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Subjectivity and Human Nature in Eric Voegelin’s Reading of Aristotle

Subjectivity And Human Nature In Eric Voegelin’s Reading Of Aristotle

Any student of Aristotle’s thought will be familiar with his various definitions of human nature: in the Politics he tells us “man is by nature a political animal”; in the Metaphysics he defines the human being as a “rational animal”; in De Anima he describes us as a composite of body and soul, of matter and form, respectively. These definitions have been and continue to be highly influential in the history of philosophy. Most of us, if not all, would agree, however, that they are not invitations to stop philosophizing. Rather, they are markers along a path of questioning that one should travel for oneself. On their own they leave us with many questions: What does it mean to be rational or political? What does it mean to have a nature? How do we know our nature? How can one nature have so many definitions?

These are questions that Eric Voegelin explores with great insight in his work on Aristotle’s philosophy. Reading Aristotle through the lens of his own philosophy of consciousness, Voegelin claims that these definitions represent only the surface of much deeper insights into the nature of human existence. Distinguishing between what he refers to as experiences and their symbolization, Voegelin argues that we must look beyond Aristotle’s definitions to the motivating experiences from which they arose, and it is there that we will find the essential significance of his philosophy. Specifically, Voegelin argues that Aristotle’s terminology points to his existential insight into human nature as participation in transcendent truth through reason or nous. This, according to Voegelin, is the great breakthrough of the Greek philosophers: the development of noetic science as an analysis of human existence in tension between the immanent and the transcendent poles of reality.

Yet, according to Voegelin, Aristotle himself obscures this insight, as he oscillates between two approaches in his attempts to explain the nature of the human being. On the one hand, he approaches the human being as an immanent being, which can be studied and categorized from a theoretical or third-person perspective. He is operating in this mode of inquiry, for instance, when he applies to the human being his hylomorphic categories of form and matter, which he borrows from his biology. On the other hand, Voegelin argues, Aristotle’s deepest insights into human nature derive from his own experiences of human participation in transcendence. From this subjective or first-person perspective he sees that the human being is not an immanent being like other animals, but something more. Aristotle illustrates the tension between the two approaches himself: when the hylomorphic method breaks down, he leaves the aporia in the text and remarks upon it.

For Voegelin, this double-approach is a typical and to some degree unavoidable feature of noetic analysis. As an analysis of non-objective reality, noesis struggles to escape the gravitational pull of human consciousness, thought, and language, all of which tend to objectify reality. This tension between our participation in nonobjective reality and the objectifying tendency of our minds is the source of many of the arguments we have about right order and the truth of existence, since we expect the former to be explainable in terms of the latter. Thus, we want “objective” moral truths even though such truths are nonobjective. We want proofs that God exists but God is the basis of all proofs. This is a problem that is perhaps exacerbated by the modern turn to the subject, since the language of subject and object suggests a divide between mind and reality, which in turns raises the question of how we know that our minds conform to reality. But Voegelin’s analysis shows that this problem is not exclusive to the modern turn to the subject.

In fact, Voegelin demonstrates that something akin to the modern turn to the subject is discernable in Aristotle insofar as his account of human nature depends on his own experience of nous or reason. This means that Aristotle’s ethics does not depend on his metaphysics; rather, it is the reverse: his theory of human nature is derivative of his subjective experience of participation in reason. The latter, rather than an objective theory of human nature, is the source of the Greeks ethical stance against hedonism and even honor-loving. For this reason the truth of human existence proves to be elusive even for the Greeks, and it cannot be captured in thought or language. Thus, while Voegelin’s employment of a philosophy of consciousness might aggravate rather than alleviate the problem of skepticism,[1] it is nevertheless true that the modern turn to the subject does not introduce on its own the problem of skepticism about the human good.

The remainder of this essay is divided into four sections. The first provides a brief overview of Voegelin’s distinction between experiences and symbols, as well as his mature philosophy of consciousness. The second outlines Voegelin’s claim that Aristotle approaches the question of human nature from two perspectives. The third further develops an account of Voegelin’s existential or experiential reading of Aristotle by demonstrating how it is reflected in the virtues of justice (including right by nature), phronesis, and friendship. This section will further illustrate how Aristotle’s analysis is grounded in a subjective or first-person perspective on human nature in that the theory of human nature is derivative of Aristotle’s own existence. A final section will evaluate Voegelin’s approach to Aristotle and suggest that he successfully demonstrates that human nature is an elusive reality for even the Greeks, but that his philosophy of consciousness does not do enough to confront the confusion of objective and non-objective reality.

