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Ideology and the Art of Statesmanship: A Conversation

Ideology And The Art Of Statesmanship: A Conversation

This excerpt is from a conversation between Eric Voegelin and graduate students following a lecture at the St. Thomas More Institute in Montreal. The participants include Winston Arnold, Eric O’Connor, Felix Karpfen, Richard Jacobsen, and Stanislaus Machnik. “Q” designates unidentified questioners.


Q.: About that notion of apocalypse: Civilizations have eventually destroyed themselves. We might be able to stop that process if we could sum up past ideologies and leave them?

E.V.: Oh yes. If you follow your common sense and forget about the ideologies, you’re already on safe ground.

R.J.: You referred to a person’s having a desire placed in him so that he would strive. If he were willing to accept the technical aid others might give him, he might end up on a higher plane. An element of desire that some people have and some don’t: Doesn’t that seem a bit like occasionalism, in the sense of Berkeley’s “God gives you the right things to do at the time he thinks you should do them,” and in the sense that somehow there’s no inherent control of human nature?

E.V.: Occasionalism is a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century doctrine that arose in connection with psychophysical parallelism. What I was talking about has nothing to do with that. I simply meant that we don’t know why some people have such a desire and are willing to undergo the labor to work themselves out of a mess, and others don’t. It just is so–I don’t know why.

R.J.: Didn’t we say that they are acting completely within a pattern and that if we were to help them out of that pattern then they would show the same desire we show ourselves?

E.V.: But as soon as you say this, perhaps you get in a mess psychologically. If you speak of attitudes of people who are living, as you call it, a pattern–then you get the idea: Can we help them out of the pattern? In most cases you can’t because what you call a pattern is an attitude, a habituation of action, determined by all sorts of things–for instance, by inertia, or by just plain stupidity; it’s too difficult to get out of it, it’s much easier to follow an attitude.

Or, in really interesting cases, it is a question of L’Homme révolté–the revolt against God–and you can’t break it by explaining it to the man. There you get into the real metaphysical and religious questions of the “lost” soul. There are such people. Think of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. A man like Beckett is also one who knows perfectly well that all that agnosticism is blooming nonsense–but he can’t get out of it. I don’t know why.

W.A.: Your lecture has been in the context of traditional philosophy–you considered man and you emphasized the noetic self and man as having reason and responsibility–but contemporary philosophy attempts to deny that, or denies it outright. I’m wondering about one thing. You emphasized absence of ideology in the epigones: Is that an optimistic or a pessimistic note in your lecture?

E.V.: Oh, personally I’m quite optimistic. But you said: “contemporary philosophy denies that.” That is true only if you identify as contemporary philosophy the “has-beens” while excluding the people who are good and do something new–for instance, Henri Bergson. There you have a great philosopher. And a Bergson is worth all contemporary philosophy of second raters.

British Analysis, Common Sense, and Carl Jung

Q.: What is your attitude toward British analysis?

E.V.: Well, British analysis is a funny affair. If you are interested, there is a brilliant book by J. O. Urmson, Philosophical Analysis (Oxford, 1956), which gives you the history of logical atomism and empiricism from Bertrand Russell’s and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica into the period of the Second World War. It is dead since about 1940.

People don’t know yet that there is nobody in Oxford or Cambridge who has continued it. There are no new great people in it. But on the college level, the epigones are just now finding out about it and it is their strength, while in fact everyone who started it, including Russell, has given it up long ago as complete nonsense. Urmson does his book with British understatement, but it’s a wonderful comedy.

Q.: You said there are no new ideologies because all were presented, developed, studied, and eventually proven not to stand serious criticism. Does this prove, in your opinion, that these theories are wrong or does it prove that man has the intellectual power to undo what he has done, thus showing the duality of any idea?

E.V.: I’m not sure that I got that clearly.

Q.: If I have an idea or ideology and it is destroyed by you, does it follow that my idea is wrong, or that you are able to operate in the ambivalence of man’s world?

E.V.: You would have to get out of this whole vocabulary of ideas and ideologies and return to the commonsense attitude of philosophy that, in philosophy, you are talking about the exegesis of experiences of transcendence of a noetic type. Because it is to an exegesis of certain experiences that we owe our philosophical vocabulary, any one who misuses the vocabulary, because he doesn’t know enough about it, is wrong. If he would keep quiet it would be much better.

Q.: But how do you protect yourself against the person who speaks well?

E.V.: Oh, by reading the classics, of course. That’s the purpose of education–you must have the masters at your fingertips.

