With Plato’s terming of philosophy as the pursuit of aletheia, the disciple is concerned primarily with the retrieval and conservation of memory. In other words, philosophy is inherently a historical endeavor. While naturally this considers the material and social forces influencing the development of human activity, Plato expands the field of history to encompass the entirety of the soul’s experience as an immortal soul participating in the divine realm[i]. The history of the individual soul is described as numerous (but potentially not endless) cycles of incarnation surrounding the memory of a divine originary experience which in turn empowers and motivates the soul’s life in the interim. This originary experience is the soul’s participation in the life of the gods in the heavenly realm, described in the Phaedrus as a Divine Banquet where the soul receives its true nourishment and enjoys its true purpose[ii] The goal of this incarnational process is the ultimate divinization, or theosis, of the soul to enable its participation in this divine life in perfect order and without corruption. The locus of history is thus identified in the individual’s struggle to recollect and embody this divine memory and in turn help other souls to do the same through the stimulation of Eros.
By identifying the life force of history in a metaphysic, the task of transmitting historical knowledge in a tangible database of supposedly objective human knowledge is inherently problematized. Rather, Plato asserts that the encounter with divine memory must be facilitated in the dialectical and erotic interaction of individual souls. Such a “writing on the soul” elicits the communion with the student’s own memory of Reality thus growing their wings to fly freely in transcendence of the cave toward their divine destiny. But as this historical experience and the means of its transmission are innately communal, it is necessary to expand our inquiry to consider the function of history in the mass continuous experience of humans throughout time in the polis. Like the individual soul, the collective consciousness is determined by the extent its composite members are aligned with the divine. As Eric Voegelin asserts in his commentary on Plato in The New Science of Politics, “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,” which “will become manifest in history when it has formed the psyche of man into receptivity”[iii]. Nicholas Berdyaev in The Meaning in History similarly noted historical memory as the “greatest manifestation of the eternal spirit in our temporal reality” comprising as easily accessible testimony to the soul’s divine reality[iv]. Plato seemed to agree with this placement of human history in a divine context as his frames his discussion of temporal experience with the assumption of “cosmic cycles” of divine interference and retreat. This framework demonstrates the innate link of time with eternity and the divine origin, in which historical memory exists to direct the soul to experience its divine citizenship and realize its eternal teleology.
As forgetfulness remains the primary foil to the soul’s ultimate end of theosis, the historical task of humanity in time is to maintain the stasis of divine memory. The concern of the polis then is the maintenance of this memory to empower the soul’s freedom against the forces of forgetfulness and degeneration. This not only facilitates the soul’s encounter with the living memory necessary to its divine ascent but proclaims the participation in that life in this world rather than an ascetic disdain for this current existence in anticipation of distant future. Plato is a herald of the soul’s true life and maintains that it can begin right now.
Contemporary historiography feels pressured to define the course of history as either progressive or degenerative. For Plato, however, such a definition denies the divine context of history as well as the freedom of the soul in responding to it. Rather, this strict interpretation of history relegates human action merely to the necessity of the physical realm, promising glories ultimately doomed to the death of the cave. Instead, Plato view of history is closer to Berdyaev, who argued that it “is neither the scum of the world process nor the loss of all association with the roots of being [but] forms a necessary of part of eternity and the drama that is fulfilled in it”[v]. While Plato does maintain the prospect of progress in history, it is found in the emancipatory development of the individual human soul and not guaranteed to all men over the course of time. Instead, Plato views the polis in history as a repository of experience in continuity with the divine serving two purposes: first as a bulwark of divine memory providing freedom from the forces of death and necessity of temporal existence from which men can free themselves but more importantly as a liturgy orienting the soul away from the confines of the cave toward celebration and participation in its divine life. Though each section of this paper could form a study in itself, the focus here is not to be exhaustive but rather to provide a general blueprint of Plato’s understanding of history and the functioning of particular institutions within that framework.
That human history exists within cosmic cycles of cataclysms is essential to Plato’s understanding of the soul in time, constituting the basis of his major forays into history found in the Statesman, Laws, Timaeus, and Critias. Plato gives his most explicit description of these cosmic reversals in the Statesman where the Eleatic Stranger explains that “the world is guided at one time by an external power which is divine and receives fresh life and immortality from the renewing hand of the Creator, and…when let go, moves spontaneously, being set free at such a time as to have, during infinite cycles of years, a reverse movement”[vi]. Maintaining accord with Hesiod’s tradition, these two ages are delineated as the Age of Cronus and the Age of Zeus. Though Plato expresses the historical affirmation that to some degree these events “did really happen, and will happen again,” their existence lies outside of the scope of literal human existence and are elaborated for the purpose of demonstrating a spiritual paradigm of history[vii]. The extent to which these represent actual historical realities in the temporal experience of humans is blurred, but these must be understood as representing a pattern of being that manifests itself as reality within historical experience.