Voegelin’s Philosophy of Consciousness

Voegelin reads Aristotle through the lens of his own philosophy of history and consciousness, which in turn he develops through engagement with both classical and modern sources. This leads to significant interpretive questions, both in terms of understanding the sources of Voegelin’s philosophy, as well as in terms of evaluating his reading of the classical Greek philosophers. On the one hand, Voegelin claims to be rediscovering and advancing the noetic science of Plato and Aristotle; on the other hand, this “rediscovery” is influenced, perhaps even made possible, by his studies of German idealism and phenomenology.[2] Sorting out whether Voegelin’s philosophy, as well as his reading of Aristotle, is ancient or modern thus becomes a kind of “chicken-and-egg” problem. In the end, the likely truth is that it must be both.

Setting that question aside for now, it will be helpful to offer a basic outline of Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness, since it frames his reading of Aristotle. Even his first major study of Aristotle, in the third volume of Order and History, which was published before he developed his mature philosophy of consciousness, is structured by insights that would later develop into it. Specifically, it employs his distinction between experiences and symbols. As Voegelin states in his Autobiographical Reflections, he abandoned the history of ideas he was writing at the time because “it dawned on me that the conception of a history of ideas was an ideological deformation of reality. There were no ideas unless there were symbols of immediate experiences.”[3] Voegelin’s point is that key terms in the history of human thought – e.g., reason, faith, nature, etc. – all emerged as symbols pointing to experiences. Thus, for example, Plato does not have a “theory” of the Good, or, if he does, it is secondary to its source, which is his experience of an ultimate source of truth and goodness that he symbolizes and attempts to communicate with the term, Agathon. As a result of this insight, when Voegelin studies Aristotle, he looks for the animating experiences that govern his philosophy and argues that those, rather than a set of ideas, are the essence of his contribution to the history of philosophy.

In later works, Voegelin’s insight develops into in his mature philosophy of consciousness, which informs his later writings on Aristotle. The most sustained accounts of this later philosophy of consciousness are found in Anamnesis and Order and History, vol. 5: In Search of Order. In these works, Voegelin distinguishes between “intentionality” and “luminosity” as two distinct modes of consciousness. In the mode of intentionality, we attend to what Voegelin calls “thing-reality”; that is, we as subjects intend the world as objective, as a series of things. This is the more obvious or common-sense level of experience. But to this Voegelin adds that we also participate in a deeper and more elusive mode of consciousness, by which we experience what he calls “It-reality.” In this mode of experience, the distinction between subject and object disappears, and we become cognizant of ourselves as parts of a broader whole, one that we cannot fully encapsulate in consciousness or language. We move into the position of experiencing ourselves as that part of reality in which it has become conscious of (or “luminous for”) itself. In this latter mode we develop symbols that attempt to articulate and point to this participatory reality.

One final important point is that we find this latter participatory or luminous mode of consciousness to be elusive, even though it is constantly present, and we suffer from a tendency to reduce all of reality to the level of ideas or intentionality and thingness. For Voegelin, this is ultimately the source of ideology, which attempts to replace attention to the actual world by superimposing a “secondary reality” on it. But it is also an unavoidable feature of human existence, since it is a product of the nature of language, thought, and consciousness themselves. As we will see presently, Voegelin claims to detect this problem in Aristotle’s work repeatedly – and he considers Aristotle to be a philosopher of the highest rank, and certainly no ideologue. It is simply that we cannot help but experience and think of the world as a series of objects.

Despite these developments in Voegelin’s thought, his writings on Aristotle demonstrate considerable consistency both in terms of their substance and the pattern of interpretation. For Voegelin, the key to understanding Aristotle (or any philosopher) is to penetrate to the experiential core of his philosophy for oneself. This is done by tracing the steps indicated by the various symbols he has developed to represent and interpret his experiences, the most important of which is his experience of transcendence as the ordering force pervading human existence. In this way Voegelin finds in Aristotle a man exploring his own participation in It-reality as it becomes luminous for itself through symbols such as nous, metalepsis, phronesis, and so forth.

