Modern Political Religion

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The intellectual culture of the philosophes, what Alexis de Tocqueville called esprit revolutionare,[1] is what political theorists today understand is a form of “political religion.”  The term “political religion” might strike some as unacceptable. On the one hand, those who piously affirm the tenets of orthodox spiritual traditions and attest to the reality of their faith may resent the suggestion that modern intellectual and mass movements can be analyzed on the level of religious experience.

On the other hand, ideologists whose claims appear in the guise of “scientific” judgments will reject the suggestion that their political views are religious in nature. They distinguish between their own “rational” principles and the “irrational” beliefs of those who proclaim the truth of religion. Even adherents of some churches maintain that their creeds are not rational, but are wholly based on supra-rational “religious” truth. We must add, however, that there are “religions” other than those which articulate a belief in God.

There is no lack of scholarship which has identified the religious character of certain political movements. Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1951) analyzes the variants of rebellion in modern speculation and the spiritual character of revolt. Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), an analysis of medieval European religious movements which is perhaps best known, shows the similarity of these movements to the modern political phenomena of German National Socialism and Communism. These contemporary political ideologies, Cohn shows, are similar in structure to‑-and in some instances take inspiration from‑-what we today would call the fanatical, if not irrational, medieval phenomena.

L. Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1960) indicates the similarity of the secular apocalyptic strain in eighteenth century French philosophy to the chiliastic medieval phenomena. He also traces the revolutionary consequences of this political Messianism in eighteenth century France. Robert Tucker’s Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (1961) persuasively shows the origins of the thought of Karl Marx in the revolution in religion instituted by Idealist philosophy’s creation of an image of man as God.

But perhaps most important for analysis of the nature of modern political religions are the works of Eric Voegelin in which he argued in The New Science of Politics (1952) and Science, Politics and Gnosticism (1959)[2]that these political movements are similar to beliefs of the ancient Gnostics. More recently, Daniel P. Walker and Frances Yates, have shown the influence of Renaissance Herrneticism in the formation of modern political thought. Collectively we can characterize the thought of the philosophes, the German idealists and the later thought of Karl Marx as modern “Second Realities.”[3]

The concept “Second Reality” was applied by Eric Voegelin, following Robert Musil, to the ideological attempts to replace reality with another, more acceptable reality originating in the mind of modern ideologists.  Rejection of reality, characteristic of modern intellectuals, was not always predominant. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, for example, explored the consubstantiality of human nous (mind or spirit) with a divine nous and saw that man actualizes his humanity in the aspiration to be “deathless”  through noetic contemplation of the divine. Man realizes his humanity in comtemplation of the divine, not rejection of divine reality.

This consciousness of the opening of the soul to transcendent nous in Greek philosophy was an event in history of Western consciousness. No longer could the compact experience of being within the medium of the cosmological myths define intellectual culture. A new consciousness of transcendence of the divine beyond existence and essence was experienced by Greek natural philosophers as an historical development. That insight into the historical dimension of existence as a process in time was first formulated by Anaximander:

“The origin (arche) of things is the Apeiron . . . . It is necessary for things to perish into that from which they were born; for they pay one another penalty for their injustice (adikia) according to the ordinance of Time.”[4]

Anaximander experienced existence as a creaturely process which is perishable but nevertheless consubstantial with a timeless Apeiron or “boundless” condition that is begun to be seen as the origin of the process of existence. Thus Anaximander observes, “it is necessary for things to perish,” an acknowledgment, on the one hand, of the reality of death, and, and on the other, of the reality of immortality since what exists will “perish into that from which they were born,” which is to say that they will return to the divine arche of being.

Eric Voegelin writes of this fragment of Anaximander:

“Reality was experienced by Anaximander . . . as a cosmic process in which things emerge from, and disappear into, the nonexistence of the Apeiron. Things do not exist out of themselves, all at once and forever; they exist out of the ground to which they return. Hence, to exist means to participate in two modes of reality: (1) In the Apeiron as the timeless arche of things and (2) In the ordered succession of things as the manifestation of the Apeiron in time.”[5]

The mystery of reality as a process of participation in the divine origin of being was experienced by the ancient Greek and Christian philosophers as a process pointing ultimately towards transfiguration of reality.