The Age of Cronus depicts a cosmos under the direct care of God. This is considered an “age of spontaneity” in which God not only manages the revolution of the universe but immanently administers the physical needs of the earth’s creatures such as food, shelter, and even reproduction, generating each species from the earth. Under the supervision of Cronus, the earth was divided among the gods by region. There, gods ruled as men’s “shepherd…just as man, who is, by comparison, a divine being…still rules over the lower animals,”[viii] differing only in “that they did not use physical means of compulsion”[ix]. The care under such deities was so thorough that man had no need to participate in institutional life for the maintenance of his existence. Plato tells us that there was no private property nor division of women and children into families, suggesting that the care of the gods prevented man from experiencing the demands of necessity usually met by collaborative institutions and the collection trial and error experiences. Indeed, the relationship of memory to necessity is suggested in the most definitive feature of this period as men are described as aging in reverse, “returning and becoming assimilated to the nature of a newly-born child in mind as well as body”[x] then again rising “from the earth, having no memory of the past”[xi].
Though this period is described as “that blessed and spontaneous life”[xii], the Stranger reveals its innate ambiguity in his refusal to declare its superiority over the current cycle. Undoubtedly it represents aspects which are to be considered aspirational in the present era as this “form of government and administration [was] a great success [and] served as a blueprint for the best of our present-day states”[xiii]. In fact, this tale is resurrected by the Stranger to “thrown light on the nature of the king”[xiv], particularly because “Cronus was…able to take complete control of all human affairs without being filled with arrogance and injustice”[xv]. Likewise, the regional shepherd deities maintained a voluntary rule having “focused on that part of each creature which makes it most easy to steer, like helmsmen steering from the stern; they took hold of its mind, employed the rudder of persuasion as they saw fit, and in this way guided and led every mortal creature as a whole”[xvi]. Nonetheless, the Stranger’s hesitancy in declaring this age superior lies in the lack of evidence that man practiced philosophy. It would seem from the simplicity of this life that there was little differentiation between the existence of man and the existence of animals. Indeed, this life is even more primitive than the simple community dismissed in the Republic by Glaucon as a “City of Pigs”[xvii]. The bestial nature of man under Cronus is supported by Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s characterization of this age as one of epithumia as men seem to have no other aspirations than the satisfaction of their bodily needs provided immediately by the hands of the gods[xviii]. It would seem that the gods’ constant attendance to men’s exterior leaves no room for man to recognize and exercise the divine nature of his own soul. Of course, Cronus himself is an ambiguous figure who, though the father of the gods, thwarts their rise to power by eating them.
The extent of blessedness aside, the Age of Cronus comes to an end “in the fullness of time” when the “pilot of the universe let[s] the helm go and retire[s] to his place of view” leaving the universe to be turned by “Fate and innate desire”[xix]. The sudden absence of divine guidance shakes the cosmos into a destructive cataclysm as the world, “being a living creature” innately bearing “intelligence from its author and creator, turns about…by an inherent necessity” and “revolves in the opposite direction”[xx]. This presents the Stranger an opportunity to outline the two forces comprising the created world: “From God, the constructor, the world received all that is good in him, but from a previous state came all elements of evil and unrighteousness”[xxi]. The cosmos is now driven by its “bodily nature” and thus subject to the interference of “perturbation”[xxii] from the “admixture of matter inherent in the primal nature” and “full of disorder”[xxiii]. Such interference was prevented when God directly managed the world and consistently renewed it with his goodness. However, the present absence of God allows the presence of disorder to seep into the cosmos, progressively infecting all creation with “more and more forgetting” until “the old discord again [holds] sway and bust[s]s forth in full glory”[xxiv].
This cosmic revolution precipitates a variety of nature disasters that wipes out the majority of life on earth and impels the retreat of the shepherd deities. The survivors of these cataclysms find themselves in a hostile world, wholly “deprived of the care of God” and left “helpless and defenseless” against the wild beasts and the degenerative forces of necessity[xxv]. Initially, men as a part of creation appear necessarily subjected to the inherent death of the cosmos. However, the gods take pity on them and provide them with techne, thus furnishing men with the opportunity of freedom from nature’s determinism. As techne functions as a protection for man against this degeneration caused by forgetfulness of the divine model, it is suggested to be a form of memory through which man is free to develop his own divine image. Indeed, this is an age of freedom and autonomy in which men are taking the place of those divine shepherds. They must “order their course of life for themselves [as] their own masters, just like the universal creature whom they imitate and follow”[xxvi] in the execution of “the instructions of his Father and Creator”[xxvii]. The autonomy of this age extends to the maintenance of their existence through generation “for no animal was any longer allowed to come into being in the earth through the agency of other creative beings”[xxviii]. Such a manner of reproduction provides an opportunity to stand against the death of the age, providing an image of immortality. However, as the world is the only “lord of his own progress”[xxix] there is no guarantee that such offspring would be properly imbued with the life and goddess of the God necessary to be free from the forces of determinism.
Initially, such abandonment of man by the gods to the forces of death strikes as cruel and unnecessary. Closer consideration, however, suggests this action to be one of purposeful care. The intentionality of this departure is suggested in the fact that is only takes place “in the fullness of time” after “every soul had completed its proper cycle of births and been sown in the earth her appointed number of times”[xxx]. While it is undoubtedly man’s most blessed state to be with God, it would seem the God was preparing man to consummate this union as the “divinely ordered man who has realized in himself homoiosis theo” as Voegelin notes in Order and History[xxxi]. It is important to remember that while the collective of human souls is looking back upon the divine model of life with God, its composite of individual souls bears within it potential for assimilation to the divine. This was discussed earlier with the Myth of Er and the Divine Banquet where each human soul is depicted with an archon god, the emulation of whom is the ultimate salvation of each individual soul. This “fullness of time” can be understood as a foretaste or encoding period of the divine life men are to aspire towards. It is also the originary memory informing the true life in this present age of which “our ancestors, who were nearest in point of time to the end of the last period…are to us the heralds”[xxxii]. This separation then marks the advent of memory, which has been argued as the fuel of divine ascent and hitherto had been redundant while God directly administered the needs of man. Further, given the absence of memory and techne, these needs were limited to physical desires, keeping man tied to the earth like an animal. As Socrates responds to Glaucon’s rejection of the city of pigs he notes that issues of morality can only be ascertained once a society has developed in itself a level of development and indulgence[xxxiii].
