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The Comparative Politics of Eric Voegelin

The Comparative Politics Of Eric Voegelin

These three essays–“Democracy in the New Europe” (1959), “Industrial Society in Search for Reason” (1960), and “Democracy and Industrial Society” (1964)–were written in a period of transition in Eric Voegelin’s career, having left Louisiana State University in the United States to Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany.[1] Already having published his best-known works–The New Science of Politics (1952) and Order and History Volumes 1-3 (1956-57)–Voegelin was working on his mature theory of consciousness, later to be published as Anamnesis (1966), and his revised account of history, which would be published in Order and History Volume 4 (1974).[2] But during this period he also was preoccupied with pragmatic subjects, too. Relocated to Germany, at the heart of the European Cold War theater, Voegelin was concerned whether Germany could transition from an illiberal and ideological society to a liberal democratic one: could Germany transform itself to a democratic society with an industrial economy amidst the ruins of World War II with its fragmented political culture and illiberal political institutions?[3]

In Autobiographical Reflections, Voegelin remarked that “The motivations of my work, which culminates in a philosophy of history, are simple. They arise from the political situation” (CW 34, 118). The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, the unsteady recovery of Europe as liberal democracies, and the deficiencies in the social sciences to analyze contemporary events was the political context–and motivation–for Voegelin to write these essays.[4] Clear thinking was required to understand these events.

Voegelin acknowledged that one of the motivations in accepting his appointment at Ludwig Maximilian University, and establishing a political science institute there, was his conviction that “the spirit of American democracy would be a good thing to have in Germany” (CW 34, 115-16).[5] The damage done by National Socialism on the German university had been enormous: the best professors were either murdered or had fled while the middling ones survived and remained, now determining “the general climate of the German universities, and that climate is mediocre and limited” (CW 34, 116).[6] Ideology, particularly Marxism, was the predominant climate of opinion and prevented social scientists from pursuing their studies without inference. The authority of great German scholars had disappeared with the scholars themselves.

Voegelin hoped that he and his political institute, Institut für Politische Wissenschaft, would inject “an element of international consciousness, and of democratic attitudes, into German political science” (CW 34, 116). German students were not accustomed to be as independently-minded as Americans who spoke freely and asked questions. Although Voegelin later admitted that he was not as successful in changing German political science, he did influence those students whom he personally trained to adopt American and democratic attitudes towards political science and politics.[7]

Voegelin’s work during this period therefore reflects a more pragmatic direction in both his teaching and research. In his essays, “Industrial Society in Search for Reason” and “Democracy and Industrial Society,” Voegelin examined why industrial society functioned better in America than in Germany and whether the American model could be exported to Europe, while in “Democracy in the New Europe,” Voegelin explored whether Europe could be a continental power like the United States and the Soviet Union. In these essays Voegelin was concerned with the political science problem of size, political culture, and economics: whether democracy and industrial society could exist in mass society other than in the United States.

This chapter consequently will review Voegelin’s claims made in these three essays, draw out the critical concepts relevant to comparative political science, and determine what Voegelin’s model of politics can teach comparative political scientists today. Well-established is Voegelin’s contribution to political theory and philosophy, but very little work has been done with respect to his perspective on practical politics side of his political science.[8] This chapter therefore pushes Voegelinian studies into a new and more pragmatic direction in the study of political science and, like Voeglein, hopes to help political scientists to think more clearly about political science and contemporary political events.

Democracy in the New Europe

At the inauguration of the Bavarian Academy for Political Education, a bipartisan and publicly supported institution for scholarship and teaching in civic education in Munich, Voegelin delivered his lecture which was later published as “Democracy in the New Europe.” In this essay Voegelin raised the question how freedom and democracy could be preserved after the adoption of a liberal democratic constitution. Citizens must possess a character that “is a state of daily, well-exercised, and habitual vigilance and discipline in the fundamental questions of political life” (CW 11, 59). In other words, democracy can exist only “when civic virtue exists” (CW 11, 60). Unlike ideology, civic virtue was the proper social basis for all political action and required a “sound knowledge of the principles of social coexistence among free men in a free society” (Ibid.).

For Voeglein, these principles of social coexistence were not discovered in contemporary political science but in the Judeo-Christian and democratic traditions of the West. In tracing the genealogy of the phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” Voegelin showed how these remarks in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were from the prologue of John Wycliffe’s 1384 Bible translation: “This Bible is for the Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It was neither cultural maturity nor ethnic citizenship that determined whether a people could govern themselves but one “that experienced its birth under God” and, if needed, necessitated a rebirth to be able to govern (CW 11, 61). According to Voegelin, the English reformers of the fourteenth to the eighteen centuries achieved democratization when they modeled their national society after the Christian community.[9]

However, this attempt to transform the Christian community into a national one erased the distinction between spiritual and secular authority. The reformers, for example, were inspired by the theopolity of Israel and sough to make Mosaic law the civic law of England instead of common law. This conflict between the reformers and the establishment led to emigrations, civil war, and the persecutions of the seventeenth century. From these struggles emerged the idea of civil government: a national community of Christians who should not make:

“. . . ecclesiastical-organizational and dogmatic differences the object of political struggles and that there would be a specific civil sphere of life to which political authority is limited by its legal organization. It is such civil government that we call democracy” (CW 11, 62).

