Eric Voegelin’s Contribution to Political Science

HomeArticlesEric Voegelin’s Contribution to Political Science

Compared to other European émigré scholars of the same period–Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau, and Leo Strauss–Eric Voegelin’s contribution to the discipline of political science is marginal. Over time the work of these thinkers have become part of the mainstream of political science with their legacies preserved by their students who continue to find new and relevant insights in their writings. Theodor Adorno and Hebert Marcuse were leading members of the Frankfurt School and the New Left; Hannah Arendt was a public intellectual whose works on democracy, revolution, and totalitarianism are still read broadly today; Hans Morgenthau was the founder of the realist school in international relations; and Leo Strauss had two schools in political theory named after him (East and West Coast Straussianism) and whose ideas influenced the American neo-conservative movement[1]. The school of thoughts developed around these thinkers continue to exert an influence in academia, politics, and the public, with anthologies of their works published, academic centers and prestigious prizes given in their names, and numerous articles, books, and dissertations exploring their thought.[2] Having secured their students and admirers in prominent positions in the academia, culture, and government, Adorno, Marcuse, Arendt, Morgenthau, and Strauss have cemented their place in the discipline of political science and beyond.

Compared to the legacies of these thinkers, Voegelin’s footing is less sure. There are no “Voegelinian” scholars at the most prestigious universities, publishing houses, and journals, the traditional routes for knowledge to be produced and sustained in academia. There is not even really a Voegelinian school of thought per se: there are no doctrines, dogmas, or special teachings that scholars claim to be the definitive account of Voegelin’s works. This stands in stark contrast to Adorno (the Frankfurt School), Marcuse (the New Left), Morgenthau (realism), or Strauss (the various strands of Straussianism). In this sense, Voegelin’s thought is most similar to Arendt’s who did not provide a systematic or definitive account of her thinking while she was alive. Yet when compared to Arendt, Voegelin’s place is less prominent in political science, whether in publications, citations, or public discourse. For instance, The New York Times does not invoke Voegelin’s name when speaking about democracy, human rights, or revolution but almost readily does so with Arendt’s.[3]

There are several reasons why Voegelin’s fame falls short when compared to his European émigré counterparts: the high academic standards Voegelin expected of his readers; the opaqueness of his language, particularly his propensity to use neologism, to convey his ideas; the difficulty of translating his works into politics and public policy; his refusal to be categorized ideologically and thereby precluding him from being an effective public intellectual; and the paucity of doctoral students who studied under him due to his brief time at a European research university.[4] By contrast, Adorno, Marcuse, Arendt, and Morgenthau spent most of their academic careers at research universities (Frankfurt, Brandeis, San Diego, the New School, Chicago, and CUNY) as well as served as effective public intellectuals. Leo Strauss, with whom Voegelin is most compared, spent twenty years at one of the most famous research universities in the world, the University of Chicago, where he was able to mentor many doctoral students who, in turn, secured university positions at Harvard (Harvey C. Mansfield), Yale (Allan Bloom, Thomas Pangle), Dartmouth (Roger Masters), Cornell (Allan Bloom), Chicago (Allan Bloom), Toronto (Allan Bloom, Clifford Orwin, Thomas Pangle), Boston University (Stanley Rosen), Claremont Mckenna College (Harry V. Jaffa), Amherst College (Hadley Arkes), New York University (Seth Benardete), and Texas at Austin (Thomas Pangle). Strauss’ own students could mentor the next generation of Straussians to propagate their founder’s ideas in the discipline of political science.

