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Looking at the Big Questions

Looking At The Big Questions

ERIC  O’CONNOR:  I remarked to you yesterday that I had found your use of apeiron a bit ambiguous; it meant “limitless” in a good sense at some times and not at others. Will you clarify that?

ERIC VOEGELIN: The meaning of the apeiron was developed by Anaximander, then used by Plato and everybody in the East. We all have to return into the something out of which we have come; it is the apeiron out of which we have come. So death is the consequence of birth, you might say, and in Anaximander’s formulation, everybody has to pay the penalty of death for the guilt of his existence.

The guilt of existence and the punishment one suffers for this through death is the basis of the Anaximandrian problem. Even if you get the problem of guilt out of it or try to explain it with Christian terminology–as revolt against God or disobedience to the divine command–you can’t get away from the problem of death. There is no substitute for that in any invention.

There is, then, a particular problem in modernity. You may know of the psychologist Lifton at Yale? (He posed as an expert in the Patty Hearst trial.) In his book on revolutionary immortality, he analyses very carefully, from the Maoist sources, that one of the reasons why a man is an ideologist–an imperial ideologist, or a Maoist–is because he is in search of immortality. That is perfectly right, but for reasons other than Lifton believes (because he knows only Maoist affairs).

Already in the fall of 1789, Schiller, the German poet, in the first of his lectures on universal history, explained that he is giving a construction of history leading up to the progressive fulfillment of the revolution in his time because participation in that process as constructed historically is a sub­stitute for the immortality in which he no longer believes.

Here you have, at root, the problem: The search for immortality is the reason why a man becomes an ideologist. (When he’s intelligent he quickly ceases to be one and sees the tragic problems again.) That goes on right into the present.

We have in Eastern European Communist literature people like Adam Schaff who have seen the problem that when you get old enough to be faced with death, being a Communist doesn’t help you in any way to understand the problem of your life and death. One finds the same in recent books on old age by Simone de Beau­voir and Sartre. The problem of death is the problem on which ap­parently solid Marxist revolutionaries crack when they get older. It doesn’t make sense to be a revolutionary if you have to die anyway. The problem of meaning, which cannot be solved by any construction, is one of the great contemporary problems.

Ricoeur, in the article “Angoisse” (in Histoire et Vérité), goes into the question, What would happen if all these intellectuals–Hegelians and Marxists–who now believe in the meaning of his­tory, and in themselves as top carriers in the present, would sud­denly no longer believe because the meaning of the Hegelian sys­tem has been destroyed? That would be an outbreak of anxiety! What they lived by was believing that sort of nonsense.

But such destruction does happen–for instance in the case of Adorno (1903-1969), the German Marxist in Frankfurt. His last book is the most thorough self-dissolution of Hegelianism that we pos­sess. You might say that within German Hegelianism Adorno’s Negative Dialektik is the period; it is the end of it. One can’t believe it, and he himself doesn’t. He sees no alternative, but the self-destruction is there. So these are the great problems you can observe everywhere.

Order Advancing Despite Disorder

CHARLOTTE TANSEY: You make the statement (on page 303 of The Ecumenic Age) that “the truth of order emerges in history nevertheless.” Why “nevertheless”? Would you call that a statement of your belief?

ERIC VOEGELIN: The consciousness of some sort of order advancing in spite of all this disorder–that is the “nevertheless.”

CHARLOTTE TANSEY: Yes, but why? Isn’t that somewhat Hegelian?

ERIC VOEGELIN: No, it is not Hegelian. It is simply a statement of the mystery: The world is in bad disorder, and nevertheless there are elements of order in it, much to everybody’s surprise.

MICHEL DESPLAND: I have a question related to that. When a historic differentiation of consciousness occurs, you say that it is an ad­vance. I can understand that to the people who experienced it, it was. Now in some sense it is also an advance for us: We who study it, we who understand it, can experience it as an advance–so the advance that occurred then is not lost forever, in spite of all the disorder.

ERIC VOEGELIN: It can be reactivated.

MICHEL DESPLAND: But if it is an advance for us, I’m hopelessly entan­gled; I inevitably connect this sense of advance with the linear time that you denounce. The very metaphor of advance to me seems to mean advance toward something. And I–who am not at the end of history but at the point of history which I have reached–can then start telling a story of it all. All the things that you denounce about Hegel seem to be there in bud, or I’m already yielding to the sense of linear time.

ERIC VOEGELIN: I have heard the argument before, but it’s not as simple as that. The ordinary “advance” metaphor that creeps in is always the homo faber picture, but the advances I mean consist in a better understanding of the direction of man toward the Beyond, to the eschatological–the advance of the eschatological time. It is not an advance that everybody makes; most people don’t. If we are living–as today, for instance–in a very disordered society because of the level of public debate, such problems are simply not there.

