Teachers, Students, and Community: A Few Initial Thoughts

The title of this post is self-explanatory. Despite being a longer post (with section headers), it isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but part of an ongoing process to understand how people work and what it takes to develop a healthy baseline for thinking about both teachers and spiritual companions/friends. This post is going to combine some lateral reading in teacher-student dynamics in Tibetan Buddhism with takeaways from teacher-student-community models in spiritual communities in Late Antiquity, with an emphasis on coming to an initial point of insight about how to put all of these things together today.

Before we begin with the meat of the matter, let’s begin with a prayer. Proclus writes, “For even matters that seem insignificant enjoy providence and are important to the extent that they are dependent on the Gods, whereas things that are important in terms of their own nature, when separated from the divine, appear as wholly insignificant and of no value” (Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, Book II, 215.15-20, trans. Runia & Share). This discussion must start from them, and there is no better God to begin from than Hermes, the teacher and distributor of knowledge and philosophy who has been sent down to us by Zeus. 

I pray to Hermes that this essay effectively communicates information that can change this entire situation for the better, for it is our souls that are at stake in spiritual matters, and we must approach these matters with the same care and concern as we would for anything else that is vital for us. I implore the God to give us guidance in these matters as I weave together all of the sources for this essay, and I pray that whatever you, the reader, take away from it — agreement, disagreement, mixed feelings, ideas — is exactly what you need. 🙏

Why Talk About This?

In The Soul’s Inner Statues, I gave a candid — and not always flattering — view of teachers and group dynamics in the polytheistic and pagan communities. Much of the discussion focused on Internet culture(s) and the developments over the past ten years, but I also included some references to spiritual teachers in general. The Soul’s Inner Statues is written for the community that we have, not the one that we want, and the focus I chose to take in that chapter on groups accounts for the fact that most people new to this spiritual paradigm, at least in the United States and similar societies, will be exposed to it online and primarily interact with people online.

Navigating online environments means dealing with the worst of our current parasocial landscape, including the tendency for teachers — even the qualified ones — and coreligionists — friends, acquaintances, parasocials, or strangers —to backslide from a healthy mindset of growth and connection to a mindset that is driven by philotimia, that insatiable desire for honor that manifests most keenly on social media when someone seeks clout or falls into a net of delusions of grandeur. In the worst cases, this manifests in spiritual cults centered around someone claiming a special divine authority, which creates fallout in the long run because those communities do significant harm when they distort teachings to serve an ego-driven goal. In the best cases, a person who slides into philotimia pulls themself back out again and can demonstrate growth and change to others in a way that helps everyone develop positive mindsets about how to navigate our current circumstances. In the middle, though, there is a mess. Are we allowed to read this person, or are we supposed to fear mental miasma from even seeing their name? Are we to side with this person, or that person? Does past positive history with someone matter, or are we honor-bound to cast them aside the moment a stranger calls them out? Is this fight an existential fight that will mean something in 10 years, or is it ephemeral? What is dangerous to our externals, and what is dangerous to us (the soul)? The insatiable power of philotimia churns us through a spiritual meat grinder, and it leaves nobody unscathed. 

Another complication here is something that I’ve picked up in Jeremy Lent’s The Web of Meaning (a book that I am currently listening to on Audible and that I have a love-hate relationship with; it’s probably getting 3 stars from me). In the book, he mentioned the well-known phenomenon of plants having a different phenotypic presentation based on the environments they are grown in and the environments that their progenitors were grown in, with the impact that they are (hopefully) adapted to surviving in the situation they have germinated within. I started to wonder whether some of the things in society nowadays (which he covers in the book, but that are well-known from studies on social media research and covered in better depth and breadth by the Center for Humane Technology’s Your Undivided Attention podcast), ranging from the anxiety to loneliness to depression to the extremist pulls that people are experiencing online, are a product of the extreme isolation we are facing today. For instance, in the United States, members of the professional class, and especially in the academic professional class like myself, are often cut off from our families because we have to be open to any location in the country for work. The only places where one can sort of sidestep this are in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where it is marginally easier to find work close to one’s family. Our lives become limited to an apartment box with a computer box within it, and perhaps the box of work with our coworkers, and we learn about everything from the birth of a nibling to a parent’s retirement through text messages and social media apps. And there’s a totally different, albeit parallel, experience within other social classes in the USA. It wouldn’t be out of the question for this isolation experience to have triggered a survival instinct that is maladaptive for our actual situation, as isolation meant death to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and we really, really, really want to have that security of community as a result. 

It would not surprise me at all if this clusterf–k were found to have a significant impact on our cognitive safeguards when we start to associate with a new group or when other people start to look up to us. This is the main reason I was so heavy-handed in The Soul’s Inner Statues. It’s also the reason why I think that most social media nowadays is Titanic, or leading to the extreme points of division within the self and among all of us, and that a spiritual seeker’s goal should be a “get in, get out” mentality, similar to how we all treated grocery shopping during lockdown. You really want to find those people whom you can Zoom with or meet in person, and you really want to avoid any type of social media phenomenon (or semi-private space, like Discord) that is run by an Influencer.

