Hawaii: Coastal Roads and Mountain-Consciousness

Our first week on the Big Island of Hawai’i was based around Waimea, with daily excursions to the beach or on a day hike. The second week I have come to think of as the week of the van: my uncle was kind of enough to lend Matt and I his van to travel in around the island, so we took out the back two rows of seats, put in a futon and created a little traveling home for the next week. We had a handful of my uncle’s family’s CDs for entertainment—the I Am Sam soundtrack with its Beatles covers became our theme music for the trip—as well as the exquisite changing scenery all around us and rich conversation throughout.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Kealakekua Bay – Photo by Matt Segall

Our first day with our travel van was a day trip, heading down the west coast toward Kona. After checking out the small city briefly, and stopping at a painting exhibition detailing the life and conquerings of King Kamehameha, we drove further down the coast to Kealakekua Bay, a dark blue bay with deep waters where spinner dolphins often come to rest during the day. We first walked along the rough lava rocks on the shore before finding a grassy beach area where we could lie in the sun. Although we did not encounter any dolphins we did go for a short snorkel in part of the bay, seeing a whole school of bright yellow fish among the coral. We also hiked a little ways along the shore, exploring tide pools filled with little fish, crabs, and sea anemones. On our drive back up toward Waimea we stopped off at Da Poke Shack, a tiny little storefront south of Kailua-Kona, where we got the last of the day’s catch of fresh poke served with steamed rice and seaweed salad—hands down one of the most delicious meals I’ve had on the island.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Laupahoehoe Point – Photo by Becca Tarnas

The following day Matt and I decided to head out from Waimea in the opposite direction, going east toward the Hamakua Coast. Our first stop was about 45 minutes away at Laupahoehoe Point, a leaf of lava jutting out into the more turbulent ocean crashing along the east coast. A school had been operating on this point during the first half of the 20th century, and it had been tragically impacted by the 1946 tsunami which killed 23 people, mostly young students, on this one part of the island. Further destruction hit both Hilo in the south and Waipio Valley up north. One of the most beautiful aspects of Laupahoehoe is the enormous banyan tree growing there, that was planted by the third grade class in 1916. The tree survived the incoming waters of the tsunami and still thrives today. We spent a good amount of time with this majestic goddess of a tree, climbing barefoot into her branches where whole rooms were created by the braided ropes of ascending branches and descending roots.

As we made our way back up the coast we drove into the hills above the ocean towards Kalopa Native Forest State Park, a tropical forest mired in mist where red birds flitted around us and mongooses scurried mischievously through the grass. We ate our lunch among the trees before going back toward the coast and driving up into the little town of Honaka’a, which is essentially one road with an array of little shops and cafés. The crystal store boasts the largest crystal on Hawai’i (although it actually originated in Brazil), and the woman running the shop offers free mini massages with a rounded crystal as you sit on a geode-encrusted stool named the “chair of adventure.” From Honaka’a we went several miles further down the road to the Waipio Valley lookout. Much like Pololu, which is two valleys further north, Waipio is a deep rift between steep forested ridges with a black sand beach stretching between the enclosing cliffs. Waipio is privately owned, although it is possible to hike or ride horses down into the valley itself. From the lookout we could see forest and grassland, and a few small cultivated plots with an occasional building here or there. A heavy mist hung over the valley, and rain was pouring in distant sheets over the ocean, catching the wan sunlight between watery veils.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Waipio Valley – Photo by Becca Tarnas

On the road back to Honaka’a the roadside was littered with bright yellow fallen guava fruits. I was determined to stop and pick some, but by the time I convinced Matt to stop by a guava tree we had passed all the ones whose branches were within reach. Alas, all the fruit available to me was past its prime rotting on the ground. Next time, I suppose. Very much craving dinner as we rolled back into Waimea, we chose to stop at the Red Water Café, recommended to us by several different family members. We arrived under an epic rainbow, the second we had seen so far on the trip. Red Water was delicious but a little expensive—arriving just in time for happy hour we shared Negihama sushi and a lilikoi yellow curry. The décor seemed to be a cross between Western saloon and sushi bar: truly a fusion, and fitting of the culture in Waimea.

