Eric Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation

HomeArticlesEric Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation

A Book about Theology or Politics? We propose to consider whether Eric Voegelin’s first volume of Order and History:Israel and Revelation, is a book about theology or about politics.The question arises due to the fact that the two main motives in the Old Testament are the brith–the Alliance or Covenant between two parties–and God’s kingship. It arises also due to Voegelin’s treatment of Moses as a political leader.

We will first be concerned with the Genesis of Order and History, then explain how Order and History was conceived as a remedy to disorder, and then concentrate on Israel and Revelation, about which Voegelin stated: “It will be a ‘must’ in the theological seminars because (though that may sound almost unbelievable) no book on the political ideas of Israel has ever been written at all.”

The five volumes of Order and History–Voegelin originally projected six of them1–are the result of the earlier History of Political Ideas 2 to which he had devoted a great part of his life since the winter of 1938-1939, and which was supposed to be an introductory handbook to political theory. Although he considered the History of Political Ideas himself to be his major work (Hauptwerk), he abandoned its publication, due in part to the troubles he experienced with the various publishers he had contacted.

The first three volumes of Order and History: Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, Plato and Aristotle–were published in 1956 and 1957. In 1942 Voegelin became associate professor at Louisiana State University where he remained until 1958, becoming one of the three first Boyd Professors–endowed chairs at substantial salaries.

Creating an Ontology of Social Order

In a letter to his friend Friedrich Engel-Janosi,3 Voegelin wrote in 1966: “My work is not a history of political ideas. It is an ontology of social order and history.”4 In fact Voegelin became aware that his subject had to be addressed in a new way. He rejected on the one hand the convention according to which a history of ideas began with Greek philosophy–that is to say, without a single word about Christianity, much less dealing with it as seriously as one deals with Plato or Hegel; 5 and he was convinced on the other hand, that the conception of a history of ideas was an ideological twist of reality :

“There were no ideas unless there were symbols of immediate experiences. Moreover, one could not handle under the title of ‘ideas’ an Egyptian coronation ritual, or the recitation of the enuma Elish (that is to say the narrative concerning Creation in Babylon) on occasion of Sumerian New Year festivals.”6

In a letter to Alfred Schütz, Voegelin explained that point: “Ideas, especially political ideas, are not theoretical propositions concerning  reality, but part of reality themselves.” And he gave among other examples:  “If one insists long enough that the only knowledge of reality we have is that which can be known through the categories of natural science, then the reality of moral substance does indeed disappear, and the bombs are the result.”7

The political idea, even if it is not a cognitive and descriptive tool, is nonetheless part of the reality which it helps create. Borrowing the term “cosmion” from Adolf Stöhr in his Wegen des Glaubens, the idea creates, according to Voegelin, a cosmion, that is to say a “cosmic analogon,” a refuge into which man can calm down his existential anxiety by giving a meaning to his existence.

Order and History in a Time of Troubles

To understand one’s condition inside this original community of being which is, to use Voegelin’s term,  the quaternary structure of  “God and man, world and society,” in which man participates as an actor in a mysterious drama in which he does not even know his own part, and in which participation is a permanent obligation for man who tries thereby to find a remedy to the absurd and fragmentary character of his human existence. As Voegelin put it:  “as soon as the meaning of the divine becomes unclear again, the meaning of humanity becomes correspondingly confused.” 8

The creation of a political order appears thus as a task “that will endow the fact of its existence with meaning in terms of ends divine and human” (OH 1, [19]) and is incumbent upon each society according to its specific situation.  Therefore, all along these five volumes, Voegelin invites us to explore a “history of order” and of its symbolic forms.

As in his previous books, whether it concerned the analysis of the race idea, the authoritarian State, the contemporaneous ideologies interpreted as political religions, or even The New Science of Politics, Voegelin’s motivations remain identical, and are the result of the political situation of his time which was for him, as he puts it, a “stimulus” or an an El Dorado of material for a teacher of political science.” 9

This time in which he lived can be characterized as a “Time of Troubles,” to quote Arnold Toynbee: the aftermath of the First World War, the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia, the growth of political ideologies in Central and Western Europe, the emergence of Fascism, National Socialiam and of the totalitarian regimes embodied by Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.

