ISSUE #009 - Dec 05, 2018

The Light of Hellenism

Athena Despoina Potari


Ιn Ancient Hellenic language, ‘El’ stands for the Light of Being—or spiritual Light. As its root-syllable expresses, (H) El-lenism is a worldview, a civilization and a spiritual tradition which centers around the ontology and practice of Light. The Sciences, and above all Philosophy, are methodical routes towards self-liberation and the realization of Light. Focusing around the notions of eros and universal consciousness, Hellenism is, in its very essence, a path of En-lightnment.


What most people know about Hellenism is that this ancient civilization, born in the heart of the Mediterranean, is the cultural cradle of western civilization. Its heritage is marked by an impressive devotion to scientific research and the pioneering commitment to Reason or Logos—notions which it invented. All of the above justify its status as the birthplace of sciences, but also politics, democracy, and of course, Philosophy.

Beyond its more well-known descriptions, however, what many people don’t know about Hellenism is that its tradition developed over thousands of years in an on-going co-creative dialogue and exchange with the numerous Eastern traditions of the pre-Christian world. The Hellene sages held strong ties with their Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian, Hindu and Buddhist counterparts. Pythagoras, for example, was educated in the revered esoteric schools of Egypt, where he served as a high priest for 22 years, then studied next to Persian magi in Babylon for another 12 years, before starting his debut as a spiritual teacher in Greece and southern Italy.

In addition, what is also not widely acknowledged is that Hellenism’s core concept of Reason (Logos)—so highly acclaimed in our modern discourses and their correlated political societies—has little to do with its parochial anachronistic interpretation as a mind-based faculty or discursive abstraction resting upon the use of purely rational and linearly logical methods. Reason as Logos, in its original sense, refers to the essence or substance of Consciousness that everything is made up of and which permeates the entirety of cosmic creation (alike the notion of Atma). Epistemologically, it is a state of consciousness beyond discursive knowledge, where individual experience merges with the all-pervasive wisdom of being. Despite its linguistic affinity, Logos is at once the defiance, the transcendence as well as the culmination of ‘logic’. Its essential meaning cannot be more conveniently described but as universal Consciousness revealed to us through and as non-dual, unified, awareness.

A few intriguing repercussions follow from the above. First, if Hellenism is used (as it widely is) as the cultural and epistemic landmark demarcating the West from the East, then we evidently stumble upon the very exciting, radically subversive, realization that the myth of the West-East division is severely undermined once we start delving deeper into the purported root-tradition of the West. A closer study into the precepts and history of Hellenism reveals that whatever we think of as the cradle of Western civilization is integrally constituted by what we consider as the sine quo non of the East: Spirituality and the possibility of Awakening. A more thorough exploration unveils that this tradition is another fascinating, albeit unique, variation of the spiritual teachings of awakening, divine devotion, purification, virtue, non-duality and self-realization that we find in abundance in spiritual traditions of the so-called East. With that understanding, the East-West divide collapses.

Second, since Logos—as the realization of Being or universal consciousness—dwells at the heart of science (episteme) and philosophy, then the widely held view of philosophy as a rational, argumentative, arm-chair vocation removed from direct experience is an outdated caricature. In fact, what we nowadays refer to as ‘the philosopher’ is closer to what the ancients referred to as ‘the sophist.’ The sophist is the detached scholar who compares, juxtaposes and analytically dissects concepts, trying to rationally grasp that which transcends fragmented rationality, “using the power of persuasive speech” to construct “discursive semblances, or phantasms, of true being”, without having any direct experience of being itself (Plato, Sophist, 234c). On the other hand, the philosopher, in the original sense of the term, is the eros-struck seeker who works actively for her purification (catharsis), awakening and ongoing integration, intimately experiencing the nature of being; she walks on the “path of initiation” until she reaches “the ultimate revelation to which the philosophical teachings lead: the vast ocean” of oneness (Plato, Symposium 210d).

Hellenism is essentially a spiritual tradition of equal caliber as Yoga, Advaita Vedanta, Tantra or any other practice of self-realization. Hellenic philosophy, which literally means ‘the state of falling in love with wisdom’, is an intimate, self-transformative, experiential path towards awakening to the unity of all experience and the experience of that unity as one’s true Self.

