Equivalences of Experience, and Symbols of the Depth By Which Experience Lives (Part II)

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III

Voegelin begins his essay by explaining that the search for constants of truth about human order in society and history will not be found at the level of symbols, that is, in spoken or written words or other expressions of meaning. The historical process of the human search for order throws up successive symbolizations of truth; symbolizations emerge that are superior in their complexity and differentiation to earlier symbolizations; but at the level of expression or formulation or proposition, truth is multiform, adaptational, shifting, unstable. There is no one absolute symbolization of any important truth, only “equivalent” symbolizations of significant truths. Thus, the person who wants possession of a constant truth about human order will not find it in any particular set of propositions, or a written catalogue of permanent values, or in any doctrine, religious or secular, concerning the meaning of existence or history.

We are tempted to look, then, to the experiences that have “engendered” the varying and equivalent symbolizations for what is “constant” in the human discoveries about truths concerning existence and reality: we may hope, that is, to find experiential constants of truth. For example, the Chinese symbol of the Tao and the Upanishadic symbol of Brahman may well be understood as equivalent symbolizations of a truth that, “beyond” the world intrinsically conditioned by space and time, there is a transcendent and ultimate reality, unconditioned by space and time, which is more real and more enduring than worldly reality. One may be ready to affirm that, not the symbols, obviously, but the experiences that gave rise to them are the same—are a constant—to be found wherever and whenever a person undergoes the experience producing the insight expressed in the affirmation of such a transcendent reality.

But this, Voegelin explains, would be a theoretical error, for two reasons. First, human experiences, like human symbolizations, are part of a reality that is continually in process, continually in movement, so that no experience holds a position of fixity beyond the flux of becoming. All experiences, being involved in the historical flux, are distinct and differing involvements in the existential movement of consciousness participating in the process of reality, and thus cannot be accorded the status of sameness or constancy. Another way to say this is that every experience is that of a distinct person, of reality becoming luminous for its reality and truth at the emergent site of that particular person, and each such emergence has a unique position in the movement of the historical process. Thus, there is no constancy or “sameness” at the level of experiences, since each experience is historically conditioned, individual, and distinct from any other experience.

Second—and unlike the former point, this is a point Voegelin emphasizes—it is theoretically untenable to separate an experience of truth from the symbolization of the truth of that experience. This is because there is no human experience of “truth” without both an act of understanding that grasps the meaning of that experience and some inward or outwardly expressed formulation of that meaning in some type of symbolization. Therefore an “experience of truth” is always an experience-understanding-and-symbolization of truth. Experience-understanding-symbolization—the hyphenated complex is my own linguistic formula, not Voegelin’s, but it clarifies his point—is an inseparable unit insofar as any discovery or emergence of truth is concerned, such that to separate out “experience” from that complex is a misleading hypostatization.[1] If we were to assert that some type of experience that has engendered important symbols of truth is itself a constant, then we will have fallen into the trap of ignoring the indivisible unity of the complex experience-understanding-symbolization with respect to human discoveries of truth. As Voegelin explains: “[The supposedly] constant experience, in order to be identified, would have to become articulate, and once it has been articulated the result would be a symbolism claiming to be exempt from the fate of being one more historically equivalent truth.”[2]

Voegelin sums up the preceding points by saying that what “we call experiences, as well as the symbols engendered by them, are part of reality in process,” and in consequence he concludes that “we must extend the differences of the symbols [concerning important truths] into the engendering experiences and, consequently, speak of the equivalence not only of symbols, but of experiences as well.”[3] Bernard Lonergan has put this point, which essentially concerns the historicity of human truth, in a striking way by curtly stating: “concepts have dates.” That is, every human act of insight, and every idea resulting from it, and every articulation of that idea, occurs at some moment in the historical process; and it is both false and futile to claim that any insight, concept, or doctrine has entered consciousness from beyond the historically-embedded activities of human consciousness. The person who claims to possess knowledge of a truth that has not been uncovered through historically situated human experience, language, and interpretation is simply ignoring human historicity, i.e., the temporally-conditioned and situation-specific character of human existence with respect to any experience, discovery, and articulation of truth.