I always call a state like the present a state of public uncon­sciousness (with no possibility of public debate). The young peo­ple are caught up in it because our educational institutions are conducted in this state of unconsciousness. That’s very bad. There were similar problems in the time of Plato, and you cannot simply say that we are in a better state today. We may be in a much worse state in spite of the fact that single individuals called mystics have seen the problem. Or, if you take it out of the twentieth century, with single individuals such as the philosopher Bergson, and look for any serious academic treatment of him–well, there isn’t any.

MICHEL DESPLAND: So it’s not an advance for me as representative of my age, but it is an advance for me as a philosopher–

Regressing from Order Already Achieved

ERIC VOEGELIN: Yes, we are always living in that problem of advanc­ing or regressing from possibilities that have already been realized. But how that works out socially can be a quite different matter. It may work out as the atom bomb.

I may have told you that I was invited, two years ago in Vienna, to attend one of the famous dialogues between representatives of the Soviet government and Catholic theologians there (I was only an observer). In the course of one evening–three or four hours–I jotted down the conditions that the Soviet representa­tives made for conducting such a dialogue with the Westerners.

Certain premises must stay beyond discussion, must be accepted as true by everybody, including the Catholic theologians. First: Karl Marx’s surplus theory of value,· then: all workers are exploited by capitalists; philosophy is abolished and replaced by dialectical materialism, religion is out–everybody has to be an atheist; and, in case of war, the Soviet Union has the exclusive right to use the atom bomb because it represents the truth of history.

ERIC O’CONNOR: That’s true? Did the argument proceed?

CATHLEEN GOING: They talked for three hours?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Though I don’t want to insult anybody, I would say that the Catholic theologians were not flabbergasted but rather helpless.

CATHLEEN GOING: I was afraid they were going to turn out to be the ignorant, the “fools” of the conversation!

CHARLOTTE TANSEY: Would you say that differentiation for you is a process rather than result?

ERIC VOEGELIN: It’s a process that results in the collected works of Plato, for instance. So if you want to call these the “result” of the process in which they were reaped–but of course, the re-reading, the re-activation, is required, as your colleague has said. If you don’t read them, there is no result. The result is there only when you continue to work on it. We can call The Cloud of Unknowing the result of mystical process; but if nobody reads it, there is no result in the text–in spite of its being published by Penguin!

STANISLAUS MACHNIK: You make a great deal of the failure of the Christian churches to elaborate the implications of the Thomistic handling of Christ’s statement “Before Abraham was, I am”–and you say how in fact that can be an opening into an accommodation of the theophanic events elsewhere. Could you elaborate on that?

The Unfortunate Distinction between Reason and Revelation

ERIC VOEGELIN: That is a large order. Let me briefly state what the problem is. We are beset in all philosophical and theological discussions, everywhere in the Western world today, with the unfortunate distinction Thomas made between philosophy as the result of nat­ural reason, and theology as the result of supernatural revelation.

Empirically this just doesn’t hold water. Many Greek poets and philosophers have given their revelation experiences. (They are conserving the structure of reality while Thomas is dealing with the salvational problem in reality: salvation out of the structure.) Until these conceptions of “philosophy and supernatural theol­ogy” are dissolved, not much of a rational solution can be expected to problems we have constantly.

For instance, in all universities now in the Western world–especially in America–there is an in­creasing number of departments of religion which have the oddest structure: They can deal with Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and ev­erything you want under the sun. But they have to omit Christian­ity in a state university because they might get into trouble with the separation of Church and State. (The Church is Christianity– so all religions are permitted except Christianity.)

Everywhere in such departments of religion you run into somebody who is bright enough to ask himself occasionally whether it is just a question of the Buddha having a conception of something, and Confucius having another one, and so on–or whether perhaps they have all experienced the same Divine reality and there is only the one God who manifests Himself, reveals Himself, in a highly diversified manner all over the globe for all these millennia of history that we know.

The mere fact that we now have in history a global empirical knowledge extending into the archeological millennia all over the earth requires a theology that is a bit less confined to Islam or to Christianity. It must explain why a God who is the God of some witch doctor in Africa is the same God who appeared to Moses as “I am” or to Plato in a Promethean fire. And that theology is unfortunately not yet in existence.

PATRICIA COONAN: But wouldn’t you have to use philosophy in order to try to understand the evidence and the formulation?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Absolutely.

A Philosophy of History to Understand Theology

PATRICIA COONAN: But it is a distinct job; you’re not yet doing theology?

ERIC VOEGELIN: It is a distinct job to develop a theology in the Pla­tonic sense–to know all these various types of theologies, the various types of faith, and to analyze their structures–always with an eye to the problem that even the most exotic ones, ones that may appear primitive to us, are revelations that have to be respected.

PATRICIA COONAN: You would study any one, expecting that it is an honest revelation; you wouldn’t bother if you thought it was a fool’s. So you wouldn’t expect to be able to understand. But the way one tries to find out “What did the Buddha say? Where did he live? What was the context? What do his symbols mean?”– wouldn’t that be a philosophical inquiry?

