Eric Voegelin’s Leap in Being (Part I)

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Part 1: What Constitutes the Leap in Being?

Let it be known there is a fountain

That was not made by the hands of men.

Robert Hunter & The Grateful Dead, “Ripple”


We may think of Eric Voegelin as a philosopher’s philosopher, the quintessential lover of wisdom, a paragon of man pursuing the quest for truth, seeking the Holy Grail, the philosopher’s stone. Among his many brilliant and poetic and philosophical formulations, perhaps none is as mesmerizing as the mystical term, “leap in being.”  While our species, Homo sapiens, remains biologically unchanged over the last 150,000 years or so, there can be little doubt of the evolution of our ability to symbolize and communicate the adventures and discoveries of consciousness in regard to our existence in this seemingly infinite cosmos. No symbol captures those revelations more profoundly than Voegelin’s “leap in being.”

Eric Voegelin took the term “leap” from Kierkegaard’s sprung but as Hollweck suggests “the notion of a ‘leap in being’ probably came to Voegelin in the course of a meditative process … to describe …that the source of cosmic order was not located within the cosmos itself but ‘beyond’ the cosmos …” For the first time man became conscious that his own consciousness was part of the structure of reality.[i]  This is not simply a discovery about meaning but also a discovery about the very essence of being. It is the single most important aspect of the leap in being, but a great deal more follows from it.

Voegelin first speaks of the leap in being in Volume 1 of Order and History as a change “…in the order of being and existence itself.”[ii]  For Voegelin human beings have always experienced a sense of divinity. There has been a process of differentiation in that experience and its symbolization from primal societies to more “advanced” cosmological societies to societies predicated  on  Judeo-Christian and Greek thought.  Only in the Judeo-Christian and Greek symbolic representations is the leap in being clearly articulated, although for Voegelin the fullest symbolic differentiation is achieved in its Pauline form.

Voegelin begins his magnum opus with the famous words:  “God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being.” [iii] As Maurice Hogan explains in his editor’s introduction To Israel and Revelation, for Voegelin primal societies experience this community as an “… experience of consubstantiality between the different partners in the community of being.”  Consubstantiality refers to a powerful experience of participation in man’s partnership with the community of being. This experience of participation is consubstantial in the sense that all the partners are part of the same order or substance, and there is no “clear separation between them.” [iv]  For primal hunting-gathering societies, and for the Neolithic agricultural societies, God (a symbol which has become severely deformed, but I use it to refer to the genderless, non-anthropomorphic indescribable creative force which gave birth to the cosmos) was not fully differentiated from man, society and the world. For primal people living in nature, the “world” consisted of what we now call wilderness, and it was infused with the wonder and enchantment of the creation.  What was so for primal societies was also true to a lesser extent for agriculturally based societies which had begun the civilizing process.  There was a single order encompassing the natural world and all the realms of human experience. Human beings attuned themselves to this order through the symbolic creation of myth.  Voegelin calls this order “cosmological.”

During what many thinkers refer to as the axial age (roughly the 8th to 3rd centuries BC), the understanding and symbolization of man’s participation in the community of being underwent a marked change.  This gave rise to religious/philosophical systems such as Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Taoism, Vedanta, Buddhism, Judaism  and Greek philosophy.  During this period, people in distinct geographic locations discovered that the cosmological understanding and the old mythic symbols no longer adequately expressed man’s partnership and participation in the community of being. Homo sapiens began to realize that he and his world were part of a creation, the cause of which could not be found in the cosmos. As Voegelin puts it:

Only when the gulf in the hierarchy of being that separates divine from mundane existence is sensed, only when the originating, ordering, and preserving source of being is experienced in its absolute transcendence beyond being in tangible existence, will all symbolization by analogy be understood in its inadequacy and even impropriety. [v]

So we may conclude that for Voegelin, the leap in being is the discovery of an absolutely transcendent creative ordering force “beyond being in tanglible existence.”  There are two aspects of this discovery. The first aspect is the revelation of what we commonly call “monotheism,” or the realization that there is a single creative and ordering force which gave birth to the cosmos, and which made its Hebrew speaking “discoverers” the “chosen people,” chosen in the sense that they were the first to clearly articulate this discovery. The second aspect is the understanding that this one creative force absolutely transcends mundane existence. It is not a “thing” like the things in the cosmos, but rather a divine Mystery beyond the cosmos. This discovery has incredibly profound consequences for humanity, both positive and negative, as we shall see. On the one hand it leads to a conversion experience, an awakening, “…a turning around, the Platonic periagogé, an inversion or conversion toward the true source of order.”[vi]  On the other hand this new and “emphatic partnership with God”  devalues “participation in mundane being,” which then “recedes to second rank.”[vii] Man is separated from the consubstantiality of the Garden of Eden. I will expand upon these negative consequences later.

