What Shaped Eric Voegelin’s Thought?

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Eric Voegelin’s affection for the Hellenic, Judaic, and Christian heritages can be easily documented. They are the crucial strands in the forming of his thought. Yet the matter goes deeper than that. Subtly, but irrefutably, in the corpus of his writing, Christianity emerges as the preeminent achievement of the Western experience. For example, Voegelin spoke of “our own historical form of maximal clarity, which is the Christian.”[1] On another occasion, he wrote, “There emerge [in the study of history] the contours of a giant cycle, transcending the cycles of the single civilizations. The acme of this cycle would be marked by the appearance of Christ; the pre-Christian high civilizations would form its ascending branch; modern, Gnostic civilization would form its descending branch.”[2]

Regarding Judaism, Voegelin inquired, “Who was Moses?” He answered, “[He was] a symbolization of the man who stands between the compactness of the Egyptian and the lucidity of the Christian order.”[3] Judaism had made its enduring contribution: “The radical break with the cosmological myth was achieved only by Israel.”[4] Nevertheless, “Israel . . . still had to carry the ‘mortgage’ of its revelation insofar as the universalism of existence under God was still narrowed down to a particular people. The existence of the Chosen People, therefore, prefigured the universal history of mankind under God through Christ.”[5] “The imperial symbolism flickered for the last time in the Messianic hopes of the Solomon Psalms,” Voegelin explained, ”Then it was extinguished by the theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews.”[6] As a consequence, “The Son of God, the Messiah of Yahweh, was no longer the head of a Judaite clan; and the cosmic god no longer presided over a mundane empire. The house of David has been transformed into the house of God the Father, to be built with man as the material, by the Son.”[7] “[I]n no period of Jewish history before the appearance of Christ,” Voegelin asserted, “had the articulation of the life of the soul, as well as the way of truth, reached an intenseness and a precision of symbolism” comparable with that represented in the life of Jesus: “Only with Jesus does the symbol of the Way of Truth appear in the Jewish orbit.”[8] Voegelin elaborated, “[T]he history of Israel as the people under God is consummated in the vision of the unknown genius, for as the representative sufferer Israel has gone beyond itself and become the light of salvation to mankind.”[9] In the concluding sentences of his classic Israel and Revelation, cryptically, but revealingly, Voegelin reflected on the story told in Acts 8:

“The Ethiopian eunuch of the queen, sitting on his cart and reading Isaiah, ponders on the passage: ‘Like a sheep, he was led away to the slaughter.’ He inquires of Philip: ‘Tell me, of whom is the prophet speaking? of himself ? or of someone else?’ Then Philip began, reports the historian of the Apostles, and starting from this passage he told him the good news about Jesus.”[10]

Voegelin’s comparing of the Hellenic and Christian heritages is arresting and instructive. The metaphysical center, he observed, ”is the same in both Classic Philosophy and the Gospel movement. There is the same field of pull and counterpull, the same sense of gaining life through following the pull of the golden cord, the same consciousness of existence in an In-Between of human-divine participation, and the same experience of divine reality as the center of action in the movement from question to answer.”[11] In fact, on some crucial points of measurement the Christian view is inferior to classic philosophy: Christianity is “poorer by its neglect of neotic control;” “more restricted by its bias against the articulate wisdom of the wise;” and “more imbalanced through its apocalyptic ferocity.”[12] Yet along other vital lines of measurement, the Christian conception emerges as superior: It is “richer by the missionary fervor of its spiritual universalism;” “broader by its appeal to the inarticulate humanity of the common man;” “more imposing through its imperial tone of divine authority;” and “more differentiated through the intensely articulate experience of loving-divine action in the illumination of existence with truth.”[13]

Ultimately, in Voegelin’s thinking, Christianity emerges as a philosophical position superior to that of classical vintage. In the Hellenic mind, Voegelin elaborated, “The individual never gained the personal status in his political unit which, under the influence of the Christian idea of man, characterized the political formations of Western civilization; it always remained in a status of mediation through the fictitious tribal and narrower blood-relationships within the polis.”[14] As with the Chosen People of Israel, with the classical polis there was an excessive emphasis upon compactness, upon the collectivity; there was too little emphasis upon individual and personal spiritual differentiation. Christianity was based upon this differentiation, and therein lay its philosophical superiority. Hellenic metaphysics was impressive in its “vision of the agathon” or “the divine paradigm.” Its philosophical foundation was remarkably superior to the mythology of earliest antiquity, and its superseding “with its new authority the older authority of the myth” was an immeasurable metaphysical advancement. However, Voegelin noted, “the philosopher’s authority, in its turn,” was to be “superseded by the revelation of spiritual order through Christ.”[15]