ERIC VOEGELIN: That’s what it always is.

PATRICIA COONAN: Yes, but once you find out for sure just what he said, then you get into theology–

ERIC VOEGELIN: Then you have to understand the structure of what he’s saying, yes. And then comes the question of which of these theologies is possibly truer than another.

PATRICIA COONAN: There you’re in theology.

ERIC VOEGELIN: It’s not a question of theology today, you see. It’s a question rather of the historical philosophy that is still devel­oping. We don’t have it yet.

For instance, when you speak with an abbot in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Kyoto, you get an idea of what he is after: a presence of Divine reality in nature. It sur­rounds him there in gardens, which are kept in a certain shape to represent the Divine Reality in nature as a form. And that is a development which is useful and exists in Western Christianity only in certain instances–Saint Francis, for example, or Dutch landscape-painting, which is distinctly a nature-mystic cult. It is not generally a part of our civilization.

Natural Reason Doesn’t Exist

PATRICIA COONAN: But in your book you do try to uncover the original experience that has been encrusted–

ERIC VOEGELIN: And one can uncover it by going back to the texts, you see. That is why in my work there are long gaps–twenty years or so–because I have to learn the language in each text.

PATRICIA COONAN: But isn’t it “natural reason” you’re using?

ERIC VOEGELIN: It is not natural reason because the reason itself is a discovery by Greek philosophers–

PATRICIA COONAN: But you’re using your brain–

ERIC VOEGELIN: Reason itself is a consciousness of that tension– which is a revelation: that one exists in the consciousness of tension.

PATRICIA COONAN: But which one seeks to understand somehow, to be able at least to figure out when we’ve got a real revelation and when it’s just fantasy or illusion?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Yes, but fantasy is a great problem: How do we distinguish between tenable revelations and elaborate fantasies or absolute swindles? In that respect I like Thomas Mann very much. Toward the end of Felix Krull: The Confidence Man (un­fortunately only the first volume was finished), he has that long talk between the confidence man and the director of the natural history museum. He interprets the whole history of the evolution as imaginative expression of God, of His fantasy, and His imag­ination, which produced the rich unfolding of nature, continues in the man with imagination as a confidence man–so the confi­dence game itself is a continuation of the divine imagination of the world.

That’s an important insight because it brings in the question, Where are we just engaged in the confidence game (for instance, Melville analyses the confidence game in his novels, and most ideologies are such confidence games), and where are we still in a legitimate, imaginative analysis of reality? There are some criteria: completeness, fulfilling the perspectives, not omitting this or that–empirical criteria.

Reason as the Response to the Divine Ground

PATRICIA COONAN: It  [“Reason”] wouldn’t be [the same as] natural reason?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Reason itself isn’t natural; even Thomas admitted that. The “natural reason” is due to God’s grace.

PATRICIA COONAN: Oh. But so is life–

JOHN BELAIR: Wouldn’t you rather say the correct use of “reason” is “grace”?

ERIC VOEGELIN: That would be a secondary proposition. But first: What is reason after all? Reason did not exist in language in the history of mankind until it was formulated in the Greek fifth century as a word denoting the tension between man as a human being and the Divine ground of his existence of which he is in search. The consciousness of being caused by the Divine ground and being in search of the Divine ground–that is reason. Period.

That is the meaning of the word reason. That is why I always insist on speaking of “noetic” and use the term nous: in order not to get into the problems of the ideological concept of reason of the eighteenth century.

The word nous is applied by Plato and Aristotle to the con­sciousness of being in search of the ground of one’s existence, of the meaning of one’s existence–the search, the zetesis. One is in the state of ignorance, of agnoia; one asks questions, the aporein; and the answer is that the Divine nous is the cause that moves me into the search.

Not the mere fact that somebody is searching is reason, but the movement by the Divine ground that pushes me in that direction–or pulls me in that direction. That is why, in the Laws, Plato uses the mythological symbolism of the god who pulls man by various cords: the golden cord of reason and other cord; then (preserving human freedom) he can follow the golden cord of reason, but he can also follow the other cord and be a fool. But it is a divine pull that pulls you. It is not a natural movement.

PATRICIA COONAN: The question is the Divine.

ERIC VOEGELIN: Yes. So the divinity of reason is the beginning of the word reason. That’s how it all starts.

Cicero’s Tuscalan Disputations and Baudelaire

STANISLAUS MACHNIK: Would you say that there’s a close correlation be­tween the fool you’re speaking of and the experience of alienation?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Yes, that’s a very close relation. Actually these two things go together in the term psychopathology. You find them well analyzed in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. Just as today, the philosopher has all sorts of disordered and unhappy people coming to him for help.

