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The Purpose of Theory

The Purpose Of Theory

. . . . Theory is not just any opining about human existence in society; it rather is an attempt at formulating the meaning of existence by explicating the content of a definite class of experiences. Its argument is not arbitrary but derives its validity from the aggregate of experiences to which it must permanently refer for empirical control.

Aristotle was the first thinker to recognize this condition of theorizing about man. He coined a term for the man whose character is formed by the aggregate of experiences in question, and he called him the spoudaios, the mature man.The spoudaios is the man who has maximally actualized the potentialities of human nature, who has formed his character into habitual actualization of the dianoetic and ethical virtues, the man who at the fullest of his development is capable of the bios theoretikos. Hence, the science of ethics in the Aristotelian sense is a type study of the spoudaios.Moreover, Aristotle was acutely aware of the practical corollaries of such a theory of man.

In the first place, theory cannot be developed under all conditions by everybody. The theorist need perhaps not be a paragon of virtue himself, but he must, at least, be capable of imaginative re-enactment of the experiences of which theory is an explication; and this faculty can be developed only under certain conditions such as inclination, an economic basis that will allow the investment of years of work into such studies, and a social environment that does not suppress a man when he engages in them.

And, second, theory as an explication of certain experiences is intelligible only to those in whom the explication will stir up parallel experiences as the empirical basis for testing the truth of theory. Unless a theoretical exposition activates the corresponding experiences at least to a degree, it will create the impression of empty talk or will perhaps be rejected as an irrelevant expression of subjective opinions.

A theoretical debate can be conducted only among spoudaioi in the Aristotelian sense; theory has no argument against a man who feels, or pretends to feel, unable of re-enacting the experience. Historically, as a consequence, the discovery of theoretical truth may not at all find acceptance in the surrounding society. Aristotle had no illusions on this point. To be sure, like Plato, he attempted a paradigmatic construction of a social order that would express the truth of the spoudaios, in Politics vii-viii; but he also asserted with firm regret that in none of the Hellenic poleis of his time could there be found a hundred men who were able to form the ruling nucleus of such a society; any attempt at realizing it would be utterly futile. A practical impasse seems to be the result.

The Catalog of Experiences to be Explicated

A study of the experiences is impossible in the present context. In view of the vastness of the subject, even a lengthy sketch would be pitiably inadequate. No more than a brief catalogue can be given that will appeal to your historical knowledge. To the previously mentioned love of the sophon may now be added the variants of the Platonic Eros toward the kalon and the agathon, as well as the Platonic Dike, the virtue of right superordination and subordination of the forces in the soul, in opposition to the sophistic polypragmosyne; and, above all, there must be included the experience of Thanatos, of death as the cathartic experience of the soul which purifies conduct by placing it into the longest of all long-range perspectives, into the perspective of death.

Under the aspect of death the life of the philosophical man becomes for Plato the practice of dying; the philosophers’ souls are dead souls—in the sense of the Gorgias —and when the philosopher speaks as the representative of truth, he does it with the authority of death over the shortsightedness of life. To the three fundamental forces of Thanatos, Eros, and Dike should be added, still within the Platonic range, the experiences in which the inner dimension of the soul is given in height and depth. The dimension in height is scaled through the mystical ascent, over the via negativa toward the border of transcendence—the subject of the Symposium. The dimension in depth is probed through the anamnetic descent into the unconscious, into the depth from where are drawn up the “true logoi” of the Timaeus and Critias.

The discovery and exploration of these experiences started centuries before Plato and continued after him. The Platonic descent into the depth of the soul, for instance,differentiated experiences that were explored by Heraclitus and Aeschylus. And the name of Heraclitus reminds us that the Ephesian had already discovered he triad of love, hope, and faith that reappeared in the experiential triad of Saint Paul. For the via negativa Plato could draw on the mysteries as well as on the description of the way toward truth that Parmenides had given in his didactic poem. And there should be mentioned, as close to the Platonic range, the Aristotelian philia, the experiential nucleus of true community between mature men; and again the Aristotelian love of the noetic self is hearkening back to the Heraclitean followership of the common Logos of mankind.  

The Openness of the Soul as the New Authority

[The examples given] should be sufficient to evoke the class of experiences that form the basis of theory in the Platonic-Aristotelian sense. It must now be ascertained why they should become the carriers of a truth about human existence in rivalry with the truth of the older myth, and why the theorist, as the representative of this truth, should be able to pit his authority against the authority of society.

