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Eric Voegelin on Plato’s Laws (Part II)

The Substance of Plato’s Efforts to Communicate

The great theme of the Laws is the God who governs the processes of order and history, who obliges, but does not compel, man to quest for him, and who reveals himself through visions granted.  The upshot of this is that man finds himself existing in “the unfinished struggle for the truth—a struggle not to be observed from the outside, but to be conducted within the historical process by the men who are graced, by the unknown divinity, with the vision and who respond with its articulation.”[i]  According to Voegelin, these visions or experiential insights are the primary substance of what the Laws intends to convey to readers.  By articulating the insights, Plato hoped to help individuals and his polis to become more temperate and orderly so as to become like the God and dear to Him.[ii]  In this respect, what Plato sought to communicate through the Laws is essentially the same as what he sought to communicate through each one of his dialogues.

But the Plato who wrote the Laws, Voegelin argued, had drawn nearer to the God and therefore had a better understanding of the human condition.  Seeing that his earlier philosophic efforts had failed to slow his polis’ existential decline, but not relinquishing his adamant concern for its welfare, Plato included in the Laws a revised theory of order and history that not only penetrated further into the divine wisdom but also became intensely more practical.  Considered from the perspective of practice, the topic of the Laws, Voegelin argued, “was the foundation of a savior polis in the hour of Greek decay.”[iii]  Voegelin’s Plato tried both to communicate the late theory of order and history as well as to establish a political structure appropriate to his new understanding of the human condition.

Plato’s New Anthropology and Philosophy of Existence and the New Role of Institutions in the City

By the time of the Laws, Plato had come to recognize man’s general unwillingness and inability to perceive the deep psychic experiences, let alone to allow them to become a formative force of personal and political order.  Plato’s late dialogue, Voegelin argued:

“is written under the assumption that the free citizenry will consist of persons who can be habituated to the life of Arete under proper guidance, but who are unable to develop the source of order existentially in themselves and, therefore, need the constant persuasion of the prooemia as well as the sanctions of the law, in order to keep them on the narrow path.”[iv]

Moreover, the Idea, rather than having the capacity to preserve itself as an ordering force in human life, now “waxes and wanes in the rhythms of incarnation and disembodiment.”[v]  Therefore, Plato’s effort to restore order to Hellas, Voegelin argued, “evolves from heroic appeal [that was directed to individuals in Republic and Statesman] to ecclesiastic statesmanship.”[vi]  Even though he recognized that the polis was unlikely to undergo the full spiritual regeneration he had hoped for, Plato conceded that it was the medium through which the mass of individuals could be led to achieve the level of virtue of which they were capable.  In his theocratic polis, institutions add the necessary compulsion to Plato’s effort to persuade his fellows to live in harmony with the divine presence that is mediated through the nomoi.  In a tone that conveyed his deep empathy with Plato’s frustrations about man’s limitations, Voegelin stated, “All that is left of the Republic is its spirit; the divine sermon recedes into the place of the heroic counsel; and of the spirit there will live in the institutions no more than is possible.”[vii]

Plato’s new anthropology and philosophy of existence make it necessary for the Athenian to mediate the Idea for those who lack the intensity of his own attunement, but are more spiritually sensitive than the mass of men to whom they, in turn, must instruct in the way of orderly existence.  This explains the need for nomos understood as merely a civic decree (rather than the divine presence that is Nomos in the highest sense), and the more or less direct instruction of the Dorian interlocutors—for example, when the Athenian gives them patterns of institutions and posits a minimum theological creed that citizens must accept.  Hence, part of what the Athenian intends to communicate approaches the status of doctrine or dogma.  Nevertheless, these “formulaic teachings” are embedded within a more robust theory of order that the Athenian seeks to communicate to his interlocutors and that Plato sought to communicate to all interested readers, even if he doubted the success of his effort.  This late theory of order includes a philosophy of history which reveals that all facets of personal and political experience are to be judged by their attunement to the divine measure.  In keeping with Voegelin’s procedure, both aspects—what I have called the “formulaic teachings” and the theory of order—of what the Athenian, or Plato, as it were, endeavored to communicate must be treated together.

The cornerstone of Plato’s late theory of order, Voegelin argued, is the insight that cosmos is fully penetrated by the divine psyche even though the intensity of that penetration, or the level of attunement to the divine ground, varies from time to time.  What ultimately causes these variations remains shrouded in mystery, but human actions certainly contribute.  In the Laws, Plato explored this complex relation between the eternal Idea and its temporal vessel in order to make sense of situation that the divine ground is both a constant and a variable in human experience.  For Voegelin’s Plato the theoretical effort has a diagnostic and a therapeutic function.  As a diagnosis, Plato’s effort clarified Athens’ place within the broader context of Hellenic history so as to reveal where the Athenians had made existential progress and regress—that is, to reveal the vacillating embodiment of the Idea of the course of Hellenic experience.[viii]  Plato homed in on Athens’ regressive subscription to the sophistic and democratic arguments that make man the measure of orderliness, a derailment that pervaded all aspects of Athenian political life and culture (paideia).[ix]  Specifically in the Laws, Plato was concerned with the association between the waning of the Idea and the corrupt ritual culture.  In what had become a “theatrocracy” (see 701a), the “tyrannical imposition of the tastes of the illiterate rabble [became] the standard by which success or failure on the public scene is decided.”[x]  Athens’ theatrocracy diminished man’s capacity to conform even to the mediated Idea by intensifying the “discrepancy between the feelings of joy and sorrow . . . and the objective good” that constitutes human psyche.[xi]

