The original publication of The New Science of Politics in 1952 was a major event and established Eric Voegelin’s academic reputation in the United States. Time, a popular weekly newsmagazine, even featured it as a cover story for a 1953 issue, publicizing its provocative thesis that “Gnosticism” is the defining feature of modernity. Originally titled Truth and Representation, the book originated as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago on the nature of political representation. The depth and breadth of its coverage of political thought and institutions—including ancient Greeks, ancient Rome, the Mongols, and ancient China—continue to startle readers in the present day, as does Voegelin’s audacious challenge to the positivistic social science that dominates most academic scholarship of politics and history in North America and worldwide.
The publication of a Chinese translation of The New Science of Politics is a significant event. Chinese readers will gain insight into “truth and representation” not only for the cases Voegelin discusses but perhaps also for their own society. The relevance of the book for non-Western readers, however, is not immediately evident. For example, Voegelin observes that his analysis of “anthropological truth” is limited to Western societies where the individual is the “representable unit”: “In the Orient, where the specific conditions are historically not present, this type of articulation does not occur at all—and the Orient is the larger part of mankind.” Chinese readers frequently reject Western ideas as overly individualistic and irrelevant to its own communitarian sensibilities, though what Voegelin means by “anthropological truth” is significantly more complex and interesting than “individualism.” Moreover, The New Science of Politics marks a stage in Voegelin’s career where he was moving from a Western-centric focus to an ecumenic account of “universal humanity.” Chinese readers may wish to consult his chapter on the “The Chinese Ecumene” in volume four of his magnum opus Order and History (1974) to assess the mature results of his investigations.
Even so, Chinese readers can judge for themselves whether Voegelin’s claim about the Orient lacking “specific conditions” for the individual to be the “representable unit” holds true today, nearly seventy years after The New Science of Politics was first published. If the book shows Voegelin on the way to developing a more ecumenic account of “truth and representation,” China’s prominent place currently on the stage of the global ecumene means its leaders and citizens are now more than ever engaging in the sorts of existential questions Voegelin raises. Perhaps this translation of The New Science of Politics can help provide clarity for those considerations.
Voegelin describes three different types of truth and representation: 1) “cosmological,” 2) “anthropological,” and 3) “soteriological.” Cosmological symbols represent political institutions as a reflection of the visible heavens, where, for example, the emperor is the descendent of the Sun god. Voegelin’s discussion of the earliest Chinese sources in the Shû King and of China’s neighbor, the Mongol empire, exemplify this type. Voegelin notes the age of Confucius and Lao-tse—which coincides roughly in the West with the ages of Buddha in India, of Zoroastrianism in Persia, of the prophets in Israel, and the philosophers in Greece—marks anthropological symbols that challenge cosmological symbols because political order now represents the invisible divine order that transcends the cosmos. Examples include the Confucian sage as well as the Socratic philosopher and Israelite prophet whose authoritative truth challenges that of the political ruler. Anthropological truth challenges political authority’s claim to represent absolute truth.
Finally, soteriological truth (derived from sōtēr, Greek for savior) envisions the experience of the divine bending itself down to befriend each and every human being in order to save humanity from its suffering. Soteriological truth develops in part out of the inability of anthropological truth to fulfil its “adventitious movement of the spirit” toward divine and political friendship. This truth is most (but not exclusively) pronounced in Christianity and the history of that religion’s relationship with political societies testifies to the impossibility of a “Christian commonwealth” because political authority cannot contain the revelation of the divine.
Voegelin’s sustained analysis and critique of modern “Gnostic” collectivist movements that proclaim themselves divine agents that can “save” the world from its injustices and sufferings—the so-called “immanentization of the Christian eschaton”—shows its power, however, and perhaps its attraction both to Western and non-Western societies. Indeed, China has suffered its own “Gnostic” and collectivist episodes in its recent past. Chinese readers may also note the comparison Voegelin draws of the imperial dynamics of cosmological Mongol and Gnostic Communist empires that view the global ecumene as its own domain de jure that they have not yet realized de facto. They view “foreigners” or “barbarians” not as enemies to be fought but instead as rebellious subjects to be punished. The soteriological impulse of the global ecumene today in the form of unrestrained market economies, resurgent nationalisms, and technology show the ongoing attraction of Gnostic “saving” truths.
The translation of Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics follows the reception in China of other twentieth-century Western political thinkers, including John Rawls, Leo Strauss, and Carl Schmitt. Like Rawls, Voegelin attempts to develop a theory of politics predicated upon a universal humanity. However, unlike Rawls, Voegelin’s reflections are based not upon abstract Western rationality but upon vaster and deeper historical understanding that better appreciates the particularities of specific civilizations and cultures. Chinese commentators often criticize Rawls’s appeal to universal humanity as parochially Western, which has led to something of a decline in interest in Rawls and liberalism. Voegelin throughout his career was critical of Western parochialism pretending to be universal, and his methods of philosophical and historical investigation reflect this care. Like Strauss and Schmitt, Voegelin was critical of modernity and his criticisms bear some similarities to theirs. Voegelin, however, devoted greater attention to non-Western philosophers and political phenomena in history. Moreover, unlike Rawls, Strauss, and Schmitt, Voegelin’s scholarly approach makes him difficult to associate him with any particular Western political party, ideology, or movement, thereby rendering him an illuminating and conversable partner in China’s own search for order in history.
This excerpt is from the Chinese edition of The New Science of Politics: An Introduction.