A “get in, get out” mentality may seem a bit extreme, but it is admittedly less extreme than Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism guidance (note: I love his book). It’s also something that can really help aspiring spiritual teachers or people who feel like they’ve fallen into giving mentorship to others unprepared. The Internet is potentially fatal (Fate-al), and we can show up in the best way for others when we’re not putting our own souls through a hedonic meat grinder and expecting to be intact on the other side.

Your Soul and Spiritual Development

In each of us there lives the ambition of an Alcibiades, which we must discipline and train for something better.

Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, ϴ’ 23.23-25

In the prayer to Hermes, I wrote that it is our soul that is at stake in spiritual matters. This logic comes from Plato, and especially from the Alcibiades I, which teaches that we are each our soul and that our decision-making must prioritize what is good for us (the soul) in the long term. We then jump from the Alcibiades I to the Theaetetus, where we learn that our object is to become as Godlike as possible (famously emphasized by Plotinus), and we also learn in Book 10 of Plato’s Laws that “the Gods are on our side — as also are the guardian spirits — and we in turn are the property of the Gods and guardian spirits. What is fatal for us is injustice, and arrogance allied to folly; our salvation is justice, and self-control allied to wisdom, and these are to be found dwelling in the living powers of the Gods — though they can also be seen dwelling in us, just a bit — or something very like them” (906b). 

What on our side means here is not the sense of them taking our side in an argument or a fight or cursing our enemies or whatever. It’s meant in terms of the concept that every God is good, and a God can do nothing but good, and so the Gods care for the universe and everything in it like gardeners tending to the most beautiful garden. If we show signs of corruption, they will clip and trim us just like a gardener tending plants, causing temporary pain for the good of the individual plant and the health of the whole system. The virtues — temperance, courage, prudence, justice — are how we harmonize ourselves and behave well towards ourselves so we can be in as good a state as possible, regardless of what life throws at us. Injustice, arrogance, and folly are fatal both in the sense of drawing us down and in the sense that they bind us to what comes from fate — the good and the bad. In antiquity, Fate was often tied to the astrological weather (the modern Greek word for weather is kairos, pronounced kay-ROS), and the astrological weather is related to the cycle of birth and death that we come into when our soul is in its embodied modes. 

This is expanded in a variety of ways as centuries pass in the Platonic school. Hierocles’ commentary on the Golden Verses, Simplicius’ commentary on Epictetus, the Alcibiades I commentaries by Proclus and Olympiodorus, and a few other texts are useful for taking a look at how the Platonic tradition suggests caring for one’s soul. Michael Griffin wrote phenomenal introductions to the Olympiodorus translation (in two volumes), and his second-volume introduction is the one I want to give a shoutout to here if you want further reading. Mindy Mandell’s Discovering the Beauty of Wisdom and Tim Addey’s The Unfolding Wings are, in my opinion, going to send the reader in a great direction when it comes to the Anglosphere Platonism of our current century.

Caring for our soul means that we want to associate with teachers that are going to help us. We want to be in groups that are mutually supportive with respect to divine matters, that generally get things right (where right means well-ordered; what matters is piety and coherence, as those lead to unity in the soul). If we choose to be initiated into something, we want to know that the mystery tradition is solid and grounded. I had the benefit of talking to people several generations older than me (in a completely unrelated conversation) about theurgic practice a few months ago, and one of them emphasized how important it is to get rituals right for the same soul-oriented reasons. When you know that you are your soul, preserving that soul is what matters most.

This requires a lot of discernment. Most of us do not have access to continuous mystery traditions, and there is a hubbub of books peddling wishful thinking and escapism (especially since we live in such dire and defeating times; I sometimes need to stare at a blank wall after reading the news, too) instead of genuine practices that support the soul’s well-being. You can literally get initiated into divine service by buying it on Etsy from some random person for twenty to thirty bucks. Beyond that, a lot of popular religion nowadays is built on the idea of apocalypticism, the idea that if you are just initiated into the right thing, the world will end and you’ll be fine. A concern for our soul during a time when many people were attracted to apocalyptic, iconoclastic new ideas is what motivated Damascius to say this:

Nothing human is worth as much as a clear conscience. A person should indeed live together with their fellow-humans in a decent manner, and if the true good is contrary to the apparent good, never prefer the latter nor give greater importance to anything other than Truth — not the danger of an impending struggle, nor a difficult task from which one turns away in fear; nor the profit gained from undeserved praise; nor a long-standing friendship nor the obligations which arise from family connections.

Damascius, Life of Isidore, §146

The language that Damascius uses above — struggle, difficulty, fear — points to the fact that there are no shortcuts. All of those apocalyptic cults are selling empty bottles; what matters is the truth. We are incarnating souls, a spark of divinity, and we have limbs and voices and minds that are our true salvation from lifetime to lifetime, if only we have the confidence and self-awareness to use them.

