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Eric Voegelin’s “On Classical Studies”

Eric Voegelin’s essay “On Classical Studies” is, among the late published essays included in Volume 12 of his Collected Works, both the shortest piece, in terms of length, and the one that has been referenced in Voegelin scholarship on fewer occasions than the other Volume 12 pieces.[1]  Nevertheless, it is a pithy work that is attractive for its clarity, its precise comparison (in the form of a numbered listing) of the classic and modern perspectives on science, and its blunt critique of the academy as an institution.  The essay conveys the essential substance of Voegelin’s theory of man, consciousness, and history, and it suggests a specific course of action in the effort to restore order and genuine philosophy to the academy.  These features make the article accessible and especially helpful to those who are just starting out with Voegelin.  But perhaps these strengths might cause readers to overlook its interesting place within Voegelin’s expansive philosophic endeavor.

Unlike other essays in Volume 12, “On Classical Studies” offers little new in the way of, for example, a philosophic approach, analysis of some phenomena, or effort to symbolize the structure of existence.  In his correspondence, even Voegelin himself recalled the “chore” of developing the “notes” that he later published as “On Classical Studies.”[2]  Given the seemingly unremarkable circumstances and content of the short essay, I would like to suggest that a crucially significant, yet easy-to-overlook, feature of “On Classical Studies” is that, through it, Voegelin provided a model of the way of life guided by the quest for the truth of existence. Voegelin often considered the profound need that human beings have for a guide along the mysterious and strenuous quest for truth, and he conceived of his own quest as both a following and a leading.  As a following, Voegelin’s quest was deliberately situated in the experiential and theoretical framework of his own philosophic guides—the most important of whom was Plato.[3]

As a leading, Voegelin’s quest aimed to expand the experiential and theoretical framework for himself and others, and to adapt the framework to the particular social and historical situation of one’s own time.  In both its explicit arguments and its status as Voegelin’s concrete effort to reveal and to remedy levels of disorder, “On Classical Studies” invites us to consider the role of guidance within the genuinely philosophic life.  I suggest that “On Classical Studies” gives readers important insights into Voegelin’s response to various threats to the philosophic quest and presents us with an intellectual, ethical, and spiritual guide for engaging reality in its variety of levels in a way that is consistent, balanced, and genuinely erotic.

The present study begins with a brief examination of Voegelin’s approach to Plato, what he looked for and discovered in the writings of his ancient, yet ever-present guide.  The next section looks at the affinities between “On Classical Studies” and Platonic philosophy, especially in the concern to evoke a psychic response by clearly opposing order to disorder.  This section also raises the question of how Voegelin’s intensifying mystical philosophy of consciousness illuminates the effort of developing “On Classical Studies.”  In order to clarify that question, I consider the historical and experiential framework surrounding the “On Classical Studies” effort in conjunction with Voegelin’s deepening insights into the meaning of Plato’s symbols.  The study concludes with a consideration of how Voegelin’s response to the disorder of the academic institution reveals the strenuous effort to maintain a balanced consciousness.

Voegelin’s Platonic Philosophy  

On the occasion of “On Classical Studies” and throughout his life, Voegelin was concerned with the order of the soul and its relation to the meaning and purpose of human life.  He sought to understand how the soul’s order or disorder manifested itself in the concrete features of history and society and its impact on the practices of science and politics.  In his effort to clarify these relations, Voegelin recognized that he would need to look beyond the particular perspective on the soul that dominated the milieu of his day.  Therefore, he turned to the ancients and to Plato in particular for guidance and insight into the order of the soul because he thought that what Plato had accomplished in his dialogues was, in most ways, the paradigm for the genuinely philosophic life.[4]

In “On Classical Studies,” Voegelin looked at the situation of the academy and traced its many symptoms of decline to its refusal to recognize the philosophic guidance that Plato and the ancients had to offer.  Due to the academy’s ignorance, indifference, or hostility to it, the wisdom of the ancients—which involves the passions as well as the intellect—ceased to be a guiding influence.  Voegelin’s immediate goal for the essay was that it serve as a clarion call to remember the psychic substance of the ancient wisdom so that it could become the basis for a renewal of science and spirit in the academy.  The call to remember was issued in the essay’s explicit claims and its form and also in the example Voegelin himself provided through his persistence in preparing it.  All these aspects converge into a powerful challenge to the academy to re-appropriate its critical obligation to pursue the truth of the soul in quest for its ground.

A brief sketch of three important features of Voegelin’s complex engagement with Plato will help to demonstrate the Platonic character of Voegelin’s activity in “On Classical Studies.”[5]  First, Voegelin understood Plato’s dialogues to be active responses to the social and spiritual breakdown of his time—especially the destructive influence of the Sophists—that aimed to change the situation in tangible ways.  As efforts of restoration, Plato’s dialogues intend to analyze and to understand (or “to diagnose”) the full contours of disorder and to counter (or “to remedy”) it by revealing the absurd conclusions of sophistic arguments and promoting the quest for truth as the genuine moral and theoretical obligation of every human life.

In other words, the dialogues are meant to create real order in souls by bringing into high relief the dangerous forces that threaten psychic health.  Importantly, Plato’s resistance to sophistic disorder and his positive effort to orient souls toward order and truth were conducted through powerful symbols that activated the pathos, or the experiential core of the soul.  In other words, Plato’s symbols could communicate meaning precisely because they arose out of and could evoke universal, though essentially ineffable, experiences of psychic order.  Plato, Voegelin thought, sought to guide individuals and the community to the objective and unchanging measure of political and intellectual health.

Second, Voegelin thought Plato’s science emerged out of Plato’s fuller consciousness of the tensional structure of reality.  Plato was aware that reality has multiple layers and facets, spanning infinitely beyond the capacity of human knowledge.  Even so, reality is luminous to human psyche because psyche, too, is a participation in reality’s transcendent ground.  Plato’s willingness to follow the guidance of the soul’s participatory experiences of the transcending order of the divine ground of being became the basis for his science of order.  By contrast, Plato’s sophistic contemporaries neglected or rejected altogether the reality of the soul and its orientation toward the transcendent ground, concerning themselves with merely arbitrary goods such as wealth or power.  Such a partial view of reality leads to the false opinion that problems in politics and society are fully intelligible and soluble in strictly immanent terms.  As that fallacy is taken for science and gains in popularity, the society that accepts it slips further into political, intellectual, and spiritual decline, arriving finally at the point where it becomes necessary to construct fictitious accounts of reality designed to convince reason itself that its suspicion of the fallacy is misplaced.  The will to impose upon reality, rather than to accept its guidance, precludes science, the “search for truth concerning the nature of the various realms of being.”[6]

On Voegelin’s reading, Plato’s acute sensitivity to the transcendent reality of the soul and its experiences of the tension of existence was the foundation of a new science of order—psychic, concrete, and historical—that could clarify misconceptions and supply objectively-verifiable solutions to problems of society and politics.  Plato endeavored to expand and to analyze those guiding experiences of transcendence, recognizing them as the forces that give order and direction to human intellect and illuminate the objects of scientific inquiry.  According to Voegelin, Plato’s consciousness of the soul’s orientation toward the transcendent ground of being that penetrates and directs human intellect provided an empirically-sound basis for evaluating the chaotically fluctuating popular opinions about the structure and purpose of human life. From this crucial insight into the structure of consciousness and its participation in the greater structure of existence, Plato could subject all sorts of common symbols, experiences, concepts, and ideas to analysis, exegesis, and critical inquiry in order further to clarify the various levels of being that are present to human psyche.  Moreover, the experiential and reflective insights could reveal the problematic features of socially dominant, yet inadequate, symbols in a compelling and objectively-verifiable way.

Finally, for Voegelin, Plato was a mystic, and Voegelin’s engagement with Plato was mystical.  Platonic philosophy was best understood as a meditative inquiry into nothing short of the entirety of being, an inquiry that would reveal the proper order of human life as the loving submission to the guidance of the divine ground of being that penetrates, illuminates, and forms consciousness.  The profoundest insights emerging out of this meditative inquiry had the character not of doctrines, propositions, or fixed truths, but rather of luminous mysteries—insights that surpass the capacity of reason and language, but which communicate existential obligations that make sense to the searching psyche.  In order to examine and to communicate these insights in a manner coherent with the tensional process and structure from which they emerge, the philosopher must struggle to evoke further experiences of reality and must recognize that the essentially ineffable insights cannot be reduced to doctrines, concepts, or ideas.  Consequently, any genuinely philosophical endeavor is predicated upon a keen awareness of limitations and the inability to grasp reality finally or comprehensively.  To accept in openness—that is, without offence or denial—such limitations, and therefore the perennial need for guidance, is the moral requirement of philosophy.

In sum, Voegelin’s engagement with Plato yielded three crucial insights into the genuine philosophical endeavor: first, it responds to concrete disorder with resistance directed to the level of the pathos; second, it promotes the order of the soul in tension toward the divine ground of being as the basis for science; and, third, it is a mystical quest that illuminates reality and consciousness only partially, therefore demonstrating philosophy’s permanent reliance upon divine guidance and serious concern to guide others toward the transcendent reality that brings moral and intellectual order to human life.

“On Classical Studies” as a Platonic Effort

The specific aims and significance of “On Classical Studies” must be understood in light of these Platonic features.  First, the essay diagnoses a particular disorder—namely, the pervasive academic hostility to the life of reason as understood by classical philosophers—and contrasts it with a paradigm of health—viz. “the effort of the Greeks to arrive at an understanding of their humanity.”[7]  In this way, Voegelin followed Plato’s example of opposing order to disorder in the hope that the opposition itself will generate the psychic anxiety that attests to the problem and initiates the search for a remedy.  In “On Classical Studies,” the opposition takes the form of a numbered enumeration of the scientific and existential distinctions between the classics and the moderns.  Of crucial importance is the manner of the enumeration, which, in order to generate a serious psychic response from modern readers, had to be pedantically blunt.  Take, for example, the distinction as it pertains to education:

“Classic: Education is the art of periagoge, of turning around (Plato). Modern: Education is the art of adjusting people so solidly to the climate of opinion prevalent at the time that they feel no “desire to know.” Education is the art of preventing people from acquiring the knowledge that would enable them to articulate the questions of existence.  Education is the art of pressuring young people into a state of alienation that will result in either quiet despair or aggressive militancy.”[8]

Because the modern insensitivity to questions of humanity had escalated so far, Voegelin must explicitly call attention to his technique and invoke an image of gross evil in order to communicate what is at stake in the opposition:

“Moreover, the conflicts have been formulated in such a manner that the character of the grotesque attaching to the [modern] deformation of humanity through the climate of opinion becomes visible.  The grotesque, however, must not be confused with the comic or the humorous.  The seriousness of the matter will be best understood, if one visions the concentrations camps of totalitarian regimes and the gas chambers of Auschwitz in which the grotesqueness of opinion becomes the murderous reality of action.”[9]

Voegelin closely followed Plato’s guidance in terms of the appropriate method of generating experiences of anxiety.  But in adapting to the exigencies of the modern psyche, Voegelin did not imitate Plato simply, for that would belie the entire substance of Platonic philosophy which consists in the exploration and revelation of the transcendent reality itself, not the method by which it is known.  Theoretically and morally, the philosopher is obliged to be a guide as well, which Voegelin did by employing symbols like Auschwitz and by presenting the opposition with unmistakable starkness.[10]  As I discuss below, especially at this time in his life, Voegelin preferred the language of philosophic myth to propositional claims, but his approach in “On Classical Studies” followed Plato’s example in its recognition that the genuine philosopher must often find himself a reluctant guide—forced to lead in a manner that coincides not with his own insight, but rather with the limited capacity of those who depend on him for the health of their souls.

A second way in which Voegelin’s engagement with Plato guides “On Classical Studies” is evident in Voegelin’s effort to provide a scientific understanding of the situation of the academy by tracing its concrete features back to configurations of the psyche in response to its experience of the tension of existence.  As with Plato before him, Voegelin conceived of elemental, or concrete, disorder as a symptom of the larger problem of a foreshortened understanding or hostile rejection of reality—especially its psychic or transcendent dimensions.[11]

Voegelin’s brief critical-scientific analysis of the general confusion within and about the academy, especially concerning “the purposes and prospects” of classical studies, begins, therefore, with a survey of the elemental disorder present not only in the particular institutions—universities or colleges that have a basic structure, set of practices, and ethos—that carry out academic purposes, but also in the broader sense of the academy as a social entity that claims to be the bearer and representative of the pursuit of science and learning.[12] The concrete, observable, and physical indications of disorder in the academy included: the “fragmentation of science through specialization,” the “deculturation of Western society” and the fact that its protagonists are “firmly established” in the universities, the reduction of Classical studies to “enclaves in vast institutions of higher learning in which the study of man’s nature does not rank high in the concerns of man,” the “hostility” to and “waning institutional support for the life of reason,” the “fanatically accelerated destruction of the universities since the Second World War,” the international student revolt, the turning of students against professors, and students’ resort to “uncritical violence.”  Beyond these indications of the crisis facing the academy, Voegelin goes on to notice that:

“No critical attack on the insanity of the ‘age’ can be more devastating that the plain fact that men who respect their own humanity, and want to cultivate it as they should, must become refugees to the megalithicum, or Siberian shamanism, or Coptic papyri, to the petroglyphs in the caves of the Ile-de-France, or to the symbolisms of African tribes, in order to find a spiritual home and the life of reason.”[13]

Any thoughtful observer, Voegelin thought, ought to be repulsed by the absurdity of an academy that derides the classics, deplores the essentially human questions, and refuses even to attempt to persuade ignorant students to pursue knowledge but does not hesitate to encourage their violent defense of their opinions.  But within the climate of opinion, even the common sense basis for a response of repulsion was anathema.  The life of reason, therefore, stood hardly a chance: that “ineluctable condition of personal and social order” necessary for a correct theoretical and moral response to the academic crisis had been destroyed.[14]

Voegelin explained the breakdown of reason as a manifestation of the uniquely modern disease of the psyche, the libido dominandi.  The libido dominandi that runs rampant in the academy is what prevents scientific inquiry into the nature of man that was the core concern of classical Greek philosophy, and which is the pursuit that justifies the existence of the academic institution.  Voegelin explained thus:

“The public interest has shifted from the nature of man to the nature of nature and to the prospects of domination its exploration opened; and the loss of interest even turned to hatred when the nature of man proved to be resistant to the changes dreamed up by intellectuals who want to add the lordship of society and history to the mastery of nature.  The alliance of indifference and hatred, both inspired by the libido dominandi, has created the climate that is not favorable to an institutionalized study of the nature of man, whether in its Greek or any other manifestation.”[15]

In other words, the academy’s hostility to classical studies is a rejection of the insights into the nature of man discovered by the ancient Greeks—especially the insight into human nature as conditioned by existence in the metaxy.  The 6th point in Voegelin’s list (which is the lengthiest and contains historical commentary) explains the nature of the Greeks’ theoretical and moral approach to the tension of existence, and the modern counterposition:

“Classic: The feeling of existential unrest, the desire to know, the feeling of being moved to question, the questioning and seeking itself, the direction of the questioning toward the ground that moves to be sought, the recognition of the divine ground as the mover, are the experiential complex, the pathos, in which the reality of divine-human participation (metalepsis) becomes luminous. The exploration of the metaleptic reality, of the Platonic metaxy, as well as the articulation of the exploratory action through language symbols, in Plato’s case of his myths, are the central concern of the philosopher’s efforts.  Modern: The modern responses to this central issue change with the ‘climate of opinion.’”[16]

The Greeks sought to understand man’s nature and, to that end, they accepted the terms of the quest, strenuous though they were.  Reality reveals itself through the mysterious process that confronts the questioner with increasing apperception of the tension of existence, and the contents of its revelations place firm limits on human freedom and perfectibility.  The Greeks, in other words, were able to accept the guidance of transcendent truth, which they recognized as the force of order and truth in the human intellect and which “culminated in the Platonic-Aristotelian creation of philosophy as the science of the nature of man.”[17]  But, in a trajectory that Voegelin traced from Locke, through Hegel, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, the experiential core of philosophy has given way to the public interest that favors opinion (doxa) over science (episteme).[18]

To accept guidance is precisely what the libido dominandi most abhors.  Faced with the moral and theoretical implications of the Greeks’ scientific insight into human limits—not to mention the political ones, which run counter to democracy and its value of public opinion—and with the indelible persistence of the question concerning human nature, the intellectuals who dream to dominate nature, society, and history must resort to constricting the purview of Classical studies, denying their institutional relevance, and suppressing the perennial questions that animate them.  Because the modern libido dominandi desires what reason itself recognizes as impossible—to establish a “perfect realm of freedom … in history,” a plain contradiction to the psyche’s constituent apperception of the existential threat to its order—it must vigorously deny that “man exists in erotic tension toward the divine ground of his existence.”[19]  Instead, abandoning even the remnant of persistent community contained in Protagoras’ ancient formulation, the modern libido dominandi asserts with respect to man’s existence in erotic tension, “He doesn’t; for I don’t; and I’m the measure of man.”[20]

In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin made a point of the importance of “a tradition of intellectual culture,” reminding readers that, “Science is not the singlehanded achievement of this or that individual scholar; it is a co-operative effort.”[21]  The libido dominandi, therefore, precludes scientific insight not only because it denies the truth of metaleptic reality and its revelations, and thereby disorders the activity and conclusions of the intellect, but also because, in making itself—in all its particularity—the ultimate measure, it destroys the community of the intellect that provides the guidance necessary for effective scientific and theoretical inquiry.  Once the intellectual community united in its participation in the divine ground has been destroyed, the modern climate succumbs to and often embraces the “fact” of pluralism, the hegemony of opinion, and, finally, the utter denial of the need or possibility of a scientifically-valid account of man whatsoever.[22]  Within the prevailing hostility to Classical studies, rightly understood—as the strenuous theoretical and moral quest for truth—lies the danger that reason itself will cease to guide the educational process at all.  Arbitrary and dangerous urges threaten to assume the status that rightly belongs to the life of reason and genuine scientific insight, a situation that, left unchecked, would lead to the destruction of the life of the academy.

