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Eric Voegelin’s 1944 “Political Theory and the Pattern of General History”: An Account from the Biography of a Philosophizing Consciousness

In 1944, the American Political Science Review published a short essay by Eric Voegelin titled “Political Theory and the Pattern of General History”–subsequently reprinted in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin.[1][2] In it, Voegelin set forth a critique of existing histories of political ideas, claiming that they were outdated and built on a faulty premise that there can be such a thing as a history of political “ideas.” The significance of this essay depends in part on its place within the trajectory of his career as a scholar that stretched from 1928, with the publication of his first book, to his death in 1985. It would also help to appreciate what this essay might have meant within the context of his life story, for it signals the frustrations that led to a phase or episode of disorientation lasting for several years. We now know that on the other side of that bleak episode in 1951, Voegelin would announce at the Walgreen Lectures how he had reconceived his purpose – an event that opened out onto a burst of productivity and put him on the cover of Time magazine.[3] But all of that was to come later.

This chapter will begin by introducing Voegelin’s purpose at the time of writing the article, between 1939 and 1944, and then it will explain the wearying biographical context, since this period was critical to Voegelin’s intellectual development. One way of characterizing this period in Voegelin’s intellectual life can be depicted in a three-fold schema recently set forth by phenomenologist Anthony Steinbock regarding a similar sequence in the life of Edmund Husserl. The parallels are instructive. The chapter then will use that three-fold schema to organize Voegelin’s article in more detail, citing concrete examples, before it concludes by suggesting a number of implications of his experience for scholars in the twenty-first century.

A. Voegelin’s Purpose in Writing the Article

After the Anschluss in 1938, Voegelin and his wife Lissy had narrowly fled the Gestapo and made their way west, landing in America, where the professor tried to secure some kind of employment at several universities before settling down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1942. Largely to establish his credentials in a new land, he agreed in 1939 to undertake a major project: to surpass the standard textbook on the history of political ideas completed not long before by George Sabine.

Voegelin is reputed to have been hard working and conscientious, with strict standards. His output through the years would prove to be more than impressive, especially given the impeccable quality of his work. So as 1939 turned toward 1944–while much of Europe fell under fascism or communism and the world convulsed with war–he made the new textbook a priority. The story of Voegelin’s efforts on what would become known as the History of Political Ideas has been told elsewhere more than once, twice by Voegelin himself[4] and at length by two of his better known expositors, Thomas Hollweck and Ellis Sandoz.[5] Voegelin’s correspondence adds further evidence about what was transpiring during those years.[6] Part of his preparation was differentiating his ongoing work from existing texts, and this preparation in particular served as the basis for the 1944 article. The Sabine textbook was not only the standard at the time, but Voegelin himself routinely assigned it for one of his main courses (CW 34, 61).[7]

What he writes in the 1944 article fits the evidence that he was beginning to recognize two basic limitations of the project as he had originally conceived it. Each of these limitations contributed to his mounting frustration.

First, Voegelin had to master and then incorporate an enormous influx of research that had been accumulating since Sabine’s publication, with more coming out the longer it took him to finish. In August of 1941, Voegelin had written to his editor (namely, Fritz Morstein Marx): “I am faced by the fact . . . that the current histories . . . are some thirty or forty years behind the monographic literature on political ideas” (CW 29, 278). More specifically, regarding the Sabine text, he wrote that “not a single chapter in his book is based on monographs which have appeared since 1910 . . .” (CW 29, 278). Not only were there already new studies out there on topics Sabine had addressed, but there were also many new topics for Voegelin to add. Access to research in other languages added to the burden, and for Voegelin there was no question but that he had to learn these languages, such as Hebrew and Chinese.[8] The more he uncovered, however, the more he had to push a likely completion date further and further into the future. In addition, the original plan to submit a 250 page textbook had to be scrapped. There was just too much to cover. Because of this change in scope, the publisher (McGraw-Hill Book Company) withdrew from the project. By 1944 another publisher (the Macmillan Company) came forward to agree to a book series (CW 29, 413). Nevertheless, there was a period of time when its prospects for publication were doubtful.

As it happens, the materials for this project were only posthumously published by the University of Missouri Press as eight separate volumes in the Collected Works (vols. 19-26). Much of that material was also cannibalized for the five-volume master work Order & History (volumes 14-18), so the sum of Voegelin’s labors was even larger before he re-configured those portions. Looking at the project from the vantage point of 1944, therefore–even though he had been conducting research already for five years–Voegelin foresaw a massive amount of work ahead.