Matt, my cousin, and I spent the next day completely melting into the sand at Mauna Lani Beach, known for its excellent snorkeling in its small protected bay. It’s a short walk in to the beach through a field of rough a’a lava with the openings to some lava tubes here and there. The path then winds around some brackish ponds with trees growing right out of the water and with moray eels peering eerily out from their rock homes. I recalled a startling encounter I had with a moray eleven years ago while snorkeling at this same beach and felt a little reluctant to enter the water again. The inverted teeth are less than friendly looking.

Photo by Matt Segall
Mauna Kea – Photo by Matt Segall

That evening Matt and I set off for an adventure we had both particularly been looking forward to: a night spent up on Mauna Kea at the Visitor Information Center, located at 9,200 feet elevation above the cloud line. The observatories at the summit are at 14,000 feet but it requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to manage the road so we settled for the lower station. We soon learned that 9,000 feet is actually the best elevation for humans to view stars because while the atmosphere is thinner at that height than lower elevations, any higher there is not enough oxygen for the human eye to function optimally.

Our plan was to arrive in time for sunset, but by the time we climbed the nearest hill with a view of the western horizon the Sun had just passed below the ocean rim. The colors were still spectacular, vermillion and rose bleeding into a darkening indigo sky. The crescent Moon hung high in the western sky, a clear white arc lit up on the edge of a darkened orb. As night descended stars emerged everywhere one turned, more clear and bright than I have seen anywhere else. Down by the visitor’s center a young student from the University of Hawaii guided us through a tour of the constellations, beginning with the Southern Cross, which cannot be viewed anywhere else in the United States except on the Big Island of Hawai’i. She then pointed out the constellation of Leo, descending toward the horizon. Near where the Sun had set a glow was still in the sky, although it was now long past sunset. We were told this was indeed the Sun’s light as it reflected on the accretion disc of our solar system, the remaining particles of dust that lie on the plane of the ecliptic.

We were led through all the constellations of the zodiac visible above the horizon in the summer sky, as well as several particularly prominent stars. Polaris, the north star, is visible at 19.5° above the horizon, indicating the latitude of the Big Island. We could see the bright blue-silver star Vega, and were told that due to the procession of the equinoxes Vega will be Earth’s north star in about 12,000 years. I recognized then that knowing the constellations of the night sky at a glance is something I would like to master. While it is not as easy to see the constellations while living in San Francisco, there are still places I can go that are not too far away where the stars are clearly visible. But it is difficult to find a stargazing platform that can rival the heights of Mauna Kea.

Photo by Matt Segall
Mauna Kea – Photo by Matt Segall

Because we just missed the sunset I had the thought we could sleep in our van right at the visitor’s center, and wake up in time to see the sunrise. So we spent the night at 9,000 feet, our first evening where the temperature was actually cool, awaiting the dawn. I’ve had an interesting experience with my dreams since coming to Hawai’i: each night we stayed in Waimea my dreams were incredibly violent in content, but when we slept on Mauna Kea my dreams changed completely. There was a majestic stillness; I dreamt mountain-consciousness and starlight. The experience was far beyond human. It was grandness, height, vastness. Stillness. Without an alarm I awoke as the sky was getting light, and woke Matt up so we could climb back up the nearby hill to see the Sun complete its night journey as it passed back above the horizon. The sky lightened slowly, reds and salmon-orange clouds streaking the yellowing sky. Behind us the shadow of Mauna Kea stretched over the plane below. The wind picked up in the moment before the Sun seemed to melt as fiery gold over the horizon. Awe. No wonder we are drawn to worship this life-giving orb of fire. The landscape all around awakened, golden light hitting the edges of the pu’us, the cinder cones, down the slopes of the mountain. At long last we left, having seen the Sun at last from the heights of Mauna Kea.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Mauna Kea – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Hawaii: A Waterfall of Stars

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Pololu Valley – Photo by Becca Tarnas

When you arrive on Hawaii by night your first impression is the stars. The land is dark and only instinct and memory remind you that the ocean is to your left as you travel north along the coast. Diamond stars bejewel the sky, the Milky Way a blazing band through the darkness. Our first night we were ushered into the welcoming arms of family, met at the airport with orchid leis, and brought to stay up in Waimea. It has been seven long years since I was last here, and for my partner Matt it is his first time on the island. We awoke the following morning to the sound of banana leaves rustling in the wind right outside our bedroom window, and our first meal was fresh papayas and apple-bananas from the grove my uncle has planted all around his house. I want our time here to be a drinking in of experience: of sights and sounds, tropical tastes and cultural variety, rich emotions and the beckoning call of the unexpected. I am open and ready for what this volcanic land has to teach us.

