The Cosmic Aspect of Truth in Plato

John Dillon



I must confess to having a long-standing adversative relation with the concept of truth, particularly in philosophical and theological contexts, which I recognize as being unreasonable. It is partly due to problems with the etymology of the word in Greek, such as I discuss below. On the level of ‘normal’, non-philosophical, or non-theological, discourse, the enquiry after the truth of some verbal account, or physical manifestation (such as, perhaps, the cause of an explosion, or the break-down of a computer) is an attempt to ascertain whether the account given, or the sense-datum received – it might be a sight, a sound, or even a smell – accords with what really is the case, or what really was the cause of the phenomenon. This, I suppose, would constitute a simple form of the ‘correspondence theory of truth’, but it is not at all what metaphysical or theological seekers after Truth would generally have in mind.

What I want to enquire into on the present occasion, is the following: When the Greek philosopher Plato (or through him, Socrates) speaks of ‘truth’ (alêtheia, to alêthes), what are the connotations of that term, and what does he intimate to us concerning the preferred means of attaining it? My contention would be that the quest for Truth (at least in, so to speak, its capitalized form!) is always for Plato a quest for insight into the structure of reality – a systematic enquiry, which uncovers the way the world works, and the organizing principle or principles behind it. This indeed would not be unreasonable, if, as seems possible, the distinguished philosopher Martin Heidegger was right in his interpretation of the rather mysterious word alêtheia as a sort of negation of lêthê, thus signifying ‘an undoing, or peeling away, of the forgetfulness of, or obliviousness to, the true nature of things’ (in his case, of Being), with which we are afflicted by reason of the dominance of our normal, ‘everyday’ (alltäglich), consciousness – that is to say, Unverborgenheit.[1] Heidegger in fact sees Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in the Republic Book 7, as a particularly good representation of this ‘forgetfulness’, in virtue of which we – the prisoners, as Plato tells us – assume that the shadows being paraded for us on the cave wall are the whole of reality, a level of consciousness from which we have to be forcibly liberated, and dragged upwards out of the ‘cave-like dwelling’, to view the true state of affairs in the world above.[2] Now, Heidegger’s etymology of alêtheia has never, I think, attained complete acceptance in classical philological circles,[3] but I must say that I can come up with nothing better, and I think that it certainly helps to elucidate the peculiar nature of alêtheia, in its broader, as opposed to its ‘correspondence’, sense. Heidegger certainly makes a very plausible case for this in his exegesis of the two levels of reality in Plato’s Cave image. Plainly, there are a number of factual ‘truths’ of which the released prisoner becomes cognizant, e.g. that the figures on the screen, which he formerly took for reality, are in fact merely shadows cast, from a fire, by objects which are themselves mere images, in wood or stone, of ‘real’ things (with which he as yet, however, has no acquaintance); or that the ultimate source of light in the upper world, up into which he is unwillingly dragged, is the sun. But these individual propositions, true though they are, are only insignificant elements of the overall fabric of Truth.

This, as it emerges, is a coherent vision of the way things are, and of the generative principle of reality, the ‘Sun’, representing ‘the Good’, or the rational principle which drives the universe forward.[4] Heidegger’s acute observation[5] that the true opposite of alêtheia in this sense is not pseudos, but rather lêthê, ‘forgetfulness,’ or ‘obliviousness’ (of the way things are, and of one’s own true nature) leads me to make the connection (which I am not quite sure that Plato actually intends us to make) between the ascent of the prisoner from the cave into the upper, ‘real’ world, and the descent of the souls into reincarnation, in the Myth of Er in Book 10, where they journey through the plain of Lethe, and then drink from the waters of the river Ameles (‘self-neglect’), the consequence of which is that they ‘become oblivious to everything’ (pantôn epilanthanesthai).[6] Now this obviously means that they forget all the details of what has transpired in the upper world, and specifically their ‘choice of lives’, but I think that it is also intended to mean that they become oblivious to the overall structure of reality, the ‘way things are’. This is something that at least some few people – no doubt those who have drunk moderately of the waters of Ameles,[7] but even of those only a minority – can come to gain a recollection of, at least to some extent, as they go through this life, either by ‘divine dispensation’ (theia moira), or through having the good fortune to meet up with someone like Socrates, who has received such dispensation, and is inspired to help others to achieve similar insight.[8]

