The Flame is Lit: A Man of His Times and His Quest For Truth

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The Crisis of the West That Shaped His Life

Eric Voegelin lived in age of unusually disruptive wars, economic collapse, political strife, and social disruption. While there are few times in human history when a mix of all of these ills has not been present, the twentieth century brought a scale of violence, social dislocation, economic disruption, and suffering to a global level that was both new and horrifying. By the 1950s there was a genuine sense of concern amongst certain academics and social critics about Western culture that on the one hand offered many technical and scientific breakthroughs, while on the other was clearly responsible for the horrors of global wars and societal strife (Federici, 2002, 17). Not everyone agreed on the cause or the nature of the crisis, or that there even was one. For those who did recognize a crisis, a sensible argument en- joined by many liberal-minded intellectuals was that the horrors of the twentieth century were simply the result of dysfunctional social, economic, and political institutions. Conservatives were often more concerned about the growth in state powers and loss of individual rights found in the mass movements of the age. Most liberal and conservative groups universally condemned National Socialism and communism on moral grounds, but all too often only assigned certain causative historical factors but offered no real analysis beyond that. In general, this was often referred to as the “Western crisis” which could likely be resolved through improved policy and better laws (Federici, 2002, 17).

Like many others, Voegelin recognized a “Western crisis” in these modern events of Western history. However, for Voegelin, wars and societal deterioration were the symptoms and not the illness. For Voegelin this crisis was the result of alienation from the spiritual basis of order at the very heart of Western civilization. The Western crisis was one of process and not a singular event, one that continues to unfold in the present (FER, 74). It is a crisis of spirit that will never be remedied through policy or programmatic changes. Voegelin identified a fault line between religious and philosophical transcendentalists who recognized the spiritual crisis of Western civilization on one side, and the liberal and totalitarian immanentist sectarians who rejected this notion on the other (Federici, 2002, 17). This put Voegelin in an awkward position as an academic and was a likely factor in his views not gaining a wider audience. However, this lack of popularity does not diminish the remarkable scope and quality of the scientific, historical, and philosophical output of this remarkable man.

Even with the Western world moving beyond the mass movements of the ideologically driven Nazis and Marxists, the crisis continues. Voegelin believed that the disordering effects of the loss of spirit are continuously at work and reflected in the West’s rampant materialism, drug use, social dis- orders, crime, and general belief that human happiness is achieved through human desire which is not subject to any higher authority. It was to the identification and resolution of this crisis that Eric Voegelin dedicated his life’s work.

A Word on Religion

Some degree of preparation is necessary for the reader of Voegelinian material with regard to his use of terms related to the divine. Voegelin invokes God, the divine, and transcendence throughout his works. For some it can be hard to accept Voegelin as a legitimate scientist, as he frequently seems to bash natural science and promotes God or divinity. This can make people uncomfortable. After all, we have found in natural science an ordinary way to move beyond superstition, magic, unreasonable fear of natural phenomenon, and a means to understand our place in the physical world. The great advancement of human understanding offered by modern-day scientists makes the shaman, mystics, philosophers, clergy, and monks of modernity seem like an unsophisticated vestigial appendage of our older and more ignorant ancestral past. How can Voegelin call on ancient Greeks and St. Paul and think he is promoting science? Isn’t he simply promoting Christianity?

It would be easy to form this conclusion, as the use of words like “God,” “myth,” “eschaton,” and “transcendental” can be off-putting in a secular society and somehow outside the sphere of science. However, Voegelin was not actually promoting Judaism or Christianity per se, or even a return the gods of ancient Greece. There was a broader undertone to his understanding of the divine that used the symbolism of Christianity because it most clearly represented truth in his experience in the metaxy. He recognized that man has struggled with the sacred and the profane for the full duration of human existence. Symbols come and go, but in Voegelin’s research he concluded that the notion of reality and the articulation of truth are necessary for man to understand himself through the divine. It is perhaps best to let Voegelin say it for himself:

I am indeed attempting to “identify” … the God who reveals himself, not only in the prophets, in Christ, and in the Apostles, but wherever his reality is experienced as present in the cosmos and in the soul of man. One can no longer use the medieval distinction between the theologian’s supernatural revelation and the philosopher’s natural reason, when any number of texts will at- test the revelatory consciousness of the Greek poets and philosophers; nor can one let revelation begin with the Israelite and Christian experiences, when the mystery of the divine presence in reality is attested as experienced by man, as far back as 20,000 B.C. … As far as my own vocabulary is concerned, I am very conscious of not relying on the language of doctrine, but I am equally conscious of not going beyond the orbit of Christianity when I prefer the experiential symbol “divine reality” translates the theotes and Colossians 2:9… Moreover, I am very much aware that my inquiry into the history of experience and symbolization generalizes the Anselmian fides quarens inellectum so as to include every fides, not only the Christian, in the quest for understanding by reason . . . In practice this means that one has to recognize, and make intelligible, the presence of Christ in a Babylonian hymn, or a Taoist speculation, or a Platonic dialogue, just as much as any Gospel. (PE, 293–94)

Voegelin’s view of the sacred was expansive and inclusive, not dogmatic. He asks no one to accept Christ as personal savior or to live some typified Christian life. He is suggesting that the notion of God reaching to man in revelation changed how humanity came to know the sacred. The Judeo-Christian teachings are a powerful human tool for order because they offer moral codes that easily translate into laws to govern individuals and political-legal activities. Additionally, prophets like St. Paul preach the wisdom of not seeking perfection of the eschaton in one’s mortal life (Sandoz, 2013, 62–63).

When it is paired with the rich understanding found in the exploration of consciousness practiced by mystic Greek philosophy, Christian principles can offer a society the real hope for order and justice as presented by Voegelin (Sandoz, 2013, 85). There is no disputing that Voegelin argues Christianity’s symbols are effective. But whatever the divine symbols are for a given society, they only need to be equivalent to those of Christianity, they do not have to be them. The spoudaios in his times, through anamnetic techniques, and oriented experience in the metaxy, who articulates the truth in symbols of the divine ground of being, and recognizes that the horizon of perfection is beyond mortality is all that is required (and obviously a lot is required) (Sandoz, 2013, 62). Allegiance to a dogmatic philosophy or religion is not required, and highly discouraged. This is not the shallow philosophy of a simple ideologue or zealot. It is a spiritual man’s recognition of the way to order. This is the time-honored way to political truth and reality.

Voegelin’s mystic philosophy was open to the noetic science (ancient Greek philosophy) of experiencing human life in its rich fullness, not examining it as if he were an outsider (Sandoz, 2013, 81). This is one of Western man’s oldest forms of science and can continue to serve us well in its own way to move beyond superstition, magic, unreasonable fear of natural phenomenon, and understanding our place in the physical world in a way natural science cannot. Lastly, Christianity is a fact of Western history and its role in understanding the foundations of Western social morality and governmental institutions cannot be denied. God and the notion of the divine will be used to express Voegelin’s insights and theories necessary to under- stand social and political order throughout this guide. They are never used to advocate a particular belief in the nature of Christ or promote the teachings of the Church.

His Quest For Truth

Eric Voegelin spent his life engaged in an open philosophical search for truth in existence. The responsibility he bore as a political philosopher was to articulate the truth of existence and defend truth from untruth (Sandoz, 2006, 188). Truth and reality wed at a certain level of participation in existence. Truth and reality are often elusive as the possible variations of understanding are endless. A real leap in imagination is required to perceive a more concrete reality. In many ways, untruth is much easier to define. Voegelin spent his life imagining truth through apperception and resisting prevalent ideological distortions (Sandoz, 2006, 188). Diagnosing spiritual causes of these forays away from truth and the historical developments that lead to untruth and resultant loss of reality became his specialty. This put Voegelin at odds with the prevailing thinkers of his day and out of the main- stream of those entrusted with defining social and political truth and reality. It was in this context that Voegelin’s identity as the resistor of untruth was forged.