As men faced the specter of death in the Age of Zeus, they were externally equipped with tools to orient with the soul towards the divine with the memory heralded by their ancestors. This order was similarly outlined for men when the gods provided them with the techne necessary for their survival; this is referenced by Critias who describes Hephaestus and Athena at the beginning of the age “implanting in their minds the outline of their political system”[xxxiv]. This illustrates the collective of humankind as a repository of memory charged with maintaining and transmitting the order introduced by the gods over the expanse of space and time. The success of this cosmic repository in remembering the “instructions of their Father and Creator” dictates not only the material wellbeing of humans on earth but more importantly the potentiality of individual souls in achieving theosis. The physical world is, after all, the site of that “incessant eruption of eternity into time”[xxxv] exposing the individual soul to the divine life as well as the substance through which man initiates his ascent from the cave. Further, as Plato posits the process of divinization as occurring over several reincarnations, it is to the benefit of souls that the spiritual potency of the polis extends not just for a single lifetime but unto ages of age. It is therefore necessary to consider the way in which the collective life of human, or the polis, serves as a repository of stable historical memory which orients souls to the divine reality to initiate their divinization as well as maintain its stability across the generations.
The most basic criterion for such a polis is the capacity for Eros. As discussed in the Phaedrus, Eros causes remembrance of one’s divine past in the interactions of the lovers. The role of Eros in divine remembrance is elaborated in the Symposium, where Diotima describes the spirit as occupying “the middle ground between humans and gods”, uniting the universe in “an interconnected whole” by transmitting “men’s prayers and the god’s instructions”[xxxvi]. As “divinity and humanity cannot meet directly”, Eros is the unique spirit bridging men across to the fullness of reality and enabling participating in the divine life[xxxvii]. Pivotal in understanding Eros is its attraction to the things it lacks. In the case of an erotic polis, the object of Eros is the divine shepherd. This is a basic characteristic of the polis in the Age of Zeus and precisely the reason for the Stranger’s presentation of the Age of Cronus: “and the myth was introduced in order to show, not only that all others are rivals of the true shepherd who is the object of our search, but in order that we might have a clever view of him who is alone worthy to receive this appellation” [xxxviii]. All rule and order in the polis is necessarily insufficient in itself and thus must gaze upon the true order outside of itself. It is through this embodiment that life is brought down to earth to stand against the rush of decay. In the absence of the true leader, the polis’s survival necessitates the constant proclamation of this lack in order to turn the Eros of its composite souls towards its source in true Being. Such Eros oriented toward the divine serves as the “sacramental bond”[xxxix] of the polis, substantiating life, and order against the forces of death and decay in the cosmos. The resulting polis substantiated by Eros forms a bastion of eternity in time wherein man can encounter the memory encoded within its institutions. The polis then forms the ultimate techne, providing men the potential to fill the role of the God in the Age of Cronus by partially turning back the rush of time. This mirrors Berdyaev’s assertion that the basis of man’s freedom can only be derived from the concept of God as love, which empowers life in the face of the antithetical forces of destruction and death[xl].
Paradoxically, this emphasis on lack affirms the need for life here in this world as it stimulates the Eros of human souls to reestablish communion with the source of Being. Eros channels the fundamental problem of death by creating the image of immortality in reproduction. As Voegelin notes, “man has to die, and in his desire to make the best of himself a perpetually living force, he tries to rejuvenate himself through procreation”[xli]. It is through the “physical and mental procreation” of Eros that man comes as “close as a mortal can get to being immortal and undying”[xlii]. Though this is a “divine business”[xliii] taking place in the souls of individual lovers, the image of “immortality in a mortal”[xliv] is only perceptible in the collection of their offspring manifesting itself in the continuity of the polis. Afterall, Diotima describes Eros’s purpose as “physical and mental procreation in an attractive medium”[xlv]. Like in the Phaedrus, the role of Beauty again appears as the means by which the individual soul achieves its ascent, and the collective of souls can ensure its generational stability. In discussing her Ladder of Loves, Diotima identifies Beauty as the stimulus for awareness of the soul’s lack of the divine in order to orient eros towards its true purpose[xlvi]. While the soul finds its true nourishment in the true Beauty outside of the cosmos, pieces of this Beauty are laced into the things of this world stimulating the memory of the soul and inciting a similar sort of celebration. It is therefore the “beautiful things in this world” that should be used “as rungs in a ladder” guiding the soul from its beginning in philokalos toward its ultimate status of philosophos[xlvii]. Further, as the polis serves as a buffer against the determinism of phusis, it is the only means by which the soul can free itself from the demands of fate and innate desire and respond with Eros to the beauty presented and thus begin its true life. It in is this sense one can understand Dostoevsky’s assertion that “beauty will save the world”[xlviii], as Diotima states that in the faces of “the vast sea of beauty…will approach the culmination of [Eros’s] ways” and be “no longer a paltry and small-minded slave”[xlix]. Such a vision is the purpose of life on earth, being the only thing that “could make life worth living” as well as cause “the gods [to] smile on a person” in their embodiment of true goodness leading to the realization of their immortality[l]. By modelling the Beauty of divine Being, the polis can keep the soul in a state of “true belief” with a properly ordered eros[li] primed to regrow its wings for the divine ascent. Life on earth becomes the very material of divine life, establishing the interest of the polis as primarily concerned with maintaining itself as a stable mode of transmission for this memory of Being across the ages through the means of liturgical celebration.
