Many people have likely come across the idea of Oriental Platonism? Oriental Platonism has a long history which is deeply intricate related to many factors: Aryanism, Indo-Europeanism, and other mystical anthropologies which rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century. While I will likely deal with this subject in fuller detail at some time in the future, I want to bypass all of these other issues and deal with a basic summary of Oriental Platonism and why readers of Greek philosophy should be aware of it.
There are two prevailing theories of Oriental Platonism. One is that Greek philosophy borrowed, or is rooted in, Zoroastrian (Persian) theology, mysticism, and philosophy. Another is that Greek philosophy—and Persian mysticism—is rooted back to Indian (Vedantic) mysticism and theology. These ideas grew in prominence in the late nineteenth century for a myriad of reasons which, again, I am not going to get into here.
I wish to cover, however—almost certainly—the most plausible view of Oriental Platonism: The relationship of Greek philosophy to Persian mysticism and religion. This is not to get into a debate over whether it is true, but this is something that all readers of Plato, Platonism, and Greek philosophy should at least be aware of.
There are two eras of Greek philosophy. The pre-Socratic era of the Ionian metaphysicians giving way to the sophists. And then there is the Socratic or post-Platonic era, in which the philosophy of Plato dominated Greek intellectual thought in all the myriad of iterations it took after Plato’s death and the forming of the Academy. The pre-Socratic era, at least as it relates to the Ionians, is not otherwise important to us. What is important is the pre-Socratics who influenced Plato and what their relationship to Persian philosophy was prior to the rise of Plato.
There are three principal philosophers who influenced Plato, all of whom have rumored or definitive connections with the Persian Empire during their own lives: Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Parmenides. Pythagoras and Heraclitus have the likeliest connections to Persia. Parmenides is connected to Persia second-hand from Pythagoras.
Pythagoras is famous for his mathematical and astronomical discoveries. Prior to the rise of Pythagoras, mathematics and astronomy were not considered the strong suits of the Hellenic people. As Greece was emerging from its Dark Age after the Bronze Age Collapse, there was another civilization to the east—a civilization which Pythagoras is believed to have travelled in and spent time being educated in—which was prominent in mathematics and astronomy: Persia. Now, Pythagorean mathematics was already known to the eastern civilizations: India and Babylon, and Persia (possibly through its absorption of the Babylonians). But Pythagoras’ introduction of basic mathematic principals and new discoveries likely has an origin of transmission from Persia to him and, from him, to the rest of Greece.
The Persians were exceptional astronomers and mathematicians. Given the high probability of Pythagoras having studied with the magi and other astronomers and teachers of wisdom in Persia during his supposed travels, it is almost certainly the case that Pythagoras’ mathematical and astronomical prowess were received and cultivated from his studies with the Persians. As such, Parmenides, who was influenced by Pythagoras, likely received influence from Pythagoras and got Persian thought second-hand through him.
Zoroastrian theology has several key features that are relevant to knowing when dealing with Parmenides and Heraclitus. First is that Fire is the illuminating symbol of knowledge. Zoroastrianism is a mystical religion that emphasizes gnosis—or knowledge, truth. To be aligned with truth is the coming to know. This is one of the goals of the human life. Additionally, Zoroastrianism posits a strictly unitarian monotheistic Deity, Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is a composition of One (Ahura) and Mind (Mazda). Ahura Mazda is, literally, the One Divine Mind. Readers of Plotinus can already detect a likely influence of Persian influence on his thought though now deviated and augmented in the form of emanation in which Mind emanates from the One. Furthermore, water and fire are the elements of purification and reconstitution—water and fire are life-giving, life-sustaining, but also life-changing. Fire is not only the element of wisdom—insight—it is also the element of transformation (transformation to wisdom).
Parmenides’ concept of the One is, in the account of Oriental Platonism, almost certainly a bastardized derivation of the Ahura.
Moving on to Heraclitus, a far greater influence on Plato than any other pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus was born on an Ionian island that belonged to the Persian Empire. Moreover, Heraclitus is famous for his philosophy of Divine Mind (Logos) and Fire being the arche, the prime element, of life which changes and sustains everything. That Heraclitus identifies a Divine Mind, a Logos—a “Mazda”—as foundational and necessary for nature, goodness, and truth, is, again by the account of Oriental Platonism, almost certainly a derived influence from the Persians. Likewise, Heraclitus’ doctrine of fire as the arche—the element of sustenance but also constant change, is also a likely Persian influence. The emphasis of finding harmony, in Heraclitus, it is said, is also likely borrowed from the Zoroastrian theology of combat in which the wrestling of good and evil aims at harmony.
Given that all these men influenced Plato, and all three have either direct connections to Persia (Heraclitus) or probable connections to Persia (Pythagoras and Parmenides), Oriental Platonism is the school of thought which argues that the roots of Plato and Platonism, and Middle Platonism and Late Platonism (Neoplatonism) have Persian (Oriental) beginnings. Oriental Platonism does not suggest, at least in its common form, that all Platonism is just a re-packaging of Oriental (either Persian or Indian) philosophy and mysticism. Most Oriental Platonists leave open the obvious reality that Plato and the Platonist doctrines are vary from their parentage. However, in attempting to trace the origins of Platonic ideas back to Persia, or even to India, Oriental Platonism was at the forefront of the eastward turn of European man during the late nineteenth century and all that that entailed. It also helped paved the way for the development of the philosophical doctrine of Perennialism.
But with this out of the way our introduction to Plato comes to an end and we will be able to focus more specifically on Plato: his works, central dialogues, and understanding his famous stories that have endured for two and half millennia.