Three, five, and seven
3 5 7
By Stan Shapiro MD, Grand Lodge Education Officer G.L. of MN
“All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.” –Socrates “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent about it.” – Pascal
The following article was written on December 1, 2011 and recently submitted by Brother Rick Vance, who will be Worshipful Master of Corinthian Lodge No. 67 in Farmington, MN.
An Examination of the Teachings of Socrates in Phaedo by Plato and the Ritual of Freemasonry
The objective of this paper is to relay the dialog told in Phaedo and in particular to emphasize Socrates belief in the immortal soul of man and how living a noble life leads to happiness in eternity. In mainstream fifth century BC Greek culture, belief in an afterlife of the soul was weak and unclear. Socrates makes the case that the soul is immortal and in that belief you have the guidance for your entire life. Socrates felt that his purpose in life was to search for the truth and he felt he had fulfilled his life purpose on the day of his death.
As the Phaedo narrative is examined, this paper will show linkage between the beliefs and key words and ideas of Socrates and ideas from the three degrees of Masonry. While Plato and Socrates are not often mentioned as inspiration for Masonic teaching, this paper indicates that the philosophy of Socrates had to have been consciously or unconsciously made part of Masonry.
Socrates (469 – 399 BC) is known as the father of philosophy. Socrates, like other famous philosophers such as Jesus Christ, Confucius, and Pythagoras never published any of his own works. Plato the author of Phaedo (428-348 BC) was one of the greatest and most influential Greek philosophers; he was a disciple of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. Most of Plato’s works are written dialogues, many with Socrates as the main character. Plato pays the highest tribute to Socrates by crediting all of Socrates words to him.
Phaedo is the name of the book chronicling Socrates last day of life as he awaited his execution by drinking hemlock in his prison cell in Athens. Socrates was convicted and was to be executed, as was Jesus Christ, for disturbing the peace, treason, and blasphemy which were common charges for talking about things the authorities felt threatened by.
There was a war between Athens and Sparta during this time. Socrates execution had been delayed for a significant time after he was condemned because executions weren’t allowed during a holy season when a ship was sent to Delos to honor the god Apollo. During this time his wife, friends, and disciples had been able to visit him regularly in prison.
Phaedo is also the name of one of the men who was with Socrates on his last day. Phaedo told in the third person differs from Plato’s other books on Socrates Crito and The Apology which Plato, having been with Socrates at the time, writes those books in the first person as having been there.
Phaedo begins with Phaedo talking to a man named Echecrates. Echecrates asks Phaedo if he was there with Socrates in prison the day he drank the poison and Phaedo answered “Yes I was.” Masonically it is interesting to note at this point that Echecrates was not from Athens where the book is set but from far away in Philus. In Philus there was a flourishing Pythagorean society of which Echecrates was a member.
Masons will remember Pythagoras (570 BC – 495 BC) whose Forty-seventh Problem of Euclid or Pythagorean theorem defining how to create a square or right angle is immortalized in the third lecture of the third degree and is now symbolic of one of the officers in our Lodge. With Echecrates returning to his society telling his fellow members Socrates immortal words would the likes of that Pythagorean society morph over the time of over two thousand years to resemble Masonry today?
Also, while Socrates is remembered today as a great philosopher, his profession like his father’s was that of a stonemason. Isn’t it likely that many of his earliest friends and disciples were also stonemasons with him who were drawn to his ideas and thus when they gathered together considered themselves a group of masons?
Socrates peace of mind on the day of his execution reflected his contentment with his life and the fate of his soul. Describing being there that day Phaedo said “I remember the strange feeling which came over me at being with him. For I could hardly believe that I was present at the death of a friend, and therefore I did not pity him, Echecrates; his manner and his language were so noble and fearless in the hour of death that to me he appeared blessed. I thought that in going to the other world he could not be without a divine call, and that he would be happy, if any man ever was, when he arrived there, and therefore I did not pity him as might seem natural at such a time.”
Echecrates then asks Phaedo “Who were present?” and Phaedo replies that Simmias and Cebes who carried on the majority of the dialog with Socrates were there along with ten others but says specifically that Plato was not there because he “was ill.” The dialog in Phaedo is a series of questions and answers back and forth between Socrates and Cebes and Simmias. The pace of the dialog is of a somewhat repetitive sounding nature as Socrates makes and gets agreement to a point and then moves on to an additional level of specificity or agreement as he makes and builds his conclusions and beliefs to the men in this dialog. In Masonic ritual can you identify similar dialog where there are repetitive sounding questions and answers?
