A Guide to Understanding Eric Voegelin’s Political Reality. Montgomery C. Erfourth. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2019.
A Guide to Understanding Eric Voegelin’s Political Reality is a short book (three chapters and a conclusion) that focuses on an epistemological question: How do human beings know what is real? Because Voegelin was particularly concerned with political philosophy, his conception of political reality is central to understanding his work. He was convinced that ideologies of various sorts limited the horizon of philosophical discovery by embracing doctrinal propositions that were considered as beyond question. Such “ismic” constructions were the antithesis of the open philosophical search for truth and the cause of political disorder and crisis. Voegelin’s political theory, then, juxtaposes open philosophical search to ideological closure. The primary dividing line that separates one from the other is openness to transcendent reality.
A Guide to Understanding Eric Voegelin’s Political Reality provides a brief biographical sketch of Voegelin’s life and scholarship as a way of providing the context for his work generally and his theory of political reality in particular. The development of Voegelin’s theory of political reality stems from the Western crisis of order that includes the rise of totalitarianism, positivism, and progressivism. These ideologies undermine the older ancient and Judeo-Christian tradition that Voegelin finds more receptive to open philosophical search. He was influenced by many thinkers, yet Plato was particularly influential in shaping his resistance to ideological certainty that closed off philosophical searching. Following Ellis Sandoz’s characterization of Voegelin’s work as “revolutionary,” Erfourth explains it as a reaction to aspects of the Western crisis that tended to obscure the ability of individuals to perceive life, and political reality in particular, as it is. Political ideologies, many of them pseudo and political religions, replace the open philosophical search for truth, including its transcendent sources, with reified doctrines and dogmas that take parts of reality as its whole. One of the primary characteristics of radical political ideologies is their closure to, and in some cases revolt against, transcendent reality and the belief that the ends of politics (e.g., justice, the Good, order) can be achieved without attunement to it. The most radical of these ideologies claim to know the meaning and end of history as well as the means for using power to realize the utopian ends that mark its completion.
Erfourth’s analysis focuses on Voegelin’s Principia Noetica, a term used by Sandoz in The Voegelinian Revolution to convey the magnitude and significance of Voegelin’s political philosophy. As Copernicus and Newton changed the way a civilization, if not the world, thought about natural reality and humans’ relation to it (Newton wrote Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), Voegelin’s work can be seen on the same scale of revolutionary change in thinking about the philosophy of human nature. Thus, Voegelin’s new science of politics that Sandoz and Erfourth refer to as his Principia Noetica is a paradigm shift. One of Erfourth’s main points is that Voegelin’s Principia Noetica can be used as a diagnostic tool to evaluate a society’s susceptibility to gnostic political ideologies. These claims assume that “any political theorist” (104) can understand and apply Voegelin’s political theory and that it will have a comparable effect to Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Yet, for Voegelin’s efforts to have such influence, his political theory has to be disseminated on a wide scale and his students have to break the hold on university political science and philosophy departments that tend to be dominated by advocates of the very ideologies that Voegelin identified as the source of the Western crisis. Erfourth overstates the point when he suggests that Voegelin’s political theory can be understood and applied widely. Voegelin’s own analysis of ideological impediments to philosophical openness would suggest that there is a moral dimension to philosophical truth that requires as a prerequisite attunement to transcendence. The refusal to turn toward the light (alethia) is not an intellectual problem but one that requires great spiritual strength, an uncommon characteristic in most human beings including political philosophers.
Erfourth explains aspects of Voegelin’s political theory that do two things: diagnose the crisis of order and prescribe resistance to it. Consequently, Voegelin’s work is described as a project of restoration. It is somewhat misleading to associate his work with the notion of revolution because, in one sense, it was more counter-revolutionary than revolutionary. Voegelin devotes the bulk of his work to analyzing historical experience as a way of identifying sources of order that can be recalled to consciousness through the process of anamnesis. The term revolutionary typically denotes the attempt to radically overturn the past in favor of a new, superior conception of life and politics. Revolutionaries ask us to forget the past. Voegelin’s work is rooted in historical existence as indicated by his opening statement in The New Science of Politics, “The existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history.” As Erfourth notes, Voegelin devotes so much effort to identifying experiences of order from the past because he wants not only to demonstrate the validity of Plato’s anthropological principle, but also he is intent on making them a living force in the present by recalling them to consciousness. The revolutionary ideologies that are responsible for obscuring reality are ahistorical; they replace concrete historical experience that is the foundation for realistic conceptions of life with abstract conceptions of life that satisfy the existential needs of pneumopathologically deranged gnostics. Their project is to erase experiences of order from consciousness and replace them with second reality, ahistorical distortions of reality. That radical ideologies have become so common place makes Voegelin’s political theory “revolutionary” in its efforts to resist them, but in philosophical and political terms, it was counter-revolutionary.
The restoration of order, then, is less about institutional arrangements and more about curing spiritual sickness. Erfourth uses Voegelin’s Hitler and the Germans as an illustration of Voegelin’s efforts to awaken Germans in the aftermath of WWII to the spiritual causes of the Nazi menace. Blaming a few leaders of the Nazi movement for totalitarian atrocities fails to acknowledge the wider scope of the problem in German society. Erfourth explains that “pneumopathology of gnostic alienation from the divine left Germans susceptible to a maniacal ideology that sought power for power’s sake” (91). The problem of spiritual sickness was not cured by the military defeat of the Nazis. The project of spiritual restoration requires far more than military victory or a change in the form of government. An existential crisis requires an existential catharsis.
A Guide to Understanding Eric Voegelin’s Political Reality has its virtues. It summarizes a central part of Voegelin’s work and explains it relevance. The section of the book that covers Voegelin’s analysis of the Nazi problem is a useful illustration of how a complex and dense political philosophy can be used to understand political problems that require a practical response. The book would benefit from an additional round of edits to eliminate typos and, more importantly, clarify analysis that requires deeper explanation of Voegelin’s ideas. For example, the book refers to “those inclined to enter the metaxy” (107). The metaxy is the structure of existence. Individuals are born into it and have no choice but to “enter” it. The only exit from it is death. The point may be that individuals have a choice to be conscious of the metaxy and to resist alternative conceptions of second reality that distort the reality of human nature and its capacity for good and evil. Utopians may refuse to accept the reality of the metaxy, but, like it or not, they exist in it and must contend with the consequences of denying its limits. Moreover, the analysis would benefit from a distinction between the things of God and those of Caesar. Not all that concerns the life of the soul and inner order is political. Government may represent society in the higher order, but government does not have a monopoly on being the representative of society of a transcendent order. Voegelin cites numerous non-governmental figures who were representatives in this sense.
It is an encouraging sign that books and articles continue to be written on various aspects of Voegelin’s work. A Guide to Understanding Eric Voegelin’s Political Reality is an invitation to explore Voegelin’s political philosophy and its relevance to contemporary political life. Montgomery C. Erfourth has provided a short, readable book that describes key aspects of Voegelin’s political theory. Chief among them are Voegelin’s efforts to restore to consciousness historical experiences of order that are a reservoir of human experience capable of being imaginatively relived and inspiring the restoration of order.
An excerpt of the book is available here.