Voegelin recognized early in his career that academics, political actors, and theological institutions were creating deformations in the understanding of truth and reality. Just what he meant by this and how he could demonstrate the veracity of his claims was the opening of a “Pandora’s Box” of philosophical, historical, theological, mythical, and political complications (Federici, 2002, 18). His study and conceptions of truth and reality matured over a very long career that spanned seven decades, which makes under- standing his core assertions on the subject something of a journey for the scholar, researcher, or layman alike. For Voegelin this was no mere journey, it was a quest—a quest that, given the age he lived in, took on implications that he came to see as a matter of life and death.

Voegelin’s life-long quest to understand the bedrock of existential truth and political reality began from a chain of discoveries. Early in his career, he studied law and the immediate context of the contemporary European political struggle in societies during the 1920s and ‘30s. He followed this European political morass to the ideas that inspired political struggle throughout history, and from this struggle to the ideas that bonded civilizations. His quest and research expanded in scope, time, and depth over the decades as he unraveled certain mysteries. This chain of inquiry began with the foundational documents that are the agreed-upon structure of states or empires such as constitutions or charters. Voegelin intensively studied these arrangements, how they worked, and how the executive, legislative, and judicial branches functioned or did not. However, he became fascinated by the various ideas buried within the documents that give life and purpose to such political arrangements. From these notions he expanded into the experiences of participation in political and social reality where truth becomes a symbolic expression that society then uses as the basis for order and ex- presses in the various charters or constitutions. Voegelin finally arrived at a comparative study of experiences found throughout Western and Eastern civilizations of order and disorder found in the human psyche. Voegelin concluded that the best representatives for the ordered psyche were the philosophers, sages, and prophets who had done the most to illuminate the ground of being for humanity (Germino, 1978, 111–12). Voegelin came to believe that certain core ideas came to symbolize certain civilizations, and these symbols had to emerge from somewhere. This mysterious “where” was the “somewhere” that Voegelin came to understand as the consciousness of concrete human beings.

It was the deformation of the truth of reality, as found in language and symbol, that sparked a desire in the young Voegelin to resist a pull from a reality that he could sense, but not yet fully define (Federici, 2002, 4). This long quest of discovery was shaped not only by Voegelin’s powerful intellect and expansive imagination, but also by the times and events of his life. While the times of any person are instrumental in their own understanding and experience, for a man who studied political theory living in WW I Germany, its chaotic economic and political aftermath, and the rise of Hitler, there was an unusually powerful motivator to seek out truth and resist the deformation of reality and the language used to sustain untruth. To appreciate this man’s perspective and motivations, it is necessary to review his life and the trajectory on which his quest ultimately took him.

His Life and Work

Erich Hermann Wilhelm Voegelin was born in 1901 in Cologne, Germany where his family lived until 1910 when they moved to Vienna (AR, 1989, ix). In 1919, Voegelin was admitted to the Faculty of Law of the University of Vienna. This was his first acquaintance with the classic philosophers, and German idealism as presented in the seminars of Othmar Spann. The works of Max Weber, Alfred Weber, Eduard Meyer, Alfred Spengler and Arnold Toynbee heavily influenced him. The “Stefan George” circle also influenced Voegelin to study the classicists Heinrich Friedemann, Paul Friedlander and Kurt Hildebrandt (AR, 4).

A distorted political atmosphere was increasingly marking post-war Vienna. As Voegelin learned from his interaction with the “Stefan George” circle and the satirist Karl Kraus, one of his primary tasks as a political theorist was to resist the deformation of language by ideological systems (AR, 17). Through the seminars of Hans Kelsen and Ludwig von Mises, he be- came intimate with a wide circle of sociologists, economists, art historians and lawyers, including Alfred Schütz and Friedrich von Hayek. From these associations, a study group was formed called the Geistkreis. Voegelin formed lasting friendships with several members of the group that managed to persist even after many of them were forced to flee Austria during Hitler’s rise to power (AR, 18–19).

