Plato's Cosmology 
& the Mystical Experience

By: Mark Bancroft, MA


Mystical experience serves as the inspiration behind humankind's most ingenious, creative, and extraordinary creations. It also has the potential to serve as the nucleus for some of the most appalling, destructive, and vicious atrocities encountered throughout the course of history. Mystical experience is most often associated with bliss, love, compassion, and oneness. It's ability to affect consciousness remains unsurpassed. Mystical experience is at the core of the world's major religions. The profound impact upon the experiencer cannot be understated in most cases. Perception of one's self and the world can become radically altered, rigid beliefs and convictions may be demolished in an instant, and/or a new unifying truth readily adopted. Although the experience is usually described as ineffable, the desire to share it with others frequently becomes paramount; many times becoming the purpose for the experiencer's existence in the world.

The fact is that the mystical experience most often ignites a powerful desire within the experiencer to share (express) the significance of the experience with others, and the world. Expression of the mystical experience may serve to inspire and educate others; and, throughout history, expression (interpretation) has resulted in disaster for humankind. The "dark side" of the mystical experience is revealed through its expression; without the experience there can be no expression. The origins of expression are contained within the experience. As the profundity of the experience is brought forth to the world, as it is passed on by those most inspired by it, the message may become altered, distorted, and in some cases used to justify horrific acts of abomination. Through perverse expression, mystical experience is transmuted into the dictates of idealism. It is here that we are forced to recognize the dark potential contained within the mystical experience. A potential whose unfortunate appearance rests in the ability, or inability, of the experiencer, and that of the followers, to not corrupt the experience's message through tainted expression. Corrupted expression causes an experience of sheer benevolence to turn back upon itself and eventually take on the most malevolent guises.

Considering the magnitude inherent within the mystical experience it may not be surprising to discover that Plato's works are based upon such experience. While Plato did not become "one" with physical nature while sitting on the banks of the Ilissus, his mystical experience forged his convictions which he then used to explain the meaning and purpose of life. Through his writings we see the progression mystical experience can take when expressed (applied/ interpreted) in the world; an evolutionary course revealing a downward spiral in which the humanitarian evolves into the vehement spokesperson sanctioning extreme oppression for the good of humankind.


The Myth of the Cave offers a comprehensive portrayal of Plato's cosmology. In the myth, the birth of a supernatural realm is conceived; dualism born. The universe is split in two, as is the individual. Reality, according to Plato, did not exist in the physical world of nature as experienced through sense perception. Reality, for Plato, existed in the supernatural realm of the eternal, the objective world of forms. The eternal is a realm outside of time and its primary characteristic of change. Physicality was banished to the realm of becoming, a temporal realm mercilessly subjected to the deceptive attributes of time and change.

The individual was also subjected to assuming a dualistic nature: body and psyche. Whereas the body is bound to the temporal realm (subject to mortality), the psyche's home is the realm of the eternal- immortality was born. The human condition became equated to being in a darkened cave where shadows of the eternal forms, existing in the realm of being, are mistakenly believed to be reality. The goal is to free the psyche from the cave by recognizing the true condition in which one finds him/herself. No longer is the body to be considered the connection to the physical world once thought of as reality, the body and physical world are now seen as a trap (cave) which must be transcended.

Thus far, Plato's cosmology offers humankind the promise of immortality, and transforms the essence of life from tragedy to aspiration. Physical life, bound up with pain, suffering and eventual mortality, is suddenly viewed as merely a fall from the eternal realm of being. Now, the purpose and meaning of life, of one's existence, is to aspire- to rise above and beyond the misconceptions of the temporal realm, to ascend unto the eternal. While aspiration may offer new meaning to one's life, and alleviate the fear of death, it may easily cause the individual to disparage the physical world (nature and body) in favor of perfection. The consequences of this can be devastating. Addiction to perfection normally results in lowered self-esteem. Disparagement of nature and the body is likely to result in bitterness, frustration, and misery. Fixation upon the future goal of reaching the eternal may quickly strip day to day life of its inherent joys and blessings. Laughter, for the sake of laughter, becomes a distraction. Appreciation of nature's beauty is no longer available to the observer for the construct of a perfected form existing in the eternal realm is quick to intervene. The deceptive role aspiration plays may well go unnoticed by the unaware ascender consumed with the images of perfection.

Plato bridged the eternal and temporal realm for the human through the doctrine of reincarnation. Not only did reincarnation serve as the cornerstone for his theory of knowledge (which will be discussed shortly), it also offered an explanation for one's present situation of being trapped in the cave. The Myth of Er presents an image showing how reincarnation functions. The actions of the current life are subjected to judgment upon death; following the judgment the soul receives just rewards or punishments based upon its former life on earth. Eventually the soul gathers with other souls and a lot is cast determining the order in which the souls will choose their next life. Choosing wisely is more important than being first to choose. The experience the soul has obtained is displayed,

For he said it was a sight worth seeing to observe how the several souls selected their lives. He said it was a strange, pitiful, and ridiculous spectacle, as the choice was determined for the most part by the habits of their former lives [Republic, 619e].