It must be noted here that there is no substitute for the soul’s voluntary participation in this liturgy. Any attempt to inculcate ideas of beauty through objective dogmatism automatically kills the truth of the message, alienating humans from this life force and thus leaving them to the decadence of the cosmos. To maintain this voluntarism in the soul, Beauty must be foremost in order to guide souls to Truth. And considering that Beauty is the soul’s right food,”[lii] as well as the soul’s awe described in the encounter with Diotima’s ladder, there is no reason to doubt its efficiency. The polis contains various institutions encoded with this whole history of Being for its members to encounter and participate in. Two of these are the repositories are embedded in myth/history and law. It can be argued that Plato envisioned a role for mimetic arts and religious ceremonies, however this lies beyond the scope of this paper.
Myth is the most explicitly historical institution to be found in the polis, as it describes in narrative form the historical continuity between eternity and time of the polis. Such a narrative describes the greater context of the soul as well as its place in the cosmic drama of Being, orienting the soul’s Eros to move toward participation and communion in this memory. Plato displays little interest in distinguishing between cosmic and mundane history, a disposition that is understandable considering his united view of reality. The division between myth and mundane history is heavily blurred: though both communicate the processes of the human soul, the cosmic aspect of history found in myth provides the overarching framework in which the events of mundane history can be interpreted. This validates the conflation of both cosmic and mundane narratives under the term “history”. The holistic view of history is depicted in the Athenians’ encounter with the Egyptians, who store all their historical knowledge in their temples, placing it innately in the practices of divine communion. All development of their vast disciplines stems from the proper utilization of these “divine principles”[liii]. The priest tells Solon, “but from long ago every impressive or important or otherwise outstanding ever to hear about, whether it happened in your part of the world or here or elsewhere, has been written down here in the temples and preserved”[liv]. If one considers Egypt as a polis which has maintained continuity since the beginning of the age (a supposition supported by Plato’s assertion that they have survived through numerous cataclysms that have broken the immediate connection of other polis’s to their divine origin[lv], one can assume that they retain direct memory of the divine instructions given by the gods themselves. The knowledge of these events, as well as all those that came after in the context of the divine drama, can be communicated to the Athenians, but only in the form of myth. Though they speak of things divine, the communication is limited to the language of this world which necessarily falls short. This does not invalidate the reality of these accounts but speaks to the distinction between historical truth attainable through objective observation (the level to which the earthly Athenians are at first limited) and the higher levels of divine reality.
To those still on the mundane level, this reliance on the language of the material world can become problematic. Often, these accounts are misunderstood and hastily disregarded. This is displayed in Socrates’s discussion of the contemporary state of mythological interpretation with Phaedrus. When asked if he actually believed a mythological legend to be true, Socrates notes that while very clever people come up with ways to draw myths back down to earth, he must insist on the futility of dismissing mythological explanations: “such explanations are amusing enough, but they are a job for a man I cannot envy at all. He’d have to be far too ingenious and work too hard— Anyone who does not believe in them, who wants to explain them away and make them plausible by means of some sort of rough ingenuity, will need a great deal of time”[lvi]. Such occupations not only overwhelm the historian but distract them from utilizing history in the realization of the soul’s divinity. Socrates continues, “I have no time for such things…I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself, and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that. This is why I do not concern myself…[but] accept what is generally believed, and..look not into them but into my own self…a simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature”[lvii]. Berdyaev notes in Freedom and the Spirit that the historical validity of myth then is to depict a “reality immeasurably greater than concept” in which the “recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world” is able to engrave itself on the language, memory, and creative energy of the people”, in order to direct and shape their souls for participation with the divine life[lviii]. The interpretation of myth would necessitate the soul be in that state of “true belief”[lix] in order to ascertain and apply the truth of the myth. It is this tension of the historical date encoded into myth that does not reflected the limited data ascertained in this world that can draw the soul’s aspirations towards those higher states of being, leading mankind, like Socrates, to contemplate and aspire to its own divine identity until it is capable of participation with the memory of the myth.