In fact, the stress of the effort was already taking a toll. He had only recently fled his homeland impoverished and tried to start over. In 1940, Voegelin wrote to Talcott Parsons at Harvard that this project was his “main work” (CW 29, 241). The next year, in May, he disclosed to Parsons that the project had become a “strain physically” (CW 29, 269). Then in August he reported to his publisher at the time how exhausted he felt (CW 29, 280). The article itself admits that, if done properly, the project would require “the cooperative efforts of a great number of scholars” (CW 29, 163). In short, the first limitation was that the materials to incorporate into a new textbook far exceeded what Voegelin had originally anticipated. The volume of work threatened to overwhelm him.

The second limitation would prove to be more disturbing to someone of Voegelin’s temper. He recognized that the conceptual apparatus he was intending to use for the project was inadequate. For one thing, a chronology of political ideas from one era to the next would have to extend much further into the past[9] and also include materials that political scientists had frequently ignored, such as religious texts and mythology (CW 34, 62f.). Furthermore, a unilinear model was no longer feasible given the multiple parallel histories that could not be linked together as though it were all just a single trajectory toward a fixed point. Different peoples in different parts of the world ordered themselves in different ways and used very different languages to explain themselves (CW 19, 233).[10]

At an even deeper level, Voegelin ultimately rejected the conception of a history of political “ideas” in the first place.[11] It did not make sense, for reasons he would describe elsewhere. He was losing confidence that ideas can be studied historically. The question logically arose: what would be the conceptual apparatus to take its place? At the time, Voegelin did not know. And so began a period of what he called “black reflections,”[12] which lasted for many years while he continued the labor of catching up on all of the latest materials.

In the midst of these struggles, Voegelin wrote to his editor (dated August 4, 1941) alluding to the motivation for “Political Theory and the Pattern of General History.” He wrote: “I have given considerable room to argumentative support of the results and to explanations why the ‘accepted’ picture of leading thinkers is not correct” (CW 29, 279). Voegelin wanted to explain why the existing textbooks and the models on which they were based were inadequate. Only then could he explain in what respects his forthcoming project would be different (CW 29, 278).

With this in mind, the essay reads like a catalog of complaints–an indictment of sorts based on his increasing dissatisfaction, especially with the works of Paul Janet (the second edition of which had been published in 1872), William Dunning (1902), and George Sabine (1937). What Voegelin was offering in this brief article back in 1944 was a history of the history of political ideas.

The history of political ideas is needlessly foreshortened, he wrote, and probably makes more sense as multiple, parallel and intersecting streams, many of which have yet to be studied or had been discarded by his predecessors, for one reason or another. Even within each civilization (e.g. Near Eastern, Greek, Middle Ages), there is a kind of rise and fall or life-span,[13] so that you could not depict a civilization as a static thing, as though there are simply Greek ideas or Egyptian ideas. Also, the existing textbook materials emphasize the great theoretical systems (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Thomas), despite the fact that these elaborate systems were not actually evocative in their era (to the extent that they ever were).[14] That is to say, ordinary folks and their leaders tended to operate according to a different and probably less coherent set of ideas. The great theories were anomalous, elaborate and solitary responses to what people around them believed. A history of political ideas should probably include the ideas that actually prevailed. Furthermore, phases of transition such as revolution and migration can be valuable for our understanding of political ideas, yet his predecessors had not included them.

Voegelin predicted that the task of correcting for these limitations would require more than one person to complete and in principle would never end. He even identified neglected authors and monographs that in his opinion should be consulted going forward. In any case, the unilinear model had to go. The scope of what constitutes a political idea had to be expanded. The phases between civilizations deserve their own scrutiny. Even at a civilization’s height, however, there would be various movements and migrations that turn out to be relevant.

B. Voegelin’s Experience of Dissatisfaction

The work of a scholar develops over the course of a long career, broadening or deepening–or shifting altogether, even to the point of repudiating what had gone before. There is a risk in taking any one part of the whole body of work without situating it somehow into the larger trajectory. Situating that part into its context might help readers understand better the flow of his work. What was antecedent? And how did it contribute to publications that came later? In that sense, there is what we might call a chronological context for a paper such as “Political Theory and the Pattern of General History.”

That chronological body of work occurs within another context–a biographical context about the life of the scholar. What was going on at the time a particular piece was being written? How does the course of that scholar’s life help us, many years later, to see it somehow as a response to what is not being said? Although some interpreters choose not to consider the author’s biographical context and instead restrict themselves to the text itself, Voegelin himself was not one of those. Barry Cooper, who interviewed a range of people familiar with the life of Eric Voegelin, agreed “to insist on the historical contextualization or the relation of the real life of the authors of these texts” (VR, 209).[15] In other words, he adopted Voegelin’s practice as a scholar in writing about Voegelin himself (VR, 1-9). The gradual unfolding over time, the recollecting – or as David Walsh put it, “a reactualization of the path that has been traversed” has merit beyond a “mere summary of the destination.”[16] Voegelin himself wrote about “the biography of philosophizing consciousness” (CW 6, 84). The bare language on the printed page, such as a book or article, will have emerged from out of concrete and very particular experiences. For Voegelin himself, then, what were these experiences?