If human action could prevent or inhibit the embodiment of the Idea into temporal reality, it could also promote that embodiment by elevating the quality of human psyche.  Thus, Plato’s diagnostic effort bleeds into therapy: by revealing, one, that the genuine criterion of order is the God who governs the motions of cosmos and, two, that the general human tendency is to fall short of that criterion, Plato hoped to convince spiritually serious men to “prevent the corruption of the polis right at its source, that is, in the corruption of the ritual culture of the community.”[xii]  Plato thought that imitating previous generations’ sincere and robust, if compact, ritual culture would activate the presence of the divine ground in Athens. This restorative effort clearly is more modest than the Republic’s call for men to submit themselves to the conversion (periagogé) by the Agathon.  Civic nomos, not individuals’ psyches, must be the starting point for spiritual healing.  Plato reveals that men must educated as if they were children, through the play (paidia) of civic festivals, rites, and music which cultivate and preserve genuine standards of order (i.e. those which are based in the divine wisdom) regarding individuals’ pleasures and pains.[xiii]  Thus, Plato’s therapeutic response hinges on placing the social environment under the control of spiritually serious elders who will comply with his formulaic teachings and thereby inculcate right thinking about the relationship of man to God.  In this way, Plato hoped to shape the human material into a more suitable vessel for the Idea in order to reverse, or at least to slow down, its waning from the experience of Hellas.  If most souls were impervious to spiritual regeneration, controlling the nomos might at least limit the sophists’ influence and foster a sense of community that could aid Hellas in countering Persian aggression.

In the action of the dialogue, the Athenian attempts—successfully, Voegelin thought—to equip his Dorian interlocutors with a formal pattern of institutional arrangements that could bring about attunement to the divine ground.  He tries to teach the characteristics of a good ruler, how to mix properly the various elements of a regime, what form education should have and what its end should be, and how laws should be presented to citizens.  Voegelin argued that the peculiar characteristics of these arrangements derived specifically from Plato’s new insights into the structures of the soul and polis, which are elaborated in the Puppet Player myth and Book Three’s mythical inquiry into the origins of cities, respectively.  In this way, the Athenian and Plato try to show that establishing political order depends upon the knowledge which emerges in the participatory encounter between consciousness and its transcendent ground.  Because all reality is penetrated by the divine psyche, any pragmatic structure must be based on an adequate ontological theory; and for Voegelin’s Plato, theory is grounded in and shapes experience.  In the Laws, then, Plato pays special attention to elaborating the relationship between spirit and matter and showing that genuine political order depends on incorporating the proper balance of each into the city’s institutions.

An example will help to clarify Voegelin’s analysis of Plato’s late thought concerning the relationship between spirit and matter and his late conception of the partners in the community of being.  Voegelin argued that the Athenian Stranger’s proposal of a combination of monarchic and democratic procedures for selecting the city’s Council (Laws 756e-758a) was not on the basis of some idea that balancing competing powers or interests would provide a remedy for political problems.  Rather, the arrangement reflects Plato’s new anthropology in which every individual has each kind of metal or element (symbols for the various qualities of influences in the psyche) simultaneously present in his soul.  That human beings usually, but not necessarily, follow the pulls of inferior metals explains the variations in the intensity of the divine presence’s penetration into the facets of human experience.

The new anthropology also gives rise to a new understanding of the polis as a structure whose harmonizing function begins with matter and extends to spirit only to the extent that the virtue of its members will permit.  Even so, to create philia between the participants in the community of being remains an existential obligation for the polis; but the meaning of philia suffers a diminution in Plato’s late theory.  Whereas, in the Republic, Socrates uses philia to mean “a sentiment which binds in existential community the equals in the spirit,” the Laws’ Athenian Stranger uses it to mean “a sentiment which binds into a communal whole the noble and the vile.”[xiv]  The combination of electoral procedures (a lottery and aristocratic election) is designed to harmonize the sentiments of those who do and do not follow the golden cord “in such a manner that the inflexibility of the spiritual postulate shall not lead to an explosion of the lower instincts of the mass, while at the same time the inevitable concession to the mass shall not destroy the spiritual substance of the community.”[xv]  In Plato’s late theory of order, therefore, well-designed institutions supply a remedy for the defect of human psyche; they shape passions, behavior, and speech in order to promote an arrangement that approximates the divine paradigm on an infinitely lower existential level.

In this way, Voegelin argued, Plato helps his readers to understand that pragmatic structures are to be judged by the divine measure.  Plato’s institutions are good and orderly because they promote attunement to the divine ground and aid in preserving the spiritual substance of the polis.  Put differently, the criterion for judging political form is whether it enables the polis to save itself and to facilitate salvation for its citizens.[xvi]  Against the sophists, Plato argued that the city’s decrees, traditions, festivals, and education—its nomos—are good to the extent that they accomplish this goal by harmonizing man’s passion and what his insight (logismos) discerns as noble and good and by curtailing the “nosos of spiritual disorientation.”[xvii]  With this political lesson, Plato hoped to counter the “agnosticism and the spiritual aberrations of the age.”[xviii]  Besides attending to the goal and actual effect of institutions, Plato communicates another sense in which institutions must be judged by the divine measure: the specific patterns for good and orderly institutions emerge through a revelatory experience in the consciousness of one who is attuned to the divine measure.  In other words, the working structure of institutions must cohere with metaxy existence as it is experienced by the mystic philosopher.  The mystic philosopher’s acute perception or revelatory vision of the structure of the metaxy is the surest foundation for designing institutional forms capable of facilitating attunement to the divine ground.[xix]

