Eric Voegelin, one of the greatest minds of our times, died on January 19, 1985. We stand in awe, admiration, and affection as we now try to obtain an overview of his achievement. Even a summary is not quite possible at this time. Volume V of Order and History will be published posthumously. In addition, a number of papers may still be released by the estate. It could be years before the final line can be drawn under Voegelin’s publications.
Meanwhile, following his tip toward understanding ideas by penetrating to the motivating experience, we may begin with the experience that motivated Voegelin. He himself described it as a double-pronged frustration with the philosophical ambience of his student years. Like Faust he sighed: Now I have studied “the neo-Kantianism of the Marburg School, the value-philosophy of the South-West German school, the value-free science of Max Weber, the positivism of the Viennese school, of Wittgenstein, and of Bertrand Russell, the legal positivism of Kelsen’s Pure Theory of Law, the phenomenology of Husserl, and, of course, Marx and Freud,” all of these leaving the uneasy feeling that they “imprison themselves in their restricted horizon and dogmatize their prison reality as the universal truth.” As a political scientist, he felt obligated to comprehend the nature of the ideological mass movements which, armed to the teeth, threatened the world with terror. In this task he received no help at all from his philosophical equipment. He concluded, even then, that “the center of a philosophy of politics had to be a theory of consciousness.”
His contemporaries, at that time, enclosed consciousness wholly in “subjectivity,” so that any consciousness relevant to political order had to be seen as “intersubjective.” Voegelin experienced by himself an uneasiness with restricted horizons, which made him realize the source of this uneasiness as “a consciousness with a larger horizon” — his own. From this one had to infer that a philosophy of consciousness required investigating “consciousness in the concrete, in the personal, social and historical existence of man, as the specifically human mode of participation in reality.” From the outset, Voegelin could see this investigation only as a philosophy of history. If he started his work with Plato and Aristotle, this was not a matter of accidental convenience since “the story of the quest can be a true story only if the questioner participates in the comprehending story.” In other words, “the story cannot begin unless it starts in the middle.”
The temporal “middle” is, in a spatial sense, the symbolism of Plato’s metaxy, the “halfway between god and man.” Plato applied this term to love, the “neither mortal or immortal messenger.” Voegelin broadened the context: “The play of order is always enacted, not before the future but before God: the order of human existence is in the present under God” at all times. “In the middle” also characterizes the human experience of finding oneself in a “stream of being” already going on and sure to continue after us. It indicates that human consciousness both inclines and has power to transcend its particular existence and the particular society, things, and times: It is “capable of infinity” even though dependent on a particular human body.
With this, we have also arrived “in the middle” of Voegelin’s philosophy. He began with Greek philosophy, a “phenomenon in history” but also “a constituent of history,” no less than “history is a constituent of philosophy,” as well as “a field of phenomena for philosophical investigation.” As a “phenomenon in history,” philosophy is preceded by the order of the myth all over the globe so that part of Plato’s symbols concern his experience of an epochal newness of life that is philosophically lived. Plato and Aristotle are succeeded, on the other hand, by schools formed in their names through which occurs a hardening of this way of life into prepositional doctrines while philosophy sinks to the level of a contest between academics. Along this outline, then, Voegelin turned to a study of the order of the myth, the “cosmological empires,” and to parallel breaks with the myth, primarily that of Israel. The vast scene of Voegelin’s research is beginning to open before our eyes. If one may distinguish in his work the aspects of philosophy, symbolization, history, and gnosticism, none of these should be separated from the others.
The order preceding philosophy was characterized not only by the symbolism of the myth, but also by the fact that society, as a whole, was the lone source of order. The myth was effective chiefly as social ritual. Societies clustered around their myths so that different myths, or different gods, ruled in great variety. The break with this condition came as there arose, in various places, solitary figures of authority vis-à-vis society: Greek philosophers, Hebrew prophets, Chinese sages, the Indian Buddha. Now the question of truth came to the fore: The private person who was not “one of the scribes” and who held no official position spoke “with authority” as he communicated the truth mystically experienced in his soul. At the same time, the solitary persons of authority could not institute social ritual; they had to communicate truth personally, by means available to a solitary person. The imagery of the Hebrew prophets differed from the imagery of a myth. The Greek philosopher used the help of the disciplines of logic and argument. The philosopher’s communication, moreover, did not convey stories about gods, but rather insight into the deepest movements of the soul where the “order of being” revealed itself in the experiences of the “tension between God and man.” Such experiences as thanatos (death), eros (love), dike (justice) were universally acknowledged and therefore amounted to an empirical control over the private thinker’s subjectivity. Consciousness is not something enclosed between the walls of one’s skull, it is “consciousness of something,” the eminent reality of being, which “all men by nature desire to know.” The eminently new experience of the philosopher was of the nous, the mind which could reflect on ignorance as a movement and mystery as an “object.” He found himself being “moved by some unknown force to ask the questions, he feels himself drawn into the search.” The nous was experienced not as if it were an instrument, but rather as “divine or the most divine element within us.” “Wondering, searching, questioning” became core concepts of a cluster of symbols “bringing forcefully home the philosopher’s understanding of the process in the soul as a distinct area of reality with an order of its own.”
