The following is a transcript of a discussion held at the Thomas More Institute on November 9, 1970. Participants were Eric Voegelin, Erin O’Connor, Charlottee Tansey, and Cathleen Going.
charlotte tansey: I don’t quite see how to ask a question that doesn’t come out of an overstatement.
eric voegelin: The questioning we are talking about now is a statement, not the fundamental openness of existence that can result in such metaphysical questions as the fundamental ones formulated by Leibniz: Why is there something and not nothing? Why is there something as it is and not different? There is a questioning that is inherent in existence. These are the fundamental questions of experience to which there is no answer.
cathleen going: To which there are answers?
voegelin: You can imagine answers, but there are no answers in the sense of verifiable statements. You can say, “God created the world; that’s why it exists”; “He made it as it is; that’s why it is thus.” There you are.
eric o’connor: I see from your running all over the world to get a little further data that you’re not satisfied with saying “that question has no answer; there’s nothing more.”
voegelin: There is something more. That is not a present problem as it was in the eighteenth century. We have a knowledge that these questions gradually become clarified in consciousness in the history of mankind; and that is history.
o’connor: They become clarified in the history of mankind because mankind tries many silly ways of going off and trying to answer a whole lot of questions?
voegelin: Well, no, they don’t go off in all directions. There is a very strict development of asking one question after another. There is an order in history.
o’connor: In mathematics, before the kids can ask a question that is in any way up to the level of the time, there’s a lot of experience they have to go through; and I’ve got to lure them through it. Isn’t that true about theology too?
voegelin: Absolutely. But that is a question which was clear in early Christianity and is today. There is no revelation lying around somewhere. Revelation is a process in history. Thomas has the fundamental formulation in the Summa Theologiae part III: Christ is the head of all mankind from the beginning of the world to its end. It sounds simple–but now explain how Christ is the head of the Mystical Body in, say the Mesopotamian empire.
o’connor: It gets complicated.
voegelin: Then it gets complicated. These are the things I’m after.
going: No more complicated than saying, as in Colossians, that “in Christ all things hold together.” It’s not clear how that was so in Mesopotamia either.
voegelin: These are the real problems. How is revelation revealing itself in history?
tansey: You want an answer that comes from the past. You trust people to keep making further endeavors on their own.
“Reason vs. Revelation” is Empirically Nonsense
voegelin: There are quite concrete problems. In Christian theology (since you ask about theology) there is the encrusted conception that revelation is revelation and that classic philosophy is the natural reason of mankind unaided by revelation. That is simply not true empirically.
Plato was perfectly clear that what he is doing in the form of a myth is a revelation. He does not invent it by natural reason; the God speaks. (You can find that even earlier—in Hesiod.) The God speaks, just as in the prophet or in Jesus. So the whole conception which is still prevalent today–not only in theological thinking but penetrating our civilization: “on the one hand we have natural reason and on the other hand revelation”–is empirically nonsense. It just isn’t so.
It is a considerable change in the cultural environment, you might say, if that is an error. One has to explain, for instance, why for a young radical of the first and second centuries—like Justin the Martyr–Christianity was not a revelation but a philosophy that answered philosophical questions better than any of the current schools–Platonic or Peripatetic or Stoic. Why did it give a better rational answer to a philosopher’s question?
tansey: I would say because some gifted individual such as Paul was able to combine the symbols of two or three different cultures.
voegelin: Paul is perhaps not the best case because he was so completely Jewish that he threw out all the paganism as idolatry. Now that was new.
tansey: Perhaps it wasn’t his statement but the way he said it that somehow hit the culture at the right moment and made it pass through.
voegelin: Paul would not have saved Christianity. As a matter of fact, historically, Paul had very little influence on early Christianity. You find little relation to Paul in the Gospels. What made Christianity more than one obscure sect, destined to disappear like others (the Judeo-Christian sect really disappeared; it had no future), was the entrance of young pagans who brought the cultural content of philosophy into Christianity. That is what saved Christianity culturally and historically.
That is a factor rarely realized.
Some of the early Christian thinkers like Origen have still the real cultural syncretism of mystical theology and the beginnings of doctrinal theology. That has been abandoned by Church theology. Mystical theology is no longer practiced in combination with doctrinal theology. Origen was a high point that has hardly ever been surpassed.
tansey: Was he effective in his generation?
voegelin: Very much so. And he was condemned only by Justinian, a lawyer (in 534, I believe). Up to that time, Christianity was very much alive as a combination of mystical and doctrinal theology through the introduction of Hellenistic philosophy. Otherwise nothing would have come of it. Today we have the historical problem of a revelatory process that goes back far before Christ, perhaps to the Paleolithic Age.
The Great Existential Analysis
tansey: Would you say that you are helping the development of Hellenistic philosophy into the future by cleaning up the understanding of these matters?
voegelin: No. Hellenistic philosophy has to be thrown out, of course. It produced all the fallacies of theology. You have the problem that “common concepts” (the koinai ennoiai) of theology and metaphysics were introduced by the Stoics.
tansey: But you wouldn’t want to throw out philosophy.
voegelin: No, the classic philosophy is the great existential analysis. In the so-called modern theology, say, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, on the first page, paragraph one, he criticizes the koinai ennoiai of the Stoics; they and we have to go back to experience. That is the modern problem. Locke didn’t get at the experiences, nor did Hegel, though he was looking for them. That we learn from Hegel’s introductions to his various works.
tansey: Who identifies the experience today? Who should?
o’connor: Who says “This experience is significant” and brings up the questions about experience?
voegelin: Every philosopher does. Bergson does. William James does it in the phase of his radical empiricism (about 1905, starting with his essay “What Is Consciousness?” “Is there Consciousness?”). Whitehead does, going back to Plato. The various revivers of Plato do, especially people like Friedlaender. So do all the historians of art and of comparative literature who deal with the experiences. Science is flourishing today–except in the universities.
The End of Doctrinization
o’connor: So one of the main problems with doctrine everywhere is having to teach people who are not yet curious.
voegelin: Yes, we’re indoctrinating. Or you might formulate it briefly: The practice of meditation has disappeared as a cultural factor. I can quite definitely see that I got the practice of meditation by reading the Upanishads, by reading the Symposium of Plato, by reading the Confessions of Saint Augustine. These are the classics of meditation to which one has to return–not Madame Guyon.
One of the imaginary obstacles (to give a time-problem again) is that one believes much has happened in history. Not much has happened. Two thousand years of doctrinization is a very short period–and we are at the end of it now.
o’connor: The end of it in what sense? It won’t go that way again?
voegelin: It has run to its death in practice. Everybody knows today that doctrines are wrong. Every leftist student is as much against the communist establishment as against our establishment. They are against doctrine. Their solutions are wrong, but their revolution is right.
The Fallacy of Community Through Relating
The forms are of course atrocious. If you go into the details, say, “community,” and ask “What is it? What are those Beatles? That Woodstock?”–it is a perversion (don’t be shocked) of the perichoresis of the Trinity. You get an immediacy of reality on the community level but without the dimension of divinity. You are God yourself on that community level.
Community desire in the form it assumes today is on the one hand a positive desire to get community and, at the same time, in its defect, a transfer of the divine community into a human community. Homonoia in the classical and Christian sense is out because that is a community constituted through openness toward God. To produce a community by relating–that is a fallacy.
o’connor: Yes, it’s a fallacy–but a child somehow has to satisfy its exploring tendencies before it can grow up in some ways.
voegelin: There you have said the deciding thing: a child–but not a grown-up person. Let’s assume that when you are twenty-one you have sufficiently grown up to understand at least the point that you can’t produce community by relating.
o’connor: By merely relating.
voegelin: You can when you are four or five years old, but not when you are twenty-one. That kind of relating is not so new. It was a postulate of Rousseau. And relating to one another in a community without God is a transfer of the theological category of perichoresis to human relations.
o’connor: Of course if one passes that insight on to someone, it’s a doctrine. I mean: It won’t be understood until it has been learned.
voegelin: And there are social processes that have to run their course; there’s nothing you can do about it. You can try, of course, to impress individuals–
o’connor: You can try to shorten their experience–they don’t have to repeat it for ten years.
voegelin: But you can’t do more; you can’t influence the social process as a whole; that probably has to go through all the misery of revolutions and world wars until even the most stupid person understands that he doesn’t get anywhere that way. It is our critical situation today that these revolutionary communal experiences that started in the eighteenth century have run to their death now.
o’connor: The revolutionary experiences?
voegelin: The revolutionary communes, which are an attempt to solve the problem of social life through communal experiences without the personal experience of existence. That this has run to its death you can see very well in a man like Paul Ricoeur. In his essay on “Angoisse,” in Histoire et Vérité, he asks the question, “What will become of us if we can no longer believe in French sociology and Hegel?”
Why is that such a problem to him? Because he really believes that reality can be interpreted from the level of community experiences and not from the level of personal experience of the tension of existence toward God. Or one can advert to the deculturation period when meditative practice disappears.
o’connor: Of course one can’t predict whether the community experience may, by boredom, work people into meditative practice.
voegelin: Oh, as a prediction: Nothing lasts forever! We’ll get a religious revival; it will come.
o’connor: There is, on the one hand, your saying that nothing really can be done about it, and, on the other, your great effort to clarify things not only for yourself but also in books for others. You haven’t given up hope in education.
voegelin: Oh, no. That was always the problem: Plato was perfectly clear when he wrote his Dialogues that Athens was doomed. As a matter of fact, ten years after his death it was conquered by the Macedonians.
o’connor: You’re not saying that about our civilization yet, are you?
tansey: A lot of things have run to their end.
Universities as Brothels of Opinion
voegelin: A lot of things have. I knew ten years ago that our universities, not only in America but in Europe, were completely rotten: brothels of opinion, no science, nothing. But I could not have predicted that five years later, in 1965, we would already have an open outbreak which recognizes that the universities are dead.
I cannot predict today that within ten years new forms of institutions will have arisen in the Western world in which science will again be possible. But there was a similar situation in the eighteenth century: The universities were just as dead then, and science revived through the Royal Academies. That was a new beginning of science. To begin with, the Royal Academies were also historical and paleontological and philosophical academies.
I would very well imagine our getting new organizational forms, outside the organization of the universities, in which science is conducted. These may develop and after some fifty years influence the structure of universities again.
As a matter of fact, if I look over what I am doing: I never go to professional associations (one can ignore them)—but springing up everywhere are private orgaizations of scholars–all sorts of people–like the Pittsburgh theological center (somebody gets an idea and starts such a complex), or the International Society for the Study of Time, or the Eranos group, or the Institute Accademico di Roma—free associations outside the universities.
It’s 12:30 in the morning!
This excerpt is from The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers: 1939-1985 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 33) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)