In Plato’s late theory of order, Voegelin thought, the art of politics is to bind together in community men who are both equal and unequal and to facilitate immortalizing movements (motions toward the divine ground) within temporal experience.  Institutions have a critical role in this effort because they, in contrast to human psyche, may be formed into “the vessel that will hold the spirit and not burst under its pressure.”[xx]  In order to be adequate vessels for the spirit, institutions must be arranged by the philosopher in light of his experience of the eternal, transcendent order, the attunement to which is equally the end of every man in the strict sense.  But this experience also reveals that, despite the best efforts to infuse institutions with the divine spirit, temporal circumstances inhibit man’s capacity to encounter the fullness of the eternal order and limit institutions’ capacities to resist decay.  Therefore, the political art acknowledges that, because the tension of existence is a permanent feature of the structure of reality, the most any institution can accomplish is to inject and to preserve as much of the eternal pattern of order in the temporal reality as is possible.  For Voegelin’s Plato, the institutions of the Laws attempt to do this by imitating (albeit imperfectly) the perfect cosmic order man that experiences in pre-existence.[xxi]  First, they are patterned on the mathematical form of the cosmos, using the number twelve as the basis for a series of perfect ratios among the various parts.  Second, by balancing into a harmonious entity the order of the spirit and the disorder of human action and passion, the institutions reflect the structure of the metaxy—the orderly field that is anchored by the forces of order and disorder.  In this way, the polis of the Laws aims not only at guiding human practice, but also at stirring the strata of psyche through which man may participate in a remembrance of the divine order.  Nevertheless, Plato’s late theory of order concedes the improbability that man or polis will seek the divine order and therefore emphasizes the importance of achieving a balance between psychic forces.

Plato’s Philosophy of History

On Voegelin’s reading, Plato’s intended audience came close to being universal.  Although he admitted that Plato’s efforts were circumscribed by the Hellenic experience, Voegelin thought that the magnitude of Plato’s soul diminished the rigidity of the boundaries which contained it.  Plato’s Laws therefore contains not only a specific message for Hellas but also a broader lesson for mankind concerning the relationship between a science of order and the historical process.  The Laws teaches that the cosmos is fully penetrated by psyche and that the constant of psychic experience—human or otherwise—is the impenetrable tension with the transcendent ground.  Therefore, as Plato articulated in the Republic, any genuine science of order depends upon measuring all human effort (cities, laws, institutions, personal strivings, etc.) by the divine order.

In the Laws, however, Plato differentiates a new criterion for a science of order, emphasizing not the divine order as the measure, but rather how human and cosmic configurations embody the divine order.  In “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme” (1983), Voegelin quoted Laws 716c, where Plato opposed the Sophists’ formula that man is the measure with the following: “God is the measure of all things to the highest degree, and surely to a higher degree than any man people talk about.”[xxii] The passage indicates Plato’s resistance not only to the Sophistic untruth, but also to the temptation to neglect the experiential aspect of his new insight and, as a consequence, fight one formula with simply another formula.  “God-the-measure is not the philosopher’s dogmatic alternative to the Sophist’s man-the-measure,” Voegelin argued, both God and man are the measure of things, though God in a higher degree than man.”[xxiii]  Plato’s passage communicates the experience of the existential struggle in which science—or “vision,” as the Laws prefers—necessarily occurs.  On Voegelin’s interpretation, then, the Laws’ shift from the Republic’s simpler measurement principle to a concern for historical embodiment of the divine order indicates Plato’s insight that science must point beyond itself to a philosophy of history in which history is the unfinished process—governed by God, yet subject to the caprices of human nature—through which man struggles for the truth of reality.

In his late writings, Voegelin explored Plato’s philosophy of history for its profound insights into the “meditative complex,” or consciousness’s many simultaneous and often opposed (though integral) perspectives of itself within the historical struggle for the truth.  But he also thought that Plato’s insights into science and the process of history had many important, widely accessible lessons about the implications of man’s existence in tension with the God.  For one, Plato was the first to reveal the ethical and intellectual significance of having a right view of history.  From the perspective of ethics, the philosophy of history is integral to the existential quest because it develops a better sense of how to respond to the divine ground that is always—though to various degrees—present in human experience, and it encourages brotherliness among men by limiting the extent to which one person or polis could assert superiority over others.  As Voegelin put it in Plato and Aristotle, “History shows the destruction that is worked when the parts want to govern the whole; and the lesson is the insight that a stable order can be restored only if the self-willed particularism is overcome and the parts fall again into their proper places through their orientation toward God.”[xxiv]

From the perspective of an adequate understanding of reality, the philosophy of history reveals the relationship between spirit and matter and the nature of each.  On Voegelin’s reading, Plato’s combination of these points illuminates the basis for genuine historical progress and in order to inaugurate a new stage in man’s existential quest, albeit for a community less mystically attuned to the divine order than was Plato.  Out of respect to man’s low existential level, the broader goal of Plato’s late political thought and philosophy of history was to reveal that the ultimate criterion of political order is spiritual and independent of conventional beliefs about what is good or just or true.[xxv]  Nevertheless, he wanted to justify a serious concern for the development of conventional beliefs and material arrangements inasmuch as they are crucially important determinants of whether a certain configuration is orderly or disorderly.  These pragmatic, human configurations reveal and shape communal attitudes and existential positions (or responses to experiences of the tension of existence), and it is no trivial matter concerning the degree to which they do or do not embody the divine paradigm of order.

Voegelin’s support for his claims about the ethical and intellectual importance of Plato’s philosophy of history is drawn from several features of the dialogue including the discussions of various types of constitutions (683d-686b), the proper conditions for instituting political order (709b-c), and the historical survey of the gods (713b-714b).  Also, in what is one of the real highlights of his analysis, Voegelin explained that Plato’s symbolic play with the three interlocutors aimed to convey the insight into the process of history and political order.  Examining this last point will clarify Voegelin’s claim that Plato hoped to communicate a grand philosophy of order and history.