The Goddess Athene, in the famous myth of Aesop, would come to the aid of a drowning sailor only once he started moving his own arms. We make our soul as Godlike as possible because, at least in Platonism, properly aligning the elements of our soul increases our efficacy at bringing forth the providential love (eros pronoetikos) of the Gods, and especially the unique fingerprint of our own divine leader. This involves working on our habits, desires, and the issues we acquired during our upbringing (habitual virtue); figuring out how to balance ourselves in terms of the human community, including when to bend and when to be rigid (civic virtue); and the liberation of our soul from the things within us that make our relationship with our lifetime(s) unhealthy (cathartic virtue). That is an oversimplification, but talking about the full virtue ladder will take us a bit too far off-topic, and I will again rec the things I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

The true warfare with the Giants takes place in souls: whenever reason and intellect rule in them, the goods of the Olympians and Athena prevail, and the entire life is kingly and philosophical; but whenever the passions reign, or in general the worse and earth-born elements, then the constitution within them is tyranny.

Proclus, Commentary on the Parmenides, Book I, 692-693

Takeaways from Tibetan Buddhism

When I started researching spiritual teachers and communities, something that kept coming up were struggles that have happened in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism started growing in the United States at about the same time as the modern Neopagan and polytheist movements. The key difference between us and them is that they are a continuous tradition trying to adjust to American culture. A toxic teacher is a toxic teacher, though, and the way that Buddhism is transmitted involves students clustering around teacher(s) and ascetics. The ascetic practices differ from Buddhist school to Buddhist school, and so do the teachings, but they all ultimately come from the Buddha. Similarly, were Platonism to grow today, we’d see something similar because we are all interpreting Plato, and the subschools are likely to cluster around specific lenses of interpretation and cultural substrates. The same goes for other philosophical schools within polytheistic traditions ranging from Stoicism to the pagan version of Deep Ecology.

Tibetan Buddhists responded to their teacher scandals, which ranged from sexual misconduct and rape to emotional and spiritual abuse, by focusing on being louder about teachings from the Buddha and writings from major thinkers in their school of Buddhism. They also started to focus more on cross-cultural education so that Western (usually American) students and Tibetan teachers wouldn’t have dangerous cultural misunderstandings. Some Tibetans in this space have been criticized for saying things like, “why would a student do something a teacher asks them to do that is clearly against Buddhist principles?” because, from an American perspective, it sounds like victim-blaming. However, the question sounds very similar to what we try to instill in young people when teaching them about practicing situational awareness around adults — if alarm bells start ringing, listen to the alarm bells. We do have a vulnerability in American culture simply because we put people up on idolizing pedestals, and the philotimia drive pulls whoever is on that pedestal down unless they have bridles of steel for their irrational souls, where “bridles of steel” indicates self-awareness, multicultural social skills, and healthy coping mechanisms for handling authority. This is even worse with Influencer culture being what it is. It’s ultimately the responsibility of the teacher to use their position ethically.

Examples of this cultural education include:

  • An enormous section on Study Buddhism on the Teacher-Student relationship, which is the second section on this page (see the right-hand navigation). These pieces were generally well-balanced and useful, especially the ones on healthy attitudes and how to identify appropriate spiritual teachers. I found some sections uncomfortable, particularly the one about teachers who have committed extreme forms of misconduct like sexual coercion. My skepticism is related to wanting to know more from women who have persisted in Buddhism after being violated and needing more peer-reviewed sources to support the idea that a modified “you have flaws but you still taught me” form of guru meditation can heal the aftermath of violation and spiritual trauma. Alexander Berzin is the Dalai Lama’s former archivist, and Study Buddhism is a project he started in 1998 after leaving his archival service.
  • The Guru Principle: A Guide to the Teacher-Student Relationship in Buddhism, by Shenpen Hookham, focuses on the role(s) of a teacher, what guru practices, mean, and other considerations that Western students often find conceptually challenging. The author is a British woman who has studied extensively with Tibetan teachers and who eventually became a lama. This book is on my TBR.
  • Holy Madness: Spirituality, Crazy-Wise Teachers, and Enlightenment, by Georg Feuerstein, is described in the introduction as being the author’s attempt to process his own hurt after a fallout with his spiritual teacher. It has a broader focus than Buddhism and is meant to be a wide-reaching analysis of controversial figures in a variety of spiritual traditions, including Chögyam Trungpa, Adi Da, Aleister Crowley, and Shoko Asahara. What I appreciated after reading the intro was his admission that between the first and second editions of the book, one of the teachers he’d found problematic and controversial seemed to actually become a better person, and he now really respects and appreciates that person. I’m so used to reading takedowns of people that seem to say they can never change, and it’s so shockingly mature of someone to publicly state otherwise. I’ve started reading this book and am very excited about it.

One example of “being louder about teachings from the Buddha” is a learning packet that I read on January 1 of this year, and I want to highlight a few examples of things I found neat from that packet. Here is a passage from the Buddha in the Tibetan Dharmapada:

8. Just as the clean kusha grass
That wraps a rotten fish
Will also start to rot,
So too will those devoted to an evil person.

