I have suggested that Voegelin’s approach to interpreting Plato’s dialogues has the double aspect of being guided by the assumptions just discussed and of being a basis for the formulation of those same assumptions. Given the importance of Plato’s writings to Voegelin’s philosophic endeavor, the difficulty is especially pronounced in Voegelin’s treatment of Plato’s dialogues. This difficulty is diminished upon consideration of Voegelin’s interpretive principles, which, unlike the assumptions discussed in the previous section, are more akin to techniques or guidelines of interpretation: they are the concrete starting points that structured Voegelin’s encounter with Plato’s dense and rich writings.
Here, then, I focus on two main principles and their corollaries. First, is Voegelin’s principle that an adequate interpretation of Plato’s dialogues will begin with an analysis of the literary structure of the dialogue. I discuss (1) Voegelin’s understanding of the significance of the dialogue form and then (2) mention several specific interpretive tasks associated with this principle including (a) developing an organizational schema of the dialogue, (b) identifying the various types of symbolic language in use, and (c) attending to the character of the various interlocutors. Second is Voegelin’s principle that Plato’s dialogues must be read in light of the problem of language in the metaxy. Derivations of this principle include: (1) puzzling formulations are intelligible on the level of experience, even if they are paradoxical, and (2) myth is uniquely suited to express transcendent processes or experiences and therefore is Plato’s preferred medium for communicating his highest insights. Although I distinguish between these principles and sub-principles, it should be remembered that each one is related to Voegelin’s idea that Plato used symbols to communicate his ineffable experiences of life in the metaxy. By following these principles, Voegelin hoped to respect the limits and potential of symbols’ ability to clarify Plato’s experiential insights.
Voegelin’s first hermeneutic principle is that interpretation must begin by examining the literary structure of the dialogue, the first clue into the substance of Platonic philosophy. At the outset of his study of Plato in `, Voegelin ventured an explanation of Plato’s decision to adopt the dialogue form, observing that:
The drama of Socrates is a symbolic form created by Plato as the means for communicating, and expanding, the order of wisdom founded by its hero. We have to touch, therefore, on the thorny question why the dialogue should have become the symbolic form for the new order. No final answer, however, can be intended with regard to a question of such infinite complexity. We shall do no more than modestly list a number of points which under all circumstances must be taken into consideration.
Voegelin’s first points was that the dialogue form absorbed Aeschylean tragedy’s concern with the psychic tension between order and passion. On Voegelin’s analysis, Plato’s decision proceeded from his awareness that tragic performances could no longer illuminate the tension of existence for Athenian audiences. Understanding the absolute necessity to preserve the experience of tension or struggle in any new articulation of order, Plato renewed the dramatic effort in the dialogues in which Athens becomes the force of “passion” that opposed to Socrates, the new force of “order.” Second, the dialogic form reflected Plato’s conception of the new Socratic myth of the soul as being engaged in actual competition with the broken order of society. Society’s rejection of the new order of the soul requires an articulation that preserves the dramatic struggle between contesting forces. Third, the dialogue’s exchanges preserved the communal or participatory nature of the quest for truth in a way that a treatise could not. Finally, Voegelin thought that the mytho-poetic form of the dialogue was best suited to the expression of insights that must be experienced if it is to be known.
Given these beliefs about Plato’s choice of the dialogue form, Voegelin’s interpretive approach hinged on identifying the experiences that motivated Plato’s various efforts to articulate a new case for order that could effectively counter the pervasive decay of his time. From the general consideration of the dialogue form, Voegelin turned to the unique structure of particular dialogues, developing a schema or an outline of the principles Plato employed for organizing each work. The schema Voegelin sought to discover was not merely a table of contents, nor was it intended to be exhaustive. Independent of traditional divisions (Stephanus pages, books, chapters), Voegelin’s schema served as a point of departure for ascertaining Plato’s motivations, though Voegelin admitted that developing it was tantamount to beginning in “the middle.” In his own words, the schema is “a construction whose validity depends on a correct interpretation of Plato’s intentions. While the schema had to be given as a basis for further analysis, it now turns out to be the first step of the analysis itself.” Voegelin came to believe that the literary structures of the dialogues were designed to reflect the structure of being that Plato discovered and sought to convey.
