The University Bookman


Volume 18, Number 4 (Summer 1978)

Eric Voegelin: A Philosopher’s Journey

J. M. Porter

In the English-speaking world political philosophy, as traditionally conceived, has been represented by Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Michael Oakeshott, and Eric Voegelin. While each of these four has made contributions to the various dimensions of philosophizing about man’s political existence, only Voegelin combines all the features characteristic of a great speculative philosopher: analytical and diagnostic, comprehensive and systematic, and prescriptive and speculative. Alfred North Whitehead, a quintessential speculative philosopher himself, distinguished the practical reason of Ulysses (shared with the foxes) from the reason of Plato with its striving to obtain a theoretical vision of the whole. Voegelin belongs to this latter tradition of speculative philosophy.

It is not a tradition with a good press these days, which makes Voegelin’s growing fame the more striking. Moreover, unlike Strauss, Oakeshott, or (to a lesser extent) Arendt, Voegelin has never had the advantage of an association with a major graduate school in which he could create with his students a school of followers to scatter among the universities. In large measure, Voegelin’s fame results simply from the power of his written thoughts and from the excitement of following the course of his philosophic journey. In our institutionalized society, it is indeed a phenomenon to have created a philosophic school without a graduate school as a base. Voegelin has written twelve books and over eighty articles, and From Enlightenment to Revolution (Duke University Press, 1975, $12.50) and The Ecumenic Age (Louisiana State University Press, 1974, $15) mark the early and late stages of his philosophic quest.

There have been at least three discernible stages in the development of Voegelin’s philosophy. The first stage consists of a unilinear history of ideas limited in scope to the Western tradition. From Enlightenment to Revolution represents this stage in his thought, and it is composed of material taken from a multi-volume manuscript written in the 1940s and early 1950s but never published. The second stage was elaborated mainly in The New Science of Politics (1952) and the first three volumes of Order and History (1956–57). He argues in these works that all societies attempt to represent symbolically the order of being, that one can discern through the symbols an “intelligible succession of phases,” and that the attunement of man with the order of being has been symbolized and “realized in society with increasing approximations to the truth.” The third stage, as best seen in The Ecumenic Age, probes still wider by including China and India in its coverage and still deeper by examining the structure of consciousness in order to discern the source for order. In short, this last step in Voegelin’s philosophic journey, which he describes as a “break,” could be formulated as the change from a philosophy of history as a philosophy of order to a philosophy of history as a philosophy of consciousness.

Against the background of Voegelin’s philosophic journey one can see how fortuitous it is to have within a year the publication of From Enlightenment to Revolution and The Ecumenic Age. The first work is the more easily understood, and it also has perhaps the more intriguing topic: the philosophic sources of the crisis in Western Civilization. Voegelin examines Bossuet, Voltaire, Helvetius, Turgot, Comte, Bakunin, Marx, and a variety of minor actors. One cannot cover the many themes and original interpretations found in the work, but a few descriptive remarks may suffice to stimulate a reader.

Voegelin has repeatedly argued that within history there is a constant tension between original insights with their symbols (where the engendering primary experiences are still known) and the reification of symbols into propositions and doctrines (where the original experiences become lost through ossification). When the latter occurs new experiences and symbols replace the old. Bossuet and Voltaire provide an excellent modern illustration of this fundamental feature of human history. Bossuet perceives that a new epoch in history has been born with the Reformation and the rise of the nation state. The “harmonious balance of spirit, reason, and imperium,” as Voegelin explains, became disassociated. Bossuet represents a final effort to put in doctrinal form (based on Scripture) the theory that the “history of Israel, the appearance of Christ, and the history of the Church are the meaningful history of mankind.” This progress represents the “providential guidance of mankind toward the true religion.” Such symbols as these were meaningless to Voltaire, and he introduced a new secularized history with the “extinction, renaissance and progress of the human spirit” replacing the old symbols of the Fall, Redemption, and the Third Realm of spiritual perfection. A triadic, secularized history becomes the paradigm for subsequent theorists from Comte to Marx to the present. History, as Voegelin says elsewhere, is a trail of equivalent symbols, and it is one of the philosopher’s tasks to show the relationship and, as in this case, the deformation of symbols which results from the loss of the primary experiences.

