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Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought

Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought

Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought. Lee Trepanier, ed. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2020.


China and the Mongols, in the light of Voegelin’s thought, are the focus of the book’s first two parts. The third part, titled “Elsewhere in Asia,” offers creative applications and/or Voegelin-inspired approaches, to Asian themes not directly studied by Voegelin but of relevance to political thought. The overall goal of this book would seem to be to display the relevant applicability of Voegelin’s thought by showing it, so to speak, rather than by simply “explaining” it, although there is certainly explanation involved, and at times perhaps needed. A scholar in Asian political thought, well disposed, might just walk away from this book thinking that the kind of “science” or “theory” Voegelin practised and inspired in his students, might just advance one’s understanding of Asian affairs in ways that other political approaches do not. Trepanier, whose introduction offers brief summaries of each study, also notes that Voegelin’s writings are now being translated into Chinese, and that a few Chinese scholars have been studying Voegelin’s work, but mostly his Western-oriented work, interestingly. This book wants to offer a more sustained look at the admittedly few but important Asian contributions of Voegelin.

Largely in the backdrop of these essays is Voegelin’s fourth volume of Order and History, namely The Ecumenic Age. Western political science’s focus upon the nation state is being expanded by a current focus upon (neo-)colonialism and empire-building. Voegelin had already manifested a sensitivity to the larger role of imperial expansion in his earlier writings, and The Ecumenic Age is his most sustained study of how empire-building has influenced and continues to influence, not only Western nation states, but of course Asia as well.

JarosȽaw Marek Duraj’s “Rethinking Chinese Ecumene in the Global Age” (chapter 1) builds on Voegelin’s analysis of the Chinese engendering symbolism of Txianxia (t’ien-hsia, “all-under-heaven,” in Voegelin’s usage). Duraj dialogues with recent attempts to revive a consciousness of the ancient Chinese ecumene in the light of today’s global economics as practiced in China through the “Belt and Road” initiative, for example, begun by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, and in the light of contemporary China’s geopolitical expansion. Will Txianxia offer China a way of entering into our global age in a manner consistent with its historic past, fostering economic, nationalistic, and cultural values in an enriching manner, but widening the understanding of humanity in a more global way? But how to do this without reducing Txianxia to only its economic or nationalistic dimensions, thus reducing it to guo? What then happens to its transcendental dimensions, which would of course humble nationalistic or other ideological pretensions?

Jin Li and Li Ma concentrate on China’s Communist Party in chapter two, “The Theological Roots of Modern Chinese Thought: A Voegelinian Interpretation,” finding Voegelin’s theological dimensions of the political a preferred alternative to either the use of Carl Schmitt’s thought or a form of Neo-Confucianism among today’s Chinese political thinkers, as a way of understanding the CCP’s quest for legitimacy, from Mao Zedong to the present.

The fourth chapter, Jin Jin’s “The Decay of Order for the Progress of Empire: Shang Yang’s Proposal for Fundamental Reform in the Records of the Grand Historian,” echoes a concern similar to that expressed in chapters one and two, namely the loss of the transcendent element in Txianxia, or otherwise put, the reduction of Txianxia to guo. The Grand Historian was of importance to Voegelin, too, in his analysis of the Chinese ecumene. Jin offers a comparative analysis of the “grand historian’s” view of Shang Yang and of The Book of the Lord Shang, emanating from Yang’s school of thought. This comparative study suggests that the historian’s account (Sima Quian [Ssu-ma Ch’ien, 145-86 bce, for Voegelin]) tends to separate the institutional from the spiritual dimensions of the Chinese ecumene.

Caylan Ford’s and Stephen Noakes’ “Contextualizing a Crackdown: Voegelin on China’s Falun Gong” (chapter three), might be characterized as offering a more recent example of how the more “gnostic” Chinese Communist Party (CCP) –  perhaps an example of Txianxia decisively reduced to guo, the state emptied of spiritual substance – has attacked a recent attempt to restore spiritual vitality and values in China, the Buddhist inspired Falun Gong.

These chapters are pointing to the important distinction Voegelin draws in The Ecumenic Age between ecumenicity and universality, but this remains only implied.

