Eric Voegelin's Philosophy of History
* Book: Eugene Webb. Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History.
"Eugene Webb, currently Professor of Comparative Religion and Comparative Literature and Associate Director, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, indicates that his purpose in writing Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History is to ease the difficulties encountered by many of Voegelin’s readers “by providing an overview and some clarification of Voegelin’s basic concepts.” (vii) His target audience includes specialists and non-specialists alike; he hopes “to make Voegelin’s thought more readily available to those who have not studied it before,” and to help those with prior exposure to Voegelin’s thought “to a deeper understanding of its theoretical foundations.” Webb’s book is divided into three parts:
“The first is theoretical; it seeks to elucidate Voegelin’s philosophical principles and concepts and to explain how he developed them, both with reference to contemporary philosophical discourse and through the study of the history of thought. The second part briefly summarizes the main lines of Voegelin’s study of history as he has interpreted it in the light of those theoretical principles. The third part focuses on the two themes most central to Voegelin’s concern: the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of history.”
Recognizing that access to Voegelin’s thought is also complicated by his use of technical terms, Webb provides a twelve-page glossary that will greatly benefit new readers.
Webb opens his introductory chapter in a vein similar to that of Sandoz in The Voegelinian Revolution, noting that Voegelin is a “major philosopher” who, though perhaps widely known, “is far less widely read.” (3) Webb’s explanation of this situation is again quite similar to Sandoz’s, though they were arrived at independently. Webb ascribes the disparity between Voegelin’s lofty stature and his small readership to the fact that “he demands not only a radical shift in perspective but also a familiarity with the entire history of Western thought—mythological, philosophical, and religious.” He also notes that many who have heard of Voegelin have picked up mistaken impressions of his way of thinking, most commonly “that he is a ‘right-wing’ thinker in both politics and religion.” (4) Contrary to this misimpression, Webb follows Dante Germino in observing that, “as a political philosopher, Voegelin defies classification according to the language of political struggle: he is not left, right, or center, but is engaged in the critical study of politics.”
Voegelin is no easier to classify philosophically than politically, since, as Webb observes:
- “he is not in any sense an ideological thinker’ and thus does not present a system of ideas that could be labeled according to any of the traditional designations—such as ‘materialist,’ ‘idealist,’ ’empiricist,’ ‘realist,’ and so on—and, what must be still more disconcerting to many, he does not even present a standard philosophical argument of the sort that leads the reader from premises to a conclusion through the force of formal logic.” (5)
This makes Voegelin’s thought “difficult to grasp for any person accustomed to the more common type of philosophical exposition.” By contrast to more common understandings, Webb sees Voegelin’s mature approach to philosophy as “the recovery of the experiential ground of philosophy, the descent by way of historical memory through the various levels of symbolization, mythic and conceptual, to the deepest motivating center of the philosophical quest, which at its root is the spiritual quest of man for true existence.” (9)
Webb’s emphasis on the element of “recovery” or “rediscovery” in Voegelin’s approach to philosophy is entirely appropriate, for Voegelin consistently maintained that human experience of the spiritual depths of the soul and the divine reality in which it participates does not change fundamentally over time (despite the fact that different elements of experience may be understood and symbolized in a fuller and more adequate manner at some times than others). However, though for Voegelin it is true that there is a perennial order of human nature and the human condition that has “been known implicitly by thinkers of every period of recorded history,” it is likewise true that this order “has manifested itself historically.” (10) Thus, Webb indicates that “the question to which the present study as a whole is an attempt at an answer” is: “what are the features of an adequate philosophy of history and what does Eric Voegelin uniquely contribute to this subject?” (9)
In his initial description of Voegelin’s philosophy of history, Webb notes that
- “[f]or Voegelin the philosophy of history is the analysis of human life in its historical dimension, that is, of human life as a process in which choices are made and in which, through the values that are served or not served, one may or may not live up to the calling of one’s potential humanity. History is an enterprise, in other words, in which one may succeed or fail, and what the philosophy of history must offer is criteria by which that success or failure may be measured.” (10)
These criteria can be found by studying humanity and its history, which can reveal central truths about human existence that are occasionally rendered explicit in a range of different symbolisms. The symbolisms are not the end points of historical research, however, and Voegelin does not treat them as fundamental propositions that can be assessed adequately in a philosophy that takes the customary form of a logical argument. Rather, according to Webb, Voegelin “aims deeper, and he offers something different: an avenue of entry into the fundamental experience that underlies philosophy as such.” (11) Thus, the core of Voegelin’s philosophy of history is an effort to “recover the roots of philosophical thinking that for most of us lie buried under layers of uprooted symbols that have accumulated for centuries,” an effort which he attempts by means of “tracing the symbols that we call ideas to their origins in the philosophical experience of the thinkers who first developed them.” (12)
Webb offers further clarification of these introductory remarks in his first chapter, “Philosophy and History.”
