skip to Main Content

Eric Voegelin on Plato’s Laws (Part I)

Eric Voegelin On Plato’s Laws (Part I)

Scholars and students of the work of Eric Voegelin, the twentieth-century political philosopher and historian who often called for a renewed engagement with classical Greek thought, will certainly be familiar with the prominent place Plato occupies in his work.  For Voegelin, Plato changed the course of history, instigating an “epochal” shift that could be opposed but never undone.  Voegelin continually looked to the ancient philosopher for guidance and insight into the modern situation and the perennial situation of human existence because he discovered in Plato’s writings a symbolism—unrivaled in its depth and precision—that could illuminate the important forces of human experience.  Voegelin’s general approach to interpreting Plato’s writings is complex (for reasons I examine elsewhere[i]), and although he wrote extensive analyses of several of Plato’s specific dialogues, to grasp the full significance of even those specific analyses is no simple task.  One reason for this is because Voegelin’s analyses exhibit what seems to be a melding of the modern interpreter and his ancient subject, so that it is difficult to pinpoint where description ends and analysis begins.  Another reason is that Voegelin, in contrast to the prevailing scholarly and social climate of opinion, took seriously the divine dimension of human experience, and this commitment guides Voegelin’s engagement with Plato’s thought.  Plato, Voegelin argued, underwent a mystical experience in which he sought and suffered the revelatory movements of the divine ground.  Plato’s dialogues must be read as philosophical responses to and explorations of his experience with God.

In this article, I explicate Voegelin’s analysis of Plato’s Laws in order to clarify Voegelin’s assessment of the dialogue’s primary theme, the substance of Plato’s efforts to communicate, and the key teaching, or effect, that the dialogue accomplishes.  In addition to clarifying Voegelin’s dense analysis, I hope that my focused study of Voegelin on the Laws will reveal the most important textual and experiential source for Voegelin’s general approach to interpreting Plato and other important philosophic texts.  In other words, the insights Voegelin discovered as a result of his extended studies of Plato’s Laws seem to be those that ultimately govern his stalwart commitment—over and against the contemporary climate of opinion—to the principle that all genuine philosophy is, at its core, a quest to know the divinity that commences it.

Of course, for Voegelin, Plato’s earlier dialogues—the Gorgias, or Republic, for example—also have immeasurable value in setting the standards for philosophy, and the fullest understanding of reality emerges from considering the rich variety of perspectives that Plato offers in his many dialogues.  To suggest that Plato’s Laws has special status in the formation of Voegelin’s approach to Plato and, more generally, to philosophy as a whole is not, therefore, to argue that Plato’s other works are of lesser theoretical or practical import.  Rather, while each of Plato’s dialogues effectively illuminates the motivating quest for God, the Laws in particular, Voegelin argued, makes explicit “the final expression of Plato’s thought on God and the destiny of man.”[ii]  In light of these conclusions, it makes sense to say that the Laws contains, for Voegelin, the ultimate justification for emphasizing the divine dimension of Plato’s thought.  Therefore, in what follows, I show that Voegelin’s treatment of the Laws centers on Plato’s investigation of God’s complete, yet mysterious, hold over the human condition.

I have alluded to the uniqueness of Voegelin’s attention to the divine dimension of Plato’s thought and, in order to highlight the significance of Voegelin’s treatment, I also briefly examine the treatment of Plato’s Laws by another thoughtful interpreter, Leo Strauss, whose approach and conclusions vary greatly from Voegelin’s.  The scope of my task is large because, first, Plato’s Laws itself is very long, containing twelve books, and, second, Strauss’s analysis of the Laws is extremely dense.  Finally, as I claimed above, Plato’s Laws plays a critical role in Voegelin’s claim that all philosophy—especially that of Plato—is essentially a quest for God.  For Voegelin, the restoration of this understanding of philosophy was not an empty academic curiosity.  Rather, it was to be the foundation for Voegelin’s passionate effort to formulate a philosophy of consciousness and history that could, so he hoped, reorient the modern psyche to its transcendent ground and restore order to man and society.

I hope that my effort to do justice to Voegelin’s complex treatment of Plato’s complex dialogue will compensate readers for the uncustomary lengthiness of this article, which I have separated into two parts.  Part One includes the discussion of Strauss’s interpretation of the Laws, which prepares for an examination of Voegelin’s distinctive focus on Plato’s development and substantive meaning of the theme of God.  Part Two continues to look at the implications of Voegelin’s approach, but with a view to the substance and manner of Plato’s effort, in the Laws, to communicate a new theory of order and politics in history.

The Drama of Plato’s Laws

The Laws is often considered to be Plato’s final dialogue both because it seems to present a less optimistic characterization of the human political condition and because its formal features seem to lack the polish of other dialogues.[iii]  The performed dialogue takes place in twelve books, the first three of which are filled with discussions of general and theoretical matters, while the final nine attend more to particular, practical concerns.  The drama takes place on a pathway, located outside the polis, which leads upward from Cnossos to the temple of Zeus.  An Athenian asks two Dorians, the Cretan Cleinias and the Spartan Megillus, whether they say that their laws are of human or divine origin.  This question leads the three to consider the nature of law in general—that is, what its appropriate form and intent are—as well as the fitness of specific legal provisions that already exist in or could be introduced into their respective regimes.  The three also consider the various institutions that arise in cities and help to cultivate civic character.  In the initial conversations, the Athenian discusses symposia and tries to show the Dorians that the institution particular to Athens has an important role in educating citizens, provided it is overseen by wise men who are conscientious of the common good.  Several key themes of the dialogue emerge from the treatment of symposia, namely: the importance of subjecting nomos to bold, yet structured, scrutiny; the function of prooemia, or persuasive prefatory remarks appended to legislation; and the place of ritual and festival in education and civic life.

The conversations occur on the longest day of the year among men who are aged.  Cleinias, we learn, has been charged with developing a new constitution, which gives the conversations practical significance.  At the end of the speeches the Dorians realize that the successful founding of the city depends upon the Athenian’s participation and they agree that they must ensure that he takes part in it.  The dialogue ends, however, without a response on the part of the Athenian, thus leaving in doubt whether the cooperation between the philosopher and the two political men will occur and whether the polis of the Laws is a model for an actual city or, as in the Republic, is confined to the city in speech.

Backdrop: Strauss on the Laws

Strauss’s analysis of the Laws is found in his 1975 book, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws.  Thomas Pangle made the following remark about the “dense and obscure book”:

“Strauss has constructed a commentary that remains almost impenetrable until one has gained an intimate and long-mediated familiarity with the Laws; but when one turns to Strauss after having begun to secure such familiarity, one realizes that Strauss intends to indicate what he regards as the most important observations that must be made in studying the Laws, and the order in which these pieces of evidence must be considered. . . One [becomes] engaged in a kind of fascinating argument or dialogue with Strauss about the Laws—wondering why Strauss stresses what he does, in the order that he does.”[iv]

Another scholar noted in a review that Strauss’s “commentary” goes beyond that—Strauss leaves it to the reader to figure out how he diverges from the original text of the Laws.[v]  These statements, by distinguished scholars who are sympathetic to Strauss’s project, provide insight into the care with which Strauss crafted his monograph and intended it to be read.  I should be clear that my recourse to Strauss’s book as a backdrop for Voegelin’s interpretation of the Laws, is neither the fruit of nor an adequate substitute for the careful reading that Strauss desired.  Rather, I attempt to identify some of the most important analytic differences by relying on Strauss’s explicit statements only.

What Strauss Brings to His Interpretation of the Dialogue  

Strauss’s commentary begins with a quote from the Arabic scholar Avicenna’s work On the Divisions of the Rational Sciences: “. . .  the treatment of prophecy and the Divine law is contained in . . . the Laws.”[vi]  The opening juxtaposition of “rational sciences,” on the one hand, and “prophecy and the Divine law,” on the other, is pregnant with meaning.[vii]  As he did with Plato’s other dialogues, Strauss approached his analysis or commentary of the Laws from the premise that the city and the philosopher are in permanent tension with each other because the city’s determinations concerning what is good and right depend on a revelatory standard the philosopher cannot accept.[viii]  Strauss explored how Plato’s philosopher—this time the Athenian Stranger rather than Socrates—navigates this tension for the benefit of himself and the city “in deed.”[ix]  Strauss suggested that in the Laws, which he referred to as both “the most political work of Plato” and “Plato’s most pious work,” Plato endeavored to formulate a political compromise between the viewpoints of reason and revelation while provoking the few potential philosophers to question the tenability of explanations based in accounts of the gods.[x]

For Strauss, one of the most conspicuous features of the Laws is that “Philosophy as philosophy, in its nakedness, would be out of place in the Laws, at any rate in the beginning.”[xi]  This is because, according to a careful analysis of the Athenian Stranger’s speeches, most men, including the Athenian’s Dorian interlocutors, are convinced by poetic accounts of what is good and right and what the gods are and lack the capacity to undertake the rigors of philosophic inquiry.  Indeed, the life of the city—or at least its guiding legislation—depends upon the fact that “the higher [philosophy, or the philosophic intellect] is in the service of the lower [the requirements of conventional justice and moderation],” which is “strictly speaking against nature.”[xii]  Through the conversations with Cleinias and Megillus, a Cretan and a Spartan, respectively, the “truly most noble Muse” that is philosophy is discerned only “as if through a veil.”[xiii]  Strauss noted the contrasts between the Athenian Stranger’s old, foreign interlocutors and Socrates’ young, Athenian interlocutors in a passage that suggested how the Laws and the Republic complemented each other:

“One could say that both the perfect city of the Republic and the perfect symposium of the Laws are utopias—blueprints of what one would wish or pray for and at the same time of what is possible—and accordingly that the Laws obscures the difference between an “idea” and a “utopia.”  This difference between the Laws and the Republic corresponds to the difference between Kleinias-Megillos and Glaukon-Adeimantos, between the manifest absence and the manifest presence of philosophy.[xiv]

Strauss thought philosophy’s greater prominence in the Republic could be demonstrated by the fact that the Republic goes farther in making important intellectual distinctions, which is at the core of philosophic activity.  On Strauss’s reading, the Laws seems to blur such distinctions and its chief interlocutor noticeably avoids discussing subjects necessary to a thorough philosophic inquiry.  For example, in what seems to be “a comprehensive if extremely succinct summary of the task of the legislator,” the Athenian neglects “the two highest themes: the gods and the regime (politeia).”[xv]  This omission causes the Athenian’s non-philosophic, politically-minded interlocutors to miss the implication that “the whole legal order must, according to the Athenian, be subservient to justice and moderation, i.e., not to good sense, let alone Intellect.”[xvi]  In other words, the philosopher obscures the fundamental irrationality of the city to those who find themselves in a position to institute a constitution.

