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Eric Voegelin: A Recollection

Eric Voegelin: A Recollection

First Impressions

I first met Eric Voegelin in 1940 or 1941 when he came to Baton Rouge to lecture under the auspices of the department of government at Louisiana State University. He may have given a single lecture or a series, and the subject, I suppose, was something that would be part of Order and History, though that large work did not begin appearing for another decade and a half.

My first impression of Voegelin was of a speaker of great dignity and ease, of vast learning easily borne and not trimmed to please a general audience, of formality and yet graciousness. Here was a philosopher who had no marks of either the pedant or the popularizer; the gentleman as thinker. Despite a highly technical vocabulary and occasional, but not intrusive, problems of idiom and accent, Voegelin seemed comfortable and fluent in American English. During his stay in Baton Rouge, Eric — I use an informality that was slow to develop — attended a meeting of a faculty discussion group at which I was also present, whether as visitor or regular attendant (I am relying entirely on memory; I have no file of documents, formal or informal, to consult). I remember vividly the type, though not the specifics, of the argument that broke out there between him and several of my colleagues.

The latter were depending, as faculties often do, on the fundamental rightness of the current beliefs of social and political liberalism, and no doubt Eric challenged one or more of these; it was not that he was antiliberal in principle, but that he was a vigilant challenger of the going clichés of both left and right. Perhaps his point was that Hitler and Nazism represented less a violation of American democratic ideas than an enduring disorder of a distinguishable philosophical and theological type. I do not remember the details, but I do retain a strong impression that my colleagues, several of whom were my good friends, were badly though unknowingly overmatched.

Early during the 1941-1942 academic year there came the news, exciting to all of us who had been greatly impressed by Eric during his visit, that he had accepted a position in the LSU department of government (it had not yet become the department of political science: Bob Harris, then chair, always insisted that the field was not a science) and would arrive in Baton Rouge for the spring semester. Eric’s coming seemed to us a major institutional coup, another step toward LSU’s realizing a potential that had become evident in various ways. One of the best agents of that potential was Bob Harris: he had an excellent eye for professional quality and, though not a theorist in the Voegelin mold, fully appreciated Voegelin’s gifts. Eric would have arrived in January, and I got acquainted with him, I believe, not long after that (my uncertainty about this became an issue during Eric’s naturalization proceedings in 1944, a matter that belongs to a later part of this narrative). My wife and I probably met the Voegelins through the Heberles, refugees who had arrived in 1938; Rudolf, a sociologist, had been at Kiel, and his wife, Franziska, was the daughter of the eminent sociologist Ferdinand Toennies.

My wife and I found both couples congenial socially. The men were splendid additions to the faculty, and the wives were superior people; they all remained tactfully silent about whatever differences they found between Vienna and Kiel, on one hand, and Baton Rouge on the other. We made special efforts; not only did we want them to feel at home at LSU, but we could imagine their problems in adjusting to a new culture and in having to use a new language. We thought of the daunting difficulties we would face as American refugees in Europe: the problem not only of a new culture but of trying to make a functioning daily tongue out of our graduate-school French or German. We wanted things to work out for the Voegelins and Heberles and hoped that welcoming natives might be helpful.

As northerners we too had at first felt like foreigners in Baton Rouge. We had since come to feel very much at home and no doubt felt that, as outsiders-turned-insiders, we would be useful interpreters of the Louisiana mode of American life. In one way, of course, we were doomed to failure: our academic German in no way equipped us to speak and understand the conversational language — a skill that might have temporarily relieved the refugees’ burden of having to manage all communication in a second language. They would occasionally fall into German, especially if they had guests whose first language it was. When we were the only monolinguals present, we would sometimes leave early to free the rest for the pleasure of speaking their native tongue without having to be concerned about excluding the two anglophones present.

In time we came to use first names. This did not happen rapidly, for society had not yet reached today’s stage of instant, obligatory informality, and as individuals we were disinclined to a stylistic intimacy that had not been earned by experience. Perhaps it was we who, as spokesmen for the native mores — we had drifted into the role without seeking it — proposed the use of first names. I mention this because Eric admitted that he found it difficult to call me “Bob,” which seemed to him too trivial a vocative to apply to an adult who was at least nominally a scholar. I suppose he got used to it, but for some time he found “Robert” more bearable.

We tended to drift together at parties. As Lissy Voegelin said to me years later, “Eric had no small talk.” When conversation was called for, he tended to launch into a disquisition on whatever technical issue he was thinking through as he composed Order and History. To an auditor not equipped for such discourse, Eric might have seemed to be exhibiting learning inappropriately or even engaging in a put-down. But anyone who read him thus was utterly wrong. Eric was a considerate man who in social circumstances — as opposed to formal debate, in which no holds would be barred — would never consciously speak in a condescending or indecorous way. He had a strong sense of the proprieties, the decencies, the observances that marked civilized people, and he was incapable of vulgarity, whether in the guise of unrestrained egoism or of simple commonplaceness. If one lacks small talk, at a social occasion one talks about the larger things familiar to him, taking for granted the adequacy of the hearer to the heard.