Two Approaches to Human Nature in Aristotle

Voegelin argues that Aristotle approaches the task of defining human nature from two perspectives. In some contexts he attempts to define the human being (as well as other human things such as the polis) using the categories of his hylomorphic metaphysics. This approach operates in the mode of intentionality, and Voegelin is critical of it because he sees it as an inappropriate misapplication of ideas that miss the core defining characteristics of human existence. This method does not exhaust Aristotle’s study of human nature, however. In other contexts, he defines and analyzes the human being from the perspective of his own experiences of participation in transcendent order. This approach coincides with Voegelin’s idea of the luminous dimension of consciousness, and he argues that it represents the true animating core of Aristotle’s philosophy and is the source of his understanding of human nature and right by nature. Voegelin thus claims that in Aristotle “a broader philosophical concept of nature is brought face to face with a narrower metaphysical concept” and he claims that in the history of philosophy, which has relied too heavily on hylomorphism, “a comprehensive conception of what nature is has been narrowed down by the development of metaphysics.”[4] Voegelin’s task is to recover the broader concept, but he begins by demonstrating the limitations of the narrower one.

He discusses several contexts in which Aristotle’s attempt to describe human things in terms of form and matter breaks down. He points out, for instance, that in De Anima Aristotle runs into problems that “have their origin in the mysterious life of its own that the soul leads, thanks to its special relationship to divine eternity.”[5] Voegelin does not offer further clarification on this point, but presumably he is suggesting that De Anima approaches the human being as an immanent being like other animals and then runs into problems when dealing with the nature of intellect. So, we find Aristotle suggesting in one passage that “there is no need, therefore, to inquire whether soul and body are one, any more than whether the wax and its stamp are one”[6] and then suggesting shortly thereafter that “the case of the intellect and the contemplative capacity is not at all clear, but it seems that this is another kind of soul and that this alone is able to exist separately, as the eternal is from the perishable.”[7] Passages like the latter one seem to suggest that the categories Aristotle is employing cannot actually explain the human being.

Aristotle runs into similar difficulties in the Politics. Voegelin notes that the attempt in Politics III to define the polis according to form and matter leads to irresolvable practical conundrums.[8] Aristotle suggests that we might think of the constitution as the form of the polis and the population as its matter, but then, as Voegelin writes, “this brings up the problem that every time the democrats of Athens overthrow a tyrant, or the oligarchies oust the democrats from power, there arises a new Athens that has nothing in common with the old one except the name; Aristotle even realizes that, alas, politicians with a talent for metaphysics follow his idea or if not anticipate it when they refuse on the argument of a lack of continuity, to honor the public debts of the previous regime.”[9] Even as the constitution changes, or as an entire generation of citizens lives and dies, Athens continues to exist. This suggests that there is a reality, which we refer to as Athens, which transcends the categories of form and matter.

There are other instances such as these in Aristotle’s texts, but these examples are sufficient to illustrate Voegelin’s claim that Aristotle’s attempts to employ categories such as form and matter to human beings are problematic. Voegelin sees this as an early instance of a typical problem in that Aristotle has reversed the proper order of scientific method: rather than developing a science that is adequate to his subject, he has attempted to subsume his subject under categories that apply to another one (in this case his biology). As Voegelin writes, “Aristotle’s attempt to use [these categories] nevertheless is a clear instance of the transformation of philosophical categories into topoi, torn out of their context and used in speculation whether they fit the field of problems or not.”[10] Whether that is a fair criticism or not, the key problem that is highlighted is that human beings are not exhaustively contained within the material world, and, therefore, we cannot be defined like other animals. Since we participate in a mental or spiritual world that is structured toward transcendence, that must be included in any account of the nature of the human being: “the nature of man itself as an object of metaphysical inquiry is not altogether a world-immanent object; the formation of the soul through invading transcendence is part of that ‘nature’ that we explore in metaphysics.”[11]

But Aristotle sees this, and the aporiae in his texts reflect that he is operating from the standpoint of what Voegelin calls noetic insight into the structure of consciousness. According to Voegelin, the great discovery of Plato and Aristotle is the discovery of nous –mind or reason – as an encounter with transcendent truth. Based on his reading of their texts, Voegelin formulates that nature of the human being in this way: “the core of man’s nature is the openness of his being for questioning and knowing about the ground of being.”[12] As he explains, with Aristotle in mind: “The reality experienced by the philosophers as specifically human is man’s existence in a state of unrest. Man is not a self-created, autonomous being carrying the origin and meaning of his existence within himself. He is not a divine causa sui; from the experience of his life in precarious existence within the limits of birth and death there rather rises the wondering question about the ultimate ground, the aitia or prote arche, of all reality and specifically his own. The question is inherent in the experience from which it arises; the zoon noun echon that experiences itself as a living being is at the same time conscious of the questionable character attaching to this status. Man, when he experiences himself as existent, discovers his specific humanity as that of the questioner for the wherefrom and the whereto, for the ground and the sense of his existence.”[13] In short, human reason is in its very essence ordered toward the transcendent.

