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Bound by the Errors of Our Time?

Bound By The Errors Of Our Time?

This excerpt is from a conversation between Eric Voegelin and graduate students following a lecture at St. Thomas More Institute in Montreal. The participants are Richard Jacobsen, Martin O’Hara, and Cathleen Going. “Q” designates unidentified questioners.


R.J.: You mentioned that certain civilizations can run a particular course for two hundred and fifty years and then switch and try another path. Now, what of individuals? They are born into a particular context. Has there been any study done to show that they must run through sets of errors and eventually come out of those? The examples you were showing seemed to imply that those people ended up knowing that everything was wrong before their time but not anything that was right, and that would imply that there hadn’t been any study done in that direction.

VOEGELIN: Such studies are done. There are various problems of that kind. For instance, to what extent is a man bound, if he is born into his time as we all are, by the errors of his time? That is a very important problem for judging such fantastic phenomena as National Socialism in Germany. For individual people who have done extremely stupid things—not murder, but things in support of Hitler — to what extent can one plead as extenuating circumstance that they were so grossly ignorant because nobody told them any better? That’s what they learned in school, in the universities, in the newspapers, every day from everybody. You can only grant them that they are not super-geniuses who can break out of a rotten situation. That’s a great problem.

One part of the rotten situation is a fantastic ignorance of the past. The Principia Mathematica published in 1910 by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead has had far-reaching consequences. It was a great success in finding the logical principles of mathematics. But the metaphysics presented in the Principia Mathematica, the so-called “logical atomism,” indicates that Russell and Whitehead were gloriously ignorant of philosophy. They didn’t know anything about Plato and Aristotle. Are they to be blamed for not knowing? I don’t know.

R.J.: Is it by accident, then, that one comes to know?

VOEGELIN: That comes within the other question: It’s a sort of meeting, it’s not controllable. You can get over the “accident of your birth” (as George Santayana calls it) only if you have a desire to do so. But whether there is a desire or not, that is something that in theology is called gratia praeveniens. There is nothing you can do about it. If you have the desire and the energy to follow the desire, you can get out of the mess.

Already in the nineteenth century, a generation before Russell and Whitehead, there was a man who knew all these problems perfectly — Gustave Flaubert. Just look at his Tentation de Saint Antoine or his Bouvard et Pécuchet. He knew all about the perversions of gnosticism; he established a central connection between hérésie et cruauté in its tragic form and in its comic form. He knew, in Bouvard et Pecuchet, that such people had Ernst Haeckel for their bible as Hitler would have later. But who knows Flaubert? Who uses him as a source for understanding these matters? It’s a very complicated cultural situation.

Q.: When in your books you spoke of a leap in being, were you referring to a society or to something possible for an individual?

VOEGELIN: It is always done by individuals and spreads from there. We do not know of any collective leaps in being but only of experiences represented in concrete personalities. In the person of Confucius, as attested by his work, such a leap has taken place. Or in the life of the unknown author of the Tao Te Ching as attested by that text. Or in Plato’s dialogues we can see it. But it’s always a matter of individuals as far as we know.

Q.: How do you see the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre? As antagonistic to your position? Or as one of the criticisms of previous ideologies?

VOEGELIN: Excuse my rough words — I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the psychological analyses of Sartre (late in L’Être et le néant, for example) — but he is a vulgarian and an epigone. He’s not interesting. He’s not to be compared with Albert Camus; he was a thinker! Sartre is not on that level.

Q.: Professor Voegelin, what is your ground?

VOEGELIN: What do you mean by that?

Q.: Your ideology.

VOEGELIN: I have no ideology. I hope not. Why should I? Or do you consider it a general human obligation to have an ideology?

Q.: Is there a standard by which you govern your existence?

VOEGELIN: Philosophy, first of all; then there are certain elementary guides contained in revelatory literature — the Ten Command­ments, for instance — and so on.

M.O’H.: What do you mean by an ideology? I’m thinking partic­ularly of what you said about Freud: You distinguished between Freudian ideology and the openness of Freud’s work.

VOEGELIN: Well, I have not defined ideology. I have only picked out the formulation of one element in it — the misplacement of the ground within an immanent hierarchy of being. I cannot of course now give a lecture on ideology; I can only enumerate what is part of it.

