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Recovering Reality: An Interview with Eric Voegelin

Recovering Reality: An Interview With Eric Voegelin

In 1973 Eric Voegelin was interviewed by Peter Cangelosi, associate editor of the New Orleans Review, and by John William Corrington, former editor-at-large. The interview originally appeared in the New Orleans Review No. 2 (1973) under the title, “Philosophies of History: An Interview with Eric Voeglein,” in 2013. Bill McClain and Paul Caringella corrected several transcriptions uncertainties.


new orleans review: Dr. Voegelin, what would you consider to be your major contribution to human knowledge?

eric voegelin: Well, I have my doubts about the use of the term contribution. It smacks a bit of the progressivist con­ception that there is an advance in the history of mankind, and that everybody makes his contribution to it. Not that I doubt that there is any such continuity. But I doubt very much that my work can be categorized as a kind of contribution to anything.

The original meaning of science and of philosophy, of course, is that each has a purpose in itself and is not a contribution to anything at all. Purposes which are ultimate have no further purpose. They fall into the quite purpose­less activity of exploring the structure of reality.

And in that connection, I would make no difference between political science and the philosophy of history, because as Aristo­tle already formulated it, what the philosopher has to deal with are human affairs. Philosophy is really a philanthropic.

And there are always three dimensions in human af­fairs: personal existence, the social dimension, and man as a zoön politicon—the third part of which Aristotle never fully developed. He treated the first dimension, personal existence, in Ethics; social existence in Politics; and the third part was existence in history. Aristotle never wrote a Historics. All three (Ethics, Politics, and Historics) are an inseparable unity in the existence of man.

And if I am, perhaps, more interested at present in the field of history than in the field of society, then the reason is that the dimension of history in man’s existence has been perverted almost beyond recognition through ideologized constructions of history ever since the eighteenth-century.

And one has to recapture today what history means in the classical sense. History in the classical sense means that one is engaged in advancing the luminosity of con­sciousness by which one participates in reality, knows about reality; and in advancing the analysis of consciousness. That, you might say, is the real subject matter.

And since advances of consciousness can be conducted only in personal existence, and Aristotle already recog­nized that if you achieve any advances; they are at the same time historical advances, because such an advance is an event in history and draws a line of meaning within history.

A Valid Advance for the Philosopher is Valid for All Men

nor: Would you say that is so because of what you have called in your New Science of Politics “representation,”–because one has an advance within of consciousness, therefore there is an advance of consciousness for humankind?

voegelin: Yes, in a sense yes. But that requires a little precision. Every true analysis of consciousness–that is, of one’s own structural participation in reality–is an analysis in the concrete. One must concretely analyze the concrete participation processes.

But underlying that analysis is the assumption–usually glossed over or left unmentioned–that all men have the same type of consciousness, and so that what you find concretely in your advance of consciousness is valid for everybody. It cannot, of course, be proven, but it is a general philosophical assumption which attaches, to any advances of consciousness in history, a representative character.

But such advances in consciousness can be true or deformed, and the representative character can also be deformed. Because whatever a man does by way of con­sciousness, he wants to do something representatively for that mankind in whose existence be trusts–all human beings, just like himself.

A good example would be Turgot, who considered his work on the three stages (theological, metaphysical, and scientific) as a representative advance. Not that every human being actually participated in the advance, or was fully aware of it. Turgot coined the concept of mankind as a masse totale. His idea, then, was taken up by Condorcet, by Saint Simon, by Comte, by Hegel, and by Marx, and came to mean that all mankind had to follow the lead of the new type of intellectuals represented by Turgot as the men just enumerated.

So the representative claim is there. But that is, you might say, already the reification or hypostasis of the real problem of representation–that real advances are sup­posedly representative of mankind. But personal opinions cannot claim to be representative of mankind. Representa­tiveness is deformed insofar as it is claimed deliberately by people who are not representative of anything in par­ticular except the deformation of existence which they enact.

nor: So you would leave the category of representation for what is truly representative of man?

voegelin: One cannot do that, you see, because the category of representation is fundamental in every advance of consciousness. It belongs to the nature of man to assume that one is representative in what one does. And so, representativeness must be claimed also by those who, in fact, are deforming consciousness, and then claim leadership for the mass of mankind, the masse totale, to follow them into that deformation.

