The Beyond and Its Parousia

HomeThe Collected Works of Eric VoegelinThe Beyond and Its Parousia
Eric Voegelin

As the title for today’s lecture in the context of “The Meaning of History,” I have chosen “The Beyond and Its Parousia.” You know, of course, where the terms come from: Plato’s Republic(508-509).

“Beyond”–the Greek term is epekeina–is Plato’s general sym­bolism for the divine reality that is, the one beyond all the reality of the gods of the cosmos.

He says this of the divine reality which he covers by the term epekeina, “beyond the others,” that it is present in the reality of the world, including the reality of man. That is the parousia.

And this parousia is present, is formative, in the direction of order and justice. So parousia is the general term for the presence of divine reality in all reality.

Here already, as you see, there are complications with the term reality; because on the one hand there is a divine reality, on the other hand, the divine reality is the reality that is present in all reality. I will come presently to this problem.

This conception of the epekeina and its parousia in reality im­plies that there is something that has to be formed. There seems to be a counterpole to the epekeina that resists formation or requires formation and, if formed, can still resist the formation and deform the formation into some deformed type of entity.

So we have in the process of reality a very complicated series of events filled with the tension of formation, resistance to the formation, resistance to deformation of formation, and so on; so that is why I gave the general title to this essay.

We Must Consider Current Philosophical Problems

But I do not want to indulge in Platonic problems. I want to talk about the problems that occupy us in philosophy today.

This lecture is supposed to be part of a seminar on “The Meaning of History,” so let me talk about the problem of history, and the presence of epekeina in the reality of history, and what the mean­ing of history is.

What is the meaning of history? Of course we cannot talk about the meaning of history.

Today, we are in a situ­ation in which, parallel with the advances in the natural sciences, we have enormous advances in the historical sciences. However, these enormous advances in the historical sciences can some­times be more confusing than enlightening.

There is such a quan­tity of information and so little theoretical penetration of it that we are perhaps more disturbed by the flood of knowledge that we have than illuminated by it. So let me refer to the present state of the question.

“History” Becomes a Topic

The term history, as it is used, for instance, in the title of this seminar, “The Meaning of History,” is not very old. It goes back to the eighteenth century. We have a survey of the problems about its origin in an essay by Reinhart Koselleck, “Die Herausbildung des modernen Geschichtsbegriffs” [“The Development of the Mod­ern Concept of History”].1 There he gives the sources where the “collective singular” (as he calls it) “history” appears for the first time.

That is, up to the eighteenth century histories were always histories of something, but all of a sudden in the eighteenth cen­tury there appears the term history (in German, Geschichte) as a collective singular referring to the whole of history as if it were a something. This peculiar new formulation, “meaning of history,” is the basis of all subsequent thought about the meaning of his­tory. That is the whole matter–the reflective consciousness of history is not older than 250 years.

Now how [do we] deal with it? On the occasion of the appear­ance of that reflective consciousness of history, history as a col­lective singular (of which we don’t yet know what it really means) arose, at the same time [and dealing with the same problems,] as the symbolism of “consciousness.” This “consciousness” has a peculiar structure. Let me briefly explain what the present state of that problem is. (I have dealt with it, for instance, in the essay “Wisdom, and the Magic of the Extreme.”) 2

The Realities of the Internal and the External

It is the problem that we have, on the one hand, [of] the con­sciousness located in our body of things [located] outside our body. We call that something that has the consciousness our “self,” the “subject” of consciousness, and the other, the reality of which we are conscious, an “object.” Graphically, one could draw on the blackboard a subject referring to an object in the external world.

I call this the intentional structure of consciousness, in agreement with Husserl’s use of the term intentional consciousness. [It des­ignates] the subject directed to an object. In this connection, in this language of a subject referring to an object, the object is the reality, Reality #1,3 which we speak of as “reality,” [as] that of which we are conscious.

But then, on the other hand, we have the further problem that the subject is also real. What then is the reality of the subject, what kind of reality does it have? We have to introduce a second concept of reality, which embraces the cognitive act of the intentionalist type as a further reality, one in which the subject-object relation is an event. [Thus], we have the following problem: Here, Reality #1, which is an object of a subject; and over here another reality, which is a subject of which, you might say, the event is [the] predicate–obviously inconsistent terminology.

