Eric Voegelin was a first-rate scholar whose many writings span disciplinary divisions to speak to concerns ranging from politics and history to philosophy, psychology, and theology. Although Voegelin’s writings have received attention among limited groups of scholars and philosophers, their complexity and unique trajectory has often proved to be an obstacle to a more widespread familiarity with this important force in twentieth-century political and philosophical thought. This is unfortunate because one of the fundamental features of his philosophic endeavor was a fascinating and dynamic engagement with Plato—an engagement that puts him in the company of other better-known thinkers of the twentieth-century (Martin Heidegger or Leo Strauss, for example) who thought that a renewed engagement with the ancient author could bring about a much-needed restoration in science and politics. The purpose of this article is, therefore, to examine Voegelin’s unique interpretation of Plato and to dispel some of the difficulties in accessing it in order to increase the possibility that Voegelin’s perspective may also inform contemporary discussions about the modern turn to Plato. His approach to Plato is highly original and illuminates new facets of the Platonic dialogues, raising important questions about the very nature of Platonic philosophy. If an understanding of Plato and his contribution to the Western Tradition is of any importance, so too is a serious consideration of Voegelin’s philosophic engagement with him.
What justifies a scholarly exposition of Voegelin’s engagement Plato is the breadth and complexity of an encounter that evolved over a lifetime of analytical, reflective, and meditative study of Plato’s work. Moreover, Voegelin’s turn to Plato occurs within the context of a broader philosophical effort to search for the “truth of existence” and to reveal “meaning and order in history.” The nature of Voegelin’s larger project and the way it developed leads to an approach to historical texts—Plato’s dialogues being the most important among them—that has two sides. On one hand, Voegelin was trying to test a theory of consciousness that helped to clarify the human condition; on the other, he was trying to better understand modern consciousness and discover a remedy for its disorders. Each side rests on underlying assumptions that Voegelin deduced from and brought to the texts that he examined, and this creates difficulties for those who want to understand what Voegelin brought to his encounter with Plato and what he derived from it. Not insensitive to these difficulties, Voegelin reflected late in his career that one of the greatest challenges for an author or interpreter of a text is beginning at the beginning. He qualified this remark, saying that analysis could not begin, as it were, “unless it starts in the middle.” With this article, I hope to increase the likelihood that a wider audience will find “the middle” less daunting.
To that end, I identify some of the underlying assumptions that inform Voegelin’s encounter with Plato as well as a number of key principles, which are akin to techniques or guidelines of interpretation, that structure his analysis of Plato’s writings. I examine how these together generate an understanding of Plato that is distinguished from (and in some ways anathema to) other twentieth-century thinkers’ understandings of Plato. I then describe who Voegelin’s Plato was and what specifically he was trying to do by writing the dialogues. My analysis focuses specifically on three important (and intertwined) roles Plato held: first, that of a political actor, second, that of a mystic, and third, that of a scientist. I conclude with a sketch of some specific characteristics of the philosophical soul.
Voegelin’s Approach to Reading Plato: Assumptions
Voegelin’s engagement with Plato occurs within his broader scholarly effort to explain and to criticize what he recognized as gross deficiencies in the socio-political and intellectual-spiritual situation of his time. Put in the simplest terms, Voegelin was looking for a way to explain the failure—on the part of society and its political representatives and academic and spiritual communities—to resist the impractical, irrational, and morally-bankrupt program of the Nazis. Faced with the inability or refusal of modern thinking to penetrate the problem, Voegelin found it necessary to search the annals of philosophic thought in order to explain what he would later describe as a pneumapathology—a disease of the spirit, or soul, that perverts the operation of man’s faculty to reason and to discern the genuine principles of science and morality.
What Voegelin’s investigations into the general history of philosophic thought—and in particular Plato’s writings—generated was the basis for a theory of consciousness, which, in turn, informed his analysis of texts and the events of history. Clearly, then, some specific assumptions undergird Voegelin’s approach to and conclusions about the Platonic texts. On the whole, Voegelin did not hesitate to disclose these assumptions because he thought, first, that sincere scientific activity required it, and secondly, that his assumptions strengthened the force of his arguments by demonstrating their overarching coherence. Moreover, Voegelin thought that his assumptions about consciousness in particular were substantiated by the history of philosophic reflection. This added another layer of support for his arguments, since, as Voegelin liked to say, a test of truth is the lack of originality in the propositions. From an examination of Voegelin’s writings one can identify four important antecedent assumptions that factor into his approach to reading Plato; these concern (1) the association between socio-historical events and philosophic insights, (2) the nature of the core philosophic experience, (3) the appropriate way to examine symbols of order, and (4) the level of analysis at which the author’s meaning must be sought. I discuss each of these in turn before outlining Voegelin’s technical interpretive principles.
The Association between Socio-historical Events and Philosophic Insights
Voegelin began his historical and comparative studies with a hypothesis about the relation between historical events and ideas or theory: social and political events and ideas about the meaning and purpose of existence affect each other mutually. Voegelin’s hypothesis aimed at clarifying the relations between man’s spiritual orientation—including the starting points for philosophic inquiry, his sensitivity to the quest, and the language and images through which the quest is undertaken—and his concrete experiences of social and political reality. What Voegelin discovered was a general pattern concerning philosophic discoveries: namely, the most significant philosophic insights arise from crises in social and political life. These crises are usually characterized by the degeneration of one socially-dominant way of understanding man’s place in the world—the effect of which is social and moral chaos. Human society, as Voegelin explained in The New Science of Politics, is:
“a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization. It is illuminated through an elaborate symbolism . . . and this symbolism illuminates it with meaning in so far as the symbols make the internal structure of such a cosmion, the relations between its members and groups of members, as well as its existence as a whole, transparent for the mystery of human existence.“
A society’s traditional symbols sometimes lose their ability to convey an authoritative understanding about the order of existence, thereby leaving voids of meaning that human beings then try to fill by proffering new accounts of the order of existence that compete with traditional views. The competition between and fluctuations of society’s symbols, together with the impacts of the events contributing to them, create spiritual confusion that pervades all aspects of human experience.
In these times of confusion, Voegelin found, human beings are confronted more intensely with the tension of existence: the fundamental situation, experienced within the deepest regions of the human psyche, of human existence as occurring in the metaxy—the middle of an encompassing contest between, on the one hand, the pull exerted by the force of cosmic order and the fullness of Being, and, on the other hand, the pull exerted by the force of cosmic disorder and the total chaos of non-Being. Because periods of social and political turmoil undermine uncritical belief in the ultimate truth of temporal and immanent being, they are especially ripe for man’s discovery that psyche’s experiences of the penetrating cosmic forces better illuminate his place within the whole. Indeed, Voegelin thought that the social disorder Plato experienced—the Sophists’ attack on truth, political instability, and foreign imperial threats—was a catalyst for his differentiated insights into the structure of human existence.
The upshot is that Voegelin conceived of Plato’s philosophy as emphatically not “an ‘intellectual’ or ‘cultural’ activity conducted in a vacuum, without relation to the problems of human existence in society”; rather, he argued, philosophy resuscitates the city by distinguishing new symbols that express the range of human experience better than older ones. On this view, interpreting a philosophic text depends on discovering the necessary connections between a symbolic expression of order and the philosopher’s concrete experiences in time because philosophic authors draw on those experiences—with a given political regime, social structure, or mythic tradition, for example—as a basis for his development of clearer symbols.
The author does this because, first, quite simply, those experiences are available to him and present themselves as adequate analogies to the new experiences he wishes to articulate. Second, the author’s effort to communicate his new insights with others (and thereby to restore social order) has greater potential for success to the extent that his new symbols are connected to common features of everyday life. The interpreter is therefore charged with accounting for the full range of social, political, and historical factors to which the author was responding. Especially important, Voegelin argued, was that the interpreter examine and evaluate the relation between the various ontological views implied in the symbols of the author’s context and in his responsive text. This would indicate the fundamental (or existential) error that the philosopher sought to correct with his work.
The Nature of the Core Philosophic Experience
Another of Voegelin’s assumptions concerns the nature of the core philosophic experience. Voegelin thought the philosopher—the genuine lover of wisdom—undergoes a quasi-mystical experience in which the genuine and virtually ineffable character of ontological order becomes luminous in his psyche.  On this view, philosophy is not the effort to make sound formal arguments about reality; rather it is the quest to become more harmoniously attuned to reality, especially its divine ground, by seeking to understand experiences of the tension of existence.
