The Irish Dialogue with Eric Voegelin

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Eric Voegelin

Part 1 of the Audio Recording may be listened here.

Eric Voegelin: You have something about history. May I ask you just for a piece of paper because I want to draw a little diagram and show it to you?  It represents what is perhaps the most important change today in science in the conception of history.  What we have in public domination in the climate of opinion are conceptions of history starting from an origin and running up to the present; they are one-line histories. Take a typical example from the nineteenth century, the Comtean conception of history. There is first a theological phase; then you get a metaphysical phase; and then you get a phase of positive science. When they are arranged in a line you get something like that, a line with phases on it, one following the next, and when the next comes, the older one has become obsolete.  Now that no longer works empirically.

If you want to make a similar diagram, you would have to make something like this: these would be the co-ordinates; then from the beginning, anywhere you want to start, with the Paleolithic, the early Stone Age, or something like that, you get a beginning, and from that you get, then, the branchings-off, what I call the differentiations.  One element after another becomes clear until you reach clearness about types of consciousness in [the] Greek and Egyptian and so on.  You can represent these branchings-off like this. And when you take a cross-cut at any present point p, you get always a cross-cut through everything, including things which according to the conventional conceptions are obsolete.

To give you an example, we were talking about this Neolithic matter. There is a very good study by Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible, where he traces the myth of man being able to transform reality back to the metallurgical beginnings in the Neolithic Age.  Metallurgy, the extraction of a pure metal from an impure ore, was interpreted–not as a pure metal extracted from an ore–but as an impure substance transformed into a pure substance. This transformation into the pure substance was mythified in various myths. And this metallurgical myth is a constant, going through the history of mankind right to the present, where ultimately you want to transform the nature of man in various revolutionary conceptions like the Marxian, the Hegelian, the Comtean, and so on.  So that is a Neolithic metallurgical myth, that one can transform the nature of man, and such a Neolithic element is to be found as one of the most decisive elements in what we call modern. Thus, the modern is not simply the latest point, but precisely the most dominant feature in what we call modern is the Neolithic metallurgical myth. I give you that as an example.

Anonymous Could you say that there is always some kind of a set of structures that are dominant, or do you use that as part of your hypothesis in this kind of a structure?

EV Well, which structures are dominant at any given time is–

Anon. –empirical–

EV –a purely empirical question.

I found it out also but without knowing about the metallurgical myth. You find these structures in the various apocalyptic, gnostic, alchemistic, and neo-platonic conceptions: that is why I am so interested now in Paul.  From approximately the second century before Christ–the book of Daniel is about 165–from there on, you get transformations of the metallurgical myth in the environment of the Near East, which we call apocalyptic, gnosis, and so on.  And these are the ones in their literary form which are today the dominant ones.  But they have been present all the way through in continuity, in the long range of sectarian movements accompanying the main Church and breaking through to the public level with the Reformation.  What you might call underground sectarian movements which contain these elements have been in continuity.  Edward Gibbon saw this already: there’s a chapter already on these matters in Gibbon.  [A brief sentence follows which is unclear.]  But it was an underground or fringe movement until the breakthrough came with the Reformation, when it became an upper movement, institutionalized in competition with the Church and Empire, and in that form we have it still today.  And probably it is on its way out today, because it is completely known, the derivation and [that] it [is] anti-common-sense and anti-reason.  And when such things are discovered and even more people know about it, then such a movement is on its way out–which does not mean that it will not be dominant for the next hundred years.  But it is finished on the level of science and philosophy.  Nobody can responsibly be an ideologist any more. It’s impossible, because we know what it means.

And so, your question was, which are these structures?  There you get such a dominant structure, say from roughly 1500 AD to 2000, probably.  You will have [it] still going on for a while.  What will come to the fore?  We don’t know.  We have certain indications, because when the great conflict between these various sectarian movements came, the first in the 16th century–they are usually called the Wars of Religion.  They had little to do with religion.  I call them the dogmatomachies–the various types of wars between the dogmas. Then you get figures like Bodin, who knows that the solution has to be that the King of France cannot belong to the Catholic or the Protestant Church.  He must be a mystic. That is the only way of being beyond the fighting parties which had [fought] a civil war in France in the 16th century.  There is the same problem now in the 20th century.  You get the dogmatomachies coming [from] under[ground] as the world did in the 1920’s.