Episodes of disorientation or crisis in the life of the author can be especially instructive. Friends and family may have been bewildered at the time or even alarmed. There has been some research into what are labeled creative illnesses,[17] as well as evidence from neuroscience about fallow periods being integral to the creative process.[18] Those of us reduced to examining only the publications of an author might encounter a telling gap or absence before some breakthrough when the work resumes, probably in a new direction and at a new level of sophistication. Such was the period when Voegelin wrote the article of interest to us.

In reminiscence, many years later Voegelin referred to his “period of indecision, if not paralysis . . . with mounting problems for which I saw no immediate solutions” (CW 34, 64). When he was eighty-two years of age, Voegelin actually referred to this period as “the crash”–a more dramatic turn of phrase that two of his expositors doubt was actually descriptive of how it had come about (CW 33, 442). Hollweck and Sandoz argue that the process was more gradual than he seemed to remember.[19] Yet his wife also used quite graphic language, calling it “a hard time, the hardest time of our lives when he went through that”–which is a remarkable claim given their experiences of World War II, the Anschluss, exile to a new country, and several serious medical threats (VR, 177).

Perhaps we can use Voegelin’s own advice about consulting the author’s experiences in order to place the 1944 article into such a context. In an unpublished introduction to the project that was to vex him so much, written in 1940, Voegelin wrote about the state or condition of someone who would become (in his words) disenchanted with the rational language surrounding the evocation of some particular political order and instead wonder what to do about it. Later, Voegelin would write about this experience in different terms: “Every thinker who is engaged in the quest for truth resists a received symbolism he considers insufficient to express truly the reality of his responsive experience.”[20] This can be seen to describe Voegelin’s state of mind back in 1944 with regard to the received “symbolism” by Janet, Dunning, and Sabine in their search for a history of political ideas.

In response, therefore, what does one do with such discontent? In the unpublished introduction to his History of Political Ideas, dated 1940, Voegelin cited Étienne de La Boétie (1530-1563) as an example of how dissatisfaction can lead to a kind of revolt against the way things are. Sometimes, in desperation, the dissatisfied will “shade off into the twilight of an ideology” or some imagined utopia or even a rejection of political order altogether in a version of anarchy. Each alternative has its attractions to the disaffected, yet Voegelin held out hope for the theorist who–in response to the experience–“reaches . . . a certain degree of detachment and is able to take a larger view of the political process. . . .” (CW 19, 232). Such a theorist, no longer held in thrall to a prevailing taboo, will eventually come into conflict with the residual power of the dominant symbols. Voegelin was thinking in terms of a trajectory from (a) evocative ideas bringing forth an order, to (b) gradual dissatisfaction here and there, that possibly leads to (c) theoretical postures, until (d) even theory runs into its limits while the order collapses or disappears.[21] In response, Voegelin would aspire to create a new and more satisfactory symbolism.

The experience of being dissatisfied was to inform Voegelin’s writing all the way to his uncompleted, deathbed composition that has come down to us as volume V in Order & History, titled In Search of Order.[22]  Published in 1987, the manuscript addresses the reflective distance necessary to undertake a quest for truth in resistance to the prevailing order (CW 18, 38-39). That reflective distance allows a theorist to seek a vantage point, a “source of criteria by which the truth of the quest is to be judged” (CW 18, 26-27). It is not the case that the theorist resists the truth per se. Instead, for the sake of truth, he or she resists the prevailing order that fails at some level to conform to the truth (CW 18, 49-54). The 1944 article sets forth Voegelin’s resistance.

It seems plausible that this sequence of dissatisfaction, reflective distance, and quest for truth describes Voegelin’s frustrations between 1943 and 1951. He was struggling to disentangle himself, in more ways than one, from the existing “order,” and so the process began with a critique or rejection of the symbols being used to evoke that order. Perhaps it can be said that the 1944 essay represents Voegelin’s effort at confronting the existing symbols in his chosen field of study and judging them inadequate, even if at the time he was uncertain about what to put in their place.

In conclusion, Voegelin exhibits here a part of what it means to exercise reflective distance, in search for a more precise and encompassing truth, so that readers might constitute themselves as a social field in resistance (especially in an era of disintegration) and possibly open themselves to undergoing the recurring quest for meaning–as indeed he would do professionally, for another forty years.

C. A Three-Fold Schema

Eric Voegelin had been an astute critic of the works of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), expressing considerable respect for his efforts in phenomenology, going so far as to say about his essay on “The Crisis of European Sciences”[23] that Husserl’s “command of the material is masterly”, his presentation clear, analysis completely successful, such that “this essay is the most significant achievement of epistemological criticism in our time” (CW 6, 45f.). The interest in Husserl dates all the way back to his very first book in 1928.[24]

Voegelin developed a fairly extensive array of arguments against what Husserl had been doing,[25] but he came at them from a position of respect and considerable study. Thus, it would not be fair to say that Voegelin rejected Husserl altogether, any more than one could say that Voegelin was in any sense an acolyte. Neither one nor the other was the case. We might instead call his posture “critical engagement.”