Voegelin conceived of the philosophic quest as a process of experiences that begins with man’s sensitivity to or awareness of various aversions and attractions, but one key attraction in particular: his desire to know more about the conditions of his existence. This universally-present desire in human consciousness functions as an invitation to activate what is implied in the desire’s presence: namely, the essential human task of questing for knowledge. The desire also indicates the existence of something greater than and attractive to man, yet not completely foreign to him. Because the experiences that motivate the quest for knowledge are grounded in transcendent psychic, rather than sensory, perceptions, their causes may be sensed but not precisely determined. They generate genuine insights into the conditions of human existence, which become the fertile field for reflective inquiry into their origins and structure, and stimulate the noetic aspect of the quest for understanding—the aspect of the quest that recognizes itself as a participation of human intellect in the transcendent ground of being that orders and illuminates it. The process is mystical because it is constituted by the experience of insight and mystery simultaneously—the experience of the luminous mystery of the tension of existence.
Voegelin thought that the philosopher in the strict sense, the genuine lover of wisdom (or reality), discovers his erotic orientation to what Voegelin described as the “realissimum”—the supreme or most-real reality—or the divine ground of being. The philosopher’s relation to reality and its divine ground is one of “trust (pistis)” in “the underlying oneness of reality, its coherence, lastingness, constancy of structure, order, and intelligibility,” even though the realissimum lies beyond his articulate experience and has no substantive content per se. The philosopher’s noetic experience reveals that all knowledge originates in the human psyche’s trusting movements toward the drawing of the divine ground. Moreover, psyche’s philosophic movements, Voegelin argued, “will inspire the creation of images which express the ordered wholeness sensed in the depth.” These images emerge out of the participation with the divine ground, and they enable the philosopher to reflect on his mystical experiences, penetrate them more profoundly, and therefore apperceive their source (i.e. the divine ground of being) more fully.
Through the mystical experience, the philosopher not only experiences the self-evident reality of the divine ground, but also he discovers that all human psyche participates in the divine ground and is well-ordered if it is attuned to the divine drawing. From this insight arises the philosopher’s obligation to try to facilitate not only his own, but also other human beings’ attunement to the ground, by expressing publicly his mystical experiences of the divine ground in symbols and images. A true philosopher will rearticulate a case for order—which encompasses an understanding of the meaning and purpose of existence—against those who have either become insensitive to order or who try to destroy order. Because the philosopher’s symbols are infused with the presence of the divine ground in a fresher way than the older symbols which have lost the ability to convey an authoritative understanding of the order of being, they are more likely to evoke similar experiences of the luminous mystery and initiate the process of attunement to the ground.
Voegelin’s understanding of the philosophic experience has significant implications for the interpretation of philosophic texts, which I examine below. Here, I limit myself to mentioning only two general implications. The first has to do with identifying genuinely philosophical texts. Although all texts that wrestle with the question of the meaning and purpose of existence inform our understanding of the history of philosophy (viz., by conveying consciousness’s relative openness or closure to its ground), only those texts that represent genuine existential efforts to understand the transcendent source of order are philosophic in Voegelin’s strict sense of the term. Therefore, when Voegelin identified a text as philosophic, he already judged the text to be an expression of its author’s experience of seeking the divine ground. In analyzing it, then, he would try to identify words and images with the structure of the psychic movements, or experiences of order and disorder, expressed therein.
A second and related implication is that, since the experience of divine ground is necessarily an experience of participation, Voegelin thought that the words and images in a philosophic text must be interpreted as expressions of what is only partially effable. Discovering the full meaning of philosophic texts required an interpreter to go beyond the written words and images in order to penetrate to the author’s experiences of questing for the divine ground that moves his consciousness. “What philosophy is,” Voegelin argued, “need not be ascertained by talking about philosophy discursively; it can, and must, be determined by entering into the speculative process in which the thinker explicates his experience of order.” The union between interpreter and author is facilitated by the interpreter’s imaginative and meditative re-creation of the author’s experiences; it is possible because the spiritually-sensitive interpreter also experiences the divine drawing as a feature of existence in the metaxy.
The Appropriate Way to Examine Symbols of Order
From Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness (or history) emerges a third assumption: namely, that the philosopher’s rearticulation of a case for order typically involves advances in noetic differentiation. Differentiation, for Voegelin, is the process through which structures of human existence that consciousness had experienced compactly become present in new, distinctive ways that indicate heightened attunement to the divine ground. The philosopher may express his differentiated insights by infusing new meaning into older symbols of order, but often he must create new symbols—new images and words—that are capable of conveying the more differentiated insights into order of existence. The interpretive challenge then becomes (1) to detect shifts in the meaning of words and images, (2) to identify the introduction of new words and images, and (3) to explain both of these in terms of a philosophy of consciousness that is sensitive to the author’s evolving apperception of mextaxy existence. To meet this challenge requires extensive linguistic and imagistic analysis—tracing the history and evolution of meanings—conducted with a view to how a philosophic author’s symbols indicate his deliberate response to inadequacies in traditional or popular usages of words and images.
The guiding methodological principle of Voegelin’s call to bring linguistic and imagistic analysis to Plato’s texts was that: “we must not search in the dialogue for direct historical information but only for information on the essence of ideas as seen by Plato.” Voegelin did not study the linguistic meanings of the background culture in order to determine what Plato must have meant—as if Plato could only mean what earlier writers meant by a word. Rather, Voegelin saw that in order to appreciate what Plato did, that is, how he developed words, ideas, and images, an interpreter needed to understand what the words and images meant before Plato handled them and how Plato developed their meanings over the course of particular texts and throughout his corpus.
Once an interpreter discovers what a philosophic author meant by his symbols, he is prepared to recognize movements of consciousness, or differentiations, by situating symbols and their engendering attitudes within the complex of pressing theoretical problems of the time. Voegelin observed that:
“This procedure is based on the assumption that there exists an historical continuum of problems between the mystic-philosophers at the turn from the sixth to the fifth centuries . . . and Plato, whose work is preserved. With our knowledge of the termini a quo and ad quem of the problems, it will be possible to draw probable lines of their development.“
Plato’s most pressing problem was, for Voegelin, to locate the source of insight concerning the essence of man and social order. Therefore, Voegelin analyzed the Platonic symbols in light of the attitudes toward the experiences of transcendence expressed therein; the conclusions of those examinations then contributed to his theory of consciousness.
The distinctiveness of Voegelin’s approach is evident through a brief reflection on Voegelin’s analysis of Plato’s use of the terms “physis” and “nomos.” Voegelin criticized his contemporaries because for them “the issue Physis-Nomos [had] become a historiographic cliché which [obscured] a rather differentiated problem.” Penetrating past the cliché to the spiritual and historical ranges of meanings implied both by each term separately and as a relational pair enabled Voegelin to conclude that, to the extent that it was a sophistic attempt to locate the source of truth in immanent experience, Plato actually rejected the opposition between physis and nomos. “The idea of Physis, of Nature as an autonomous source of order in competition with Nomos can be formed,” Voegelin argued, “only when the idea of a transcendent divine Nomos as the source of order has atrophied; and that can happen in a theoretical context only when philosophizing in the existential sense is abandoned.” In the absence of the linguistic analysis, crucial aspects of Plato’s meaning are lost—aspects which reveal the extent to which Plato’s thought was emphatically not a mere product of his times.
The Level of Analysis on which Interpreters Should Seek an Author’s Meaning
Voegelin thought interpretation had to go beyond the explicit meaning of words and propositions in order to uncover things such as existential attitudes, experiences of the realissimum, movements in spiritual and historical consciousness, and psychic movements. Each of these phrases signifies a specific relation (distinguished as a matter of emphasis rather than kind) between what Voegelin referred to as “psychic substance” and the divine ground. The phrase “existential attitudes,” for example, emphasizes an individual’s receptivity to the tension of existence, whereas “historical consciousness” suggests a way that a society experiences its ultimate meaning and purpose. But the presence of such distinctions, however slight, calls for a separate treatment of the fourth and final assumption—that reading well requires the interpreter to seek the originating experiences that an author is trying to articulate in his writing.
Voegelin thought that, in order to understand a great philosopher like Plato, the interpreter must discover the character of an author’s psychic response to the reality that it actively sought and suffered. This is what Voegelin meant when he called for interpreters to penetrate to the experiences that engendered symbolisms. “The language symbols of myth, revelation, history, and especially philosophy,” as Michael Federici explains, “must be restored to luminosity—that is, reattached to the historical experiences that they attempt to convey.”
