skip to Main Content

Eric Voegelin’s Normative Labor

In healthy reaction to the enemies of the permanent things in politics, a considerable body of serious political and historical scholarship has appeared in recent years. Some of these writers have been mentioned in earlier chapters. Perhaps the most systematic of them is Dr. Eric Voegelin, whose historical studies are intended to point the way toward a recovery of political normality.

“The true dividing line in the contemporary crisis,” Voegelin wrote fifteen years ago, “does not run between liberals and totalitarians, but between the religious and philosophical transcendentalists on the one side, and the liberal and totalitarian immanentist sectarians on the other.” This theme runs through his influential little book The New Science of Politics (1952), and through his massive work Order and History (1956–87) (in four volumes, one of which, at this writing, remains to be published). The delusion that human rationality may convert the world into an earthly paradise is, in Voegelin’s view, the principal source of our modern political catastrophes. For politics, like science, like art, arises out of belief in a transcendent religion; and when that faith decays, politics degenerates.

Professor Voegelin’s personal experience of social disorder is considerable, extending from persecution by the Nazis to being knocked on the head by a gang of young criminals not far from the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. Witty, good-natured, master of classical and Christian learning, Voegelin is thoroughly familiar with English and American political philosophy. Describing himself as a “pre-Reformation Christian,” he draws upon both Protestant and Catholic theologians. He sees in the United States and Britain the two nations least seriously infected by ideology and Gnosticism, and in them a hope for the regeneration of our civilization.

“On my religious ‘position,’ ” Voegelin writes of ideologues’ attacks, “I have been classified as a Protestant, a Catholic, as anti-semitic and as a typical Jew; politically, as a Liberal, a Fascist, a National Socialist, and a Conservative; and on my theoretical position, as a Platonist, a Neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, a disciple of Hegel, an existentialist, a historical relativist, and an empirical sceptic; in recent years the suspicion has frequently been voiced that I am a Christian. All these classifications have been made by university professors and people with academic degrees. They give ample food for thought regarding the state of our universities.”

Such labels wake passions, when dispassionate discourse is required. And Voegelin endeavors to restore among us an understanding of general principles, emancipated from ideology.

Gnosticism, the heresy which substitutes a dream of a perfect mundane society for the City of God, lies at the root of the clamorous ideologies which compete for the support of the modern crowd. To ideology, Voegelin opposes science, or understanding of man and society founded upon observation throughout history. In disavowing ideology, Voegelin espouses political principle. Like Burke, he draws a distinction between “abstraction” (or an a priori assumption unsupported by history or common experience or what we call revelation) and “principle,” or a justified deduction from what we have learnt, over the ages, about men and their commonwealths. With Burke, and with Richard Hooker, he makes the virtue of prudence the means of political wisdom:

“In classic and Christian ethics the first of the moral virtues is sophia or prudentia, because without adequate understanding of the structure of society, including the conditio humana, moral action with rational co-ordination of means and ends is hardly possible. In the Gnostic dream world, on the other hand, non-recognition of reality is the first principle.”

Recognition of a transcendent order in the universe does not make the statesman into a dreamer, but into a realist. Knowing his theology and his history, he takes it for granted that man is not a perfect nor a perfectible being, and that the prudent statist will endeavor to make life in the civil social order tolerable, not perfect. It is utopianism, the Gnostic delusion, which leads (in Voegelin’s words) “with increasing theoretical illiteracy to the form of various social idealisms, such as the abolition of war, of unequal distribution of property, of fear and want. And, finally, immanentization may extend to the complete Christian symbol. The result will then be the active mysticism of a state of perfection, to be achieved through a revolutionary transfiguration of the nature of man, as, for instance, in Marxism.”

By definition, human nature is a constant; knowing this, the statesman is aware that human longing never can be satisfied upon this earth. For him, politics indeed is the art of the possible, and he remains content with patching and improving society here and there; he feels he has done well if he has preserved a tolerable measure of justice and order and freedom.

In modern political action, Gnosticism has two manifestations, its left wing and its right: communism and liberalism. “If liberalism is understood as the immanent salvation of man and society, communism certainly is its most radical expression; it is an evolution that was already anticipated by John Stuart Mill’s faith in the ultimate advent of communism for mankind.”

In the year of the Communist Manifesto, Orestes Brownson declared that communism was a heresy from Christianity; and this view is Voegelin’s, as it is that of Father Martin D’Arcy and other philosophers of our time. But liberalism is only a more moderate form of the same heresy, the notion that Progress consists in material aggrandizement. A culture which abandons knowledge of God in the expectation of creature-comforts already is far gone in decadence:

“A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which the ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule. Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.”

Now this is repudiation of liberalism root and branch, whether old-style individualistic liberalism or new-style collectivistic liberalism. The premises upon which liberalism is established must lead, according to Voegelin, to a total state, soon or late; for the Gnostic passion to alter society and human nature endures no opposition; and when it can, it destroys all the institutions which impede its consolidatory advance. If the only purpose of life is material success, why should reactionaries be permitted to delay the advent of utopia? Voegelin cites Harold Laski, in Faith, Reason, and Civilization (1944), to illustrate his point; as Laski put it, “It is, indeed, true in a sense to argue that the Russian principle cuts deeper than the Christian, since it seeks salvation for the masses by fulfillment in this life, and, thereby, orders anew the actual world we know.”

The hour is very late, Voegelin writes; our society is terribly corrupt; and “it will require all our efforts to kindle this glimmer into a flame by repressing Gnostic corruption and restoring the forces of civilization. At present the fate is in the balance.”

Voegelin’s primary concern is order—which is also the first concern of jurisprudence. Now “order” means the principle and the process by which the peace and harmony of society are maintained. It is the arrangement of rights and duties in a state to ensure that people may find just leaders, may be loyal citizens, and may obtain public tranquillity. “Order” implies the obedience of a nation to the laws of God, and the obedience of individuals to just authority. Without order, justice rarely can be enforced, and freedom cannot be maintained.

Yet since the French Revolution, “order” has been an unpopular word. Order implies leadership, discipline, self-restraint, duty; and the doctrinaire ideological pamphleteers, from Tom Paine onward, have been hostile to these concepts. Emancipation from all restraints, inner or outer, has been the desire of the more extreme liberals of modern times. That this anarchic emancipation ends only in tyranny is a fact which the ritualistic liberal still refuses to recognize. The terrible events of our time of troubles have suggested to many people that we no longer can expect to obtain a free and just society merely by echoing vague slogans about “democracy,” “progress,” and “equality.” For a high civilization to subsist, and for men to live in peace with one another, some coherent principle of order must prevail. “Without order,” Richard Hooker wrote, “there is no living in public society, because the want thereof is the mother of confusion.”

