As well as the Vedic culture, another civilization where the nondualist teaching came into its own and whose philosophical inheritance formed the basis of Western thought was Ancient Greece. Indeed, the legacy of one illumined individual, whose perennial wisdom became the cornerstone of Ancient Greece’s Golden Age was the martyred sage, Socrates. Born in 469 BCE in Athens, he championed what became known as the Socratic Method – deconstructing philosophical argument in order to arrive at one unchanging Truth, which he called the ‘Good’.
Although he never wrote a word, Socrates’ teachings were immortalized by his devoted disciple, Plato. In Book VII of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates’ ‘Analogy of the Cave’, which illustrates the difference between the world of shadows, or maya, and the one everlasting Reality.
In another of Plato’s famous works, The Symposium, where a dialogue on the nature of love is discussed over dinner, Socrates’ voice is personified through Diotima, a woman philosopher, who expounding the nature of beauty ably demonstrates how falling in love can lead to worship of the Divine:
‘The correct way,’ she said, ‘for someone to approach this business [the pursuit of love] is to begin when he’s young by being drawn towards beautiful bodies. At first, if his guide leads him correctly, he should love just one body and in that relationship produce beautiful discourses. Next he should realize that the beauty of any one body is closely related to that of another, and that, if he is to pursue beauty of form, it’s very foolish not to regard the beauty of all bodies as one and the same.
Once he’s seen this, he’ll become a lover of all beautiful bodies… After this, he should regard the beauty of minds as more valuable than that of the body, so that, if someone has goodness of mind even if he has little of the bloom of beauty, he will be content with him, and will love and care for him, and give birth to the kinds of discourse, that help young men to become better… After practices, the guide must lead him towards forms of knowledge, so that he sees their beauty too… he will be turned towards the great sea of beauty and gazing on it he’ll give birth, through a boundless love of knowledge, to many beautiful and magnificent discourses and ideas…
He will suddenly catch sight of something amazingly beautiful in its nature; this, Socrates, is the ultimate objective of all the previous efforts… this beauty always is, and doesn’t come into being or cease; it doesn’t increase or diminish… It will appear as in itself and by itself, always single in form; all other beautiful things share its character, but do so in such a way that, when other things come to be or cease, it is not increased or decreased in any way nor does it undergo any change.
After Socrates’ death in 399 BCE through drinking hemlock, his mystical vision was also apperceived by, amongst others, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) as well as the great philosopher, Plotinus (205-270 CE), both of whom spoke of a universal, all-pervading Being.
Another great mystical writer, and one Plato would refer to as the Tenth Muse, was the poet Sappho. Born on the Greek island of Lesbos, Sappho was a priestess living in approximately 600 BCE. We only know a small amount of her work for most of it – up to nine papyrus rolls – was destroyed by fire. The only remaining evidence of her poetry, therefore, comes to us either through quotations in various books passed from era to era, or on papyrus leavings or surviving pieces of broken vases and pots.
There are many complex interpretations of Sappho’s verse. Some commentators have focussed on stories surrounding her tragic love for a ferryman, Phaon, and her apparent suicide; others have concentrated on her sexuality and the perceived female homoerotic elements in her work. Whether or not she endorses lesbianism we can never know but of one thing we can be in no doubt – her poetry is the celebration of sensual and sacred love:
down from the mountain top
and out of Crete,
come to me here
in your sacred precinct, to your grove
of apple trees,
and your altars
smoking with incense,
where cold water flows babbling
through the branches,
the whole place
shadowed with roses,
sleep adrift down
from silvery leaves
horses grazing in a meadow
abloom with spring flowers
and where the breezes blow sweetly,
delicately in golden cup
mixed for our festivities.
[‘Poem 6’, Sappho: Poems and Fragments, trans Stanley Lombardo]
Sappho’s work is in the genre of the lyric – short, personal monodies or poems sung by a single voice. Throughout her work, Sappho employs all the imagery and symbolism recurrent with the divine goddess and the fertility of her bountiful nature – roses, apples, trees, the moon. Infused with intense erotic desire, she implores the immortal goddess of love to help her in her quest for her beloved.
In a time when there has been a renaissance in the appreciation of poetry - in particular free versification as well as short, haikuesque compositions - it is little wonder that Sappho’s verse, just like that of Rumi’s, is even more popular today than it ever was in the ancient past.