The Inherent Equivocations of Language

Now my thesis is that this inconsistency on the linguistic level cannot be dissolved. I speak of this structure of reality in con­sciousness, which I have just outlined, [. . . ] as the thing-reality (Reality #1) and the It-reality, the other reality comprising the whole event. (I call this latter an “it” because I became aware of it for the first time in the studies of Karl Kraus on the “it” in language. We have an “it” in ordinary language, to which we sometimes refer, [for instance] when we say, “It rains,”–an event sur­rounded by a reality of which the rain then is a predicate.)

So we have a structure in which “thing-reality” and “It-reality” cannot be separated as entities but are together in the one struc­ture of consciousness, which structure I call the paradox of con­sciousness. This understanding of structure reaches from con­sciousness and reality into language itself and cannot be dissolved in language.

Thus there is no point in getting excited about am­biguities and equivocations of language, because that is the struc­ture of language, which is part of the same reality in which we have consciousness of reality.

The Three Conflicting Levels of Language

But we [think] about all these things. That shows a further structure in consciousness: We can reflectively distance ourselves from the paradox in which we are involved and talk about it–and such talk is called philosophy. I call this structure of conscious­ness reflective distance. All philosophy is conducted in reflective distance within consciousness about consciousness.

We always have three levels of language, which are in conflict with [one another]: the thing-reality language, the It-reality lan­guage, and the reflective distance language. That is of course in flat contradiction to contemporary linguistic conceptions of language as a system of signs referring to things, because the structure of language is, as you see, very complicated and determined by the paradox and the reflective distance to the paradox.

Inadequacy of Language: Being and Becoming

Let me give you some examples of how that works in practice. If you analyze a Platonic dialogue like the Timaeus you will find that Plato speaks of a divine paradigm of reality, created by a demiurge, which is then applied to the world of becoming, the thing-reality. So you have an opposition, an experienced tension between two poles, the one called intelligible being and the other called the becoming, the genesis–that is, being: to-on, and be­coming: genesis.

But then when you analyze the matter in reflec­tive distance as Plato does, when you talk about these things, you must admit that the genesis, which is not being, is, after all, being too. So we have to introduce a further terminology. Both are genes (kinds) of being: Plato calls them ousias eidos, two kinds of being.

So you have here another conflict: the being (that is never genesis) and genesis (that is never real being)–and both are “beings” nevertheless, kinds of being. So he has the further problem: He must somehow get these two kinds of being together in reality, not only in his thought.

The Psyche; The Same and the Other

He therefore introduces a third kind of being, the psyche, which participates in both the being that is never genesis and the becoming, the genesis that is never being and which can, therefore, transfer the order of being into the becoming by its position in between the two (in-between is the en meso).

And that is now a third kind of being. But what is that third kind of being? In Timaeus Plato explains that it is a composite of Being, of the Same, of the Other. There you have again the term being appearing in a further reflective analysis.

I am not giving you these examples in order to show how con­tradictory Plato is in his language but in order to show that the language which is contradictory on a [ . . . ] level oriented to a logic of external things is not applicable to the analysis of the consciousness problems I am talking about here and to the reflec­tive distance of consciousness.

The contradictions are inherent in the language in which we speak at all times. This fact must therefore be realized in our analysis of historical facts, of historical concepts, of questions such as What is history? or What is the meaning of history? and so on.

I don’t want to say more about that thorny problem now, be­cause you will find more of it in the course of the examples that I have to give.

The Collective Singulars: “History,” “Freedom,” and “Revolution”

History is one of those terms of the eighteenth century that arises where an attempt is made to fuse all these various problems of the structure of reality–they all belong together–into one reality that is called history. Since you are internal to that problem of history you can talk about it on a further level, which the German Idealists called speculation. Philosophy of speculation is one of the terms that arises in the eighteenth century.

Koselleck, in the article to which I have referred, brings attention to the fact that you have the same structure of the peculiar concentration of the whole problem of consciousness in other terms that appear at the same time, such as revolution. There were revolutions before, but revolution as a collective singular, which appears today in ideological language, is a new invention of the eighteenth century.

There were “freedoms” before: for instance, freedom from gov­ernment interference, but the term freedom as an absolute about which one could talk–to make a revolution in the name of free­dom–is a new invention of the eighteenth century. [At this time we get] a whole series of concepts that become a part of the daily political language, in which all structures of consciousness are submerged into one type of word, these collective singulars. So that is a new event about which we have to talk.

History Can Have No Meaning

History, in the sense we have just explained, as the merger of all these structures into one term, is a “thing” to be defined. We talk about “the meaning of history” as if it were a thing of which we can say what the meaning is. The meaning of a thing is its nature, which can, perhaps, be formulated in a definition if you know enough about it. But we have a difficulty here, because history is practically all of reality, all of the things that happened in the past, that happen now, and that will happen in the indefinite future.