But what were the functions and conditions of this civil government? For Voegelin, the function of the civil government was to protect the life, freedom, and property of its citizens by civil and criminal law and protection of society against external enemies. Civil government was to refrain from the “life-spheres of reason and of spirit”: the freedom of thought and discussion (“the life-sphere of reason”) and the freedom of belief and consciousness (“the life-sphere of the spirit”). But this separation of the political (civil government) and nonpolitical (reason and the spirit) was possible only if citizens did not tolerate any group that sought to take advantage of the authority of the state to impose their ideas and belief upon their fellow citizens. Democracy therefore was only tolerant to “those who are willing to submit to the conditions of civil government” (CW 11, 62).

To those whom democracy should be intolerant depended upon historical circumstances for Voegelin: Catholics and Puritans in seventeenth-century England; National Socialists and Communist in twentieth-century Germany. Voeglein spoke approvingly of the American electoral college and the de Gaulle constitution where anti-democratic parties were minimalized because these election laws served to strengthen and stabilize democracies rather than disrupt them, as were the cases in Weimar Germany and the First Austrian Republic Voegelin faulted the democratic parties of the 1920s for their lack of knowledge and resoluteness in allowing anti-democratic parties on the left and the right to participate in Germany and Austria. For Voegelin, it would have been better for these democratic parties to engage in a civil war with their anti-democratic foes rather than have National Socialism triumph and trigger World War II (CW 11, 63-64).

The idea of civil government in theory and constitutional practice was created in England and America and, during the nineteenth century, became the model for continental European countries to emulate.[10] The challenge during Voegelin’s time was “activating democracy for the organization of Europe” (CW 11, 65). The “federative joining” of the European states system had become a necessity because “the scale of societies necessary for an independent, free existence has changed significantly” (Ibid.). Although democracy developed within the nation state, it must adapt to a new form, as “the time for the Western nation states has run out” (Ibid.). For Voegelin, civil government was the only possible way forward for a federative Europe, as the past imperial attempts of Napoleon and Hitler had failed. With the backing of American military and economic power, Europe has a chance to establish a federative Europe as civil government, an opportunity that may not come again (CW 11, 66).[11]

The transformation of the agrarian order to industrial society raised this problem of size for civil government: the optimal utilization of industrial technology required a society a certain size of territory and population.[12] As Voegelin put it, “A modern economic constitution necessitates the size of the American or Russian society. A European society would also belong to this scale” (CW 11, 67). European states were too small to develop the “state of technological development” to match the power of the Soviet Union or the United States.[13]

Although this was a harsh reality that Europeans must confront, it also potentially has a positive prospect for democracy. For a civil government to be a permanent and stable government, it must have free and independent people, which included an economic basis that allowed sufficient freedom of movement, thought, and education to participate in democratic life. Contrary to Marx’s predictions of class warfare, the United States had experienced material security for all its citizens first through social welfare legislation and later through labor productivity through technological development. This standard of living was so high and secured that class warfare faded away as a political possibility (CW 11, 67-68).[14]

What had transpired in America was possible in Europe if Europeans were willing to adapt to the conditions of a large-scale industrial society, including the closing of unproductive sectors of the economy for more productive ones and allowing unemployment that would accompany it (CW 11, 69). Critical for this project to succeed was that Europeans themselves must be educated in economic skills of mobility and adaptability as well as in democracy. Civic education therefore was to teach the younger generation not only democratic ideas of limited government but also the economic skills needed for a unified European market and state to succeed.

Industrial Society in Search for Reason

But what did Voegelin mean by “industrial society”? One possible answer can be found in his 1960 essay, “Industrial Society in Search of Reason,” where Voegelin wrote about the pragmatic rationality derived from industrial technology. These features were 1) the worker was separated from his tools by technology; 2) the worker no longer produced anything by him- or herself or in small groups; 3) the socialization of work was organized around a complex of raw material and technologies because production transpired at a large scale; with 4) the result was an increasingly interdependence of member of society; where 5) everyone was dependent on the smooth functioning of organization; and 6) the “assurance of an annual increase in productivity as soon as the organization has attained the sector of technical research” (CW 11, 178). These features of industrial society determined the optimum size of society, with the United States and the Soviet Union fulfilling these requirements and European states being too small. Repeating what he had said in his earlier essay, Voegelin warned that if these European states wish to survive as a matter of “power politics,” they need to form a federative union to compete with America and the Soviet Union.

Because of the pragmatic rationality of industrial society, the legitimacy of ideology had become diminished because there was a basic agreement on questions of social organization. However, there were still questions to be addressed regarding the organization of mass society: 1) who should own the instruments of production; 2) whether planning should be carried out by private companies or the government; and 3) the role of economic class status in society. In addressing these questions, Voegelin compared the Soviet Union with the West as two possible models. The Soviet model was the creation of an industrial society to compete with the West with the state owning the instruments of production and planning accordingly. With its immanentist eschatological ideology, the Communist Party did not represent the proletariat but was really a sectarian community that imposed its despotic rule on people. The question for the Soviet Union was how long would its irrational ideology be able to resist the growing pressures of pragmatic rationality as it developed its economy (CW 11, 179-80).[15]

By contrast, the West had favored a mixture of private and public ownership of the instruments of production and planning the economy with citizens supported by a welfare state and labor productivity.[16] However, the problem that confronted the West was similar to the Soviet Union in providing a civil theology for its citizens. Throughout its history, the West had adopted several different models–the Gelasian system, the minimum dogma, the state cult, and civil government–before settling on constitutional democracy where the constitution had become an article of faith in society (CW 11, 182-83). If this condition were fulfilled, society could become pluralistic with various intellectual and spiritual movements coexisting without subverting the constitutional order.[17]

Voegelin’s assumptions here were that humans can participate in the life of reason (logos or transcendent nous); that this participation influenced their characters; and that the life of reason was potentially available to all but “empirically (for whatever reason) they are unequal in the actualization of their potentiality” (CW 11, 180).[18] Thus, only a few humans were capable of an optimum actualization in the life of reason, with the result that society was a de facto hierarchical structure in terms of actualizing this life. Society consequently was defined by the degree to which the life of reason was “actively carried out by a minority of its members” and was a socially effective force throughout society (CW 11, 181).