Plato’s concept, displayed in the Myth of the Cave, of the turning around of the psyche towards the transcendent Good beyond existence and essence in his Republic and St. Augustine’s concept of the peregrination of the city of God and the souls of men towards Christ articulate this experience. The ascent (epanodos)[6] of the soul to the Agathon in Platonic philosophy, just as the conversion of the soul to God of the Christian experience, articulates a transformation of the soul. Yet this experience did not occlude a simultaneous creaturely experience of the psyche in the world. Body which is ensouled is also psyche which is embodied. Physical, creaturely existence is reality.

In the Gnostic movement of antiquity in which the scattered diffusion of the divine spark ends in a pneumatic process of running back to the godhead, however, this “balance of consciousness,” to use Eric Voegelin’s concept, is lost. The creaturely world is rejected as is the humanity of man. Experience of existence as a mode of participation is occluded by absolute identification with the divine. The Gnostic experience of the divine, hidden God, from which the Gnostic adept was an emanation, left no room for the noetic experience of the participative nature of human consciousness, of the goodness of the cosmos and of material existence. It left only the transfiguring experience of gnosis.

In 1952, Eric Voegelin, attracted by the similarity of ancient Gnosticism to modern political religions, extended the typology of ancient Gnosticism to an analysis of contemporary political ideologies in order to delimit the religious experience which engendered them. Modern Gnosticism, he found:

“may be primarily intellectual and assume the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence, as, for instance, in the contemplative gnosis of Hegel or Schelling. Or it may be primarily emotional and assume the human soul, as, for instance, in paracletic sectarian leaders. Or it may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler. These Gnostic experiences, in the amplitude of their variety, are the core of the redivinization of society, for the men who fall into these experiences divinize themselves by substituting more massive modes of participation in divinity for faith in the Christian sense.”[7]

This modern Gnostic “redivinization of society” is itself a transvaluation of the Christian “dedivinization” of the temporal sphere which was the outcome of the clash between Christianity and pagan culture and its gods. Christian apologists “dedivinized” man and society by expelling the gods from the world. They thus reordered the Western interpretation of man’s existence “through the experience of man’s destination, by the grace of the world‑transcendent God, toward eternal life in beatific vision.”[8]

A “dedivinization” could not have occurred without the experiential atrophy of polytheism and its challenge in the form of the Christian experience. Thus identification of the contemporary “redivinization” of modern Gnosticism presupposes the atrophy of the Christian experience in intellectual culture[9] and its replacement by a religious experience which is impatient with the uncertainties and anxieties, the insecurity, which accompanies a world without gods. Eric Voegelin explains this as follows:

“. . .when the world is de‑divinized, communication with the world‑transcendent God is reduced to the tenuous bond of faith, in the sense of Heb. 11:1, as the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen. Ontologically, the substance of things hoped for is. nowhere to be found but in faith itself; and, epistemologically, there is no proof for things unseen but again this very faith. The bond is tenuous, indeed, and it may snap easily. The life of the soul in openness toward God, the waiting, the periods of aridity and dullness, guilt and despondency, contrition and repentance, forsakenness and hope against hope, the silent stirrings of love and grace, trembling on the verge of a certainty which if gained is loss‑the very lightness of this fabric may prove too heavy a burden for men who lust for massively possessive experience.”[10]

Two aspects of the Gnostic derailment, occlusion of creaturely existence and absolute identification of “man” with God by the Gnostics, became formative elements in the shaping of modern political religion. This is important for understanding the effects in America of the brutality of the American Civil War, Darwin’s Origins of the Species and the role of American Transcendentalists in bringing German idealism to the United States.[11] The development and transmission of the ideas of philosophic idealism in Germany began with Renaissance Hermeticism

Renaissance Hermeticism

Despite the finding in 1614 by the philologist Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) that the Hermetic writings of Hermes Trismegistus were in fact post‑Christian in origin, fanatic devotees of Hermeticism rejected the evidence. Committed to the reform of religion by an infusion of the thought of Hermes, the new Renaissance messiahs were not deflected from their redemptive paths by a scholarly argument that the documents on which their new religion was based were not what they believed them to be. The thought of Hermes Trismegistus, though little known to us today, was believed by Renaissance scholars to constitute an ancient revelation predating the revelation of Moses and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks.

