Episode 25: The Esoteric Plato

Plato was known from late antiquity until quite modern times not as an esoteric author, but as the esoteric author. It was common knowledge that Plato hid his true meaning, and the hidden meanings readers have found in his work have been at the very heart of western esoteric thought. But nowadays Anglo-American scholars of Plato reckon that Plato wasn’t esoteric at all. We look at some of the history of Plato’s esoteric reception, some of the reasons why people have thought he was an esotericist, and the modern debate between Plato specialists over his supposed esotericism.

Along the way we define ‘esoteric’ and ‘Platonism’, both very important terms for our discussions, and ones which are, rather surprisingly, rarely defined in the scholarly literature which treats them. We also have a look at my idea of ‘esoteric reading’.

Esoteric Readers of Plato, Ancient and Modern, Cited in the Episode

Numenius fr. 23 des Places; Diogenes Laërtius 3. 63; Sallustius de de. et mun. III 4.11-15; Saint Augustine contra Ac. 3.37-43; Vico, p. 139; Leo Suavius, Theophrasti Paracelsi . . . p. 170, quoted at Walker 1975, 102; Taylor 1804, Vol. 3 p. 3; Casel 1919, p. 37; cf. 36-40; Strauss 1988;  Burkert 1972, 19-20.

On The Modern Esotericist/Anti-Esotericist Debate

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is generally regarded as the first important breakaway from the esoteric reading of Plato, as you can see in his Introduction to the Dialogues (try page 9 ff.). For the twentieth-century debate, some key works (listed in full below) are:

  • Anti-eso: Cherniss 1945; Vlastos 1963; Tigerstedt 1974.
  • Eso: Krämer 1959; Gaiser 1963; Szlezák 1977, 1978a, 1978b, 1985.

Relevant Reading

  • Burkert, W., 1972. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Casel, O., 1919. De philosophorum graecorum silentio mystico. A. Toepelmann, Giessen.
  • Cherniss, H., 1945. The Riddle of the Early Academy. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  • Eggers, L. (1993). ‘Breve Introducción al Problema de las Ensenyazas Orales de Platôn’, Méthexis 6 : 1-11.
  • Gaiser, K., 1963. Platons Ungeschriebene Lehre. Ernst Klett, Stuttgart.
  • Gaiser, K. (1980). ‘Plato’s Enigmatic Lecture ‘On the Good”, Phronesis 25 : 5-37.
  • Krämer, H. J., 1959. Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles: Zum Wesen und zur Geschichte der Platonischen Ontologie. Abhandlung d. Heidelberg. Akad. d. Wiss., Heidelberg.
  • Strauss, L. 1975. The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Strauss, L., 1988. Persecution and the Art of Writing. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Szlezák, T. A. (1977). ‘Plotin und die Geheimen Lehren des Ammonios’. In: Holzhey, H. & Zimmerli, W. (Ed.), Esoterik und Exoterik in der Philosophie, Schwabe.
  • Szlezák, T. A. (1978a). Dialogform und Esoterik. Zur Deutung des Platonischen Dialogs Phaidros, Museum Helveticum : 18-32.
  • Szlezák, T. A. (1978b). ‘Probleme der Platoninterpretation’, Goettingische Gelehrte Anzeigen : 1-37.
  • Szlezák, T. A., 1985. Platon und die Schriftlichkeit der Philosophie: Interpretationen zu den frühen und mittleren Dialogen. De Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY.
  • Taylor, T., 1804. The Works of Plato. R. Wilks, London.
  • Tigerstedt, E., 1974. The Rise and Fall of the Neoplatonic Reading of Plato. Societas Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki/Helsingfors.
  • Vico, G., 1963. Autobiography. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
  • Vlastos, G. (1963). ‘On Plato’s Oral Doctrine. Review of H.W. Krämer, Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles‘, 1959, Gnomon 35 : 641-655.
  • Vlastos, G., 1981. Platonic Studies. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Walker, D. P., 1975. Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella. University of Notre Dame Press, London.


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