Even the preeminent classical thinkers fell short of the philosophical heights attained by Christ. In Aristotle, there remained “the fundamental hesitation which distinguished the Hellenic from the Christian idea of man, that is, the hesitation to recognize the formation of the human soul through grace; there was missing the experience of faith.” Moreover, “the Aristotelian position does not allow for a . . . heightening of the immanent nature of man through the supernaturally forming love of God. It is true, the Aristotelian gods also love man . . . but their love does not reach into the soul and form it towards its destiny. The Aristotelian nature of man remains an immanent essence like the form of an organic being; its actualization is a problem within the world.” As a result, “Transcendence does not transform the soul in such a manner that it will find fulfillment in transfiguration through Grace in death.”[16]

In Voegelin’s analysis, Plato too yielded to Christ, for he “had at his disposition neither the idea of a transcendental destiny of the soul, nor the idea of an intra-mundane, transfigured, ultimate history. His solution had to be found within the myth of nature and its cosmic rhythms.”[17] With Plato and Aristotle, history tended to “move in cycles,” but with Christianity it “acquired direction and destination.”[18] Although Plato, in his spiritual quest for the summum bonum, had dramatically advanced the level of metaphysical understanding, his understanding was of a lower rank than Christ’s. The Platonic metaphysic is fulfilled in Christ, but it is not equal to that of Christ’s: The “Platonic evocation finds its fulfillment in the increasing spiritual ordering of a disordered world, through the figure of Alexander, through the soteriological kingship of the Hellenistic age, the Roman imperial order, and through Christ.”[19] Stated otherwise:

“Plato articulates his own position . . . by claiming the authoritative statesmanship of Athens against the renowned leaders who only in appearance are representative of the polis, until in the fullness of time this formula becomes the vessel for the assertion of the authority of Christ against the Old Law in the powerful repetitions”:

“You have heard it said by those of old . . .
But I say unto you.”[20]

Voegelin’s position on the relative merits of Plato and Christ is highly suggestive of that taken by St. Augustine, who instructed that Plato is “a master rightly esteemed above all other pagan philosophers,” and he added that “none of the other philosophers has come so close to us as the Platonists have.”[21] The lesson is clear: Plato is philosophically “close to” Christ, but he does not equal, let alone surpass, him.

It was the unmatched clarity, depth, intensity, and authority of Christ’s message that raised him to the preferred position in the Western experience. “Something about Jesus,” Voegelin mused, “must have impressed his contemporaries as an existence . .  of such intensity that his bodily presence . . . appeared to be fully permeated by divine presence.”[22] As a consequence, “when Jesus answers the question of the apostle with his ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6); he firmly [asserts his authority over] the philosophers. From then onward the redemption of the soul goes through Christ.”[23] Jesus spoke not to the regional empire, nor to the parochial polis, nor to the particularized Chosen People; instead, he spoke to the lone individual, and he made a universal appeal — all persons were called, regardless of status or rank. Rather than elaborating on the ancient and familiar concepts of the fascinations of earthly power and the achievements of human knowledge, he spoke of man’s finiteness and dependence and, accordingly, of the need for faith, grace, and love. While Moses and Plato had offered considerable cause for hope, Christ became the ultimate “leap in being,” for the assurances he tendered were not merely considerable, they appeared inexhaustible.

Probably the key theoretical contribution of Eric Voegelin lies in his having delineated the nature and causes of what he terms “the crisis” of Western civilization. The crisis resulted from the growth of what Voegelin termed as “gnosticism,” and the cause of this development was the Western intellectual derailment from the Hellenic and biblical philosophical foundations. Voegelin spoke of “the radical incompatibility of the new attitude with the values of classical and Christian civilization.”[24] “Out go the philosophers of Greece, the prophets of Israel, Christ, not to mention the Patres and Scholastics,” Voegelin explained, “for man has ‘come of Age,’ and that means ‘from now on man is the only possible creator of his own laws and the only possible maker of his own history.’” Henceforth, “man is the new lawmaker; and on the tablets wiped clean of the past he will inscribe the ‘new discoveries in morality’ which Burke had still considered impossible.” Voegelin observed, “It sounds like a nihilistic nightmare. And a nightmare it is rather than a well considered theory.”[25] As is the case with nightmares, the result was not pleasant to contemplate; “The world is no longer the well-ordered [one] . . . in which Hellenic man felt at home; nor is it the Judeo-Christian world that God created and found good. Gnostic man no longer wishes to perceive in admiration the intrinsic order of the cosmos. For him the world has become a prison from which he wants to escape.”[26] In sum, there is in the West an acute problem of “spiritual disorder” arising out 0f the emergence of the gnostic mind and the eclipse of the classical and Christian philosophical perspectives.

