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Beginning the Quest: Law and Politics in the Early Work of Eric Voegelin

Beginning The Quest: Law And Politics In The Early Work Of Eric Voegelin

“Inside baseball” has become a metaphor to describe sports reporters who rely on locker room gossip rather than what happens on the playing field. There is an equivalent temptation for those who report on the playing-fields of academe. In literary criticism, for example, one often finds arguments developed at great length and with a highly refined technical vocabulary that refer not to literature but to other critics. Likewise, in political science one can find plenty of examples of articles, books, and papers that do little more than situate themselves in relation to other arguments rather than to political reality. This is true with respect to studies devoted to the exegesis of the writings of political scientists such as Eric Voegelin as well. If to some extent inside baseball is inevitable, that does not mean it must be the focus.

The book I recently wrote, Beginning the Quest, deals with a specific period of Voegelin’s work. If it holds the interest of a reader, that reader is likely already to be familiar with Voegelin’s best known writings, all of which were written at a later date than were most of the materials covered in it. In an earlier book, Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science, I tried to make the case, as have many others, that Voegelin was a major thinker of the twentieth century. I do not make that case again in Beginning the Quest, which may mean for some readers that it is such inside baseball that it carries no interest at all for them. Even people familiar with Voegelin’s later writing, in The History of Political Ideas, The New Science of Politics, Order and History, or his meditative interpretations of consciousness, might wonder whether an exegesis of positions and arguments that Voegelin discarded is worth the trouble, either of reading or of writing. In any event, that an author once considered a book worth writing is not necessarily persuasive to readers.

There is, however, continuity in Voegelin’s work. This is not to say that he did not change his mind on several major problems, because the evidence is overwhelming that he did. More importantly, he explained his reasons for so doing—and in such reasoning lies continuity. In other words, the argument of Beginning the Quest is that Voegelin’s early writing on law or on method was motivated by the same quest for understanding that is found in the rest of his work, including those reflective and meditative studies of what his own questioning consciousness was up to when it was actually questioning. There is a consensus among students of Voegelin’s work that he was a radical thinker in the old and original sense of the term. This book deals with the beginning of his quest for understanding reality.

I would like to begin by accounting for the title of the book. To be sure, it has a Voegelinian resonance. At the beginning of the last book he wrote, Voegelin provided an interpretation of the question: where does the beginning begin? (CW, 18:27). A couple of pages later he wrote of “the millennial process of the quest for truth” (CW, 18:29), and of the many exemplars who have taken part in it. These are mature linguistic formulations that depend upon a meditative exegesis to be fully understood. Indeed, on occasion they have been taken to be formular, almost liturgical statements. Certainly by the time Voegelin came to write directly about these matters he had developed a precise vocabulary to describe the experiences of reality—including the experience of the beginning and of the quest or, as he sometimes said, The Question (CW, 17:399-400).  The deceptive attractions of such language and its mastery are well known (CW, 12:7-10). It is important, therefore, to be careful and to be aware of one’s focus, as well as what is not in focus.

One of the observations Voegelin made concerning the experience of the quest for truth, whether that of priests and prophets, or of Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, or philosophers, is that: first, it takes place in the specific or “concrete” consciousness of an individual human being; and second, such questioning people live in equally specific historical and social contexts or milieus. Moreover, the textual expression of the quest for truth is almost always formulated initially as a resistance to, or criticism of, already existing formulations. Typically the new insights or formulations are met with indifference or resistance from adherents of the earlier versions. Finally, although Voegelin in his later work was concerned with what might be called the Big Questions—of consciousness, reality, language, and so on—his observations regarding the quest for truth also bear upon the narrower fields of legal, social, political, spiritual, and intellectual life considered in the present study.