This, then, is one model of truth which I find interesting. What I would like to do here is to examine a number of other significant passages from the Platonic dialogues, which may serve to elucidate Heidegger’s – and, I believe, Plato’s – view of truth in the sense of Unverborgenheit. Let us start with one from the end of the Gorgias, where Socrates has come through his long dialectical contest with first, Gorgias, then his follower Polus, and then the bumptious aristocratic Athenian ‘might is right’ advocate Callicles, culminating in a myth of the afterlife, involving a last judgment of souls. He concludes as follows: ‘Now I have been convinced by these stories, Callicles, and I am considering how I may present to my judge the healthiest possible soul, and so I renounce the honours sought by most men, and, working at the truth (tên alêtheian askôn), I shall readily endeavour both to live and, when death comes, to die, as good a man as I possibly can be.’[9]

What intrigues me particularly here is the rather distinctive verb that he employs to govern alêtheia: askeô means ‘to practise, work at’ (the noun askêsis came in later times to denote monkish asceticism, among other things!). Woodhead, wishing to produce better English, renders it ‘pursue’, which is not unreasonable, but would better translate diôkô.[10] What Socrates has to mean here, surely, is a kind of practising – a form of ‘mindfulness’, one might say – for which the Arabic term, much favoured by Sufi philosophers, is dhikr, which leads the mind upwards to the contemplation of the source of its being, and the revelation of its true nature.[11] On the occasions when Socrates is recorded as falling into a trance, of which we observe one at the beginning of the Symposium, when he gets becalmed in a doorway on the way to Agathon’s victory feast, and are told of another at the end, by Alcibiades his night-long session of meditation when on military service at Potidaea – we may assume, I think, that he was in effect practising dhikr, though perhaps in pursuit of the solution to a particular existential problem, rather than in contemplation of the whole realm of Truth (though the one, I think, involves the other).[12]

At any rate, this may serve to remind us that the ‘historical’ Socrates – in so far as we can recover knowledge of such an individual! – was primarily concerned with discovering the truth about himself, rather than about the universe as a whole; and indeed he may have been the first individual in Greek history to identify such an object of search. This, it seems to me, is the deep significance of his rather light-hearted dismissing of Phaedrus’ attempt to draw him out on the subject of the myth of Boreas and Oreithyia at the beginning of the Phaedrus. Just to make conversation, Phaedrus ventures to ask him whether he believes the story of Boreas’ abduction of Oreithyia to be true.[13] Socrates, after alluding, with some irony, to the attempts of hoi sophoi to give a ‘scientific’, allegorical, explanation of the tale, replies:

I myself have certainly no time for that sort of thing, and I’ll tell you why, my friend. I can’t as yet ‘know myself’, as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains, it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters. Consequently I don’t bother about such things, but accept the current beliefs about them, and direct my inquiries, as I have just said, rather to myself, to discover whether I really am a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven has blessed with a quiet un-Typhonic nature.[14]

This ‘search for oneself’ might be seen as having been initiated by Heraclitus, with his famous remark, ‘I went in search of myself’ (edizêsamên emêuton),[15] but, if so, Socrates elaborated it further. Socrates is indeed in search of the truth about himself: granted that he is truly a soul rather than a body, what sort of an entity is this soul? Whatever about the real Socrates, the Platonic Socrates, having abandoned the simplistic model expounded in the Phaedo, where all irrational impulses are distractions imposed by the body, unveils in the ninth book of the Republic[16] an answer to the question that he poses himself here at the beginning of the Phaedrus,[17] by producing his remarkable image of the soul as a composite of a ‘many-headed beast’ (the passions), a lion (the thymos, or spirited element), and a human being (the reason), all encased in a human form. The true essence of justice, which has been the topic of the Republic as a whole, becomes the following:

He who says that justice is more profitable (sc. than injustice) affirms that all our actions and words should tend to give the man within us complete domination over the entire man and make him take charge of the many-headed beast – like a farmer who cherishes and trains the cultivated plants, but checks the growth of the wild – and he will make an ally of the lion’s nature, and caring for all the beasts alike will first make them friendly to one another and to himself, and so foster their growth.[18]

So Plato, in the guise of Socrates, feels that he has attained to the truth about the nature of the (embodied) soul, and therewith the proper means of managing his life. The proper control of the ‘beast’ and the ‘lion’ frees up the rational soul to pursue its quest for knowledge of ‘the Good’, which will reveal to it the truth about the way the universe is structured, and our place in it.[19] We find what seems to be a further refinement of this position at the end of the Timaeus, where an entity, the personal daimôn, which is presented back in the Phaedo[20] as a being distinct from, and superior to, the individual soul, and then in Book 10 of the Republic[21] as a guiding spirit that the individual soul chooses for itself, now becomes identified with the highest element in the individual soul itself:

And we should consider that God gave the sovereign part of the human soul to be the daimôn of each one, being that part which, as we say, dwells at the top of the body, and inasmuch as we are a plant not of an earthly but of a heavenly growth, raises us from earth to our kindred who are in heaven. And in this way we speak most correctly, for the divine power suspends the head and root of us from that place where the generation of the soul first began, and thus makes the whole body upright. When a man is always occupied with the cravings of desire and ambition, and is eagerly striving to satisfy them, all his thoughts must be mortal, and, as far as it is possible altogether to become such, he must be mortal every whit, because he has cherished his mortal part. But he who has been earnest in the love of knowledge and of true wisdom, and has exercised his intellect more than any other part of him, must have thoughts immortal and divine, if he lays hold on truth (eanper alêtheias ephaptetai), and in so far as human nature is capable of sharing in immortality, he must altogether be immortal, and since he is ever cherishing the divine power and has the daimôn within him in good order (eu kekosmêmenon), he will be singularly happy (eudaimôn).[22]

This remarkable passage, envisaging as it does a higher, almost ‘semi-detached’, element even within the rational soul, constituting the proper conduit for knowledge of ‘the truth’, which is to say, the understanding of the true nature of the intelligible world (and the physical world in its dependence on it), shows Plato appropriating the popular concept of the ‘guardian daemon’ for the purpose of postulating an element in the human soul which is in a particular way ‘divine’, as being in potential direct contact with the realm of divine Truth – a concept which was to have a lively afterlife in later Platonism, particularly with such thinkers as Plutarch and Plotinus.[23] This, it seems to me, must be regarded as the culmination of a long process of reflection by a man much given to meditation on these subjects – both the nature of the human soul and the nature of things in general.

This brings me back, from what has been something of a digression into the search for the truth about one’s own nature, to our proper theme, which is Plato’s view of the nature of cosmic Truth. In renewed pursuit of this, I will turn back to the Phaedrus, but this time to the Myth of the ‘Heavenly Ride’, where once again, as in the Allegory of the Cave, we are presented, though from a rather different angle, with a vision of the intelligible world, the vision of which is enjoyed, in this context, not by an embodied soul which has had the good fortune to ‘ascend’, but rather by rational souls destined ultimately to be human, before they have descended. This level of reality is described as follows:

Of that place beyond the heavens none of our earthly poets has yet sung, and none shall sing worthily. But this is the manner of it, for assuredly we must be bold to speak what is true (to alêthes), above all when the subject of our discourse is Truth (alêtheia). It is there that true being dwells, without colour or shape, and intangible; reason alone, the pilot of the soul, can behold it, and all true knowledge focuses on this realm. Now even as the mind of a god is nourished by reason and knowledge, so also is it with every soul that has a care to receive her proper food; wherefore when at least she has beheld being (to on) she is well content, and contemplating truth (theôrousa t’alêthê) she is nourished and prospers, until the heaven’s revolution brings her back full circle.[24]

