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Five Symbols of Political Philosophy

September 8, 2022

Political philosophy, understood as a type of paradigmatic statesmanship, is visible in the following five symbols:

The Awake and Those Asleep:   The symbol of the man who is asleep was created by Heraclitus to express his experience of the cosmos as an ordered reality.  From the perspective of the ancient Greek philosophic consciousness of the psyche as the measure by which to discover the truth, Heraclitus fashioned the image of the sleep walkers, those who when awake are as ignorant of what they are doing as when they are asleep.

Though reality is an ordered process steered by an overarching logos, men are uncomprehending, he said.  “Just as they forget what they do when asleep,” the men ignorant of the logos “fail to notice what they do after they wake up.”  All men have reason (logos), but “the many live as though they had a private understanding.”   Those who are asleep to the reality of being are “the many,” that is, the common sort who are uneducated to reality. Their souls are “moist” like the soul of the drunken. “A man when he is drunk is led by an unfledged boy, stumbling and not knowing where he goes, having his soul moist.” The “unfledged boy” is a symbol for the soul which lacks education (paideia) to the logos. When truly educated the soul is “dry.”  Heraclitus observed that “a dry soul is wisest and best.”

Plato utilizes this symbol in his Republic (Book V) when he observes that, on the one hand, those who admit that things are beautiful, but not that there is beauty per se, are living in a dream.  On the other hand, there are men who are awake to the reality that those things in the world which are beautiful participate in beauty itself and do not mix up the two.  In dialogue, therefore, the discussants must be awake to the truth that this world is not autonomous but participates in a greater reality beyond the world of perishable, existent things. The object of dialogue is to educate the soul to this greater reality.

PersuasionIf men are to be educated by dialogue to existence‑in‑truth, they must be persuaded, not compelled, to make the journey.  Persuasion implies, therefore, an active and a passive agent.  The active agent is the questioner, who, in this higher sense, “acts” upon the one who is questioned, in an attempt to persuade.  But, for action to evoke a response, it is necessary that his fellow discussant be open to persuasion, that is, trusting in his attitude.

A common ground is required for dialogue to commence, namely, that the discussant wants to know the truth, to admit not only his existential condition of psychic ignorance but also his dependence on those who know.

For philosophy to succeed, the psyche must be searching for existence‑in‑truth in opposition to sleep‑walking. The Platonic dialogues contain numerous instances (for example, Callicles [Gorgias] and Thrasymachus [Republic]) of men unable to engage in dialogue because this common basis is absent in them.

Logos: The discussants engaged in dialogue must have something in common if dialogue is to succeed. Socrates in the Crito calls himself a man who follows nothing but the logos. 

A common basis of dialogue, therefore, is the substratum of logos which all men possess by virtue of their humanity, but which only a few, those who are awake, utilize.

Among its several definitions, logos, of course means “word” and “reason.” The mode of questioning which is dialogue is limited by the very material of which it is constructed, words. However, the questions, though composed of words, do not seek the words of which the answer is composed.  Words (logoi) are the linguistic manifestations of reason in man and of his capacity to know reality.  Philosophic dialogue seeks existence‑in‑truth. This can be known to man because reality is rational.  Plato accordingly gives a different name (eristic) to discussions which use names without fully realizing that words are symbols, not substitutes for reality. 

In The Republic, for example, when he attempts to differentiate aspects of reality, Socrates goes to the trouble of saying, “It appears to me that just as two different names are used, war and faction, so two things also exist and the names apply to differences in these two.”  By naming a reality, the philosopher brings it into human consciousness where it can be discussed, clarified, and differentiated from other existent things. Human intellect interprets existence through conscious intellection.  Intellect is a part of human existence as well as the means or instrument of interpreting it.  “In the exegesis of existence,”

Eric Voegelin writes, “intellect discovers itself in the structure of existence; ontologically speaking, human existence has noetic structure.  The intellect discovers itself, furthermore, as a force transcending its own existence; by virtue of the intellect, existence is not opaque, but actually reaches out beyond itself in various directions in search of knowledge.”  Human existence “transcends” the intellect by coming into consciousness as an entity differentiated by the intellect which seeks it out. This transcending of intellect by the ontologically oriented act of questioning on the part of two persons makes dialogue possible.

Dialectic: The highest form of intellection for Plato is that which activates the highest part of the soul, what Plato called the nous, meaning mind or reason. The activity of nous is noesis. Thus we have the derivative term “noetic” to express this level of rationality. In The Republic (Book VII) dialectic is described as a journey in which the faculty employed is noesis, and the realm of existence it illuminates is the noeton, the intelligible. The man who engages in such activity is called the dialectical man.  The dialektikos  is the man who is “awake” and for whom reality is perceived as it truly is.