Voegelin thought that, by bringing together a Cretan, a Lacedamonian, and an Athenian, Plato symbolized the whole course of Hellenic history through which were made various attempts at understanding and instantiating order.  The symbolic characters represent different political and institutional arrangements, anthropological thought, mythical traditions, and, ultimately different accounts of the relationship between God and man (individually and collectively).  For example, Voegelin argued that:

“The nameless Athenian, Plato himself speaking, personified the youngest area of Greece that had grown into its intellectual and spiritual center; the Spartan stood for the political virtues and military strength of the older Doric institutions and the Cretan represented the Minoan period.  The Hellenic renaissance since Homer, the savage, primitive, disciplined warrior communities of the Doric centuries, and the mythical golden splendor of the Minoan sea empire gained life in the three venerable elders who discussed the foundation of a rejuvenated, healthy polis on the island [Crete] that had once been the center of political power.”[xxvi]

Voegelin’s Plato used the Cretan to represent meritocracy and kingship, the Athenian to represent freedom and democracy, and the Spartan to represent an institutional balance between the Cretan and Athenian forms.  But Plato’s key concern with the various regime types, Voegelin argued, centered on their bases in certain configurations of human psyche toward the divine ground.  Therefore, the presence of each interlocutor symbolizes different ways of thinking about the public good as a function of attunement to the divine ground and the different ways of trying to make those thoughts socially effective.

Voegelin based his claims on what he saw as the connections between the constitutional types and the political cycle evoked in Book Three.  Plato describes four phases of growth in the cycle of political development—rule of elders (677b-680e), aristocracy or kingship (680e-681d), politeia, which comprises the variety of actual political societies and their constitutions (681d-682e), and ethnos, or the nation (682d-683b).  Voegelin thought that Plato’s first phase of the cycle was associated with Cretan civilization not on the level of institutions, but rather on basis of the Athenian’s characterization of the members of the first city: “They believed that what they heard about the gods as well as about human beings was true, and lived according to these things.  That is why they were in every way as we have just described them.” (679c)  In other words, Plato wanted to show that man’s attitude or relation toward the gods is what ultimately characterizes all facets of his existence.  And the specific contours of the attitude or relation links the members of the first city with the Cretans, who believed that their institutions originated in oracles of Zeus.  Moreover, both configurations occurred very long ago in a divinely instituted mythical past—in the myth, the political cycle commences with a disaster wrought by the gods, and, according to tradition, “Crete is the omphalos at which the Hellenic world is bound to its Aegean prehistory.”[xxvii]

Plato developed similar connections for the Spartan and Athenian civilizations, revealing that the political cycle, and history itself, has been driven by men’s attitudes toward and insights into the divine ground.  He also showed that, from the mythical past of Crete, down through the Spartan and Athenian civilizations, the polis’s relation to the divine ground had derailed: the Spartans erred in structuring its organization “for war but not for the serious play of the spirit in peace,” and the Athenians erred in their disregard for the goods of the soul: they tolerated an excess of liberty, judgments based on pleasure without insight, the “general impudence of disregard for the judgment of one’s betters,” and, finally, “disregard for oaths and pledges and contempt of the gods.”[xxviii]  The trajectory of spiritual derailment finds its symbolic expression in the Athenian’s line at 682c:

“It’s likely that they [the inhabitants of the third city] were possessed by an amazing degree of forgetfulness regarding the disaster just now discussed, when they thus set up a city close to a lot of rivers flowing down from the heights, putting their trust in some hills that were not very high.”

Here, Voegelin argued that Plato wanted to show how the materialistic impulse overshadows anamnetic insights, revealing the diseased state of psyche.  Significantly, this phase of the political cycle, Voegelin pointed out, “comes closer to the light of history [insofar as] . . . Under the constitutional form (politeia) of the polis of the plains are comprised all the forms and vicissitudes (pathemata) of historical political societies and their constitutions.”[xxix]

If Voegelin was correct in suggesting that Plato conceived of the process of history thus and that Plato thought that Hellenic history was a story of existential decline, two points need further explanation.  First, the concrete features of each civilization’s political structure do not seem to be perfectly correlated to men’s attitudes toward the ground.  Lacedaemon, Voegelin noted, was relatively successful in surviving the Persian aggression and reasserting its place within the Dorian Federation because, “by divine providence, its constitution contained the balances which made for stable order.”[xxx]  Second, Voegelin consistently maintained that the philosophers—who were, of course, associated with Athenian civilization—had made discoveries of “epochal” significance when they evoked new symbols with which to convey their insights into the divine reality.  The first point seems to imply that the Lacedamonian regime was better organized, or was a better vessel for the Idea’s embodiment, than the Cretan regime, or the Athenian regime, for that matter.  The second point seems to reverse the implied historical decline: the philosophers’ insights signaled a higher level of attunement than that which could be inferred from the Cretan myths.  Voegelin thought the confusion could be dispelled by considering the complexity of the relation between concrete and spiritual aspects of reality—one aspect can exhibit progress while the other is in decline even though neither aspect is independent of the other.