Where does this leave us, then, in the search for constants of human order in society and history, in the light of whose truth we attempt to orient our lives in confidence that we are moving in the direction of living more well-ordered and less deformed existences? It leaves us looking for some level of reality that is more enduring and profound than the historically conditioned variables of experiences and symbolizations. And any claim that humans can attain any knowledge of genuinely enduring truths about existence and reality depends on our discovering such a level of reality; for, as we recall, the language of “equivalent truths,” whether applied to symbolizations or to experiences, requires for its validity an underlying sameness or constancy of truth with respect to which the experiences and symbols may be understood to be related as equivalents. As Voegelin writes at this point in his meditation: “The constant that will justify the language of equivalent experiences and symbols must be sought on a level deeper than the level of equivalent experiences which engender equivalent truths.”[4]

We are searching, then, for a reality that in some sense can be understood to “underlie” all human experiences of what Voegelin calls “the primordial field of reality [consisting of the community of] God and man, world and society”;[5] all experiences of existential tension; and all experiences of participation. And indeed, Voegelin writes, such a reality has long been philosophically identified: it is the “depth” from which consciousness experiences itself as emerging into illuminated, self-aware questioning and understanding. It is that dimension of the human psyche, Voegelin explains, that lies “below” conscious experience and from which, through inward exploration and meditation, “new truth[s] of reality can be hauled up to conscious experience,” but which in itself, as the “depth” of the soul or psyche, always remains “beyond articulate experience.”[6] This “depth of the soul,” which has been symbolized since the time of the Hellenic philosophers as a boundless extension of the psyche into the depth of reality, is understood to have ontological continuity with consciousness—to be reality of the “same nature as the reality of consciousness”—but to which one cannot validly attribute any “substantive content,” since any psychic depth that has come to light in conscious experience as images, insights, or symbols, no longer belongs to the psyche’s “depth” but to consciousness.[7] As Voegelin explains:

We experience psyche as consciousness that can descend into the depth of its own reality, and the depth of the psyche as reality that can rise to consciousness, but we do not experience a content of the depth other than the content that has entered consciousness.[8]

The content of the “depth” that remains below consciousness remains unfathomable, because it is by definition not experienced. Therefore, we cannot validly attribute to a person’s experience of the depth of the psyche any truth-content that would constitute a permanent or constant truth of meaning that underlies the historical field of experiences and symbolizations. Every experience of the depth of the psyche, of the boundary-area where depth and consciousness meet as self-exploration succeeds in bringing new images, insights, or symbols into the light of conscious experience, is personal, and governed by historical conditions; in other words, there is no such thing, Voegelin writes, as an “autonomous depth” experienced, but “only a [specific] consciousness in continuity with its own depth.”[9] Therefore the search for a constant of truth that would justify the language of “equivalent symbolizations of the truth” must be extended even beyond experiences of the depth. The search for a constant in the history of experiences and symbolizations has ended in failure: “There is no constant to be found in history . . .”, Voegelin concludes.[10]

But Voegelin’s meditative search for constants of absolute truth has not, in fact, reached a dead-end. For while the search has found no constant in history, it has disclosed a depth of reality below consciousness and history, a depth that is not merely an “individual” depth, restricted as a localized continuation of this or that specific consciousness, but rather to be identified also as the one depth underlying all reality experienced in the primordial field of God and man, world and society. For when a person asks, what kind of reality “is touched when man descends into the depth of his psyche,” Voegelin writes, he will recognize that, since truths brought up from its depth affect his understanding of the field of partners as a whole, this depth cannot be identified with any one of these partners in the community of experienced being including himself, “man,” but only with “the underlying reality that makes them partners in a common order, i.e., with the substance of the Cosmos.”[11] That is: the depth underlying consciousness is the one depth of “substance” underlying all experienceable realities.