He notes quite helpfully that, while the study of history
- “points toward the historical past,…it also points inward and downward—into the depths of the historical present. Historical inquiry, therefore, is an exploration not only of past events and their interrelations but also of the structure of human existence as a process or participation in being. This means that history as a study is in its essential character a philosophical discipline. Similarly, to Voegelin philosophy itself is a process of reflection in which the structure of human existence as a process of reflection in which the structure of human existence and its historical character become conscious…. History is a philosophical inquiry, and philosophy is intrinsically historical in structure.” (17)
Webb observes that the starting point for the philosophy of history is always the philosopher’s present historical situation, and he locates the key elements of Voegelin’s situation in National Socialism, the irrational forces underlying the Nazi movement, and the deeper spiritual vacuum that permitted these forces to hold sway on the political level. More particularly, Webb specifies, “the internal disorder of a mode of existence dominated by passion and appetite and lacking the orientation toward a transcendental summum bonum that the spiritual traditions of Christianity and Judaism had attempted to encourage.” On the level of intellectual culture, Webb also cites the importance of “a scientistic theory of knowledge that placed severe limits on inquiry and fostered an externalizing conception of existence,” as well as “a positivistic, immanentist theory of man, and a widespread belief in a supposed dichotomy between facts and values.” (22) Webb correctly characterizes Voegelin within this situation not as a passive theoretical spectator but rather as an active member of what we may term the “philosophical resistance.” Webb argues that “philosophy is not simply an academic subject matter, but an active struggle for truth, moral, spiritual, and intellectual….” (23) We might add “political” to this list of specifying adjectives, but in any case, Webb’s sketch of Voegelin is right on target. He was not an academic analyst whose studies alerted him to dangers in the surrounding environment, but rather a very active and highly aware participant in his times whose awareness of the dangers motivated his work as an analyst.
As Webb observes, “Voegelin’s inclination from early on was to interpret the problems of political and social order as founded on the order or lack of it in the souls of the individual members of society.” (22-23) His early inquiries into the depths of spiritual order were afforded little assistance by the formal, academic philosophy in vogue in central Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, though Voegelin did find guidance in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the Upanishads. Among more contemporary figures, Husserl and Heidegger provided examples of a promising return from sterile, externalizing positivism to the experiential roots of thought, but even they seemed to him “to have fallen victim to the tendency to place stifling limits on the experience to which they appealed.” (31) Webb details Voegelin’s appreciation of Husserl as well as his recognition, around 1943, that the inadequacies of Husserl’s thought would require him to “develop a more adequate theory of consciousness that would take into account the radical openness of the horizon of consciousness—involving transcendence both into the world and toward what is beyond the world.” (32) Webb offers a helpful account of Voegelin’s effort of re-theorization in 1943, but concludes that readers should not make too much of this “breakthrough,” which “was really only a clarification of insights that had been developing continuously.” (38) Webb maintains that this caution is equally applicable to the new realizations that led to changes of course in Voegelin’s mature writings. This is because, according to Webb, “none of these…have involved any departure from Voegelin’s basic conception that the roots of philosophical thinking, in the true sense of the word (that is, of an existential quest for being through the right ordering of the soul), lie in the fundamental experience of what he has come to call the ‘tension of existence.’” (38)
Webb’s account of Voegelin’s understanding of this tension is, quite simply, the best available in the secondary literature. He characterizes it not as an emotion
- “but [as] something more basic; it can express itself in the form of emotion, but it can also express itself in the form of worship, inquiry, moral concern, poetry, the arts, and so on. As the term ‘tension’ indicates, what it is most basically is a tendency or tending, a fundamental reaching toward a fullness that can be apprehended under many aspects, but that is not exhausted in any of them. It is a longing for life, for maximal participation in being. It is an unrestricted, radical “Question” that hungers and thirsts after all possible truth—not just the answers to particular, determinate questions, but understanding of all forms of reality and, beyond them, of an ultimacy that in their various, limited ways they analogically exemplify.” (38-39)
Webb observes that Voegelin is hardly the first to note the tension of existence, citing parallel accounts in Augustine, T. S. Elliot, and C. S. Lewis while also arguing that other examples could be drawn from outside the Christian tradition (e.g., “from ancient Egyptian Pyramid texts, the poetry of medieval Sufis, Tamil devotional hymns, and so on…”). Indeed, as Webb notes, Voegelin “considers the universality of the experience of existential tension to be its philosophically most important feature.” (40)39 Nevertheless, Webb allows quite forthrightly that the existence of a fundamental, direction-giving tension is neither self-evident nor derivable from any other self-evident truth. The existence of the experience can only be verified by reference to the experience itself, and for those who have not partaken of the experience, its very existence will seem debatable at best. Webb acknowledges that the experience “cannot be logically proved, precisely because it is not an idea or a proposition but an experience.” Nevertheless, this does not diminish the fact that “from the point of view of the individual who recognizes the experience as his own, there can be no question regarding the reality of the experience and the truth of the proposition that describes it: for him it is empirically confirmable, even if not according to positivistic canons of what constitutes the empirical.” (41)
Having conscientiously acknowledged that there is no common, universal ground in experience from which to attempt an intersubjective verification of the tension of existence, Webb proceeds to offer a superb description of the tension as understood by Voegelin. Far from betraying any discomfort over the necessarily personal source of this understanding, Webb’s description brims with an assurance stemming from verification in direct experience. However, it also shows a sober recognition that the philosopher’s experience is one of love of wisdom—not possession of facts—and that the assurance involved is hardly the sort we associate with the completion of a mission.
Webb’s description merits quotation at length:
- ” . . . in his own search for a practical answer to the philosophical and spiritual problems with which his world confronted him…[Voegelin] discovered . . . the fundamental ordering experience that he has termed the tension of existence and that can be described succinctly as a radical love of the true and the good. From the point of view of his own experience, this was not a subjectively created idea but an imperative that grips the soul, a passion to which one may submit or which one may resist but which one does not dream up. It manifested itself not as a proposition to be proved but as an appeal to be responded to and a force to be trusted. As an experience it had an immediacy that made it palpable, even if this was an immediacy that could never be arrived at once and for all but would have to be endlessly pursued through a lifelong process of critical self-appropriation. The reality that disclosed itself was not an object to be looked at but a life to be entered. The answer it promised to one who entered would not be simply intellectual but existential: the philosopher would have to live in the truth and participate in the reality of which he was in search. He was presented not with a simple fact but with an invitation, a call to decision. If he decided to withhold his trust, the life he was invited to would never become real, at least for him. If he did decide to trust it, he could live in its truth, but he would know it only in the dark glass of trust, hope, and love.” (44-45)
This is not only an excellent synthesis of Voegelin’s many reflections on the tension of existence, but also an exemplary rendering of the fundamental experience underlying philosophy per se.
Webb’s second chapter, “Experience and Language,” springs from a simple but serious problem: in our lives as inquirers, we live within language, but the language to which the modern ear has become attuned flows from scientistic schools of thought that employ a truncated view of human experience. Due to the prestige enjoyed by the modern natural sciences, experience tends to be reduced to mere sensory data (in the manner of Locke). By contrast, Webb likens Voegelin’s view of experience to the perspective of Aristotle, who describes it as “a cognitive mode between mere data on the one hand and knowledge in the full and proper sense on the other.”40 On this view, experience “might be described as a sort of compact, implicit mode of knowing, whereas knowledge in the full sense has been rendered explicit through critical reflection.” (54) More broadly, Webb holds that:
“existential experience, the type with which Voegelin is concerned, will involve at least a pre-theoretical knowledge of how to carry out the project of human existence. Theoretical philosophy, on the other hand, will not be abstract speculation but the explication of what is already present in implicit form: the universal, constant structure of human existence as a project of active fidelity to man’s transcendental calling. This is not existence as known from without—as would accord with the scientistic ideal—but existence as known from within by a person fully involved in it, who has to struggle to understand it and to live up to the calling that this understanding makes explicit.” (54)
In the modern reductionist perspective, experience is limited to data coming from without, and what is thought to be real is reduced, accordingly, “to that which can be known through such data and in the manner of such data: being becomes an object to be known from the point of view of external observation and hypothecation.” (56)
Rejection of this impoverished and constricting view of experience is an early and important source of the distinctiveness of Voegelin’s approach to philosophy and political analysis. His early writings as well as the reminiscences of later years attest to his rebellion against the sterile and restrictive “school philosophies,” which he regarded not as philosophies so much as forms of wreckage attesting to the ruination of philosophy in modern times. His rebellion was not an assertion of some purportedly radical new take on philosophy, but rather a restorative effort that sought to rekindle authentic forms of philosophy from the pre-modern past. In this chapter, as in the first, Webb repeatedly likens aspects of Voegelin’s effort to parallel features found in other modern philosophers and writers. Thus, at many points in Webb’s book we see lines connecting Voegelin not only with Plato and Aristotle but also with (among others) Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Paul Ricoeur, Søren Kierkegaard, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bernard Lonergan, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Thomas Mann, C.S. Lewis and T. S. Elliot. The affinities suggested by Webb serve not only to illustrate particular aspects of Voegelin’s thought, but also act as an antidote to the (distressingly widespread) notion that Voegelin is some sort of idiosyncratic, anti-modern, contrarian loner. This dimension of Webb’s approach offers a valuable supplement to the secondary literature on Voegelin, most of which focuses on his work either in isolation or in connection to an ancient writer such as Plato.41
According to Webb, Voegelin seeks not only to restore occluded dimensions of experience to our attention, but also to restore language that is adequate to the task of symbolizing experience in its full amplitude. The loss of adequate language is the result of a process that has been underway for centuries, emerging fully for the first time in the late middle ages (in the form of nominalism in the work of William of Ockham) and becoming more pervasive ever since. Now that a nominalist style of language (and the world view it implies) has gained wide currency in our culture, language “becomes flattened out or emptied of its inward, existential content and its vertical dimension of transcendence….” (58) Under such circumstances, Voegelin maintains that what is required is “experiential reactivation and linguistic renewal.”42 Linguistically, what must be renewed and augmented is “the symbolic language, both philosophical and mythological, in which human beings have for millennia given expression to their experiences of involvement in a field of reality larger than themselves. Such language has…what might be called a vertical dimension by which it reaches into the heights and depths of existence.” (60)
This dimension is needed if we are to do justice to the fullness of experienced reality, as Voegelin understands it. Webb describes this fullness with clarity, precision, and more than a little poetic capability:
- “Voegelin’s conception is that the experience of existence is a continuum of varying degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness ranging from dark and inarticulate depths up through a center of luminosity in human reflective consciousness and then beyond this into another darkness above. That segment of the experiential continuum constituted as reflective consciousness is characterized by intentional structure, the division into subject and object; those both beneath and beyond this are not so structured. On all its levels—the human, the infrahuman, and the superhuman—being, as Voegelin conceives it, is characterized by immediacy of self-presence, but on the human level this immediacy becomes refracted through the medium of human intentional consciousness. Here there is admittedly a supposition that there is more to reality in its fullness than is contained within the limits of human thought.” (59-60)
Those dimensions that are accessible to experience but not to “thought,” properly speaking, can be recounted by means of analogical language. By dint of its great “reach,” analogical language can “throw indirect light into distances of the experiential field that would otherwise remain totally obscure.” (61) Historically, the analogical language for expressing the tension of existence tends to fall into two basic patterns. In mythological expression, “it has taken the form of images of divinity,” whereas in philosophical expression “it has used the image of ‘participation in being.’” (62) For most of the remainder of his second chapter and much of the two that follow, Webb explores the meaning of these images as intended by those who originally developed them, as well as the many misreadings that have obscured them through centuries of hypostatization and doctrinalization.
Webb’s third and fourth chapters, “Philosophical Knowing as an Existential Process,” and “Reality and Consciousness” do not break new ground so much as they dig more deeply into the matters previously introduced, offering increasingly detailed accounts of the nature of philosophy and consciousness as understood by Voegelin. The chapters are devoted largely to problems treated conventionally under the heading of epistemology, though Webb (following Voegelin) neither employs this rubric explicitly nor draws rigid boundaries between epistemological issues and those we might associate with, say, ontology or metaphysics or spiritual psychology. Thus we may note that while Webb, like Sandoz, seeks to offer readers a general introduction to Voegelin’s work, he does so with a very different pedagogic strategy. Whereas Sandoz eases his readers into the weightiest and most difficult problems by prefacing them with extensive biographical information (and also by emphasizing the commonsensical aspects of Voegelin’s thought in early chapters), Webb chooses to pull readers immediately into the deepest interior of Voegelin’s philosophizing.
