Recovery of the Life of Reason and Its Modern Deformations

HomeThe Collected Works of Eric VoegelinRecovery of the Life of Reason and Its Modern Deformations

The unfolding of noetic consciousness in the psyche of the classic philosophers is not an “idea,” or a “tradition,” but an event in the history of mankind. The symbols developed in its course are “true” in the sense that they intelligibly articulate the experience of existential unrest in the process of becoming cognitively luminous. Though the classic analysis is neither the first nor the last symbolization of man’s humanity in quest of its relation to the divine ground, it is first in articulating the structure of the quest itself: of the unrest that offers the answer to its questioning, of the divine Nous as the mover of the quest, of the joy of luminous participation when man responds to the theophany, and of existence becoming cognitively luminous for its meaning as a movement in the metaxy from mortality to immortality.

The articulation of the structure has been so successful indeed that even the modern egophanic revolt against the theophanic constitution of man’s humanity has to use the language of the noetic analysis if it wants to be intelligible, thereby confirming the validity of the philosophers’ articulation. True insights concerning Reason as the ordering force in existence were certainly gained, but they had to be gained as the exegesis of the philosophers’ resistance to the personal and social disorder of the age that threatened to engulf them. To separate the “truth” of insight from the effort of resistance would make nonsense of the insight into the In-Between structure of existence.

The life of Reason is not a treasure of information to be stored away, it is the struggle in the metaxy for the immortalizing order of the psyche in resistance to the mortalizing forces of the apeirontic lust of being in Time. Existence in the In-Between of divine and human, of perfection and imperfection, of reason and passions, of knowledge and ignorance, of immortality and mortality is not abolished when it becomes luminous to itself. What did change through the differentiation of Reason was the level of critical consciousness concerning the order of existence.

The classic philosophers were conscious of this change as an epochal event; they were fully aware of the educational, diagnostic, and therapeutic functions of their discoveries; and they laid the foundations of a critical psychopathology that was further elaborated by the Stoics. They could not foresee, however, the vicissitudes to which their achievement would be exposed once it had entered history and become an integral factor in the cultures of Hellenistic, Christian, Islamic, and modern Western societies. They could not foresee the incorporation of philosophy into various revelatory theologies, nor the transformation of philosophy into propositional metaphysics.

The Degradation of Symbols

And above all, they could not foresee the radical separation of the noetic symbolism they had created from its experiential context, so that the philosophical vocabulary would be set free to endow the attack on Reason with the appearance of Reason. The dynamics of their resistance moved from the decay of the cosmological myth and from the Sophistic revolt toward the “love of wisdom”; they did not anticipate a distant future in which the egophanic revolt would have perverted the meaning of the noetic symbols, the extensive degradation des symboles as Mircea Eliade has called this modern phenomenon, so that the dynamics of resistance would have to move from the system of thinkers in a state of alienation again toward noetic consciousness.

To present the classic insights as doxographic relics not only would be pointless, it would destroy their very meaning as the expression of man’s resistance to the mortalizing disorder of the age. Not the insights are to be remembered, but the resistance against the “climate of opinion” (Whitehead) is to be continued, if the life of Reason is to be kept truly alive.The present essay [ Reason: The Classic Experience ] obviously is an act of resistance in continuity with the classic effort. The tactics used will have become clear.

In the first place, the practically forgotten experiential context on which the meaning of Reason depends had to be restored. Moreover, as far as that was possible in the brief space, I have tried to establish the inner coherence of pieces of analysis which in the sources are scattered over a vast body of literature. From the basis of the restored experience, then, it was possible to branch out into the psychopathology of alienation and the aspernatio rationis. And from this basis broadened by the Stoic analysis, finally, it was possible to characterize the modern revolt against Reason as well as the phenomenon of the system.

In this critical characterization, however, I had to concentrate selectively on flagrant cases; the general importance of the classic analysis as an instrument of critique did not become fully visible. It will be apposite, therefore, to present a diagram of the points to be considered in any study of human affairs, of the peri ta anthropina in the Aristotelian sense. The left vertical column lists the levels in the hierarchy of being from the Nous to the Apeiron. Man participates in all of them; his nature is an epitome of the hierarchy of being. The arrow pointing down indicates the order of formation from the top down. The arrow pointing up indicates the order of foundation from the bottom up. The top horizontal column lists the dimensions of man’s existence as a person in society and history. The arrow pointing to the right indicates the order of foundation. Principle of completeness: A philosophy peri ta anthropina must cover the grid determined by the two coordinates. No part of the grid must be hypostatized into an autonomous entity, neglecting the context.

Principle of Formation and Foundation

The order of formation and foundation must not be inverted or otherwise distorted, as for instance by its transformation into a causality working from the top or the bottom. Specifically, all constructions of phenomena on a higher level as epiphenomena of processes on a lower one, the so-called reductionist fallacies, are excluded as false. This rule, however, does not affect the conditioning causality which is the very essence of foundation. Neither are inversions of the order of foundation in the horizontal column permitted. Specifically, all “philosophies of history” which hypostatize society or history as an absolute, eclipsing personal existence and its meaning, are excluded as false.

Principle of metaxy reality: The reality determined by the coordinates is the In-Between reality, intelligible as such by the consciousness of Nous and Apeiron as its limiting poles. All “eristic phantasies” which try to convert the limits of the metaxy, be it the noetic height or the apeirontic depth, into a phenomenon within the metaxy are to be excluded as false. This rule does not affect genuine eschatological or apocalyptic symbolisms which imaginatively express the experience of a movement within reality toward a Beyond of the metaxy, such as the experiences of mortality and immortality.

The diagram has proved of particular value for students, because it gives them a minimum body of objective criteria for true and false in their struggle with the flood of contemporary opinion literature. With the help of the diagram it is possible to classify false theoretical propositions by assigning them their place in the grid. On occasion it has become an exciting game for the students to place ideas which enjoy the popularity of the moment in one of the twenty-one squares. Beyond its function as a technical aid in mastering contemporary phenomena of intellectual disorder, the diagram had the important psychological effect of overcoming the students’ sense of disorientation and lostness in the unmanageable flood of false opinions that presses in on them every day.


This excerpt is from Published Essays, 1966-1985 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 12) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990)

Eric Voegelin

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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.