Such arguments, advanced or implied by Voegelin in The New Science of Politics, are disagreeable in the extreme to rationalistic liberals—let alone political totalists—who maintain that men have no souls, and that there exists no source from which transcendent knowledge can come; and who, besides, simply do not understand the language of poetic and religious symbol, being altogether prosy. With their master Bentham, these scholars and gentlemen tend to equate poetry with pushpin; while as for religious insight, they take it for granted that all such rubbish was discarded long ago—or should have been.

Resentments of this character against Voegelin’s approach were conspicuous in various reviews of The New Science of Politics; one professor at a middlewestern university, who previously had confined himself to the behavioral and institutional disciplines, burst in print into a denunciation of Voegelin’s theories, which (he insisted) were merely an exhortation to “repression.” (Voegelin, in a passage quoted earlier, feels that evil ought to be repressed; his reviewer apparently would not discriminate against evil.) They could not understand what Voegelin was writing about, these critics implied, and so he must be up to dark mischief. Once the first three volumes of Order and History had been published, Professor Moses Hadas, a classicist, indulged in an assault upon Voegelin’s motives fortunately rare in the pages of learned journals. Voegelin simply can’t believe in all this talk about transcendence and the divine sanctions for order, Hadas assumed; so Voegelin must be simply a political Christian, at best, disguising his ugly Fascism (though he was removed from his Austrian professorship by the National Socialists) under the tattered cloak of old-fangled piety:

“Reduced to simple terms,” Hadas wrote, “Professor Voegelin’s ‘order’ rests upon a hoax, which is justified by attributing divine afflatus to the elite which usurps the power to work it. . . . Professor Voegelin is by no means alone in his doctrine— such eminent teachers as Karl Jaspers have spoken of ‘elitarian activism’—and no one can impugn the sincerity of his convictions or his right to voice them. What is disturbing is that his pietistic coloring makes it difficult for an unwary reader to apprehend what these convictions amount to. One wonders whether the ‘institution that wishes to remain unnamed’ which Professor Voegelin thanks for material aid in each of his Prefaces was aware of the nature of his work, and one remembers a remark attributed to a notable patron of the institution which Professor Voegelin serves: ‘Sure, we’ll have fascism in this country, but of course we’ll call it something else.’ Leap in being?”

The preceding academic vituperation probably did greater harm to the reputation of its author than to that of Voegelin. Nearly anyone who reads Order and History must perceive that Hadas’s review of the three volumes was studded with gross misrepresentations and groundless imputations. The “unnamed institution” to which Hadas referred ominously was a well-known American charitable foundation. And the sinister “institution which Professor Voegelin serves” is merely Hadas’s slurring reference (incorrect at the time he wrote, incidentally) to Louisiana State University, where Voegelin formerly taught (not in Huey Long’s time, though it is Long to whom the remarks about American Fascism are attributed). Guilt by association?

Yet such quasi-scholarly abuse does serve one purpose: to illustrate how the problem of order is quite as perplexing in our time as it was in the age of Socrates and Plato. Hadas sounds very like certain antagonists of Socrates— who, unable to defeat him in reasoned argument, turned then to vituperation and menaces. Apropos of one of these, Callicles in the Gorgias, Voegelin himself writes: “The social conventions, which Callicles despises, are wearing thin; and the advocate of nature is brought to realize that he is a murderer face to face with his victim. The situation is fascinating for those among us who find ourselves in the Platonic position and who recognize in the men with whom we associate today the intellectual pimps for power who will connive in our murder tomorrow.”

It is ideological ferocity of Hadas’s sort which Voegelin’s books are written to resist. Humanitarian ideologues, good though their intentions may be, can bring about a dreadful decay of order. For the order of society is merely the order of souls writ large; there cannot be a good society without individual goodness of heart; and that goodness of heart is possible only when human beings perceive, with Socrates, that man is not the measure: God is the measure.

“In our time,” as Voegelin puts it, “we can observe the same phenomenon in that people are shocked by the horrors of war and by Nazi atrocities but are unable to see that these horrors are no more than a translation, to the physical level, of the spiritual and intellectual horrors which characterize progressive civilization in its most ‘peaceful’ phase; that the physical horrors are no more than the execution of the judgment (krisis) passed upon the historical polity.”

Historical study of this sort—works like those of Christopher Dawson (1889– 1970) and Herbert Butterfield (1890–1979) and J. L. Talmon (1916–80)—will affect our social order within this century, I believe. At one time, poets had a strong influence upon men of law and statecraft. At present, the sociologists have their hour of ascendancy. Yet the time is not far distant when the philosophical historians will begin to alter the minds of judges and presidents. A few years ago, we were informed by enthusiastic reviewers that for many years to come, all sensible magistrates and politicians must be deeply affected by the researches of Dr. Alfred Kinsey. I think not. We begin to seek again the norm for man, not the norm for wasp or snake.

Behind the Veil of History

“History is the revelation of the way of God with man,” Voegelin declares in the first volume of Order and History, which is entitled Israel and Revelation (1956). With this sentence, he becomes perhaps the most influential historian of our century, and certainly the most provocative. His first principles go against the grain of the chief schools of historical thought since the seventeenth century.

Nothing ever has happened in history, according to one school of liberal historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: that is, events simply have glided one into another without discernible purpose or significance; everything has been “evolutionary development” or mere flux. All the endeavors of famous men, and all the aspirations of great nations, have had as little influence upon the stream—or web—of history as the buzzing of the flies of a summer. As for intervention in history, or creation in history, by influences more than human— why, such notions belong to the childhood of the race. For those historians, Providence does not exist; and though the Greeks (who took a view of history somewhat similar in that they found history inscrutable) at least acknowledged the existence of Fate and Fortune, the latter-day theorists of historical flux are unwilling to admit even those vague and impersonal powers to influence upon human existence. This school of writers has taken more literally than did Hegel himself the Hegelian observation that “What experience and history teach is this —that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

Another school of historians—the positivists, attached to what Voegelin calls Gnostic assumptions—strong in influence ever since the Enlightenment, has taken a very different tack: for these scholars, history has been the record of progress toward some grand terrestrial culmination and perfection—a progress sometimes impeded, but sure of ultimate triumph. Condorcet, Comte, and Marx, whatever their differences of opinion, all represent this school; and it has milder devotees. Governed by the idea of Progress, this concept—“progressivism” or “futurism” applied to historical study—dominated the writing of popular histories for a good many years, until the fearful events of our own century disconcerted the leaders of the movement.

A third school, reviving an ancient theory in modern times, has advanced the concept of historical cycles: stages of growth, maturity, and decadence, predictable and perhaps inevitable, recurring with fair regularity throughout the ages. Such was the cast of mind of Henry and Brooks Adams; Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918–22) gave this theory a popular success almost scandalous; and Toynbee’s Study of History (1934–61) depends upon this interpretation, though now and again tinged with meliorism.