Neither Voegelin nor anyone else who begins a quest for truth starts by declaring: “I am on a quest for truth.”  Rather, and particularly if they are philosophers as was Voegelin, they typically begin by considering specific problems or mysteries. We begin with an even tighter focus, on Voegelin the (political) scientist, the Wissenschaftler, and his intellectual formation during the 1920s and 1930s. There is continuity in Voegelin’s work from the early 1920s to the mid-1980s but, as Sandro Chignola put it, this is because it had direction, Richtung, without an a priori goal, Ziel.1 Even less was Voegelin’s quest presented in the same language over a period of forty years. As Voegelin said of his own work much later: “please do not hold me to anything that I have written previously, because science progresses and things change. Do not take seriously or in an absolute sense, what I have to say today, because these problems as I present them today are again subject to change and perhaps in two years I will have found other things which will demand a very different answer” (CW, 12:95).

The argument of the book is that Voegelin moved beyond a legal approach to political realities (within which he had been extensively schooled) to a direct encounter and analysis of the mass political movements of the 1930s and of the language by which they expressed themselves. For readers familiar with his later work, and especially for readers familiar onlywith his later work, the insights reached by Voegelin in, say, 1939, will have become familiar starting points for further reflection. To understand the origin of that achievement is not simply to indulge in nostalgic antiquarianism inasmuch as the achievement was actualized in the face of the resistance thrown up, inevitably, by intellectual conventions as well as by the uncongenial political realities of the day.

In recent years the interest of scholars, particularly young German scholars, has turned towards Voegelin’s early writings.2 This does not mean there is a consensus regarding the importance of, for instance, Max Weber or Othmar Spann, Hans Kelsen or Carl Schmitt, on Voegelin’s understanding of contemporary issues or how they are to be studied. There is, however, widespread agreement that The Political Religions  (1938) was both the result of his quest during the 1920s and 1930s and that it marks the closing of a chapter or phase of his work, a closing made more poignant by his forced emigration to America the same year it was published. For this reason, I organized the book around the major steps Voegelin took between 1922 and 1938, many of which were marked by a significant publication or occasionally an extensive piece of work that remained unpublished at the time.

A final preliminary consideration can be introduced by a letter Thomas Mann wrote to Voegelin in response to The Political Religions. The book, he said, was a “stimulating work” that brings together a lot of material in a concise way. The disadvantage of this approach, however, was that Voegelin’s “objectivity” was likely to give a positive accent to the National Socialist problem or even to be mistaken for an apology for it. He lamented Voegelin’s lack of “moral resistance” and expressed his preference for a stronger ethical stance as, for example Hermann Rauschning provided in The Revolution of Nihilism.3 In the preface to the second edition of The Political Religions, Voegelin explained why science is not in the business of supplying moral denunciations. But neither did it aspire to being “value-neutral” or “value-free” description, along the lines of a familiar (but simplified) version of Max Weber’s reflections on method.

The issue has resurfaced in recent years regarding Voegelin’s understanding of, and relationship to, Christianity.4  I would like, therefore, to say a bit more about “man the questioner” (CW, 12:173-9). The example used to illustrate the problem is a recent (1977) one. The point of using it is to indicate that the continuity in Voegelin’s philosophical questioning is more fundamental than the subject matter he addressed on any particular occasion.

In his article “The Vocation of a Scholar,” Jürgen Gebhardt argued that Voegelin was first and last a scientist, a Wissenschaftler and not, to use Gebhardt’s language, a prophet or a Church Father.5 In support of his view and of the distinction he drew between scientific and other vocations, Gebhardt quoted a remark Voegelin made in 1976 at the Thomas More Institute in Montreal, in answer to a question regarding the adequacy of a St. Thomas’s handling of the statement of Jesus, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

“That’s a large order,” Voegelin began (CW, 33:325-6).  The problem, in summary form, was that the distinction made by Thomas, between philosophy as the achievement of “natural reason” and theology that results from “supernatural revelation” just “doesn’t hold water.” Many Greek poets and philosophers have discussed their revelation experiences in the context of their account of the structure of reality, Voegelin said.  Thomas, on the other hand was concerned with salvation out of the structure of reality. Voegelin then illustrated the problem with the example of a state-supported university housing a department of religious studies where students were taught every religion except Christianity because of concerns over the constitutional separation of Church and State. He continued,