This is the insight that enables Aristotle to see that the human being participates in a divine reality that outranks everything else, and this participation then becomes the essential component of human nature. Thus, Aristotle claims that the virtuous person does virtuous actions “for the sake of his thinking part, and that is what each person seems to be.”[14] He later confirms that “each person seems to be his understanding.”[15] Speaking of the perfect contemplative life, Aristotle writes that “such a life would be superior to the human level. For someone will live it not insofar as he is a human being, but insofar as he has some divine element in him.”[16] But then he confirms that, “as far as we can, we ought to be pro-immortal, and go to all lengths to live life in accord with our supreme element; for however much this element may lack in bulk, by much more it surpasses everything in power and value.” These passages all illustrate the fact that the discovery of reason thus includes the experience of movement toward nous or reason as divine. Voegelin believes this experience also informs the first line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics – “All men by nature desire to know” – insofar as it expresses movement toward truth as inherent to the human participation in reason.

Thus, Voegelin argues that it is his own experience of participation in reason, rather than an objective theory, that grounds Aristotle’s account of human nature. In this sense it is first-person subjectivity that grounds Aristotelian ethics rather than a third-person or objective study of the human being as an object in the world. The theory follows the experience. So, for instance, Voegelin points out that Aristotle’s idea of final causality derives from reflection on human action, thus suggesting a kind of priority of ethics to metaphysics. He bases his argument on the following passage from the Metaphysics: “The wherefore is an end [telos], i.e., an end of the sort that is not for the sake of something else, but for the sake of which other things are. Hence, if there is a last term of this sort [eschaton], the process will not be infinite [apeiron]; and if there is not, there will be no wherefore. But those who argue for an infinite regress fail to notice that they thereby destroy the nature of the good [ten tou agathou physin]. For nobody would try to do anything if he were not going to arrive at a limit. Also, there would then be no intellect [nous] in the world; for man, who has intellect [noun echon] always acts for the sake of some end: for the goal [telos] is an end [peras].”[17] Voegelin explains that “With respect to action, he [Aristotle] insists on imposing a limit (peras) on the series as an indispensable requisite, since otherwise the nous, the highest good, and the meaning of action would be destroyed.”[18] The key point is that it is “the question of the meaning of human action…which…makes urgent the reformulation.” As Voegelin explains elsewhere, “The limit seems to be something inherent in reason; and this qualification appears in the context of the analysis of action, betraying that here we have reached the experiential origin from which derives the argument concerning a limit also in the demonstrations concerning the knowledge of things.”[19] The idea of purposiveness is first discovered in the human experience of reason. Indeed, as Aristotle remarks in De Anima, “For just as the intellect acts for the sake of something, nature acts in the same way; and this something is its end.”[20] Thus, Voegelin concludes in yet another essay that Aristotle’s “teleology unfortunately is no more than a dignified but unfounded opinion about the order of things once the question of telos is taken out of its experiential context,”[21] which “is the experience of man’s reaching out, by means of his nous, for the noetikon.”[22]

Based on this analysis, Voegelin argues that Aristotle’s “inquiry about the peras of action explodes the definition of human nature as form, for when the question is raised about the limit of action set by the nous, this does not involve form, but form is realized only through action. Hence at its core human nature is the openness of questioning knowing and knowing questioning about the ground. Through this openness, beyond any contents, images, and models whatsoever, order flows from the ground of being into the being of man.”[23] The human being as the being possessing reason is thus ordered toward a final end, but this insight derives from Aristotle’s own participation in reason, not from an external analysis of human beings as objects in the world. This is important for Voegelin’s account of human nature because it means that Aristotle does not proceed from metaphysics to ethics, but rather that it is the reverse – Aristotle begins from his own experience of reason – in thought and action – and it is from there that his metaphysics originates: “the problems of transcendence, the questions of origin and end, and the postulate of the limit, are inherent to the noetic structure of existence; they are not doctrines or propositions of this or that metaphysical speculation, but precede all metaphysics.”[24] The first-person or existential approach to ethics is highlighted by Aristotle’s articulation of right order though what Voegelin calls the “existential” virtues: justice, prudence, and friendship.