Marsilio Ficino

Renaissance Neo‑Platonists like Marsilio Ficino (1433‑1499) attempted to revive the prisca theologia (antique theology) of Hermes and reconcile it with Christianity. Later, persons like Giordano Bruno would abandon this Christian interpretation and simply assert the truth of Hermeticism. That was the natural outgrowth of a radical and philosophical testament.

The central focus of ancient Hermeticism was the belief that Hermes saw that the human nous is itself divine.[12] Those who attain to this knowledge are saved by becoming God. The core of Renaissance Hermeticism was a radical deification of man, with similar anthropological consequences.

The ideas that Marsilio Ficino are representative. Ficino wrote of the existence of the “divine mind” in men, living, shining, and reflecting itself there.[13] By that Ficino meant that man is the image of God in the sense that his true being is a reflection of the “divine face” or divine goodness. God, he wrote, in willing himself, “wills all other things which are God Himself as being in God, and as flowing out of God are images of the divine face and have as their end the task of reproducing and confirming the divine goodness. “[14]

The symbol of the “flowing out” or emanation of existent things in God tends to break the distinction of kind between creaturely existence and the divine and alter it to a difference of degree. Consequently, Ficino could write that if God is goodness, then the soul becomes God by love of goodness.[15]  “Just as, not he who sees the good, but he who wills it becomes good, so the Soul becomes divine. not from considering God, but from loving Him.”[16] Ficino writes also:

“The entire effort of our Soul is to become God. This effort is as natural to man as that of flying is to birds. For it is inherent in all men, everywhere and always; therefore it does not follow the incidental quality of some man, but the nature of the species itself.”[17]

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

The Renaissance nobleman, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola also expressed these ideas in his “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” first published as part of a proposed disputation to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy, and magic. Though the concept of the “dignity of man” has been absorbed into orthodox Catholic understanding of man’s nature, this short oration is a virtual compendium of the Hermetic deification of man.[18]

Unfortunately, the disputation which was to occur in Rome in January 1487 never took place because an alert Pope Innocent VIII, suspecting the heretical cast of some of Giovanni Pico’s theses, prohibited the disputation and ordered an investigation. The somewhat restricted Christian Hermeticism of Ficino and Giovanni Pico gave place in the late sixteenth century to the aggressive revival of Hermetic prisca theologia by Giordano Bruno.

Giordano Bruno

Bruno was accused of saying that he intended to “found a new sect under the name of philosophy,” a form of competition frowned upon by the Inquisitors who burned him at the stake in 1600. Bruno viewed himself as a Messiah come to save the world through a renaissance of Hermetic magic. In his Spaccio della bestia trionfante (1584), Bruno openly advocates the making of “familiar, affable and domestic gods”[19]  as the means of world renewal.

In that work, Jupiter admonishes the other gods to reform themselves, promising that “if we thus renew our heaven, the constellations and influences shall be new, the impressions and fortunes shall be new, for all things depend on this upper world . . . .”[20] The magician participates in this celestial renewal by divinations which evoke the good traits of the gods and thus simultaneously reduce the influence of their bad traits.[21] This attitude conflicts with the ancient Gnostic antipathy to the material world, but the Hermetic corpus also contained the basically non‑Gnostic religious view of the world as a manifestation of God.

This acceptance of the world in a transfigured state, but not in its present reality, was a principal formative element in the view of nature of Idealist Humanism. In one aspect of the Corpus Hermeticum, for example, the world is viewed as transparent to a world spirit or God which itself images forth the “greater god. “[22] All beings in the world are by that token in God.