Voegelin finished his doctorate in political science in 1922 under the supervision of Hans Kelsen and Othmar Spann. He was invited to attend lectures by Gilbert Murray at an Oxford summer school in 1922. In 1924 he was awarded a three-year fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation that enabled him to spend successive years in New York, at Harvard, Wisconsin, and in Paris. While at Columbia University he studied under Giddings and John Dewey. While at Harvard, it was A. N. Whitehead who opened Voegelin’s mind to the idea that he needed to study the origin of ideas in Western culture much more closely. In Wisconsin Voegelin encountered the practical economics of John R. Commons and labor history from Selig Perlman (AR, 28–33).

It was while in America that Voegelin experienced a sense of revelation at discovering the common-sense philosophy of the English and American traditions, with their foundations so deeply rooted in Classic and Stoic thought. This revelation was further compounded by his study of George Santayana whose open and sensitive, yet philosophic, treatment of the difficulties of the human spirit profoundly impacted the young Voegelin. Santayana accepted neither the dogma nor the neo-Kantian methodologies that so completely governed the philosophies of law and politics that Voegelin had studied in Vienna (AR, 31). In1928 Voegelin published his first book, Über die Form des Amerikanischen Geistes (On the Form of the American Mind), where he highlighted his new discoveries (AR, 39). However, despite the wide-ranging studies of Hamilton and Reid, of Santayana, of Jonathan Edwards, and of John R. Commons, he later said that the book never fully conveyed the profound reorientation of his thinking that his encounter with the American political and legal culture had on him. He came to realize that there could be a practical use of Classical and Christian philosophy. Both of these could and had been effectively used in the creation of symbols and language that capture reality in Western societies (AR, 31–33). These seeds germinated and grew into the full flowering of his form of resistance.

In 1926, Voegelin moved to Paris to complete his fellowship. While there, he read the work of Paul Valery that nicely paralleled the Lucretian materialism found in Santayana’s work, which Voegelin credits as the font of his lasting love for Valery’s poetry. In subsequent returns to Paris, Voegelin studied the work of Jean Bodin at the Bibliotheque Nationale. This research, coupled with his reading of Henri Bergson‘s Les Deux Sources de la Morale et de la Religion, was highly influential in laying the groundwork for Voegelin’s efforts to relay the foundations of political science in philosophy (AR, 36–37).

Voegelin returned to the University of Vienna in 1928, where he was appointed Privatdozent in 1929, and Associate Professor in 1936. He married the silent partner of his later work, Lissy Onken, in 1932 (AR, 51). He became interested in issues concerning race and found a foundation for the work in the philosophical anthropology of Max Scheler. Voegelin‘s efforts on race and philosophical anthropology resulted in two books published in 1933: Rasse und Staat (Race and State) and Die Rassenidee in der Geistegeschichte von Ray bis Cams (History of the Race Idea) (AR, 51). During this period Voegelin took lessons in Greek so that he could read the primary sources of Classic philosophy. This enterprise, not unusual for Voegelin, broadened his later study of Plato’s works and subsequently enabled him to identify the shortcomings of the philosophical anthropology of Max Scheler (AR, 39). Despite Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the Austrian civil war of 1934, Voegelin remained convinced that Vienna was safe from any of the Nazi expansionistic plans. His 1936 study, Der autoritdre Staat (Authority of the State), was a response to what he felt was National Socialism’s de- formed concepts of ideologically-constrained politics that were rooted in the intentional malformation of language and symbols (AR, 50).

In Voegelin’s estimation, it was the long and steady decline and debasement of the language of political discourse that was the necessary precondition for the rise of National Socialism. The economic and social conditions simply made a debased language and symbolism that much easier to exploit (AR, 47). Voegelin published Die Politischen Religionen (Political Religion) in 1938. This was his first major attempt to distinguish the ways in which non-rational formulations of politics could come to dominate social existence. Unfortunately, it was just appearing in print in March as Hitler‘s troops entered Vienna. The entire edition was confiscated, but later republished by his publisher, Bermann-Fischer, who had relocated to Stockholm (Geoffery Price, 1994). Voegelin described himself as “profoundly shocked” at the destruction of Vienna and the failure of the Western democracies to forestall the annexation of Austria (AR, 42). The failure to prevent the Germans from seizing Central Europe would so obviously lead to a second world war, that Voegelin was absolutely confident England and France would not allow it (AR, 42). Meanwhile, the Nazi occupiers quickly began to investigate Voegelin. Through sheer luck, swift action, and the help of friends he was able to obtain an exit visa before his passport could be confiscated (AR, 43). He raced to the Swiss border before the Gestapo could catch him. Lissy joined him a few days later. Through his contacts in the U.S. he secured a temporary post at Harvard, which enabled them both to immigrate to America (AR, 44).