In order to make sense of the paradox, and therefore to make sense of Plato’s late theory of order and history, Voegelin examined more symbolic connections within the Laws and other dialogues.  He argued, after all, that in interpreting Plato’s works, “it is impossible to isolate topics for special study without doing violence to the whole structure.  Wherever one tries to draw a strand from this associative network for closer inspection, the whole fabric follows the pull.”[xxxi]  He thus found that Plato linked the symbolisms of the interlocutors and the political cycle with the mythical survey of the gods that occurs at Laws 713b-714b, which was itself, Voegelin argued, tied to the Statesman’s myth of cosmic cycles.  In the Statesman, Plato showed that:

“the Age of Zeus was not to be followed again by an Age of Cronos, for in the Age of Zeus there had arisen a new factor, i.e. the autonomous personality of the philosopher, which made the return to the Golden Age both impossible and undesirable; the redemption from the evils of the Age of Zeus would have to come from a human agency that would take the place of the shepherd-god, that is from the Royal Ruler”.[xxxii]

Voegelin went on to say that:

“Now, in the Laws, the ages of Cronos and Zeus both belong to the past; Book Three of the Laws has given the historical survey and shows the necessity of a new start.  And at this end, as in the other symbols of the dialogue, we return to the beginning; the new life beyond the Age of Zeus will imitate the Age of Cronos in so far as it will reabsorb into its human institutions the guidance of the god.  This god, however, no longer is Cronos; he is the new god of the Platonic kosmos empsychos, the creative and persuasive Nous.[xxxiii]

These reflections help to clarify Plato’s insight that every “Age” is defined by a mythical deity that represents a stage in the development of the existential quest.  The three successive regime types are linked to the mythical deities in order to reveal Plato’s insight that every political configuration is predicated on an account of the relationship between God and man, which is the standard by which they may be judged.

In his late philosophy of history, Plato tried to show that progress in the historical quest for attunement to the divine ground requires a certain balance between the ethical and intellectual aspects of the account of the relationship between God and man.[xxxiv]  Continuing to illuminate order by opposing it to disorder, Plato depicted how in the Age of Cronos, or the Cretan experience, man’s attitudes or emotions—the ethical aspect—toward the human-divine participation was orderly, but his symbols—the intellectual aspect—were attenuated because of the accidental features of his existence.  But in Athens or the Age of Zeus, man’s more differentiated symbols for the divine-human relation became opaque to the extent that his attitude toward his relation to the divine ground became hostile or apathetic.  As the Spartan example shows, the opaque propositions can be the basis for relatively stable political arrangements.  But ultimately the neglect for instantiating a right attitude toward God resulted in “spiritual stagnation” and an intractable barrier to “the development of political form.”[xxxv]  The case of Athens goes even further, depicting a hostile attitude toward the gods and also a return to the beginning of the mythical political cycle, “for the old Titanic nature breaks through, and the Titanic fate of a life of endless evil is re-enacted (700a-701c).”[xxxvi]

The broader historical and political lesson of the Laws is that the process of history and the political art aim at harmonizing the ethical and intellectual aspects of the account of man’s relationship to God.  In other words, history and politics are rightly ordered if they give rise to myths or symbols that facilitate the attunement of human psyche and soma toward the divine ground.  This lesson is qualified by the further insight that human psyche is free to ignore or to reject harmony and attunement, and therefore that history and politics often fail to accomplish their goal.  Considering these lessons helps to clarify the meaning behind Plato’s choice of the three interlocutors by revealing that the symbolism expresses both sequences of existential progress and regress and a timeless event in which the “indelible present” is experienced.  Voegelin thought that Plato’s conscious play with the tension between time (the sequential aspect) and timelessness (the event aspect) was one of Plato’s most important insights into personal order—that is, the insight’s primary formative force pertains to the individual psyche’s meditative effort to better understand the structure of reality.  Although, especially in Voegelin’s later writings, the implications for personal order take on greater significance than the implications for political order, here I focus on the relevance for politics for consistency.  First, I examine the sequential aspect of the symbol and, next, the symbol under its aspect as an event.

When Plato brought together interlocutors from the various stages in Hellenic history, he was trying to create a sense of the progressive movement from compact symbolization of the human-divine relationship to a more differentiated symbolization.  The Athenian philosophers’ historical differentiation of symbols such as nous and kosmos empsychos is a genuine advance over the compact myth of nature that provided the rationale for Cretan and Spartan institutions.  Connecting the Athenian to the survey of the gods results in the understanding that the Age of Nous has relegated the Ages of Cronos and Zeus to past experience that is sealed off from those who have experienced the differentiated account of the deity.  The formative force of Homer’s and Hesiod’s symbolic constructions is diminished by the luminosity of the philosophers’ symbols of order.  The advance in attunement is also conveyed by the fact that the Athenian most clearly expresses insights into the metaxy and their implications for pragmatic order.  In other words, the intellectual and ethical aspects of his account of the human-divine relationship—that is, his symbols about reality and his openness to the formative force of reality—are harmonized according to the divine measure in a way that neither of his Dorian interlocutors exhibit.  In fact, Voegelin argued, this existential advance is what explains the Dorians’ references to the Athenian as “Stranger”: the Athenian, also representing Plato himself, has moved “toward the divinity, into the neighborhood of the God who pulls the strings.”[xxxvii]

Voegelin thought that the sequence of interlocutors conveys not only a progressive movement, but also incorporates humanity’s regressive movements into Plato’s science of order.  Once again, the connection with the political cycle is important, for Athenian society is situated within the rhythm of decline; the Athenian describes Athens’ political form as one of the two types of “unmeasured,” or disorderly, regimes (693d-e).  Under the influences of sophistic education, the breakdown of the old myth, and the theatrocracy, the account of the human-divine relationship derailed, engendering a general view of institutions, society, and history as human processes with human ends, rather than divine ones.  The general neglect of the divine origin of order is a real loss of existential substance and the fact that the differentiated symbols were luminous to individual philosophers, not to the city as a body, reveals a rift within the community of being.  Therefore, to the extent that a genuine concern for the divine substance undergirded Cretan and Spartan institutions and to the extent that those institutions harmonized disparate forces in their respective societies, the Cretan and Spartan configurations were nearer to perfection than Plato’s Athens had become.[xxxviii]

In other words, the Idea was more fully embodied in the civilizations existing within the Ages of Cronos and Zeus whose more compact symbols had not contributed to man’s deification of himself.  Also significant is the fact that, while the Cretan and Spartan symbols conveyed a less differentiated understanding of man and the gods, their institutions (“by divine providence”) were better suited to Plato’s late anthropological insights into man’s general inability to experience the divine presence in psyche.  This explains Voegelin’s conclusion that “the simultaneity of the three wanderers who mark the end and the beginning” was Plato’s way of calling for a “return to the youth of Hellas” and a closer relationship to God.[xxxix]  In Plato’s new formulation, Dionysius will govern, for he can restore the flexibility of youth to the elders who will prevent the young from abandoning the gods.