In the gnostic mind, Voegelin wrote: “The life of the spirit and the bios theoretikos are not merely pushed into the background .  . they are definitely eliminated,” for in the gnostic view, “Man will be free when he has achieved perfect knowledge 0f the external world.”[27] Gnosis in Greek literally means “knowledge,” and to the gnostic, Voegelin noted, “The instrument of salvation is gnosis itself — knowledge.”[28] “Knowledge — gnosis —of the method of altering being,” Voegelin added, “is the central concern 0f the gnostic.”[29] In Voegelin’s view, the fatal error of gnostic theorizing is in the turning away from the transcendent spiritual sustenance offered in the Hellenic and biblical conceptions and placing confidence in the perverse notion that man has it within his earthly capacity to achieve self-salvation and self-redemption. “[T]he dream of achieving the perfect society through organizing men according to a blueprint instead 0f forming them in an educational process, is a serious affair,” Voegelin contended, for “it is something like the black­ magic 0f politics. Most appropriately, therefore, the dream of Atlantis rises in luciferic splendor.”[30] Voegelin continued, “The fallacy of gnosis consists in the immanentization of transcendental truth.”[31] Stated simply: “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”[32] “The climax of this,” Voegelin concluded, “is the magic dream of creating the Superman, the man-made Being that will succeed the sorry creature of God’s making.”[33] Briefly, gnosticism “is the dream of escape from the mystery of iniquity that has been expressed by T. S. Eliot in the verses:

They constantly try to escape

From the darkness outside and within

By dreaming of systems so perfect that

no one will need to be good.[34]

The result is Man “emptied 0f moral substance, and the forces of good and evil are transferred in their entirety to the analyst-legislator.”[35] In the modern age, gnosticism has been manifested in its most genteel form as “progressivism,” and in its most extreme and malignant forms as National Socialism and Communism — in a word, as totalitarianism. Voegelin wrote, “And the totalitarianism of our time must be understood as journey’s end of the Gnostic search for a civil theology.”[36] Finally, then, gnosticism “blossoms out into the vision of the totalitarian workshop without escape.”[37]

The components 0f gnosticism are diverse, but when congealed they produce intense ideologies. Invariably, gnosticism is ardently secularist. As Voegelin explained, “The corpus mysticum Christi has given way to the corpus mysticum humanitis.”[38] Accompanying secularism is the most ancient of sins: human pride. “Not the spirit of God,” Voegelin elaborated, “but the spirit of man .  . will bring salvation in immanent historical action.”[39] Thus Voegelin noted, “The intramundane hubris of self-salvation culminates logically…in the improvement on God through the creation of a man who does not need salvation.”[40] Out of secularism and pride springs the notion that unaided human intelligence and reason, through science, will redeem mankind by fully perfecting the earthly human condition. Accordingly, the emphasis is always upon progress: “It is,” Voegelin wrote, “this dream of mankind marching towards wisdom and immortality like gods, this picture of mankind liberated from all its chains, beyond the reach 0f accident and chance, beyond the reach of the enemies of progress, that consoles the philosopher.”[41]

In its obsession for progress and perfection, the gnostic mind frequently lapses into fanaticism — there is considerable impatience to erect instanter the secular new Jerusalem. Fanaticism, Voegelin reflected, is seen most shockingly in “the massacres by the later humanitarians whose hearts are filled with compassion to the point that they are willing to slaughter one half 0f mankind in order to make the other half happy.”[42] When the gnostic spirit abounds, Voegelin warned, “[T]he social scene fills up with little emperors who each claim to be the possessor of the one and only truth; and it becomes lethal when some 0f them take themselves seriously enough to engage in mass murder of everyone who dares to disagree.”[43] “With every turn 0f history,” Voegelin concluded, “the self-made creators screw Eden deeper into its Hell.”[44]

Finally, elitism is invariably a distinguishing element of the gnostic spirit. Voegelin observed, “Progress will no longer be a line of meaning to be discovered by the historian, it will be a direction in the process of mankind, intelligently accelerated by the enlightened elite.”[45] As the masses are ignorant, it is the self-appointed elites who become “the executors of the historical will,” for they alone can discern on behalf of the masses “what the historical process is all about.”[46] It is the elites who divine the meaning 0f history, and they grasp the levers of power in order to bend the historical process to their notions 0f the perfected earthly society.

Who are the founders and teachers of gnosticism? Their ranks are legion. Coming out 0f Enlightenment, among others, there are Helvetius, D’Alembert, Turgot, Condorcet, and Voltaire. With the mind 0f the Enlightenment, and its unlimited confidence in the redemptive power 0f unassisted human reason, “an ethics 0f the Aristotelian type (with a scale 0f values oriented toward the bios theoretikos), or a spiritual morality 0f the Christian type (determined by the experience 0f the common ground in a transcendental reality), are beyond . . . reach.”[47] To the enlightened mind, “Jesus appears as a ‘sort of philosopher’ who counsels mutual love and support without any intelligible authority or foundation for such counsels.”[48] There emerged the “idea 0f an autonomous ethics, without religious or metaphysical foundation.”[49] The enlightened mind, Voegelin explained, “could sincerely believe that [it] need not bother about some 1500 years of Christian history and several centuries of Hellenism.”[50]