When Phaedo, Simmias, Cebes and their friends arrived at Socrates prison cell on the morning of his execution day they found Socrates sitting up on the couch beginning to bend and rub his leg that had recently been in chains , saying, as he rubbed: “How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they never come to a man together, and yet he who pursues either of them is generally compelled to take the other” These early words foretell the nature of Socrates philosophy regarding your life conduct, and the fate of one’s soul in the afterlife or eternity.
When discussing Socrates, the Father of Western Philosophy, it is important to understand the root of the word philosophy which is Greek for lover (phileo) and of wisdom (sophia). We find wisdom placed at the very beginning of the third lecture of the Master Mason degree which refers to three Grand Masonic pillars each representing one of the Lodge officers as well as other things in the degree.
For Socrates the immortality of the soul was the ultimate question and whether the soul lives forever. For Socrates, only the immortality of our soul gives us a cause to accept the consequences of our actions much as we infer in the second lecture of the Entered Apprentice degree that it is necessary to have a belief in deity if an oath will have accountability. Socrates comes to a final conclusion that immortality of the soul cannot be proven but can only be accepted as a matter of faith. It is belief in the immortal soul that gives an individual guidance for life.
At this point Socrates desires the death the court condemned him to but not in any sense which they are capable of understanding. He says “I expect to go to good men, though I should not care to assert this positively; but I would assert as positively as anything about such matters that I am going to gods who are good masters. And therefore, so far as that is concerned, I not only do not grieve, but I have great hopes that there is something in store for the dead, and, as has been said of old, something better for the good than for the wicked.”
“I wish now to explain to you, my judges, the reason why I think a man who has really spent his life in philosophy is naturally of good courage when he is to die, and has strong hopes that when he is dead he will attain the greatest blessings in that other land. So I will try to tell you, Simmias, and Cebes, how this would be.”
Here Socrates begins to state his belief in the immortal nature of the soul and builds his case for that belief. This section where he builds his case covers a great level of detail but this paper will endeavor to address the specific Socratic dialog which most closely is reflected in Masonic ritual.
“Other people are likely not to be aware that those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. Now if this is true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all their lives, and then to be troubled when that came for which they had all along been eagerly practicing” and Socrates also says “the true philosophers practice dying, and death is less terrible to them than to any other men.“ Don’t these passages relate to the allegory of the fate of our Grand Master in the Third Degree?
From a Masonic perspective it is interesting that Socrates goes on to say “I think we shall get more light on our subject. Do you think a philosopher would be likely to care much about the so-called pleasures, such as eating and drinking?” Well, do you think such a man would think much of the other cares of the body—I mean such as the possession of fine clothes and shoes and the other personal adornments? Do you think he would care about them or despise them, except so far as it is necessary to have them?”
“And what about the pleasures of love—should he care for them?”
“I think the true philosopher would despise them,”
“And the body fills us with passions and desires and fears, and all sorts of fancies and foolishness, so that, as they say, it really and truly makes it impossible for us to think at all. The body and its desires are the only cause of wars and factions and battles; for all wars arise for the sake of gaining money, and we are compelled to gain money for the sake of the body. We are slaves to its service. And so, because of all these things, we have no leisure for philosophy. But the worst of all is that if we do get a bit of leisure and turn to philosophy, the body is constantly breaking in upon our studies and disturbing us with noise and confusion, so that it prevents our beholding the truth, and in fact we perceive that, if we are ever to know anything absolutely, we must be free from the body and must behold the actual realities with the eye of the soul alone. And then, as our argument shows, when we are dead we are likely to possess the wisdom which we desire and claim to be enamored of, but not while we live. For, if pure knowledge is impossible while the body is with us, one of two things must follow, either it cannot be acquired at all or only when we are dead; for then the soul will be by itself apart from the body, but not before. And while we live, we shall, I think, be nearest to knowledge when we avoid, so far as possible, intercourse and communion with the body, except what is absolutely necessary, and are not filled with its nature, but keep ourselves pure from it until God himself sets us free. And in this way, freeing ourselves from the foolishness of the body and being pure, we shall, I think, be with the pure and shall know of ourselves all that is pure,— and that is, perhaps, the truth. For it cannot be that the impure attain the pure.’ Such words as these, I think, Simmias, all who are rightly lovers of knowledge, must say to each other and such must be their thoughts. Do you not agree?”
“Altogether, then, you think that such a man would not devote himself to the body, but would, so far as he was able, turn away from the body and concern himself with the soul?”
“Then, as I said in the beginning, it would be absurd if a man who had been all his life fitting himself to live as nearly in a state of death as he could, should then be disturbed when death came to him. Would it not be absurd?
Doesn’t the previous dialog essentially reflect the Masonic belief one has to control our vices and indulgences to be fit for heaven?