Now while we do not know very much about the past, in spite of all the things we do know about it, we know nothing at all about the future.

Therefore the thing “history,” which extends into the future, is not an object of which we can speak as a thing at all in the way that we talk of a chair or anything like that.

In a strict sense “history” has, as a famous Jesuit thinker, [Hans Urs von] Balthasar, once explained, no eidos.4 In other words, it has no meaning, for the reason that history is not a thing about which we can know anything at all, because it is not a given, but is absorbed into all the structures that I have detailed here in a fragmentary manner.

So There is No Meaning of History

The problem is not new, of course. Let me give you a parallel problem of antiquity.

You have the problem in Aristotle that he cannot define the form of a polis, of a state, because he tries to define the form of a state by its constitution.

But, unfortunately, Athens, at the time when he wrote, changed its constitutions quite frequently in various revolutions, from democratic to oligarchic and back again, to tyrannies, and so on. Thus, every time the con­stitution, the politeuma, changed there would be a different entity [exercising power], and thus the entity of the polis, Athens, would be lost in the various entities constituted by the sequence of constitutions.

That may sound like an academic exercise, but it is a matter of practical importance even today, because governments that come to power by a revolution are inclined to interpret their form of government as a new entity not responsible for what went on before; and what went on before are the debts incurred by the pre­vious government which the new government now refuses to pay.

Aristotle makes a special remark [to the effect] that the problem is not a consequence of a theory, though he doesn’t know exactly why [it isn’t]. Another practical example might be the problem of a communist government rejecting all the debts of the czarist gov­ernment because the Soviet Union is not identical with anything that went before.

We still have today, as far as I know, negotiations between former owners (mostly French) of czarist bonds and the Soviet government to get at least a partial repayment from that government which operates under the theory that it has a new form of reality and is not responsible for a previous entity with which it is not identical.

From this first exercise in analyzing history as if it were a thing, we arrive at the negative statement, which has to be put flatly: On the level of thing-reality (and there is no doubt about it) “history” has no meaning. It is not a thing that can have a meaning. It is not a given.

However, this first result of analysis is in conflict with the em­pirical fact that everybody talks about the meaning of history as if there were such a thing.

People Persistently Talk About the Meaning of History

So, empirically, where does this problem of meaning come from, about which everybody speaks, although everyone who has ever analyzed the problem knows that there is no meaning of history?

That is a problem which Karl Löwith studied a few decades ago and about which he wrote a volume, Meaning in History,5 distinguishing between the meaning of his­tory, about which, he also agreed, there isn’t any, and meaningful events within history which have to be analyzed regarding their meaning.

The theoretical advance in analysis by Löwith did not get very far, but Löwith has seen the problem: There is meaning in spite of the fact that there is no meaning. Now where does it come from?

Before I go into that–and that will be the last part of the lec­ture–let’s see what one can do on the level of pretending that there is a meaning of history. There are possible solutions, possible answers.

What constructions would permit us to talk about a meaning of history? I will give two types of solution, one indulged in by Marcus Aurelius, and the other, a modern one, culminating in Hegel. Then I shall turn to the Kantian criticism of these con­structions.

The Marcus Aurelius Conception

The Marcus Aurelius conception is contained in his Reflec­tions (Book XI, chapter II).4 There he analyzes the problem that there is an intelligible structure of reality, which he calls the logos. The whole of the universe has a logos, which is intelligible and of which the psyche-logike, the logical soul of man, is a part; its conversion to participation is very similar to the parousia in Plato. So man knows, by his psyche-logike, what the meaning of reality and the order of neighborly love and justice is.

Now, as an emperor, Marcus Aurelius has to deal every day with all sorts of people who apparently are not always inspired by the psyche-logike but by other interests, such as greed, ambition, sta­tus seeking, revolt, and so on.

The question is: To what extent can he realize the intended order of reality in a reality that con­tains resistant forces? That is the job of the emperor, sometimes difficult, sometimes impossible to the point of despair. But then comes the very interesting remark that there is always a way out if it really should become impossible; and that remark, influenced by the preceding analyses of his friend Epictetus, is suicide. We can commit suicide if it becomes impossible to realize the order understood by the psyche-logike in the reality that surrounds us.