Q.: Professor Voegelin, still on that question of ideology: Do you think we’ve given an adequate trial to the idea that all our concepts of God are perfectly valid projections of an archetype within the collective unconscious and that therefore we’d do much better to look within the individual human unconscious to discover the nature of man?

E.V.: You are now trying to plead for Jung’s psychology, if I get you rightly? If you want information, read the book on mysticism by Zaehner of Oxford. There you find the whole problem explained and also a very interesting criticism of Jung’s psychology. Jung is finished after Zaehner.

F.K.: I was sad to see that you were dismissing the apocalyptic element. I was wondering: If you get rid of it, how do you avoid ending up with a static civilization such as you might have in India?

E.V.: Civilizations as such are never static because every man is a new element of revolution in the world. Just stop being static and do something. But there comes again the question of the pattern: It’s difficult to break out of it. Nobody is obliged to participate in the “crisis of his time.” He can do something else.

Concrete Cases Explode Our Lovely Cliche Jargon

S.M.: It seems that acting purposefully to the future requires that we anticipate a certain sense of order into which we act, or which we want to bring about. Now the conception of whatever order we take to be viable is going to turn into an ideology, if we take it as the order. However, it would seem that we have to act toward an anticipated ordering, which isn’t so now.

In other words, intelligence demands a sense of order that is worked out imaginatively and intelligently. Isn’t it, therefore, desirable that there should be something like ideological commitment–but tentative and open to criticism and open to change?

E.V.: It is a sensible question on the surface but I don’t think it will work out as soon as you come to concrete instances. One of the rules would be: concrete cases–because the concrete case usually explodes the lovely cliché jargon that we all use inadvertently.

Concretely, a government that has a good tradition in operating politically (say, the British Foreign Office) knows that on the pragmatic level one can plan ten years, and never more than that. (In ten years all the conditions of the situation have so much changed that there is no sense in projecting beyond ten. But know your business within the ten years.)

I can give other cases which I’ve seen myself. I grew up in the twenties in Vienna; there we had good training in law and in economics (with people who are now the great economists in America). Quite concretely we all knew that the productivity of society is better if there is a free-trade area. What does everyone do at the peace conference? Cut up the free-trade area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and make small states with high protective tariff walls. If one knows that is wrong, why does one do it?

Every economist knew that if the enormous reparations demands made on the Germans were paid–assuming they could be paid at all–they would ruin completely the economies of the receptors. Therefore they had to be stopped. Why [did they] ask for them in the first place?

Here are the concrete cases where you use common sense; you don’t need an ideology. Most of the problems you have to handle are commonsense problems on the pragmatic level within contexts about which you perfectly well know what pragmatically can be done. Why shouldn’t it be done?

Just think of certain things connected with the end of the Second World War. The same stupidities as after the First were done again. If you look in Winston Churchill’s memoirs, for instance, you see his desperate attempt to make clear to President Roosevelt that one shouldn’t, for heaven’s sake, surrender to the Russians every capital in Europe. But it was done. Bucharest, Budapest, Belgrade, Berlin, Vienna–everything is surrendered to the Russians. Roosevelt didn’t understand. Historical common sense is on the side of Churchill. You don’t need an ideology for this.

I was caught in 1938 in Austria when the Nazis came because I considered it impossible that the French, the English, the Italian governments could ever permit Hitler to occupy Austria. We knew from history and from the general strategic problems in central Europe that if a German government has Austria also, it is in a position to win a world war in Europe. That would be a shift in the power position that no government of England or France could tolerate. Well, they did tolerate it.

E.O’C.: I think one of the problems moving here is this: You’re not saying that persons shouldn’t have ideas and imaginations about the future, but that they should not make those the ultimates. Obviously, without imagination and without patterns, without many possible ways of moving, one can’t think at all. You’re not denying that?

E.V.: No, no. One can do on the commonsense level (say, within a framework of the next ten years) all sorts of things. As soon as you have ideologies you usually obfuscate the structure of reality within which you have to move. That is the problem. Ideologies are highly dangerous because they make you lose contact with reality.

S.M.: It seems, though, that people cannot be energized into a major move to change this present state unless there is a presentation of some concretized image of what can be attained.

E.V.: That also is a serious problem, which has already been dealt with by Aristotle in his Rhetoric. It is the task of a politician to bamboozle his people into doing, for all sorts of reasons, things which should be done for the right reasons. That is the art of a statesman.

E.O’C.: I want to express our utter appreciation for Professor Voegelin’s talk, and for his coming here, which I know was a great deal of trouble for him. I think the thanks have been given to Professor Voegelin by the type of questions he was asked.


This excerpt is from Published Essays: 1953-65 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 11) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000)

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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