These three schools have dominated so thoroughly the discussion of historical problems for the past century that many people seem unaware that a fourth interpretation of history exists. That fourth interpretation, nevertheless, is a venerable theory, long known to the higher civilizations, though most thoroughly developed in Christian civilization. I mean the belief that history is the record of human existence under God, meaningful only so far as it reflects and explains and illustrates the order in the soul and in society which emanates from divine purpose. The aim of history, in the eyes of this school, is not antiquarian, nor yet programmatic: that purpose is to reveal to existing men and societies the true nature of being. Without this history, indeed, no society long endures. “The order of history,” so Voegelin’s first sentence in Israel and Revelation runs, “emerges from the history of order.”

In the view of this last school of historians, history is not law, in the sense of fixed fate, foreknowledge absolute; nor does it have “meaning” in the sense of providing a Grand Design for immanent improvement. A study of history reveals the general principles to which men and societies, in all ages, are subject; but it cannot confer upon the scholar a prophetic afflatus; it cannot describe the wave of the future. “For the ray of light that penetrates from an historical present into the past,” Voegelin writes, “does not produce a ‘meaning of history’ that could be stored away as a piece of information once for all, nor does it gather in a ‘legacy’ or ‘heritage’ on which the present could sit contentedly. It rather reveals a mankind striving for its order of existence within the world while attuning itself with the truth of being beyond the world, and gaining in the process not a substantially better order within the world but an increased understanding of the gulf that lies beyond immanent existence and the transcendent truth of being. Canaan is as far away today as it has always been in the past.” We tremble “before the abysmal mystery of history as the instrument of divine revelation for ultimate purposes that are unknown equally to the men of all ages.”

“Immanent” and “transcendent” are words that a reader must apprehend before he essays to fight his way into the learning of Israel and Revelation. The historian who espouses the cause of immanentization believes that the origin and end of everything in history, including mankind’s religions, is to be found within the world of sensation, the world apprehended by the average sensual man. The historian who takes the transcendental view believes that the origin and end of everything in history must be sought, often symbolically, in realities more than human and more than terrestrial. We might call the school to which Voegelin belongs the “transcendentalist school,” were there not danger of confounding the opinions of Voegelin and Emerson.

The historians of this latter school are at odds with Hegel’s concept of remorseless destiny operating in history, with Marx’s idea of the resolution of thesis and antithesis in a classless society, and with Toynbee’s endeavor to predict the coming of a new religion and a new society formed out of a worldwide synthesis. With Gabriel Marcel, the historian of this school—let us call it, for immediate purposes, the Christian school of historical scholarship— sets his face against “this crowned ghost, the meaning of history.”

For the ends of man and society are not to be found in history: those ends are transcendent, attaining fruition only beyond the limits of the time and the space which we know in this little world of ours. History has many meanings, but they are particular meanings for the regulation of private conduct and public polity, not a Gnostic plan for immanent regeneration before which we must abase ourselves. Who are the historians of this Christian school? To name three almost at random, St. Augustine, Bossuet, Edmund Burke. Voegelin is our present principal representative of this body of conviction, which he presents with system.

The term “Christian school” of historical scholarship is not entirely adequate, perhaps, for this theory of history is rooted in Judaic and Greek and Roman thought and experience, as well as in Christian doctrine and knowledge, and there exist parallels in other religions. But the fullest expression of this understanding of history is found among Christian thinkers. Voegelin stands for religious insight as opposed to “political religion,” ideology, which, he writes, is “rebellion against God and man.” Voegelin is no vulgarizer, but a scholar of such breadth and depth as the educational tendency of our age has made rare among us. His work requires interpreters, if it is to exert influence. Voegelin makes no concessions to theoretical illiteracy in our age: he takes for granted in his readers a familiarity with metaphysical terms, historical events, Biblical texts, and modes of reasoning which a pragmatic schooling neglects. Nor can he do otherwise: though he spreads his learning over several volumes, the field is so wide that he must sacrifice illustration and simplification, much of the time, to compactness and precision.

But Order and History cannot be ignored by anyone seriously concerned with our time of troubles. It should be read, as Voegelin recommends, “not as an attempt to explore curiosities of a dead past, but as an inquiry into the structure of the order in which we live presently.”

To employ a loose and risky analogy, history is a veil upon the face of a gigantic significance. The Christian historian, though denying the existence of any simple pattern of progress or cycles, running through history, nevertheless detects beneath the surface of events an intelligible structure. This, in Voegelin’s words, “is not a project for human or social action, but a reality to be discerned retrospectively in a flow of events that extends, through the present of the observer, indefinitely into the future. Philosophers of history have spoken of this reality as providence, when they still lived within the orbit of Christianity, or as List der Vernunft, when they were affected by the trauma of enlightenment. In either case they referred to a reality beyond the plans of concrete human beings —a reality of which the origin and end is unknown and which for that reason cannot be brought within the grasp of finite action.”

So history is a reality, but a veiled reality, of which our knowledge always is imperfect and upon which our mundane designs can operate only slightly. History is our tool only in the sense that we employ our knowledge of history to bring ourselves to an understanding and realization, so far as we may, of the principles of private and public order. When the first school of historians I described above—the “nothing-ever-happened” school—lifts the veil upon the face of the significance behind history, that school, like Titus’s soldiery in the Temple, finds the sanctuary empty—or, at best, inhabited only by Chaos and old Night. When the second school of historians—the positivistic school— lifts that veil, there looms up the voluptuous form of the Earthly Paradise. When the third school—the cyclical school—lifts that same veil, there stands revealed a species of clockwork, Ixion’s wheel, with humanity bound upon it. But when the fourth school of historians, the Christian or transcendental school, lifts the veil of history, there emerges a pattern of order, a body of enduring truth, the filtered wisdom of the species, the considered opinions and experiences of the many wise men who have preceded us in time: the normative consciousness. And this complex record is rendered intelligible by a strong and subtle thread running through it, the continuity of Providence. The significance behind the veil is not simply the corpus of worldly wisdom, but—still more important—the contract of eternal society which joins our mundane order to an abiding, transcendent order.

This is the understanding of history possessed also—with varying interpretations—by Reinhold Niebuhr, Leo Strauss, and other philosophical historians I have named already. This is a revived theory of history, transcending doctrinal barriers, which gives first consideration to religious knowledge and traditional belief and classical theories as means to the proper apprehension of history. Professor Butterfield, for instance, in his book Man on His Past affirms a faith in Providence which would have been astounding and shocking—but was not Christianity always a scandal?—to the rationalist and positivist historians of the nineteenth century, and which will wake indignation in many quarters today. Butterfield writes, “And here is a Providence which does not merely act (as Ranke’s Providence seemed to act) at marginal points or by remote control, but which touches all the details and the intimacies of life. . . . And we, too, need not be the slaves of our analytical methods—we may still praise God, and not merely do honor to scientific laws, at the coming of spring; and we may thank Providence rather than chance for those ‘conjectures’ which seem to matter so much both in life and in history.”