In the “Lament” of the Hermetic Asclepius, the view of imminent decline is coupled with the view of world reform. In the old age of the world, evil, as opposed to good, will prevail, the gods will depart from man, and the order of nature will collapse. But this condition is not final. At some point in this decline, God will intervene by means of a flood or consuming fire that will destroy evil, and the world will be returned to its original beauty. “That is what the rebirth of the world will be; a renewal of all good things, a holy and most solemn restoration of Nature herself, imposed by force in the course of time. . .by the will of God.”[23]

Perhaps persuaded that culture was undergoing a process of renewal, the Renaissance Magus found this Hermetic view quite appealing since he viewed his own action to be somehow participating in a greater process of world renewal. Underlying Renaissance Hermeticism is a subtle change from the Medieval understanding of man. What has changed is Man, now no longer only the pious spectator of God’s wonders in the creation, and worshipper of God himself above the creation, but Man the operator, Man who seeks to draw power from the divine and natural order.[24]

This view was spread widely. Frances Yates and Paul Kristeller see the immediate influence of the Hermeticism of Ficino and Bruno in “Galileo’s claim that man’s knowledge of mathematics is different in quantity but not in kind from that of God Himself”; in the natural magic of Shakespeare’s plays; the political theory and action of Campanella; the growth of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry; Sir Thomas Moore’s critique of Cartesian naturalism; and Francis Bacon’s New AtIantis.[25]

German Idealism

And though the atheist humanism of Karl Marx has had a lasting impact on the lives of communist regimes, in the United States, a more subtle influence of German idealism can be found in their influence on  American Transcendentalists whose belief in man as god led to a political religion of democracy.

Fredrich Schiller

Fredrich Schiller’s (1759 –1805) lecture, “The Nature and Value of Universal History,” given at Jena near Weimar, Germany is an example. In that lecture Schiller attempts to replace the reality of the depth of the human with the substitute depth of universal history.  Classically trained, German idealists understood that the “depth” was a philosophic symbol of Heraclitus of Ephesus.

A fragment of Heraclitus reads as follows:

 You would not find the boundaries of soul

even by travelling along every path,

so deep is the logos it has.

Schiller’s lecture is revealing because he admits that the depth of universal history, which he substitutes for the depth of the soul, is an “optical illusion.”[26] Though an optical illusion, it is necessary because through the conjecture of an illusion enables the philosopher of universal history to become the immortal “Lord of History.”

Schiller was not alone in engaging in such speculation. Robert Tucker argues that the origin of German Idealism as an identifiable ideological movement may be found in Immanuel Kant’s (1724 –1804) “expression of a compulsion in man to achieve absolute moral self‑perfection.”[27]

Immaneuel Kant

Immanuel Kant saw man’s will as his “proper” or real self, and this he called the “divine man within us.”  Kant wrote in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals that our ideal will which makes universal laws is the proper object of reverence. In other words, Kant viewed man as godlike and moral action as an attempt to harmonize our own will with that of God’s, even though such harmony cannot be attained by finite beings.

Johann Fichte

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1724 –1804) added to this intellectual development by portraying history in terms of the “Divine Idea” or the life of God. The scholar who by his intellect lives in the Divine Idea, embodies it and his whole thought is engrossed in the thought of the Idea. His existence is a thought of God. Robert Tucker calls this “the displacement of God by the godlike self.” The difference of kind between man and God is now seen by German idealists as a mere difference of degree. For the Idealist enterprise to succeed, the distinction between man and God must be cast aside and replaced with a man‑god. In Fichte’s mind “history”–understood as the movement of being–is moving toward a this-worldly resolution of contradictions in existence.


This expectation, that historical reality was moving toward transformation–a this worldly millennium–is sometimes called “Millennarian.” Though in its specific sense this concept refers to that period one thousand years in advance of the final judgment of man when the saints rule with Christ in a kingdom established in this world, the term is often more broadly construed to define historical movements called “chiliastic.”  A Greek word referring to the millennium.

A specific definition of these movements was made by  Norman Cohn, the great historian and author of “Pursuit of the Millennium,” who identifies five aspects of political movements seeking this-worldly salvation. They are:

(1) collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a group;

(2) terrestrial, in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some otherworldly heaven;

(3) imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

(4) total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;

(5) accomplished by agencies which are consciously regarded as supernatural.[28]

Historical representative of these movements are the pauperes of the first Crusade, who saw the rescue of Jerusalem as the culmination of the eschatological movement that would result in the establishment of the “New Jerusalem” of the Book of Revelation; the Flagellants, who indulged in self‑mutilation which they believed would hasten the establishment of the millennium; and the radical Taborites.

