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.
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.
In Arendt’s opinion, the basis of the disagreement between the two lay elsewhere.
According to her, Voegelin’s “sharpest criticism” concerned Arendt’s remarks on human nature. In response she wrote:
The problem of the relationship between essence and existence in Occidental thought seems to me to be a bit more complicated and controversial than Mr. Voegelin’s statement on ‘nature’ (identifying ‘a thing as a thing’ and, therefore, incapable of change by definition) implies, but this I can hardly discuss here.46
She did, however, amplify her remarks somewhat:
I hardly proposed more change of nature than Mr. Voegelin himself in his book on The New Science of Politics; discussing the Platonic-Aristotelian theory of soul, he states: ‘one might almost say that before the discovery of psyche man had no soul.’ (p. 67) In Mr. Voegelin’s terms, I could have said that after the discoveries of totalitarian domination and its experiments, we have reason to fear that man may lose his soul.
To this rhetorically powerful statement one must nevertheless raise a few objections. Voegelin’s point was methodological and concerned precisely the distinction that Plato and Aristotle achieved in their analytical use of the term psyche, which was, moreover, grounded in a specific class of experiences that can be identified by the methods of classical philology.47
Arendt was, of course, too well grounded in classical scholarship to be unaware of this problem; her usage, however, seemed to imply that the application of terror or the conduct of totalitarian “experiments” led to certain discoveries concerning souls.
If, prior to Plato and Aristotle, “man had no soul,” it was also true, according to Arendt, that after the “experiments” humans would also become without souls. But what did this mean? Obviously, souls were not things to be lost like marbles or teddy bears. Plato and Aristotle were fully aware that the imagery of losing one’s soul referred to a kind of existential choice of injustice and ignorance over the desire for justice and wisdom.
What Arendt had in mind may be indicated in one of her earlier accounts of the operation of the death factories:
and they all died together, the young and the old, the weak and the strong, and the sick and the healthy; not as people, not as men and women, children and adults, boys and girls, not as good and bad, beautiful and ugly–but brought down to the lowest common denominator of organic life itself, plunged into the darkest and deepest abyss of primal equality, like cattle, like matter, like things that had neither body nor soul, nor even a physiognomy upon which death could stamp its seal.48
One is reminded in this account of the reduction of animal vitality to the stimulus-response organisms that emerged from the laboratories of Professor Pavlov. Human beings, like dogs, when placed in “experimental” conditions, can be destroyed, in the sense that the higher structures of consciousness can be reduced and suppressed. In this rather specific sense totalitarian experiments can, indeed, destroy souls along with bodies.49
Arendt meant something more than this, however, for it is also true that some survivors of the camps did not “lose their souls” and that the soul-destroying intentions of the camp operators could be frustrated.50
Arendt’s argument did not consider these possibilities, and in the following paragraph she amplified her remarks:
In other words, the success of totalitarianism is identical with a much more radical liquidation of freedom as a political and as a human reality than anything we have ever witnessed before.
Under these conditions, it will be hardly consoling to cling to an unchangeable nature of man and conclude that either man himself is being destroyed or that freedom does not belong to man’s essential capabilities.
Historically, we know of man’s nature only insofar as it has existence, and no realm of eternal essences will ever console us if man loses his essential capabilities.
Her first sentence indicated again that totalitarian terror was highly effective in degrading human beings and that degraded human beings may be said to have “lost” their souls. But then one wonders whether they would be lost for good or could be “found” again. Arendt’s language was clearly preanalytic, not to say mythic. Of course, it conveyed a meaning; but it did not follow that the mythic meaning would be altered even under conditions of ecumenic totalitarian experiments.
Her second sentence, however, took a different tack. She seemed, first, to imply that Voegelin was mistaken (or naïve or perhaps cowardly) to “cling” to his insupportable views at a time when totalitarian experimenters were at large and at work. They must be stopped! The consolation of Voegelin’s philosophy, she warned, would be short.
Second, the conclusion she drew, “that either man himself is being destroyed or that freedom does not belong to man’s essential capabilities,” was an obvious non sequitur. To recall Voegelin’s commonsensical point: totalitarian murderers succeeded only in killing people, not in “changing human nature.”
Accordingly, her last sentence, that we know of man’s nature only insofar as it has existence, must be met by the rather strict observation Voegelin made in his review: it is
a sentence which, if it has any sense at all, can only mean that the nature of man ceases to be the measure when some imbecile conceives the notion of changing it. The author seems to be impressed by the imbecile and is ready to forget about the nature of man, as well as about all human civilization that has been built on its understanding.
To put the matter in Arendtian terms, we in fact know man’s nature to the degree we do because it is not exhausted in human existence. It is also “nonexistent” or “eternal” so that, to use a Platonic image, human existence does indeed participate in a “realm of eternal essences.”
Arendt then ended her response by restating her fears and linked them to the fears of Montesquieu rather than to the jailer of the apostles.
Voegelin’s reply summarized the problem in astringent methodological terms. “It is the question of essence in history, the question of how to delimit and define phenomena of the class of political movements.”