9. Just as a leaf folded
To contain an incense offering
Also becomes sweet,
So too will those devoted to the virtuous.

I love the imagery of scent — the perfume of incense, the ammonia reek of rotting fish, and the way that each seems to catch on everything. This is a very beautiful example of what I am talking about with respect to the soul — we do everything for its care, and the most important thing is to make wise choices according to one’s ability. 

“A prayer from Je Tsongkhapa” on page 5 is another example of something I loved. What I appreciated about this was how it underscored parts of Simplicius about friendship and selecting good friends, but also the parts of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that focus on friendship.

Spiritual teachers might like how parts of this text focus on how students must be appropriate, too — for example, on page 4,

No to examine the teacher 
Is like drinking poison; 
Not to examine the disciple 
Is like leaping from a precipice

I also recommend reading the text from the Dalai Lama that starts on page 14. All of it.

Two things that frequently came up when I was reading this were the concepts of “root downfall” and “tantric empowerments.” These are things unique to Buddhism (and Tibetan Buddhism at that), but we can link them to some concepts within paganisms and polytheisms.

A root downfall is a betrayal of one’s spiritual oaths. In Tibetan Buddhism, according to Study Buddhism, the vows someone makes when they commit their soul to that path range from habitual and philotimia-moderating behaviors to how someone nurtures their mind to the way they engage with other community members. For instance, having a distorted and antagonistic outlook is a violation of the oath. When I read that, I was like ,,, wow. Imagine how much of a weightlifting workout the past ten years of American life would be if you were oath-bound to hold a positive outlook. You can’t dogpile anyone with an oathed code of conduct that strict.

This idea of spiritual oaths is a concept that many of us have in polytheistic traditions, and most notably (from what I’ve observed) in Heathenry and Ásatrú, which has very strict protocols surrounding them due to how people in that religion think of wyrd. We also see the importance of oaths in the Platonic tradition. First, in what I have mentioned about the care of the soul in the earlier part of this post; second, in the discussion in the Phaedrus about the choices of lives and what happens when souls choose philosophical lives repeatedly (liberation); and third, in the common notions at the time of Plato’s writings, where the Maxims of the God at Delphi urge us to not use/abuse oaths. We can also see the strength of concern for oaths in the specific coded language Platonists chose to use in Late Antiquity to refer to the destruction of sacred groves, temples, and other religious infrastructure — that had all been founded originally based on compacts of communities with the Gods, and the violation of those sacred connections could be seen in light of the oath that Zeus and his allies made in the succession myth. And, of course, those oaths echo across lifetimes, as some may be aware.

Tantric empowerments seem to be specialized practices that are available to people who have made a sufficient level of progress in the fundamentals within the tradition. Because they are active on the soul/oneself, they are distributed only after verifying that someone can handle them responsibly. This is a strategy similar to what is done in traditional Wicca with the initiation grades and in the schools of responsible pagan and polytheist teachers when they train people. My partner tells me this story about how, her first day weightlifting, she loaded everything too heavy and could barely walk and couldn’t extend her arms the next day. The reason training programs and procedures exist, spiritual or secular, is for the safety of everyone involved. Since we know that spiritual training and initiations impact the soul (ourselves), that gives us extra motivation to be cautious.

In addition, the texts I read all indicated that we don’t need to think of everyone we read as a teacher. That was a grounding thing to see. Over the past decade or so in paganisms and polytheisms, there’s been a conflation of what it means to read someone with what it means to be their associate — I frequently read things I disagree with, so this shift in culture has been hard for me to handle. While I do sometimes concede points when I read those I disagree with, this does not impact my core values. Typically, the only thing that can change those is a transformative experience or life event, positive or negative. I have had two such moments over the past five years — one spiritual, the other social. A teacher relationship isn’t established by something as informal as reading or attending a lecture, and neither is community membership. It’s something that involves actual work from all parties. 

I found a lot of the parallels between the Buddhist texts and my Platonic home base to be heartwarming indicators that both traditions are responsible, even if Buddhism and Platonism differ on some important metaphysical details about the nature of reality. There are also definitely some things that I will value following up on, as indicated by my continued reading plans. It gave me a much better idea of what healthy traditions do when confronted by improper behavior and how to balance independence and group cohesion through a shared set of values.

Models from Late Antiquity

When I started working on this blog post, I took a deeper look at Edward J. Watts’ City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria and The Final Pagan Generation because I thought they would be more helpful than they actually were. For one, Watts holds Proclus in contempt, which drips from almost every sentence of how he discusses him. John Dillon is a much more generous scholar, which is probably to be expected given that he has some association with the Prometheus Trust, which publishes books for people who want to get started on Platonism as a living spiritual tradition. I focused my attention on the Platonic tradition because that is where I am, but I think the fundamentals of what I am about to say are adaptable to others’ contexts with some creativity.

