skip to Main Content

Eric Voegelin Today:  Voegelin’s Political Thought in the 21st Century

Eric Voegelin Today:  Voegelin’s Political Thought In The 21st Century

Eric Voegelin Today:  Voegelin’s Political Thought in the 21st Century. Scott Robinson, Lee Trepanier, and David Whitney, eds. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019.

 

Professor Scott Robinson, writing in the “Introduction” of this book, has succinctly articulated its purpose, which is to demonstrate the relevance of Eric Voegelin’s interpretations of the  20th century European radical ideological movements, as equally applicable to a diagnosis of the ideological fanaticism that contaminates America  in these first decades of the 21st century.  The latter is detailed concretely in David Corey’s evolving stages of 21st century liberalism (See below). For the most part, the Voegelin writings analyzed by the book’s co-authors were originally published  during a twelve year period beginning with Voegelin’s lecture series at the University of Chicago, published as The New Science of Politics, to his lecture series at the University of Munich, published as Hitler and the Germans, in 1964.  The writings have been re-published in Volumes 5 and 11 in the Collective Works of Eric Voegelin, a 34 volume compendium of Voegelian thought.   While Voegelin’s writings address the ideological problems in 20th century European political ideas, and the various contributors to Eric Voegelin Today apply Voegelin’s analysis to the formation of political communities in America of the 21st century, the problems and causes are similar.  They both originate in the closure of the modern soul to a transcendent source of order.

The book has been organized into 2 parts:  Part I, “The Ideological Nature of Liberalism Today” & Part II, Geopolitics Today.”  There are five essays in Part I, which reflect the diversity of approaches of their authors in dealing with the general topic explored.  In Chapter One, Professor David Corey, associate professor of Political Science at Baylor University examines Voegelin’s “Liberalism and Its History” (CW 11).  He addresses the changes that liberalism has assumed and secondly, provides a summary and application of Voegelin’s “profound insight” of liberalism’s idealistic, revolutionary quest for unattainable eschatological fulfilment in the world.  The changes and the quest together reveal a spiritual revolt that rejects the spiritual substance of human beings.   Corey, using Voegelin’s analyses, discusses the weaknesses of liberalism antiquated economic theories as well as its anti-religious posture.  Liberalism, in an overreliance on autonomous, immanent reason has also abandoned the true hierarchy of goods, especially the highest goods of “transcendent completion.”  Liberalism has morphed into revolution, Corey writes, in that as an ideological movement it is constantly discovering new obstacles to freedom to be overcome.   Corey delineates six stages in liberalism’s revolution ending in the current “transhumanist” one.  He writes that liberalism’s view that political change, forced on the public from the politicians of today, will someday cure all of society’s ills is simultaneously ideological, and an instance of spiritual revolt that Voegelin had predicted. This wonderfully contemporary essay concludes with a reiteration of Voegelin’s dissent from liberalism: it is gnostic reductionism; it is a rejection of the uniquely human in human societies, i.e., its spiritual substance.

Chapter Two written by editor, Scott Robinson, is a second wonderfully relevant analysis of politics today based upon Voegelin’s writings: “The Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in a Democracy” (1956, republished in CW 11).  Voegelin had identified what is a cause of incivility as well as a technique used by Marx, “the prohibition of the question.” The prohibition instrumentally and immorally conceals truth in the public conversation. In comparison to the openness to the truth by the instrumentality of the question that marks the founding years of the American republic, current political debates have begun relying upon this prohibition. The prohibition occasions the extreme lack of civility and vitriolic nature of the contemporary public conversation that citizens are forced to endure today.  Robinson is also the writer of Chapter Three, “Defenders of Democracy.”  He examines “the destruction of right order in American Universities.”  The universities, like the twentieth century European ones, have fostered tendencies toward existentialism, value relativism, and neo-positivism in students. Hence, they reduce opportunities for the same students to gain sound knowledge of civic virtue.  If today’s youth seemed to play so loose with the truth in their advocacy for justice, it is because they have been introduced into life lived “in a second reality” by the American educational system.  These ideologically constructive world views have been inculcated incrementally from the early years of schooling into their university training. Voegelin had comprehensively analyzed this notion of “second reality” as an ideological fanaticism in his book, Hitler and the Germans. Chapter Three argues credibly that the same psychological condition in younger citizens is now a serious issue for American democracy.