The similarities between Voegelin’s denunciation of the diseased climate of opinion in “On Classical Studies” and Plato’s counter to the Sophists are numerous.  Like Plato before him, Voegelin wrote with an aim beyond description or discussion: he sought to restore concrete order to a situation of grave disorder.[23]  And like Plato, Voegelin wrote from the perspective of one who profoundly suffered both the pragmatic and psychic consequences of the disorder.  Voegelin’s scientific approach to the nature, extent, and implications of concrete disorder was Platonic in character, endeavoring to understand the elemental in connection to the broad perspective of a science of the soul oriented to the divine ground—to which Voegelin added his further insights into the philosophy of history.  His fuller consciousness perceived the heights of health and order possible for the soul, but in so doing, made Voegelin’s perception of the psychic depths into which the academic climate had plunged all the more painful.

Finally, as with Plato before him, Voegelin’s quest to understand the implications and obligations of metaleptic existence became increasingly subtle and mystical as his psychic attunement to transcendence intensified.[24]  This last point is crucial to my claim that the great achievement of “On Classical Studies” is what it teaches, by way of example, concerning the role of guidance in the philosophic life.  In some respects, the trajectory of Voegelin’s late mysticism ran counter to that of the short essay that concerns itself with pragmatic institutions and concrete manifestations of disorder, and therefore complicates our understanding of Voegelin’s intents and purposes in writing the essay.  As Voegelin opened himself to the mystical aspects of consciousness’s quest for the divine ground—especially in the later years of his career, when “On Classical Studies” was written—he became acutely aware not only of the grim prospects for a renewed engagement with the wisdom of the ancients (even under “the respectable cover” of the historical sciences), but also of any effort—including his own—to reform an institution so badly damaged as the academy.

In order, therefore, to understand the full significance of “On Classical Studies” as an activity motivated by Voegelin’s most profound apperceptions of metaxy existence, we must consider two aspects of Voegelin’s late approach to the philosophic obligation to guide others toward existential truth.  The first is the historical and experiential framework from within which Voegelin penned “On Classical Studies.”  Voegelin’s correspondence (published in Volume 30 of his Collected Works) provides a glimpse into this framework and raises the question whether writing this 9-page essay was not really a feat of considerable existential exertion.  And the second is Voegelin’s evolving understanding of Plato’s late mystical insights into the relationship between existential order and disorder, which continued to guide Voegelin’s efforts to diagnose and to heal the modern psyche.[25]

Of course, the effort to establish a strict delimitation of either one of these aspects from the other is neither possible nor desirable, for each influences and is influenced by the other in a constantly-developing process, and both overlap in terms of history and experience.  As events in Voegelin’s life provided new perspectives into the conditions of existence, he was able to perceive subtler and deeper layers of meaning in Plato’s evocative symbolization of metaxy existence.  And as he reflected on the further existential insights evoked by Plato’s symbols in light of his own meditative-philosophic effort, Voegelin began to recognize both the expansive gap between himself and his counterparts in the academy as well as the distressingly low capacity of human psyche to tolerate the ordering force of the metaleptic encounter.  Voegelin’s letters, a few of which specifically address the “On Classical Studies” essay, convey his sense of resignation—based on painful personal experience as well as critical analysis—about the possibilities for restoring order to the academic establishment.

Nevertheless, Voegelin, again like Plato his guide, would continue to engage in nothing less than an urgent battle to guide the souls of the young out of the climate of opinion that sought to deform them.  And he did not abandon the institution which—though severely damaged—still had to be the theatre of the battle.  Remarkably, when faced with the temptation to make a spiritual leap beyond the academy, Voegelin responded in submission to the theophanic event, even accepting the possibility that improvement in the climate might require the transfer of the philosophic quest from the symbols of the ancient Greek philosophers to those in use in the comparative and historical sciences.  “In the cultural history of Western society,” Voegelin argued, “the splendid advance of the historical sciences has become the underground of the great resistance to the climate of opinion.”[26]

Classical studies are still important within the academy, and Voegelin maintained that the Greek wisdom had set the standard for the exploration of metaleptic reality, but classical studies would no longer hold its position of preeminence as the institutional force of the study of the nature of man.  They would, rather, have the diminished position as a one participant among many in a broader, shallower approach to the philosophic quest.  Although this might have felt to Voegelin as a surrender of the most disturbing sort, it was a forceful preservation of the balance of consciousness he developed through his experiences with institutional failures and his mystical exploration of the serious play of human existence.  To suffer the academy to conduct its resistance on a lower level was Voegelin’s act of existential restraint.   Let us now turn to the letters relevant to the philosophic effort of “On Classical Studies.”

The Historical and Experiential Framework of “On Classical Studies”: The Michigan Center Meeting

“On Classical Studies” was published in 1973, but Voegelin developed “the notes”—his characterization of the essay—in the Spring of 1971 for the meeting of the Michigan Center for Coordination of Ancient and Modern Studies.[27]  Before the meeting, Voegelin wrote to the director, Professor Gerald Else, expressing his “greatest pleasure” in accepting an invitation to attend the meeting that he thought would be “fruitful” and “productive,” and an “absolutely necessary” scholarly endeavor.[28]  In anticipation of the first planning meeting for the conference, he attached a list of topics that he thought would generate rich discussion.  These reflected his interests in the political-theological and historical concerns animating works such as The New Science of Politics and Order and History (as it was initially conceived), namely, the types of empire, their politics and expansion, experiences of alienation, and dogmatic ideology.  What is significant is that between the time that he accepted Professor Else’s invitation and the time of the formal meeting where he delivered the lecture later published as “On Classical Studies,” Voegelin abandoned those original discussion points almost completely.

The planning meeting went well, and afterward Voegelin wrote to his friend Friedrich Engel-Janosi, about the efforts of Professor Else and others, noting optimistically that “the intellectual climate is in fact changing drastically,” and “Even in the universities, intelligent people are beginning to stir.”[29] In his mind, the political and intellectual situation in America gave reason for hope. “In all corners,” he wrote, “people are beginning to comprehend that the era of expansive euphoria . . .  is past.”  He thought he saw the beginnings of a “revolution,” and he was pleased to participate in the meeting with Else and the other classical philologists who “felt the urgent need to make noticeable the weight of their classical knowledge in the treatment of the problems of [their] time.”  He concluded his reflections with the hopeful prediction that, “in one or two years the undertaking that [Gerald] Else started should bring quite interesting results.”[30]  As with the original plan of discussion topics, the character of Voegelin’s initial response to the opportunity of the Michigan meeting and his aspirations for its restorative prospects are important to consider when attempting to discern the moral and philosophic effort of “On Classical Studies” for the obvious reason that not one of them prevailed upon the final form of the essay.

Obstacles at the Michigan Center and the Hoover Institution

By November of 1970, Voegelin’s optimism waned as a number of situations hindered his ability to confront the spiritual turmoil of the academy with full vigor.  Not only had both Voegelin and his wife suffered health problems, but several institutions with which Voegelin was associated confronted significant obstacles.  The Hoover Institution, which Voegelin had hoped to develop into an international “crystallising center” for a new “science in the Philosophy of Man, Society, and History,” faced a severely restricted budget that led, in turn, to frustrated plans, indefinite delays, and Voegelin’s admission that “the situation is dark.”[31] Revealing his diminished enthusiasm, he wrote:

“My eagerness in this matter, however, is only middling.  I think that with every day such an organization here at the Hoover becomes more necessary, considering the general mess in this field in the Universities; but I realize that it would take quite a bit of my time and energy to go in for it with a serious effort.”[32]   

The financial situation at the Hoover Institution was not an isolated event; the Michigan Center was affected too.  Upon learning this, Voegelin wrote to Professor Else, expressing his frustration: “I am quite indignant that the savings should start exactly where valuable work is done.”[33]  The letter (written in late November, 1970) is significant because it contains, in brief form, the essential points of the published version of “On Classical Studies,” which are a full departure from Voegelin’s original plan of discussion topics.  As noted earlier, Voegelin had been keen to discuss more concrete manifestations of the intersections between historical, political, and theological forces, but this letter aims directly at the academy: its loss of classical reason amidst a degenerate climate of opinion, its urgent need to consult the ancients in order to help guide it back to health, its ideological closure to the meaning of the student revolt, and its depriving the young of the knowledge to which they are entitled.  The letter also shows the initial stirrings of the pathos that, in his lecture at the meeting and in the published essay, culminated into his intensely-personal denunciation of the forces that threaten to destroy the philosophic quest and the spiritual recalcitrance of a corrupt academic institution, and his evocative symbolization of the existential toll those forces impose on the genuine lover of wisdom.  Voegelin’s letter is therefore worth quoting at length:

“What you and your colleagues are doing is an attempt at bringing the resources of philology and classical history to bear on the understanding of contemporary problems.  That is indeed the central issue for our time, since the loss of classical rationalism is the primary cause of intellectual disorder. . . .”