Both approaches have their advantages. Sandoz’s book is, as one would suspect in light of his procedure and stated intentions, more accessible to generally capable readers lacking extensive philosophical preparation. Webb’s book seems targeted more toward a professional academic audience with specialized philosophical training. Nevertheless, the book is remarkably successful as an introductory text despite the steep grade of ascent that it requires of readers. Webb is a highly gifted writer who provides powerfully illuminating formulations on almost every page. He illustrates Voegelin’s core symbols and concepts by departing frequently from Voegelin’s own formulations to offer those of his own or other, like-minded writers.43 Moreover, he returns to the fundamental symbols and insights again and again as he brings more material into play, as if working in a widening series of concentric circles that serve to show the range of Voegelin’s thought while never departing from the task of illuminating its core.44 Thus, in Webb’s third chapter, he offers excellent glosses on Voegelin’s use of nous, episteme, psyche, doxa, aletheia, theoria, gnosis, and cognitio rationis, fidei, amoris, et spei (as well as their English equivalents), but in every case the exegesis is securely grounded on the foundation set in Webb’s account of the tension of existence. Similarly, in the fourth chapter, Webb broadens his analysis to consider the relation of myth to philosophy and to include the crucial symbolism of metaxy, but in so doing he anchors the new materials in the preceding accounts of existential tension—while simultaneously showing how that tension may be understood more fully with the aid of the newly introduced materials.
Webb’s fifth chapter, “The Discovery of Reality,” is devoted principally to an account of Voegelin’s distinctive procedure as an intellectual historian. According to Webb, Voegelin’s approach is built upon the:
- “basic assumption . . . that the philosophical thinker, to the extent that his thought is an expression of open existence, is directly involved in the reality he seeks to understand and knows it in a pre-theoretical manner on the level of immediate experience. Theoretical reflection is the elucidation of this experience through its self-explication as it seeks language that will analogically represent its discernable features and essential structure and so bring them into focus…. To the extent that [the thinker] is motivated by a radical desire for conscious participation in reality, he is engaged in a struggle for truth—not the truth of an opinion but the truth of existence; not the truth that consists of accurate correspondence between ideas and external reality but the truth that is the self luminosity of the reality in which the philosopher’s entire existence is a participation . . . What is required is fidelity to the order of being.” (158)
As Webb reads Voegelin’s approach, “fidelity to the order of being” on the part of a philosopher who participates fully in it can yield “the truth of existence” because reality itself is characterized by what the Greek thinkers called aletheia, or the “unhiddenness” or self-disclosure, of being.
The “truth of existence” that guides the philosopher of history has four basic aspects:
1) It is an experience of our own finiteness and creatureliness, which informs us that we are not the makers of reality but, rather, are involved in it through a process we neither generate nor control.
2) It is an experience of dissatisfaction with a state experienced as imperfect, but which also involves an apprehension of a perfection that it not of this world that offers a possible fulfillment in a state beyond it.
3) It is the discovery that human existence is not opaque to itself, but rather is luminous or illuminated from within by intellect (as in Aquinas) or nous (as in Aristotle).
4) It is the discovery that the intellect itself is a force transcending its own existence, and that “by virtue of the intellect, existence is not only not opaque, but actually reaches beyond itself in various directions in search of knowledge.”45
To the hard-nosed, skeptical reader, this may seem like an overly sanguine approach to historical research. However, Webb immediately tempers this discussion of why discovery of the truth of existence is possible with another discussion that shows why it is nevertheless difficult. While it is true that the existentially open questioner may be drawn (helkein) toward the truth of existence, “truth is not the only pull that acts upon the questioner,” who “is also drawn by a variety of other attractions that disrupt true order by tempting one toward existential closure and the darkening of intelligence.” (159) Additionally, as Webb correctly observes in other contexts, even the truth toward which the open questioner is pulled can—when finally apprehended—have repulsive impact either because it discloses something mysterious and therefore challenging or because it discloses something downright unpleasant. Consequently, the quest for existential truth always has “the character of a resistance to disorder,” and the forces that must be resisted are both “external” and “internal” to those engaged in the quest.