First thing in the morning one of my cousins came to meet us and take us to the Waimea Coffee Co. where we got to try White Mountain Kona Coffee—perhaps the most perfect coffee I have ever tasted, without a hint of acidity and thus requiring nothing to supplement its superbly smooth taste. No wonder it costs $58 a pound! Happily caffeinated, my cousin took us to our first beach visit of the trip, a secret little beach we had all to ourselves (except for the appearance of a spear-fishing octopus hunter who emerged in camouflaged gear from under the turquoise waters) a little ways off of Mau’u Mae Beach. Lying on that first beach I kept having to remind myself that there was nothing more that I had to do than just lie in the Sun, swim in the waters, and let go of all the planning and scheduling and millions of other thoughts that are always flying around my mind. Hawaii reminds you to release all agendas. And since it was our first day we figured we ought to go to a second beach, so we spent the later part of the afternoon at Anaeho’omalu Bay, watching the Sun and horizon slowly begin to approach one another as the wind picked up and whipped across the surface of the waves.

For our second full day another one of my cousins, who grew up here on Hawaii, brought us up over the hills behind Waimea over to Pololu Valley, one of the three valleys that extends like fingers from the north of the island toward the ocean. The beginning of our drive was through the dryer landscape of grasslands and sparse trees that extend north of Waimea, but as we descended down the further side of the hills the vegetation became richer and more lush, the grasses tall and the trees filled with colorful flowers and enormous tropical leaves. Streams ran through the small valleys at the turns in the road and banyan trees hung their curious roots in search of new fertile places to take hold. We drove through the small town of Kapa’au before arriving at the top of Pololu Valley. Gazing out over the ocean from the lip of the valley, seeing where the waves meet the base of plunging green cliffs and the mouths of black sand beaches, I felt like the beauty of it actually hurt when I tried to fully take it in. Wonder is too small a word to describe what I felt at this piercing intersection of beauties.

Photo by Matt Segall
Pololu Valley – Photo by Matt Segall

The three of us hiked down the steep, turning path into Pololu, past guava trees, flowering vegetation, and several towering trees bedecked with large yellow blossoms. At the floor of the valley the black sand beach gave way to stands of ironwood trees hung with rope swings, that felt like a tropical enchanted forest. The ground was covered in needles and soft green plants, and small crevasses at the base of some of the trees could easily pass for fairy doors. A stream ran out from the heart of the valley, and many different species of bird careened over the brackish waters and the marshy vegetation. After wandering on the beach and through the trees, swinging on the ropes and photographing the rock cairns piled precariously by the crashing waves, we re-ascended to the valley’s edge and bid farewell for now to Pololu. Hopefully we will be able to return to this area soon, to explore one of the other two valleys, Waimanu or Waipio, when the time is right.

69s Beach
Beach 69s – Photo by Matt Segall

On our way home we made a brief stop in the town of Hawi, to get ice cream cones at the local coffee shop. Not only am I trying to eat every tropical fruit I can get my hands on while here, but also macadamia nuts in as many culinary forms as possible—so while I tried the macadamia ice cream, Matt got the white chocolate ginger and my cousin got lemon cream. Why is eating one’s way through one’s travels so much fun? Each morning since coming here we have started our days with homegrown bananas and papayas, accompanied by mango and lychee, and toast with white kiawe honey from my uncle’s bees. And from there our days have unfolded with avocado salads and carrot-ginger juice at Lilikoi Café in Waimea, bi bim bop and Thai ice tea with coconut milk at the local farmers market, fresh poke (raw fish salad), fish tacos and margaritas at the Plantation Grill in Kawaihae, local ginger and coconut brews from the Big Island Brewhaus, and still I know each day will open up more culinary adventures.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Kawaihae Harbor Photo by Becca Tarnas

On our third day we spent the afternoon at a favorite beach for locals, known as 69s, that is shaded all along the shore by small groves of trees the grow right up to the water’s edge. Like in Pololu, rope swings hang from the branches, these swings right over the incoming surf. Before we knew it the day had passed us by, and we met up with my cousin and her boyfriend for dinner and sunset out at Kawaihae Harbor. The sunsets here have been beyond words, more colors than a painter could dream to mix in her pallet. One might say you could taste the sunset, it is so rich and complex.

