Meditation in western philosophy

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
― Plutarch

When we think about “Meditation” we tend to picture people seating cross-legged, focusing in their breath, emptying the mind. Mindfuldness has become a word to reffer a secularized version of easter meditation. But those are not actually “Meditation” in the strict sense of the word. The word meditation comes from latin meditare, to measure, to pay attention to something with our mind. A more accurate word for the eastern way of meditation is what in the west was known as Contemplation, or silent meditation. This post is about Meditation and Contemplation in the western tradition, from the ancient greeks to our time.

According to Gellius (Attic Nights 2.1.1–3), this was a habitual practice of Socrates: Among voluntary tasks and exercises for strengthening his body for any chance demands upon its endurance we are told that Socrates habitually practised this one: he would stand, so the story goes, in one fixed position, all day and all night, from early dawn until the next sunrise, openeyed, motionless, in his very tracks and with face and eyes riveted to the same spot in deep meditation [cogitabundus], as if his mind and soul had been, as it were, withdrawn from his body. When Favorinus in his discussion of the man’s fortitude and his many other virtues had reached this point, he said: “He often stood from sun to sun, more rigid than the tree trunks.” As Bussanich (2013, pp. 298–300) has noted this is comparable to ascetical practices found in various oriental religions. I think what Socrates was doing was not some oriental meditation, but a king of inner dialogue.


At the heart of Western philosophy is the Dialogue. It is a practice as old as language itself and found in many cultures in different forms. The dialectic method has multiple applications, from self knowledge to the development critical thinking. It was the driving force behind the development of western philosophy, but also democracy, arts such theater or the scientific method.

The dialectic method is a very humble discipline. It begins with asking simple questions for asking the right questions can be more important than getting the answers.

“I only know that I know nothing.” This simple phrase uttered by Socrates encapsulates the core of his wisdom, and forms the roots from which the dialectic method has grown. Although Socrates didn’t write anything himself, his student Plato wrote a voluminous number of dialogues with Socrates as the central character.

Plato’s Dialogues are not just a masterpiece of literature. We should remember that those dialogues were not historical accounts on his teacher’s inquires to fellow athenians but they are the very core of the Socratic Method. More importantly, the Dialogues are a device designed to make us think and wake us up from our self made assumptions. Even when we disagree with its content and conclusions, we are forced to create and define our own arguments in favor or against.


Inner dialogue is a great tool for self knowledge. Know thyself was one of the maxims written in the entrance at Delphi. We know many people but chances are that we will end our lives without knowing ourselves. Yet, there is a “conversation” all the time inside our heads. When we are driving our cars, of at work or even when we are talking to somebody we rarely are fully aware of our patterns of thought. We spend our lives ruminating rather that meditating. The unique ability of human consciousness to be aware of itself and reflect on its future, it’s its source of power but also of troubles.

Pascal said that all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.


We should begin each morning seating quietly for a few minutes, and visualize the day ahead, with special focus on the difficulties we are going to experience. We should pay attention to our reactions toward the things that happen to us, how we narrate to ourselves our setbacks. At night, we should end the day by recalling the events that happened during the day, mindfully and objectively, bringing to mind the things we could have made better during the day, or the things we have learned from the experience.



Another practice that I find not just useful, but very pleasant, is writing meditation, or what the ancient Greeks called Hypomnemata. That involves the writing of a book addressed only to ourselves. It is not a diary, since it is not about events, but dialogue with ourselves, a remainder of our principles, conversations, reflections, taking notes on readings or anything that we found meaningful or helpful for our philosophy or life.

The stoic tradition Marcus Aurelius


“Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed. Quit evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now.”


ANAGOGÉ (Ascent)

Ascent, elevation, bringing up; in the Platonic tradition means the scape from the cave and the elevation into the world of the Forms. An idea taken from the religious rites organized to approach to the divine realm by means of purifications ( katharmoi), initiations (teletai), the Platonic dialectic and allegorical exegesis, contemplation ( theoria) it is prefigured by the sacred way which the initiates of mysteries ( mustai) walk, the path to the mountain ( oreibasia)


‘Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer. … Cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow or beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue.

  • First Ennead, Sixth Tractate, Section 9

‘It is now time, leaving every object of sense far behind, to contemplate, by a certain ascent, a beauty of a much higher order; a beauty not visible to the corporeal eye, but alone manifest to the brighter eye of the soul, independent of all corporeal aid. However, since, without some previous perception of beauty it is impossible to express by words the beauties of sense, but we must remain in the state of the blind, so neither can we ever speak of the beauty of offices and sciences, and whatever is allied to these, if deprived of their intimate possession. Thus we shall never be able to tell of virtue’s brightness, unless by looking inward we perceive the fair countenance of justice and temperance, and are convinced that neither the evening nor morning star are half so beautiful and bright. But it is requisite to perceive objects of this kind by that eye by which the soul beholds such real beauties. Besides it is necessary that whoever perceives this species of beauty, should be seized with much greater delight, and more vehement admiration, than any corporeal beauty can excite; as now embracing beauty real and substantial. Such affections, I say, ought to be excited about true beauty, as admiration and sweet astonishment; desire also and love and a pleasant trepidation. For all souls, as I may say, are affected in this manner about invisible objects, but those the most who have the strongest propensity to their love; as it likewise happens about corporeal beauty; for all equally perceive beautiful corporeal forms, yet all are not equally excited, but lovers in the greatest degree.” PLOTINUS

“What measures, then, shall we adopt? What machine employ, or what reason consult by means of which we may contemplate this ineffable beauty; a beauty abiding in the most divine sanctuary without ever proceeding from its sacred retreats lest it should be beheld by the profane and vulgar eye? We must enter deep into ourselves, and, leaving behind the objects of corporeal sight, no longer look back after any of the accustomed spectacles of sense. For, it is necessary that whoever beholds this beauty, should withdraw his view from the fairest corporeal forms; and, convinced that these are nothing more than images, vestiges and shadows of beauty, should eagerly soar to the fair original from which they are derived. For he who rushes to these lower beauties, as if grasping realities, when they are only like beautiful images appearing in water, will, doubtless, like him in the fable, by stretching after the shadow, sink into the lake and disappear. For, by thus embracing and adhering to corporeal forms, he is precipitated, not so much in his body as in his soul, into profound and horrid darkness; and thus blind, like those in the infernal regions, converses only with phantoms, deprived of the perception of what is real and true.”

 “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein