Eric Voegelin

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1. Voegelin in View:

"Eric Voegelin’s work is variously described as a philosophy of politics, a philosophy of history, or a philosophy of consciousness, but he most often characterized his work as political science and himself as a political philosopher. Born in Cologne, Germany in 1901, some of his earliest childhood experiences, later recalled in 1943, became the basis of his philosophy of consciousness and are described in his book Anamnesis (from the Greek “remembrance).”

After emigrating to the United States in 1938, he devoted his life to understanding the spiritual disorders and political violence which began in the fifteenth century and reached their apogee in our own time. His own writings have drawn both accolades and criticism, as well as his original historical studies on such varied topics as Marx, the Mongols, and Machiavelli. His skill as a literary critic was remarkable whether interpreting Henry James or T.S. Eliot.

He did post-doctoral studies in the United States from 1924 to 1926 and in Paris after that, teaching political theory and sociology at the University of Vienna after his habilitation in 1928. He published two books analyzing racism in 1933 and this forced his flight from Austria following the Anschluss in 1938. After a brief stay in Switzerland, he arrived in the United States and taught at a series of universities before joining Louisiana State University’s Department of Government in 1942, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1944.

He remained in Baton Rouge at LSU until 1958 when he accepted the Max Weber chair in political science at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilians Universität. The chair had been vacant since Weber’s death in 1920. While in Munich he founded the Institut für Politische Wissenschaft. Voegelin returned to America in 1969 to join Stanford University as well as the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. After retirement from the university he continued his work to the very day of his death on January 19, 1985."


2. Brittanica:

"Voegelin is best known for his work on the philosophy of history. He examined not only political institutions but also language symbols and the nature of civilization in current and ancient texts. His work centred on the interpretation of the governing symbols and myths of political society, the understanding of which he viewed as basic to the success of political theory.

Among the principal works of Voegelin are Der Autoritäre Staat (1936), The New Science of Politics (1952), Order and History, 4 vol. (1956–74), Science, Politics and Gnosticism (1959), and From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975)."


Political/scholarship Bio

1. From the Wikipedia:

"In his later life Voegelin worked to account for the endemic political violence of the twentieth century, in an effort variously referred to as a philosophy of politics, history, or consciousness. In Voegelin's Weltanschauung, he "blamed a flawed utopian interpretation of Christianity for spawning totalitarian movements like Nazism and Communism."[8] Voegelin eschewed any ideological labels or categorizations that readers and followers attempted to impose on his work.

Voegelin published scores of books, essays, and reviews in his lifetime. An early work was Die politischen Religionen (1938; The Political Religions), on totalitarian ideologies as political religions due to their structural similarities to religion. He wrote the multi-volume (English-language) Order and History, which began publication in 1956 and remained incomplete at the time of his death 29 years later. His 1951 Charles Walgreen lectures, published as The New Science of Politics, is sometimes seen as a prolegomenon to this series, and remains his best known work. He left many manuscripts unpublished, including a history of political ideas, which has since been published in eight volumes.

Order and History was originally conceived as a five-volume examination of the history of order occasioned by Voegelin's personal experience of the disorder of his time. The first three volumes, Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, and Plato and Aristotle, appeared in rapid succession in 1956 and 1957 and focused on the evocations of order in the ancient Near East and Greece.

Voegelin then encountered difficulties which slowed down the publication. This, combined with his university administrative duties and work related to the new institute, meant that seventeen years separated the fourth from the third volume. His new concerns were indicated in the 1966 German collection Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik. The fourth volume, The Ecumenic Age, appeared in 1974. It broke with the chronological pattern of the previous volumes by investigating symbolizations of order ranging in time from the Sumerian King List to Hegel. Work on the final volume, In Search of Order, occupied Voegelin's final days and it was published posthumously in 1987.[original research?]

One of Voegelin's main points in his later work is that our experience of transcendence conveys a sense of order. Although transcendence can never be fully defined or described, it may be conveyed in symbols. A particular sense of transcendent order serves as a basis for a particular political order. A philosophy of consciousness can therefore become a philosophy of politics. Insights may become fossilised as dogma.

Voegelin is more interested in the ontological issues that arise from these experiences than the epistemological questions of how we know that a vision of order is true or not. For Voegelin, the essence of truth is trust. All philosophy begins with experience of the divine. Since God is experienced as good, one can be confident that reality is knowable. As Descartes would say, God is not a deceiver. Given the possibility of knowledge, Voegelin holds there are two modes: intentionality and luminosity. Visions of order belong to the latter category. The truth of any vision is confirmed by its orthodoxy, by what Voegelin jokingly calls its lack of originality."


2. Voegelin in View:

"He began with Greek philosophy, a “phenomenon in history” but also “a constituent of history,” no less than “history is a constituent of philosophy,” as well as “a field of phenomena for philosophical investigation.”[7] As a “phenomenon in history,” philosophy is preceded by the order of the myth all over the globe so that part of Plato’s symbols concern his experience of an epochal newness of life that is philosophically lived. Plato and Aristotle are succeeded, on the other hand, by schools formed in their names through which occurs a hardening of this way of life into prepositional doctrines while philosophy sinks to the level of a contest between academics. Along this outline, then, Voegelin turned to a study of the order of the myth, the “cosmological empires,” and to parallel breaks with the myth, primarily that of Israel. The vast scene of Voegelin’s research is beginning to open before our eyes. If one may distinguish in his work the aspects of philosophy, symbolization, history, and gnosticism, none of these should be separated from the others.

The order preceding philosophy was characterized not only by the symbolism of the myth, but also by the fact that society, as a whole, was the lone source of order. The myth was effective chiefly as social ritual. Societies clustered around their myths so that different myths, or different gods, ruled in great variety. The break with this condition came as there arose, in various places, solitary figures of authority vis-à-vis society: Greek philosophers, Hebrew prophets, Chinese sages, the Indian Buddha. Now the question of truth came to the fore: The private person who was not “one of the scribes” and who held no official position spoke “with authority” as he communicated the truth mystically experienced in his soul. At the same time, the solitary persons of authority could not institute social ritual; they had to communicate truth personally, by means available to a solitary person. The imagery of the Hebrew prophets differed from the imagery of a myth. The Greek philosopher used the help of the disciplines of logic and argument. The philosopher’s communication, moreover, did not convey stories about gods, but rather insight into the deepest movements of the soul where the “order of being” revealed itself in the experiences of the “tension between God and man.” Such experiences as thanatos (death), eros (love), dike (justice) were universally acknowledged and therefore amounted to an empirical control over the private thinker’s subjectivity. Consciousness is not something enclosed between the walls of one’s skull, it is “consciousness of something,” the eminent reality of being, which “all men by nature desire to know.”[8] The eminently new experience of the philosopher was of the nous, the mind which could reflect on ignorance as a movement and mystery as an “object.” He found himself being “moved by some unknown force to ask the questions, he feels himself drawn into the search.”[9] The nous was experienced not as if it were an instrument, but rather as “divine or the most divine element within us.”[10] “Wondering, searching, questioning” became core concepts of a cluster of symbols “bringing forcefully home the philosopher’s understanding of the process in the soul as a distinct area of reality with an order of its own.”[11]

Voegelin’s approach to Greek philosophy is powerfully innovative, not in that its elements cannot be found in the works of other scholars, but in that he does not allow Greek philosophy to sink to the level of a chapter in a “history of ideas.” Nor do Greek philosophers interest him as representing “schools,” or even Athens, seeing that they speak in the name of the constancy of human nature. The history in which he meets them is not a chain of ideas but the historically moving order of human existence. That history is not future-determined. It should be seen in all its dimensions as the “flowing presence of God.” This entails, for us, “the obligation to communicate and to listen,” for “the revelation comes to one man for all men, and in his response he is the representative of mankind.”[12]

In his loving reunion with Greek philosophy, Voegelin found not so much a number of concepts — although these he found, too — but through the exegesis of the texts a mystical unity of souls past and present in the quest for order. All human order originates in the metaxy, “in-between God and man.” The philosopher’s wonderment, his “serious” search, his experience of being “drawn,” his exploration of the soul and the nous resulted in the higher insights that bear the mark of philosophy. The Hebrew prophets, approximately contemporaneous with Greek philosophers, experienced the tension between God and man with a stronger emphasis on the irruption of the divine into the human, that is, “revelation.” Both occur with “a temporal flow” of experience in which eternity is present. “This flow cannot be dissected into past, present, and future… rather, it is the permanent presence of the tension toward eternal being, related to worldly time.”[13] The tension is personally experienced, but the experience is not an idiosyncrasy. He who experiences this tension represents mankind and knows that the experience must be communicated as authoritative. If one wonders why important insights into order are allowed to arise in the soul of one man rather than all men, one must likewise wonder why such events as Hebrew prophecy and Greek philosophy are allowed to occur in small and powerless peoples rather than under the canopy of world-spanning imperial power. In volume IV of Order and History, Voegelin gives full attention to these problems. Before, in “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,”[14] he had met and analyzed the other objection that “the experience is an illusion,” leaving it in shreds after a few very precise arguments. Now, he turned to three fundamental questions:

(1) Why should there be epochs of advancing insight at all? Why is the structure of reality not known in differentiated form at all times?

(2) Why must the insights be discovered by such rare individuals as prophets, philosophers, and saints? Why is not every man the recipient of the insights?

(3) Why when the insights are gained, are they not generally accepted? Why must the epochal truth go through the historical torment of imperfect articulation, evasion, skepticism, disbelief, rejection, deformation, and of renaissances, renovations, rediscoveries, rearticulations, and further differentiations?[15]

To these questions there is no answer, just as little as there is an answer to the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” In Voegelin’s words, “The questions symbolize the mystery in the structure of history by their unanswerability.” The Question, as he calls it from there, is a “symbolism sui generis” and must be seen “as a constant structure in the experience of reality.”[16] “To face the Mystery of Reality means to live in the faith that is the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen.”(Heb. 11:1) The questioning mind essays something like “adequate” answers concerning things and events in the cosmos, answers that should be seen as “equivalents” in history: the myth, the noesis of philosophers, the revelation of saints. The physical universe as the ultimate foundation for the higher strata in the hierarchy of being cannot be identified as the ultimate reality of the Whole, because in the stratum of consciousness we experience the presence of divine reality as the constituent of humanity . . . Things do not happen in the astro-physical universe; the universe, together with all things founded in it, happens in God.[17]

Volume IV of Order and History begins with this incisive statement: “The present volume, The Ecumenic Age, breaks with the program I have developed for Order and History in the Preface to Volume I of the series.” With what did Voegelin break, and for what reason?

We have seen that his emphasis on the “concrete consciousness” as a source of “objectivity” introduced, from the outset, into consciousness the dimension of history. By virtue of its concreteness it is a historical event; history, therefore, is a dimension which it desires to interpret in its quest for knowledge. The intertwining of consciousness and history, as being constituted and as constituting, as participating and yet ignorant of the terms of participation, caused Voegelin to develop his philosophy of consciousness through historical materials, in consequent conjunction with a philosophy of history. In Plato he found a strong “epochal” sense, a sharp separation of the “before” from the “after” — the “before” seen as the “falsehood” of the poets creating the myth, the “after” seen as the truth of the nous and the philosophical symbols arranged in disciplined order. Voegelin called this event a “leap in being,” since philosophers understood themselves not as inventors of new ideas but as discoverers of a “new life.” The structural similarities between this particular “leap in being” and the one in Israel, and yet also a third, in Christianity, suggested to Voegelin a progressive succession from the cosmological order of myth and the political form of the “cosmological empire” (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon), through a process of “differentiation” to a higher type of human existence. The “differentiation” happened to the compactness of ordering symbols in the cosmological myth, from which the Hebrew differentiated the element of righteousness and Greek philosophers the element of the soul. This did not commit Voegelin to a progressivist view of history, since he also saw clearly the potentiality and actual occurrence of retrogression, as well as a “fall” from the new and higher order.

This first scheme — ”cosmological empire” to “leap in being” to new order of human existence — became possible through the insight that the experiences and symbolisms of a Plato concerned neither philosophers nor Greeks alone but all mankind, which also applied to Israel. When dealing with the content of truth in political representation, Voegelin at first distinguished three “types of truth:” “cosmological truth, anthropological truth, and soteriological truth,”[18] in each case “the truth of man and the truth of God” being inseparable, each authoritative, and each forming human character.[19] No relativism follows from this listing of three “types of truth.” The “differentiated” truth is higher, and the philosopher is not permitted to retrogress “from the maximum of differentiation.”[20] “The opening of the soul was an epochal event in the history of mankind because, with the differentiation of the soul as the sensorium of transcendence, the critical, theoretical standards for the interpretation of human existence in society, as well as the source of their authority, came into view.”[21] This remark enables us to understand Voegelin’s “giant cycle, transcending the cycles of the single civilizations . . . the pre-Christian high civilizations would form its ascending branch; modern, Gnostic civilization would form its descending branch.”[22] Thus cosmological empires, leap in being, maximum of differentiation, Gnostic fall from truth could be fitted together into something like a form of history, insofar as it could be known. That plan, which called for three more volumes of Order and History to deal with the “descending branch,” was abandoned.