Cicero gives a long list of the symptoms of alien­ation: being excessively greedy for money, being a businessman twenty-four hours a day, or being in search of social acceptance or role, or womanizing, or wine tippling. And it goes on. All the same symptoms we have today–as a way of divertissement, Pascal would call it–when we are in a state of alienation or intoxication.

That realization is already present in Stoic psychopathology, and we have it still in the better minds of the nineteenth century. Baudelaire, in Les Paradis artificiels, gives a long analysis of the influence of hashish and a wonderful description of what today we call “mind expansion” through the use of hashish; and then he goes on: “but you can achieve, of course, the same effect by read­ing Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”

Baudelaire was also a music critic and wrote excellent reviews of the early Wagner operas in Paris: Mind expansion can also be gotten by reading through a Wagner opera. There are all sorts of diversions that in the state of alienation can assuage you for a time. The analysis and collection of these symptoms is also a sign of alienation and was overcultivated by the Stoics.

STANISLAUS MACHNIK: Would you say, as Bernard Lonergan does, that the ideological bent is often an attempt at self-justification?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Yes, a divertissement in Pascal’s sense–as a substi­tute for immortality.

The Divine Kinesis that Moves Us

COLETTE POTVIN: I was wondering about how to get a grasp of the lu­minous event as a kind of process, and how to cut across to a notion of order. On the historian’s part, it’s a looking back. But the people living at any time–how can they experience this notion of order?

ERIC VOEGELIN: That is simple. Students always ask that question. “Where do you get this Divine revelation? Where is the Divine presence?”

You are sitting here and asking questions. Why? Because you have that divine kinesis in you that moves you to be interested.

COLETTE POTVIN: Can’t I just call it “interest”?

ERIC VOEGELIN: You can call it interest, but it is the revelatory pres­ence, of course, that pushes you or pulls you. It’s there. We are talking.

COLETTE POTVIN: Would you say that in the process of the whole, and with the questions coming up, the main crisis today is religious, in the sense of a person’s interiorizing things? Or political, in the sense of grasping structure?

ERIC VOEGELIN: No, in the sense of these diversions that I just men­tioned. People want to make money, they want to get a social position, they want to fly, or they want to have a speedboat–all of which divert them from other things. The most ordinary diversion of course in modern society is TV watching–for intoxication.

SAM MATTAR: But aren’t you in danger of making intellectual pur­suits a diversion as well?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Very many of them are. Consider in the academic world all the specialization. I call it occupational therapy. Scien­tific value is almost nil, but some poor fellow is occupied for his lifetime in a less dangerous manner than throwing bombs, so it’s all right. It’s very important now to specialize. You don’t like that!

Self-Admissions of Marx, Hegel, and Hobbes

SAM MATTAR: My problem is that having read the book I still could not formulate criteria for the deformations. How do we know that there are deformations in history? Is it this experience of God that makes us realize the deformations?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Not necessarily. People who deform are usually very conscious of doing it: When Marx explains quite clearly (he was educated in a philosophical faculty), “I’m not going to answer that question of the ground or pay any attention to it, I demand of you as a reader to be a socialist man and not to ask that question,” I don’t need any particularly profound research in order to read in half a page what Marx does. He says it himself.

Or when in the introduction to his Logik (1812) Hegel explains: “This Logik is written from the position of the Divine mind before the creation of the world and human intellect,” what is he doing? He is the Logos of the Gospel of John–only bigger and better. I don’t have to make any profound research; these people say it themselves.

Even Hobbes in the introduction to the Leviathan says: The summum bonum is out. (No God.) But then of course we have to keep order among human beings. How? By the summum malum, the fear of death. He says it. It is the same problem as in the positive differentiations: The better minds in the history of mankind know quite well what they are doing and saying; they are developing the language. But all these things have fallen into public unconscious­ness because nobody reads books these days.

Chinese Studies

PETER HUISH: The chapter on the Chinese ecumene was surprising in the book. I think the intention probably was to reinforce what you described earlier about the diversity and multiplicity of ec­umenic events. But I was wondering if the popular interest in Eastern religion currently is a form of the diversion you’ve de­scribed, or whether it’s another form of the sort of interest you have mentioned on your own part in making more comprehensive the question of mankind.

ERIC VOEGELIN: What I have done in that chapter is a fairly original analysis of the problem of the ecumene, of the t’ien h’sia, in Chi­nese literature. It was not done all alone. I quoted some Sinologists who were my assistants in Munich; they helped me to find out about the sources. Now that is one answer to your question.

You can see best what you call today’s craze for Eastern mys­ticism if you go to any college bookstore. I don’t know how you are equipped locally in that respect, or generally in Canada, but at Stanford when I went there five years ago and frequented the bookstore, there were two huge sections excellently organized: Eastern mysticism and pornography.

Murdering God for the Sake of Pornography

Most of my knowledge of pornography I have acquired browsing in those sections at Stan­ford University. One has to know these things because the stu­dents read them. It is on the same level of diversion.

