from The Collected Works
In Search of the Ground
Part 1– Causation, Infinite Regression, and Rational Action
Eric Voegelin visited the St. Thomas More Institute in Montréal four times over an eleven year span, the first visit taking place in 1965. On this occasion he gave a lecture which was followed by questions from graduate students. The lectures were transcribed and published by Edwin O’Connor, the Institute’s Director. This is presented in five parts.
It is a great relief for a lecturer–you perhaps don’t know how much so–if he can talk to people who know something about him.
It is difficult, sometimes, to deliver a lecture in a foreign city and not know to whom one is talking, or what these people will think of every sentence, or whether they will misunderstand; but I feel very much at home, especially since I have been given a grand tour of this beautiful city, and now have had a perfect introduction in a friendly atmosphere.
I have selected as title for this lecture “In Search of the Ground.” That should be explained or there might be a misunderstanding that it is a lecture on finding good spots in real estate! That it is not.
In recent years I have tried to find general categories that would make it possible to compare orders in various civilizations and find common denominators for their treatment, because, normally speaking, all the categories in which we talk about politics in the West have arisen either in antiquity, or through the Middle Ages, or are oriented by the modern national state and its problems, and therefore do not apply to political phenomena in India, or even in Russia, to say nothing of China.
In consequence of this inapplicability we sometimes make ghastly mistakes in politics when dealing with Asiatic or African civilizations because we just don’t know what those are. We have no ready-made political vocabulary to handle such matters.
One of the simpler categories that turns out to be of importance is the category of the ground.
This is why it is suitable for a lecture of this kind; others are much more complicated and would require much more preliminary explanation. So let me talk about the ground.
The quest of the ground, or “search for the ground” as I formulate it, is a constant in all civilizations, as also in all subdivisions of civilizations in all societies. That is not to say that the search for the ground, or the expressions of it, always have the same form. As you will see, they sometimes have widely differing forms.
The Unanswered Questions of Leibniz
But at least we can express them clearly in the form that they assumed in the eighteenth century, especially with Leibniz. There the quest of the ground has been formulated in two principal questions of metaphysics. The first question is, “Why is there something; why not nothing?” And the second is, “Why is that something as it is, and not different?”
If you translate those into conventional philosophical vocabulary, the first question, “Why is there something; why not nothing?” becomes the great question of the existence of anything; and “Why is it as it is, and not different?” becomes the question of essence.
To the double-pronged question “Why are things at all, and why are they as they are?” there is of course no answer, because the ground from which things are what they are, and are at all, is a transcendent divine Ground; there is no answer except in the symbolisms of theology or of a myth or of a metaphysics of transcendent divine Being or something like that–which does not render any simple propositions for knowing about the matter.
The question itself, you might say, implies its answer; because in raising this question the very nature of man who is in search of his ground expresses itself in questioning to the last point, or to the last resort, what is the ground of everything with regard to existence and essence. In this questioning one keeps open one’s human condition and is not tempted to find cheap answers. There are various types of cheap answers, to which I shall refer later.