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Eric Voegelin: Meditation as Antidote to Gnosticism

The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline.

—Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1987), p.131.


Eric Voegelin first rose to prominence with his provocative and widely noted thesis about “Gnosticism” being an essential feature of modernity. It even led to him being profiled in Time magazine (“Journalism and Joachim’s Children”, March 9, 1953, pp. 57–61). But in his later meditations on “the Beginning” and “the Beyond,” Voegelin engages in an experiential analysis of consciousness that makes a further contrast with the “egophanic revolt” of modernity’s unbridled pursuit of autonomy. As Ellis Sandoz has noted, Voegelin doggedly “pursued the experiential analysis of Gnosticism in a meditation on the Beginning and the Beyond, which augmented and further solidified the theory as presented in his earlier work”.[1]

That is, to his earlier work on Gnosticism, Voegelin adds his later analysis of the “egophanic revolt” of the modern autonomous human self. In response to the ideological deformations of modernity, Voegelin explores, with “anamnetic experiments”, the unitary experience of philosophy and of faith, a unity that contrasts with the certitudes of deformational “Gnostic” dogmatisms that would cleave the experiential unity of philosophy and faith into a dualism. Voegelin insists that “the only reality is reality experienced”; moreover, “Philosophy and faith considered experientially . . .  yield alternatives that lack the dogmatic certitude of the Gnostic doctrines.”[2] In contrast to the Gnostic attitude of certainty, “The Christian solution to the imperfection of the world remains open”, because salvation is only attained “through grace in death”.[3]

In his later meditative projects, Voegelin can be seen operating from the standpoint of his stated intent to retrieve the insights of the meditative practices of thinkers like Anselm that have been obliterated in modern philosophical projects like Husserl’s. Voegelin’s cutting criticism of Husserl’s phenomenology (in “A Letter to Alfred Schütz concerning Edmund Husserl”) is that Husserl has avoided “with the greatest care the path to philosophical problems of transcendence—which are the key problems of philosophy”:[4]

“Husserl has never carried out an original meditation in Descartes’s sense—in spite of his pretense of radicalism and of his postulate of a new beginning for every philosopher.”[5]

The Gnostic revolt is a rejection of transcendence as access to a mystery that eludes our comprehensive grasp. The transcendent spiritual dimension of human experience (experienced in “inspiration” and “the world of ideas”)[6] is a reality that can only be approached through meditation that does not do violence to the mystery:

“In reality human existence cannot be grasped in an objectifying mode of thought, but only in the existential movement of thought, in which it becomes present to itself.”[7]

Contrasting with Husserl’s approach (which, in the style of “historiogenesis”, mythically sees all of philosophy culminating in the present moment, i.e., in Husserl’s own thinking), is Voegelin’s understanding of the style of meditation of Augustine, Anselm, and Descartes:

“The Cartesian meditation is in principle a Christian meditation in the traditional style; it may be even classified more specifically as a meditation of the Augustinian type as it has been undertaken in the history of the Christian spirit hundreds of times since Augustine.”[8]

Voegelin had clearly developed his conception of the fundamental character of meditative practices almost a decade and a half earlier in “A Theory of Governance,” with its lengthy considerations of Augustine, Descartes, Scheler, and Husserl.

Voegelin’s presentation of meditation there is very much worth reading,[9] and it is evidence that his fundamental understanding of meditation remained constant through his life—although it is interesting that what he characterizes as meditations on “Being” and “Becoming” are treated later under the refined rubrics of “the Beginning” and “the Beyond” in order to avoid unhelpful pre-conceptions and customary thought patterns about the problems.[10]

Meditative practice aims to recover first-order reality (of the metaxy, i.e., of the soul in relation to God), by peeling away any deformations of consciousness that have crept in on the second-order level of quotidian mental experience.[11] Voegelin observes that the motivation for meditative recovery can frequently be an impetus imparted by distressing experiences of societal disorder:[12]