Contributions to Political Science

While in Europe, Voegelin had a number of doctoral students but only one American, Ellis Sandoz, who returned to the United States and actively promoted Voegelin’s work when he arrived at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1978. At LSU Sandoz established the Eric Voegelin Society in 1984 which oversees academic panels at the American Political Science Conference and the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies in 1987. He was the driving force, along with Beverly Jarrett, to publish The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (34 volumes) and The Eric Voegelin Institute Series in Political Philosophy (31 books) initially with LSU Press and later at the University of Missouri Press. Sandoz also has served as the dissertation director for numerous students, some of whom became employed in academia afterwards, and worked with other scholars and admirers to promote Voegelin’s work both in the United States and abroad.[5]

Sandoz’s own scholarly work includes several books and countless articles but there are two main themes that are sustained throughout his writing: the American Republic and Eric Voegelin’s “new science’ of politics. In books like A Government of Laws and Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America, Sandoz shows the connection between classical and medieval political thought to the American Founding; while in works, such as The Voegelinian Revolution and Eric Voegelin and the Significance for the Modern Mind, he provides a biographical and intellectual account of Voegelin’s life and ideas and why they are relevant to politics today.[6] What unites these two themes, America and Voegelin, is to show how experiences of the truth, whether in classical philosophy or religious faith, manifest themselves in today’s politics.  Voegelin provided this insight and Sandoz sought to test it with the American Republic as his case study.

In this sense, one of Voegelin’s contributions to political science is to provide a positive defense of American democracy, contrary to some his European counterparts. Albeit Voegelin had his own reservations about American democracy, he still believed that the “American and English democracies which most solidly in their institutions represent the truth of the soul are, at the same time, existentially the strongest powers.”[7] Voegelin was hopeful about American democracy because its institutions had preserved the wisdom of classical philosophy and religious faith. This claim differs from Strauss’ account of natural rights as a bulwark for American democracy and certainly is contrary to the disparaging views about American democracy from his fellow Europeans, whether Arendt’s existential despair, Morgenthau’s cynical realism, or the Frankfurt School’s psychoanalytical-inspired Marxism.

Besides examining the religious and philosophical foundation of American democracy, Voegelin also makes a contribution to political science by asking scholars to conceptualize human nature in a historical context that is open to transcendence. Voegelin shares Quentin Skinner’s and J.G.A. Pocock’s concerns about the need of a historical context to understand political thought and philosophy, but he adds an additional layer of analysis with his theory of consciousness: how humans experientially encounter transcendent reality. This openness to transcendence as a viable variable in political analysis is another distinguishing contribution Voegelin makes to political science.[8]

A third contribution is his conception of Gnosticism as an intellectual and social movement to correct a supposedly flawed world by resorting to violence. This concept can be adopted to analyze both normatively and descriptively religious radicalism, political ideologies, and social pathologies.[9] This normative concept of Gnosticism is representative of Voegelin’s “new science” of politics that refutes the fact-value divide of positivism and establishes a way of inquiry rooted in a philosophical anthropology that incorporates historical context and transcendent experiences. It is only in this manner that political scientists for Voegelin can correctly analyze reality while, at the same time, provide a normative path for human thought and action.

The Voegelin Reader

These three topics that I have identified–a normative political science with concepts like Gnosticism; a philosophical anthropology that incorporates historical context and transcendent experiences; and a defense of American democracy–are not the only areas that Voegelin has contributed to political science but certainly are the ones most recognized in the discipline. But if Voegelin is to remain relevant to political science, his work needs to move past the research already done on American democracy, philosophical anthropology, and Gnosticism and proceed down new paths of inquiry. Some of this already is emerging, whether it is his views on law or his place in postmodern thought, and hopefully will continue in confronting questions like religious tolerance, contemporary liberalism, and the understanding non-western civilizations.[10]

Voegelin also has contributed to other disciplines, like literature, philosophy, and religious studies; and there are scholars in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere that have shown how Voegelin’s works enriches their own studies.[11] Because there is no “Voegelinian” school of thought, Voegelin’s thought is adaptable to new challenges and questions as they arise. This flexibility allows scholars to transcend their specific disciplines and engage in a shared conversation with colleagues from other fields instead of sealing themselves off in a corner of specialization. Rather than finding dogmatic schools of thought, one discovers a diverse group of scholars who are infused with the ethos of Voegelin’s work: intellectual depth, methodological rigor, and a sensitivity to transcendence. It may be this ethos rather than doctrines of secret writing or sexual sublimation that ultimately secures Voegelin’s place not just in political science but in intellectual life itself.