The reasons were, on the one hand, new discoveries of archaeologists and the historical sciences, and, on the other hand, new discoveries of categories, experiences, and problems on the part of Voegelin. Among the former, there are figure discoveries of civilizations older than Egypt and of early symbols in places where one would not have expected to find them. Among the latter, there is the growing importance of cosmogony (“the Beginning”) in its relation to “the Beyond,” the awareness of linear constructions of history long before the Greeks and of cyclical constructions right down to the present. Two difficulties resulted: the impossibility of accommodating the new materials and insights in the limit of three volumes when even five additional ones would not suffice; “the impossibility of aligning the empirical types in any time sequence at all that would permit the structures actually found to emerge from a history conceived as a ‘course.’”[23] Abandoning the overall form of successive historical structures did not require the abandonment of the principle on which Voegelin’s work was based. On the contrary, it was the consistent and persistent application of these principles that had led to the two “impossibilities.” Thus, in both the first scheme of history and in the new one, the order of human existence has a history. Advances, which result from “spiritual outbursts,” produce sharp distinctions of “before” and “after,” so that “the order of history” is still “the history of order.” By contrast, however, the new materials and insights required that “the analysis had to move backward and forward and sideways, in order to follow empirically the pattern of meanings as they revealed themselves.”[24] New problems emerged as Voegelin’s research focused on the type he called “ecumenic empire,” or multi-civilizational empire, occasioned both by the conqueror’s need for a trans-civilizational truth of his imperial, representative position, and spiritual outbursts of subjected peoples as a response to their experiences of anxiety and disorder. In any case, “the form which a philosophy of history has to assume in the present historical situation… is definitely not a story of meaningful events to be arranged on a time line.” “Lines of meaning” can be found in history, but not a “meaning of history.”



Analysis of Political Gnosticism

From the Wikipedia:

"In his The New Science of Politics, Order and History, and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin opposed what he believed to be unsound Gnostic influences in politics. He defined gnosis as "a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite."[9] Gnosticism is a "type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. Gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism)."

Apart from the Classical Christian writers against heresy, his sources on Gnosticism were secondary since the texts of the Nag Hammadi library were not yet widely available. For example, Voegelin used Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Hans Jonas.[10]

Voegelin perceived similarities between ancient Gnosticism and modernist political theories, particularly Communism and Nazism. He identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnection from society and a belief that this lack is the result of the inherent disorder, or even evil, of the world.

That alienation has two effects:

The first is the belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin (the Gnostics themselves referred to that as gnosis).

The second is the desire to implement and or create a policy to actualize the speculation, or Immanentize the Eschaton: to create a sort of heaven on earth within history.

According to Voegelin, the Gnostics really reject the Christian eschaton of the kingdom of God and replace it with a human form of salvation through esoteric ritual or practice.

The primary feature that characterizes a tendency as gnostic for Voegelin is that it is motivated by the notion that the world and humanity can be fundamentally transformed and perfected through the intervention of a chosen group of people (an elite), a man-god, or men-Gods. The Übermensch is the chosen one who has a kind of special knowledge (like magic or science) about how to perfect human existence.

That stands in contrast to a notion of redemption that is achieved through the reconciliation of mankind with the divine. Marxism, therefore, qualifies as "gnostic" because it purports that the perfect society on earth can be established once capitalism has been overthrown by the proletariat. Likewise, Nazism is seen as "gnostic" because it posits that utopia can be achieved by attaining racial purity once the master race has freed itself of the racially inferior and the degenerate.

In both cases specifically analyzed by Voegelin, the totalitarian impulse is derived from the alienation of the individuals from the rest of society. That leads to a desire to dominate (libido dominandi), which has its roots in the Gnostic's conviction of the imperative of his vision but also in his lack of concord with a large body of his society. As a result, there is very little regard for the welfare of those who are harmed by the resulting politics, which ranges from coercive to calamitous (such as the English proverb: "You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet" or its Russian variety: "When you chop wood, chips fly").

Because Voegelin applied the concept of gnosis to a wide array of ideologies and movements such as Marxism, communism, National Socialism, progressivism, liberalism, and humanism,[11] critics have proposed that Voegelin's concept of Gnosis lacks theoretical precision.[12][13] Therefore, Voegelin's gnosis can, according to the criticis, hardly serve as a scientific basis for an analysis of political movements. Rather, the term "Gnosticism" as used by Voegelin is more of an invective just as "when on the lowest level of propaganda those who do not conform with one's own opinion are smeared as communists."[14]

* Immanentizing the eschaton

One of his most quoted passages (by such figures as William F. Buckley Jr.)[15] is:

The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.[16]

From this comes the catchphrase: "Don't immanentize the eschaton!", which simply means: "Do not try to make that which belongs to the afterlife happen here and now" or "Don't try to create Heaven on Earth."

When Voegelin uses the term gnosis negatively, it is to reflect the word as found in the Manichaeism and Valentinianism of antiquity. As it is later then immanentized (or manifest) in modernity in the wake of Joachim of Fiore and in the various ideological movements outlined in his works.[17] Voegelin also builds on the term "Gnosticism" as it is defined by Hans Jonas in his The Gnostic Religion, in reference to Heidegger's Gnosticism, which is to have an understanding and control over reality that makes mankind as powerful as the role of God in reality.

Voegelin was arguing from a Hellenistic position that good gnosis is derived from pistis (faith) and that the pagan tradition made a false distinction between faith and noesis. Furthermore, the dualist perspective was the very essence of gnosticism via the misuse of noema and caused a destructive division between the internal and external world in human consciousness. To reconcile the internal (subjective) and external (objective) world of consciousness was the restoration of order.[18][19]

* Social alienation

Voegelin identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, (a sense of disconnection with society) and a belief that the disconnection is the result of the inherent disorder or even evil of the world. The alienation has two effects:

The belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin (the Gnostics themselves referred to it as gnosis).

The desire to create and implement a policy to actualize the speculation, or as Voegelin described it, to Immanentize the Eschaton, to create a sort of heaven on earth within history by triggering the Apocalypse .

Voegelin's conception of gnosis, and his analysis of Gnosticism in general was criticized by Eugene Webb. In the article "Voegelin's Gnosticism Reconsidered," Webb explained that Voegelin's concept of Gnosticism was conceived "not primarily to describe ancient phenomena but to help us understand some modern ones for which the evidence is a great deal clearer."[20][page needed] Webb continues, "the category (of Gnosticism) is of limited usefulness for the purpose to which he put it... and the fact that the idea of Gnosticism as such has become so problematic and complex in recent years must at the very least undercut Voegelin's effort to trace a historical line of descent from ancient sources to the modern phenomena he tried to use them to illuminate."[20][page needed]

* Spiritual revival

Voegelin's work does not lay out a program of reform or offer a doctrine of recovery from what he termed the "demono-maniacal" in modern politics. However, interspersed in his writings is the idea of a spiritual recovery of the primary experiences of divine order. He was not interested so much in what religious dogmas might result in personal salvation but rather a recovery of the human in the classical sense of the daimonios aner (Plato's term for "the spiritual man"). He did not speculate on the institutional forms in which a spiritual recovery might take place but expressed confidence that the current 500-year cycle of secularism would come to an end because he stated that "you cannot deny the human forever."