Myth/history constitutes a particular techne concerning the stasis of memory and empowerment of theosis in the Age of Zeus by informing the soul of its original identity and eschatological purpose. Though techne was imparted by the gods to empower man to overcome the forces of phusis and realize divine life, it remains a pharmakon, becoming a deadly substance if used improperly. As seen in the earlier discussion on the pharmakon of writing, the transition to poison usually happens once the techne is objectified, becoming an end in itself for life in the mundane world rather than a tool to ferry man into the realm of Being. Such objectification disconnects techne from the power of the divine, the source of life and freedom, leaving it only to gather strength from the resources of the physical world, already established as doomed to death and degeneration. Myth/history is often a difficult techne to remain connected to its divine source. The reason for this is that the level of history man is capable of amassing and synthesizing himself is limited to the physical realm and thus incomplete. In order for these events to become life-giving, the historian must incorporate them into the pattern of “ancient tradition to imbue [his] mind with old beliefs and with understanding aged by time” as the Egyptian priest illustrates[lx]. When the memory embodied in myth is well integrated it helps facilitate the state of “true belief” in the soul, setting the framework within which the soul can expand to true knowledge via by interreacting with the things of the world (including mundane history). But such a leap is difficult for the rationalistic historian who will see in myth a field disconnected from this realm of objectifiable fact understandable through uninspired human reason. Such an assumption situates the historian as the illegitimate son described by Socrates in the Republic: upon learning that he is not the biological offspring of his parents, he rejects them, seeking the foundation of his existence rather in those who pander to his sensuous nature which he assumes is more in line with his true identity. Such a rejection of the father leads not only to rebellion, but the innate loss of identity as the son rejects his higher reality as a son adopted into a greater edifice of being for a lower existence, atomized and unstable[lxi]. At this point, this truth of the myth is entirely dead and becomes more damaging than helpful. This is demonstrated in the Republic in Plato’s famous diatribe against the false myths which have become so misunderstood to the point that they actually blaspheme the divine life[lxii]. Similarly, such a rationalistic history will be unable to recognize its origin in the realm of myth and thus seek to achieve freedom from its confines, not recognizing them as the very boundaries of their freedom against the encroachment of phusis’s decadence.
This begins to illustrate the paradox of freedom through history: one’s attempts to achieve freedom from the bonds of history can only lead to the oppressive slavery of phusis. This leads to a comment on method in history: for Plato, it would be categorically incorrect to relegate history to the ever-changing and destructive forces of nature which are constantly eroding from divine order. History then cannot be said to be a means of progress or even decadence, as both would subject history to a sort of determinism. Rather, he again demonstrates history’s purpose as stasis against these forces, presenting the possibility for mankind to achieve freedom from necessity within the confines of its memory. Limiting history to nature would be to announce its destruction, killing it through objectification and severing it from the live-giving participation with the divine and eliminating the possibility for philosophy. By remembering the innate connection between philosophy and history demonstrated in the earlier paper, one can see that all historical effort must be motivated by Eros in order for it to achieve its purpose for the realization of true life now. Though sheerly rationalized accounts of events in the mundane world can stimulate a seemingly romantic nostalgia (one that is perhaps a better embodiment of the divine memory), it remains a misdirected eros longing only for objects of death. Objective records of events, as practiced by the Egyptians, can and should still happen within this theory of history, but must remain connected to the greater paradigm, becoming an account of how different peoples at different times succeeded or failed to embody the divine model. Within such a paradigm, history will manifest as life itself, ever present and beautiful, drawing the observant souls into erotic participation in its drama.
The polis’s next repository of memory can be found in law. This once again constitutes a techne encoded with the memory of divine order bearing the potential to model society in its image and facilitate the ascent of the soul. The paradigm for law was experienced by souls first under the headship of Cronus and those “beings of a superior and more divine order— spirits,” whose “form of government and administration…served as a blueprint for the best-run of our present day states”[lxiii]. Such a rule was ideal for the ordering of humans, as men lived in peace and providence, adhering voluntarily to the precepts of their divine rulers. Such an experience can be understood as educative for souls, creating within them an instinct to respond to a similar form of order. As has been noted before, this type of order is not replicable short of having a god for the statesman, nor did it allow for the participation and divination of souls. However, in order to allow for man’s development through the divine absence, the gods laid the foundations for the first polis at the beginning of the age to model the heavenly order. In fact, the mythology recounted by Critias’ claims that the earliest kings of Atlantis owed their success to their biological connection to the gods (a success that faded as the divine blood was diluted over time)[lxiv].
As the polis stands against the degeneration of phusis, the goal in law is to stabilize the memory of divine order. It is therefore the job of the leaders to embody the divine law which stands outside of themselves rather than seek to legislate novelties from a new source. This becomes a prominent problem in the Age of Zeus as was pointed out in the Myth of Cronus: in the absence of the god, there is a categorical issue of men ruling other men. The Athenian notes “where the ruler of a state is not a god but a mortal, people have no respite from toil and misfortune.” It is therefore necessary to “run our public and our private lives…in obedience to what little spark of immortality lies in us and dignify this dispensation of reason with the name of law”[lxv]. It is this reason Plato insists the polis be ruled by philosopher kings, as they are, especially following the biological dilution of divine essence in certain humans, the closest embodiment of the divine order, establishing “links…with a realm which is divine and orderly” and having become “as divine and orderly as is humanly possible”[lxvi]. Thus, the role of a ruler is to stand in God’s place, utilizing the form of law to point toward the divine Being and bring those in his rule into participation and communion. The Republic describes the philosopher king as shaping humanity based on this divine model and creating a constitution with the purpose of making man as godlike as possible : “They’ll make an outline of the constitution…[and] produce a composite human likeness, taking as their reference-point that quality which Homer too called ‘godly’ and ‘godlike’ in its human manifestation…[and] will do all they can to create human characters which stand the best chance of meeting the gods’ approval.[lxvii]. It is only by imbuing the institutions of the polis with the divine spirit of philosophy that it can serve its purposes. Without these any “constitution will be stillborn and will never see the light of day[lxviii].