Yes, the climate of opinion among historians is clearing; and the work which may do more to effect a general revision of learned opinion than any other historical production of this century is Voegelin’s. Israel and Revelation treats of the order, spiritual and social, that arose among the people of Israel, in contrast with the cosmological order of the ancient empires; and it traces and analyzes the struggle between Israel as a faith and the kingdom of Judah. This is a work of original insight, sustained by a startling knowledge of the literary sources.

A young lion of political science, Mr. John Roche [1923–94]—an official intellectual apologist for the Johnson administration—once addressed a convention of his colleagues, and made it one of his claims to fame that he had not read The New Science of Politics, and did not intend to, because it seemed to be all about “someone called Saint Joachim of Flora,” and therefore irrelevant to political science; he would be even more dismayed by Israel and Revelation. Voegelin has his work cut out for him when he attempts to reason with minds of this cast; yet he may prevail.

Israel and Revelation, though concise and even witty, is no book for the historical dilettante. It pleases neither the social gospeller nor the Bibliolater. To criticize it properly would require a book as long as the volume itself. But possibly a very brief summary may suggest its importance. Human nature is a constant; and the same problems of order—order in the realm of spirit and order in society—arise in every civilization, from the anonymous “Dialogue on Suicide” of an Egyptian who died two thousand years before Christ, dismayed at the disorder of his age, to our own present discontents.

“Every society is burdened with the task, under concrete conditions, of creating an order that will endow the fact of its existence with meanings in terms of ends divine and human. And the attempts to find the symbolic forms that will adequately express the meaning, while imperfect, do not form a senseless series of failures. For the great societies, beginning with the civilizations of the Ancient Near East, have created a sequence of orders, intelligibly connected with one another as advances toward, or recessions from, an adequate symbolization of truth concerning the order of being of which the order of society is a part.”

The Kingdom of Judah became dust and ashes, but the revelation of divine and human nature which Israel received lies at the foundation of our whole present order.

Israelite history, Voegelin argues, cannot be received as a literal account of the events which occurred to the Israelite people. It is, rather, a symbolic history; and the deep truths of revelation commonly are expressed in symbol, not literally. In the symbol of the voice from out the Burning Bush, there was expressed a reality the cosmological empires had not known—and which Spengler and Toynbee, toiling in “the intellectual climate in which ‘religious founders’ were busy with founding ‘religions,’ when in fact they were concerned with the ordering of human souls,” still had not learnt many centuries after. What took place on Sinai was a leap in being, a revelation quite new in human experience; and any close examination of the literary sources will reveal that here commenced the historical form of existence in the present under God, with history as the symbolism of that form. Moses (as distinguished from the mythical Moses of the Deuteronomic Code) was not the “founder of a religion,” but the intermediary between man and the God previously unknown, who declared, “I am who I am.” The Israelites, the Chosen People, the collective Son of God, did not desire to be chosen; it is improbable that they understood the revelation when it came from the lips of Moses; indeed, throughout the history of Israel and Judah, the spiritual and temporal order was perplexed by confusion; and when the Temple fell, that misunderstanding was as baleful as ever. Here lay the difficulty: “In Israel the spirit of God, the ruach of Yahweh, is present with the community and with individuals in their capacity as representatives of the community, but it is not present as the ordering force in the soul of every man, as the Nous of the philosophers or the Logos of Christ is present in every member of the Mystical Body, creating by its presence the homonoia, the likemindedness of the community.”

The soul, to the Israelites, had no destiny beyond death; therefore the hope of Israel was fixed upon a mundane realization of Yahweh’s promises to Israel. Only the Remnant who followed the Prophets preferred the Spirit to the Letter, and were willing to sacrifice existential triumph to the keeping of the Covenant. But the Prophets, in their contest with the Kings, were hopelessly impractical, leaving no place to worldly wisdom; they were “torn by the conflict between spiritual universalism and patriotic parochialism that had been inherent from the beginning in the conception of a Chosen People.” Judah was doomed to dissolution, whatever her kings might do by way of compromise with the Baals and Ashtaroths. Yet “from the struggle for the bare survival of order in the soul of man emerged the Jewish community victoriously, both in its own right and a the matrix of Christianity.”

Emancipated from “ideological mortgages upon science,” Voegelin proceeds to trace the alteration of the prophetic understanding from Isaiah to Jeremiah. Isaiah, denouncing the king’s unfaithfulness to the moral ideal of Israel, refused to come to terms at all with existential circumstances; he expected faith alone to reconstitute the order of human personality and of society. This is what Voegelin calls “metastasis,” the will “to transform reality into something which by essence it is not . . . the rebellion against the nature of things as ordained by God.” In a much later age, this impulse expressed itself as Gnosis. “Isaiah, we may say, has tried the impossible: to make the leap in being a leap out of existence into a divinely transfigured world beyond the laws of mundane existence.” But Isaiah stopped short of an attempt to realize the Terrestrial Paradise by human endeavors. “If the prophets, in their despair over Israel, indulged in metastatic dreams, in which the tension of historical order was abolished by a divine act of grace, at least they did not indulge in tetastatic nightmares, in which the opus was performed by human acts of revolution.” Yet Jeremiah, going to his trial, passed beyond metastasis. “The great motive that had animated the prophetic criticism of conduct and commendation of the virtues had at last been traced to its source in the concern with the order of personal existence under God. In Jeremiah the human personality had broken the compactness of collective existence and recognized itself as the authoritative source of order in society.”

Jeremiah “had at least a glimpse of the terrible truth: that the existence of a concrete society in a definite form will not resolve the problem of order in history, that no Chosen People in any form will be the ultimate omphalos of the true order of mankind. . . . With Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s movement away from the concrete Israel begins the anguish of the third procreative act of divine order in history: the Exodus of Israel from itself.” The Deutero-Isaiah, with his song of the Suffering Servant, completes this Exodus from the cosmic-divine order of empire. God becomes known successively as Creator, as Lord and Judge of history, and as Redeemer. “The Servant who suffers many a death to live, who is humiliated to be exalted, who bears the guilt of the many to see them saved as his offspring, is the King above the kings, the representative of divine above imperial order. And the history of Israel as the people under God is consummated in the vision of the unknown genius, for as the representative sufferer Israel has gone beyond itself and become the light of salvation to mankind.” The Zadokite fragment and the Dead Sea scrolls prove that the symbol of the Suffering Servant was not forgotten, during the five hundred years that followed. In Israel, the prophets had shared the suffering of God; now, in Jerusalem, the greatest event in history was to be consummated: God was to share the suffering of man.