The Light  ~ EL (Ελ)

The View

“He who has been instructed thus far in the path of eros, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he reaches towards the end,  he will suddenly come to view a nature of wondrous beauty: a nature which is everlasting; which is not born nor perishes, which does not grow nor decay, which neither waxes nor wanes; a beauty which is not beautiful from one point of view and ugly from another, nor sometimes beautiful and sometimes not, nor beautiful in relation to this and ugly in relation to that, nor beautiful here and ugly there, nor beautiful for some and ugly for others. Neither will this beauty appear to him in the likeness of a face or hands or any other bodily part; nor as any form of speech, or knowledge, or science, nor as existing in any other being, such as for example, in an animal, or in earth or in heaven, or in any other place; but only it, in itself, by itself, eternal singular being, absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, and all other things beautiful (are so because they) in some way partake in it, such that when they come-to-be and perish away, that neither increases nor diminishes, nor changes and nothing happens to it. He who from these beautiful things, ascending in the path of true eros, begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. This, my dear Socrates (…) is that life above all others which man should live.”1

That is how Socrates’ teacher—Diotima, a female teacher, a priestess and well-known ‘shaman’ of her times—summarizes the philosophical path:  as a path of eros, beauty and goodness. In Greek, ‘kalos’ (which is the word used for ‘beautiful’) means both beautiful and benevolent. Divinity, Benevolence and Beauty coincide as the one and the same ‘thing’ (which is a no-thing): they are the main qualities of Being itself.

The path of philosophy is a path of eros and light.

The quest of self-realization is here presented, essentially, as a love affair—a divine love affair (‘erotiki pedagogy’). It is a relationship of eros, where eros means ‘merging’, and merging implies the dissolution of all separation, the vanishing of duality. The process of this affair involves an ever-increasing expansion of the radius of one’s eros, until that circle of love comes to include and encompass everything. The philosopher is patiently trained to be in love with everything, because the ultimate intimacy emerging from merging with everything is the realization of oneness. Through successive ascensions in the quality of eros that the philosopher experiences, the end-goal is reached suddenly, unexpectedly, in the strike of a lightening: the spiritual seeker reaches “the view of the vast sea of Beauty (the Good)”.

No words can really describe this experience. “We are talking about an inconceivable, indescribable beauty” (Republic, 509). Socrates’ description reminds us of the notion of Tao “that cannot be told”; “the nameless” which is “the beginning of heaven and earth”. The experience of this ‘view’, in Greek, is called ‘theoria’, what we nowadays call ‘theory’.

Theoria: ‘theon oro’—which means, I see (oro) the Divine (theon). Theoria means ascending to the View of the Divine, where the veil of ignorance drops and the cosmic play is revealed as what it is: the miraculous, mysterious, ever indescribable play of Oneness. Nothing around changes, nothing is gained or lost, nothing happens, but this one event, which is, really, a ‘non-event’: a shift in perspective; and not even a shift; a perspective, a view, simply is— revealed.

In and from that view, what I see, as experiencing, or experience as a form of seeing, is the stripping away of all knowledge, all science, all objects; the very self, its sensations and the objects of its sensations, all dissolve into a “a vast ocean” of “singular being” which “always is” “in-itself, by-itself”, and which ‘feels’ like an “ocean of pristine beauty”. This is the view/experience of Being, ‘the Good’, or Divinity in-itself.

Aristotle refers to this Divinity (God or First Principle) as Universal Consciousness which is in a pure state of being aware of (being aware of) itself: it is pure energy of self-awareness (noesis noiseos) (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1074Β 20-1075Α). He also identifies it as the ‘prime cause’ or ‘prime mover’: that which perpetually sets everything in motion, therefore in existence, therefore in life. And why does ‘it’ do so? What is the motivation or end-goal behind Divinity’s activity as a prime mover setting into motion, thereby manifesting, existence?

Aristotle’s explanation is at once astonishing and completely mystical: the prime mover moves in order to be the beloved—in order to be the object of eros (“os eromenon”). Consciousness’ teleology is entirely erotic.  It manifests the world in order to merge back to itself by self-realizing as pure love.