The answer to this question must be sought in the nature of the experience under discussion. The discovery of the new truth is not an advancement of psychological knowledge in the immanentist sense; one would rather have to say that the psyche itself is found as a new center in man at which he experiences himself as open toward transcendental reality.

Moreover, this center is not found as if it were an object that had been present all the time and only escaped notice. The psyche as the region in which transcendence is experienced must be differentiated out of a more compact structure of the soul; it must be developed and named. With due regard for the problem of compactness and differentiation, one might almost say that before the discovery of the psyche man had no soul. Hence, it is a discovery that produces its experiential material along with its explication; the openness of the soul is experienced through the opening of the soul itself. This opening, which is as much action as it is passion, we owe to the genius of the mystic philosophers.

These experiences become the source of a new authority. Through the opening of the soul the philosopher finds himself in a new relation with God; he not only discovers his own psyche as the instrument for experiencing transcendence but at the same time discovers the divinity in its radically nonhuman transcendence. Hence, the differentiation of the psyche is inseparable from a new truth about God. The true order of the soul can become the standard for measuring both human types and types of social order because it represents the truth about human existence on the border of transcendence.

The meaning of the anthropological principle must, therefore, be qualified by the understanding that what becomes the instrument of social critique is, not an arbitrary idea of man as a world-immanent being, but the idea of a man who has found his true nature through finding his true relation to God. The new measure that is found for the critique of society is, indeed, not man himself but man in so far as through the differentiation of his psyche he has become the representative of divine truth.

The Theological Principle

The anthropological principle, thus, must be supplemented by a second principle for the theoretical interpretation of society. Plato expressed it when he created his formula “God is the Measure,” in opposition to the Protagorean “Man is the Measure.” In formulating this principle, Plato drew the sum of a long development. His ancestor Solon already had been in search of the truth that could be imposed with authority on the factions of Athens, and with a sigh he admitted, “It is very hard to know the unseen measure of right judgment—and yet it alone contains the right boundaries of all things.” As a statesman he lived in the tension between the unseen measure and the necessity of incarnating it in the eunomia of society; on the one hand: “The mind of the immortals is all unseen to men”; and on the other hand: “At the behest of the gods have I done what I did.”

Heraclitus, then, who always looms as the great shadow behind the ideas of Plato, went deeper into the experiences leading toward the invisible measure. He recognized its overruling validity: “The invisible harmony is better (or: greater, more powerful) than the visible.” But this invisible harmony is difficult to find, and it will not be found at all unless the soul be animated by an anticipating urge in the right direction: “If you do not hope you will not find the unhoped-for, since it is hard to be found and the way is all but impassable,” and: “Through lack of faith (apistie) the divine(?) escapes being known.”

And, finally, Plato has absorbed the Xenophantic critique of unseemly symbolization of the gods. As long as men create gods in their image, is the argument of Xenophanes, the true nature of the one God who is “greatest among gods and men, not like mortals in body or thought,” must remain hidden; and only when the one God is understood in his formless transcendence as the same God for every man will the nature of every man be understood as the same by virtue of the sameness of his relation to the transcendent divinity. Of all the early Greek thinkers, Xenophanes had perhaps the clearest insight into the constitution of a universal idea of man through the experience of universal transcendence.

Receptivity for the Unseen Measure

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. This is the great subject of the Republic; at the center of the dialogue Plato placed the Parable of the Cave, with its description of the periagoge, the conversion, the turning-around from the untruth of human existence as it prevailed in the Athenian sophistic society to the truth of the Idea.

Moreover, Plato understood that the best way of securing the truth of existence was proper education from early childhood; for that reason, in Republic ii, he wanted to remove unseemly symbolizations of the gods, as they were to be found in the poets, from the education of the young and have them replaced by seemly symbols. On this occasion he developed the technical vocabulary for dealing with such problems. In order to speak of the various types of symbolization, he coined the term “theology” and called them types of theology, typoi peri theologias.

On the same occasion Plato, furthermore, distinguished the gnoseological component of the problem. If the soul is exposed in its youth to the wrong type of theology, it will be warped at its decisive center where it knows about the nature of God; it will fall a prey to the “arch-lie,” the alethos pseudos, of misconception about the gods. This lie is not an ordinary lie in daily life for which there may be extenuating circumstances; it is the supreme lie of “ignorance, of agnoia, within the soul.”

If now the Platonic terminology be adopted, one may say, therefore, that the anthropological principle in a theoretical interpretation of society requires the theological principle as its correlate. The validity of the standards developed by Plato and Aristotle depends on the conception of a man who can be the measure of society because God is the measure of his soul.


This excerpt is from Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religions, The New Science of Politics, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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