I mention this in order to explain that despite this critical engagement with the work of Husserl, what Voegelin was doing in the 1944 article “Political Theory and the Pattern of General History” bears a striking resemblance to something Husserl had also been doing from within phenomenology. We have Anthony Steinbock (1998; 2003) to thank for arranging this into a three-part schema, as it pertains specifically to the work of Husserl.[26] We can then overlay that schema onto Voegelin’s article and find a remarkable correspondence – a correspondence without evidence of any causation, I might add. First, I should like to offer a condensed version of Steinbock’s schema, before attempting to examine the extent to which it fits what Voegelin was doing.[27]

1. Static, Genetic, and Generative Phenomenology

Steinbock starts out with the assertion that Husserl began his researches seeking the simplest and then building toward the more complex, not unlike Descartes.[28] The simplest in his opinion is the phenomenon. What is this experience? How does reality present itself to you? What constitutes the reality that presents itself to you? In response to such questions, then, you will describe it, emphasizing its elements and the specific configuration of these elements into a structure to which you give a name. Steinbock tells us that Husserl later changed his approach, however, arguing that the object itself (such as a chicken, tree, or leader) is actually an abstraction from the concrete reality we experience. We first encounter the flux, the gestalt, as a concrete experience, and only then learn to differentiate items from each other, sorting them. In other words, Husserl went from a “methodological prejudice” for simplicity to a different approach.[29] He got to this new approach by recognizing that the object one encounters–whatever it is–implies an encompassing reality.

This is not to say that you cannot conduct an analysis of an object and devise what Husserl called a static model. You may. But what seems logically prior is a genetic model, implied by two things: first, everything we experience has a cause, which insinuates an origin or genesis; second, as we conduct an analysis of that object, we ourselves experience the passage of time, using our powers of remembrance and anticipation as we go about noticing one aspect and another. We have direct access to the dynamics of life, even as we try to make sense of our world. In fact, wrote Husserl, “consciousness is inconceivable without retentional and protentional horizons.”[30] It would be foolish as a question of method to begin with the object itself and presuppose it exists in this form forever, unchanged, while we too exist without changing. He wrote that “every lived-experience . . . demands its ‘background,’ a horizon . . . ”[31]

One of the hints that impressed Husserl was that we often identify an object, such as a sandwich, and catalogue its elements, which implies smaller objects such as bread and meat and cheese. But what are the elements of the bread and the meat and the cheese? Science teaches us that this process of subdividing continues beyond our capacity to see with the naked eye, as we learn to separate the reality we experience into smaller and smaller building blocks, through molecules to atoms and from there, who knows? Something prior brought this particular assemblage of building blocks into this shape and texture.

The object we experience as a phenomenon is less of a unitary thing and more of a structure. When you see a sandwich, then, you infer a process by which it becomes a sandwich. These “structures” have a history. They come from somewhere, and they go somewhere. We have to know there is a causal chain that brought the structure into being. “Phenomenology of genesis then is the phenomenology of the original or primordial becoming in time.”[32] In short, Husserl interjected an awareness of the passage of time as rudimentary. To understand a structure, we need to understand where it comes from. A structure is inextricably linked to its past (and its future). Scholars are to describe a before and after, or as Husserl called them “sequences of particular events in the stream of lived-experience.”[33] This imagery of the stream suggests a linear flow. Instead of a simplistic sequence of one thing after another, Husserl described “a stream of a constant genesis; it is not a mere series, but a development.”[34] This is to say that the sequence has a logic. A rooster does not suddenly become a tractor. The changes are not random. We do not live in chaos. A person may not always know the patterning at work in any particular situation, but you trust that there is one. You can study these patterns of flow profitably. In this way, you discover a “process of becoming.”[35]

Steinbock was not finished in his description of Husserl’s development, for he detected another turn later in his career toward a third method, an even more basic reality. Steinbock calls this a generative phenomenology–to be distinguished from genetic phenomenology. This third, encompassing method retains an emphasis on the time dimension of becoming, and since the names for these two methods are so similar (“genetic” and “generative”), it would be best to differentiate them with care. How is generative phenomenology different from genetic phenomenology?

