Eric Voegelin was a first-rate scholar whose many writings span disciplinary divisions to speak to concerns ranging from politics and history to philosophy, psychology, and theology. Although Voegelin’s writings have received attention among limited groups of scholars and philosophers, their complexity and unique trajectory has often proved to be an obstacle to a more widespread familiarity with this important force in 20th century political and philosophical thought. This is unfortunate because one of the fundamental features of his philosophic endeavor was a fascinating and dynamic engagement with Plato — an engagement that puts him in the company of other better-known thinkers of the 20th century (Martin Heidegger or Leo Strauss, for example) who thought that a renewed engagement with the ancient author could bring about a much-needed restoration in science and politics.

The purpose of this [three-part] article is, therefore, to examine Voegelin’s unique interpretation of Plato and to dispel some of the difficulties in accessing it in order to increase the possibility that Voegelin’s perspective may also inform contemporary discussions about the modern turn to Plato. His approach to Plato is highly original and illuminates new facets of the Platonic dialogues, raising important questions about the very nature of Platonic philosophy. If an understanding of Plato and his contribution to the Western Tradition is of any importance, so too is a serious consideration of Voegelin’s philosophic engagement with him.

What justifies a scholarly exposition of Voegelin’s engagement Plato is the breadth and complexity of an encounter that evolved over a lifetime of analytical, reflective, and meditative study of Plato’s work. Moreover, Voegelin’s turn to Plato occurs within the context of a broader philosophical effort to search for the “truth of existence” and to reveal “meaning and order in history.” The nature of Voegelin’s larger project and the way it developed leads to an approach to historical texts — Plato’s dialogues being the most important among them — that has two sides.

On one hand, Voegelin was trying to test a theory of consciousness that helped to clarify the human condition; on the other, he was trying to better understand modern consciousness and discover a remedy for its disorders. Each side rests on underlying assumptions that Voegelin deduced from and brought to the texts that he examined, and this creates difficulties for those who want to understand what Voegelin brought to his encounter with Plato and what he derived from it. Not insensitive to these difficulties, Voegelin reflected late in his career that one of the greatest challenges for an author or interpreter of a text is beginning at the beginning.[1] He qualified this remark, saying that analysis could not begin, as it were, “unless it starts in the middle.”[2] With this article, I hope to increase the likelihood that a wider audience will find “the middle” less daunting.

To that end, I identify some of the underlying assumptions that inform Voegelin’s encounter with Plato as well as a number of key principles, which are akin to techniques or guidelines of interpretation, that structure his analysis of Plato’s writings. I examine how these together generate an understanding of Plato that is distinguished from (and in some ways anathema to) other 20th century thinkers’ understandings of Plato. I then describe who Voegelin’s Plato was and what specifically he was trying to do by writing the dialogues. My analysis focuses specifically on three important (and intertwined) roles Plato held: first, that of a political actor, second, that of a mystic, and third, that of a scientist. I conclude with a sketch of some specific characteristics of the philosophical soul.

Assumptions in Voegelin’s Approach to Plato

Voegelin’s engagement with Plato occurs within his broader scholarly effort to explain and to criticize what he recognized as gross deficiencies in the socio political and intellectual-spiritual situation of his time. Put in the simplest terms, Voegelin was looking for a way to explain the failure — on the part of society and its political representatives and academic and spiritual communities — to resist the impractical, irrational, and morally-bankrupt program of the Nazis. Faced with the inability or refusal of modern thinking to penetrate the problem, Voegelin found it necessary to search the annals of philosophic thought in order to explain what he would later describe as a pneumapathology — a disease of the spirit, or soul, that perverts the operation of man’s faculty to reason and to discern the genuine principles of science and morality.

What Voegelin’s investigations into the general history of philosophic thought — and in particular Plato’s writings — generated was the basis for a theory of consciousness, which, in turn, informed his analysis of texts and the events of history. Clearly, then, some specific assumptions undergird Voegelin’s approach to and conclusions about the Platonic texts. On the whole, Voegelin did not hesitate to disclose these assumptions because he thought, first, that sincere scientific activity required it, and secondly, that his assumptions strengthened the force of his arguments by demonstrating their overarching coherence.

Moreover, Voegelin thought that his assumptions about consciousness in particular were substantiated by the history of philosophic reflection. This added another layer of support for his arguments, since, as Voegelin liked to say, a test of truth is the lack of originality in the propositions.[3] From an examination of Voegelin’s writings one can identify four important antecedent assumptions that factor into his approach to reading Plato; these concern: (1) the association between socio-historical events and philosophic insights, (2) the nature of the core philosophic experience, (3) the appropriate way to examine symbols of order, and (4) the level of analysis at which the author’s meaning must be sought. I discuss each of these in turn before outlining Voegelin’s technical interpretive principles.