Yes, Voegelin’s work of scholarship will stick in the craws of the schools of historical theory still dominant; they may receive Israel and Revelation much as Jehoiakim received the scroll of Jeremiah, sent by Baruch: “It was in the wintry season, and a fire was burning before him in a brazier as an attendant read the scroll to him. Whenever three or four columns had been read, the King, who had listened in stony silence, would cut them off with his knife— and then Jehoiakim, the King of Judah, dropped the words of Yahweh, the King of Israel, on the brazier until the whole scroll was consumed by fire.”

This volume and its companions, the work of a man of intellectual power, boldly deny the assumptions of the hegemony of intellectuals. With Isaiah, its author seems to say:

“Thy wisdom and thy knowledge,
It hath perverted thee;
And thou hast said in thine heart,
I am, and none else beside me.”

This dreary loneliness of the modern ego, this denial of the divine guidance which is the source of all order in personality and in society, becomes the parent of fanatic ideology. From that isolation of spirit, Voegelin’s labor of historical and theoretical reconstruction is intended to redeem us.

Philosophers and Philodoxers

A philosopher aspires to teach wisdom; a philodoxer is a purveyor of doxa, illusory opinions and vain wishes. Out of the doxa comes disorder, in the soul and in the body politic. But eunomia, righteousness, the disciplined harmony of a man’s soul, Solon said, makes “all things proper and sensible in the affairs of men.” Eric Voegelin is a philosopher, as well as an historian and a professor of the nomos—that is, of institutions and traditions.

His knowledge of early civilizations and Old Testament scholarship, manifested in the first volume of Order and History, is equalled by his understanding of the Greek poets and philosophers whose thought is the subject of the two succeeding volumes, The World of the Polis (1957) and Plato and Aristotle (1957). Yet the serious reader of these two volumes might do well to turn, before opening them, to the one twentieth-century critic whose ends and convictions seem closest to Voegelin’s own: Paul Elmer More. For More was a more lucid writer, though Voegelin is the more thoroughgoing. In the concluding chapter of More’s Platonism, indeed, occurs a summary of Voegelin’s own intention clearer than any passage in the two volumes of Order and History concerned with the Greeks.

“It is a fact, sad and indisputable,” More wrote:

“that no one is more likely to call himself, or to be called by his admirers, a Platonist than the reformer with a futile scheme for the regeneration of the world, or the dreamer who has spurned the realities of human nature for some illusion of easy perfection, or the romantic visionary who has set the spontaneity of fancy above the rational imagination, the “fair soul” who has withdrawn from the conflict of life into the indulgence of a morbid introspection, or the votary of faith as a law abrogating the sterner law of works and retribution. Half the enthusiasts and inspired maniacs of society have shielded themselves under the aegis of the great Athenian. . . . If these are the only products of Platonism, then it is a pity the works of Plato were not lost altogether, with the books of so many other ancient philosophers, and we who busy ourselves with interpreting the Dialogues are merely adding to the sum of the world’s folly. But it is not so. It is with Platonism as with Christianity and every other strong excitement of the human heart. Liberty is the noblest and, at the same time the most perilous possession that can be given to mankind; and, unless we are prepared to silence the higher call of religion and philosophy altogether for the safer demands of a purely practical wisdom, we must expect, while we try to expose, the vagaries of minds made drunk with excess of enthusiasm. . . . ‘Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world.’”

In this endeavor justly to distinguish between the lovers of wisdom and the devotees of illusion (and, as More says, perhaps the best definition of a true Platonist is “a lover of distinctions”), we are handicapped by our imperfect terms, tools that snap in the hand; for nowadays, in our language, the wise man is caught with the label of the persons whom Plato opposed, the Sophists; while for “philodoxer,” the man whose desires override his righteousness, the perverter of the intellect, the ideologue, we have no precise equivalent in English. (“Sophist” expresses only in part the concept of the preacher of the doxa.) A principal portion of Voegelin’s labor is to restore a sound vocabulary to philosophy and politics. Nowhere, surely, is this restoration more important than in the discussion of Plato, the central figure in these two volumes. The Serbonian bog of controversy over The Republic, for instance, is watered by writers and teachers who do not understand their own words; who, as Voegelin observes, repeat in our century the errors of the muddled, well-meaning Old School Tie and of the arrogant “amoral” controversalists: “The way from the wellintentioned, but philosophically no longer sensitive generation, which translated the ‘good polis’ as an ‘ideal state,’ to the generation which attacks Plato as an ‘ideologue,’ is the way from Cephalus to Thrasymachus.”

Every serious discussion of order runs back, eventually, to Moses and Plato. Voegelin’s discussion of Plato is as interesting as his examination of Moses; and the controversy which it has begun to arouse may serve here to illustrate how the problem of order has become central in men’s minds once more.

Plato’s theories of justice and order have been variously criticized in different ages, the critics of any period tending to see in The Republic and The Laws the reflection of opinion and event in their own time, and to commend or denounce Plato as he seemed to sympathize with, or to oppose, their own climate of opinion. At the end of the last century and the beginning of this, Plato generally was approved of as an “idealist,” who commendably desired to shape this world nearer to our hearts’ desire: for this interpretation suited the humanitarian and melioristic inclinations of the dominant critical school among professors of philosophy and politics.

With the coming of the ideological struggles since 1917, however, the scholarly partisans of this or that particular twentieth-century brand of politics began to convert Plato into an ideologue; and most of them denounced him as a totalist, though some Socialists ventured to welcome Plato as a forward-looking advocate of social planning. A number of writers condemned Plato as a Communist; others, as a Fascist; The Republic and The Laws were assumed to be merely embryo versions of our own ideological tracts, and so were fitted into convenient pigeon-holes to Right and Left.

The most influential criticism of this sort has been that of Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and its Enemies (1950). Professor Popper, an old-school doctrinaire liberal, rationalistic and utilitarian, bitterly opposed to “myth” (in which he includes religion), warns all true democrats and liberals that Plato was a totalitarian, a Fascist, and a racist, an inveterate enemy of freedom. Popper makes no secret of his own hostility toward any long-established principle of order; for to him, equality, competition, and emancipation from tradition seem sufficient guarantees of “the open society.” What Popper never intended, his condemnation of Plato aroused a good deal of serious interest in Plato’s doctrines, and attracted a number of replies.

Intemperance of Popper’s sort, however, was not the only approach to Plato provoked by the troubles of this age. A temperate and learned classical scholar, David Grene, re-examined the political ideas of Thucydides and Plato as reflections upon an age of disorder remarkably similar to our own time. Mr. Grene understands clearly what Popper does not understand at all—the motive of Plato in writing The Republic: that is, to offer a decadent society, which had lost faith in its religion, its traditions, and its customs, a means to make possible once more the life of the soul and the life of civilization. Yet Grene, in his book Man in His Pride, sees two Platos, young and old, the Plato of The Republic and the Plato of The Laws, at loggerheads one with the other.