Plato’s exploration of the two directions of the sequence shows that the progressive movement from Crete to Athens was driven by advances in the intellectual aspect of the account of the divine-human relation: the more differentiated symbols more adequately expressed the structure of reality than the old myth.  In spite of that advance, the ethical aspect of the account had deformed: the formative force of the adequate symbols waned in light of the people’s moral and ethical disorder.  Plato discovered that the older, more compact symbols were less adequate to the divine reality they intended to express but were more appropriate to the human material they intended to form.  These discoveries complicate Plato’s understanding of history because the process of history as the formative illumination of the human-divine relation is limited, in practice, to the very few genuine philosophers—Voegelin thought Plato conceived of his own experience as unique—who are fit to be called “the sons of God.”  Nevertheless, Voegelin thought that the philosophy of history did intend to promote brotherliness or philia not only within a particular polis, but also across the span of Hellenic experience.  Therefore, the philosopher must consider as his brothers an even wider range of people.

Under this understanding, historical progress is recognized as an extremely slim possibility for the polis and Voegelin argued that Plato closely approached Christianity’s distinction between spiritual and temporal historical order.[xl]  Nevertheless, because Plato’s insights developed within the “boundaries drawn by the myth of the cosmos,” he did not advance to that differentiation.[xli]  For Voegelin’s Plato “the spirit must manifest itself in the visible, finite form of an organized society.”[xlii] Therefore, historical progress had to remain a genuine possibility for the polis and, that being the case, Plato’s understanding of the fundamental equality of all human beings is preserved even though it occurs on the lower existential level.  Voegelin thought that this feature of Plato’s late philosophy of existence explained the Laws’ acute concern with the civic nomoi.  Although the majority of human beings will never experience the luminosity of consciousness that arises in the periagogé of the Agathon, their flourishing still depends on attaining the level of attunement of which they are capable because all psyche is oriented toward the ground.

What I have called the ethical aspect of man’s account of the divine-human relation in a sense becomes more important for most men than the intellectual aspect because the former is easier to manipulate.  In other words, recognizing the general inability of human psyche to engage in the existential quest for God led Plato to conclude that the order of human psyche depends on forming orderly habits and emotions.  Through persuasion and a touch of coercion, the divinely infused laws induce men to take pleasure in what is good and to accept a seemly dogma concerning the nature of man and God.  The effect of the laws, therefore, is not so much to form the existential core of man or to augment his nous as it is to foster actions and speech that support public order.  In this way, the material foundation for society’s historical progress is maintained.

In addition to its aspect as a sequence, Plato’s symbolism has the character of a static, complete, or timeless event which conveys Plato’s experience of what Voegelin described as the “indelible present.”  In other words, Plato symbolized the omnipresence of the divine ground by bringing together the three interlocutors on the day of the solstice.  Each phase in the course of Hellenic history is “contracted” into a single moment, signaling Plato’s recognition that the accidental features of any given socio-political configuration—the prevailing views about justice, for example—do not change the fact that attunement to the divine ground is the standard of right order.

Voegelin thought, moreover, that because each interlocutor stood for both a political configuration and a pattern of the individual soul, Plato’s contracted symbol conveyed an important ontological and epistemological insight: the whole of Hellenic history is a reflection of the process of individual history, that is, the individual’s movements and countermovements toward the divine ground.  The entire quest for order (or the neglect of that quest) that has occurred in time is experienced as eternally present in psyche and can be explored through anamnetic reflection.  Man’s understanding of order approaches fullness when consciousness recognizes the eternal omnipresence of the ground and begins to see that its illumination (which is a better understanding of the metaxy) requires not only attunement to the ground but also the attunement of all psyche to all psyche—embodied and disembodied, past, present and perhaps even future.  Absent this attunement, the structure of human existence and order remain elusive, for their further illumination depends upon experiential insights into the myriad ways that psyche can experience its participatory relation to its ground.

In terms of political order, Voegelin argued that the institutional arrangements of the Laws are drawn from Plato’s experience of the indelible present.  Plato’s symbolizations of the Spartan and the Cretan were not fictitious images; rather, they were drawn from Plato’s own experience of the divine ground moving in his psyche, which he apperceived as the same ground that moved in psyche embodied in a previous time.  The Athenian Stranger incorporates Cretan, Spartan, and Athenian (and Persian, as the case may be) elements into the Laws’ theocratic state in order to facilitate a new Age in the history of order—an Age in which Plato’s experience of tension between the temporal and eternal poles of the metaxy becomes the criteria for judging human action and arrangements.