Although all societies were elite-driven for Voegelin, he preferred constitutional democracy over the Soviet model as emblematic of the “good society.” The “good society” was 1) “large enough and wealthy enough to make the life of reason possible, at least for the minority capable of putting this human potentiality to work”; and 2) “organized in such a way that the life of reason becomes a social force in a society’s culture, including its political affairs” (CW 11, 183). However, the good society was not an eschatological goal but an achievement that was subject to decline and fall. It was incompatible with the utopian visions of modern ideologues.

In discussing the “good society,” Voegelin also revisited the problem of size with classical thinkers preferring a small community and moderns a large one. But with technology, industrial society became possible, along with the developments of representative government, federalism, and–due to Christianity–civil society: “the meaning of human existence is no longer circumscribed by its expression in political life” (CW 11, 184). Furthermore, the universal acceptance of a certain material standard of living, only possible in a mass industrial society, continued to make the problem of size a relevant one, whether organizing one’s own society or how societies interact with one another at the international level.

Connected with the issue of size was the problem of viability where a society must have absorbed and preserved the classical and Christian traditions in both theory and practice to become a functioning constitutional democracy.[19] For Voegelin, one must take into account the historical and contemporary dynamics to see whether a society should adopt constitutional democracy or “some form of enlightened despotism, autocracy, or military dictatorship” (CW 11, 187). Thus, the suitability of constitutional democracy was determined by the historical and cultural components of a society.

This raised a series of questions that Voegelin asked about the relationship between western and non-western civilizations: Was the impact of the West on non-western civilization positive and progressive or one of suffering and disaster? Was rapid industrialization copied from the West always the best way to achieve the “good society”? Should non-western civilizations develop their own indigenous institutions to compete with the West? Although Voegelin left these questions unanswered, he clearly believed that certain historical and cultural requirements were necessary before a society could become a western-style constitutional democracy.

Besides the problems of size and viability, Voegelin wrote about the life of reason as a third component for the “good society.” Voegelin began his discussion of the life of reason by dividing it into pragmatic and noetic: the former was concerned with the rational actions in the sciences of the external world, such as technology and coordinating means and ends; the latter was the rational action “in the sciences of man, society, and history” that provided existential meaning for both the individual and society as a whole (CW 11, 188). The two types of rational action were relatively independent of each other, so that a society could be pragmatically rational but noetically irrational.[20]

For Voegelin rational noetic debate was difficult at the international level, especially among different civilizations. First, in some civilizations, like India and China, the life of reason was still part of cosmological myth, whereas in the West the life of reason had become extricated from myth. Even if there were leaders capable of carrying on a rational discussion in the western sense of the term, the masses still believed in the world of myth. This in turn raised pragmatic difficulties, such as persuading a population who still live in the world of myth of rational ways of organization and administration (e.g., habits of diets should be modified, the caste system should be eliminated) (CW 11, 188-89).[21]

Second, the West had developed ideologies that denied participation in the life of the transcendent reason. The result was that rational discussion was impossible whether with ideologues in the West, Communists in the Soviet Union, or non-European university students who have been indoctrinated in a “strange cocktail of Rousseau-Marx-John Dewey” (CW 11, 189). Ideologues may not be able to destroy the life of noetic reason but the damage inflicted was serious and would take at least a generation for noetic reason to become visible and persuasive again. But even if this were possible, Voegelin warned that the dissemination of such knowledge on a massive scale, whether by the media or academic organizations, to non-western civilizations “may do more harm than good” (CW 11, 190). Unlike the ideologue, the person with noetic reason possessed a humility about what one would say and do and what effect it may have in society. For Voegelin, one may know the life of reason and the good society–and try to cultivate them–but “that is all one can do; whether or not this offer is accepted depends on the Spirit that blows where It pleases” (Ibid.).

As all societies began to transform themselves under the pragmatic reason of industrial society, the question was whether they, as in the West, would rediscover the life of noetic reason in an age of ideology; or, in the Soviet Union case, continue to have an irrational ideology counter the rationality of industrialization; or, finally with non-western societies, see whether the rationality of industrialization was compatible with the world of myth among the many and western-ideological thinking in the elites.

Democracy and Industrial Society

In Voegelin’s next essay about industrial society, he explored how the American economy had adapted to ever-changing economic circumstances, with its technological productivity and rationalization of forms of production now being led by the service sector. The structure of American industrial society had been so transformed by the service sector such that marco-economic comparisons between the United States and the Soviet Union were defective (e.g., GNP, steel production) because these indices “express qualitatively diverse structures of economy and society” (CW 11, 209). The structure of the economy, the basis of wealth, and the agents of productivity were so different between the United States and the Soviet Union that such comparisons were not only incompatible but meaningless.[22]

The transformation of the American economy to a service sector one was led by the entrepreneur who now has secured a place in society along with the old-style capitalist, the manager, the labor leader, the politician, intellectual leader, and the “wealthy person” whose inherited wealth allowed him or her to engage in political and social activity. These members were part of a web of mutual dependencies, creating new centers of initiatives in the economy, and were responsible for the functioning of it. In other words, for Voegelin the entrepreneurial function of the economy–those who seize social initiative in any form in the economy, whether labor leader, intellectual, politician, etc.–was the responsibility of all in the economy.[23]

With a large portion of the population understanding how industrial society functioned, the social image of the industrial entrepreneur as villain and the laborer as hero had become obsolete in the United States. Instead of class warfare between industrial labor and employers, the social image was one of all parties attempting to find an objectively reasonable organization and politics for industrial society. The interdependence of industrial society no longer made the social image of the industrial entrepreneur “alone in opposition to labor, as in the old-style disputes, but can sometimes find surprising support in a public opinion” (CW 11, 213).

