Alfred North Whitehead, a formidable philosopher in his own right, captured the essence and vision of Plato’s philosophy when he wrote in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” He wrote this in 1929. For serious students of Plato, the truth of this statement hardly needs qualification given the complexity and depth of the philosophical themes that the ancient Greek thinker addresses in his dialogues. The passage of time and the self-negating errors that Western philosophy and civilization have made, post the Enlightenment, are in part a testament to Plato’s perspicuity. In the twenty-first century, we must now ask how can one thinker have such a profound grasp of the essences that inform human reality, and on man’s intellectual development?
A brief answer to this question must take into consideration how Plato tapped into the essence of man. Things that exist in the universe – the universe itself – must have come into existence at a given time, and from a source that informs their essence – their nature. Plato realized that man is a cosmic, that is, a metaphysical entity first and foremost, and not just a social-political animal. The former can be conceived as the vertical view of human reality, while the latter is a lateral rendition. Plato uncovered that human existence, as best as we know it on this planet, is not open to infinite revision and interpretation without consuming itself in vile contradictions. This is the strength and genius of the vertical view of human reality.
Plato’s Laws is his last work. As such, it is a book that chronicles the thought of a philosopher who, by the end of his life, had apparently grown disenchanted with man’s ability and/or desire to be guided by the spirit of Alētheia (truth). Truth-seeking is in keeping with the spirit of philosophical reflection, the elenchus, which delivers man to truth regardless of its often unsavory message. Truth-seeking, along with meaning in human existence, are paramount concerns of Socrates, Plato’s teacher. Socrates called the latter the “examined and good life.”
Dating back to the nineteenth century, there have been many capable Plato scholars who have enabled readers to understand the nuances of the ancient Greek language and technical philosophical terminology. Yet, perhaps there have not been as many neo-Platonist thinkers as Plato’s work merits. There are at least two reasons for this. Part of this has to do with the difference between study, which is primarily what scholars do, and the vocation to engage in genuine philosophical reflection. While the former explicates the technical aspects of the topic at hand, the latter penetrates it from a vital need to be one with the object of reflection, to comprehend it, and thus to live philosophical reflection from the inside out. The second of these distinctions is the genuine call of philosophical reflection, an activity that is rarer in human history than many people believe. For this reason, few thinkers have truly penetrated into Plato’s inspired vision and his profound, almost mystical grasp of human essence. By essence, we can think of the internal working or principle of a thing. Plato’s acumen and lasting contribution to Western civilization is rooted in his understanding that essence drives qualitative phenomenon, which man’s innate capacity for reason uncovers as first principles. This means that essence is not elastic or amenable to the whim of demoralizing sensual bylaws. During no other time in history has essence come more under fire than when faced with the destructive, delusional pathology that dominates post-modernity.
One Western thinker who has indeed penetrated into the foundational characteristics of Plato’s view of essence is Eric Voegelin. In the opinion of this writer, Voegelin is kind to critics who, he argues, misconstrue Plato’s thought given the conditioned cultural and moral biases of a “liberal era.” To Voegelin’s credit, it must be pointed out that volume three of Order and History entitled Plato and Aristotle, which contains his considerable essay on The Laws, was published in 1957. Philosophy and social/political discourse circa 2017 is anything but liberal.
Voegelin rebukes scholars who attempt to characterize Plato’s Laws as being merely a work of jurisprudence, and a flawed one at that. This misconstrued contention, Voegelin argues, “destroys the essence of Plato’s thought.”1 Voegelin explains that “In the liberal era a work of this kind could only arouse grave misgivings among scholars for whom the separation of church and state was a fundamental dogma, and for whom a theory of politics had to be defined in terms of the secular state.”2 Voegelin’s essay on the Laws refutes commentators who conceive of the Laws as being a work of social-political philosophy. This means that for Voegelin’s measured refutation to be effective he must devote a considerable number of pages to discuss what Plato means by polis and what the role of the citizenry is or can be regarding the common good. Only after taking up the question of the Laws as being a work of jurisprudence can Voegelin devote time to the core of Plato’s work: essence.
For instance, Voegelin cites a major difference between The Republic and the Laws. According to him, in The Republic Plato was under the assumption, perhaps naïve, that the soul of the citizenry would have the appetite and resolve for self-rule (autarkeia). The Laws, Voegelin explains, is much less idealistic, for it is a more pragmatic and realistic work. In contradistinction to The Republic, the Laws assumes that people can practice moral virtue (aretē) once presented with the right set of circumstances. Of course, both of these considerations beg the question of the nature of man. Plato concerns himself with the nature of what can be thought and therefore conveyed to a discerning audience. What can be taught, that is, the role of education, often falls under the aegis of social-political philosophy, and not the cultivation of moral values. Plato begins the Laws by questioning to what degree man can be a master of himself, given that most people’s lives exhibit an “internal warfare with himself.” 3 On the other hand, the nature of the human capacity for discernment remains a question of metaphysics, especially when philosophical reflection finds its spring of inspiration in existential inquietude.
