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

HomeArticlesEric 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Voegelin.[1] In it, Voegelin set forth a critique of existing histories of political ideas, claiming that they were outdated and built on a faulty premise that there can be such a thing as a history of political “ideas.”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. This essay also holds significance 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.

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 he 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. 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[2] and at length by two of his better known expositors, Thomas Hollweck and Ellis Sandoz.[3]

Voegelin’s correspondence adds further evidence about what was transpiring during those years.[4] 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.[5] 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.

Limitations in Scope and Conceptual Apparatus

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.”[6] 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 . . . ”[7] The more he uncovered, however, the more he had to push a likely completion date 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, Voegelin turned to the Macmillan Company in 1944 with a fresh vision for his project.[8]

Nevertheless, there had been a period of time when its prospects for publication were doubtful. In fact, the stress of the effort was already taking a toll. In 1944, he disclosed to Talcott Parsons at Harvard that the project had become a “strain physically.”[9] The article itself admits that, if done properly, the project would require “the cooperative efforts of a great number of scholars.”[10] 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. Voegelin ultimately rejected the conception of a history of political “ideas.”[11] So 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.”[13] 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.[14]

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. Throughout their work, he noted one consistent pattern: the linear progression of history, or the “straight line” pattern of history. This did not make sense to Voegelin. In fact, even if one were to divide history into distinct traditions (e.g. Near Eastern, Greek, Middle Ages), there is a kind of rise and fall or life-span,[15] 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)[16]. That is to say, ordinary folks and their leaders tended to operate according to a different and probably less coherent set of ideas. Furthermore, phases of transition such as revolution and mass migration can be valuable for our understanding of political ideas, yet his predecessors had not included them.

The unilinear model certainly 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.

Voegelin’s Experience of Dissatisfaction

The work of a scholar develops over the course of a long career. While 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. 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.

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.”[19] 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 . . . ”[20] 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.[23] 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.”[24] 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.[25] 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.

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.[26] 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.

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, Benjamin Lynerd, and Moriah Poliakoff for helpful comments.

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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] CW 34, 61. 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.

[6] CW 29, 278.

[7] Ibid.

[8] CW 29, 413.

[9] Ibid., 269. He also reported to his publisher at the time how exhausted he felt.

[10] Ibid., 163.

[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] CW 29, 279.

[14] Ibid., 278.

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

[16] 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.

[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] 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.

[20] CW 19, 232.

[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] CW 5, 25.

[24] Ibid., 32.

[25] Ibid., 35f & 39.

[26] 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.

Nathan Harter

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Nathan Harter is 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).