Concerning the key role 0f Voltaire, Voegelin maintained that in spite 0f certain positive contributions as a literary figure Voltaire “has done more than anybody else to make the darkness 0f enlightened reason descend on the Western World.”[51] “And with Voltaire,” continued Voegelin, “begins .  . . the concerted attack on Christian symbols and the attempt at evoking an image 0f man in the cosmos under the guidance 0f intraworldly reason.”[52] “Voltaire was not a systematic thinker;” on the contrary, “his attack took the form of pamphlets . .  malicious witticisms . .  . sarcasms and satires.”[53] The result: “He inaugurates the type 0f man who is at the height of an age that conceives of itself as being at the height 0f human civilization.”[54] Voltaire launched a “fierce attack on the life 0f the spirit:”

[F]aced with the mysteries of religion he will frankly admit that he does not understand them and that, therefore, they have to be eliminated from the public scene. The light 0f reason should fall into every corner 0f the human mind, and if it falls on a substance that is solid enough not to be dissolved by its rays, the obstacle should be destroyed because it is a scandal to enlightened man.[55]

”The massive blow against the Augustinian construction,” Voegelin noted, “was delivered by Voltaire.”[56] With Voltaire, “there exists no Augustinian anima animi from which man reaches out in the intentio into the transcendent;” as a consequence, “The saint is neither good nor bad; he is nothing to us.”[57] The theoretical system erected by Voltaire is spiritually barren: “The spiritual orientation and integration 0f personality is ignored as a problem, the principles of ethics are severed from their spiritual roots, and the rules of conduct are determined by the standard of social utility.”[58]

Another key founder and teacher of gnosticism is Auguste Comte, the apostle of positivism. Voegelin declared, “Auguste Comte . . . is the first great figure of the Western crisis.”[59] Comte, the founder of the Religion of Humanity, looms large as one of the high priests of gnosticism in this self-appointed role as “spiritual dictator of mankind.”[60] Comte personifies the over-weening pride of the gnostic mind which conceives of itself as not only capable of divining in full the meaning of the human experience, but in addition, visualizes itself as supremely capable of extricating man from all imperfections through the intense application of unaided human reason. It is a heady vision, and the wreckage from it lies all around — witness the death camps of modern totalitarianism.

With the Positivist Creed of Comte, “the bios theoretikos as a standard is abandoned,” for “there can be no doubt that technical inventions are more useful to mankind than the expressions of the contemplative intellect.”[61] Not only was the classical view rejected by Comte: “This is the first time in Western history that a man has arrogated to himself personally the place of Christ as the epochal figure which divides the ages.”[62] “Comte,” Voegelin explained, “was never shy in fixing his true importance in the history of mankind,” for “he saw himself in the role of the Aristotle of the new age, as the…new Saint Paul, organizing the Church.”[63] Conclusively proving that the pride of Comte knew no limits is his well-known Proclamation:

“In the name of the past and the future, the theoretical servants and the practical servants of Humanity assume befittingly the general leadership of the affairs of the earth in order to construct, at last, the true providence, moral, intellectual and material; they irrevocably exclude from political supremacy all the various slaves of God, Catholics, Protestants, or Deists, since they are retrogrades as well as perturbators.” [64]

Voegelin is unrelenting in his critical assessment of Comte:

“Whatever the answer of the future will be, there can be no doubt even now that Comte belongs, with Marx, Lenin, and Hitler, to the series of men who would save mankind and themselves by divinizing their particular existence and imposing its law as the new order of society. The satanic Apocalypse of Man begins with Comte and has become the signature of the Western crisis.”[65]

Concluded Voegelin: “[T]he positivistic dogma . . . could be accepted only by thinkers who did not master the classic and Christian science of man.”[66]

Less strikingly than Voltaire and Comte, Machiavelli also contributed to the legacy of gnosticism. Plato had not believed in “the collective salvation of a peoole through a mediator-king,” for “the problem of regeneration had become personal.” Machiavelli, Voegelin explained, offered “the other alternative.” Machiavelli “also knew that a true order was impossible without a spiritual reform,” and “[s]ince he found the spiritual resources neither in himself nor in anybody else, he confined himself to the evocation of the Prince who would achieve [national] unification through tactical means in power politics.” The result was “the renunciation of the spirit and the fall into demonism.”[67] Intimately, in the unfolding of the age of nationalism, this meant that the “mystical bodies of the nations . . . could begin to substitute with increasing effectiveness for the mystical body of Christ.”[68] With rejection of the universally unifying themes of the Hellenic summum bonum and the Christian beatitudo, virulent nationalism resulted as a form of “fragmentation” and “particularism.” There emerged limitless confidence in the redeeming power of nationhood; this was a strain of gnosticism; and for this a small debt was owed to Machiavelli.