“Ever since the 18th century, every major philosopher has tried to go back to the classics in order to reintroduce their knowledge into a climate of opinion that has been badly damaged by the degeneration of metaphysics and theology.  In our century these attempts have been renewed again and again … with signal success for the restoration of our knowledge in science, and almost equally signal failure to penetrate the brazenness of the ideologies dominant in our universities.  Not even the student revolt against a university which deprives them of the knowledge every young man has a right to acquire, has made a noticeable dent in the anti-intellectualism of our so-called intellectuals. . . .”

“For almost fifty years now, I am plagued by the difficulty that we have no intellectual instruments for the interpretation of contemporary social, especially revolutionary, phenomena.  This is more than a personal complaint, for the inability of the professional social scientists to understand what is going on all around them, and under their very noses, is one of the major causes of intellectual and spiritual disorientation in Western society at large.  Only the concerted efforts of the kind you have taken upon yourself hold some hope to overcome this miserable situation. . . .”

“With my fervent hope that the trouble of the moment will clear up . . .[34]  

Voegelin’s optimism concerning the institutional structure of the academy had given way to ambivalence.  To be sure, Voegelin still recognized the potential of the Michigan Center meeting (and the successes of similar conferences), but the personal impact of the steadily-increasing momentum of the centuries-long trajectory of spiritual and theoretical failure tempered Voegelin’s hope for that potential to develop into an effective counter to the dominant climate of opinion.

The Munich Institute: Voegelin’s Platonic Founding and its Decline

The setbacks at Hoover and Michigan were not particularly extraordinary.  Nor do they sufficiently explain Voegelin’s increasing ambivalence: he had more grit than that.  But, when the resistance Voegelin encountered at Hoover and Michigan are placed in the larger context, they are as “icing on the cake,” so-to-speak.  For around the same time, Voegelin suffered an enormous and personal blow to his restorative effort: the impending institutional and spiritual collapse of the Geschwister Scholl Institute, or the Institute of Political Science in Munich.[35]  The collapse of Munich, which spanned the time of the preparation and publication of “On Classical Studies,” is the last and most important of the events that constitute the historical and experiential framework for the essay.

Not long after he had expressed his hope for a renewal within the academy (he first wrote to Professor Else in December of 1969), Voegelin returned to Munich to visit the Institute that he had established—and which he guided from 1958 through 1969—in order to be the concrete vehicle through which to counter the “spiritual desolation” that pervaded the German academy.  Through the Institute, he had hoped to kindle an effective “revolution of the spirit”—a “precondition for being able to judge the past critically” and for the translation of “the life of the spirit into the life of society.”[36]  And, under Voegelin’s careful guidance, the Institute was largely successful in that endeavor.  In 1966, despite a general increase of “the provincialism that was the matrix of Hitlerism,” Voegelin was able to write, ‘It seems, however, that the powers of darkness will have to submit to light—at least as far as the Institute is concerned.”[37]

For Voegelin, the endeavor at Munich was his own iteration of Plato’s exemplary efforts to counter the disorder of the polis by illuminating the truth of the soul to the young, and the equivalency of the experience became the basis for a new level of existential communion between Voegelin and his ancient guide.[38]  Plato, Voegelin argued, had founded the Academy “as the institutional instrument by which the spirit can wedge its way back into the political arena and influence the course of history.”[39]  With Munich, Voegelin had a unique opportunity to do as Plato had done, advancing the philosophic quest concretely and spiritually.  Reflecting later on his role in the Institute, Voegelin recounted:

“I not only had to create the institute’s structure and deliver lectures, I also had to train the next generation of political science professionals.  I went about this task of education, which was both a great joy and a great labor, on the assumption that one day these young people would continue the work I had begun.  The success we enjoyed went well beyond anything we might reasonably have had a right to expect.”[40] 

Moreover, in language that mirrors his exegesis of Plato’s Republic, Voegelin went on to describe the Institute’s success in providing the young with the intellectual and spiritual guidance they longed for:

“From my experience [in Munich] I know that the young are open, that, in the contemporary intellectual confusion, they both seek and accept help and guidance.  As soon as they have understood that hard work is necessary in order to gain the freedom and order of a truly human existence, they are ready to work hard to acquire the intellectual weapons needed in order to resist the pressures of the intellectual mad house in which they have been raised.  Success was especially apparent with those with whom I was able to work for a number of years.  They were no longer theoretically helpless in the face of aggressive ideological nonsense.  I was able to observe that in their contact with students, of whatever ideological or temperamental form, they were intellectually prepared for every confrontation.  They neither succumbed to the stupor of ideological excitation, nor were they compelled to utter vapid banalities because they had not learned something better.  They were able to resist and, in doing so, became helpers themselves.”[41]

Little by little, however, what Voegelin had accomplished at the Munich Institute gave way, and, by the Fall of 1970, various “powers of darkness” that had long threatened it could no longer be held at bay.  Voegelin’s visit in October to Munich left him “very depressed,” and in November he wrote that “In the Institute things look rather distressing.  . . . The situation is perhaps best characterized by the fact that in eight days in Munich I didn’t talk with anyone about a theoretical problem but only heard information on personal intrigues in the battle for positions, little stories and anecdotes.”[42]  The letter to Else (cited above) that contained, in basic form, the new trajectory of “On Classical Studies” was written just after Voegelin saw for himself that what remained at Munich was no more than the shell of the vital, Platonic substance Voegelin had implanted there.  The smarting of Voegelin’s wound might have been assuaged by the strengthening of the psychic bond with Plato, who also suffered similar failures, but its profound impact on Voegelin’s attitude toward the academic institution was indelible.

Voegelin’s Judgment of the Munich Institute: the Letter to Dr. Herwig

By December of 1971, the situation at Munich had gone from “depressing” to a full-fledged “institutionalized crisis” concerning the Chair of Political Science.[43]  A letter to Dr. Hedda Herwig in response to that crisis provides crucial insight into the existential significance of “On Classical Studies”—the essay that treats the capacity of the academy to engage in the most important task of guiding the souls of the young.  Written in language that evokes the motivating experiences of Plato’s Gorgias and Republic (both of which are notable for their Myths of Judgment), the letter to Dr. Herwig reveals the Platonic depth of Voegelin’s psychic response to the demise of the Institute that he had intended to be a bulwark of genuine philosophical inquiry amidst pervasive forces of destruction.  Without reservation, Voegelin condemned what he witnessed on his trip: “I was incensed at the mindless vandalism that has ruined such a wonderful opportunity.”[44]

If that were not clear enough, he went on to remark: “It is not sentimental sadness over the loss of a past golden age that overcomes me on the occasion of such a visit, but rage.”[45]  The crisis evoked Voegelin’s rage because it was, on Voegelin’s interpretation, deeply personal, being “inextricably bound up with the questions of the intentions [he] had for the institute at its founding and which [he] was able to realize for a number of years.”[46]  And, more importantly, it was a transgression against one of philosophy’s most sacred obligations: to lead the young (as he put it later in “On Classical Studies”) to “acquiring the knowledge that would enable them to articulate the questions of existence.”[47]  The conclusion of his letter to Dr. Herwig, captures the Platonic-Socratic sentiments underlying the effort of “On Classical Studies” and its prevailing message with substantial precision.  It was written after Voegelin first presented the lecture at the Michigan meeting, but communicates an experience (viz. the visit to Munich) prior to that presentation.  It is quite possible, therefore, that the activity of preparing “On Classical Studies” not only was motivated by the experience conveyed in the following remarks, but also helped Voegelin to clarify for himself the lines of judgment against the utter debacle at Munich:

“The only thing that can help us today is a spiritual habitus that is intellectually secure in itself.  But this takes years of education that, from Plato and Aristotle to Jaspers and Bergson, has been understood as the conversio (Umkehr), the revolution of consciousness.  A knowledge of institutions is important but more important is the experience that forms consciousness upon which institutions are built.  That in Germany people are still unwilling to grasp this fundamental relationship, not even after Hitler, is an indication of the historical depths of a pathological state of mind and explains, at least in part, why people succumb, again and again, to the magic of ideological intoxication.  The idea that the remnants of philosophical politics and intellectual discipline, which are still present in the institute in the persons of those who were trained by me, should be made ineffective by appointing the wrong person to the professorship, that the students should be deprived of the possibility of receiving the training which the institute once offered them, can induce nothing but rage—the platonic andreia.  Those who abet this baleful activity, whatever role they play, and at whatever level, should be reminded of Plato’s dictum: ‘To corrupt the spirit of young people is to commit a crime that ranks just behind that of murder itself.’”