Genetic phenomenology begins at the present, looking backwards and forwards, projected in both directions. We stand as it were on a bridge over a river, looking upstream and downstream, until the watercourse bends out of sight in each direction.[36] We cannot occupy a point that includes both the bubbling spring where it begins in the highlands and the lazy delta where it empties out into the sea. We work from a single vantage point and notice the flow from one direction toward another. That is an awareness of the river’s genesis. A generative phenomenology, on the other hand, extends further–beyond what you can see from a single vantage point. Standing there, you may assume that around the bend the river flows toward you and around the other bend on the other side it flows away. It doesn’t spring out of nowhere just as it comes into view and then suddenly stop just because you cannot see it any more. You as the observer have your limits, to be sure, but it would be foolish to assume that your limits are the limits of the reality you wish to understand.

In other words, to understand the time dimension in all its fullness, you need two things: you need a historical record from before your time and you need other people who occupy different vantage points along the flow. Gradually, Husserl came to recognize the contributions of other points of view, even if the move complicated his original methods. Phenomenology is not about what you can know from a single point of view. This includes what Steinbock calls the “geo-historical, cultural, intersubjective, and normative.”[37] In other words, Husserl expanded the scope in several directions. The structure you wish to study is not a solitary thing on a solitary line of development, like a subway station on the eastbound line. It is an intersection of many lines, in both directions. It is a physical incident, with physical antecedents and consequences, but it is also a psychological incident, a social incident, an economic incident, and so forth. These lines or dimensions are interwoven, compact, a single reality that collaboratively we have to sort, without ignoring their interdependence, since you cannot understand any one of them in isolation. Husserl spoke of “the becoming of historically intersubjective phenomena.”[38]

That river we were talking about is a geographical feature of the landscape, to be sure, participating in an extended terrain and climate, but it is also a route for water traffic (such as a venue for canoeing or barge traffic), a source of food for fishermen, a threat in times of flooding, a symbol to poets, a political boundary, and more. So we can focus our energies on examining a single episode, or a lifetime, or the founding and collapse of entire “homeworlds,” from different, complementary perspectives. Each has its place. But then here is its limitation: it can be done only from within a particular homeworld.[39] One cannot step outside of the context one is trying to describe, for there is no point from outside of it. You are in it. Even if you consult books and gather all of your friends, you are all entirely within this largest of contexts. You cannot escape the homeworld.

One has two possibilities, therefore, when confronted with this limitation. One can discover within the process of studying something that which has not been noticed before. In that way, a scholar can make a fresh contribution. Steinbock calls this disclosure. You find novelty in a preexisting flow by bringing it to consciousness. “Hey, did anybody notice this . . . ?” The other possibility, which Steinbock examines in great detail elsewhere, is revelation, an otherworldly transcendence.[40]

In conclusion, Steinbock adds one further lesson about these various methods. How is it that Husserl made his way from one method to another? What is the pattern for making these disclosures? For perhaps they have their own structure. The critical experience is an encounter with a limit. An historian, for example, quits researching because the relevant documents are destroyed in a fire or a remote tribe succumbs to epidemic. Whatever the limit that you encounter, you can see it as a closed door, which in one sense it is, but it can also be seen as an opportunity to look in new, creative ways. The limits themselves have what Steinbock calls “moral invitational force.”[41] In any case, these limits can be generative, if you see things in the right way.

2. The Schema Applied to “Political Theory and the Pattern of General History”

Voegelin examined the prevailing texts in the history of political ideas and found them wanting. His criticism, as set forth in the 1944 article, can be arranged into the three-part schema described by Steinbock. We might say, in language borrowed from Steinbock, that at this point in his career, Voegelin encountered a limit. In this article published in 1944, Voegelin was describing the nature of this limit.

First, a static model would identify the elements and describe the relationships among them. According to Voegelin, his predecessors had neglected many elements of a history of political ideas. Also, they rarely tried to explain the relationship among the political ideas they did include.

Voegelin claimed that “the independent parallel histories of non-Western making were simply overlooked” (CW 10, 158). As of 1944, for example, experts knew more about Near Eastern  pre-classic civilizations as well as the Hellenistic period following Aristotle (CW 10, 163). Dunning, for instance, makes it possible to ignore the fact that “a good deal of Western political thought is deeply rooted in the Mesopotamian, Persian, and Israelite pre-history” (CW 10, 161). Not only that, but “an integration of the Far Eastern body of thought . . . is not attempted” (CW 10, 160). Voegelin explicitly declined to multiply examples, such as “the great complexes of the Byzantine, Islamic, and Jewish medieval . . . histories” (CW 10, 167). He added that “the Middle Ages slipped into the category of the ‘Dark Ages’” (CW 10, 158). “The most serious gap,” he asserted, “is probably the omission of the Joachitic and Franciscan spiritual literature” (CW 10, 166). Also, “[i]t is forgotten today that not all humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries swallowed without resistance Greco-Roman antiquity as the linear prehistory of the Renaissance” (CW 10, 158).