An interdependent industrial society can only function as a democratic society when the various economic parties were not willing to demonize the others. But if the “psychology of demonization” were socially dominant, industrial society would be unstable to function as a democracy (CW 11, 213). Since industrial methods of production cannot be jettisoned, there would “the danger of a dictatorship of the right or the left” emerging in society (Ibid.). The government consequently has an explicit entrepreneurial function in maintaining “the rationality of economic processes for the common interest, by organizing and financing the needed adaptations and retraining programs” and should not exclude in concrete cases “large enterprises, entrepreneurial associations, and unions” from participating in this entrepreneurial function (CW 11, 215).

Still, an understanding “of the diffusion of the entrepreneurial achievement in a fully developed industrial society is still lacking” (CW 11, 211). It is not clear how productivity in one industry affected other parts of the economy, whether in creating capital, raising labor wages, or public policy.[24] It was also the case that the various economic parties–the politicians, the labor leaders, the industrial entrepreneurs, the financiers, the press–can fail to maintain the rationality of economic process for the common interests. Voegelin illustrated this point in the American steel case example: the union politics of wages were formulated in the old clichés of class warfare, entrepreneurs made tactical mistakes in dealing with labor, the government’s actions created bad publicity, the press caused panic in its reports, and the stock market plunged in value. It was only after the stock market crash did the various parties met in the spirit of reconciliation to solve the issue (CW 11, 215).

In spite of these problems, the United States industrial society still functioned better than Germany because Americans have a better “clarity of awareness” where it was more widespread and socially effective in their society (CW 11, 216).[25] To understand “clarity of awareness,” Voegelin argued that one first must know how society’s economic order fitted within society’s spiritual order. This in turn required one to go back to the beginning sources of order in the West. For Voegelin, power, reason, and revelation from the time of Justinian were the sources of western order where the ruler had to defend society, administer the philosophical-rational order of law, and defend the revealed truth (CW 11, 217).

The great disturbances to this order emerged in modernity as four “anti-complexes.” The first was the Reformation’s anti-philosophical complex directed against the intellectual armature of Catholic theology and now manifested in the ideologies of progressivism, positivism, and Marxism (CW 11, 217-18). The second was the result of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ war of religions: the anti-church complex with the demand that church and state should be separated, with the church’s role in addressing intellectual and social problems of the age prohibited. This in turn contributed to the third disturbance, the anti-Christian complex, as well as the anti-philosophical complex (CW 11, 218). The fourth complex was the anti-world complex that was peculiar to Germany with its Pietist’s withdrawal from the world so as not to be corrupted by it (CW 11, 218-19). Common to these anti-complexes was a lack of responsibility “to the duty to shape a life in this world”; for Voegelin, the “responsible living in the world, work is inescapable” (CW 11, 219).[26]

Voegelin especially criticized the Germany university system as created by Wilhelm von Humboldt as emblematic of this attitude of irresponsibly withdrawing from the world (CW 11, 219). The public spiritual and intellectual vacuum left by those who have withdrawn from it allowed ideologies like National Socialism to take its place.[27] By contrast, in the Anglo-American order the classical and Christian traditions were more deeply ingrained in their institutions when compared to Germany, thereby making them more resistance (but not immune) to anti-complexes and ideologies.[28] The consequence was there was a “more lucid public awareness of the conditions under which an industrial society can work in a democratic form can be brought about through rational discussion” (CW 11, 221). Thus, for an industrial society to function, it required a robust and substantive spiritual order that injected itself into the public.

If cooperation was rejected in democratic society, then serious disturbances would occur in the economy which ultimately may lead to surrender of the economy to one entrepreneur (e.g., Communist Party, a fascist dictator). Instead of having many parties acting as entrepreneurs, society would be reorganized to one party controlling the entrepreneurial function of the entire economy. The awareness of this danger in the public in American society “is a living pathos of responsibility for the achievement of the experiment of a democratic, industrial society” (CW 11, 222). An industrial society can only function if all its members “understand how to cooperate, remain disciplined, and if each person tolerates and develops entrepreneurial initiative for the welfare of the democratic state in accordance with his own capacities” (CW 11, 223).

Voegelin’s Concepts for Political Science

From these essays we see Voegelin recognized the importance of the industrial society in comparative politics and why it was most compatible with constitutional democracy. Critical to industrial society was the diffusion of the entrepreneurial function–seizing social initiative in the economy–among various parties (e.g., politicians, labor leaders, industrial capitalists) that not only made everyone interdependent in their social and economic activity but also responsible for common interest of society. The entrepreneur was crucial for industrial society because it made the economy more productive, thereby averting class antagonism in society by raising the wages for members of society.

For the entrepreneur to succeed in industrial society, a “clarity of awareness” was required: the willingness of its members to participate in rational discussion and assume responsibility for the public good. This civic responsibility was cultivated in citizens by society’s educational, social, and political institutions that have preserved the classical and Christian traditions of power, reason, and revelation. Although all members potentially can participate in transcendent reason, only a few do so and thus society was hierarchically organized and elite-driven. These leaders were to make the life of reason as socially effective as possible so society could resist the various anti-complexes.