Moreover, in intellectual history, these considerations apply “both to the historical thinker under study and to the historian who studies him, both to history as subject matter and to history as discipline.” (159-160)
Thus, Webb observes that:
- “[t]he thinker studied was himself involved in the project of human existence, whether he played his role well or poorly. He may, through his own entry into existential truth and the record he has left of that process, have become a source of luminosity for subsequent thinkers, or he may have become an example of existential closure and disorder. The philosophical historian who studies him must be more than a chronicler or a doxographer. To fulfill his own obligation to truth, he must seek not only correct opinions about what the thinker of the past meant or did not mean, said or did not say, but also the same truth of existence to which every human being in history has been called.” (160)
Thus, Webb follows Voegelin in pointing us toward a view of historical research that is far from sanguine spectating upon an obligingly unproblematic, self-disclosing “subject matter.” On the contrary, Webb’s characterization of the work of the historian turns repeatedly to the verb, “struggle,” as when he notes that, “to understand his historical subject matter as it actually existed, he must struggle either with it or against it.” Webb goes on in the remainder of “The Discovery of Reality” to show “how Voegelin applies his principles historiographically in his study of civilizational development,” summarizing “in broad outline the major steps he sees in the historical process by which existential reality opened itself up to men over a period of some five thousand years….” (161-162) These major steps include the cosmological (or mythic), pneumatic (or revelational) and philosophical (or noetic) modes of symbolizing the tension of existence, as well as the attendant realities of dogmatism, doctrinalization and derailment by which these symbolisms are continually misconstrued or obscured.
This latter theme is pursued at the outset of “The Loss of Reality,” Webb’s sixth chapter, where he offers a helpful discussion of the real damage that can be done when authentic symbols of the tension of existence are dislodged from their experiential context (in the In-Between reality of the metaxy) and transformed into dogmatic propositions about things in the external world.46 However, it is to Voegelin’s analysis of gnosticism that Webb devotes the bulk of this chapter.47 To Webb’s credit, his treatment of gnosticism begins by immediately noting that Voegelin’s usage of the term poses problems.48 First, he notes that Voegelin’s concept is “based on the use of the term in the ancient world [to refer to the sum of the various Gnostic sects], but it is broader both in conception and coverage. This, of course, makes for problems, both philosophical and historical….”(198) Historically, the problem is that Voegelin uses the term as a designation for individuals who were members of no Gnostic sect, and indeed at some points he seems to impute gnosticism to figures who lived prior to the historical advent of the Gnostics themselves. This points immediately to the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of the problem, which are two in number.
First, there is the terminological problem that Voegelin employs the term “Gnosticism” in ways that oscillate between use as a categorical concept and as a proper noun. This is no mere grammarian’s quibble but rather a source of real trouble, especially for one who, as Voegelin said of himself, is “a man who likes to keep his language clean.”49
The first problem can be shown against the backdrop of how Webb handles the issue of gaps in time between ancient Gnostics and modern gnostics:50
- “Voegelin’s analysis of gnostic developments in history may also seem to be characterized by abrupt leaps between, for example, the ancient Gnostics and a medieval thinker such as Joachim or between Joachim and a modern figure such as Marx. There are two reasons why transitions of this sort seem so abrupt. One is that the scholarly literature on this subject is already massive, and Voegelin assumes his readers have some familiarity with it. He does not feel it necessary to spell out all of the links between the thinkers he discusses. In placing Marx in the tradition of Joachim, for example, he has not felt obliged to prove that Marx knew of Joachim’s thought, because anyone who has studied Marx can be expected to know that he was an admirer of Thomas Münzer, the leader of the left wing of the German Reformation, and that Münzer in turn considered himself a follower of Joachim.” (201-202)
The linguistic or conceptual problem here is that we cannot know whether any or all of these three men are to be regarded as gnostics only by analogy in a categorical sense or whether we should regard them as closeted adherents of historical Gnostic doctrines.
The second and more substantial problem also becomes evident here since, in the sequence running from Joachim to Münzer and ultimately to Marx, any assertion of doctrinal Gnosticism becomes decreasingly plausible and increasingly misleading. Neither Marx nor Engels (who, of the two, had the greater interest in Münzer, though even his was not very intense or sustained) had any sympathy at all for the specifically religious or mystical aspects of Müntzer’s activity, and the proposition that Gnostic undertones from Münzer somehow crept into their thought or theoretical style was never substantiated by Voegelin or any other scholar of whom I am aware.