“In sum, that is my answer to the assistants’ call for help.”[48]

Voegelin’s conclusion is written from the perspective of one who, after having had the joy of serving as a philosophic guide to a group of young students who were healthy enough to resist pressures of a corrupt society, suffered intensely as he watched the reassertion of maniacal forces bent on their destruction.  Especially notable here is Voegelin’s repetition of the expression of “rage—the platonic andreia,” and his invocation of Plato’s analogy between miseducation and murder, which point back to the importance of Voegelin’s understanding of Plato for his self-understanding.  These and other symbols illuminate the heightened existential connection Voegelin felt to Plato, the substance of which is so important for penetrating the existential importance of “On Classical Studies,” and a few comments about Voegelin’s understanding of the Platonic symbols he appropriates will illuminate the situation of Voegelin’s soul as he developed his essay.

Voegelin’s evocation of rage and murder recall the motivating experiences of Plato’s Gorgias, which, as Voegelin argued about 15 years prior, was written as “a declaration of war against the corrupt society and its content.”[49]  What is at stake in that dialogue’s battle between the philosopher and the sophistic society is the soul of the younger generation, and the sides are distinguished by their relation to what is “for all times the decisive question”: “Who he is? (447d).[50]  In that question is contained the essence of what Voegelin—in “On Classical Studies”—described as the disturbing question of the divine ground that illuminates metaleptic reality.

Several times in his analysis of the Gorgias, Voegelin argued that the suppression of that question was akin to murder, and he observed that, despite its comedic moments, “The [Gorgias’] undertone of grimness, however, as well as our contemporary experiences, remind us constantly that in a decadent society the ridiculous intellectual is the enemy of the spirit and that he is powerful enough to murder its representatives physically.”[51]  Voegelin’s invocation Plato’s expression of outrage in the Gorgias provides crucial insight into the psychic depth of the loss of spiritual substance at Munich and, therefore, the conditions under which he wrote “On Classical Studies.”  Their common experiential bases suggest that Voegelin’s judgment of Munich and the academic institution as a whole, would not be far from the judgment Plato leveled against his society millennia ago: “The Gorgias,” Voegelin argued, “is the death sentence over Athens.”[52]

As we saw earlier, Voegelin’s letter to Dr. Herwig also draws on the symbolism of Plato’s Republic, and in it, he establishes himself as following the guidance of Plato and assuming the role to be a saving guide to the young who sought his help.  Twice—once at the beginning and here at the conclusion—Voegelin drew the connection between his intervention at Munich and his efforts to develop the spiritual habitus and Socrates’ response to the young men who, hoping to be saved from the insatiable Eros tyrannos (572d-573b) that threatens their substance, issued a “cry de profundis” to their helper.[53]  Voegelin’s concluding remarks emphasize the Republic’s principle that the helper’s response to the searchers’ plea must reveal the distinction between consciousness, or the soul, and the institutions or elemental forms that determine and are determined by it.  In calling attention to this distinction, Voegelin seems to be struggling with the question of whether—without first disentangling the soul from its institutional fetters—a spiritual restoration could hope to be effective at all.

Moreover, by establishing the equivalencies between Socrates of the Republic and himself, Voegelin also intimated his own reluctance “to return to the darkness of the Cave and to dispute shadows with the prisoners.”[54]  What is present in that depth and responsible for the neglect of the soul is the intoxicating magic of psychopathology, or what Plato symbolized as the Eros tyrannos (or libido dominandi, in “On Classical Studies”), the potential of the soul “to lose itself by closure [to metaleptic reality] and reliance on its own resources.”[55]  Voegelin ends this section of his analysis of the Republic with the chilling observation that:

“Plato was acutely aware of the spirituality of evil and of the fascination emanating from a tyrannical order.  The Eros tyrannos . . .  has its qualities of luciferic splendor.  In this conception of tyranny, as related to the foundation of the perfect polis through a metamorphosis of Eros, we touch perhaps the most intimate danger of the Platonic soul, the danger of straying from the difficult path of the spirit and of falling into the abyss of pride.”[56]

If the complex symbolism of Plato’s Republic illuminates the manifold of Voegelin’s deepest psychic response to Munich’s collapse, it is appropriate to consider that he also faced “the most intimate danger of the Platonic soul.”  Perhaps, in being confronted with the institutional failure of Munich to guide the young to the reality of the soul and also with the apperception of the Eros tyrannos responsible for it, Voegelin felt on some level the temptation Plato had felt: to yield to the intoxicating lure of the abyss, to brush aside the ordering revelations of transcendence, and, therefore, to reject the revealed insight into the philosophic duty to be a guide to others.  With the collapse of Munich, Voegelin’s resolve to re-enter the Cave and his hope for any effective counter to the climate of opinion were, if Voegelin’s existential connection to Plato is instructive, themselves in danger of being swallowed by the depth.

Reconsidering the Restoration of Order within the Academy

Voegelin’s myriad efforts within the academic institution to guide others—especially the vulnerable young—to the truth of the soul were met with adversity at each turn.  Despite Voegelin’s tenaciousness, experience called for a sober reconsideration of the prospects for spiritual and intellectual renewal in the academy and a reevaluation of the exertion of effort to prepare “On Classical Studies” for the Michigan Center meeting.[57]  In correspondence from after the Munich trip (but prior to the Michigan meeting) he wrote the following to a colleague:

“Thank you ever so much for this perceptive review which indeed brings out the problem that worries me all the time: Whether anything can be done about the intellectual and spiritual disorientation of the time in an effective manner, or whether one must let the social process run its course, with the hope only of perhaps helping this or that man in his personal troubles.  At present, I am rather inclined to believe that nothing really effective can be done, but that the philosophical work must go on, in order to keep alive the possibility of return for those who are willing to turn around.  Whether the situation arises in which such a turning around becomes socially relevant, however, I do not know.  And this ignorance means really that I consider it quite possible that such a turning point may arrive any day, as ever more people are fed up with disorientation and are looking for order again.  Hence, I am pessimistic with regard to personal effectiveness, but quite optimistic with regard to favorable change.  Things simply do not go on in the same way forever.”[58]

Voegelin’s remarks suggest a lost hope and growing doubt about his role within the dramatic contest over the soul, and the ambivalence expressed here spilled over into his attitude toward participating in the Michigan meeting, which he now counted among the “chores” that made his schedule “a bit strenuous.” “For that one,” he wrote, “I had to write a ten-page piece on Classical Studies (I revenged myself by giving it a humorous cast).”[59]  And, in a dry expression of frustration, he added, “In order not to be bored to death with my active self, I do a little reading on the side.”[60]

Voegelin’s Mystical Philosophy and the Effort of “On Classical Studies”

The effort of “On Classical Studies,” which Voegelin undertook in order to support a concrete movement aimed at reorienting the academic community to the life of reason, was now relegated to the status of a distraction from more important pursuits, such as the new theoretical perspective of The Ecumenic Age.  Voegelin’s work on that volume proceeded “very haltingly,” which he explained thus, “I have been sitting for several weeks working on the next paragraph of Ecumenic Age, on “Conquest and Exodus”… Unfortunately I am constantly interrupted by diversions like the notes “On Classical Studies.”[61]  That “paragraph” and the one that follows (“The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected”[62])—chapters 4 and 5, respectively, of The Ecumenic Age—contain Voegelin’s exploration of the mythical and revelatory dimensions of the soul’s existence within the Metaxy.  Written at the same time as “On Classical Studies,” they reveal the important mystical turn that came to characterize Voegelin’s later meditative exploration of the metaleptic reality.

Voegelin’s later mystical philosophy illuminated and gave symbolic expression to his most subtle insights into previously-obscured dimensions of human existence, especially the intimate and often indistinguishable conmingling of the forces of order and disorder.  Voegelin’s exploration of that aspect of metaxic structure was not new: he had dwelt on it extensively in Plato and Aristotle.  But Voegelin’s late approach to the metaxic tension would be conducted on a new level as his meditative quest deepened and as his experiential basis was enlarged—by developments such as the founding and collapse of Munich.  That experience was formative in all respects: early on, Voegelin lived out the philosophic obligation to expand the community of the spirit by opposing the forces that would deform it.