Given this model, Voegelin addressed the contemporary political questions that confronted him while in Germany: 1) how can Germany be an industrial society and a democratic one, the so-called “good society,” like the United States?; 2) how can Europe be an industrial society that competes internationally with countries like the United States and the Soviet Union?; and 3) how can different civilizations communicate with one another in the life of noetic reason? Implicit in these questions are the problems of size; the relationships between elites and the masses; the cultural and historical compatibility with certain political institutions and economic processes; the challenges of socialization and preservation of ideas and habits among a people; and the question whether certain aspects of a society–cultural, economic, political–can be exported or modeled for other countries. Although he does not directly address the literature of comparative politics in these essays, Voegelin’s concerns were similar to those of comparative political scientists, even though he employed the language and ideas of philosophy rather than positivism to answer them.[29]

Voegelin’s answers to these questions also revealed his normative positions on these issues.[30] For instance, Germany can be a “good society” like the United States if its elites assume public responsibility, be entrepreneurial, and make the life of noetic reason socially effective so that society would be receptive to reasonable debate and solutions. For the Europe to be match the scale and power of the United States and the Soviet Union, European states must be willing to cooperate among themselves to pool their industrial and technological resources for optimal utilization. For Voegelin, this sharing of resources would preferably occur as a constitutional democracy where Europeans would have freedom of movement, thought, and education to participate in democratic life. However, this transformation of Europe would only transpire if 1) they were willing to close unproductive sectors of the economy and tolerate the accompanying unemployment while, at the same time, provide retraining for these workers; and 2) provide a civic education to the younger generation about democratic ideals of limited government, intolerance towards anti-democratic factions, and the economic skills of mobility and adaptability (i.e., entrepreneurship).

The last question–how can different civilizations communicate with one another in the life of noetic reason?–was left unanswered by Voegelin. Was it possible, or even desirable, for countries like China and India to extricate their life of reason from cosmological myth? How did one communicate with non-western leaders who have been educated in western ideology? How did one address non-western masses who still live in the world of myth? Voegelin’s silence on these questions may reflect a humility about the limits of his western-centric science at this time. As he said, even with the best intentions, westerners may create more “harm than good” when attempting to export their ideas, institutions, and culture to non-western civilizations.

Voegelin’s concepts for political science from these essays therefore were limited to the study of the West, which included the Soviet Union.[31] In the future Voegelin will study non-western civilizations, such as the Chinese ecumene in Order and History IV, but by that time he had developed new technical concepts and theories to make such an analysis. In this period of 1959-64, Voegelin’s concepts were western-derived and consequently western-applied. In this sense, Voegelin’s self-awareness of the limitations of his concepts anticipated the present debate about the applicability of western political science and theory to non-western civilizations. He recognized during this period that western theory and concepts should best stay in the West.[32]

So what are the critical concepts from these essays that could be employed in comparative political science? First is the life of reason, both noetic and pragmatic, as ways to organize a society both politically and economically.[33] Noetic reason is human participation in logos or transcendent nous that provides existential meaning to a society, while pragmatic reason is the organization and coordination of means to ends for the administrative governance and economic processes. These two types of reason are relatively independent of one another (e.g., a society could be pragmatically rational and noetically irrational). The opposite of noetic reason is ideology and the various anti-complexes.

Two other critical concepts are “viability” or “clarity of awareness”: the life of noetic reason is socially effective when the classical and Christian traditions are preserved in the ideas, habits, and institutions of society.[34] This “viable” condition allows the public to possess a “clarity of awareness” where they assume responsibility for the common good and are receptive and able to partake in reasonable debates about societal issues. Clarity of awareness is only possible if a robust civic education exists to teach each new generation the insights of the classical and Christian traditions.

A fourth critical concept is the problem of size for the nation-state with respect to its industrial capacity and international power.[35] If smaller nation-states wish to have international influence, they need to increase their industrial capacity by enlarging the size of their territory and population either through conquest or cooperation. The problem of size, in turn, raises the question about the compatibility of industrial society with constitutional democracy and what prerequisites are needed for both features to coexist.

Finally, the concepts of an entrepreneurial economy, its relationship to constitutional democracy, and the connection between elites and the masses were important to Voegelin’s political science in these essays.[36] The economic transformation of society into an entrepreneurial one, where economic initiatives transpired from a variety of sources, made members of society interdependent with one another but did not necessarily mean it was compatible with constitutional democracy. The life of noetic reason must exist among elites and be socially effective among the masses for constitutional democracy to exist. Voegelin believed that societies were elite-driven, although the masses did play an important role in the functioning of society and therefore could not be ignored.[37] By using the United States as a case study in these essays, Voegelin showed how other countries, like Germany, the Soviet Union, and even the continent of Europe, could be both industrial and democratic. The “good society” was not for America alone.

Voegelin’s Comparative Politics

Voegelin’s concepts of life of reason (noetic and pragmatic), viability, clarity of awareness, size, the entrepreneurial economy, the relationship between elites and the masses, and the compatibility between an industrial economy and constitutional democracy all formed a preliminary model of comparative politics. From these essays Voegelin had developed a model of society that consisted of three main components–spiritual and cultural, political, and economic–for analysis. The spiritual and cultural component comprised of the ideas and habits defined from noetic reason, ideology, or anti-complexes; the political adopted institutions of constitutional democracy or dictatorship; and the economic was the realm of pragmatic reason that sought industrial and technological development which could either be an entrepreneurial economy or a state-controlled one. The normative ideal for society, the “good society,” was a constitutional democracy and an entrepreneurial economy because it preserved the classical and Christian traditions; protected the life, freedom, and property of its citizens; and provided a material standard of living for all of its citizens.