Going further, Voegelin wrote, “The linear pattern had to be qualified by insight into the internal cyclical structure of civilizational histories” (CW 10, 159). Speaking more broadly, then, without some account of “the unfolding of a pattern of meaning in time,” all you do get is a “chronological encyclopedia” or a catalog of “every scrap of an idea, whether integrated into a scientific system or not” (CW 10, 160-1).

One concern he shows about Dunning’s 1901 publication is that the book excluded materials unless they pertain to the idea of a state “as distinguished from the family and the clan. By this restriction he is enabled to eliminate from the field the ideas of primitives . . . ” (CW 10, 161). By focusing on the more developed theories (e.g. Plato and Aquinas) that had been written down, such a study will not have “depart[ed] entirely from the literary expressions of theory . . . to interpret the theoretical content of institutions themselves if no other source is available” (CW 10, 161). In short, the existing literature did not include all the necessary pieces and did not integrate what they do include into a coherent whole.

Second, a genetic model would explain the historical context. According to Voegelin, his predecessors failed to explain the historical context for the political ideas they did include, despite claiming to attach their history of political ideas to a history of politics per se. To the extent that they did explain the historical context, they did not go far enough. For example, Voegelin alleges that they did an inadequate job explaining the influences of Near Eastern civilizations (including Israel) and the Teutonic peoples of Europe.[42]

Voegelin asks, what about “periods of political crisis [in which] problems of spiritual disintegration and regeneration . . . come to the fore”? (CW 10, 164) A thorough history of political ideas must include, in his words, “the phenomena of rising communities” largely because they set the context for the more developed theories to emerge later (CW 10, 164f.). Voegelin mentions in this regard the treatment of the Middle Ages: the histories of political ideas existing at the time neglected the rise of institutions that during the Reformation eventually merged the sacrum imperium with what we know today as the nation-state (CW 10, 166).

Voegelin suggested that a history of political ideas is “subordinated for its pattern to the structure of political history” (CW 10, 161, 163). But which structure? There are many possible structures. Even once Sabine made it clear that he wished to subordinate his work to the structure of history, he was unclear what that structure might be. Voegelin stated that “we possess . . . a knowledge of political history far surpassing the knowledge of a generation ago” (CW 10, 163). Thus, it was time for an update. That is, even if one aspires to set the context for a history of political ideas, one must command the latest thinking about such contexts.

Third, a generative model would not only extend the timeline into the indefinite distance, as far as the available records would allow, but it would also disclose the many different strands of a history of ideas, such as the role of mythology and religion. According to Voegelin, his predecessors stop short in their reach into the past, largely because they did not have access to materials that had become available in the years since, even though that does not excuse their general neglect of mythology and religion.[43]

Voegelin faults Dunning for “disentangling” political ideas from other fields of study, such as ethics, theology, and law (CW 10, 161). A concrete example of this is the neglect of Christianity’s extensive literature on the idea of “the mystical body of Christ (2000, p. 165)” which shaped political thought in Europe for a millennium. Voegelin wrote, “It will not do to eliminate from the field of political theory the theory of the community within which the structural political problems arise . . .” (CW 10, 165)

D. Implications for the Twenty-First Century

Voegelin’s struggle to write a history of political ideas is instructive for the twenty-first century in a number of ways. The most obvious, perhaps, is its contribution toward an academic understanding of the development of Voegelin’s thinking, as it blossomed later in such master works as Order and History. Voegelin scholars can trace his progress, as it were, through this troublesome phase.

For another thing, subsequent attempts to write a textbook (or any compendium) on the history of political ideas would have to account for Voegelin’s words of caution. This includes consulting the most recent scholarship possible, incorporating political ideas from around the globe, going beyond the dominant systems of thought by Plato, Aquinas, and Rousseau to reach ideas in actual practice, drawing insight from periods of history when ideas themselves were in transition, paying due respect to the political import of mythology and religious materials, and so forth. As Voegelin himself forewarned, such an undertaking will require contributions from many people; it is simply too large for any one person.[44] And to the extent his successors do make the attempt, students can use Voegelin’s indictment of earlier textbooks to judge more recent ones for themselves. This might serve as a useful classroom exercise today for courses on the history of political thought.

Also, Voegelin’s article exemplifies the practice of setting forth with some fairness the position one wishes to critique. He demonstrates a familiarity with the work of his predecessors, while at the same time demonstrating his familiarity with materials that would be useful to make improvements. Voegelin shows how one might proceed by gaining knowledge of the literature, before presuming to make a similar attempt. Many students (and not a few of their instructors) sometimes neglect this task.

In a similar vein, Steinbock’s three–part schema can be made useful in many fields of study and can be included in classroom instruction, as students transition from static understandings through genetic understandings to generative understandings of their particular subject matter, whatever it happens to be: i.e. themselves, their world, and the encompassing reality in which they participate. The schema, as set forth here, is certainly a simplification of a more complex process, yet students of a certain age might benefit from its relative facility.