Socio-Historical Events and Philosophic Insights

Voegelin began his historical and comparative studies with a hypothesis about the relation between historical events and ideas or theory: social and political events and ideas about the meaning and purpose of existence affect each other mutually. Voegelin’s hypothesis aimed at clarifying the relations between man’s spiritual orientation — including the starting points for philosophic inquiry, his sensitivity to the quest, and the language and images through which the quest is undertaken — and his concrete experiences of social and political reality.

What Voegelin discovered was a general pattern concerning philosophic discoveries: namely, the most significant philosophic insights arise from crises in social and political life.[4] These crises are usually characterized by the degeneration of one socially-dominant way of understanding man’s place in the world — the effect of which is social and moral chaos. Human society, as Voegelin explained in The New Science of Politics, is:

a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization. It is illuminated through an elaborate symbolism . . . and this symbolism illuminates it with meaning in so far as the symbols make the internal structure of such a cosmion, the relations between its members and groups of members, as well as its existence as a whole, transparent for the mystery of human existence.[5]

A society’s traditional symbols sometimes lose their ability to convey an authoritative understanding about the order of existence, thereby leaving voids of meaning that human beings then try to fill by proffering new accounts of the order of existence that compete with traditional views. The competition between and fluctuations of society’s symbols, together with the impacts of the events contributing to them, create spiritual confusion that pervades all aspects of human experience.[6]

In these times of confusion, Voegelin found, human beings are confronted more intensely with the tension of existence: the fundamental situation, experienced within the deepest regions of the human psyche, of human existence as occurring in the metaxy — the middle of an encompassing contest between, on the one hand, the pull exerted by the force of cosmic order and the fullness of Being, and, on the other hand, the pull exerted by the force of cosmic disorder and the total chaos of non-Being.

Because periods of social and political turmoil undermine uncritical belief in the ultimate truth of temporal and immanent being, they are especially ripe for man’s discovery that psyche’s experiences of the penetrating cosmic forces better illuminate his place within the whole. Indeed, Voegelin thought that the social disorder Plato experienced — the Sophists’ attack on truth, political instability, and foreign imperial threats — was a catalyst for his differentiated insights into the structure of human existence.

The upshot is that Voegelin conceived of Plato’s philosophy as emphatically not “an ‘intellectual’ or ‘cultural’ activity conducted in a vacuum, without relation to the problems of human existence in society”; rather, he argued, philosophy resuscitates the city by distinguishing new symbols that express the range of human experience better than older ones.[7] On this view, interpreting a philosophic text depends on discovering the necessary connections between a symbolic expression of order and the philosopher’s concrete experiences in time because philosophic authors draw on those experiences — with a given political regime, social structure, or mythic tradition, for example — as a basis for his development of clearer symbols.

The author does this because, first, quite simply, those experiences are available to him and present themselves as adequate analogies to the new experiences he wishes to articulate. Second, the author’s effort to communicate his new insights with others (and thereby to restore social order) has greater potential for success to the extent that his new symbols are connected to common features of everyday life. The interpreter is therefore charged with accounting for the full range of social, political, and historical factors to which the author was responding. Especially important, Voegelin argued, was that the interpreter examine and evaluate the relation between the various ontological views implied in the symbols of the author’s context and in his responsive text. This would indicate the fundamental (or existential) error that the philosopher sought to correct with his work.

Nature of the Core Philosophic Experience

Another of Voegelin’s assumptions concerns the nature of the core philosophic experience. Voegelin thought the philosopher — the genuine lover of wisdom — undergoes a quasi-mystical experience in which the genuine and virtually ineffable character of ontological order becomes luminous in his psyche.[8] On this view, philosophy is not the effort to make sound formal arguments about reality; rather it is the quest to become more harmoniously attuned to reality, especially its divine ground, by seeking to understand experiences of the tension of existence.

Voegelin conceived of the philosophic quest as a process of experiences that begins with man’s sensitivity to or awareness of various aversions and attractions, but one key attraction in particular: his desire to know more about the conditions of his existence.[9]

This universally-present desire in human consciousness functions as an invitation to activate what is implied in the desire’s presence: namely, the essential human task of questing for knowledge. The desire also indicates the existence of something greater than and attractive to man, yet not completely foreign to him. Because the experiences that motivate the quest for knowledge are grounded in transcendent psychic, rather than sensory, perceptions, their causes may be sensed but not precisely determined. They generate genuine insights into the conditions of human existence, which become the fertile field for reflective inquiry into their origins and structure and stimulate the noetic aspect of the quest for understanding — the aspect of the quest that recognizes itself as a participation of human intellect in the transcendent ground of being that orders and illuminates it. The process is mystical because it is constituted by the experience of insight and mystery simultaneously — the experience of the luminous mystery of the tension of existence.

