from The Collected Works
Theology and Fools
The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Eric Voegelin and graduate students at the St. Thomas More Institute in Montréal on March 12th, 1976. He was giving an example of how one must escape conventional categories if one is to give meaning to new empirical historical knowledge.
The Two Types of Theology
As you know, the term theology was invented by Plato. There was no theology before him; it’s a new term. (Every term was new at some time.) Think of how it arose and on what occasion — as we might have it today with our students. These young people are corrupted by all sorts of sophistic nonsense in the environment. You have to explain things to them and you hit on the following problem.
The ideas of all of these young people with whom we talk (in the Republic; later, in the Laws, the ideas of their elders) can be summarized in a triad of propositions advanced by Sophists — a very comprehensive triad: 1. The gods don’t exist; 2. If they exist they do not care what men are doing; 3. If they care what men are doing you can bribe them by sacrifice. (Go ahead — make a few sacrifices out of the profits from your crimes.)
Plato gives these three negative propositions about the gods without mentioning his source. But we have one Sophistic source: a speech once made by Gorgias of which an abstract is preserved. He gives that triad of propositions in its general form — concerning more than gods: 1. Nothing exists; 2. If it exists, it is unknowable; 3. If it is knowable, it is incommunicable. (In this way you get rid of the whole of being!) It is obviously a Sophistic school-technique to formulate such triads which are comprehensively negative.
And now Plato formulated the positive triad: The gods do exist; they do care about man; you cannot make them accomplices in your crimes by pacifying them with offerings out of your profits. On that occasion Plato uses the term theology and calls these two types of triads “the types of theology.” Both, please, not only the positive type; the negative gives the occasion to formulate a positive doctrinal sentence in the first place.
The man who formulates the negative propositions (cf. especially book II of the Republic) — “The gods don’t exist” etc. — is the man plagued with anoia — with what in the Hebrew and Christian contexts is called foolishness (as in Psalm 13: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no god.’”) The term fool in Hebrew is equal to the Greek anoia or amathes.
That brings in a very important matter, which I found recently in Plato and which I think has never been treated properly in philosophy. We have a tension in human existence: the possibility of positively searching for the ground of one’s existence, accepting the Divine ground, understanding it — with the accompanying joy, the eudaimonia — while if we reject it we fall into the state of anxiety.
It is very characteristic of the classic philosophy of Plato and Aristotle that there is no Greek word for anxiety. “Anxiety” is introduced after Alexander’s conquest (when it becomes a mass phenomenon!) and then by the Stoics: the agnoia ptoiodes — instead of the positive formulation. “Scary ignorance” is what anxiety would have been called.
Dogma is made for Fools
This introduces a very important problem. Man can be a fool or not be a fool. And you can then formulate such propositions as: “The existence of God is in doubt because there is no doubt about the existence of the fool;” that is the only reason why the existence of God is in doubt.
Foolishness as a human potential — in which one shouldn’t indulge — is the source of these problems. One has always to be aware (Plato clarified both types of theology — the negative, the denial, as the first) that the positive propositions are not at all the original propositions but counter-propositions to erroneous ones.
One cannot understand a dogma or doctrinal form concerning the gods or God at all, if one does not recognize a share of the foolishness. The positive formulations try to ward off the destructiveness of a fool; if there is no fool you have to ward off, you don’t have to engage in the positive dogma at all. And Plato doesn’t, except on occasions when he has to deal with the Sophistic fool. For what he has to say that is analogous to positive experience, the “infrastructure” as I call it (the search for the ground, and so on), is that you don’t need any dogma about God or the gods or anything like that.
The problem of foolishness as one human potentiality is, I believe, an insufficiently-discussed problem because with Plato and Aristotle the non-fool, the philosopher, carried the day. Therefore we speak of philosophy and include in it all the positive doctrinal propositions which are not meant to be philosophy; they are the opposition to the fool.
We don’t recognize that the problem of the fool is what you might call the positive problem in the whole; because there are fools we negate their negations and get positive doctrines which otherwise would not be necessary—if we were not living in a society in which a lot of people can be fools. The term “fool” is not used, in the critical sense, as name-calling but as naming a human potentiality: men can be fools.
. . . There is no expectation or reason to expect, in any visible future, that there will be human beings of whom a considerable percentage will not be fools. That will be a constant problem in every society and in every social order. You can’t get rid of it.
The Drama of Humanity
CW Vol 33
“Myth as Environment“
This quote is taken from a collection of Voegelin quotations which can be found HERE