Though law is to maintain the image of order found in divine life, it does not necessarily constitute a dogmatic list of moral principles to be used like a formula for orderly human existence. As the purpose of the Age of Zeus is for human souls to develop freedom and autonomy as immortal beings, such a prescriptive law would deny the soul the manic and messy experience of eros requisite for the ascent. The law therefore should not be considered the means to prescribe regulation for life. Such micromanaging erodes the soul’s potency, causing it to become dependent upon an external “successful formula” like “people who are ill, but lack the discipline to give up a way of life that is bad for them and “constantly expecting every medicine they are recommended to make them better”[lxix]. Such a conception stems from the failure of a polis to inculcate eros in the soul: “I mean, don’t you think it’s despicable, and highly indicative of lack of culture, to feel compelled to rely on a moral code which has been imported from others, as if they were one’s masters and judges, and to lack one’s own moral sense?”[lxx]. Such would be the coercion of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor which denies the freedom of man’s soul, forever restricting its development of divine potential in the name of external order[lxxi]. Rather, as the goal of law is human freedom, it is more interested in facilitating a state of beauty for the eros of souls to latch onto. In an institution of memory, due measure and mean take precedence over novelty. As Voegelin notes, “Plato does not offer recipes for moral conduct, and with regard to a right paradigm of life he doesn’t go beyond a hint that in such matters the mean is preferable”[lxxii]. This likens law more to music and art, illuminating its purpose for producing goodness, beauty, and virtue in the society and stimulate the development of philokalos in the community. Therefore, law as a continuous historical institution is necessary to present a basic model for the divine order and keep the soul in that state of “true belief” and proper orientation toward Reality. It must be understood not as a barrier to wickedness, but a tutor for the soul’s freedom similar to St. Paul’s description[lxxiii].
The conception of law as a tutor suggests a phronetic system, intimately connected to life and sensitive to the unique stage of each individual in the process of becoming. Such an internal and individualized concept of law is conceivable and, in fact, the goal for souls in the Age of Zeus. After all, part of the soul’s salvation comes as the soul attunes itself to the god received at the beginning of its current incarnation. However, as this level of internal emulation requires a high level in the process of ascent, external law is the necessary tutor providing the training necessary for a soul to embody the divine Reality themselves. Such an understanding of law as an intermediary measure appears in the Republic: it is “why we keep children under control and don’t allow them their freedom until we’ve formed a government within them, as we would in a community”[lxxiv]. Only after this order has been “established as [the] guardian and ruler” of the individual is he prepared for autonomy. Though the end of the law for Plato is freedom, he presents a radical paradox: it is only through subjection to the good law by “being the slave” is the soul capable of attaining true freedom: “How can a person in this condition become subject to the kind of rulership which is available to a truly good person? By being the slave, we suggest, of a truly good person, whose divine element rules within him…subjection to the principle of divine intelligence is to everyone’s advantage”[lxxv]. While it is preferable that this principle is “part of a person’s own nature,” as discussed above, its imposition from the outside is necessary that in the interim “every member of a community has the law to fall back on”[lxxvi].
Though both the polis and the law that constitute it are vital to the salvation of individual souls, being techne they are framed again as pharmakons. These institutions exist as the means to communicate the whole of Reality outside of themselves and bring souls into participation in this life. However, when objectified as ends in themselves outside of their divine source, they expedite the soul’s destruction. This principle is demonstrated in Critias’ Myth of Atlantis. Founded by the sons of Poseidon and a mortal woman, Atlantis thrived for generations, growing in knowledge and virtue and “not made drunk by the luxury their wealth afforded them”. Rather, as “sober men” they recognized that “even prosperity is enhanced by the combination of mutual friendship and virtue, and that wealth declines and friendship is destroyed by materialistic goals and ambitions”[lxxvii]. But as the “divine portion within them began to fade’,’ they became “incapable of bearing their prosperity and grew corrupt”[lxxviii]. The presentation of this transition is notable, as it emphasizes the fall as caused not by life in the material world, but the forgetting of the true life found in their divine heritage. Indeed, the material benefits enjoyed by Atlanteans were objectively destroyed as men revolted against their past. And this was a revolution, where in the “vileness of their behavior” they destroyed the best of their valuable possession.” Critias states, however, that such destruction was interpreted by these amnesiacs “as having obtained the most desirable and enviable life possible, now that they were infected with immoral greed and power”[lxxix]. The polis and the material world ceased to serve as a beautiful means to direct souls to the ultimate Reality but became ends in themselves. And in the murderous process of objectifying the material world, these objects can no longer be rungs is Diotima’s Ladder: they essentially become ferries to death. Furthermore, this revolt is directly related to the status of techne. As these tools were granted not only to enable man’s survival in a dying world but to facilitate his divine memory, they have the potential to bolster man to such a godlike state that he considers himself sufficient in his own strength. While the hubris of these man-gods constitutes a moral affront to the gods, this remains an ontological issue and not a legal one. Indeed, the myth cuts off as Zeus, observing the “degenerative state of their fair line”, sets out to punish them “as a way of introducing more harmony into their lives”[lxxx].