While Socrates teaches the value of self-restraint, he cautions against those who put on airs of doing so saying “And how about those of seemly conduct? Is their case not the same? They are self-restrained because of a kind of self-indulgence. We say, to be sure, that this is impossible, nevertheless their foolish self-restraint amounts to little more than this; for they fear that they may be deprived of certain pleasures which they desire, and so they refrain from some because they are under the sway of others. And yet being ruled by pleasures is called self-indulgence. Nevertheless they conquer pleasures because they are conquered by other pleasures. Now this is about what I said just now, that they are self-restrained by a kind of self-indulgence.”
Socrates then says “And does not the purification consist in this which has been mentioned long ago in our discourse, in separating, so far as possible, the soul from the body and teaching the soul the habit of collecting and bringing itself together from all parts of the body, and living, so far as it can, both now and hereafter, alone by itself, freed from the body as from fetters?”
Aren’t the lessons, ritual, and degrees of Masonry a vehicle for “teaching the soul” and the institution of Masonry perpetuating these teachings “both now and hereafter?”
Socrates also says “but truth is in fact purification from all these things, and self-restraint and justice and courage and wisdom itself are a kind of purification. And I fancy that those men who established the mysteries were not unenlightened, but in reality had a hidden meaning when they said long ago that whoever goes uninitiated and unsanctified to the other world will lie in the mire, but he who arrives there initiated and purified will dwell with the gods.” There’s that word Light again. Who is Socrates referring to when he speaks of “those men who established the mysteries” and is the Masonic ritual written in the last two hundred years by Thomas Smith Webb, who in the 18th century undoubtedly studied the classics such as Phaedo, a retelling of those “mysteries?” Socrates says “he who arrives there initiated and purified will dwell with the gods.” Masons are initiated and we learn one of the things the white Apron represents is purity.
The core of Socrates message is the critical importance of a lifetime in search of wisdom. While we know wisdom is the responsibility of the Worshipful Master, in Phaedo Socrates also discusses harmony which is the duty of the Senior Warden at great length. The duty of the Senior Warden is to maintain harmony and ensure that all who come are happy and that they feel rewarded for their involvement in Masonry. Harmony is described as the strength of any group. In fact the word harmony is used at least sixty five times in Phaedo.
Socrates uses the word harmony to describe a good or purified soul as exemplified in the following passage “will they say that here is another harmony, and another discord, and that the virtuous soul is harmonized, and herself being a harmony has another harmony within her, and that the vicious soul is inharmonical and has no harmony within her?”
Within the argument that the soul exists, Socrates makes the case the soul and facets of it exist prior to birth as follows “And if we acquired this knowledge before we were born, and were born having the use of it, then we also knew before we were born and at the instant of birth not only the equal or the greater or the less, but all other ideas; for we are not speaking only of equality, but of beauty, goodness, justice, holiness, and of all which we stamp with the name of essence in the dialectical process, both when we ask and when we answer questions. Of all this we may certainly affirm that we acquired the knowledge before birth?”
In Phaedo Socrates discusses beauty at great length. Masons state beauty should adorn all great things.
In this passage about birth we are brought in reverse order to the first stage of life. In Masonry birth and youth are represented in the Entered Apprentice degree. A man’s adult life where he molds his conduct and becomes a man is represented by the Fellow Craft degree. Man’s ultimate death and hope for good in the afterlife is in the ritual of the Master Mason’s degree. Thus the degrees represent the beauty of childhood, strength gained at becoming a grown man, and wisdom gained through a long and full life.
Within Phaedo, Socrates expresses primary themes of wisdom, strength, and beauty. They represent the Three Principal Officers of the Masonic Blue Lodge. Furthermore, Socrates themes of preparation and purification of the soul, practicing death, and an undying soul are clearly portrayed in the Mason’s Third Degree ritual.
In Phaedo, Socrates explains to his disciples his wisdom on the mysteries of how to live one’s life and expect to be happy in the afterlife. Socrates philosophy was effectively transmitted to his disciples’ devoted minds and hearts. His words inscribe on the memory of his disciples a newly expressed philosophy as to the fate of man upon death and the way to a wonderful afterlife if one has lived with wisdom, strength, and beauty while alive. Socrates wisdom has been communicated over time to become part of the teachings and ritual of Masonry. From Socrates in Phaedo we learn to control our conduct and remember that at the end of our mortal lives we will go on and live in eternity.
Plato. Phaedo. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Hackett Publishing Company, 1977
Fears J. Rufus. Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life. The Teaching Company,
Words to Live By: “In the midst of winter, I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer”. –Albert Camus
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