I always say it is better to travel with locals because you get taken to the places a tourist would never imagine to go, or you can have free access to places a tourist would pay a fortune to visit. So we spent the rest of our night enjoying an epically beautiful swimming pool at one of the coastal hotel resorts, and soaking in a hot tub beneath a swath of stars that peaked through the shifting night fogs.

Photo by Matt Segall
The Waterfall – Photo by Matt Segall

We seem to be alternating each day between hiking and beach lounging, so yesterday one of my cousins, my cousin’s boyfriend, Matt and I hiked up above Waimea to a series of pools and waterfalls. After climbing through thick, spongy kikuyu grass we first went to one of the smaller swimming holes above the larger waterfall and swam through the cool red waters. Waimea means “red water” and we could clearly see why the town had been named for the waters that flow through this land. After a couple hours we went to the larger pond at the base of the tallest waterfall we encountered that day, a circular pool surrounded by grey lava rocks and an abundance of ginger plants. We watched as my cousin’s boyfriend climbed up the side of the waterfall and made the thirty foot jump into the waiting waters below. I didn’t feel I had it in me that day to try a similar jump, but perhaps I will work up the courage the next time we go here, or perhaps when we go to the cliffs down at South Point.

We have been here less than a week, and yet have already had the good fortune to have seen so much. And yet there is always so much more to see, so many places we still plan to go: Mauna Kea, Hilo, Volcano National Park, Puako, Hi’ilawe, Maui. . . So there will be more writings and photos to share, I promise.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Photo by Becca Tarnas

Following the Day Star

“To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
– Cicero

Night comes softly following the glory of sunset. The sun dies in a blaze of color, hues of gold and magenta, blood orange and dusty rose. When the sun sinks below the horizon it is as though it has taken hold of all the colors of the waking world and pulled them from out of the landscape, like dye extracted from cloth, and trailed them in streaming splendor toward the dying sun. The landscape bleeds out its colors, fading to a twilight gray, while the dying ember of the sun shines forth in one final burst of magnificence. At last, when the day star appears to sink beneath the wine-dark horizon, the colors depart with it, the inky black of night oozing out across the open canvas of the sky.

Moon and Venus SunsetWait patiently. The liminal space seems to be most still now, in this time that is neither day nor night. The world seems to hold its breath. Then, with a gasp of wonder, the dusk is pierced by the first white star of the evening. It is there, where it was not a moment before, yet the exact moment it appeared is unknown. In cooling quiet the sky bedecks herself in jewels, webs and nets of storied interconnection, shapes that have walked the sky since before ever human eyes beheld their patterns.

Socrates drank the hemlock at sunset.

No sunset is ever the same. If you are present to witness one, you cannot bring yourself to look away. The sunset is like a moment out of time; yet it is the moment that makes time be as well.

In the period of time right before to his execution, Socrates spoke to his students of the rhythms of life and death. “Well then,” he spoke, “is there an opposite to living, as sleeping is the opposite of being awake?” “Being dead,” one student answers.[1]

Sleep follows waking, waking follows sleep. Dawn comes after each long night. Does death too birth into new life? How can we know? How do we prepare ourselves for our own sunset, the inevitable ending of this life? Plato’s dialogue Apology tells of the trial and condemnation of Socrates, in which he says

To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.[2]

Here Socrates claims that no one knows if death is a great blessing, yet in the dialogues that lead up to his inevitable demise he seems to have an increasingly clearer understanding that death is indeed a gift.