In the first place, all ideology comes out of the classic and Christian back­ground (beginning with enlightenment) — so one element always is the survival of apocalypse, the idea that this present imperfect world is to be followed by a more perfect phase. A second element is gnostic, that is, knowledge of the recipe for bringing about the more perfect realm. (That is gnostic: the recipe.) Third, immanenti­zation, as distinguished from older apocalypses.

In old apocalypse, the new realm — the Fifth Monarchy [Dan. 2:44] — is brought about by the intervention of God, or by a messenger of God, by an an­gel. In modern immanentist ideologies, it is always brought about by human action. That begins even earlier; you might say Oliver Cromwell’s army takes the place, in apocalyptic speculation, of the messenger of the Lord in Revelation chapter twenty.  Then occurs a certain intellectual misplacement, due to the immanentization of this question of the ground. The temptation to extend “positively” a new science or immanent world physics as a model to other areas where the model doesn’t apply—the element of scientism — is always there too, from Marx as a scientific socialist to Mary Baker Eddy and Christ-come-as-Scientist.

These are some of the components you find always. And since you asked especially about Freud: He has the closest relation to Hegel’s dialectics. I should say the nucleus in Freud is that famous sentence, “All id should become ego.” Everything that is in the compactness of the unconscious should be unfolded into rational clarity — which is done by Hegel through the dialectical process and by Freud through analysis. In that sense Freud also is a gnostic ideologist. That gives you some possibilities of classification.

C.G.: Thinking of what you were saying about the basis, in the ground of being, for political friendship, political love, I wish you would say a bit more — perhaps in terms of this question: Aren’t there myths about the transcendent divine being that need to be broken before this kind of friendship can occur?

VOEGELIN: Could you give an example of what you mean? It’s very difficult to answer such an abstractly formulated question.

C.G.: Trying to ask more concretely: Are there not conceptions of a relation between a divine being and our world that distract us from concern for other human beings? I think of the phenomenon — at various stages in my own development — of a primitive and perhaps recurring strand of conception of the divinity that seems in fact not to ground political concern.

VOEGELIN: You wouldn’t let us know an example?

C.G.: Various Christian statements that seem to be speaking about escape from the community of this world.

VOEGELIN: Ah! you mean something like the Christian doctrine of the contemptus mundi? In the Middle Ages every good person, includ­ing every good pope, had to write at least one treatise on contemptus mundi. That is of course a problem. If we mean by Christianity, in its origin, that sort of experience that has manifested itself in the writings of the New Testament, Christianity contains nothing about politics but only, apocalyptically, about your way out of this world through the Second Coming of Christ, which will occur next week or the week after next — in your lifetime, anyway. There is no particular interest attached to the order of life in community, and so you can’t expect politics out of the Bible. If the church later has a lot to say about politics it is because it has compromised with the reality — given up the immediate expectation of the Parousia and de­veloped the church itself for life in the world. That’s a complicated process.

C.G.: The eschatological imagery turns into mythology then?

VOEGELIN: It was never anything but mythology, of course — not in a pejorative sense but in the technical sense. Myth has a good sense.

Q.: What exactly would be the criteria for rejection of past ide­ologies? If we could develop standards to judge the situation then perhaps we might have a way out.

VOEGELIN: Oh, quite obviously. I’ve given examples of how to define an ideology. An ideology has an apocalyptic element. Now “there is no apocalypse” means that change in the structure of being (what I technically call the metastasis; it is an ancient term), change in the nature of man, as we usually call it, does not ex­ist. We have no empirical knowledge of it. Wherever there is an apocalypse in an ideology, that is wrong, nonsensical. There is no such thing. Is there a recipe for bringing about such a change? Since there is no such change, it is not a technical possibility.

Every recipe is of course a piece of nonsense, whether it’s Marxian revolution or Freudian analysis. Or there is misplacement of the ground in the immanent hierarchy of being: ground by definition is the Ground beyond the world; if you put it in the world you’ve made an elementary philosophical mistake. And so on. That’s how it’s done. . . .


This excerpt is from Published Essays: 1953-65 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 11) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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