Locke, the alleged theoretical patron saint of the American political tradition, had also contributed to the evolution of gnosticism. As Voegelin viewed the matter, it was not to Voltaire’s credit that he “was profoundly impressed by the philosophy of Locke.”[69] “[W]ith his inconclusive drifting in the surviving tradition of Christianity,” Locke advised his readers: “All knowledge starts with sensation; all ideas are derived reflectively from sensation.”[70] “From Locke directly stems the aversion against innate moral ideas,” Voegelin noted, “and consequently the necessity to search for a new basis of morals.”[71] Voegelin contended, “Locke’s demolition of the assumption of innate ideas may be quite meritorious in itself, but it becomes a somewhat dubious achievement if we consider that he has nothing to offer in its place,” and he concluded, “The net result of Locke’s speculation, thus, is not a new philosophy of morals but a thorough devastation on which nobody could build anything.”[72] Locke, then, assisted in creating the intellectual vacuum into which the demonic powers of gnosticism moved.

More so than Machiavelli and Locke, Hegel approached the levels of Voltaire and Comte as a contributor to the modern gnostic mind: “Hegel’s philosophy of law and history marked the first major earthquake of the Western crisis.”[73] Voegelin wrote, “For Hegel betrays in so many words that being a man is not enough for him; and as he cannot be the divine Lord of history himself, he is going to achieve Herrschaft as the sorcerer who will conjure up an image of history — a shape, a ghost­ — that is meant to eclipse the history of God’s making.”[74] Yet this is only the beginning:

“Hegel, however, wanted to become, not a man, but a Great Man: The Great Man whose name marks an epoch in history was his obsession. Moreover, he did not want to become just any Great Man in history, preceded and followed by others, but the greatest of them all; and this position he could secure only by becoming the Great Man who abolishes history, ages, and epochs through his evocation of the Last Age that will for­ ever after bear his imprint. The Great-Great Man in history is the Great Man beyond history.”[75]

“Hegel’s obsession was power.”[76] After the fall of Jena to Napoleon in 1806, he wrote, “I have seen the Emperor — this World-Soul — riding through town, and out of it, for a reconnaissance; — it is a wondrous feeling indeed to see such an individual who, concentrated in one point, sitting on a horse, reaches over the world and dominates it.”[77] Concluded Voegelin, “The passages give a fairly good picture of Hegel’s state of mind in the critical years.”[78] “To Hegel,” Voegelin observed, “God is dead because man-god at last has come to life and will create a new realm in his image. To sum it up: The Hegelian man-god has eclipsed the reality of God and history and thereby gained both the freedom and authority to project Second Realities and impose them on the world.”[79] Thus Hegel is a “thinker who believes that man can transform the world, which exists in tension toward God, into the very Realm of God itself.”[80] With Hegel, “God and Man are eliminated from the universe of discourse,” and “their place is taken by the imaginary” Geist, by the spirit of the times. The result is devastating: A “revolutionary destructiveness is engendered . . . which arises Hegel’s own deformation of the Holy Ghost into an absolute Geist that is meant to achieve the fulness of Revelation here and now in Hegel’s system.”[81]

While the classical and biblical “symbolisms express reality as experienced by a man whose soul is open toward the divine ground of the cosmos and his own existence,” Hegelian “man deforms his existence by closing it toward the divine ground” and by conjuring up visions of world-immanent utopias.[82] It is an intoxicating and exceedingly destructive view: “The sorcerer has drawn into himself the power of both God and Christ,” and Voegelin warned, “All mankind must join the sorcerer in the hell of his damnation.”[83]

One of Hegel’s “great successors in sorcery” was Nietzsche.[84] Nietzsche was the great practitioner of “the black magic of the isolated will.”[85] Specifically, Voegelin instructed, “Nietzsche . .   raised the question why anyone should live in the embarrassing condition of a being in need of the love and grace of God.”[86] Nietzsche’s solution was disarmingly simple: “In this dream of self-salvation, man assumes the role of God and redeems himself by his own grace.”[87] The “will to power” was the in­strument Nietzsche offered to accomplish the task of self-salvation. The Hellenic and biblical views had stressed man’s dependence and hence the need for reverence and awe — in a word, piety. In contrast, Nietzsche declared the total autonomy of the person, and he invited this wholly independent figure to achieve omnipotence through a sheer act of will. While the classical and biblical conceptions stressed reflection, contemplation, and attunement to the world of God’s making, Nietzsche issued a call to action in pursuit of power in a world of man’s making. Although perverse, Nietzsche’s vision was tantalizing, and in time it produced madness: first, alienation, then despair, and finally nihilism — destruction for its own sake to relieve the intolerable pain of existence.

