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The Methods of Voegelin, Strauss, and Arendt –Part 3
by Barry Cooper
Professor Cooper has edited three volumes of the Collected Works. He has authored numerous essays and books relating to Voegelin, most recently, Beginning the Quest:Law and Politics in the Early Work of Eric Voegelin. This essay is taken from his Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science (University of Missouri Press) and appears with permission. It is presented in six parts. Part 1 may be read HERE.
A Critical Review of Hannah Arendt’s Origins
In 1951, Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Voegelin was again asked by Waldemar Gurian to write a review for Review of Politics.
The eight-and-a-half page review was then sent by Gurian to Arendt for her eight-page response, and Voegelin was given a final page to reply. It was, to say the least, an unusual procedure.23
Voegelin began by characterizing the significance of the phenomenon of “the totalitarian mass movements of our time.” First, to all intents and purposes, the entire population of the world had been affected one way or another, even if only as potential victims.
“The putrefaction of Western civilization, as it were, has released a cadaveric poison spreading its infection through the body of humanity” and has, in consequence, created something unprecedented, an ecumenic “community of suffering under the earthwide expansion of Western foulness.”
The chief problem, therefore, was confined to an analysis and theoretical understanding not of a complex and grandiose historical episode but of events that were fundamentally evil as well, a problem that had explicitly concerned Voegelin since the publication of Political Religions in 1939.
The methodological problem was, in principle, straightforward: the totalitarian phenomenon, as any other historical phenomenon, could be discussed by political science along the three different but coordinated interpretative lines of space, time, and subject matter.
In space, one must have a knowledge of the pertinent facts regarding a plurality of civilizations; in time, one must be able to trace the genesis of the totalitarian movements within one civilizational area, the West, over the preceding millennium; in terms of subject matter, “the inquiry will have to range from religious experiences and their symbolization, through governmental institutions and the organization of terrorism, to the transformations of personality under the pressure of fear and habituation to atrocities.”
Unfortunately, Voegelin continued, political science was currently ill equipped to undertake such an analysis owing to “the insufficiency of theoretical instruments” that in turn was the great legacy of “the positivistic destruction of political science” to which reference has already been made in Chapter 3.