Eric did not monologue. He would make a statement about what interested him and seek responses. He assumed the auditor’s competence; he did not talk down to others by sticking to the quotidian or simplifying an issue. Responses were likely to be halfhearted or vague if Eric spoke about, say, the late-medieval origins of the concept of the Third Reich, or the spiritual breakthrough achieved by monotheistic thought, or the derivation of some current political idea from an error by Hegel. He tended to treat his colleagues precisely as if they were fellow members of the philosophy faculty at the University of Vienna. Whatever our professional competence, we were for the most part not quite up to the role. What many of us felt was less resentment than a regretful sense of not being with it, and of wanting the ease of more reassuring company. (Insofar as I may have felt that, the feeling was more than counterbalanced by the awareness of being in the presence of an extraordinary man.) Some people were so defeated by Eric’s intellectual superiority that they just wished he’d go away. But he never indulged in derogation, and he tended not to introduce topics he knew would be unwelcome.

He was a man of great punctilio. But if controversial topics came up, he did not hesitate to challenge the cliches he heard bandied about. After all, in Vienna he had vigorously attacked rightists even when it was dangerous to do so (in his case it had been life-threatening, and it led to exile). Here in the land of free speech it seemed natural to challenge ideas on the other end of the political spectrum when they seemed inadequate. Obviously, a man who at best was hard to understand and who dared to question long-held secular faiths was not always easy to take.

What precedes may suggest that Eric generated only negative reactions. But there were colleagues who, instead of fleeing or being captious, were admiring and devoted and willing to listen and to learn. They might not, however, always be present at parties or handy at given moments. So Eric tended, at social events, to become a solitary, not looking disgruntled or censorious or troubled or neglected, but with his ordinarily pleasant mien — he had a genial air, but with the geniality modified by a certain formality — falling into an expressionless neutrality: registering not bad temper but a sense, somewhat escaping an effort of concealment, that though this kind of sociability had its place and had to be endured (Eric always had a strong sense of obligation), it was still not the most satisfying way of spending several hours.

He seemed to be masking discontent or disappointment under an air of detachment. He was not ungracious, but he was genuinely courtly, and that meant that he registered social obligations in a formal key, different from the folksy American geniality based on the exchange of uncontentious trivialities. He was not contemptuous of this American style of social intercourse, but it was not for him a natural way of doing things. Eric was always a thinker before he was a social being.

Acting as Voegelin’s “Native Informant”

All this is part of a historical picture of Eric Voegelin, but it also serves to introduce an account of my own relations with him. When I said that we tended to drift together at parties, I was not defining myself as his equal or as intellectually superior to our colleagues. In me Eric excited a respect bordering on veneration, for I recognized in him the most extraordinary intellect I had ever encountered, one I could in no way keep up with, especially in the abstruse philosophical matters that could come up spontaneously in any conversation. Although the spirit was willing, the mental flesh was weak.

But my good luck was that Eric had as it were established me in a role in which I felt some competence — that, to borrow a term from anthropology, of “native informant.” (This is not, of course, to claim exclusive possession of a role that was shared by Bob Harris, Cleanth Brooks, and others who had discovered some congeniality with Eric.) As a non-southerner I might be expected to understand the questions that would occur to another outsider experiencing the Deep South for the first time; in a sense we were foreigners together. But by 1942 I had been in Louisiana for seven years, and I could speak also as an insider. I could act as the interpreter of academic folkways that were unfamiliar to a European-trained scholar. And I knew members of the faculty well enough — LSU was still a relatively small university — to be able to characterize people and to make judgments on their talent, zeal, and professional accomplishment (no doubt with a dash of that free-swinging, confident finality to which one is liable in one’s thirties).

But the local scene was only a temporary object of inquiry; Eric was more curious about the general habits of American academe — everything from institutional governance to habits of thought to philosophical positions; types of administrative personnel and attitudes; power bases; relations to the outside world; sense of mission and sense of profit; and so on. He knew a great deal about the materia of various fields–the arts, music, history, literature, and of course philosophy — and he was curious about the academic management of these. He would ask about historiographic and critical practices in literature, and often about specific writers: their styles, beliefs, current status in academic esteem; and about individual works and their reputations. His knowledge of literature in English was wide, and he often asked searching questions. These questions, which showed a range of knowledge rare in the practitioners of nonliterary fields, tested the abilities of the informant, whom Eric could praise, assist, and of course challenge.

Praise: he once told me that I could and did answer questions that remained unanswered when he directed them to other professors of literature. This puzzled me, for any competent Ph.D. should have been able to deal with most of his inquiries, which by and large concerned central, mainline matters. I can still hear him saying, “They do not answer my questions.” I remember his delight when he came across some work he had not known before, such as Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist: this play indicated to him an English awareness of, or even tie-in with, the alchemical thought in which Eric had some interest as an aspect of the history of philosophy.

Assist: he asked many questions about Shakespeare, and my task was to describe the kinds of scholarly activity practiced by Shakespeareans. I made one sweeping statement — I have forgotten what — about Shakespeareans’ habits, and Eric promptly asked what specific person did this sort of thing. When I could not pin down my generalization with an example, he gracefully covered for me: “Ah, it is in the air.” This is a phrase I have often found convenient. Now and then, despite his moving primarily in a terminological world of European philosophical practice, he would come up with a simple and useful phrase with an Anglo-Saxon base, for example, “free-floating hatred.”

Challenge: Eric had a deft way of indicating doubt about some of my judgments and procedures. In analyzing plays and novels I tended to look for the springs of human conduct — the motives, “drives,” needs of characters in interplay with one another. It was distressing, then, to discover that Eric considered “psychological” analysis a distinctly inferior mode of criticism. What went on in literature was for him an interplay of philosophical issues and spiritual forces, a clash of symbols rather than a confrontation of psyches. In my later work this view may have somewhat colored my sense of what went on in narratives, but I was not really equipped to see things in Eric’s way. Still, I shall never forget the air of innocent and amiable curiosity with which he raised literary questions, and his brief interpositions, ironic but not biting.

He would occasionally ask about specific writers. In the late 1940s he observed that much critical discussion of Henry James was going on, and asked what he should read by way of introduction to James. I had been teaching and writing about The Turn of the Screw, and I suggested it. Eric read it immediately — in one sitting, I believe — and wrote me a very long reply (an essay-length letter) interpreting the novel as a study of American Puritanism in which the dramatic actors are God, the Soul, and Ordinary Life (the uncle, the governess, and the housekeeper, respectively). He gave The Turn the highest possible praise when he told me that had he known it when he wrote a book about America after his first visit here, in the 1920s, the book would have been different. I say no more about the subject here because fortunately Eric’s letter-essay, with modifications he made several decades later, reached print.1

At the same time that he was asking me questions about literature in English, he was making occasional efforts to educate me about European works; he would recommend novels available in translation. One of these was Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil (I remember his especially praising a “philosophy of laughter” found in that book), and I was sufficiently struck by it to publish a review. Once he urged me to study, if not indeed to memorize, the chapter headings of a volume that would clue me in to how one went about the study of metaphysics. The captions were in German, alas, and I failed the assignment. But Eric was forgiving, and he went on acting as if I were capable of philosophical redemption, despite his inevitable awareness that I was an inadequately endowed pupil.

Finding a Home in Baton Rouge

Our relations with the Voegelins took a special turn in the summer of 1944, when they were in Cambridge, Massachusetts: as in many summers, Eric was working in the library at Harvard. During their absence from Baton Rouge, the rented house in which they had been living was leased or sold out from under them, this in accordance with a wartime regulation that permitted the dispossession of occupants if the premises were then to be occupied by the owners or members of their family.

This must have been another severe blow to people who, after the troubles that led to their flight from Austria, might have felt they were beginning to get a foothold in America. They evidently felt that they could not contest what amounted to an eviction. It would have been costly; as “foreigners” (though naturalization was imminent, they had not yet gone through it) they would have been at a disadvantage in a legal dispute; and Eric desperately needed all the time he could get at Harvard on materials unavailable at LSU. Had they made the long and expensive trip back to Baton Rouge, they might not have been able to find other rental housing. Apparently the only solution was to buy a house, provided a suitable one could be found for sale. At this point they phoned us and asked us to buy a house for them, that is, to find one for sale, commit them to buying it, and perhaps put down (I’m not sure about this) some earnest money. This was a forbidding assignment; picking out a house for someone else could never be easy, and for people of the Voegelins’ fine taste it seemed close to impossible.

The Voegelins could be stuck with a house of which their undying thought might be, “Couldn’t Ruth and Bob do better than this?” But however it might come out, our taking the assignment must have seemed, in the exigencies of a wartime world, a lesser evil than any other course . . . and we did take it on. Although I say “we,” the task fell largely to my wife, Ruth. One reason was that I was teaching full-time in summer school (fifteen hours a week then, and no trace of the cooling systems that have since become standard equipment in Baton Rouge), an annual necessity to keep us financially afloat; the more significant one was that Ruth was much better than I at amateur realty. I no longer know what her research method was, or how long she worked at it, but I do recall that she uncovered only two houses for sale. We may have looked at both houses, or it may have been, as I suspect, that one of the two was so obviously inferior that it dropped out of consideration. The remaining one was no gem, but it would do, or rather would have to do. Because it was really the only one available, we at least escaped the burden of seeming to have made a sorry choice. We signed for it and phoned the Voegelins with the news.

Lissy came down by train to take care of the paperwork; I believe they borrowed the money for the trip as well as for the down payment (in fleeing the Nazis, they had to leave Vienna without either possessions or cash). My impression is that the house cost six or seven thousand (for comparison: I was an associate professor then, and my salary was, I think, a little more than three thousand; Eric’s was probably somewhat, but not much, more than that). Later, with a frankness in financial matters that was characteristic, Eric said he had received a loan from a relatively well-off refugee, a Jewish businessman, I believe.

If Lissy’s heart sank when she saw their new home, she concealed the fact well (I can imagine the Voegelins having a mental picture of a modern house on a good-sized lot in an attractive neighborhood, a house such as the Heberles had by now acquired). Fortunately, the Voegelins’ fine taste was balanced by a sense of reality. The house we found was roughly downtown, on a narrow street a few blocks east of the central shopping section. The names Canal and Cherry come to mind, but I would not bet on either; whatever its name, the street on which the Voegelin house stood was wiped out by the new freeway that, curving in from the north and east, took over the area. As I remember it, the area was, if not outright crummy, at least wholly undistinguished: a sequence of narrow houses on narrow lots on a narrow street.

But Lissy Voegelin made that house into a very charming place; we were occasional guests in it, and after we left LSU we once spent a week there. This was early one summer — in 1953, I think — after the Voegelins had left for what had become a standard summer research stay in Cambridge. We could see the works of art that were an important part of the transformation, and we could see (and use) the large tub in which, we were told, Eric sat for hours in cold water, smoking the cigars he was fond of and working with papers and books arranged on a board spanning the tub. Lissy contributed to his writing by trying to maintain favorable working conditions; she was a noise-abatement society of one, campaigning in particular against kids whose habitual hollering disturbed Eric’s flow of thought. It must have seemed very odd, in a neighborhood where reading, if any, probably did not go beyond the daily papers and where books would have seemed strange objects stored in libraries, to be told that a new neighbor, suspect anyway, was actually writing a book and needed a quiet atmosphere in which to carry on this peculiar practice. You never could tell about foreigners.

Whatever problems there may have been — and I never heard any report of hostility (even during a war when the Voegelins’ marked accents might have aroused suspicion in some segments of the American public) — they lived in that house from 1944 to 1958, when they returned to Europe for what would be a stay of some years.

Becoming an American Citizen

Aside from the housing problem, another significant event occurred in 1944: Eric’s naturalization as an American citizen. I was his designated witness, the citizen whom the immigration authorities would quiz about the applicant’s political and personal reliability. But before we got to the crucial moment of the hearing, there was a rather long period of preparation, during which Eric asked me some routine questions. One big issue did arise, having to do with a training booklet provided to would-be citizens by the division of naturalization. Eric would of course know its contents by heart.

One day he asked me, “If the answers in the handbook are wrong, should I give the right answers or say what the handbook says?” Anyone with knowledge of officialdom will know what my answer was: “You say what the book says, even though you are sure you are telling a lie. If you correct an official publication of a government bureau, they will surely take you to be an unreformed Nazi, a Communist agent, or else a professional troublemaker.” The situation was this: the handbook summarized various matters the candidate was supposed to know about — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and legislation having to do with the duties of citizenship. Eric did not rely on this secondhand version. As a political scientist, he read the originals, which of course he saw through a highly trained professional eye; hence his sense that the handbook, meant for a diverse and unread laity, fell into technical inaccuracies or at least approximations of dubious reliability.

I was present during part of Eric’s naturalization interview, where he conducted himself in a becomingly low-key way and without bursts of learning that might alarm the board. He passed without difficulty. I also underwent a private questioning. In general it had to do with Eric’s potential for good citizenship, and of course I could be enthusiastic. I recall few details, but I do remember one large and unexpected stumbling block. I was asked how long I had known Eric or, more precisely, just when our acquaintance had begun. The exchange went approximately like this:

RBH: Well, let’s see, he came to LSU in 1942. Let’s say about two years.

Naturalization Officer: You must be more specific.

RBH: Well, he came here from Alabama for our second semester. So I met him sometime in the first half of 1942.

N.O.: You must be more specific.

RBH. Since he came for the spring semester, he would have arrived in Baton Rouge in late January or early February. I met him not long after that.

N.O.: You must be more specific.

RBH: I probably met him sometime in February.

N.O.: That is too general.

RBH: Well, let’s say I met him February 16.

The interrogator had the satisfied look of an examining attorney who has at last elicited an essential fact from a well-meaning but none-too-sharp witness. My last statement settled things. Later Eric told me that the officer had told him, “You had a very good witness. Professors usually aren’t good about details. They tend to be vague, especially about dates. But Heilman really had the facts at his fingertips.”

Attracting the Best Students

Over time, Eric had become known as a faculty member of extraordinary knowledge, insight, and depth. But he had none of the feeling for easy or popular targets needed to create the spellbinder who elicits volumes of praise from students and garners teaching prizes. He was uniformly admired by the best students rather than being widely popular.

He never tried to gratify or to upset auditors; rather, he wanted to expound ideas, which might do either. His aim was understanding, not approbation or the making of converts. Once he told me of a woman student upset by his presentations of political theory; she felt that his ideas raised unnecessary difficulties and underrated a success-marked actuality. Eric gave her an opportunity to tell what she would prefer. She said she just wanted to be “happy.” What, Eric asked, did it take to produce happiness? She said, “I just want to be married, and have a family and a house and a car and a radio.” In reporting this to me Eric was wondering how widespread her attitude was and, if it was a sound representative of American thought, how we had managed to last as long as we had.

Eric was grateful for an American refuge, and he never evinced any European snobbery; but he would never hesitate to make a point that might displease chauvinists, those who took the status quo to be the ultimate social and moral achievement.

Eric was the ideal colleague for those special cases in which a student advisee would seek not to have his requirements met as quickly and easily as possible, but to be sent to the best minds on the faculty. That sort of thing does happen occasionally in academe, and it was wonderful to have an Eric to recommend to such seekers. He was quietly admired despite the difficulty of intricate and unfamiliar concepts. I have the impression — though I have no solid evidence on this — that when Eric offered a law school course in natural law, student responses were marked by the feeling that though these ideas had the merit of unusualness and depth, their connection with litigation was not altogether clear.

Eric not only attracted the best students, but he aroused the interest of townspeople drawn by the new intellectual range. Among these were my wife (who had also audited a course given by Cleanth Brooks) and Dorothy Blanchard (a sister-in-law of Mrs. Brooks), who one year sat in on Voegelin’s course in Nietzsche. I got many reports on the flow of ideas, on student reactions, and occasionally on terminological problems.

Eric’s English was fluent, but the language was highly technical, the idioms came from philosophical vocabularies, and now and then a pronunciation was European — a source of an occasional problem that was more amusing than deeply vexing. The class heard about the Greek divinities “Ahtaynah” and “Tsoiss,” and from context soon identified them as the goddess of wisdom and the head Olympian. But an apparently common noun, “wahzy,” remained an unsolved mystery for weeks. Puzzlement was widespread. Because “wahzy” seemed to have aquatic connotations, the semifamiliar wadi came to mind, and the association seemed fitting: the word seemed to come up in contexts of the transmission of cultural influences through desert lands. But enlightenment had to come from Eric himself, who, questioned by students, explained, “Oh, you know, a watering spot in the desert.” Oasis.

But problems of pronunciation were transitory and minor. Eric would ask me about them occasionally, and he caught on quickly to the representations of sound, inconsistent as they are, in English orthography. We moved on quickly from such mechanical matters. My longer-term role was that of explicator of American academic English, and finally I became a sort of consultant on Eric’s own formal use of English (he had started writing his books and articles in English — surely the most difficult of the leaps into the New World). In time Eric asked me to read the typescripts of articles, reviews, and the like, and finally the texts of volumes that would become parts of Order and History. He particularly wanted me to catch slips in idiom. In one book he kindly included a paragraph to the effect that my influence upon his English had been beneficent. I wished that might be true, but I tried to avoid deceiving myself.

Being Eric’s consultant on style was flattering but difficult. My philosophical shortcomings often left me feeling insecure in suggestions I wanted to make. I would see apparent problems in idiom, phrasings not in accord with the expectations of readers in English, locutions I felt to be literal translations of German idioms that, when Englished, still did not become English; but when I broached the subject, I would find that the way he had put the matter seemed to Eric essential to the accurate communication of his thought. In such cases I was not only failing to help Eric, but also causing him the additional labor of explaining his intent to a well-meaning but philosophically defective copyeditor. What I always hoped for, of course, was conspicuous and unmistakable derangements of idiom, the correction of which would make me look competently helpful rather than conceptually hopeless. Little luck of that kind. I can still hear his “But you see, Bob . . .”

A reviewer of one of Eric’s later books declared it a pity that Voegelin had given up writing in English. What the reviewer meant was that Eric’s basic technical vocabulary and idioms were not always in line with standard academic English. I can understand this criticism, provided that it is aimed at stylistic mannerisms and is not used as a defense mechanism against his thought. For instance, “tension toward,” a phrase Eric frequently used, seems to me not to work well because it runs counter to anglophone expectations with regard to “tension.” But such views are not necessarily shared by readers of greater philosophical expertise.