While it remains unknown why Plato left this myth unfinished, the reason seems clear in the context of the pattern of being outlined in this study: the polis, empowered by the divine source, exists as the only bastion of freedom against the deterministic degeneration of phusis. We already know the end of this story. But in case some remain wondering, Plato provides the explicit breakdown of man’s descent in the Republic describing how both the polis and the individual lose sight of the divine memory and fall from freedom into tyranny. Though I will not trace each detail of the descent, it is important to highlight the moment of degradation for each faculty of the polis and the soul originally designed to facilitate the divine ascent. As man attempts to create an order for himself outside of the divine model, these will reappear to constitute an inverse liturgy in which man celebrates his own achievements in the cave and prophecies his future greatness.
Like in the Atlantis myth, the descent is initiated by the objectification of material objects, namely money: “You see, first people invent ways to spend their money and they subvert laws for this purpose, in the sense that they and their wives refuse to obey them”. Men’s eros then is perverted, with its madness aimed not to God but to “keep that storeroom… for their gold filled up”[lxxxi]. The diversion of eros means men’s procreative energies pollute the community by “injecting[ing] the venom of money into any remaining member of the community who submits to them…and they continue to fill the community with drones and beggars”[lxxxii]. Now, it is not only the eros of the polis that is compromised but the law model to which the soul submits. The physical world is objectified, and man has placed himself as the archon of its domination. Such a situation is bound to fail, as Berdyaev notes “Man’s self-affirmation leads to his perdition; the free play of human forces unconnected with any higher aim brings about the exhaustion of man’s creative power”[lxxxiii]. With Eros now untethered from the divine, it is only capable of loving the dead things of the cave without connection to their referent in the higher realm. This denigrates Eros to mere desire, one of the forces driving the decay of the world. This spirit ceases to be Eros and is simply lust for the things of the world, which replaces the divine order in both the soul and the polis as a “dictator taking up residence within a person and in complete control of his mind”. Such is the advent of the tyrant, with all the rights of the king but a sovereignty limited to his own body of death. Such men confuse the divine order, being “mentally disturbed” and “try to dominate the gods, let alone other human beings, and expect to be able to do so”[lxxxiv]. Setting himself up as the man-god, the tyrant will “stop at nothing as long as the result is the perpetuation of itself and the pandemonium it generates.”[lxxxv].
Socrates’s depiction of the tyrannical soul (and by extension polis) is not merely a man disembodied of divine spirit, but a man deeply imbued in a dictatorial cult. His development is described in highly religious language, such as his enticement to lawlessness by “black magicians”[lxxxvi], his description as a “neophyte” to be “purged and purified…for the great mysteries,” and the procession “in glory and with chaplets” of the vices naming “insubordination ‘erudition’, disorder ‘freedom’, extravagance ‘magnificence’, and uninhibitedness ‘courage’”[lxxxvii]. This language is not to suggest intentional or diabolical participation in such rites, but to demonstrate that the empty soul will be filled by some other force. For Plato, man is always subjected to some power outside of itself. This is emphasized in the description of the tyrant, who freely follows his lusts, as one directed by a dictator foreign to his own being. Having rejected the only freedom of choice in participation with the divine life through philosophy, the tyrant has become a true slave, bound and determined by the death of his age.
Socrates implies that the descent of the tyrant is inherently antihistorical. In fact, the tyrant is the ultimate progressive, looking for life not in his origins but in the future which he awaits in anticipation for innovations expanding his freedom in service of his lusts. The most basic suggestion of this can be found in his influence by the “Lotus eaters”, those who traditionally forget the past in order to live for pleasure[lxxxviii]. However, the deeper implication can be found in the tyrant’s weakness to promises of freedom. Indeed, tyranny comes directly after democracy in which freedom is esteemed as the highest value. This is particularly presented to him as the rejection of tradition, being taught his right to indulge his passions “with no regard for law and convention” and encourage the supplementation of his lusts with new beliefs superior to all the views about good and bad behavior he had been brought up to hold”[lxxxix]. Finally, he consummates his anti-historicity in patricide (both of the polis and the individual). After consuming his own estate as well as his father’s, the tyrant will have incurred the resentment of his parents. But by the time they realize “what sort of creature they’ve fathered, cared for, and nurtured into maturity…they’ll soon see that they’re trying to expel the stronger party”[xc]. In his revelry of freedom, it is not difficult for the dictator to expel his father both morally and physically. It is at this point Socrates notes the irony of the descent: “As the saying goes, the people would escape the smoke of being the slaves of free men only to fall into the fire of having slaves for their masters. They exchange considerable, and even excessive, freedom for the worst and harshest kind of enslavement— enslavement to slaves”[xci].
Plato’s description of the polis’s descent across his dialogues gives the impression that it is in fact determined by historical necessity and thus inevitable. The Stranger himself describes the end of the Age of Zeus as inevitable: the occurred “more and more forgetting and the old discord again held sway and burst forth in full glory…and there was a danger of universal ruin to the world and to the things contained in him” to the point that God had to again “seat himself at the helm” lest the world “be dissolved in the storm and disappear in infinite chaos”[xcii]. This thesis has been perhaps most famously held by Karl Popper[xciii]. But all this means is that the decay of the polis is very likely. So long as anything exists to embody the memory of Reality toward which souls can respond maintains the possibility of human freedom in the face of decay. The persistence of Egypt despite cosmic cataclysms as a source of history would stand as a testimony to this possibility. But even more relevant would be Plato’s own creation of the Academy. As Voegelin notes, even while announcing the failure of his own polis to serve its proper function, he passed the baton to a new institution in the hope that the sub-society would preserve men’s freedom to realize their divine potential in the midst of the chaos around them[xciv]. It can be said then that Plato provides a philosophy of history innately concerned with freedom against necessity. By considering the movement of the soul within the whole of Reality, he provides both a heritage to empower and an eschatology to motivate souls as they move through their incarnations. This presents a vision of human history in the physical world which affirms life and freedom. Plato displays that human life is not bound to external forces of decadence, which would lead life only into death, nor is it a hope of life after progress, wherein man replaces god and heralds man’s destruction. Rather, the goal of human history is a stasis in which men can celebrate life now, enlivening the earth in a never-ending liturgy of erotic becoming.