The quintessential gnostic is Karl Marx. Voegelin wrote, “At the root of the Marxian idea we find the spiritual disease, the gnostic revolt.”[88] Indeed, “His spiritual impotence leaves no way open but derailment into gnostic activism.”[89] With unbridled pride. Marx announced to the troubled world that through the singular process of his mind and reasoning faculties he had divined the meaning of history and of the human condition. There is “eschatological excitement” in Marx, and he sets forth the blueprint for the elitists — the Leninists­ — to grab the levers of power and to bludgeon a skeptical world into compliance with the Marxist vision. Reflective of the gnostic spirit in Marx is the pernicious “stop-history” dogma. Practitioners of this theoretical witchcraft preach the notion that previous history was an illusion and that “real” history will commence when their mind’s eye view of the earthly paradise has been imposed upon humankind.[90]

As a corollary theorem, there is the “Marxian suppression of questions.”[91] That is, the Marxian mind is anti-philosophical; therefore, it is blatantly and grossly anti-Socratic. With his patently simplistic analysis of the human predicament, Marxian man senses that his system will not be able to endure serious philosophical scrutiny. Voegelin inquired, “Does this knowledge induce him to abandon his untenable construct?” Replied Voegelin, “Not in the least: it merely induces him to prohibit such questions.”[92] Hence, in “the clash between system and reality, reality must give way.”[93] The inescapable conclusion: Marx perpetrates a monumental “intellectual swindle.”[94] Certainly this is not surprising, for it was Marx who had proclaimed that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.” Marx, then, had expressly and wantonly repudiated the classical intellectual heritage: Marx did not want dialogue; he wanted immediate and complete conformity to the simplicities of his analysis and his rabid call to action.

Similarly, Marx rejected the biblical legacy. “Our analysis,” Voegelin continued, “has carried us closer to the deeper stratum of the Marxian disease, that is the revolt against God.”[95] With Marx, “Faith and the life of the spirit are expressly excluded as an independent source of order in the soul.”[96] Marx dismissed religion as no more than “the opium of the people.” Moreover, he was not content with indifference toward religion; he found it imperative to expressly repudiate it. To Marx, the biblical God was his most powerful competitor. To eclipse the biblical God and to gain dominion over his creation, his existence and reality had to he explicitly denied. Indeed, God had to be depicted not merely as a fiction, but as a symbolism created by the enemies of the masses to manipulate and exploit them. Marx instinctively understood the utility of hatred in the quest for earthly power and the erection of worldly utopias. He deliberately upended the biblical view: for the universal Gospel of love he substituted a doctrine of particularized class hatred. Briefly, Marxism-Leninism is gnosticism raised to the nth power, and in the process of accomplishing that end Marx led an “unambiguous attack on philosophy and Christianity.”[97]

Voegelin maintained that Christianity misconceived also had contributed to the gnostic movements. In fact, he observed, the gnostic impulses of the age of the Enlightenment were anticipated as early as the thirteenth century in the writings of Joachim of Flora. In Joachim is found “the idea of the Third Realm of the Spirit that would follow the Realms of the Father and the Son. This idea repudiated the Augustinian conception of the saeculum as a time of waiting for the second coming of Christ and envisaged a new era of meaning in sacred history.”[98] Hence Joachim epitomized that sometimes muted but nonetheless pernicious strain in certain “Christian” thinkers to seek the realization of Christ’s kingdom on earth — now. These thinkers are restless and impatient with the length of time it is taking to realize the ultimate fulfillment of Christ’s promises. To placate their impatience, they yield to the temptation to offer present worldly utopias as substitutes for the ultimate Christian promise, which properly understood, will be realized only beyond history. Voegelin summarized: “When the Christian idea of supernatural perfection through Grace in death was immanentized to become the idea of perfection of mankind in history through individual and collective human action, the foundation was laid for the mass creeds of modern Gnosis.”[99] Concerning the gnostic tendencies in some strains of supposedly Christian thought, Voegelin wrote, “All of this has nothing to do with Christianity.”[100] More than that, he added, “[T]here is no passage in the New Testament from which advice for revolutionary political action could be extracted.”[101]

In spite of his personal greatness and in­ dispensability to Christianity, Voegelin contended that St. Paul himself was partially responsible for the introduction of the gnostic strain into the Christian heritage. Commencing with St. Paul, Voegelin explained, “The metastatic expectation of the Second Coming has begun its long history of disappointment.”[102] In the thinking of St. Paul, the promise of the Second Coming evolved into a doctrine of “fervent expectations” regarding the imminence of “the age of perfection.”[103] In Pauline doctrine the end of history was at hand, and there was limited need for reflection or extended inquiry. Although Paul knew the age of perfection would come beyond history, his emphasis upon an imminent Second Coming, with the accompanying “eschatological excitement,” subtly laid the theoretical foundation for those who would tire of waiting and in their impatience begin construction of earthly utopias. In Voegelin’s view, St. Augustine assumed a position on the Second Coming which was consistent with scripture and the inherent logic of the faith. Regarding the time of the Second Coming, St. Augustine had written, “We know from the mouth of Truth that it is none of our business.”[104] Quoting from Acts 1, Augustine explained, “Suffice it to say that the fingers of all such calculators were slackened by Him who imposed silence with the words: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates which the Father has fixed by his own authority.’”[105] In Augustinian theory, there was no preoccupation with the timing of the Second Coming; instead, there was abiding concern with understanding the essence of the faith and the depth of the mystery.

