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Political Consciousness and Polarization in the Philosophy of Eric Voegelin

Political Consciousness And Polarization In The Philosophy Of Eric Voegelin

The Problem of the Debate

An unquestionable premise of democracy: public decisions are affected by public opinion. Daily observation of the manifestation of public debate may, however, lead to an unexpected desideratum of this formula: life in democratic societies seems to not only allow debate by the participants of this society, but to some extent impose debate and coerce them to stand before the political guidelines of the day. The already stereotyped Sartrean formula of “Not taking position is also taking position” reveals its meaning as a symbol of a duty to be fulfilled even by those who strive to reject it. Could it be any different? Public debate becomes an indissociable obligation in the nature of man who, being unable to avoid it, strives to obtain the necessary knowledge and the most accurate interpretations for all myriad political questions. Is it really? Or could we say that at the same time that this demand for debate is imposed, there seems to be a growing confusion? More placements seem to mean less positioning.

One can contemplate public debate by taking vulgar forms when sophisticated academic jargons are used as everyday language on casual talks: social issues “must be problematized,” arguments “must be deconstructed,” paradigms “must be broken,” oppressed must rise before their oppressors, and so on. The original terminological content of such formulas goes into the background and their use is trivialized to the point of obscuring their actual references. Inadvertently, theories are used as platitudes in a naive effort to give some reasoning to the discussions. Renowned philosophers and sociologists appear as the label in which its holders recognize and identify themselves. They come to fulfill the role not only of “argument of authority”, but also of unifying symbol of ideas and people. The name of one of them is enough to conjure magically the members of the audience in favor of a certain thesis. If this is something very clear in discussions in which names such as Habermas, Foucault or Marx are raised, it is no less in those in which Mises, Hayek or Chesterton appear. This relegation of the debate seems to be related to the idea that the politicization of society has to do with the readiness to debate and the tenacious defense of opinions. To what extent is this true? Based on Eric Voegelin’s philosophy, this article seeks to investigate how the democratic requirement (more than mere permission) that all political issues should be debated does not lead to real political consciousness.

Policy and Political Debate

If all problems are to be examined and the whole society must be involved in such a task, one wonders how one should not reduce debates to a compulsive repetition of ready-made terms and formulas, easily adaptable to concrete circumstances and often inclined to an ideological explanation of reality. When this rush to discussion arises beyond a small number of individuals whose trade depends precisely on public opinion (politicians of all kinds, ideologues, marketers, engaged journalists) we see a presupposed equivalence between political debate and politics itself, as if the former were reduced to the second and vice versa. This equivalence is taken as true and, apparently, a desirable formula for proponents of increasing an amplitude of individuals involved in the debate, that is, an increasing number of people “politicized”. The desideratum of a society involved and attentive to the political problems of its neighborhood, city, state and country presents today, as more than a daily rule, but a dogma widely accepted and unquestionable; the so-called “apolitism” is a modern anathema. No one would dare to question the reason for the initial premise. Democratic constitutions have historically proved to be the most stable, and the need for constant public debate is justified simply by the fact that governments (at all administrative levels) are formed, and most often elected, by the very people who debate them.

Ortega y Gasset is emphatic in proclaiming that politics is public opinion and nothing more.[1] But what the Spanish philosopher points out targets to be achieved and dominated by those who seek political victories is not the same as equating serving ideas with their existential content and ordering of society. Politics and political debate (including public opinion) are distinct figures whose confusion in itself is already a prognostic of the absence of true politics. The German philosopher Eric Voegelin noted from his historical studies of political ideas that it was not only because people argued their views that society attained a political order. Rather, political order was achieved and maintained by the creation of symbols that pushed the debaters of particular states out of ignorance about the order of human existence:

“Since society expressed their experience of order by their corresponding symbols, the whole order of study has to focus on acts of autointerpretação so that follow, this center, the implications for the order of the existence of society – which is , then identifiable as the order of government and administration, economy, social hierarchy, educational system, and so on.”[2]

Such states of ignorance are not the ignorance of specific issues that make up and help understand politics, such as the country’s economy, constitutional and administrative law, sociology, international relations, etc. This framework of political issues can fill the content of the discussions, as they often do, but their ignorance is not an “ignorance” in the sense that Voegelin seeks to address. The way in which the term politicization is treated today as an absorption of theories, facts and news that bring political debate is different from what classical philosophy took for political maturity: a stage of formation developed from the cultivation of virtue, later to overcoming the real state of ignorance.

