Plato’s political efforts were animated by his more fundamental conviction that the health and salvation of the soul were man’s primary concern. He meant this in the existential sense: the soul must flee non-being, temporality, and disorder and become lovingly attuned to the ground of being, eternity, and order. Therefore, Plato determined that socio-political configurations were appropriate subjects for philosophic inquiry and therapy because they shape man’s thoughts and attitudes about reality and its ground, and thereby influence the possibility of existential attunement.
Plato as a Mystic
Plato’s political concerns are important, but Voegelin’s Plato was first and foremost a mystic who sought attunement to the divine ground of being for its own sake. Platonic philosophy was, in Voegelin’s view, the loving quest for the divine ground of being.
Therefore, the relationship between Plato’s more obviously political efforts and his existential, philosophic effort is complex, but that very complexity itself became a motivating force for Plato’s philosophic inquiry. Socio-political disorder burdened Plato concretely, eliciting his desire for a remedy and functioning as a strengthening exercise for his soul: the movements of aversion and attraction to pragmatic phenomena facilitated Plato’s sensitivity to the soul’s experiences of ontological disorder and order.
At the same time, Plato must have begun from a condition of psychic sensitivity since he — in contrast to his contemporaries — experienced the socio-political disorder as psychically burdensome and spiritually significant. Voegelin would argue that the dialogues were written in order to make this complex and puzzling relation between Plato and his society more luminous.
In Voegelin’s view, then, the mystery of how and why Plato experienced and perceived disorder (psychic and political) had the character of an efficient as well as a final cause of Plato’s quest for the divine ground. Plato wanted to know what it was that responded with aversion to his political milieu, how it did so, and why it did so. Plato found that the struggle to answer such questions was a source of the insights he sought — the soul’s movements were the gateway to knowledge of reality and its order. Therefore, the inquiry into the mysterious experience would have to be conducted by examining the experience itself. Moreover, because of its status as “non-object” reality, psyche cannot be adequately or comprehensively captured in language, which treats everything as an object and presents everything to consciousness in that mode only. Psyche, like the all-comprehending structure of reality in which psyche participates existentially, is ineffable.
Plato recognized that certain activities were appropriate ways of trying to dispel the mystery of how human beings experience and know truth and order. One of these activities is meditation, in which consciousness opens itself to the mystery of reality that it actively seeks to understand, allows itself to be informed by the divine ground’s penetration into human consciousness, and thereby approximates health, salvation, and orderliness. Plato’s openness to meditation put him at odds with sophistic Athens because meditation is an integral process concerned with apperception of the oneness of reality (and its symbolizations). It was thus opposed to sophistic deformations of consciousness and language, which tried to understand reality by suspending existential consciousness and “fragmenting [reality’s] parts into pseudo-independent topics of discussion.”
Plato’s dialogues are all meditative quests for divine being, and their intelligibility depends on the interpreter’s willingness to undertake these activities on his own. Only in this way may the interpreter to penetrate to Plato’s experiences with ontological order — his experience of a “vision” granted by the divine ground and noesis, or his attraction to and pursuit of the ground. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint where one begins and the other ends, even when one becomes aware that both (along with the pull of disorder) play a role in the philosophic experience. This theme is central to all of Voegelin’s writings about Platonic philosophy and is the basis for the requirement that the interpreter engage in meditative process for himself.
Before closing this section, it will be helpful to note that meditation may seek or emphasize various “objects” and thus have different “types.” One type that holds a preeminent place in Voegelin’s thought (because of its importance in Platonic thought) is anamnesis, which is an exploration of consciousness’s “past” in which human consciousness may become aware of the “indelible present” or “flowing presence” — the “temporal flow of experience in which eternity is present.” In other words, anamnesis is the meditative activity in which consciousness seeks to “remember” its eternal or ever-present experience of being aware of itself and reality — an experience which may have been “forgotten” as a result of the forces of disorder and deformations that surround and bear down upon the concrete human consciousness.
Voegelin thought that Plato was supremely concerned with anamnetic exploration of reality, and significant portions of his analysis are devoted to the types of time and eternity that operated in the dialogues. Moreover, Voegelin argued that Plato was the first to articulate fully the luminous complexity of this relationship and the first to recognize that that attribute of the structure of reality called for philosophic investigation to operate through the symbolic form of myth. Myth recognizes the essential ineffability of the time-eternity relationship, refrains from purporting to explain it exhaustively, and advances philosophy by inviting individuals to undertake anamnesis for themselves. Voegelin suggested that all of the dialogues — early and late — were anamnetic, but Plato’s critical awareness of their anamnetic character occurred in the later stages of the revelatory process. At the dawning of this critical awareness, Plato understood even his own early formulations more clearly. Voegelin, too, upon discovering Plato’s awareness of the process of anamnesis, revisited the earlier dialogues in order to determine how their more compact symbolizations intimated the differentiated insights present in Plato’s later work.