The Athenian does not bring to light for his interlocutors the true nature of the city and its nomos because he discerns their limitations—limitations that are representative of the city’s dependence on poetic accounts of virtue.[xvii]  Although he does try to educate them, he skirts the crucial “What Is?” question.[xviii]  “The level of discussion,” Strauss therefore asserted, “is sub-Socratic.”[xix]  Instead of provoking the old Dorians to become philosophic, the Athenian’s conversation aims at helping them to refine civic institutions and beliefs and to promulgate more rational laws.  In this way “the many” who constitute the city benefit from a better political order, that is, one that is based on the Athenian’s “salutary logos about the good life” rather than the “Dorian law of laws.”[xx]

Strauss thought that the spurious logic of the Athenian’s arguments suggests (to the careful reader, not to the Dorians) that Plato was showing in deed the tragedy of politics: “a legislator who is not altogether useless must dare to teach an untruth for the benefit of the young; deliberately teaching a salutary untruth is an act of courage.”[xxi]  Only the gifted private individual can live by the “true account (logos) within him regarding those things that drag us”; the city, by contrast “must take over an account from some god or from him who has acquired knowledge” and incorporate it into laws backed by brachial force.[xxii]  Interpreting the Myth of the Puppet Player (Laws 644d-645c), Strauss glossed Plato’s thought thus: “Those who are guided merely by the law, however reasonable, without knowing (knowing through themselves) that it is reasonable, are as much puppets as those who are dragged only by their passions, although they are of course superior to the latter.”[xxiii]  The Athenian’s conversation therefore aims not at the highest education—the betterment of souls through the enlargement of intellect—but rather at a desirable, yet inferior, moral education that is effected through noble lies and myths and leads to better treatment of bodies.[xxiv]  The philosopher, whose ultimate concern is truth, finds himself constrained to relate to the many through untruths.  Still, because his myths are undergirded by the true logos, the beliefs and practices they engender are decided improvements over those elicited by accidental, conventional stories about gods, right, and justice.[xxv]

How the Theme of Nomos Is Developed and What it Means

The Athenian asks the Dorians the question that opens Plato’s Laws: “Is it a god or some human being, strangers, who is given the credit for laying down your laws?” (624a)[xxvi]  The Athenian’s question signals his interest in knowing something about the relation between nomos, which extends beyond legal code to beliefs, customs, traditions, and habitual practices, and the gods.[xxvii]  By having his Athenian inquire into the common opinion concerning the promulgation of the nomos, Plato raises the question of the nomos regarding the nomos—that is, the Athenian makes the traditional account of tradition his subject.

On Strauss’s reading, the importance of “the god” is thus circumscribed within the larger context of tradition, opinion, and the practices to which those give rise.  This accords with Strauss’s commitment to the irreconcilable tension between reason and revelation, which prevents the philosopher from rationally assenting to claims made on the basis of revelation.[xxviii]  The philosopher may examine claims about the gods, especially as to their logical coherence and implications for human action, because the claims are part of the reality he perceives with his senses.  But because Plato’s philosopher has no direct experience with the gods, his examination with the Dorians never proceeds into a serious inquiry concerning their nature—which would be irrational, not to mention dangerous—even though Strauss admitted that the Athenian, being a philosopher, was “concerned about the truth of the gods.”[xxix]  From the Athenian’s perspective, then, the beliefs that uphold the city’s guiding principles are incapable of rational defense.  This is true in two senses.  First, the Dorians prove largely incapable of giving an account of their nomos, which suggests that the city, or the many, whom they represent acts on the basis of incomplete understanding. [xxx]  Second, the nomos itself seems fundamentally irrational because, owing to its basis in claims about the gods, the most rational man cannot provide an account of it either.

Strauss focused on the intersection between nomos and education that becomes thematic throughout the Laws.  He suggested that the principal difference between the Athenian’s education and the kind of education the Dorians supported or were accustomed to lay in the way that each informed the nomos by shaping an individual’s sense of aidos, or reverence or fear.  The Dorian education, Strauss argued, produces primarily the virtue or habit of aidos for the laws (instead of courage or moderation) which, it teaches, are divine in origin.  This positive teaching accounts for citizens’ loyalty to their regime, its durability and victories in war.[xxxi]  The Laws thus shows that such an education is politically useful even if the nomos does not meet the standard of the intellect and even if citizens fail to recognize that fact.  This conclusion comes to light in two ways.  In the first place, the Spartan regime has demonstrated its durability and the Dorians’ speeches and actions demonstrate that their attachment to their cities is genuine and potent.  In the second place, the desirability of the Dorian education is confirmed through the Athenian’s deeds—for him, virtue is knowledge; yet he helps the Dorians to refine their practice rather than their thought.  In other words, the philosopher’s deeds underscore the reasonableness of working within the parameters of civic or moral education, even though it does not lead to knowledge, because the city depends on it.

Although the dialogue shows the usefulness of the civic education and nomos, it also presents a critique of it.  The philosopher tries to educate his interlocutors in a negative way.  He encourages individuals to question conventions and subject them to the critique of nature.  In this way, his education turns on the diminution of aidos: the Athenian tries to loosen the Dorians’ commitments to the sacredness of their beliefs and the institutions based upon them so that they might be receptive to his questioning, political suggestions, and intellectual clarifications.  Only by moderating what is the result of the Dorian education—the reverence that enjoins critical examination of the city’s nomos—does it become possible to come to a genuine understanding of either the nature of nomos in general or the specific laws, customs, and beliefs of any given city in particular.

The dialogue therefore presents three different types of education that have various results for an understanding of nomos.  The “pure” Dorian education—that is, the education promulgated by the Dorian regimes—leads to an uncritical reverence for, even a deification of, the city’s ancestral laws.  The “pure” philosophic education leads away from given conventions and supernatural explanations toward nature as a standard for what is right and just.  And there is a “mixed” education—the Dorian education refined by a limited willingness to improve upon the old ways of doing things.  The mixed education, which results when philosophy becomes political philosophy, produces aidos for the law that derives from reason rather than revelation, without, however, illuminating the natural (rather than divine) origins of such law.  Nomos, therefore, emerges as something that does not necessarily lead to the best way of life although it goes far in forming good citizens.

The Intended Audience and Substance of the Athenian’s Efforts to Communicate

For Strauss, determining the intended audience and substance of the Athenian’s teaching required one to confront the fact that the Dorians themselves do not receive the highest benefit from the philosopher’s new clarification, as can be seen from the “manifest absence of philosophy” in the dialogue.  They fail, for example, to see that the speeches about nomos and education lead, as it were, to the conclusion (also present in the Republic) that there are two kinds of justice—civic and philosophic.[xxxii]  Neither do they perceive that the “rule of law” is not in fact “the rule of the god,” but is in reality “the rule of laws laid down by human beings.”[xxxiii]  Rather than achieving or even approximating intellectual mastery of the phenomena discussed, the Dorians are, at best, persuaded to incorporate the Athenian’s logos into their efforts at political construction.[xxxiv]  Certainly, teaching political men to desire to make their legislation more reasonable is a significant accomplishment.  Nevertheless, in line with his analysis of other dialogues, Strauss thought the key insights of the dialogue accrued to the potential philosopher, the careful reader who devoted himself to an intensive examination of the drama of Plato’s text.

A feature of the dialogue that would stand out to such a careful reader is the fact that the lessons concerning nomos and education are situated within the drama of wine drinking.  Drinking parties are not only the subject of the speeches; the dialogue itself becomes a symposium as the interlocutors partake in the “intoxication” of inquiry.  The Athenian’s speeches, like wine or the proposed fear drink, induce the old Dorians to indulge in the exhilaration, self-confidence, hopefulness, and daring that make individuals “able and willing to say as well as to do everything with utmost freedom.”[xxxv]  Specifically, the dramatic wine drinking helps the Dorians to become as bold youths.  Strauss argued:

In retrospect it appears that in answering the Athenian’s initial questions, Kleinias has forgotten aidos, i.e., he has severed the connection between the divine origin of the Cretan laws and the end to which they are devoted (victory in war) and thus has weakened the hold of those divine laws.  As can be seen from the Athenian’s silence on aidos in his summary of the natural order of laws and their ends (631b3-632b1), Kleinias’ oblivion enables him to become a partner in the Athenian’s inquiry.[xxxvi]

The result of the Athenian’s education is that his interlocutors become more open to seeing the irrationality of the nomos that undergirds the political order.  The goodness of the “ancestral laws”—the “unchangeable customs which are the foundation and the safeguard of the laws proper”—is no longer simply assumed because the Athenian shows “that what is correct is according to nature and that nature is more ancient than any custom.”[xxxvii]  This is important because a key premise of the Dorians’ thought is that the oldest is also the best; the Athenian’s speeches indicate that what the Dorians thought was the oldest and best was neither oldest nor best.  To repeat what was stated earlier, whereas the Dorian education upholds traditional beliefs about the gods, the Athenian education leads away from the nomos and the accounts of the gods constituted therein toward the standard of nature.