The connection made here between contemplating the truth and being nourished by it is notable. Intelligible reality is seen by Plato as providing sustenance for the mind. The souls of both gods and men proceed to feast upon the Forms of the various virtues that present themselves to their view. Just below, at 248b–c, we find the following: ‘Now the reason why the souls are willing and eager to see the location of the plain of Truth (to alêtheias pedion) lies therein, that the pasturage that is proper to their noblest part comes from that meadow, and the plumage by which they are borne aloft is nourished thereby.’ So browsing on the contents of the meadow of Truth is good for the growth of the soul’s ‘plumage’, which is what keeps it ‘aloft’, and in touch with the intelligible world.

This is all, of course, expressed in a mythological mode, but we may suitably end, perhaps, with a non-mythological passage which illustrates well, I think, Plato’s use of alêtheia in a ‘cosmic’ sense, the conclusion of Socrates’ interrogation of the slave-boy in the Meno. Once Socrates has secured Meno’s agreement that the boy did not acquire his ability to recognize the truths of mathematics in this life, he is enabled to draw the conclusion that his soul must always have known these truths:

Socrates: If, then, there are going to exist in him, both while he is and while he is not a man, true opinions which can be aroused by questioning and turned into knowledge, may we say that his soul has been forever in a state of knowledge? Clearly he always either is or is not a man.

Meno: Clearly.

Socrates: And if the truth about reality (hê alêtheia tôn ontôn) is always in our soul, the soul must be immortal, and one must take courage and try to discover – that is, to recollect – what one doesn’t happen to know, or, more correctly, remember, at the moment.[25]

So there we have it. A potentiality of access to the truth is something that we have always with us, acquired before birth by the soul when it is free to browse in the meadow of Truth, and when this is actualized on the plane of human existence, such access fosters and nurtures the rational faculty of the soul, until, in particularly favoured cases, it attains a comprehensive vision of reality, which is denominated ‘the Good’ – and which, in the ideal state of the Republic, qualifies the person so favoured to rule the state, as a benevolent dictator (or rather, as a member of a board of such). Not many individuals, it must be recognized, will attain to that level of insight, but most of us can expect to achieve at least some intimations of it. The first step, certainly, is to come to view the physical world as a realm of shadows, which reveal, at best, merely intimations of reality, if properly evaluated; and this is followed by a fairly steep learning curve, though culminating, at the end of the tunnel, in the light of an intelligible Sun.

A final thought.[26] All this talk of ‘beholding’ and of ‘vision’, however, should not lead us to assume that the objects of intellectual vision, including the Good itself, are ultimately ‘out there’, external to the mind of the person who has attained noêsis, full intellectual comprehension of the Truth. Plato does indeed make copious use of the language of vision, which, on the physical plane, implies an external object to be viewed, but there are sufficient indications, in a number of key passages, that he understands intellectual ‘vision’ as a process of ‘internalization’.

First of all, in the extended passage from Book 9 of the Republic discussed earlier, and particularly in the passage 585d–587a, where the pleasures proper to each of the three levels of soul are being contrasted, the talk is not of ‘viewing’ or ‘contemplating’, but rather of ‘being filled and satisfied’ (plêrousthai), as in the following passage: ‘If, then, to be filled with what befits nature is pleasure, then that which is more really filled with real things would more really and truly cause us to enjoy a true pleasure, while that which partakes of the less truly existent would be less truly and surely filled and would partake of a less trustworthy and less true pleasure.’[27]

Here the whole emphasis is on the internalizing of the ‘pleasures’ concerned, which in this case are intellectual pleasures, such as are in fact identical with the ‘objective’ Forms which the soul is elsewhere portrayed as contemplating. Again, in the Timaeus passage quoted above, we may note that the enlightened sage does not so much ‘behold’ Truth, as ‘lay hold’ (ephaptetai) of it, and this enables him to straighten out all the crookednesses and irregularities of the circuits of his soul arising from his original embodiment.[28] And even in the myth of the Phaedrus, quoted above, where the disembodied soul is portrayed as ‘beholding’ the Forms, it is also described as being ‘nourished’ (trephetai) by the vision, and ‘being feasted’ (hestiastheisa), which may reasonably be understood as a process of internalization of the Forms.[29] So, when all is said and done, Truth, though certainly having an objective existence of the intelligible realm, is also ‘within’ us.


