Eric Voegelin on the Politics of Representation and Political Gnosticism

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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."