History is What a Forty-Year Old Understands

So reality is fundamentally governed by the logos, but for rea­sons unknown to us, it also admits all sorts of things that appar­ently do not fit the logos that is intended. But Marcus Aurelius doesn’t go very far in the analysis of these problems; he just states them. After all, the order of the cosmos is known to us, by walking around in space and time, in memory and expectations; we have a good knowledge of the structure intended in reality.

We also have very good knowledge of our own psyche-logike through self- analysis, self-reflection, through memory, and through the conse­quences of our actions. The net result is that, as he says, a man of forty knows everything that has ever happened and ever will happen, because it is always the same as what happened in the forty years that he has been alive. He knows what the psyche-logike is and what the resistances are to the penetration of the psyche-logike into reality.

So here is a conception of understanding the meaning of history as a constant available in knowledge of the psyche and in the knowledge of the resistance it will encounter within the lifetime of a man of forty. The meaning of history is a commonsense ex­perience of a man of forty. And that is it.

Enforcing Reality with Violence

The suicidal solution reminds me of other possibilities of vio­lent reaction. If the thing doesn’t work you can either enforce the reality, if you are the emperor, or you can force it by violent revo­lution, if you are not an emperor but on the receiving side of the affair.

I want to stress that point because it was a general problem for any emperor. For instance, in Tacitus’s life of his father-in-law Agricola, who was an imperial general, there is the story of his battles against some Germanic tribes he wanted to dislocate but who didn’t like being dislocated.

There are two great speeches, the one of the Roman general, who explains why the will of the Roman empire must prevail, and then the reply of the Germanic chieftain culminating in the sentence, “If we do not have a place in which we can live, we always have a place where we can die.” So again, suicide as the ultimate resistance in a historical situation is fundamental. Obviously, these stories also apply to situations we have today.

So that is [Marcus Aurelius]. That is one solution. We know it anyway through the commonsense experience of a man of forty.

Two Millenia of Accumulated Knowledge

The matter is of course much more complicated. Therefore we turn now to the second solution, as we find it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, parallel with the genesis of the term history as a collective singular.

The problem is that we know in the course of history that we learn a lot from the past.

All of a sudden we have histories of a Roman empire, of a Holy Roman Empire, of a Germanic type, of various national histories, histories of France and of Germany, histories of the Italian city-states, especially since the sixteenth century but beginning in the fifteenth century.

And there is an accumulation of knowledge, which became particularly impres­sive through the development of mathematics and physics in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries; and so we know so much more than was ever known in antiquity.

The common­sense experience, even of an emperor like Marcus Aurelius, is not everything, because a lot has happened since and we know more about the process of history and its reality than was ever known before.

That is the position of Comte and also of Hegel, who explicitly says that while history has a complicated structure, and while it is true that one cannot simply talk about history on the basis of limited knowledge because there is so much [we do not know], enough history [has taken place] by now [for us] to know its na­ture.

Against the former argument, that the future is indefinite and history is not a thing, the idea is [that] due to the accumulated knowledge, it is now enough of a thing, that we can talk about the meaning of history in principle; that is what Comte does and what Hegel does on the same principle–we now know enough about historical events to talk about the nature of history.

La Querelle des anciens et modernes: Sir Francis Bacon

Now before I go into more of the details of this problem let me remind you that, while newly formulated in this manner around 1800, it does not begin then but goes back to a resistance move­ment in the seventeenth century, known as La Querelle des anciens et modernes: The resistance of the contemporaries in the seventeenth century to the authority of a humanistic (in the Re­naissance sense) authoritarianism which held that the authority of ancient authors would be the valid sort of knowledge against everything that would differ from it in the immediate experience of these contemporaries.

The revolt against that attitude of dom­ination by the authority of ancient authors over contemporary experience is formulated by Bacon in the Novum Organum (Apho­rism 84) where he explains that knowledge has been accumulating since antiquity.

You cannot rely on the author–meaning the au­thors of antiquity–as a source of knowledge in the humanistic sense, because that would be to forget that these authors them­selves were once in revolt against the authors that preceded them and about whom we know very little. We wouldn’t know what to do, he goes on, if we did not follow the example of the authors of antiquity who revolted against their “authors of antiquity.”

So the revolt must go on. And if one insists on the authority of authors, then one forgets that Tempus, as Bacon calls it, that “Time” is the auctor auctorum, the author of authors. All are [involved in] the time-process of authoritative pronouncements following each other and of an accumulation of knowledge extending into the present and going beyond the present. So that is the revolt in formulation.