As early as 1938, in The Political Religions, as well as in his two previous books upon race, Voegelin diagnosed Western civilization’s spiritual crisis in terms of a secularization of the spirit and insisted on taking on the evil at its root:

“The phenomenon of Hitler is not exhausted by his person. His success must be understood in the context of an intellectually or morally ruined society in which personalities who otherwise would be grotesque, marginal figures, can come to public power because they superbly represent the people who admire them.”10

Islands of Order in the Disorder of the Time

Now, this spiritual decline is not new, but has a thousand-year-old history, which reached its climax with Marxism and National Socialism. Voegelin never forgot his aim, as Hooker’s quotation placed at the beginning of The New Science of Politics testifies: “Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.” He quotes it again in his Preface to Order and History where he reaffirms the duty of the philosopher to resist the contemporary ideologies:

“Ideology [being] existence in rebellion against God and man. It is the violation of the First and Tenth Commandments, if we want to use the language of the Israelite order; it is the nosos, the disease of the spirit, if we want to use the language of Aeschylus and Plato (OH1, [24]).”11

Existence is not a long and quiet river; rather, periods of order and disorder are recurrent along the course of history. Modernity, according to Voegelin, can be compared to the situation to which Plato and Aristotle were already confronted, and which Heraclitus and Aeschylus diagnosed, a situation which the Stoics called allotriosis, “alienation,” and Schelling pneumapathology.

The call to resist the disorder–which consists in turning away (apostrophe) from the Ground of existence, to take one’s dream for reality12–presupposes a contrary movement of conversion (epistrophe or periagoge) and consists in returning to the first reality, to this force of the nous. In other words, it consists in a call to “philosophical inquiry itself.”13

While working on his History of Political Ideas, and while this study became a philosophy of politics, the elements of a therapy began to come out:

“Order and History is a philosophical inquiry concerning the order of human existence in society and history. Perhaps it will have its remedial effect–in the modest measure that, in the passionate course of events, is allowed to Philosophy” (OH 1, [24]).

The diagnosis and the therapy are thus inseparable, and aim at establishing “islands of order in the disorder of the time” (ibid.). To recapture reality is to become aware that “God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being” (OH 1, [39]). Or to put it in other words, “a philosophizing in immanence is a contradictio in adjecto.”14

The Compatibility of “Jerusalem and Athens”

Thus, the first volume of Order and History is devoted to the symbol of Revelation received by Israel which, differentiating itself from the more compact cosmological symbolism of the Near Eastern Empires, achieved for the first time a leap in being by discovering that the transcendent Being is the source of order in man and society (OH 1, [165]). Israel became thus the chosen people of a new truth in history, valid for the whole of humanity.

May we therefore ask, are there two remedies: philosophy and faith? In his Autobiographical Reflections, Voegelin noted “the incredible dearth of investigations into the parallel phenomena of the Greek philosophers’ and the Israelite Christian revelation.”15 Now, this is precisely the gap which Order and History tries to fill. Its first three volumes are devoted, on the one hand, to the discovery in Israel of a  transcendent Being which led to the radical break with the myth, causing  humanity to enter into history, and on the other hand,  to the discovery of the nous by the classic philosophers.

Thus “Jerusalem and Athens” are not incompatible for Voegelin, although they were for Leo Strauss with whom he discussed that problem in their Correspondence. This conventional designation of the problem of a putative conflict between faith and philosophy is merely reductive for Voegelin, and cannot withstand his investigations in philosophy and the Bible. As his letter to Alfred Schütz demonstrates: “Philosophy seems to me to be in essence the interpretation of experiences of transcendence.”16

If there are not two remedies, philosophy and faith, there are nonetheless two leaps in being, almost contemporaneous, one achieved by the Hebrew clans which, answering the call of Yahve, formed a new people in history and organized their existence in a theo-political regime under the divine laws; the other was achieved by Plato, who called for an existence orientated toward the love of the invisible measure, the place for this measure being the individual soul.