This is not to say that there are no commonalities running between modern ideologists, medieval millenarians, ancient Gnostics and, indeed, pre-Gnostic individuals who anticipate or seek to initiate a fundamental transformation of the conditions of human existence. Such commonalities do exist, but they cannot be established in a satisfactory way by suggesting chains of literary influence.51 One of the most important events in Voegelin’s development as a thinker was his recognition that ideas are but epiphenomenal manifestations of the experiences that engender them, and if one accepts this as a premise, then it follows that any commonalities among seemingly disparate figures must be established on the level of experience. I have tried elsewhere to show that this can indeed be accomplished by reference to a common pattern of revolt in reaction to four fundamental experiences of the human condition: uncertainty, contingency, imperfection, and mortality.52 Regardless of the success or failure of this effort, it is clear that chains of literary influence must be regarded as outmoded remnants of Voegelin’s early studies in the history of ideas, and that any analysis of commonalities must take full account of Voegelin’s late work in the theory of consciousness.
If Webb’s account is open to criticism on this ground, it is likewise true that Voegelin himself was slow to bring his references to gnosticism into alignment with advances accomplished in other sectors of his work. This can be shown by way of a second problem Webb identifies in Voegelin’s concept of gnosticism, namely, that archaeological finds (dating principally from 1952) and scholarly research have shown that ancient Gnosticism, “strongly tended toward apoliticism, since it denigrated life in this world in favor of escape from it through some sort of secret teaching or gnosis. Voegelin’s own interest was in the forms that a claim to gnosis could take when there was an interest in drawing on the power of such knowledge for the transformation of the present world.” (199) To account for the world-transforming strand in medieval and modern disorders, Voegelin began speaking in the early 1970s of hermeticism, alchemy, and magic as bearing an importance comparable to gnosticism. Thus, in a 1978 publication, he argues that, “…the contemporary disorder will appear in a rather new light when we leave the ‘climate of opinion’ and, adopting the perspective of the historical sciences, acknowledge the problems of ‘modernity’ to be caused by the predominance of Gnostic, Hermetic, and alchemistic conceits, as well as by the magic of violence as the means for transforming reality.”53 This looks to me like backsliding. That is, Voegelin seems to be reverting here from his more developed analytical approach to one still cast in the mold of the history of ideas. More specifically, it looks like a reversion from the view that, a) we can identify an essential equivalence between ancient and modern symbolisms of revolts occasioned by essentially equivalent engendering experiences to the view that, b) we can show by historical analysis that modern problems are “caused” by residues of gnosticism, hermeticism, alchemy, and magic lingering from ancient times. In sum, it seems to me that if Webb’s analysis of gnosticism is imperfect, its shortcomings stem less from any failure of understanding on his part than from shortcomings in Voegelin’s own work.54
Webb’s seventh and eighth chapters are devoted, respectively, to “The Philosophy of Religion” and “The Philosophy of History.” Both are characteristically clear and incisive, but the chapter on Voegelin and the philosophy of religion is especially valuable. It is of little significance that references to “the philosophy of religion” are conspicuous by their infrequent appearance in Voegelin’s writings, since Webb offers a very precise and inclusive account of the grounds on which Voegelin was reluctant to speak approvingly of “religion” (as opposed to a whole range of other locutions regarding spiritual experiences of “transcendence” or “the divine”). The chapter’s account is so intricate that it will not be possible to do more than indicate these grounds in rough outline. Webb follows Voegelin in locating the various problems and instabilities associated with religion (when viewed sympathetically from a perspective informed by philosophy) in the dynamics of faith itself. Authentic faith is distinct from gnosis, but that is not to say that the prospect of an absolute and final certainty will not prove appealing for believers. Certainty exerts a strong appeal and uncertainty is spiritually trying, and, as Webb and Voegelin quote from Aquinas, “imperfect knowledge belongs to the very notion of faith, for it is included in its definition, faith being defined as the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” (Heb 11:1; 212 in Webb)
This is relatively thin gruel, when measured against the intensity of human longing for certainty regarding the ultimate questions of existence, and many seekers find that it is insufficient to sate their hunger. Consequently, Webb observes that, “religion, for many, slips almost inevitably into dogmatism.” He continues by noting that the danger of such derailment is compounded, according to Voegelin, by the fact that, “none of the spiritual irruptions which in the ancient world gave rise to the great religions and to philosophy ever managed to work out ‘a fully balanced symbolization of order that would cover the whole area of man’s existence in society and history.’”55 Human responses to divine irruptions tend, rather, to accentuate different aspects of human experiences of the divine, thereby multiplying the uncertainties involved as well as the potential for friction between differing accounts. Further complications are introduced by the fact that such accounts must, if they are to be communicated, be formulated in propositions, which invite misinterpretation as representing doxai about objects beyond experience.