The essays in the second part, which feature Voegelin’s earlier studies on the Mongols, offer yet another example of how early empire building in the Far East influenced or at least interacted with Western imperialism. Jonathan Ratcliffe’s “Masters of Political Theology: Eric Voegelin and the Mongols” (chapter 5) notes the frequent use by scholars of Voegelin’s recovery of some of the major documents of Mongol political thought, but finds Voegelin’s interpretations too Eurocentric, failing to understand these materials in their own right. Trepanier says that “Ratcliffe is able to successfully recreate the Mongol political theology as they understood themselves.” However, what Ratcliffe does not attend to is Voegelin’s important study, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” which helps one see that Voegelin is not reductively equating Mongol political symbolizations with early Near Eastern political symbolizations, but offering regions of equivalence within difference. Although to be fair, Voegelin’s important essay on equivalence only came much later than the original studies on Mongol teaching.

Todd Myers’ “Pyramid of Skulls: Unacceptable Violence, Transcendence, and the Image of Timur in the Thought of Eric Voegelin and Contemporary Scholarship” (chapter 6), walks the reader through the two instantiations of Voegelin’s study of the image of Timur (Tamerlane) in Renaissance humanism, with his proposal that the Renaissance Timur portrait is the image fueling Machiavelli’s prince in the light of the political struggles of Machiavelli’s time. While this proposal by Voegelin manifests impressive historical scholarship, it has not won wide acceptance among scholars of Machiavelli. Voegelin presents a view of Machiavelli in the context of the breakdown of Catholic Christianity in Italy, with a kind of Roman-inspired pre-Christian morality emerging as the prince’s alternative. Myers also offers two contemporary contrasting views of Timur in modern scholarship, one similar to the Renaissance portrait, and one seeing him as a precursor to modern tolerance.

As Trepanier notes, the third and final part, “Elsewhere in Asia,” offers essays exploring “how to apply Voegelin’s political thought to regions about which he did not write, such as Korea, Japan, and India” (3). Trepanier’s own study, “The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Ecumene” (chapter 7), presents a case study of the Imjin War (1592-98), illustrating how the political and spiritual ecumenes of Japan and China (Korea viewing itself as a part of the Chinese ecumene) necessarily conflict, when the spiritual is subsumed into the political ecumene. Here Trepanier notes the distinctions between “the aspiration of spiritual universality” as distinct from “a pragmatic imperial empire” (4). This again evokes Voegelin’s important distinction in The Ecumenic Age between ecumenicity and universality, which we will need to return to shortly.

The Japanese encounter with Western civilization during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) is reflected in the writings of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), as presented by Timothy Hoye’s “Exile and Anamnesis in Selected Works of Natsume Soseki” (chapter 8). Both – the Western and the Meiji —  might be said to be slenderized versions of their own rich cultural heritages. This entire essay might be said to be a superb exemplification of Voegelin’s equivalences of experience and symbolization as found in Classical-Christian and Japanese civilizations, and as reflected in Soseki’s writings. The artist experiences the exile from the engendering depth and balance of the communion between the four partners in being, as reflected in the Japanese joushiki (and classical paideia) – god/good, man, world, and society. Somehow this fourfold has been “polished down” (whittled down) to a triangle, but enough is left to preserve a basic common sensibility which can guide the artist from exile back to a fuller balance.

This essay is a quite fine example of how Voegelin’s thought can be a very helpful guide to intercultural dialogue. Brendan Purcell’s “The Bhagavad Gita: An Incomplete Breakthrough within the Drama of Humanity” (chapter 9) continues along the same lines, offering a very sensitive reading of this great Hindu classic. This reviewer appreciated Purcell’s “consulting” of some of the best interpreters (mostly Western) of the Gita; for those who have only a beginner’s awareness of the Gita, this essay provides an entry into greater depths. Often this Hindu classic is interpreted as a work validating all major forms of Hindu yoga, while revealing a more liberating view of all classes of peoples, including women. Purcell, however, seems to view it as leading to a preference for devotional yoga (Bhakti) as a kind of higher form of yoga which incorporates other yogas, somewhat, but not fully, like the Christian belief in the incarnation, in which the “forms of the human” become expressions, even almost fully personal, of the divine. Hence his acceptance of Voegelin’s view of the “incomplete” nature of the Hindu differentiation – on the way to what occurred in the West. Purcell does use Voegelin’s language of “equivalence” in this essay, and this reviewer wonders whether the notion of an “incomplete breakthrough” needs to be complemented, or can be complemented, by how the Gita enriches the West, rather than simply echoes it incompletely (through partial equivalence).