Right Order in Aristotle

The discovery of reason as order toward transcendent truth carries within it an ethical or normative component. Inherent within the discovery of nous or reason is the sense that one ought to live in accordance with it. Reason itself is constituted by movement toward its divine ground. And the philosopher is the one who becomes permeable to the order of reason. This is evident in Aristotle’s discussions of justice, prudence, and friendship, which are the three most fundamental articulations Aristotle offers of participation in right order. Each of these is an existential virtue because it expresses in a fundamental way the human participation in noetic order; the human being who is just, prudent, and capable of true friendship is so because he is transparent to the order of reason. As Voegelin writes in reference to one, “The virtue that Aristotle calls phronesis, or political science, is an existential virtue; it is the movement of being, in which the divine order of the cosmos attains its truth in the human realm.”[25] As we will see, Aristotle identifies each of these virtues as a particular virtue, but also suggests that each is at the same time the whole of virtue. They thus represent the fundamental orientation toward the good of the person who exhibits them. But the key point, as we will see, is that each one refers to a way of being – virtue is something one realizes in one’s life, rather than something one knows in the mode of a subject knowing an object.

In order of appearance, the first existential virtue is justice. In book V of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between justice as a general virtue and the specific forms of justice, noting that justice in general “is complete virtue, not complete virtue without qualification, but complete virtue in relation to another.”[26] He also says it is “the whole, not a part, of virtue.”[27] Justice is complete virtue because it symbolizes the fundamental right order of the soul as expressed through dealings with others. As such, justice cannot be reduced to a definition but must be enacted as a living reality. Being just precedes any theory of justice.

Voegelin focuses in particular on the idea of right by nature in order to demonstrate the existential character of justice. He notes that right by nature is different from natural law, if by the latter is meant a series of proposition about justice and right action. For Aristotle, right by nature is an existential symbol that cannot be reduced to propositional form. Voegelin notes in particular Aristotle’s remark that “With us, though presumably not at all with the gods, there is such a thing as the natural, but still all is changeable; despite the change there is such a thing as what is natural and what is not.”[28] Voegelin comments that “The physei dikaion is what is right by nature in its tension between the immutable divine substance and the existentially conditioned human mutability.”[29] He then argues that Aristotle’s presentation of right by nature does not involve articulating a series of propositions, but rather an articulation of the best polis: “Quite unlike the later ideas about natural law as the quintessence of eternal, immutable legal maxims, the right by nature here is identical with the paradigm of the ariste politeia [the best constitution].”[30] This is because, for Aristotle, the question of right by nature is inherently political. But even Aristotle’s articulation of the best regime should not lead us to think that he develop an “objective” theory of the polis, since it is the animating idea of transcendent justice that is the key. “What is right by nature is not given as an object that would lend itself, once and for all, to the statement in correct propositions. On the contrary, it has its mode of being in man’s concrete experience of what is right, which is immutable and everywhere the same, and yet, in its realization, again changeable and everywhere different. What we have here is an existential tension that cannot be resolved theoretically but only in the practice of the man who experiences it.”[31]

This same point is established with respect to the second existential virtue, phronesis, of which Aristotle says “one has all the virtues if and only if one has prudence”[32] and “we cannot be prudent without being good.”[33] Aristotle defines prudence as “a state grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being.”[34] Moreover, it is not “about universal only. It must also acquire knowledge of particulars.”[35] Beyond that he does not tell us much, except that “to grasp what prudence is, we should first study the sort of people we call prudent.”[36] The nature of prudence is revealed not by a series of propositions but by a study of those who are themselves prudent. This is because phronesis is a concrete capacity that one must cultivate in order to possess.  As Voegelin writes, “Prudential science is not a body of knowledge of which the truth is evident to everybody but requires inclination and habituation for its full understanding. It cannot be transmitted as information but must be acquired as possession through formation of the soul.”[37] Thus, Voegelin emphasizes that Aristotle’s account of phronesis depends on his own development toward it: “Aristotle knows what the nature of man really is; he knows that eudaimonia consists in the practice of the bios theoretikos; and he knows it not only as a proposition in science, but experientially through the habituation of his soul and the practice of his life.”[38] Thus subjectivity is again the origin of Aristotle’s account.

