from The Collected Works
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. Part 1 may be read HERE
And now comes the matter that is, of course, of most immediate interest for us: What has happened to this transcendent Ground under modern conditions in modern political conceptions?
All ideologies operate against the background of an understanding of the transcendent ground, since the divine ground is part of the cultural heritage.
We are living in Western civilization, which has philosophy and revelation and Christianity and the Church as its background, and all our vocabulary is taken from there.
We have no immediate mythical vocabulary; all our vocabulary is revelatory or philosophical.
What has happened to the transcendent ground in that connection?
It has become, let us say, immanentized.
We still have of course, the quest of the ground; we want to know where things come from. But since God (in revelatory language) or transcendent divine Being (in philosophical language) is prohibited for agnostics, they must put their ground elsewhere.
And now we can see, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, in the Enlightenment, a whole series of misplacements of the ground. The transcendent Ground is misplaced somewhere in an immanent hierarchy of being.
The first such misplacement would be making an immanent reason of man the ultimate ground. The eighteenth century has been called “the Age of Reason” because human, not divine, reason is considered to be the ultimate measure and ground of all action and everything within the world.
This human reason, however, is empty of content. A transcendent Reason, the tension toward transcendence, gives you a criterion, because if you are oriented in your action toward transcendence and see that “here is the nature of man,” then obviously certain things are impossible.
If the nature of man is to be found in his openness toward a divine Ground, you cannot at the same time see the nature of man in having certain kinds of passions or in having a certain race or pigmentation or something like that. It is in the openness to the ground; there is a content in it.
With human reason, you have no content whatsoever, and therefore the immediate consequence of the introduction of reason has been the necessity of filling up reason from various immanent sources. You find, therefore, as an example of the meaning of reason, the profit motive in the economic sense. Rational would mean operating for the optimum of profit under the given conditions of economic action and out of that would result an optimum economic society.
Or the rational motive would be striving for power in competition, which, if it does not lead to the overpowering of somebody else, will lead to something like a balance of powers in a competitive society.
The balance-of-power motive is, since 1713 and the Peace of Utrecht in international relations and domestically in the theories of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, the idea of restoring a balance within society, with the implication (fostered by Herbert Spencer but also in part by Bentham and Charles Darwin) that the survival of the fittest or a competitive situation will secure the best kind of society.
Or you may place the ground, if not in an economic motive or strict power motive, then in generalized problems, of productive relations, as Marx did: There are productive relations and they produce all the so-called superstructure of culture in society. The productive relations would be objectified, would be “the cause”; whatever we can explain in culture must be reduced to the productive relations that determined this or that type of culture.
Or you may explain the cultural phenomena, philosophy, religion, and so on, not through openness toward the ground but by various urges ultimately summarized in the Freudian term libido, the ultimate urge, the comprehended collectivity of urges, and you arrive at something like psychoanalysis.
Or since the first third of the nineteenth century, you might look to race relations. People belong to this or that race and that makes for their general intellectual makeup; that is the cause, the ultimate ground, and will determine the whole course of history. Or you might adopt the very crude racial conceptions of Hitler.
There is a whole gamut of possibilities of misplacing the ultimate ground: from human reason down to such phenomena as the Nordic race and, in between, the libido, the production relations, economic or political rationality, and so on.
I have given you only examples, but I have already introduced into the series of examples something like a certain order. If you reflect on the whole series (I could, of course, give more examples) you will find that there is a limit to such misplacements of the ground; you can only misplace the ground in more or less identifiable, distinguishable areas of immanent existence: human reason or animal urges or economic or political urges or the libido or sex relations or the color of the skin, and so on. But you can go only through: reason, psyche, body, inorganic matter.
We can observe, over the last two hundred years, that every possible locale where one could misplace the ground has been exhausted. This expresses itself in the fact that we have, since the great ideologists of the mid– and late-nineteenth century, since Comte, Marx, John Stuart Mill, Bakunin (and so on), no new ideologist.
All ideologies belong, in their origin, before that period; there are no new ideologies in the twentieth century. Even if one could find a new wrinkle in them, it wouldn’t be interesting because the matter has been more or less exhausted emotionally. We have had it.
Here we come to an interesting fact: Without peering into the future we can prognosticate that when ideas have run their course and are obviously exhausted, we can say certain things about them. First, nobody will be a great thinker of the type of Marx or Hegel or Comte in the future, because that has all been done once. There will be no further ideological thinker of any stature. We have had them all.
Further, one can say that once ideological misplacements of the ground are in the world they run for a while, because every one of those great thinkers has followers, has publicity, and has epigones. But you cannot have an indefinite sequence of those. In every new generation there are always some intelligent people who are bored with seeing epigones and who will sooner or later tear the epigones to pieces, intellectually and by criticism. This is, in fact, now done.
But one must not be too optimistic with regard to the exhaustion of the power of ideologies. Once ideologies are institutionally established–the Communist government in Russia or in China or in the satellite states, or in our society (established in academic institutions) certain intellectual ideologies that do not immediately become political (like positivism of the various kinds, or various kinds of Freudianism)–they last a long while, because there is a vested interest in them.
Every new generation is brought into them through college education, and it takes a while until they snap out of it. The college teaching level is usually thirty, fifty, or more years behind what is going on. There is always a hangover, a lag, that we have to calculate.