Arendt’s procedure was to deal with facts and events and to describe “well distinguished complexes of phenomena of the type of ‘totalitarianism’; and [she] is willing to accept such complexes as ultimate, essential units.”
Voegelin, however, rejected this procedure because the presentation of factual configurations was insufficient. The state of science was not quite so inadequate as to preclude moving from nominalistic taxonomy to realistic analysis.
The investigation inevitably will start from the phenomena, but the question of theoretically justifiable units in political science cannot be solved by accepting the units thrown up by the stream of history at their face value.
What is required for a proper theoretical justification of the units of analysis depends on the rational elaboration of principles of relevance developed for the purpose–hence Voegelin’s remark that Arendt might have benefited from Toynbee.
“What a unit is,” he said in closing, “will emerge when the principles furnished by philosophical anthropology are applied to historical materials. It then may happen that political movements, which on the scene of history are bitterly opposed to one another, will prove to be closely related on the level of essence.”
There was a postscript to this controversy. In the fall of 1952 Carl Friedrich was in the process of organizing a conference on totalitarianism. He wrote Gurian asking for his suggestions regarding participants. Gurian replied that Voegelin should be added to the list because he “could contribute to the verification of the historical and ideological background of totalitarianism.”
Friedrich thanked him for his advice, but Voegelin was not invited.51
In the spring of 1953, however, Friedrich wrote to Voegelin:
I have read your critical discussion of Hannah Arendt’s book with a great deal of interest. I am afraid, though, I cannot agree with you either about her or about totalitarianism. I very much deprecate efforts to explain totalitarianism by reference to some antecedent theory or intellectual movement, be it Hegel, Hobbes, Protestantism, or now, with you, ‘immanentism.’
The arguments for these positions are always very intriguing, because there usually is some connection, and to that extent our understanding is illumined. I am convinced, however, that a genuine understanding of totalitarianism must start with the essential novelty and uniqueness of the phenomenon, and I strongly agree with Arendt’s emphasis upon this. When, however, she in turn picks upon certain antecedents and then claims that they ‘crystallize’ into totalitarianism, she is constructing the type of ‘explanation’ which I question.
I have not yet read your new book, but I hope to do so soon.52
For Voegelin, Friedrich labored under misconceptions heavier in some respects than those of Arendt. He replied,
Thanks for your kind letter, and for the attention that you give to a rather occasional effort.
Much as I appreciate disagreement as a spice of life, I am afraid, on the particular count that you raise we must forgo the pleasure of the condiment. I do not try to explain totalitarianism, or anything of the sort, by reference to antecedent theories.
The term ‘immanentism’ is an ontological type concept which derives its validity from the principles of philosophical anthropology. It denotes, not a theory, but a state of the psyche. There can only arise the question whether the concept is well constructed, and whether totalitarian movements can be subsumed under it.
Obviously, there arises the further question whether immanentist movements have a history in the sense that the adumbrated state of the psyche is slowly unfolding its potentialities, and spreading socially, over longer periods of time.
But that is a plain empirical question which must be decided by reference to the materials. Balthasar, in his Prometheus, tried to show such an unfolding in Germany since 1775; more recently, Albert Camus has made a similar attempt in his L’Homme Révolté for France, for the same period. In my New Science of Politics I have tried to show that for certain components of the essence ‘immanentism’ one must extend the continuity (of experience, not theory) even to certain movements of the twelfth century (following Burdach).
In no case, of course, does the existence of long-range psychic and social processes abolish the uniqueness of each sub-movement in its historical place. Here again I quite agree with you. Either Hannah Arendt should have stuck to the contemporary totalitarian movements as unique and been satisfied with a description; or, if she wanted to be ambitious, and tackle the difficult problem of long-range processes, she should have boned up on the highly developed methodology for handling such problems.
As the book stands, it is a rather messy performance, valuable only for its historical materials.53
In his letter to Friedrich, but also from the tone of his review, it was clear that Voegelin’s admiration for Arendt was far from unconditional.
In fact, Voegelin’s unadorned view was that Origins was “a messy performance, valuable only for its historical materials.” In a letter to Gurian that accompanied his final response to Arendt’s reply he expressed disappointment, even irritation, with Arendt’s refusal or inability to engage in a serious discussion.
I cannot say that I am particularly happy about this development. But I must say that the fault is mine. The good lady, in spite of all her merits, has, I am afraid, not quite understood the explosive implications of what she is doing in theory.
I have committed the mistake of honoring her with a careful review, taking her seriously, and entering into the issues. One shouldn’t do that; it has cost me a lot of time to disentangle the decisive points from a rambling context, and the time seems to have been wasted.54
A few months later Arendt published a longer discussion of ideology. Both from the title, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,“55 and from the content, it is evident that Arendt had not passed from nominalistic taxonomy to realistic analysis, notwithstanding the many interesting observations her article contained.
After it had appeared, and several months following Voegelin’s expression of his initial response to Arendt’s position in the letter to Gurian, he had an occasion to reflect on the whole episode with more detachment and irony.