John Dillon’s work, when it comes to Platonism, raises the important point that philosophical schools are communities, not simply collections of students under a single teacher. As communities, they have shared spiritual practices that may be different from the practices of the culture writ large, as shown by the Platonic festival of the Mouseia being a Platonic festival. The Muses are a big deal in Platonism! He wrote a wonderful piece about this that is in a preprint version on Academia

Beyond Dillon, the scholarship about Platonism in antiquity also points out that, despite the fact that many clusters of Platonism were set up around a few teachers in cities in the Empire large enough that they could maintain a philosophical circle, most of those teachers were educated in and retained strong ties to their own teachers in Alexandria, Athens, Rome, and other large centers. Despite doctrinal differences, there is a lot of conformity. And, in fact, former students could be recalled to one of the hubs if a teacher wanted to implement a succession plan. Important to note here is that there is a lot of ethnic and religious diversity within mainstream Platonists — everyone had some level of knowledge of the Hellenic Gods, and yet a lot of famous ancient Platonists like Plotinus and Iamblichus are Egyptian, Syrian, &c. The Elements of Theology written by Proclus shows why this is, as Platonism involves a set of commitments that can be brought into conversation with other divine systems as long as those systems are polytheistic.

Simplicius describes the relationship between us and our teachers as similar to that between a child and parent, with the main difference being choice — 

The appropriate actions towards teachers of good things are, in a way, the same as those towards parents. But these actions are perhaps charged with an additional intensity, because teachers are nurturers and care-givers not of our bodies, but of ourselves, and they act not by natural necessity (like parents among both irrational animals and human beings), but by a good prohairesis that imitates the divine Goodness in leading souls fallen into the realm of generation back up whence they came. Appropriate actions towards teachers largely concern the requirement to follow their orders unhesitatingly, as if [a] god were giving commands. (A teacher of what is naturally fitting for us will not order anything that does not tend to this aim.) But if our parents happen to be teachers of good things as well, then since the two relations have been combined, we should render to them the appropriate actions according to both relations: we should revere them as a model of the divine because, like God, they have become the causes both of our being and of our well-being.

86,1-19, in volume 2

— and, of course, in Late Antiquity that usage is also linguistic (and not just in Christianity!), with students calling their teachers their parents and using brother for people on about the same footing. Simplicius says that “a teacher of what is naturally fitting for us” — and remember, we are ourselves, the soul — “will not order anything that does not tend to this aim” of leading us back up to our causes and bringing us into harmony with the Gods. (Edit: Someone commented that the “obey them like a God” bit in Simplicius is a bit excessive, and I agree that this could also be prone to abuse today, so I decided to add a parenthetical note here. It’s one thing to obey a spiritual teacher when they say “don’t do x because x will blow up in your spiritual face” and quite another to have a spiritual teacher start insisting that trees aren’t real or that walkable cities are an evil plot. Importantly, in antiquity, Isidore valued Proclus “like a God” but didn’t always follow his instructions — see §59B of the Life of Isidore: “Proclus ordered Isidore to change his appearance for the purposes of the better life and to put on a coarse cloak. But Isidore could not bring himself to do it, even though he revered Proclus as much as a god.” — and sometimes, Isidore disrupted? sound-effects-enhanced? the theurgic rituals with weird bird noises. So I think the instruction is more about being sensibly reverent of our teachers.) And so here’s the crux of the matter: How on Earth do we balance all of this?

If you’ve seen the film Agora, Hypatia says “we are brothers” a few times — emphasizing the common pursuit of herself and others even in the face of the significant religious strife and social upheaval that will ultimately lead to her horrific murder. We might not do this on a routine basis nowadays because it (a) sounds weird in our culture and (b) one of the biggest workplace red flags is the boss saying “but we’re like a family” — but it’s part of the history of group cohesion in religious and philosophical circles in Late Antiquity. Another word that was used in antiquity was hetairoi, or companions, for the inner circle of students (and soon-to-be teachers) that orbited around a philosopher. For example, both Proclus and Hermias were hetairoi with respect to Syrianus, and Proclus cultivated a large inner circle of hetairoi around himself as well. Interestingly, hetairoi has at times referred to cavalry, so there is a militaristic image that comes along with this — perhaps fitting for the battlefield that is generation. Perhaps important to why Hypatia used the term “brothers” in English-language film Agora, the feminine form of the word is hetairai. Until recently, scholars assumed that hetairai meant courtesans, but it’s coming out that this may just be institutionalized archaeological/historical sexism, just like how some feminine words for temple officiants in Sumerian texts were mistranslated as referring to prostitutes. Still, if anyone were to use this term today, I’d prefer being called a hetairos, as I think it’s too difficult to reclaim hetaira. When it comes to spiritual friendship, I highly recommend this blog post by barefootwisdom that is summarizing and commenting on Simplicius’ discussion of it. Simplicius’ text is an important one for the ethical guidelines and guardrails it provides for serious students within a philosophical tradition.