American Transcendentalists

In America, millennial chiliasts saw divine significance in the American Revolution and the American Civil War, out of which would be forged an America committed to the redemption of the world. Some of the key influences in this development were Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Samuel Gridley Howe, her husband Theodore Parker, the influential Unitarian minister, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” is an attempt to interpret the American revolution as the beginning of the redemption of the world by a democratic America.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.

That “shot” was heard in Boston, not “round the world.” But, the epitome of these hopes for America is condensed in Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in February, 1862. The Hymn is a poetic, though secularized, rendition of the millennial passages of the Book of Revelation: the “glory of the coming of the Lord;” the “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored ” (which in the manuscript version more closely approximates the scriptural language, “He is trampling out the wine press . . . . “), the personal testimony of the chiliast who attests that she has “seen Him” in the bloody events of the American Civil War and who announces that she can “read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel.”

Howe transforms Christ’s redemptive mission–which is not of this world–into the world immanent social activism of the Anti‑Slavery movement: “With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me: As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free. . . .”[29] Both Theodore Parker and many New England Transcendentalists were enthusiastic about the Hungarian patriot, Lajos Kossuth, who opposed the Habsburgs and sought to unite east central Europe in a loose federation. And their ideas fueled the Anti-Slavery movement with a political religion that deflected compromise.

Development of a political religion of democracy in America was extremely important. We may see that in this observation by Irving Kristol.

“. . . once upon a time, in this country the question of democracy was a matter for political philosophy rather than for faith.  And the way in which a democratic political philosophy was gradually and inexorably transformed into a democratic faith seems to me to be perhaps the most important problem in American intellectual–and ultimately political history.”[30]

Two persons who represent such a transition and who left a deep impression on early twentieth century American intellectual culture, were Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson.

Herbert Croly

Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909) and later the journal, The New Republic, which he founded and edited, performed a role in shaping the political attitudes of America’s intellectual elite in the Progressive era, a role which Woodrow Wilson complemented by shaping the popular attitudes of Americans towards democracy, the nature of peace, and America’s destiny.

In The Promise of American Life, Croly wrote: “For better or worse, democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility, and hence from the adoption of measures looking in the direction of realizing such an aspiration.” That aspiration would be realized primarily, he thought, by those “exceptional fellow countrymen” of his, the American intellectuals whom he called “saints.”  These secular saints who lead the common mass, Croly speculated, will not necessarily be conservators of the American political tradition.

The realization of the promise of American life will sometimes require a “partial renunciation” of the American past and of present interests, if necessary to contribute to the “national purpose.” There may even occur a sudden transfiguration by “an outburst of enthusiasm.” He observed:

“If such a moment ever arrives, it will be partly the creation of some democratic evangelist-some imitator of Jesus who will reveal to men the path whereby they may enter into spiritual possession of their individual and social achievements, and immeasurably increase them by virtue of personal regeneration.”

Let us reassemble the parts of Herbert CroIy’s political religion before examining the political religion of Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson

Dominating Woodrow Wilson’s civil religion are four aspects:

First, the view of a national purpose to be realized in public affairs. Second, is the realization that this purpose requires secular saints, themselves led by a messiah who will reveal the true path. Third, Croly sees this as a transfiguration that will come because the American nation itself is formed by a democratic ideal which is working its way in time towards full realization. Fourth, before this can occur, this democratic ideal, always a promise, must he fully articulated, its creed formulated now, so that the American people may believe once again in the promise of American life.

A critique of Croly’s civil religion requires that we return to basics. Politics is a science of four principles:1) rational judgments informed by an awareness of circumstances, 2)  a proper assessment of the limits of government and potential abuses of state power, 3) a concern for institutions which limit power, and 4) prudent knowledge of the common good. CroIy’s call for secular saints who will conduct us into a condition of reconstituted and transfigured reality, has less to do with political science than with prophecy, enthusiasm, and magic.