“In the Timaeus and Laws trilogy,” Grene writes, “the ideal state has become historical; somewhere in the past it can be thought of as having been, and its past actions can be imagined and fitted into a scheme which will lead all the way to the ‘best’ state of the future. But for the earlier Plato, the Plato of the Republic, there could be no assertion, lightly made, that his model city had been achieved, or even that it would be, exactly as outlined, the ‘best’ state for the future. The possibility of its actual existence meant far too much to him.”

In short, Grene believes that Plato meant his Republic to take on actuality in this world, and looks sympathetically upon Plato’s design—while Popper recoils in horror from the same prospect. “In the Laws,” Grene continues, “the importance of the actual historical past is gone; history can become myth rich in meaning, and myth, history; and both can point to the future, which has no hopes of fulfillment and no agonies of frustration.”

Now Voegelin, in his detailed analysis of Plato in the third volume of Order and History—possibly the most important section of his whole series—takes a position quite different from that of either Popper or Grene. Voegelin reasons, convincingly, that Plato’s intention and accomplishment is to teach obedience to the incarnate Truth; not to preach some dismal set of totalist dogmas, nor yet to bring into being an “ideal” state in his own time, but rather to reveal those principles of order in the soul and order in the commonwealth which make us truly human and which keep the knife from our throats.

“The philosopher who is in possession of the Truth should consistently go the way of Plato in the Republic; he should issue the call for repentance and submission to the theocratic rule of the incarnate Truth.” The Republic is an analogy or allegory of order, not a model constitution, though it will suggest reforms in the existential state; and there exists no opposition between Republic and Laws, but only a continuous development of the complex theme. Men cannot well remain pure in a corrupt society, Plato says repeatedly; nor can corrupt men maintain a high and just order. Therefore the problem of ordered soul and ordered state cannot be split into halves. Plato is seeking transcendent reality; his work is a leap in being, a glimpse of an eternal order, divinely ordained, which we must try to imitate in our souls and our institutions. “When the philosopher explores the spiritual order of the soul,” Voegelin says, “he explores a realm of experiences which he can appropriately describe only in the language of symbols expressing the movement of the soul toward transcendental reality and the flooding of the soul by transcendence. At the border of transcendence the language of philosophical anthropology must become the language of religious symbolization.”

Voegelin tells us, that is, with Plato, that order in society is possible only if there is true order in individual souls; and that there cannot be order in souls unless those souls, in some degree, know the author of their being and His intention for them. Plato writes in symbol, for there is no other way in which transcendent knowledge can be expressed; and, at its highest level, the truth about man and his state must be religious truth, and in some degree mystery.

From the age of Moses onward, there have been men—prophets or philosophers—who sought for the transcendent meaning in history: who groped for knowledge of the soul, and glimpsed in the record of history a divine meaning, a revelation of the way of God with man, and of the reality of the soul. Yet in Israel and in Athens, as today, there were men who, succumbing to doxa, endeavored to make immanent the transcendent symbols of order: to take by storm the Kingdom of Heaven, but to annex that Kingdom to an earthly realm, rather than to enter into eternity. Such were those Jews who hoped vainly that Judah would prevail in this world over her great enemies, and those Greek philodoxers who made power and success the objects of life, and those medieval Gnostics who looked for salvation and perfection in time and space, and those enthusiasts for the Enlightenment who expected the French Revolution to usher in the unending regime of universal happiness. Such are the “progressivists” and utopians of our own century, whether “liberal” or “totalitarian” in their factional affiliations. This is doxa: for human nature is not perfectible by human means, nor is society. And men intoxicated with doxa, even famous philodoxers, break up the order in personality when they blind men to the nature of the soul; and they upset the balance in any good society when they conjure up visions of desire satisfied which really are impossible of attainment.

So long as man is a mere part of nature, bound to this life and earth, impotent beneath mighty cosmological empires, he cannot tell or understand significant history: existence remains mere existence, a dog’s life, full of sound and fury, perhaps, but empty of meaning as the idiot’s tale; a simple bloody jumble of coronations and conquests. A leap in being is necessary for the ascent from cosmological myth to transcendent perception of the soul; and so there cannot be true history without this leap in being. Such a leap is not a mere “stage in cultural progress,” though of course, once accomplished, that leap produces enduring cultural changes. The nature of the leap varies from one people to another; and it is not a single leap which is required, but a series of leaps.

In Israel, the problems of order—that is, of human existence under God— were the concern of the prophets; and through the prophets came the leap in being. In Hellas, the problems of order—that is, of an enduring justice and its sanctions—were the concern of the poets and the philosophers; and through the poets and the philosophers came the leap in being. Revelation and reason both are ways to order, and by either can a transcending leap be achieved. But that leap is not the work of narrow logic; instead, it is accomplished by the higher imagination, by the perceptions of genius, by an intuition which transcends ordinary experience—by a means, in fine, which we cannot adequately describe with those tools called words. Neither the leap of Israel nor the leap of Hellas brought full knowledge of the transcendent order; it required the fusing of Jewish and Greek genius in Christianity for a leap still higher.

Among the Greeks, the leap in being was principally the achievement of Plato; yet Plato’s insight was attained only after the existential order of the polis was far sunk in decadence. Man’s dreadful experience of the decay of his society, from the dawn of things, has been an impelling motive to the search for an order that is not transitory. From terror, man learns that the existential order is not real order—that mere fleshly existence is not the end of all. He awakens, Voegelin says, “to the untruth of existence.” With St. Paul, man’s existence before the leap in being is only “opaque existence.” In Paul’s words, “I once was alive without the law.” The law is the nomos, which after the leap in being means not merely traditions and institutions, but norms, laws, that transcend things existential. Man awakens to his own nature, to his soul. Then he may “transform the succession of societies preceding in time into a past of mankind.” This does not end the struggle for the knowledge of order; it only makes the search for order intelligible. Mankind becomes conscious “of the open horizon of its future.”

The leaps of Israel and Hellas, roughly parallel in time and quite independent of each other, were achieved only after much travail, and the mass of men never really understood the nature of these discoveries; indeed, many of the learned and the clever sought to demolish the consciousness of the soul already acquired: such were the philodoxers. The power of the doxa is enormous. From early times in the Hellenic age, nevertheless, the Greek genius groped and toiled toward order: toward an apprehension  of divine purpose and divine justice, toward a moral order among men. The principal expressions of this search are the writings of Homer, Hesiod, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, the Old Oligarch, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle.