The Outcome or Effect of the Dialogue: the Key Teaching

On Voegelin’s reading, the Laws aims to show that man’s crucial concern is to “play the serious play,” which consists in acting the part that God has ordained for him in the drama of existence.  This conclusion follows naturally from Plato’s principle that God, not man, is the force and criterion of order.  It is made explicit in the Athenian Stranger’s Great Address, which begins at 716c and speaks “on the purpose of life and on the nature of that conduct (praxis) that is dear to the God and a following of Him.”[xliii]  Man must direct his thoughts, actions, and attitudes toward what is divine; he must accept the inescapable limits of his ability to understand and to control reality even while he seriously attempts to become more akin to the mysterious God.  To “play the serious play” is to concern oneself with the augmentation of spiritual substance, to follow the guidance of divine reason and the pull of the golden cord.  Taking literally the Athenian’s speeches, Voegelin argued that the lesson of the Laws is that “the man who is temperate and ordered (sophron) will be loved by God, for his measure is attuned to God’s measure; while the disordered (me sophron) man is unlike God.”[xliv]

The dialogue concedes that most men are too dull to apperceive the experiences that confirm the truth of these insights and convey their urgency.  Therefore, most men play their roles, for good or for ill, unwittingly.  Often, the best that they can do is to obey the civic nomos, recognizing the importance of submitting themselves to an order of greater temporal duration and which claims a broader tradition of meaning.  Plato therefore stresses, Voegelin argued, that the nomoi must be permeated by “the divine spirit of the nous,” for only in this way “will obedience to the laws result in the eudaimonia of man and the community.”[xlv]  The existential seriousness of the serious play justifies the city’s use of compulsion to cultivate philia among individuals and the broader community of being.

Plato also recognized that, if the city’s decrees and customary practices were to help to form man’s character in accordance with the divine paradigm, they would have to respect man’s freedom to follow or to ignore the pull of the golden cord because, even considering the Laws’ conception of man’s diminished existential capacity, psyche remains akin to the divine and its goods remain superior to the goods of the body.  Plato’s orderly lawgiver and guardians of the nomoi would not compromise psychic health and order by promoting laws that operated on bodies only or under the delusion that material rewards and constrains can shape psyche perfectly.  The serious play of the spirit must be infused with playfulness: the education to virtue must occur through rituals and festivals whose pleasantness helps to persuade free men to conform to their ethical teachings.  To this end, laws must be prefaced with expository prooemia that have the appeal of musical compositions.[xlvi]  Voegelin argued that “the literary form of the Prooemium, thus, becomes the mediator of the nous for the polis of the nomoi.”[xlvii]  Persuasion creates philia in the city by opening up space in which the attractiveness of the divine order and the duty to play the serious play flows pleasantly into the lives of free men.

Plato’s concern with play and playfulness does not derive merely from its effectiveness in bringing about a desired result.  Rather, in Plato’s philosophy of order, play attests to the nature of human existence and its ultimate meaning and purpose.  Plato reveals the significance of play by making it the “all-pervasive category of the dialogue.”[xlviii]  Voegelin spoke of play as an “overflow” beyond the “normal” level of existence, a source for the creation of new worlds of meaning beyond the everyday world.  By virtue of this quality of transcendence play could become the vehicle of cultural growth through the creation of spiritual worlds in religions, legal institutions, languages, philosophy, and art.[xlix]

In Plato’s last dialogue, the lesson concerning the serious play of the spirit is deliberately situated into a dialogue that has the character of a religious poem.  Poetry is the result of play and by directing his poetry toward the illumination of the divine ground, Plato created the sacred art form for the polis.  Plato engaged in the serious play not by promulgating a political constitution or by writing a treatise on education, forms which tend to circumscribe the free play of the spirit that is necessary for further differentiation of symbols of order.  On the contrary, Plato’s insights into political arrangements, specific duties and prohibitions, and even into the structure of human existence are, rather, subordinated to the effort of articulating a hymn to the God.  Plato’s poetic response to the drawing of the divine ground preserves and conveys the spiritual, existential, and open-ended nature of the serious play.  In this way, Plato teaches by example that the highest actualization of the serious play is the philosopher’s articulation of true myths that, through their illumination of the metaxy, persuade others to play their roles in faith and in seriousness.

Concluding Remarks

Voegelin thought that Plato’s philosophic effort aimed at saving man by saving the saving tale.  Through the dialogues, Plato communicates insights into the structure of human existence that, once revealed, facilitate man’s attunement to the divine ground.  Every dialogue contains a message, anamnetically drawn from the depths of Plato’s soul, that aims at instantiating order in human psyche.  But in the Laws, the effort to save the saving tale is taken one step further inasmuch as that effort becomes luminous as the process of salvation itself; thus, the Laws itself indeed becomes the saving tale.  In his final dialogue, Plato reveals that salvation is man’s effort to become akin and dear to the divine measure which is experienced more immediately in his pre-existence, which he experiences in his reflections on the order of the cosmos, and which moves in the almost impenetrable depths of his psyche.  This quest to become dear to God is realized through the process of attempting to articulate myths that better illuminate the experience of the tension of existence and the reality that lies beyond that tension: the Beyond.  What the Laws provides is Plato’s true myth that, if met with the proper existential response, will establish genuine existential community and salvation by revealing the structure of man’s relation to the divine ground in all its temporal and timeless, particular and universal, and immanent and transcendent aspects.  From Plato’s own perspective, the Laws is the process through which he further worked out his salvation, recognizing each stage of his life as contributing to his permanent process of drawing near to the ground that motivated his quest.