It is curious that the Laws, which if Plato’s modern critics are correct is a work of jurisprudence, begins with a tale told by three old men. It is a significant component of the Laws that the story begins with three old men trying to impart the meaning and purpose of the laws to younger generations. The implication is that with age comes wisdom. But even more significant than mere age is Plato’s suggestion that age alone is not enough to confer wisdom, rather the instructive trajectory of a reflective life.
Voegelin recognized that Plato’s Laws is ultimately a reflection on the philosophy of existence. If life is long and arduous, then, one must ask: What is man’s role in the great scheme of things? Moreover, what is man’s role in the polis? Again, Plato’s Laws is his last work. Plato is an old man who has had his illusions tempered by the contingencies of the world. However, he can still tell a story in the form of allegory.
At the beginning of the Laws, Plato asks the reader to consider that perhaps man is a puppet held up by strings that God controls. For post-modern, secular readers Plato’s last tale signifies determinism, and thus, the lack of free will. However, in Plato’s thought human reality is never as simple as it appears; appearance and seeming must be augmented through reflection. While man may be pulled by cords or strings, man can come to understand this existentially and react to the tension of the cords. The stress of human reality on human existence can be assuaged through acceptance of limitation, especially as the latter pertains to temporal striving.
How people appropriate their understanding of the puller of the strings, namely God, determines whether they will be capable of turning their glance to the divine – this is the vertical view of reality – or are held captives by temporal existence. The former is the recognition of the hierarchy of values, but also of Being. Voegelin taps into Plato’s contempt for the vagaries and often banal illusions that many people cling to. This is why Voegelin realized that in a liberal age there will be many critics of Plato. This brings coherent readers and autonomous thinkers to the question of just what is the role of philosophical reflection. Autonomy can be interpreted to mean the capacity to grasp metaphysical/existential categories without relying on the one-dimensional nature of the social/political order.
The person who turns their glance toward the divine does so out of an innate capacity. If such a capacity exists in man, then, we must ask where does it originate. What is the source of man’s striving for an ascent to higher understanding, to transcendence? Surely, this signals an intrinsic, innate impetus. This is one of the fundamental questions considered in the allegory of the cave in The Republic. In other words, where does man receive the impetus to reflect on higher values as opposed to being consumed by the dictate of a frivolous and petty existence? If this is an innate drive, then, those who turn their gaze to God, and model their lives according to the divine do so through natural inclination. This, Voegelin points out, makes such men a minority. This nobility of spirit cannot, Plato arrives at this realization in his old age, be instilled from the outside. The greater question for Plato, and this has to do with the nature of the just state, is how best can men who have their gaze aligned with the divine live in a world dominated by myopic beings?
We cannot stray too far from this fundamental Platonic question, for this is the essence of how man appropriates the nature of human existence. Another way of putting this is to ask how best can the divine-attuned man live in the world? Regrettably, the question comes up in the first place because the morally best man apparently is always a stranger in the midst of the majority of humanity. This question concerns the nature of man and the essence of the soul. Incidentally, this is also a question that informs the meaning of the immortality of the soul and God’s worldly kingdom in a healthy Christianity.
Being damned, as Plato suggests, the morally higher man finds himself in the dilemma of having to create a state that does not squash his ability to cultivate his own soul. This means that the role of the state is secondary to the cultivation of man’s soul. This also implies that the state is always second best. But what does Plato mean by this? A state that pays homage to the divine may not be able to create a divine temporal kingdom, especially apropos of the majority’s interest in merely living a temporal existence. Instead, this type of state should aim to develop thoughtful and morally upright beings. In the process, and this is an essential consideration that Plato suggests, the moral fiber of the good man is not contaminated and hopefully not destroyed. This is Plato’s last hope for man. Sadly, history tells a different story; a tale of how moral upright beings must swim against tide and wind, as it were, in order not to drown.
The logical anti-thesis of Plato’s great hope is the totalitarian impulse. No greater example of the malice of the totalitarian impulse has left its stamp on man than communism. Inherent in the totalitarian impulse is the hope of destroying morally upright and autonomous people because of the threat that this type of person presents for a totalitarian state. Plato’s Laws foresaw this historical development as becoming the dominant, dystopian rule of oppression. Voegelin reminds the reader of this: “History shows the destruction that is worked when the parts want to govern the whole; and the lesson is the insight that a stable order can be restored only if the self-willed particularism is overcome and he parts fall again into their proper places through their orientation toward God.”3
Hence, a state that aims to enable man to cultivate his divine nature cannot be oriented toward partial, temporal rules and laws. The gaze of the wisdom-seeking man must be directed toward God as the source and final fulfillment of the good life. Plato entrusts the building of moral character to the old people who must guard against youthful indiscretion. We can think of them as soldiers who guard the well-being of the soul. The assumption is that a life well lived is indeed a life that delivers thoughtful people to old age, while seeking to become one with the divine. This assumption is an essential component of a life that has not fallen prey to the vagaries of temporal existence. Hence, the formation of character in the polis must become the responsibility of old people. Only the most reflective among them understand the dialectic that safeguards the nature of essence in human existence.
1. Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 217.
2. Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 217.
3. Ibid., 237.