There is one philosopher, Henri Bergson, who for instance in his Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion, has the same position as Bodin: you have to be a mystic in order to get out of that mess.  So the solution probably will be, the solution in the sense of what will come, will be a new wave of mysticism instead of the dogmatomachies.  So I believe that answers your question [as to] what structures are dominant.  And such dominant types last for a considerable time. There is empirical knowledge about it insofar as usually periods of such a kind last empirically two hundred and fifty years, then come changes.  So if you count, say, [from] 1500, the beginning of the Reformation, two hundred and fifty years will bring you to the middle of the 18th century with the great incision in the middle with the outbreak of the Enlightenment type which has absorbed a considerable portion of neoplatonism. And if you add two hundred and fifty years you come to the end of the present century so you have some hope that the mess will be over by that time empirically.  But there is no rule: I cannot explain it; only if you look at periods, they run around two hundred and fifty years.

So that is the change in the conception of history, that nothing is obsolete, nothing is old, but precisely the oldest stuff are the ones that are supposedly modern. That explains, because you mentioned that we do not have in our public opinion.  So a good deal of what today we call public opinion, the revolutionary students who want freedom, that is all typical metallurgy of the Neolithic Age, the metallurgical myth of the Neolithic Age in the transformation that you get through apocalyptic gnosis and so on.  That is what we have today as the revolting student, the most modern and newest type.

Anon. Would you not say that it is only taking a hold now in places like China rather than becoming obsolete?

EV Yes–

Anon. And Africa? So that it might have a very long reign.

EV Oh yes! When things become institutionalized, of course, that introduces a new factor. For instance, take the case of Marxism.  Marxism was as dead as a doornail before the First World War.  Then it got a sudden new life because of the romanticism of power in Russia.  There was a Communist Revolution in Russia and then all of a sudden, from the institutional side – the impression such a power success has – Marxism became fashionable again.  It is still, as far as theory is concerned, as dead as a doornail, but you get always all these people who now in their sectarian fanaticism enjoy it tremendously.  So they also must complain at the same time that they are in conflict with reality.  In Eastern Europe itself, in Poland, in Russia and so on, it’s a commonplace now [that] communism as an ideology is useless because it does not explain the meaning of personal existence, it cannot cope with the problem of death.  Everybody knows that.  You cannot give lectures on communism today in Moscow, you would be laughed out of court.  Only in the West we still have that fanaticism.


Part 2 of the Audio Recording begins here.

Colm Lyons Is it possible that communism is still valid in a purely political sphere?

EV I don’t know what you mean by valid in this sense.

CL Could it be effective towards a better organizing of society?

EV If you use the word communism at all you must use it in the sense which it has received in the revolutionary context of Marx.  And Marx has given an explicit definition that the transfer of the instruments of production from private ownership into the hands of the government is worse than any capitalism.  So that’s what you get–something worse than capitalism.  The only monopoly governments today are to be found in communist countries, not in the West.

Anon. You have the theme of motivation.  Social motivation is a theme that recurs in your work.  Mobilization, making people respond to high ideas, ideas of order, in a real mass way without any hysteria being involved in their response.  I was wondering, if you say that ideology is obsolete, as a historian with a vast perspective on history, what would you propose to put in the place of ideology as it was in the past in order to translate theory into something more concrete and motivating?

EV What do you mean by translating theory?

Anon. Mediating it into the concrete.

EV What do you mean by theory?

Anon. Well, let us say, meaning defined in terms of system.

EV I wouldn’t do such a thing: system is part of the ideology beginning in the seventeenth century.  Nobody had any system before that time.  After Descartes we have always the language of the system.

Anon. Well, suppose we put it some other way, then, we don’t put it that way.  Suppose someone gets a new idea, we’ll say a new idea on how to run businesses or how to order society.  How do you propose, without ideological motivation, to get support for it?

EV You don’t get just “a new idea.”  It must be something that is applicable in a certain situation.  I don’t know what you mean by “a new idea.”  If you mean “a new idea” in the abstract, I would say, forget about it.  “New ideas” are fancies, private fancies, unless they are related to a problem in reality.

Yes, but they could be related in the sense that it would be possible to construct and motivate reality so that the idea would become applicable.