In many ways the ability to pick one's next life represents a test. The soul that has learned through a succession of lifetimes will likely begin to choose a life through wisdom rather than appetite. Once each soul has chosen a life for itself,

…they all journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion, through a terrible and stifling heat, for it was bare of all trees and all plants, and there they camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness, whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things [Republic, 621].

At this point the inclusion of reincarnation can go in one of two directions. In the Myth of Er the doctrine serves to demonstrate the need for self control, wisdom, and just-action while upon earth (back in the cave). Ultimately, the myth asks the reader to assume responsibility for his/her present life. In an open society this doctrine can be liberating to the person encountering difficult challenges. It can also inspire the individual toward self-actualization and remove the constraints of victimization. The other direction the doctrine can take is to legitimize oppression, justify the use of rigid caste systems, and prevent an individual from ever becoming anything more than what those in power choose to allow. In an oppressive society the doctrine of reincarnation has demonstrated its usefulness as a deceptive weapon used by the ruling elite. In the Republic the caste system is used for such purposes. The society is divided into three primary classes with their respective virtues. The workers & artisans are to practice the virtues of self-control (to do as they are told). The auxiliaries are to follow the virtue of courage. The guardians, mystics, are an elite minority destined to embrace the virtue of wisdom.

Plato's theory of knowledge states that all knowledge is self-knowledge. In the cave, knowledge is recollected from the time spent between lives. Genuine knowledge may never be attained through the realm of becoming. Perceived reality is merely the reflections (shadows) of the forms existing in the eternal realm. The reflections become contaminated in the temporal by the presence of time and change. Genuine knowledge, therefore, exists exclusively in the eternal realm which is objective, unchanging, and intelligible. In order for the psyche to access knowledge while in the temporal realm it must separate itself from the body. Besides death, separation can be facilitated by the study of math and geometry (the study of objects may initiate recollection of the forms experienced between lives), and self-discipline (the freeing of one's psyche from bodily appetites and desires through the study of philosophy, the questioning of opinions). Eros is also mentioned as a vehicle which allows for the transmutation of sense perception; the desire for love remains forever wanting in the temporal realm.

Once separation is achieved, the psyche may either recall what was seen between lives in the form of recollection, or rigorously ascend out of the cave by means of the mystical experience. Plato insisted that the psyche is conditioned by what it contemplates (sees). If the psyche is contemplating the shadows in the cave (the real and un-real) it's experience will be that of ignorance. However, if the psyche contemplates the Good, or the myth of the cave (the eternal and temporal realms together), the experience will be wisdom and knowledge. The state of one's mind determines one's experience, not vice versa. Because an individual is psyche, not body, the person is capable of contemplating beyond the cave. Ultimately, whatever the person contemplates will determine the quality of that person's life.

In the Apology we encounter Socrates encouraging the citizens of Athens to continually question and examine their opinions. Philosophy was meant to be practiced by everyone; knowledge was to be sought by all.

If, on the other hand, I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me. Nevertheless that is how it is, gentlemen, as I maintain, though it is not easy to convince you of it [Apology, 38].

As the dialogues progress, philosophy is seen to become increasingly elitist. Rather than a daily practice to be partaken of by all citizens, philosophy (knowledge) becomes reserved for the select few who are able to prove themselves worthy enough for the practice. Thinking itself is something which becomes reserved for the state, not the citizen,

All citizens shall regard a friend or enemy of the state as their own personal friend or enemy. Any person making peace or war with any parties independently of the commonwealth shall likewise incur the pain of death [Laws, 955c].

Eventually, the pursuit of knowledge through the practice of philosophy is relinquished to the exclusive domain of the philosopher king. Plato reached the eventual understanding that philosophy, religion, and politics are inseparable. As a result, Plato conferred the good of society was contingent upon having a philosopher king who could administer and dictate all activities of the society. The doctrine of reincarnation offers invaluable justification for the establishment of the philosopher king. Establishing a caste system upon the doctrine of reincarnation creates a perceived sense of duty and self-responsibility among all citizens which is capable of justifying the most oppressive acts conceived of by the ruler. The most severely oppressed are likely to adopt the rationale for oppression which finds its justification in the doctrine of reincarnation.

