When the debate between science and religion is staged, adjectives are almost exactly reversed: it is of science that one should say that it reaches the invisible world of the beyond, that she is spiritual, miraculous, soul-lifting, uplifting. And it is religion that should be qualified as local, objective, visible, mundane, unmiraculous, repetitive, obstinate, sturdy.
I believe it was also Plato’s experience. As told by Plato, Socrates’ “Allegory of the Cave” has always made sense to me as an illustration of how the philosophic intellect works in science. Gravity is invisible to the senses, though its effects can be seen. One can pose experiments and collect data, reorganizing what is seen until gravity becomes visible not to the eye but to the intellect. One can turn one’s vision to the movement of celestial objects, seeing at last the transcendent force that orders the night sky.
But it is when Socrates speaks of his daimon that he is bringing up religion. Of that, he says little, because he cannot through reason make the intimate and immediate experience of his communion available to a public. He leaves little doubt, though, that his truest knowledge is of divine eros and that this knowledge is arrived at through intimate communion. In the Symposium Socrates tells us that he knows nothing but the things of eros. He expands this claim in the Theages, “I always say, you know, that I happen, so to speak, to know nothing except a certain small subject of learning, the things of eros. As regards this subject of learning, I claim to be more clever than any human beings living previously or now.”
A great mystery of Plato is that he is adamant in his Seventh Letter that he has never been explicit in writing about the things about which he is serious. “There is no writing of mine about these things, nor will there ever be,” he said. “For it is in no way a spoken thing like other lessons.” He adds that trying to write about the serious things wouild not be good for people “except for some few who are able to learn by themselves with a little guidance.”
This strange silence has led to great argument about what to make of the “serious things” and Plato’s claims of silence about them. James Rhodes summarizes the story in Eros, Wisdom, and Silence. Schleiermacher claimed that Plato wanted to lead his readers into the foothills of the truth, where they might glimpse the spiritual reality for themselves. Leo Strauss, most notoriously, revived the esoteric arguments that Plato intentionally deceived his readers and kept his profound secrets away from the many. Voegelin suggested that Socratic language respresented “experiences of transcendence” that language could refer to only symbolically. Paul Friedländer argued that the “ineffability of the highest Platonic vision” is symbolized by “the irony of Socratic ignorance.” He says he knows nothing.
The most vivid knowledge, in my experience, occurs through direct perception during periods of intense communion. We can talk about such experiences, but only people who recognize that they have had such experiences themselves take such conversation seriously. Religious practices try to renew such experiences. This is far removed from theology, which is a sort of philosophy–the sort of thing Plato and Socrates did talk about.