Everywhere in such departments of religion you run into somebody who is bright enough to ask himself occasionally whether it is just a question of the Buddha having a conception of something, and Confucius having another one, and so on—or whether perhaps they have all experienced the same Divine reality and there is only one God who manifests Himself, reveals Himself, in a highly diversified manner all over the globe for all these millennia of history that we know. The mere fact that we now have in history a global empirical knowledge extending into the archaeological millennia all over earth requires a theology that is a bit less confined to Islam or to Christianity. It must explain why a God who is the God of some witch doctor in Africa is the same God who appeared to Moses as “I am” or to Plato in a Promethean fire. And that theology is unfortunately not yet in existence.

P. Coonan: But wouldn’t you have to use philosophy in order to try to understand the evidence and the formulation?

E. Voegelin:  Absolutely.

P. Coonan: But it is a distinct job, you’re not yet doing theology?

E. Voegelin: It is a distinct job to develop a theology in the Platonic sense—to know all these various types of theologies, the various types of faith, and to analyze their structures—always with an eye to the problem that even the most exotic ones, ones that may appear primitive to us, are revelations that have to be respected (CW, 33:326).

It was clear from the subsequent questions Voegelin was asked that the more or less pious Catholics at the Thomas More Institute were distressed at the notion that the God who is the God of “some witch doctor in Africa” had anything to do with the Yahweh of Moses. It was also clear from the conversation with Patricia Coonan that she objected to Voegelin’s implication that theology was no longer the queen of the sciences, as it was for St. Thomas.

Gebhardt concluded from this exchange that Voegelin had no intention of formulating any such “new theology” because his analytical understanding of the experiential sources of symbolic orders led him to conclude that “the language of the gods . . . is fraught with the problem of symbolizing the experience of a not-experientiable divine reality” (CW, 18:83). As a result, because the language of gods tends to be misconstrued as referring to “a divine entity ‘beyond’ the experience of the [presence of the] Beyond,” then the gods must die when a more adequate language is achieved. In this way “the historical scene becomes littered with dead gods.”

On the other hand, if language is not misconstrued “the succession of the gods becomes a series of events to be remembered” as the history of the presence of the Beyond. What has history, what leaves a historical trace, is not the Beyond, which is also “beyond history,” but the presence of the Beyond “in the bodily located consciousness of questioning man.” That is, “the experience of the non-experientiable divine reality has history,” namely “the history of truth emerging from the quest for truth” that in turn occurs “in the bodily located consciousness of questioning man” and so constitutes an element of his (or her) biography. In this respect, “the serious effort of the quest for truth acquires the character of a divine comedy” (CW, 18:84).

In other words, there is no Beyond beyond the experience of the presence of a Beyond. And that being so, the focus of science is on the experience and its symbolization, not the imaginary hypostasis of a Beyond beyond experience. This is why Voegelinian political science is empirical in the precise, Aristotelian sense.6 

 A second piece of evidence, to which Gebhardt referred, was a 1953 letter Voegelin wrote to Thomas I. Cook, a professor of political philosophy at Johns Hopkins. Cook had taken issue with Voegelin’s “theological premises” in The New Science of Politics because, “being an agnostic with [respect to] religious sentiments” he could not share Voegelin’s approach (HI, 9:28). In his reply, Voegelin set him straight:

Your letter has been quite illuminating to me, because now I see—or I should say more cautiously, I believe to see—where the difficulties of our mutual understanding lie. The difficulty seems to be your conception of metaphysics or theology as a “premise” from which one starts in theoretical work; and you are worried about various such “premises.” This attitude is so utterly strange to me that, I must confess, I am not even familiar with its historical origins or its principal literary manifestations, though I know that it [is] widespread in our academic environment. Let me outline what my objection is:

The question whether anybody is an agnostic, or religiously inclined, or whether he is both at the same time, as it seems to be your predicament, has, in my opinion, nothing to [do] whatsoever with theoretical issues. I feel even unable to return your confidence on this point, for the good reason that I am not clear myself about my own state of sentiments in such matters. Metaphysics is not a “premise” of anything, as far as I am familiar with the works of philosophers, but the result of a process in which a philosopher explicates in rational symbols his various experiences, especially the experiences of transcendence. And the same goes for Christianity: theology is not a premise, but a result of experiences. As far as political science is concerned, we are faced with the fact that such experiences are constituent elements in social order [insofar] they are facts of political history. A theory of politics, therefore, must take cognizance of these facts and interpret them on their own terms, that is, as experiences of transcendent order, articulating themselves in metaphysics and theology. As a critical scientist I have to accept these facts of order, whatever my personal opinion about them should be. Their classification, not as facts of order, but as “metaphysical premises” etc., seems to me to express not a judgment in science, but a dogmatic misconstruction from the position of some ideology.

Hence, I am not operating with a theological “premise,” but with a proposition which certainly is empirically tenable, that is, the proposition that experiences of transcendence and their rational articulation in metaphysics and theology are ordering facts in history. In order to recognize this fact, to theorize it, and so forth, you don’t have to be a theologian yourself anymore than you have to be a great artist in order to write a competent study on Rembrandt. Of course, in order to theorize these facts, your theoretical instrument must be adequate—and there comes the difficulty. For the most adequate theoretical instruments of the treatment of these facts happen to be (as might be expected) the theoretical articulations provided for such experiences by the men who had them. In brief: in order to interpret Plato or Christianity adequately, the theories developed by Plato or St. Augustine will prove considerably more adequate than the theories developed by such comparatively provincial thinkers as James or Dewey. But again, this should not be taken dogmatically, but as an empirical observation. As far as I am concerned, anybody is welcome to theorize the Platonic experiences of thanatos or eros, or the hesed of Hosea, by means of Humean skepticism or Jamesian pragmatism; I am quite ready to sit on the sidelines and to watch the performance. But nobody has done it yet; and I doubt that anybody could do it.

Well, that should clarify certain points.  Let me hear more from your side of the fence when it is convenient (CW, 30:187-8).

As with the remarks made in In Search of Order on the Beyond as quoted above, the significance seems clear enough. The task of the scientist or scholar is to account for experiences of transcendence insofar as they are part of the reality he studies. And, in fact, those experiences happen to be a significant constituent element of the order of the political world. In addition the scholar must reflect on his own experiences of philosophizing in order to understand the philosophizing experiences of others. Gebhardt then drew a perfectly sensible conclusion: that which “constitutes the intelligibility of the diverse civilizational processes is the historical equivalence of the plural modes of human participation in the one comprehensive reality of God, world, and human being. Voegelin expresses this common point of reference as the symbol ‘universal humanity’ that reflects the universal structure of human existence.”7

 Once again, however, as with the symbol, the Beyond, universal humanity—or “universal mankind,” to use Voegelin’s term—is not “a society existing in the world, but a symbol that indicates man’s consciousness of participating, in his earthly existence, in the mystery of a reality that moves towards its transfiguration. Universal mankind is an eschatalogical index” (CW, 17:376).  In other words, even though historical events are founded in the biophysical existence of human beings on earth, who live their lives in the time of the external world of plants, animals, and things, this biophysical existence becomes “historical” insofar as it is lived not in the external world but in the presence of the divine, which is not a “spatio-temporal given.” There are plenty of complexities in Voegelin’s formulation that need to be clarified, but the general meaning is obvious: what Gebhardt referred to as “the universal structure of human existence” appears in the world as specific and particular symbolizations of experiences of a truth that transcends the occasion of its manifestation. Gebhardt’s focus, in short, was on the empirical.

