Thanatos and Eros: Eric Voegelin on what dialogue actually means

The inchoate concept of “Dialogue” is a hot-button topic in our society today. I’ll refrain from providing a litany of theoretically problematic news stories or puff-pieces by “leaders” about how dialogue will solve so many of our political problems. I invite the reader to simply call to mind examples from his or her own experience. When readings such pieces, the more thoughtful among us may rightly be wondering: what does dialogue actually mean? What can dialogue, rightly conceived, actually accomplish? Can “training” or “education” really promote such dialogue?

As with so many “contemporary” problems, useful ways of understanding such problems have already been known for thousands of years. The faster we run headlong into schemes to increase “change” or “progress” the faster we realize how far behind we actually are. The sapiential frameworks for understanding our problems are already there; what we need are thinkers who can step outside the hysteria of the moment and better understand the tools available to us and how to apply them.

One possible framework for understanding dialogue comes in the work of Plato. As many have argued, Platonic dialogue is seen as one possible method for approaching concepts that could never be formulated as apodictic verities. According to James Rhodes (see link above), Plato’s assertion that he cannot write on the things about which he is most serious should make us wonder. At the very least, this indicates that there is a lot more to dialogue than just talking. In fact, just forcing people to talk to each other may do more harm than good. Is dialogue the second-best alternative to silent wonder at the ineffable mysteries of being? Is it our best hope for a true (though necessarily incomplete) understanding or being shared with others?

For an answer, we must turn to Eric Voegelin. In the 3rd Volume of Order and History, Voegelin asserts that true dialogue as understood by Socrates and Plato, consists of two elements: thanatos and eros.

According to Voegelin, the deep structure of Platonic dialogue is the heir to Greek tragedy. The idea of peitho, or “the persuasive imposition of right order on the unruly passion,” as exemplified in tragedies like Aeschylus’s Prometheus become a model for a well-ordered soul. The two opposing forces of order and passion are engaged in a dialogue in the soul. This well-ordered tension becomes the model for the soul: it is a balance of elements, hammered out in dialogue. The two elements can take many forms; Voegelin thinks that for Plato, they are best symbolized in thanatos (Socratic death) and eros (passion).

Thanatos is the element found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates explains the role of philosophy as a sort of purification toward the culmination that comes in death. In Voegelin’s words, “In the Phaedo, thanatos becomes the cathartic power that cures the soul of the sickness of the earth…[it] is the force that orders the soul of the living, for it makes them desirous of stripping themselves of everything that is not noble and just.” Philosophy, properly practiced, becomes a sort of living death, a shedding of the concerns of this world. Voegelin terms it, in a strangely Heideggerian moment, “life toward death.” This is dramatically illustrated in Socrates’ final words, in which he strangely remembers in his last moments on Earth that he “…owes a cock to Asclepios.” It is his final shedding of the concerns of the world as he makes his journey to the Beyond.

Eros is the other required ingredient for dialogue. Through thanatos man dies to all that is not noble, true and beautiful. Eros is the next step: it is “…the positive desire of the Good,” according to Voegelin. Plato explains the erotic connection in the Phaedrus, in the form of a myth: two souls search for the good and “…find their own divine nature in their fascinated gaze at the nature of the god in the beloved.” There is a tripartite structure here: the lover, the beloved, and the god reflected in the loving gaze between the two. This structure takes on a “sacramental character”, as the structure enters spatio-temporal reality through its enactment: “…for the nature of the god becomes incarnate in the community of the erotic souls as in its mystical body.”

When these two elements are present, true dialogue is possible: one must be dead to the insignificant concerns of everyday life and open to experiencing the Good through the other. This is how a simple trading of words can become a true dialogue, or “existential communication.” It is an openness to the other through communion, through a shared reality. One is reminded here of John von Heyking’s important and influential exploration of Aristotle’s concept of sunaisthesis. Only through a shared communal experience is friendship possible. Only when two souls have died to petty political concerns and opened themselves up to the good possible in community with the other is dialogue possible.

In Voegelin’s words:

The Idea of the Good evoked in the communion of the dialogue, fills the souls of those who participate in the evocative act. And thus it becomes the sacramental bond between them and creates the nucleus of the new society.