In the tradition of St. Augustine, Voegelin stressed essence and not literalism in interpreting the meaning of the Christian faith. Literalism produced “derailment” because “the symbols are torn out of their experiential context and treated as if they were concepts referring to a datum of sense experience.”[106] As a result, literalism “converts the real truth .  . of a real experience of real divine presence into the fictitious truth of human propositions about gods who are objects of cognition.”[107] Literalism leads to “doctrinal hardening” and “dogmatic incrustations” which in turn lead away from the “essence” of the faith to its “abuse;” therefore, literalism and resulting dogma are supporting pillars of the gnostic tendencies in Christianity. Questions of “faith,” of “essence,” and of “substance” are neglected; consequently, there is no need for the “inquiring mind” to explore the perennial “mystery” of the meaning of the Gospel. “Christ is revealed,” Voegelin reminded his readers, “not in the fulness of doctrine, but in the fulness of Passion and Resurrection.”[108] And he summarized:

“[The hardened doctrine of gnosticism] is a far cry from the Matthean Jesus who calls to him the poor in the spirit, the gentle, the pure in heart, the peace­ makers, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness and are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. In Matthew 16, Jesus certainly does not intend to transform the Son of God into the Field­ Marshal of the Pantocrator, but rather wants to transform the Messiah into the Son of God.”[109]

Finally, the principal cause of the gnostic tendencies in Christianity lay with the very nature of Christianity itself. “Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity,” Voegelin wrote.[110] Modern man hankers for security, and in the Christian message “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.”[111] In perhaps his most eloquent lines, Voegelin elaborated:

The bond is tenuous, indeed, and it may snap easily. The life of the soul is 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.[112]

The opportunities for a “breakdown of faith” are extensive, for few persons are equipped with “the spiritual stamina for the heroic adventure of the soul that is Christianity.”[113] The demands of the Gospel are heavy: “This thread of faith, on which hangs all certainty regarding divine, transcendent being, is indeed very thin. Man is given nothing tangible.”[114] Once the bond of faith, fragile to begin with, is sufficiently weakened in a society the “spiritual strength of the soul which in Christianity was devoted to the sanctification of life could now be diverted into the more appealing, more tangible, and, above all, so much easier creation of the terrestrial paradise.”[115] Concisely stated: As the presence of faith in society diminishes, the demonic spirits of gnosticism arise proportionately. Indeed, Voegelin reflected, “There are times, when the divinely willed order is humanly realized nowhere but in the faith of solitary sufferers.”[116]

In his dealing with the crisis posed by modern gnosticism, Voegelin did not issue a nostalgic call for a blind returning to some doctrinal fusion of classical Greek philosophy and Christianity. First, Voegelin rejected as puerile and unphilosophic the idea that one could turn back and restore in full the essence of an earlier Golden Age. One could benefit from studying the theoretical premises of earlier civilizations, but wisdom foreclosed the possibility of applying those premises uncritically and fully in the creation of some instant modern utopia — again, that was the error of the gnostic spirit; rather, wisdom suggested that the task was to learn of the theoretical essence of earlier civilizations and to discern if that learning had relevance to the specific circumstances of evolving contemporary societies. Secondly, Voegelin deplored the notion of “doctrine,” for it evoked visions of the hardened and incrusted intellectual world of the gnostics themselves. In this regard, Voegelin was adamant in resisting labeling of himself:

“On my religious ‘position,’ I have been classified as a Protestant, Catholic, as anti-semitic and as a typical Jew; politically, as a Liberal, a Fascist, a National Socialist and a Conservative; and on my theoretical position, as a Platonist, a Neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, a disciple of Hegel, an existentialist, a historical relativist and an empirical sceptic; in recent years the suspicion has frequently been voiced that I am a Christian. All these classifications have been made by university professors and people with academic degrees. They give ample food for thought regarding the state of our universities.”[117]

Clearly, Voegelin does not think of himself as “liberal,” “conservative,” “libertarian,” “Platonist,” “Christian,” or otherwise. The reason: Labeling leads to doctrinal hardening, which in turn is the basic theoretical error of gnosticism, the ism of anti-philosophy and the antithesis of the theoretical emphasis of Eric Voegelin. Gnosticism encompassed the intellectual world of the closed mind, the simplistic and intellectually primitive world of the ideologue. The ideologue envisioned himself as self-produced and capable of self-redemption through the theoretical construction in his closed mind’s eye of an earthly new Jerusalem which would supersede the imperfect world of reality, the world of God’s making. To Voegelin, this was the crucial theoretical error of modern thought, and to overcome the perversities of gnosticism he found compelling relevance in the Hellenic and biblical views. He found relevance in these latter perspectives not because of any doctrinal purity they allegedly possessed, but because they represented philosophical postures that were anti-closed system and anti-doctrinaire. Both found their intellectual sustenance in the notion of “openness to transcendence,” and both recognized that history is a “mystery in process of revelation.”[118] In each case, there was acknowledgment that man was a creature, not the creator, and that he was radically dependent on the creating force for his very being, including an understanding of that being. Hence in the classical and biblical views, there was intense appreciation of the limitations and finiteness of the human predicament. History did continue, and the mystery did remain. There was pressing reason for piety, reverence, and awe; and the continually inquiring mind, open to transcendence, was the indispensable and ultimate instrument in the pursuit of understanding and Truth.