And this diversion has been formulated for the first time, I believe, by the Marquis de Sade in Philosophie du Boudoir–one of the most pornographic books ever issued. It contains the political mani­festo that begins “Encore un effort français” (always quoted under that name): The problem is that the deposition and beheading of the king has not done much yet for the freedom of mankind. Only the Establishment has been decapitated; but what is behind the Establishment is, of course, the morality of social and political order.

To get rid of that substance, which is represented by the political establishment, you have to let the murder of the king be followed by the murder of God. (It is the earliest case of that phrase as far as I know.) And why? Because only when the morality institutionally represented by the kingship is also abolished can man express himself in his nudity to the extent of murder and pornographic activities.

So these sequels (later worked out and typified by Camus also) of regicide, deicide, homicide, for the purpose of the pornographic existence–that is the danger. That is a very important element. I’m always very suspicious of anybody who is suddenly out for Eastern mysticism.

Student Interest in Eastern Mysticism

PETER HUISH: In view of the fact that throughout The Ecumenic Age (which is the only full work of yours that I’ve read) you estab­lish tension as being one of the primary experiences of our tradi­tion, I’m wondering if the associated and still-present cosmologi­cal sense of Eastern thought is one of the attractions in it–for an escape from tension.

ERIC VOEGELIN: It could be. I’m skeptical, because none of my stu­dents who suddenly go out for Eastern mysticism does any serious work. They talked about it. But when I say: “How about reading about the relations, the parallels, of Eastern and Western mysti­cism, e.g., Rudolf Otto’s Mysticism East and West?“–that is the last you hear of them. They would have to work when they read a book, and they don’t do it. That’s why I’m skeptical. There may be one or two somewhere who are seriously interested.

PETER HUISH: I wasn’t trying to justify it. I was just wondering if escape from tension toward something more compact is a motivating force–

ERIC VOEGELIN: You can escape from the tension just as well if you read The Cloud of Unknowing–so there’s something fishy about it. Or by reading one of the Upanishads; but they don’t like that because it’s too intellectual, too rational. They want the I Ching, which is difficult to understand and perhaps not intelligible at all in certain sections. The prevalence of the I Ching in the fantasies of these persons makes me very suspicious. And when you say, “Perhaps you should read Marcel Granet, the greatest authority on the early Chinese culture’7 not one of them is willing.

CATHLEEN GOING: Perhaps it would be related to ask not about the con­temporary craze but about the authors of the Upanishads. Do I have it correctly that the Upanishadic differentiation is incom­plete both noetically and pneumatically because there isn’t a good enough story about that toward which the tension is experienced?

ERIC VOEGELIN: There is encounter with the divine reality at the top. It’s never completely worked out symbolically. In The Ecumenic Age I’ve given this in an analysis of the “Abraham Apocalypse.” There you get both factors.

Symbols Don’t Just Happen

COLETTE POTVIN: How do you see symbols developing? You speak of the “dead point” at which symbols depart from their exigence of truth into propositional knowledge, but how do you see symbols really developing?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Symbols don’t just develop. Every word that we use in our language, that is now part of our language, was not lying around somewhere but was created by somebody–even terms like quantity and quality. We ask: Who invented quantity and quality?  Cicero. There wasn’t any quantity or quality before him.

Every such instrument of thought–even such elementary things–has been created, as far as the intellectual and spiritual origin is concerned, by certain people on certain occasions of ex­periences; and we usually are in possession of the early document. As I said, the term theology begins in the Republic of Plato–that is an early example.

The term metaphysics was introduced by Thomas for the first time in his prooemium to the Metaphysics of Aristotle. You can trace it back: metaphysics is an Arabic deformation of the Greek letters meta taphysica (which mean nothing of that sort) and was taken over as a convenient term. In the seventeenth century metaphysics was replaced by the term ontology, and that has become fashionable to a certain extent.  (Heidegger, for example, has a Fundamentalontologie.)

For every term you can say who, how, when, and why that piece of language was produced. One has always to go back to that. So symbols don’t just happen.

The earliest written case we have of any symbolism is the famous theology of Memphis–the divine drama among the gods that ended in the creation of the empire of Egypt (probably to be dated about 3000 b.c.). In the discussion of the drama are inserted passages (which today you would call footnotes) in which the priestly authors of the documents explain why they prefer the myth of that drama to another possible alternative that was also in use at the time–a creation of the world by the word of the god to a creation by sexual procedures of the gods.

It is a conscious creation of the myth, not just a naïve thing that happens somewhere. In this case we do not know the creators by name, but they were a priestly group among the Egyptians.

Unlike contemporary talkers about myth, they were cultivated people. They knew that a myth is a myth and they didn’t take it fundamentalistically.