Given this model, Voegelin explored how a society could achieve this normative ideal, which in turn raised a series of sub-questions: 1) the “viability” (suitability) of a society to adopt constitutional democracy and/or an entrepreneurial economy given its spiritual, cultural, and economic conditions; 2) the” clarity of awareness” (mass social effectiveness) of certain ideas and habits in the public to make constitutional democracy and an entrepreneurial economy possible; 3) the relationship between elites and the masses with respect to noetic and pragmatic reason; 4) the civic education of a society in preserving and transmitting the classical and Christian traditions of power, reason, and revelation; and; 5) the “size” (resources) of material, population, and territory available for a society to develop an industrial economy that could compete internationally. These issues must be addressed first before any western society considered embracing constitutional democracy and the entrepreneurial economy.

Although grounded in The New Science of Politics, Voegelin’s model of comparative politics–comparing other countries like Germany to the normative ideal of the United States–was fundamentally an empirical account of political reality that one can find in mainstream comparative political science. The problems of size required for economic development, the compatibility between political culture and democratic institutions, how much social capital is needed in societies to function as a democracy, the role of civic education and political socialization for political stability, and the relationships between elites and the public are common topics in mainstream comparative political science. Furthermore, the concepts and theories Voegelin employed in these essays have their equivalents in political science: viability (compatibility among cultural, institutional, economic factors), clarity of awareness (political socialization, social capital, and civic education), and the entrepreneurial economy (rationality of the entrepreneur). In these essays Voegelin was more the political scientist than the political theorist or philosopher.

However, Voegelin’s concepts also provided a normative flavor to his empirical model of comparative politics. While most comparative political scientists also prefer constitutional democracy (but less so with the industrial economy), Voegelin offered philosophical reasons to explain his preference: it preserved the insights of the western classical and Christian traditions of power, reason, and revelation. Such an account is absent among political scientist today, even those who strongly support constitutional democracy in their studies.[38] Rather than providing an explanation why constitutional democracy is preferable to other types of regimes, these political scientists start from the assumption that democracy is the normative standard for all political societies–something that even Voeglein would not assume, particularly for non-western civilizations.[39]

Voeglein’s explanatory account of his normative approach towards politics therefore is a lesson that mainstream political scientists can learn from and adopt in their own studies. Instead of dividing political science into interpretivist and positivist accounts, political scientists should follow Voeglein’s example of marrying these two approaches–philosophical ideas and arguments with empirical models and political data–to provide a richer and fuller account of political reality.[40] Granted that Voegelin’s model of comparative politics is limited to western civilization, it nonetheless provides a more robust account and realistic approach to politics by both explaining and describing ideas and facts. To do one or the other is only to provide half of the story and does a disservice not only to public but to political science itself.



[1] I would like to thank Richard Avramenko, the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Saginaw Valley State University for supporting my sabbatical which enabled me to write this chapter and co-edit this volume.

For more about Eric Voegelin’s life during this period, refer to the introduction of Eric Voegelin, Published Essays 1953-1965 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 11), Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 1-11. Hereafter CW 11; Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 34), Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 110-17. Hereafter CW 34; Ellis Sandoz, The Voegelinian Revolution: A Biographical Introduction (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000), 84-89; Barry Cooper and Jodi Bruhn, ed., Voegelin Recollected: Conversations on a Life (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2008), 58-118. Hereafter VR.

[2] These works are now published in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin as follows: Eric Voegelin, Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religions; The New Science of Politics; and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 5), Manfred Henningsen, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000). Hereafter CW 5; Order and History Volume I: Israel and Revelation (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 14), Maurice P. Hogan, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001). Hereafter OHI; Order and History Volume II: The World of the Polis (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 15), Athanasios Moulakis, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000); Order and History Volume III: Plato and Aristotle (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 16), Dante Germino, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000); Order and History Volume IV: The Ecumenic Age (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 17), Michael Franz, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000); Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 6), M.J. Hanak, trans., David Walsh, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002).

[3] Numerous works have been written about the Cold War, but Melvyn P. Leffler and David S. Painter, eds. The Origins of the Cold War: An International History (New York: Routledge, 1994) and John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin, 2006) provide excellent overviews. With respect to Germany and the Cold War, refer to William Glenn Gary, Germany’s Cold War: The Global Campaign to Isolate East Germany, 1949-1969 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and Christian Ostermann, Between Containment and Rollback: The United States and the Cold War in Germany (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2019). For more about Germany’s transition to a liberal democracy, refer to Thomas Saalfeld, “Germany: From Dictatorship to Parliamentary Democracy,” Parliamentary Affairs 50:3 (1997): 380-95; Michael Bernhard, “Democratization in Germany: A Reappraisal,” Comparative Politics 33: 4 (2001): 379-400; James Dobbins, Michele A. Poole, Austin Long, Benjamin Runkle, After the War: Nation-Building from FDR to George W. Bush (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2008), 11-33.

[4] For more about Voegelin critique of contemporary social science, refer to CW 5, 88-108.

[5] For more about Voegelin’s admiration of America, refer to CW 34, 56-61; On the Form of the American Mind (The Collected Works Volume 1), Jürgen Gebhardt and Barry Cooper, eds. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1995); Published Essays 1922-1928 (The Collected Works Volume 7), Thomas W. Heilke and John von Heyking, eds. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 118-75, 192-205.

[6] For more about Voegelin’s critique of the Germany university, refer to Lee Trepanier, “Eric Voegelin on Race, Hitler, and National Socialism,” Political Science Reviewer 41:1 (2018): 167-96.