To grasp why this must be so, it is crucial to remember that every human consciousness is ontologically a mode of participation in the process of reality as a whole—a “site” in the process of reality where it becomes consciously luminous; thus, the depth from which the consciousness of one partner emerges (a “man”) can only be the depth of reality as a whole. And because it is contrary to reason to imagine there being a “depth below depth in infinite regress,” this depth must be understood as the “underlying oneness of reality” that gives reality as humanly experienced its coherence, order, and intelligibility, and also such constancies of structure as are repeatedly and universally experienced in the historical field—constancies such as the unvarying fourfold of partners in the primordial community of being, and the human universality of the search for meaning and order.[12]

It is important to note this is not a claim that we have experiential access to this “substance” as a oneness that underlies all reality experienced. In clarifying this point, Voegelin takes care to explain both the genesis of symbols that express this “underlying oneness,” and the status of all such symbols.

The genesis of such symbols Voegelin describes as follows. First, there is the experience by consciousness of “touching” and “descending into” its own depth, which we understand can only be, also, the depth of reality as a whole. Second, symbols emerge or are chosen to signify the underlying oneness of reality through bringing together insights from two separate types of experience, of which the former is one. These two types of experience are 1) the individual experience of the depth of the psyche, already mentioned, and 2) experiences of the entirety of the primordial field of God and man, world and society. Once both types of experience have been undergone and understood, the consequence is that through an act of “imaginative fusion” symbols will be created that unite the experience of depth with the experience of reality as a whole.

Humans confidently generate such symbols to represent an underlying oneness of reality through trusting that all the discrete intelligibilities in the cosmos we experience and understand are grounded in a oneness, a oneness that ensures, through the metaphysical logic of the very notion of a cosmic “oneness,” that reality as a whole is ultimately and completely intelligible—absent which all human experience of cosmic order would be grossly deluding, and the human search for order, which is existentially predicated on the assumption that reality is in the end fully intelligible, would be unfounded and finally meaningless.[13] As to the status of imaginative symbols of this underlying oneness or “depth,” Voegelin is clear on the point that they have the status of “myth”—that they are the creative product of mythopoetic imagination. As we shall see, symbols of the depth are a type of mythic symbol that differentiated consciousness cannot do without; and the most important of them all, Voegelin points out, is the symbol Cosmos itself, through which was first expressed, by Hellenic thinkers, reality’s ultimate oneness, intelligibility, coherence, lastingness, and constancy of structure.

So here we find, at last, the source of justification for the affirmation of equivalences of symbolized truth: the constancy of truth that cannot be found in the history of experience may be assumed, in trust and faith, to be “located” in the “depth of the cosmos,” in the underlying oneness whose ultimate coherence, intelligibility, and constancy of structure are the guarantee for the truth of the equivalent experiences and symbolizations that appear, and differentiate, in the process of historical experience. Therefore the human search for truth—for significant and enduring truths about society and history, about existence and world, about consciousness and God—does make sense; and we can be confident that such important truths as we arrive at, verified by their recurrent discovery through the millennia of history, are not transient ephemera without trans-historical significance, as a radical historicist would argue. Voegelin’s conclusion, at the end of his meditation, is that the “search for truth makes sense only under the assumption that the truth brought up from the depth of the psyche by man, though it is not the ultimate truth of reality [which, as historically conditioned, it could never be], is representative of the truth in the divine depth of the Cosmos.” In other words, the truth of different but equivalent symbols that are discovered, across cultures and in the historical course of differentiation, to consistently illuminate existence and reality, may rightly be trusted, Voegelin says, to be “representative of a truth that is more than equivalent.”[14]

It is significant, and worthy of our close attention, that Voegelin in the last paragraph of his meditation (quoted above) suddenly refers to the underlying oneness of reality as the “divine depth of the Cosmos.” For what occurred historically when the experience of psychic depth was united with experiences of the primordial field to create, through imaginative fusion, symbols articulating an underlying oneness of reality—an historical development of experience and symbolization that Voegelin has re-enacted in his meditation—was that the traditional mythological account of the divine within cosmic reality, represented by a plurality of gods and goddesses, nature-divinities, and multivarious minor deities and numinous presences, was replaced by a philosophical mythological account of the divine within cosmic reality as the “underlying oneness” of the cosmos. In Voegelin’s rather compact words: “The depth of the psyche is . . . the quite authentic understanding of divinity present in the order of the cosmos peculiar to the philosophy on the depth emerging from myth.”[15] This means that the origin and guarantee of an ultimate order, intelligibility, coherence, and constancy of structure in experienced reality has historically shifted, in this development, from “the gods” as portrayed by traditional myth to the “underlying oneness” of reality as mystically apprehended in experiences of the depth of the psyche and articulated by the philosophically mythic symbol of Cosmos.[16]