Considered thus, Voegelin’s analysis seems to suggest that Plato’s Laws answers the questions that initially motivated Plato’s philosophic quest.  The meaning and purpose of human existence is shown to be the quest for God, and the order of politics is the cultivation of order in the soul through an institutional arrangement based in the philosopher’s mystical, participatory revelation from God.  This is true, but not complete, for Voegelin thought the Laws expressed Plato’s most acute perception of mystery, or of what simply cannot become fully luminous in human consciousness.  Why the gods made man their puppet is a question that, according to Voegelin’s Plato, transcends human understanding.  One of the dialogue’s highest achievements, in Voegelin’s mind, was that it held together a whole host of paradoxes such as this.  Plato’s religious poem attests to Plato’s “balance of consciousness” and, even more so than the deliberate noetic effort of the Republic, mimics the structure of the metaxy and its Beyond.[l]

On this point, Voegelin’s interpretation of Plato’s Laws differs significantly from Strauss’s interpretation although the Plato whom Voegelin found in the Laws might first appear somewhat similar to Strauss’s Plato.  Voegelin’s conclusion that Plato’s experience of his semi-divinity isolates him from most other Athenians resembles Strauss’s idea that the philosopher and the city find themselves at odds with each other.  And Voegelin’s thesis that the Laws brings to light certain political lessons while conveying the ultimate mysteriousness of the cosmos is close to Strauss’s thesis that Plato was concerned with the permanent problems.  Nevertheless, these apparent similarities should not obscure the crucial differences between the two interpretations.  For Strauss’s Plato, the permanent problems are intelligible to the philosopher, but insoluble in practice.  For Voegelin’s Plato, theory and practice are not finally distinguishable, and it is the apperception of ultimate mystery that attests to genuine philosophic activity.  Moreover, Voegelin argued that Plato’s heightened attunement to the divine measure actually generated an intense awareness of the core equality of mankind and the penetration of all reality by the divine ground.  Where Strauss’s Plato was committed to the heterogeneity of being, Voegelin’s Plato experienced the unity of being through temporality and eternally.  The whole of the Laws revolves around the God who governs the process of order and history and whose reality prescribes the criteria of order for all facets of human life.

Voegelin also argued that the Laws contains the highest expression of Plato’s serious—nay, sacred—play with the myth.  Content and form are indistinguishable in Plato’s religious poem, evincing Plato’s emphasis on deep psychic experience as the process through which the divine wisdom illuminates human consciousness.  Here again is a crucial difference from Strauss’s interpretation of the Laws, which focuses on the philosopher’s use of poetry and irony as a means of safeguarding the philosophic quest.  On Voegelin’s reading, myth communicates mystery, paradox, and ineffable experiences in the most luminous way possible, and the Laws is self-reflective on this point: in elucidating the myth, Plato becomes the myth.  Plato becomes the voice for the formative experience of the Idea, an experience in which even the myth needs its own myth: the structure of myth itself, which is a carefully balanced interaction between noetic activity and revelatory visions, is a mystery revealed in human consciousness.  If these remarks seem susceptible of infinite regress, they are well-suited to what Voegelin thought Plato wanted to achieve, namely, anamnetic meditation on the mysterious structure of human experience.  For it is only through this activity (or suffering, as it were), that man has any hope of encountering the revelation of divine wisdom that makes human order a real possibility.  Therefore, Voegelin thought that the Laws was both Plato’s most meditative and most practical work.  He would, I imagine, have agreed with the letter of Strauss’s suggestion that the Laws was Plato’s most pious and most political work.



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.

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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.

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



[i] Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12: 348.

[ii] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 254.  He referenced Laws 716a, ff.

[iii] Voegelin, The World of the Polis, 44.

[iv] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 222.

[v] Ibid., 227.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] I discuss this theme in more depth below.

[ix] Voegelin translated paideia variously as “culture,” “formation,” and “education.”

[x] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 261.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 241.

[xiii] Ibid., 261.

[xiv] Ibid., 250.

[xv] Ibid., 249.

[xvi] See, for example, ibid., 266, and Laws 960b-962c.

[xvii] See ibid., 244 and 264, and Laws 689a and 888b.

[xviii] Ibid., 264.

[xix] Indeed, it is Plato’s heightened attunement that accounts for the new emphasis on institutions inasmuch as his better perception of the human condition justifies a political form that was associated with a more compact understanding of the human-divine relationship.  The advance in order consists in the psychic rationale for institutional constraints.  Contrast the Spartan constitution with the polis of the Laws.  The latter imitates the former in some of its institutional structures, but the Spartan constitution sought a balance between material forces whereas the polis of the Laws sought to balance elemental forces of the soul.

[xx] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 250.

[xxi] Ibid., 251.  Voegelin drew on Plato’s Timaeus (44a and 90c-d) in making this point.

[xxii] Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” 348.

[xxiii]  Ibid., 349.

[xxiv] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 237.

[xxv] This is a point on which Voegelin and Strauss would agree: the good as such is independent of man’s beliefs about it.

[xxvi] Voegelin, The World of the Polis, 43-44.

[xxvii] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 230.

[xxviii] Ibid., 247 and 245.

[xxix] Ibid., 242.

[xxx] Ibid., 244.

[xxxi] Ibid., 241.

[xxxii] Ibid., 239.  See also 151-62.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] For Voegelin and for his Plato, the intellectual and ethical aspects were integrally linked.  Intellection, that is, is grounded in experience and requires a certain character.  I am distinguishing between the two aspects in order to make clearer the kind of existential attunement that Plato foresaw as a possibility during his later years.  Since he recognized the limits of man’s intellect, Plato’s last dialogue accented the ethical (even behavioral) aspect of man’s attunement.

[xxxv] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 248 and 244.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 245.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 234.

[xxxviii] Voegelin, The World of the Polis, 43ff.

[xxxix] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 230.

[xl] Ibid., 227.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 253.

[xliv] Ibid., 254.  See Laws 716a, ff.

[xlv] Ibid., 253.

[xlvi] Ibid., 256.

[xlvii] Ibid., 257.

[xlviii] Ibid., 259.

[xlix] Ibid., 258-59.  Voegelin cited Jan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (Basel, 1944).


This is the second of two parts. Part one can be accessed 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.

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