The national life is indeed informed by an idea, by public myths which articulate the commonly shared beliefs of society’s members.  But that idea does not exist independently nor is it working its way in human events towards a logical fulfillment. The national life can expire, change its form, become something altogether different, not by means of the twists and turns of a world spirit, but by the weakening or collapse of civic virtue and of political judgment. How swiftly such a collapse can occur, and how vulnerable the American political system is to such collapse, is visible in the influence of Woodrow Wilson’s political religion.

Informing Wilson’s political religion is a view of history similar to Croly’s. History, Wilson believed, moves according to a plan in which America plays a major role. His view of history is one of a progressive development, moving slowly but inexorably to a condition of reconstituted reality. In an address in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a Y.M.C.A. celebration on October 24, 1914, he said:

“. . . no man can look at the past of the history of this world without seeing a vision of the future of the history of this world; and when you think of the accumulated moral forces that have made one age better than another age in the progress of mankind, then you can open your eyes to the vision. You can see that age by age, though with a blind struggle in the dust of the road, though often mistaking the path and losing its way in the mire, mankind is yet-sometimes with bloody hands and battered knees-nevertheless struggling step after step up the slow stages to the day when he shall live in the full light which shines upon the uplands, where all the light that illumines mankind shines direct from the face of God.”[31]

The role of America in this plan of history, Wilson was persuaded, was shaped and directed by God from the beginning. This, he declared on one occasion, is a nation God built with our hands.

To what end, we might ask?

In an address before Confederate veterans of the Civil War on June 5, 1917, Wilson declared that “we are to be an instrument in the hands of God to see that liberty is made secure for mankind.” Wilson’s view of history in which America and mankind were moving to a world- immanent transfiguration of the human condition was not an isolated facet of the thought of an otherwise pragmatic man of affairs. Instead, it was an integral aspect of his attitude towards life and the skills required, if political life was to be governed rightly.

Politics, for Wilson, required “vision,” and vision for Wilson meant knowledge of God’s purpose in history. In his First Inaugural, Wilson was speaking of his own visionary politics when he described his task as “no mere task of politics.” Politics of Woodrow Wilson was not mere politics, politics was a special capacity to announce the immanence of a new age certified by the political leader who experienced a special revelation.

Woodrow Wilson’s vision of America was one of a nation ordained to play a mighty role in history; it was only fitting, therefore, that Americans should be perceived as different from the rest of the peoples of the world. We, for example, entered World War I “for no selfish advantage.” Our troops were “the armies of God.” Accordingly, America undertook missions of redemption.

At St. Louis, Missouri, September 5, 1919, Wilson observed that:

“(America) . . .  has said to mankind at her birth: “We have come to redeem the world by giving it liberty and justice.”  Now we are called upon before the tribunal of mankind to redeem that immortal pledge.”

Wilson was an idealist in the sense that T.H. Green[32] defined an idealist as one who seeks to “enact God in the world” by the pursuit of ideals not given in experience. Wilson was committed to the ideal of a world absent of war, a world he believed to be within the grasp of a civilized world. And America’s entry into World War I was largely motivated by the desire to attain such an ideal. That it was to be accomplished by violence did not dismay Wilson.

It is important to understand that Wilson’s desire to involve us in World War I was grounded in his will to destroy the system of balance-of-power politics. Wilson’s oft repeated assertion that America had no selfish interest to be satisfied by her entry into the war, that we sought no territory, no concessions, was his way of expressing utter contempt for balance-of-power politics.

On July 10, 1919, in his address to the United States Senate presenting the treaty of peace with Germany, Wilson proclaimed:

“Every true heart in the world, and every enlightened judgment demanded that, at whatever cost of independent action, every government that took thought for its people or for justice or for ordered freedom would lend itself to a new purpose and utterly destroy the old order of international politics.”