EV Oh yes, you can always do that.  For instance, take a quite vulgar affair.  We have a Presidential election now in the United States.  Now a man like McGovern, he is very incompetent but he has an appeal.  Now why does he have an appeal?  The appeal is grand larceny!  Take money from somebody and give it to somebody else.  You can always make that idea appealing.  You can get people accustomed to getting money from somebody else.  Of course you can make that an appealing idea.  But I would rather suggest that unless you are at the receiving end of the matter, that you are getting the money [it will not hold the same appeal].  If you are the one from whom the money is taken–I would resist it!

Brendan Purcell
Maybe we could find a different word.  [Anon.] was saying before you came that he would like to ask you what you mean by theory.  I know it’s not fair, you are being asked all the questions–

EV I don’t mind at all!

BP What would you mean by theory?

EV Nothing at all!  Nothing at all!  You see the word theory in the sense in which you use it is an invention of the liberal era.  In the second half of the nineteenth century everybody had a new theory.  For instance, you had a theory that all the civilizations of the world, the high civilizations, start from the conquest of agricultural settlers by nomadic conquerors.  Then you have a two-stratum society with an upper class and a lower class, and that is how all the evils of a stratified society with an upper, dominant and a lower class came into existence.  It is a beautiful idea.  It was developed in the system of sociology by Oppenheimer about 1900.

Anon. You had theories before that, though they mightn’t be social theories.

Yes, but that was a social theory and the only problem with it is that there is not a shred of material evidence that any such thing ever happened.  So you have a lot of theories of that kind for which, even on the basis of an ordinary high school knowledge of history, there is just no foundation.  Take anything, like the Communist Manifesto. It begins: all social history to the present has been the history of class struggle.  Now look, there was a Peloponnesian War, there was a Persian War, there was the conquest of Alexander, there was a Punic War, what have they to do with class struggle?

BP I don’t figure that [Anon.] wants to use theory in all these wrong senses.  You use a word like experiences.  What is political action, for example, and why would people act politically?

EV That depends on what you mean by political.  You see, you start always from certain topoi, topics, presume that they are concepts, which they are not, and then want to find a reality which fits them, which it doesn’t.  That way you get into the mess.

BP But I was asking you last night what did you mean by politics and you gave an extremely wide–

EV Well, the term politics in the sense in which it is used in any technical or scientific context was coined by Plato and Aristotle,  and there you have an episteme politike, political science.  And political science is defined by Aristotle as the science peri ta anthropina, about human affairs, which means the order of existence in personal existence, in social existence and in historical evolution.  The first part is Ethics, the second part, Politics,  and the third part wasn’t written by Aristotle, Historics: that is the political science of human affairs.  And if you skip anything of that you erect a fragment into an absolute.

BP And I gather from the end of Anamnesis that you still find that that is a basic framework: man, society, history?

EV Yes, that is the basic framework.  Nothing else has been discovered beyond it.  Only we have new variations in history.  For instance, in the whole horizon of Aristotle there was one type of person not yet in appearance in society, the truth¬possessors, [the] post-apocalyptics.  They are in possession of a truth. Before that nobody was in possession of a truth: everybody was in search of the truth and knew that he would not possess it absolutely.  But you get into the apocalyptic and gnostic movements: every one of the sectarian leaders is a possessor of the truth.  Then you get a lot of trouble because they can fight until they are blue in the face but they already possess the truth so they no longer orient themselves by reality.

John Dowling There is a curious phenomenon that has occurred to me: if you read the Funeral Speech of Pericles at the second year of the Peloponnesian War you find a total and unreflective confidence that the form of society for which these men died is a perfection, a perfection of freedom.  There is no misgiving detectable anywhere in the speech.  And yet if you take the Constitution of Athens  in the collection of Greek constitutions carried out by the Lyceum and Aristotle’s Politics, all of this followed on the total collapse of the Periclean polis.  It would be interesting to see what the time span is from the Peloponnesian War to the invasion of Asia Minor–

EV Well, the Peloponnesian War was 430, so one hundred years distance.

JD A hundred years.  Now, Socrates was alive at the beginning of this period and Aristotle was alive at the end of it.  What you have over this period is a drifting into an area of complete unreality, totally out of touch with the actualities that he was actually helping to form in Aristotle.

EV I would not say that he was out of touch with reality.


Part 3 of the Audio Recording begins here.