The World Cannot be Explained

CHARLOTTE TANSEY: You said that at the “ecumenic” time, everything splin­tered off and it was impossible to have myths that permeated throughout. Do you think that that might be possible now because of the kind of communication we have? Do you think ours might be a period where symbols could become generalized?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Since we just talked about Eastern mysticism, there are obviously symptoms indicating that people are in search of some sort of myth. Even if I am skeptical about the effectiveness of some things they are doing, it’s there. But that does not indicate more than that the problem of the myth has been badly neglected for two hundred years–and people still do not understand what a myth is.

ROBERTA MACHNIK: So you mean that the important thing is to say the myth, not to have it universal.

ERIC VOEGELIN: Oh, these myths are all universal. If you look at collections of cosmogonic myths, some creation of the world is expressed wherever there is any report of any society at all, as far back as it is possible to go–20,000 B.C. Such myths were the only form in which one expressed the problems of the beginning or the creation of the world.

You get some funny situations.

In California now there is a fight between literalists, or providentialists, and biological theorists. And you get in the textbooks both Genesis and Darwinian evolutionism as two “theories” of evolution. You see what that really means?

The fundamentalist theologians in California (fundamentalism was well established there at the beginning of the century) don’t know what a myth is. They believe it is a theory. They’re in ignorance.

And the bi­ological theorists don’t know that Kant has analyzed why one cannot have an immanentist theory of evolution. One can have an empirical observation but no general theory of evolution because the sequence of forms is a mystery; it just is there and you cannot explain it by any theory. The world cannot be explained. It is a mythical problem, so you have a strong element of myth in the theory of evolution.

So both the theoretical evolutionists and the fundamentalist theologians are illiterate. That level of illiteracy is taught in the textbooks as “two theories”–neither one of which is a theory.

Prohibiting Meaningless Vocabulary

SAM MATTAR: What do you see to be the new myths, then? You said myths are constructed now, such as: If I believe in science as being objective–

ERIC VOEGELIN: Yes, we do have the problem of sorting out from our language a whole terminology which has not mythical but ideological character.

In my seminars, when I’m dealing with Kulturtheorie, one of the first rules is that no one is permitted to use the term value–because it is meaningless. Each must say what he means when he wants to use value. Within three weeks the seminar gains a degree of realism that is almost incredible– just by skipping that one nonsense word.

Nobody is permitted to use the terms subject or object, subjective or objective. One has to say what he means–and that clarifies the atmosphere.

One has to realize that there is practically a science today for which no name exists as yet: I would call it “ismology.” Most of the “isms” we throw around as if we knew what we are talk­ing about. Optimism, pessimism, nihilism, egotism, and so on, are all eighteenth-century new language. The social “isms”– liberalism, conservatism, capitalism, communism–all appeared between 1810 and 1850.

If you eliminate also all the “isms” from the discussion in your seminars–say what you are talking about, which experiences, which part of reality–suddenly people be­come sane; they are not permitted to talk nonsense.

Intolerance of Fools and Dirty Tricks

MICHEL DESPLAND: Returning to the point you made about not being able to get rid of the fool: It seems to me that there has been the claim, the notion, the dream, the hope, in Christianity that this isn’t quite true anymore. And one of the things so attractive about Plato is his gentleness with the fools; he never puts a knife on their throats and says, “Become a philosopher or die!”

Christian­ity has the symbols of the heavenly Jerusalem, where there are no fools anymore, and it takes great pride in baptizing everybody and taking into the Church those whom the world considers foolish and humble. The Church sees itself as potentially encompassing everybody. Now part of my experience is very much attuned to Plato’s patient bearing with fools, but I’m also responding to what seem to me the different Christian symbols about fools not being a permanent component of the human equation. Can you reconcile that?

ERIC VOEGELIN: I would take exception to some of your statements. Plato was not quite as tolerant of fools–

MICHEL DESPLAND: –if they become dangerous; that’s right.

ERIC VOEGELIN: He kicks them out. And he didn’t admit everyone as students in the Academy. Even though you have sample dis­cussions (e.g., with Protagoras in the dialogue of the same name), Socrates at a critical point says: Either you stop using this tech­nique of making speeches for the purpose of preventing a discus­sion, or I go. There is no tolerance, if the dirty tricks begin.

And with regard to Christianity: There is certainly the concep­tion of saints and sinners composing the Church, but there is also a limit. For example, if you pretend that National Socialist murderers are to be persuaded to be nice church boys, you make yourself an accomplice in murder, Christianity or not; there are a few problems in your relations with your fellow citizens.

I would say that after the experience of Hitler and Stalin, anybody who today is still an ideologist makes himself a silent accomplice in ev­ery atrocity committed in Auschwitz or in the Gulag Archipelago. Nobody has any business being an ideologist today after we know what it means.


CHARLOTTE TANSEY: Why do you bypass heretics?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Because the question of heresy is a very complicated affair. It was horribly mixed up in the Middle Ages because the pope who started the Inquisition–Pope Innocent III–I believe–was a lawyer.

