The Nature of Law (Eric Voegelin)

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Voegelin, Eric. The Nature of Law and Other Legal Writings. Collected Works of Eric Voegelin vol. 27. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.


What is the essence of law? Asking that question raises a host of innumerable and perhaps unsolvable problems.  Is law an aggregate of rules or is it embodied in complex structures? If we say there are essential aspects of law, as our question implies, does that mean there are unessential parts of the law?  That doesn’t seem right.

Voegelin’s tentative answer is that the essence of law emerges from a tension between concrete orders on one hand and the underlying structure on the other.  These latter structures appear in human history as the Egyptian maat, the Greek nomos/logos, Israelite revelation, Chinese Tao, etc. (Of course, Voegelin is not implying that the above structures are equally valid or interchangeable, only that there are such structures that aren’t reducible to space and time).

If on the other hand, like a positivist, we say that law is simply an aggregate of rules, then the following problems ensue.  Does the legal order’s essence change if older rules are invalidated by new ones (Voegelin 13)? This means that every time Congress passes a new law, the entire legal order changes.  This doesn’t seem right, either. This is the historic problem of maintaining identity in time.

It gets worse, though.  We have Zeno’s problem. The positivist may respond: “They aren’t an aggregate of rules but rather links in a chain.”  There is something to this, but there is also a problem. Law also has a time-element. In this case, “every aggregate of rules in the series called ‘legal order’ belongs to a past in which it is no longer valid and to a future which does not yet exist. Law has disappeared” (17).

Zeno’s paradox is valid if we try to view motion as a thing. In this case, the legal act is a static point on a line. The problem is that a realm of meanings has no time dimension.  The meanings may refer to objects in time, but they themselves aren’t in time (18).


Voegelin now explores aspects of a valid social order. Ancient man saw law as the substance of order (25). The substance pervades the whole of society. This lasting structure of order is “the structure of human existence in society” (40).

Man’s existence is a participation in this order of being: God, world, society (43).  There is a tension in this order of being between it and the standard. Let’s say the standard is something like the Greek Logos or the Israelite Revelation.  Our existence in society, on the other hand, exhibits flaws.

Rules/laws are embedded in the context of a law-making process, which itself is embedded in a larger order.  In this tension we find the “Ought,” that which forces our obedience to a law (48-49).

Plato and Aristotle were aware that their schemes would have been seen as utopian.  That’s not the point. Social order was decaying. Had they tried to implement their ideas, there would have been a bloodbath. They weren’t revolutionaries, after all.   Rather, they inquired into the true order of society–the Logos–the living reality of the well-ordered soul of the philosopher.

Eric Voegelin: In Search of Order

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Voegelin, Eric. In Search of Order, Volume V of Order and History. 5 vols. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

This is Eric Voegelin’s unfinished conclusion to his Order and History series.  He gives us just enough clues as to what he probably meant without a complete explanation.  While little more than 100 pages, this is a dense read.

A note on language: “Beyond” for Voegelin and Plato is similar to what Christians mean when they say God is hyper-ousia.

Man participates in being not in the sense that there is an object “man” and an object “being,” but rather “a part of being capable of experiencing itself as such” (OH 1:1-2).  Man’s participation in being is a reflexive tension in his existence (is this what Maximus means by the expansion/diastolic and contraction/systolic of being?).

Voegelin’s thesis hinges on the dynamic interplay between It-reality and Thing-reality.  Thing-reality is fairly obvious: it is the world as object. It-reality requires some Platonic metaphysics: it is the methexis, the participation.  It is the reality that comprehends partners-in-being (Voegelin 16).

Let’s unpack that. The enemies in metaphysics are those who take legitimate symbols (e.g., Plato’s nous) and absolutize and hypostatize them.  In other words, they treat reality as an object of consciousness rather than the event of participation. This will make more sense when we discuss Hegel and Marx.

“The order of history is the history of order.”  

Gnostics, our enemies, either try to abolish reality altogether and escape into “the Beyond,” or they try to bring the Beyond into our reality now.  The first is ancient Gnosticism. The latter is post-Hegelian, Marxist, and Cultural Marxist gnosticism (37).

Philosophical symbols either shed light on our quest for order, or they are manipulative and turn metaphysics into a deformative task.  Some of these symbols are nouse, amamnesis, etc.

The German Revolution

The Germans wanted to access being in a purely subject-object mode. They created a new symbol, speculation, in order to do it. Speculation allowed the observer to stand outside the field of historical consciousness.  Whereas each man had to participate (or not) in the “Beyond” as himself, now man would be forced to participate in the new observer’s own speculation. In other words, you have to participate in the structure of my own thought.  As Hegel noted, “once the realm of perception [Vorstellung] is revolutionized, reality cannot hold out” (quoted in Voegelin 51).

The second half of the book explores various Hellenistic accounts of Being. Voegelin died before he finished this part, so the arguments aren’t always focused or in context, erudite they may be otherwise.

Mnemosyne: the dimension of consciousness of the Beyond (72).

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).