A “Must” in the Theological Seminars

At the beginning of the 40’s, in the first chapter of his History of Political Ideas, Eric Voegelin devoted only a short part, a dozen pages, to “Israel” in which he relied upon the third volume of Max Weber’s Studies in Sociology of Religion. Antique Judaism (1920), a book to which he refers explicitly.

On the other hand, Israel and Revelation is exactly 600 pages long and ends in the year 300 before Jesus Christ. In his Preface Voegelin explains his program:

“The first volume, the present one, on ‘Israel and Revelation’, will explore not only the forms of cosmological and historical order but also the emergence of the Chosen People from the ambiance of cosmological empires. A truth about the order of being, seen only dimly through the compact symbols of Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian societies, becomes articulate, in the formation of Israel, to the point of clarity where the world-transcendent God reveals himself as the original and ultimate source of order in world and man, society and history, that is, in all world-immanent beings.” (OH 1, 21).

For Eric Voegelin, cosmological cultures are not identical to primitive “idolatry” or “polytheism” nor “paganism,” but are a matter of mythical imagination and in this sense they are “quite capable of finding the proper symbols for the concrete or typical cases of divine presence in a cosmos in which divine reality is omnipresent . . . the Deutero-Isaiah . . . is equivalent to the Amon Hymns.”17

This is an important distinction: for Voegelin the difference between Myth and Revelation or Philosophy, is only a matter of degree of differentiation. Therefore the reason of his admiration for Toynbee: “that is Toynbee’s strength, that he has a flair for the myth. He is able to find so many connections, because he lets himself be guided by the myth.”18

The way from myth toward history was achieved thanks to Israel’s order: “Without Israel there would be no history, but only the eternal recurrence of societies in cosmological form.” (OH 1, 168)19 This does not mean that Egypt, Babylon, or China do not possess their own story, but this story does not find expression in their compact symbolism: for Voegelin historical means to be bound to the transcendent differentiated Being.

Historical Existence and the Analogia Entis

The differentiation achieved by Israel consists in that, for the first time, the order of the soul and the order of the society were orientated according to obedience or defection to the divine will as revealed to Moses in the episode of the Burning Bush, as well as to the people gathered at the bottom of Mount Sinai when they accepted the Decalogue.

Israel was thus constituted as a chosen people and, answering the call of the God transcendent to the world, it created a historical present, an internal form of existence, that is to say an action orientating itself consciously under the light of this transcendent reality.

As we already saw, reality in which men live is apprehended through symbols and the experience lived by the so-called “primitive” peoples does not differ from the one in which contemporary men live, even if their symbols have become “opaque” to us. We therefore have to restore to them their “luminosity” by tracing back the experiences which provoked them.20

Therefore, besides philosophy’s specific duty of resistance, as already defined, Voegelin also formulates another great task for the philosopher: the symbolic meaning–the analogia entis of the gods–being lost, we must renew the analogical meaning of symbols, [we need] a new philosophy of myth and revelation.” 21

Aware of the Value of His Work

In his Introduction to the first volume of the German translation of Israel and Revelation, the German Egyptologist Jan Assmann praises Voegelin who, while retaining the concept of “axial period” forged by Karl Jaspers, grants nonetheless a better place to the cosmological empires than his predecessor by not relegating them to the rank of “Orientals” or “Pre-classics.”

Voegelin himself was very conscious of the value of his work, as evidenced by a letter he wrote to the publisher Macmillan:

“Israel and Revelation [will be] a ‘must’ in theological seminaries and for reverends, because (though that may sound almost unbelievable) no book on the political ideas of Israel has ever been written at all. Besides, the part on Israel is particularly well written and should, therefore, appeal to a general public that is interested in Jewish history.”22

Further evidence is to be found in a letter to the Guggenheim Foundation in which he insisted on the importance of this first volume “not only because it lays the foundations for the whole work, but because a history of the Israelites’ symbols of order has never been written before.” 23

The book was finally published by the LSU Press in 1956, and the next two volumes–The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle–which, except for the Preface and the Introduction were already written before Israel and Revelation,came out the following year.