By his receptivity to the revealed obligation, Voegelin became increasingly attuned to its divine ground, his apperceptions of the tensional structure of existence becoming ever more subtle.  Moreover, in its many equivalences to Plato’s ancient philosophic effort—in terms of its psychic motivation, its orientation, and its eventual collapse—Munich intensified Voegelin’s attunement to the heights and depths of the Platonic soul.  This psychic participation with Plato, which proceeded through multiple dimensions of order and history in an ineffably complex mythical quest, had a crucial impact on Voegelin’s late mysticism for it illuminated new levels of meaning in Plato’s symbolic exploration of the psyche’s permeation by transcendent forces of order and disorder.

Voegelin’s mystical discovery of these new levels of meaning had practical consequences.  As the mystic philosopher discerns more facets of the structure of existence, his understanding of the complex configuration of soul in relation to society increases, but the bonds that hold him to his society diminish.  For, while order and disorder are perpetually conjoined, the philosopher who is in a continual process of transformation by the theophanic force of order is infinitely distanced from those who are not.  In a passage of Plato and Aristotle that seems to apply to himself as much as to Plato, Voegelin described the inevitable separation of the mystic philosopher from the community he has tried so earnestly to heal:

“And what has become of the philosopher-kings?  Gone is the hope that their numbers could unite in the erotic community of the philoi . . . there is only one “who has knowledge of these things,” that is, Plato himself.  All he can do is to provide the nomoi that will exert the divine pull on the lesser souls who in this, their lower rank, are all equal.  The “one” is withdrawing from the community of men because the community of equals has failed to be his equal; and he is withdrawing toward the divinity, into the neighborhood of the God who pulls the strings. . . . It sounds as if the Stranger, in his transport, had for a moment forgotten that even his fellow wanderers are not quite his equals and that one must speak to them with a little caution.”[63]

Plato’s experience of his own philosophic separation from the polis was a direct result of a mature understanding—“drawn from the cosmic depth in [his] soul”[64]—of the inseparability of order and disorder within the human psyche.  Plato’s expanding historical, psychic, and symbolic experiences revealed new dimensions of the near-insurmountable limits and entanglements that burden the human psyche and hinder the quest for attunement to the divine paradigm of order.  For example, the late symbolization of Plato’s Timaeus communicated his discovery that:

“The resistance to the idea has now become as eternal as the idea itself; and to overcome this resistance in creation is the permanent task of the Nous.  In the Parable of the Cave the emphasis was on the ascent of the soul from the Cave to the intellection of the Idea; the emphasis has now shifted to the descent and the imposition of the Idea on formless reality. . . . the descent has now become the crucial problem, and Plato for the first time gives full attention to the force of the soul which carries the Idea from being into Becoming.”[65]

Analyzing Plato’s further development of these concerns in the Critias, Voegelin concluded, “The lust of existence is as ultimately divine as its overcoming through the ascent to the intelligible realm.”[66]  What previously, in the Republic, was experienced as a temptation to the philosopher to renounce his duty to those imprisoned in the Cave, was now incorporated into the foundation of Plato’s science of soul and society.  Plato’s mystical apperception of the commingling of order and disorder led to the disturbing revelation that, for the majority of people, “the divine measure cannot be the living order of the soul.”[67]  Hence, the shift from the optimism of the Republic and its “vision of the Agathon” to the more sober symbolization of the Laws and its “dogma with obligatory force.”[68]

Voegelin went on to argue (again, still in Plato and Aristotle) that, faced with the diminished capacity of the human material to accept the ordering force of the spirit, Plato would be tempted to conduct his effort to restore concrete political order to Hellas through “the violent, tyrannical solution” of “unification through tactical means in power politics.”[69]  Plato did not succumb, and the complex political and historical basis for these remarks are beyond the present scope, but suffice it to say that, even early on, Voegelin saw that Plato’s personal mystical encounter with transcendence brought with it certain dangers.  From Voegelin’s later perspective of heightened sensitivity to Plato’s later insights into the commingling of order and disorder—their meaning and implications—Voegelin’s existential proximity to the dangers faced by his ancient guide would have increased as well.

Voegelin explored the dangers of mystical ascent in the chapters of Ecumenic Age that he was writing at the same time as “On Classical Studies,” and, if the above analysis is sound, it is likely that Voegelin also felt the dangerous urge to relent, in so doing, and to reject the tension of existence.  Voegelin’s repeated experiences of the ineffectiveness of any effort to salvage the institutional vessel, which claimed to be—but in reality was not—the center of the philosophic quest, tempted him to abandon the vessel altogether.  His enthusiasm for the Michigan meeting that he had committed to with excitement before was all but gone and, in his ascent to the exploration of the peak of the philosophic myth, engagement with the broken academic institution was a bother and a burden.

The existential distance between himself and the institution he once hoped to guide toward flourishing was now a truth that would seem to make the effort of “On Classical Studies” absurd.  Again on this point, Voegelin’s letter to Dr. Herwig is revealing, for Voegelin’s reflection on its purpose and prospects might apply equivalently to “On Classical Studies.”  Voegelin wrote: “I very much doubt that this letter will meet with any success in moving the issue along in the direction which you would like to see it take.  Indeed, in a certain sense, this letter is absurd. …My repeating these wishes here will hardly change that.”  And, with some resentment, Voegelin clarified that the concrete controversy concerned not merely “the scholarly interest of the two candidates,” but extended to “far more important things,” about which—in a terse line that borders on closure—Voegelin wrote, “there is nothing new to say.”[70]

If the letter to Dr. Herwig provides any indication, it is that Voegelin’s attitude toward the academy as a whole, the Michigan meeting, and the essay “On Classical Studies” (which also does not say anything new) was beset by the temptation to leave the broken and futile projects to suffer their just fate.  By this time, Voegelin was, after all, intensely preoccupied by mystical exploration of the structures of consciousness, the features of noetic Vision, and the Beyond, and to engage in a hopeless struggle for institutional reform at the expense of those productive explorations would appear to be not only absurd, but perhaps even destructive.[71]

The Balance of Consciousness: Following Plato’s Guidance on the Obligation to be a Guide

Nevertheless, Voegelin continued to follow the guidance of Plato, who never abandoned his obligation to promote the genuine psychic flourishing of his society and the individuals who sought his guidance, even as his mystical encounter with the transcendent ground reached new levels.  Therefore, Voegelin’s invocation of the Platonic symbols in his letter is important not only because it illuminates the basic experiential complex of Voegelin’s writings, but also because it demonstrates his deliberate resistance to the temptation to withdraw.  In Ecumenic Age, Voegelin revisited the analysis of Plato’s dialogues, this time from the perspective of a mystical analysis of his insights concerning the relation between metaleptic reality and historical process.

What Voegelin emphasized in his later study of Plato’s noetic consciousness was Plato’s restraint and “the postulate of balance.”[72]  Plato, Voegelin observed, was able to hold together the ineluctable mystery of a quest for the truth that, while grounded in the transcendent Beyond, must be conducted within the cosmos that somehow participates in that Beyond and, moreover, is perpetually in danger of being relegated to a state of untruth in relation to the fullness of truth attached to the transcendent Beyond.[73]  Or, as Voegelin would later put it in his masterful 1977 essay, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation:”

“Plato’s vision, thus, is not a sudden flash of illumination but the late clarity of a truth apprehended only dimly when he was young; the truth of history has grown historically in his existence. … Plato wants this this multi-faceted process to be understood as a whole whose past must not be dismissed as irrelevant now that it has culminated in the present of the Laws.  There is no truth of history other than the truth growing in history.  This conception of truth as a growth of luminosity in the process of reality imposes respect on the thinker and his present; he must respect his past as much as he respects his present that will be a past for a future present.  The philosopher’s existence derives its truth from accepting itself as an event of participation, but as no more than such an event, in a process of reality that is becoming luminous; and inversely, the structure of the historical process will not become luminous for its truth unless it becomes luminous at the point of its concrete occurrence in the present of the thinker’s consciousness.”[74]

As his psychic bond to Plato continued to expand and intensify, Voegelin discerned in Plato’s philosophy of the myth the more intimate apperception not only of the comingling of existential order and disorder that drives a rift between the philosopher and his society, but also of the strenuous philosophic obligation to love—and to respect—reality in all its configurations, even those that fall terribly short of the philosopher’s paradigmatic response to the metaleptic reality.  If one is to maintain the balance of consciousness that is essential to psychic health, the effort to conduct any philosophic restoration must be grounded in the recognition that the historical dimension of the process imposes limits on and generates possibilities for all reality’s attunement to the divine ground, no matter the level of existential emptiness or fullness.