Political Ignorance

What is this virtue (kalokagathia) and this ignorance (amathia)? It is difficult to properly describe an essence or a closed set of properties of virtue and ignorance (this, perhaps, because it an absence itself). In Plato’s Protagoras concepts are sought from the question of Socrates to the sophist: is it possible to teach virtue? Protagoras, whose office was precisely to teach young people the art of politics (techne politike), states that such an objective is possible. Socrates is not convinced, and both begin a debate on the subject. Virtue, they agree, is formed by justice, wisdom, piety and courage. Protagoras is not convinced, however, that courage is a virtue similar to others, for an individual may be unjust, impious and ignorant, but still courageous. Socrates will lead you to conclude, somewhat reluctantly, that can only be brave one who is wise, because he knows the things that should be feared, and ignorance of these things is cowardice.

The conclusion helps answer the initial question about whether virtue can be taught: the Socratic thesis is that all virtue is rooted in knowledge (episteme) and can be communicated. It does not mean, however, that man can become virtuous through teachings, but that man may lack clarity in understanding the consequences of his actions. This imperfection leads him to submit to momentary desires and passions, deceiving him as to its consequences. Precisely this inability to know the fruit of actions is ignorance (amathia). Therefore, the technique of pondering on the best things, measuring its benefits in the broadest time is knowledge-based wisdom (episteme). Eric Voegelin, commenting on the dialogue, shows that, more than a mere interlocutor, Protagoras figures as the ignorant himself (amathes) because he does not really want to obtain answers through discussion, but to overcome it through his rhetorical resources. These resources are still recurrent topics in political debates, forming habits that the amathes sometimes confuse with their politicization. We can briefly indicate four of these habits from the essay in which Voegelin discusses the rationality of the discussions.

(1) The first group of habits is frequent in both the Platonic dialogues and in any contemporary polemic. It is essentially to raise the level of confusion of the debate to such an extent that the initial subject is either lost or unanswered, almost always ending in the refusal of one or both of the discussants to proceed. The undue introduction of new themes, excessive words, obscure and incoherent discourse, citations and appeals to authorities, as well as the deliberate use of logical fallacies are effective means of ending the debate by diverting it from the initial problem.

(2) With the popularization of psychology, notably from the 1960s, typical figures began to be used as a form of attack to the adversary debater. Instead of contributing to the deepening of the debated subject, sketching possible projections or rationalizations, and thus dissociating the object in debate from idiosyncrasies of all genres, psychology is used by the ignorant as a “low fair attack” relating the opponent’s opinions to motives personal misconduct. This is how debates end with mutual accusations of veiled prejudice, partisan connections, economic interests at stake, etc. This technique which Voegelin called “clandestine psychology” today reaches unimaginable proportions when the philosopher used the term: the imperious requirement of “experiences” related to the subject addressed or the notion of “protagonism” as a requirement of public adherence to the idea is nothing else than a sophistication of clandestine psychology.

(3) Clandestine psychology may be even more vulgar if the refinements of the psychological relationship between the opponent’s discourse and his interests are dispensed with to simply ascribe an obnoxious label. This label seeks to link the adversary and his discourse to certain currents of thought already supposedly unfavorable to the debate. The intent here is purely pejorative: it is not known to what extent the discourse theoretically adheres to the given doctrine or even if the opponent really identifies with it, but it is possible to be based on the imprecision or amplitude of the doctrine itself to make it a label. Nazi, Fascist, and Communist are the most common classifications, but in certain media the trick of the odious label has the versatility of swiftly moving from accusations like “neoliberal” or “Marxist” to “coxinha” and “mortadela,”[3] when not extrapolated to infamous accusations. As the American philosopher Allan Bloom had noted, the accusation of sexism or racism today raises the same outrage that is said atheist or communist in other times.[4] In the law school academic environment, “positivist” and “naturalistic” are more common labels. Voegelin himself claims to have accumulated labels of liberal, fascist, national-socialist and conservative, and his philosophical work has been classified as Platonic, neo-Augustinian, Thomist, Hegelian, existentialist, skeptical and historical relativistic. Also the term “depoliticized” seems to have been elevated to this category of odious label, which gives us a good indication of the confusion that this article seeks to address.