I have already alluded to Eric’s strong, nearly fastidious, sense of decorum. What was true of social relations was even more true of professional ones. When I dedicated a book to him–an essay on the relation of language and drama in Othello — he commented on the volume with a fullness, and with an appreciativeness of the intended honor, matched by no other dedicatee. His response took the form of a letter of two or three pages, single-spaced, which gave a handsome account of what he took the book to be doing. His reservations about my conclusions were so gracefully embedded in the descriptive text that I would have been able to ignore them had I wished to do so. I did not wish to, certainly, but by then I knew I was incapable of reshaping my critical praxis to make it less distant from the Voegelin ideal. I recognized that I instinctively fell into psychological criticism, of which — as I’ve said — Eric disapproved.

Visiting the Voegelins in Munich

In 1948 Ruth and I left for Seattle, and after that Eric and I exchanged letters regularly, if not frequently (as did our wives).fn The correspondence continued when the Voegelins returned to Europe in 1958. Eric had accepted the directorship of the Bavarian state political science institute in Munich. This was a professional advancement, I suppose, but it never seemed to me that Eric suffered from the institutional angst so common among American professors. He thought about his work; in no way did his status, or his sense of achievement, depend upon what post he held or what university he served in. So though the Munich post may well have seemed a promotion, I imagine that his motivating influence in taking it was the strong pull of Europe after twenty years away, and of the Voegelins’ native language.

They must have crossed the ocean about the time we were returning from a 1957-1958 sabbatical. When we returned to Europe in 1964-1965, the Voegelins generously asked us to visit. Eric invited me to speak at a seminar of his, and he also managed — against what resistance I know not — to encourage the department of English to sponsor a lecture by me. The chair of English was Wolfgang Clemen, and since we had both trafficked somewhat in Shakespearean imagery, there were grounds for our finding ourselves at least mildly simpatico.

Then I received a letter — a sort of warning I took it to be — from a member of the Munich faculty who had taken his Ph.D. in our department at the University of Washington, where, the gifted son of an immigrant family, he had established himself both as a superior student and as a talented one-upper. The burden of his letter — we had had no prior correspondence — was that the department of English at Munich was “sophisticated,” and that a visitor would want to mind his p’s and q’s lest he betray provincialisms that might embarrass him. Oh dear, I thought, I am in danger of disgracing not only myself but my sponsor, Eric.

Well, I spoke to Eric’s seminar — a seminar in some phase of political science — no doubt on some aspect of tragedy, the subject of a book I was working on, and had a vague sense, not too illusory I hoped, of having got by without betraying an appalling failure of sophistication (even though I had to speak in English, as the students were more at ease in it than I would have been in German). Eric had told me that he wanted his students to see what a competent American academic looked like. There may have been an implied contrast with the Munich professoriat, our impression of whom, conveyed largely in letters from Lissy, was of complacent, humorless, domineering types, very different from the gentility the Voegelins remembered in their Vienna colleagues.

The story might be better if I remembered the subject of my general lecture for the department of English, but I have blacked out the formal occasion. My recollections begin with the postlecture chitchat: Professor Clemen told the Voegelins and Heilmans he had arranged no social affair, and he suggested that we take off in cars for a public park where desired refreshments could be ordered. Off we went, an unorganized and uncertain medley of faculty, students, and others; there was little or no coherence among the twenty or thirty people who made up the park delegation. Feeling ill at ease in the what-do-we-do-next air from which no one seemed exempt, I latched onto several graduate students, proposed that we sit together, and asked them to order — the bill to me — whatever beer they liked and whatever food would go with it: cheese, chips, sausages, and so on. I no longer remember whether I paid or whether Clemen stopped by to pick up the check.

I was trying to make conversation while observing Eric and Lissy walking around like lost souls, she looking thunderous and Eric grinning in a most singular fashion, as if this were an especially gratifying occasion. It wasn’t long before Clemen stopped by to whisper a request in my ear: if I declared I was tired, this would enable him to flee, as he would like to do, because he took no pleasure in being here and could think of other things he would prefer to do.

By then I may have been a little annoyed, and disinclined to play further the role of idiot boy to all these “sophisticates,” but all voluntary action was suddenly ruled out by the onset of a thunderstorm. We were sitting in an insubstantial enclosure, I think under a light cloth or canvas covering that temporarily resisted the downpour, but the sides were open, and the storm blew through. Retreat was mandatory, and everyone had to hurry toward parking areas that seemed some distance away. Lissy, who did all the driving, had to dash through the rain for their car. From somewhere there was an umbrella available for the other three of us as we struggled through the rain. We got back to the Voegelins’ apartment and chatted and had drinks during the drying-out process.

Lissy’s displeasure with the evening now expressed itself in denunciations of a social style she saw as a violation of all European, and especially Viennese, decencies. Eric continued to smile, delighted, it seems, by an unforeseen confirmation of his suspicions. As he put it, “I knew that something was wrong with the department of English, but it is much worse than I thought.”

