Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity

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* Book: Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity. By Glenn Hughes.



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."