(4) Much more elaborate, but still less subject to the self-criticism of the ignorant, is the habitus of refusing to discuss values ​​or value judgments. Max Weber’s mishaps to reach this conclusion are never recalled. The principle is affirmed or implicitly accepted that values ​​and value judgments must be strictly removed from any rational discussion under the penalty of contaminating the “subjectivity” debate. The advantages of using this trick are to pre-empt ethical, anthropological, and some ontological assumptions by stigmatizing them as “unscientific.” Much of the notion of classical and medieval philosophy, useful for the understanding of political phenomena, can be rejected because they are imbued with certain ethical values. Thus, the bonum commune (common good) of St. Thomas or the episteme of Plato are only admissible as an object of philological analysis or as a historical sample of a thought that concerns us today.

More than mere vanity and desire to affirm the quality of his office as a sophist, Protagoras is immersed in the denial of seeing virtue within the total time perspective of human life; this is because the consequences of actions are ultimately completed in death. That is why Plato’s concern with the idea of the Final Judgment, presented as a myth in the Gorgias and in the Republic, is recurrent. Voegelin concludes by interpreting knowledge (episteme) and ignorance (amathia) not as rules of conduct to be taught, but as existential categories, whose foundation is based on the acceptance or denial that human destiny can only be signed in the transcendent.

The Political Experience

The entire discussion of virtues – and here the policy can be almost completely enclosed within the limits of human decisions for society – therefore lies in the possibility of the interlocutors understand the fate of the company within the transcendent issue. This solution, however, can only become satisfactory if explained how Voegelin conceives human political experience. Escaping from political science in which conservative, liberal and progressive ideals are blunted, Voegelin will point to the true foundation of this science as a tension between the poles of time and eternity.

According to the author, this experiment describes the philosopher’s role in history as an actor in the drama in which he tries to explain. Man experiences a tension between the temporal, which is within him, and the eternal, which can not be identified as an object in the temporal being of the world, but as the being beyond all temporal being. The difficulties associated with this explanation are recognized by Voegelin. We will see how this makes understandable the option of Plato by the use of myths to indicate it.

In the Plato’s Banquet the story of the birth of Eros as the fruit of the seduction of Pórus (opulence, fullness, wealth) by Penia (penury, poverty, need) is told. According to Voegelin, myth represents the penetration of incompleteness by completeness, resulting in love; philosophy comes to conform to the myth reported in the form of a tension between wisdom (wholeness) and ignorance (penury) whose result is the desire for knowledge, philosophical Eros, which orders the philosopher’s soul toward wisdom. In Aristotle this tension is indicated by a state of confusion (diaporein) which incites man to acknowledge his ignorance and to initiate the search (zetesis) for the ground of being (arche). In the case of politics, his knowledge must also be linked to this tension between the temporal and the eternal, whose place of examination between the two poles is the consciousness of the philosopher.

It is notable that political science is a field of study peculiar to other sciences because it does not have a pre-established set of assumptions as it does in geometry in relation to Euclid’s axioms or the laws of physics and the configuration of atomic numbers chemistry, etc. Political science seems to consist of data that do not point to an “object”: there is not properly a set of events, things or properties previously selected whose examination will define the vocation of the political scientist. There is, however, an environment in which a man is eager to understand politics. It’s just in your consciousness that arise interpretations of reality of which he is part. At the same time, tension remains focused on the transcendent, because beyond the surrounding temporal environment there are a series of past and future interpretations of reality from which man can not detach himself.