Voegelin’s construction of a schema began, first, by examining the first words and scenes of the dialogues, which assemble the “dominant symbols” (or topics and themes) and reveal the aspect of metaxy experience that best illuminates those symbols. With respect to the Gorgias, for example, the opening phrase “war and battle” signaled the topic — the competition between forces that vie for influence over young souls — and provided a clue about the nature of the inquiry itself — the inquiry emerges out of Socrates’ effort to clarify his awareness of the opposed forces, makes him the adversary of those who do not seek to understand those forces, and must preserve that agonistic form if it is to effect a psychic response on the part of the reader. And Voegelin argued that the opening book of the Republic introduced the key symbols of the dialogue (e.g. the three generations of interlocutors, the equality of the Piraeus, and justice, to name only a few) which had to be analyzed in light of the opening word (kateben, “I went down”) that conveyed the experiential basis of the inquiry (the pull of the disordering pole of the metaxy).
A second step in constructing the dialogic schema was to discover how Plato’s deliberate placement of dramatic scenes, discussions, and recurring motifs revealed various levels of interlocking meaning — that is, how they illuminated Plato’s understanding of common ontological foundations. Once Voegelin identified the dominant symbols and the aspect of metaxy existence with which they are connected, he looked for other passages throughout the dialogue that treated those symbols in a balancing or parallel way. The descent (kateben) to the Piraeus that begins the inquiry into justice in the Republic is balanced by the ascent (epanodos) to the Agathon that occurs in the central part of the dialogue and is paralleled by the descent (kateben) to Hades in the concluding Myth of Er. Although Voegelin frequently referred to Plato’s “play” with the symbols, he thought Plato’s use of balancing and parallel treatments, and hence the organization of the whole, was governed by the subject matter he explored rather than aesthetic concern. Moreover, the complexity of the metaxy required symbols to be presented from myriad perspectives so as to preserve the tensional feature of the reality they hope to illuminate. On this view, the dialogic schema functions as one of Plato’s solutions to the problem of communicating experiences that transcend the capacity of language symbols.
Third in Voegelin’s structural analysis was to identify various types of symbolic language that Plato employed. He thought that ascertaining Plato’s intention for some symbol requires consideration of the broader situation in which it befalls, especially the type of speech or argument that is occurring and the dramatic context surrounding it. Plato’s choice to use allegory, conceptual analysis, or myth (both traditional and his new myth) followed from the specific kind of experience he was trying to analyze and to communicate. Plato discovered, according to Voegelin, that inquiries into the transcendent ground were best conducted through allegory — as in the Cave Parable of the Republic — because the form of traditional myth risked evoking a misleading association between matter and the a-material ground. Whereas the experience of metaxy existence as a whole — the tension of existence — was conveyed quite well through myth, particular myths of judgment. An adequate interpretation of the dialogue would recognize Plato’s determinations about the suitability of certain types of language to particular subjects of inquiry, respecting how those determinations govern the meaning and precision of specific symbols.
Finally, Voegelin emphasized that a character analysis would govern how an interlocutor’s speeches were to be evaluated. Plato’s various interlocutors were, generally speaking, either virtuous or vicious or, in some cases, at the verge of deciding whether to be one way or the other, with the basic criterion for virtue being willingness to be persuaded to quest for the divine ground. These character determinations were significant because Plato, Voegelin argued, would communicate his most important philosophic insights only through virtuous interlocutors such as Socrates, the Eleatic Stranger, and the Athenian Stranger, whose love of truth would prohibit them from dissimulating or otherwise concealing the fundamental meaning of their words. Consequently, the views expressed by vicious interlocutors were relegated to the status of doxai — opinions that could not represent genuine alternatives to Plato’s wisdom because they originate in an ill-constituted soul.