This raises some very important questions. If the “depth of the cosmos” is a symbol of divine reality, occasioned by philosophical insights into the order of reality, that replaces—for differentiated understanding—traditional myths about the gods, then what is the relationship of that insight and development to the philosophical discovery, in the same Hellenic milieu, of the transcendent nature of divine reality—e.g., the “being beyond being” of Plato’s Republic—which “dissolves” the one cosmos into 1) world and 2) transcendent divinity? How can these two developments be brought into explanatory conjunction? Where, one might ask, is the divine: is it the “underlying oneness of reality” symbolized as cosmic depth, or is it transcendently beyond the world? And how are the later Christian mystical differentiations and symbolizations of the transcendent God related to the “cosmological” apprehensions of a divine depth that, according to Voegelin, “has remained a constant in Western history from the Timaeus through Neoplatonism of Antiquity, and the Renaissance into the Neoplatonism of the German Pietists, Jakob Boehme, and Hegel”?[17]

The core component in Voegelin’s response to these and related questions is that there always remains, for differentiated consciousness, two basic approaches to understanding our human relation to divine reality, and two basic sets of symbolizations corresponding to these. First, there is the approach that he calls the “mysticism of the ‘height’” through which the transcendent being of the divine is apprehended—which provides, writes Voegelin, a “partial experience of God.” Second, there is “the mysticism of the soul of the ‘depth’,” in which one apprehends the divine as the “underlying oneness of reality,” which provides “another partial experience” of God.[18] These two distinct types of mystical approach to divine reality, Voegelin indicates, are compatible and complementary, and—more important from a philosopher’s point of view—both types of apprehension and symbolization of divine being “must be taken into account in any philosophy of the human condition that wants to be complete.”[19]

These comments will bring to mind, among Voegelin’s readers, the opening passage of his later meditation, “The Beginning and the Beyond: A Meditation on Truth,” which states: “Divine reality is being revealed to man in two fundamental modes: in the experience of divine creativity in the cosmos, and in the experience of divine ordering presence in the soul.”[20] That the “divine ordering presence of the soul” is identified with the God of “the Beyond” (i.e., transcendence) and thus with the God of the “height” is clear. Just how the “divine creativity in the cosmos,” here identified by the symbol of “the Beginning,” is associated with the God of the “depth of the cosmos” is less obvious, and would perhaps require a separate paper to explore and explain.

But three facts resulting from Voegelin’s philosophical reflections on the differentiated understanding of divine reality may be stated clearly. First, in a general philosophical account of how human beings approach and understand their relation to the divine, we must remember that divine reality is apprehended and symbolized in two different fundamental modes. Second, the “depth” of the cosmos is a theological symbol, originating in the search for and discovery of a differentiated apprehension of divine reality beyond the symbols of traditional myth, and thus valid symbols of the depth will always have a theological character.[21] Third, human beings require valid symbols of the depth if they are to succeed in existentially orienting themselves in relation to divine reality, as well as to the meaning of personal existence as a mode of participating in reality.

The underlying oneness of reality can be, and has been, symbolized in many ways. In “Equivalences,” Voegelin discusses how Plato, in his Timaeus, introduced the mythic symbol of the anima mundi (world soul) to articulate his imagining of the divine depth, and comments that this symbol and its meaning-equivalents have had “a prodigious career” of employment by Western philosophers and mystics from the classical Neoplatonists down to such modern thinkers as Boehme, Schelling, and Hegel (and we should not forget Emerson).[22] But also in modernity we see the emergence of explicitly anti-theological immanentist and materialist worldviews that lead inevitably to the introduction of immanentist symbols for the underlying oneness of reality.

