Did Socrates enter jhāna?

One morning he was thinking about something which he could not resolve; he would not give it up, but continued thinking from early dawn until noon—there he stood fixed in thought; and at noon attention was drawn to him, and the rumour ran through the wondering crowd that Socrates had been standing and thinking about something ever since the break of day. At last, in the evening after supper, some Ionians out of curiosity (I should explain that this was not in winter but in summer), brought out their mats and slept in the open air that they might watch him and see whether he would stand all night. There he stood until the following morning; and with the return of light he offered up a prayer to the sun, and went his way (compare supra).

This was the style of their conversation as they went along. Socrates dropped behind in a fit of abstraction, and desired Aristodemus, who was waiting, to go on before him. When he reached the house of Agathon he found the doors wide open, and a comical thing happened. A servant coming out met him, and led him at once into the banqueting-hall in which the guests were reclining, for the banquet was about to begin. Welcome, Aristodemus, said Agathon, as soon as he appeared—you are just in time to sup with us; if you come on any other matter put it off, and make one of us, as I was looking for you yesterday and meant to have asked you, if I could have found you. But what have you done with Socrates?

I turned round, but Socrates was nowhere to be seen; and I had to explain that he had been with me a moment before, and that I came by his invitation to the supper.

You were quite right in coming, said Agathon; but where is he himself?

He was behind me just now, as I entered, he said, and I cannot think what has become of him.

Go and look for him, boy, said Agathon, and bring him in; and do you, Aristodemus, meanwhile take the place by Eryximachus.

The servant then assisted him to wash, and he lay down, and presently another servant came in and reported that our friend Socrates had retired into the portico of the neighbouring house. ‘There he is fixed,’ said he, ‘and when I call to him he will not stir.’

How strange, said Agathon; then you must call him again, and keep calling him.

Let him alone, said my informant; he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason. I believe that he will soon appear; do not therefore disturb him.

Well, if you think so, I will leave him, said Agathon. And then, turning to the servants, he added, ‘Let us have supper without waiting for him. Serve up whatever you please, for there is no one to give you orders; hitherto I have never left you to yourselves. But on this occasion imagine that you are our hosts, and that I and the company are your guests; treat us well, and then we shall commend you.’ After this, supper was served, but still no Socrates; and during the meal Agathon several times expressed a wish to send for him, but Aristodemus objected; and at last when the feast was about half over—for the fit, as usual, was not of long duration—Socrates entered.

  • Symposium, Plato

Good question! IIRC, Ven Sona talked about this when we were young monks together.

There’s a really huge difference between how jhana is spoken about today, and how it is treated in the suttas. And that difference is process. These days, people like to discuss what the state of jhana is like, what its qualities are, and so on. And yes, these things are in the suttas. But the suttas also strongly emphasize the process through which one attains jhana, namely the gradual training. This is much more emphasized and intrinsic than is usually credited.

A good example of this is in the Jhānavibhanga in the sutta section of the Abhidhamma Vibhanga. This is an early summary of the teachings of jhana. While you might expect it to focus on an analysis of the mental states in jhana, it actually presents an analysis of the whole gradual training.


This doesn’t decide the question you ask. But it suggests that, in considering what jhana is and what it’s role is, it is important to look at, not just the state itself, but the process by which the state is realized, and what happens afterwards.


Bhante, thanks for the thoughtful reply. Found this:


People often talk about Socrates based on one anecdote in the Dialogues, but I believe more attention should be given to Plotinus, a third century neoplatonist. The metaphysics are obviously quite different than our own, but consider the following passages from Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus, which attest to his extraordinary ethical behavior and power of concentration:

"He used to work out his design mentally from first to last: when he came to set down his ideas; he wrote out at one jet all he had stored in mind as though he were copying from a book.

Interrupted, perhaps, by someone entering on business, he never lost hold of his plan; he was able to meet all the demands of the conversation and still keep his own train of thought clearly before him; when he was free again, he never looked over what he had previously written—his sight, it has been mentioned, did not allow of such rereading—but he linked on what was to follow as if no distraction had occurred.

​Thus he was able to live at once within himself and for others; he never relaxed from his interior attention unless in sleep; and even his sleep was kept light by an abstemiousness that often prevented him taking as much as a piece of bread, and by this unbroken concentration upon his own highest nature. "


“Good and kindly, singularly gentle and engaging: thus the oracle presents him, and so in fact we found him. Sleeplessly alert Apollo tells—pure of soul, ever striving towards the divine which he loved with all his being, he laboured strenuously to free himself and rise above the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life: and this is why to Plotinus— God-like and lifting himself often, by the ways of meditation and by the methods Plato teaches in the Banquet, to the first and all-transcendent God—that God appeared, the God throned above the Intellectual- Principle and all the Intellectual-Sphere.”



Interesting! I believe similar things were said about Nikola Tesla. There’s definitely a strange and wonderful faculty of the mind at work here!

I feel like we all have this to a more limited degree. We can start talking and have no real idea what to say, then it comes out and it makes sense.


The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39 [Free Press, 1979];

It’s hard to overstate the Socratic’s impact on western history. It’s not just the Middle & Late/neo Platonists, Platonic thought affected the Hellinistic philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. It even affected Christianity (both what-became “mainstream” and theologians alike), later Islamicate theologians, etc. The whole intellectual culture of Alexandrian Egypt was revolutionary in very much the same way the Enlightenment was. Where people who had once been mostly constrained to their local polis and local beliefs, there was now a cosmopolitan marketplace of ideas, all cross-influencing each other. On the negative side, before the dominance of Christianity, people found themselves in a “crisis of meaning” (loss of identity, too many toothpaste brands) like our own post-enlightenment world.

Plotinus was apparently vegetarian and celibate.

What little we know of the historical Pythagoras, he and his followers were also vegetarian and believed in metempsychosis (reincarnation). In later biographies, he is alleged to have travelled to “the East”. I wonder if these early philosophers brought such ideas back from India/gymnosophists, or if they sprung up independently. The accounts/myths we get from the various Mystery Rites and the Myth of Er for instance are very specific in their descriptions of an interim state in “the heavens”. Where one could choose their next incarnation into human or animal bodies, and drink from one of two waters. One fountain of “forgetfulness”, which is important for Socrates’s “anamnesia” or un-forgetting of one’s previously learned wisdom and previous incarnations, sounds familiar? Anyway, these are “myths” in the sense that they may not be trying to convey a literal description, but I don’t think anything of the sort is found in early Indian reincarnation/rebirth thought.