In Voegelin’s later reflections on Plato’s Laws, he observed two important imbalances of consciousness that occur when older symbols of order are no longer able to illuminate the psyche’s experiences of order and disorder.  Both responses intend to supply new symbolizations that are more adequate to the historical movements of experiential consciousness, but they lose balance by contracting the metaleptic reality into one or the other of its poles.  The first imbalance is the Sophistic form, which overemphasizes the human partner in the participation and leads to a denial of divine reality.  In the argument of “On Classical Studies,” Voegelin forcefully opposed the more dangerous Sophistic contraction of reality, which, leads to the mass social deformations of noetic consciousness—the destruction of the life of reason.

In its modern form, the imbalance of the Sophistic type included the deliberate rejection of balance altogether—the libido dominandi that made Auschwitz possible.  But in the effort and activity of “On Classical Studies,” Voegelin resisted the personal temptation to lapse into something similar to the second type of imbalance: the Eleatic form, which overemphasizes the divine One so that all other reality has the status of untruth or nonbeing.[75]  As a representative or symbolization of the philosophic quest, the academic institution (at every level) had suffered a severe loss of reality and became inadequate to Voegelin’s scientific and mystical approach to the quest.  In light of his existential separation from it, the restorative effort of preparing “On Classical Studies” could easily have been reduced to nothingness as well.  But that, of course, did not happen.

When confronted with the “absurd” effort of writing to Dr. Herwig to try to salvage what he could of Munich, Voegelin explained the existential justification of his effort in Plato’s terms, writing: “I cannot simply ignore a call for help and moral support in such an important matter.”[76]  Voegelin’s invocation of Plato’s symbol is meaningful not only for its experiential insight, but also for its recognition that the elemental or concrete or institutional reality does not become unimportant by its inability to be ordered by the living paradigm of the philosophic soul.  That insight governs Voegelin’s approach to “On Classical Studies” and to institutional reform of the broken academy as well.  In following Plato’s guidance in the conduct of his mystical quest, Voegelin discerned the philosophic prohibition against withdrawal and the related obligation to approach the imperfect vessels—whether language symbols or institutional structures—that are often the only vehicles to existential consciousness available to the vast majority of human beings with Platonic philiaPhilia is Plato’s visionary insight into partnership of the whole that—while permeated by the opposed forces of order and disorder, and therefore often seems to be irreparably split—is one by virtue of its ontological ground.

The insight reveals “the order of the soul as the loving quest of truth in response to the divine drawing from the Beyond; the divine-human movement and countermovement of love is the source of man’s knowledge concerning his existence in truth.”[77]  The order of the soul and the order of the cosmos are existentially bound together, and the “Word of truth” that restores order “must not remain a mute event in the soul of the man who was touched by grace, or it will be lost.”[78]  Although “the constant discord between the saving Word saved from death and its nonacceptance by man in society and history can be experienced so intensely that the reality of the discord rather than the reality of the saving Word will be sensed to be the truth of the “message,” the philosopher’s love of truth and the reality it grounds obliges him to participate in the messy process, “following the pull of the golden cord as far as the counterpull of the steely cords will allow.”[79]  Voegelin’s openness to the guidance of Plato’s luminous vision of cosmic philia generated the existential strength to prevail in his duty—through efforts such as “On Classical Studies”—to provide the philosophic guidance that might awaken others to truth of metaleptic reality.  In this way, “On Classical Studies” teaches a powerful lesson concerning the moral requirements of the philosophic life.


Voegelin did not succumb to the temptation to abandon the broken institution.  He prepared the lecture for the Michigan meeting and published the essay roughly two years afterward.  Not simply the text, but also, and more importantly, the example Voegelin provides through the effort of “On Classical Studies” is his concrete response to the disturbing revelations of the ineluctable admixture of order and disorder within soul and society.  To consider the effort of preparing “On Classical Studies” in light of, first, Voegelin’s sobering experiences with concrete institutions and, second, his pursuit of a significantly different theoretical perspective on order and history points to a level of ethical and philosophic meaning that extends beyond the theoretical claims of the essay on their own.  “On Classical Studies,” considered in its totality, provides a paradigm for how the mystic philosopher must continue to engage the society that cannot keep pace with his existential ascent.

Over the course of his life, Voegelin’s approach to the restorative effort changed to accommodate the frailty of the human psyche and its need for institutions.  Like his guide Plato, Voegelin discovered that he must work to support the institutions in a way that those institutions could handle – like preparing a paper and publishing the essay that encourages specific actions necessary for the turning-around (such as the turn to historical and comparative studies and their symbols).  Writing a 9-page essay might not seem like a grand effort at restoration, especially for someone as prolific and influential as Voegelin, but considering it in light of Voegelin’s later meditative quest reveals its significance.  Despite all odds and the personal burden it inflicted, Voegelin continued to engage the academy so as to guide it toward the level of the existential order it could bear.  Perhaps, then, the measure of achievement of “On Classical Studies” is the demonstration of the remarkable fortitude of Voegelin’s noetic understanding, which tempered his rage at the destruction of souls.



Plato. Gorgias. Translated by James H. Nichols, Jr. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

            . The Laws of Plato. Translated by Thomas L. Pangle.  1980. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

            . The Republic of Plato. Translated by Allan Bloom.  New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Romanello, Julianne M. “Political Philosophy and the Divine Ground: Eric Voegelin on Plato.” PhD diss., Baylor University, 2012.

Rhodes, James M. Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

            . “On Voegelin: His Collected Works and His Significance.” The Review of Politics 54 (Autumn, 1992): 621-47.

Voegelin, Eric.  Anamnesis. Translated and edited by Gerhart Niemeyer. 1978. Reprint, Colombia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

            Autobiographical Reflections. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

            . The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. Edited by Ellis Sandoz. 34 vols. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989-2008.

            . The Ecumenic Age. Vol. 4 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

            . In Search of Order. Vol. 5 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

            . Israel and Revelation. Vol. 1 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956.

            . The New Science of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

            . “On Classical Studies.” Modern Age XVII (1973): 2-8.

            . Order and History. 5 Vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956-1987.

            .Plato and Aristotle. Vol. 3 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.

            . Published Essays, 1966 – 1985.  Edited by Ellis Sandoz.  Vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

            . Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. 1968. Reprint, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007.

            . Selected Correspondence, 1950 – 1984. Translated by Sandy Adler, Thomas A. Hollweck, and William Petropulos. Edited by Thomas A. Hollweck. Vol. 30 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

            . The World of the Polis. Vol. 2 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.



[1] “On Classical Studies” was first published in Modern Age, XVII (1973), 2-8.  References to the essay hereafter, will be to the version published in Published Essays, 1966 – 1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007).  References to other essays in this volume will follow the abbreviated notation of CW 12: page number.

[2] Eric Voegelin to Robert Heilman, March 24, 1971, in Selected Correspondence 1950 – 1984, ed. Thomas A Hollweck, trans. Sandy Adler, Thomas A. Hollweck and William Petropulos, vol. 30 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, 699.  Future references to Voegelin’s correspondence from Volume 30 of The Collected Works will include the name of the recipient, date, and the CW volume and page number.

[3] See Voegelin, “Experience and Symbolization in History,” in CW 12:122, where Voegelin made the often-cited claim that, “The test of truth, to put it pointedly, will be the lack of originality in the propositions.”

[4] See Voegelin, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation,” in CW 12: 373-374.

[5] A more comprehensive study of Voegelin’s engagement with Plato is: Julianne M. Romanello, “Political Philosophy and the Divine Ground: Eric Voegelin on Plato” (PhD diss., Baylor University, 2012).

[6] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), 4.  See also, “Experience and Symbolization in History,” in CW 12:123.

[7] “On Classical Studies,” in CW 12:260.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “On Classical Studies,” in CW 12:260.  For a discussion of Plato’s passionate outcry against the “enlightened moderns (neos kai sophos), see Voegelin’s commentary on Plato’s Laws in Plato and Aristotle, vol. 3 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 190.  Glossing Plato, Voegelin writes, “When we see all this evidence treated with contempt . . . and that, as any man with a grain of intelligence will admit, without a single respectable reason, how, I ask, is a man to find gentle language in which to combine reproof with instruction” (Laws 887).”

[10] On the philosopher’s obligations, see, e.g. “Wisdom and Magic,” in CW 12: 373.

[11] See New Science of Politics, 22-26, for a brief, clear discussion of the effort to connect the rejection of sciences of ontology and philosophical anthropology to certain religious experiences.

[12] I think it is helpful to consider what Voegelin writes about representative institutions and human society in New Science of Politics in relation to the academy—that society is “as a whole a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization,” and that the nature of representative institutions in society is to be the form through which political society “gains existence for action in history,” develops symbols of self-interpretation, and reveals the various phases of its relation to transcendent truth in history (at 27 and 1).  See also, in the same volume, Chapter 1, “Representation and Existence,” especially, 31-51.