Voegelin thought that the philosopher in the strict sense, the genuine lover of wisdom (or reality), discovers his erotic orientation to what Voegelin described as the “realissimum” — the supreme or most-real reality — or the divine ground of being. The philosopher’s relation to reality and its divine ground is one of “trust (pistis)” in “the underlying oneness of reality, its coherence, lastingness, constancy of structure, order, and intelligibility,” even though the realissimum lies beyond his articulate experience and has no substantive content per se.[10]

The philosopher’s noetic experience reveals that all knowledge originates in the human psyche’s trusting movements toward the drawing of the divine ground. Moreover, psyche’s philosophic movements, Voegelin argued, “will inspire the creation of images which express the ordered wholeness sensed in the depth.”[11] These images emerge out of the participation with the divine ground, and they enable the philosopher to reflect on his mystical experiences, penetrate them more profoundly, and therefore apperceive their source (i.e. the divine ground of being) more fully.

Through the mystical experience, the philosopher not only experiences the self-evident reality of the divine ground, but also he discovers that all human psyche participates in the divine ground and is well-ordered if it is attuned to the divine drawing. From this insight arises the philosopher’s obligation to try to facilitate not only his own, but also other human beings’ attunement to the ground, by expressing publicly his mystical experiences of the divine ground in symbols and images. A true philosopher will rearticulate a case for order — which encompasses an understanding of the meaning and purpose of existence — against those who have either become insensitive to order or who try to destroy order. Because the philosopher’s symbols are infused with the presence of the divine ground in a fresher way than the older symbols which have lost the ability to convey an authoritative understanding of the order of being, they are more likely to evoke similar experiences of the luminous mystery and initiate the process of attunement to the ground.

Voegelin’s understanding of the philosophic experience has significant implications for the interpretation of philosophic texts, which I examine below. Here, I limit myself to mentioning only two general implications. The first has to do with identifying genuinely philosophical texts. Although all texts that wrestle with the question of the meaning and purpose of existence inform our understanding of the history of philosophy (viz., by conveying consciousness’s relative openness or closure to its ground), only those texts that represent genuine existential efforts to understand the transcendent source of order are philosophic in Voegelin’s strict sense of the term. Therefore, when Voegelin identified a text as philosophic, he already judged the text to be an expression of its author’s experience of seeking the divine ground. In analyzing it, then, he would try to identify words and images with the structure of the psychic movements, or experiences of order and disorder, expressed therein.

A second and related implication is that, since the experience of divine ground is necessarily an experience of participation, Voegelin thought that the words and images in a philosophic text must be interpreted as expressions of what is only partially effable. Discovering the full meaning of philosophic texts required an interpreter to go beyond the written words and images in order to penetrate to the author’s experiences of questing for the divine ground that moves his consciousness. “What philosophy is,” Voegelin argued, “need not be ascertained by talking about philosophy discursively; it can, and must, be determined by entering into the speculative process in which the thinker explicates his experience of order.”[12] The union between interpreter and author is facilitated by the interpreter’s imaginative and meditative re-creation of the author’s experiences; it is possible because the spiritually-sensitive interpreter also experiences the divine drawing as a feature of existence in the metaxy.

Examining the Symbols of Order

From Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness (or history) emerges a third assumption: namely, that the philosopher’s rearticulation of a case for order typically involves advances in noetic differentiation. Differentiation, for Voegelin, is the process through which structures of human existence that consciousness had experienced compactly become present in new, distinctive ways that indicate heightened attunement to the divine ground. The philosopher may express his differentiated insights by infusing new meaning into older symbols of order, but often he must create new symbols — new images and words — that are capable of conveying the more differentiated insights into order of existence.

The interpretive challenge then becomes: (1) to detect shifts in the meaning of words and images, (2) to identify the introduction of new words and images, and (3) to explain both of these in terms of a philosophy of consciousness that is sensitive to the author’s evolving apperception of metaxy existence. To meet this challenge requires extensive linguistic and imagistic analysis — tracing the history and evolution of meanings — conducted with a view to how a philosophic author’s symbols indicate his deliberate response to inadequacies in traditional or popular usages of words and images.

The guiding methodological principle of Voegelin’s call to bring linguistic and imagistic analysis to Plato’s texts was that: “we must not search in the dialogue for direct historical information but only for information on the essence of ideas as seen by Plato.”[13] Voegelin did not study the linguistic meanings of the background culture in order to determine what Plato must have meant — as if Plato could only mean what earlier writers meant by a word. Rather, Voegelin saw that in order to appreciate what Plato did, that is, how he developed words, ideas, and images, an interpreter needed to understand what the words and images meant before Plato handled them and how Plato developed their meanings over the course of particular texts and throughout his corpus.