Since the Christian symbols have ceased to be used in understanding history, new concepts have been introduced to replace and transform earlier understandings of the nature of man and of politics. The movement from the Enlightenment to Marx is long and complicated, but one can see the growth of nascent ideas to a full status a century and a half later. In Helvetius man ceases to be viewed as “an entity that has its existential center within itself” but he becomes a “mechanism of pain, pleasure, and passion.” By so reducing man and his life to the level of a utilitarian existence, Voegelin writes, the “intellectual and spiritual substance of man” is lost. This contraction of the nature of man, which is inevitable with the secularization process, leads to an instrumental view of the individual and to the growth of collectivism. Man becomes the raw material for “the substantial perfectioning of man” by the political leader. Again, one can see in the historical process the deformation of original symbols:

… the creation of man by God, which was eliminated as a superstition, now returns as the creation of the superman through Condorcet. The intramundane hubris of self-salvation culminates logically (by the logique du coeur) in the improvement on God through the creation of a man who does not need salvation. The Spirit has become reason, the Savior has become the enlightened director of mankind, the Father has become the creator of the superman—the Trinity has become intramundane in the intellectual. (134)

The empirical conclusion of this process is the creation of the most striking political phenomenon of the twentieth century, the ideological mass movement. Comte and Marx are the two thinkers who most clearly paved the way from “collectivism in all its variants down to the contemporary forms of totalitarianism.” In a lengthy and careful critique of each thinker, Voegelin demonstrates their lamentable contributions to the crisis in Western civilization. He concludes that both consciously feared philosophy and created a surrogate or second reality in which the limitations of reality (in the Platonic sense) can be ignored:

The Marxian spiritual disease, thus, like the Comtean, consists in the self-divinization and self-salvation of man; an intramundane logos of human consciousness is substituted for the transcendental logos. What appeared on the level of symptoms as antiphilosophism and logophobia, must etiologically be understood as the revolt of immanent consciousness against the spiritual order of the world. (276)

Whatever label is placed on the political consequence of this spiritual disorder—modern ideological movement, Gnostic movement, metastatic faith, or millenarianism—one would be hard pressed to find a better place for understanding the modern variants than From Enlightenment to Revolution.

Although several decades have lapsed between these two works, The Ecumenic Age continues to probe the relation between symbols and experiences: “the inherited symbols of ecumenic humanity are disintegrating, because the deforming doctrinalization has become socially stronger than the experiential insights it was originally meant to protect.” Likewise, Voegelin continues to probe the disorder of our time, Gnosticism and its manifestations. Gnosticism in this work is traced less to a deformation of Christianity than to a universal, inescapable feature of “experiencing consciousness”: “The essential core is the enterprise of returning the pneuma in man from its state of alienation in the cosmos to the divine pneuma of the Beyond through action based upon knowledge.” The diagnosing of the various modes of this Gnostic enterprise can lead us back, we are told, to the “truth of reality as it reveal itself in history.” This task, to be completed with the final volume, In Search of Order, provides the continuity from his first writings to the last.

The title for The Ecumenic Age refers to the period from the rise of the Persian to the fall of the Roman empire. Voegelin sees two ecumenic ages, “a Western and a Far Eastern, both unfolding parallel in time” and so far as is known without knowledge of one another. Since the ecumenic age does illustrate that history at the “empirical” level is a meaningless succession of empires with each claiming to represent universal mankind, order in human history and society can only be discerned, Voegelin contends, in the structure of consciousness. Using Western civilization as an example, Voegelin argues that meaning “in” history can be discovered in the breakthrough (leap in Being) of the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, and through Judaic-Christian eschatological thought, particularly Paul. The differentiation of experiences in consciousness provides intelligibility to human existence. Because of the new experiences and symbols man’s understanding of the nature and structure of reality, the universality of mankind, and the eschatological goal of a transfiguration of reality are all changed during this age. As an illustration that history is a trail of equivalent symbols, Voegelin finds each of these experiences symbolized, although more compactly, in earlier non-Western civilizations, including the Chinese.