Plato as Scientist
Although Voegelin thought Plato was a mystic whose symbolizations were divinely inspired, he credited Plato with important, if not the most important, scientific discoveries. Voegelin, like other thinkers, often used the words “philosophy” and “science” interchangeably. The philosophic activity is mystical at its core and is the basis for genuine science in the sense of knowledge — episteme — and as opposed to opinion. Science, too, is a mystical activity insofar as it is motivated by the wondering desire to know man’s place in the world, the psyche’s longing for attunement to the divine ground, and intuitive sense of the oneness of reality. Both philosophy and science, then, are related in the process of nous, the infrastructure of which Voegelin described as constituted of (1) a noetic experience and (2) the noetic exegesis of the noetic experience.
The noetic experience is most closely related to philosophy and the mystical participation of human and divine intellect in the perception of the divine ground which gives rise to self-interpretive symbols of reality. Noetic exegesis is most closely related to science, which operates reflectively on the experience in order to construct theoretical concepts that explicate philosophic symbols, and which also constitutes the experience. In Plato, Voegelin discovered not only a peak of mystical philosophy, but also exemplary critical-scientific efforts to recognize the distinctive or differentiated aspects of experienced reality. Voegelin referred to Plato’s scientific efforts in terms such as exegesis, analysis, and critical inquiry, and to these I now turn.
An Ontological Understanding of Transcendence
Voegelin thought Plato made a critical discovery in the philosophy of history — one that drew from the insights of poets, historians, and pre-Socratic philosophers, but surpassed them in symbolic clarity and made scientific analysis a genuine possibility. Crucially, Plato discovered the psyche as the process that quests for its divine ground that it recognizes as distinct from itself and as the process in which the divine presence manifests itself so that the quest and its insights may occur. In other words, Plato discovered nous, which is the faculty that illuminates psyche, as “both the god beyond man and the divine entity within man” that are held apart by the tension of existence. With the articulation of this insight, Plato proffered a new ontology based on a transcending ground (the Beyond or epikeina) which is nevertheless present in all things as “the source of their reality and ordering form.” Before this differentiation, Voegelin argued, there was no consciousness of the specific character of man, and the being who questions and searches for answers. Afterward, however, humanity understood itself as “the creature who has consciousness of a [specific human character] which is self-reflective and produces such linguistic symbols and so on.”
Plato’s differentiation had epochal significance for politics. “The decisive event in the establishment of politike episteme,” Voegelin argued, was Plato’s “specifically philosophical realization that the levels of being discernible within the world are surmounted by a transcendent source of being and its order.” What distinguishes Plato’s discovery and symbolization of psyche from his predecessors and makes it deserving of the title scientific was that his “differentiation of the psyche [expanded] the quest of the ground by the dimension of critical consciousness” and thus recognized that the experiential processes of the psyche are the empirical source from which symbols of order derive their validity. Now, symbolic expressions concerning the order of being — especially those concerning the relationship between human beings and the gods — could be scrutinized in light of the Platonic assumption that knowledge concerning the order of being is “objectively ascertainable,” an assumption that is confirmed in the experience of the psyche’s movements toward the ground. A new invisible standard, viz. the divine ground of being, therefore became the criterion for scientific truth over and against the compact symbolizations of order (the “old myth” and the pre-scientific insights) and “the multitude of sceptic, hedonist, utilitarian, power oriented, and partisan doxai” that were prevalent in fourth-century Athens. Plato’s discovery proved that “a new image of order [could] be formed that would not also bear the marks of a nonbinding, subjective opinion (doxa)”; with that discovery, Voegelin argued, the science of politics came to be.
The goal of Plato’s scientific analysis was “knowledge of the order of being, of the levels of the hierarchy of being and their interrelationships, of the essential structure of the realms of being, and especially of human nature and its place in the totality of being.” Plato also made a critical discovery concerning the process through which this type of knowledge would manifest itself to the inquirer: namely, through a negation of a negation of the truth. Positive propositions about reality, such as those Plato articulated with his differentiated symbols of order, emerge in opposition to concrete instances of human foolishness, as when the sophists proposed that (1) nothing exists, (2) if it exists, it is unknowable, and (3) if it is knowable, it is incommunicable. In other words, Plato discovered that truth emerges through the via negativa. True propositions, moreover, do not constitute “a ‘proof’ in the sense of a logical demonstration, of an apodeixis, but only in the sense of an epideixis, of a pointing to an area of reality which the constructor of the negative propositions has chosen to overlook, or to ignore, or to refuse to perceive.” Voegelin also credited Plato with revealing the moral implications of the epistemological insights, saying, “That the negative propositions are not a philosopher’s statement concerning a structure in reality, but express a deformation of the ‘heart,’ is the insight gained by Plato.”