Part of the process of restoring symbols to luminosity consists in connecting symbols with the structures of the metaxy that the philosopher is exploring though the participatory movements of his consciousness. The experiential basis of the symbols must guide the interpreter’s analysis in order to prevent treating symbols as static entities or propositions of a syllogism; the philosopher’s symbols are not defined concepts or arguments that exhaustively explain what they signify. Moreover, interpretation must respect the tensional nature of human experience of reality, keeping in mind especially two of its aspects: “The first is the tension of the soul between time and eternity; the second is the tension of the soul between its order before and after the ontic event [or the apperception of the structure of being].” Speaking of the difficulty that an interpreter might find in understanding these formulations, Voegelin went on to say that:
“Because of the illuminative character of the philosophical experience the description of the tensions is inevitably burdened by the difficulty that the grammatic subjects of the statements are not names of subjects referring to the world of things. Neither the poles of the tensions nor the states of order in being are things of the external world, but rather they are terms of the noetic exegesis in which the ontic event interprets itself. Plato, whose philosophizing will serve us as an example of the tensions, has sought to express them through the symbolism of the myth.”
For Voegelin, then, genuine philosophy involves a gap between symbolic articulations and the underlying experiences. As we will see below, Voegelin’s Plato called attention to this gap by using philosophic myth—a symbolic form that guards against literalism by self-consciously departing from propositional formulations.
Voegelin’s Approach to Reading Plato: Techniques
I have suggested that Voegelin’s approach to interpreting Plato’s dialogues has the double-aspect of being guided by the assumptions just discussed and of being a basis for the formulation of those same assumptions. Given the importance of Plato’s writings to Voegelin’s philosophic endeavor, the difficulty is especially pronounced in Voegelin’s treatment of Plato’s dialogues. This difficulty is diminished upon consideration of Voegelin’s interpretive principles, which, unlike the assumptions discussed in the previous section, are more akin to techniques or guidelines of interpretation: they are the concrete starting points that structured Voegelin’s encounter with Plato’s dense and rich writings.
Here, then, I focus on two main principles and their corollaries. First, is Voegelin’s principle that an adequate interpretation of Plato’s dialogues will begin with an analysis of the literary structure of the dialogue. I discuss (1) Voegelin’s understanding of the significance of the dialogue form and then (2) mention several specific interpretive tasks associated with this principle including (a) developing an organizational schema of the dialogue, (b) identifying the various types of symbolic language in use, and (c) attending to the character of the various interlocutors. Second is Voegelin’s principle that Plato’s dialogues must be read in light of the problem of language in the metaxy. Derivations of this principle include: (1) puzzling formulations are intelligible on the level of experience, even if they are paradoxical, and (2) myth is uniquely suited to express transcendent processes or experiences and therefore is Plato’s preferred medium for communicating his highest insights. Although I distinguish between these principles and sub-principles, it should be remembered that each one is related to Voegelin’s idea that Plato used symbols to communicate his ineffable experiences of life in the metaxy. By following these principles, Voegelin hoped to respect the limits and potential of symbols’ ability to clarify Plato’s experiential insights.
Voegelin’s first hermeneutic principle is that interpretation must begin by examining the literary structure of the dialogue, the first clue into the substance of Platonic philosophy. At the outset of his study of Plato in Order and History, Voegelin ventured an explanation of Plato’s decision to adopt the dialogue form, observing that:
“The drama of Socrates is a symbolic form created by Plato as the means for communicating, and expanding, the order of wisdom founded by its hero. We have to touch, therefore, on the thorny question why the dialogue should have become the symbolic form for the new order. No final answer, however, can be intended with regard to a question of such infinite complexity. We shall do no more than modestly list a number of points which under all circumstances must be taken into consideration.“
Voegelin’s first points was that the dialogue form absorbed Aeschylean tragedy’s concern with the psychic tension between order and passion. On Voegelin’s analysis, Plato’s decision proceeded from his awareness that tragic performances could no longer illuminate the tension of existence for Athenian audiences. Understanding the absolute necessity to preserve the experience of tension or struggle in any new articulation of order, Plato renewed the dramatic effort in the dialogues in which Athens becomes the force of “passion” that opposed to Socrates, the new force of “order.” Second, the dialogic form reflected Plato’s conception of the new Socratic myth of the soul as being engaged in actual competition with the broken order of society. Society’s rejection of the new order of the soul requires an articulation that preserves the dramatic struggle between contesting forces. Third, the dialogue’s exchanges preserved the communal or participatory nature of the quest for truth in a way that a treatise could not. Finally, Voegelin thought that the mytho-poetic form of the dialogue was best suited to the expression of insights that must be experienced if it is to be known. Given these beliefs about Plato’s choice of the dialogue form, Voegelin’s interpretive approach hinged on identifying the experiences that motivated Plato’s various efforts to articulate a new case for order that could effectively counter the pervasive decay of his time.
From the general consideration of the dialogue form, Voegelin turned to the unique structure of particular dialogues, developing a schema or an outline of the principles Plato employed for organizing each work. The schema Voegelin sought to discover was not merely a table of contents, nor was it intended to be exhaustive. Independent of traditional divisions (Stephanus pages, books, chapters), Voegelin’s schema served as a point of departure for ascertaining Plato’s motivations, though Voegelin admitted that developing it was tantamount to beginning in “the middle.” In his own words, the schema is “a construction whose validity depends on a correct interpretation of Plato’s intentions. While the schema had to be given as a basis for further analysis, it now turns out to be the first step of the analysis itself.” Voegelin came to believe that the literary structures of the dialogues were designed to reflect the structure of being that Plato discovered and sought to convey.
Voegelin’s construction of a schema began, first, by examining the first words and scenes of the dialogues, which assemble the “dominant symbols” (or topics and themes) and reveal the aspect of metaxy experience that best illuminates those symbols. With respect to the Gorgias, for example, the opening phrase “war and battle” signaled the topic—the competition between forces that vie for influence over young souls—and provided a clue about the nature of the inquiry itself—the inquiry emerges out of Socrates’ effort to clarify his awareness of the opposed forces, makes him the adversary of those who do not seek to understand those forces, and must preserve that agonistic form if it is to effect a psychic response on the part of the reader. And Voegelin argued that the opening book of the Republic introduced the key symbols of the dialogue (e.g., the three generations of interlocutors, the equality of the Piraeus, and justice, to name only a few) which had to be analyzed in light of the opening word (kateben, “I went down”) that conveyed the experiential basis of the inquiry (the pull of the disordering pole of the metaxy).
A second step in constructing the dialogic schema was to discover how Plato’s deliberate placement of dramatic scenes, discussions, and recurring motifs revealed various levels of interlocking meaning—that is, how they illuminated Plato’s understanding of common ontological foundations. Once Voegelin identified the dominant symbols and the aspect of metaxy existence with which they are connected, he looked for other passages throughout the dialogue that treated those symbols in a balancing or parallel way. The descent (kateben) to the Piraeus that begins the inquiry into justice in the Republic is balanced by the ascent (epanodos) to the Agathon that occurs in the central part of the dialogue and is paralleled by the descent (kateben) to Hades in the concluding Myth of Er. Although Voegelin frequently referred to Plato’s “play” with the symbols, he thought Plato’s use of balancing and parallel treatments, and hence the organization of the whole, was governed by the subject matter he explored rather than aesthetic concern. Moreover, the complexity of the metaxy required symbols to be presented from myriad perspectives so as to preserve the tensional feature of the reality they hope to illuminate. On this view, the dialogic schema functions as one of Plato’s solutions to the problem of communicating experiences that transcend the capacity of language symbols.
Third in Voegelin’s structural analysis was to identify various types of symbolic language that Plato employed. He thought that ascertaining Plato’s intention for some symbol requires consideration of the broader situation in which it befalls, especially the type of speech or argument that is occurring and the dramatic context surrounding it. Plato’s choice to use allegory, conceptual analysis, or myth (both traditional and his new myth) followed from the specific kind of experience he was trying to analyze and to communicate. Plato discovered, according to Voegelin, that inquiries into the transcendent ground were best conducted through allegory—as in the Cave Parable of the Republic—because the form of traditional myth risked evoking a misleading association between matter and the a-material ground. Whereas the experience of metaxy existence as a whole—the tension of existence—was conveyed quite well through myth, particular myths of judgment. An adequate interpretation of the dialogue would recognize Plato’s determinations about the suitability of certain types of language to particular subjects of inquiry, respecting how those determinations govern the meaning and precision of specific symbols.
Finally, Voegelin emphasized that a character analysis would govern how an interlocutor’s speeches were to be evaluated. Plato’s various interlocutors were, generally speaking, either virtuous or vicious or, in some cases, at the verge of deciding whether to be one way or the other, with the basic criterion for virtue being willingness to be persuaded to quest for the divine ground. These character determinations were significant because Plato, Voegelin argued, would communicate his most important philosophic insights only through virtuous interlocutors such as Socrates, the Eleatic Stranger, and the Athenian Stranger, whose love of truth would prohibit them from dissimulating or otherwise concealing the fundamental meaning of their words. Consequently, the views expressed by vicious interlocutors were relegated to the status of doxai—opinions that could not represent genuine alternatives to Plato’s wisdom because they originate in an ill-constituted soul.