Wilson’s desire to “utterly destroy” the reality of balance of powers was yoked with his desire to destroy “autocratic authority.” He was persuaded that only governments governed by majority rule, not by autocratic minorities, could truly seek peace. As a consequence, he sought to destroy autocratic governments, in the present instance, the government of Kaiser Wilhelm. In such a “good cause” Wilson believed that the maximum use of force was acceptable. Wilson saw a “halo” around the musket over the mantle of the citizen soldier who fought to redeem the world, and around the returning American troops. Force, apparently, was not to be disdained when executed by the “armies of God.”

Wilson was in search of a “cause” in which to destroy the existing world order and found it in “the terrible war for democracy and human rights.” The war was “terrible” no doubt in part because the winners of the conflict, “the only people in the world who are going to reap the harvest of the future are the people who can entertain ideals, who can follow ideals to the death.” But the war would be “terrible” also because Wilson saw the war in apocalyptic terms. This war had eschatological significance. He called the war a “final contest” which would bring about a “final emancipation.” And if America did not join the League of Nations he foresaw another “final war”; for surely there would be war again, he said, one that would bring the evil policies of the powers of this world to a close. Looking at history as a progressive movement towards a transfigured condition of peace and justice, Wilson saw himself as living in the last days when heroic acts were necessary to bring history to fruition.



[1] See Joseph Epstein, Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy’s Guide (New York, Harper Collins, Eminent Lives, 2006).

[2] 0riginally published as Wissenschaft, Politik and Gnosis (Munich: Kosel‑Verlag, 1959), English edition, William J. Fitzpatrick, trans. Science, Politics and Gnosticism. Two Essays. Chicago: Henry Refinery Co., Gateway Edition, 1968).

[3] Eric Voegelin, “On Debate and Existence,” Intercollegiate Review, III (1967), 143‑152.

[4] Quoted in Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 174.

[5] 1bid. Throughout this section our interpretation has relied on Voegelin’s analysis of what he calls the “Balance of  Consciousness,” The Ecumenic Age, Chapter Four, Section 3, 227‑238.

[6] Plato, The Republic, 529c.

[7] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 124.

[8] Ibid., 107.

[9] That atrophy occurred after the American Civil War.

[10] Ibid., 122.

[11] See Richard Gamble, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and American Civil Religion (Fall 2014), Vol. 56, No. 4.

[12] Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 149.

[13] Ibid., 79.

[14] Ibid., 145.

[15] Ibid., 264.

[16] Ibid., 269.

[17] Ibid., 337.

[18] A translation of Giovanni Pico’s “Oration” is available in E. Cassirer, P.O. Kristeller, J.H. Randall, Jr., eds. The  Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 223-254.

[19] Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 212.

[20] Yates, Giordano Bruno, 218.

[21] Ibid., 221‑222.

[22] Ibid., 33.

[23] Ibid., 39‑40.

[24] Ibid., 144.

[25] Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Concepts of ‘ Man and Other Essays (New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper  and Row, Publishers, 1972), 20; Yates, Giordano Bruno, 357; 360‑397; 413; 274; 427;” 450.

[26] See Eric Voegelin, “The Eclipse of Reality,” in The Collected Works, Vol. 28, eds. Thomas Hollweck and Paul Caringella (Baton Rouge, 1989: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), p. 122-139).

[27] Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1965), p. 33.

[28] Norman Cohn, “Medieval Millenarism: Its Bearing on the Comparative Study of Millenarian Movements,” in Sylvia L. Thrupp, ed., Millennial Dreams in Action (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), 31.

[29] Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation. The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 197‑198.

[30] Irving Kristol, On the Democratic Idea in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 51.

[31] All citations of Wilson’s speeches may be accessed from the “E-Library Search” at the website of The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum

[32] Richard Bishirjian, “Thomas Hill Green’s Political Philosophy,” in The Political Science Reviewer, Vol. 4 (Fall 1974), pp. 29‑53.

Dick Bishirjian

Written by

Richard J. Bishirjian, was Founding President and Professor of Government at Yorktown University from 2000 to 2016. He earned a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in Government and International Studies from the University of Notre Dame under the direction of Gerhart Niemeyer. He is editor of A Public Philosophy Reader (St. Augustine's, 2015) and The Conservative Rebellion (St. Augustine's, 2015); and author of The Coming Death and Future Resurrection of American Higher Education (St. Augustine's, 2017)