The first anthology of Voegelin’s work, The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, and Consciousness, by Charles R. Embry and Glenn Hughes reflects this ethos of depth, rigor, and openness to reality. The Reader provides a brief biographical of Eric Voegelin and then explains what the editors think are the six key elements of Voegelin’s thought: 1) a normative political science; 2) an openness to reality, especially to the past; 3) a participatory theory of consciousness, where 4) humans are open to transcendence and thereby live in a state of tension between human and divine reality; 5) the project of modernity as a Gnostic one; and 6) an understanding of philosophy as a search for wisdom that can never be completed.[12] By selecting works that reflect these principles, Embry and Hughes captures the two themes that characterize Voegelin’s work throughout his life: the interpretation of personal, political, and cosmic order from source materials and how this interpretation leads to a greater understanding of human consciousness in the light of new discoveries from the historical data.

Organized into five parts, The Reader comprises of essays and excerpts that illuminate these themes as they develop in Voegelin’s own thought. There is also a brief note before each piece to provide a historical and intellectual context of the work as well as a list of primary and secondary sources about Voegelin at the end of the book. Part One is Voegelin’s intellectual biography, most of it drawn from his own autobiographical account, Autobiographical Reflections; Part Two, “The Philosophical Science of Politics,” is his normative account of political science, with most excerpts from The New Science of Politics; Parts Three and Four consist of essays which addresses modern misconceptions of human nature and consciousness and how the resources of classical philosophy and religious faith can be adopted to correct them; and Part Five is a “Philosophy of History” that uses excerpts from his Order and History work to show how a philosophy of politics requires first a philosophy of history.[13]

One could quibble about some essays or excerpts being excluded–for instance, “On the Theory of Consciousness”–but the layout and logic of the selected excerpts provides an excellent representation of Voegelin’s thought and, more importantly, makes it accessible to someone new to it. Perhaps most importantly, the excerpts selected are ones that mostly avoid the neologism that Voegelin created and thereby makes his thought comprehensible to students. By using the Reader, one is able to teach and discuss directly Voegelin’s main ideas without having to translate his neologisms to students. In short, The Reader finds the right balance between inviting a reader unfamiliar with Voegelin’s works, while, at the same time, allowing the experienced scholar to reflect about the core of Voegelin’s own thinking over his long and distinguished career. Certainly for those who study Voegelin and political philosophy, The Eric Voegelin Reader is an essential work, but it also should be required reading for those who call themselves political scientists.

Conclusion

There are several type of courses The Reader could be adopted in political science, philosophy, theology, history, sociology, classics, literature, but what would be the best approach to teach it in the classroom? One of the attractive features of The Reader is that its organization allows an instructor to select a particular theme, whether normative social science or problems with modernity, with three or four essays that illuminate Voegelin’s thought on these topics. Because The Reader is not organized chronologically, it provides the instructor tremendous flexibility in designing the course for students.

As far as teaching Voeglein in the actual classroom itself, I have always found students to respond positively to his work, even when they disagree with his arguments. Unlike most thinkers, when after you provide an introductory explanation of their thought, students are prompted to investigate further about Voegelin’s ideas rather than be content to memorized what they need to know for the next examination. Voegelin invites students to conversation about his ideas and to think about the most important matters, like life, the divine, and political order. There is something mysterious in his writings that invokes in students a sense of curiosity and wonder but not in the sense of a wanting to uncover a secret teaching as in the case of Strauss, the removal of false consciousness like in Adorno and Marcuse, or the collapse of politics into brute power, as found in Morgenthau. In this sense, Voegelin provokes a reaction among students similar to Arendt, although approaching the question of politics from an entirely different philosophical perspective.