Distinguishing Between Advances and Deformations

So what one finds after Turgot–in Condorcet especially, and then loudly claimed by Comte, Hegel, and Marx–is that everyone has followed them into their particular prison of existence. So that even if one deforms existence into a prison, one does not cease to claim representativeness. One has to distinguish, therefore, between true advances in the luminosity of consciousness and new deformations, which fall into Plato’s category of scotosis–the darkening of consciousness.

nor: Would you use the category of Gnostic for those people who would lead the masse totale into the prison of their own consciousness?

voegelin: One can do it. But Gnosticism is one factor in a very complex set of factors to which it also belongs: apocalypse, neoplatonic immanentist speculation, magic, hermeticism and so on.

nor: In the contemporary world, the category of con­sciousness is being rather widely used. One finds it espe­cially in Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. Would you say that you use the term consciousness in the same sense that Professor Reich uses it?

voegelin: The term consciousness has, in fact, come into wide vogue, in the wake of Hegel. His philosophy of consciousness understood it as nobody’s consciousness, but an imaginary consciousness which has no subject. This is a very convenient hypothesis from which you can then hang any imaginary construction. Reich, for instance, gives the Third World a consciousness. And the Third Reich paved the way for National Socialism in Germany. There is, of course, in Western history a long established tradition of such third salvation-realm speculations, espe­cially in Hegel and Comte and Marx.

nor: I wonder about the Trinitarian symbolism developed by Jung, and about the peculiar repetition of the number three in this sort of symbolism in the fifteenthcentury, and in Reich in the twentieth. Could the repetition of three be a factor that needs to be analyzed psycho­logically?

Trinitarian Symbolism and Divine Sonship

voegelin: When you come to the historical materials, the three has no exclusive importance. There are all sorts of number symbolisms. The number four is important too. We have a Trinity, especially in Christianity; but trinities were known before that in the Vedas. The Trinity in Chris­tianity is due to the fact that the historical exposition of Christianity came through the events recorded in the Gospel.

First, there is a God, an unknown God, who is not related to the pagan gods, the polytheistic gods; then, an Incarnation problem which gives you the second God, Christ; and then a continuation of that in history, the time dimension.

So you get three manifestations of divinity: originally, the divine presence in consciousness, then the mythological element that some human being has experi­enced this in the Son of God–which goes back to the Egyp­tians who saw the Pharoah as the Son of God . . . .

nor: As a sun-god?

voegelin: No, as the Son of God. There is a correlation in the rituals, where the priest says: “You are my Son, the first one in whom I have my pleasure.” It is a formula we still find in the New Testament, though we have changed the meaning of it, of course. But that is the problem, you see. And the presence, the continuation of that divinity in history, is then called Spirit.

Hegel the Sorcerer and Consummate Craftsman

nor: Professor Voegelin, you first made a large impact on the intellectual world with your New Science of Politics. Now, since that time you have published other major works, especially Order in History, in three volumes, to which there will be at least one sequel. Would you, if you were to rewrite the New Science of Politics today, do any­thing different in it?

voegelin: No. Because it is a close group of lectures, and you can only do so much in lectures, and because, in its way, the book has a perfect correspondence between substance and form. I don’t mean that it is the perfect book, or anything like that, or that one does not have to say more. But as a literary production in six lectures, there is no more one can put in it, and I wouldn’t change it. There are a lot of things that need to be said today, that I didn’t know at the time, and that I would say today.

nor: More specifically, if I may: would you do anything differently with your third part on Gnosticism as the nature of modernity?

voegelin: Well, yes. Because in the twenty-five years intervening since the book was published, we know so much more now about the continuous trends in Western intellectual history. Gnosticism is certainly not the only trend. One has to include, as I mentioned before, apocalyp­tic strands, the neoplatonic restoration at the end of the fifteenth-century, and the hermetic component which re­sulted in the conscious operation of sorcery and in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Hegel expressed his formulation that the purpose of Phenomenology is to find the magic words with which you can conjure up the shape of the future. He was, consummately, a sorcerer.

nor: Not only a sorcerer, but a writer of spiritual cook­books, because he wanted others to follow him down the same path. His purpose was not esoteric, but exoteric.

voegelin: Well, I wouldn’t use the term cookbook in that connection, because it is quite consciously a magic act by which reality is transmogrified into the perfect reality.

nor: Are there any contemporary writers or thinkers who are similar to Hegel in this respect?

voegelin: No. And you mustn’t expect them to be. Hegel was a consummate craftsman, the perfect philosopher who knew his business even if he misused his knowledge. He wanted to construct a speculative system that reconciled all interaction on the basis of an experience of alienation, and not leave a state of alienation.

That is a point which is rarely recognized. Because the people who read him usually try to interpret and explain what is going on in the terminology, but don’t have enough parallel comparative knowledge to know what’s going on, because Hegel has a habit of never quoting his sources.

All the alienation categories–things like direction, division, separation, and so on–are taken from Plotinus. It’s the Plotinus concept of all life, with a little variance.