In addition to his principle of analyzing the insights revealed in literary structure of the dialogues, Voegelin argued for a second interpretive principle, namely, that the intelligibility of Plato’s words and images lies in Plato’s reflective struggle with the problem of language in the metaxy. Voegelin was committed to the coherence and lucidness of the dialogues: quite simply, he thought that they “made sense” and were not “abstract.” Plato’s investigations reflect his own assumptions about what philosophy is and how it arises. Just as philosophy arises from “existential” (i.e. particular social) experiences, so too do the dialogues deal with particular issues felt by particular people. The concrete, experiential basis of the dialogues is, therefore, the level on which the coherence and the intelligibility of the dialogues are to be sought. Therefore, passages in the dialogues that seem to employ faulty reasoning, omit key questions or topics, and contradict other passages, are not a valid basis for rejecting the theoretical value of Platonic philosophy. On the contrary, Voegelin argued, these features of the dialogues reflect Plato’s awareness of the incapacity of language to communicate the full range of man’s experiences, and his writings must be interpreted as his solution for addressing that problem.
Thus, Voegelin’s second interpretive principle responds to those who would question the intelligibility or the concreteness of Plato’s writings by calling attention to their symbolic character. Plato, Voegelin claimed, let his words and images “emerge from the loving quest for the divine ground,” hoping that they would reveal the fundamental experiences of metaxy existence that engendered them. Therefore, Plato’s texts must not be read as if they were syllogisms, and Platonic philosophy cannot be debunked by pointing to logical flaws in the speeches. For Voegelin, reading well means not making the mistake of treating symbols as airtight concepts or arguments that exhaustively explain what they point to. Understanding the dialogue requires the interpreter to connect Plato’s language symbols to the forces of order and disorder that one experiences in both personal and socio-political existence. Such experiences have a variety of aspects including, for example, what Plato symbolized as the desiring, spirited, and rational inclinations that are present in both the individual psyche and the civic body. Plato’s use of the various types of symbolic forms, Voegelin argued, was an effort to bring greater (not complete) clarity to these experiences by investigating them from many perspectives and through different sorts of lenses.
For Voegelin, this means that every type of language (or symbolic form) Plato used in the dialogue had to be recognized as partially capable of revealing Plato’s insights. This applies just as much to Plato’s “cognitive inquiry” into the paradigm of the good polis (Republic 420b-543c) as it does to Plato’s various myths. Voegelin thought that Plato’s recognition of the problem of language in the metaxy opened up more avenues through which he was able to communicate his insights. That is, if all kinds of language (including the symbolic forms of history, myth, philosophy, science, etc.) have their limits, they also have their unique potentialities for clarifying features of metaxy existence. Plato embraced paradoxical or enigmatic formulations and the form of myth in order to cope with the challenges or opportunities created by metaxy existence. These passages are high points in Plato’s work: they respect and focus readers’ attention on man’s participation in transcending reality by departing from conventional ways of arguing and making demonstrations and by hearkening back to the traditional understandings of sacredness and mystery. Understanding such passages requires one to interpret them as efforts to communicate (and thereby to evoke) essentially ineffable processes that transcend the individual consciousness — processes such as the experience of the mysterious ground, the other human being, or man’s relationship the cosmos.
Voegelin’s assumptions about historical and political events, the core philosophic experience, and the experiential basis for examining symbols of order, as well as his techniques of beginning with an analysis of literary structure and proceeding to connect an author’s symbols to the problem of language in the metaxy, result in several specific methodological issues that distinguish his approach to Plato from others. These specific issues include: 1) the practical aspirations of Plato’s writings, 2) how to interpret Platonic irony, 3) the attribution of views to Plato himself, 4) how history and Plato’s dialogues are intertwined, 5) the proper way to interpret Plato’s myths, and 6) the spiritual nature of Plato’s beliefs. Voegelin’s conclusions on these points all emanate from his premise that Plato’s philosophy was an effort to explore the transcendent, and therefore mysterious, forces that drew his soul toward the quest for the divine. But, like the earlier assumptions and techniques, Voegelin’s specific conclusions about these issues inform and substantiate that premise as well.