The Reader will make Voegelin contributions to political science more readily apparent in the classroom: a normative political science, a philosophical anthropology that includes historical context and transcendent experiences; and a defense of democracy. But The Reader is not only for the classroom, it is for those who wish to live the philosophical life in searching for the ground of being, a search that can never be fulfilled but still must persist. Like his European émigré counterparts, Voegelin did not see scholarship or teaching as distinct activities but as one and the same in the search for truth.[14] The Reader likewise makes this possible for Voeglein scholars to rethink what constitutes Voegelin’s own thought and how we can make new contributions to his own work and in our respective disciplines.

When compared to his Adorno, Marcuse, Arendt, Morgenthau, and Strauss, Voegelin’s contributions to political science are significant but secondary in their impact. However, this is not necessarily unfortunate: Voegelin’s work has not become fossilized into some academic dogma, doctrine, or school of thought and thus became a merely a passing intellectual fad for a specific time. The range and depth of his thought makes Voeglein’s work a resource that current and future generation of scholars can draw from continually. Because Voegelin’s work inherently resists categorization, it is able to endure longer and discover new places to grow and be sustained. Thus, the responsibility for those who study Voegelin is to seek new subjects where his work may be relevant in illuminating one’s understanding of reality whether in the classroom or in scholarship.

 

Notes

[1] For more about the influence and legacy of the Frankfurt School, refer to David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980); Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994); Angela Davis, “Marcuse’s Legacies” in Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, John Abromeit and Mark Cobb, eds. (New York and London: Routledge, 2004); Axel Honneth, Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

For more about the influence and legacy of Hannah Arendt, refer to Larry May and Jerome Kohn, eds., Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996); Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Peter Baehr, Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010); also refer to Peter Graf Kielmansegg and Horst Mewes, Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Émigrés and American Political Thought after World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

For more about the influence and legacy of Hans Morgenthau, Greg Russell, Hans J. Morgenthau and the Ethics of American Statecraft (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990); Michael C. Williams, Realism Reconsidered: The Legacy of Hans J. Morgenthau in International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Arash Heydarian Pashakanlou, Realism and Fear in International Relations: Morgenthau, Waltz, and Mearsheimer Reconsidered (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

For more about the influence and legacy of Leo Strauss, refer to Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley, Leo Strauss, The Straussians, and the Study of the American Regime (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999); Anne Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Thomas L. Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); Tony Burns and James Connelly, The Legacy of Leo Strauss (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 2013); Grant Havers, Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Critique (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 2013). For the East Coast-West Coast divide, refer to Laurence Lampert, The Enduring Importance of Leo Strauss (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[2] For example, the city of Frankfurt’s Theodor W. Adorno Award is given to a person for outstanding achievements in philosophy, theater, music, or film. The National Committee on American Foreign Policy’s Hans J. Morgenthau Award is given to a person whose intellectual achievements or practical contributions to U.S. foreign policy are exemplary in the tradition of Mogenthau’s thought. Available at https://www.ncafp.org/what-we-do/awards/. Accessed December 20, 2017.The German Heinrich Böll Foundation’s and the government of Bremen’s Hannah Arendt Prize is given to individuals who represent the tradition of her political thought. Available at https://www.boell.de/en/hannah-arendt-award. Accessed December 20, 2017. The American Political Science Association’ Leo Strauss Award is for the best dissertation in political theory. Available at http://www.apsanet.org/PROGRAMS/APSA-Awards/Leo-Strauss-Award. Accessed December 20, 2017.

[3]  One of the latest example is Thomas B. Edsall, “The Self-Destruction of American Democracy,” New York Times November 30, 2017. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/30/opinion/trump-putin-destruction-democracy.html. Accessed December 28, 2017.

[4] The best account for Voegelin’s neglect in American Political Science can be found in Patrick Johnson, “Silence is Not Always Golden: Investigating the Silence Surrounding the Thought of Eric Voegelin,” Voegeliniana 72 (October 2008): 1-82. Verbindung mit dem Eric-Voegelin-Zentrum für Politik, Kultur und Reli-gion am Geschwister-Scholl-Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München; originally a Master’s Thesis at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (2008).

[5] Information about the Eric Voegelin Society can be found at http://www.lsu.edu/artsci/groups/voegelin/society/; the Eric Voegelin Institute at http://www.lsu.edu/artsci/groups/voegelin/institute.shtml; and VoegelinView at http://voegelinview.com/.