In an essay published in 1965,[21] Voegelin suggested that the Soviet Union would collapse from within because of its historical roots in philosophy and Christianity. Later, at an informal talk given at University College, Dublin, Ireland in 1972,[22] Voegelin suggested the Soviet Union might collapse by 1980 because of its failure to succeed in its domestic commitments and external political challenges."


2. Sources

Fryderyk Kwiatkowski:

"After emigrating to the United States in 1938, Voegelin focused on studying spiritual revolts and thinkers who played an important role in the formative period of modernity, such as Joachim of Flora or Jean Bodin. According to Voegelin, they transferred ideas stemming from Gnosticism, the movement which he identified as a phenomenon responsible for the crisis in Western culture and the development of totalitarianism. His diagnosis of modernity, as the Gnostic age, is considered the most famous and controversial aspect of his work. As we shall see, it is not only because he does not demonstrate a historical transmission of ideas typically associated with Gnosticism but also because they cannot be included into his understanding of the term which predominantly signifies immanentist eschatologies and their secular variants.

Voegelin’s fascination with Gnosticism was sparked especially by two works: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s introduction to Adversus Haereses by Irenaeus of Lyons and Hans Jonas’s first volume of Gnosis und spätantiker Geist.6 Balthasar’s discussion of the concept of self-redemption and Jonas’s transhistorical understanding of Gnosticism, hermeneutically embedded in existential philosophy, had a particular effect on Voegelin’s early approach.7 In the “Preface to the American Edition” of the Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Voegelin writes that the problem of the relationship between ancient Gnosis and modern political movements “goes back to the 1930s, when Hans Jonas published his first volume of Gnosis und spätantiker Geist.”

Initially, Voegelin formulated his Gnosis-thesis in “Walgreen Lectures” at the University of Chicago in 1951, published as The New Science of Politics (1952, hereafter NSP). The book was widely discussed in the United States. In March 1953, Time magazine published the review of Voegelin’s NSP, which depicted a radical interpretation of his thesis.9 Stretching out its main argument, it discussed issues that were being hotly debated at that time, even though the author did not address them in the book: Cold War politics, the McCarthy Committee, or the Korean War. Despite the controversies on the applicability of Voegelin’s thesis to interpret these events, it is indisputable that his thoughts have been widely discussed by American intellectuals and reached mainstream too. Meanwhile, he developed his approach further and presented the results of his work in an inaugural lecture “Wissenschaft, Politik und Gnosis” delivered at the University of Munich in 1958, and the article “Ersatz Religion” in 1960.10 These were translated into English and first published in 1968 in the book entitled Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1968, hereafter SPG)."


Eric Voegelin on the Politics of Representation and Political Gnosticism

R.R. Reno:

"Representation is one of Voegelin’s central concepts. (“Truth and Representation” was the original title of the lecture series published as The New Science of Politics.) He is not concerned with mechanisms of representative government, such as elections, parliaments, and constitutions. He uses the term in a deeper sense. No society can operate simply as a whole. Every body politic requires leaders, which means that a part decides and acts on behalf of the whole. “Representation” defines this part-whole relation. The legitimacy of power in a regime depends upon the capacity of its leading part to act in accord with—to represent—that which society as a whole regards as centrally important.

Voegelin sets aside the “old” science of politics, which thinks in terms of different types of regimes: aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, tyranny, and democracy. He rightly notes that there is no “correct” regime. The task of representation can be accomplished by a king, a royal court, a military junta, a congress, or some other configuration. When representation fails, regimes falter and collapse, as did the French monarchy in 1789 and Weimar’s liberal constitutionalism in 1933.

Voegelin specifies two imperatives of representation. The first he calls “existential.” By this term he means that the ruling part of society must serve the vital needs and interests of the whole. Leaders who will not defend their country against attack are self-evidently unrepresentative. (One reason we are experiencing populist discontent is that our leaders failed to protect the country against economic “attacks” triggered by globalization.) Yet societies seek more than survival. Each has a genius loci, a sense of specialness and historical purpose, one often embodied in its poetry, history, and language. This higher existence, too, must be defended and carried forward. (Another cause of populism is the trend of leaders to become Anywhere people—to use David Goodhart’s apt characterization—while the general populace remains Somewhere people.) As Voegelin notes, “If a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a representative ruler in the existential sense will sooner or later make an end of it; and quite possibly the new existential ruler will not be too representative in the constitutional sense.” Fortunately, we have not arrived at a post-constitutional juncture of this sort. But Voegelin’s insight needs to be pondered carefully: Legality is not the same as legitimacy.

The second imperative of representation concerns truth. Every society wishes to believe that its affairs realize fundamental truths in public life. We wish not just to live, but to live well. Here, Voegelin introduces a historical typology that plays a central role in his analysis of modern politics. In the first stage of civilization, political power is meant to configure society in accord with the cosmos. The ruler plays the role of the high god, and the laws of the land emanate from above. In this way, temporal power aims to divinize society; the body politic mirrors the divinely governed universe.

In the West, however, a new conception of truth comes to the fore, one that concerns man, not the cosmos. ­Voegelin stipulates that, with Plato and Aristotle, the divine ceases to be the direct measure of society and becomes the measure of the soul. Our inner lives are opened up for transcendence, and the measure of society is man in his fulfillment. In this historical phase, politics is governed by the “anthropological principle” rather than the “cosmological principle.” In the West, the anthropological principle lies behind foundational appeals to natural law and natural rights. As Americans, we are especially keen to remain true to the anthropological principle.

These principles play out in history in complex ways. By Voegelin’s reading, Rome’s politics was archaic. It remained governed by the cosmological principle. The Greek revolution in soulcraft undermined this politics. (Late Hellenistic philosophies such as Stoicism and Epicureanism are best read as therapies for those alienated from civic life, which did not engage deep matters of the soul.) But it was Christianity that fundamentally transformed the politics of the West. The universal offer of salvation democratized the interior life that Aristotle had reserved for the high-born, thus intensifying the influence of the anthropological principle. More importantly, Christianity transferred the cosmological imperative to the Church, which alone represents the heavenly city. As Voegelin explains, this double movement secularized the political culture of the West. In Christendom, the soul-needs of citizens are answered in the religious life, not through the work of governance. Meanwhile, the Church rather than the body politic takes up the burden of representing the perfection of divine order.

“The spiritual destiny of man in the Christian sense,” Voegelin writes, echoing St. Augustine’s sharp distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, “­cannot be represented on earth by the power organization of a political society; it can be represented only by the church. The sphere of power is radically de-divinized; it has become temporal.” Our desire for transcendence is not denied or stymied. Rather, it is directed toward its true object, and thus away from the political ambition to use worldly power to represent heaven on earth. The upshot is a humane political order, which Voegelin believes was realized in form, if not always in substance, during the Middle Ages.