Pascal’s Préface pour le traité du vide

But there are difficulties in this revolt. If you take the parallel formulations of Pascal, for instance, about twenty years later (the Novum Organum was written in 1620), you will find him explain­ing the same problem as Bacon in his Préface pour le traité du vide (1642). (The Treatise on the Void was never written, but the Preface is preserved as a fragment.)

There is this accumulation of knowledge. But then he goes a bit further than Bacon in his sym­bolism and metaphor by saying that as far as this accumulation of knowledge is concerned, the ancients are the young ones, and we are in the “old age” of mankind. We have the experience of that old age now through history, and it is a superior knowledge to that of the inexperienced youthful knowledge peculiar to the so-called ancients.

In this process, you might say, mankind as a whole is like a man gathering experience from youth to age. You think he will know a lot of things he didn’t know when he was a young man.7

In this context Pascal runs into difficulties because he is a good Christian. He must exempt the content of the Scripture from the improvement of knowledge concerning reality. Scripture is an exception. He says we do not know more [now] about the suprarational reality than is given in the Scriptures. In this re­spect there is no accumulation of knowledge. The accumulation of knowledge is confined to the areas of physics, mathematics, and philosophy. He includes philosophy here but exempts Scripture.

There you had, of course, problems contemporary with Pascal, such as the fact that Scripture, in the dogmatic formulations re­sulting from it, was in conflict with certain empirical statements about the time of history and events in history, and so on.

[These issues] still plagued Hegel. Hegel was already under pressure not to talk too much about China, which was very much older than had been assumed, because he would then run into the difficulty of [having to] contradict Bishop Usher’s date of 4004 B.C. for the creation of the world. That was only one hundred and fifty years ago [that one still had to be careful that statements in one’s pub­lished works did not conflict with Scripture].

So that was Pascal’s position in this respect. But it indicates that there is a problem: While there is an increase in knowledge, there also seems to be some inconstancy of knowledge, represented, for instance, by the truth of Scripture [tape indecipherable here]. Pas­cal recognizes that there are areas which do not simply improve but which are constants in reality and the exploration [of reality].

All Things That Are, Have Been, and Will Be

Now, what do we make of this situation? First, an historical comment–which I should have added more appropriately at the end of the Marcus Aurelius remarks.

When Marcus Aurelius said that a man of forty knows everything that has been and is and will be, he takes up a classic formulation that is a line from Homer and Hesiod, where reality is identified as the ta eonta, the being-things that are, that have been, and that will be. That is a classic formulation of reality comprehending everything, including the gods, which has remained a constant through the centuries and, for instance, was still used by Hegel.

And this Whole is obvi­ously something in progress, but also something that has constant [elements], as we have just seen in the exemption extended to Scripture by Pascal.

That [history shows progress and yet there are constants] was also a problem confronting Kant.

Let me talk about the Kantian criticism of the situation. This is the problem of the eighteenth century.

Eighteenth-century thinkers such as Kant and Schiller, his younger contemporary, had a much better un­derstanding of the situation than the next generation and our­selves (we follow the next generation and not Kant and Schiller) because the deformation of thought to which I referred in the “collective singulars” and the misconstructions of the structure of consciousness have by now been established with public effective­ness, [whereas before 1800 they had not yet become so publicly effective] and therefore were more open to discussion.

In his essay of 1784, “Ideen zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht” [“Ideas Concerning Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Standpoint”], Kant makes the following re­marks.

History is conceived as progress toward a rational order–not very different in principle from the conception of Marcus Aurelius, only in the meantime, the understanding has grown that the meaning of rational order is better understood today than it was two thousand years ago, and there is an accumulation of knowledge concerning [the nature of] rational order.

This rational order of Enlightenment is to be achieved in time, either right away through a revolution or in the not-too-distant future through non­revolutionary action that would change the structure of society and introduce an “Order of Reason.”

What has entered here is that revolt against antiquity that we saw on the occasion of Bacon and Pascal: There is an accumulation of knowledge, and we now have a lot of knowledge about history.

The Immorality of the Idea of Progress

What then is the meaning of all those people in the past who for thousands of years contributed to our understanding of knowledge (up to the point where we can now make a revolution in the name of reason) but who themselves will never profit from the revolution and the order we are about to establish?

This idea, concentrated in the symbolism of previous ages making contributions to the present, which is part of the idea of “Progress,” is now exposed by Kant in its immorality.

Suppos­edly everybody has to make a contribution to a “State of Rea­son” to be established by certain middle-class intellectuals around 1800 . . . and all [previous] history is nothing but a contribution to this noble [end]. He immediately recognized in [this notion] the problem that these speculators want to make an end of this order–the permanent struggle of the parousia in the formation of reality through the Beyond–by getting a final formation of which they themselves are the carriers.