In addition to his principle of analyzing the insights revealed in literary structure of the dialogues, Voegelin argued for a second interpretive principle, namely, that the intelligibility of Plato’s words and images lies in Plato’s reflective struggle with the problem of language in the metaxy. Voegelin was committed to the coherence and lucidness of the dialogues: quite simply, he thought that they “made sense” and were not “abstract.” Plato’s investigations reflect his own assumptions about what philosophy is and how it arises. Just as philosophy arises from “existential,” i.e., particular social, experiences, so too do the dialogues deal with particular issues felt by particular people. The concrete, experiential basis of the dialogues is, therefore, the level on which the coherence and the intelligibility of the dialogues are to be sought. Therefore, passages in the dialogues that seem to employ faulty reasoning, omit key questions or topics, and contradict other passages, are not a valid basis for rejecting the theoretical value of Platonic philosophy. On the contrary, Voegelin argued, these features of the dialogues reflect Plato’s awareness of the incapacity of language to communicate the full range of man’s experiences, and his writings must be interpreted as his solution for addressing that problem.
Thus, Voegelin’s second interpretive principle responds to those who would question the intelligibility or the concreteness of Plato’s writings by calling attention to their symbolic character. Plato, Voegelin claimed, let his words and images “emerge from the loving quest for the divine ground,” hoping that they would reveal the fundamental experiences of metaxy existence that engendered them. Therefore, Plato’s texts must not be read as if they were syllogisms, and Platonic philosophy cannot be debunked by pointing to logical flaws in the speeches. For Voegelin, reading well means not making the mistake of treating symbols as airtight concepts or arguments that exhaustively explain what they point to. Understanding the dialogue requires the interpreter to connect Plato’s language symbols to the forces of order and disorder that one experiences in both personal and socio-political existence. Such experiences have a variety of aspects including, for example, what Plato symbolized as the desiring, spirited, and rational inclinations that are present in both the individual psyche and the civic body. Plato’s use of the various types of symbolic forms, Voegelin argued, was an effort to bring greater (not complete) clarity to these experiences by investigating them from many perspectives and through different sorts of lenses.
For Voegelin, this means that every type of language (or symbolic form) Plato used in the dialogue had to be recognized as partially capable of revealing Plato’s insights. This applies just as much to Plato’s “cognitive inquiry” into the paradigm of the good polis (Republic 420b-543c) as it does to Plato’s various myths. Voegelin thought that Plato’s recognition of the problem of language in the metaxy opened up more avenues through which he was able to communicate his insights. That is, if all kinds of language (including the symbolic forms of history, myth, philosophy, science, etc.) have their limits, they also have their unique potentialities for clarifying features of metaxy existence. Plato embraced paradoxical or enigmatic formulations and the form of myth in order to cope with the challenges or opportunities created by metaxy existence. These passages are high points in Plato’s work: they respect and focus readers’ attention on man’s participation in transcending reality by departing from conventional ways of arguing and making demonstrations and by hearkening back to the traditional understandings of sacredness and mystery. Understanding such passages requires one to interpret them as efforts to communicate (and thereby to evoke) essentially ineffable processes that transcend the individual consciousness—processes such as the experience of the mysterious ground, the other human being, or man’s relationship the cosmos.
Specific Interpretive Issues of Voegelin’s Approach
Voegelin’s 1) assumptions about historical and political events, the core philosophic experience, and the experiential basis for examining symbols of order and his 2) techniques of beginning with an analysis of literary structure and proceeding to connect an author’s symbols to the problem of language in the metaxy result in several specific methodological issues that distinguish his approach to Plato from others. These specific issues include 1) the practical aspirations of Plato’s writings, 2) how to interpret Platonic irony, 3) the attribution of views to Plato himself, 4) how history and Plato’s dialogues are intertwined, 5) the proper way to interpret Plato’s myths, and 6) the spiritual nature of Plato’s beliefs. Voegelin’s conclusions on these points all emanate from his premise that Plato’s philosophy was an effort to explore the transcendent, and therefore mysterious, forces that drew his soul toward the quest for the divine. But, like the earlier assumptions and techniques, Voegelin’s specific conclusions about these issues inform and substantiate that premise as well.
The first implication of Voegelin’s interpretive approach is his conclusion that the Platonic dialogues are “saving” by nature. Voegelin wrote that:
“Philosophy in this sense, as an act of resistance illuminated by conceptual understanding, has two functions for Plato. It is first, and most importantly, an act of salvation for himself and others, in that the evocation of right order and its reconstitution in his own soul becomes the substantive center of a new community which, by its existence, relieves the pressure of the surrounding corrupt society. Under this aspect Plato is the founder of the community of philosophers that lives through the ages. Philosophy is, second, an act of judgment. . . Since the order of the soul is recaptured through resistance to the surrounding disorder, the pairs of concepts which illuminate the act of resistance develop into the criteria (in the pregnant sense of instruments or standards of judgment) of social order and disorder. Under this second aspect Plato is the founder of political science.”
The philosophy conveyed in the dialogues saves the individual and society from falling into the ruin that results from the failure to appreciate the proper ordering of human affairs in relation to the divine and to nothingness. The dialogues “save” by articulating visions of order and correcting the assumptions of the destroyers of order, thereby facilitating greater spiritual attunement to the divine ground of being and participation in the realissimum. For Voegelin, diagnosing disorder is the first step in remedying it, so the dialogues’ revelations of order and disorder have practical as well as theoretical importance.
A second implication hinges on the role of irony in the dialogues. Voegelin saw irony as an expression of meaning which may be understood only by those who share a certain existential outlook. Because all human beings are ontologically equal insofar as they all find their existence in the metaxy, Voegelin thought everyone has the capacity to develop the existential outlook that makes understanding possible. Nevertheless, considering the limited practical effects of the dialogues illuminates the tragedy of the human condition: namely, the possibility of right order is often neglected or rejected by the human beings who would be benefitted by pursuing it. Therefore, Voegelin saw irony as one of Plato’s instruments for dealing with the situation that spiritual order does not always penetrate the structures of pragmatic order. By illuminating the situation, Plato encouraged readers to reflect upon the structures of existence that allow for such a limited instantiation of the divine paradigm of order.
Third, Voegelin was comfortable attributing the views expressed in the dialogues to Plato himself and he often equated Socrates and Plato, using the phrase “Socrates-Plato.” Voegelin thought that Plato never would have expressed his views through a vicious character because the adequate apperception of order and disorder depends upon having a well-ordered, virtuous soul. Plato’s use of vicious characters functioned, rather, as examples of the effects of pneumapathology and as foils for the presentation of order. In Voegelin’s analysis, Plato used oppositional pairs—the order of the philosopher versus the disorder of the sophist, for example—because he thought that truth is illuminated by opposing it to untruth. This kind of opposition mimics the metaxy, which is anchored by the opposing forces of order and disorder, and preserves the existential struggle in the hopes of evoking a psychic response on the part of the reader.
A fourth implication lies in the historical emphasis of Voegelin’s approach to interpreting Plato. For Voegelin, knowing the objective truth was not only a genuine human possibility, but also the only way of life in which all human beings find their ultimate fulfillment. His deeply-held conviction was that modernity’s acceptance of historicist assumptions was a danger to the soul and society. But Voegelin’s rejection of the historicist perspective was not associated with the view that philosophy was essentially independent from any spatio-temporally conditioned knowledge. Rather, Voegelin determined that the philosophic quest had both temporal and a-temporal features and he emphasized the way that human understanding of order becomes increasingly refined over time. These commitments led Voegelin to consider Plato in historical terms.
For example, Voegelin’s Plato occupies a particular (and preeminent) moment in the story of philosophy, and Plato’s understanding of the human soul evolves over his lifetime. The insights he conveys in the Laws, for example, reflect a deeper or more differentiated understanding of metaxy existence than those which he conveyed in the Republic. The order in which the dialogues were written is therefore significant for Voegelin, who saw a dynamic process at work in Plato. He also thought that Plato’s reflections on his philosophic debt to the existential quests of his predecessors, such as Aeschylus, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Anaxagoras, helped him to uncover the nature of that dynamic process and develop a philosophy of history.