At the same time this earth shattering discovery creates what Voegelin refers to as a “new historical form” in which “the Either-Or of life and death divides the stream of time into the Before-and-After of the great discovery.”[viii]  Moreover, this discovery is not just the property of its discoverers, but it belongs to all human beings everywhere and unites them into a universal humanity under God.

This insight, however, establishes indeed a new aeon of history. For the God who has revealed himself as the first and the last, by blowing his breath on the flesh, is now revealed as the God of all mankind.[ix]

The discovery of a transcendent source of being beyond existence radically alters man’s understanding of his place in the cosmos from his previous experience of consubstantiality. No longer are the partners in being all part of the same unified order, because the original ordering force outside of worldly existence is recognized. Man now consciously finds himself in a tensional and existential middle, in between a creative force beyond worldly existence and the mundane existence which drives his concrete daily life. To describe this state of affairs Voegelin borrows the term “metaxy” (translated in between) from Plato.  The conscious recognition and symbolic representation of this in between existence is a natural consequence of the leap in being, and its importance cannot be overstated. In volume 5 of Order and History, In Search of Order, we can no longer find the term “leap in being,” but there are innumerable references to the “metaxy.” It is as though Voegelin has already moved beyond the leap, which is now an accepted fact of existence, to investigate its existential consequences.

In his explanation of his use of the term “metaxy,” Voegelin notes the sad state of affairs that contemporary philosophy has basically ignored this essential aspect of human existence, and further elaborates the concept into his mystical-philosophical formulations of the structures of reality and consciousness.  Life in between has profound implications for our understanding of human consciousness. Consciousness is not merely human; it is both human and human-and-divine at the same time: “The In-Between of existence is … the meeting-ground of the human and the divine in a consciousness of their distinction and interpenetration.”[x]

Voegelin notes the tension involved in metaxic existence, insisting that it is the locus of human knowledge and inquiry, and furthermore that we must approach it through dialectics: “The metaxy is the domain of human knowledge. The proper method of its investigation that remains aware of the In-Between status of things is called ‘dialectics…’”[xi]  By dialectics he refers to the critical, constructive sharing of thought marked by an attitude of openness which incorporates as many points of view as possible, striving to form  a complete understanding, a big picture, a cosmology.

Finally when analyzing what  the leap in being meant to Voegelin we must consider his account of the symbolic representation found in “The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected” in The Ecumenic Age.   Voegelin scholars often note that he believed that Christian symbolism achieved the fullest symbolic expression of the differentiated understanding discovered in the leap in being. Yet Voegelin clearly showed a preference for the Greek symbolic language in his final work, In Search of Order,  which he saw as the key to all his other work.[xii]  This was not because the Greek representation was better or more truthful than the Judeo-Christian; both expressed the same truth.  Most likely this was simply because Voegelin was at heart a philosopher and found the philosophical language of the Greeks more expressive of his thought than the revelatory language of the Bible.  In “The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected,” however, Voegelin explains why he believes the Pauline account of the vision of the resurrected Christ achieves the fullest articulated differentiation of symbolic truth.

Whereas the Greek symbolization focused on the noetic faculty and man’s erotic ascent toward God, the Christian symbolization focused on the pneumatic experience of God’s descent toward man. This descent reaches its completion and culmination in the figure of Jesus Christ, God made flesh in human form; and after death resurrected and ascended into heaven where his humanity is fully reunited with his Creator, thus symbolizing both the descent and ascent and the final union.  In essence the resurrection, transfiguration and ascension provide an eschatology, an articulated end to “the story the It reality wants to tell.”[xiii] The full story has been told, and even better, it has a happy ending.  Of course it is not a final ending because it ends in a mystery that must always remain a mystery for man as long as he is alive.  And that is why there can never be an end to history. The Greek symbolization has no such eschatology and in Voegelin’s eyes remains incomplete in that sense.[xiv]

So to summarize we may identify the following elements as markers of Voegelin’s leap in being:

  1. The differentiation or discovery of the One God, a single creative force which is at the same time an absolutely transcendent source of being beyond existence, this is clearly the single most important element. This discovery corresponds to some degree with what many thinkers refer to as the axial age. However this discovery is a process. Voegelin is very clear that the actual leap occurred fully only in in the Judeo-Christian and Greek traditions. We should remember that while this ground of being is beyond existence, it is always also manifested within existence. When reality and the Beyond are separated, deformation begins.
  2.  Participation in worldly being recedes to a second rank. This is perhaps a necessary but dislocating and disorienting result of the leap in being and the cause of what I call a corresponding “loss in being.”
  3. The desire of individuals and society to attune their worldly lives to this transcendent creative force, which provides an independent and original source of order, unconfused by the worldly things. When we discover this source, we naturally want to attune our lives to it and to the “story it wants to tell.”
  4. The creation of history as a form of existence, dividing history into a Before and an After.  This new history is to become universal history, the history of all mankind, and especially a history united under one God.
  5. Human existence and consciousness is understood to be metaxic, existing in between the divine and the worldly, participating in both but fixed in neither. This  aspect of the leap in being is first mentioned in Vol. 2 of Order and History, although not clearly articulated as an aspect of the leap in being, whereas the previous four aspects are clearly articulated in Volume 1. However, the idea of the metaxy is fully explored and elaborated in volume 5.  Consciousness has been metaxic from the birth of homo sapiens since it participates in the two structures of reality, It Reality and Thing Reality in its two modes of luminosity and intentionality simultaneously, but was only consciously understood and symbolized as such with the leap in being.
  6. Recognition of both man’s ascent toward the creative force of being and the descent of the creative force toward man; the final union of man and God is fully symbolized in the Pauline vision of the transfiguration, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, providing a happy ending to “the story the It reality wants to tell.”
  7. The conscious quest for truth becomes the single most important concern, the most important reason for being for the individual seeker.

The Truth Quest and Voegelin’s Analysis of the Structures of Reality and Consciousness          

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

For Voegelin the truth quest consists of asking the questions that will lead him toward the cause of being. And this quest is itself created by that cause.[xv]  There is a “story the It reality wants to tell,” and that story is the story of man’s quest for the truth of a balanced state of existence which understands his place in the metaxy as a partner in the community of being who participates simultaneously in the It reality and thing reality through a consciousness structured by luminosity and intentionality. This consciousness experiences the divine ordering of the Beyond, the Parousia, as the ordering force in man, society and the world.[xvi]

In his analysis of consciousness, Voegelin points out that consciousness does not  exist as a disembodied thing but is part of a related paradoxical complex he refers to as “consciousness-reality-language.” The paradoxical nature of consciousness is a paradox only when analyzed according to instrumental reason. As Voegelin shows the paradox dissolves when illuminated in the light of noetic reason. Consciousness paradoxically discovers itself to be part of an embodied individual with a unique personality, part  of the reality we have created as human beings, as well as a participant in the already created reality into which we were born.

On the one hand we experience consciousness as embodied. We as individuals are conscious of things in the world, a chair, a feeling, a memory. He refers to this aspect of reality as the “thing reality.” The structure of consciousness that corresponds to this reality he calls “intentionality,” because it consists of “things” we are conscious of, give attention to, and have intentions towards.  On the other hand we also experience consciousness as “the something in which consciousness occurs as an event of participation between partners in the community of being.” In this sense consciousness is no longer a subject intending an object; rather it takes on the linguistic character of a verb; it “is experienced as an event of participatory illumination in the reality that comprehends the partners to the event…” [xvii]  Voegelin refers to this comprehending reality, which includes all four partners in being, as the “It reality.”  The It reality is the reality we find ourselves born into, the reality that moves us, “the mysterious ‘it’ that also occurs in everyday language in such phrases as ‘it rains.’ “ [xviii]  This structure of reality corresponds to the structure of consciousness which Voegelin calls “luminosity.” It is luminous in the sense that it participates consciously in the mystery of being. When we watch a sunset, “reality itself seems to illuminate consciousness.”[xix]

Furthermore, the It reality and thing reality are not separate realities as Carlos Castanda might contend.  As Voegelin explains in his discussion of Kant’s symbol Ding-an-sich, “…it will not be improper to stress that ‘in-itself’ the thing is not a ‘thing’ but the structure of the It-reality in consciousness.”[xx]  So the thing-in-itself reflects the It reality in our consciousness. This corresponds directly with the Zen Buddhist emphasis on “just this,” which is used in koans to point to the fact that the thing in itself reflects Buddha nature. It is at this point the thing reality becomes luminous to the It reality as human consciousness participates simultaneously in both realities. This is full metaxic partnership in the community of being.  As Voegelin puts it “All thing-reality, we may say, transcends into It reality, while the It-reality comprehends all thing-reality.”[xxi]

Part 2: The  Loss in Being, Anoia, and Remembering Our Partnership in the Community of Being

You who choose to lead must follow, but if you fall, you fall alone. If you should stand, then who’s to guide you? If I knew the way, I would take you home.