Frederick Lawrence, in the next article in the book following Gebhardt’s, took issue with him.8 I discuss this dispute in the book at some length because it illustrates a feature of Voegelin’s political science that he shared with the other two great political scientists of the last century, Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. Unlike them, however, Voegelin did not receive a classical humanistic education in the Gymnasiumor the philosophical seminar. He was, it is almost shocking to say, trained as a lawyer. This is why, to be frank, much of Voegelin’s writing during the 1920s and 1930s is highly technical and, compared to his later work, not nearly as charming. And yet, with a certain degree of perseverance, it is possible to discover an intellectual trajectory that is relentless in its penetration to the core of the problems that Voegelin tackled.

For a young man with legal training the major crisis of his youth, the Great War, appeared as a practical issue of social and historical reality, not as one of the “wars of the spirit” predicted by Nietzsche. Moreover, he was fascinated by the conceptual and argumentative complexity of the pure theory of law of his teacher, Hans Kelsen, where other Germans of comparable intellectual rank were similarly fascinated with Heidegger or Hegel. The accident of his legal and practical training accounts at least in part for why his early studies were motivated in part by a desire to understand the former enemies of Germany on their own terms. We would likely call these analyses comparative sociology. In the language of the 1920s Voegelin was interested in the “national mind” or “national spirit” of the French and the British. At the same time, this approach to French and British ways of thinking led him to reflect on the origin and the limits of Staatslehre, the discipline in which he had been trained.

The pivotal change in Voegelin’s work as a scientist arrived with his direct encounter of America insofar as the pluralism, which had been intimated or perhaps adumbrated by Voegelin’s early methodological reflections on law and sociology was confirmed directly, empirically, and experientially. William James, to take a specific example, was every inch as much a philosopher as Husserl or Heidegger, but his concerns, his language, and his arguments were unquestionably American. Voegelin’s first attempt to deal with the self-interpretation of philosophy and of similar accounts of socio-historical reality, On the Form of the American Mind, developed its own detailed and, truth to tell, rather idiosyncratic and abstract conceptual apparatus—of intellectual formations, meaningful unities, and so on. The necessity of finding his own way also enabled him to find in John R. Commons an exemplary personality unfiltered by perceptions conditioned by a philosophical education—in the European or any other sense. In Commons he was able to discern achievements in gross and in detail comparable to the achievements of European thinkers, but recorded in an entirely different register.

Starting with the race books in 1933 and continuing in his book on Austria in 1937, Voegelin reversed the precedence of the chief teaching of the entire Staatslehre tradition. By starting with the political reality of “ideas” such as race he discovered there was no means of analytical access to what Kelsen called the norm-logic of Staatslehre. To Voegelin that meant, first, that Staatslehre was increasingly cut off from reality. Second, it reinforced Voegelin’s conclusion, arrived at after extensive critical analysis, that it was necessary to begin with the insights of philosophical anthropology.

In turn, third, that meant paying greater attention to the fundamental experiences of reality that gave rise to the state.  Moreover—and fourth—these fundamental experiences—love and hate, for example—gave weight to the political ideas by burdening them with the emotional commitments of those who supported them, just as political ideas rendered those fundamental experiences articulate. The race books are also significant because Voegelin criticized the so-called race theorists not simply on the grounds of philosophical anthropology but on the straightforward scientific grounds that they did not know anything about biology. To use a concept he employed when he revisited the Nationalist Socialist regime in Hitler and the Germans, Voegelin showed the race theorists had been constructing and acting upon a second reality.

In his book on Austria, Voegelin’s concern with the inadequacies of methodological orthodoxies combined with his continuous awareness of the political situation. The chief attribute of Austria during the 1930s, Voegelin discovered, was precisely the absence of a governing “idea” into which it might have made sense for citizens to place their emotional investment. Austria was, very simply, a Kelsenian legal structure, the finest in the world.