EV Let’s first get at the question of the Periclean Speech.  It’s part of the Syngraphe of Thucydides, usually called The Peloponnesian War.  He did not know it as The Peloponnesian War: he called it the Syngraphe, a write-up.  And there he presents the phenomena of what he calls a kinesisKinesis is a technical term meaning a rapid movement partfeverish type, a disease. The whole history of the Peloponnesian War is deliberately [presented by Thucydides in the form of] a description of social fever or disease of which he wants to describe the eidosEidos at that time in the Hippocratean medicine is what we call the syndrome. Syndrome is a later term from Galenian medicine. So the eidos or idea is the word for the syndrome.

And the Platonic and Aristotelian conception of idea and eidos, which we usually use without referring it back to the former meaning, is deliberately the attempt to form, if you can use the term in this connection the syndrome of health as against the syndrome of disease developed by Thucydides. That is the internal self-interpretation of Plato and Aristotle.  How, after the obvious diseases of society in which they themselves are living could one give a model, a paradigm, of a healthy state.  I would not call it a utopia.  It is a paradigm of a healthy state based on the analysis of existential order.  And in that sense it is entirely realistic!

JD Realistic?

EV It is absolutely realistic. Both Plato and Aristotle were – and this is an important part of their political science, they were perfectly clear about it – that this perfectly realistic model of health could not be made practical in society, because social processes once they are diseased have to run their course in the disease.  And you cannot repair a society simply by knowing what is better for the people.  This is a very important factor also for the interpretation of the present.  One can have all sorts of true conceptions about what personal order or social order should be, but that doesn’t help you in the least in practical politics because the disease will run its course.

JD It interests me why men should spend their lives in making such a structure of ideas without any hope of relevance to the actualities.

EV Oh, they are quite explicit about that. It is the service of the gods!  The philosopher is the servant of the gods, and he has to be the servant of the gods even if society around him is going to hell!

JD Yes, they seem to have some similarity to our own servants of God!

BP But as you mentioned also, while Plato’s model was not realizable there and then, it has survived as an ideal or paradigm to our time.  In fact, it has survived while the Greek society and the polis have collapsed.  Indeed, Plato’s model –

EV The actual vocabulary of existential order was developed by Plato and Aristotle and it is still practically unimproved today. We still have the same vocabulary.

Anon. Could you say a little more on that?  It is a category that occurs in The New Science of Politics.  I didn’t study it in great detail but I had a feeling that it had a lot to do with the conditions of survival of society, the existential conditions.

EV The existential categories are–you can enumerate them, you have a language problem–a man is in existential order if he lives in the tension towards the divine ground of his existence.  The divine ground is the arche, the prote arche.  For that he is in search, zetesis, a fundamental category, the philosopher’s search for this right order.  In this search, he is moved from the divine side, kinesis, being moved.  Zetesis and kinesis are the two experiences: I am in search, and I am moved to search.  Or in some Platonic mystical formulations–the Golden Cord of reason that pulls.  However, often you do not follow the same pull, but some other pull.  By the way, that pull, that helkein, is also such an existential category: it is the same category as in the Gospel of St. John.

Here you have the language in which to describe existence.  And this language is still the language which we are using today and not very much more because they have analyzed the problems of the pulls and the search, of being moved and so on, and the consequences for the organisation of life, in the virtues, of phronesis and so on, of the philia, especially, then, the philia as the love of God which is the common bond in society, so homonoia, all men are of the same mind, in the same nous, if they are in philia towards the divine.  And the homonoia is still the category in which we have to think.  And still in American sociology, for instance, I remember in the 1920’s John Dewey simply used the King James version translation of homonoia, the like-mindedness, as a substance category for society.  And when there was a secularist he would use “consciousness of kind.”  It is the same as the like-mindedness or homonoia of Dewey.  So these are still the categories in which we think and they were developed there on that occasion.

CL Does this search for the divine ground of being have no relevance in modern politics?  Can you bring this search into modern politics?

EV Man is still the same.  We are engaged in the same search.  As you can find out when you talk with students.  They have all these fantatic beginnings. They are, you might say, left around by their professors who should be teaching them.  They don’t tell them anything.  The next thing is they read the I Ching  because it is nice and romantic and Asiatic and you have the   You tell them: the I Ching is all right but you won’t understand it anyway because it is much too compact and too complicated.  Why don’t you take it easy and read, for instance, the Symposium of Plato.  It works!  That is what they are really interested in!

CL But modern politics does not seem to incorporate this search.