Finally, Voegelin identifies friendship as the third existential virtue. Aristotle says friendship “is a virtue or involves virtue. Further, it is most necessary for our life. For no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.”[39] The recognition that friendship indicates complete virtue is found in the statement that “if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.”[40] And like, justice and prudence, friendship is something that must be lived out. Thus, vicious people cannot be true friends: “Clearly, however, only good people can be friends to each other because of the other person himself; for bad people find no enjoyment in one another if they get no benefit.”[41]

The analysis of friendship is especially interesting because it becomes the basis for Aristotle’s political thought. He develops the analogous category of homonoia, like-mindedness, to express the idea that a political community is united by something like friendship. Here again he recognizes the existential dimension, since homonoia does not mean simply having the same ideas, but includes living them out together. As Aristotle writes, “a city is said to be in concord [homonoia] when [its citizens] agree on what is advantageous, make the same decision, and act on their common resolution.”[42] Again this indicates the concrete unity of thought and action, this time realized in community with others. But the truly important point is that Aristotle’s analysis of political friendship shows that he sees that nous or mind is the basis for any polis. Thus, we get the important Greek insight that it is not the institutions that define a community, but the character of the ruling class.[43] Like a person, we must look to the subjective in order to understand a community.

Voegelin’s reflections on the existential virtues are closely tied to the idea of “representative humanity,” by which he means that noetic insight leads to the formulation of a new form of existence that is interpreted as a measure for all human beings.  He notes that for the Greeks “The central symbol was the “philosopher” in whose psyche humanity had become luminous for its noetic order; parallel symbols were Plato’s “spiritual man” (daimonios aner) and Aristotle’s “mature man” (spoudaios).”[44] The philosopher represents human nature by representing its highest achievement, which is attunement to reason. His person is a living embodiment of truth. Aristotle recognizes this idea in his discussion of whether law or men should rule. His conclusion is that “anyone who instructs law to rule would seem to be asking god and the understanding alone to rule; whereas someone who asks a human being asks a wild beast as well.”[45] But then, noting the some men might possess superior virtue, he writes that for them “there is no law, since they themselves are law.”[46] This is a crucial insight that Voegelin recognizes in Aristotle, as it demonstrates the permeability of the human and the divine in a concrete person. We see here that it is not a human subject longing toward a divine object, but the unity of human and divine in one reality. In summary, for the Greeks, knowledge of natural right, although it can be symbolized, conceptualized, and theorized in the third-person, is always ultimately dependent on the first person-perspective.

Experience, Existence, and Truth

Voegelin’s analysis of Aristotle shows that an objective demonstration of human nature is not possible because human nature is non-objective. This means that in order to understand human nature one must enact it for oneself; knowledge of the truth is in this sense subjective or personal. As Voegelin writes, “Participation is a process of consciousness, which we cannot skip in order to reach an objective beyond-of-itself.”[47] All accounts or theories of human nature are derivative of this first-person experience or enactment, and they are ultimately inadequate to express it. “Truth is not a body of propositions about a world-immanent object; it is the world transcendent summum bonum, experienced as an orienting force in the soul, about which we can speak only in analogical symbols.”[48] The truth of this statement is found in each person’s participation in the reality to which it refers. This is what is suggested by Aristotle’s reflections on the nature of reason and his account of right order in the symbols of justice, phronesis, and friendship.

The question of whether Voegelin’s reading of Aristotle imports modern ideas or problems into Aristotle is an important one. Regardless of that question, however, his analysis helps us to see that the non-propositional nature of Aristotle’s insights in human nature creates significant difficulties for communicating knowledge of right order and persuading others to live by it. Plato and Aristotle were themselves aware of this problem. We see this, for instance, in Plato’s Republic where Socrates resorts to allegories and similes because he cannot simply communicate knowledge of the good to non-philosophers. Or, as Aristotle recognizes (as paraphrased by Voegelin), “If we tried to find out what is truly good by taking a poll in any given human collective, we would get as many different answers as there are the different characters of those interviewed.”[49] The Greek analysis of the human being is ultimately grounded in reflection on one’s own participation in reason as a nonobjective reality (and so too is our ability to understand and confirm Aristotle’s position grounded in our own participation in reason). But nonobjective reality cannot be captured in thought or language, and, therefore, it proves elusive. In order to evaluate Aristotle’s ethics, we must enter into it for ourselves. In order to win converts, the philosopher must convince us to do the same.