The other places in the Platonic tradition where there is a deep discussion of Platonic culture and society is in the texts we might nowadays use for “guru” contemplation — Damascius’ Life of Isidore (out of print), Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus (public domain, plus a recent translation), Marinus’ Life of Proclus (public domain, plus a recent translation), Eunapius’ Lives of Philosophers and Sophists (the Loeb is public domain now!), and so on. Plato, in the Phaedo, includes a passage of Socrates discussing his wayfinding: how he approached teachers, where they fell short, and his ultimate quest to figure out what Apollon meant. The Phaedrus discusses the spark of the souls of two people in the context of a divine erotic madness, and while the text could easily be taken out-of-context by an abusive spiritual teacher, the contrast between Lysias (the teacher trying to seduce Phaedrus) and Socrates (the teacher exciting Phaedrus’ intellect to the vision of the palinode) is an important one to note insofar as teaching ethics is concerned. Aphrodite is both sublunary and ouranic, and in Proclus’ surviving general prayer to her, he propitiates her in the context of her ouranic side — she is physically chaste.

Proclus, in the Parmenides, gives us expectations of a student:

There are three things, then, which he says are required by anyone embarking on the study of the intelligible nature—natural ability, experience, and enthusiasm. Natural ability will naturally endow him with faith in the divine, experience will enable him to hold fast to the truth of paradoxical doctrines, and his enthusiasm will stir up in him a love of this study, that in this sphere of activity also there may be Faith, Truth, and Love, those three qualities that save souls through the natural suitability which joins one to them. And, if you like, through experience he will acquire receptivity in the cognitive part of his soul, while through enthusiasm he will gain an intensification of the vital part, directed towards the intelligibles, and through natural excellence the preexisting basis for both these, since right from birth all these qualities have been granted to him. So the prospective student should be of this nature, and have a character made up of this triad of qualities.

927, trans. Morrow & Dillon

The biggest takeaway from the above passage is that someone needs intrinsic motivation and a curiosity for learning. All people, to some degree, have aptitude; what matters is how we apply and nurture that aptitude to play to our strengths and balance out our weaknesses.

And, then, a teacher:

As for the teacher, having journeyed long before along the same path, he will not want to expound the divine truth with elaborate verbosity, but rather to reveal much through few words, uttering words of like nature to the concepts they express; nor will he proceed from widely acknowledged and obvious concepts, but will contemplate reality beginning from above, from the most unitary principles, taking a remote point of departure for his systematic treatment, inasmuch as he has separated himself from his immediate surroundings and drawn close to the divine; nor will he take thought so that he may seem to speak clearly, but he will content himself with indications; for one should convey mystical truths mystically, and not publicise secret doctrines about the gods. Such should be the nature of both the auditor and the purveyor of such discourses.

928, trans. Morrow & Dillon

Note the emphasis on (a) auspicious speech and (b) that the ideal teacher guides the student to what can only be experienced oneself, as Plato writes in the Seventh Letter, after a long familiarity with it.

In Book I, Chapter II, of Proclus’ Platonic Theology, he writes:

But it is necessary that I should unfold the mode of the proposed doctrine, what it is requisite to expect it will be, and define the preparatives which a hearer of it ought to possess; that being properly adapted, he may approach, not to our discourses, but to the intellectually-elevated and deific philosophy of Plato. For it is proper that convenient aptitudes of auditors should be proposed according to the forms of discourses, just as in the mysteries, those who are skilful in concerns of this kind, previously prepare receptacles for the Gods, and neither always use the same inanimate particulars, nor other animals, nor men, in order to procure the presence of the divinities; but that alone out of each of these which is naturally capable of participating divine illumination, is by them introduced to the proposed mystic rites.

The present discourse, therefore, will first of all be divided by me into three parts. In the beginning, considering all those common conceptions concerning the Gods, which Plato summarily delivers, together with the power and dignity every where of theological axioms; but in the middle of this work, speculating the total orders of the Gods, enumerating their peculiarities, defining their progressions after the manner of Plato, and referring every thing to the hypotheses of theologists; and, in the end, speaking concerning the Gods which are in different places celebrated in the Platonic writings, whether they are supermundane or mundane, and referring the theory respecting them to the total genera of the divine orders.

In every part of this work, likewise, we shall prefer the clear, distinct, and simple, to the contraries of these. And such things as are delivered through symbols, we shall transfer to a clear doctrine concerning them; but such as are delivered through images, we shall transmit to their exemplars. Such things too as are written in a more affirmative way, we shall examine by causal reasonings; but such as are composed through demonstrations, we shall investigate; and besides this, explain the mode of truth which they contain, and render it known to the hearers. And of things enigmatically proposed, we shall elsewhere discover perspicuity, not from foreign hypotheses, but from the most genuine writings of Plato. But with respect to the things which immediately occur to the hearers, of these we shall contemplate the consent with things themselves. And from all these particulars, one perfect form of the Platonic theology will present itself to our view, together with its truth which pervades through the whole of divine intellections, and the one intellect which generated all the beauty of this theology, and the mystic evolution of this theory. Such, therefore, as I have said, will be my present treatise.