Marxim is Devoid of Interest

nor: What do you think of contemporary Marxism as an intellectual force?

voegelin: I have not been aware that it is much of an intellectual force. It is a third-rate epigonic afterlife, of no particular intellectual interest.

nor: Well, it has to be of some intellectual interest, because it is at least the public theology of the Soviet Union, of Eastern Europe, and of China.

voegelin: I was thinking of such men in the twentieth-century who still act as Marxists and write as Marxists–such writers, say, as Garaudy and Bloch–and of the [psychopolitical/shakey ontological] world they present. Now if that is their idea of the pursuit of happiness, well, they can pursue it. But I don’t find it intellectually stimulating. It’s rather a bore, an imposition. Since I am also teaching and students ask me about it, I am forced to read them. But I wouldn’t do so unless I was forced into it.

nor: Are you speaking of people like Marcuse?

voegelin: For instance, yes.

The Chinese Cultural Calamity

nor: What about Mao Tse Tung?

voegelin: There is absolutely no reason why anyone should read Mao Tse Tung, except that three-fourths of the students ask questions about it.

nor: What about the pragmatic concern of international politics?

voegelin: Well, international politics is quite a differ­ent matter. In China, you have the problem that the older intellectual upper stratum, represented by the Mandarin culture, obviously could not come to grips with the moder­nization of China, with the integration of it into categories of civilization which emanate from the West. China felt the power of Western technology in aggression.

And since the Mandarin nobility was unable to handle these prob­lems, it was quite sensible that somebody who was not Mandarin contrived to overthrow the caste. The conse­quences will show later, because if you throw out the Confucian culture or Taoist culture or Buddhist culture in China, there is no culture left at all.

You can see that fact in the new production of Chinese operas which are simply horrible–shabby romantic revolutionary heroism, accom­panied by sound tracks belonging to the Westerns of the 1930s. Because that was all Madame Mao ever heard. A fantastical debasement into elemental savagery.

nor: Spengler believed that Marxism would sweep over Russia, have its day, and then go away, and that Russia’s character would not have been much changed by its occurrence.

voegelin: It’s possible. Russian civilization is, of course, much closer to a Western type of civilization than it is to China. It is difficult to tell what effect the destruction of culture may ultimately have on China. One hopes that somebody survives and that the country recovers from that destruction. But you may have to wait a hundred years to see what happens.   

nOR: What about Christianity? What is the meaning of Christianity now, according to your thinking?

voegelin: I am not sure about its meaning, because I have my doubts as to whether Christianity exists at all.

I can say what the meaning is of the Gospels today, or, more specifically, of Matthew, Chapter 16–which is the perfect analysis of the existential tendency in relation to God, just as the fullness of Christ is. This is as true today as it was at the time the Gospel was written.

But the analysis in Matthew 16 is so buried at present in secondary doctrine and dogma that few people are now aware how grandiose an existential analysis is there. One could reactivate it by reading it.

nor: There is a term which you have used with some frequency in Order in History and which I think may apply here. The term is re-Christianization. You seemed to say that the Christian consciousness could be, as it were, re-Christianized.

voegelin: Yes. I have dealt with that problem in Anamnesis, an intermediate work published in Germany. Anamnesis is the recollection of what has been achieved, by way of extending the real of the past into the present. The real of the past has been buried by cultural destruction, and we have been victims of that destruction since the middle of the eighteenth century.

nor: Would you make a distinction between re-Christianization and nostalgia?

voegelin: No, there is no problem of nostalgia in an absolutely realistic recovery of pieces of consciousness of existence which existed before they were destroyed after 1750.

nor: I think my question was: isn’t there a tendency towards derailment in the direction of nostalgia when one does reach back?

voegelin: Oh, yes. There were people who have inter­preted this vogue for historical knowledge and archeology as nostalgic romanticism. And in some cases they were right. The people who uncover the facts are not necessarily the people who can best handle them once they are unco­vered.

Ignoring “The Death of God”

nor: How would you react to a concept of a post-Christian age?

voegelin: Well, I would classify it together with other “beyond” literature: “beyond morality,” “beyond ideology,” “beyond Christianity,” “ beyond dignity and freedom,” and so on. It’s totally an apocalyptic type of literature, which is a phenomenon of our time, but otherwise of no particular interest.

nor: What do you think about the “death of God” theology?

voegelin: There we have to be brutal. When Hegel developed his premise of the death of God, it made good sense within his construction of that famous consciousness which is no consciousness, and which comes to its historic culmination in Hegel’s work. God is present in Hegel, only now in His new manifestation in Hegel’s work.

