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The Historical Horizon: Classical and Christian Experiences

The Historical Horizon: Classical And Christian Experiences

In speaking . . . about the experiences of the mystic philosophers and their fulfillment through Christianity, an assumption concerning history is implied that must be explicated. It is the assumption that the substance of history consists in the experiences in which man gains the understanding of his humanity and together with it the understanding of its limits.

Philosophy and Christianity have endowed man with the stature that enables him, with historical effectiveness, to play the role of rational contemplator and pragmatic master of a nature that has lost its demonic terrors. With equal historical effectiveness, however, limits were placed on human grandeur; for Christianity has concentrated demonism into the permanent danger of a fall from the spirit—that is man’s only by the grace of God—into the autonomy of his own self, from the amor Dei into the amor sui. The insight that man in his mere humanity, without the fides caritate formata, is demonic nothingness has been brought by Christianity to the ultimate border of clarity that by tradition is called revelation.

This assumption about the substance of history, now, entails consequences for a theory of human existence in society that, under the pressure of a secularized civilization, even philosophers of rank sometimes hesitate to accept without reservation. You have seen, for instance, that Karl Jaspers considered the age of the mystic philosophers the axis time of mankind, in preference to the Christian epoch, disregarding the ultimate clarity concerning the conditio humana that was brought by Christianity. And Henri Bergson had hesitations on the same issue—though in his last conversations, published posthumously by Sertillanges, he seemed inclined to accept the consequence of his own philosophy of history.

This consequence can be formulated as the principle that a theory of human existence in society must operate within the medium of experiences that have differentiated historically. There is a strict correlation between the theory of human existence and the historical differentiation of experiences in which this existence has gained its self-understanding. Neither is the theorist permitted to disregard any part of this experience for one reason or another; nor can he take his position at an Archimedean point outside the substance of history.

Theory is bound by history in the sense of the differentiating experiences. Since the maximum of differentiation was achieved through Greek philosophy and Christianity, this means concretely that theory is bound to move within the historical horizon of classic and Christian experiences. To recede from the maximum of differentiation is theoretical retrogression; it will result in the various types of derailment that Plato has characterized as doxa.


This excerpt is from Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religions, The New Science of Politics, Politics, Science, and Gnosticism (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 5) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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