Depicted in Laws is a powerful expression demonstrating how the mystical experience can be used to justify the degradation of humankind. As the tension between the eternal and temporal realms escalated within Plato, so too did the need for reconciliation. The desire to serve humankind was forced to take on unthinkable proportions of expression demanding to be realized. In combining philosophy, religion, and politics, Plato's mystical experience found more practical (solid) expression. Near the end of his life expression was found in detailing the form of government necessary for realizing the significance of his mystical experience. Laws was written- an inhumane set of rules established for the ideal government to abide by, and to be administered for the good of the individual and the collective. Such an administration will find itself unable to reconcile the citizen's desires for individuation, freedom, and privacy with the states need for control. Privacy, in general, becomes an enemy of the state. The Republic addresses the issue of private property,

Is it not true, then, as I am trying to say, that those former and these present prescriptions tend to make them still more truly guardians and prevent them from distracting the city by referring mine not to the same but to different things, one man dragging off to his own house anything he is able to acquire apart from the rest, and another doing the same to his own separate house, and having women and children apart, thus introducing into the state the pleasures and pains of individuals? They should all rather, we said, share one conviction about their own, tend to one goal, and so far as practicable have one experience of pleasure and pain [Republic, 464c].

The later dialogue Laws offers more extreme prescriptions for addressing the issue of privacy. Here the concern is in dealing with the issue of private minds,

...that no man, and no woman, be ever suffered to live without an officer set over them, and no soul of man to learn the trick of doing one single thing of its own sole motion, in play or in earnest, but in peace as in war, ever to live with the commander in sight, to follow his leading, and take its motions from him to the least detail- to halt or advance, to drill, to bathe, to dine, to keep all wakeful hours of nights as sentry or dispatch carrier, all at his bidding, in the stricken field itself neither to pursue nor to retire without the captain's signal, in a word, to teach one's soul the habit of never so much as thinking to do one single act apart from one's fellows, of making life, to the very uttermost, an unbroken consort, society, and community of all with all…[Laws, 942]

The extreme justification for oppression by the state in these later dialogues originates with two fundamental elements contained within Plato's mystical experience: the conviction of an ideal, objective truth; and, perfection as witnessed (experienced) in the realm of the eternal. The conviction of an ideal, objective truth does not allow for divergent opinions; intolerance is born. The belief that the eternal is the realm of perfection (the forms) spawns an idealistic mindset which is incapable of grounding itself in a world characterized by change. As time elapsed, Plato's ability to integrate temporal existence with his mystical experience of the eternal deteriorated. Plato appears to have been possessed by the desire for perfection and objective truth in his final writings. The expression his mystical experience assumed in the Apology compared to his last dialogue, Laws, merits serious contemplation.

To maintain the dualistic viewpoint, one would have to argue that Plato's expression of the mystical experience as found in Laws results from the experience being subjected to the corrupt nature of the temporal realm. However, Plato did not address this possibility. He maintained to possess the truth, while being possessed by it. The challenge Plato faced is the same as most people who have had a mystical experience: the task of grounding the expression of transpersonal experience in the physical world. When the experience does not become grounded by the experiencer, or its followers, expression is likely to take on perverse characteristics which are proclaimed to be spiritual truisms.

Through studying Plato's dialogues we are presented with a gift: the ability to recognize the warnings of self-deception relating to the expression of mystical experience. We may want to keep in mind the potentials inherent in adhering to a strict form of dualism which debases nature, the body, and physical world. Addiction to perfection bears its own destruction, especially when it plays a primary role in a person's religious or spiritual beliefs. Finally, the ability to recognize idealistic convictions within ourselves, which are intolerant of differing viewpoints, can free us from the trap of mystical righteousness.

The odd relationship found between Plato's mystical experience and its expression is not unusual; in fact, it seems to be quite an ordinary phenomenon. It is seen in the contradictory teachings of the church. The teachings of Jesus have found expression through its followers in war, denominational rivalries, and oppressive dogma based on the assumption that the masses must be told, not shown, what to do. Spiritual practices associated with the New Age movement also contain elements of deception. The split between the subtle realms and the lower vibration of the physical world contains the duality leading to material escapism (desire for perfection). Those that ridicule some of the bizarre elements of the movement are classified as "young souls" with lower vibrational rates unable to comprehend the truth of the practices (idealism). In time, tension between the polar opposites of spiritual practice and earthly responsibilities may escalate to the point of psychological disassociation. The inability to ground the spiritual experience cultivates the subtle art of self-deception.

By acknowledging the potential "dark side" of the mystical experience it is less likely that self-deception will prevail. While it may be incorrect to burden the mystical experience with our inability to ground its expression in the physical world, doing so serves an important purpose. It is a reminder that self-deceptive convictions associated with the expression of mystical experience (done in the name of truth, or the divine) are fueled by the depth, awe, and power of the initial experience.

Plato appears to have been blinded by the majesty of the eternal realm to such a degree that he eventually came to advocate the most extreme forms of oppression in the name of humanitarianism. It is reasonable to assume that Plato also did not recognize the dormant gift he presented to humankind in his final work, Laws- the crucial necessity for us to ground expression of the mystical experience in the imperfect, temporal, ever-changing, sense-perceived world of the becoming. (back to articles)

Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT
Nevada City, CA

Article: Copyright (C) 1998, Mark Bancroft, MA, Nevada City, CA, 95959. All rights reserved.