Once at Harvard, Voegelin busied himself with a job search that would allow for a longer stay in America. He was interested in a position that would allow him freedom from the socialist-leaning émigré scholars in the North- east, and even turned down a well-paid position at Bennington College (AR, 57). He chose instead a post at the University of Alabama, and shortly there- after one at Louisiana State University, where he taught American Constitution and Government from 1942 to 1958 (AR, 58). In 1944, he became a naturalized American citizen at which time he Anglicized spelling of his name to Eric Voegelin (Price, 1994).

While at Louisiana State, he undertook the writing of The History of Political Ideas between 1939 and 1950. He had set out to trace the origins of political ideas found in dominant societies back to their most basic origins. Voegelin‘s studies on this subject ran through Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Plato, Kierkegaard, and Bacon, to name a few (AR, 78–79). He undertook an examination of the Old Testament and the experiences of several other religious groups as well (AR, 79). In the end, he concluded that it was impossible to trace ideas back in time as he envisaged, as there is no congruency in purely political ideas. Religion, myth, and philosophy shaped society’s ideas of order as much or more so than constitutions or political orders, making it impossible to single out purely political strands. He decided in 1950 to abandon The History of Political Ideas, but used the massive collection of work assembled over the years as the basis of The New Science of Politics and the multi-book project that followed, Order and His- tory (AR, 80).

Despite leaving behind a twelve-year effort, Voegelin’s years of study had begun to pay off in his ever-increasing understanding of reality, and led to a complete break from the typical epistemological thinking of his peers (AR, 80, 84). In 1952, he released one of his most acclaimed books, The New Science of Politics (NSP), which reevaluated the problem of political representation, truth, and the rise of Gnosticism. In this profoundly insightful work he traced the foundation of political symbolism to its roots in the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks and early Christians. Voegelin adopted the term Gnosticism to describe the “sickness” he finds in modernity. For Voegelin, modern Gnostics were individuals, groups, or societies that reject God as the ground of being, assert man’s material existence as the only element of reality, and are the progenitors of immanentist programs of world domination. National Socialism, communism, and socialism are simple examples of those political organizations that would be labeled Gnostic. Of course Gnostics would also include those not bent on world domination, but who nevertheless rejected the ground of being and believed that human perfection could usher in a perfect utopian society through systems of science and governmental programs. NSP was a rejection of the Gnostic modernity that Voegelin feared could bring about the destruction of mankind. It re- mains a concept for which he is best known.

NSP was both a product of his research over the preceding twelve years and a response to the times. By the 1950s fascism was fading away, but the communism of the Soviet Union and China remained living examples of the brutality that a Gnostic order could yield. Voegelin made no effort to write books on the natural evils of the mass-movement systems that he felt these nations engendered. These nations, and the Gnosticism they represented, remained powerful background reminders throughout his career of what man was capable of when uprooted from what Voegelin identified as the ground of being.

He fully expanded his investigation of these Gnostic roots in his next major work Order and History. The first three volumes (Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, and Plato and Aristotle) of this five-volume set were released in 1957. In these volumes he reaches back to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Moses, to Homer, Hesiod, the pre-Socratics Greeks, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Aristotle and Plato in order to understand these great thinkers’ primary grasp of the foundations of ordered political existence. Voegelin maintained throughout this undertaking that the exploration of our past was not simply the understanding of the past, but to shed light on the contemporary political situation. This situation was, in Voegelin’s mind, a struggle in a climate of opinion that obscured the reality of human existence expe- rienced as a tension between mortality and the divine ground of being that the ancients, unlike modernity, understood very well (AR, 80–84). It was during this period that Voegelin began to think of the foundations of political science as more philosophical, and that he would need to assume the role of philosopher to recapture reality. The philosopher does this through the reconstruction of the fundamental categories of existence found in experience, consciousness and reality (AR, 96).

