Eric Voegelin (Plato and Aristotle)

Voegelin’s account of Plato differs from the usual textbook accounts in that he goes beyond the facile claim that “Plato believed in the realm of Forms” to the reality that the soul manifests the idea through mythological symbols. Yes, Plato did believe in the realm of Forms, but that doesn’t say a whole lot. The more interesting problem is tying Plato’s use of forms to his use of myth.

And that’s what Voegelin does. He gives a remarkably lucid and sophisticated organization of Plato’s key works, especially The Republic, Timeaus, and Laws. Regarding the Republic he notes the primarily line of meaning in Plato’s work is between ascent and descent: Plato descends to speak with his friends and only with difficulty can he ascend to the order of the soul.

Which brings us to a key point: The Idea. The soul is the idea of the form of the cosmos instantiated in lesser souls. The idea is Plato’s reality and is embodied in the historically existing polis (272). The “Spirit” must manifest itself in the “visible, finite form of an organized society” (281; despite his hostility to Hegel Voegelin is starting to sound a lot like Hegel).

The Republic

“The Way Up and the way Down”

The drama begins with a movement down into the city, which movement symbolizes the “depth and descent” into the soul (107).

“The Resistance to Corrupt Society”

Plato wants to show us not so much the philosophy of right order, but the light that truth shines upon the struggle.

  1. Pairs of Concepts:
    1. Justice and Vice
    2. Justice and Much-Doing
    3. Alethia and pseudos
      1. A polis is in order when it is ruled by men with well-ordered souls.
  2. The Sophistic doxa of Justice
    1. The primary problem is not an error about justice, but a “shift of what we called ‘the accent of reality’ under social pressure” (133).

The Creation of Order

  1. The Zetema: conceptual illumination of the way up from the depth of existence (137).
    1. These symbols have “variegated structures” that correspond to the stage of clarification.

      Man = polis
      Daemon = ruler
      Paradigm of life = politea
  2. The Foundation Play
  3. The Cognitive Inquiry
    1. A polis always has a typical form
    2. “There is no knowledge of order in the soul except through the zetema in which the soul discovers it by growing into it” (149).
      1. Politea: the animating psyche in the polis
  4. The Poleogony: a mythological parable about the development of the polis
    1. “The polis has a genesis” (151).
    2. Attempt to make relations of forces in the psyche intelligible through a story of their genesis.
  5. Models of Soul and Society (163).

Myth for Plato draws from and upon the powers of unconsciousness. The symbols of the myth are not meant to be taken as wooden epistemological objects (241). They are the reality “broken in the medium of consciousness” (246).

Aristotle appears to get short shrift in this volume, but in many ways Voegelin handles Aristotle more lucidly than he does Plato–and Aristotle isn’t quite the deep thinker that Plato is. This book is very good but I got the impression that Voegelin deliberately “floated around” getting to the heart of the forms. Further, in some areas he sounds a lot like Hegel. That’s not a criticism; just an observation that should come into play when one reads Voegelin’s famous essay on Hegel the Sorcerer.

So is Plato a totalitarian? Not exactly, since his “totalitarian” views in the Republic probably never could come to fruition given his other view that only few men could “contain the Idea.”

Longer Outline


In the Timeaus Plato needs a new myth.  Myth for Plato draws from and upon the powers of unconsciousness.

  1. The  Egyptian Myth; the myth of nature has cosmic rhythms (228).  
    1. Socrates’ act of transmission symbolizes “the dimension of the unconscious in depth by tracing the myth through the levels of the collective soul of the people” (232).  
  2. The Plan of the Dialogues
  3. The Philosophy of the Myth
    1. In Timeaus man’s “psyche” has reached “critical consciousness of the methods by which it symbolizes its own experiences” (237).
    2. The Timeaus projects the soul on the larger canvas of the cosmos.
    3. The symbols of the myth are not meant to be taken as wooden epistemological objects (241).
    4. They are the reality “broken in the medium of consciousness” (246).  
  4. The Myth of the myth in Timeaus
    1. The descent to Egypt symbolizes the descent of the Soul.
    2. Cosmos belongs to realm of becoming yet it participates in Being.
    3. Eternal being is “embedded” in the cosmos.
      1. Psyche is the intermediate realm between disembodied form and shapeless matter.
  5. The Myth of the Incarnation in the Timeaus
    1. Being does not precede becoming in time.  It is eternally present (254).
    2. Substratum: has no qualities of its own.  Plato calls it “space” (chora). It is a female principle.
      1. Creation, therefore, is the imposition of form on space.
      2. The Demiurge corresponds to the Royal Ruler.
  6. The Critias
    1. Chaos has now become co-eternal with the Idea.
    2. “Atlantis is the component of becoming in historical order, so that the fall of Atlantis is the fall of Athens from true Being” (262).
      1. The dream of Utopia is black magic.


The chains of thought in Plato’s system are dependent on key symbols (270).

Nomos: deeply embedded in the myth of nature; includes, festivals, rites, and cosmic order. It is the “pull of the golden cord” (289).

Idea: the idea is Plato’s reality and is embodied in the historically existing polis (272).  The “Spirit” must manifest itself in the “visible, finite form of an organized society” (281; Voegelin is starting to sound a lot like Hegel).

Key Symbols

Sun motif: symbol of the turning points in cosmic rhythm.

Symbolism “contracts” throughout Plato’s dialogue.  The contraction is the Idea’s embodiment in the polis.

Nous: derives from nomoi.  The movement of the cycles has come to an end.

Plato contrasts noble and vile, not rulers and ruled (303).


2 thoughts on “Eric Voegelin (Plato and Aristotle)

  1. Pingback: Eric Voegelin: In Search of Order | The Correctness of our Sentiments

  2. Pingback: The Nature of Law (Eric Voegelin) | The Correctness of our Sentiments

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