Preferred Citation: Krajewski, Bruce, editor. Gadamer's Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2004 2004.

The Art of Allusion


Gadamer's essay “Plato's Educational State” was published in 1942 as part of a collection of texts whose purpose was to document the contribution made by classical philology to the “human sciences as part of the war effort.” In the intervening period Gadamer had become firmly established as a professor in Leipzig. In 1977 he himself described this text as “a sort of alibi” (PL74) without providing any further explanation. In fact, Gadamer adopts an unexpected tone in this essay. He appears to resist becoming caught up in the general enthusiasm generated by the triumphal march of the German military forces. The posture of “German strength” that had informed the lecture on Herder, given in 1941 to imprisoned French officers, is no longer in evidence. Instead, Gadamer takes up a pensive attitude and appears to want to direct a word of warning to the “present” through a reading of Plato. The theme that is treated under the title of “Plato's Educational State” is the unsuspicious, familiar postulate of the “philosopher king”; that is, the idea that “the philosophers lead the rulers and the rulers are taught by the philosophers how to rule.”[24] This theme, however, harbors a certain explosive force.

Gadamer presents Plato here as someone who is disillusioned with the dictatorship that has taken over from Athenian democracy. He quotes whole passages from the Seventh Letter in which Plato raises impassioned complaints about the general moral decay under the rule of “tyranny.” In order to put an end to his decay Plato advocates “a reform of unheard of proportions” (GW5: 317). For Gadamer, it is the Plato who criticizes and admonishes the tyrants of Athens and, through Socrates, seeks to show them the way to reform who provides the guiding thread by which the Republic is to be interpreted.[25] The shift of emphasis involved in this image of Plato is remarkable. Gadamer's Plato of 1934 was someone who had made the expulsion of the poets and the education of the guardians into a condition of the founding of the state. The hermeneutic horizon within which Plato is now presented is “the decay of the state under tyranny.”

The contemporary horizon for this reading of Plato was given by the restructuring of the National Socialist ruling apparatus that took place at the start of the war. The apparatus of repression was built up and the SS state began to take shape. With the deterioration of the war situation this reorganization allowed the ideological forces of cohesion on the “inner front” to slacken and the ideological incorporation of the individual to break down.


The general change of mood was not restricted to the conservative and academic elites. Within the philosophical domain there was a proliferation of proposals for an inner reform of fascism based on readings of Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Frederick the Great. The cases of Eduard Spranger,[26] Hans Freyer,[27] and Carl Schmitt[28] belong here. Almost all the projects that became philosophically effective in 1933 sought to establish a normative foundation for developing various conceptions of an ideal fascism. Against the background of the destabilizing effects of the war, these projects consequently served to procure stability and order. This can be elucidated by looking at the model of society that Gadamer sought to distill from the Republic.

Under the heading of “dikaiosyne” (a term that is translated as “Gerechtig-keit, “or ‘justice”) Gadamer opposes, as he had in 1934, the idea of the Platonic state, the state as “an order of classes” (GW5:3a6), to the concept of tyranny and the sophistic conception of the state. Dikaiosyne is used to describe government in the form of the general interest. Ideally, the rulers should use their competence in planning and leadership unselfishly—that is, for the good of all, rather than in the service of their own interests. The military uses its weapons in defense of the whole. For the rulers and those that are ruled, however, the “state as a whole” (GW51327) presents itself in a different way. Because their special competence resides in leadership, the rulers have a position in the “division of labor” that binds them immediately to the “universal”: “Every form of work is indeed there for the use of all who need it. Nonetheless, the work of a political leader or a warrior is not merely a technical skill like any other but is immediately related to the interest of the state as a whole” (GW5:327). If in this way, in a formulation that Gadamer takes up from Hegel,[29] “the universal prevails” (GW5:32g), then the rulers can rely upon the “sophrosyne” or virtue of those who are ruled to guarantee that their decisions will meet with agreement. In opposition to real, “tyrannical” fascism, Gadamer describes an ideal fascism, a stratified community of the people brought about through the “reconciliation of the three classes to form a single unity” (GW5:328).