- “[i]n technical theological expression this problem is further aggravated by the tendency of abstract language to become dissociated from its experiential roots…. At its most authentic, religious language is not simply description of religious experience, but is that experience itself in articulate form in consciousness…. Religious language, however, cannot always be used and understood at its most authentic, because it has the responsibility of bearing the living truth from generation to generation and from higher existential levels to lower.” (213)
This observation introduces a whole complex of problems associated with the communal character of religion, which requires communication of experienced truth among members of differing maturity and rational caliber, who will have partaken of the engendering experiences to differing degrees. To these considerations we must add that those with lesser allotments of maturity, independent experience, and rational control nevertheless have—as members of a religious community—at least an equal claim to its ministrations. The religious community, on its side of the equation, depends for its viability on some degree of cohesiveness (like any other sort of community), and in practice this will not only impose a dogmatizing imperative, but also press dogmas toward a lowest common denominator.
Webb goes on to consider a range of problems associated with the establishment of dogmas and doctrines, which protect but also imperil the experiential truths lying at their core. Along the way, he correctly observes that Voegelin was not an anti-institutional thinker (as has sometimes been supposed) and also that Voegelin was clearly aware of the preservative functions of doctrine. Although he writes that Voegelin’s “attitude toward religion in general and Christianity in particular is a divided one” (221), he also maintains that Voegelin “associates himself personally with the Christian tradition.” (222) The remainder of the seventh chapter is devoted predominantly to an analysis of that complex association, and in my view Webb’s analysis remains among the very best available (both in terms of discernment and evenhandedness) in what has become a very extensive subdivision of the secondary literature.
Webb’s eighth chapter, on the philosophy of history, opens with the observation that “the central challenge for a philosophy of history, in Voegelin’s view, and the point where most founder, is that of maintaining the balance that is required for open existence in the field of existential tensions. This involves “a balance between the claims that the immanent and transcendent dimensions of human experience make on the human being who lives ‘between’ them.” (237) This balancing point is precarious and consequently the history of philosophies of history is largely a history of “derailments.” For Webb, the “study of particular derailments in the thought of individual thinkers is less interesting than an analysis of the various kinds of derailment that are possible….” (238-239) He maintains that “these fall into two general patterns: the immanentizing and the transcendentalizing. Both involve either the eclipse of the experience of metaxy existence or a deliberate refusal to accept its conditions.” (239) As examples of the transcendentalizing mode of derailment, Webb analyzes the Gnostic movement of the early centuries of the Christian era, as well as the sophisticated case of Rudolf Bultmann’s historical thinking. As examples of the immanentizing version of derailment, Webb analyzes ecumenic imperialism and modern liberalism. With these examples in hand, Webb proceeds to illustrate the philosophy of history in its proper mode as a zetema, by which is meant a search for meaning in history, conducted in existential openness, that seeks illumination rather than terminating conclusions. Webb shows that the work of Arnold Toynbee conforms to this general type (if imperfectly so) before turning to Voegelin’s own writing in the philosophy of history. His concern is less to detail the particulars of Voegelin’s historical research than to indicate the spirit informing it, and this is accomplished quite effectively.
More than half of Webb’s “Conclusion” provides a concise summary of the basic principles of Voegelin’s thought. Webb’s nine points summarize the book as a whole, but he is careful not to convey the impression that these stand as the nine Final Truths of some closed system. On the contrary, Webb concludes in the entirely appropriate manner of indicating both the generally ongoing nature of Voegelin’s search for order as well as the specific “important areas of inquiry he has scarcely touched upon, but which can profit greatly from study in the light of his principles.” (273) These include Asian thought, non-Christian religions, and the “practical political paths” that might best be followed in light of the theoretical principles developed in Voegelin’s work. These areas are noted “not as a matter of reproach against Voegelin” since “no one person can be expected to do all the philosophical work that has been neglected for centuries, and Voegelin has already spread his efforts far more widely than almost any other living scholar.” (275) Indeed, Webb closes his superb study with the judgment that Voegelin’s “combination of learning, comprehensiveness, existential openness, and depth of insight has made him the great philosopher of history of our time.” (276)"