Sometime after composing the first part of this essay, on going through my archives, I came upon a letter of my father’s, written from Deccan College in Poona in India, where he was installed as a guest of the Indian Government, to me in Berkeley, in November 1970, on the subject of cosmic Truth, of a nature which fits in remarkably well with what I have just been discussing, so I venture to reproduce it here now. It pleases me exceedingly to have discovered this, since it indicates that Plato is actually in accord with primordial Indo-European concepts of Truth of which little or nothing remained, as far as our evidence goes, in the Greco-Roman world:

Dear John,

I think I have made a discovery, and I should like to know your opinion.[30] In a great book on the god Varuna (1951), Lüders showed that a fundamental concept of Vedic religion was that Truth (rta) was the highest principle and governing power of all creation. ‘By means of Truth the sun is hot, by means of Truth the moon shines, the wind blows; everything is founded upon Truth’, and so on. And the Avestan asa is identical in form and meaning with Vedic rta. He had examined this earlier in an article in ZDMG XCVIII (1944), and I was able to show in ‘Archaism’[31], which you may have at hand, that this concept of Truth as the governing power is also traceable in early Irish sources, and is therefore Indo-European. Lüders says specifically (p. 40) that this is a notion developed by the Indo-Aryans, and does not date from the Indo-European period, as being peculiar to India and Persia – but he had no Irish! I thought then of logos, and looked in Hastings[32], where I learn that the term first occurs in Heraclitus of Ephesus, and later among the Stoics appears with much the same semantic quality as rta/asa. Cornford apparently attributed this mysticism of Heraclitus to a reaction against the materialism of the Ionian philosophers. But it now appears that Heraclitus was simply developing an age-old I-E idea of Trith as the controlling force in Nature. Is this all right as a possibility, or am I quite out of date in arguing with Cornford?”

Let us pause here, and consider what we have. I think I would have replied to my father that Heraclitus’ Logos, duly taken up by the Stoics, is quite a good analogy to the Vedic rta; but this does not suit Plato very well – though it is indeed by the judicious use of logos, or more precisely dialektikê, that one arrives at Alêtheia. At any rate, this seems to me to provide intriguing evidence that Plato is somehow tuning in to a very ancient concept, most clearly preserved (as is the case with many archaic IE features) on the two peripheries of the IE world, while receding from consciousness in the more central areas of that world.

But we may continue, as my father does feel that he can discern some interesting traces of it in the Greek tradition:

“Actually, the Oedipus legend belongs to the same tradition. By killing his father and marrying his mother, he was disturbing the cosmic order and offending against Truth, and so his kingdom withered away. In Ireland, ‘three things that are best for a prince are truth, mercy and silence.’ In an early text (8th cent.), one of the earliest forms of Speculum Principis (ZCP ii, 56-106), which Binchy[33] says is of pre-Christian origin, you find the concept of Truth (fir) almost in Vedic form:

‘Let him magnify Truth; it will magnify him!

Let him strengthen Truth; it will strengthen him!

Let him preserve Truth; it will preserve him!

By the Prince’s Truth fair weather comes in season, winter fine and frosty, spring dry and windy, summer warm with rain, autumn with heavy dews and fruitful.’

And there are sagas in which a pig is roasted by means of Truth, a broken cup in mended by means of Truth, etc. Shall I put in merely a fleeting hint that Lüders’ rta/asa and the Logos of Heraclitus (and St. John?) may have a common IE origin?[34]

It seems to me that, while Plato’s Alêtheia will not roast a pig, it fits very well with the archaic concepts of cosmic Truth represented by Vedic rta and Celtic fir. Plato’s philosopher-kings should attain the same level of insight into how the world is constituted, and how society should be administered, as is expected of the rightly constituted king in Indian or Irish society; and it is not easy to fathom whence Plato derived this insight, other than the depths of his own psyche.