Many Enlightenment and Romanticist writers, for example, embraced the symbol Nature as an appropriate symbol of the depth—a symbol in which (whatever the specific view of this or that thinker) the presence of the divine is not explicit, and one that was used by many anti-religious Enlightenment figures as a replacement for the conception of a divine foundation of reality. Schopenhauer’s Will and Nietzsche’s Will to Power likewise symbolize the depth in its oneness—and again, considering Schopenhauer’s understanding of Will as a blind unconscious striving and his ethics of pessimism, and Nietzsche’s explicit atheism, we find authentically theological symbols of the depth replaced by, as Voegelin calls them, mere de-divinized “metaphors.”[23]

In the twentieth century, in light of the development of theoretical physics, many would be satisfied to symbolize the oneness underlying all reality by the term Energy. Here, too, we recognize the impact of the de-divinization and immanentization of reality; for the symbol Energy, as it is generally understood in modern culture, has no theological meaning or implications. In fact, for most people, if embraced or employed as a symbol of the depth, Energy functions simply as a more sophisticated and highly etherialized version of Matter—that symbol of the underlying oneness of reality so dear to materialists and immanentists of all persuasions.

A brief consideration of the symbol Matter in its function as one of the most popular modern symbols of the depth of the cosmos will help to explain why the immanentist doctrines and ideologies of modernity—metaphysical, political, cultural, and existential—are both disorienting and dangerous. First: because almost all usages of Matter as a symbol of the depth are not only non-theological but anti-theological, a person’s casual or passionate embrace of it as such a symbol obstructs the ability to imaginatively experience his or her own psyche as emergent from, and constantly grounded in, divine being. It establishes a blind spot precisely at the center of self-understanding where one seeks to discern the deepest core of one’s human identity. Thus it is one of those pervasive and powerful modern symbols that “eclipses the reality of man’s existence in the Metaxy” of which Voegelin writes so powerfully at the end of his Introduction to The Ecumenic Age, part of the “great obstacle” of accumulated symbols preventing our return to the experiential insights that would reveal to us our true human situation as participants in a divinely ordered reality.[24]

Second: we must remember that an adequate symbol of the depth is a myth—and what the soul seeks and needs is a “likely myth,” in the phrase that Plato uses in the Timaeus to describe his symbol of the anima mundi. In “Equivalences,” Voegelin explains exactly what makes a mythic symbol or story “likely”: the “degree of likeness will depend on the amount of disparate experiences it has achieved to unify persuasively in its imagery.”[25] Considering this criterion, Matter is a profoundly “unlikely” symbol for signifying the underlying oneness of reality, since its imagery leaves inexplicable, ignored, or fragmentarily disassociated, some of the most important types of experience available to conscious existence—one of these being experiences of loving encounter with the boundless spiritual presences of other persons (Buber’s I-Thou encounters), and another being the many varieties of the experience of transcendence that existence in the metaxy provides.

To embrace the symbol Matter, or any of its meaning-equivalents, as representing the cosmic depth has therefore genuinely harmful existential consequences. For symbols of the depth are, however consciously or tacitly they function for us, symbols through which we interpret the essential being of the cosmos, and by which we orient our lives. They shape our appreciation of what consciousness is and might grow toward; the imaginative trajectory of our existential hopes and yearnings; our sense of what the human search for meaning is ultimately for; and our assumptions or beliefs concerning why human beings—and the cosmos itself—have come into being. Indeed, the symbolization of the depth provides a person with the most basic understanding of his or her identity, since it imaginatively represents the depth from which every human consciousness has emerged—“the depth by which experience lives.”[26]

Voegelin does not in “Equivalences” directly address the problem of misleading and dangerous symbols of the depth. But it is a problem whose solution he alludes to when he describes how, in the development of a life (or a culture), the images or stories that have previously been felt to successfully symbolize the depth lose their persuasiveness, and need to be replaced through discovering a more adequate symbolization, a more “likely” myth. In this development, Voegelin writes, “the truth of the depth has drained from the symbols by which [a person] orients his life,” and a return to an explorative concern with the depth of the psyche, together with renewed reflection on experiences of the primordial community of being, will normatively bring forth a new “imaginative fusion” in the form of a mythic symbolization of the depth that will again—in its being more profoundly or differentiatedly “true”—be existentially persuasive and reassuring.[27]