Marshall McLuhan had read Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, on the advice of Cleanth Brooks, and provided Voegelin with a lengthy exposition of the presence of Gnosticism in the arts. He complained at one point, “A person feels like an awful slacker to have spent twenty years of study on an ‘art’ which turns out to be somebody else’s ritual.”
Voegelin replied that the most interesting thing “is the fact that you have hit on the problem at all.”
Rather than complain about losing twenty years of work, McLuhan should take heart from the realization that it takes time to “disengage ourselves from the creeds of a dying world (I have lost more years than I care to remember with neo-Kantianism and Phenomenology, before I dropped the nonsense).”
Besides, Voegelin said, the time is not really lost: one finds the right way more surely by oneself than if someone else just pointed it out. More to the point, who wants a “hearing” from the dead anyhow? You begin to live “with the Exodus from the civilizational realm of the dead, and the beginning begins with the discovery of the world as the Desert–if I may use well-known symbols.”
Voegelin ended his remarks with some strategic advice on how to deal with such individuals: simply “know so much more, in a plain technical sense, than the others that they will be afraid to molest you. In detail, you will probably soon discover what I have discovered, that it is a lot of fun to bait the ungodly when they get impertinent” and make them “hopping mad.”
As an example, Voegelin included “the reprint of a little controversy I had recently, that will illustrate what I meant by having ‘fun’ with the ideologues. The good lady who was the subject of my critique was so disturbed by it, that she wrote a whole article clarifying her point after a fashion in a more recent issue of the same periodical.”56
(for fuller citations see the bibliography in Professor Cooper’s book. Several endnotes refer to letters archived at the Hoover Institution (HI). They are now easily accessible in both Selected Correspondence: 1924–1949, Vol 29, and Selected Correspondence: 1950–1984, Vol 30, of The Collected Works. The indexes of both volumes showing Voegelin’s correspondents may be browsed HERE.)
41. HI 42/5.
42. In her response to Voegelin, for example, she wrote: "my chief quarrel with the present state of the historical and political sciences is their growing incapacity for making distinctions" ("A Reply," 82).
43. Voegelin, "The Oxford Political Philosophers" (1953). This essay is now availalbe in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol 11, Published Essays, 1953-1965, beginning at p 24.
44. See Arendt's remarks on the "unusual" distinction she made between labor and work based on striking "phenomenal evidence," namely "the simple fact that every European language, ancient and modern, contains two etymologically unrelated words for what we have come to think of as the same activity, and retains them in the face of their persistent synonymous usage" (The Human Condition, 79- 80). For Arendt, the question of historical usage was particularly revealing; Voegelin would not disagree, but the demands of realistic theorization might necessitate the use of terms, such as political society, that for Arendt would in principle be avoided. Compare The New Science of Politics, 1, with The Human Condition, 38 ff.
45. "Oxford Political Philosophers," 103. [pp 31-2 of CW Vol 11. See fn 43 above.]
46. Arendt has, of course, had her defenders against Voegelin's criticism. One way of dealing with the issue of "human nature" and its changes that does not get lost in semantic divergencies was indicated by Voegelin himself. In a letter to Dal R. Evans (January 18,1974, HI 12/6), he wrote:
"The 'change' in the nature of man . . . is of course real, but a change is precisely what is called 'history' and the history of the differentiation is the content of Order and History. No differentiation of the psyche would be recognizable as such, unless it were the differentiation of something that was there before."
Such an understanding of the meaning of the term nature of man is defensible in itself, but that was not what either Voegelin or Arendt meant in the exchange of 1953. The other possibility, derived from Schelling, has been given a systematic formulation by Emil Fackenheim and is discussed in Chapter 10.
47. See, for example, Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer.
48. Arendt, "The Image of Hell."
49. In the contemporary words of Everett Chance, "when you hold all the cards, erasing faith is easier than you might think. All you have to do is erase the mind it inhabits." Everett was speaking specifically about drug "therapy." David James Duncan, The Brothers K (New York: Bantam, 1992), 605.
50. Solzhenitsyn's testimony in The Gulag Archipelago provides evidence of this, as do the psychological studies of Bruno Bettelheim. In this connection See Cooper, End of History, chap. 8.
51. Harvard University Archives, HUG(FP) 17, 12, Box 34; Gurian to Friedrich, November 12,1952; Friedrich to Gurian, December 9,1952. The conference proceedings were subsequently published under the editorship of Friedrich as Totalitarianism: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1953.
52. HI 13/16.
53. HI 13/16.1 have found no record of Friedrich's reply to Voegelin's remarks either in Voegelin's papers at HI or in Friedrich's papers at Harvard.
54. HI 15/27. According to Arendt, however, she and Voegelin were united in their hatred of ideology but divided on the grounds that she was not a Christian (HI 6/23). See also Voegelin to Gurian, May 5, 1951, University of Notre Dame, Archives, URP06/Box 6.
55. The article was included as a chapter in subsequent editions of The Origins of Totalitarianism.
56. HI 25/3.