[7] For more about those students, refer to VR, 58-118.

[8] The only studies that employed Voegelin’s “new science of politics” to empirical political reality are James M. Rhodes, The Hitler Movement: A Modern Millenarian Revolution (Palo Alto: Hoover Institute Press, 1980); Lee Trepanier, Political Symbols in Russian History: Church, State, and the Quest for Justice (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007); and Ostap Kushnir, Ukraine and Russian Neo-Imperialism: The Divergent Break (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018).

[9] For more about this period, refer to Eric Voeglein, History of Political Ideas, Volume V: Religion and the Rise of Modernity (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 23), James L. Wiser, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998).

[10] This idea had been recently re-explored in Kevin Narizny, “Anglo-American Primacy and the Global Spread of Democracy: An International Genealogy,” World Politics 64:2 (2012): 341-73.

[11] Whether Voegelin would have supported the present structure of the European Union is a matter of speculation, although he would have approved of the Europeans forming a union. For more about the contemporary challenges and possible solutions of the European Union, refer to Olaf Cramme and Sara B. Hobolt, eds. Democratic Politics in a European Union Under Stress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Henry F. Carey and Zeynep Arkan, The Challenges of European Governance in the Age of Economic Stagnation, Immigration, and Refugees (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016); and Hauke Brunkhorst, Dragica Vujadinovic, and Tanasije Marinkovic, eds. European Democracy in Crisis: Politics under Challenge and Social Movements (Kanonstraat, Netherland: Eleven International Publishing, 2018).

[12] The classic study of the transformation of society from agrarian to an industrial one is Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: Beacon Press, 1966).

[13] The problem of size, the ability to compete economically with the United States and the Soviet Union, was one of the factors that led to the formation of the European Union, along with desire for a peaceful Europe. However, since the formation of a common European market, the problem of size has been neglected when comparing the United States and Europe; rather, attention has shifted to global governance of the world economy. Again, this attention is still concerned with the problem of size but now has moved the unit of analysis to the integrated world economy. With the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the problem of size has reverted to the concerns during Voegelin’s time, with the United States, the European Union, and other imperial units competing with another one. Martin J. Dedman, The Origins and Development of the European Union, 1945-95 (New York: Routledge, 1996); Jean Grugel and Nicola Piper, Critical Perspective on Global Governance: Rights and Regulations in Governing Regimes (New York: Routledge, 2007); Laurent Warlouzet, Governing Europe in a Globalizing World: Neoliberalism and its Alternatives following the 1973 Oil Crisis (New York: Routledge, 2017); Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited: Anti-Globalization in the Era of Trump (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).

[14] However, this is no longer the case today in the United States where wages have been stagnant for the past forty years in spite of increases in labor productivity, another factor that partially explains the present polarization in American politics. Tyler Cowan, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation (New York: Dutton, 2013); Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016); Ganesh Sitaraman, The Crisis of Middle-Class Constitutionalism (New York: Knopf, 2017).

[15] The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 confirms Voegelin’s prediction that Soviet ideology would eventually collapse when confronted with the pragmatic rationality of industrial society. However, it was Gorbachev’s political decision to end Soviet rule. The pragmatic rationality of economics played a vital role in the collapse of the Soviet Union but it was one factor among many (e.g., ethnic nationalist movements in Soviet republics, the United States willing to negotiate). Economic rationality ultimately was subordinate to political decisions. Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[16] This continues to be the case today in the West, even after the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and globalization of the 1990s. Western states may vary in the degree of welfare support and labor productivity in their economies but none of them have either nationalized their economies like Venezuela or adopted wholescale laissez-faire capitalism. Gosta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Salvatore Pituzzello, “International Organization Foundation Trade Globalization, Economic Performance, and Social Protection: Nineteenth-Century British Laissez-Faire and Post World War II U.S.-Embedded Liberalism,” International Organization 58.4 (2004): 705-44.

[17] For more about this civil theology, refer to Ellis Sandoz, The Roots of Liberty: Magna Carta, Ancient Constitution, and the Anglo-American Tradition of the Rule of Law (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1993) and A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990).

[18] These assumptions are explicated in CW 5, 109-48 and OHI, 39-53.

[19] The issue of “viability” is the compatibility of a society’s history and culture to a certain set of political institutions and economic processes. For example, much of the recent work on social capital argues that societies require high levels of social capital for democratic institutions to function effectively. Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001); Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2013).

[20] Voegelin’s discussion of noetic rationality is neglected by comparative political scientists who only focus on pragmatic rationality. For example, refer to Mark I. Lichbach and Alan S. Zuckerman, eds. Comparative Politics: Rationality Culture, and Structure (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[21] By examining the possible incompatibilities among different civilizations, Voegelin anticipated Samuel Huntington’s account of global politics as civilizations. Samuel P. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[22] Voegelin’s criticism of comparing American and Soviet GNP raised the question of how to make proper comparisons between countries. This problem is later analyzed in Giovanni Sartori, “Concept Misinformation in Comparative Politics,” American Political Science Review 64.4 (1970): 1033-53 and “Comparing and Miscomparing,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 33.3 (1991): 243-57.

[23] The literature on political and economic entrepreneurs is vast but what makes Voegelin’s insight unique is that he argued that any party in society could be an entrepreneur and, because of this, it made society interdependent and responsible for all. Some recent examples of entrepreneurship are D. Hugh Whittaker, Comparative Entrepreneurship: The UK, Japan, and the Shadow of Silicon Valley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Andrea Colli, Dynamics of International Business: Comparative Perspectives of Firms, Markets, and Entrepreneurship (New York: Routledge, 2016); Bruno Dallago and Ermanno Tortia, eds. Entrepreneurship and Local Economic Development: A Comparative Perspective on Entrepreneurs, Universities and Governments (New York: Routledge, 2018).