EV You cannot say that, because “modern politics” is an abstraction. You have all sorts of stratifications in modern politics.  You have, you might say, a mass media way of talking about politics which is an intellectual mess.  You cannot characterize it [coherently in any way].  Then you have what in American slang are called the wise guys, who believe that if you are pragmatically calculating that you get the right thing, that is at the pragmatic level.  But then you get also all these people who understand perfectly well that there is a problem of personal existence and that if you frustrate the personal existence of too many people you get into trouble.  For instance, if I may again refer to the great turmoil of the present Presidential election.  There is now a very solid consciousness apparent in discussions and newspapers that there is an American people in existence and they get simply disgusted when these new intellectuals tell them what is right.

CL But in a modern order it should be possible to order society so that people’s personal existence is not frustrated.

EV Yes, but it is difficult.

CL But is that not the reason for politics, to order society in that way?

EV Yes. To order society, but in the right way.  Because if you do it in the wrong way by getting an idea of modernity–modernity consists in having big industries–then you transfer that idea say in the London School of Economics, to some African [student] who then becomes Prime Minister and he sets up big industries and meanwhile the countryside is in [a state of] starvation.


Part 4 of the Audio Recording begins here.

Gerald Hanratty Just moving to a very different topic–

EV Yes. Please–

GH You said that Marxism just couldn’t handle the problem of death at all. It seems to me that you think there’s a very fundamental deficiency in Marxism.

EV Sure, there is. And not only in Marxism.

GH Could you elaborate on this?

EV The problem begins in the eighteenth century. The best source for understanding it is that introductory lecture by Schiller on universal history which he gave in the Fall of 1789 in Vienna. That is the classic formulation: I am inventing a history now in which the middle class of which I am a member comes out on top as the fulfilment of the meaning of history.  And why am I doing that, falsifying history and so on?  Because that gives me a virtual immortality – being on top of history – instead of the personal immortality in which I no longer believe. It is a virtual immortality: so a substitution of being on top of history as a sense of immortality [in the place of] the lost order of existence.  And that goes through from the eighteenth century to the present. There is a very good study by the psychologist Lifton in Yale on revolutionary immortality where he works out that problem without knowing about the eighteenth century things, on the basis of the works of Mao. Here is the problem: the virtual immortality by inventing an imaginary history which we can feel on top of, because we have lost the faith in personal immortality. That is one of the strong forces. But there are all these people who do not fall into that fantasy of an intellectual and who find out that they have to die nevertheless.

There are, for instance, very good studies now by Molnar, that French literary historian who is living near New York, on Sartre and what’s the name of the lady, Simone de Beauvoir,  who are now, after a life of fake revolutionary quality [activity?], getting old and finding out that they have done nothing that is worthwhile in all their lives. It’s a mess. The breakdown of old age when they realize that now they die, and what has become of the revolution for which they believed they have lived?  They find out that they have not lived for anything, they have made a mess of their lives. It is a very tragic situation–except that Sartre and people like him are not the kind of people for whom I have excessive pity–when they find out that they have to die, revolution or no revolution.  Here is a case of people who are very vociferous and very articulate.  But the same is true of many people who are less articulate.  I know a lot of revolutionary intellectuals who are senile before their time because they simply all of a sudden have to face death and cannot do it.

But then you get the very odd case.  Several years ago I was in Zagreb in Yugoslavia.  There is a Faculty for Political Science there, eight people, very intelligent people. They invited me for a couple of lectures.  One of them picked me up at the airport and the first thing he said, in order to put me into the context of politics there, so that I wouldn’t make any mistakes, was: “‘We are not communists’–communists are Russians–‘we are Marxists.’”  And that meant Marx of the Paris Manuscripts of 1845  before the Capital.  And that Marxism is then interpreted by them in the direction of Husserl’s phenomenology and French existentialism, and not only Sartre but also Gabriel Marcel.  So they use Marx, you might say, as a facade, behind which they are very difficult to distinguish from a Christian existentialist.

JD But don’t we all find ourselves to some extent, who are involved in political action as I am for example, here–

EV Are you involved in political action?

JD Yes, in the sense that I participate in a political movement. I write on politics. Don’t we all tend to do this? One finds oneself, depending on the circumstances, on the company and on the place, describing oneself in Cork as a Marxist, describing oneself in Milltown Institute  as a Thomist, and describing oneself somewhere else as a phenomenologist, and somewhere else as an existentialist, because one is in the company, say, of phenomenologists. I think that this is a necessary thing to do. One has to say what one is not, as much as what one is. In the company of non-Marxists or pragmatists, one tends to say: I use the Marxist analysis here in politics because I have to propose a course of action for the working class here at the moment. And I have to talk in an intelligible language: it’s a dead language, like all intelligible languages.