Many of Plato’s dialogues carry implicitly the theme of death in their tone and setting. Plato was just crossing into his third decade of life when his teacher Socrates was condemned to death by the city of Athens. He did not begin writing the dialogues until some time after the execution of his mentor, but the impression of that pivotal moment underlies nearly every dialogue composed. Socrates’ death is imprinted upon each of Plato’s dialogues as words and images are upon the face of a wax tablet. Other philosophies may be engraved over the initial impression, but through the palimpsest can often be read the echo of this early, defining tragedy.

In the Republic, as Socrates and his students are choosing how best to educate the future guardians of their ideal city, they decide the young guardians should “be told stories that will make them least afraid of death.”[3] Socrates begins reciting lines that must be expunged from the poetry of Greek tradition, censoring and editing to find the tales that will shape the future guardians into the philosopher-kings they are meant to become. But in his dialogues Plato is not only editing the old myths; he is bringing forth new myths as well, illustrating them with images that have since been impressed up the philosophic imagination of the Western world for two and a half thousand years.

While some dialogues literally recount the story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment, and execution, others carry the weight of his death more symbolically. The Republic opens with Socrates saying “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday. . .” in language echoing Odysseus’s “I went down to Hades” in Homer’s epic. One of the first characters we meet is the aging Cephalus, who seems rapidly to be approaching death. Yet the dramatic date of the dialogue is set some twenty to thirty years after the historical Cephalus passed away. Plato’s dialogue is evidently not taking place in the land of the living.

At Socrates’ request Cephalus begins speaking of what it is like to approach death:

When someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. It’s then that the stories we’re told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there—stories he used to make fun of—twist his soul this way and that for fear they’re true . . . . he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examines himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone.[4]

These are the stories that Socrates later refers to that he wishes to censor: stories that ignite a fear of death. Yet it is these very stories that inspire an examination of justice in one’s life. Does not this indicate that the stories do some good?

In the Phaedo, the dialogue that ends in Socrates’ execution, the philosopher says to his gathered students, “I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits men after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked.”[5] Here too, Socrates gives reference to myths of Hades for his understanding of the underworld. But Socrates also has his own assurance that death is the right course for him, that it is nothing to fear. During his trial, as laid out in the Apology, he refers to his “familiar sign,” the daemon that accompanies and guides his actions by negating what he ought not to do. Socrates comes to find that his daemon has not opposed anything that he said during his trial.

What do you think is the reason for this? I will tell you. What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. I have convincing proof of this, for it is impossible that my familiar sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what is right.[6]

His absolute trust in the guidance of his daemon is remarkable. This assuredness appears to come from an inherent trust Socrates has in the way he has spent his life; if the guidance of the daemon has led him to follow a just life, this guidance must be true. Furthermore, his daemon is one whom Socrates chose himself, if indeed the myth that ends the Republic is meant to be read in such a way. As depicted in the Myth of Er, reincarnating souls choosing their next lifetimes are told “Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him.”[7] The guidance one receives in life is freely chosen by each individual before birth.

In the Phaedo, Socrates refutes the idea that there might be but a single path to Hades. Rather, he says,

I think it is neither one nor simple, for then there would be no need of guides; one could not make any mistake if there were but one path. As it is, it is likely to have many forks and crossroads; and I base this judgment on the sacred rites and customs here.[8]

The many paths to Hades can also be read symbolically: there are many paths one can choose in life; if there were but one then leading a just life would not be a free decision made with the help of one’s chosen daemon, rather it would be predetermined and unchangeable. One’s lot would be cast and there would be naught to strive for.

Within the prison Socrates tells his gathered followers that “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.”[9] Considering all that philosophy seems to cover in its practice, this statement carries significant weight. But Socrates goes on to explain exactly what he means by this statement. He defines death, saying that it is, “namely, that the body comes to be separated by itself apart from the soul.”[10] The action of the philosopher is to contemplate the divine Forms or Ideas, and to do this he must reach for the Ideas not with his bodily senses but through thought alone, with the soul. The philosopher is therefore in a state most closely related to death, a separating of the soul from the body.

