s teachings Xenocrates divided the order of the cosmos into three concentrical spheres. The most primal gods were the monad (Greek for ‘the One’) and dyad (Greek for ‘Two’ or ‘Otherness’) who rule the first or outermost sphere. Following we find the sphere of the celestial stars and visible planets thought of as divine, living beings. Below these again and separated by the sphere of the Moon we come across the realm of the earthly world which is filled by a multitude of diverse spiritual forces and beings. It is this last sublunar realm (Latin for ‘below the Moon’) which is the sphere of the daimones (Heinze, p.VIII).
Now, before we can advance deeper into the sublunar realm we have to understand Plato’s basic concept of evil as it has been derived from his writings. As Xenocrates always tried to remain true to his teacher’s ideas we will find that the nature of the ‘evil daimon’ is a strange hybrid between authentic Platonic thought and Xenocrates’ own approach on the matter - one which would shape the understanding of and belief in evil for several millennia to follow in the West.
The origin of evil in Plato’s teachings can only be found “in various dialogues drop scattered hints” (Chilcott, p.27). Most scholars, however, agree that on the most basic level it’s origin can be ascribed to matter itself. We have seen above that it is matter to which the appetites, the forces of eros are bound to and which bias perception, logic and the influence of the all-permeating nous (Heinze, p.27).
But why exactly is it that matter distorts the purity of the nous, the sublime and good? In line with his philosophy of divine ideas Plato found an intriguing answer: According to Plato the first beings shaped were the divine ideas, the most pure and sublime, yet perfectly defined shapes of all other things to emerge from them at later stages in creation. Thus limitation of the unlimited into specific ideas is the basic principle of emergence of god into creation. The nature of evil can therefore be explained the following way:
“(...) as being the failure of the particular to represent the idea, or (...) the failure of the unlimited to participate rightly in the limited. That is to say, evil has a purely negative existence. (...) a thing is good in so far as it represents the idea, evil in so far as it fails to do so, and the varying kinds and degrees of good and evil represent the degrees and kinds of approximation to or divergence from the ideal standard. The problem of the origin of evil, therefore, may now be stated thus: 'What is it which causes the particular to diverge from the idea?' The answer generally given to this question (...) is that there is an inherent incompatibility between the idea and matter; the former must always struggle to subdue the latter, and in many cases partially fail.” (Chilcott, p.28)
Following this approach we come to the conclusion that the unlimited is the antagonist of the limited good ideas and thus the source of all evil. Traces of this line of thought can be rediscovered several centuries later in the Safed school of Kabbala from which Lurianic Kabbala emerged. It is the concept of the breaking of the vessels that set divine forces free in an unlimited, uncontrolled manner and thus gave birth to the origin of evil, the qlippothic forces (for further reference see my article On the Nature of the Qlippoth).
Returning to Plato, we can find the opposition of the limited versus the unlimited expressed in its boldest manner in a short section of his Laws, section 896e. Here Plato admits the possibility of the existence of two world souls - one beneficent and an opposite evil one. While the section is very brief - only two lines in a dialogue of hundreds of pages - it granted permission to later philosophers such as Xenocrates to discover a fundamental divide between good and evil forces not only on the level of the world soul, but equally among the daimones in the sublunar realm.
“(...) among these daimones there are downright evil beings, filled with greed for blood and sexuality. It is they who bring about diseases, barrenness of earth, discord among citizens, and similar calamities to make men succumb to their will, even to the point where men are prepared to sacrifice a pure virgin. They are the driving force behind all the dark and uneasy rituals of the religious tradition, fasting, lamentation, obscenities, the eating of raw flesh. All this can have nothing to do with the gods as philosophy has portrayed them, and yet it belongs to reality. The hypothesis of daimones explains it all in one stroke.” (Burkert, p.332)
According to Xenocrates - and similar to what we found in our explorations On the HGA among the Zoroastrians - such a divide between good and evil forces can also be found within men themselves. Earlier we discovered the nous as a living presence connected to man which allowed him to transcend beyond the veils of sensual matter. In Xenocrates writings now the good daimon of the nous is opposed by the evil daimon.
Yet, what is the true nature of this shadow being not found explicitly called out in Plato’s own work before?
“Just like in the cosmos we find two forces presiding over man, the nous and the psyche (Greek: soul - ed. Acher). The nous is impenetrable to any flaws or passions, the soul is placed between it and the body and is subdued to the baleful influence of the senses. Man’s duty is to support the sovereign dominion of the mind, to free one’s psyche from the bonds of matter and subdue it under the rule of the mind. Upon death nous and psyche are released from the body and for a short period still united they lead an existence as a single daimon in the sphere of the Moon as well as on Earth. The daimon in which the sensual dominates will do evil deeds and be punished with reincarnation in a human body. The daimon suffers a second death once the nous separates from the psyche; it remains on the Moon and once fully refined it dissolves in it; the nous, however, driven by its longing to return to its home in the Sun, continues onwards from the Moon and ultimately returns into the Sun. This is when all human striving is fulfilled in the unification with the divine.” (Heinze, p.IX)
In the earliest Greek doctrine of the daimonic as documented in Xenocrates’ writings we stumble across a fascinating finding: While the nous has to be understood as a beneficial being in its own ontological state, the nature of man’s evil daimon is very different. The evil daimon is not a being separated from man, but it is his own soul bound to matter through bodily senses. The evil daimon is what distorts the reflection of the primal ideas in man. The evil daimon in man is the unruliness of matter, the fractiousness of the appetites that withholds the good from unfolding its perfect shapes in the sublunar realm.
To use an analogy the purpose of man can be illustrated by the work of a stone mason: to set free an invisible shape caught below the surface of rough matter, to bring to light a perfect idea in a world of unruly senses. The logos is his chisel, the thumos his hammer, the eros the stone he works on and the nous the light that shines on his mind. A good sculptor is guided by vision and supported by the skill of his craft. A bad sculptor, however, is not necessarily led astray by an evil daimon, but more likely simply not skilled enough to tame the unruliness of the stone.
“To each human being is assigned at the moment of his birth a good spirit, his guide through the mysteries of life. We must not believe that the spirit is evil and can harm our lives; he is good, and there is no evil in him. Every good must be good. But those who are bad themselves, who have bad characters and make a muddle out of their lives, managing everything badly through their own foolishness (...) they make a divine being responsible and call it ‘bad’, while they are actually bad themselves.” (Menandes, 342–291 BC; Luck, p.172)
At the end of our journey into the ‘Ancient Greek’ philosophy we discover a very simple, yet powerful idea. It is but one voice, one possible interpretation of the various echoes we hear from the ancient past: From the moment of birth until we leave our mortal bodies a good being is assigned to us, watching over and supporting all our efforts of drawing down the divine into matter and transcending matter back into the divine.
Should we fail in doing so it could have been the work of evil daimones, sharing the sublunar realm with us and all earthly beings. Yet none of these daimones is personally attached to us like the good daimon of our nous, bound into the nature of our soul.
Therefore our failing more often than being the effect of evil daimones is our own work. Because it is exceptionally hard to become what only humans can become: a bridge that allows undistorted passage between nous and matter. One flowing into the other. Man in between, standing in service of the passing. Free from appetites or desires.