So coming back to your example of having a grudging pity for Sartre and de Beauvoir, it seems to me that the tragedy of their situation was that in the beginning they faced, when Sartre was simply an existentialist, when the facticity of existence, its meaninglessness and the necessary illusions that accompany it, he did face it, that it was absurd, that it was nauseating, that it was meaningless, and again you have the escape into mysticism because his revolution was a mystical leap which you described earlier.  A leap into mysticism, using the word mysticism in that sense, is always a tragic thing and not merely a pathetic thing.

EV You would come closer to the motivations of what you call that leap if you consider [the inversion of the meaning of] freedom in Sartre.  You have spoken of the facticité de l’existence in Sartre. For Sartre, because there is only facticity without meaning, one is condemned to be free. There is a complete inversion of the meaning of freedom as a condemnation instead of a freedom–that is characteristic of the alienated situation of Sartre. You can call it tragic but I am not so sure it is tragic. It is a state of alienation.

I use another term for it, because again it goes back to a type that has become predominant since the eighteenth century when, you might say, the subordination into a reality in which man is in relationship to God [is lost], that relation is denied, you are in a state of alienation, and you replace a theophany with what I call an egophany.  So, if you are an egophanic obsessed individual, as Sartre is, or Comte, or Marx, or Hegel,  then I would not call that a tragedy, it is a libidinous obsession, and I don’t think that a libidinous obsession is a tragedy. Tragedy requires something different. It’s a pathological condition.

JD I see. You would regard it possibly as merely pathetic?

EV Yes. It’s pathetic. It’s not tragic.

BP You have an essay on James where you use the category of Henry James’s  awareness of being in hell.  Could you say a bit more about that? You just used that as one symbol by which one could express Henry James’s implicit or explicit awareness of the situation in which he was.

EV The state of alienation, yes.  But that is nothing new.  You get the state of alienation every time a society is in crisis.  When the established institutions and their mythologies are no longer believed, then people get into a state of alienation.


Part 5 of the Audio Recording begins here.

JD I’m sorry if I seem to be talking too much, but if you take a figure like Kant at the height of the Enlightenment, representing again a class which as you described it is on top of the history that is being made as Marx said, in the minds of the philosophers, but soon to be made on the machines of Leeds and Manchester: He produces a philosophy of highly articulated alienation, rationalized, total and abysmal alienation!  Where a man’s speculative intellect is totally alienated from his practical intellect.  Where both are totally alienated from his aesthetic judgement.  And where the functions of the kingdom of ends are totally alienated from reality itself.  In fact, if I had to do so, which, fortunately, I have not, I would describe Kant as the philosopher of alienation and the prophet of the alienated society which was about to recreate an alienated world. Yet it wasn’t a tragic situation.

EV No, it wasn’t tragic; it was pathetic. But Kant was an intelligent person. He developed his philosophy of history in that essay of which I always forget the title, [“Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht” (1784), (“Idea of a World History from a Cosmopolitan Viewpoint.”) ] which he gave in the Fall of 1789 in Jena. There he developed a progressivist type of ideology, understanding by progress, an infinite approach to a perfectly rational society.  However, while making these concessions to the age he is nonetheless an intelligent person, [so] he reflects on this and expresses his Befremdung, his little shock, or something like that: that apparently we have nothing to do but to be the stepping stones for future generations. And we in our turn are on a level which has been prepared by others before us.  But none of us is ever in the perfection except the last generation. That, however, cannot be the meaning of existence for man–to be only a stepping stone for future generations.

JD But that is only at one level. On another level, man is engaged in a titanic moral struggle in which he is by definition defeated, because he can never do what he ought to do: since everything he actually does must be motivated by the ego, and everything he ought to do ought not to be motivated by the ego.

From the beginning of this discussion I have been driving – as I hope you now detect – I have been driving you to see what your notion is of the tragic situation of man.  And I would like to ask you once again at this stage –

EV – what the tragic situation is?

JD Yes.

EV I would use the word tragedy always in the meaning which it has been given by the people who wrote the tragedies, the Greek tragedians, tragodoi. If you take, say, The Suppliants of Aeschylus, he discusses that problem.  There you have a situation. King Pelasgus is approached by the daughters of Danaus who are fleeing from the Egyptians. They ask for refuge in the city. This poses him with a problem. If he accepts the fugitives then he faces a considerable danger for the city of which he is the king, because the Egyptian pursuers are approaching. If he denies the fugitives and sends them away, then he is violating the law of Zeus, themis.  So here is a great problem. Then comes the formula, drasai te me drasai. We talked about that yesterday: to act or not to act, that is the question.  And it requires going into the depths of the soul and coming up with the right solution, like a diver, in the Heraclitean sense, into the depths.  He comes up with the solution that he has to give refuge to the Danaides.  Here then you have the definition of action.  Action means: [if] you are in agreement with the existential order after search for its rightness. In inaction or behaviour, you are like an opportunist on the pragmatic level, that is inaction.  So here is a tragic problem.


JD – without any possibility of resolution.  It is inevitable that Hegel should have taken this up and given us the notion of tragedy as the conflict of that which ought to be done on two levels.

EV But the Kantian construction is already very far away from the existential experiences of a man like Aeschylus or Plato, very far away, by reducing it to an abstract morality which is not the problem.  The abstract morality –

Anon. Isn’t there a conflict of fairly equal values in the Antigone and plays like that?

EV Yes, it is a conflict of what you call values, of duties, represented by the various gods, Zeus is the god of justice, and the other one by the interest for the safety of the polis. They are conflicting purposes, let us say.  And the decision between these purposes, that is a tragic situation.

Anon. But I could put forward the hypothesis that a lot of these conflicts of values are not due to any intrinsic structures in human nature, but are a function of the legal structures that are contingent in a particular social development and formation: you wouldn’t call them tragic then.

EV You have to give examples. I have given the example of The Suppliants.  There is also a legal problem there.  The king cannot just make the decision for himself.  He has to put it to the assembly of the people and try to persuade them the right way.  If they would not follow his persuasion, he would obey the people and make the tragic mistake of not doing what he should do.  This raises the question of how corrupt can the people be that you are forced to go along with them as a statesman.  You cannot wriggle out of that tragedy.

Anon. Would you apply it to a few more. What about the Antigone?  What do you think about the Antigone?

EV Well, the Antigone are several tragedies which are not in sequence.  But there you have the famous question between what is usually called the natural law and the statutory law.  There is a conflict in law in a social situation.  It is possible that we are in a transition in which certain types of conduct which are on the point of being differentiated in society, would not yet be acceptable on the statutory level.  That can also lead to tragic situations.

Anon. Would you think of a figure like Edith Stein as a tragic situation in modern history, Edith Stein and the Nazis and so on?

EV I don’t know whether that is a tragedy.  You see, I was in a similar situation running away from the Nazis.  For instance, when you said just now, that you are in politics, I was on the point of saying I am in politics too: my problem in politics is to survive in a world in which corrupt politicians determine public events.  Because you can get killed in the process and I don’t feel obliged to get killed by idiotic politicians.  But I don’t know whether that is a tragedy.

BP But, on that particular personal issue, from your knowledge of European history you presumed that if Austria were invaded the Western Allies [would intervene to prevent it] but you said they were more corrupt than you thought: in fact you were wrong, you didn’t expect that!

EV Yes!  I stayed in Austria until 1938 while the Nazis were in preparation because I had historical knowledge.  I knew that when Hitler was permitted to occupy Austria that was the beginning of the Second World War.  And I could not imagine that any English or French government, or for that matter, any American government, would be so idiotic as to permit that sort of thing.  But they were more corrupt than I had expected.

Anon. If nobody else wants to come in, I’d like to ask you something on gnosticism.  It’s a category that occurs a lot, and I felt on reading the New Science of Politics that I had some idea of what you meant by it, but I didn’t know how you were applying it.  I felt that sometimes you were applying it to Marx, sometimes to the Puritan revolution, other times to the Western powers in their attitude to Hitler, and so on.  Did you see a uniformity in all those gnostic phenomena?