First Reactions to Israel and Revelation

On the 18th of June 1957,the reactions to the publication arrived: 24 Voegelin was compared to Toynbee, Spengler, and Collingwood. The two last chapters, devoted to Moses and the Prophets, were singled out.Achieving the leap in being, Israel had indeed not retired from temporal existence and, as soon as it required a king “ like the other nations,”–threatening thus to derail by falling back in the Sheol of civilizations (that is, falling from Being)–the conflict between temporal order and divine order became inescapable.

Voegelin is indeed very critical concerning Israel’s experience of the monarchy and the adoption of the royal cosmological symbolism under David’s reign, a position which Bernhard W. Anderson (see below) contests. According to the latter, the royal symbolism did not replace the Mosaic symbolism, but both coexisted, therefore expanding the relation of God to his people and to the society.25 If the Alliance (berit), observes Voegelin, had provided for the just relation between God and men, as well as between men themselves, it had not, on the other hand, prescribed any disposition concerning the government’s organization.

The case of Israel is indeed unique in as much as it reversed the prevalent order of a society’s formation: to advance gradually from rites and primitive myths, if at all, to a transcendent religion;  and “ this reversal was the cause of Israel’s extraordinary creativity in the realm of symbols ” (OH 1, 366).

Confronted by this gap, the prophets tried to prevent the danger and to reorder the world by opposing themselves to the institutions and to ritual conformism. The king’s authority was transferred to the prophets who called for a spiritual rebirth; they sought to rediscover the order of Israel which originated in Moses and the Covenant: the Alliance must now be written in the hearts and not only on stone tablets.

But the call of the prophets went unheard, so the symbol of the chosen people concentrated itself in the symbol of the chosen man, Jeremiah. Jeremiah, opposing himself to the people’s corruption, shared God’s sufferings and sensed the “terrible truth”: “no Chosen People in any form will be the ultimate omphalos of the true order of mankind.” (OH 1, 545)

Provoking Both Hostile and Positive Responses

Revelation cannot occur either in the pragmatic story or in a particular sacred history. The Old Testament came to its climax with the portrait of the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah representing a new community no longer centered on Canaan, but including each individual in an ecumenical humanity under God. Isaiah’s prophecy delivers to Israel the message of mercy of the redemptive God, the “Good New of Jesus which Israel in its turn must spread all around the earth, thus becoming the light of salvation to mankind.” (OH 1, 569)

One can see how Voegelin ends up in a somewhat paradoxical situation since, while taking for his basis and point of departure the Revelation to Israel, nevertheless gives a negative appraisal of Israel’s fate, supplanted as it is by the universal revelation of God in Christ: “It looks as if it had been the destiny of Israel during the short five centuries of its pragmatic existence, to create an offspring of living symbols and then to die.” (OH 1, 365)

Due to this precedence which Voegelin bestows to Christian universalism over Jewish particularism, a Jewish theologian, Aaron L. Mackler, forgetting all Voeglein’s previous works, warned the readers of Israel and Revelation against Voegelin’s“harsh language a decade after the Holocaust”and to examine its dangers! 26 This same author reproached Voegelin besides for having underrated the presence of ethics and of ethical responsibility in the Hebrew Bible–using the pretext that Voegelin does not quote the command of Leviticus 19, 18 “Love thy neighbor as yourself.”

Voegelin deemed as particularly “intelligent” two reviews of his book. One came in a private letter from his old friend Alfred Schütz27 who told him about the French philosopher Jean Wahl’s enthusiasm concerning the chapter devoted to Jeremiah–in which Voegelin compares the tragic fate of the prophet to the one of Socrates in Athens two centuries later. The other was discovered by chance in the Review of Politics–a review by Gerhard Niemeyer of the University of Notre Dame. To the question which Niemeyer asked him: where was Israel’s order concentrated now, Voegelin answered:

“Where is Israel’s order concentrated–in the mind of Ben Gurion or in the mind of Buber? My answer would be: In both and in neither. In both: inasmuch as the two men obviously represent two ordering forces, briefly to be characterized as romantic nationalism (of the Herder type) and Jewish existentialism. Neither, inasmuch as probably neither of the ordering forces is substantial enough by the criteria of philosophy and Christianity. Israel’s order is rather a sorry case.”28

Rediscovery by Recent Theologians

On March 29th 1958, Voegelin could inform a correspondent that the first 3,000 copies were sold out and that a second edition was due.29 The second printing considered for the German edition was 5,000 copies, the publisher wishing besides to center the advertising for the volume “on the slogan that here at last the Old Testament has been used as a historical source for scientific purposes and that the book is strictly non-theological”–an opinion with which Voegelin was in agreement.30

Therefore it is not strange that Israel and Revelation did not received until now the echo expected among the German theologians, as Friedhelm Hartenstein and Jörg Jeremias regret in their Postscript to the third volume of Ordnung und Geschichte.31 As for the American theologian, Bernhard W. Anderson, he lamented upon the fact that Eric Voegelin had favored the historical and prophetical writings of the Old Testament to the detriment of the literature of Wisdom, and he rejected besides the idea according to which man can build God’s kingdom on earth.

However, he very wisely noticed that this first volume was devoted to the Old Testament whose two main motives are the berith, that is the Alliance or Covenant between two parties, and God’s kingship; that is to say, they are drawn from the political experience and that it was the reason why theologians didn’t take it into account.

The Unequal Partnership with God

Concerning the etymology of the Hebrew term berith–which appears in 267 fragments among 387, scholars do not agree. The Greek translators of the Bible have translated it by διαθήκη–which means a provision of a will, a testamentum: God offers to secure for Abraham an heir and to secure for this heir and his posterity a land forever. The Greek translators have not translated by συνθήκη–which in Greek would be the equivalent of covenant or alliance. Therefore, “what we call ‘Alliance’,” writes Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI:

“should never be understood in the Bible as a symmetrical relationship between two partners who enter into a contractual relationship, thus setting for themselves and each other obligations and sanctions. This idea of an equal partnership is incompatible with God’s sovereignty and biblical image . . . the Alliance is not a mutual contract, but a gift, a creative act of God’s love.”32

Also meaningful is Voegelin’s presentation of Moses as a “political leader” who liberated the Hebrews from their condition of slavery under Pharaoh, provided that they enter the service of YHWH, and who guided them out of Egypt all the way to Palestine transforming thus the clan of Hebrews into a nation divinely inspired.33

The Ecumenic Age, the fourth volume of Order and History, was not published until seventeen years later (1974). In the meantime, Voegelin had been elected in 1958 to Max Weber’s Chair in Munich where he remained until 1969, delivering his famous lectures on Hitler and the Germans.

The fifth and last volume, In Search of Order, which, according to his wife Lissy, Voegelin began to write during the summer of 1980, is  incomplete, consisting only of two unfinished chapters. It was published in 1987, two years after the death of its author.



1. The six volumes foreseen of Order and History: Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, Plato and Aristotle, Empire and Christianity, The Centuries of Protestantism, and The Crisis of Modern Society became only five in the definitive publication, volume IV and V being respectively entitled The Ecumenic Age and In Search of Order.

2. E. Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, The Collected Works, 19 to 26, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London.

3. F. Engel-Janosi (1893-1978), an old friend of Voegelin, was an Austrian historian whose special field was the Austrian history of the XIXth and XXth centuries, in particular concerning the relations between Austria and the Vatican.

4. E. Voegelin, Letter 180 to Carl Joachim Friedrich, April 12, 1959, CW 30, Selected Correspondence1950-1984, 388. See also E. Voegelin, Letter to F. Engel-Janosi, September 26, 1966, quoted by Peter Opitz, in his postscript to the first volume of the German translation, Ordnung und Geschichte, Die Kosmologischen Reiche des Alten Orients-Mesopotamien und Ägypten, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2002:  285.