But the auditor of the proposed dogmas is supposed to be adorned with the moral virtues, and to be one who has bound by the reason of virtue all the illiberal and inharmonious motions of the soul, and harmonized them to the one form of intellectual prudence: for, as Socrates says, it is not lawful for the pure to be touched by the impure. But every vicious man is perfectly impure; and the contrary character is pure. He must likewise have been exercised in all the logical methods, and have contemplated many irreprehensible conceptions about analyses, and many about divisions, the contraries to these, agreeably, as it appears to me, to the exhortation of Parmenides to Socrates. For prior to such a contest in arguments, the knowledge of the divine genera, and of the truth established in them, is difficult and impervious. But in the third place, he must not be unskilled in physics. For he who has been conversant with the multiform opinions of physiologists, and has after a manner explored in images the causes of beings, will more easily advance to the nature of separate and primary essences. An auditor therefore of the present work, as I have said, must not be ignorant of the truth contained in the phenomena, nor unacquainted with the paths of erudition, and the disciplines which they contain; for through these we obtain a more immaterial knowledge of a divine essence. But all these must be bound together in the leader intellect. Being likewise a partaker of the dialectic of Plato, meditating those immaterial energies which are separate from corporeal powers, and desiring to contemplate by intelligence[4] in conjunction with reason [true] beings, our auditor must genuinely apply himself to the interpretation of divine and blessed dogmas, and fill his soul, according to the Oracle, with profound love; since, as Plato somewhere observes, for the apprehension of this theory, a better assistant than love cannot be obtained.

He must likewise be exercised in the truth which pervades through all things, and must excite his intelligible eye to real and perfect truth. He must establish himself in a firm, immovable, and safe kind of divine knowledge, and must be persuaded not to admire any thing else, nor even to direct his attention to other things, but must hasten to divine light with an intrepid reasoning energy, and with the power of an unwearied life; and in short, must propose to himself such a kind of energy and rest as it becomes him to possess who intends to be such a coryphæus as Socrates describes in the Theætetus. Such then is the magnitude of our hypothesis, and such the mode of the discourses about it. Before, however, I enter on the narration of the things proposed, I wish to speak about theology itself, its different modes, and what theological forms Plato approves, and what he rejects; that these being previously known, we may more easily learn in what follows, the auxiliaries of the demonstrations themselves.

A curiosity about the world around us naturally makes us look to divine causes as long as we don’t stop, as Aristotle did, before extending our love upward. At the same time, an understanding of the divine cannot be ungrounded in the world we see around us, as the Gods ultimately produce all of this.

One of the things that can really hamper someone is thinking that Platonism is ossified. Many of my marginal notes on the Parmenides commentary are about modern astrophysics, for example. You can still comment on Plato, and you can still respond to a commentator. After all, that’s what they did to one another, and if you truly care about someone, you go to bat for the essence of their teachings, not the fact that they didn’t know about the Oort cloud.

Essentially, we have a lot to work with.

Some Takeaways

Obviously, we can’t just keep all of this theoretical. It must have an application to the real world. Plato’s Seventh Letter describes the philosopher’s decision to return to Syracuse to the city-state of a tyrant to try (once again) to make things go well — out of a desire to prove that his philosophy has practical applications. Not only do his efforts fail, but they fail catastrophically. Real life is not a simulation. Not everyone who should have a correct grasp of their desires does, and even those with the best training possible make the occasional bad decision.

The worst things we do to one another are related to our unwillingness to confront pain. We entice ourselves into perverse bargains for a pleasure that will never satisfy instead of taking cold water to the face, sobering up, and altering our course. This is why the ancients were so skeptical of pleasure and why so much time was spent on discussing the flight from this state. There is nothing there but sorrow, and yet we keep acting like this.

A genuine and healthy teacher-student relationship, and a genuinely healthy community, must be constituted of people who are cultivating self-awareness — not escapism, not an ego trip. Being in community requires the self-discipline to be a team player (patience pays off) and a certain level of altruism and compassion and chaste love for others. Self-awareness means being able to ideologically self-regulate away from farfetched conspiracy theories just as much as it means maintaining awareness of our own interior emotions and desires so we can direct them appropriately. We should also be able to expect ethical commonalities for people in the same community, and the Buddhist example of the vows is a great one. In addition, we sometimes need to part ways with teachers or communities for any number of reasons — but in all cases, that impulse should come from wanting to care for our souls and conform to what we judge is as just as possible, and we should behave justly towards those we leave behind, both for our sake and theirs, so we don’t embitter our hearts and poison our outlooks.

For example, there is a baseline of respectful behavior that I expect from other people in Platonizing contexts — nobody in that situation should be in such a bad way with their appetitive instincts that they act out on others, but since ambition and philotimia are the hardest things to purify the soul from, it’s not that strange for arguments to be a thing. Furthermore, we all have good and bad days, and dealing with those ups and downs is a process. We’re all works in progress, seeded from a variety of Gods, with very different lives, and Truth Itself is way, way, way prior to us in the causality chain. Whatever standards of conduct a community shares are the baseline expectation, and people should be supportive of one another as they strive to be their best.

Over and over, the works I read from the Buddhists emphasized the need to read about the lives of esteemed predecessors. Over the past few weeks, I’ve let the awe of Sosipatra’s life story overtake me — along with the eyeroll that you need to literally have been trained by angels from the age of five to be apologetically included in a hagiography of best philosophers if you’re a woman — and I’ve read Marinus’ hagiography of Proclus a few times. I read a summary of Thomas Taylor’s life that made me feel so happy and connected that I didn’t know what to do with myself for a few hours after I read it. I’ve reflected on one of the reading groups I’m in and our focus on foundational texts and “community” works, and reflecting on those conversations in the context of what I’m reading now has been very rewarding.

