The Methods of Voegelin, Strauss,
and Arendt –Part 5 Hannah Arendt
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.
From Nominalist Taxonomy to Realistic Analysis
An alternative way of formulating the differences between Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin would be to say that Arendt’s theorization was nominalistic whereas Voegelin’s was realistic.
As Voegelin pointed out in a letter to Francis Wilson, “nominalistic theories will be the best one can do in areas where penetration to essence is yet prevented by the state of science.”41
Nominalistic taxonomy or elemental analysis of the kind followed by Arendt would, therefore, distinguish totalitarian domination from liberal democracy, constitutional monarchy, classical tyranny, and so on. And, of course, Arendt did just that; indeed, she often insisted on the importance of making distinctions.42
Distinctions are obviously important, and one must always begin with the phenomena that attract one’s attention. Voegelin’s point was that nominalistic theorization can indeed achieve a taxonomy of type concepts, but that such a result is no more than a first step.
In contrast, “realistic theorization” moved “beyond the appearances of phenomena” by way of analysis to a definition of essence. Even so, Voegelin continued, “realistic theorization” is possible only in cases where the subject has genuine “ontological status.”
Accordingly, one could develop a realistic theory of “the nature of man or of society, or of the order of the human soul” but not of the “accidence of order” such as appear through a typology of regimes, including that of totalitarian domination.
Voegelin made the same point in another paper published about the same time.43 As is clear from his remarks on Egidius’s temperament and his use of the term totalitarian in connection with his doctrine of power, Voegelin was not opposed to the critically justified use of anachronistic terminology provided it helped clarify a particular problem.
In this as well, Voegelin and Arendt were likely to differ.44 He was, however, opposed to the uncritical anachronistic use of the term totalitarian, particularly when it was applied by modern, secular intellectuals to aspects of medieval political thought that did not meet with their approval. Regarding an example of such usage Voegelin made the following remark:
The term [totalitariansim] has arisen, in the 1920s, within the modern Gnostic mass movements. It does not denote the measures of extraordinary atrocity which these movements use in their expansion and domination, but the faith in human intramundane (not transcendent) perfection through political action by groups who are in possession of eschatological knowledge about the end of history.
This substitution of human self-salvation, of something like a transfiguration of human nature through historical action, for the Christian idea of perfection through Grace in death is, indeed, a matter of principle insofar as it can be maintained only if the whole range of experiences of transcendence is disregarded.
Totalitarian politics is based on an immanentist philosophical anthropology, as distinguished from Platonic-Aristotelian and Christian anthropologies which find the ordering center of human personality in the experiences of man’s relation to transcendent reality.
It seems to me impermissible to apply the term ‘totalitarianism’ to both types alike, for such indiscriminate usage would obliterate the essential difference of principles and stress the non-essential similarity of prudential measures which, in various historical circumstances, may be used for the protection of a society against spiritual disintegration.45
Voegelin made his critical point on the basis of a realistic theory of the nature of man and of society that enabled him to distinguish violent measures taken on prudential grounds [in the Middle Ages to protect Faith in God] from violent measures taken on the basis of faith in the possibility of an intramundane transfiguration of human existence.
Among other things, the first type of violence would in principle be limited whereas the second, because it is used in pursuit of an impossible goal, would be limitless.