The modern era represents not progress but regress: “The specifically modern problems of representation are connected with the re-divinization of society.” Voegelin argues that Gnosticism, the term he uses for the heretical, politicized religiosity that afflicts us, has brought sacred politics back to the West.

Ancient Gnosticism was cosmological in orientation: The world as we experience it is a pale shadow of the higher, eternal order of the cosmos, to which we must return if we are to live in the fullness of truth. Modern Gnosticism adopts a different orientation. Under the influence of Christian conceptions of human destiny, its metaphysical imagination is historicized: The eternal truth is not above; it is in the future. In its earliest forms, modern Gnosticism functioned within the Christian framework. In ancient Greek, eschaton means “last,” and this term comes into theology as the word for the last day, the eschaton, the day of the final triumph of God’s plan for humanity. Jesus ­urges his followers, “Be ready!” This urgency can motivate an activism of preparation, but the activism stops short of taking responsibility for ushering in history’s fulfillment. The final act remains God’s alone to perform.

As secularization takes hold and modern thinkers reject theology as the queen of the sciences, modern Gnosticism no longer defers to God’s final say. As a consequence, the imperative of representation becomes soteriological, and civic affairs are re-divinized. It is up to us to make worldly power represent the triumphant future. Voegelin’s best-known phrase captures this salvation-oriented ambition: “immanentization of the Christian eschaton.” The modern Gnostic grasps political power in order to usher in the final and complete triumph of truth, the coming of which is our duty to realize."


Eric Voegelin's Theory of Consciousness

Voegelin in View, Lee Trepanier:

"A Theory of Consciousness

Trained in political science, Eric Voegelin considered himself first and foremost a political scientist with the title of his most famous work, The New Science of Politics, as a declaration of his disciplinary allegiance.[3] But his conception of political science was radically different from the philosophy of positivism that had dominated the discipline during his life. Confronted with the ideologies of communism and fascism, Voegelin rejected a theory of politics that was informed by positivism because such a theory could not adequately explain these political phenomena. What was required was a theory of consciousness to be at the center of a theory of politics in order to understand and to evaluate these ideologies. Voegelin therefore sought to remedy this deficiency in the discipline by developing his own theory of consciousness that would become the foundation for his theory of politics.

According to Voegelin, consciousness was neither a given in reality nor constructed a priori; rather, it was a fluid movement that continues to articulate and re-articulate itself in the reality in which it had participated. In other words, Voegelin conceived of consciousness and reality as a type of process. Through rigorous introspection, the political scientist discovered a “center of energy” that was engaged in this process and concluded that this process could be observed only from the vantage point of within.[5] There did not exist a Cartesian perspective outside of the political scientist to understand reality: he could only understand reality as a participant within it.[6]

Within his own consciousness, the political scientist experienced the illumination of the spiritual dimensions of his consciousness in his relationship with the divine. However, this experience of the divine for Voegelin was in the form of a process that structured time itself: the divine was understood by the political scientist as a type of process that created a past, present, and future within the interior space of his own consciousness. This understanding of the divine as a type of process that formed a past, present, and future in consciousness was perfectly acceptable to Voegelin “because it makes the divine intelligible as an analogue to man’s consciousness.”[8] The political scientist could understand the divine only if the divine acted as a process that resembled the political scientist’s own consciousness. Voegelin justified this assumption by pointing out that the political scientist has only his consciousness to resort to as a model to understand realities that transcended him. He has nowhere else to turn to other than his own consciousness to model reality.

The ontological and epistemological premises of this account of consciousness were that consciousness can only discover being if that being was part of its own nature. Simply put, like can only know like if they were made of the same stuff. By sharing ontologically in the same aspects of vegetation, animals, and the divine, the individual therefore can know the vegetative, animalic, and divine processes that transcended his own consciousness. Although these levels of beings were distinguishable with respect to their own structures, they all were to share some common basis in order for the political scientist’s consciousness to recognize them. And since all levels of being participated in a common being, the political scientist can recognize levels of beings that are distinct from him, e.g., vegetative, animalic, divine.

History, therefore, with its dimensions of past, present, and future, did not unfold in sequential events in the external world but rather it was a series of phases of divine illumination within the political scientist’s consciousness. By using his own consciousness as a model to understand processes that transcended his consciousness, the political scientist was able to reach some knowledge about the divine and his relationship to it. However, he was to be sensitive that his “personal idiosyncrasy” did not interfere with his investigation. To avoid misconstruing the nature of the divine and his relationship to it, the political scientist was to root his divine-human encounter in a concrete social and historical existence. And to understand this concrete social and historical existence in turn required a philosophy of history so that the model of consciousness could be a “science” as opposed to “personal idiosyncrasy.”


Voegelin's Political Spirituality

Harald Bergbauer:

"The most crucial of Voegelin’s ideas are best introduced by referring to three of his principal works: The Political Religions, The New Science of Politics and Order and History. In The Political Religions, Voegelin strove to show that politics has a dimension often neglected or ignored by politicians and scientists: a religious one. That dimension has become increasingly apparent not only during the last several centuries, but especially during the twentieth century: Russian Communism, Italian Fascism, and German National Socialism were, in the end, nothing but expressions of distorted religious ideas turned into political ones.

In fact, Voegelin coined the term “political religions” in 1938 precisely in order to designate this new phenomenon (as did Raymond Aron, independently, that same year in France). The term “political religions” served to characterize the religious dimension of current political developments; in other words, politics does not only deal with earthly matters but has to consider religious ones as well. In the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, political religions evolved into dominant political forces.

With regard to such forces, Voegelin stated that “there is evil in the world and . . . that evil is not only a deficient mode of being . . . but also a real substance and force.” Thus, the desire of Communist, Fascist, or National Socialist leaders to “redeem” the world revealed an evil—and sick—understanding of God, man, and society.

Much like today, the world at the time that Voegelin wrote was experiencing a serious crisis. He thought it was important to acknowledge “that recovery [could] only be achieved through religious renewal.” He wrote that since “[h]umans live in political society with all traits of their being, from the physical to the spiritual and religious [ones],” neglecting, ignoring, or even eradicating any one of these traits could have disastrous consequences.

In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin made the strong and provocative assertion that modernity is essentially characterized by Gnosticism. He did this in a sweeping analysis of human history. In contrast to antiquity, where the world was experienced as being full of gods, Christianity reduced this multiplicity of gods to one single God and transferred this one God from the sphere of immanence—of the here and now—to the sphere of transcendence—the beyond. The consequence of this was the “dedivinization of the temporal sphere of power.”