Thus, Voegelin’s analysis shows that knowledge of right order is necessarily intangible, and skepticism of the philosopher’s position is not an exclusively modern phenomenon—Plato and Aristotle regularly recognize that others cannot (or refuse to) understand what they are talking about. The truth of existence is not something that can be demonstrated to someone else like the solution to a problem in mathematics. Aristotle recognizes this in his note on method in Book I.3 of the Nicomachean Ethics. And Plato certainly admits it as he turns to myth-making in order to reinforce his arguments. This becomes a problem when one’s interlocutor demands a proof. Voegelin shows that asking about the reality of the ground of being is a misplaced question. The problem is that between the philosopher and the non-philosopher “the decisive point of the argument – that man is noetically open and therefore able to recognize his ground in the nous—is not itself an argument or the result of an argument but, on the contrary, the starting point that makes the argument possible in the first place.”[50] For Voegelin, the question of the objectivity of the experience of reason is misplaced because it involves the miscategorization of experiences of transcendence as intramundane things. So, to ask whether God exists does not make sense because it involves an equivocation on the meaning of “existence.” Along with this it demands a kind of knowledge or certainty that is constitutionally unavailable.

Thus, Voegelin’s reading of Aristotle is helpful because it illustrates the continuity between the modern turn to the subject and the ancient discovery of philosophy. At their best, both are engaged in the exploration of human participation in non-objective reality. Modern subjectivity runs into trouble only when it divorces the subject from this non-objective context. As Voegelin writes, “If man exists in the metaxy, in the tension ‘between god and man,’ any construction of man as a world-immanent entity will destroy the meaning of existence, because it deprives man of his specific humanity.”[51] “Man, reduced to a being, turns into an existent thing in a world understood only as immanent; and in his relation to the world of being he is no longer a partner, but is reduced to that of a cognizing subject.”[52] This then leads to skepticism because “The symbols developed in its course [the unfolding of noetic consciousness in the psyche of the classic philosophers] are ‘true’ in the sense that they intelligibly articulate the experience of existential unrest in the process of becoming cognitively luminous.”[53] If the existential context is lost, then so is the basis for recognizing truth.

At the same time, Voegelin’s reliance on a philosophy of consciousness highlights the tendency of modern subjectivity to exacerbate the problem of skepticism and thus suggests how it limits the success of his attempt to recover right order in modernity. By employing the language of experience and consciousness, Voegelin constantly reinforces the distinction between subject and object and thus suggests the very divide between knowledge and reality that he is trying to overcome. Voegelin’s own analysis of prudence suggests the problem, as he emphasizes the immediacy or concreteness of Aristotelian prudence. He observes that prudence is not the application of previously discerned universals to particulars as they arise, but “the truth of existence in the reality of action in concrete situations.”[54] As Voegelin further explains, “Aristotle’s insistence on this point elicits the final question whether phronesis can be in fact adequately characterized as knowledge of right action, for this mode of expression interposes between knowledge and action the distance of objectivity that is precisely what Aristotle wanted to eliminate…knowledge is action, and action is the truth of knowledge; what separates the two is not the distance of subject and object but a noetic tension in the movement of being.”[55] Yet Voegelin himself encourages the subject-object approach by operating within a philosophy of consciousness. As Aristotle’s accounts of phronesis and the other virtues show, however truth is developed in practice. Thus, it is not just that experiences are prior to ideas but that existence is prior to consciousness. Thus, while the great insight of Voegelin’s reading of Aristotle is his exploration of the existential core of his philosophy, he obscures it by holding onto the language of experience, which suggests the divide between subject and object, rather than the concrete participation that is existence. Voegelin even seems to recognize that his philosophy is constantly subject to the question of how he knows that his experiences are true.[56] Ultimately his answer is that “one cannot prove reality by a syllogism; one can only point to it and invite the doubter to look.”[57] It is doubtful that Voegelin’s remarks would be reassuring to a skeptical interlocutor.


Voegelin argues that too often “we work casually…with the concept of human nature, whether we consider it constant, as the classics did, or malleable, as the ideologues do, and we forget that the concept was developed, not inductively, but as an expression of love for the divine ground of being – a love that a philosophizing human being experiences concretely as his essence, as his nature.”[58] The virtue of his reading of Aristotle, then, is that he recovers the existential source of the Greek understanding of human nature. Voegelin shows that Aristotle does not develop his ethics and politics on the basis of a third-person or objective account of the nature of the human being, but instead on the basis of his noetic analysis of his own participation in nonobjective, transcendent reality. In this sense, Aristotle’s philosophy marks the beginning of a process of reflection that leads to the modern turn to the subject.