Finally, it is clear that, at the same time as Voegelin was paying attention to the political events and realities of central Europe he was also deepening his understanding of philosophy. Hence his introduction of Augustine in the unpublished Herrschaftslehre of the early 1930s, or of Averroism and positivism in The Authoritarian State, neither of which—at least on the surface—would appear to be natural places for such discussion. His most lasting discovery from the miserable and unpleasant experiences of the 1930s was that the conventional notion of the history of political ideas, which saw in the modern world nothing but secularism, was almost entirely wrong. One could understand neither the truth of political reality nor of human being without also understanding the centrality of spiritual experience. The Political Religions was Voegelin’s first book where spiritual realities were central to his analysis. In this instance they were particularly malign spiritual realities. And then came his second exodus to America and his second sailing, The History of Political Ideas, which to my mind was Voegelin’s contribution to the Allied war effort. But that is another story.


1. Chignola, “The Experience of Limitation: Political Form and Science of Law in the Early Writings of Eric Voegelin,” in Glen Hughes, Stephen A. McKnight, and Geoffrey L. Price, eds., Politics, Order and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin. (Scheffield: Scheffield Academic Press, 2001), 64.

2. See for example, Andreas Krasemann, Eric Voegelin’s politik theoretisches Denken in den Früschriften. (PhD dissertation, University of Erfurt, 2002); or Manuel Wluka, Wert und Ordnung, Ethik und Recht bei Hans Kelsen und Eric Voegelin. (Fulda: Faculty of Theology, 2008). The most thorough treatment is Hans-Jorg Sigwart, Das Politische und die Wissenschaft: Intellectuell-biographische Studien zum Früwerk Eric Voegelins Voegelin im Wien: Frühe Schriften, 1920-1923 (Wintzburg: Konigshausen und Neumann, 2005). See also: Michael Ley and Gilbert Weiss, eds., 8 (Vienna: Passagen, 207); Michael Henkel, “Positivismuskritik und autoritärer Staat: Die Grundlagendebatte in der Weimarer Staatsrechtslehre und Eric Voegelins weg einer neuen Wissenschaft da Politik bis 1938,” Occasional Papers, XXXVI (Munich, Eric-Voegelin-Archiv, 2005; Deitmar Herz, “Das Ideal einer objektiven Wissenschaft von Recht und Staat: Zur Kritik Eric Voegelins an Hans Kelsen,” Occasional Papers, III (Munich, Eric-Voegelin-Archiv, 2002; Regina Braach, Eric Voegelin’s Politische Anthropologie (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2003).

3.  Mann to Voegelin, 18 December, 1938; HI, 24:11. The issue arose in a somewhat different form in the discussion between Thomas Heilke and Manfred Henningsen concerning the significance of Voegelin’s race books, which are discussed in chapter four of Beginning the Quest.

4.  See for example John Ranieri, Disturbing Revelation: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin and the Bible (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009)

5.  Gebhardt, in Stephen A. McKnight and Geoffrey L. Price, eds., International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Eric Voegelin, (Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1997), 10-34. We discuss the meaning of Wissenschaft, science, in a subsequent chapter.

6.  Barry Cooper, “Eric Voegelin, Empirical Political Scientist” in Cooper, The Restoration of Political Science and the Crisis of Modernity (Lewiston, Edwin Mellen, 1989), 271-82.

7.  Gebhardt, “The Vocation of a Scholar,” 31.

8.  Lawrence, “The Problem of Eric Voegelin, Mystic Philosopher and Scientist,’ 35-58.


This excerpt is from Beginning of the Quest: Law and Politics in the Early Works of Eric Voegelin (University of Missouri Press, 2009); also see “Young Voegelin in America.”

Barry CooperBarry Cooper

Barry Cooper

Barry Cooper is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. He is the author, editor, or translator of more than thirty books and has published over one hundred and fifty papers and book chapters. He writes a regular column in the Calgary Herald.

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