Voegelin’s approach to Greek philosophy is powerfully innovative, not in that its elements cannot be found in the works of other scholars, but in that he does not allow Greek philosophy to sink to the level of a chapter in a “history of ideas.” Nor do Greek philosophers interest him as representing “schools,” or even Athens, seeing that they speak in the name of the constancy of human nature. The history in which he meets them is not a chain of ideas but the historically moving order of human existence. That history is not future-determined. It should be seen in all its dimensions as the “flowing presence of God.” This entails, for us, “the obligation to communicate and to listen,” for “the revelation comes to one man for all men, and in his response he is the representative of mankind.”
In his loving reunion with Greek philosophy, Voegelin found not so much a number of concepts — although these he found, too — but through the exegesis of the texts a mystical unity of souls past and present in the quest for order. All human order originates in the metaxy, “in-between God and man.” The philosopher’s wonderment, his “serious” search, his experience of being “drawn,” his exploration of the soul and the nous resulted in the higher insights that bear the mark of philosophy. The Hebrew prophets, approximately contemporaneous with Greek philosophers, experienced the tension between God and man with a stronger emphasis on the irruption of the divine into the human, that is, “revelation.” Both occur with “a temporal flow” of experience in which eternity is present. “This flow cannot be dissected into past, present, and future… rather, it is the permanent presence of the tension toward eternal being, related to worldly time.” The tension is personally experienced, but the experience is not an idiosyncrasy. He who experiences this tension represents mankind and knows that the experience must be communicated as authoritative. If one wonders why important insights into order are allowed to arise in the soul of one man rather than all men, one must likewise wonder why such events as Hebrew prophecy and Greek philosophy are allowed to occur in small and powerless peoples rather than under the canopy of world-spanning imperial power. In volume IV of Order and History, Voegelin gives full attention to these problems. Before, in “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” he had met and analyzed the other objection that “the experience is an illusion,” leaving it in shreds after a few very precise arguments. Now, he turned to three fundamental questions:
(1) Why should there be epochs of advancing insight at all? Why is the structure of reality not known in differentiated form at all times?
(2) Why must the insights be discovered by such rare individuals as prophets, philosophers, and saints? Why is not every man the recipient of the insights?
(3) Why when the insights are gained, are they not generally accepted? Why must the epochal truth go through the historical torment of imperfect articulation, evasion, skepticism, disbelief, rejection, deformation, and of renaissances, renovations, rediscoveries, rearticulations, and further differentiations?
To these questions there is no answer, just as little as there is an answer to the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” In Voegelin’s words, “The questions symbolize the mystery in the structure of history by their unanswerability.” The Question, as he calls it from there, is a “symbolism sui generis” and must be seen “as a constant structure in the experience of reality.” “To face the Mystery of Reality means to live in the faith that is the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen.”(Heb. 11:1) The questioning mind essays something like “adequate” answers concerning things and events in the cosmos, answers that should be seen as “equivalents” in history: the myth, the noesis of philosophers, the revelation of saints. The physical universe as the ultimate foundation for the higher strata in the hierarchy of being cannot be identified as the ultimate reality of the Whole, because in the stratum of consciousness we experience the presence of divine reality as the constituent of humanity . . . Things do not happen in the astro-physical universe; the universe, together with all things founded in it, happens in God.
Volume IV of Order and History begins with this incisive statement: “The present volume, The Ecumenic Age, breaks with the program I have developed for Order and History in the Preface to Volume I of the series.” With what did Voegelin break, and for what reason?
We have seen that his emphasis on the “concrete consciousness” as a source of “objectivity” introduced, from the outset, into consciousness the dimension of history. By virtue of its concreteness it is a historical event; history, therefore, is a dimension which it desires to interpret in its quest for knowledge. The intertwining of consciousness and history, as being constituted and as constituting, as participating and yet ignorant of the terms of participation, caused Voegelin to develop his philosophy of consciousness through historical materials, in consequent conjunction with a philosophy of history. In Plato he found a strong “epochal” sense, a sharp separation of the “before” from the “after” — the “before” seen as the “falsehood” of the poets creating the myth, the “after” seen as the truth of the nous and the philosophical symbols arranged in disciplined order. Voegelin called this event a “leap in being,” since philosophers understood themselves not as inventors of new ideas but as discoverers of a “new life.” The structural similarities between this particular “leap in being” and the one in Israel, and yet also a third, in Christianity, suggested to Voegelin a progressive succession from the cosmological order of myth and the political form of the “cosmological empire” (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon), through a process of “differentiation” to a higher type of human existence. The “differentiation” happened to the compactness of ordering symbols in the cosmological myth, from which the Hebrew differentiated the element of righteousness and Greek philosophers the element of the soul. This did not commit Voegelin to a progressivist view of history, since he also saw clearly the potentiality and actual occurrence of retrogression, as well as a “fall” from the new and higher order.
