Plato’s Ancient Error Leads to Modern Tragedy

Stephen J. Gallagher

This was it: graduation day. Comet Hale-Bopp was 122 million miles away, the closest it would ever come to Earth. The people inside the house began executing “The Routine,” a well-rehearsed s et of instructions detailing how team members would help each other wash down barbiturate-laced applesauce with vodka. Despite the work in front of them, the team managed certain antic touches: each member packed a small overnight bag with a change of clothing, spiral notebooks, and some pocket change.

They went in three groups. After the members of one group were dead, the survivors would clean them up, cover them with triangular purple shrouds, and then sit in the quiet house waiting their own turn. The last batch consisted of two women, left there with no one to tidy them up and shroud them after they had stopped breathing. What were these two people thinking in those last hours in that big house with all the dead? Did they talk? And if they did, what could they possibly have had to say to one other?

The members of the group shucked their bodily “containers” and hurried off to catch the mother ship before it passed out of range. They left their website running on autopilot and flashing the vaguely ominous message “Hale Bopp Brings Closure To Heaven’s Gate.” With its zany, cartoonish graphics used by many beginner web designers, it looked like something you’d get if you turned a hyperactive kid loose on your dining room wall with a large box of crayons.

The Heaven’s Gate group shattered all our stereotypes of the modern American death cult. They built a superstructure of loopy, postmodern gingerbread wrapped around a core of internally consistent philosophical positions that, were we to ignore the madness and give the ideas their due, would not seem at all strange. We are all guilty of a form of intellectual laziness when we view Heaven’s Gate through the lens of the death-cult cliché. It is this kind of flaccid intellectual shorthand that makes it so difficult for us to understand exactly what Heaven’s Gate really represented. The members didn’t make it any easier for us with their gonzo “Away Team” insignia and their cargo-cult hankering for the mother ship. This was no more than camouflage, hiding something much more serious and much more dangerous. Once we scrape away the ridiculous crust, we can detect—ever so faintly—the stench of that old deceiver whose denigration of this world in favor of some imaginary beyond has caused no end of trouble for the West. I refer, of course, to Aristocles of Athens, known to the world as Plato.

 

Before we can unmask the Platonism at the heart of Heaven’s Gate, we need to spend a bit of time removing the disorienting patina that so easily blinds us to the cult’s true nature. To do that, we need to begin with the figure of Marshall Applewhite. Music teacher, castrato, and self-hating homosexual, Applewhite was probably already insane when he met his soulmate and Platonic helper, Bonnie Nettles. Nettles both kept Applewhite’s madness in check and gave it focus. Together, they skulked around the perimeter of the New Age/UFO subculture, preaching their message in something recognizably like its final form as early as 1972. The idea of contact with space beings, a central tenet of their theology, was gradually sublimated into the idea of life as a “training class” from which one “graduated,” stepping from this filthy world into a “level above human.” Perhaps not surprisingly, they attracted followers—over a hundred at their peak and down to a hard core of thirty-nine at the end.

In 1985, Nettles died of cancer, deserting the group and moving on without them. More important, she deserted Applewhite, and without his anchor and his rock he quickly went from quietly insane to loudly and elaborately insane. An odd streak of self-referential humor began creeping into the cultists’ everyday actions—humor that suggested some deeper truths. The example that stands out so boldly that we cannot ignore it is the Star Trek angle. Their “Away Team” patches and unisex “space uniforms” seem to suggest, on a superficial level, that these people were delusional nerds so deeply plugged into the zeitgeist that they had no real sense of how ridiculous they looked to outsiders. Like all good Trekkies, they loved the various incarnations of the Star Trek mythos because it both offered the comfort of the familiar and provided a framework for their own new mythmaking. For the Heaven’s Gate members were not simply the typical “consumers” of the mythos; they actively manufactured it. Their actions were a form of devotional “fan fic”played for keeps. They were playing a role, just like on television, but one particular role—the simple and unambiguous role of believer. Everything was suddenly filled with relevance and meaning; everything finally “made sense.” The Heaven’s Gate members had an undeniable sense of themselves as the active authors of their own lives.

If we dig deeper into this surface crust, we eventually come to understand that all this Star Trek gingerbread had no more real relevance than the Beatles’ White Album did to the thinking of Charlie Manson. The real source of the Heaven’s Gate philosophy—for that is what it was—lay elsewhere.

 

Once we make the effort to confront the Heaven’s Gate phenomenon as a system of thought rather than just another crazy death cult, the salient characteristic that leaps out with almost overwhelming force is the radical dichotomy between the body—seen as low, evil, and gross—and the soul, seen as immortal, trapped in the body, and capable of refinement and improvement. Our first instinct is to point back to Christianity for the source of this thinking. That is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. We must go back through Christianity to that wellspring of so much of Christian thought: Platonism.

Plato sounds like a kindred spirit (in every sense) to Heaven’s Gate when, in the Phaedo, he makes the startling claim that death is a genuine blessing for the true philosopher. As with anything that Plato does, the argument is constructed on a foundation of straw-man opponents and weak assertions disguised as arguments. That’s really one of the joys of reading Plato for any reader with a commitment to reason and rational argumentation: it is so easy to topple over an entire dialogue if one simply challenges the up-front assumptions that Plato sneaks past us by having some interlocutor nod and proclaim, “Of course, Socrates, it is obvious!” But I digress; we are not here to go one-on-one with the old master but rather to show the persistence of the master’s pernicious influence in the most unlikely places. On to Plato’s claims.

