Plato and Socrates (and a few other philosophers) have a plan to rescue us from ‘insanity’ and save the planet

‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael, depicting Plato (centre), with Aristotle, and Socrates (left), in profile in brown garb.

Imagine an intensive discussion about the ideal society between a philosophy professor of today and the Classical Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato, as well as the Dutch philosopher Baruch ‘Benedict’ Spinoza (1632–77) and the American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910).

Here we have it in this extraordinary new book Conversations with Socrates and Plato: How a post-materialist social order can solve the challenges of modern life and insure our survival, by Neal Grossman (Iff Books, UK £34.99 / US $49.95, July 2019).

Grossman, PhD, an associate professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has wide-ranging interests, from the philosophy of science, especially quantum mechanics, to Spinoza, Plato, mysticism, parapsychology and survival research, together with a new ‘world view’ emerging from such research.

Conversations is a veritable philosophical tour de force, impressive for its sustained intellectual drive and assertion, and the unprecedented way in which Grossman assimilates and interweaves the existential and metaphysical ideas of the four illustrious thinkers.

His concern is to show how a post-materialist social order could solve the challenges of modern life, using philosophical approaches which he sees as critical for the survival of Western civilisation. Indeed, such pragmatic approaches are what’s needed in philosophy today rather than an extension of the analytical labyrinth.

The phrase ‘post-materialist’, however, appears only in the sub-title of the book and not in the discursive text itself. And the use of ‘insure’ instead of ‘ensure’ (as might have been expected) in the sub-title is significant: ‘insure’ is used in the sense of protecting against a possible contingency, namely societal collapse, while use of ‘ensure’, in terms of making sure that something will happen or be so, would have expressed a certainty that Grossman evidently was not willing to embrace.

Most of the book’s 800 sagacious pages are to do with the rearing and education of children in the envisaged New World Order.

The Golden Rule

This New Society would have done away with ‘power and greed and corruptible seed’, having banished aberrant bankers, politicians, advertising and other corporate executives, and become non-capitalist, non-egoic, non-consumerist and matriarchal — a society founded on unconditional love and the Golden Rule that one should not desire for oneself what one does not equally desire for all human beings. In a word, a post-materialist society; the world’s Faustian pact with materialism would be a thing of the past.

Methods of child-rearing would emphasise emotional intelligence, sensuous expression (embracing a radical sexology for the eradication of sexual repression), music and other forms of non-linguistic conscious experience that focus on the mind in the present moment (‘Plato’).

For language can have a harmful effect on the human mind through its tendency, once learned, to absorb the whole of embodied consciousness into itself so that a person experiences himself or herself as merely a stream of thought (‘James’).

Grossman foresees children being raised so that, as adults, they remain cognisant of the soul’s original purpose in manifesting as human. Only this, he and his philosopher friends maintain, can save our planet from the destruction now impinging upon it because humans have allowed themselves to become insane through greed and ambition.

Yet it would be of no consequence to the World Soul, nor to all the individual souls contained within the World Soul, if the ‘human experiment’ were to fail (‘Benedict’).

In Conversations, it must be pointed out, the existence of the soul — defined as a person’s spiritual or non-material essence which is regarded as immortal — is taken for granted. Why souls choose to incarnate, though, in human form, is beyond words to describe, we’re told, although this is the question we’d probably most like answered; the implication is that all humans are embodied souls.

Our forgetfulness of our origins in the World Soul, limiting our consciousness to the ‘everyday’ level, is the problem. In the memorable words of William Wordsworth: ‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar…’ (Ode: Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood, 1804).

‘River of Forgetfulness’

Three visits by the newly embodied soul to the ‘River of Forgetfulness’ are described (‘Plato’): the first, when the soul identifies with the body, losing knowledge of its true identity as ‘a holy thought in the mind of God’, the second, when language is learned causing the soul to identify with language, causing consciousness to be focused mostly on thoughts and words, and the third involving the effects of sexual repression.

These three visits ‘thicken the margins’ separating the embodied soul from its Source (upper case ‘S’ stipulated) in the ‘eternal order’.

Paradoxically, when souls are incarnate, it’s said the human condition must be ameliorated as much as possible in childhood to accommodate the ‘original purpose’ of incarnating — thus reducing the effect of the human experience sought by the soul in the first place.

‘For the child’s inner life is what’s closest to its soul’s original purpose in manifesting as that child, and our Society will do everything possible to assist the soul in its original purpose,’ says ‘James’.

Also, it seems odd that once incarnated, despite the human experience so desired, the soul immediately wants to find ways to return ‘home’, while at the same time the ‘whole point to the human experience is for souls to deepen their experience of Divine Love’ (‘Socrates’).

But how can the altruistic and harmonious New Society be brought about? Conversations is not at all clear on this question.

To me, the surprising thing is that four eminent thinkers — especially these four — and a contemporary philosophy professor do not discuss the idea that society’s acceptance of consciousness as primary, following a ‘top-down’ influence from academia, would be more effective in ushering in a New Order than Grossman’s suggestion that a ‘bottom-up’ transition could be achieved through the influence of more people talking about their transformative near-death experiences.

Collective beliefs

‘Plato’ admits that it’s not known how the transition would occur: ‘We know that either it will occur or humans will destroy themselves. The question is: how much suffering do humans wish to create for themselves during the transition?’

Present leaders would rather die than abandon the beliefs that support their greed and ambition. Current social structures would need to collapse before humans would be motivated sufficiently to examine their collective beliefs.

However, stories from near-death experiencers might be sufficient ‘to scare our sociopathic politicians and corporate executives into behaving more decently…’ (‘Plato’). As more and more of these people spoke about their blissful spiritual experiences of Divine Love, the ‘cultural taboo against spirituality’ would gradually wither away. Such people would be the harbingers of the New Society.

But, in my humble opinion, the real key to the kind of New Society or New World Order which Conversations seeks to promote would be the acceptance of consciousness as primary and universal, and that ours is an embodied consciousness — I believe the changes for which Grossman wishes could follow more readily from such acceptance.

Yet one reaches p523 in Conversations before one finds any mention at all of the primacy of consciousness.

Here, after stating that individual scientists are not always rational or reasonable, and often cling to false beliefs long after evidence against them has accumulated beyond the point where it’s rational to hold them, ‘Plato’ tells Grossman: ‘For example, the false belief that consciousness is produced by the brain is still adhered to by most of your scientists despite the overwhelming empirical evidence that has disproved those beliefs.’

The issue is touched on again 40 pages later in a single sentence (on p563): ‘Consciousness or mind is independent of the body,’ Grossman states.

And yet, acknowledging that consciousness is primary — with, importantly, education systems attuned accordingly — would change everything. For if consciousness is all that is, then each one of us is part of that consciousness, proving that we are all connected. So ‘I’ is not just me, but everybody.

Materialist paradigm

It offers explanations for an afterlife, reincarnation, near-death and out-of-the-body experiences, past-life experiences, precognition, the efficacy of meditation and intuition, and many other psychic and anomalous events.

For such events are only paranormal or anomalous if we decide, under the materialist paradigm, that the brain creates consciousness; if we accept things the other way round, that consciousness lies outside brain function, then a very different picture is presented to us.

If consciousness is thought of as a fundamental property of nature or, indeed, as the very ground of existence, then its participatory nature becomes apparent: human evolution has increasingly participated in it. Consciousness ceases to be seen as a function of the brain, and becomes a uniting human experience rather than one subjective and discrete only to the individual.

Crucially, if matter arises from consciousness, and not conversely, then there’s no reason to suppose that consciousness dies with the body, but instead returns to live on in the universal flow. General agreement on this position, needless to say, would alter profoundly people’s outlook on life and death.

So it’s not a revolution of consciousness that’s needed, as such, to change the world, or even an evolution of human consciousness (if there’s time for that), but a revolution about consciousness — about how we regard the nature of it.

The human race is accomplished in so many ways but we still don’t understand what we are, and the physicalist way of regarding consciousness is a stumbling block to arriving at an understanding which would go a long way towards satisfying the longing for transcendence inherent in all of us.

Grossman’s exceptional text — everywhere to do with the transcendent — is consistent logically throughout, and much of the argument is persuasive in itself, being eminently accessible and jargon-free, and not without wit and levity, in its pursuit of deep truths. Along the way, other essential aspects of everyday reality which come under discussion include reason, friendship, beauty and inspiration, old age and dying, and there is much of value in all elements of the book.

But the best, realistically, we could hope for in the foreseeable future from this majestic manifesto for a utopian social order would be a range of half-measures — preferable to none at all, of course.

Ultimately, though, one can’t help feeling that if a Divine Being, a World Soul, or eternal order, really does exist then, yes, it must be indifferent, or at least dispassionate, towards human existence or things surely could have been arranged better in the universal scheme of things.

Writer, poet, tutor and mentor in literature and creative writing (MA and BA Hons degrees in English literature), editor, journalist and musician.

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