The love affair of philosophy, as seeking of knowledge, leads the devoted lover beyond knowledge, beyond science, beyond subject and object duality, to a view of Being as consciousness-aware-of-itself. The end of Eros is the view of and the merging within the vastness of Being. But, aporetically, the end-goal of Being manifesting itself, is also eros, eros for itselfthe divine self-eros of Divinity. Does the philosopher substantiate the teleology of cosmic manifestation? Is our urge for merging with oneness, an expression of oneness’ urge for merging with—or returning to—itself? Or is perhaps our eros for Being, Being’s eros for itself, since we and it are one? Eros is the thread that unites the outward movement of Being with the returning to its source; it is the thread of Unity between One and All. It is the energy of universal consciousness.

Eros as Light and Seeing

The path of philosophy is a path of eros and light.

According to Orphic Theology, Eros is Light. He springs forth from the unfathomable vastness of ‘Chaos’, which symbolically represents the primordial ‘void’, the amorphous, undifferentiated unmanifest state of Being. Eros is here referred to as ‘Phanitas’. This term comes from the root syllable ‘pha’ (literally meaning light, e.g. phenomena, photography, Pharaoh) and stands for the ‘appearer’, the  ‘manifester’ or, more broadly speaking, that which initiates cosmic manifestation as appearance. The essence of manifestation as appearance is Light.

Eros is Phanitas: the revealer of Light, the Light Bearer. It is that ‘force’ or modality of being which mediates between the unmanifest and the manifest. Before it manifests into seemingly differentiated appearances, Being is already the womb or birthplace of light, but in itself amorphous, beyond manifestation, beyond light—truly, beyond description. Eros reveals the vastness of being (“chaos”) into a vast ocean of light (“phaos”). All forms that come to be are merely spectacles of light. Even what we call matter is light, but only in a (seemingly) denser form.

To come in contact with the light as the essence of being is to arrive at experiential knowledge, in the sense of gnosis (higher spiritual knowledge). This idea is remarkably similar the notion of ‘vidya’ in Sanskrit: to see is to know.

Plato’s Sun Analogy

Plato establishes the inherent interconnectedness between light, seeing and gnosis (as the direct experience of logos) through his famous Simile of the Sun in the Republic (507a-509c). Seeing is here compared to ‘knowing’ (i.e. spiritual understanding) and the Sun is compared to Being, or the form of ‘the Good’.

In the visible world of sensory experience “the power of seeing and of being seen necessitates the existence of a third ‘species’: light” (507e). The source of light is the sun: “the eye draws its power of seeing from the sun, as something that emanates from him”. “The sun is not itself sight, nor is it identical with what we call the eye in which sight resides; it is the cause of sight and becomes seen by the sight which itself causes” (508b).

In a manner of analogy, the same triangular constellation of relationships exists between (i) Being or ‘the Good’—which is, metaphorically speaking, the ‘Sun’ of the spiritual/ intelligible realm; (ii) the ‘eye of the soul’, which refers to the soul’s knowing capacity; and (iii) the intelligible objects of spiritual knowledge.

Being or ‘the Good’ provides the power of knowing to the soul, and at the same time, imparts truth, meaning and intelligibility to that which can be known. It relates to knowing and the objects of spiritual knowledge in the same way as the physical sun relates to vision and visual objects. Just as the eyes cannot see in the absence of the sun, likewise the soul cannot have a genuine understanding of experience unless it is exposed to Being. Yet, as with visual perception, a third ‘species’ is required, a kind of mediating ‘ether’: an invisible or spiritual Light that both imparts consciousness with a content and awakens or enables spiritual awareness to arise. Plato refers to this ‘intelligible’ Light as ‘aletheia’—truth: Truth is the Light of Being.

Just as light and seeing resemble the sun, but are not identical with it, similarly knowledge and the light of truth resemble Being, but are not identical with Being. Being illumines the spiritual realm, it is the source of truth (as light/consciousness) and knowledge (as seeing/vidya), but itself ‘extends’ beyond them.