Hegel Becomes the Logos of God

He saw the libidinous problem in such a construction: I myself am the fulfiller of history–as you find, for instance, formulated in the Introduction to the [Science of ] Logic of Hegel where he says: “This Logic contains the Reason of God, the process of divine dialectic, unveiled in perfection.” Hegel is now the Logos of God, no longer Christ, who was only a forerunner who didn’t know all about the Logos yet. The Logic of Hegel replaces the Gospel of John as the information about what the Logos of real divinity is.

Kant exposed this libidinous excess, which had already become visible in general literature at the time when he wrote, as the attempt to become immortal in time, which leaves out the fact that after all man has to die and that the perfection of life is in death, not in life itself (the problem that worried Pascal when he exempted Scripture from the “advances”).

If you dissolve all talk about reality into a mere contribution and accumulation of knowledge [in time], you suppress [the notion] of the perfection [that is found] in the transition from life to death; you never get beyond the existential reality that all men who are alive have to die. In this respect, we are still with Heraclitus in the oracular formulation:

Immortals mortals

mortals immortals

live the others’ death

the others’ life die.

This problem of Life and Death is a constant that cannot be [dis­missed by claiming] that the perfect life has now arrived within this world.

That insight casts a very interesting light on the vari­ous problems in the meaning of history.

If you identify the mean­ing of history with the Hegelian-Comtean sense [of the term] (crit­icized by Kant before it was even formulated) it means: When you expand your life to the point where it includes a fruition of reality that is only due after death, then you have killed your life. Your life is dead, if you assume that the eternal life can be [achieved] in this life, which ends in death.

The “Meaning of History,” there­fore, reformulated in such terms, means the death of history. If everybody believes that perfection has come, history has come to its end and is dead. The search for the meaning of history under the category of an entity that has a meaning, [which] can be and is discovered actively in the present in order to realize the perfect order, means the death of man and society.

The life in tension is lost if the tension is abolished by the belief that the meaning of history is “now.”

That is a very important point, because when you get into the varieties of historical con­structions realizing one or the other variety of the perfect under­standing of history, every one of them has to fight every other [one] to the death because there can be only one true reality. If you have half a dozen “true realities,” of which every one has to be realized at all costs, obviously they all have to kill each other.

The Tolerance Found in Antiquity

This is a very different situation from that of antiquity, where polytheism was tolerant in the sense that the gods of the other nations were recognized as parts in the parousia of divine reality and therefore as [constituting] a difference that did not exclude each nation from humanity. One could be stronger than the others, but in principle they were all on the same level, while today the same level on principle is excluded by the assumption of the perfect knowledge of a meaning of history in the constructivist sense.

Now, how do we get out of that misery? We get out of that misery again through history. We have an enormous knowledge of history today, and we know how meanings in history emerge. I have given you just one example, that of the “meaning of his­tory” of the eighteenth century which is now running itself into its death. But we can state empirically a number of cases where history emerges in definite forms.

Spiritual Movements, Imperialism, and Historiography: The David Memoir

One such definite form discernible in the material is the config­uration of spiritual movements, imperial expansion, and historio­graphy–not one or the other but only as a configuration of the three.

We have the following cases.

When you have the Mosaic spiritual outburst, the spiritual movement, reaching into the Solomonic-Davidic empires, and then the conflict between the necessities of an empire construc­tion (with violence and so on) and the idea of an order under God, you get for the first time a historiographic work describing the genesis of empire and its problems, the David Memoir [2 Samuel 9:20-1, Kings 1-2]. It is the earliest historiographic tract.

The David Memoir is the first historiographic work in which the conflict between a spiritual insight preceding the imperial ex­pansion, and the details and necessities of an imperial expansion are the reason why the facts in history become interesting. The conflict between spiritual order and imperial expansive move­ments is the subject matter that requires detailed description. The conflict, the tension, is the problem.

The Ch’in Dynasty, Taoism, and Confucius

And of such cases, now, we have three: the one here in the David Memoir; another one later, in China, after the establishment of the Ch’in dynasty in the historiography of Ssu-ma Ch’ien (145–86 b.c.) and his father Ssu-ma T’an, where you get first, spiri­tual movements like Taoism and Confucianism, then the impe­rial expansion, and then the conflict between the spiritual order of the Confucian type–the imperial details of the expansion in the middle Chou monarchy and preceding it, and then the result: a description of these events and the conflict between spiritual order and imperial expansion and the possibility of getting a har­monious end to it.