Although the world was thus seen as having been emptied of gods, people continued to strive for meaning and acquire a deeper understanding of their earthly existence. In the course of the development of the modern world, thinkers began to fill that “divine emptiness” or void by declaring earthly beings— like man, society, or even history itself—absolutes. In this way, spatiotemporal things were effectively extracted out of their time and space, and made into absolutes.

Voegelin therefore designated modernity as a process of the “redivinization of man and society.” In other words, the world, formerly emptied of gods during the Middle Ages, was again filled with gods—human-made ones (which humans know how to create and venerate).

In his Order and History, Voegelin further elaborated the manner in which man articulates his own nature in history. He differentiated between three insights gained by humanity. First, in the Ancient Near East (Israel), man discovered his existence as determined by the rhythm and the secrets of the all-encompassing cos-mos (i.e., “cosmological truth”).

Second, in antiquity (Greece), man detected the central position of himself in the cosmos and realized his intellectual and spiritual qualities. The human soul was identified as a “sensorium of transcendence,” which allowed man to escape the narrow confines of his bodily existence and advance to areas far beyond it (the so-called “anthropologi-cal truth”).

The third step was taken by discovering the close connection be-tween man and God in Christendom. Unlike the anthropological truth, which maintained that men lived in accordance with a higher power (the Greek nous), Christendom accentuated the experience of “mutuality” in the relation between God and man.

In other words, man turns to God in a similar way that God reveals himself to man. Voegelin designated this insight as the “soteriological truth” and stressed that beyond the pure mutuality between God and man, there was also the aspect of man’s salvation through man’s belief in God.

The centrepiece of Voegelin’s thought, however, consisted in his philosophy of history. The three types of truth mentioned—cosmological, anthropological, soteriological—are all of fundamental importance in this context. For Voegelin, the comprehensive picture of history displayed a “civilizational cycle of world-historic proportions.” He wrote: “The acme of this cycle would be marked by the appearance of Christ; the pre-Christian high civilizations would form its ascending branch; modern, Gnostic civilization would form its descending branch.

The pre-Christian high civilizations advanced from the compactness of experience to the differentiation of the soul as the sensorium of transcendence; and, in the Mediterranean civilizational area, this evolution culminated in the maximum of differentiation, through the revelation of the Logos in history.”

Voegelin thought man had descended in various guises from the high level of insight and self-realization obtained in ancient times, and had attempted—through access to allegedly secret or higher knowledge (Gnosticism)—to rescue himself and redeem society. Gnosticism had thus distorted and destroyed the relationship between God and man; and, in this way, it had prompted man to take destructive actions. Thus, it was Voegelin’s firm conviction that human life and human history can only evolve in a natural (and sound) way on the basis of the profound insights obtained in antiquity and early Christendom, and that man needs to develop a balanced life which encompasses the physical as well as the spiritual and religious spheres of life.

Over the years, Voegelin’s thought developed into a very comprehensive and detailed philosophy of history. The very kernel of his thought was the thesis that, after achieving the three decisive leaps of insight into the nature of God, man, and society during the various pre-Christian “high” civilizations, the path of humankind was “derailed” from this high intellectual and spiritual level.

The spread of Christianity in the Middle Ages had helped people lead a more genuine life; but with the advent of modernity, new worldly philosophers had laid the basis for societies to move increasingly toward political ideologies—and, in the twentieth century, toward mass political movements. Only by acknowledging the insights of classical and Christian civilizations, Voegelin admonished, could people once again lead a genuine human life."


The Crisis of Modern Civilization

Voegelin in View, Lee Trepanier:

" According to Voegelin, the crisis of modern civilization was fundamentally Gnostic in nature. Voegelin classified two experiences as Gnostic: 1) the expectation of the Parousia that would transform the world into a “Kingdom of God”; and 2) the elimination of the divine in order to make humans the measure of all things.[29] The first form of Gnosticism was found in the Gospel of John, the Epistles of Paul, ancient Gnostic writings, medieval heresies, and militant Puritanism; the second form was located in the secularized philosophies and ideologies of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment periods. The first type recognized the divine and its transcendent order, while the second type rejected it. But what was common to both experiences was the desire of the individual to dominate and transform the world into his own image: his libido dominandi.

The crisis of modern civilization therefore was a rejection of the divine both in individual experience and in the symbolization of that experience. To return to the experience of the divine, to the existential state of the metaxy, the individual had to be open to it and approach it as a participant within reality rather than an observer who can objectively survey the realitiy as if it were some object. Once symbolized, this experience was to order society. But Voegelin was silent about this process: how were individual experiences that had become symbolized to establish societal order? How did people who did not initially have the same divine-human experience accept such symbolization? And what about people who did not have the divine-human experience at all?[30]

One possible answer where people, who did not have such an experience, could accept a symbolization of the experience of the divine-human encounter was Christian doctrine and dogma. However, Voegelin’s attitude towards doctrine and dogma was ambiguous at best. His works were filled with criticism about the deformation of symbols into doctrinal statements of propositions. Voegelin critiqued “the genesis of ‘religion’ . . . defined as the transformation of existence in historical form into the secondary possession of a ‘creed’ concerning the relation between God and man” as a loss of the individual experience with the divine.[31] While he acknowledged the necessity of dogma as an institutional structure to transmit the insights of divine-human experiences, he was critical of its effectiveness:

The prophets, philosophers, and saints, who can translate the order of the spirit into the practice of conduct without institutional support and pressure, are rare. For its survival in the world, therefore, the order of the spirit has to rely on a fanatical belief in the symbols of a creed more often than on the fides caritate formata – though such reliance if it becomes socially predominant, is apt to kill the order it is supposed to preserve.[32]

Voegelin’s critique of dogma was to protect the divine-human experience from symbolic deformation: “There can be no question of ‘accepting’ or ‘rejecting’ a theological doctrine. A vision is not a dogma but an event in metaleptic reality which the philosopher can do no more than try to understand to the best of his ability.”[33] In this experience, the individual could legitimately communicate it through the symbol of myth and not proposition: “Divine reality beyond the Metaxy, if it is to be symbolized at all, can be symbolized only by the myth. The truth of myth then is to be measured by the truth of noetically illuminated existence.”[34] For Voegelin, the measure of truth was the experience of truth in the metaxy; and myth was the proper conveyance of this truth. The propositions of doctrine and dogma were harmful to it.