This first scheme — ”cosmological empire” to “leap in being” to new order of human existence — became possible through the insight that the experiences and symbolisms of a Plato concerned neither philosophers nor Greeks alone but all mankind, which also applied to Israel. When dealing with the content of truth in political representation, Voegelin at first distinguished three “types of truth:” “cosmological truth, anthropological truth, and soteriological truth,” in each case “the truth of man and the truth of God” being inseparable, each authoritative, and each forming human character. No relativism follows from this listing of three “types of truth.” The “differentiated” truth is higher, and the philosopher is not permitted to retrogress “from the maximum of differentiation.” “The opening of the soul was an epochal event in the history of mankind because, with the differentiation of the soul as the sensorium of transcendence, the critical, theoretical standards for the interpretation of human existence in society, as well as the source of their authority, came into view.” This remark enables us to understand Voegelin’s “giant cycle, transcending the cycles of the single civilizations . . . the pre-Christian high civilizations would form its ascending branch; modern, Gnostic civilization would form its descending branch.” Thus cosmological empires, leap in being, maximum of differentiation, Gnostic fall from truth could be fitted together into something like a form of history, insofar as it could be known. That plan, which called for three more volumes of Order and History to deal with the “descending branch,” was abandoned.
The reasons were, on the one hand, new discoveries of archaeologists and the historical sciences, and, on the other hand, new discoveries of categories, experiences, and problems on the part of Voegelin. Among the former, there are figure discoveries of civilizations older than Egypt and of early symbols in places where one would not have expected to find them. Among the latter, there is the growing importance of cosmogony (“the Beginning”) in its relation to “the Beyond,” the awareness of linear constructions of history long before the Greeks and of cyclical constructions right down to the present. Two difficulties resulted: the impossibility of accommodating the new materials and insights in the limit of three volumes when even five additional ones would not suffice; “the impossibility of aligning the empirical types in any time sequence at all that would permit the structures actually found to emerge from a history conceived as a ‘course.’” Abandoning the overall form of successive historical structures did not require the abandonment of the principle on which Voegelin’s work was based. On the contrary, it was the consistent and persistent application of these principles that had led to the two “impossibilities.” Thus, in both the first scheme of history and in the new one, the order of human existence has a history. Advances, which result from “spiritual outbursts,” produce sharp distinctions of “before” and “after,” so that “the order of history” is still “the history of order.” By contrast, however, the new materials and insights required that “the analysis had to move backward and forward and sideways, in order to follow empirically the pattern of meanings as they revealed themselves.” New problems emerged as Voegelin’s research focused on the type he called “ecumenic empire,” or multi-civilizational empire, occasioned both by the conqueror’s need for a trans-civilizational truth of his imperial, representative position, and spiritual outbursts of subjected peoples as a response to their experiences of anxiety and disorder. In any case, “the form which a philosophy of history has to assume in the present historical situation… is definitely not a story of meaningful events to be arranged on a time line.” “Lines of meaning” can be found in history, but not a “meaning of history.”
Voegelin has given us a new, deeper, and more accurate reading of Plato and Aristotle; he has rediscovered and restored the science of politics on the basis of “critical, theoretical standards for the interpretation of human existence,” thereby enabling us once again to make value distinctions regarding political order not as a matter of sheer opinion but of strictly disciplined theory. Of these standards Voegelin’s evaluation of modernity is the most important application. Had he not said, “the validity of the standards . . . depends on the conception of a man who can be the measure of society because God is the measure of his soul?” Political science, centering on philosophy, is under obligation to abide on the level of differentiation attained by Christianity. Whenever in modern history a revolt against the maximum of differentiation was undertaken systematically, the result was the fall into anti-Christian nihilism, into the idea of superman in one of the order of its variants — be it the progressive superman of Condorcet, the positivistic superman of Comte, the materialistic superman of Marx, or the Dionysiac superman of Nietzsche.