Once an interpreter discovers what a philosophic author meant by his symbols, he is prepared to recognize movements of consciousness, or differentiations, by situating symbols and their engendering attitudes within the complex of pressing theoretical problems of the time.[14] Voegelin observed that:

This procedure is based on the assumption that there exists an historical continuum of problems between the mystic-philosophers at the turn from the sixth to the fifth centuries . . . and Plato, whose work is preserved. With our knowledge of the termini a quo and ad quem of the problems, it will be possible to draw probable lines of their development.[15]

Plato’s most pressing problem was, for Voegelin, to locate the source of insight concerning the essence of man and social order. Therefore, Voegelin analyzed the Platonic symbols in light of the attitudes toward the experiences of transcendence expressed therein; the conclusions of those examinations then contributed to his theory of consciousness.

The distinctiveness of Voegelin’s approach is evident through a brief reflection on Voegelin’s analysis of Plato’s use of the terms “physis” and “nomos.” Voegelin criticized his contemporaries because for them “the issue Physis-Nomos [had] become a historiographic cliché which [obscured] a rather differentiated problem.”[16] Penetrating past the cliché to the spiritual and historical ranges of meanings implied both by each term separately and as a relational pair enabled Voegelin to conclude that, to the extent that it was a sophistic attempt to locate the source of truth in immanent experience, Plato actually rejected the opposition between physis and nomos. “The idea of Physis, of Nature as an autonomous source of order in competition with Nomos can be formed,” Voegelin argued, “only when the idea of a transcendent divine Nomos as the source of order has atrophied; and that can happen in a theoretical context only when philosophizing in the existential sense is abandoned.”[17] In the absence of the linguistic analysis, crucial aspects of Plato’s meaning are lost — aspects which reveal the extent to which Plato’s thought was emphatically not a mere product of his times.

Seeking an Author’s Meaning

Voegelin thought interpretation had to go beyond the explicit meaning of words and propositions in order to uncover things such as existential attitudes, experiences of the realissimum, movements in spiritual and historical consciousness, and psychic movements. Each of these phrases signifies a specific relation (distinguished as a matter of emphasis rather than kind) between what Voegelin referred to as “psychic substance” and the divine ground. The phrase “existential attitudes,” for example, emphasizes an individual’s receptivity to the tension of existence, whereas “historical consciousness” suggests a way that a society experiences its ultimate meaning and purpose. But the presence of such distinctions, however slight, calls for a separate treatment of the fourth and final assumption — that reading well requires the interpreter to seek the originating experiences that an author is trying to articulate in his writing.

Voegelin thought that, in order to understand a great philosopher like Plato, the interpreter must discover the character of an author’s psychic response to the reality that it actively sought and suffered. This is what Voegelin meant when he called for interpreters to penetrate to the experiences that engendered symbolisms. “The language symbols of myth, revelation, history, and especially philosophy,” as Michael Federici explains, “must be restored to luminosity — that is, reattached to the historical experiences that they attempt to convey.”[18]

Part of the process of restoring symbols to luminosity consists in connecting symbols with the structures of the metaxy that the philosopher is exploring through the participatory movements of his consciousness. The experiential basis of the symbols must guide the interpreter’s analysis in order to prevent treating symbols as static entities or propositions of a syllogism; the philosopher’s symbols are not defined concepts or arguments that exhaustively explain what they signify.

Moreover, interpretation must respect the tensional nature of human experience of reality, keeping in mind especially two of its aspects: “The first is the tension of the soul between time and eternity; the second is the tension of the soul between its order before and after the ontic event [or the apperception of the structure of being].”[19] Speaking of the difficulty that an interpreter might find in understanding these formulations, Voegelin went on to say that:

Because of the illuminative character of the philosophical experience the description of the tensions is inevitably burdened by the difficulty that the grammatical subjects of the statements are not names of subjects referring to the world of things. Neither the poles of the tensions nor the states of order in being are things of the external world, but rather they are terms of the noetic exegesis in which the ontic event interprets itself. Plato, whose philosophizing will serve us as an example of the tensions, has sought to express them through the symbolism of the myth.[20]

For Voegelin, then, genuine philosophy involves a gap between symbolic articulations and the underlying experiences. As we will see below, Voegelin’s Plato called attention to this gap by using philosophic myth — a symbolic form that guards against literalism by self-consciously departing from propositional formulations.

[End of Part I]