Voegelin was invited to return to Germany in 1958 to head the Institute for Political Science at the University of Munich (AR, 91). Although this position came with an increase in salary, Voegelin relished the idea of re- turning to Germany to infuse his homeland with the common-sense spirit he had learned in America (AR, 91). New generations of Germans were in need of this injection of fresh ideas and it allowed him to further expand on the foundational work of political philosophy he had achieved during the ‘40s and ‘50s. In 1958, Voegelin also published Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, which was the result of his continued research into the ancient origins of gnosis and its connection to the modern form. The book was Voegelin’s attempt to highlight the intellectual confusion found in modernity, which he felt was the result of the heavy influence of Gnostic thinkers. Voegelin described “mystic” philosophy as the best relief for the tension caused by this dominant and destructive ideological movement (SPG, 31, 36). He wrote Anamnesis in 1966, which could be considered the best synthesis of his political philosophy. He thoroughly explores consciousness, nature, symbols, the ground of being, and reality in this short but densely packed work of remarkable insight and imagination. His task was nothing short of re-establishing the philosophy of history as the manifestation of eternal being in time. This endeavor was meant to communicate the understanding of the truth of human existence under God, which when held as a common belief, brings not only insight and wisdom to a community, but also the most just and stable political and social order. Voegelin’s fully matured view of the role of a “mystic philosopher” was to aid society in resisting the pull away from this truth (AR, 96, 100–3).

Voegelin left Germany for good in 1969, when he accepted the position as Henry Salvatori Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, California from 1969 to 1974, and as the Senior Research Fellow from 1974 until his death in 1984 (Sandoz, 1981, 87). He published the fourth volume of Order and History (Ecumenic Age) in 1974 (Sandoz, 1981, 88). After such a long period between writings for the Order and History series, Voegelin‘s sensitivity to historical data had forced him to revise some of his earlier conclusions about Christianity and the origin of Gnosticism (Geoffery Price, 1994). He also further refined his ideas on symbolism, language, and the inherent tensions between truth and unreality (Geoffery Price, 1994). Voegelin died in Stanford, California, on 19 January 1985, having spent his last days dictating his final meditation “Quod Deus dicitur” and refining his thoughts on Gnosticism (Geoffery Price, 1994). The Order and History series culminated in In Search of Order, which was posthumously published in 1987.

Throughout his career he consistently resisted the temptation to accept convention, go with the crowd, or choose the easy path. From his own experience he knew that a society detached from truth and reality can be horrifically deadly. One of his important discoveries was the rise of Gnosticism, which he felt was a modern deformation of reality and something that was deeply rooted in Western culture and had the potential to destroy it if pursued to its immanental end (Federici, 2002, 183). Voegelin‘s quest arises in the form of a resistance against the surrounding disorder found in man’s existence and the search for historical experiences vital to political and social existential order. He recognized a simple truism about this quest: truth al- ways resists an untruth. Truth and reality are linked as reality is defined by the truth of man’s material existence made real through a spiritual ground of being. Those who reject this spiritual nature of man and the human relationship to order were what Voegelin termed “Gnostics.” His discovery of the rejection of truth and reality found in modern Gnosticism began in earnest with the publication of NSP and continued for the rest of his career. Voegelin spent a lifetime in the tension between truth and reality and untruth and unreality. This is the natural habitat of the mystic philosopher whose responsibility it is to experience the transcendental and accurately articulate the symbolism necessary for society to achieve order.

This Gnostic theme and the sickness of Western culture will be explored next. Gnosticism covers a lot of intellectual ground and will require a discussion of topics that include the definition of Gnosticism and its origins, deformations of reality, Gnostic thinkers, and symbols and language that are the battleground for truth and reality.


Our review of the book is available here.

Montgomery C. Erfourth

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Lieutenant Colonel Montgomery C. Erfourth is a former U.S. Marine logistician and current U.S. Army strategist interested in applying ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, history, and political thought to the political-military planning process.