So if you insist on the death of God after Hegel, you should be aware, at least, that the alternative to the death of God is to become an Hegelian. And if you would harp on Nietzsche, the murder of God makes sense if you become a Nietzschean. But if you just want to maintain the death of God or the murder of God, and then fool around as if nothing had happened, then you are a little man who doesn’t know what he is talking about.

nor: But surely these movements have had some impor­tance in contemporary life.

voegelin: Yes. We are living in an epigonic period, a third generation run down by myriad sectarians.

nor: From whom there is no rescue?

voegelin: Oh yes, you can ignore them.

nor: But to ignore them does not mean that they will go away.

voegelin: No, they will remain. But you can do other things. You don’t have to waste your time over them.

nor: What other things, for instance?

voegelin: Well, for instance, explore other things that we know every day are discovered anew about human con­sciousness. Last year, there was a book by the Swiss philologist Robert Orpheus, which traces the continuities of a certain type of consciousness from the classical period to the fifteenth century. So we have a millennial history of consciousness reopened to us.

The Limit of Depth Psychology

nor: Do you mean to say that the dominant intellectual force today would be depth psychology?

voegelin: No. Depth psychology doesn’t mean very much. You cannot explore the depths of the philosophical sciences psychologically. You can only draw something out of those depths by way of insights, but to handle this as psychology doesn’t get you anywhere.

An unconscious is never conscious, you see. An unconscious that can be made conscious by a psychoanalyst is no unconscious. And when you take Jung’s archetype, there is nothing unconscious about that except that you accept it uncondition­ally as fully conscious symbolizations of experiences of reality which have been placed by psychologists and their patients into their unconscious. So, if you analyze only pathological cases, you will find a lot of symbols [ascribed to the] un­conscious, which in healthy cases would be “con­scious.”

nor: But these are real problems of people you are talking about.

voegelin: One reason there are real problems in every society is what one might call a public unconscious: things which are forced into the unconscious as dominant opin­ions about public decency. But from the psychological point of view, these constitute a social problem. In every society there are things which are pushed under the level of public discussion. And in a decultured situation such as ours, a lot is being pushed into the subconscious.

nor: Such as?

voegelin: Such as the whole problem of sex life, which has been uncovered by Freud in the lives of his patients. People were pretty conscious of these things in the six­teenth century, but the sex symbols which Freud un­covered later were not known to be sex symbols until the eighteenth century.

Man as Society Written Small

nor: What you seem to be saying is that only when society is ordered can the individual find his own order–or would you think the reverse is true? Plato, in the volume on the polis, suggests that order begins with the individual and moves outward toward society. Would you say that society could not order itself, except in the sense that each man orders himself?

voegelin: I’m not sure I understand the intention of your question. The Platonic symbolism of society and of man, by and large, of course, holds true. But if you pervert it to mean that man has to be society-written-small, then you get an inversion. These inversions of Platonic symbols are very widespread, only people usually don’t realize it. Nietzsche inverted Plato’s parable of the cave. But most people who read Nietzsche today haven’t the faintest idea what either Nietzsche or Plato says.

Regaining Contact with Reality

nor: Let me ask you a question which you may not wish to answer. Your work has always been brilliantly and objectively descriptive. Would you undertake in any way to make prescriptive suggestions to impede the traumatic deculturalization of our own times?

voegelin: Well, the prescription is already contained in the description. People have to recover contact with reality, which has been lost in imaginary contacts with imaginary realities.

nor: In your present thinking, do you still make use of the category of the opening of the soul?

voegelin: Oh yes. Only not exactly in the meaning that is sometimes attached to the term. As a symbol, it is very good, in opposition to the process of closing off existence. So it is the open soul, or the opening of the soul, that is opposite to the possibility of closing your soul into the state of alienation. And I use it today to describe the situation of contacting oneself. To contact one­self is to reopen.

nor: Would you elaborate on that?

voegelin: Well, the most famous case of the contact of oneself is Sartre. He literally contacts himself in the “what” (as he calls it) that has no sense of existence. Existence was a fact for him. To have meaning, one must project a meaning. One takes the meaning one has, with no outside advice as to what kind of meaning he should project.

And Sartre expresses the despair of that situation in the symbolism of’ “being condemned to be free.” Because freedom is indeed a damnation if you don’t know what to do with it, and if you think of existence as a mere fact which has no relief.

nor: Why should a man do what you say Sartre does?