The first implication of Voegelin’s interpretive approach is his conclusion that the Platonic dialogues are “saving” by nature. Voegelin wrote that:
Philosophy in this sense, as an act of resistance illuminated by conceptual understanding, has two functions for Plato. It is first, and most importantly, an act of salvation for himself and others, in that the evocation of right order and its reconstitution in his own soul becomes the substantive center of a new community which, by its existence, relieves the pressure of the surrounding corrupt society. Under this aspect Plato is the founder of the community of philosophers that lives through the ages. Philosophy is, second, an act of judgment. … Since the order of the soul is recaptured through resistance to the surrounding disorder, the pairs of concepts which illuminate the act of resistance develop into the criteria (in the pregnant sense of instruments or standards of judgment) of social order and disorder. Under this second aspect Plato is the founder of political science.
The philosophy conveyed in the dialogues saves the individual and society from falling into the ruin that results from the failure to appreciate the proper ordering of human affairs in relation to the divine and to nothingness. The dialogues “save” by articulating visions of order and correcting the assumptions of the destroyers of order, thereby facilitating greater spiritual attunement to the divine ground of being and participation in the realissimum. For Voegelin, diagnosing disorder is the first step in remedying it, so the dialogues’ revelations of order and disorder have practical as well as theoretical importance.
A second implication hinges on the role of irony in the dialogues. Voegelin saw irony as an expression of meaning which may be understood only by those who share a certain existential outlook. Because all human beings are ontologically equal insofar as they all find their existence in the metaxy, Voegelin thought everyone has the capacity to develop the existential outlook that makes understanding possible. Nevertheless, considering the limited practical effects of the dialogues illuminates the tragedy of the human condition: namely, the possibility of right order is often neglected or rejected by the human beings who would be benefitted by pursuing it. Therefore, Voegelin saw irony as one of Plato’s instruments for dealing with the situation that spiritual order does not always penetrate the structures of pragmatic order. By illuminating the situation, Plato encouraged readers to reflect upon the structures of existence that allow for such a limited instantiation of the divine paradigm of order.
Third, Voegelin was comfortable attributing the views expressed in the dialogues to Plato himself and he often equated Socrates and Plato, using the phrase “Socrates-Plato.” Voegelin thought that Plato never would have expressed his views through a vicious character because the adequate apperception of order and disorder depends upon having a well-ordered, virtuous soul. Plato’s use of vicious characters functioned, rather, as examples of the effects of pneumapathology and as foils for the presentation of order. In Voegelin’s analysis, Plato used oppositional pairs — the order of the philosopher versus the disorder of the sophist, for example — because he thought that truth is illuminated by opposing it to untruth. This kind of opposition mimics the metaxy, which is anchored by the opposing forces of order and disorder, and preserves the existential struggle in the hopes of evoking a psychic response on the part of the reader.
A fourth implication lies in the historical emphasis of Voegelin’s approach to interpreting Plato. For Voegelin, knowing the objective truth was not only a genuine human possibility, but also the only way of life in which all human beings find their ultimate fulfillment. His deeply-held conviction was that modernity’s acceptance of historicist assumptions was a danger to the soul and society. But Voegelin’s rejection of the historicist perspective was not associated with the view that philosophy was essentially independent from any spatio-temporally conditioned knowledge. Rather, Voegelin determined that the philosophic quest had both temporal and a-temporal features and he emphasized the way that human understanding of order becomes increasingly refined over time. These commitments led Voegelin to consider Plato in historical terms.
For example, Voegelin’s Plato occupies a particular (and preeminent) moment in the story of philosophy, and Plato’s understanding of the human soul evolves over his lifetime. The insights he conveys in the Laws, for example, reflect a deeper or more differentiated understanding of metaxy existence than those which he conveyed in the Republic. The order in which the dialogues were written is therefore significant for Voegelin, who saw a dynamic process at work in Plato. He also thought that Plato’s reflections on his philosophic debt to the existential quests of his predecessors, such as Aeschylus, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Anaxagoras, helped him to uncover the nature of that dynamic process and develop a philosophy of history.