“[W]hen you get a disturbance on the pragmatic level then the symbolisms which hitherto have been accepted traditionally will be doubted”; thus, meditative reflection in Anselm, for example, in the historical context of the First Crusade, is an “attempt to answer the question why should one believe if one wants to give reasons for the symbols which are the traditional symbols in a society. And that is the subject matter of his famous Proslogion … which gives you a rational analysis of the faith and explains the reason that is contained in the faith”; after its composition and dissemination, “this Proslogion was attacked by a gentleman by the name of Gaunilo who doubted the content of the Proslogion and in order to doubt it pretended that what Anselm tried was a proof of the truth of the faith”; but Voegelin is adamant: “It wasn’t [a proof], of course, because a believer doesn’t have any need to prove the truth of the faith; he wants to understand its reason which is a quite different matter.” After Anselm’s meditative report, there is then the occasion of Gaunilo’s (theatrical) objection and Anselm’s reply (occasioned by the question about the phenomenon of the fool, which was not part of the original meditation): “And on that occasion then comes up the question of ‘the fool,’ because Gaunilo as representing the fool, himself representing it in his own interpretation, denies for methodological reasons now the existence of God which Anselm was supposed to have proved, but which he didn’t prove, of course.”

In short, when it comes to experience, foolishness “is just as much a human possibility—to deny the existence of God—as [would be] a positive response to the experience of divine reality—a positive response which may result in the symbolism of a God or of the gods.”

Voegelin’s point is that the latter (positive) experience is derived from a primary (first-order) experience, whereas the former (negative) experience is a purely (second-order) deformation, perhaps answerable by the offering of a second-order pattern of meditation to be traced in a meditative practice that aims to discover, or reinstate, the vision that sees first-order reality.

In other words, on Voegelin’s view, there can be no substitute for the experiential reality of meditative practices, which alone make it possible for subsequent and derivative reflections on transcendence to be at all convincing. Faith and reason are unified both in the experiential reality of transcendence and also in the recollection of that experience.



[1] Ellis Sandoz, “Introduction”, in Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway), vii–xvii, at xvi; Sandoz’s Introduction is new to the 1997 edition.

[2] Sandoz 1997: xiv.

[3] Sandoz 1997: xv.

[4] Voegelin 1943 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 6): 61.

[5] Voegelin 1943 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 6): 60.

[6] Voegelin 1931 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 32): 280.

[7] Voegelin 1931 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 32): 287.

[8] Voegelin, “A Letter to Alfred Schütz Concerning Edmund Husserl”, in Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics: The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 6, edited with an introduction by David Walsh, translation by Gerhard Niemeyer as revised and with additional translation by M.J. Hanak (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002), in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 6, Ch. 2: 45–61, at 57.

[9] Voegelin 1931 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 32), esp. 226–246, 254–255, and 279–290 (the latter in Ch. 3, §§3–9, where the remarks on Husserl missing from §7 could have been omitted because they would have to have been as ruthlessly candid as what was disclosed in Voegelin 1943). Extended notes on Augustine are also found in Voegelin, “Notizen zu Augustin: Über Zeit und Gedächtnis”, in Voegelin papers, box 48, folder 9, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, California. Translated as “Notes on Augustine: Time and Memory”, in The Theory of Governance and Other Miscellaneous Papers 1921–1938: The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 32, translated from the German by Sue Bollans, Jodi Cockerill, M. J. Hanak, Ingrid Heldt, Elisabeth Von Lochner, and William Petropulos, edited with an introduction by William Petropulos and Gilbert Weiss (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), Ch. 8, 483–501.

[10] Voegelin 1931 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 32): 226–246.

[11] Cf. Voegelin, “The Eclipse of Reality”, in Phenomenology and Social Reality: Essays in Memory of Alfred Schütz, edited with an introduction by Maurice Natanson (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff), pp. 185–194. See also “What Is History?” and Other Late Unpublished Writings: The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 28, edited with an introduction by Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1990; Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999).

[12] “Deformations of Faith”, a lecture at Hillsdale College in 1977.


This essay was originally published in The Imaginative Conservative on December 30, 2015.

Christopher S. Morrissey

Christopher S. Morrissey is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University in Canada. He is also the managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics and author of "Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days" (Talonbooks, 2012).

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