Society, Voegelin notes, is constituted by self-interpretations of its order and that is why in all times and spaces of humanity there were symbols that sought to describe this order: mythologies, revelations, apocalypses, gnosticisms, theologies and, at the same time, ideologies. These interpretations have the characteristic of connecting to the foundation of order and, once they occur simultaneously, become rivals among themselves. Thus the cosmogonic myths of antiquity, the refutation of heresies, theological schisms, and the clashes of modern political theories seem to be part of the same genre. Besides these types of symbols, there is the so-called “noetic” interpretation, the interpretation of the philosopher’s own consciousness, where the order is experienced inwardly and brought to reality in conflict with the other symbols. At that moment the philosopher becomes the critical center of society around, “an atheist in relation to the cult of the polis, a heretic for theology and a reactionary for ideologies.[5]” The tangle of noetic and non-noetic interpretations becomes unfeasible task of seeking among them an “object” of political science, towards which arise potentially explanatory laws of phenomena. This erroneous search for an object is part of the scientific requirement of the method of the natural sciences, and therefore it must be admitted that political “science” carries only this epithet by an inapplicable analogy between the two.

What it is and how is this noetic interpretation of the order? Voegelin begins by stating that history, like political science, is not a field of material objects that can be arbitrarily selected to make up an “image.” It depends on human consciousness in search of a foundation, which selects relevant data and from them constructs interpretative symbols. The set of symbols forms a historical flow in which the consciousness of the present man is inserted: “Then man and humanity in the process of history are not objects of the external world about which one can make self-evident empirical affirmations; they are, in fact, symbols encountered by concrete men with verifiable historical dates, with an expression of the humanly representative character of their experience of the.”[6]

Our understanding of history (and hence of politics) is not merely a collection of data, but depends from the speculation that points to fundamental problems of order: what is man? What is the world? What is God? Voegelin notes that these symbols are formulated (1) of said differently through philosophy, or (2) in compact form through myths. This explains the contemporary adherence of totalitarian regimes, such as North Korea, to myths about the divine descent of its leaders.[7] The distance from the concrete historical facts and the degree of fantasy in the myths does not fail to point to a same desire to understand the underlying basis of society in which it expresses itself. For example, Aristotle inserts the symbol of being (ousia) replacing the cosmological universe of particularized things recognizable only by their names (heaven, earth, men, gods) for a single foundation. They enter the catalog of “being”: the man, the world and God. The noetic interpretation of order will become clear with the admission that the concrete consciousness of man is the locus where man participates in the eternal being, which is why the title of his book is Anamnesis: the conscience looking about itself, searching for its reason for being.

The Political Consciousness

Voegelin points to three phases of differentiation arising from the clash between the noetic (i.e. from the consciousness) and non-noetic (from the creation of symbols) interpretations.

The first is the Hellenic phase, in which the noesis arises in confrontation with the myth offering a differentiated conception of God, of the man and the world, as well as a project of restoration of the order of the polis. This restoration attempt will fail in practice, with the defeat of the polis by the Macedonian expansion. It will eventually derail in the dogmatisms of philosophical schools, provoking, in the agonizing moments of its decadence, skepticism. The next phase will be through the amalgam of noesis and the Judeo-Christian revelation, originating from what Voegelin calls pneumatic sources of knowledge. As a result, theology emerges. Philosophy comes to be seen as an instrument by which revelatory truth is proven and demonstrated (ancilla theologiae),[8] and this is not without consequence: metaphysical affirmations “ossify” the world and history, not allowing them to become “autonomous realms of reality.”

The effect pointed out by Voegelin is revealed in the later conflicts between modern natural science and ecclesiastical authorities. This type of debate – present even today, but in a less responsible way – ends up creating false problems when one tries to attribute its own objects to theology and science, seeking to artificially demarcate its territories. In the third phase, theological dogmatism radiates its form to philosophy. When the Enlightenment, Skepticism and Positivism take a critical stance on theology, they do so by maintaining the expectation of new dogmas to replace the previous ones. Modern philosophers are inadvertently launching the construction of systems altogether similar to the sums of St. Thomas or the loci communes of Phillip Melanchton. At the same time, the noetic interpretation of reality turns especially against ideological dogmatism.

