Lost Masters - Rediscovering the Ancient Greeks

Here's a delicious fantasy. Imagine that the ancient Greek philosophers, those boring old men who founded our tradition of scientific rationalism, had also taught meditation. Picture them going on pilgrimage to India to study with the yoga masters there. Imagine Alexander the Great searching for a Hindu guru, and leading minds of the early Roman Empire advocating vegetarianism and fighting for animal rights.

Incredibly, this is no fantasy. According to ancient Greek historians, all these things actually happened. Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plotinus, three of the greatest minds of the ancient world, all urged their students to meditate. Apollonius of Tyana, one of the most widely-traveled philosophers of the first century, did in fact visit India. He insisted the yogis he found there were the greatest men living on earth. Plutarch and Porphyry, the first a priest at the temple of Delphi, the second a renowned expert on logic and mathematics, both decried cruelty to animals and passionately championed a vegetarian diet. One of Alexander's top priorities when he led his army into India was finding a guru. A yoga master named Kalyana accepted Alexander as his disciple and accompanied him back to Persia.

Thales, famous today as ‘the first man to think scientifically’, studied with the high priests of Egypt. He advised his best students, Pythagoras among them, to strictly discipline themselves, renouncing meat and wine, so that the Egyptian masters might initiate them too. Orpheus, a religious reformer from Thrace who had also studied in Egypt, introduced the concepts of karma and reincarnation to the Greeks centuries earlier.

Most of us have heard of Plato, the most respected thinker of the ancient Western world. For a thousand years after his death he was remembered not as a boring old philosopher but as a spiritual teacher of the highest caliber. Over the centuries the academy he founded spawned a host of mystics dedicated to exploring the highest states of consciousness.

This long-forgotten side of the ancient Greek philosophers surprises us today, yet stories like these were routinely reported by writers like Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Stobaeus, Diogenes Laertius, Philostratus and numerous other chroniclers in antiquity. It's true: many of Greek philosophers, from Heraclitus in the 5th century B.C.E. to Proclus in the 5th century C.E., were deeply engaged in spiritual life. They even had a word for the highly focused mental state experienced in meditation: henosis, literally ‘the state of oneness’.

The value of inner work was apparent to them. ‘You must plunge beneath your crowded thoughts and contemplate inner realities with pure, focused attention’ Empedocles taught. ‘If you do this, a state of inspired serenity will remain with you throughout your life’.
The Greeks conceived of the soul (nous in Greek) as different from our work-a-day mind (psyche). The soul was the seat of reason and of the intuitive power that links us with a higher reality. Therefore, according to Heraclitus, we should ‘think clearly, speak honestly, act wisely, and deepen our awareness’.  
Like some of India's best-known philosophers, Parmenides taught that the cosmos is one timeless, unified reality, and that our piecemeal perception of it is an illusion. Iamblichus encouraged seekers to practice rituals astonishingly similar to those of the Hindus in an effort to invoke the higher powers inside themselves. Apollonius, who toured North Africa following his trip to India, insisted that the doctrines and practices of the Egyptian ascetics and the Indian yogis were so extraordinarily similar, they must have come from the same source. In fact, ancient Greco-Egyptian texts called the Corpus Hermetica portray guru-disciple relationships, spiritual techniques and a cosmic worldview much like those of India.

Fascinatingly, the Egyptians had a tradition that their god Osiris visited India, while Emperor Julian, who ruled Rome in the middle of the fourth century, wrote that the Greek god Dionysus had come from India. These days we think of Eastern spirituality arriving in the West in the 1960s. But thousands of years ago, Greek intellectuals were already speculating about ancient links between the Greek and Indian spiritual sciences.

All this information is whitewashed out of modern accounts of the Greek philosophers. Today scholars consider it ‘Oriental contamination’ of pure Western thought, an embarrassing ‘irrationality’ at the core of the Western tradition. Nowadays students taking college courses in Greek philosophy are unlikely to learn that educated Greeks eagerly studied with foreign teachers including the Persian Magi, the Chaldeans and the Phoenicians, all famous in antiquity for their technological, mathematical and spiritual knowledge.

The ancient Greeks are often credited with originating the Western proclivity for rational analysis in the quest to understand nature. What we don't give them enough credit for is their equal commitment to understanding the full range of human experience, including its spiritual dimensions. The Greek philosophers were not credulous, but they were open-minded. When we search intelligently for a deeper understanding of our spiritual nature, we are not betraying the Western intellectual tradition. We are simply following in the footsteps of its founders. Let's reacquaint ourselves with the ancient Greek masters. They were a lot less boring than we imagine.


About the author: 

Linda Johnsen is the author of Lost Masters, and a long-time student of religious philosophy. She holds degrees in Eastern and Western Psychology, and has post-graduate training in theology and Sanskrit. She is the award-winning author of eight books on spirituality including Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism. Based on the book Lost Masters & reprinted with permission from New World Library

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