In Homer, the soul still is opaque; and so there can be no transcendence of the existential order. Achilles had rather be the meanest thrall in Boeotia than king among the shades. But Homer is struggling toward principles of order. In the disintegrated world of the ruined Mycenaean civilization, where Whirl seems master of all, where every moral tradition is broken, Homer—the blind one who sees—

“astutely observed that the disorder of a society was a disorder in the soul of its component members, and especially in the soul of the ruling class. . . . Without having a term for it, he envisaged man as having a psyche with an internal organization through a center of passions and a second center of ordering and judging knowledge. . . . And he strove valiantly for the insight that ordering action is action in conformity with transcendent divine order, while disruptive action is a fall from the divine order into the specifically human disorder. . . . But the historical process in which a society declines, as well as the infinitude of acts which in the aggregate of centuries spell destruction, had a pattern of their own that could not be described in terms of individual misdeeds. Homer had to face the problem that the day today causality of human action will explain the detail of the historical process but not its configuration. His answer to this mystery of the rise and fall of civilizations was the extraordinary Olympian assembly at which Zeus and Hera agreed on their program for the mdestruction of Mycenaean civilization, including both Trojans and Achaeans.”

Hesiod, too, tried to describe the divine justice, beneficent or retributory, which orders the universe. By mighty struggles, Zeus brought out of Chaos a precarious order. “Zeus rules the world, and with tremendous sway takes back tomorrow what he grants today.” The vengeance of Zeus visits the unjust upon earth. Though still encompassed by cosmological myth, Hesiod searches for an answer to the ills to which flesh is heir—an answer that must be more than the grip of Force and Power upon Prometheus. But Hesiod can discern no relief beyond the confines of the existential order; he is driven back upon the dream of an immanent salvation, as expressed in the fable of Pandora.

“The Hesiodian dream of no work, no hunger, no sickness, no old age and death, no women, lists the negatives of the experiences which are the principal sources of anxiety in human life. The paradise in this sense, as the dream of freedom from the burden and anxiety of existence, is a constant dimension of the soul that will express itself not only in the imagery of immortal existence in the beyond but generally pervades the imaginative occupation with a desirable state of mundane existence. One does not have to insist on coarse expressions that will first come to mind, such as the “freedom from want and fear” of the Atlantic Charter. More subtly, the dream is the dynamic component in the attempts to create an earthly paradise by reducing the hours of labor (no work), by getting a living wage (no hunger), and medical care (no sickness) for everybody, and by increasing the length of human life (no death). And even the problem that man is created both man and woman, while it can not be resolved, can be psychologically diminished to the famous ‘satisfaction of biological urges.’”

It will be observed from the preceding passage that Voegelin is no mere antiquarian in ideas. Human nature, and its difficulties, are constants; and the doxa of immanence springs eternal among men. Though ancient, it is nevertheless an error. A strong vein of passionate awareness runs through Order and History: a knowledge that the disorder of the smashed Mycenaean culture, and the disorder of the disintegrating polis of the fifth century, are one with the disorder of the twentieth century. And amid such disorder, there rises the figure of the philodoxer, “realistic,” sardonic, driven by pleonexia, discarding peitho (righteous persuasion) in favor of trickery or intimidation; impelled by his passions and low interests, his illusions, even at the moment he claims to speak as practical logician and champion of common sense. These are men of today— who, like their predecessors in history, would obtain in the confusion of a bent world the realization of their dream-lusts. Take this passage from Plato and Aristotle:

“The condition of Socrates touches upon a problem, familiar to all of us who have had experiences with rightist or leftist intellectuals. Discussion is indeed impossible with a man who is intellectually dishonest, who misuses the rules of the game, who by irrelevant profuseness seeks to avoid being nailed down on a point, and who gains the semblance of victory by exhausting the time which sets an inevitable limit to a discussion.”

Truly, it is history which teaches us the principles of order. It is the decay of men’s apprehension of transcendent order that brings on hubris and nemesis: that is, the collapse of existential order. The philodoxers are the precursors of the atrocity-men.

Those truths of reason and revelation which men painfully have obtained over many centuries, the philodoxer endeavors to demolish in a generation. Voegelin traces with care the ascent of Greek thought toward the leap in being which came with Plato: a long story, full of interest, full of tribulation. Xenophanes, breaking with the myth, declared that “One God is greatest among gods and men, not like mortals in body or thought.” Heraclitus set against “much-knowing” (polys) his “deep-knowing” (bathys); and if he did not attain to the height of transcendence, still he penetrated to the luminous depths of the soul: the mystic-philosophers had taken a leap in being, for they knew what Homer and Hesiod had not known, the soul as a source of knowledge. Solon taught the Athenians eunomia, righteousness, ordained by Dike, Justice. Doxa, Solon discovered, is the source of disorder; the passion of life, the doxa, must be disciplined for the sake of order, eunomia. “He passionately loves the magnificence and exuberance of life; but he experiences it as a gift of the gods, not as an aim to be realized by crooked means against the divine order.”

From Heraclitus onward, the Greek philosophers—though not the philodoxers—apprehended the life of the soul. The men of Homer’s time had known only the psyche, the life-force that departs with death, never to live after but in dreams. To Homer, a dead man was but a soma, a corpse. But the mysticphilosophers penetrated beyond the bounds of flesh. Their search for truth was continued in the tragedy: “The newly discovered humanity of the soul expands into the realm of action.” Aristotle, living in the decadence of tragedy, thought of the tragic art only as katharsis, purging of emotions, a kind of group-therapy. But for Aeschylus and Sophocles, Voegelin writes, tragedy was the opening of the soul to the conflicting demands of Dike: not, it is true, a leap to the revelation of God, but a descent to the depths of the soul where Dike may be found. The tragic hero cannot merely weigh utilitarian consequences, or seek practical advice from gods and men: he must search his soul. Only an audience capable at least of appreciating heroic action, if not of participating in it, could understand and support the tragic drama—and by Aristotle’s time, that audience was gone. But in the grand hour of Athens, Aeschylus and Sophocles spoke to men who still understood:

“The heroic soul-searching and suffering of consequences must be experienced as the cult of Dike, and the fate of the hero must arouse the shudder of his own fate in the soul of the spectator—even if he himself should succumb to his weakness in a similar situation. The binding of the soul to its own fate through representative suffering, rather than the Aristotelian catharsis through pity and fear, is the function of tragedy.”

At the moment when the tragic drama towered over Athens, nevertheless, the Sophists already were at their work: and among them, in politics at least, the greatest was Protagoras. Man is the measure of all things, Protagoras taught. He was by no means wholly a philodoxer, for Protagoras declared that reverence and justice must live in the soul of every man, or else the polis would perish; for Protagoras a man with a diseased soul brought disease to the polis, and ought to be put to death if, after five years of reformatory education, he should turn out incorrigible. Yet the general ethical tendency of the Sophists is sufficiently suggested in our word “sophistry”; and out of the struggles of Socrates and Plato against sophistry came the definitions of the Platonic virtues: justice, wisdom, fortitude, and temperance.