[13] “On Classical Studies,” in CW 12: 262.  Cf. Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 96, where Voegelin makes a similar point.

[14] “On Classical Studies,” 257.

[15] Ibid., 256.

[16] Ibid., 259.

[17] Ibid., 256.

[18] Compare the foregoing remarks with what Voegelin argued in The Ecumenic Age, vol. 4 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 213-238.  The parallels between “On Classical Studies” and Chapter 4, “Exodus and Conquest” of The Ecumenic Age are too numerous to cite and often the arguments and language in each work are identical.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 258.

[21] New Science of Politics, 23.

[22] See “On Classical Studies,” 258.

[23] In what follows, I describe the specific prospects for restoration that Voegelin mentions.  Importantly, he does not argue for a reassertion of status or authority by proponents of classical studies.  The time for that seems to have passed.  But because the nature of man cannot be wholly deformed, the questions previously engaged through studies of classical texts will emerge elsewhere—and that is where Voegelin sees a glimmer of hope for a renewal of the life of reason.

[24] See Plato and Aristotle, 223-239, especially 236.  On the issue of the various stages of philosophical insight and their relations to each other, see “Wisdom and Magic,” 343-348.

[25] See, for example, Letter to Manfred Henningsen, June 20/22, 1969, in CW 30: 605-606.

[26] “On Classical Studies,” 262.

[27] The essay first appears in Modern Age, XVII (1973), 2-8.  See Letter to Manfred Henningsen, March 24, 1971 and Letter to Robert Heilman, March 28, 1971, in CW 30: 695-698 and 699-700, respectively.

[28] Letter to Gerald F. Else, December 1, 1969, in CW 30:627.

[29] Letter to Friedrich Engle-Janosi, February 3, 1970, in CW 30:645.  Just over a month later, Voegelin would write to Professor Stephen Tonsor (also at Michigan), to discuss the crucial institutional problems of the academy including their large size, the inflation of departments, and most importantly, the faculty (Letter to Stephen J. Tonsor, March 16, 1970, in CW 30:647).

[30] Letter to Engle-Janosi, 645.

[31] Letter to W. Glenn Campbell, January 20, 1969, in CW 30:585.

[32] Letter to Richard Allen, December 21, 1969, in CW 30:637-38.

[33] Letter to Gerald F. Else, November 25, 1970, in CW 30:685.

[34] Ibid., 685-686.

[35] See Autobiographical Reflections, 85-92.  In several places, Voegelin wrote of his optimism concerning the American academy, noting that the features that distinguished it from the German University might preserve it from the trajectory of decline that ruined the latter.  See, e.g., Letter to Benjamin Lippincott, August 10, 1951, to Robert Heilman, December 30, 1969, to Stephen J. Tonsor, March 16, 1970, to Henry Regnery, August 4, 1972, all in CW 30:100-102, 638-640, 646-647, and 736-737, respectively.

[36] “The German University and the Order of German Society: A Reconsideration of the Nazi Era,” in CW 12:3-4, and 18.

[37] Letter to Robert Heilman, June 19, 1966, in CW 12:503.  In this letter and the one that follows (Letter to Gilles Quispel, June 23, 1966, in CW 12:507), Voegelin mentions the emergence of troubles at the Institute.

[38] See Voegelin’s discussion of Plato’s Republic, in Plato and Aristotle, especially pp.72-93.

[39] Plato and Aristotle, 226.

[40] Letter to Dr. Hedda Herwig, December 13, 1971, in CW 30:717.  See also, Voegelin’s 1966 essay, “German University and German Society,” in CW 12:1-35, which explains the problems which made a deliberate intervention to train young scholars necessary.  There, Voegelin emphasizes the connection between academic and political disorder and traces both to a disease of the spirit.  He decries the dominant scholarly approach that could do nothing to reveal the genuine reasons for the atrocities of the National Socialist regime or to prevent their repetition in the future.

[41]Letter to Dr. Hedda Herwig, December 13, 1971, in CW 30:719.

[42] Letter to Manfred Henningsen, November 12, 1970, CW 30:676.

[43] Letter to Dr. Hedda Herwig, December 13, 1971, in CW 30:715.

[44] Ibid., 718

[45] Letter to Dr. Hedda Herwig, December 13, 1971, in CW 30:720.  In this qualification, Voegelin distinguished himself from men like Cephalus, the character in Plato’s Republic who “represents the ‘older generation’ in a time of crisis, the men who still impress by their character and conduct that has been formed in a better age.”  See Plato and Aristotle, 56-57.

[46] Ibid., 717.

[47] “On Classical Studies,” 260.

[48] Letter to Dr. Hedda Herwig, December 13, 1971, in CW 30:719-720.

[49] Plato and Aristotle, 24.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 25.

[52] Ibid., 39.

[53] See Ibid., 80-82, and 126-127, and Plato, Republic, Books I, II, and VIII, especially 366a-368c, and 572a-574.

[54] Ibid., 116.

[55] Ibid.. 127.

[56] Ibid.

[57] See Ecumenic Age, 218, where Voegelin explored the classic philosophers’ recognition of the limits of their efforts and the impending fall of the polis, which would be “superseded by a new type of society.”

[58] Letter to Thomas Molnar, November 17, 1970, in CW 30:678.  Compare with Voegelin’s comments in Plato and Aristotle, at 29: “In the Theaetetus, where Plato comes close to characterizing the enemies as beasts, he nevertheless restores community by observing that in private conversation it is possible at least to scratch the thick crust of the vulgarian and to touch in him a spark of his renounced humanity.”

[59] This remark calls to mind his earlier description of the “grimness” and comedy of Plato’s Gorgias (Plato and Aristotle, 25) as well as the warning, in “On Classical Studies,” about mistaking “the grotesque” with “the comic or the humorous.”  Compare also with Voegelin’s 1966 analysis of the academic level of the science of man in Anamnesis, where he argued that only the form of satire could properly describe the “peculiar mixture of libido dominandi, philosophical illiteracy, and adamant refusal to enter into rational discourse” that pervaded German universities and was becoming a force in American universities as well.  But, Voegelin observed, even satire would be ineffective for “it is next to impossible to write satire when a situation has become so grotesque that reality surpasses the flight of a satirist’s imagination.”  Numerous parallels between the Anamnesis essay, “Remembrance of Things Past,” and “On Classical Studies” are evident.  “Remembrance of Things Past,” in CW 12:308.

[60] Letter to Robert Heilman, March 28, 1971, in CW 30:699-700.

[61] Letter to Manfred Henningsen, March 24, 1971, in CW 30:695.

[62][62] Voegelin mentioned this chapter specifically in a letter to Henry Regnery, describing its subject as “a rather tough problem that had loomed on [his] horizon for several years.”  In the same letter, Voegelin offers “On Classical Studies” for publication by Modern Age, explaining that he had “gotten it out of” the Political Science Reviewer, which was to be the original publication venue. Letter of August 4, 1972, in CW 30:736.

[63] Plato and Aristotle, 234.  Although Voegelin wrote this passage before the markedly different approach that characterizes his later period, the late insights into time and eternity support the use of earlier formulations in bringing clarity to later ones.  On the various “periods” of Voegelin’s career, see James M. Rhodes, “On Voegelin: His Collected Works and His Significance,” The Review of Politics 54 (1992): 621-647.

[64] Ibid., 236.

[65] Ibid., 202.

[66] Ibid., 213.  Compare also with Voegelin’s remarks about how “the tale that saves” is perpetually threatened by “the forces of death,” in “Wisdom and Magic,” 335-339.  Other relevant passages include “The Gospel and Culture,” in CW 12:183-188, and “Reason: The Classic Experience,” in CW 12:278-283.

[67] Plato and Aristotle, 263.

[68] Ibid., 263.

[69] Plato and Aristotle, 225.

[70] Letter to Dr. Hedda Herwig, December 13, 1971, in CW 30:716.

[71] See, for example, the cited chapters of The Ecumenic Age, at 212-271.  Also, Voegelin’s book Anamnesis and his essay, “Wisdom and Magic,” dwell on these topics.

[72] Ecumenic Age, 227, ff.

[73] Ibid., 228.

[74] “Wisdom and Magic,” 343.

[75] Ibid., 350-357.  Cf. Ecumenic Age, 227, ff.

[76] Letter to Dr. Hedda Herwig, December 13, 1971, in CW 30:7175.

[77] “Wisdom and Magic,” 333.

[78] Ibid., 335, ff.

[79] Ibid., 338.  The images of the cords are drawn from Plato’s Myth of the Puppet Player, at Laws 644-645.

Julianne M. Romanello

Julianne M. Romanello, Ph.D, is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and teaches part-time for Tulsa Community College in the departments of politics and philosophy and for the honors program. She is also adjunct faculty at The University of Tulsa, where she teaches philosophy of education in the Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences.

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