Fifth, Voegelin viewed myth as Plato’s way of solving the inescapable limitations of metaxy existence. Voegelin thought that by the time of the Timaeus, Plato had discovered a philosophy of myth in which “the psyche [had] reached the critical consciousness of the methods by which it symbolizes its own experiences.” Voegelin argued that Plato accepted the myth “as a medium of symbolic expression, endowed with an authority of its own, independent of, and prior to, the universe of empirical knowledge constituted by consciousness in attention to its objects.” In other words, myth is philosophy at its highest reaches because it is through myth that experiences of order and disorder are conveyed and evoked most accurately and profoundly. Platonic philosophy culminates in myth. Myth employs traditional symbols because the traditional symbols conveyed genuine, if compact, experiences of order and disorder. For Voegelin, myth is a form of symbolic play which attests to the philosopher’s freedom in “the influx of the spirit, which abolishes absolute determinism.”
Finally, Voegelin held that Plato and his Socrates maintained spiritual beliefs, and no interpretation of the dialogues would be accurate unless it began from the recognition of their divine dimension. By now, it should be clear that Voegelin insisted that Plato was a mystic and a believer in divine being and its relevance for human life. The significance of the divine dimension of Plato’s thought is evident in Voegelin’s interpretation of 278d of Plato’s Phaedrus:
“In the Phaedrus Plato has Socrates describe the characteristics of the true thinker. When Phaedrus asks what one should call such a man, Socrates, following Heraclitus, replies that the term sophos, one who knows, would be excessive: this attribute may be applied to God alone; but one might well call him philosophos. Thus “actual knowledge” is reserved to God; finite man can only be the “lover of knowledge,” not himself one who knows. In the meaning of the passage, the lover of the knowledge that belongs only to the knowing God, the philosophos, becomes the theophilos, the lover of God.”
Eric Voegelin’s Plato
From these considerations of Voegelin’s approach to interpreting Plato’s writings, we are now in a position to examine who Voegelin’s Plato was, exactly, what he hoped to accomplish, and how he lived the philosophic life. Voegelin’s assumptions about history, philosophy, and the effort to express experiences of transcendence in language contribute to an understanding of Plato who was engaged in an integrated effort to improve political practice, penetrate the mysteries of the psyche, and make crucial discoveries in science. Unlike other engagements with Plato that emphasize one or another of these roles, Voegelin’s engagement presumed the continuity among Plato’s political, mystical, and scientific efforts. Two passages from his correspondence to Leo Strauss on the subject of interpreting Plato’s philosophy clarify Voegelin’s basis for treating Plato’s various roles as harmonious and necessary outgrowths of a unified philosophical quest. In 1942, Voegelin wrote:
“I see [the Platonic-Aristotelian problem] in the following way: at the center of Platonic political thinking stand the fundamental experiences, which are tied together with the person and death of Socrates—catharsis through consciousness of death and the enthusiasm of eros both pave the way for the right ordering of the soul (Dike). The theoretical political-ethical achievement seems secondary to these fundamental experiences. Only when the fundamental order of the soul is defined, can the field of social relations determined by it be systematically ordered. In this sense, I understand the theoretical-scientific achievement of Plato as founded in myth (which he conveys as the representation of the fundamental experiences in the Phaedo, Symposium, the Republic and the Laws).“
And roughly seven years later, Voegelin reiterated his claim that one cannot impose a final distinction between theoretical and practical modes of encountering reality because genuine philosophy is the act of both discovering and instantiating the proper order of the soul:
“Ontological knowledge emerges in the process of history and biographically in the process of the individual person’s life under certain conditions of education, social context, personal inclination, and spiritual conditioning. Epistēmē is not just a function of understanding, it is also in the Aristotelian sense, a dianoetic aretē. For this noncognitive aspect of epistēmē I use the term ‘existential.’”
Voegelin’s Plato desired to think rightly about the cosmos, but this required a certain ethical relation to the whole of reality—both the reality that is perceptible through the senses and cognition and the reality that becomes luminous only in the deep movements of the psyche—which, in turn, generated implications for concrete politics. Plato’s great purpose and his accomplishment was to use the symbolic form of myth to evoke, for a potentially wide audience, the psychic experiences of transcendence that are the basis for knowledge of metaxy existence, existential morality, and political order. Although Plato’s three roles are inextricably intertwined, to treat them separately will illuminate the distinctive character of Voegelin’s conclusions about the ancient author who was his own philosophic guide.
Philosophy and the City: Plato Was an Involved Political Actor
Voegelin’s analysis of the Platonic texts emphasizes the extent to which Plato was deeply troubled—outraged, even—by the social and political crisis of the Hellenes and genuinely concerned to instantiate the divine paradigm of order within the concrete experience of the polis in history. Therefore, a number of practical political concerns animated Plato’s writing including, for instance, to promote a unified Hellas and to discover the optimal size of a polis. Plato’s most urgent concern, however, was to counter the political and spiritual havoc wrecked by the Sophists, whose popular materialist doxai and perverted way of speaking (i.e. rhetoric) had led to the execution of Socrates and threatened to ruin entirely Athens’ soul.
The concrete conflict between Plato and the Sophists functions as the primary experiential framework that gave rise to Plato’s dialogues as well as the situation that they hoped to remedy. For Voegelin, the concreteness of the struggle is a point of connection between Plato’s philosophic and his political effort, between the order of the individual and the order of society. On Voegelin’s reading, Plato’s use of the term “sophist” evinces the connection, for it was applied not only to a particular cadre of foreign teachers, but to anyone—even Athenian citizens and society as a whole—whose moral and intellectual ethos exhibited the traits of a sophistic education. The hallmark of sophistic education was its deformed “communication,” which taught one how to manipulate speech in order to obtain one’s ends, without regard for others or for the experiences of transcendence that were, for Voegelin’s Plato, the desideratum of right thought and action. It separated language symbols from existential experiences, thus obliterating the intelligible point of reference from which meaning can be discerned.
Moreover, the combative nature of sophistic techniques contradicted the primary experience of man’s participation in the community of being and the philosophic discovery that men share a common condition based in their participation in the divine Nous. In this milieu, the Athenian people came to believe that objective study of the external world was sufficient for knowledge, that language was an instrument of power, and that “order” consisted in the “right of the stronger.” The execution of Socrates confirmed the terrible consequence: in Athens, to live well—to live in such a way as to be found blameless before the gods—had become a practical impossibility. Therefore, per Voegelin’s Plato, the city lost its claim to be the existential representative of the people because its rulers put mundane concerns over the spiritual good.
Voegelin’s conclusions about the specific dialogues always touch on how Plato intended his spiritual insights to have a concrete impact on Athenian political order. So what, then, was the substance of Plato’s political endeavor? Voegelin answered that the dialogues themselves constituted Plato’s almost miraculous (political) effort “to renew the order of Hellenic civilization out of the resources of his own love of wisdom, fortified by the paradigmatic life and death of the most just man, Socrates.” As a counter to the deformations of language (such as sophistic rhetoric) and existential closure (an attitude of unwillingness to seek truth in non-immanent experience) of his time, Plato offered up his dialogues to everyone who wanted to read them. By basing his dialogues on the concrete events surrounding Socrates’ life and death, Plato grounded his broad-based appeal in a common, provocative experience that would, he hoped, make it more effective. Plato aimed at reforming politics by illuminating a fuller range of human experience and by creating a more adequate philosophical vocabulary (or new symbols of order), which would prepare souls for an influx of the divine ordering force. In this way, Plato hoped to restore “the common order of the spirit that [had] been destroyed through the privatization of rhetoric” and to save social, political, and individual existence from falling into ruin.
What Philosophy Is: Plato Was a Mystic
Plato’s political efforts were animated by his more fundamental conviction that the health and salvation of the soul were man’s primary concern. He meant this in the existential sense: the soul must flee non-being, temporality, and disorder and become lovingly attuned to the ground of being, eternity, and order. Therefore, Plato determined that socio-political configurations were appropriate subjects for philosophic inquiry and therapy because they shape man’s thoughts and attitudes about reality and its ground, and thereby influence the possibility of existential attunement. Plato’s political concerns are important, but Voegelin’s Plato was first and foremost a mystic who sought attunement to the divine ground of being for its own sake. Platonic philosophy was, in Voegelin’s view, the loving quest for the divine ground of being.
Therefore, the relationship between Plato’s more obviously political efforts and his existential, philosophic effort is complex, but that very complexity itself became a motivating force for Plato’s philosophic inquiry. Socio-political disorder burdened Plato concretely, eliciting his desire for a remedy and functioning as a strengthening exercise for his soul: the movements of aversion and attraction to pragmatic phenomena facilitated Plato’s sensitivity to the soul’s experiences of ontological disorder and order. At the same time, Platomust have begun from a condition of psychic sensitivity since he—in contrast to his contemporaries—experienced the socio-political disorder as psychically burdensome and spiritually significant. Voegelin would argue that the dialogues were written in order to make this complex and puzzling relation between Plato and his society more luminous.