The person who undergoes such a transition, or transformation, will be someone who has not abandoned the existential search for truth and right order—someone who heeds the fact that existence is “participation in a movement with a direction to be found or missed,” and understands the degree to which the struggle for existence in truth depends on finding convincing and inspiring symbolizations of the underlying oneness of reality.[28] It will be a person who recognizes that his or her role in the drama of humanity is part of a more comprehensive “play”—the play or drama of the cosmos itself as it unfolds through the eons. And above all, a person who cares passionately about orienting herself through symbols of the depth that are persuasively adequate will be someone who consistently remembers that she is a luminously conscious participant in a cosmic drama whose ultimate “plot” or purpose can only be apprehended through mythic elaboration, an elaboration based on extrapolating some design of its mystery from the fullest possible range of available experiences of the primordial field, of existential tension, of experiences of psychic depth, and of known historical developments.

Voegelin summarizes all this by stating that the person whose outlook is informed by such insights and who does find trustworthy mythic elaborations for guidance—his example is Plato—will recognize that “the most intimate truth of reality, the truth about the cosmic play in which man must play his role with his life as the stake, is a mythopoetic play linking the psyche of man in trust with the depth of the Cosmos.”[29] The symbol of the depth that is embraced by a person undeluded by immanentism, and attuned to the fact that cosmic reality is a divinely ordered “play,” is of such existential importance because it must be linked to, and radiate a meaning in harmony with, a more comprehensive “likely story” that mythically expresses why there might be such a cosmic “play” at all, and what it might ultimately be about.

I would like to suggest that there is one most important condition for recognizing and embracing a proper and salutary “mythopoetic play” that links or unites our understanding of our personal struggle for existence in truth with our mythic apprehension of both the cosmic depth and the process of reality as a whole. That condition is a loving openness toward reality in all its dimensions. Such loving openness allows us to acknowledge, and investigate the history of insights into, all four partners in the primordial field, God and man, world and society; it allows us to commit ourselves to the meaningfulness of our own personal search for truth and order; and in conformity with that commitment, it leads us to have faith in an underlying oneness of reality that ensures the coherence and full intelligibility of the cosmos, as well as in the divine constancy in the depth that justifies claiming that equivalent symbols of truth found in history are representative of a truth that is more than equivalent.

Finally, it enables us to love the fact that we belong to the cosmos as luminous modes of participation in its process, and to recognize that all human beings deserve our respect and love as also belonging, in their ontological constitution, to the one cosmos in the same manner as ourselves. Without a loving openness to reality in its fullness, one might be led to ignore some part of the primordial field (such as God); or to become alienated from the human search for order and conclude that it is meaningless; or to refuse to accept the reasonableness of affirming an underlying oneness of reality, since such a oneness cannot be empirically experienced, and thus to view phenomena and persons as essentially fragmented, essentially heterogeneous, incoherent, and historically disconnected. Without it, in other words, one might become a radical historicist, an immanentist, a moral relativist, a cynical ironist, a xenophobic nationalist, a nihilist, or one of the more shoddy and shallow types of philosophical or literary postmodernist.

If, however, one were—through sufficient loving openness—to discover this to be the most important condition for orienting oneself aright in relation to existence and reality, one might be tempted to identify this dynamic core of one’s search for truth (that is, love) with “the process in the depth”[30] that underlies our personal experience of the process of reality in the mode of presence, and proceed to mythically symbolize the depth of the cosmos as Love. This is a symbol that would unify a vast range of disparate experiences in its imagery, and is properly theological in linking the cosmos to its divinely transcendent ground differentiatedly understood and symbolized as the God who is Love (1 John 4:16-21).

It is a symbol that would mythopoetically interpret the “cosmic play,” to which we link our own psyches in trust, as a universal movement of love that is self-illuminative in humans and is heading, historically, toward its ever-more illumined fulfillment. In light of such a mythopoesis, one would be drawn to identify the factors that most impede the movement and actualization of love as evil, fear, and sin, and to conclude that faith in the ultimate coherence and intelligibility of the cosmos must also entail faith in a divinely redemptive power in the cosmic process that would ensure Love’s illuminative fulfillment. With such thoughts in mind, one might scan the cultural scene for a mythopoetic play of the cosmos, arising from reality’s luminous emergence as self-presence in history, in which all of these factors are “imaginatively fused.” And that could provide a “likely story” of the cosmic play whose meanings and images one could rely on for guiding one’s struggle for existence in truth.

