Cave Journey into the Heart

Journal Notes of Peter Y. Chou
for the Dance Gallery
Issue #8 Foothill College Directed Study in Fine Art— Multimedia Performance May 11, 1993
Contemplation from the Many to the One: Raphael's The School of Athens

After Kent told me to add "fire" and "hands" images to my research on "cave", I realized that these three elements are connected. The cave represents the world, a downward movement into the earth of matter, while fire symbolizes heaven, an upward ascent into the air of the spirit. And the hand is the medium which affects this transition from earth to heaven. The Sanskrit word for spiritual teacher is guru, composed of gu: darkness and ru: light. So a guru is a hand that guides us from darkness to light or from ignorance to knowledge. I would like to share my experience of such a teacher who introduced me to Plato and helped me in the adventurous journey from the many to the One.

While working on my biochemistry thesis at Cornell, I read much about creativity so I could do better scientific research. A student told me that a new bookshop opened in downtown Ithaca, and that I would find many interesting books there. My first visit to the American Brahman Bookstore on 118 West State Street is still vivid in my memory. It was April 5, 1968, and I was amazed to find a bookshop that seemed like the ancient Library at Alexandria. But what I recalled most was my talk with the store's proprietor, a 46-year old dark haired man with a goatee beard, Anthony Damiani. He was casually attired in a blue shirt, loose slacks, and sneakers. Anthony had only a high school degree, but the moment he spoke about philosophy, I realized that here was someone with greater passion for wisdom than any of the professors I had met at Columbia and Cornell. When I mentioned reading Plato's Republic once during my freshman year at Columbia, he said: "That's not reading! You should read his works at least 100 times. Plato is an education onto itself. His works on cosmology, Timaeus, and on metaphysics, Parmenides, require a lifetime's study. You probably read Benjamin Jowett's version of Plato. Jowett was a Greek philologist at Oxford, but he didn't experience Plato's cosmic insights. Read the Thomas Taylor translation of Plato which inspired the romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Blake in the early 1800's." Anthony then showed me a 1804 edition of Thomas Taylor's Works of Plato. The way he caressed that heavy bound volume was like that of a violinist with his Stradavarius, for Plato's Dialogues were heavenly music to Anthony's ears. His eyes gleamed as he leafed through the vellum pages which contained many of his pencilled marginal notes. There were small paper tabs between pages of his favorite passages which he read to me. One memorable passage which still resonate in my mind was Plato's Seventh Letter.

On another occasion when Anthony was locking up the bookstore, he noticed how much I was admiring an item in his display window. It was a small detailed print of Plato & Aristotle from Raphael's School of Athens— one of my favorite paintings. Anthony reopened the store and gave me the print: "It's yours! Take good care of it."

I told him that the print should remain in the window as a philosophical centerpiece so others may be drawn to the wisdom books in his store. But Anthony was insistent, so I accepted his gift. Anthony loved that portrait of his spiritual heroes, yet showed little attachment as he gave it to me so spontaneously and affectionately. Because of this symbolic gesture, his gift has remained a memorable treasure. I mounted the print next to my bookshelves and contemplated on it often. Aristotle with Ethics in his left hand and right palm toward the earth appears to be lecturing on the moral teachings of mankind. Plato holding Timaeus, has his right forefinger pointing to heaven or the truth of God. Aristotle is more extravagantly attired in his sandals and tunics with gold trimmings in contrast to Plato's bare feet and simple attire without any adornments. I was reminded by Christ (Matthew, XIX.23): "that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven."

Four years later, on my first trip to Europe in August 1972, I viewed Raphael's School of Athens mural at the Vatican. I stood there rapt in awe at those philosophers of old— Alcibiades, Diogenes, Euclid, Heraclitus, Ptolemy, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Zoroaster. Suddenly the central figures, Plato and Aristotle gave me a new insight. Plato's finger is not just pointing to heaven, but is a symbol of unity. Aristotle's five fingers are not just directed toward earth, but represents also multiplicity. Finally, the One and the many came into sharp focus: the five senses perceive the outer world of change, the one mind intuits the inner heaven of eternity. I had a glimpse of Plato's vision (Philebus, 16d): "From the gods a gift to the human race: thus I reckon the gift of seeing the One in the many and the many in the One." Dante witnessed my rapture that day as he was on the adjacent wall in Raphael's The Mount of Parnassus. A week later came a gift from the One— my first meeting and an interview with the British writer and sage, Paul Brunton (PB) at his home in Montreux, Switzerland.

Dante wrote in his Convivio (II.1) that a visionary writer uses four interpretative levels— the literal for the public, the moral for preachers, the allegorical for poets, and the anagogical for saints and sages. We may interpret Raphael's painting likewise— The literal level is the story or plot which is apprehended through our physical senses (figures of Plato & Aristotle). The tropological level or moral metaphor is experienced emotionally (the books Timaeus & Ethics). The allegorical level or its mythological meaning is apprehended intellectually (heaven & earth). The anagogical level or spiritual meaning is understood through the mystical sense (One and many). I'm thankful to Anthony & PB for their generous sharing of wisdom. Raphael's Plato & Aristotle is like a sacred seed gift entrusted to me which I've tried to nourish well in my heart. May Plato's vision of the Many and the One inspire us all.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (3-27-2002)