If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom.[11]

As a philosopher, Socrates does not claim to ever have attained wisdom, and here we see that he does not believe it to be possible while one is alive and incarnated in physical form. Yet not much earlier in this same dialogue he emphasizes to his disciples that one must not end one’s life to attain the wisdom that is accessible after death. “There is the explanation that is put in the language of the mysteries,” he says, “that we men are in a kind of prison, and that one must not free oneself or run away.”[12] A reason exists for incarnation, for this being one with a body.Venus Sunset

The Myth of Er in the Republic tells of how souls after death are led to heaven or hell and, after a specific amount of time in one or the other place, are brought forth again to choose new lives and to be born anew. Socrates notes that most of the souls who come from heaven choose less virtuous lives due to their ignorance, while those souls ascending from their time in hell are able to choose more wisely because of the suffering they have witnessed and experienced.[13] Only the philosopher is able to choose a virtuous life and also enjoy the rewards of heaven. By studying philosophy, Socrates says,

he will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better if it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else: We have seen that this is the best way to choose, whether in life or death.[14]

The philosopher’s ability to discern a good life is presumably because, as said in the Phaedo, it is only after death that one is able to directly perceive the Forms and to attain wisdom. Yet it seems that not any soul is able to attain wisdom after death, otherwise all of the other souls coming from heaven to choose their new lives would not be plagued by ignorance and choose difficult new lives. Plato seems to be indicating that it is only one who has been a philosopher in life that has the ability after death to reach wisdom.

Plato has often been accused of being a dualist who denies the value of the body, instead privileging the soul and the abstract realm of the Forms. While a soul-body dualism seems to be implicit in Plato’s dialogues, the utter denial of the body may not be a full reading of Plato’s project. The philosopher in life is not one who has attained wisdom; he is a lover of wisdom and not in possession of it. Only by being a philosopher, one who loves but does not possess wisdom, can one choose a just life when one reincarnates. And it is only by being in a body, and therefore at a certain distance from the Forms, that one can actually become a philosopher.

The doctrine of the Forms indicates that an archetype exists for each thing that we experience in the earthly realm, from the more concrete Ideas of Bed, Horse, and Tree, to the more abstract Ideas of Justice, Truth, and the Good. Would this not also indicate that there must be an Idea for Death? Is there an archetypal expression of the mysterious transition that ends all lives? In the ancient Greek world Cronus, later to be named Saturn by the Romans, was the god of Time who ruled endings, mortality, finitude, old age, and death. Saturn was the outermost planet known to the ancients, the furthest celestial body visible to the naked eye. Saturn was the guardian of the threshold, the last circle of the wandering planets inside the crystalline sphere of the fixed stars that encircled the cosmos.

The nature of the Forms is such they can be approached by the philosopher in thought, but never attained while he lives. So too it is with death, that direct knowledge of death is unattainable while alive; as one is dying one comes ever closer to death, yet does not ever fully know what it is until one has actually died. Just as Saturn represents the guardian of the threshold, death too may be such a guardian, standing at the gateway to the realm of Forms: the first Form to be attained by the soul may be Death itself.

How then does one spend one’s life preparing to cross this threshold, cultivating the philosophic way of life? If, as Socrates said in the Phaedo, there is a mirroring between sleeping and waking, death and life, what further insight can be drawn forth from these parallels? After death Socrates says we are released from our bodies and the soul is able, without hindrance, to contemplate the eternal Forms. In embodied life the philosopher strives for the Forms in thought, never fully attaining them but coming ever closer with practice. In the Apology Socrates describes what he sees as the two options for what comes after death: “either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.”[15] Death is either “like a dreamless sleep”[16] or a “change from here to another place”[17] where one would encounter the “true jurymen who are said to sit in judgment there” and the “other demi-gods who have been upright in their own life.” [18] If death is the former, Socrates says “it is an advantage, for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night”[19] and if it is the latter he says, “I am willing to die many times if that is true.”[20] In the parallel between sleep and death, if the former is like a dreamless sleep then the latter, in which one meets gods and heroes, and encounters the realm of eternal Ideas, may be likened to a night rich with dreaming in which one encounters images strange and familiar, beings of all kinds from humans and animals, to mythic creatures, the living Earth, and gods and deities. Dreaming too is like entering into a realm of archetypes.

