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A Guide to Voegelin’s Thought

book cover imageEric Voegelin’s Search for Order in History
edited by Stephen A. McKnight.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978. 209 pp. [Expanded edition, 1987, 252 pp.]

Gregory Wolfe

In the spring of 1953, Time magazine published a long review-essay entitled “Journalism and Joachim’s Children.” The book reviewed was book cover imageThe New Science of Politics, written by an Austrian émigré scholar named Eric Voegelin. Voegelin, the essay claimed, had made a significant breakthrough in political theory: he had regained the philosophical perspective on politics and had broken with the reductionist systems of positivism and progressivism. His insights into modern totalitarian ideologies as equivalents of the early Christian heresy of Gnosticism were invaluable, the essay concluded. Finally, the reviewers declared that in the next ten years Time would work within the philosophical framework laid down by Voegelin.

Predictably, Time’s enthusiasm for Eric Voegelin waned under the pressure of omnipresent liberalism. But Voegelin’s achievement is not so easily forgotten. Voegelin has continued to write, and his stature as one of this century’s leading philosophers is essentially secured—at least among those who do not worship the Zeitgeist. Literally dozens of essays have been written on various aspects of his work, and several conferences have met to discuss issues which he has raised.

Voegelin [1901–1985] has rightly been called a “professors’ professor.” He combines an encyclopedic knowledge of politics, philosophy, religion, history, and anthropology with a theoretical competence and vocabulary comparable to that of Whitehead and Polanyi. Add to this erudition Voegelin’s willingness to revise his ideas according to the implications of his inquiries, and one has a thinker who is challenging for even the most knowledgeable reader. In his Preface to Eric Voegelin’s Search for Order in History, editor Stephen A. McKnight cites these features of Voegelin’s thought and the fact that essays on him are scattered as reasons for bringing out a collection. Though the quality of the essays in McKnight’s collection is uneven, they do deal with Voegelin’s major ideas. More importantly, each essay raises respectful but difficult questions about aspects of Voegelin’s work. Particularly helpful are the complete bibliographies of works by and about Voegelin.

McKnight’s collection properly begins with biographical essays which analyze Voegelin’s philosophical journey. In “Voegelin’s Changing Conception of History and Consciousness,” William C. Havard describes the positivistic ideas which Voegelin held as a young professor of law in Austria. Voegelin’s positivism was shaken when he confronted the ideas of such scholars as George Santayana and Alfred North Whitehead. But, as Havard points out, it was the onslaught of totalitarian ideologies in Europe that brought Voegelin to see the inadequacy of positivism. His experience of national socialism taught him that “Europe had no conceptual tools with which to grasp the horror that was upon her.” He perceived that ideology either reduced or rebelled against reality, and sought to impose a “second reality” (as Robert Musil has called it) upon society.

Stephen McKnight’s essay, “The Evolution of Voegelin’s Theory of Politics and History,” continues Havard’s analysis. McKnight shows that by 1944 Voegelin believed the study of politics in need of “re-theoretization.” The “second reality” engendered by positivism had made politics a study of institutions and power structures on the world-immanent level. Without any reference to transcendent reality, modern political science studied man’s “behavior” in the manner of the natural sciences; the soul of man was no longer the focus of political theory. Philosophy, which Plato had characterized a the soul’s openness to divine truth, had been abolished by modernism. McKnight describes Voegelin’s historical investigations as an attempt to understand man’s experience of reality in its wholeness.

At this point in his career, as both Havard and McKnight observe, Voegelin was under contract with a publisher to write a history of political ideas. In studying Shelling’s philosophy of myth and revelation, Voegelin saw that “ideas” had no autonomous existence. As Havard writes: “It was becoming increasingly clear to him . . . that ideas are not entities in history; the real entities are societies; which express their existence in history through an enormously complex set of symbols.” The articulation of these symbols by which a society came to understand itself made for that society’s existence in history.

The third essay in the McKnight collection is a review by Hans Aufricht of The New Science of Politics. In this book, published in 1952, many of Voegelin’s ideas came together. The book’s title, as Voegelin explained, meant not that he was attempting to invent a “new” political science but that scholars in various fields had broken through the constrictions of positivism and progressivism and regained a truly scientific and philosophical perspective. On the basis of those achievements, Voegelin hoped to restore politics as a science in “search for truth concerning the nature of the various realms of being.” The first half of the book examines “existential representation”: the way a society sees itself as related to transcendent truth through symbols. The remainder of the book deals with “Gnosticism,” which Voegelin sees as the essence of modernity. Modern ideology, like ancient Gnosticism, Voegelin argues, sees the world as evil and beyond reform. The modern Gnostic seeks the knowledge (“gnosis”) of the laws of history or nature by which he can reconstitute society into a heaven on earth, thus “immanentizing the eschaton.”

Aufricht questions the seemingly unbridgeable gulf which Voegelin sees between immanence and transcendence. Aufricht writes that Voegelin “seems to deny man’s capacity of experiencing God as ‘way, truth, life,’ since he designates all endeavors in this direction as ‘fallacious immanentization’ of God.” Though Voegelin’s later writings have shown that man can experience God in his soul, Aufricht is correct in noting Voegelin’s lack of a sacramental vision of life, and this criticism will surface again in his treatment of Christianity. What Aufricht does not touch upon, however, is Voegelin’s use of the term “Gnostic.” Though useful as a heuristic device, the term is not wholly satisfactory: the ancient Gnostics sought to escape the world; the modern Gnostics want to change it. The ancient Gnostics saw nothing in this world and yearned for life in a radically transcendent cosmos.