The resumption of a political science proposed by Voegelin starts from the premise of human consciousness as the ordinator of reality: “The concrete man orders his existence according to his conscience, but what he must order is not only his consciousness, but his entire existence in the world.”[9] Consequently, a theory of politics must deal with the problem of the order of the whole existence of man, that is, in which both consciousness and the bodily foundation pervade human unity. To deny this consequence results in (a) taking corporality liberated from consciousness and thereby creating symbols of human perfection such as Nietzsche’s Übermensch or Marx’s homo novus, as well as the states where social utopia is proposed; and (b) to take the detached consciousness from the body, a hypothesis that makes the idea of ​​a social contract between dematerialized parties admissible. It is necessary to admit that the only consciousness is the concrete consciousness of man. Today’s popularized ideas of a collective consciousness (whether the collective intellectual of Antonio Gramsci or class consciousness) are reductions of a process in which concrete people create a social field, ie, a field in which their experiences of order are shared by other concrete individuals, becoming part of the habits of that group of people. To this, points Voegelin, it gives the name of societies.

Readiness for Political Debate

We return to the problem of discussions: if noetic experience is to be reaffirmed as an excellent way of understanding political reality and, consequently, societies are formed precisely by individualized communication of orderly experience, we must admit that readiness for debate is linked to aspects inseparable from the human being. We have already argued that the order of society depends, according to Voegelin, on the creation of symbols that moved man from particular states of ignorance whose root lies in a denial of human experience in the transcendent perspective. The amathes has revealed himself not as one who ignores thematic or technical aspects in politics, but one who, once declining transcendence has a distorted view of the ultimate consequences of his actions. Virtues cannot be measured without the end point of death, just as the politics of society cannot be deliberate without considering its possibility of disorder and collapse.

Political experience is understood as analogous to the individual order of consciousness without, however, derailing for ideas of a collective consciousness of any kind. Political consciousness is necessarily individual, and only within a historical process – that is to say, history itself – spreads and becomes part of the habits of other individuals. The creation of differentiated and compact forms of this experience seems, however, to be a task exclusively of philosophers or of a small group of professionals endowed with this capacity, that only in a second moment happens to be communicated to the other members of the environment. This hypothesis would cast the doubt: for the political discussions to unfold is it necessary to know the historically described noetic experiences? Is to say: to decide daily on the policy of a neighborhood, city or state it is necessary that those involved are political scientists, learned from the Ionian speculation and even the emergence of conditions of totalitarian regimes?

In this case, it would be necessary to accept the consequence that political discussions should be restricted to the select number of people educated in society, knowledgeable and studious assumptions of politics in its various levels. The demand of a “politicized” society, in the sense commonly employed, would be impossible, only as ideological jargon, impelling individuals in a race for erudition, whose learning would be costly. The marketing of this society would say that it would form the best “politicized” citizens, schools would be opened for an elite, and contemporary Protagoras would have to explain again how they teach virtue while deceiving the audience with its tricks.

Absurd hypothesis, of course. There is something in the noetic experiences that radiate its possibility beyond the scholarly knowledge of philosophy and other subjects. Consciousness, although explored in different degrees by individuals, is common to all who desire it. Just as the possibility of virtuous actions in Plato is the result only of the desire for completeness and consideration of the consequences of actions in view of man’s mortality, what is expected at the epistemological level of a political conscience among all citizens may be better explained by the raw concept of common sense. This term, which has taken a pejorative meaning from a set of vulgar ideas about the world, is in fact a precise description that the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid used in the eighteenth century to point out the ability of men to manage their affairs, to be subjects of law and government and responsible for their conduct towards others.[10] Voegelin does not hesitate to attribute to the common sense the quality of habit presupposed by the noetic experience, for without the prior determination of a political consciousness mirrored in the individual order of being there is no way to become responsible for one’s actions, to reflect on the domestic economy, or find reasons to submit to laws and government. All this dispenses with all scholarly scholarship: “The civilized homo politicus need not be a philosopher, but he must have common sense.”[11]