If death can be likened to entering a realm of dreams, what is it that the philosopher does in life to bring himself closer to that realm? The philosopher contemplates the eternal Forms, but what does this in practice look like? In the Symposium, as Socrates and Aristodemus are walking to the home of Agathon for dinner, Socrates begins to get lost in thought. “As they were walking, Socrates began to think about something, lost himself in thought, and kept lagging behind. Whenever Aristodemus stopped to wait for him, Socrates would urge him to go on ahead.”[21] When Aristodemus arrives Agathon asks of him, “‘But where is Socrates? How come you didn’t bring him along?” So I turned around (Aristodemus said), and Socrates was nowhere to be seen.”[22] Once Socrates has been located, standing still in contemplation on a neighbor’s porch, Aristodemus says, “‘Leave him alone. It’s one of his habits: every now and then he just goes off like that and stands motionless, wherever he happens to be. I’m sure he’ll come in very soon, so don’t disturb him; let him be.”[23] What is it that Socrates is doing? He is clearly lost in thought, but to a degree beyond what most people do. He has the air of one lost in a dream but in waking life; perhaps in contemplating the realm of eternal Forms the philosopher becomes a daydreamer, meditating upon dreams more real than common life.

The Symposium takes place over the course of a single night, the story bookended by sunset and sunrise. Socrates is the only one to stay awake through the entire course of the night, departing quietly at dawn to go about his day. Within the narrative of the dialogue, another story is told of Socrates when he slips into one of his daydreaming states. The tale, spoken by Alcibiades, is worth quoting at length, as it gives a beautiful character picture of Socrates, this man who “as a whole . . . is unique; he is like no one else in the past and no one in the present—this is by far the most amazing thing about him.”[24] So Alcibiades describes:

One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they all told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood on the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.[25]

The imagery of the sun in this story is prominent, with the period of thought or daydreaming beginning at dawn and not reaching completion until the following sunrise. In the Republic, Socrates gives the image of the sun as a metaphor for the Good. “This is what I called the offspring of the good,” he says, “which the good begot as its analogue. What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things.”[26] But, from an earthly perspective, the sun dies every night, descending below the horizon in a flaring forth of color. The sun pulls the clear definition of all that has illuminated, the bright hues of the landscape, into the underworld with it. To follow the images of the sun we must dream, or learn to contemplate them in thought or dialogue through the night.

Socrates, the only member of the Symposium to stay awake through the entire night, was in the same way caught in thought all through the long night during the summer campaign of which Alcibiades speaks. The work of the philosopher takes place within the embodied realm, for once he has passed the threshold of death he is no longer a lover of wisdom; he has attained wisdom and is no longer a practitioner of philosophia. To be a philosopher is to prepare to cross the threshold of death by always striving to remain in a state closest to death. Thus Socrates, the true lover of wisdom, stays awake through the night to try to consciously understand the Forms in their completeness, so he might recognize them once he too crosses with the Sun below the horizon. “As long as I draw breath and am able,” he says in the Apology, “I shall not cease to practice philosophy.”[27]

The death of Socrates was a literal event in the life of Plato, but the dialogues that poured forth afterwards are a mythological eulogy that has elevated Socrates from human status to that of mythic daemon, a mentor and conscience to guide the dawning philosophical tradition as it walked across Greece’s borders and began its criss-crossing journey throughout the Eurasian continent, leading it eventually to cross the encircling seas and make its wanderings throughout other continents as well.

Socrates was executed at sunset. It is those who remain who are asked to contemplate the long night. It is those who remain who must await the dawn. But in that quiet twilight moment between the sun’s departure and the descent of dark night, we wait for the arrival of that first shining star, the wanderer who appears in the metaxic realm of dusk. As night deepens, the star known by the ancients to be the shining symbol of Love blazes forth ever brighter in the darkening western sky. Never far from the sun, this brightest of planets circles sometimes closer, sometimes further from the celestial image of the Good. It stands as a guide for those called to follow, to be lovers also of wisdom.

“Evening star, you bring all things
which the bright dawn has scattered . . .”
– Sappho

 Moon, Venus, Jupiter

Work Cited

Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.


[1] Plato, Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 62, 71c.