IV

The general truth to be drawn from Voegelin’s meditative conclusions in “Equivalences” pertinent to my own foregoing reflections on love is that—living in the epoch after the philosophical differentiation of the four partners of the primordial field, including the transcendent God—mythopoetic symbolizations of the “depth by which experience lives” and of the “meaning of the cosmic play in which man must act his role with his life as the stake” are necessary to help guide us if we are genuinely committed both to the struggle to make sense of our lives and to the struggle against existence in untruth.[31] Two further general truths may be drawn from his conclusions as well, both of which pertain to the two concerns identified earlier in this paper as dominating Voegelin’s meditation: the challenge of historicity to our search for, and our claims to know of, “constants” pertaining to human nature and human existence; and the delusory supposition that humans can arrive at possession of ultimate truths and systems of explanations about existence, history, and reality.

First, because the human search for order and truth—and thus personal existence—is itself meaningful only if there is a “constancy of structure, order, and intelligibility” in the depth of the cosmos, a constancy of truth it is reasonable to have faith in, we may reasonably extend that faith into a confidence that truths about the structure of human nature and existence discovered and symbolized, with increasing differentiation, over the known historical millennia may be granted the status of constants.[32] For instance, to use Voegelin’s example from the end of his meditation, it is a constant, of which we can be sure, that “all men by nature desire to know,” as Aristotle put it. Why? Not because we have empirically experienced the interiority of the consciousnesses of all persons, but rather because 1) the empirical evidence of this structural element of human nature—the human search for meaning—is consistent through all known history, and 2) our faith in the constancy and lastingness of structure in the depth of the cosmos allows us to accept that this historically situated and equivalently symbolized truth—“the desire to know is constant in human nature”—is truly representative of a truth that is more than situatedly conditional and more than equivalent.[33]

The same argument holds for a number of truths about the structure of human existence, as Voegelin indicates in a series of propositions near the start of section II of his essay—for example: “Man participates in the process of reality”; “Man is conscious of reality as a process . . . and of his consciousness as a mode of participation in its process”; “While consciously experiencing, man is able to engender symbols which express his experience of reality . . .”.[34] We may affirm with confidence that these, too, are constant truths of human nature. All of these constants may be understood to be implicit in the assertion at the end of Voegelin’s meditation when he states that his search into the history of the search for order has revealed, above all, the constancy of the process of reality “in the mode of presence.” That is: the “search of the search” has revealed the constancy of the luminous search for and symbolization of truth—the constancy of human nature itself—which has left behind it the “trail of equivalent symbols in time and space” that collectively constitute what may be called “history.”[35]

Second, a distinction must be drawn between discoverable truths that are constants pertaining to the human search for meaning, the structure of human participation in reality, the features of existential tension, the primordial field of historical experience, and basic criteria distinguishing between existence in truth and existence in untruth, on the one hand, and on the other hand, truths concerning—for example—the final meaning and goal of history; the ultimate outcome of individual moral and spiritual striving; why reality exists (and has the structure it has); or why human existence exists (and has the structure it has). In these latter cases, no answers in the forms of philosophical truths or propositions are possible; they remain mysteries. Thus, a temperate and mystery-respecting philosophy of consciousness such as Voegelin’s may accurately be said to include many true statements and propositions. Two philosophical essays on the structure of consciousness replete with such propositions are “Equivalences” itself and “What Is Political Reality?” in Anamnesis.[36]

But the only valid means of articulating suppositions about ultimacies of meaning—concerning, for example, why there is a cosmos at all, and why human beings have emerged within it, or what the purpose and goal of human history are—is mythopoetic elaboration, that is, the presenting of a “likely story” whose persuasiveness and helpfulness will be based precisely on how well it harmonizes with what we know about the primordial field of experienced reality, and on how successfully it protects insights into what it means to live a well-ordered existence in attunement with what history has revealed of “the divine truth becoming luminous.”[37]

 

Notes

[1] Such an error is analagous to thinking of “transcendence” as a reality that is apprehended in some way other than in its interpenetration or fusion with immanent reality in conscious existence in the metaxy, the in-between of immanence and transcendence that is the ontological condition and ambience of all human consciousness and experience—a mode of thinking that unwarrantedly hypostatizes “transcendence.”