Both The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin and The Eric Voegelin Institute Series in Political Philosophy are published by the University of Missouri Press.

[6] Ellis Sandoz, A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1990); Eric Voegelin’s Significance for the Modern Mind (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1991); The Voegelinian Revolution (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 2000); Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006). For more about Sandoz’s professional biography, refer to http://www.lsu.edu/artsci/groups/voegelin/sandoz.shtml.

[7] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 189. Although Voegelin is supportive of American democracy, he does not elaborate greatly on this topic. Fortunately, Sandoz does in his own work, demonstrating that validity of Voegelin’s insights.

[8] Dante Germino, “Eric Voegelin’s Framework for Political Evaluation in His Recently Published Work,” The American Political Science Review 72.1 (March 1978): 110-21; Steve R. McCarl, “Eric Voegelin’s Theory of Consciousness,” The American Political Science Review 86.1 (March 1992): 106-11; Barry Cooper, Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999); Brendan Purcell, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New York: New City Press, 2011).

[9] James M. Rhodes, The Hitler Movement: A Modern Millenarian Revolution (Palo Alto: Hoover Instiute Press, 1980); Thomas W. Heilke, Voegelin on the Idea of Race (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1990); Ted V. McAllister, Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin & The Search for a Postliberal Order (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 34-43; Barry Cooper, New Political Religions, or An Analysis of Modern Terrorism (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004); Lee Trepanier, Political Symbols in Russian History: Church, State, and the Quest for Order and Justice (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).

[10] For example, refer to Peter A. Petrakis and Cecil L. Eubanks, Eric Voegelin’s Dialogue with the Postmoderns: Searching for Foundations (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004); David Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Barry Cooper, Beginning of the Quest: Law and Politics in the Early Works of Eric Voegelin (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2009); Lee Trepanier and Steven F. McGuire, Eric Voegelin and the Modern Continental Tradition (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2011); and the recent Eric Voegelin Society’s panels at the American Political Science Conference.

[11] For Voegelin’s contribution to philosophy, refer to the previous endnote as well as to Glenn Hughes, Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003); Jerry Day, Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003); Thomas Langan, Human Being: A Philosophical Anthropology (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2009).

For literature, refer to Charles R. Embry’s Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literature Charles R. Embry, The Philosopher and the Storyteller: Eric Voegelin and Twentieth Century Literature (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2008) and The Philosopher and the Storyteller: Eric Voegelin and Twentieth Century Literature (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 20011); Glenn Hughes’ A More Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 20011).

For religious studies, refer to William Thompson-Uberuaga, Jesus and the Gospel Movement: Not Afraid to Be Partners (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006); Jeffrey C. Herndon, Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007); John J. Ranieri, Disturbing Revelation: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Bible (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2009); Eugene Webb, Worldview and Mind: Religious Thought and Psychological Development (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2009) and In Search of the Triune God: The Christian Paths of East and West (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2014).

For scholars who study Voegelin outside the United States, refer to Stephen A. McKnight and Geoffrey L. Price, International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Eric Voegelin (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997) and the recent Eric Voegelin Society’s panels at the American Political Science Conference as well as the Eric Voegelin Archive at Geschwister-Scholl-Institute of LMU Munich at http://voegelin-archiv.userweb.mwn.de/englisch/publikationen_en.htm.

[12]Charles R. Embry and Glenn Hughes, ed., The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, and Consciousness (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017), xiii-xxiii.

[13] Eric Vogelin, Autobiographical Reflections, Collected Works Volume 34 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2016); Modernity Without Restraint, Collected Works Volume 5 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999); Order and History, Volumes 1-5, Collected Works Volumes 14-18 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000-1).

[14] John von Heyking, “Eric Voeglein and the Art of Pedagogy,” in Teaching in an Age of Ideology, John von Heyking and Lee Trepanier, ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012): 87-114.

 

This was originally published with the same title in Perspectives on Political Science 47:3 (2018): 177-81.

 

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).