The term “politicization” now seems to have taken significant nuances of a readiness for political debate and the tenacious defense of their own opinions. This debate, however, has simultaneously become an indeclinable demand of society and a source of incomprehension of the real meaning of politics, descending into irrational habits that, instead of approaching the debaters of a solution, throw us into even greater confusions. The philosophy of Eric Voegelin helps us to retake the foundations of political consciousness and its civilizational function. The explanation of political experience points to man’s desire to know and seek order, a task that does not translate into an accumulation and repetition of political theories of varying nuances, but a concrete awareness of the results of individual actions in society. Only under this assumption can readiness for debate become an effective mechanism for a real understanding of order pursuit.



Cha, Victor, The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future. New York City, USA: ECCO, Harper Collins, 2013.

Voegelin, Eric, Autobiographical Reflections, University of Missouri Press, Columbia 2001

Voegelin, Eric, Anamnesis, trad, port. E. Fonseca, Anamnese – Da teoria da história e da política, São Paulo, É Realizações, 2006.

Bloom, Allan, The closing of American Mind, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1974.

Aristotle,, Metafísica, trad. port. G. Reale, trad. port. M. Perine, 5ª ed. São Paulo, 2015

Ortega y Gasset, José, La rebelión de las masas, trad. port. Herrero Filho, A rebelião das massas, Rio de Janeiro, Ruriak Inc., 2013.

Plato, O Banquete, trad. port. C.A.Nunes, Belém, Editora UFPA, 2011.

Reid, Thomas, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, essay 6: Judgment, cap 2: common sense, disponível em

Weber, Max, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie, trad. Port. R. Barbosa, Economia e sociedade: fundamentos de Sociologia Compreensiva, vol. 2, Brasília, UNB, 1999.



[1] No one ever sent on the earth to nourish his command essentially of anything other than public opinion. Or is it believed that the sovereignty of public opinion was an invention made by the lawyer Danton in 1789 or by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century? – (Ortega and Gasset, La rebellion de las massas, trans. Herrero Filho, A Rebelião das Massas, Rio de Janeiro, Ruriak Inc., 2013, page 68).

[2] Voegelin, Anamnesis, Volume 6 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Columbia: University of Missouri, 1978. p. 185.

[3] Coxinha and Mortadela are two typical foods of Brazil used as pejorative terms to refer to rightists and leftists, respectively. Coxinha is a low-cost appetizer that cops ate during the service due to bad conditions of the profession and the short lunch break. Mortadela is a sausage-type similar to the Spanish jamon, used as meal paid by left parties for its militants.

[4] Bloom, The closing of American Mind, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1974, p. 356.

[5] Voegelin, Anamnesis, op. cit. p. 428.

[6] Ibid. p. 521.

[7] Narrative rivalry includes the physical destruction of earlier symbols, such as the demolition of more than 2,000 Christian and Buddhist temples by King-Jon-um – (V. CHA, The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future. ECCO, Harper Collins, 2013, p.73).

[8] The difficult question of “philosophy versus theology” reappears as a pressing uneasiness in history, arising as early as the early decades of Christianity with De congressu quaerendae eruditionis gratia from Philo of Alexandria to the papal encyclical Fides et Ratio of John Paul II.

[9] Voegelin, Anamnesis, op. cit. p. 496.

[10] Reid, Intellectual powers, essay 6, chapter 2, “Of common sense”, apud. E. VOEGELIN, op. cit. p. 511.

[11] Voegelin, Anamnesis, op. cit., p. 511.

Rubens Becak and Kaleo Dornaika Guaraty

Rubens Beçak is a Graduate and Postgraduate Professor at Faculdade de Direito de Ribeirão Preto and Professor in General Theory of the State and Law at the University of São Paulo; Kaleo Dornaika Guaraty is a lawyer with his degree from the Ribeirão Preto Law School of the University of São Paulo.

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