The Greeks and Persians and Thucydides’ History

Then the third case: the origin of Greek history. Here you have again, first, spiritual movements that give you the criteria of or­der, like the Ionian and the Italian-Greek philosophy, then the expansion of the Persian empire, of which in this case Hellas is the victim, and then the historiography of the Persian War and its area in Asia and Europe, and the prehistory of the Persian War.

Thus, again, there is the conflict between the spiritual movements (the criterion for description) and the imperial expansion, as the disorder that has to be overcome. (The disorder in the Athenian-Spartan case is formulated by Thucydides, two generations after Herodotus, as the kinesis, a feverish movement of disorder in a society.)

Constants in History: Herodotus

That is the subject matter. We have three cases of this configu­ration of spiritual criteria, imperial expansion, and the genesis of historiography as a description of the conflict in action.

Such constants in history can be discerned.

We see where inter­esting historiography begins: in the conflict, the tension. That re­quires, then, new language, which appears, though exactly where is not always discernible.

Let me take the case of Herodotus. Herodotus speaks of the ecumene as the problem that is the sub­ject matter of historiography. The ecumene is a new word. It ap­pears in the fifth century. But where does it come from?

In the descriptions of Herodotus it looks as if the foreign office of the Persian empire had a political theory, that Persian rule had to be established over the ecumene, over all known mankind. There must have been such a Persian term meaning ecumene [translated by Herodotus with that word. In any case, the term] appears here for the first time as resistance to the foreign policy of an imperial expansion.

Herodotus is very sensitive to the meaning of imperial expan­sion: the beginning of the Persian empire, which is in back of the imperial expansion. He discerns, for instance, a Persian chieftain who wants to resist the expansion of his followers: He does not want them to make attacks on neighbors that would expand then to the Medean and Babylonian empires, because, as he explains it to them, if you engage in an aggression and the aggression is successful you cease to be the community you were and become a new community of rulers over somebody else who has nothing to do with you.

Concupiscential Expansion and Exodus

The concupiscential expansion, as I call this phenomenon of aggression and of desire for rulership, is very well discerned by Herodotus as an Exodus from an existing order, not as the creation of a very questionable new order. Can a new order be created? Certainly an old order is destroyed if a limited tribe becomes the ruling group of an extended area with foreign populations.

Together, the Concupiscential Exodus in this sense, and the Spiritual Exodus that is dissatisfied with the disorder created by empire, produce the peculiar “Exodus from the Cosmos” that then requires the tension in the Alexandrian and the Roman empires.

And later on, these are the motive forces in the existential ex­periences that tend to reestablish some sort of order while being prevented in the establishment of that order by expansions which create new social structures which, in turn, destroy old structures and leave people alienated in their [new] situation.

If a leader is found, these alienated populations can then be the carriers of rev­olutionary movements directed against the established imperial situations, and so on.

The Series of Imperial Expansions

So in history (again as a result of empirical observation) we have to distinguish a sequence of such imperial tensions caused by imperial expansion.

There are: first, the old cosmological empires, which lead to constructions such as the Sumerian King List, very similar in its structure to the Hegelian speculation on history as I have described it. The cosmological empire is the source of one type of historical construction, characterized especially by the falsification of historical facts in order to create one-line history. The creation of a one-line history is a phenomenon in history that begins as early as the third millennium B.C.

Then you have a second level of empires, beyond the cosmo­logical empires, when the ecumene (the conflict with Persia in Herodotus) comes into action, to cover the whole known world of man under one empire.

The Ecumenic Empires: From Persian to the Nationalist Imperialists

I call this level the ecumenic empires which, when established in the form of a Persian empire, a Roman empire, and so on, lead to this type of establishment becoming a model that can be followed, as, for instance, in the Byzantine empire and in the Islamic empire, which gives you a further level, which I call the Orthodox empires. The Orthodox empires include the Eastern Byzantine, the Islamic, and the Western Holy Roman empires.

Then, since there is an emperor and a lot of people supposedly in submission to him, the subject peoples have the idea that they could be emperors too. You find, therefore, at least as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the West, the conception of the king in any peripheral community in that Western empire is an imperator in regno suo, the emperor in his own realm.

This is the beginning of the national imperialism that culminates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the establishment of a new French empire, a new Austrian empire, a new empire of England, and so on, until you get to other sub-emperors in other areas of reality. (I believe there is now even an emperor in one of the minor states of Africa.) These national empires and emperors are the result of the conversion of an ecumenic imperialism into an ecumenism for national aspirations.

