Corrupt Communications in a Democracy – Part 2: “Pluralism”

HomeThe Collected Works of Eric VoegelinCorrupt Communications in a Democracy – Part 2: “Pluralism”
Eric Voegelin

[This lecture was delivered in 1956 under the title “Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in a Democracy.” It was topical at that time and it remains topical today. —Ed.]


I shall now turn to the second topic of this lecture, to the actual structure of opinion in contemporary society, to that pluralism of opinion that supposedly is the guaranty of peaceful advances toward truth. The contemporary structure is the result of the waves of political movements that have rolled off since the Reformation. In these waves a certain pattern can be discerned.


A movement like the Reformation was countered by the society, against which it was directed, by organized resistance, by a “counter-Reformation.” The clash between the opposing camps brought the eight civil wars in France in the sixteenth century, the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, and the English Revolution. And the centuries of war were followed by the great peace settlements of Westphalia in 1648 and Utrecht in 1713.


This pattern of (1) move­ment, (2) countermovement, (3) wars, and (4) peace settlement, now, repeated itself in the next great wave, beginning with the French Revolution. The terminology, to be sure, changed in accordance with the secularist complexion of this second wave. The “revo­lution” (the term came into use on this occasion) was countered by “reaction,” “conservatism,” and “counter-revolution.” But the clash between revolutionary forces and the conservative alliance again resulted in the period of the great wars that came to their conclusion with the Congress of Vienna (1815).




At present [1956 -ed] we are in the middle of the third wave that began, in the nineteenth century, with the movement of Communism. In the measure in which the nature and success of this third movement became more distinct, the countermovement crystallized and began to acquire such self-designations as “liberalism” or the “free world.” The wars between the two camps, cold and not so cold, are still going on, and a peace settlement is not yet in sight.


The pattern just described certainly characterizes the successive waves of movements, but concretely it is disturbed by additional factors. The concept of the pattern fits perfectly only the first wave, that of the Reformation. In the second wave, beginning with the French Revolution, the pattern is complicated by the entrance of Russia into world politics. And in the third wave, the phases of the pattern are seriously disturbed through complications arising from within and from outside West­ern civilization.


From the inside, the problem of a National So­cialist Germany blurs the alignments of the opposing camps; again from the inside, the complexion of the alliance changes profoundly through the appearance of the United States as a world power; and from the outside, it is again the growth of Russia to a new order of magnitude that complicates the simplicity that the pattern had on the occasion of the first wave.



The Violence of 450 Years Affects Us Today


The waves of the movements are not an affair of ancient history, for every one of them has left its sediment of intellectual and politi­cal positions in the texture of contemporary civilization. In a sense, all of these waves “coexist” today; their sedimented positions are alive, and the struggle between the movements and countermove­ments is still going on in our time.


What we call the struggle of opinions in our “pluralistic” society is concretely the war of the movements that reaches into our present. The moral climate of the age, the problem of communications in our democracy, can be understood only if we penetrate beyond the euphemistic as­sumption of a rational debate, conducted among searchers for truth with peaceful intentions, to the blood and stench of the war that is conducted now for four-and-a-half centuries, with no end visible.


Especially is such penetration necessary if we want to understand the otherwise confusing shifts of alliances–so confusing indeed that many a political intellectual has come to grief because he did not catch up in time with the game that was played. For as the waves of movement succeed one another, former enemies become friends when faced by a newly arising, common danger; and even the new enemy will join the ranks of the established powers, when the next threat raises its head.


The bitter foes of the Reformation and counter-Reformation discovered, underneath their Protestantism and Catholicism, a common Christianity, when the French Rev­olution faced them with the cult of reason. And with the rise of Communism, not only Catholics and Protestants could cooperate in Christian-Democratic parties, but even secularist liberals could discover the ground they had in common with Christians.


This pattern of the realignments, however, suffers from the same disturbances as the pattern of the movements itself. Under the pressure of the National Socialist danger, the enemies of the third wave were drawn together in a common front, through the Popular Front policy inaugurated by Stalin in 1934 and continued into the Resistance movements of the Second World War. And while this unnatural alliance broke apart with the end of the National Socialist danger, it has left in its wake the struggle for the soul of large sectors of Western democracies, which expresses itself, especially in France and Italy, in the discrepancy between a stagnant, if not decreasing, membership of the Communist Party and the strength of the Com­munist vote.


These are the hard facts concerning the texture of opinion in contemporary democratic societies. We are not dealing with human beings who hold this or that opinion as individuals, but with Chris­tians and secularists; not with Christians, but with Catholics and Protestants; not with plain liberals, but with Christian and secular liberals; not with plain secular liberals, but with old-style liber­als of the free-enterprise type and modern liberals of the socialist type; and so forth.


This rich diversification of socially entrenched and violently vociferous opinion is what we call our pluralistic society. It has received its structure through wars, and these wars are still going on. The genteel picture of a search for truth in which humankind is engaged with the means of peaceful persuasion, in dignified communication and correction of opinions, is utterly at variance with the facts. And at the center of this serious situation, in which differences of opinion lead to war rather than to peaceful understanding, we find our problem of communication.


Communication in the substantive sense, in the sense of the Platonic persuasion, is concerned with the right order of the human psyche. The order of the soul is dependent–if we may now use the Augustinian terminology–on the amor Dei; it will be disturbed when the amor sui, the love of self, prevails against the love of God.