John von Heyking’s “The Figure of Socrates and Its Significance for Liberal Education in Asia” (the final and tenth chapter), a reprint from Cambridge Journal of Chinese Studies 13 (2018) 1-22, is a tour de force and an inspiring ending for this volume.  The view of the Socratic is that of a primacy upon the care of the soul; a Socrates who is an individual but not an individualist, for soul-caring leads to cultivating friendships, and such friendships are the ways in which a healthy polis remains healthy. This Socratic way also “moderates our expectations of how much philosophy can help heal politics because its primary political teaching is that just political rule begins with self-rule, the rule of our own reason over the passions” (199). Some of Leo Strauss’ thought is operative here, but even more so Voegelin’s view of Socrates (through Plato). But Heyking is an original thinker too, and I always come away with a fresh perspective upon reading his works.

How does this commend itself to contemporary Chinese educational theory and practice? Heyking seems some truth in the argument that the importation of Western liberal arts education can bring critical thinking skills enhancing economic development, something China wants and which its government “officially” endorses. Heyking characterizes this as the “catch up” argument, and he does not dismiss the partial truth it offers. But Socrates is more radical, because he is not simply utilitarian. The good life is a call to a virtuous life, and often this sits uneasily with political powers and simply economic concerns. Socrates was executed, after all. Hence the importance of friendships as a way of sustaining virtue in the midst of public, “official” pushback. Heyking has himself written two very fine studies on friendship, one on the classical view of it, and a more recent as exemplified in the life and writings of Winston Churchill. All of this, by the way, sounds very subversive, certainly in China, but increasingly in Western polities as well.

Is Socratic wisdom incompatible with Asian/Chinese collectivism, the “harmony” characteristic of Asian paideia? Heyking argues that Confucius distinguished between agreement and harmony. Sometimes true harmony leads one to opposition to what is occurring in the state. Of course, behind this would be the “differentiation” of harmony and the other traditional Chinese virtues that had occurred through Confucius, even Lao Tzu, and the later Chinese sages. But Heyking stays with Confucius, for the most part. He has some intriguing comments to make about Confucius’ tendency to want to collaborate with political rulers – like a state cabinet minister – intimating the dangers in this. Socrates was more of “the stray dog,” a “homeless and restless” figure, a characterization interestingly also given to Confucius by the historian Sima Quian, as Heyking notes.

What is the upshot of this volume?

It offers an introduction to most of Voegelin’s studies of Asian thought. Voegelin offered brief but suggestive (and controversial) insights into Mohammed, the Qu’ran, and the Gotama Buddha, but these are unnoted here. The book does make demands on the reader: if not a developed understanding of Voegelin’s major themes and of the concerns in focus here (Chinese/Asian political thought), at least a willingness to go further into these matters, as one wrestles with these individual studies. Happily the essays here offer helpful bibliographies and insightful leads for follow-up.

For example, the reader will confront in the first part the theme of the tension between the spiritual ecumene and that of the political, pragmatic ecumene. This is a tension which runs throughout Voegelin’s work, and receives its last formulation in The Ecumenic Age, the fourth volume of Order and History. The very notion of an ecumene as a symbolism for universal humanity emerges in the West at the time of the multicultural empires of Hellas and Rome, and one might think of this in terms of its spiritual-cultural component, as well as in terms of its pragmatic, political (institutional) components. Eventually in his The Ecumenic Age, Voegelin came to settle on the distinction between ecumenicity and universality (192-93), a terminological distinction not clearly noted in the essays, although Trepanier’s is the one exception. Universality is the experience of the world-transcendent God which encompasses all, both living and dead. It by its nature bursts through the “pragmatic shell” of whatever empire is in question, and in some real way decenters all empires. The more an ecumene takes unto itself a claim to universality, the more it tends to lose its transcendent substance. If Voegelin offers something like an Imperiumskritik, it would be in the notion of historiogenesis worked out in The Ecumenic Age, which in varying ways might be characterized as various forms of collapsing universality into ecumenicity.