A Conception of Philosophy and Theology
Plato’s ontological and epistemological insights called for a major revision of Hellenic thought so as to illuminate genuine philosophy as an existential quest for a “true theology,” a theology upon which depended ‘man’s existence in truth or falsehood.” Plato’s scientific understanding of philosophy led to the insights (1) that philosophy is the existential quest for God, and (2) that the insights arising from the philosophic quest pertain to divine being. God rather than man is the measure of knowledge and order.
Voegelin thought that Plato was the first thinker to use the term “philosophy” in order to signify the tension of existence that separates man and the divine, but which invites man to quest for and generates insights into the divine. Crucial to the Platonic formulation is the emphasis on the psyche’s outreaching movement that is indicated by the word philia. “In the experiences of love for the world-transcendent origin of being, in philia toward the sophon (the wise), in eros toward the agathon (the good) and the kalon (the beautiful), man becomes the philosopher.” These experiences go beyond thought to touch on man’s deep passions, but it is through critical analyses of such experiences that man discovers exactly who he is and what it is that consciousness intends.
Plato’s discovery of philosophy as the loving quest for the divine ground results in important conceptual formulations — scientifically-valid propositions that may be detached from their motivating experiences without losing their ability to describe reality accurately. Voegelin credited Plato with arriving at a number of these important propositions which have restorative force, function as a touchstone for any system of thought, and are still valid today. Voegelin emphasized a particular class of these scientific propositions — propositions relating to god or the gods, or theology. Moreover, Voegelin attributed the term “theology” to Plato, arguing that Plato equated science and philosophy with theology. In fact, Plato understood himself as a theologian.
One of Plato’s most important theological contributions to humanity’s self-understanding was his insight that sophistic doxai were, at their core, an incorrect or negative type of theology. This, in turn, led to his own efforts to negate the negation of truth and to articulate a true theology. Plato identified sophistic doxai of the type mentioned above (regarding the existence of nothing and so on) with an existential denial of divine reality, to which he forcefully responded in the Republic and Laws with a “positive triad: The gods do exist; they do care about man; you cannot make them accomplices in your crimes by pacifying them with offerings out of your profits.” Plato’s positive theology also revised traditional views about the gods, which understood the gods compactly, on the basis of his important realization that only a certain kind of speech was properly scientific, or appropriate to the exegesis of divine being: allegory and conceptual symbolizations, which constitute the substance of philosophic myth. For example, Plato’s differentiated symbols for divine reality include nous and epikeina, both of which recognize that man and god are related in the tension of existence, not in definite material terms. For conveying human experiences, however, symbols from the old myth would still suffice.
Propositions about Political Order
An epochal scientific accomplishment was Plato’s formulation of the anthropological principle and the measurement principle. From these two propositions, flow all of Plato’s specific conclusions regarding the nature of political order and disorder. Voegelin glossed Plato’s measurement principle thus: “the truth of man and the truth of God are inseparably one. Man will be in the truth of his existence when he has opened his psyche to the truth of God; and the truth of God will become manifest in history when it has formed the psyche of man into receptivity for the unseen measure.” With this principle, Plato discovered that the standard for evaluating the goodness or justice of society is the man whose soul is ordered by the transcendent ground. In light of this principle, doctrines such as consensus or power-politics may be thoroughly debunked and cannot legitimate any political order (or justify any conception of the gods) because they are decidedly immanent in nature. Plato’s discovered his soul as the living standard for evaluating Athens because he was attuned to the invisible harmony of the divine measure.
Plato’s anthropological principle established that political order is linked not only with the order of the cosmos but also with the order of individual souls. Voegelin went on to distinguish two aspects of this principle: “under the first aspect it is a general principle for the interpretation of society; under a second aspect it is an instrument of social critique.” Plato first discovered that political orders reflect the way that their members answer the question regarding the meaning and purpose of existence. If the majority of those members has a mistaken view of the gods or are closed to divine reality altogether, the society will be disordered, and it will be up to an individual like Plato to make the disorder known and to attempt to restore social order.