In the older constitutions of the Justinian empire, heresy was classified, because the empire was officially Christian, as high treason. That is how heresy got into the high-treason cat­egory and people were killed. Several times lawyers have caused such unfortunate consequences!

Heresy is a highly dubious cate­gory, except where it becomes violent. One can also say, of course, that a Communist is a Christian heretic; but if he starts putting people into concentration camps by the millions, I don’t care whether he is a heretic or not; I shoot back.

Why the Term “Gnosticism” is Inadequate Today

MARIA ANDARY: Do you group the gnostics with the ideologists?

ERIC VOEGELIN: No; there you get into the “isms” again. I paid perhaps undue attention to gnosticism in the first book I published in English, The New Science of Politics. That was the time when the historic explosion of knowledge started with which we are living today. I happened to run into the problem of gnosticism in my reading of von Balthasar.

But in the meantime we have found that the apocalyptic tradition is of equal importance, and the Neoplatonic tradition, and hermeticism, and magic, and so on. If you read Frances Yates’s book on Giordano Bruno, you will find that the gnostic mysticism of Ficino is a constant ever since the end of the fifteenth century, going on to the ideologies of the nineteenth century.

So there are five or six such items–not only gnosticism–with which we have to deal. If all new types have to be brought in, the simple doctrine is no longer very useful.

The Use of Magic to Transform Mankind

And something new may be found out tomorrow. Thorndike, an excellent historian at Columbia University, published, between the 1920s and 1950s, eight fat volumes on the history of magic. I have not yet been able to digest these materials and use them as they should be used for the understanding of the genesis of modern magic thought.

Most of what we usually call “ideologies” are magic operations in the same sense that Malinowski uses magic of the Trobriand Islanders.

ERIC O’CONNOR: In what sense are you using magic there?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Magic means the attempt to realize a desired end that cannot be realized if one takes into account the structure of reality. You cannot by magic operations jump out the window and fly up–even if you so desire. If you try such things–for instance, producing a change in the nature of man by the dictatorship of the proletariat–you are engaged in a magical operation.

CATHLEEN GOING: I meant to go back to the earlier volumes of Order and History to check, but may I ask whether for you the Prometheus story is not a “good” story–or whether it is an excellent story of a magical operation?

ERIC VOEGELIN: That is a complicated affair because there is no Prometheus story.

CATHLEEN GOING: There are many stories.

ERIC VOEGELIN: The Prometheus story to which one usually refers is that of Aeschylus. There one gets immediately the problem of deformation.

The critical passage is the scene where Prometheus is being fettered to the rock. Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, is standing down there on the beach looking up, and Prometheus speaks the line “In one word, I hate all the gods.” That is the line quoted by Marx in his doctoral thesis.

But the scene goes on. After Prometheus has pronounced that line, Hermes, down on the beach, says, “I think that is no small kind of madness”–it is like a disease. That second line was omitted by Marx. There you have the problem of disease and the magic.

The Range of Prometheus Distortions

Berthollet in his History of Chemistry and then Festugière in the Hermes Trésmégiste have presented very well the transformation of Prometheus into the light-bringer to mankind–the sense that Marx wants us to take.

That is a gnostic transformation, and there are several such trans­formations of the Prometheus myth: from the revolt against the gods into human independence of the gods; or the story of the Fall transformed into that of the envious god against whom mankind will now, at last, sin and be perfectly happy. (What was prevented by God now can be produced by Marx.)

These gnostic transfor­mations have been historically effective. It depends always which kind of Prometheus you take as an example. In the Philebus of Plato you find the light-bringer who brings philosophical wisdom to some select people who then transmit the wisdom. It’s another Prometheus.

Dogma Cut off from Experience

BARBARA GUARD: Professor Voegelin, in your answer to Professor Altizer1 you say that the development of the nominalist and fideist con­ceptions of Christianity is a cultural disaster. Could you explain what you mean by that, please?

ERIC VOEGELIN: It is the point at which dogma separates radically from the experiences that justify it. Then you get the split between mysticism and fideism which occurs in the earlier decades of the fourteenth century, a generation after Thomas (on the nominalist side people like Ockham, and on the mystical side people like Meister Eckhart). When that split occurs, then of course the spir­itual unity of the creed is destroyed.

BARBARA GUARD: What do you mean by “fideist”?

ERIC VOEGELIN: I mean accepting the verbal formulation–“I believe in God the creator”–without asking any questions: “What do you mean by that?” Fideistic acceptance is very frequent, among fundamentalists especially.

Flux of Presence

STANISLAUS MACHNIK: Could I ask you about metaxy and flux?  Is Heracli­tus’s account of the experience of flux an example of the state that you call metaxy?