The body and the soul are not only different things, they are ontologically different kinds of things. The body is a hindrance; it gets in the way, and it weighs down and distracts the soul, which is what really matters. The body is the source of desires and needs that cloud the mind and inflame the spirit, and feeding the body everything it demands takes time away from the pursuit of wisdom—the only path to finally escaping from the world of the “merely real.” In essence, the life of the philosopher here on Earth must consist of one thing and one thing only: the struggle to free one’s soul from the body. The philosophical life is nothing but a preparation for death.

Heaven’s Gate members were living the life that Plato insisted was the only proper one for the true philosopher. They recognized with something akin to horror that their souls were pinned inside flawed, fallible “containers.” The group’s entire project consisted of helping as many members as possible to shuck off their containers and graduate to the “Level Above Human.” They had enough self-awareness to recognize that, from the outside, they looked very much like a “cult.” However, they were unanimous in their insistence that Heaven’s Gate was not a cult but rather a “classroom for growing a soul.” Every day, they woke up and worked hard to transcend human imperfection through rigorous mental and physical discipline—all in preparation for the promised “graduation day.”

Nothing causes us to feel a transient and illusory affection for our bodies quite like sex, so it is understandable that a horror of sex would be central to Plato’s worldview. It is sex more than any other aspect of our embodied humanity which causes the Fall, as described in Plato’s soaring myth of the runaway chariot that fell to Earth—just as our souls fell to Earth and into these bodies. In his immortal dialogue the Symposium, we see Plato at the height of his powers, pitting his hero Socrates in an epic rhetorical battle against the sexed, embodied humanity of Alcibiades. Socrates exhorted the attendees at the Symposium to bid farewell to the flesh and rise to a sublimated eroticism of kindred souls rather than kindred bodies. Rather than squander himself as a mere lover of other humans, the true philosopher can only realize his potential if he becomes a lover of wisdom: first, as reflected in the soul of a compatible Other and eventually on an even higher level, a lover of the idea of wisdom “as such.”

As consistent Platonists, the Heaven’s Gate members shared Plato’s deep suspicion of human gender in general. They strove to make themselves as gender-neutral as possible, eliminating any sexual cues that might serve to drag the souls of their comrades back down into the mud. They saw their souls as having been “thrown” into these confusingly sexed, oddly configured bodies, these bodies full of sweat, urine, semen, blood, and feces. Some of the members took the next logical step: voluntary castration. There is a surprising secret history of this practice in the early Christian church, and the Heaven’s Gate members were behaving no differently from any number of early Christian monks who opted to pluck out an offending “eye” rather than allow the sexual cravings of their bodies to distract them from their studies.

 

In more ways than there is space here to cover, it is obvious that the philosophical underpinnings of Heaven’s Gate revealed its members as garden-variety Platonists, except for that one final act: that bizarre anomaly of their mass suicide. But is it really an anomaly? Consider Socrates, specifically the Socrates we meet in the Apology and the Phaedo. If Plato’s dialogues are to be believed—and the independent evidence of Xenophon’s dialogues would seem to suggest they should be—then Socrates committed “suicide by jury,” goading the demos of Athens into condemning him to death. According to Xenophon’s account—less stirring and poetic than Plato’s and perhaps for that reason worthy of greater weight—Socrates invited the sentence of death because, quite simply, “he believed he would be better off dead.” In the great death scene in the Phaedo, we have the condemned man laughing at his imminent death. Laughing! I believe that Socrates laughed for sheer, exuberant joy at the knowledge that he would finally—finally!—escape the container of his flesh and graduate from this low, difficult, and degraded world.

Like Socrates, the members of Heaven’s Gate died of their own free will. They were not brainwashed, they were not coerced; they took a long look around them and then took matters into their own hands. This was the last power available to them—their only power, really. The quiet, methodical way in which the members of the group prepared and then departed demonstrates that they were not leaving this life in fear or desperation. They believed that they were students whose grades were good enough for them to finally graduate and leave their bodies behind. They were not sheep. They were philosophers.

I have spent most of the past year immersed in the world of the American death cult for a book I am writing. Of the many such groups I have studied—and there are more than you might suspect—I found Heaven’s Gate to be the most disturbing. These were the people who kept me up nights. Calm, serene, without any panic or any pain, these thirty-nine people rendered a simple, unequivocal verdict on the world, then took the only logical step left to them. Rather than latter-day cargo cultists waiting for that mysterious flyer to come and take them home again, Heaven’s Gate was really a group of postmodern Platonist monks, pious students whose lives—and most especially, their deaths—represented a sustained, cool-headed revolt against the modern world and everything it represents. They tasted the thin gruel that modernity offered them and found it weak and unsatisfying. And so they chose another way.

I do not know if poor, mad Marshall Applewhite or any in his group ever read a word of Plato. It really doesn’t matter. They would not have had to read Plato to become Platonists, not in a world saturated with Plato’s poisonous notions of a Beyond and an Ideal. Plato’s willful denunciation of the real world in favor of some pure chimera was corrosive to reason and destructive to all life-affirming instincts. It remains corrosive to this day. Infected with the worst of Plato’s ideas, the members of Heaven’s Gate looked at the world of the “merely real,” found it lacking, and rendered judgment on it. Their judgment was harsh, unequivocal, uncompromising, and consisted of a single word.

“No.”

Stephen J. Gallagher

Stephen J. Gallagher is an essayist who lives and works in North Carolina. His work has appeared in Free Inquiry, The Humanist, American Atheist, and the Journal of Philosophy. An accomplished playwright, his plays have been performed in Boston, Raleigh, and New York City.


This was it: graduation day. Comet Hale-Bopp was 122 million miles away, the closest it would ever come to Earth. The people inside the house began executing “The Routine,” a well-rehearsed s et of instructions detailing how team members would help each other wash down barbiturate-laced applesauce with vodka. Despite the work in front of …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.