The Voegelins were wonderful hosts and took us to see everything that should be seen by visitors to Munich — museums, churches, political and historical sites, restaurants. At all such spots Eric spoke with great ease and informality, a guide in control of all pertinent information, aesthetic and historical. One occasion brought out a response I had never seen in him: anger. A doorman or waiter was either inattentive or outright rude, and Eric grew furious. He told the man off, emphatically but not coarsely, and we went on our way. But his resentment at bad style was perceptible for quite a while.

In time the Voegelins wearied of Munich; my impression, gained from other sources, is that the disruptiveness of dogmatic student Marxists — a boorish tactic we have seen in this country —made Eric’s educational mission seem excessively difficult. I never asked about this.

In the late 1960s they returned to the States and made a permanent home in California. Eric was for a while a fellow of the Hoover Institute in Palo Alto. After he left the Institute, Eric told me that the officials there were overly concerned with opposition to communism; Eric felt, if my inferences are correct, that this opposition committed resources and energies against an ideology he already saw as doomed.

We began to see the Voegelins regularly again, for our son and his family lived in Palo Alto, and we had a pied-a-terre there. I remember well the July day in 1969 when we four were at my son’s house, along with my son and his family, watching the TV broadcast of the moon landing. I had expected Eric to be uninterested or even in a skeptical or debunking frame of mind, but he seemed no less fascinated by the lunar scenes than the rest of us.

Impressions and the Last Years

Before coming to the ending of the tale, I want to record a few impressions that may not be attached to specific events. As I have indicated more than once, I lacked the philosophical equipment to engage in activities that turned on technical consideration or application of Voegelin’s thought. (In contrast, Cleanth Brooks — a friend of both of us — made use of a Voegelin idea in an essay on Walker Percy.)

But one kept picking up snippets that might influence one’s thought or writing. I always noticed Eric’s use of the word science in the general sense of “knowledge;” repeatedly he would say something like, “Don’t let the lab boys get away with monopolizing that word,” that is, limiting its applicability to the management of aspects of physical reality instead of to the treatment of essence by philosophy. Thus he was always providing his listener with conceptual tools that were not necessarily part of his systematic thought. His sense of the varieties of religious experience — he once spoke about “the atheist religion” — was always present to me as I was working out the implications of the picaresque heart of Thomas Mann’s brilliant Felix Krull. His idea of the “deformed community” directly influenced my sense of what goes on in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident.

What I was doing was picking up individual ideas from printed or spoken word and using them to enlighten artistic practices rather than ingesting a philosophical system and letting it determine point of view. (“System”: my colleague Eugene Webb once told me he had given up studying Voegelin because the latter was “not a systematic philosopher.” When I mentioned this to Cleanth Brooks, Cleanth replied that if Eric heard this complaint, he would say, “I’m pursuing truth, not constructing a system.” Webb has, fortunately, since resumed his study of Voegelin.)

After leaving the Hoover Institute, Eric, needing income, took up the study of the stock market. (I am assuming this chronology; I cannot vouch for it.) He undertook this intense research in his sixties, when many people opt for retirement. Eric did very well in this new venture; he told me once that it took him about two hours a day to spot and keep up with the trends that dictated buying and selling, and after his death Lissy told me that she had been left in a very comfortable financial situation. A lifetime as a profound theorist did not diminish his awareness of how the ordinary world goes and of how to survive in it; he accepted, so to speak, the ways of the world, as long as that acceptance did not run counter to his sense of what was fitting. Once Lissy got the notion that one had to be a church member to undergo funeral rites; Eric said, matter-of-factly, “All right, we will join a church then.”

Although he could be sharply critical of American ways of doing things, Eric did not stint on praise when he felt it was due. He thought, for example, that American medical practice was superior to European. In the late sixties or early seventies, after he and Lissy had both had major surgery in Palo Alto, he said, “If we had stayed in Vienna, we would both be dead by now.” After Lissy’s surgery, Eric dashed to the hospital with the most elaborate bouquet he could find; he had laid hands on it at a florist’s where it was part (it was an artificial bouquet) of the shop’s permanent decor. He presented it with as ardent a speech as might have been delivered to a dying spouse in a Victorian novel. His words apparently implied that her situation was terminal; Lissy made clear that she was doing quite well, thank you, and expected to be around for a while.

Lissy had a great sense of humor and a nice touch of American slang, which showed up charmingly, mingled with an Old World style that was more literary than epistolary, in her letters to Ruth. Those letters nearly always ended with “So long, Ruth.” Lissy and Ruth had occasional phone calls, and I would always hear my wife’s laughter at the jests that came over the wire.

In Palo Alto the Voegelins put together a home of great elegance in both furnishings and ornament. I remember especially a large Kokoschka and a Japanese screen, which I believe Eric brought back from a trip to Asia (he had become interested in Eastern philosophies, and had made some progress in learning Chinese). There were no photographs in evidence; they did not go for the American practice of devoting wall space to a photographic family history.