[2] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 123.

[3] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 123 (emphasis added).

[4] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 123-24 (emphasis added).

[5] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 126.

[6] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 124.

[7] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 124, 126.

[8] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 126. It should be noted that such a “depth” of psyche or consciousness (or “self”) has also been symbolized since the time of early Buddhist and Upanishadic writings in Eastern thought.

[9] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 129.

[10] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 131.

[11] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 126 (emphasis added).

[12] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 127.

[13] Voegelin makes clear that, in Hellenic thought, the emergence of the symbol of a “psyche” that has “depth” runs parallel to the emergence of the symbol “cosmos” as a symbol of the underlying oneness of reality. See “Equivalences,” 127-28.

[14] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 133 (emphasis added).

[15] Eric Voegelin, letter of July 30, 1969, to Stephen J. Tonsor; published in Voegelin, Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, trans. Sandy Adler, Thomas A. Hollweck, and William Petropulos; ed. Thomas A. Hollweck, vol. 30 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Columbia, MO: University Of Missouri Press, 2007), 619. In June, 1969, Voegelin finished revising the text of “Equivalences” (originally a paper given in Rome in October, 1968) for publication, and sent copies to a number of people, including his former assistant and colleague Professor Manfred Henningsen, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Professor Stephen J. Tonsor at the University of Michigan. In his replies to their written responses to the text, specifically in four letters to Henningsen and one to Tonsor, Voegelin expanded on the meaning of the symbol of the “depth” in a manner that is especially illuminating. See Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, letters 314, 317, 318, 319, and 321 (604-606, 611-616, 618-19).

[16] Voegelin refers to the apprehension of the depth of the cosmos, through experiences of psychic depth, as a type of “mysticism” in a letter of July 10, 1969 to Manfred Henningsen; see Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, 614.

[17] Voegelin, letter of July 30, 1969 to Stephen J. Tonsor, in Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, 619.

[18] Voegelin, letter of July 10, 1969 to Manfred Henningsen, in Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, 613-14.

[19] Voegelin, letter of July 30, 1969, to Stephen J. Tonsor, in Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, 619 (emphasis added).

[20] Eric Voegelin, “The Beginning and the Beyond: A Meditation on Truth,” in What Is History? and Other Late Unpublished Writings, ed. Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella, vol. 28 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 173.

[21] Voegelin, letter of July 10, 1969, to Manfred Henningsen, in Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, 614-15.

[22] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 126-28; letter of July 30, 1969, to Stephen J. Tonsor, in Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, 619.

[23] Voegelin, letter of July 10, 1969, to Manfred Henningsen, in Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, 614.

[24] Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Volume IV: The Ecumenic Age, ed. Michael Franz, vol. 17 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 107.

[25] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 128. Just prior to this statement, Voegelin discusses the fact that Plato in Timaeus “wavers” in his description of the type of truth expressed in the symbol of the anima mundi, calling it both an eikos mythos (likely myth) and an alethinos logos (true story). The key fact, for Voegelin, is that Plato “was sure that the symbolism had not been engendered through articulation of an experience” but was consciously a “philosopher’s myth” (127; emphasis added).

[26] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 129.

[27] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 125.

[28] Eric Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” in Published Essays, 1966-1985, 176.

[29] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 128.

[30] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 130.

[31] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 128, 129.

[32] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 127.

[33] If there were to emerge, in being, a creature in whom the process of reality came to luminous self-awareness in the mode of presence and was not characterized by a desire to know at the core of its consciousness, then that creature would not be human; it would be another kind of being; but I would hazard to say that such a creature is rationally unimaginable.

[34] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 120.

[35] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 132-33.

[36] See Eric Voegelin, “What Is Political Reality?” in Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, trans. M. J. Hayak based upon the abbreviated version originally translated by Gerhart Neimeyer, ed. David Walsh, vol. 6 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 341-412.

[37] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 133.

 

This is the second of two parts. Part one can be accessed here.

Glenn Hughes

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Glenn Hughes is Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Texas. He is author of several books, including Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity (Missouri Press, 2003) and A More Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art (Missouri Press, 2011).