[i]Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press, 2008), 608c-d
[ii] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Harvey Yunis (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 247-249
[iii] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 69
[iv]Nikolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of History (Transaction Publishers, 2006), 73
[v] Ibid, 67
[vi] Plato, Statesman, trans Benjamin Jowett (Public Domain, 1892), 270a
[vii] Ibid, 268e
[viii] Ibid, 271d
[ix] Plato, Laws, trans. Albert Keith Whitaker (Univ. Press of America, 2004), 709c
[x] Plato, Statesman, 270e
[xi] Ibid, 272a
[xii] Ibid, 271d
[xiii] Plato, Laws, 713b
[xiv] Plato, Statesman, 273e
[xv] Plato, Laws, 713c
[xvi] Plato, Plato: Timaeus and Critias, trans. A. E. Taylor (Routledge, 2014), 109c
[xvii] Plato, Republic, 372c
[xviii] Pierre Vidal-Naquet “Plato’s Myth of the Statesman, the Ambiguities of the Golden Age and of History.” (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 98, 1978), 138
[xix] Plato, Statesman, 272e
[xx] Ibid, 269d
[xxi] Ibid, 273c
[xxii] Ibid, 269e
[xxiii] Ibid, 273b
[xxiv] Ibid, 273d
[xxvi] Ibid, 274d
[xxvii] Ibid, 273b
[xxviii] Ibid, 274a
[xxx] Ibid, 272d
[xxxi] Eric Voegelin, Order and History: Vol III, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 211
[xxxii] Plato, Statesman, 271b
[xxxiii] Plato, Republic, 372e
[xxxiv] Plato, Critias, 109d
[xxxv] Berdyaev, The Meaning of History, 67
[xxxvi] Plato, Symposium, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press, 2008), 202d-e
[xxxvii] Ibid, 203a
[xxxviii] Plato, Statesman, 275b
[xxxix] Eric Voegelin, Order and History: Vol III, 67
[xl] Edward Richards, “Nicholas Berdyaev: Christianity and History.” (Journal of Bible and Religion, vol. 28, no. 4, Oct. 1960), 433
[xli] Eric Voegelin, Order and History: Vol III, 67
[xlii] Plato, Symposium, 206e
[xliii] Ibid, 207b
[xliv] Ibid, 206c
[xlv] Ibid, 206b
[xlvi] Ibid, 204b
[xlvii] Ibid, 211c
[xlviii] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Ignat Avsey (London: Alma Books, 2014) 399
[xlix] Plato, Symposium, 201d-e
[l] Ibid, 212a
[li] Ibid, 202a
[lii] Plato, Symposium, 248c
[liii] Plato, Timaeus, 24c
[liv] Ibid, 23a
[lv] Ibid, 23c
[lvi] Plato, Phaedrus, 229d
[lvii] Ibid, 229d-230a
[lviii] Nikolas Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, (Semantron Press, 2009) 70
[lix] Plato, Symposium, 202a
[lx] Plato, Timaeus, 22b
[lxi] Plato, Republic, 272b
[lxii] Ibid, 378a
[lxiii] Plato, Laws, 713b
[lxiv] Plato, Critias, 121B
[lxv] Plato, Laws, 713e
[lxvi] Plato, Republic, 500d-e
[lxvii] Ibid, 501a
[lxviii] Ibid, 473e
[lxix] Ibid, 425d-e
[lxx] Ibid, 405b
[lxxi] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) 246-264
[lxxii] Eric Voegelin, Order and History: Vol III, 111
[lxxiii] (Gal 3:24)
[lxxiv] Plato, Republic, 590e
[lxxv] Ibid, 590d
[lxxvi] Ibid, 590e
[lxxvii] Plato, Critias, 121a
[lxxviii] Ibid, 121b
[lxxx] Ibid, 121c
[lxxxi] Plato, Republic, 550
[lxxxii] Ibid, 555e
[lxxxiii] Nikolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of History, 142
[lxxxiv] Plato, Republic, 573c
[lxxxv] Ibid, 575a
[lxxxvi] Ibid, 572e
[lxxxvii] Ibid, 560d
[lxxxviii] Ibid, 560c
[lxxxix] Ibid, 574d
[xc] Ibid, 569a-b
[xci] Ibid, 569c
[xcii] Plato, Statesman, 273e
[xciii] Popper, Karl R., and Havel Václav. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge, 2011. Also critiqued in W.H. Walsh, “Plato and the Philosophy of History: History and Theory in the Republic.” (History and Theory, vol. 2, no. 1, 1962), 3
[xciv] Eric Voegelin, Order and History: Vol III, 191
This is the second of two parts with part one available here.