They lacked family, in the usual sense, and this was a source of some sadness. Relations with Lissy’s family in Vienna were difficult, and may indeed have ended because her relatives were business people who had welcomed the Nazi regime. Perhaps there were no survivors in Eric’s immediate family. At one time, however, the Voegelins had welcome contact with — visited and were visited by — a niece of Eric’s for whom they felt considerable affection. My notion is that the geographical separation prevented the development of an enduring relationship. The Voegelins spoke once or twice about having or adopting children, but it may be that by the time they were financially secure, age had become a bar to parenthood. They had a pair of dogs, of which they were, or at least Lissy was, very fond; these beasts seemed not to welcome our visits and adopted a frighteningly yapping and snarling style, in which they were reminiscent of the dreadful Caesar, who regularly alarmed guests at the Brooks home in Baton Rouge back in the forties.

The Voegelins had cars, handsome ones; and as I’ve said, Lissy did all the driving. Eric had driven when they first had a car, I was told, but a mishap when he was at the wheel had led to Lissy’s permanent assumption of the chauffeur’s duties. This was not one of those cases I have known in which an intellectual’s professed inability to drive seemed less an admission of incompetence than a claim to talents that rendered him superior to such mechanical activities. (Obviously I write as one who likes to drive.)

When Ruth and I visited our son and his family, we regularly called on the Voegelins, sometimes to share a meal and sometimes just to talk. The last time the four of us were together was in December 1984. Eric, who had been in failing health, was bedridden. We talked with him as he lay, in pajamas and a bathrobe, on a daybed in a smaller room (not primarily a bedroom, I think) down the hall from the main living room. I remember that his white hair was unusually long. He took pleasure in biblical readings — the books were mentioned, but I can’t recall them — these often done by an attendant.

One event during this visit stands out in my memory. Eric said, in a peaceful and unemotional way, without a hint of this-is-it heroism: “It is time to die.” Lissy responded sharply, almost angrily: “But you do not think of me. What am I going to do?” We had never heard her use that tone with Eric, though she was always as independent as she was devoted.

Eric died about ten days later. He died on the same day as Charles Hyneman, formerly a political scientist at LSU, whom I am glad also to claim as a longtime friend. Charles was a sedulous student of practical American politics and thus presented a contrast to Eric, the theorist and philosophical historian. The American Spectator, founded by former students of Hyneman’s at Indiana, remarked that the deaths of Voegelin and Hyneman had “lowered the intelligence level of the nation.”

During visits to the Voegelins in Palo Alto we might, as I have said, dine together, or we might chat. Occasionally Eric would say, making a rare dip into colloquialism, “Bob and I must have some boy-talk.” Off we would go to a restaurant, and by way of boy-talk Eric would hold forth on whatever topics he was currently exploring in his reading and writing.

I have already mentioned Lissy’s comment that Eric “had no small talk.” I had plenty of it, but it seemed too small for the occasion. So I tended to be listener only, mortified by my incapacity to deal with the subjects on which Eric spoke easily and eloquently, and mortified too by the flattering implication that I was an equal partner in the conversation. I fell into the category that Peter Shaffer, in his 1968 play The White Liars, called “Takers” (as opposed to “Givers”). I have long remembered an aphorism of Eric’s at one of these occasions: “Of course there is no God. But we must believe in Him.” I understood, I thought, the concept of the indispensable symbol.

The disparity between the Giver and the Taker roles led, as it seemed to me it must, to a thinning of our relationship. My original duties as native informant virtually disappeared as Eric came to know more and more about America. He had read widely in literature in English, and he was a more than capable critic of what he read. Listening, however enthusiastic, was not enough. I knew Eric felt pressed by the vastness of the intellectual tasks in which he was engaged, and by the sense of a rapidly diminishing time in which to carry them out. I came to feel that I could be most helpful by not taking up time he could use more profitably in his study. We gradually reduced the number of our visits to the Voegelins, but there was never any diminution of their wonderful cordiality.

After Eric’s death the matter came up in a conversation between Lissy and me. Perhaps I brought it up, wanting to explain myself, no doubt hoping to have been seen as considerate and helpful rather than indifferent or unfriendly. Lissy’s comment went something like this: “Yes, Eric noticed that you weren’t coming over as much. He wondered why. He was very sad about it. He was very fond of you.” I wondered whether, as often happens with good intentions, I had blown it.



1. Southern Review, n.s. 7, no. 1 (1971), 9-48; reprinted in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12, Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999).


This excerpt is from The Professor and the Profession (University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Robert B. HeilmanRobert B. Heilman

Robert B. Heilman

Robert B. Heilman (1906-2004) was a distinguished teacher and literary critic who flourished at Louisiana State Univeristy where he became a close friend of Eric Voegelin.

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