The dramatic wine drinking that takes place both reveals and conceals the fact that nomos and philosophy are opposed to each other.  The Dorians, especially Kleinias, who is the more spirited interlocutor of the two, become willing to question their traditions and even to recognize the necessity of presenting “innovations in the garb of ancestral laws.”[xxxviii]  Even so, they are led to do so not out of love of wisdom but because engaging in such an inquiry could prove to be salutary for political order.  Moreover, the Athenian is not completely candid with them.  Considering the “sub-Socratic” discussions of the Laws in light of the drama led Strauss also to conclude (according to Zuckert) that “the clarity of the mind of the philosopher must be reduced, as if he too were metaphorically feeling the dulling effects of wine on the sharpness of the intellect, so that his unphilosophic interlocutors can understand him.”[xxxix]  Plato thus leaves it to the careful reader first to recognize the taming of philosophy that occurs in the dialogue in which Socrates’ absence is conspicuous and then to ask why it is necessary.

Strauss thought that the answer to the question was that Plato was pointing to the permanent irrationality of the nomos in a manner that, because of its indirectness, would not incur the ire of the many and hence bring about the fate meted out to Socrates.[xl]  In the Laws, the Athenian seems to the two Dorians to be a friendly, if provocative, interlocutor because he (unbeknownst to them) refrains from subjecting their beliefs to the most rigorous philosophic critique.  This is a model for philosophic speech because it achieves the desirable effects of improving the city’s institutional and educational order and protecting the life of the philosopher, while provoking potential philosophers to investigate, if not suggesting conclusions about, the actual structure of the cosmos.  In other words, the Laws does not portray a world any less tensional than the dialogues in which Socrates appears, although to the many it appears so.  Zuckert summarized Strauss’s view thus:

“the tension between the philosopher and the fathers can never be entirely eradicated; it is impossible for a philosopher to be a philosopher without raising questions about the validity of inherited views.  The tension between philosophy and politics can at most be meliorated, as it was in both Xenophon’s and Plato’s writings, by the presentation of the philosopher primarily as a phronimos, a man of practical wisdom willing to teach potential princes.  But, as Plato indicates in his depiction of both Socrates and the Athenian, there are limits on the extent to which the philosopher is willing to dedicate himself to playing such a role.”[xli]

If the Athenian’s willingness to act as political educator has its limits, so does his willingness to act as philosophic guide for the many: he conceals, Strauss argued, the situation that “the whole legal order” fails to meet the standards of “good sense, let alone Intellect.”  Moreover, he finds it necessary to remain “silent on piety or the divine things proper in his summary of the natural order of the laws.”[xlii]  This silence is occasioned by the incapacity of his interlocutors to hear such things without reacting in a way that would threaten either the life of the philosopher or the city.[xliii]  Through the model of the Athenian stranger, Plato suggests how the practice of philosophy must be moderated in order to benefit both the philosopher and the city.  Like Plato, the Athenian incorporates his logos in writings that are fully accessible only to a select group of individuals.

The Outcome or Effect of the Dialogue: The Key Teaching

Strauss thought that Plato’s Laws not only demonstrated the manner in which the permanent tension between the philosopher and the city requires a moderation of philosophic speech and deed.  He also thought the dialogue explored a specific feature of that tension, one to which he called attention by prefacing his commentary with the epigraph from Avicenna.  The epigraph prepares readers for Strauss’s identification of a critical theme of the dialogue—what he called “the problem of the gods.”[xliv]  In examining Plato’s development of this theme Strauss found it helpful to consider the relation between the Laws and the Apology of Socrates because the Laws begins with the word “god” and contains “a law against impiety which would have been more favorable to Socrates than the corresponding Athenian law.”[xlv]  Assuming that logographic necessity governed the Platonic corpus, the Laws’ revised law against impiety, combined with the fact that the Apology ends with the word “god,” might have been Plato’s signal that the two dialogues were intended to be read as companions and that their various treatments of phenomena should be compared if a complete picture of those phenomena were to emerge.

Considering the dialogues in light of each other supported Strauss’s general conclusion that Plato intended to depict two alternative ways (and their concomitant outcomes) of practicing philosophy.  In the Apology, Socrates’ public inquiry leads to the accusation of impiety, and his trial, conviction, and capital punishment.  By contrast, the Athenian stranger of the Laws conducts his conversation outside of the city and with old men, and even though, according to Strauss, his speeches come close to blasphemy, he avoids Socrates’ ultimate fate.[xlvi]  Importantly, the difference between the two alternatives does not ultimately turn on the dramatic setting, even though it is significant.  What is conspicuous about the Athenian’s comportment is the degree to which he is silent about the divine things even in his private conversation with the political men.[xlvii]  Careful analysis of the Athenian’s speeches may lead potential philosophers to investigate, without reverence or fear, the divine things, but as they are directed to the Dorians, his speeches are generally characterized by piety.  And even where his speeches are “verging on blasphemy,” his logos nevertheless “persuades a man, if nothing else can, to be resolved to life a holy and just life.”[xlviii]  Strauss observed that, in his conversation with the Dorians, the Athenian stranger refrained from discussing the “vanishing of divine providence” that the stranger of Plato’s Statesman spoke about with Socrates (274d3-6).  The Athenian’s restraint pointed to the existence of “the problem of the gods” and to a way of navigating it that is beneficial to both the philosopher and the city.

“The problem of the gods,” as Strauss understands it, seems to pertain to demonstrating the existence of the gods.[xlix]  The presence of the problem, Strauss thought, is signaled by the various oaths which occur at strategic positions throughout the dialogue (e.g., 660b, 720e, 905e); and it is “directly faced” in Book Ten—“the only philosophic part of the Laws.”[l]  At the outset of his chapter on Book Ten, Strauss argued that the Athenian Stranger is either “compelled or enabled to discuss what Adeimantos calls theology (Republic 379a5-6),” and that “almost his whole teaching seems to stand or fall by the belief in the gods.”[li]  The “problem” seems to be that piety is a crucial part of living the just life, but piety has two different and conflicting forms according to whether it is the property of the philosopher or the many.  The city’s piety derives from believing that “the gods are as the laws declare them,” but the philosopher’s piety is characterized by the opposite position.  The philosopher “is concerned with the truth about the gods” and must look for positive proof concerning their being and power; this is the form of his piety and it causes a rift between him and the many.

Strauss observed that the proofs that the Athenian discusses with the Dorians and which help to evoke the kind of belief in the gods that will uphold his teaching are shown to lack philosophic rigor; for the philosopher, the discussed “proofs” are not logoi, but rather mythoi.  The Athenian’s ironic proofs seem to put him in the same camp as the “ironical deniers” of the conventional beliefs concerning the gods who “compel the nonironical legislators to prove the existence of the gods.”[lii]  Since the legislators, represented by the Dorians, fail in that effort, it appears that the philosopher’s piety “comes only from the study of the soul and of the intellect regulating the whole.”[liii]  That study leads the philosopher both away from and toward myth: he himself is liberated from the conventional myths, but is constrained to create new myths (in the sense of noble lies) about the gods for his own good and the good of the city.  In this way, he acts semi-divine or takes the place of the gods, which from the perspective of the city can hardly be conceived of as pious.  Moreover, his semi-divine activity mimics the contradictoriness that characterizes the poets’ portrayals of the gods: to the extent that the superhuman philosopher’s highest concern to seek truth is undermined by his promulgation of noble lies, the conventional tales regarding the gods’ arbitrary activity achieve more legitimacy.[liv]

This interesting conclusion coincides with Strauss’s preoccupation with the quarrel between philosophy and poetry that finds its ultimate expression in Plato’s life and writings.  In his commentary on Book Four, Strauss noted that Plato himself disobeyed or contradicted, by not taking a wife, the command of “his own legislator, i.e., of the dispensation of the intellect; yet, as we see, he did not disobey since his action was involuntary.”[lv]  Strauss went on to say, “If one wishes, one could say that, by not marrying, Plato did what according to him the poets do: he contradicted the law and thus himself.”[lvi]  From the perspective of philosophy, contradictions are useful only to the extent that they provoke the quest for the correct account; philosophy seeks to dispel contradiction.  Yet to suggest that Plato was unphilosophic would be absurd: he was both a philosopher and a poet, and well-aware of the fact.  Plato captured the ironic situation of the philosopher-poet in the Athenian’s speeches, which Strauss described in a section worth quoting at length:

“[According to the Athenian’s recital of ‘an ancient story always told by the poets and agreed to by all men,’] the poet is compelled to say different things on the same subject, whereas the legislator in his law must say only one thing on each subject . . . We note that the poet, when speaking of the poets’ self-contradiction, contradicts himself: the poet does not contradict himself by making different characters contradict one another; the Athenian abstracts and at the same time does not abstract from the dramatic character of the poets’ works.  Besides, the poet is not simply ignorant of which of the contradictory statements is true; the utmost that one could say is that he regards the question as to the truth of the contradictory statements as secondary to the question as to their fitness for human beings of contradictory dispositions.  Contrary to the ancient story, originated and propagated by the poets, the poets, and especially the dramatic poets, know very well what they are doing; they present themselves as less wise than they are; they speak ironically (cf. 908e2), whereas nothing is more unbecoming for a legislator than the use of irony: he must always, to all human beings, say the same things on the same subject.” [lvii]