[1] See Martin Heidegger, Vom Wesen der Wahrheit, translated as The Essence of Truth (London and New York: Continuum, 2002).

[2] Rep. 515a.

[3] Though I note that it is essentially accepted by the standard Greek dictionary of Liddell, Scott and Jones, s.v. alêthês.

[4] We may note that each of the ‘preliminary studies’ which should occupy the aspirant Guardians, arithmetic, geometry, stereometry, astronomy and harmonics (532d–531d) have as their object to raise the soul to a vision of real being (ousia), ‘truth’, and the Good, regarded as equivalents; cf. e,g, 526b3 (arithmetic); 527b9 (geometry); 530b4 (astronomy).

[5] See Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, pp. 94–104.

[6] Rep. 621a–b.

[7] Rep. 621a8–9.

[8] It must also be said that, in the ideal state of the Republic, the Guardians would attain this insight, in the form of a vision of the Good, after their laborious fifteen-year preparatory training in dialectic.

[9] Gorgias 526d6–e1, trans. Woodhead, modified.

[10] Others, in their embarrassment, have sought to emend the verb, e.g. to skopôn, ‘considering’, but these are rather desperate remedies.

[11] See on this, e.g. Henri Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 246–71.

[12] Symp. 174e–175b; 219e–220a.

[13] Phaedrus 229c, trans. Hackforth.

[14] Phaedrus 239e–230a, trans. Hackforth, slightly altered.

[15] Fr. 101.

[16] Rep. 588b–589b.

[17] I sidestep the awkward question of the relative priority of Phaedrus and Republic! From the dramatic perspective, Socrates’ puzzle, as expressed here, is prior.

[18] Rep. 589a5–b6, trans. Shorey.

[19] In fact, the connection between the accurate comprehension of justice and injustice and the essence of truth (autê hê alêtheia) is made already by Socrates in the Crito, 48a.

[20] Phaedo 107d–108c.

[21] Rep. 617e.

[22] Tim. 90a–c, trans. Jowett, slightly emended.

[23] See my papers, ‘Plutarch and the Separable Intellect’, in A.P. Jimenez & F.C. Casadesus Bordoy (eds.), Estudios sobre Plutarco (Madrid: Ediciones Clásicas, 2001), pp. 35–44, (repr. in The Platonic Heritage, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), Essay 11); ‘Fravashi and Undescended Soul’, Barry David (ed.) in Passionate Mind: Essays in Honor of John M. Rist, Baden-Baden: Academia Verlag, 2019, pp. 181-90.

[24] Phaedrus 247c–d, trans. Hackforth, slightly emended.

[25] Meno 86a5–b3, trans. W.K.C. Guthrie.

[26] I am much indebted, in this final section, to a recent insightful article by Eric Perl, ‘The Motion of Intellect: On the Neoplatonic Reading of Sophist 248e–249d’, in The International Journal of the Neoplatonic Tradition 8 (2014), pp. 135–60.

[27] Rep. 585d–e, trans. Shorey.

[28] Tim. 90c2.

[29] Phaedrus 247d4 and 247e3.

[30] I hope that I did offer an opinion, but I doubt that it was very useful. I would have a good deal more to say now.

[31] That is to say, ‘The Archaism of Irish Tradition’, PBA xxxiii (1947), 245-64.

[32] That is to say, The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.

[33] His old friend, and colleague in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Prof. Daniel Binchy, the major authority on ancient Irish law.

[34] In fact, the contents of this letter recur, in a more developed form, in the book that resulted from his stay in India, Celt and Hindu, published in 1975 by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Simla, but I preferred to make use of his letter to me. In fact, I would have read this book at the time of its appearance, but I did not make the connection when composing this essay.