The system of government that Gadamer derives from Plato's ideas is only conceivable as an authoritarian state with a highly centralized concentration of power. He clearly rejects the conception of “democratically” formed decision-making procedures: “The disruption of this order of the classes is the real political misfortune, that is, the destruction of the structure of government as this became visible in the decay of the Attic democracy” (GW5:327). The concentration of power in the hands of the “governing classes” has its price: there is no guarantee, no internal power, that can prevent the “governing classes” from establishing a tyrannical government. There is a permanent danger that the governing class will succumb to the “temptations of power” and that the “order of the state will be destroyed”

(GW5:329). In regard to this problem, Plato's doctrine of the soul can be seen as a doctrine of how the state can become diseased through the actions of its rulers. The form of “legality” (GW5:324) transforms the power of leadership into the “legal force of the state,” and its government into the “administration of the power of the state” (GW5:326). Such government is legitimate government that is able to survive situations of crisis without transmuting into tyranny. Since it occupies a position in the soul of those it rules over, it can count on their “inner attunement,” even “in proximity to possible discord” (GW5:32g).

My thesis is that this ideal of an authoritative government represents a reaction to the “tyrannical” transformations that fascism underwent during the war. Gadamer's call for “a cure for the unhealthy state” is closely related to the various proposals for providing the National Socialist system and its military policies with a “new” basis, as these were developed within the upper ranks of the government, military, and business. Proposals for an inner reorganization of the state were not limited to the Potsdam faction of National Socialism, whose plans for transforming the “Fuhrer” state into an “enlightened” monarchy resulted in the military putsch of July 20, 1944. An impetus for reform was also generated from within the National Socialist Party itself. Paradigmatic here is the critique that was openly articulated by Hans Frank, one of the foremost lawyers of the National Socialist Party.[30] From the example of Frank's attempt to curb the development toward tyranny we can see the range and variety of social forces that informed Gadamer's interpretation of Plato. In stark contrast is the option pursued by Carl Schmitt, who in 1938 sought to legitimate the establishment of a total police state through recourse to the work of Hobbes. While both the national conservative opposition and certain factions within the National Socialist Party sought to discover a way of securing the relationship between “the leadership and the people” by respecting the “emotional and psychological constitution of the individual,” Schmitt outdid these suggestions—among which Gadamer's is to be included—with his model of tyranny.

In summary, the results of this investigation reveal the way in which Gadamer was able to identify with the national conservative faction of National Socialism without, however, publicly declaring his opposition to its more popular forms. The contemporary relevance of his interpretations of Plato enabled him to construct bridges that allowed various connections to be drawn without the need to state them explicitly. The hermeneutic art of allusion that Gadamer invokes in his critique of Carl Schmitt's interpretation of Hamlet is also relevant to Gadamer's own work: “In fact, the reality of a play is constituted by leaving an indefinite space around its theme” (GW2:38o).[31]

In the end, we can agree with Jan Ross's evaluation that “Gadamer's virtuosity” consisted “in adapting the subject of thought to altered circumstances

and, above all, to the circumstance of permanent change.” After 1945 a new interpretation of Aristotle was being called for by means of which civil society could be reconstituted out of the ancient polls, and here, too, Gadamer discreetly took part.[32] If, as Ross claims, it is “Gadamer's secret” and at the same time “his dangerous inheritance to have smuggled the great philosophical tradition from Plato to Heidegger into the home of the prosaic Bundesrepublik,” then this secret demands a new reading of Truth and Method, one that finally begins to examine more closely the origin of such smuggled goods. For this work the hermeneutic experience garnered by Gadamer under National Socialism finally attained the prominent status of a theory of interpretation with a claim to universality.

The Art of Allusion

Preferred Citation: Krajewski, Bruce, editor. Gadamer's Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2004 2004.