[2]Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 27, 29a-b.

[3] Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1022, 386a.

[4] Plato, Republic, 975, 330d-e.

[5] Plato, Phaedo, 55, 63c.

[6] Plato, Apology, 35, 40b-c.

[7] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617d.

[8] Plato, Phaedo, 92, 108a.

[9] Plato, Phaedo, 55, 64a.

[10] Ibid, 56, 64c.

[11] Ibid, 58, 66e.

[12] Ibid, 54, 62b.

[13] Plato, Republic, 1222, 619d.

[14] Ibid, 1221, 618d-e.

[15] Plato, Apology, 35, 40c-d.

[16] Ibid, 40d.

[17] Ibid, 40e.

[18] Ibid, 41a.

[19] Ibid, 40e.

[20] Ibid, 41a.

[21] Plato, Symposium, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 460, 174d-e.

[22] Plato, Symposium, 460, 174e.

[23] Ibid, 461, 175b.

[24] Plato, Symposium, 503, 221c.

[25] Ibid, 502, 220c-d.

[26] Plato, Republic, 1129, 508b.

[27] Plato, Apology, 27, 29d.

Phenomenology of Astrology

This phenomenological exploration, originally written in December 2013, was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Immanence: The Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend, and Folktale.

Prologue: Cosmos in Ellipsis

As I climb higher up the gray switchback staircase of rickety wooden boards my body tenses with the increasing height, even as my mind knows I am safe, that the stairs beneath my feet will support me. Already present is that indescribable bodily sense, that physical intuition that seems only able to be captured wordlessly, by something as unarticulated as an ellipsis. . .I step out onto the gravel of the roof to be met by the sight of the flaming orb of the setting Sun. This closest of stars burns the clarity from the landscape, blurring the features of the horizon line being pulled toward it: hill, forest, and stretch of ocean I can only perceive in memory as the deepening gold of sunset shatters my sight into uncountable, undifferentiable monads of color.

Setting Sun

To read the rest of this article please see: “Phenomenology of Astrology.”

Saturating Words with Image

A text means nothing to me until it is suffused with image. As I sit with book in hand, the slightly rough texture of the pages meeting the pads of my fingers with a soft sound, I am somehow more aware of the breathing presence of the room around me, of the book’s scent, rather than the black ink words upon the page. Reading a line takes me out of the space in which I sit. Reading another takes me further out, yet also pulls me further into the text. Yet not until the first sentence of the third paragraph does the text ground itself in an image, something I can grasp beyond, or perhaps before, my intellect can take hold of it. The sentence is “The perceiving mind is an incarnated mind.”[1] Reading that line, I cannot doubt my own incarnation. As is written just three pages later, “Before our undivided existence the world is true; it exists. The unity, the articulations of both are intermingled.”[2] I can feel that I myself exist, not because I think, but because I can perceive myself: perceiving my breathing, perceiving touch, feeling, sensuality, this textured book in my grasp.

Sunset Moonrise
Photo by Matthew Segall

I am standing on the precipice of a mountain gazing westward, into the molten fire of the setting Sun. One hundred and twenty degrees to my left, an angle my body can hold within itself as I gaze in both directions, the waxing Moon rises over the further arches of a vermillion and rose stained ridge. I can feel the relationship of Sun and Moon within my body, somehow feeling my heart as the third point in this harmonious triangle. “We grasp external space through our bodily situation.”[3] Standing between rising Moon and setting Sun I know their relationship because my body is in relationship to each of them. “We also find that spatial forms or distances are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective—our body.”[4] As I read each page of Merleau-Ponty’s words they gain meaning only as much as the image of these cosmic luminaries are able to saturate the words.

I am a full participant in this moment. My body is in relationship with these two powerful celestial bodies that light up our world, that pull all of the existence I know forward along its spiraling path. “For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions.”[5] This seems to hold true not only for my own body, but each body I am able to witness: the flaming Sun, the pregnant Moon, blazing Venus as it becomes visible in the cooling hues of the sky, the point of light that is Saturn that appears not long after Venus makes her debut, and the solidity of the Earth beneath my feet. Each are bodies giving visible form to their intentions.

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 3.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 6.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.