English Quest for the Concrete – Part 5

HomeThe Collected Works of Eric VoegelinEnglish Quest for the Concrete – Part 5
Eric Voegelin

This excerpt is taken from the The History of Political Ideas, Volume VI (CW vol 24) and is presented here in five parts.This excerpt considers the replacement of universal Christianity by what Voegelin calls “schismatic political-religious bodies;” with his emphasis on the English developments, particularly the developments in philosophy and physics stemming from the religious displacement.


The Loss of the Concrete  (continued)

Locke’s “Primitivization” 

We may resume now the problem of “primitivization.” Locke’s civilizational destruction is not idiosyncratic or arbitrary. It is not incidental to his ecclesiastical politics but an instrumental part in his program of restoring spiritual authority.


The question now arises as to whether the spiritual authority of Christianity can be restored by the Lockean method. And if, as we think, the means is not adequate for reaching the end, what is the end that actually will be reached if this means is brought into play?


In reflecting on these questions we must, first of all, be clear that the authority of the spirit does not disappear from the world if its institutionalization in a historical society breaks down. The spirit bloweth where it listeth, and if it does not blow through the soul of men in community it may still blow through the soul in solitude.



The solution to the problem of spiritual authority in social crisis is the way of the mystic. It is a problem that arises whenever society is in crisis. We had occasion to discuss it in all detail when it appeared in Hellenic society. For the systematic discussion of its principles the reader should refer back to the analysis of Plato’s ideas, in particular to the analysis of the Gorgias.40


But Locke is no Plato. The Socratic “transfer of author­ity” was not within the range of his personality. A renovatio Evangelica is a return into the soul and cannot, therefore, be the external return to a historical state of doctrine. Locke missed the return into the soul–it was reserved to Berkeley to find this way into the depth of the soul and, because of his age, into social oblivion as well.


Locke’s missing of the way leads on to the further question: where did the way lead that he actually went?


The very fact that Locke returns to the New Testament, as to a literary document, in search of articles of faith is the proof that his profounder motivation is not quite Evangelical, and it also gives us a clue to its true nature.


Locke’s return is to the text of the New Testament and is an event in the history of English Protestantism, but it also belongs to the generic class of returns to primitive phases of civilization that are characteristic of the age of Western revolution and crisis.


Let us remember Warburton’s philosophical history, which we have related but not yet commented on. When Warburton makes his plea for England he reminds us of “the fierce and free nations of the North” who broke the Roman empire, who erected their “Gothic Governments” on the principles of liberty, and who might have lived happily ever after had they not fallen under the thralldom of the new Roman superstition.


Here we have another instance of the pattern of return, the pattern that we shall find again in the more famous cases of Montesquieu’s Germans who were free in their forests, as well as of the natural men of Rousseau who were free before they fell under the oppression of civilization. Moreover, from Locke’s own Treatise of Civil Government we may remember the nostalgia of primitivism in the cry: “In the beginning all the world was America.”

The Beginning of Historical Romanticism


In the light of such comparisons, Locke’s return to the New Testa­ment looks very much like a beginning of historical Romanticism, like an early case of the return to a historical “myth” for the purpose of assuaging the disorder of the age.


The common characteristic of such returns is the open or implied critique of civilization, the assumption that the substance has seeped out of its institutional and intellectual forms, the suspicion that perhaps these very forms have killed the substance, and the growing conviction that the meaning of existence can be recovered only by the destruction of the incubus.


In particular Warburton’s oratory is suggestive of things to come: when we read his plaints about the “fierce and free nations of the North,” about the sad fate of the “Gothic Governments” and the horror of “Papal Superstition,” we are reminded of nothing so much as of Alfred Rosenberg’s Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts with its invectives against the Roman haruspices who have poi­soned the blood and spirit of the noble Nordics.


If we consider this aspect of Locke’s return (and I think we must consider it), the subterranean connections between Reason and Romanticism be­come clearer.


There is a Romantic touch to Locke’s Reason insofar as it reflects the mood of civilizational critique and despair, and insofar as the autonomous Reason emerges as the Lucifer of the community. There is a hesitancy in completing the step because Locke still employs Christ for lending authority to his own light in order to make it socially effective. This hesitancy, however, will appear as such only if we look toward the past.


If we look toward the future, Locke’s use of the Gospel as a “myth” marks the beginning of a line (though it be a long one) at the end of which we find the fancies of the Uralinda Chronik and the Wotanism of the Ludendorffs.

In our analysis of Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity we have concentrated on what we consider to be its historically and philo­sophically effective nucleus. This nucleus does not exhaust Locke’s attitude toward Christianity.


Locke as a Thinker


A study of Locke as a thinker would have to explore the vast shadowy field of half thought that sur­rounds the rather small nucleus that in itself is not too clear. His mode of philosophizing was characterized by a good deal of whim.


Spurts of irritation by contemporary evils would push his thought in a direction he would not have moved, could he have seen the end of the road. And he could follow the road with complacency because the energy of the push gave out long before the end came into view. It is an interesting mental constitution. The men who have the happy gift can indulge in irresponsible boutades of thought, can pro­duce considerable havoc and misery, and can nevertheless sincerely protest that their intentions have been misunderstood when the mischievousness of their indulgence is held up to them.


Speaking less metaphorically: Locke’s spiritual gifts and intellectual abilities were no match for the problems he tried to solve, and his ethos as a thinker was deplorably weak.


With regard to the questions under discussion, he did not follow this thought to its conclusions, but let the path conveniently end in an underbrush of sentiments to which historians usually refer as his reverence and his devout Christianity.