In Chapter Four Professor David Whitney, an associate professor of political science at Nicolls State University in Louisiana, revisits the origins of scientism, and correlates it to contemporary scientism.  He does so with the help of Voegelin’s essay, “The English Quest for the Concrete” published originally in 1940, but republished in The History of Political Ideas, (1998, CW 24).  Voegelin wrote that scientism can be characterized as a pseudo-religion or a form of idolatry, as it holds a dogmatic faith in the power of science to cure all evils.  Scientism is flourishing today, Whitney writes; it is the belief that “human existence ca be oriented in an absolute sense through the truth of science.”  Scientism exerts a strong influence in the American educational system.

Whitney also highlights its biases in Transhumanism.  Voegelin explored the origins of scientism in Francis Bacon’s philosophical utopianism, including the latter’s rejection of Greek natural theology. Bacon also abandoned Aristotle’s logic with its emphasis on the importance of human openness to the Divine. It is the absence of this openness to the Divine (in metaxic reality) that Professor Grant Havers, (Trinity Western university in Canada) faults in John Rawls’ failure to recognize that liberalism requires a theological foundation in A Theory of Justice.  Havers references Voegelin’s essay, “The Oxford Political Philosophers,” originally published in 1953, (reprinted in CW 11).  Rawls does not reveal a civil theology in his writings which demonstrates Rawls’ assumption that liberalism does not need any metaphysical legitimation. Nor does Rawls recognize the religious foundations of liberalism’s belief in human equality.   Rather Rawls assumed that “universal love” will sustain liberalism.  In contrast, Voegelin wrote that the founding principles of liberalism must be derived from the resources of Christianity and Stoicism.  Havers returns to Voegelin regarding the Oxford philosophers:  Rawls’ naive hopes ignore the inconvenient truth of human fallenness and evil. These propensities do corrupt liberalism, leading to the “political radicalism of our post Christian era.”

Part Two of Eric Voegelin Today is a collection of four essays which deal with the topic of contemporary geopolitics.  Professor Lee Trepanier, (Saginaw Valley State university, Editor of Lexington Books and of Voegelinview) references several essays written by Voegelin in the 1950’s republished in CW 11 as well as CW24).  The focus of Chapter Six by Professor Trepanier is a fairly overlooked practical political analysis in the Voegelin corpus:  Voegelin wrote that Europeans failed to recognize that democracy flourishes only with the presence of civic virtue.  Moreover, industrial society is equally dependent on citizens’ attunement to noetic reason, the higher order rational and necessary counterpart to the diffusion of the entrepreneurial function.  In sum, Professor Trepanier, writes, Voegelin in these writings emphasizes the life of reason both noetic and pragmatic.  In his essays in comparative politics, Voegelin “had developed a model of society” with three main components:  spiritual/cultural, political, and economic for analysis.

Chapters Seven and Eight are each very creative analyses of Voegelin’s geopolitical relevance. In Chapter Seven Professor Scott Segrest, (The Citadel, SC) applies Voegelin’s writings on the “age of ideology” to Islamism’s “Dream of the Caliphate.”  Professor Segrest references the Voegelin 1965 lecture, “In Search of the Ground”, and his 1953 book review of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, to achieve a comprehensive and insightful exposition of the ideological fanaticism in contemporary radical Islamism and Jihadist terrorism.  He identifies successfully the Voegelin diagnosed features of ideology – apocalypticism, gnosticism , and immanentization – as explicitly at work in both Islamism and jihadism.  Both ideologies are premised on a mis-placed “ground of existence.”  He refers to Voegelin’s review of Arendt’s book on the origins of totalitarianism to clarify the “spiritual disease” at work in these religious/political ideologies.  This disease, a decisive feature in modern mass movements of the past centuries can be discovered in 21st century Islamic totalitarianism. It is the loss of faith and of philosophy by modern Western civilization.  It is also the goal to change and re-make human nature in the image of the Jihadist or liberalism ideals. Voegelin had concluded that Arendt’s analysis was off the mark due her liberal inability to take religion seriously.  Segrest suggests in his conclusion that the solution to Islamist radicalism may be found in the retrieval of the ground of existence experienced in the Sufi mystic tradition.