Plato’s two principles rest on the scientific discovery that psyche pervades the entire structure of human existence. The cosmos as a whole is receptive to the divine ordering force, which puts the “substance” into psyche. This substance — or the attunement to the divine ground — unites all the partners of the community of being (god and man, world and society) with each other so that what happens to one partner affects all the others. For Voegelin’s Plato “existence in truth” or attunement to the ground was a task for all participants. As more participants experienced attunement, reality as a whole would become more attuned, thereby heightening the attunement of individual participants. This relationship is at the foundation of Plato’s conclusions regarding the philosopher’s moral and political obligations to struggle for order. It also grounds Plato’s thought concerning the relationship of rulers and dominant groups to the individual members of society and the relationship between nomos and physis.
Specific Attributes of the Philosophic Soul
Voegelin’s approach to Platonic philosophy is emphatically relational and theological, aiming at achieving a specific relation with the divine ground, which then impacts one’s relations with other partners in the community of being. His Plato established the moral standard for the philosophical life: to live “lovingly” and with an orientation “toward death.” Voegelin explained this “great theme” of Plato’s work thus:
Death and Love are intimately related as orienting forces in the soul of Socrates. In the Phaedo philosophy is the practice of dying; in the Symposion and Phaedrus it is the eroticism of the soul for the Idea which creates the procreative community among men. Eros dominates his life because it is a life towards death; and his Eros is powerful because existence in the expectation of catharsis through death gives the proper distance to the incidents of earthly life.
Voegelin’s Plato discovered in the divine ground’s penetration into human consciousness that human beings experience their accountability to the God in the experience of the tension of existence. They perceive that the God is good and that acting in a manner pleasing to the god will bring order and salvation to existence. Loving the divine order, human beings will be courageous enough judge all of their actions, attitudes, thought, etc. from the divine perspective — the perspective of eternity. At their core, Voegelin argued, the Platonic myths aimed at illuminating the forces of death and love in the human psyche.
For Plato, the moral life depends upon on having a pure soul, characterized by virtues such as eros, thanatos, dike, philia, phronesis, and peitho, among others. According with metaxy existence, each of these virtues has an active and a passive aspect: the individual actively desires their objects, thus becoming receptive to the penetration of the divine formative presence into the individual’s soul. In order to perfect these virtues, and approach purity of soul, the philosopher must engage in the meditative processes described above, have the courage to refute instances of injustice and to promote justice, never harm others, and strive to help others. Also, the philosopher must be humble and have a deep understanding of what he does not and cannot know about the divine ground. He must constantly be aware that there will always be a “blind spot at the center of all human knowledge.” For the philosopher, like all men, “the role of existence must be played in uncertainty of its meaning …. Both the play and the role are unknown. But even worse, the actor does not know with certainty who he is himself.”
Voegelin’s Plato recognized man’s essential ignorance but without despairing about human knowledge and attunement to the divine ground. The complicated and mysterious situation of man’s existence motivated Plato to achieve as great an understanding as humanly possible through concerted and constant efforts at symbolizing his experiences of existing in the in-between and drawing closer to the divine ground that was drawing him. The Platonic corpus symbolizes Plato’s quest for existential salvation and his efforts to help others achieve the same. He recognized that no single symbolization could exhaust the luminous mystery of human existence, so he used a variety of images and types of language to convey the essential ineffable, but restorative, experiences of transcendent order. This was his attempt to help his city recover and be well-ordered. Little did he know, Voegelin suggested, that his symbols would transform the course of Western history by initiating a trajectory of thinking about the meaning of existence that could be deformed but never undone.
Voegelin conceived of his own philosophic effort as a rearticulation of Plato’s effort millennia ago, and he perhaps finds in Plato what he expected or hoped to find there: a mystical quest for the divine ground’s penetration into human consciousness that made important contributions to science and politics. In this article, I have tried to show how Voegelin arrived at this vision of Plato — a vision that is grounded in historical and textual analysis as well as meditative exegesis — and what some of the consequences of this vision are, both in terms of interpreting the dialogues and understanding the substance of Platonic philosophy. Voegelin’s unique approach to Plato, which is the result of rigorous analysis over a lifetime of study, deserves a broader scholarly hearing if only for the questions that it raises — questions to which rival interpretations of Plato would do well to respond and questions that point any thoughtful reader back to the dialogues in search of answers. In other words, Voegelin’s reading of Plato certainly encourages the continuation of the quest. That, to me, seems perfectly aligned with any serious interpretation of the ancient philosopher and reason enough to follow Voegelin’s lead to the middle of Plato’s thought.