The Revolt Against God Gives Us the “Pluralistic S0ciety”


The movements, now, of which I have spoken are a phenomenon of world-historic importance in that they are the revolt of Western society against God. This revolt has expressed itself in three great symbolic acts: (1) in the removal of the papacy as the representative of divine order from the public scene of the Western world; (2) in regicide; and (3) in deicide.


The removal of the papacy from its place in the public order of the Western world is the symbolic result of the first wave of the movement. When the treaties of Munster and Osnabruck were negotiated, the curia was not admitted, although the redistribution and secularization of ecclesiastical principalities were an important item on the agenda. The protests of the curia did not even receive an answer. With 1648, the papacy disappeared from the diplomatic scene of European order.


The anti-papalism that became manifest on this occasion had considerable consequences in the area of com­munications inasmuch as Milton wanted to reserve the freedom of the press in England to Protestant opinion, while Locke excluded Catholics explicitly from tolerance in the English Commonwealth. The political disabilities of Catholics continued in England into the nineteenth century; and the social disabilities continue in the Anglo-Saxon countries to this day.


While the removal of the papacy from the public order of the West has hardly been recognized as the first of the great acts of revolt, the connection between regicide and deicide as symbolic acts of the revolt against God is well understood. I beg you to refer to an excellent, recent study on the subject, to Albert Camus’ L’Homme révolté.


The execution of Charles I was not an outburst of republicanism against a tyrant, but the attack on “divine kingship,” on the king as the representative of transcendental order in the community, and his replacement as a source of authority by the community of saints in the Puritan sense. And for the meaning of the community of saints, again I beg you to refer to the literature on the subject, especially to Hooker and Hobbes. The decapitation of the king, then, was followed by the decapitation of God–in the cult of the French Revolution, in the declaration of the death of God in Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the replacement of God by the superman through Marx and Nietzsche.


The symbolic acts of revolt could not be undertaken without apology, they could not make sense unless prepared by the growth of a new intellectual climate. And the terms of their justification have become the language symbols in the struggle of opinions in our pluralistic society.


I must briefly dwell on this issue, for the moral­ity of communication is intimately connected with the truth of its contents. Morality is inseparable from rationality of discourse– “rationality” understood in the substantive sense of truthfulness. If the language employed in communication is irrational, the moral­ity of the communication itself will be impaired in the measure of its irrationality.


From this infinite field of problems, I shall select for consideration the movement of ontological reduction with regard to the accepted source of order in man and society. By this movement is meant the transformation of our conception of society by moving the substance of order from the Logos, through the levels of the ontological hierarchy, down to organic substances and drives.



Down the Ontological Scale from God to Biological Drives


In the classic and Christian conceptions of society, the substance of order is understood to consist in the homonoia of its members. Men are members of society insofar as they participate either in the Nous in the classical sense, or in the Logos in the Christian sense. This conception of social order was predominant well into the seventeenth century.


Only then, in the Leviathan, Hobbes elim­inated the divine summum bonum from the hierarchy of being; and since with the summum bonum the rationality of order had disappeared, he dramatically introduced the summum malum, the fear of death, a passion, as the new force that would inject reason into the order of society. The issue has never been restated with such clarity as on this occasion of its first appearance in Hobbes.


By the eighteenth century, the new situation of a society without the order of a divine summum bonum is already taken for granted; and the search for ontological substitutes of order, only half-conscious of the implications of the enterprise, is well under way. The main phases of the search are well known.


The Age of Reason has received its name, not because it was particularly reasonable, but because the thinkers of the eighteenth century believed to have found in Reason, capitalized, the substitute for divine order. The construc­tion was unstable, because human reason in the immanentist sense, that is, a reason without participation in the ratio aeterna, is devoid of ordering substance. One could talk about reason, and proclaim that certain truths were self-evident, as long as the contents of order still found social acceptance by the momentum of tradition; but the question of validity could not be deferred forever.


In the course of the attempts to find a more solid basis for the new im­manentist creed, the reason that had been voided of substance was endowed with the meaning of rationality in the pragmatic sense of adequate coordination of means and ends. The restriction of the meaning of reason, however, made only more painfully clear the vacuum created by the abolition of the highest good as the source of rational order. Where should the indefinite chain of means and ends in action find its anchorage, when the Logos of order had disappeared?


Utilitarianism seemed to have found an answer in the self-interest of man who would see to it that his actions were useful to him, not harmful. But the conception of order through the greatest good of the greatest number, or through a balance of enlightened self-interest, or through the more specific balance achieved by the pursuit of economic profit, proved at variance with the disorder and human suffering created concretely in the societies that experienced the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.


Since the love of God was taboo, Comte invented the autonomous love of man, and coined for this newly discovered sentiment the term altruism. The self-interest of man, which now acquired the con­notation of egotism, could be supplemented by the new altruism as a stabilizing force of order in the utilitarianism of a John Stuart Mill.


The attempt to substitute the useful for reason was followed by further steps of ontological descent–to the technological forces of production with Marx, to the racial structure of human groups with Gobineau and his successors, and finally to biological drives in depth psychology. The substance of order, thus, moved down in the ontological scale from God, through reason, pragmatic intellect, usefulness, production forces, and racial determinants, to biological drives.


This is part 2 of a two part article. Part 1 may be read Here. There was a short third and last part which appeared here earlier under the title “Ontological Reductionism and Pragmatic Speech.”

Published Essays, 1953-1965

Vol 11 Collected Works

“Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in a Democracy”

pp 51-56



This excerpt is taken from a collection of Voegelin quotations which can be found HERE

Eric Voegelin

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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 can be found at