The biggest takeaway I have from this so far, however, is the guru-centered meditation technique.

OMGs, It Worked 

The guru-centered meditation technique, in its original context, is aimed at gurus. The guru teaches religious, spiritual, and philosophical knowledge. Study Buddhism indicates that this meditation, though, could be used for others whom one knows on the dharma path — professors, meditation instructors, lecturers, and so on. It seems like there are two versions of this, one directed at the lineage and the deceased, the other at the living. I decided to apply the term “teacher” in a broad sense, even to people I’m not in community with, to see how it would go — so, in a broad sense, I directed this at my elders. (You can ask ChatGPT who the most important modern polytheists are. It’s a really interesting list and says a lot about the Internet dataset the tool is trained on.) People elder to me are Gen X and higher.

The modified form of the meditation proposed by Study Buddhism tells us to first think of the person’s shortcomings as a prelude to the meditation. We then consider how, despite these shortcomings, the person has still been able to teach something very valuable and how much strength and drive they have. It suggests that we consider how powerful the teachings are — if our teacher(s) were able to progress this far, then we certainly have a chance, too, because we also have our own shortcomings. One then progresses on to see the guru’s connection to the lineage and to acknowledge them as a Buddha. Or something like that.

From a Platonic standpoint, this means considering the effects of generation on any soul and the mistakes that we make here. Proclus was known to have a temper and to be very sensitive about the correct attitude towards the Gods, so much so that he was once exiled from Athens. Despite his temperament, he was able to ascend to such amazing heights as a person, and he was truly blessed by the Gods. For myself, this means that my own flaws must be surmountable, and I can still make progress and grow through them, even if it’s hard. Then, we can consider the ways in which teachers are connected to the Gods and a manifestation of the care of the Gods. Proclus, for example, distributing his philosophical writings so far and wide into the future is a manifestation, a theophany, of the divine grace of Hermes. Each of us expresses a link to a God, and we are worthy of this link, and we can grow to benefit others, too.

That was a meditation for what we might call the “blessed dead” — the meditations work slightly differently for dead people — but I feel like it would be hazardous to give an example of an actual living person.

However, I have done this practice, both formally and informally, several times since learning about it. And you know what? I’ve definitely softened, and it’s helped me view people who teach and have authority in the pagan and polytheist communities as human beings. I’m no longer putting people on pedestals, and I don’t need someone to be perfect to interact with them or realize that they’ve had a big impact on our communities. There are a few instances where “I don’t agree with their politics, but …” has become a realization that it’s not about the specific someone’s politics, but about their decisions. And that’s a really important distinction because it invites the question how did they get there rather than the human outgroup ostracism instinct. There are other instances that have truly driven home “tell me about a complicated person / and how they wandered” — I have learned almost as much from watching others’ failures and missteps as I have learned from their successes.

This reframing has also helped me think more compassionately about our predecessors in Anglosphere Platonism. Our school in Platonopolis has existed for about two centuries, at least if we begin with the pious Thomas Taylor. Thomas Taylor wrote an anonymous satire about women’s rights, which was in poor taste. Thomas Moore Johnson, who cultivated a Platonic community and really advanced Platonism in 19th-century America, was the son of a Confederate senator, a Christian, and his school fizzled out because the American Platonists of the time refused to accept the theory of evolution. And yet they, and others like them, are our predecessors, and we can learn from both their successes and their shortcomings.

Once we do something and start strengthening the habit, it starts to become second nature. I’m still not sure how to give others critical feedback in a friendly way, but at least I’m keeping conscious of my own and others’ humanity, even in difficult situations like thinking about the prevailing circumstances and what to do to make a positive difference. I think the Buddhists are right about treating “holding a distorted, antagonistic outlook” in such a negative light. It truly is a poison.

To sum …

That softening is well worth all of the effort so far.

In love and war and everything in between, we are all human, and we have so much capacity for good that even the worst circumstances and upbringings can’t stop our light from shining.

5 thoughts on “Teachers, Students, and Community: A Few Initial Thoughts

  1. Such a thorough and engaging piece. You’ve brought forward so much into these considerations. With the “softening” you mentioned, does that translate as well to the community as a whole, as it does to individuals? I find similar concerns still hamper joining or staying with organizations when substantive differences arise (as well as concerns with individual personalities in given groups). Have you found this affecting personal decisions on memberships or group engagements?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For the community, somewhat. I’m still frustrated by broader American cultural currents and rampant reenactment escapism (e.g., Americans thinking we’ve somehow inherited Ancient Greece even though Greeks are still living there), but I see these issues as societal — polytheist communities in the USA are not unique in their problems grappling with these cultural forces, and it will take a lot of effort to down-regulate those elements in favor of more healthy operating paradigms. I suppose I recognize a bit more just how much this is asking of people.

      Liked by 1 person

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