The most difficult aspect of The Ecumenic Age to understand is the relationship between Voegelin’s theory of consciousness and the structure of history. There are, I think, three major components to his theory of consciousness. First, there is the primary experience of all men: the anxiety-producing tension between existence and non-existence. Through this central experience man gradually becomes aware of the order of being, and the search for meaning in existence is started. The search can be done through a variety of speculations such as cosmology, philosophy, and theology, and it likewise does not matter whether Democritus, Plato, or the Upanishads provides the symbols. The primary experience can be detected in the equivalent symbols, and it always serves as the initial basis for consciousness.

Second, when man discovers his precarious existence, his consciousness is given a direction and form: he becomes a questioner, wonderer, and searcher regardless of his style of speculation. In the search a range of experiences covering the hierarchy of being is differential, according to the degree of perception and analytical ability of the thinker. Consciousness participates in, and is a part of, reality through this active search for meaning. In the West and for the philosophically articulate, reason has become the form of consciousness through which the process of participation in reality is best symbolized.

Third, there is an epistemological component to the theory of consciousness by which the relationship between the theory and the structure of history is explained. Consciousness is the source for the experiences and symbols through which reality is articulated, including the personal, social, and historical dimension of man’s existence, but consciousness is not free-floating, external, or independent of the cosmos. Indeed, the contrary claim is the great fallacy of all Gnostic thinkers who “forget that the cosmos does not emerge from consciousness, but that man’s consciousness emerges from the cosmos.” Men and their symbols, accordingly, live in the divine human In-Between, the Metaxy, the place between God and Man, and, which is the crucial epistemological lesson, the symbols cannot be absolutized as if they were outside and the process of reality: “The language symbols belong, as do their meanings, to the Metaxy of the experiences from which they arise as their truth as long as the process of experience and symbolization is not deformed by doctrinal reflection, there is no doubt about the metaleptic status of the symbols.” In the Metaxy, then, consciousness participates in both immanent and transcendent being; through its symbols and experiences reality is discovered; and the self-consciousness of its discoveries (spiritual or philosophical breakthroughs) marks epochs in history; and it is this process of differentiation within consciousness which constitutes and provides meaning in history.

A full assessment of Voegelin’s achievement must wait until the final volume of Order and History is published. Certainly, no one would question that his works show a massive erudition and originality. However, the coherence of a philosophy of history as a philosophy of consciousness will be much debated. All speculative philosophers, and Voegelin is no exception, attempt to create a framework within which all elements of our existence can be understood. Whitehead himself referred to this goal as a “flight after the unattainable.” Voegelin has tried to establish with his theory of consciousness the philosophic parameters for the flight itself by reminding us, as an example, that we live in the Metaxy. Perhaps it is this sense of limits on our philosophical and civilizational claims for permanence that accounts for the pervading spirit in Volume IV of an urbane pessimism reminiscent of St. Augustine. Indeed, Voegelin’s own qualified assessment of Augustine’s achievement might apply to himself: “Not until St. Augustine wrote his Civitas Dei was a symbolism found that integrated the pragmatic and spiritual orders into a whole of meaning, at least after a fashion, at least for Western Christian civilization, at least for a time.” This assessment may provide all the coherence and claim to permanence that Voegelin would wish for himself. Nevertheless, there is a very practical consequence of Voegelin’s philosophic journey. His analysis of the experiential origins of the metastatic faiths can cool the passions of our time. We are reminded that we are neither gods nor self-created and that our civitas is never, as Hobbes claimed, as immortal as the existence of man. The philosophic. reconstruction of this perspective is a major achievement.  

Jene Porter taught political science at the University of Saskatchewan.

Posted: November 25, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.

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