Against Protagoras, Socrates and Plato affirmed that God is the measure of all things. Here was the supreme Greek leap in being. Gorgias, another powerful Sophist, assailed Parmenides’ concept of Being; and Gorgias’ On Being is “one of the earliest, if not the very first, instance of the perennial type of enlightened philosophizing. Its arguments could be directed against all the symbols of transcendence.” For Voegelin, “enlightenment, with its eighteenth-century rationalistic associations, is no term of commendation.” Of the time of the Sophists, he writes, “We may say that the age indeed has a streak of enlightenment in so far as its representative thinkers show the same kind of insensitiveness toward experiences of transcendence that was characteristic of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century A. D., and in so far as this sensitiveness has the same result of destroying philosophy—for philosophy by definition has its center in the experiences of transcendence.”

Gomperz, in his Greek Thinkers (1901–12) made Socrates the leader of rationalistic Enlightenment. As Paul Elmer More says, this description is totally inadequate. Voegelin puts an end, probably forever, to the attempt of positivists and rationalists to claim Socrates for their own. “Whatever the formulations of the ‘historic’ Socrates may have been, the ‘essence’ of his identification of virtue with knowledge, as a principle in opposition to the Sophists, makes sense only if the distortions of time were meant to be corrected by the love of the measure that is out of time.” Socrates and Plato set to work restoring and elaborating the problems of order. Physis, nature, was not their light, but nomos, divine law.

David Grene calls Plato “the man in the duststorm.” He alludes to a passage in The Republic. Socrates is speaking of the philosopher in a decadent and violent age:

“He is like one who, in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along, retires under the shelter of a wall; and seeing the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content, if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good-will, with bright hopes.”

Yet Plato, like Socrates, did not sit perpetually in the shelter of a wall. His expeditions to Syracuse were only the most conspicuous examples of his endeavor to regenerate Greek civilization by a reform at once internal and external. Socrates died for the sake of speaking the truth; Plato came near to dying like his teacher. As the glory of Greece had gone down to ruin in the quarries of Syracuse, Plato aspired sternly to raise up that glory again, even with Syracuse as its center. In that existential effort, he failed; but in his transcendent effort—his erection of the symbols of transcendence, with God as the measure— he triumphed; and all his detractors, ancient or modern, have not wholly undone his work. His leap in being occurred in a society much corrupted; his science of order was preached amidst existential disorder. The recovery of order in the soul cannot be separated from the restoration of order in the body politic, Plato knew, for even the philosopher may be seduced by the degeneracy of his age; and the average sensual man finds it next to impossible to maintain the order of his soul if he dwells in a corrupt community.

“Society can destroy a man’s soul,” Voegelin observes, “because the disorder of society is a disease in the psyche of its members. The troubles which the philosopher experiences in his own soul are the troubles in the psyche of the surrounding society which press on him. And the diagnosis of health and disease in the soul is, therefore, at the same time a diagnosis of order and disorder in society. On the level of conceptual symbols, Plato expressed his insight through the principle that society is man written in larger letters.”

Plato was not an “idealist” in the sense that he entertained any notion of forcing upon a reluctant world some social trauma of his fancy. His Republic is a paradigm of the individual soul in harmony, not a scheme to be given actuality in positive law; Socrates says that the Republic, so far as it can be adapted to the world we know, can—nay, must—be modified. The Republic is a zetema, an inquiry, into the real nature of spiritual and social harmony. In Voegelin’s phrases, “It should be clear that the inquiry is concerned with the reality of order in soul and society, not with ‘ideals.’”

Plato was an inveterate foe to doxa—that is, to illusory social opinions, which attempt to force reality into a pattern that has no sanction in the nature of things. We moderns live in a political Babel, distorting Plato along with much else, Voegelin tells us:

“Within a few generations the Plato of the “ideal state” has been transformed into a ‘political ideologue.’ This astounding transformation will be intelligible if we see it in the light of Plato’s own analysis of social corruption. The generation which attributed to Plato the creation of an “ideal state” had no evil intentions. Ideals were quite respectable at the time, and to ascribe them to Plato was praise. But even at that time the evil was lurking, for in common parlance an idealist was an impractical person who indulged his subjective valuations in opposition to reality; and the connotation of subjectivity in ‘ideal’ undermined the objectivity of Plato’s inquiry into the nature of reality.”

Thus the passionate and confused modern critic Karl Popper—as the silliest example—ascribes to Plato precisely the doxa entertained by Plato’s sophistical adversaries. Perhaps this is not surprising: after all, the Athenian jury did just this in the trial of Socrates. But the Athenian jurors did not set up as professors of logic.

Voegelin’s close analysis of all the important Platonic dialogues, in scholarship the most valuable portion of these two volumes, cannot be examined here. It must suffice to quote from his concluding remarks, which serve to summarize both the purpose of his own study and the achievement of Plato: “Truth is not a body of propositions about a world immanent object; it is the world-transcendent summum bonum, experienced as an orienting force in the soul, about which we can speak only in analogical symbols.”

This was the endeavor and the method of Plato. It was the error—and perhaps even the malice—of Aristotle to treat Plato’s Ideas, in part, as if they were world-immanent data. But in a time that requires most urgently the restoration of the theory and the vocabulary of order, we cannot afford to misunderstand and misinterpret Plato’s end and method for the sake of a scholastic wrangle.

Aristotle’s partial immanentizing of Platonic Ideas resulted in an “intellectual thinning out. . . . The mystical via negativa by which the soul ascends to the vision of the Idea in the Symposium is thinned out to rise toward the dianoetic virtues and the bios theoretikos.” When symbols are treated as if they were objects of sensory experience, order is in imminent danger. “When the Christian idea of supernatural perfection through grace in death was immanentized to become the idea of perfection of mankind in history through individual and collective mass action, the foundation was laid for the mass creeds of modern Gnosis.”

The leap in being of the Hellenic philosophers was a great stride toward the apprehension of order; but, in this, unlike the Mosaic and prophetic leap in being, it did not disengage the order of history from cosmological myth. Both Israel and Hellas were to wait some centuries for the next leap in human consciousness of the soul and the order the soul dictates. They were to wait for the truth of perfection through grace in death, which idea Socrates foreshadowed, but did not fully express.

The philodoxers are with us still, and their name is legion; while our philosophers are few. Even among our professors of philosophy, there are not many who can understand Eric Voegelin, and fewer who will sympathize: for most of them, too, are philodoxers. We dwell in the disordered world of metaphysical madness that the fourth and fifth centuries knew; and for us, as for the Greeks, spiritual disorder brings on political anarchy. Yet Order and History will restore to some modern minds an understanding of transcendence. And some few may speak out, as did Socrates and Plato, in the teeth of the duststorm.


This was originally published in Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (La Salle, IL: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1969), 253–81.

Russell KirkRussell Kirk

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk (1918–94) was an American political theorist, historian, social and literary critic, known for his influence on 20th-century American conservatism. He is author of several books, but his 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the post–World War II conservative movement in the United States.

Back To Top