Locke was aware, of course, that the symbolism of Christianity, even if reduced to the formulations of the New Testament, would not altogether enter into propositions that by any stretch of imagination could be called reasonable. In the Essay he distinguishes between religious truths above reason, contrary to reason, and according to reason.41 He does not, however deny the truth of those that are not according to reason. He recognizes the mysteries of religion as part of Revelation. He gets around the problem of the mysteries by extending reverence to them and putting them beyond a debate that would only sully them.


He had neither the strength of the mystic who would make the mysteries luminous by reenacting the religious experiences they symbolize, nor the courage of the philosopher who would let himself be carried wherever his thought led. Nor did he have the plain honesty of giving up a train of thought that led him to results that his sentiments told him were false.

Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious


The inevitable happened. A more adventurous and less rever­ential mind drove the thought of Locke to the point where the consequences became plain.


A year after Locke’s treatise, that is in 1696, appeared John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious. Toland professed to be Locke’s disciple, and Locke was not amused.


Again, the details of Toland’s work are not our concern. We have to in­dicate only the principal points where the author went beyond Locke. As a matter of fact, the title of the book summarizes the issue. While Locke was satisfied to find reason in Christianity and let the unreasonable part pass into the shadow of a reverential underemphasis, Toland insisted that there were no mysteries in Christianity—a position that could be maintained only under the assumption that the mysteries were non-Christian.


On this issue, however, Toland hedged. He did not state it in so many words, and the second volume of his work, in which he promised further elucidation, was never published. His restraint was probably caused by justified fears of the consequences of publication. Nevertheless, he pressed the argument far enough to make the conclusions clear beyond doubt.


Toland’s decisive step is the assumption that the methods em­ployed in the sciences of the external world have an absolute valid­ity for the cognition of all realms of being, as well as the corollary that nothing can be knowledge that has not been found by these methods.


The Scientistic Creed


On principle, Toland is already an adherent of the scien­tistic creed. A fact is what can be observed by the senses or what is attested by a trustworthy observer. Knowledge results from the comparison of ideas. In order to be comparable, ideas must be clear. A process of demonstration must be free of contradictions. As long as a proposition is not sufficiently supported by observation and noncontradictory reasoning, our judgment has to remain in sus­pense. The climax is the introduction of the Newtonian hypotheses non fingo: “I banish all hypotheses from my philosophy.”42


Once this type of epistemology is adopted as a standard, the mystery in the true sense, that is, the paradox in religious expe­rience, must dissolve. Toland defines mystery as a proposition that is known to us through revelation alone. That is to say, as long as it is not revealed to us we do not know it. Once it is revealed it must be rationally intelligible just as any other proposition that we have found without revelation. A revealed truth must show the characteristics of divine wisdom and sound reason. Propositions about something that is inconceivable are not a religious truth but nonsense.


Toland concentrated this position in the algebraic sen­tence: “Could that person justly value himself upon his knowledge who, having infallible assurance that something called a Blictri had a being in nature, in the meantime knew not what this Blictri was?” This is as far as Toland dares to go. He leaves it to the discretion of the reader to make his substitutions for “Blictri.”


Beyond this point the position of Toland cannot be discerned clearly: did he conceal his thought or did he believe, like Locke, that his thesis was compatible with orthodox Christianity? Was he a sincerely troubled soul, or an ambitious one who wanted to ride to fame on Locke’s coattails? We do not know.


One thing is certain: he took a decisive step, one that was immanent in the logic of Locke’s position, namely the step of erecting a consciousness that is turned in cognitive acts toward the external world into the model of the self. Whatever opportunistic or truly reverential lip service may be paid to the dogma, the Cognitio fidei is anni­hilated and the symbols that express this realm of experience are discarded as unreasonable.

From Unitarianism to Atheism


With this step, we may say, freethinking proper begins. The literature of this class is not worth any detailed attention in our context. Let us only indicate the main lines of thought. With regard to the Christian dogma freethought evolves from a reverential Trinitarianism through Unitarianism and Deism to Atheism.


With regard to ethics it evolves from a reverential acceptance of traditional standards through the psychology of plea­sure and pain into the variants of hedonism and utilitarianism.


With regard to psychology it evolves from the reverential accep­tance of the stream of consciousness as the residue of the Christian soul to a straight materialism that explains psychic phenomena as epiphenomena of matter.


With regard to the external world it develops from the reverential acceptance of creation, through the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” into the conception of the world as a mechanism of matter that runs its course according to Newton’s laws.


Let us conclude this account with the judgment that Swift ren­dered in his Argument against Abolishing Christianity in England: “Who would ever have suspected Asgil for a wit, or Toland for a philosopher, if the inexhaustible stock of Christianity had not been at hand, to provide them with materials? What other subject, through all art or nature, could have produced Tindal for a profound author, or furnished him with readers? It is the wise choice of the subject, that alone adorns and distinguishes the writer. For, had a hundred such pens as these been employed on the side of religion, they would have immediately sunk into silence and oblivion.”          {#emotions_dlg.VoegelinViewsm}


[This is part 5 of a 5 part excerpt.  Part 1 may be read  HERE.]




40. Voegelin’s reference is to a section of chapter 4 of the original plan of History of Political Ideas. It was first published as “The Philosophy of Existence: Plato’s Gorgias,” Review of Politics 11 (1949): 477-98, and reproduced with small changes as chapter 2, “The Gorgias,” in Order and History, vol. III, Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 24-45.

41. Locke, An Essay, bk. IV, chap. 17, sec. 23, “Of Reason,” 687.

42. For the content of Toland’s work I am following the account in Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 1:85-100.




Revolution and the New Science,  

History of Political Ideas, Volume VI (CW  Vol 24)

Chapter 4  “The English Quest for the Concrete”

§ 2. The Loss of the Concrete

pp 177-183


A number of similar excerpts can be found HERE.

Eric Voegelin

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Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne, and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna, and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information can be found at https://voegelinview.com/biographical-sketch/.