This sounds like a rather lofty and idealistic enterprise when we consider what might be possible through training at work or new educational schemes for our children. True dialogue is only possible when individual people open themselves up to experiencing the good through others. Heavy-handed government, corporate, or educational schemes can only fall short of what it really means to enter into dialogue. As mentioned above, they may do more harm than good. Again, Voegelin has the crucial insight: “[Dialogue] restores the common order of the spirit that has been destroyed through the privatization of rhetoric.” Can putting people in a room and forcing them to talk about these things do anything more than just accelerate the “privatization of rhetoric?”

The real solution comes only in the authentic interactions between people, in shared experiences of reality that help them to mutually grow to see the good in the other. Rather than promote healing, any top-down scheme promoting “dialogue” will likely create yet more alienation.

From Parmenides to Philebus: It’s a Process

Plato’s Parmenides is widely considered the most enigmatic of the Platonic dialogues, and rightly so. I think that one would do well to approach this dialogue by “reading between the lines” in the Straussian sense. In the dialogue, we encounter a young Socrates engaging with Zeno, at the time already in middle age, and Parmenides, a well-established master of the philosophical art. This seems to suggest, by form alone, that Socrates was not yet mature enough to take on the magisterial Parmenides.

I’d like to focus on the second part, in which Parmenides uses an idiosyncratic method to determine the nature of the One (alternatively, the Idea of Unity). This method consists in considering the consequences if the one is asserted to possess various accidents (being, not-being, motion, non-motion, becoming, perishing…).

While many scholars disagree whether the argument here is ultimately coherent, there is no doubt that it is difficult to follow and yields no obvious conclusions. If we again apply Strauss’s method as suggested, it seems that this dialogue is meant to demonstrate the difficulties in positing Platonic forms. One gets the sense that the reader is meant to thoughtfully consider all the associated problems with the forms and, in the process become better at defending them. It is, like so many of the dialogues, aporetic.

Luckily for us, Parmenides was not Plato’s only statement on the subject. We must consider the dialectic method laid out by Socrates in The Republic (34b3–c5) and, more importantly in Philebus. Consider Socrates’ words at 15c:

We say that one and many are identified by reason, and always, both now and in the past, circulate everywhere in every thought that is uttered. This is no new thing and will never cease; it is, in my opinion, a quality within us which will never die or grow old, and which belongs to reason itself as such. 

Later on, Socrates describes the process of differentiation that must take place in order for us to get a sense of the universal:

…we must always assume that there is in every case one idea of everything and must look for it—for we shall find that it is there—and if we get a grasp of this, we must look next for two, if there be two, and if not, for three or some other number; and again we must treat each of those units in the same way, until we can see not only that the original unit is one and many and infinite, but just how many it is. And we must not apply the idea of infinite to plurality until we have a view of its whole number [16e] between infinity and one; then, and not before, we may let each unit of everything pass on unhindered into infinity.”

Gadamer provides some insight into this process in his masterful The Idea of the Good in Platonic – Aristotelian Philosophy. It involves “…the division of a one into a determinate manifold that is itself eidetic-ideal.” (p. 119) Think here of listening to a symphony play a chord and then breaking out all the different notes played by all the different instruments. Further,

“… the art of differentiating only reaches its goal when one finds no more specifiable units- tones, phonemes, [etc.]… Differentiation takes place here within the noetic one, and it is the principle of number that the Philebus introduces in this context as the truly illuminating Promethean fire. Here, the Pythagorean heritage, the identification of being with number is explicated on the new level of noetic being” (p. 120, emphasis added).

This “noetic being,” a new concept of the forms which in other dialogues is asserted to subsist independently of individual objects, is one mode of being as pointed out in the last post. Here, Plato is in agreement with Aristotle. We must also note, that contrary to what we found in Parmenides, the manifold is not infinite in this case.

But most importantly, the key insight has been revealed: the dialectic of differentiation/synthesis is “… a world of signs and indices that directs us to the ideal.” (p. 120) Here Gadamer touches on the dialectically structured meaning, greater than the concrete whole, which one must seek in order to make sense of the problem of universals. Here we have a much better picture of how one engages in this dialectic than that given in The Republic. There is a growth into these kinds of truths that ought to take place. To be sure, dialectic is not constitutive of these truths, rather, it is our mode of access to them.

This growth is an ongoing process, in which the universal is at once unified in the logos of sound dialectical thought and manifold in the decisions we make in the moment of choice.

…the ideal of a life harmonized rightly, is – precisely as a result of dialogue – a logos, which directs us to an ergon (deed), to choosing what is right in the moment of choice. (p. 121)

It’s a process.