Fifth, Voegelin viewed myth as Plato’s way of solving the inescapable limitations of metaxy existence. Voegelin thought that by the time of the Timaeus, Plato had discovered a philosophy of myth in which “the psyche [had] reached the critical consciousness of the methods by which it symbolizes its own experiences.” Voegelin argued that Plato accepted the myth “as a medium of symbolic expression, endowed with an authority of its own, independent of, and prior to, the universe of empirical knowledge constituted by consciousness in attention to its objects.” In other words, myth is philosophy at its highest reaches because it is through myth that experiences of order and disorder are conveyed and evoked most accurately and profoundly. Platonic philosophy culminates in myth. Myth employs traditional symbols because the traditional symbols conveyed genuine, if compact, experiences of order and disorder. For Voegelin, myth is a form of symbolic play which attests to the philosopher’s freedom in “the influx of the spirit, which abolishes absolute determinism.”
Finally, Voegelin held that Plato and his Socrates maintained spiritual beliefs, and no interpretation of the dialogues would be accurate unless it began from the recognition of their divine dimension. By now, it should be clear that Voegelin insisted that Plato was a mystic and a believer in divine being and its relevance for human life. The significance of the divine dimension of Plato’s thought is evident in Voegelin’s interpretation of 278d of Plato’s Phaedrus:
In the Phaedrus Plato has Socrates describe the characteristics of the true thinker. When Phaedrus asks what one should call such a man, Socrates, following Heraclitus, replies that the term sophos, one who knows, would be excessive: this attribute may be applied to God alone; but one might well call him philosophos. Thus “actual knowledge” is reserved to God; finite man can only be the “lover of knowledge,” not himself one who knows. In the meaning of the passage, the lover of the knowledge that belongs only to the knowing God, the philosophos, becomes the theophilos, the lover of God.
Eric Voegelin’s Plato
From these considerations of Voegelin’s approach to interpreting Plato’s writings, we are now in a position to examine who Voegelin’s Plato was, exactly, what he hoped to accomplish, and how he lived the philosophic life. Voegelin’s assumptions about history, philosophy, and the effort to express experiences of transcendence in language contribute to an understanding of Plato who was engaged in an integrated effort to improve political practice, penetrate the mysteries of the psyche, and make crucial discoveries in science. Unlike other engagements with Plato that emphasize one or another of these roles, Voegelin’s engagement presumed the continuity among Plato’s political, mystical, and scientific efforts. Two passages from his correspondence to Leo Strauss on the subject of interpreting Plato’s philosophy clarify Voegelin’s basis for treating Plato’s various roles as harmonious and necessary outgrowths of a unified philosophical quest. In 1942, Voegelin wrote:
I see [the Platonic-Aristotelian problem] in the following way: at the center of Platonic political thinking stand the fundamental experiences, which are tied together with the person and death of Socrates — catharsis through consciousness of death and the enthusiasm of eros both pave the way for the right ordering of the soul (Dike). The theoretical political-ethical achievement seems secondary to these fundamental experiences. Only when the fundamental order of the soul is defined, can the field of social relations determined by it be systematically ordered. In this sense, I understand the theoretical-scientific achievement of Plato as founded in myth (which he conveys as the representation of the fundamental experiences in the Phaedo, Symposium, the Republic and the Laws).
And roughly seven years later, Voegelin reiterated his claim that one cannot impose a final distinction between theoretical and practical modes of encountering reality because genuine philosophy is the act of both discovering and instantiating the proper order of the soul:
Ontological knowledge emerges in the process of history and biographically in the process of the individual person’s life under certain conditions of education, social context, personal inclination, and spiritual conditioning. Epistēmē is not just a function of understanding, it is also in the Aristotelian sense, a dianoetic aretē. For this noncognitive aspect of epistēmē I use the term ‘existential.’