The truth, and particularly the truth about the gods, must be disguised by the philosopher-poet who has knowledge of “the great variety among the natures and habits of the souls (cf. 650b6-9).”[lviii]  Strauss’s cross-reference to Laws 908e2 links the philosopher-poet with the naturally just ironic man “who doesn’t believe the gods exist at all” (Laws 908b).  Knowing that belief in the gods and divine providence is salutary for the many who require hope to act on a grand scale and thereby to achieve political felicity, Plato’s philosopher uses poetry to occlude the coincidence of philosophy and doubt about the gods’ existence.[lix]  The resolution to the “problem of the gods” is for philosophers to make it appear that philosophy is in service to the city and superficially to agree with the Athenian when he stated at 812a, “With regard to the greatest god, and the cosmos as a whole, we assert that one should not conduct investigations nor busy oneself with trying to discover the causes—for it is not pious to do so.  Yet it’s likely that if entirely the opposite of this took place it would be correct.”[lx]

Voegelin on the Laws

An examination of Voegelin’s interpretation of the Laws must begin by considering the concern Voegelin accorded the dialogue over the course of his career and the types and frequency of his references to it within his corpus.  The general pattern that emerges is that Voegelin looked to Plato’s Laws for insight throughout the entire course of his philosophic quest, but during its later stages, these encounters became more subtle and more intense.

Voegelin’s most sustained analysis of the Laws occurs in Order and History 3: Plato and Aristotle, with frequent recourse to the dialogue also occurring in the second and fourth volumes of his magisterial series.  In Order and History 2: The World of the Polis and The New Science of Politics, Voegelin paid special attention to the way that the dialogue illuminates Plato’s philosophy of history and his theory of politics in opposition to other accounts of order.  For example, Voegelin examined Plato’s reasons for bringing together interlocutors who represent the successive phases (Minoan, Spartan, and Athenian) of Hellenic history.  Through these symbols, Plato linked the chronological story of the Hellenes to the spiritual movements toward or away from the divine drawing that find their expression in each polis’s respective institutional and mythic traditions, and which constitute the substance of history.[lxi]  In addition to the discernible movements, moreover, the “contraction” of the three phases reveals Plato’s insight into the “indelible present—the movement within the metaxy that is timeless because of the participatory pull of the divine ground.

During this period, Voegelin’s concern for political insight led him to focus on Plato’s ability to refine the symbols of the old myth (e.g., the nous replaces the gods of Crete) even as he revealed the superiority of those older symbols to the deformed sophistic symbols of his day (e.g., the Cretan institutions appear to be more perfect than the Athenian ones insofar as their origins are more closely tied to the divine).[lxii]  As in The World of the Polis, Voegelin’s treatment of the Laws in The New Science of Politics is significant for its opposition to the Protagorean doxa that “Man is the Measure” with the new insight that “God is the Measure” of education and political order.  In his middle writings, Voegelin’s considerations of the important images of the Puppet Player (Laws 644d-645c) and the Mover of the Pieces (Laws 903b-d) focused especially on how they illuminate Plato’s late understanding of human agency and the composition of the soul (both the individual and social psyche) and therefore help to explain changes in Plato’s political thought.

Voegelin’s later meditative writings understandably focus on the images of the Puppet Player and the Mover of the Pieces as the outgrowths of Plato’s mystical insight into the realm of reality that lies beyond the experienced tension of existence and stretches into the thoroughly transcendent.[lxiii]  As a consequence, Voegelin’s late writings move away from questions of political order and the intersection of spiritual and pragmatic history in order to focus on Plato’s answer to what Voegelin referred to as the “darker question”—the question about why the question about the meaning of one’s existence remains pertinent even when the answer is found.[lxiv]  That is, the late writings prefer to examine Plato’s insights into the structure of the ontological process in which the cosmic consciousness reveals itself to its constituent consciousnesses, located in individual human beings.  In The Ecumenic Age as well as in several of the late published essays, Voegelin concentrated on the Laws’ theological and revelatory insights and suggested that Plato conceived of, and sought to express, his insights into the mysterious beyond as a vision (opsis) arising out of an experience that surpassed noetic activity.[lxv]

What Voegelin Brings to His Interpretation of the Dialogue

Several features of Voegelin’s broader philosophical project are present in his approach to interpreting Plato’s Laws.  These include Voegelin’s understanding of how human beings grasp order and its opposite, of religious myth as a near-perfect symbolic form, and the practical and political relevance of the experiences of transcendence that give rise to myth.  Committed to the view that genuine scientific and psychic insight emerge primarily through the experienced opposition between order and disorder, Voegelin began his study of the Laws by addressing misconceptions in the mainstream scholarship treating Plato’s dialogue.  His critique of these accounts hinged on their neglect of the divine motivation and aspiration of Plato’s great work.

He argued against interpreters who conceived of the Laws as either “reactionary” or “less idealistic” than the Republic.  In the case of the former, Plato’s critics took issue with the theocratic institutions of the dialogue, and in the case of the latter, they praised the dialogue for recognizing the advantages of rule of law rather than rule by a philosopher-king.  Voegelin thought both positions failed to grasp the mystical ontological insights underlying Plato’s expression of order.  Specifically, neither recognized that an “ideal” in the normal social-scientific use of the term “has no meaning in a Platonic context.”  Rather, Voegelin asserted, “The Idea is Plato’s reality, and this reality can be more or less well embodied in the historically existing polis.”[lxvi]  The theocratic character of the Laws’ polis, therefore, is not to be understood simply as the product of an old man’s frustration with the decline of virtue in his society.[lxvii]  Neither does the move from the Republic to the Laws indicate Plato’s “compromise with reality.”  Voegelin’s Plato was more attuned than ever to the divine reality that he understood as the cause, process, and end of his philosophic quest, and the political structures of his late dialogue emerge out of and reflect that experience.

The most egregious misconception, Voegelin thought, was that the Laws was formally inferior to the other dialogues, signaling that Plato’s faculties of composition were waning.[lxviii]  Voegelin conceded that the Laws contains some “stylistic defects and minor inconsistencies which betray that it has not undergone a final revision.”  But it does not follow that Plato’s artistic and philosophic prowess was in decline.  On Voegelin’s account, rather:

“The work glows with a ripeness of style that is peculiar to some of the greatest minds when their vitality remains unbroken into the later years.  The subject matter is now entirely at the disposition of the master; the process of creation seems effortless; and the conspiracy of content and expression is so subtle that the creator almost disappears behind a creation that resembles a necessary growth.”[lxix]

The Laws is governed by an internal organization that most accurately expresses the confluence of symbolic expression and consciousness of the basic structure of human existence.  The dialogue, Voegelin, argued, was Plato’s “religious poem,” a philosophic myth that evokes an immediate mystical experience of the structure of the divinely-grounded cosmos, explores that structure and its implications for human action through reflective consciousness, and conveys the appropriate manner of communicating such revelatory insights.[lxx]  As the creator of the poem, the “religious artist” Plato self-consciously surpassed in authority, potency, and attunement to the ground any actual or paradigmatic lawgiver.[lxxi]

Interpretations of the Laws that place primary emphasis on the political features of the dialogue, suggest that Plato’s intellectual powers were fading, or criticize the theocratic character of the work miss the crucial point about Plato’s thoroughgoing appropriation of the myth as the ultimate expression of his insights into the transcendent source of order.  In his analysis of Plato’s Timaeus, Voegelin concluded that Plato recognized the impossibility of advancing “verifiable propositions concerning the psychic nature of [cosmic] order.”  Plato understood that:

“the ‘truth’ of the myth will arise from the unconscious, stratified in depth into the collective unconscious of the people, the generic unconscious of mankind, and the deepest level where it is in communication with the primordial forces of the cosmos.  On this conception of a cosmic omphalos of the soul in the depth of the unconscious rests Plato’s acceptance of 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.”[lxxii]

Voegelin went on to argue that “The eikos mythos carries its own aletheia because in it we symbolize the truly experienced relation of our separate conscious existence to the cosmic ground of the soul.  The theory of the myth is itself a myth; its truth is not of the intellect but the self-authenticating truth of the psyche.”[lxxiii]  The Laws, therefore, must be understood as Plato’s conscious play with the myth, which was neither fully under his control nor wholly compelling.  In articulating his experience, Voegelin found, Plato became acutely aware of the mysterious intersections between time and timelessness, action and suffering, and knowing and not-knowing that constitute the human condition and must be elucidated through the language of myth.