As far as science is concerned, there is no scholar living whom I know who is an ideologist. That does not mean ideologies or epigonic movements will disappear, or that where they are established their power will melt away from one day to another. But there will certainly be nothing new of the kind. That one can say.
Now for the phenomenon of exhaustion.
In a sense, ideologies are criticized to pieces. We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it: Ideologies are finished. Each one in his way has taken this or that ideology and criticized it so that nothing is left of it. Nevertheless, he does not quite see what to do afterward, so we have a peculiar fence-straddling generation. These people are very serious; but their having seen that all is wrong still doesn’t mean they know what is right.
For instance, there is Karl Löwith, author of Meaning and History (1949), who has in an earlier work, From Hegel to Nietzsche (1941), completely analyzed the problem of German Hegelian historicism and all its inadequacies. Nobody seriously today can any longer be an historicist on the scale of From Hegel to Nietzsche, including Löwith himself. It’s out; everybody knows that. But that doesn’t mean that Löwith now knows what to do.
The situation has its comic aspects; but it is very serious for these people because it is not easy to find out how to get out of the mess. Or take a case like Philip Rieff, who has written a splendid book, The Mind of the Moralist. If you read that book on Freud and psychoanalysis you know psychoanalysis is finished. After that book nobody can be a psychoanalyst with a decent conscience. But Rieff doesn’t know what to do now.
Or in certain political utopias you find a peculiar kind of “negative utopia,” so called. It isn’t that; it’s a satire, in the sense of the Menippean satires: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The whole sense of utopia is shown up as the nonsense it is. But that doesn’t mean that Huxley, or Orwell before he died, knew what to do next.
They had known that all the utopian excrescences of their political creeds are nonsensical. But what now? Or take the famous case of a Nobel Prize winner, Albert Camus. If you look at his book L’Homme révolté, you find the ideological perversions of the nineteenth century analyzed into pieces.
It would have been most interesting (had not Camus unfortunately been killed in an accident) to find out what he would have done now, whether he would only have become his own epigone. Camus was comparatively young when he wrote L’Homme révolté, and there would have been plenty of time–twenty or thirty years in his life–to start on something new.
I have given you a few examples just to show that we have today, in those who are in their fifties, approximately, a generation of men who have done all the critical work on the ideologies that possibly can be done, work which, however, does not become effective because it leaves them with nothing at all.
But ideologies are finished. The symptoms show that after this generation nobody can be an ideologist if he is intelligent to any degree or a man of any stature. That one can say with certainty, but again I must warn: no optimism with regard to the actual power of ideologies.
Things go on in China and elsewhere just as they did in the past, and they will go on for a long while. We have here an empirical rule that has been studied by Oswald Spengler and by Arnold J. Toynbee: Periods of great establishment, such as a Communist government in China or a Communist government in Russia, have a habit of running for two hundred and fifty years.
They may be finished earlier through foreign intervention, but if they are undisturbed they usually need, for their exhaustion, about two hundred and fifty years.
That goes generally for observation of the past. There is, however, one point to be noted that may speak in favor of a shorter period, especially in the Russian case. Russian Communism takes place on the general background of philosophical and Christian tradition.
If there is established publicly a highly defective conception that neglects the life of reason, that doesn’t permit you to find sense in your life by reflecting on problems of life and death–especially of death–then you get, sooner or later, disappointment that the things promised, like a perfect Communist realm, never come and the restlessness of this defectiveness.
There is no sense in life because indefinite progress doesn’t work. (If we had a blackboard here, we could show, by a simple mathematical formula, why progress doesn’t work!)
That is enough about ideologies. Let me in conclusion say just a few words about the general importance of the quest of the ground in a larger context.
What is being done today in various sciences–by classical philologists, by comparative religionists, by archaeologists, by scholars concerned with problems of the ancient Orient, by medievalists, and so on–is a sort of convergent development of a science of general structures that are not peculiar to our Western civilization but have their root in the nature of man and are in their variants, therefore, to be found everywhere, in all societies.
One can develop a sort of system of the structural common denominators in such matters; I have given you this evening just one example: the quest of the ground.
The work has progressed much further, however, and there are many other such structures, already fairly well known, which are to be found everywhere.
This permits one to judge, to a certain extent, the point at which a problem has stalled in a society, or the point that has been reached or that can be foreseen in the future. What will happen is an acting out of certain types of ideas; and when they have been acted out, they are finished.
Understanding of such units of ideas is so interesting for us now because some of them–installed at certain points, say in the period of Enlightenment–now after two hundred and fifty years approach their end at the end of our century.
The considerable area of general structures known already will permit far more precise judgment, although it does not permit action, you see. It doesn’t help for action to know these matters, because people act by emotions and not by reason.
But it helps for understanding what probably are the processes that have to run their course before a particular kind of nonsense is completely finished and out.
I have given you examples of the ideology problem so that you can see one really can say something about it if one looks for the phenomena –and one looks for the phenomena if one knows what to look for–for example, that certain misplacements of the ground are finished now.
Published Essays, 1953–1965
CW Vol 11
In Search of the Ground
Conversations with Eric Voegelin
St. Thomas More Institute,
Montréal, February 28th, 1965
A number of similar excerpts may be found HERE.