5. Id., Letter to Alfred Schütz, January 1, 1953, CW 30, Selected Correspondence: 122.

6. Id., CW 34, Autobiographical Reflections, Revised edition with a Voegelinian Glossary and Cumulative Index, ed. with Introductions by Ellis Sandoz: University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, 2006:  90

7. Id., Letter to A. Schütz September 17, 1945, CW 29, Selected Correspondence 1924-1949, tr. From the German by William Petropoulos ed. with an Introduction by Jürgen Gebhardt: University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 2009: 439.

8. Id., Letter to Robert Heilman, München, December 30, 1958, in CW 30, Selected Correspondence: 371.

9. Id., Letter 24 to Eduard Baumgarten, April 1, 1933, CW 29: p. 109.

10. Id., CW 34, Autobiographical Reflections: 46.

11. In a letter to Robert Heilman, E. Voegelin who just read Heimito Doderer’s book,The Daemons, recalled him his “splendid formula [. . . ] a Weltanschauung is a lack of perception elevated to the rank of a system,” Letter 134 dated February 23, 1958, CW  30, p. 306.

12. Eric Voegelin borrows respectively to the writers Heimito von Doderer and Robert Musil the concepts of Apperzeptionsverweigerung, the refusal to perceive reality as it is, and the concept of “second reality” in order to understand the ideological deformations.

13. Id., CW t. 6, An. p. 91.

14. Id., Letter to Karl Löwith, May 25, 1952, CW 30, Selected Correspondence,112. [French transl. Jean-Luc Evard, Conférence, n°28, printemps 2009, p. 586].

15. Id., CW 34, Autobiographical Reflections, 134. Our italics.

16.  Id. Letter to A. Schütz, January 1, 1953, CW 30, Selected Correspondence, 122-23.

17. Faith and Political Philosophy. The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin,1934-1964, tr. and ed. with an Introduction, by Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper: University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London,1993/2004:161-162.

18. Id., Letter 227 to Emil Kauder, January 30,1947, CW29: p. 501.

19. See also CW 15, The World of the Polis, p. 1-2.

20. Id., Letter to L. Strauss March 12, 1949, LS-EV: 58.

21. Id., Letter 173 to Robert Heilman December 30, 1958, CW 30, Selected Correspondence: 371.

22. Id., Letter 78 to Henry B. McCurdy, July 5, 1954,CW 30, Selected Correspondence: 223.

23.Id., Letter 107 to Henry Allen Moe, December, 27, 1954, CW 30, Selected Correspondence: 262.

24. Id., Letter 142 to A. Schütz, June 18, 1957, CW 30, Selected Correspondence: 317.

25. “ Revisiting Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation after Twenty-Five years,” in Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation. An Interdisciplinary Debate and Anthology, ed. by William M. Thompson and David L. Morse: Marquette University Press, 2000: 54.

26. Aaron L. Mackler, “Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation after forty years: a Jewish Perspective,” ibid.: 122.

27. A. Schütz, Letter to E. Voegelin June 26, 1957, Eine Freundschaft . . . :  536.

28. Id., Letter 144 to Gerhart Niemeyer July 29, 1957, CW 30, Selected Correspondence: 321.

29. Id., Letter 154 to Harold W. Stoke March 29, 1958, ibid., p. 336.

30. Id., Letter 153 to Donald R. Ellegood March 29, 1958, CW 30, Selected Correspondence: 334.

31.  Friedhelm Hartenstein and Jörg Jeremias, Postscript to the third volume of Ordnung und Geschichte, Israel und die Offenbarung-Mose und die Prophete:105.


33. H. Lee Cheek, Jr., “Moses as political leader,” Anamnesis Journal.


This excerpt is from Ordre et Histoire: Tome 1, Israel et al revelation. (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2012)

Sylvie Courtine-Denamy

Written by

Sylvie Courtine-Denamy (1947-2014) was a research associate at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po in France. She was author of books on Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil, among them being Three Women in Dark Times: Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil (2000) and Simone Weil: La Quête de racines célestes (2009). She is also a translator of philosophical works into French, including Voegelin's Ordre et Histoire (2012).