Voegelin’s emphasis on the Laws as the culmination of Platonic myth did not diminish his concern with the relation between concrete politics and Plato’s expressions of order.  In a subsection of his chapter entitled “The Platonic Theocracy,” Voegelin argued that:

“The evolution of Plato’s conception of order toward the position of the Laws must be understood in the context of Hellenic politics. . . The need for a more comprehensive organization must have been so obvious at the time, that Plato’s vision of an Hellenic empire had nothing extraordinary on principle.”[lxxiv]

Voegelin took seriously the political reforms set forth in the Laws: Plato desired a united Hellenes—a solution to the general disorder of Hellenic unbrotherliness—that he hoped to secure through a combination of persuasion and force.  Drawing from his philosophy of history, Voegelin argued that the Laws’ political solution reflects Plato’s position between the myth of nature and Christianity’s further differentiation of the universal spiritual substance: Plato’s trajectory “is toward ecclesiastic universalism; the result remains theocratic sectarianism.”[lxxv]

Voegelin continued to examine Platonic politics as an effort at spiritual reform.  Plato’s concern was always to see the embodiment of the Idea (the divine substance in psyche) in a concrete polis; by the time of the Laws Plato did, however, come to see that the “human material” was largely incapable of being animated by the Idea unmediated.  In comparison to the glorious restoration of order envisaged in the Republic, the Laws’ restoration is indeed “second-best” in terms of the intensity of its attunement.  Now the Idea must flow into the soul of the semi-divine lawgiver (the Athenian Stranger in the dialogue, Plato himself in history) who then imposes its divine stamp into the law (nomos) that urges citizens toward virtue.  Therefore, what seems to be Plato’s move toward an institutional solution to the political problems of his day was that, but not only that because, in Voegelin’s terms, “Power and spirit can indeed not be separated.”[lxxvi]

In other words, pragmatic disorder is inextricably linked to spiritual or existential disorder.  Law and institutions necessarily affect man’s relation to the ground, either facilitating or inhibiting attunement, and it is by that criterion that they are to be judged.  The same holds true for the philosopher’s actions.  Therefore, the existential gulf between Plato and his fellow citizens (of which Plato had become painfully aware) did not and could not justify a restoration of order through forceful or unjust means.  Instead, Plato continued to articulate—contrary to the sophists—the luminous insight that genuine personal and political order depends upon and facilitates man’s loving quest of God.  And in the final dialogue, that therapeutic response took the form of a religious poem that attempts to save obdurate men by persuading them to live by the divine-infused nomoi.

How the Theme of God Is Developed and What it Means

Voegelin argued that the Laws contained Plato’s decisive insight that reality as a whole, the cosmos, has its beginning and ending in God.  Likening the dialogue to the “Summa of Greek life,” Voegelin saw in it Plato’s “mature wisdom on the problems of man and society” and “the grand view of human life in its ramifications from birth to death.”[lxxvii]  Voegelin’s sensitivity to Plato’s divine quest did not cause him to overlook the dialogue’s treasure of insight into laws (nomoi) and socio-political arrangements, but it did result in an analysis that parted ways with Voegelin’s contemporaries.  Voegelin’s analysis of nomos is subordinated to the theme that organizes the various aspects of the dialogue: the God who governs the entire process of order and history.  Nomos (in the sense of legal statutes, traditions, or a polis’ historical arrangement), he argued, has substance and is orderly only to the extent that it is informed by the divine wisdom.[lxxviii]  To understand that divinity must, therefore, be the primary concern as one approaches a study of the Laws.

Voegelin Determined that God is the Theme by Examining the Structure of the Laws

Voegelin’s conclusion that the God was the key theme of the dialogue derived, in the first place, from an examination of the structure of the dialogue.  As he did with other dialogues, Voegelin tried to identify how Plato’s structure revealed Plato’s evolving intentions and insights.  He noticed that the predominantly “internal organization” of the Laws is formed “through the recurrence of dominant motifs in a flow of associations.”[lxxix]  The form and the content of the dialogue merge together into the revelation that the mystical insights become luminous in light of the experience of symbolizing them

This marked an important shift from Plato’s approach in the Republic, where the dialogue’s material (viz. Plato’s experiential insights) is organized externally into divisions and subdivisions that mimic the structure of the metaxy.  Plato’s Republic symbolization seems to weigh more heavily on the side of reflective consciousness, and the deliberateness of the construction focuses the reader’s attention on the person of Plato.  In contrast, the symbolization of the Laws is balanced toward participatory (or luminous) consciousness inasmuch as the entire dialogue takes the form of a “religious poem,” that is, a work of art that is inspired by God and which aims at fostering a right relationship between man and God.  In this last work, Plato lets himself fade into the creation (the key interlocutor is a Stranger) so that the expression of order and the divine ground that prompts it are the key focus of the work.[lxxx]

In addition to the principle of internal organization that governs the dialogic structure, several structural features function to show that the proper end of human striving is God and that the proper mode of such striving is religious poetry.  For example, the opening word (theos) and the place where the speeches occur (the pathway that leads to Zeus’ temple) indicate Plato’s concern with man’s struggle for attunement to the divine ground.  Voegelin argued that, “God is the motif that dominates all others; and the dialogue, while winding its path through the world that is embraced by God, will not lose its direction in spite of the long digressive rests in the groves.”[lxxxi]  At the center of the dialogue, the Athenian gives his Great Address (715e-734e), which is divided into three parts: the first section (715e-718b) treats of God, the second section (726d-734e) treats of Man, and between these is an interlude, on persuasion, that bridges the gap between man and God.[lxxxii]

The core of Plato’s religious poem expresses and evokes the insight that man and God are held together by the divine speech that bends human reason toward the God.  And the final scene confirms that the dialogue reaches its end in the God.  On Voegelin’s reading, Megillus’ statement that the Athenian must be made to cooperate in the Dorians’ founding effort evinces his recognition of the divine wisdom in the Athenian’s speeches.  Through the course of the dialogue, the three interlocutors enter into genuine existential community, the bond of which is psychic attunement to the God.  Plato’s composition of the dialogue’s literary beginning, middle, and ending thus points to the God that prompts the human quest for himself by his presence in psyche.

Voegelin further argued that the dialogue’s initial question opens up a scientific framework in which the entire structure of being is held together by God.   The question concerning the origins of nomos sets in motion the first three books of the dialogue, which present episodes that occur in the following order: 1) the god as the source of institutions, 2) man and society’s orientation toward the god, and 3) the course of institutions through history, the cycle of which is set moving by divine agency.[lxxxiii]  The episodic structure treats of God, Man, and Society and underscores the divine permeation of the three dimensions of human existence that Voegelin described in “Reason: The Classic Experience”: the personal, political, and historical.[lxxxiv]  Voegelin inferred that the principles of order concerning “how a polis is administered best and how the individual man may best conduct his personal life” (Laws 702a), which are treated through the three episodes, make sense only in light of Plato’s concrete, participatory experiences of the divine ground. [lxxxv]

The quest for the origins of nomos blossoms out into an inquiry that treats an enormous range of human experiences that, on Voegelin’s reading, are commensurable to the extent that they are all constituted by the necessary relation between man and God.  Plato’s scientific investigation of the nomos did not aim at merely at a cognitive comprehension of discreet phenomena, but sought to evoke experiences of the transcendent Nomos that pervades all structures of being.  To this end, the inquiry of the first three books is conducted through, and therefore subordinated to, myth, which helps prevent interpretations that would fail to account for the experiences of transcendence that first motivated the inquiry.  The theme of God, then, is developed through a comprehensive, experiential inquiry into all dimensions of existence.

Having thus established that science, or the principles of order, 1) derives from experiences of the transcendent ground, and 2) reveals God as the origin and end of ontological striving, the Athenian then suggests that the principle must be tested (702b).  In Book Four, “it is man who has to show his skill in lawgiving, not God.”[lxxxvi]  On Voegelin’s reading, this shift does not imply Plato’s effort to substitute a natural order for a supernatural one.  Rather, the human construction of laws begins from the premise that the God governs all and, from Book Four forward, the subject of the Laws is how the divine logos informs man’s concrete struggles for order.  Voegelin identified two “high points” of the second part of the dialogue, namely, the discussion of education that occurs in Book Seven and that of religion in Book Ten.  Each one recalls the dominant motif of the first part of the dialogue, “the symbol of the God who plays the game of order and history with man as his puppet,” thus indicating Plato’s intent to make God the primary focus of the entire work.[lxxxvii]

Plato’s God

To this point, I have concentrated Voegelin’s discovery of the Laws’ most important theme in his analysis of Plato’s development of the dialogic structure.  From that discovery, Voegelin endeavored to penetrate to the substance of the God that revealed himself through Plato’s struggle to articulate his mystical insights.[lxxxviii]  Two crucial passages proved instructive: the image of the Puppet Player and the Mover of the Pieces.  The related, recurring motifs of harmonious cosmic psyche and number also speak to the nature of Plato’s God.  These passages confirmed what Voegelin observed in his analysis of the Republic: namely, that Plato’s key insight was man’s inability to express completely his encounter with the divine ground (or the Agathon), owing both to his own limitations and to the ultimate transcendence of the mysterious God.  Despite the similar conclusion, Voegelin maintained that the symbolism of the Laws signaled an important advance in Plato’s mystical understanding of the God.  The Laws’ symbols penetrate further into the tensions of psyche and clarify both a broader range of experience and a more acute perception of it.  To Voegelin’s analysis of these symbols I now turn.

The Puppet Player— Plato’s new understanding of God emerges in the overt features of the image, or myth of the Puppet Player, its development through the dialogue, and through analysis of its motivating experiences.  The Puppet Player first occurs in Book One, at 644d-645c, and is then elaborated in Book Seven, at 803a-804b.  The Athenian first articulates the image in order to clarify the interlocutors’ agreement “that the good are those able to rule themselves, and the bad are those who cannot” (644b).  The later elaboration, which occurs within the discussion of education, functions to demonstrate the cause of individual and social psychic disorder, viz. that “men have forgotten that they are the playthings of God and that this quality is the best in them.”[lxxxix]  The myth portrays man as no more than a “divine puppet” moved about by various “cords,” only one of which—the divine golden cord—leads the “voyage of existence on the best way of life” (803b).