Because Voegelin believed that ideas were not primary and that symbols arising in concrete societies were the true sources of order, he turned toward the study of consciousness. His multi-volume work, Order and History, was conceived as an exploration of the modes of consciousness which occurred as “leaps in being.” The two “leaps” which have had most impact on Western civilization were the discovery of the mind in Greece, called “philosophy,” and the experience of the Israelites as the Chosen People. With his emphasis on consciousness, Voegelin examined these “leaps” in relation to the mythological civilizations from which they emerged.

Bernhard W. Anderson’s essay, “Politics and the Transcendent,” is a long and lucid essay on the first volume of Order and History, Israel and Revelation. Voegelin, Anderson writes, sees the Exodus not simply as a pragmatic event, but as an “exodus from the cosmological civilization.” The theophany of the Exodus established the Israelites as the Chosen People under God, bound by the Covenant to follow the law and live in righteousness. Voegelin develops this theme of the “leap” as a new life of personal attunement to the order of divine being. Anderson questions whether Voegelin’s philosophy of being as mere “attunement” does full justice to the Old Testament. “According to Israel’s witnesses,” Anderson writes, “there is no true being unless it is a being-in-relationship, and there can be no attunement with God unless it is manifest in the social sphere of man’s life.” Anderson also observes Voegelin’s difficulty with the biblical view of evil as irrational and stemming from the “heart,” because it poses problems for Voegelin’s philosophical view of man as rational being.

“Existence in Tension: Man in Search of His Humanity,” by John H. Hallowell, examines The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle, the second and third volumes of Order in History. In these volumes, the Greek “leap in being” is seen to occur when philosophy arises and supplants myth. Parmenides, in using the symbol “Being,” broke with the myth. Voegelin, observes Hallowell, notes that the experience of Being resulted not from philosophical speculation but from mystical transport in which the individual soul feels itself participating in divine reality. Plato denied that philosophy was based on a set of propositions; it was a way of life, and his dialogue form was the closest he could come to a mimesis of life. Hallowell, tracing Voegelin’s careful exposition of Plato and Aristotle, raises some important questions. Voegelin speaks of myth, philosophy, revelation, and mysticism as ways men may partially understand the order of Being, Hallowell notes, but he does not make precise distinctions among them. Hallowell also raises the question of how good symbols can be distinguished from those which reflect a deformation of reality.

Voegelin’s conception of philosophy is discussed further by James L Wiser’s “Philosophy as Inquiry and Persuasion.” Like Plato and Aristotle, Voegelin sees philosophy as a public act in which the philosopher attempts to persuade men to turn toward the truth. Wiser concludes that Voegelin has taken some large steps toward the restoration of philosophy in our time. Wiser sees three of Voegelin’s concepts as particularly important: the belief in an ontological ground by which the adequacy of opinions be measured, the universality of symbols representing man’s primary experiences, and the constancy of human nature.

“A Diminished Gospel: A Critique of Voegelin’s Interpretation of Christianity,” by Bruce Douglass, raises an issue familiar to students of Voegelin. Douglass’ critique, unfortunately, seems to miss some of the central problems in Voegelin’s handling of Christianity. Douglass, a Protestant, spends a great deal of space criticizing Voegelin’s conception of the Reformation. On a more important issue, the Resurrection, Douglass is too easily satisfied. As Douglass points out, Voegelin’s treatment of Christianity has been scanty, and in the fourth volume of Order and History, The Ecumenic Age, is confined to a small chapter on “Paul’s Vision of the Resurrected.” Voegelin sees Christianity as the myth about Christ as expounded by St. Paul, and feels that doctrine is a “fall” from the primary experience which engenders the symbol of resurrection. In a desire to align Christianity with his philosophy of myth and symbols, Voegelin has ignored the centrality of the Incarnation, and has not understood the efficacy of dogma in Christian life. Like Hans Aufricht, Douglass believes Voegelin’s preoccupation with Gnosticism makes him treat God’s sacramental presence as a form of Gnostic “immanentization.” Douglass does make an important point in saying that Voegelin does not understand the essence of the Gospel message as salvation.

McKnight’s collection ends with a long and intricate discussion by John William Corrington of Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness. The concepts in The Ecumenic Age, Corrington argues, show that Voegelin is more and more concerned with the philosophy of consciousness. Whereas Voegelin placed the center of man’s humanity in the soul in the earlier volumes of Order and History, he now sees it as residing in the “consciousness.” Voegelin uses the Platonic symbol of the Metaxy or In-Between to elaborate his philosophy of consciousness. Man exists between life and death, time and timelessness, order and disorder, truth and untruth. “Though the divine reality is one,” writes Voegelin in The Ecumenic Age, “its presence is experienced in the two modes of the Beyond and the Beginning. The Beyond is present in the immediate experience of movements in the psyche; while the presence of the divine Beginning is mediated through the experience of the existence of intelligible structure of things-in the cosmos.” Corrington delves into the origin of the deformed consciousness which creates the “second reality.” Following Voegelin, Corrington concludes that it is the desire to eliminate the tension of the In-Between and to erect the poles into separate entities which disorients consciousness, and he uses Marxism as an example.

The only major disappointment in this volume is the absence of essays by Gerhart Niemeyer and Dante Germino, two of the leading Voegelin scholars. But this collection is only a beginning. It is the evidence of the growing interest in the work of Eric Voegelin, an interest that will continue for a long time to come. 

Gregory Wolfe is currently editor of Image Journal, director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing Program, and writer in residence at Seattle Pacific University. His website is http://gregorywolfe.com.

Posted: February 20, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

The survival of any culture, or of the material fabric of civilization, requires vigorous imagination and readiness to sacrifice. By dullness and complacency are intellectual and social orders undone.

Russell Kirk

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