Underlying Plato’s proposal in The Republic of a political community which is absolutely just is an ontology of knowing. The order of being which man is capable of knowing, Plato writes in his Republic, is like the capacity to see.  In order to see, man needs light, and that light is caused by the sun. Like the eye, however, limited as it is by the darkness of the night, the soul, when it apprehends things which are not eternal or unchanging, perceives only in a limited way.  Before we can truly know, we must have experienced the Good. But the Good which gives knowledge to the soul, unlike the sun, is beyond (epekeina)  existence and essence:l5 that is, it is a transcendent Good, not one of the many goods which can be found within the cosmos.  Therefore it cannot be experienced by just anyone. We must be educated in such a way that our highest poetic faculty is exercised in turning towards the Good.  The dialectical man is such an educated person, whose soul has been led upwards until he can contemplate the Good itself.16  Turning towards the truth is, as Plato describes it in The Republic, a personal conversion (periagoge) from lesser forms of reality, the perishable everchanging world of sense‑experience, towards a life of existence‑in-truth.

EpistemeFor Plato, science (episteme) meant knowledge.  As such it did not have connotations, as it does for us, of a natural science which has as its object physical phenomena knowable by means of impersonal experimental methods. To Plato the most intelligible reality was not the material, changing phenomena of the visible world, but the intelligent, rational (poetic) field of being. The more rational the phenomena, the more scientifically knowable they are.  Plato would not hesitate, therefore, to discuss the dilemma of what is the best way to live and expect a “scientific” solution. The distinction between that which is and that which ought to be, by which contemporary positivists mean that we can know only “facts” scientifically, not “values,” was not a problem for Plato or for the other followers of Socrates.  The knowledge (episteme) of right action was distinguished by Plato from opinion (doxa), and the lover of truth (philosophos) from the lover of opinion.  Those whose souls were turned towards existence‑in‑truth were conscious of their participation in true being and therefore had reliable knowledge of right action.  Their souls had been shaped by experience of the transcendent Good and thus they were attuned to being.  The lovers of opinion were living in untruth and lacked the essential science (episteme). 

This concept of right action as preeminently knowable first entered Western philosophic consciousness in the mystic thought of Parmenides.  In his poem, “The Way of Truth,” he describes a journey in the chariot of the daughters of the Sun along the path of persuasion.  The path, he said, “is.”  Its opposite was a path which is not and is unthinkable.  By identifying the way which is as the way of truth, Parmenides signified that what we ought to do is the knowable way.  From this distinction followed Plato’s use of the critical tenor “science” (episteme) in reference to the capacity to know right action.

We find this insight also in the tragedy of The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus.  Pelasgus, when faced with the dilemma of granting asylum to his suppliant kin or turning them over to the Aegyptians, confronts the issue thusly: Without Harm I cannot aid you: nor is it sensible to despise these your earnest prayers. I am at a loss, and fearful is my heart. To act or not to act and choose success.

To act, however, is not merely to behave; it is to act rightly.  And of this truth the tragedian pointedly informs his audience.  Only right action is required of Pelasgus.  “We need profound, preserving care, that plunges like a diver deep into troubled seas,” he says. 

The symbol of the diver’s plunge into the depths evoked in the philosophers the experience of their encounter with the transcendent divine reality beyond the world of existent things.  In the depths of their souls they discovered participation in true being, and thus were conscious that in so far as they were formed by that experience, their judgment of what action is right was true.

Plato’s concept of scientific judgment contradicts, therefore, the contemporary notion that information is scientific because it is impersonal and discovered by a scientist detached from his subject.  Platonic episteme is above all the personal judgment of the philosopher who is capable of distinguishing between true knowledge (episteme) and mere opinion.  Its emphasis is on the character of the man who has made the judgment and on the personal skill with which he has pursued the problem to its conclusion. Moreover, even the best of men will be limited by the subject which he must judge. When the guardians in The Republic attempt to ascertain the right time for sexual intercourse in their best polis, they sometimes err and thus set into motion the forces that will lead even the best polis into moral decay.  Human scientific knowledge is limited.

The Political:   Contemporary philosophy, for reasons too numerous to discuss here, is radically alienated from what we would call the “political.”   College students compelled to take philosophy courses would perhaps even go as far as to say that the philosophy they were taught is remote from reality.  In the context of fourth‑century Athens, however, the Platonic philosophers engaged in dialogue in order to answer questions which arose from within the political community. Their philosophic discussion occurred in reference to problems of political order, arose in response to the political and moral decay of Greek culture, and was in that sense “political.”  We should also recall Socrates’ claim to paradigmatic statesmanship and Plato’s “Philosopher‑King.” “Unless the philosophers rule as kings,” Socrates says in The Republic, “or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place. . .there is no rest from ills for the cities. . .nor I think for human kind . . . .”  Plato was awareof the difficulties thuspresented.  In the “Myth of theCave” the man who is turnedaround (periagoge), like the philosopher educated by philosophy to experience the Good, makes the journey back into the cave (political community) to inform his former fellows of their ignorance. But those he attempts to release reply by trying to kill him.  Nevertheless, Plato the philosopher returned to the cave, since it was his political obligation to bring the science of politics he possessed to those who sought also to know.

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