On Voegelin’s reading, the Athenian Stranger (or Plato, as it were) spoke genuinely and literally when he stated 1) that the myth would generate better understanding of the meaning of the previous speeches, 2) that the God is, by nature, worthy of complete seriousness on the part of man, 3) that the God indicates how men should live their lives in accordance with nature, and 4) that all these things were spoken under the influence of his experience of the God.[xc]  Together, Voegelin concluded, these statements convey Plato’s reception of a mystical communication—a revelation of the God who communicates with man through myth.  At first glance, the image seems primarily concerned to explore the human condition and its substantive revelation of the God seems general and ambiguous at best: the divine player is clarified no further than the Agathon.  But through an experiential analysis of the myth, Voegelin discovered Plato’s new differentiation of the God, which comes to light subtlety, in conjunction with his late anthropology and philosophy of existence.

Examining the Puppet Player image’s experiential content from the anthropological perspective, Voegelin pointed out that the cords that move the puppet, which represent various influences on human action, are contracted into the soul of the individual human being: each man is drawn violently toward the region of vice and gently toward the region of virtue.  The various metals that make up the cords recall Hesiod’s characterization of the different ages of man, an image Plato had used previously in the Republic (415a-b).  But in the Republic the metals represented classes of men who were distinguished from each other by a predominant character flowing from the order of the psyche.  In the Laws’ image, Plato penetrated “beyond the virtues into the movements of the soul, into the realm of pathe, and into the consciousness of values, the logismos.”[xci]  Now, the sway of deeper and stronger forces renders virtue impotent to engender such a stable character.  Individual souls, rather than classes, are the field of existential tensions where the forces of order and disorder vie for hegemony in the psyche, and this is the basis for Plato’s new understanding of the basic equality of mankind (or the equality of Hellenic peoples[xcii]).

The new differentiated understanding of the human psyche is simultaneously a differentiation of the divine ground, and a new theology.  Because psyche exists in the metaxy, to consider the human pole in abstraction from its divine ground would destroy Plato’s experiential insight.  The new substantive insight into the God is that his drawing (i.e. the golden cord) is almost imperceptible to most men and that a radical existential gap separates the transcendent God from men.  Even the perception of transcendence itself is transcendent to man, whose knowledge of the divine is now discerned as utterly contingent upon the very subtle, fragile experience of the golden cord.  Another insight into the God is that “the pull of the steely cords is just as divine as the pull of the golden cord.”

Nevertheless, the burden of choosing which cord to follow—either the golden or the steely—lies unequivocally on man.[xciii]  Now, the chaotic forces that prevent attunement to God (symbolized as the Cave in the Republic) are associated with the divinity of God, giving rise to the “darker” question regarding God’s relationship to man. Plato’s response could be discerned from the Athenian’s remarks at 644d-e: As to why man exists as a puppet or as to why the God made man his puppet, we know nothing.[xciv]  Voegelin emphasized that Plato’s concession to the ultimately mysterious structure of man’s does not mean that no further understanding of the divine ground has occurred.  In fact, Voegelin argued, “Behind the truth of the discord there lies the mystery of the reality in which the discord becomes luminous as its truth.  The ‘true story’ is true because it raises the question to which no further answer in truth is possible.”[xcv]  In other words, it is through the experience which gives rise to consciousness of the question that man participates more fully in the divine ground and apperceives through luminous (not reflective) consciousness the veritable structure of reality.

The Puppet Player image is also revelatory of Plato’s late philosophy of existence.  Right or orderly existence still consists in following the divine drawing, but now only the subtle attraction of the divine presence—rather than the presence itself—is in the human psyche.  And for most men that attractive force is present only as a decree of the polis which was promulgated by some divine lawgiver.  “The gentle pulling of the golden cord which man should follow,” Voegelin argued, “has replaced the ascent from the cave to the immediate vision of the Idea; the full stature of the man whose soul is ordered by the vision of the Agathon has diminished to that of a plaything (paignion) of conflicting forces; the sons of god have become the puppets of the gods.”[xcvi]

Only the person of Plato, who saves the saving tale of the myth (645b) has proven capable of an immediate ordering experience of God.  He must infuse the civic nomos with the divine presence—which is the Nomos in the strict sense—so that by participating in the civic rituals men can hope to become attuned to the divine direction.[xcvii]  The Laws’ symbolization thus shows that “God does not speak unmediated, but only as mediated through Socrates-Plato,” or in this case, the Athenian Stranger-Plato.[xcviii]  In Plato’s final dialogue, God and man are almost completely separated except in the case of the genuine lover of wisdom who, Voegelin argued, quests for experiences of the ground, seeks to articulate them in symbolic language, and thus participates in the interaction of noesis and opsis (vision) that reveals something about the structure of God.  Therefore, the consequence of philosophic experience is a mystical transformation that estranges the philosopher who draws near to the God from most other men.

Voegelin argued that the Puppet Player symbol “gains its intensity because it is drawn, not from the experience of the puppet only, but of the player too.”[xcix]  But the divine presence in the symbol is simultaneously too overwhelming and too gentle for most men.  For the very few who genuinely undertake the quest for God, the symbol has ordering power.  But for the majority of people, the philosopher’s symbol must undergo the mediation of solidification into a civic decree.[c]  Not through their own psychic experience, but only through their acceptance of a dogma that is infused with the philosopher’s wisdom (such as the positive theological triad at 885b) do most people realize anything of the divine ground.  And even then, they are hardly conscious of the real meaning and experiential significance behind the dogmatic propositions.

The Mover of the Pieces—Voegelin said that the Laws was “a grandiose manifestation of Plato’s imaginative genius” because in it Plato expressed his experiential insights through a sequence of myths that advance from compactness to differentiation.  In Voegelin’s complex terminology, the sequence “is a remarkable device to make the truth of reality intelligible as reality in the process of becoming truth.”  The fundamental insight governing Plato’s construction of the sequence, he added, is “that the truth of the process is limited by the mystery of the process.”[ci]  In simpler terms, this means that the quest for order, or the quest for attunement to the divine ground, is capable of producing a better understanding of the basic structure of existence in the metaxy.  But because the quest reveals that human existence is in the metaxy, the poles of which transcend human experience and insight, the best one can hope for and must seek is further, not complete, dissolution of the ontological and existential mystery.

The Puppet Player Myth respects this “process of reality” by answering certain questions about man’s relationship to God, but self-consciously stopping short of offering an answer to what Plato experienced as an unanswerable question.  But Plato’s quest does not end there, for in the construction of the Laws, the image of the Mover of the Pieces (903b-d) further clarifies the mystery of the God who pulls man’s strings.  From the “cosmic depth in the soul of Plato” emerges a vision (Voegelin called it “the most awesomely intimate revelation”) of God “who broods over the board of the cosmos and moves the particles of the Great Soul according to their relative merit, distinguished from the puppets by His perfect will of fulfillment under Fate.”[cii]  By situating this further clarification in the sequence of myths, Plato conveyed his realization that genuine insights are possible only to the extent that one recognizes oneself participating in a divinely guided process that properly leads toward God.

Only a few details about Mover of the Pieces image need to be mentioned.  Although Voegelin did not use the term in his analysis of the Laws (he used it in the analysis of the Republic), he suggested that Plato’s vision is the final step in his theodicy.  Glossing the image, Voegelin posited:

“[Plato’s] argument is climaxed by the vision of the creator-god as the player at the board who shifts the pieces according to the rules.  When he observes a soul, now in conjunction with one body and then with another, undergoing changes through its own actions as well as through the actions of other souls, there is nothing left for the mover of the pieces but to shift the character (ethos) that has improved to the better place and the one that has worsened to the worse place, thus assigning to each the lot that is due its fate (903b-d).”[ciii]

Now human beings—indeed all the “particles of the Great Soul”—are recognized as ultimately responsible for their existence in order or disorder.  For Voegelin, this does not mean that each individual can control every aspect of his moral, ethical, or intellectual constitution or that it is possible to transcend fully one’s circumstances.  Rather, it means that whatever the mysterious order of human agency and responsibility is, one must accept as true that the God 1) “has disposed all things for the weal and virtue of the whole,” 2) does not compel human action, and 3) does not judge arbitrarily.[civ]  Moreover, the mystery itself is not for the human pieces to dispel; it is a divine thing that the human pieces must accept.  This explains why Voegelin abandoned the term “theodicy”: the order of God is not now and never will be fully intelligible to man.  Still, man experiences the God’s movements of the particles, and it is through this experience that man is able to apperceive the divine order to which he must attune himself.

Cosmic Psyche

In order to round out Voegelin’s conclusions about Plato’s God, another important symbol should be examined: this is the “Great Soul” mentioned in the foregoing section, or the cosmic psyche, as it is called elsewhere.  Voegelin argued that Plato previously developed this symbol (in the Phaedrus, Statesman, and Timaeus) in order to represent the overarching order of the historical oscillations between order and disorder and to explain how he could assert the reality of the Idea despite its failure to be embodied in any polis Plato knew of.  Cosmic psyche symbolizes psyche’s penetration of the entire order of being and it functions as the bridge for the gap between the “primordial forces of the cosmos” (viz. the transcending poles of the metaxy) and the individual consciousness.  The “bridge” is located in the “generic unconscious of mankind,” and through it stream communications, sometimes barely perceptible, with the divine ground.[cv]  The ongoing communication between all consciousness and the transcendent ground explains how and why true myths emerge in the philosopher’s consciousness: the myths are anamnetic insights into the fullness of consciousness that has been forgotten under the pressures of spatio-temporal existence.  In the Laws, Plato continued to explore this symbol, this time accentuating its ability to convey the experience of eternity in time and to facilitate an understanding of political cycles.

