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Matters of Substance and Style

Matters Of Substance And Style

Dear Robert:

Your kindness has caused me considerable pangs of conscience. Such atten­tion to detail must have cost you much more time than I had anticipated it would.

I feel deeply in debt to you, and especially because the explanations at­tached to your corrections are a course in style that will be of value far beyond the crimes I committed in this section of the MS.

For an appreciable part of my mistakes are “typical,” that is to say, I make them repeatedly; and your bringing them to my attention will help me to correct other sections. Unless I were al­ready hardened, and resigned to the fate that I never shall write decent English, the survey of the battlefield would be an excellent reason to commit hara kiri.

As to the detail, most of your corrections were so thoroughly justified that I could do nothing but transferring [sic] them to my clean copy of the MS while biting my nails that I still do not know which prepositions to use after certain verbs.

There were, however, a few emendations which I hesitated to accept, and I should like to explain one [or] two of the hesitations–partly in order to justify my rebellious conduct, partly because the illumination which I received from your correction might also be of interest to you.

For, even though I did not ac­cept the emendation, it stirred up extremely interesting problems in a philoso­phy of language. Let me give you an example:

This horror induced Plato . . . to make the true order of society dependent on the rule of men whose proper attunement to divine being manifests itself in their true theology.

You suggest to change the end of the sentence to:  “. . . in their possessing (or mastering) the true theology.”

I did not follow your suggestion, though I am fully aware that it would bring a substantial improvement in style, for the following reason: In the history of philosophy, from Plato to Schelling, there rages the great debate on the question: who possesses whom? Does man possess a theol­ogy or does a theology possess man?

The issue was most strikingly brought into focus when Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum provoked [Franz Xavier von] Baader’s counter-formula Cogitor ergo sum. The immanentist “I think” as the source of self-assertive being is countered by the transcendentalist “I am thought” (by God) as the source of dependent being.

If I insert the verb “possess” into the pas­sage in question I prejudge a theoretical issue that is a major topic in the work–and besides I would prejudge it in the wrong direction. The only permissible solution would be [a] cumbersome dialectical formula (“possess, while being possessed by” or something of the sort) that would divert attention from the main purpose of the sentence. So I left it, though with regrets.

One more example, of somewhat different complexion:

In existence we act our role in the greater play of the divine being that en­ters passing existence in order to redeem precarious being for eternity.

You remark: [“] accidentally misleading, since ‘divine being’ so often [=] God! [”]

Again, I left the sentence as it is. In this case, the suggestion of “God” by means of “divine being” is deliberate. The sentence is supposed to express in metaphys­ical language the mystery of Incarnation.

Later, in the sections on Christianity, this sentence will serve in the unraveling of the symbolism of the God who be­comes man. One of the philosophical purposes of the whole study is the demonstration of the metaphysical rationality of classic and Christian symbols; and the dependence of the maximum of rationality on mysticism (in the most strict, religious sense) is a thesis that will serve in explaining the social victory of Christianity over rival pagan mysteries in the Roman Empire, as well as in ex­plaining the irrationality of modern, secularist thinking.

There are altogether three or four instances of this kind.

They cause me con­siderable sorrow because obviously they originate in a conflict between literary conventions and philosophical language. And in this conflict quite frequently I do not know which side to take.

In German, naturally, I know what I can do and what not; but what the traffic will bear in English by way of adapting the linguistic instrument (which is basically created to express relations of the exter­nal world) to the intricacies of the dialectics of being, still escapes me. I am afraid I shall never find a way out of this mess . . . .

Let me thank you again for this conscientious piece of helping work. I wish I could do something in return–if ever, I hope you will let me know.

With our best wishes to you and your family,

Most sincerely yours,



This excerpt is from Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin: A Friendship in Letters, 1944-84 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

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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