The Irish Dialogue with Eric Voegelin
Once again our thanks to Brendan Purcell who has made available to us this Eric Voegelin informal talk which was originally recorded on tape at University College, Dublin, in 1972 and later preserved on compact disk. Like “The University and Society,” below, this lecture never found its way into The Collected Works. We employed some sophisticated sound processing to make the voices easier to understand and it is presented at 256 kbs for fidelity. The transcript was published at VoegelinView several years ago and may be read here.
The recording runs for 67 minutes and it will be presented in six parts.
In this first part, Eric Voegelin begins by considering the habit of thinking in terms of history as a single line of development, a practice which is no longer justified by historical knowledge, although ideologists still depend on it. No one competent today can be an ideologist and the struggle between the ideologies, or dogmatomachies (wars between doctrines) may be replaced by a new wave of mysticism, as Jean Bodin and Henri Bergson found necessary.
He goes on to consider the metalurgical myths of the neolithic age, as expounded by Mircea Eliade, and how these myths recur down through the ages even into the revolutionary ardor of contemporary students. He notes today (1972) you cannot give a lecture on Communism in Moscow because you would be laughed out of court. Communism can’t cope with problems such as death and everyone there knows it. You can only lecture in the west where sectarian fanactics still enjoy it.
Voegelin responds to students’ questions arising from conventional assumptions about the nature of theory, the origin of ideas (characterizing Senator McGovern’s ideas as “grand larceny”), explanatory systems, etc. He notes people start with topics (topoi), presume they are concepts, which they aren’t, then try to find a reality that fits them, which they can’t, and then get themselves into a mess.
For those well-acquainted with Voegelin, it is a romp. He skewers Marxism in a few sentences and reminds the students of the Aristotelian constituents of political science (the study of human affairs): ethics, politics and “historics.” One type Aristotle didn’t have to deal with: people in possession of the truth: the apocalyptics.
Voegelin discusses Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars as a history of a social fever or disease in which he wants to describe the syndrome (eidos). Plato and Aristotle concern themselves with the question: if one lives in a diseased society, then how does one describe a healthy one? Even if one knows what a healthy society should look like nothing can be done because in a sick society the sickness must run its course. The philosopher must persist in philosophizing because he is the servant of the gods.
The vocabulary created by Plato and Aristotle for analyzing existential order is practically unimproved today. For instance, society is bound together by homonoia, the common bond between men created by their shared love of God. More recently, John Dewey described the same phenomenon by using the King James Bible term “likemindedness,” a translation of homonoia.
Voegelin discusses why ideologies can’t handle death. The person who invents or adopts a history that culminates in his own life gains immortality to replace the lost order of existence and to replace his lost personal immortality. But eventually, revolutionary intellectuals all-of-a-sudden have to face death and they cannot do it.
The conversation shifts to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Speaking of Sartre’s situation: “You can call it tragic but I am not so sure it is tragic. It is a state of alienation. . . . You replace a theophany with what I call an egophany.”
The discussion opens with remarks about Kant’s philosophy of history. Kant discovers he is only a stepping stone for future generations which makes his own existence meaningless. Voegelin then touches on the basic study of history in school. Finally, he asks how does one explain the ideologists who show that they understand perfectly well what they are doing? Marx is one example. He knew it was all wrong. Hegel believed himself to be the Logos which coexists in himself with Professor Hegel.
Lengthy student remarks were omitted but are available in the text version.
In this final segment, Voegelin first discusses the phenomenon of civilizational crisis and alienation, both of which existed in ancient cosmological civilizations, their vocabulary still being used today.
He then considers the problem of functioning in a corrupt system and whether one must withdraw from that system to avoid one’s own corruption.