The fullest development of Voegelin’s thinking on dogma can be found in his essay, “Gospel and Culture,” where he stated:

For the gospel as a doctrine which you can take and be saved, or leave and be condemned, is a dead letter; it will encounter indifference, if not contempt, among inquiring minds outside the church, as well as the restlessness of believers inside who is un-Christian enough to be man the questioner.[35]

Voegelin’s rejection of doctrine and dogma was clear: it was unnecessary, anti-philosophical, and ultimately harmful in the search for order. Clearly Voegelin had a conception of Christianity that was at odds with a more traditional understanding.[36]

But, more importantly, by elevating the divine-human experience in the metaxy as the criterion for truth, Voegelin was not able to account how social and political change happened in historical existence. Certain experiences that became symbolized may elicit change among people and thereby become the new ordering principle for society. However, Voegelin was silent on how this process actually transpired: did only elites have to experience this for society to become reordered? Were people, or a certain percentage of people, required to experience the divine-human encounter in the metaxy for the reordering of society? And, again, what about those who did not experience it at all?

Although Voegelin may be correct in his account of consciousness as the nexus of the divine-human encounter, he lacked the conceptual apparatus to account how this experience would spill over into society as a reordering principle.[37] His adamant rejection of doctrine and dogma precluded any concept for him to explain social and historical change. The irony is that as a political scientist, Voegelin’s theories of consciousness, history, and politics cannot explain the basic political process of social change. In a sense, Voegelin was more a religious philosopher than a political scientist, contrary to what he had said otherwise.

If Voegelin had had a conception of culture which would alleviate the concerns he had about doctrine and dogma, then he would be able to account for how a society reordered itself in historical existence. Dawson’s understanding of culture may be helpful in this regards. If Dawson’s concept of culture can explain social and historical change while still adhering to the philosophical insights of Voegelin, Dawson might be able to explain processes that Voegelin’s science of politics did not."


Voegelin's Philosophical Anthropology

Michael Colebrook:

"Voegelin provides a much-needed corrective to Fukuyama’s Kojèvian premises. Voegelin’s political philosophy fully deserves to find its proper place in contemporary political discourse, which has become saturated with theoretically inadequate tools for understanding our contemporary world, for just this reason. Unless we have an adequate philosophical anthropology, there is no way to orient ourselves in the contemporary political scene. Fukuyama is the paradigmatic case. Men simply desire recognition, according to him. They want their unique personalities and identities acknowledged and affirmed, whether this is a religious identity, secular identity, sexual orientation, etc. This recognition can only be provided in the universal homogenous state, according to the argument in the End of History, or perhaps not, as he acknowledges in the 2006 “afterword.” Whether liberal democracy provides this or not, however, is not the essential question. What is more significant is Fukuyama’s insistence that the desire for recognition is the most fundamental part of human nature. A major aspect of Voegelin’s critique of Kojève’s Hegel is that this anthropology is dangerously limited—it takes one goal of human striving and makes it the only goal.

For Voegelin, human beings desire much more than some abstract “recognition,” even if it does have its place in human life.[xvii] His anthropology is more complete insofar as it is based upon a hierarchical understanding of the different human needs and desires. The human being consists of numerous desires and needs, the satisfaction of some being the precondition for the emergence and satisfaction of others. Once the most basic “lower” needs and desires are satisfied, the distinctively human ones can surface. One of these will be the desire for recognition, but this is not all. The human heart has other longings. For Voegelin, the highest, most important, and most distinctively human of these desires is ultimately the desire for transcendent meaning and purpose, which could never be fully satisfied by any particular finite political institution or person. This desire demands an answer to the Leibnizian questions: “what is my place within the cosmos? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is something as it is, and not different?”

In his book Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity, Glenn Hughes has explored this problem in depth. Following Voegelin’s insights into the human desire for transcendence, he succeeds in demonstrating, through a thorough analysis of myths, poetry, and art from many historical periods and cultures, that there is a basic human relationship to a trans-finite, trans-spatial, and trans-temporal realm of meaning, which cultures express and symbolize in phenotypically different ways. He argues, “Human fulfillment entails the willing embrace and development of our relationship to the eternal and imperishable ground of existence.”[xix] Anything less than this willingness to participate in the transcendent mystery of the cosmos will be ultimately unsatisfying for human beings.

Kojève and Fukuyama completely overlook this highest of desires constitutive of human nature properly understood. For this reason, they are unable to understand fully what motivates human beings at a core level.[xx] In light of this insight, we might venture to say that the provincialism of Islam, the stubbornness of Catholic Christians, or the refusal of anybody else to conform fully to the modern world, is fundamentally linked to the reassertion of this desire for transcendent purpose, which has been repressed in Western secular societies. Even though this desire manifests itself immanently in some cases, in the distorted concupiscential drive to convert or kill the entire globe, there can still be discerned in it the reflection of a supposed divine mission. “Recognition” is a thoroughly inadequate conceptual tool for understanding this phenomenon. Only from the perspective of Voegelin’s anthropology and philosophy of history can we understand this correctly.

Following Voegelin, Glenn Hughes recognizes some of the potential dangers inherent in the human orientation towards transcendence and, at the same time, can at least partially sympathize with those who would try to stamp out this orientation in human nature. For, throughout history, the temptation to absolutize and doctrinalize particular symbolizations of transcendent truth—resulting in widespread intolerance, mass murder, and self-righteousness—has always run alongside and competed with healthier and more humble forms of the embrace of transcendent meaning. The tendency to construct “metanarratives” and subsequently impose them on other cultures has always been one of the more tragic civilizational impulses. So the rejection of transcendence in contemporary images of reality is at least somewhat understandable.[xxi] Yet, both Hughes and Voegelin make a case for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They try to show that a rejection of metanarratives does not necessarily entail a denial of transcendence. Metanarratives and the experience of transcendence are in no way equivalent. For Voegelin and Hughes, transcendence does not mean stepping outside of history to contemplate and determine its meaning. Instead, the experience of transcendence always takes place concretely within the historical process and is thus subject to perspectival variability. In becoming aware of our transcendent orientation, one must keep this essential insight in mind."



Collected Works

Selected from his Collected Works:

Order and History

  • Volume 14: Order and History, Volume I, Israel and Revelation, edited by Maurice P. Hogan
  • Volume 15: Order and History, Volume II, The World of the Polis, edited by Athanasios Moulakis
  • Volume 16: Order and History, Volume III, Plato and Aristotle, edited by Dante Germino
  • Volume 17: Order and History, Volume IV, The Ecumenic Age, edited by Michael Franz
  • Volume 18: Order and History, Volume V, In Search of Order, edited by Ellis Sandoz

History of Political Ideas

  • Volume 19: History of Political Ideas, Volume I, Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity, edited by Athanisios Moulakis
  • Volume 20: History of Political Ideas, Volume II, The Middle Ages to Aquinas, edited by Peter von Sivers
  • Volume 21: History of Political Ideas, Volume III, The Later Middle Ages, edited by David Walsh
  • Volume 22: History of Political Ideas, Volume IV, Renaissance and Reformation, edited by David L. Morse and William M. Thompson
  • Volume 23: History of Political Ideas, Volume V, Religion and the Rise of Modernity, edited by James L. Wiser
  • Volume 24: History of Political Ideas, Volume VI, Revolution and the New Science, edited by Barry Cooper
  • Volume 25: History of Political Ideas, Volume VII, The New Order and Last Orientation, edited by Jürgen Gebhardt and Thomas A. Hollweck
  • Volume 26: History of Political Ideas, Volume VIII, Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man, edited by David Walsh


Voegelin in View:

Voegelin published many books and scores of essays and reviews in his lifetime. He also left a number of manuscripts unpublished, including the massive History of Political Ideas that has since his death been published in eight volumes. His 1951 Charles R. Walgreen lectures at the University of Chicago, Truth and Representation, were published in 1952 under the title The New Science of Politics. Often seen as seminal in relationship to his later work, this small book made him famous, even earning a cover story in Time Magazine.