Voegelin did not engage in vague accusations: He traced fatal intellectual and spiritual mistakes in precise detail. The ideologists of our time are indeed aware of the poles of inner tension between God and man in which man has found his order of existence. Marx, for instance, admitted that the question of God was urged on man by “everything palpable in life,” yet Marx proceeded to forbid this question to “socialists.” The ideologists perceived, as did others, the dimensions of the Beyond, the Transcendence. They did not discard this dimension, but they perverted it by drawing the transcendence into the historical immanence, thereby endowing something human with the character of divinity. Similarly, they were aware of the eschatological element at the center of the Christian view of order, but they played false with the eschaton by misplacing it in history. This is the famous “immanentization of the eschaton.” The mystery of history is a part of the ideologists’ experience as much as that of normal men, yet they manifested their disrespect by devising idea systems around a “stop history” concept, the stop to occur either in the present or in the future. Such fallacies should not be dismissed as jeux d’esprit, diversions of an idle mind, for they have entered public life and given social dominance to “falsehood.” There resulted the phenomenon of the “second reality” where the spider web of thought replaces a common-sense perception of reality.
In assessing modernity Voegelin, like Hans Jonas, Gilles Quispe), H-C. Puëch, H.U. von Balthasar, made use of modern research on Gnosticism, a religion that was the great rival of Christianity in the first five centuries of our era. His achievement was to have shown conclusively that gnostic thought, while formulated with the strongest symbolic apparatus in antiquity, has continued as a destructive force in civilization and as an abiding potentiality of breaking with the spiritual order of faith. The ancient gnostic saw himself “thrown” into a diabolically created cosmos by the fault of a radically transcendent divinity. Man, who now could repair that original mistake and save the divinity, felt himself infinitely superior over both cosmos and God. Voegelin points to the contemporary actuality of this experience:
“Whether the addiction assumes the forms of libertarianism and asceticism preferred in antiquity, or the modern form of constructing systems which contain the ultimate truth and must be imposed on recalcitrant reality by means of violence, concentration camps, and mass murder, the addict is dispensed from the responsibilities of existence in the cosmos. Since Gnosticism surrounds the libido dominandi in man with a halo of spiritualism or idealism, and can always nourish its righteousness by pointing to the evil in the world, no historical end to the attraction is predictable once magic pneumatism has entered history as a mode of existence.”
On the margin of that human order which has accepted the mystery of the cosmos, Gnosticism has continued as a rebellious will to “change reality.” Thus “the gnosis of the gnostic is agnoia, ignorance of the truth. But it is not innocent ignorance: he wills the untruth, although he knows the truth.” On the basis of the texts, Voegelin has repeatedly unmasked this will to untruth. Again, on the basis of documentary evidence, modernity has been aptly defined as the rise of a variety of Gnostic movements and their doctrines to social dominance, resulting in profound disorder of spirit, mind, and practice. Eric Voegelin has guided us to an understanding of what is the character of our time, through his clear distinction between ideology and philosophy, Gnosticism and order.
Notes Eric Voegelin’s works are quoted under the following abbreviations: AE [Anamnesis, trans. and ed. by Gerhart Niemeyer (Notre Dame and London, 1978)); NS (The New Science of Politics (Chicago, 1952)); OH, I (Order and History, vol. I : Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge, La., 1956)); OH, II (Order and History, vol. II: The World of the Polis (Baton Rouge, La., 1956)); OH, III (Order and History, vol. III: Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge, La., 1957)); OH, IV (Order and History, vol. IV: The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge, La., 1974)); SPG (Science, Politics and Gnosticism, trans. William Fitzpatrick (Chicago, 1968)).  AE, 3.  AE, 4. ”The Beginning of the Beginning,” unpublished ms. (1975), p. 22.  Symposium,# 202.  OH, II, 5.  AE, 117 f .  Aristotle, Metaphysics, # 980.  AE, 93.  Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, # 1177a.  AE, 97.  OH, II, 6.  AE, 133.  Harvard Theological Review, 60 (1967), 251 ff.  OH, IV, 316.  OH, IV, 326.  OH, IV, 334.  NS, 76 f.  NS, 67 ff.  NS, 79.  NS, 156.  NS, 164.  OH, IV, 2.  OH, IV, 57.  NS, 70.  NS, 80.  Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow, 1961), 112 f.  NS, 29.  Solzhenitsyn writes: “Our present system is unique in world history, because over and above its physical and economic constraints, it demands of us total surrender of our souls, continuous and active participation in the general, conscious lie.” From Under the Rubble (Boston and Toronto, 1974), p. 24.  OH, IV, 28.  Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach. Thesis # 11 says, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it.”  Gregor Sebba, “History, Modernity, and Gnosticism,” in The Philosophy of Order: Essays on History, Consciousness, and Politics, ed. Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba (Stuttgart, 1980), p. 241.  Cf. his discussion of Nietzsche, SPG, 28-34. Henri de Lubac, in his Drama of Atheist Humanism (Cleveland and New York, 1963), emphasizes the same element of negative will as the core motive of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Comte.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on March 24, 2016.