                                                                   Robert Hunter & The Grateful Dead, “Ripple”

Part 2 will first consider the problems associated with the leap in being, which led to what I will call a “loss in being.”  This will be followed by some suggestions  for recovering that loss—which will include a focus on (1) the Parousia , the experience of the presence of the formative force of the Beyond in worldly existence; and  (2) the truth quest based on dialectics as the best method for pursuing that search within the metaxy.

If we think dialectically, there is no gain without a loss, no leap without a fall. Voegelin identifies several problems inherent in the leap, including what he referred to as the immanentization of the eschaton. The problem I want to focus on here is what Voegelin refers to as the forgetfulness of   “our partnership in the community of being.” As the transcendent source of  being and order is discovered to be separate from worldly existence and the experience of consubstantiality wanes,  man’s sense of wonder  at the creation also  fades as his focus moves from the creation to the creator.  The divine spirit which once infused the innumerable manifestations of creation recedes to the newly discovered transcendent ground beyond existence. Man finds himself caught between two worlds which were previously integrated, and a strong sense of anomie and alienation results. Voegelin notes the difficulty in accepting and maintaining the resulting tension of the metaxic state.

Consider Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Whereas man was previously at home in the world, when Adam and Eve become aware of  a separate God outside of  their existence, consubstantiality is lost, everything falls apart and they are no longer at home in the garden but cast out into a world of alienation. For Voegelin, “The metaxy is the domain of human knowledge.”[xxii]  When Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they begin to exist in the metaxy, and fall from the grace of consubstantiality. Good and evil then became conscious choices. The partnership with God became more emphatic but the partnership with the world was forgotten.  So the leap in being leads directly to a divided community of being.  In order to repair this distortion in man’s consciousness, the community of being needs to be made whole.

There has been relatively little written about Voegelin’s identification and diagnosis of anoia as the spiritual disease of modern man. Voegelin borrows this term from Plato, and uses it to describe a disease of consciousness in which man has forgotten his partnership in the community of being. Specifically he has “managed to make himself unconscious of his consciousness of questing participation in the divine Beyond…”[xxiii]  I argue that this forgetfulness was primarily a result of the leap in being and mainly a loss of partnership with the world, the natural world from which man evolved; and that the cure for this disease must include a rediscovery of man’s partnership with and connection to the natural world from which he evolved. Man has forgotten the truth quest because he has separated God from the world, the creator from his creation.  Pope Francis will help me make this argument.



[i] Hollweck, Thomas,  Cosmos and the “Leap in Being” in Voegelin’s Philosophy, Paper prepared for delivery at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 2-5, 2010. Available online

[ii] Voegelin, Eric, CW 14, (University of Missouri Press): 47.

[iii] Ibid: 37.

[iv] Ibid: 3.

[v] Ibid: 47.

[vi] Ibid: 47.

[vii]Ibid: 48.

[viii] Ibid: 172.

[ix] Ibid: 172.

[x] Voegelin, Eric. CW 12: 233.

[xi] Voegelin, Eric. CW 17: 244.

[xii] Voegelin, Eric. CW 18: 13-14. As stated by his wife, Lissy

[xiii] Voegelin, Eric, CW 18: 50

[xiv] Voegelin, Eric. CW 17: 316-317.

[xv] Voegelin, Eric. CW 12: 175-176.

[xvi] Voegelin, Eric  CW 18: 117.

[xvii] Ibid: 29-30.

[xviii] Ibid: 30.

[xix] McMahon, Robert, Eric Voegelin’s Paradoxes of Consciousness and Participation, The Review of Politics, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Winter, 1999), pp. 117-139.

[xx] Voegelin, Eric. CW 18: 64.

[xxi] Ibid: 93.

[xxii]  Voegelin, Eric. CW 17: 244.

[xxiii]  Voegelin, Eric. CW 18: 57.

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Andrew Hoffman received his doctorate in Philosophy at the the University of Hawaii at Manoa under Manfred Henningsen.