Christopher Morrissey, (Trinity Western University in Canada) provides the reader in Chapter 8, “The Five Ways of World Empire,” with a creative experiment!  He brings the five essentially different structural varieties of the intramundane experiments of world-empire that exhibit a rivalry with divine transcendence articulated by Voegelin (CW 11,28) into a juxtaposition with Thomas Aquinas’s five ways to prove the existence of God.  The essay does focus on the “cosmological” form of world empire and the first proof. It does so from the perspective of the quest in history and culture for universal order.  In its understanding of order, the ruler of the intramundane empire is seen as divine, which Morrissey explains is absurd and idolatrous.  Aquinas in his first proof established “that everything that is moved is moved by another,” including the human ruler.  The break in this pattern lies beyond the intramundane causal pattern, pointing to divine transcendence as the source of motion.  Morrissey does have some fun too. He adopts symbolic logic and a series of syllogisms to illustrate his demonstration of the weakness of the cosmological world empire based upon Aquinas’ First Proof of God’s existence.

The final essay in Eric Voegelin Today, “Eric Voegelin’s 1944 ‘Political Theory and the Pattern of General History’: An Account from the Biography of a Philosophizing Consciousness,” by Professor Nathan Harter, Christopher Newport University in Virginia, is both biographical and insightful into the saintly genius of Eric Voegelin.  He writes about what must be called the significant conversion experience of Voegelin: a scholar obedient to the Real.  Voegelin, to establish himself in the U.S., had agreed to write a more comprehensive textbook on the “history of political ideas.”  For several decades after this Voegelin had to struggle with the received notion that there was such a history.  In Voegelin’s words quoted by Harter, “every thinker who is engaged in the quest for truth resists a received symbolism he considers insufficient to express truly the reality of his responsive experience.”

And to conclude this long review, the essays in the volume, Eric Voegelin Today have illustrated Voegelin strenuous work ethic and successful life achievements as a thinker.  To be exact, the essays reveal the results of Voegelin’s long quest that began with his immigration to the U.S, then extended through the remaining four decades of his life, to create a new and more satisfactory symbolism to address the human frailty hindering attempts to design/create political community.  Each of this volume’s authors have utilized these symbolisms in their attempt to apply the Voegelin corpus to contemporary political evaluation.  The authors have provided us with the symbolism itself – i.e., “Second reality,” “the prohibition of the truth,” “noetic reason,” “Gnosticism,” “civic virtue,” “immanentization of the spirit -” and the list extends comprehensively.  But the authors have achieved more than this.  In what is a book of very different essays that address the political corruptions of our era (for example, liberalism) – unexpected topics that heighten a reader’s anticipation of what “what will be the subject of the next essay?” – the authors not only have clarified and adopted Voegelin’s creative symbolism, they have demonstrated their use. The authors exemplify for the reader an instructive employment of creatively new tools of analysis provided in Voegelin’s symbolisms that can work to interpretatively critique political communities in the 21st century.

 

Also available are the “Introduction” of Eric Voegelin Today: Voegelin’s Political Thought in the 21st Century; Scott Robinson’s “The Necessity of Moral Communication in a Pluralistic Political Environment,” Grant Havers’ “Voegelin, Rawls, and the Persistence of Liberal Civil Theology,” Nathan Harter’s “Eric Voegelin’s 1944 ‘Political Theory and the Pattern of General History’: An Account from the Biography of a Philosophizing Consciousness,” and Lee Trepanier’s “The Comparative Politics of Eric Voegelin.”

Macon Boczek

Macon Boczek is a Board Member of VoegelinView and has been an active member of the Eric Voegelin Society since 2001, after she earned a doctorate in Roman Catholic Systematic Theology from Duquesne University. She has a B.S. in Education and M.A. in both Religious Studies and Philosophy. She has taught at John Carroll University in Ohio and Kent State University, where she is currently on the faculty of the Religious Studies Department.

Back To Top