Voegelin’s Plato desired to think rightly about the cosmos, but this required a certain ethical relation to the whole of reality — both the reality that is perceptible through the senses and cognition and the reality that becomes luminous only in the deep movements of the psyche — which, in turn, generated implications for concrete politics. Plato’s great purpose and his accomplishment was to use the symbolic form of myth to evoke, for a potentially wide audience, the psychic experiences of transcendence that are the basis for knowledge of metaxy existence, existential morality, and political order. Although Plato’s three roles are inextricably intertwined, to treat them separately will illuminate the distinctive character of Voegelin’s conclusions about the ancient author who was his own philosophic guide.
Philosophy and the City
Voegelin’s analysis of the Platonic texts emphasizes the extent to which Plato was deeply troubled — outraged, even — by the social and political crisis of the Hellenes and genuinely concerned to instantiate the divine paradigm of order within the concrete experience of the polis in history. Therefore, a number of practical political concerns animated Plato’s writing including, for instance, to promote a unified Hellas and to discover the optimal size of a polis. Plato’s most urgent concern, however, was to counter the political and spiritual havoc wrecked by the Sophists, whose popular materialist doxai and perverted way of speaking (i.e. rhetoric) had led to the execution of Socrates and threatened to ruin entirely Athens’ soul.
The concrete conflict between Plato and the Sophists functions as the primary experiential framework that gave rise to Plato’s dialogues as well as the situation that they hoped to remedy. For Voegelin, the concreteness of the struggle is a point of connection between Plato’s philosophic and his political effort, between the order of the individual and the order of society. On Voegelin’s reading, Plato’s use of the term “sophist” evinces the connection, for it was applied not only to a particular cadre of foreign teachers, but to anyone — even Athenian citizens and society as a whole — whose moral and intellectual ethos exhibited the traits of a sophistic education. The hallmark of sophistic education was its deformed “communication,” which taught one how to manipulate speech in order to obtain one’s ends, without regard for others or for the experiences of transcendence that were, for Voegelin’s Plato, the desideratum of right thought and action. It separated language symbols from existential experiences, thus obliterating the intelligible point of reference from which meaning can be discerned.
Moreover, the combative nature of sophistic techniques contradicted the primary experience of man’s participation in the community of being and the philosophic discovery that men share a common condition based in their participation in the divine Nous. In this milieu, the Athenian people came to believe that objective study of the external world was sufficient for knowledge, that language was an instrument of power, and that “order” consisted in the “right of the stronger.” The execution of Socrates confirmed the terrible consequence: in Athens, to live well — to live in such a way as to be found blameless before the gods — had become a practical impossibility. Therefore, per Voegelin’s Plato, the city lost its claim to be the existential representative of the people because its rulers put mundane concerns over the spiritual good.
Voegelin’s conclusions about the specific dialogues always touch on how Plato intended his spiritual insights to have a concrete impact on Athenian political order. So what, then, was the substance of Plato’s political endeavor? Voegelin answered that the dialogues themselves constituted Plato’s almost miraculous (political) effort “to renew the order of Hellenic civilization out of the resources of his own love of wisdom, fortified by the paradigmatic life and death of the most just man, Socrates.” As a counter to the deformations of language (such as sophistic rhetoric) and existential closure (an attitude of unwillingness to seek truth in non-immanent experience) of his time, Plato offered up his dialogues to everyone who wanted to read them. By basing his dialogues on the concrete events surrounding Socrates’ life and death, Plato grounded his broad-based appeal in a common, provocative experience that would, he hoped, make it more effective. Plato aimed at reforming politics by illuminating a fuller range of human experience and by creating a more adequate philosophical vocabulary (or new symbols of order), which would prepare souls for an influx of the divine ordering force. In this way, Plato hoped to restore “the common order of the spirit that [had] been destroyed through the privatization of rhetoric” and to save social, political, and individual existence from falling into ruin.
[End of Part II]