A broader implication for scholars in any field of study has to do with the manner in which Voegelin met and struggled to overcome the limits in his discipline, for one has to recognize those limitations and articulate them clearly before searching for a superior method. In that sense, Voegelin serves as an exemplar of the quest for truth. As such, his subsequent meditations on the process by which one conducts that quest would apply to any field of study and not just to a history of political ideas. Despite his remembrance of that earlier phase of his career as a strain, a crisis, a period of paralysis, a crash, and possibly the hardest time of his life, full of black reflections, he eventually made his way forward, with a combination of diligence toward the work and of a spirit of openness.



[1] The author wishes to thank Michael Harvey and Benjamin Lynerd for helpful comments.

[2] Eric Voegelin, Published Essays 1940-1952 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 10), Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana University State Press, 2000), 157-67. Hereafter CW 10. Barry Cooper’s excellent summary of the article in nearly as long as the article itself. Refer to Barry Cooper, Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 335-342.

[3] Anon. “Journalism and Joachim’s Children.” Time (March 9, 1953): 57–61.

[4] For example, Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 34), Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 89-95. Hereafter CW 34; The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers 1939-1985 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 33), William Petropulos and Gilbert Weiss, eds. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004). Hereafter CW 33.

[5] Hollweck, Thomas and Ellis Sandoz. “General Introduction to the Series.” In History of Political Ideas, Volume I: Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 19), Athanasios Moulakis, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 1-47.

[6] Especially Eric Voegelin, Selected Correspondence 1924-1949 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 29), Jürgen Gebhardt, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2009), 203-413. Hereafter CW 29.

[7] It is probably telling that none of his exam questions for that course was ever based on Sabine. Cooper, Barry and Jodi Bruhn, eds. Voegelin Recollected: Conversations on a Life (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008), 189. Hereafter VR.

[8] In 1973, he remarked that “one cannot deal with materials unless one can read them.” CW 34, 39. Toward the end of his life, he took an interest in megalithic cultures, Neolithic art, and other stone age artifacts as symbolizations of order. VR, 16-21.

[9] For example, CW 33, 222; Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Volume I: Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 19), Athanasios Moulakis, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 236. Hereafter CW 19.

[10] Years later, Voegelin would trace the origins of the unilinear model (which he was to abandon) back to ancient Sumeria. CW 33, 229ff. But he claimed to have begun to question the model as early as 1926. CW 34, 32.

[11] For example, CW 34, 63; Hollweck and Sandoz, “General Introduction to the Series,” 20. A number of books are still being published as the history of an idea, as for example (in no particular order): Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New Yokr: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016); Christopher J. Lebron, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Edmund Fawcett,  Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, 1815 to the Present (New York: Penguin, 2012); Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Vincenzo Ferrone and Elisabetta Tarantino, The Enlightenment: History of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Isaiah Berlin and Henry Hardy, Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[12] Hollweck and Sandoz, “General Introduction to the Series,” 29.

[13] At the time, Arnold Toynbee had not yet completed A Study of History.

[14] This does not mean that the work of these philosophers had no significance. Voegelin himself credits Plato, to cite the most obvious example, with having enduring significance for Western civilization. Eric Voegelin, Order and History Volume III: Plato and Aristotle (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 16), Dante Germino, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000); Eric Voegelin and Brendan Purcell, “The Irish Dialogue with Eric Voegelin (Part I). VoegelinView February 17, 2009. Available at Access April 23, 2018.

[15] This contextual approach is set forth by Mark Bevir. Bevir, Mark. “The Contextual Approach,” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy, George Klosko, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 11-23.

[16] David Wash. “Introduction,” in Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 6), M.J. Hanak, trans., David Walsh, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 5. Hereafter CW 6.

[17] Henri Ellenberger, “The Concept of Creative Illness.” Psychoanalytic Review 55.3 (1963/1968): 442-456.

[18] Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, and Paul Brown, Swart, Tara, Kitty Chisholm, and Paul Brown. Neuroscience for Leadership (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).

[19] Thomas Hollweck and Ellis Sandoz, “General Introduction to the Series.”

[20] Eric Voegelin, Order and History Volume V: In Search of Order (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 18), Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 53. Hereafter CW 18.

[21] Many years later, Voegelin would go into greater depth and precision about these thoughts, as for example in Published Essays 1966-1985(The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 12), Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 95-133.

[22] Barry Cooper (1999) identified as two of Voegelin’s lifelong concerns what he called the range of evidence and intelligible units of analysis, each of which we can see were adjudged by Voegelin to be inadequate in the work of his predecessors.

[23] Reprinted in Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, David Carr, trans. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970)

[24] Eric Voegelin, On the Form of the American Mind (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 1), Jürgen Gebhardt and Barry Cooper, eds. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1995).