Voegelin thought that the symbol of cosmic psyche emerges in various passages through the dialogue. For example, it is embedded in the Mover of the Pieces myth where Plato states that God has ordered the whole—the actions of which involve embodied souls (903d, 904a)—toward virtue (903b, 903d, 904b, 904e-905d), and that “all things that partake of soul are transformed, possessing within themselves the cause of the transformation, and, undergoing transformation, are moved according to the order and law of destiny” (904c).  Voegelin also thought that the dialogue as a whole had been constructed so as to mimic the experience of cosmic psyche and thereby to generate insights into the divine ground.  How Voegelin arrived at this conclusion is complex and fascinating, but only a brief explanation is possible here.  The historical, political, mythical, and social experiences of Hellas are symbolized in the persons of the three interlocutors who have gathered together on the solstice (the “timeless apex”) in order to close out one cycle and to initiate another.  The cycle includes sequences of progress and regress in terms of man’s understanding of order, yet the constant of the cycle is the divine presence.

In the Laws, Plato developed the symbol through the principles of “contraction” and “distention.”  Time is distended insofar as the day of the speeches spans the range of experiences of Minoan through Athenian civilization; time is contracted insofar as this long range of experiences is concentrated into the “timeless” day of speeches and into the “timeless poem” of Plato’s final dialogue.  These principles are particularly important for Plato’s new symbolism of the cosmic psyche because they help to communicate its “tensional pulsing,” or the ineffable experience of eternity in time.  Plato wanted to illuminate the situation that while neither time nor eternity can be experienced purely, and while they are impossible to reconcile with each other, man experiences the eternal ground in temporal existence.

Moreover, man recognizes and understands (at a very deep, even unconscious, level) this mysterious situation, which has important implications for personal and political life: now man’s existence is fully constituted by the tension between time and timelessness.  All the forces of order and disorder have their place within the individual soul, the polis, and the cosmos.  This gives rise to a new understanding of existential community as the object of philosophy and politics: before, philia bound together “the equals in the spirit,” but now it binds together “the noble and the vile”[cvi]  By the time of the Laws, Plato’s God is both more intimate with man (pervading every particle) and more mysterious than ever before.  God is the measure of every human action and suffering, yet man’s ability to become akin to God is diminished radically: the best he can do is to limit his concessions to the forces of disorder as much as possible.

Revelation and Myth

Plato’s Laws depicts the divinity as mysterious, orderly, the source only of good (though the forces of disorder are also considered transcendent or divine), ever present to man, and too “pure” to be experienced in an unmediated way.  The God permeates the cosmos in its entirety and has a structural form that exhibits the harmony of numerical relations.  Plato presented these insights through the form of the myth because myth is suited to conveying experiences of order that would make nonsense of propositional language and it points back to motivating experiences.  Moreover, Plato saw myth as an alternative to the sophists’ rhetorical speech.  Beginning with the Timaeus and climaxing in the Laws, Plato discovered and sought to convey the most important reason why the philosophic quest should be conducted through the medium of myth: God’s nature is such that his communications with man necessarily take the form of myth, of symbolic speech.  Because attunement to the divine ground requires man to become godlike, Voegelin argued that man, too, must express the most important insights in the divine form of the myth.

According to Voegelin, Plato wrestled with the question of his own divinity: “Plato propounds no truth that had been revealed to him; he appears not to have had the experience of a prophetic address from God.”[cvii]  Nevertheless, he understood the process by which the dialogues and their images emerged in his consciousness as a Vision (opsis, hora)—what Voegelin described as “participatory experience of ‘seeing’ the paradox of a reality which depends for its existence, formative order, and luminosity on the presence of ‘the god’ who . . . is a nonpresent Beyond of the being things in which he is present.”[cviii]  That Plato found myth to be best suited to exploring the Beyond was, for Voegelin, sufficient evidence that the God reveals himself to man through myth.  As Voegelin argued on a number of occasions, “the fact of revelation is its content.”[cix]

Voegelin also pointed out that the Laws contains Plato’s conscious, or noetic, investigation of the structure of Vision.  At Laws 715d-e, Plato’s Athenian stranger states that, “every young human being sees such things indistinctly, when he looks by himself, but when old sees them with great sharpness.”[cx]  This passage is introduced by Cleinias’ question, “Who is this god?” (713a), and is, Voegelin argued, “deliberately placed between a “theogonic mythos of the epic type (713b-714b) and the Orphic logos (715e-716b).”[cxi]  Immediately following, at 716c, is the Athenian’s conclusion that God is the Measure of all things and that the human task is to become dear to the God by emulating him.  Voegelin thought the mythical construction of this section of the dialogue revealed the God who is “manifestly present in the loving movements of the soul as it strives for perfection beyond the experienced imperfection of things.”[cxii]  The passage accentuates the experience of psychic striving (individual, social, cosmic, and divine) through the historical process, which Plato understood as a “flux of divine presence.”[cxiii]  By situating his vision between the old myth and logos, Plato acknowledged his debt to others who had sought existential insights and he recognized the truth of other symbolic expressions of order even as he articulated new, authoritative insights.  Plato’s concern with striving and process also acknowledged “man’s ability to deform the formative event”—the event in which a differentiation of reality occurs.  Thus, Plato’s vision “reveals the dynamics of the flux by revealing itself as a dynamic event within the flux.”[cxiv]  Plato revealed that the process of metaxy experience which gave rise to his new philosophic insights was best conveyed through myth because myth preserves and reveals the paradoxical situation that “the noetic thinker has to symbolize the experience of something that he experiences as lying beyond the symbolization of being things.”[cxv]

Plato’s revelatory expression of metaxy experience blurred the distinction between himself and the God of whom he was in search even as it had monumental importance for differentiating the various structures of the metaxy.  In fact, Plato’s blurry, yet distinguished, symbols of the human-divine participatory relation evinced, in Voegelin’s mind, the truth behind Plato’s experience of his semi-divinity.  Avoiding the temptation to portray reality in a manner that would make sense to his readers and probably secure for him the rewards of wealth and fame, Plato opted to preserve the paradoxical nature of the reality he experienced by using myth.  He thus maintained a balanced consciousness; playing his part as a divine puppet, he symbolized the limits of the philosophic quest—that it “can do no more than explore the structures in the divine mystery of the complex reality and, through the analysis of the experienced responses to the tensional pulls, arrive at some clarity about its own function in the drama in which it participates.”[cxvi]



Bolotin, David. Review of The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws, by Leo Strauss. The American Political Science Review 71 (1977): 668-70.

Emberley, Peter and Barry Cooper, trans. and eds. Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934 – 1964. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Hughes, Glenn, Stephen A. McKnight, and Geoffrey L. Price, eds. Politics, Order and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

Pangle, Thomas L.  Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

—. “Interpretive Essay.” In The Laws of Plato. Translated by Thomas L. Pangle. 1980. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Plato. The Laws of Plato. Translated by Thomas L. Pangle.  1980. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Rhodes, James M. “On Voegelin: His Collected Works and His Significance.” The Review of Politics 54 (Autumn, 1992): 621-47.

Sinnett, M.W.  “Eric Voegelin and the Essence of the Problem: The Question of the Divine-Human Attunement in Plato’s Symposium.” In Politics, Order and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin, edited by Glenn Hughes, Stephen A. McKnight, and Geoffrey L. Price, 410-39. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

Strauss, Leo. The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

—. The City and Man. 1964. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

—. Natural Right and History. 1950. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Strauss, Leo and Joseph Cropsey, eds. History of Political Philosophy. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Tarcov, Nathan and Thomas L. Pangle. “Epilogue: Leo Strauss and the History of Political Philosophy.” In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Strauss, Leo and Joseph Cropsey, 907-938. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Voegelin, Eric. Anamnesis. Translated and edited by Gerhart Niemeyer. 1978. Reprint, Colombia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

—. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. Edited by Ellis Sandoz. 34 vols. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989-2008.

—. The Ecumenic Age. Vol. 4 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

—. In Search of Order. Vol. 5 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

—. Israel and Revelation. Vol. 1 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956.

—. The New Science of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

—. Order and History. 5 Vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956-1987.

—. Plato and Aristotle. Vol. 3 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.

—.  Published Essays, 1966 – 1985.  Edited by Ellis Sandoz.  Vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

—. What Is History? and Other Late Unpublished Writings. Edited by Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella. Vol. 28 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

—. The World of the Polis. Vol. 2 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.

Zuckert, Catherine H. ­Postmodern Platos: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Strauss, Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

—. Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.



[i] See Julianne M. Romanello, “Political Philosophy and the Divine Ground: Eric Voegelin on Plato” (PhD diss., Baylor University, 2012).

[ii] Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, vol. 3 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 257.

[iii] Voegelin thought that the Laws was Plato’s final dialogue, and Strauss began his commentary by noting its place according to the traditional ordering of the Platonic corpus. Recently, Catherine H. Zuckert has suggested that the Laws was Plato’s earliest, not latest, work (Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 2-5.

[iv] Thomas L. Pangle, “Interpretive Essay,” in The Laws of Plato, trans. Thomas L. Pangle (1980; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), xiii-xiv.

[v] David Bolotin, review of The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws, by Leo Strauss, The American Political Science Review 71 (1977): 668-70, at 669.

[vi] Strauss, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 1.

[vii] Joseph Cropsey’s forward to Strauss’s book as well as Catherine Zuckert’s discussion of it in Postmodern Platos: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Strauss, Derrida (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996) note the significance of Strauss’s use of this epigraph.

[viii] See, for example, Strauss, The City and Man (1964; repr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 51ff, and Thomas L. Pangle, “Platonic Political Science in Strauss and Voegelin,” in Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934 – 1964, trans. and ed. Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 220-31.

