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The Idea of Progress and “The Authoritative Present”

The Idea Of Progress And “The Authoritative Present”

. . . . When the intellectual and spiritual sources of order in human and social life dry up, there is not much left as a source of order except the historically factual situation. . . . When, however, a situation of fact is to be used as a source of order, the situation has to be surrounded by a body of doctrine that endows it with a specific legitimacy. Hence, one of the typically recurrent ideas in this contingency is the assumption that the situation of the moment, or a situation that is envisaged as immediately impending, is superior in value to any prior historical situation of fact.

The idea of progress though several phases of history, supported by an array of materials that show the increase in value through the successive phases, furnished the basis for this first necessary assumption. The idea of progress however, creates legitimacy for the present only insofar as it evokes its superiority over the past. Hence, typically in the doctrine, a second idea recurs that is destined to protect the present against invalidation by the future.

. . . . The peculiar character of the situation . . . we shall designate by the term . . . authoritative present . . . . The idea of progress in general does not imply a scientific proposition that can be submitted to verification; it is an element in a doctrinal complex that purports to evoke the idea of an authoritative present. This idea, in turn, is needed for the adequate expression of intramundane religiousness in politics. A merely empirical present is a brute fact without superior authority in comparison with any past or future present.

When the critical standards of civilizational values, which stem from the bios theoretikos and the life of the spirit, are abandoned; when the empirical process itself has to furnish the standards, then a special doctrine is needed to bestow grace on the present and to heighten an otherwise irrelevant situation of fact into a standard by which the past and the future can be measured.


This excerpt is from History of Political Ideas (Volume VIII): Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 26) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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