In Voegelin’s view, then, the mystery of how and why Plato experienced and perceived disorder (psychic and political) had the character of an efficient as well as a final cause of Plato’s quest for the divine ground. Plato wanted to know what it was that responded with aversion to his political milieu, how it did so, and why it did so. Plato found that the struggle to answer such questions was a source of the insights he sought—the soul’s movements were the gateway to knowledge of reality and its order. Therefore, the inquiry into the mysterious experience would have to be conducted by examining the experience itself. Moreover, because of its status as “non-object” reality, psyche cannot be adequately or comprehensively captured in language, which treats everything as an object and presents everything to consciousness in that mode only. Psyche, like the all-comprehending structure of reality in which psyche participates existentially, is ineffable.
Plato recognized that certain activities were appropriate ways of trying to dispel the mystery of how human beings experience and know truth and order. One of these activities is meditation, in which consciousness opens itself to the mystery of reality that it actively seeks to understand, allows itself to be informed by the divine ground’s penetration into human consciousness, and thereby approximates health, salvation, and orderliness. Plato’s openness to meditation put him at odds with sophistic Athens because meditation is an integral process concerned with apperception of the oneness of reality (and its symbolizations). It was thus opposed to sophistic deformations of consciousness and language, which tried to understand reality by suspending existential consciousness and “fragmenting [reality’s] parts into pseudoindependent topics of discussion.”
Plato’s dialogues are all meditative quests for divine being, and their intelligibility depends on the interpreter’s willingness to undertake these activities on his own. Only in this way may the interpreter to penetrate to Plato’s experiences with ontological order—his experience of a “vision” granted by the divine ground and noesis, or his attraction to and pursuit of the ground. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint where one begins and the other ends, even when one becomes aware that both (along with the pull of disorder) play a role in the philosophic experience.  This theme is central to all of Voegelin’s writings about Platonic philosophy, and is the basis for the requirement that the interpreter engage in meditative process for himself.
Before closing this section, it will be helpful to note that meditation may seek or emphasize various “objects” and thus have different “types.” One type that holds a preeminent place in Voegelin’s thought (because of its importance in Platonic thought) is anamnesis, which is an exploration of consciousness’s “past” in which human consciousness may become aware of the “indelible present” or “flowing presence”—the “temporal flow of experience in which eternity is present.” In other words, anamnesis is the meditative activity in which consciousness seeks to “remember” its eternal or ever-present experience of being aware of itself and reality—an experience which may have been “forgotten” as a result of the forces of disorder and deformations that surround and bear down upon the concrete human consciousness.
Voegelin thought that Plato was supremely concerned with anamnetic exploration of reality, and significant portions of his analysis are devoted to the types of time and eternity that operated in the dialogues. Moreover, Voegelin argued that Plato was the first to articulate fully the luminous complexity of this relationship and the first to recognize that that attribute of the structure of reality called for philosophic investigation to operate through the symbolic form of myth. Myth recognizes the essential ineffability of the time-eternity relationship, refrains from purporting to explain it exhaustively, and advances philosophy by inviting individuals to undertake anamnesis for themselves. Voegelin suggested that all of the dialogues—early and late—were anamnetic, but Plato’s critical awareness of their anamnetic character occurred in the later stages of the revelatory process. At the dawning of this critical awareness, Plato understood even his own early formulations more clearly. Voegelin, too, upon discovering Plato’s awareness of the process of anamnesis, revisited the earlier dialogues in order to determine how their more compact symbolizations intimated the differentiated insights present in Plato’s later work.
Plato Was Also a Scientist
Although Voegelin thought Plato was a mystic whose symbolizations were divinely inspired, he credited Plato with important, if not the most important, scientific discoveries. Voegelin, like other thinkers, often used the words “philosophy” and “science” interchangeably. The philosophic activity is mystical at its core and is the basis for genuine science in the sense of knowledge—episteme—and as opposed to opinion. Science, too, is a mystical activity insofar as it is motivated by the wondering desire to know man’s place in the world, the psyche’s longing for attunement to the divine ground, and intuitive sense of the oneness of reality. Both philosophy and science, then, are related in the process of nous, the infrastructure of which Voegelin described as constituted of 1) a noetic experience and 2) the noetic exegesis of the noetic experience.
The noetic experience is most closely related to philosophy and the mystical participation of human and divine intellect in the perception of the divine ground which gives rise to self-interpretive symbols of reality. Noetic exegesis is most closely related to science, which operates reflectively on the experience in order to construct theoretical concepts that explicate philosophic symbols, and which also constitutes the experience. In Plato, Voegelin discovered not only a peak of mystical philosophy, but also exemplary critical-scientific efforts to recognize the distinctive or differentiated aspects of experienced reality. Voegelin referred to Plato’s scientific efforts in terms such as exegesis, analysis, and critical inquiry, and to these I now turn.
Plato Pioneered an Ontological Understanding of Transcendence
Voegelin thought Plato made a critical discovery in the philosophy of history—one that drew from the insights of poets, historians, and pre-Socratic philosophers, but surpassed them in symbolic clarity and made scientific analysis a genuine possibility. Crucially, Plato discovered the psyche as the process that quests for its divine ground that it recognizes as distinct from itself and as the process in which the divine presence manifests itself so that the quest and its insights may occur. In other words, Plato discovered nous, which is the faculty that illuminates psyche, as “both the god beyond man and the divine entity within man” that are held apart by the tension of existence. With the articulation of this insight, Plato proffered an new ontology based on a transcending ground (the Beyond or epikeina) which is nevertheless present in all things as “the source of their reality and ordering form.” Before this differentiation, Voegelin argued, there was no consciousness of the specific character of man, and the being who questions and searches for answers. Afterward, however, humanity understood itself as “the creature who has consciousness of a [specific human character] which is self-reflective and produces such linguistic symbols and so on.”
Plato’s differentiation had epochal significance for politics. “The decisive event in the establishment of politike episteme,” Voegelin argued, was Plato’s “specifically philosophical realization that the levels of being discernible within the world are surmounted by a transcendent source of being and its order.” What distinguishes Plato’s discovery and symbolization of psyche from his predecessors and makes it deserving of the title scientific was that his “differentiation of the psyche [expanded] the quest of the ground by the dimension of critical consciousness” and thus recognized that the experiential processes of the psyche are the empirical source from which symbols of order derive their validity. Now, symbolic expressions concerning the order of being—especially those concerning the relationship between human beings and the gods—could be scrutinized in light of the Platonic assumption that knowledge concerning the order of being is “objectively ascertainable,” an assumption that is confirmed in the experience of the psyche’s movements toward the ground. A new invisible standard, viz. the divine ground of being, therefore became the criterion for scientific truth over and against the compact symbolizations of order (the “old myth” and the pre-scientific insights) and “the multitude of sceptic, hedonist, utilitarian, power oriented, and partisan doxai” that were prevalent in fourth-century Athens. Plato’s discovery proved that “a new image of order [could] be formed that would not also bear the marks of a nonbinding, subjective opinion (doxa)”; with that discovery, Voegelin argued, the science of politics came to be.
The goal of Plato’s scientific analysis was “knowledge of the order of being, of the levels of the hierarchy of being and their interrelationships, of the essential structure of the realms of being, and especially of human nature and its place in the totality of being.” Plato also made a critical discovery concerning the process through which this type of knowledge would manifest itself to the inquirer: namely, through a negation of a negation of the truth. Positive propositions about reality, such as those Plato articulated with his differentiated symbols of order, emerge in opposition to concrete instances of human foolishness, as when the sophists proposed that (1) nothing exists, (2) if it exists, it is unknowable, and (3) if it is knowable, it is incommunicable. In other words, Plato discovered that truth emerges through the via negativa. True propositions, moreover, do not constitute “a ‘proof’ in the sense of a logical demonstration, of an apodeixis, but only in the sense of an epideixis, of a pointing to an area of reality which the constructor of the negative propositions has chosen to overlook, or to ignore, or to refuse to perceive.” Voegelin also credited Plato with revealing the moral implications of the epistemological insights, saying, “That the negative propositions are not a philosopher’s statement concerning a structure in reality, but express a deformation of the ‘heart,’ is the insight gained by Plato.”
Plato Pioneered a Conception of Philosophy and Theology
Plato’s ontological and epistemological insights called for a major revision of Hellenic thought so as to illuminate genuine philosophy as an existential quest for a “true theology,” a theology upon which depended ‘man’s existence in truth or falsehood.” Plato’s scientific understanding of philosophy led to the insights (1) that philosophy is the existential quest for God, and (2) that the insights arising from the philosophic quest pertain to divine being. God rather than man is the measure of knowledge and order.