Truth as the Light of Being

Plato’s teachings on the sun-likeness of Being, are also encoded in the first vessel of sacred teachings—the Hellenic script. There we find perhaps the first articulation of the ontology of Light, which is so central to Hellenism.

Particularly, three key syllables serve to express the different ‘modalities’ or the tripartite stratification of Light: Al (ΑΛ) which stands for the unmanifest light;  El (ΕΛ) which stands for (invisible) spiritual light, or the manifest light of Being; and Il (ΗΛ), which stands for solar light (hence the word helios). As we saw, the visible light (ΗΛ) is at once a reflection and an analogy of the invisible light—Truth (ΕΛ). In its turn, the light of being is in some way a reflection and an analogy of the all-containing void, the unmanifest light of pure consciousness (ΑΛ).

According to the Hellenic tradition, therefore, truth is a form of spiritual light. Similar to the nature of light, truth does not manifest as anything in particular (e.g. a particular set of ‘laws’ or ‘precepts’), yet it is ‘in’ everything that is revealed to us as awareness. It transcends concepts and words, for it is already that which imparts concepts their meaning, intelligibility, form and energy. No notion can express it thoroughly, because truth is the preexisting substratum on which notions are born. Knowledge (vidya), understanding and concepts—all pulsate in an eternal dance of meaning, but only as ‘symbols’, witnessing that there is something before them, within them, beyond them, invisible and dimensionless, subtle and ever-present, from which they emanate as expressions of the sacred ritual of Consciousness—the Mystery of Being.

As with every light, truth too implies a Fire. The unmanifest light (ΑΛ) is on some occasions described by ancient sages as a burning fire—for Socrates, the “Sun of God” and for Heraclitus “the eternally-living Fire” (αείζωον πυρ). As the mystic Heraclitus (the philosopher of fire), states in one of his sutras (fragment 30):

This cosmos,
the same for all,
was made neither by gods nor men,
but always was
and is, and will be
Eternally-living Fire
igniting in measure
as by measure burning away.

The Light of Hellenism

As its core root syllable El (ΕΛ) witnesses, the entire spiritual and epistemic tradition of (h)Ellenism is both linguistically but also essentially centered around the concept, the ontology and practice of Light. Its teachings are an initiation into truth, as the light of Being, that aim to expand our initially limited experience of the world as an amalgam of sense-perceptions and bridge it with our true nature as consciousness. ΕΛ (el) is therefore a beam of light—a light-path—which leads us back from the visible to the invisible, from the emanation to the Source, until the very distinction between the two drops away.

As a child or emanation of the cosmic “eternally-living” fire, truth is also a fiery luminosity. It can be experienced, beyond discursive knowledge, through a blazing eros with Logos, which purifies the mind and thus enables us to enter into the peaceful citadel of all-encompassing, all-knowing silence. As fire, Truth has the power to ignite our soul, to set it on fire, melting away the bondages of suffering by burning up the illusion of separation. This secret fire swallows up separate identity, suddenly, unexpectedly, in the strike of a lightening leading to the experience of our true nature: Pure Love, Oneness, Divinity, Void, Completeness. In one word, Eudaimonia.

To realize that the entire ensemble of forms and structures which appear to us as ‘the tangible universe’ is merely the playful manifestation of the primordial Light of which everything is made; to realize the nature of the world as light and experience oneself as that primary light source, which at once manifests and permeates all experience—that is the end-goal of philosophy. This is also the meaning of en-lighten-ment. But it is also the meaning of Hellenic: Hellenes are, literally, the ones who have seen or realized the Light; the seers of Light.

Now we can finally begin to see the truth of Hellenism. To be Hellenic has little to do with an ethnic identity; it is not merely a description of a nationality or a culture: above those, it is primarily a spiritual description. Hence why Hellenism is said to be ‘universal’ or ‘ecumenical’, and why its sages had always sought it to be so.

The Light of Hellenism is a living spiritual path which reminds us that we can all be the seers of Light, because we all are the Light of Being.


  1. Plato, Symposium, 210d-211b

ISSUE #009

On the Concept of Light
Image: On the Concept of Light

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