Podcast episode

Episode 34: Mystery and Initiation in Plato

The concept of initiation is at the heart of many of the currents of western esotericism, but, just as we have seen in the case of ‘mysticism’, the idea of ‘initiation’ has its origin in the ancient rituals of the Græco-Roman mystery-cults, but has evolved in the esoteric context into something far different to the ritually-based change of status which was a primary social function of initiation into the historical mysteries. The evolution of the concept of initiation is complex and doesn’t follow a single, simple logic, but there is a common element in many of the models of initiation that we find in esoteric thought: namely, that initiation is the acquisition of a special, often a transformative, kind of knowledge.

How do we get from rituals conferring a special social status to knowledge conferring a special spiritual or philosophical wisdom? The first place to look, as so often, is the dialogues of Plato.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

  • Apuleius Metamorphoses Book 11, 27
  • Aristotle on the Eleusinian mysteries: Synes. Dio 10.48a = de philosophia fr. 15 Ross: καθάπερ ̓Αριστοτέλης ἀξιοῖ τοὺς τελουμένους οὐ μαθεῖν τι δεῖν ἀλλὰ παθεῖν καὶ διατεθῆναι, δηλονότι γεγομένους ἐπιτηδείους.
  • Clarke, E. C.; Dillon, J. M. and Hershbell, J. P., 2003. Iamblichus on The Mysteries. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA. pp. xx-xxi
  • Gill, Christopher, trans., 1999. Plato: The Symposium. Penguin, London.
  • Marinus Procl. 13 in Edwards 2000, 76.
  • Plutarch: On Isis and Osiris (77.382d-e): θιγόντες ὅλως τῆς περὶ αὐτὸ καθαρᾶς ἀληθείας οἷον ἐν τελετῇ τέλος ἔχειν φιλοσοφίας νομίζουσι . Note the word-play on τελετῇ and τέλος, blending conceptions of ‘perfection’, ‘consummation’ present in both terms, and importing one of ‘initiation’ into the latter; cf. Pl. Phædrus 249c8-10. Καθαρᾶς ἀληθείας , in this context, is an echo of the mystery theme of purification.
  • Proclus: on Proclus’ use of initiatory language in his commentary on the Republic of Plato, see Lamberton 1995, 146.
  • Theon Smyrnæus, Hiller, E. (Ed.), 1878. Expositio rerum mathematicarum ad legendum Platonem utilium. Teubner, Leipzig. 14.18 ff.

Recommended Reading:

On Plato Specifically:

  • Des Places, E. D. (1964). ‘Platon et la langue des mystères’. In: (Ed.), Annales de la faculté des lettres et sciences d’Aix, Aix-en-Provence.
  • Riedweg, C., 1987. Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon, und Klemens von Alexandrien (Untersuchungen zur Antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 26). de Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY. generally 2-69; Symposium 2-29; Phaedrus 30-69.

On Platonism Generally:

On philosophy as initiation in Platonism, see generally

  • Pépin 1984, 29; Dillon 1982, 74-5.

Also of interest:

  • Banner, N., 2018. Philosophic Silence and the ‘One’ in Plotinus. The University Press, Cambridge.
  • Bidez, J. (1919). ‘La liturgie des mystères chez les néo-platoniciens’, Bulletins de l’academie royale de Belgique : 415-430.
  • Clinton, K. (2003). ‘Stages of Initiation in the Eleusinian and Samothracian Mysteries’. In: Cosmopoulos, M. (Ed.), Greek Mysteries: The Achaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults, Routledge.
  • Dillon, J. (1982). ‘Self-Definition in Later Platonism’. In: Meyer, B. & Sanders, E. (Ed.), Self-Definition in the Græco-Roman World, SCM Press.
  • Edwards, M. J., 2000. Neoplatonic Saints: the Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by their Students. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.
  • Froidefond, C. (Ed.), 1988. Plutarch: Oevres Morales Vol. V Part 2: Isis and Osiris. Les Belles Lettres, Paris. The introduction has much useful discussion of Greek ideas of mystery in the context both of philosophy and of Egyptian religion.
  • Lamberton, R. (1995). ‘The “Aporrhetos Theoria” and the Roles of Secrecy in the History of Platonism’. In: Stroumsa, G. G. & Kippenberg, H. G. (Ed.), Secrecy and Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and Near-Eastern Religions, Brill, Leiden.
  • Mylonas, G. E., 1961. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Princeton University Pres, Princeton, NJ.
  • Pépin, J. (1984). ‘L’Arcane Religieux et sa transposition philosophique dans la tradition platonicienne’. In: (Ed.), La Storia della Filosofia come Sapere Critico, Angeli.
  • Van Nuffelen, P. (2007). ‘Words of Truth: Mystical Silence as a Philosophical and Rhetorical Tool in Plutarch’, Hermathena : 9-39.
  • Van Nuffelen, P., 2011. Rethinking the Gods: Philosophical Reading of Religion in the Post-Hellenistic Period. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


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