Voegelin thought that Plato was the first thinker to use the term “philosophy” in order to signify the tension of existence that separates man and the divine, but which invites man to quest for and generates insights into the divine. Crucial to the Platonic formulation is the emphasis on the psyche’s outreaching movement that is indicated by the word philia. “In the experiences of love for the world-transcendent origin of being, in philia toward the sophon (the wise), in eros toward the agathon (the good) and the kalon (the beautiful), man becomes the philosopher.” These experiences go beyond thought to touch on man’s deep passions, but it is through critical analyses of such experiences that man discovers exactly who he is and what it is that consciousness intends.
Plato’s discovery of philosophy as the loving quest for the divine ground results in important conceptual formulations—scientifically-valid propositions that may be detached from their motivating experiences without losing their ability to describe reality accurately. Voegelin credited Plato with arriving at a number of these important propositions which have restorative force, function as a touchstone for any system of thought, and are still valid today. Voegelin emphasized a particular class of these scientific propositions—propositions relating to god or the gods, or theology. Moreover, Voegelin attributed the term “theology” to Plato, arguing that Plato equated science and philosophy with theology.  In fact, Plato understood himself as a theologian.
One of Plato’s most important theological contributions to humanity’s self-understanding was his insight that sophistic doxai were, at their core, an incorrect or negative type of theology. This, in turn, led to his own efforts to negate the negation of truth and to articulate a true theology. Plato identified sophistic doxai of the type mentioned above (regarding the existence of nothing and so on) with an existential denial of divine reality, to which he forcefully responded in the Republic and Laws with a “positive triad: The gods do exist; they do care about man; you cannot make them accomplices in your crimes by pacifying them with offerings out of your profits.” Plato’s positive theology also revised traditional views about the gods, which understood the gods compactly, on the basis of his important realization that only a certain kind of speech was properly scientific, or appropriate to the exegesis of divine being: allegory and conceptual symbolizations, which constitute the substance of philosophic myth. For example, Plato’s differentiated symbols for divine reality include nous and epikeina, both of which recognize that man and god are related in the tension of existence, not in definite material terms. For conveying human experiences, however, symbols from the old myth would still suffice.
Plato’s Ontological Understanding Lead Him to Propositions about Political Order
An epochal scientific accomplishment was Plato’s formulation of the anthropological principle and the measurement principle. From these two propositions, flow all of Plato’s specific conclusions regarding the nature of political order and disorder. Voegelin glossed Plato’s measurement principle thus: “the truth of man and the truth of God are inseparably one. Man will be in the truth of his existence when he has opened his psyche to the truth of God; and the truth of God will become manifest in history when it has formed the psyche of man into receptivity for the unseen measure.” With this principle, Plato discovered that the standard for evaluating the goodness or justice of society is the man whose soul is ordered by the transcendent ground. In light of this principle, doctrines such as consensus or power-politics may be thoroughly debunked and cannot legitimate any political order (or justify any conception of the gods) because they are decidedly immanent in nature. Plato’s discovered his soul as the living standard for evaluating Athens because he was attuned to the invisible harmony of the divine measure.
Plato’s anthropological principle established that political order is linked not only with the order of the cosmos but also with the order of individual souls. Voegelin went on to distinguish two aspects of this principle: “under the first aspect it is a general principle for the interpretation of society; under a second aspect it is an instrument of social critique.” Plato first discovered that political orders reflect the way that their members answer the question regarding the meaning and purpose of existence. If the majority of those members has a mistaken view of the gods or are closed to divine reality altogether, the society will be disordered, and it will be up to an individual like Plato to make the disorder known and to attempt to restore social order.
Plato’s two principles rest on the scientific discovery that psyche pervades the entire structure of human existence. The cosmos as a whole is receptive to the divine ordering force, which puts the “substance” into psyche. This substance—or the attunement to the divine ground—unites all the partners of the community of being (god and man, world and society) with each other so that what happens to one partner affects all the others. For Voegelin’s Plato “existence in truth” or attunement to the ground was a task for all participants. As more participants experienced attunement, reality as a whole would become more attuned, thereby heightening the attunement of individual participants. This relationship is at the foundation of Plato’s conclusions regarding the philosopher’s moral and political obligations to struggle for order. It also grounds Plato’s thought concerning the relationship of rulers and dominant groups to the individual members of society and the relationship between nomos and physis.
Conclusion: Some Specific Attributes of the Philosophic Soul
Voegelin’s approach to Platonic philosophy is emphatically relational and theological, aiming at achieving a specific relation with the divine ground, which then impacts one’s relations with other partners in the community of being. His Plato established the moral standard for the philosophical life: to live “lovingly” and with an orientation “toward death.” Voegelin explained this “great theme” of Plato’s work thus:
“Death and Love are intimately related as orienting forces in the soul of Socrates. In the Phaedo philosophy is the practice of dying; in the Symposion and Phaedrus it is the eroticism of the soul for the Idea which creates the procreative community among men. Eros dominates his life because it is a life towards death; and his Eros is powerful because existence in the expectation of catharsis through death gives the proper distance to the incidents of earthly life.“
Voegelin’s Plato discovered in the divine ground’s penetration into human consciousness that human beings experience their accountability to the God in the experience of the tension of existence. They perceive that the God is good and that acting in a manner pleasing to the god will bring order and salvation to existence. Loving the divine order, human beings will be courageous enough judge all of their actions, attitudes, thought, etc. from the divine perspective—the perspective of eternity. At their core, Voegelin argued, the Platonic myths aimed at illuminating the forces of death and love in the human psyche.
For Plato, the moral life depends upon on having a pure soul, characterized by virtues such as eros, thanatos, dike, philia, phronesis, and peitho, among others. According with metaxy existence, each of these virtues has an active and a passive aspect: the individual actively desires their objects, thus becoming receptive to the penetration of the divine formative presence into the individual’s soul. In order to perfect these virtues, and approach purity of soul, the philosopher must engage in the meditative processes described above, have the courage to refute instances of injustice and to promote justice, never harm others, and strive to help others. Also, the philosopher must be humble and have a deep understanding of what he does not and cannot know about the divine ground. He must constantly be aware that there will always be a “blind spot at the center of all human knowledge.” For the philosopher, like all men, “the role of existence must be played in uncertainty of its meaning . . . Both the play and the role are unknown. But even worse, the actor does not know with certainty who he is himself.”
Voegelin’s Plato recognized man’s essential ignorance but without despairing about human knowledge and attunement to the divine ground. The complicated and mysterious situation of man’s existence motivated Plato to achieve as great an understanding as humanly possible through concerted and constant efforts at symbolizing his experiences of existing in the in-between and drawing closer to the divine ground that was drawing him. The Platonic corpus symbolizes Plato’s quest for existential salvation and his efforts to help others achieve the same. He recognized that no single symbolization could exhaust the luminous mystery of human existence, so he used a variety of images and types of language to convey the essential ineffable, but restorative, experiences of transcendent order. This was his attempt to help his city recover and be well-ordered. Little did he know, Voegelin suggested, that his symbols would transform the course of Western history by initiating a trajectory of thinking about the meaning of existence that could be deformed but never undone.
Voegelin conceived of his own philosophic effort as a rearticulation of Plato’s effort millennia ago, and he perhaps finds in Plato what he expected or hoped to find there: a mystical quest for the divine ground’s penetration into human consciousness that made important contributions to science and politics. In this article, I have tried to show how Voegelin arrived at this vision of Plato—a vision that is grounded in historical and textual analysis as well as meditative exegesis—and what some of the consequences of this vision are, both in terms of interpreting the dialogues and understanding the substance of Platonic philosophy. Voegelin’s unique approach to Plato, which is the result of rigorous analysis over a lifetime of study, deserves a broader scholarly hearing if only for the questions that it raises—questions to which rival interpretations of Plato would do well to respond and questions that point any thoughtful reader back to the dialogues in search of answers. In other words, Voegelin’s reading of Plato certainly encourages the continuation of the quest. That, to me, seems perfectly aligned with any serious interpretation of the ancient philosopher and reason enough to follow Voegelin’s lead to the middle of Plato’s thought.
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—. Consciousness and Transcendence: The Theology of Eric Voegelin. Notre Dame, IA: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.
Plato. Gorgias. Translated by James H. Nichols, Jr. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
—. The Laws of Plato. Translated by Thomas L. Pangle. 1980. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
—. The Republic of Plato. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968.
—. Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Revised by C.D.C. Reeve. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.
—. Seventh Letter. The Internet Classics Archive by Daniel C. Stevenson: The Seventh Letter. Translated by J. Harward, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/seventh_letter.html (accessed January 27, 2012).