[ix] Strauss pointed out that in the Laws the drama aims at constructing a city viable in practice rather than, as was the case in the Republic, only in speech.  See The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 1.  But later on in his book, Strauss seems to suggest that both the city of the Laws and the city of the Republic are understood to exist in speech only (181-86).

[x] See Nathan Tarcov and Thomas L. Pangle, “Epilogue: Leo Strauss and the History of Political Philosophy,” in History of Political Philosophy, eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, 3rd edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 927.

[xi] Strauss, Argument and Action, 35.

[xii] Ibid., 9.

[xiii] Ibid., 35.

[xiv] Ibid., 14; see also 27-28, 31, and 59.

[xv] Ibid., 9.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] See ibid., 21, where Strauss compared the political art with the ability to discern people’s natures and knowing how to treat them.

[xviii] See, for example, ibid., 6, 11, 14-15, 17, 18, 27, 31, and 59.

[xix] Ibid., 17.

[xx] Ibid., 31.

[xxi] Ibid., 30.

[xxii] Strauss, Argument and Action, 18.

[xxiii] Ibid., 18-19.

[xxiv] Ibid., 18-19, 26-27, and 31.

[xxv] Ibid., 102-103.

[xxvi] Unless otherwise specified, all quotations from Plato’s Laws are from Thomas Pangle’s translation: The Laws of Plato, trans. Thomas L. Pangle (1980; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[xxvii] I use the word “nomos” throughout my discussion in order to preserve the broad range of meaning that it has in the Greek.  I use the word “law” when the more limited meaning of a legal code is appropriate.

[xxviii] See, for example, Strauss to Eric Voegelin, 25 February 1951, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 78.

[xxix] Strauss, Argument and Action, 141.

[xxx] See, for example, ibid., 106.

[xxxi] See ibid., 19-20.

[xxxii] Strauss, Argument and Action, 59.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 58.

[xxxiv] They want to compel the Athenian to be present at the founding of the new city, but the dialogue ends without securing the Athenian’s agreement to do so.  This demonstrates that they are not independently capable of the political art, much less philosophic inquiry.

[xxxv] Ibid., 20.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 101-102.  See Laws 793b.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 110.  I assume that Strauss’s conclusion on this point was based on Laws 814c, although he does not include a specific reference to the text.

[xxxix] Zuckert, Postmodern Platos, 160.  I think this point is plausible, but needs further support since every dialogue could be said to mimic the intoxication of wine drinking even if that subject is not taken up explicitly.  And Strauss noted in The City and Man that each dialogue contains speeches between a superior and inferior man but, of course, Plato did not find it necessary to treat symposia in every dialogue.  Therefore, it seems that the particular significance of the explicit discussion of wine drinking may lie elsewhere.

[xl] See Zuckert, Postmodern Platos, 163-64, on this point.

[xli] Ibid., 163.

[xlii] Strauss, Argument and Action, 9.

[xliii] See ibid., 20-31, where Strauss discussed how the “noble lie” finds its treatment in the Laws.  In that dialogue, as opposed to the Republic, the necessity of having recourse to a noble lie does not itself become a topic of discussion possibly because to do so “might lead very far.”  The more philosophic interlocutors in the Republic are better suited to discussing explicitly the noble lie, which is “devoted to the belief that renders possible the best city as distinguished from the best human being” (31).  The noble lie, Strauss said, “is the theme of the Republic as a whole” (31).

[xliv] Joseph Cropsey, who wrote the “Forward” to Strauss’s book, seems to agree.  See Argument and Action, vii.  Examples of Strauss’s references to this phrase occur at 110 and 129.

[xlv] Strauss, Argument and Action, 2.

[xlvi] Ibid., 29.

[xlvii] Strauss mentioned this silence on numerous occasions.  See, for example, ibid., 9, 41, 44, and 136.

[xlviii] Ibid., 29-30.

[xlix] See ibid., 129.  The only other place where he uses the phrase “the problem of the gods” is at 110.

[l] Ibid., 129.

[li] Ibid., 140.

[lii] Strauss, Argument and Action, 141.

[liii] Ibid., 184.  Strauss thought that the Athenian’s remarks left open the question of whether the gods are superseded by the soul; see 148.

[liv] Ibid., 165-67.

[lv] Ibid., 63-64.

[lvi] Ibid., 64.

[lvii] Ibid., 61-62.

[lviii] Ibid., 62.

[lix] See ibid., 41.

[lx] Strauss cited this passage at ibid., 113.

[lxi] See Voegelin, The World of the Polis, vol. 2 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 43ff.

[lxii] See ibid. and Plato and Aristotle, 239.

[lxiii] See, for example, Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, vol. 4 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 230; “Gospel and Culture,” in CW 12:184ff.

[lxiv] See Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” in Published Essays, 1966 – 1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 185; The Ecumenic Age, 316-30.  For a secondary treatment of the “darker question,” see M. W. Sinnett, “Eric Voegelin and the Essence of the Problem; The Question of the Divine-Human Attunement in Plato’s Symposium,” in Politics, Order, and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin, eds. Glenn Hughes, Stephen A. McKnight, and Geoffrey L. Price (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 433-35.  Hereafter, references to other sources from The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin series will follow the abbreviated form of CW volume number: page number.

[lxv] See, for example, Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 230-38; “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation,” in CW 12: 357-68.

[lxvi] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 218.

[lxvii] Ibid., 215-20.

[lxviii] Ibid., 215.

[lxix] Ibid., 216.

[lxx] See Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 87: “The intimate relation between dialogue and myth reaches its high point, to my mind, in the Laws. . . Just to hint at the principle: the arrangement of the dialogue into episodes, just as the contents of the episodes, follows a cosmic analogy that, in the explanation of the institutions of the polis, becomes the contents of the dialogue.”

[lxxi] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 228.

[lxxii] Ibid., 184.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 198.

[lxxiv] Ibid., 223.

[lxxv] Ibid., 227.

[lxxvi] Ibid., 225.

[lxxvii] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 216.

[lxxviii] Voegelin discussed the various meanings and uses of the term “nomos” in The World of the Polis, 305-12.

[lxxix] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 216.

[lxxx] There are other reasons why Plato fades from the audience’s view: for example, Plato recognized that among his fellow Athenians, he was unique in his attunement to the divine ground and was therefore as a “stranger” among them.  The other reasons have their cause in Plato’s new insight into the God.

[lxxxi] Ibid., 228.

[lxxxii] See ibid., 253-55.

[lxxxiii] Ibid., 237.  Voegelin thought it appropriate to conclude that the investigation of lawgiving takes place “under the sign of the God” because the society the interlocutors examine came to be out of the “god-sent catastrophes which have destroyed the previous civilization.”  Voegelin did not cite a specific passage from the Laws, so I assume he is referring to the Athenian’s line at 677a, where he invokes the “ancient sayings” that “tell of many disasters—floods and plagues and many other things—which have destroyed human beings.”  The Athenian does not explicitly mention divine agency here and a case for his naturalism certainly could be made.  However, the mythical context of the statement—it occurs in a myth of history and is attributed to ancient sayings—lends a quality of mysteriousness to the passage, which Voegelin would have no trouble equating with the divine.

[lxxxiv] See Voegelin, “Reason: The Classic Experience,” in CW 12: 290.  The episodes of the three books represent only one instance of Plato’s treatment of God, Man, and Society.  Also, “world,” the fourth participant in the community of being, is evoked in the consideration of the whole dialogue, which itself reflects the “pulsing” or tensional harmony of the cosmos that is permeated by divine psyche.  I discuss this below.

[lxxxv] The translation is Voegelin’s; see Plato and Aristotle, 237.

[lxxxvi] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 237.

[lxxxvii] Ibid., 216.

[lxxxviii] See Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 78 and Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 82.[lxxxix] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 232.

[xc] See Plato Laws 644c, 803c, and 804b.

[xci] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 233.

[xcii] Voegelin thought that Plato approached the Christian conception of a universal human nature constituted by its relation to the divine ground, but did not fully reach it because his experience was still circumscribed by the life of the polis.

[xciii] Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12:337.

[xciv] Ibid.

[xcv] Ibid.

[xcvi] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 234.

[xcvii] Ibid., 235.

[xcviii] Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 87.

[xcix] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 234.

[c] When Voegelin stated (ibid., 236) that the meaning of the Puppet Player symbol was “easily understandable through the experience of the pulls in every soul,” I do not think he meant that most people would understand the full meaning of the symbol that emerges upon consideration of its presence within the sequence of myths in the Laws (which I discuss below).  The human experience might be generally accessible, but access to the divine experience that was indeed present in the symbol usually requires a helper—such as Voegelin—to reveal it.

[ci] Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12: 336.

[cii] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 236.

[ciii] Ibid.

[civ] Ibid.

[cv] See ibid., 184.

[cvi] Ibid., 250.

[cvii] Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 87.

[cviii] Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12: 362.

[cix] See Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 78; Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 82.

[cx] Where Pangle translates hora as “seeing,” Voegelin preferred “vision in such matters.”

[cxi] Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12: 358.

[cxii] Ibid., 345.

[cxiii] Ibid., 346.

[cxiv] Ibid., 347.

[cxv] Ibid., 361.

[cxvi] Voegelin, In Search of Order, vol. 5 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 106.  Voegelin purposefully speaks of the quest for truth (not the philosopher) as coming to understand its function in the drama of reality.


This is the first of two parts, with part two available here. Also see “Eric Voegelin’s Plato.”

Julianne M. RomanelloJulianne M. Romanello

Julianne M. Romanello

Julianne M. Romanello, Ph.D, is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and teaches part-time for Tulsa Community College in the departments of politics and philosophy and for the honors program. She is also adjunct faculty at The University of Tulsa, where she teaches philosophy of education in the Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences.

Back To Top