[24] This remains the case with the unexplained account of stagnated wages in the United States. For more, refer to the fourteenth footnote.

[25] Voegelin’s concept of “clarity of awareness” is when noetic rationality had penetrated into the masses of society so that it is socially effective. It is similar to social capital where citizens learn both in theory and practice the habits of democratic life.

[26] These anti-complexes are explicated in CW 5, 196-241, 251-313.

[27] For more, refer to Trepanier, “Eric Voegelin on Race, Hitler, and National Socialism.”

[28] Sandoz, The Roots of Liberty and A Government of Laws.

[29] The problem of size has been studied by John A. Agnew, Place and Politics (London: Allen and Unwin, 1987); Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: W.W. Norton., 1997); Dedman, The Origins and Development of the European Union; Grugel and Piper, Critical Perspectives on Global Governance; Warlouzet, Governing Europe in a Globalizing World; and Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents.

For the relationship between the elites and the masses, refer to Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Gregory M. Lubbert, Liberalism, Fascism, or Social Democracy: Social Classes and the Political Origins of Regimes in Interwar Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

For the relationship among culture, history, institutions, and economics, refer to Seymour M. Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53.1 (1959): 69–105; Gabriel Abraham Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963); Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972); Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973); James G. March and Jonthan.P. Olsen, “The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life,” American Political Science Review, 78.3 (1984): 734-49; Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, eds. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986); Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, John D. Stephens, Capitalist Development and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Putman, Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone; Ronald Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Countries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Carles Boix and Susan S. Stokes, “Endogenous Democratization,” World Politics 55.4 (2003): 517-49; Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

For political socialization and the transmission of ideas, refer to Sandoz, The Roots of Liberty and A Government of Laws; Philo C. Washburn and Tawnya J. Adkins Covert, Making Citizens: Political Socialization Research and Beyond (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

For modeling another society, refer to Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) and Clash of Civilizations; Adam Przeworski and Fernando Liongi, “Modernization: Theories and Facts,” World Politics 49.2 (1997): 155-83; Immanuel Wallerstein, World System Analysis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[30] Political science traditionally has been value-neutral since the behavioral revolution in the 1950s. Clifford Angell Bates Jr., The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Waszawskiego, 2016); Lee Trepanier, “The Relevance of Political Philosophy and Political Science,” in Why the Humanities Matter Today? In Defense of Liberal Education, Lee Trepanier, ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017), 127-44.

[31] Since Peter the Great (reign 1682-1725), Russians have asked themselves whether they are part of the West. In his own works, Voegelin himself was not clear on this question, although in these essays he did include Russia as a country to which western concepts, models, and theories could be applied. However, Voegelin wrote elsewhere that Russia was fundamentally not a western country (CW 5, 179-83). Perhaps it was only because of its proximity, historical engagement with Europe, and later adoption of western ideologies that Russia could be considered in the same civilizational unit of analysis for Voegelin. Lee Trepanier, Political Symbols in Russian History and Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (9th Edition) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[32] For more about the debate whether western concepts, models, and theories can and should be applied to non-western civilizations, refer to Andrew F. March, “What is Comparative Political Theory?” Review of Politics 71.4 (2009): 531-65; Fred Dallmayr, ed. Comparative Political Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Farah Godrej, Cosmopolitan Political Thought: Method, Practice, Discipline (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Jon D. Carlson and Russell Arben Fox, eds. The State of Nature in Comparative Political Thought: Western and Non-Western Perspectives (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013); Adrian Little, “Contextualizing Concepts: The Methodology of Comparative Political Theory,” Review of Politics 80: 1 (2018): 87-113.

[33] For how this concept fits into the literature of mainstream comparative political science, refer to the twentieth footnote.

[34] For the same as above, refer to the nineteenth and twenty-ninth footnotes.

[35] For same as above, refer to the twelfth, thirteenth, and twenty-ninth footnotes.

[36] For same as above, refer to the twenty-third and twenty-ninth footnotes.

[37] For same as above, refer to the twenty-ninth footnote.

[38] For example, the literature on democracy and democratization in comparative politics makes the assumption that liberal democracy is the normative standard for regimes. O’Donnelll et al. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule; Przeworski, Democracy and the Market; Huntington, The Third Wave, Rueschemeyer et al., Capitalist Development and Democracy; Putnam, Making Democracy Work; Boix and Stokes, “Endogenerous Democracy”; Acemoglu and Robinson, Economics Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

[39] For more about non-western civilizations, refer to twenty-first and thirty-second footnotes.

[40] For more about this divide in political science, refer to Stephen Welch, The Theory of Political Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Bates, The Centrality of the Regime; and Trepanier, “The Relevance of Political Philosophy and Political Science.”


This is from Eric Voegelin Today: Voegelin’s Political Thought for the 21st CenturyAlso available are the “Introduction“; Scott Robinson’s “The Necessity of Moral Communication in a Pluralistic Political Environment,” Grant Havers’ “Voegelin, Rawls, and the Persistence of Liberal Civil Theology,” and Nathan Harter’s “Eric Voegelin’s 1944 ‘Political Theory and the Pattern of General History’: An Account from the Biography of a Philosophizing Consciousness.” Our review of the book is available here.

Also see “Democracy in the New Europe,” “Democracy and Industrial Society,” “Industrial Society in Search for Reason,” “A Prescient Lecture: Voegelin’s ‘Democracy and Industrial Society,’” and Eric Voegelin’s “Democracy and Industrial Society.”

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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