Voegelin was a teacher of hope. He counseled, “No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this folly and live his life in order.”[119] The crisis was not a matter of “inevitable fate;” the effort could be made to forge the intellectual tools to facilitate escape from the gnostic prisons. Should the effort be made? Quoting from Richard Hooker, Voegelin responded with a resounding “yes” in order that “posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.”[120] Although it was not specifically intended by its author, in all of this American conservatives found considerable aid and comfort.*



[1] Order and History I (1957), 132 (hereafter cited OH).

[2] The New Science of Politics (1952), 164 (hereafter cited NSP).

[3] OH I, 398.

[4] OH II, 263.

[5] Ibid.

[6] OH I, 310.

[7] Ibid.

[8] OH II, 203.

[9] OH I, 515.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jesus and Man’s Hope (1971), 80.

[12] Ibid., 77.

[13] Ibid.

[14] OH II, 115.

[15] OH III, 96.

[16] Ibid., 364.

[17] Ibid., 174.

[18] NSP, 118.

[19] OH III, 157.

[20] OH II, 202.

[21] City of God, Book VIII, Chapters 4-5.

[22] Jesus and Man’s Hope, 81.

[23] OH II, 204.

[24] From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975), 79 (hereafter cited ER).

[25] The Review of Politics, Vol. 15 (1953), 75-6.

[26] Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1968), 9 (hereafter cited SPG).

[27] ER, 268.

[28] SPG, 11.

[29] Ibid., 87.

[30] OH III, 209.

[31] ER, 265.

[32] Ibid., 267.

[33] Ibid., 302.

[34] Ibid., 51.

[35] Ibid.

[36] NSP, 163.

[37] ER, 193.

[38] Ibid., 10.

[39] Ibid., 200.

[40] Ibid., 134.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 28.

[43] The Southern Review, Vol. X (1974), 258.

[44] The Southern Review, Vol. VII (1971), 36.

[45] ER, 129-30.

[46] Ibid., 215, 294.

[47] Ibid., 81.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 85.

[51] Ibid., 32.

[52] Ibid., 23.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 95, 24.

[56] OH II, 15.

[57] ER, 26-7.

[58] Ibid., 29.

[59] Ibid., 74.

[60] Ibid., 136.

[61] Ibid., 87.

[62] Ibid., 161.

[63] Ibid., 16.

[64] Ibid., 141.

[65] Ibid., 159.

[66] NSP, 11.

[67] OH III, 225.

[68] ER, 3.

[69] Ibid., 24.

[70] Ibid., 89.

[71] Ibid., 42.

[72] Ibid., 37.

[73] NSP, 2.

[74] The Study of Time (1972), 424.

[75] Ibid., 432.

[76] Ibid., 435.

[77] Ibid., 436.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Phenomenology and Social Reality (1970), 192.

[80] Ibid.

[81] The Southern Review, Vol. VII (1971), 35.

[82] The Study of Time, 437.

[83] Ibid., 445.

[84] Ibid., 433.

[85] ER, 166.

[86] NSP, 129.

[87] The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 60 (1967), 260.

[88] ER, 298.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Ibid., 73.

[91] SPG, 27.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid., 45.

[94] Ibid.

[95] ER, 261.

[96] Ibid., 273.

[97] OH II, 19.

[98] ER, 3.

[99] OH III, 278.

[100] NSP, 147.

[101] Ibid., 145.

[102] OH IV, 241.

[103] Ibid., 268.

[104] City of God, Book XVIII, Chapter 53.

[105] Ibid.

[106] OH III, 276.

[107] OH IV, 37.

[108] Jesus and Man’s Hope, 93.

[109] Ibid., 95.

[110] NSP, 122.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Ibid.

[113] NSP, 123.

[114] SPG, 108.

[115] NSP, 129.

[116] OH I, 465.

[117] Freedom and Serfdom (1961), 280.

[118] OH IV, 6.

[119] SPG, 22-3.

[120] NSP, title page.


This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on April 27, 2016.

John P. East

Written by

John Porter East (1931–86) was a Professor of Political Science at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina and then a United States Senator from North Carolina from 1981 until his death. Dr. East was the author of The American Conservative Movement: The Philosophical Founders (1987).