Thus, the problem with Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness, as with the modern turn to the subject in general, is not that it pays attention to the first-person perspective. Rather, it is that it constantly threatens to veer into an objectifying perspective on reality that obscures the unity of existence and reducing the human being to subject cognizing objects. But, as Voegelin shows, this is a problem that Plato and Aristotle faced as well. They struggled to maintain the nonobjective perspective of participation and they recognized the inherent difficulties of communicating it to others. Thus, Voegelin shows that these are not problems that are inherent to the modern turn to the subject, but to the attempt to articulate right order itself.



[1] David Walsh, “Voegelin’s Place in Modern Philosophy,” Modern Age (Winter 2007).

[2] For discussion of Voegelin’s relationship to modern philosophy, see Lee Trepanier and Steven F. McGuire, ed., Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010).

[3] Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 63.

[4] Eric Voegelin, Collected Works, vol. 6: Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, ed. David Walsh (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 160.

[5] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 158.

[6] Aristotle, De Anima, trans. Mark Shiffman (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2011), 49 (412b).

[7] Aristotle, De Anima, 51-52 (413b20).

[8] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 158. Cf. Eric Voegelin, CW, vol. 16: Order and History, vol. 3: Plato and Aristotle, ed. Dante Germino (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000),  386-88.

[9] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 158.

[10] Voegelin, CW, vol. 16, 388.

[11] Voegelin, CW, vol. 16, 418-19

[12] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 174.

[13] Eric Voegelin, CW, vol. 12: Published Essays 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 268. “Obviously, the Aristotelian nous is more than the intellect that becomes active in the sciences of world-immanent objects. The nous as the theiotaton is the region in the soul where man transcends his mere humanity into the divine ground. In the activity of the nous man is concerned about first principle and things divine, and in such activity his soul partakes of the things divine and is engaged in a process of immortalization. In the bios theoretikos we have the intellectualized counterpart to the Platonic vision of the Agathon that, in beholding the Idea, transforms the soul and lets it partake of the order of the Idea.”

[14] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed., trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999), 142 (1166a15).

[15] Aristotle, NE, 165 (1178a).

[16] Aristotle, NE, 164 (1177b25).

[17] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 9994b9 ff., as quoted in Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 170.

[18] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 171.

[19] Voegelin, CW, vol. 12, 45.

[20] Aristotle, De Anima, 55 (415b10).

[21] Eric Voegelin, CW, vol. 28: What is History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings, ed. Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 108.

[22] Voegelin, CW, vol. 28, 108.

[23] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 172-73.

[24] Voegelin, CW, vol. 12, 49.

[25] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 156.

[26] Aristotle, NE, 68-69 (1129b25).

[27] Aristotle, NE, 69 (1130a10).

[28] Aristotle, NE, 78 (1134b30).

[29] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 146.

[30] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 146.

[31] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 147.

[32] Aristotle, NE, 99 (1145a)

[33] Aristotle, NE 98 (1144b)

[34] Aristotle, NE, 89 (1140b5).

[35] Aristotle, NE, 92 (1141b15).

[36] Aristotle, NE, 89 (1140a25).

[37] Voegelin, CW, vol. 16, 413.

[38] Voegelin, CW, vol. 16, 413.

[39] Aristotle, NE, 119 (1155a5).

[40] Aristotle, NE, 120 (1155a).

[41] Aristotle, NE, 123 (1157a20).

[42] Aristotle, NE, 144 (1167a25).

[43] Voegelin, CW, vol. 16, 375.

[44] Voegelin, CW, vol. 12, 265-66.

[45] Aristotle, Politics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998), 97 (1287a25-30).

[46] Aristotle, Politics, 89 (1284a10).

[47] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 351.

[48] Voegelin, CW, vol. 16, 418.

[49] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 151.

[50] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 353.

[51] Voegelin, CW, vol. 12, 280.

[52] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 167.

[53] Voegelin, CW, vol. 12, 287.

[54] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 149.

[55] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 155.

[56] Voegelin, CW, vol. 18: Order and History, vol. V: In Search of Order, ed., Ellis Sandoz (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 40.

[57] Voegelin, CW, vol. 12, 388.

[58] Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, 348.


This article was originally published with the same title in Subjectivity: Ancient and Modern (Lexington Books, 2016).

Steven F. McGuireSteven F. McGuire

Steven F. McGuire

Steven F. McGuire is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Research Fellow at the Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University. He is co-editor, with Lee Trepanier, of Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition (Missouri, 2011) and, with R.J. Snell, Subjectivity: Ancient and Modern (Lexington Books, 2016).

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