—. Plato’s “Symposium”. Translated by Seth Benardete. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Ranieri, John J. Eric Voegelin and the Good Society. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Rhodes, James M. Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
Voegelin, Eric. Anamnesis. Translated and edited by Gerhart Niemeyer. 1978. Reprint, Colombia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
—. Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics. Edited by David Walsh. Translated by M. J. Hanak. Vol. 6 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.
—. Autobiographical Reflections. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
—. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. Edited by Ellis Sandoz. 34 vols. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989-2008.
—. The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1939 – 1985. Edited by William Petropulos and Gilbert Weiss. Vol. 33 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
—. 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.
—. Modernity Without Restraint. Edited by Manfred Henningsen. Vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
—. 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, 1940 – 1952. Edited by Ellis Sandoz. Vol. 10 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
—. 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.
—. Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. 1968. Reprint, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007.
—. Selected Correspondence, 1950 – 1984. Translated by Sandy Adler, Thomas A. Hollweck, and William Petropulos. Edited by Thomas A. Hollweck. Vol. 30 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.
—. 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.
Webb, Eugene. Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.
 Voegelin, In Search of Order, vol. 5 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), chapter 1, passim.
 Ibid., 27.
 Voegelin, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” 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), 122. Hereafter, references to other sources from The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin will follow the abbreviated format of: CW volume number: page number.
 See Voegelin, “Eternal Being in Time,” in Anamnesis: On the Theory and History of Politics, trans. M. J. Hanak, ed. David Walsh, vol. 6 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, 334. Voegelin warned against treating the general pattern as “historical ‘law’” in the introduction to Order and History, 5 vols., (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956-1987), 6.
 Voegelin, New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 27. See also, The World of the Polis, vol. 2 of Order and History, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 1-7.
 Very early symbolizations of order can tolerate rival symbolizations of order, but as consciousness becomes more aware of its ground, human beings discover that the order of being may be represented only in one way. Voegelin suggests that the early tolerance gives way roughly during the 5th century B.C. See The World of the Polis, 7-11.
 Voegelin, The World of the Polis, 169.
 See ibid., 215.
 Voegelin described the “infrastructure of the noetic quest” quite clearly in “Reason: The Classic Experience,” in CW 12.
 Voegelin, “Equivalences of Experience,” in CW 12: 127. See also Plato Republic, 511d-e.
 Ibid. Voegelin explained that the “depth” could be understood by examining the experiences symbolized in a proposition such as the following: “We consciously experience psyche as a reality extending beyond consciousness. The area “beyond” is of the same nature as the reality of consciousness. Moreover, the two areas are a continuum of psychic reality in which man can move by the actions and passions symbolized as descent and ascent.” (126).
 Voegelin, The World of the Polis, 170.
 Ibid., 290.
 Ibid., 291-92, 299, and 305.
 Ibid., 292.
 Ibid., 305.
 Ibid., 307.
 Michael P. Federici, Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books,2002), xxvii.
 Voegelin, “Eternal Being in Time,” in Anamnesis, trans. and ed. Gerhart Niemeyer (1978; repr., Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990), 124. Unless otherwise specified, subsequent references to this title are from the Niemeyer edition, not the edition in the CW.
 Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, vol. 3 of Order and History, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957) 10. At the end of this passage, Voegelin cited Friedlaender’s Platon I, describing the chapter entitled “Dialog” as the “most penetrating study of the question.”
 See Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951, in Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934 – 1964, trans. and ed. Peter Emberly and Barry Cooper (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 87: “Insofar as the place of God as the addresser is taken by Socrates-Plato, as the speaker in the dialogue, the fullest expression of the ‘theomorphic’ polytheism seems to be the final reason for the dialogue form; the divine and the human are not yet completely separated”
 Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 10-19. See also Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 87: “The problem of the Platonic myth and dialogue has a close connection to the question of revelation.”
 Ibid., 50. In light of this statement, delineating the precise order of the steps Voegelin took in constructing his schemas becomes problematic. In the following paragraphs, my references to his “first” and “second” steps are for the sake of clarity; they do not imply a strict sequence.
 See, for example, Voegelin’s discussion of his schema of Plato’s Republic in Plato and Aristotle, 45-62.
 See Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 157-60, and 186.
 Voegelin thought that the virtuous characters might present a deliberately inadequate myth in order to illuminate truth by way of its opposite. But in these rare instances, the philosophic character would be sure to indicate the untruth of the myth. In the Statesman, the Eleatic stranger employs this procedure at 302b-303c. See Plato and Aristotle, 157-60.
 See Voegelin, “On a Theory of Consciousness,” in Anamnesis, 22-24.
 Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 68-69.
 For a useful discussion of how several interpreters of Plato, including Voegelin and Strauss, have read the role of irony in the dialogues, see James M. Rhodes, Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), chapter two.
 See Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 62-70.
 Ibid., 183. See also 183-94.
 Ibid., 184.
 Ibid., 258.
 Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1968; repr.,Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007), 31.
 Eric Voegelin to Leo Strauss, 9 December 1942, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 8.
 Eric Voegelin to Leo Strauss, 2 January 1950, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 64.
 Voegelin, The World of the Polis, 268-69. Voegelin’s ideas concerning what made someone a sophist or sophistic derived from the Platonic portrayal of the sophists as those whose speech had become severed from the experiential knowledge of being as a consequence of attempts to achieve personal success at the expense of attunement to the divine order.
 For Voegelin’s characterization of the new sophistic education and its mode of conveying itself, see, The World of the Polis, 270: “The mastery of typical situations and arguments in public debate, a stock of thorough knowledge with regard to the public affairs of the polis in domestic and imperial relations, a ready wit, a good memory improved by training, a disciplined intellect ready to grasp the essentials of an issue, the trained ability of marshaling paradigmata, and sayings drawn from the poets for illustrating a point, general oratorical perfection, skill in debate leading to more or less graceful discomfiture of an opponent, a good deal of psychological knowledge in handling people, good appearance and bearing, natural and trained charm in conversation—all these were required in the competitive game of the polis. Anyone would be welcome who could train the mind in arriving at sound decisions and in imposing them on others in this new form of politics through debate, speech, argument, and persuasion.” Voegelin accents the divisive rather than unifying quality of sophistic education.
 For an analysis of Voegelin’s treatment of the sophists, see Farrell, “Voegelin on Plato and the Sophists,” in Communication and Lonergan, 108-36. Voegelin’s treatment of the sophists in The World of the Polis shows the connections that link Parmenides and the pre-Socratic philosophers to the historical sophists such as Protagoras and Prodicus. In some respects, Voegelin was sympathetic to the sophists’ attempts to discover the truth about man, which were notable as inquiries, but whose answers were misguided. His main criticism of the sophists, however, was aimed at their closure to experiences of transcendence that led to the formulation that “Man is the Measure.” Interestingly, Voegelin’s discussion of the historical Gorgias of Leontini in his late essay “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation,” in CW 12 suggests that Gorgias was spiritually open to experiences of order and disorder, but was unable to clarify them beyond a compact symbolization.
 See Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, chapter 1.
 Ibid., 12.
 On this point, see, for example, Michael P. Morrissey, “Voegelin, Religious Experience, and Immortality,” in The Politics of the Soul: Eric Voegelin on Religious Experience, ed. Glenn Hughes (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 19.
 Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12: 349.
 For a helpful discussion of vision’s relation to noesis and the knowledge constituted by faith, hope, and love, see John J. Ranieri, Eric Voegelin and the Good Society (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995), 239-40.
 Voegelin, “Eternal Being in Time,” in Anamnesis, 133.
 Voegelin, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” in CW 12: 89.
 Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12: 345.
 Voegelin, “The Drama of Humanity,” in The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1939 – 1985, ed. William Petropulos and Gilbert Weiss, vol. 33 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, 203.
 Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 13-14.
 Voegelin, “Reason: The Classic Experience,” in CW 12: 271.
 Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 13.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 13.
 See Voegelin, The World of the Polis, 273ff; “Conversations with Eric Voegelin at the Thomas More Institute for Adult Education in Montreal,” in CW 33: 318; “Quod Deus Dicitur,” in CW 12: 386ff.
 Voegelin, “Quod Deus Dicitur,” in CW 12: 388.
 Voegelin, “Quod Deus Dicitur,” in CW 12: 389.
 Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 14.
 See Voegelin, “Quod Deus Dicitur,” in CW 12: 389; “Conversations with Voegelin,” in CW 33: 298, 318. Voegelin also thought Plato probably coined the term “transcendence.” See “The Drama of Humanity,” in CW 33: 202.
 Voegelin, “Conversations with Voegelin,” in CW 33: 248.
 Voegelin, “Conversations with Voegelin,” in CW 33: 318.
 On the order of being as an order of love, see Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12: 332ff.
 Voegelin, New Science of Politics, 69.
 Ibid., 61.
 Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 14.
 Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, vol. 1 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956), 2.