One might assume that the historical era of the ecumenic empires is over, and that we now largely live in the era of the nation states. Voegelin, however, thought that the Byzantine, Islamic, and Western civilizations were in varying manners profoundly affected by the “Ecumenic Age.” In fact, he wrote of “a new type of ecumenic humanity” emerging, becoming a “millennial constant,” certainly in our modern Western world, but in its equivalent manner in the Asian world as well (The Ecumenic Age, 188, 107). These essays largely attest to that “Asian” form of “ecumenic humanity,” paralleling a western, ecumenic imperialism expressing itself in various forms of institutionalized power organizations, not the least in global digitalized versions, accompanied by different versions of so many “doctrinalized” and all too often ideological “isms” of one kind or another.

As Voegelin worked with the Chinese materials, especially the symbolism of the t’ien-hsia (all under heaven [this book writes Txianxia]), he found in this symbolism an equivalence with the western symbolism of the ecumene. This in turn evokes his important study, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” a study which seems an important companion to this volume. It is too complicated to go into this in any detail; suffice it to say that both experience and symbolization are historically/culturally formed (“conditioned” in that sense), which means that the human drama, even political and imperial drama, exhibits a common structure varyingly differentiated though consciousness, a common structure arising from the “depth” of human beings and known in a kind of mystical intuition of faith. The practical upshot of this is that it helps us understand why we seem to recognize much of what is happening in the Chinese engendering experiences and symbolizations, in Confucius, even in the Mongol experiences, in the Gita, etc., even as we also experience difference/otherness, or that kind of “distance” which requires a “reflective distance” as we approach these studies. This reflective distance, on the other hand, gives us the faith to trust that our cultural and even imperial conditioning need not keep us locked in a dark cave of cultural determinism. Universality universalizes, and paradoxically particularizes, we might say.

In varying ways, Voegelin’s work on a theory of empire, which he never completed but only adumbrated, seems more needed than ever in our global age. The ecumene is global, and often its virtual, digital form is even more powerful a shell than other, more traditional political forms, and unfortunately this pragmatic shell may sit uneasily with its transcendent substance, which breaks the shell open in the direction of true universality. Just who the “carriers” of this new universality have been and will be is intriguing. Voegelin himself looked to the mystic philosophers and sages, and to the Christian mystics largely, to Christ in a certain pleromatic way, but only very cautiously to the churches and other institutionalized witnesses to the human spirit. The pragmatic shell, especially when one moves to the larger social field, has a tendency to dwarf the pull to transcendence. Confucius searched for his amenable dukes, but Socrates was more the wild dog; Christ was crucified outside the city, but Paul and his fellow apostles took the gospel into the cities. It would seem it is not either ecumene or transcendence, but a divine beyond that is within, metaxically and with much tension and friction.

A reader visiting these essays and meeting Voegelin-inspired or at least Voegelin-wrestling essays for the first time might find the stress upon ancient symbolisms rather odd and perhaps even rather irrelevant. But it is rather suggestive to notice, for example, how the Chinese Communist Party exhibits the quest for legitimacy (how it reflects the cosmion of humans, society, nature, and god/divinity ), and seeks it in some modified form perhaps in the writings of the Neo-Confucian tradition. Much as Angela Stent’s recent Putin’s World argues that what is occurring in Russia is a resurfacing of the great Russian ecumene, which is itself reflective of the pragmatic ecumene whittling down the call to openness to universality. In fact, the current Russian ecumene is a good example of Voegelin’s wager that the Ecumenic Age has created a new kind of ecumenic humanity, one in search of true universality but suffering from various forms of historiogenetic closure.


An excerpt of the book is available here. 

William Thompson-UberuagaWilliam Thompson-Uberuaga

William Thompson-Uberuaga

William Thompson-Uberuaga is an Emeritus Professor of Theology at Duquesne University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He is author of eight books and a co-editor, with David L. Morse, of Eric Voegelin's Collected Works Volume 22: History of Political Ideas - Renaissance and Reformation.

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