His magnum opus is the five volume Order and History, the last volume of which he was working on when he died. Order and History was originally conceived as an attempt to discern meaning in history through an examination of the history of order, an examination made possible by the burgeoning of non-ideological historiography. Voegelin undertook this task after he decided his previous large undertaking—the History of Political Ideas (existing then only as a manuscript)—was miscast by focusing on ideas rather than on experiences. Like all his writings, it was undertaken in response to his experience of the ruinous and often murderous disorders of our time.

The first volume, Israel and Revelation , was produced largely on the occasion of writing Order and History. The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle, drew much of their material from the manuscript of the History of Political Ideas. All three appeared between 1956 and 1957 and focused on the evocations of order in the ancient societies of the Near East and Greece—particularly the “pneumatic” in revelation and the “noetic” in philosophy. These three volumes were part of a larger project of tracing order and history throughout western civilization.

This effort took much longer than originally planned because Voegelin came to understand that a linear conception of history was inadequate to account for equivalent spiritual outbursts in parallel civilizations. He believed he had to broaden his horizon by familiarizing himself with different civilizations. He also had duties at the new institute. Thus seventeen years passed before Volume 4, The Ecumenic Age, appeared in 1974.

Midway through these years of late development, in 1966, Voegelin published his philosophy of consciousness under the title of Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik, which many consider central to understanding his profound work.

The Ecumenic Age broke with the chronological pattern of the previous volumes by investigating symbolizations of order ranging in time from the Sumerian King List to Hegel. Voegelin was working on the final volume, In Search of Order, when he died. It was posthumously published in 1987.Among his special studies is the popular and accessible Hitler and the Germans, based on his 1964 Munich lectures, and his brief summary of modern spiritual disorder entitled Science, Politics and Gnosticism. Also very accessible is his series Conversations with Eric Voegelin, preserved from colloquies at the Thomas More Institute in Montreal over a 30 year period. The first of these four colloquies was published in Published Essays: 1953-1965 and the other three in The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers: 1939-1985 of the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. For a number of years the popular Autobiographical Reflections, a recorded and transcribed interview conducted over a period of time, has been available as a lively introduction to his person and thought."


Reading Voegelin

0. "Where to begin? Much of Voegelin's work made no sense to me until I had read a lot of it more than once. I had something of a breakthrough by reading Autobiographical Reflections, Science, Politics and Gnosticism and The New Science of Politics in quick succession, and then once again. I then started keeping these Study Pages."

Integral to Voegelin's political and historical work is a theory of consciousness which pulls it all together. It is covered in Anamnesis, a collection of rather difficult essays."

- Bill McClain: Advice for those who want to read Eric Voegelin

1. Voegelin in View:

"Voegelin’s work is difficult to characterize in terms circulating among contemporary university philosophy departments. His philosophical work shares some of the same interests found in Cassirer, Whitehead, Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, or Lonergan, and he shares interests with historians such as Eduard Meyer, Mircea Eliade, and Arnold Toynbee, yet Voegelin seems to command more material than any one of them while propounding a realism rejected by several of them, a realism based on the “realissimum,” the “intuition of Being,” the “Divine Ground” of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas.

Mastering Voegelin’s thought can be difficult. He is erudite and assumes the reader is more or less familiar with the material, or at least has a grasp of history, philosophy, theology, psychology, and sociology. A reading knowledge of Latin, Greek, and modern European languages helps. One can only read Voegelin with understanding if one reads more than a few others as well. Moreover, Voegelin often felt compelled to introduce new technical terms or employ old terms in new ways. A further difficulty stems from the restorative nature of his work which requires the conventionally schooled student to approach his topics in a fresh way—especially difficult for that poorly nourished individual deprived of a religious foundation.

These difficulties have led to superficial readings. Voegelin’s work is rejected out of hand by most secularists and liberals. Forty years ago his work was adopted simplistically by communist-era conservatives. And he is not embraced as one of their own by historians or theologians or political scientists or philosophers because they cannot encompass him within their specialized fields. He remains an outsider—much like anyone who has developed his reflective consciousness in openness to the Divine Ground.

Secondary literature on Voegelin has virtually become an industry. Among the indications of the engagement with Voegelin’s work are the 305 page Eric Voegelin: International Bibliography 1921-2000. Voegelin research centers have been founded in universities in the United States and Europe. His works have been translated into languages ranging from Portuguese to Japanese and a Chinese edition of Order and History has recently been published. The 34 volumes Collected Works of Eric Voegelin as well as numerous secondary works by contemporary scholars published by The University of Missouri Press, St. Augustine’s Press, and the Eric-Voegelin-Archiv of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität."


2. Michael Franz:

"Access to Voegelin’s oeuvre is also complicated by two remarkable “breaks” in his program and a number of less dramatic shifts in emphasis over the course of his career. The first of the breaks occurred in the early 1950s when Voegelin abandoned the 4,000 page manuscript for his History of Political Ideas after “it dawned on [him] that a conception of a history of ideas was an ideological deformation of reality.”8 A new program, outlined in The New Science of Politics and carried halfway to completion in the first three volumes of Order and History, was in turn abandoned.9 Voegelin acknowledged that his own conception of the process of history was marked by the very flaw that vitiates the ideological “philosophies” of history that he sought to surpass, and accordingly, he revised his exploratory methodology as well as his provisional conclusions.10 Voegelin was his own toughest critic, and to the very end of his life he continued to explore new directions in thought with no reverence for his own earlier accomplishments. Thus we are left with a body of work that is not only intrinsically difficult but also internally divided. Since Voegelin was more inclined to drive his explorations forward than to detail precisely what could or could not be salvaged from earlier works, those who wish to invoke his authority are, in my view, obliged to do this themselves."


More information

Books about (the work of) Eric Voegelin

Review at [1]:

The Voegelinian Revolution: A Biographical Introduction. Ellis Sandoz. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981; Second Edition, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000.

Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History. Eugene Webb. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Mystery and Myth in the Philosophy of Eric Voegelin. Glenn Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science. Barry Cooper. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.