Eric Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany in 1901. Receiving his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1922, he served on the law faculty of that institution. To escape the Nazi regime, he came to the United States in 1938. Subsequently, he taught at Harvard University, Bennington College, the University of Alabama, and Louisiana State University, where he was Boyd Professor from 1952 to 1958. Voegelin returned to Germany in 1958 where he became Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for Political Science at the University of Munich until his retirement in 1966. Recently, he has been affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Voegelin has been a prolific writer of books, articles, and reviews. His major works include The New Science of Politics, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, From Enlightenment to Revolution and his multi-volume work, Order and History.
Although he did not label himself as a conservative nor write specifically for a conservative audience, Voegelin’s work has been sympathetically received by many Americans of conservative persuasion, and his impact upon conservative thought in America since World War II has been considerable. For example, Peter Stanlis has spoken of Voegelin’s writing as “a great monument to the spirit of both Hellenic and modern man.” Ellis Sandoz has lauded Voegelin as “the leading political scientist and thinker of our time,” while Frank S. Meyer spoke of the “towering genius of Eric Voegelin.” Indeed, Meyer offered that Voegelin may well be “remembered as one of the foremost of those who defeated the forces of infamy.” Finally, Russell Kirk has described Voegelin as “the most influential historian of our century, and certainly the most provocative.” Kirk concluded: “Yes, the climate of opinion among historians is clearing; and the work which may do more to effect a general revision of learned opinion than any other historical production of this century is Voegelin’s.”
Permeating Voegelin’s work is the theme that “spiritual regeneration is the burning problem of the age.” In the West, Voegelin finds a “crisis of the spirit” which has been precipitated by the growth of what he has chosen to call gnosticism. As defined by Voegelin, gnosticism is predicated upon the assumption that through human knowledge man has it within his capacity to fulfill himself within history. The newness of gnosticism does not produce the crisis — it is a perspective with a long history in the Western experience; rather, what precipitates the crisis is the emergence of gnosticism in the modern age as probably the dominant intellectual tone. Modern “progressivism” or statist liberalism is gnosticism in its mildest form: the emphasis is upon the earthly perfection of the human condition through gradual “reform.” Through education, an institutional manipulation and restructuring, coupled with increasing governmental involvement, regulation, and control, mankind in the mass will be gently coerced into conformity with the vision of the perfected life as divined and articulated by the progressive political elites.
Gnosticism is seen in its most virulent form in modern totalitarianism, Fascism and Communism. The totalitarian mind lusts for total control of all facets of human life, thought, and behavior. Its vision is boundless and its alleged wisdom knows no limits. The totalitarian proclaims to have unraveled the mystery of history, and he proceeds to ensconced himself as the self appointed elite who will direct mankind in the creation of an instant worldly paradise. Not surprisingly, an insatiable pride and a fascination for violence are his hallmarks. To Voegelin, totalitarianism is the ultimate in the crisis of the spirit of the modern age.
In the Western experience, are there the intellectual and theoretical tools to overcome this predicament? Voegelin answered unequivocally in the affirmative: There are the enduring resources of the Hellenic and biblical philosophical heritages. Notwithstanding key philosophical differences between these traditions, both share a common commitment to the pursuit of human dignity and the humane society through an appreciation that man is first and foremost a dependent creature with a spiritual dimension.
Voegelin lamented that the modern climate of opinion was unfavorable to classical studies, for “[i]n its essentials the classical foundation of political science is still valid today.” More particularly, Voegelin wrote, “Political science, politike episteme, was founded by Plato and Aristotle.” Throughout the works of Eric Voegelin is found a deep affection for the classical Greek heritage; however, Voegelin cautioned, “By restoration of political science [of the classical Greek tradition] is meant a return to the consciousness of principles, not . . . a return to the specific content of an earlier” historical era.
This “consciousness of principles” commences with the mood of contemplation and the desire for discovery. The “life of contemplation,” which Aristotle described as the bios theoretikos, results in an “understanding of man himself and of his place in the universe,” and it is “a fundamental spiritual obligation quite independent of its contribution to ‘useful’ activities.” In sum, the ultimate goal is the discovery of the “unchangeable order of the soul and the world.” The “spiritual obligation” of the contemplative mind stems from an “openness toward transcendence.” As Voegelin viewed it, in Hellenic thought the dominant emphasis is upon the quest for the summum bonum, for the transcendent Good, in a word, for God.
Voegelin explained that Greek “philosophy by definition has its center in the experiences of transcendence.” This consciousness of transcendence produces a profound sensitivity to the “constitution of being.” In fact, the essence of classical Greek philosophy is the “exploration of the constitution of being.” “The constitution of being is what it is,” Voegelin continued, “and cannot be affected by human fancies.” He elaborated, “The constitution of being remains what it is — beyond the reach of the thinker’s lust for power. It is not changed by the fact that a thinker drafts a program to change it and fancies that he can implement that program.” Within the constitution of being there is a “hierarchy of existence, from the ephemeral lowliness of man to the everlastingness of the gods.” In view of this hierarchy of existence, antiegalitarianism was an immutable principle of the classical mind; it was understood “that not all men were equal, that the creation and maintenance of civilizational order was the work of minorities, of the excellent, and . . . this was the insight on which Plato based his conceptions of the philosopher-king and . . . Aristotle his conception of the mature man, the spoudaios, who was the carrier of moral excellence as well as order in the polis.”
Understanding the hierarchy of existence and “attunement” thereto is the central task of the classical philosopher. Specifically, from the Hellenic view “[r]estoration of order could only come from the soul that had ordered itself by attunement to the divine measure.” Essential to achieving attunement was the cultivation, through training and discipline, of the “ordering powers” of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Concerning the latter, Voegelin instructed, “Justice, the keystone of the system of ordering powers, is that disposition of the well-ordered soul by virtue of which each part fulfills its proper function.” In the hierarchy of existence, then, there are parts or elements which have their differing essences or natures, and justice is achieved when the innateness of those essences and natures is respected and allowed to reach its intended level of development and fulfillment. According to the classical view, Voegelin noted, “The nature of a thing cannot be changed; whoever tries to ‘alter’ its nature destroys the thing.” Concerning human nature, Voegelin observed that in the classical mind “the very idea of a history of mankind presupposes that constancy of nature.” Thus “[h]uman nature is constant in spite of its unfolding in the history of mankind,” and “the discernible stages of increasing truth of existence are not caused by ‘changes in the nature of man’ that would disrupt the unity of mankind and dissolve it into a series of different species.”
The theoretical premise of “attunement to the divine measure” reflected in the Hellenic mind a deep sense of humility or piety about man and his position in the total hierarchy of being. Voegelin explained, “Man is not a self-created, autonomous being carrying the origin and meaning of his existence within himself.” There is an appreciation in the classical mind that “[t]he difficulties [of life] fall apart when the burden of fate and responsibility is accepted with humility.” This humility lent itself to a strongly anti-utopian element in classical thinking: “A theory of the best order must be based on a study of the limiting factors.” Accordingly, the Hellenic spirit “was not obsessed by the superstition that the blueprint of a constitution will deliver the world from evil.” Similarly, there was no “eschatological desire to escape the world,” nor were there any illusions about “the collective salvation of a people through a mediator-king, halfway between God and mankind.” In brief: “There is a nature of man, a definite structure of existence that puts limits on perfectibility;” therefore, “it is beyond a man’s ability to translate the mystery of the cosmos into perfection in history.”
To the classical spirit, the greatest heresy is to ignore attunement to the order of things and to pursue the illusions of the utopian rebels, who contend human nature is malleable and the human condition perfectible. This course produces disorder and disintegration in society. In the utopian rebellion, Voegelin advised, there results “the process of gradual corrosion in which the elements of the psyche are one after the other loosened from their ‘just’ position in the integrated, well-ordered soul, until the passions without a higher ordering principle range freely without restraint.” Disorder and passion are the sustaining pillars of the degenerate society, and their presence in ancient Athens became the principal factor in the reaction “that culminated in the work of Plato and Aristotle.”
The concept of philosophy, Voegelin counseled, is the underlying premise of the classical mind, and through an understanding of its essence a return to ordered existence might be accomplished. What is philosophy? “Philosophy springs from the love of being; it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it.” From another perspective, “Philosophy is the endeavor to advance from opinion (doxa) about the order of man and society to science (episteme) . . .”  The goal of philosophy is, then, the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge about the true nature and order of being—that order decreed and created by God, and in this quest for understanding the “modus operandi is not revolution, violent action, or compulsion, but Persuasion.” And as to the vital characteristics of the philosopher? “[T]he nature of the true philosopher is distinguished by the virtues of justice, temperance, courage, love of wisdom, unrelenting zeal in the search for true being, greatmindedness, ability to learn, and good memory.” To Voegelin, the classical principles were patently relevant to the modern age.
A subtle but significant facet of Voegelin’s thinking is his assessment of the relative merits of Plato and Aristotle as the crucial figures in the development of the Hellenic mind. On occasion, he treats them as philosophers of equal stature. For example, Voegelin stated, “The spiritual sensitiveness and the magnificent realism, both of Plato and Aristotle . . . preserved them from the catastrophic derailment which characterizes modern politics.” Elsewhere, suggesting a parity, he wrote, “The validity of the standards developed by Plato and Aristotle depends on the conception of a man who can be the measure of society because God is the measure of his soul.” Indeed, he singled out Aristotle for this accolade: “Aristotle is a philosopher; he is not an intellectual flunkey for the historically inevitable.” However, in spite of occasional intimations of parity, Voegelin articulates a position in which Plato emerges as the superior thinker.
Voegelin cautions that there is no philosophical “gulf” between the two thinkers; on the contrary, there is an undeniable intellectual continuity between these giants. Nevertheless, in comparing Plato and Aristotle, Voegelin finds “an intellectual thinning out” in the case of the latter. There emerges a difference in emphasis which approaches a difference in kind: “[With Aristotle there] is a curious transformation of the experience of transcendence which can perhaps be described as an intellectual thinning-out. The fullness of experience which Plato expressed in the richness of his myth is in Aristotle reduced to the conception of God as the prime mover.” In addition, the Platonic love for the ultimate Good in Aristotelian thinking “is reduced to…the delight in cognitive action for its own sake.’” “Moreover,” Voegelin concluded, “no longer is the soul as a whole immortal but only that part in it which Aristotle calls active intellect.” As Aristotle had lowered the spiritual sights, the result was a lessening of philosophical depth:
“Plato understood that the nature and acuteness of the [Athenian] crisis required an extra-constitutional government of men; this insight makes him a philosopher . . . superior to Aristotle, who, with a sometimes inconceivable complacency, could describe the . . . Hellenic polis and give shrewd recipes for dealing with revolutionary disturbances at a time when the polis world came crashing down all around him.”
“In Plato’s work,” Voegelin continued, “we feel the somber tension that stems from his theocratic will to achieve the impossible and to restore the bond between spirit and power,” while in “Aristotle we feel a coolness and serenity which stems from the fact, if we may express it drastically, that he has ‘given up.’” Aristotle was content with surveying political phenomena, collecting data, classifying it, and dealing with problems on a pragmatic and prudential basis as they presented themselves in the existing environment. In brief, unlike Plato, Aristotle no longer had “dreams of a spiritually reformed” Hellenic civilization. The result of the Aristotelian emphasis was the encouragement of a philosophical “derailment which, though present in Aristotle, was still restrained by his genius.” Although Aristotle avoided disaster, “the derailment has become one of the principal modes of philosophizing after Plato — so predominant indeed that the history of philosophy is in the largest part the history of its derailment.” A turning from the Platonic quest for the spiritual to an exclusive preoccupation with the material and fleeting is the essence of the derailment.
With Voegelin, then, out of the Hellenic setting, Plato emerged as the preeminent thinker: “[A] new epoch of order began with Socrates and Plato.” Plato is, in Voegelin’s analysis, “the founder of the community of philosophers that lives through the ages.” Voegelin argued that Plato was not only a “great philosopher who knows what he is doing,” but in addition, “Plato . . became the religious founder, marking an epoch in the spiritual history of mankind.” The preeminence of Plato lay in his preoccupation with the spiritual dimension in man: “The opposition to a world of thought without spiritual order was repeatedly expressed by Plato at critical junctures of his work.” Succinctly stated, “Plato especially was very much aware that man…was open toward a depth of divine reality.” It was a key Platonic premise that society was man written large; consequently, the well-ordered society was dependent upon the proper spiritual order in the souls of its individual members: “The restoration of social order…will then require the restoration of spiritual persuasion. And this has, indeed, become one of the great themes of Platonic politics.” “Platonism in politics,” Voegelin concluded, “is the attempt . . . to regenerate a disintegrating society spiritually by creating the model of the true order of values.” Thus, Platonism was founded upon the deepest philosophical “insight that the end of all human action does not lie with this world but beyond it.”
Voegelin instructed that Plato was not a visionary or idealist in the modern utopian sense. Plato did not seek to escape reality; rather, he strove powerfully to understand it and man’s place therein. From the Platonic view, it was an irrefutable datum that man was not self-produced: Man owed his being and existence to an ineffable transcendent Being. This was not an ideal or a vision; this was an undeniable reality—a theoretical first principle. Man existed in what Plato termed the metaxy, the arena of “in between,” which suggested a human existence with all of the attendant tensions and burdens experienced by mortal beings: “good and evil, order and disorder, perfection and imperfection, life and death.” The fact of tension was not cause for despair, anxiety, and utopian revolts against the order of being; instead, it was cause for contemplation and reflection about the nature of man and his predicament. Reflection yielded up the premise that man was inescapably dependent on “the unseen measure” and was an integral part of its creation. This unseen measure was the source of being and order, and men of philosophical bent turned their talents to the ascent toward it, for if even dimly perceived, the foundations of a well-ordered society would have been laid, and there would be considerable cause for hope.
In addition to his affection for the classical mind, Voegelin’s writings reveal a deep affinity for the biblical view. On one occasion, when discussing the modern disdain for the biblical heritage, Voegelin wrote, “I do not intend to rush to the aid of the outcasts—Judaism and Christianity need no defense.” Voegelin has not written an article or book dealing exclusively with a defense of the biblical perspective; however, such an effort possibly is not needed—indeed, might be anticlimactic—for throughout the corpus of his work is reflected a constant and unquestionable affinity for the essence of the biblical conception and its pivotal significance to the Western experience.
Voegelin maintained that Judaism represented a “leap in being” over the thinking of the “cosmological empires” of the ancient Near East. The Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Mesopotamian civilizations were forms of cosmological empires whose theoretical centers were rooted solely in collective experiences. There was an impenetrable rhythm to the physical cosmos which set the pattern and form for collective human experience. There was not the “differentiated” experience of the individual person; there was only the “compact” experience of undulating civilizations. This compactness suggested the ebb and flow of civilizational cycles, and it foreclosed any possibility of a personal spiritual experience arising out of sensitivity to the transcendent force that was not only the physical creator, but in addition, was the ordering spiritual force in individual lives. Israel and Judaism broke sharply with the theoretical premises of the cosmological view: “Through the leap in being, that is, through the discovery of transcendent being as the source of order in man and society, Israel constituted itself the carrier of a new truth in history.” “Through the divine choice,” Voegelin explained, “Israel was enabled to take the leap toward more perfect attunement with transcendent being. The historical consequence was a break in the pattern of civilizational courses.” A wholly new conception of the human situation emerged: “History as the present under God was the inner form of Israel’s existence.” Accordingly, Voegelin observed, “At the time when Egyptians themselves strained their cosmological symbolism to the limits without being able to break the bonds of its compactness, Moses led his people from bondage under Pharaoh to freedom under God.”
This new bond was based upon the “insight that existence under God means love, humility, and righteousness of action rather than legality of conduct.” The new relationship was predicated upon the notion that the “human personality” itself is “the authoritative source of order in society.” In contrast to the views of the cosmological empires, which offered no differentiated conception of the dignity or worth of the individual person, nor perceived a spiritual dimension to the single personality, “the Mosaic leap in being” asserted unequivocally the preeminence of the individual spiritual dimension as the fundamental datum of the human experience.
An affection for Christianity is reflected in Voegelin’s admonition that a mature thinker will be “transcendentally oriented by grace and love.” Similarly, Voegelin advised, “The only thing a spiritual realist can do is to…return to the original sources of order in the soul, that is to the experiences of faith.” The Christian acknowledges “the mystery” of being and realizes understanding of the human predicament is exceedingly limited. Man can acknowledge his being, can confirm that he is not self-produced, and he is intensely aware of his limitations and the imperfectability of his condition. Furthermore, Christian man is aware of “the inscrutable mystery of evil in the world.” Compounding the mystery and the agony of evil, is man’s realization that evil inheres in his condition; that is, evil can be lessened sometimes, but never fully eradicated. The Christian knows that man cannot escape this unsettling reality of his nature and being, and in fact, “one can discern the component of cruelty in the spiritual hardness even of Jesus and St. Francis.” They were not maudlin and sentimental; on the contrary, in opposition to the ever-present agony of evil, they posited a spiritual steeliness. This steeliness was not callousness nor indifference; rather, it reflected an intense sense of reality which acknowledged and accepted through faith the whole of God’s creation, including the inescapable presence of evil.
In the Christian view, education is not capable of eradicating evil, nor are new institutions and manipulations of the environment. Unavoidably, then, must crushing anxiety and despair be permanent and immutable features of the human predicament? The enduring quality of Christianity is in answering that question in the negative, for in place of anxiety and despair it offers the ineffable joy of hope through faith. “From such negations,” Voegelin explained, “arose the idea of the God who would return as our Redeemer into history in order to rectify a condition of man beyond hope.” There was infinite potential for hope in “the fact that Western Civilization . . . contain[s] as a positive force—however diluted and weak it may have become – the Christian idea of the singularity and spiritual dignity of the human soul.” In sum, “Christianity discovered the faith that saves man from the death of sin and lets him enter, as a new man, into the life of the spirit.”
Christianity taught that “[m] an is no longer . . . a mere link in the chain of generations” but is a “spiritual center.” “The truth . . .of Christianity,” Voegelin stated, “[b]reaks with the rhythm of existence; beyond temporal successes and reverses lies the supernatural destiny of man, the perfection through grace in the beyond. Man and mankind now have fulfillment, but it lies beyond nature.” Christianity asserted this compelling moral first principle: “A man cannot fall back on himself in an absolute sense, because, if he tried, he would find very soon that he has fallen into the abyss of his despair and nothingness.” Antiquity had suffered through that cruel lesson. “But the order of the ancient world was renewed,” Voegelin explained, “by that movement which strove through loving action to revive the practice of the ‘serious play’ (to use Plato’s expression )—that is, by Christianity.” Voegelin warned, “The atrophy of Christianity on a socially relevant scale causes a primitivization of intellectual and spiritual culture — the quite normal consequence of the breakdown of a spiritual order.” Moreover, he admonished, “[I]f in practice Christianity is successfully driven out of men, they become not rational liberals but ideologues.” The conclusion was inescapable: The “life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society.”
Of considerable value in underscoring Voegelin’s affinity for Christianity are his frequent and invariably commendatory references to St. Augustine. On the introductory page of each volume of Order and History, Voegelin offers this quotation from the Bishop of Hippo: “In the study of creature one should not exercise a vain and perishing curiosity, but ascend toward what is immortal and everlasting.” Voegelin contended that St. Augustine’s City of God was a “great literary” event “in the West.” The Augustinian conception of history impressed Voegelin: “History no longer moved in cycles . . . but acquired direction and destination . . . toward the understanding of the end as a transcendental fulfillment. In his elaboration of this theoretical insight St. Augustine distinguished between a profane sphere of history in which empires rise and fall and a sacred history which culminates in the appearance of Christ and the establishment of the church.” For St. Augustine, Voegelin continued, “[T]he universality of history lies in the providential guidance of mankind toward the true religion.” As a consequence, “The history of Israel, the appearance of Christ, and the history of the Church are the meaningful history of mankind, while profane history with its revolutions of empire has only the function of providing educative tribulations for Israel and the Church preparatory to the ultimate triumph.”
In his admiration for St. Augustine, Voegelin wrote, “I want to give you St. Augustine’s formulation of the problem of exodus, for it very probably will never be surpassed. It is philosophically perfect, and hence it is still a valid category today.” Voegelin elaborated, “According to St. Augustine, in man, in the soul, there are organizing centers. The principle centers are the love of self and the love of God; these are the emotional orienting centers in the soul.” Concerning “the problem of exodus,” Voegelin explained, “Exodus is defined by St. Augustine as the tendency to abandon one’s entanglements with the world, to abandon the love of self, and to turn toward the love of God.” “So you see,” Voegelin concluded, “it is a perfect formulation of the problem. It is not only perfect philosophically, it is also extremely beautiful.” Where there is departure from the Augustinian view, Voegelin lamented, “[T]he human personality has lost the integrating spiritual center with its phenomena of love, faith, hope, contrition, penitence, renovation and acquiescence. The only human faculty that is left is thought.” A select position for St. Augustine in Voegelin’s thinking appears secure.
 Modern Age, Vol. 3 (1959), 192.
 Conservative Mainstream (1969), 399.
 Ibid., 408.
 Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969), 259.
 Ibid., 264.
 From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975), 85 (hereafter cited ER).
 Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1968), 15 (hereafter cited SPG).
 The New Science of Politics (1952), 2 (hereafter cited NSP).
 ER, 79.
 Ibid., 277.
 Order and History II (1957), 197 (hereafter cited OH).
 Ibid., 275.
 Ibid., 208.
 OH I (1956), 453.
 SPG, 107.
 OH I, 3-4.
 OH II, 324.
 Ibid., 43.
 OH III (1957), 108.
 SPG, 63-4.
 OH II, 5.
 The Southern. Review, Vol. X(1974), 241.
 OH II, 115.
 OH III, 324.
 Ibid., 250.
 OH II, 236; OH III, 225.
 Modern Age, Vol. 17 (1973), 3; OH IV (1974), 223.
 OH III, 126.
 OH II, 118.
 SPG, 42.
 Modern Age, Vol. 17 (1973), 3.
 The Southern Review, Vol. X (1974), 239.
 OH III, 81.
 Ibid., 365.
 NSP, 70.
 OH III, 354.
 Ibid., 273.
 Ibid., 276.
 Ibid., 161.
 Ibid., 289.
 Ibid., 277.
 OH II, 365.
 OH III, 69.
 Ibid., 193, 356.
 OH II, 274.
 The Southern Review, Vol. X (1974), 238.
 OH II, 252.
 Journal of Politics, Vol. 6 (1944), 195.
 International Affairs, Vol. 38 (1962), 184.
 The Southern Review, Vol. VII (1971), 45.
 OH II, 22.
 OH I, 123.
 Ibid., 116.
 Ibid., 355.
 Ibid., 112.
 Ibid., 440.
 Ibid., 485.
 ER, 26.
 Ibid., 275.
 Ibid., 220.
 Ibid., 233.
 OH I, 239.
 Journal of Politics, Vol. 6 (1944), 202.
 OH I, 131.
 ER, 96.
 NSP, 119-20.
 Ibid., 123.
 SPG, 12..
 Social Research, Vol. 15 (1948), 489.
 The Review of Politics, Vol. 36 (1974), 517.
 NSP, 131.
 The Review of Politics, Vol. 13 (1951), 153.
 NSP, 118.
 ER, 6.
 The Concept of Order (1968), 33-4.
 ER, 26.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on April 21, 2016.