[25] See generally, for example, David Levy, Europe, Truth, and History: Husserl and Voegelin on Philosophy and the Identity of Europe.” In International and interdisciplinary perspectives on Eric Voegelin, Stephen McKnight and Geoffrey Price, eds. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 59-83; David Walsh, “Voegelin and Heidegger: Apocalypse without Apocalypse.” In Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Philosophy, Lee Trepanier and Steven McGuire, eds. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2011), 166-91; Peter Petrakis, “Voegelin and Ricoeur: Recovering Science and Subjectivity through Representation.” In Eric Voegelin’s Dialogue with the Postmoderns: Searching for Foundations, Peter Petrakis and Cecil Eubanks, eds. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 2004), 23-56.

[26] See Anthony Steinbock, “Generativity and the Scope of Generative Phenomenology.” In The New Husserl: A Critical Reader, Donn Welton, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 289-325; “Husserl’s Static and Genetic Phenomenology: Translator’s Introduction to Two Essays.” Continental Philosophy Review 31.2 (1998): 127-152.

[27] I credit Steinbock and not Husserl because he is the one to discern the schema in Husserl’s development.

[28] René Descartes, “Rules for the Direction of our Native Intelligence.” In Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, J. Cottingham & R. Stoothoff, trans. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1-19.

[29] Steinbock, “Husserl’s Static and Genetic Phenomenology,” 129; “Generativity and the Scope of Generative Phenomenology,” 301.

[30] Steinbock, “Husserl’s Static and Genetic Phenomenology,” 136, 141.

[31] Ibid., 143.

[32] Ibid., 132.

[33] Ibid., 135.

[34] Ibid., 137.

[35] Ibid., 147.

[36] The metaphor suggestive of flow is mine and not Steinbock’s.

[37] Steinbock, “Generativity and the Scope of Generative Phenomenology,” 292.

[38] Ibid., 300.

[39] Ibid., 316.

[40] Here is the topic of greatest concern to Voegelin about Husserl’s phenomenology. See Anthony Steinbock, Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 319.

[41] Steinbock, “Generativity and the Scope of Generative Phenomenology,” 320. Perhaps you cannot date the collapse of a civilization using its artifacts: maybe they have deteriorated or the location has been made off-limits by civil authorities. Nevertheless, perhaps you can deduce the date of its collapse indirectly by dating the disease that swept these people off the face of the earth, as described in Douglas Preston, The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017).

[42] Voegelin does not know why Dunning would have claimed not to have enough information about the Teutonic tribes. Voegelin wrote, “The assertion was hardly true in Dunning’s own time.” If this would have been an inaccurate position to take in the late 1800’s, “it is still less true today.” Ibid., 166.

[43] From this three-part schema, one might be able to detect the significance of Voegelin’s brief childhood reminiscences in Anamnesis–about the relativity of spatial positions, the freighters that journeyed past his home on the Rhine, his own gliding on a boat past a ruined arch on a mountain, the romance of distant lands, the strange trajectory of Halley’s comet from out of (and back in to) an unseen void, the school book that presented history in a linear fashion, only backwards, and the unseen cannons booming somewhere at the end of the world (CW 6, 84-98). What he returned to in these exercises, apparently, was a fascination with the implications of movement as a passage through consciousness, with something mysterious just beyond the horizon. He wanted to understand what constitutes his world, and not just the world of immediate experience but also out to fantastic distances, for which he developed an interest in the phenomenon of flow and our place within that flow. His reminiscences demonstrate a posture of openness to reality in several directions. Perhaps as a child Eric Voegelin was already attuned to a kind of generative phenomenology. By the same token, the three-part schema resembles what Voegelin in his very last book referred to as a plurality of middles (CW 18, 29-31). As Freud once observed, “What someone thinks he remembers from his childhood is not a matter of indifference; as a rule the residual memories – which he himself does not understand – cloak priceless pieces of evidence about the most important features in his mental development.” See Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (Standard Edition), A. Tyson, trans. and James Strachey, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961), 35.

[44] More significantly, Voegelin cast doubt on the entire enterprise, shifting what it is that we are doing when we presume to study that history. But what he put in its place would come after 1944.


This is from Eric Voegelin Today: Voegelin’s Political Thought for the 21st CenturyAlso available are the “Introduction“; Scott Robinson’s “The Necessity of Moral Communication in a Pluralistic Political Environment,” Grant Havers’ “Voegelin, Rawls, and the Persistence of Liberal Civil Theology,” and Lee Trepanier’s “The Comparative Politics of Eric Voegelin.” Our review of the book is available here.

Nathan HarterNathan Harter

Nathan Harter

Nathan Harter is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Professor of Leadership Studies at Christopher Newport University. He is author of three books, with the latest being Foucault on Leadership: The Leader as Subject (Routledge, 2016).

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