ERIC VOEGELIN: It is certainly one. I don’t remember the use of the word metaxy for describing it, in Heraclitus–

STANISLAUS MACHNIK: I didn’t mean that it was. I was wondering–when you were giving the etymological background of some symbols–what the etymological origins of the notion of flux might have been. It seems very rich. (The word “becoming” had become so important.)

ERIC VOEGELIN: I’m afraid I originated “flux of presence.” I had to get a term that is neutral toward fideistic separation of God from the world. Flux of presence is a very good term.

Alienation, Atheism, and Falling into Non-Existence

PATRICIA COONAN:: When you talk about anxiety in the turn from exis­tence to nonexistence, I’m wondering what the nonexistence is?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Here you are getting into tensional experiences– about which one can say nothing except that they are real.

A man who is (for example) in the state of atheistic engagement or revolt, at the same time feels that he is falling into nonexistence. You are in existence if you are attuned to reality, which is God’s reality, and you fall out of it if you are in revolt against it.

A state of alienation, if it has reached the proper intellectual consciousness, will always be accompanied by some sort of uneasiness. This need not be completely conscious but can express itself in all sorts of diversions.

PATRICIA COONAN: Would meaninglessness be the same kind of word as nonexistence?

ERIC VOEGELIN: Yes, exactly. Nonexistence simply means falling out of the experience of positive relatedness to the reality which is divine–

PATRICIA COONAN: –which is not in flux.

ERIC VOEGELIN: If you fall out of that flux and try to become an independent entity, then you fall into nonexistence. One cannot explain more about it because it is–only in that tension.

Seeking “Identity” and the Harmlessness of the Agnostic

PATRICIA COONAN: In cases of mystery your fideist says, “I’m not going to question; I’m just going to take it.’’

ERIC VOEGELIN: That can have unpleasant consequences. As I men­tioned with regard to the “isms,” there are many terms that have arisen since the eighteenth century. One of these is “identity” (much used by the psychologist Erik Erikson of Harvard). “Men are in search of their identity.”

But if there is no identity, there are very unpleasant consequences: Identity must be artificially produced. Camus gave the example of Brutus, who had either to kill other people or to kill himself. If you can’t kill an adversary and thereby assert yourself, the only means of self-assertion, of gaining an identity, is suicide.

COLETTE POTVIN: What about the agnostic, the one who doesn’t revolt and who doesn’t admit to the existence of tension?

ERIC VOEGELIN: That is a very frequent case, which fortunately is comparatively harmless. A lot of people are dull enough to be unworried about such things, thank God!

The Meaning of Life

COLETTE POTVIN: What do you tell your students when they ask you about the mystery of the process? What kind of pursuit should they have, to clarify or see the luminous event?

ERIC VOEGELIN: It’s not a question of seeing luminous events. There are actually students who will not settle for less than a vision like Saint Paul’s; they are not willing to believe.

One needs to get them out of their idiocy somehow and persuade them that the daily tasks are the things one has to do–to live, to have a useful vocation or occupation, found a family, take care of a wife and children, and so on. That all has to be done; that is life and the meaning of life.

Beyond that, if they have time enough to go into intellectual and spiritual exploits, there is enough literature for them to train on. We are always trained on something. I got into problems of religious understanding through the fact that in Vienna, where I grew up, there was an adult-education institute where one winter they had Deussen, the philosopher who trans­lated the Upanishads.

There he was, and for a winter, every week, I was at a lecture by Deussen on the Upanishads. That is how I found out about them. So take it where you get it!

ERIC O’CONNOR: We’re very grateful for this session.



Eric Voegelin visited the St. Thomas More Institute in Montreal four times over an eleven year span. The last took place in 1976. The lectures were  transcribed and published by Edwin O’Connor, the Institute’s Director.

A discussion at Thomas More Institute on March 12, 1976, originally pub­lished in, Conversations with Eric Voegelin, ed R. Eric O’Connor, Thomas More Institute Papers vol. 76 (Montreal: Thomas More Institute, 1980), 113-54. Tran­scripts of four lectures and discussions at Montreal in 1965, 1967, 1970, 1976.

Editorial remark from O’Connor: A discussion at Thomas More Institute with those who had been reading and discussing for eight weeks Voegelin’s Ecumenic Age within the 1975-1976 TMI course “Myth as an Environment: Further Preoc­cupations of Voegelin, Lonergan, and Frye.” Participants in the seminar discussion were (in order of first intervention): Eric O’Connor, Eric Voegelin, Stanislaus Machnik, Charlotte Tansey, Michel Despland (guest), Cathleen Going, Patricia Coonan, John Belair, Colette Potvin, Sam Mattar, Peter Huish, Roberta Machnik, Maria Andary, and Barbara Guard.

1. Eric Voegelin, “Response to Professor Altizer’s ‘Ά New History and a New but Ancient God?’” in CW, vol. 12, Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. with intro, by Ellis Sandoz (1990; available Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 292-303.


This excerpt is from The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1939-1985 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 33) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998)

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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