The Hegelian Perversion of Plato

Finally, we must note the disorders created by the ideological empires, especially of the Marxist type.

Thus, a series of such concupiscential expansions, always in conflict with a better understanding of spiritual and rational order, is the tension that keeps going on and on in history up to the present, and we see no end in sight, unless you say: that is the meaning of history, this tension between spiritual movements and concupiscential ones. [The last sentence is a conjecture made from clues on an unclear portion of the tape.]

But there is still a constant everywhere. And the constant–we have now come to the end–is the tension itself, formulated by the Platonic epekeina and its parousia. In the Republic, in the Parable of the Cave, the prisoner in the cave is forced to turn around, apparently by some resistance movement in his soul, toward the light that comes from the top of the cave. Then come the well- known steps until he advances to the light and sees what the problem is.

Now, this particular metaphor, this parable, is still found in Hegel. From Plato to Hegel a constant runs through the history of ideas. In Hegel it again appears in the Introduction to the Logic, where he explains that the Logic is directed against the meta­physical and ontological deformations of philosophy character­istic of the eighteenth century and attempts to recover the true order of history in opposition to the various ideological cover-ups and distortions.

So, he is still the Prisoner in the Cave of the opinions of his time that he considers to be insufficient. He is anti-metaphysical, he is anti-ontological, he is anti-philosophical and, in the Phenomenology of the Spirit, he wants to create a new type of speculation with a new type of solution. But how does one do that?

Here the Platonic periagoge again enters as the metaphor; the Prisoner in the Cave of contemporary metaphysics, ontology, and theosophy, who wants to overcome it by his new type of Logic, must engage again in the periagoge; Hegel uses the same name, periagoge, “Umkehrung.”

One has to turn around, turn away from the assumption that current talk is talk about Reality in sense #1 (here–on the blackboard [i.e., thing-reality]). One has to be aware of the Umkehrung into the Reality #2 [i.e., It-reality].

What he tries to do is to find a new language, which he calls Dialectic, to express the Umkehrung in the sense that Reality comprises both Reality #1 and Reality #2.

Of course he can’t find that new language because one cannot simply invent a new language against the language that we have, but he has the program of inventing a new language, and the program is an indication that he has seen the problem that I discussed earlier in the difficulties of Plato in finding the three levels of language corresponding to the three levels in conscious explanation.

Thus, in the end, we come back for the “meaning of history,” to the tensions, of which we do not know why they exist at all.

In a purely doctrinal theological construction we will always be faced with the problem: Why did God create the world which is in such disorder that one has then to be saved from its disorder?

That [problem] cannot be solved simply on the doctrinal level. One has to go back to the experiential problem.

That problem Plato considers a mystery. He raises it in the Laws, where he asks the question, Is man a plaything of the gods or is this tension there for some ulterior, important purpose?

And his answer as a philosopher is, “We just don’t know.”



This is a transcript of a recorded lecture given at the conference, “Meaning of History,” at the University of Santa Clara, Santa Clara, California, October 15, 1982. Uncertain words are shown in brackets.

1. [Otto Brunner, ed., Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1975).]

2. [Eric Voegelin, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme” (1977), in Voegelin, Published Essays, 1966-198 5, ed. with intro, by Ellis Sandoz (Columbia: Uni­versity of Missouri Press, 1990), 315-76, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin.]

3. [Here, and elsewhere in the text, Voegelin is obviously pointing to a diagram that he has drawn on a chalk board.]

4. [Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theologie der Geschichte (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1950).]

5. [Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949).]

6. [The usual English title is Meditations.]

7. [Voegelin’s marginal notes signified his intention to include the following passage as a footnote]:

The one-man conception of mankind emerges here. Please be aware of that problem, the one-man conception of mankind, because that is a contributing factor in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in talking about mankind at all in spite of the fact that empirically such a thing as mankind does not exist. There is no such thing . . . not in any given time, achieved through “history.”

You would have to go back from mankind into the biological evolution preceding mankind, and to the material evolution preceding the biological. There you have a concept of history now actually at work in science. We have a “history” of matter, a “history” of life, a “history” of man, and so on, in succession, and there is no “mankind,” but history becomes something entirely different: a name for the process of reality in time, which is not at its end but goes on still.


This excerpt is from The Drama of Humanity and Miscellaneous Papers: 1939-1985 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 33). Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004, pp. 396-414.

Eric Voegelin

Written by

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 can be found at