The Nature of Grace

voegelin: Well, if you come down to the elementals, you already invent trouble, because the opening of the soul is, without doubt, simply the activity of some person, and yet there is the grace of God involved. Now I don’t know why the grace of God doesn’t extend to people like Sartre or Marx.

nor: Can one know anything about the grace of God?

voegelin: Well, the grace of God is a symbolism for the exercise of being open to a divine presence. That is called grace.

nor: Is this transferable into active life?

voegelin: Of course it is transferable into active life. In the state of grace you find, for instance, that your existence is governed by certain rules, such as the Decalogue. And number one is “I am the Lord your God, don’t have other gods before my face.” This means that, in the con­crete, grace is transferable. If you are a man in the state of grace, you shouldn’t be a believer in Marx or Lenin, because that would be a substitution for God.

nor: What about action towards one’s neighbor?

voegelin: If you are in the image of God, then the general assumption is that everybody else is too–human beings like yourself. And if the nature of man implies the grace of God and his perfection, in openness, then you act toward your neighbor as if he were also a man like that–graced toward perfection. That leads to difficulties, of course, because other men are not always like that. Take for instance the murder of Christ.

Liberal vs. Conservative and Edgar Allan Poe

nor: What about political theory today? What do you see as the future of it, or the contemporary status of it?

voegelin: Well, I really don’t know what that means–contemporary political theory. Either that means a philosophy of man’s existence in society, or it doesn’t.

nor: In contemporary political thinking, two categories widely used are liberal and conservative. What is your reaction to that dichotomy?

voegelin: Oh, that is a pas de deux that has been going on for a long while. It has been perfectly analyzed, for all practical purposes, by Edgar Allan Poe. Before the Civil War apparently, we had some men like Edgar Allan Poe, who could handle such a problem and bring it back to certain original philosophical positions (like the Aris­totelian and Baconist) and poke fun at that. I don’t know many American men of letters today who would be educated enough to write a satire on that liberal-conservative tiff as Edgar Allan Poe did. They are too illiter­ate to handle such a problem.

nor: Would you say that liberals and conservatives are both too wedded to ideology to be open to truth?

voegelin: I don’t know if they are really not open to truth. It would take a personal psychological interview to see whether they are open or not. But, in fact, there are people who are not open to truth.

nor: Did you say that there was no one identifiable as a liberal or conservative?

voegelin: There is no man of letters living in America today who has the literacy to handle a problem of that nature.

nor: Is that one reason why there is such a paucity in the political world of practical programs for what should be done?

voegelin: Yes. In the years preceding the Civil War, there were men who understood the human situation. Until that time, [the perceived good] was dependent on the English and European development. Then comes the Great Prairie and the great open spaces of the prairies, which is not the best ground for the rise of intellectual culture. And so today we face the crisis that America will have to start over again becoming as cultivated as the Fathers of the Constitution were.

Neo-Thomism and Common Sense Culture

nor: Are Europeans today as cultivated as Europeans were at the time of the Fathers of the Constitution?

voegelin: Certainly not. The deculturalization process is everywhere. Men like Marcuse have done their work of destruction, and recovery is slow. Still, certain factors do favor the European situation.

I learned a lot about philosophy from the revival of the Neo-Thomists in the 1920s and ’30s. On the other hand, I learned a lot about American civilization from the still not quite broken tradi­tion of common sense here.

nor: Were destructive tendencies strong in Germany?

voegelin: Yes. They have a worse effect in a situation like that in Germany because the antidote of common-sense culture is not there.

nor:  You refer to Nazism?

voegelin: Not only that. But also the post-war world, the liberation rabble, the Frankfort people and the Berlin people. The burning of universities was destructive to a degree to which no French or American universities have as yet been destroyed by revolting students.

nor: Do you think American universities will be so destroyed?

voegelin: I doubt it. There is still too much common ­sense culture alive.

nor: Would you say that the common sense culture dominates American political activity in both the Demo­cratic and the Republican parties?

voegelin: Well, you get into very odd situations here. You see, a group of Leftists have polarized themselves out of the American arena. And the people who resist, like Mayor Daley, are not exactly to my taste either. And so you get very odd bed-fellowships. But there is a stratum of common sense represented by all sorts of people here in the Democratic party.

nor: What about the Republican party?

voegelin: Also. A man like Nixon is a corporation lawyer and knows at least what is common sense in busi­ness relations.

nor: So, you don’t think that ideology is a primary motivational force?

voegelin: Certainly not. I doubt that Nixon knows anything about any ideologies at all that could influence him seriously.

nor: Even such as anti-Communism?

voegelin: Such as anything.

nor: Dr. Voegelin, I wonder if you would say something about what you envision for the future?

voegelin: No. One shouldn’t envision futures. That is an idle pastime. We have quite enough to do in the present.

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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