EV I would have to correct what I wrote at that time in the following direction. I found out about these matters in the ’30s and ’40s. There came out that book by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prometheus, and there in a discussion of St. Thomas More he mentioned in a footnote that problem of gnosticism which made itself felt already at that time.  That is how I became aware of the problems of gnosticism. Then I went into it.  But while gnosticism is present in all of these cases, there are also other strands. The matter is more complicated. There are the apocalyptic strands, there are the Hermetic and alchemistic strands, there are the neoplatonic strands, and so on. So I could enumerate now at least four such strands which would qualify in every single case the particular constellation of factors that are operative in, say, a Puritan revolution, in a French revolution, in a case like Hegel, in a case like Marx–all these different combinations.  But these four factors which I have just enumerated, the gnostic, the apocalyptic, the neoplatonic, and the alchemistic, are present.  But perhaps when we know more about it we will find a fifth or a sixth.

Anon. Could you give us a few ideas about what you think would be the essential things about gnosticism right through history?

EV If you distinguish first between apocalyptic and gnosticism, you would have to say that in a pure case of apocalypse like the Book of Daniel, what I call the metastasis, the change in the structure of the cosmos (including society and man), will occur by a divine intervention.  If you take the Puritan revolution, the divine intervention is replaced by Cromwell and an army.  So if you go back to the Revelation of St. John, and look up chapters 20–21, an angel of the Lord will bring about the change. The angel of the Lord is replaced by Cromwell. That’s the change from the apocalypse.

Now that has various other implications. In the gnostic case, in ancient gnosticism as distinct from apocalypse, a gnostic does not expect an intervention of the Lord to change the world.  It will remain as bad as it is, and you with your pneuma, your spirit, your divine spirit, can only get out of it.  And the technique of getting out of it, that is what one has to learn as a gnostic.  One element in these modern apocalypses, when you get human beings involved – Cromwell and the army – is that you find recipes for how to get out of the mess by your own action.  And the recipes for action which can condense them into an Hegelian system, a Comtean system, a Marxian system, they are gnostic.  So you have an apocalyptic with, however, now a human intervention to escape out of it, which can be applied within history.

Now this application within history requires a third factor which I mentioned before–that you get a libidinous obsession in which you believe that you can do divine things, that you can be a savior, and that is part of the alchemistic tradition.  In the ancient and medieval types of alchemy you find the attempts to transform matter as an act of salvation for the cosmos.  First you have to prepare yourself by the transformation of your own personality through mystical exercises, then you can participate in the act of salvation.  That separates, around 1500: chemistry separates from alchemy.  And you get new types of the savior opus , as it is called.  You do not do it in the laboratory, but, for instance, it begins in the early 16th century in Italy [as] the work of art.  There is an excellent study by Dell’Arco of Parmigianino. Parmigianino was one of those who consciously applied alchemistic teaching and hermetic vocabulary and symbols, believing that through creating a work of art you can achieve salvation for yourself and for others who believe in it and do the same: that is Mannerism.

JD Our great national poet, Yeats, the whole of his –

EV Yes, a very strong element of that in his Vision. Yes, very much so.

JD Applying what you say to the agnostic, the Latin for which is ignoramus–you have it very strongly in Marx himself, where the angel of the Lord will be the proletariat who will come into the historical process.

Yes, but here we have further types – this is why I mentioned the work of art. Then by the [time of the] French revolution in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, you get the conception that the saving work, the opus, is a system: a system as the salvation of mankind and of your own existence.  So the system takes the place of the work of art and the laboratory experiment.  And that is not the last phase yet, because the systems as we all know by now don’t work, so we have a last phase, probably, because you can’t go further than death: the magic of violence.  You assume that if you are violent and smash everything around you, that will bring you salvation.

That was already the idea of Bakunin and then of the surrealists, André Breton,  in the 1920s, and that goes back again to Fourier. André Breton has written a great ode to Fourier.  And that is the element of Marx which Lenin has idolized: use violence, and by the magic of violence you get [salvation].  But that also goes back to Marx, because before 1848 Marx was of the opinion that if you use violence in the blood-letting of a revolution you get what is called a Blutrausch, a blood-intoxication by which the nature of man will be changed.  Then 1848 came and there was a lot of blood-letting and blood-intoxication and no nature of man was changed.  So he had to drop that idea and later he invented the dictatorship of the proletariat as the instrument for changing, and not the blood-intoxication.  But most people now go back to the violence directly.

Anon.We had a chap here called Pearse –

JD Patrick Pearse: he had a whole theology of violence.

EV This conception is very widespread today.  So I would say that you can find a sequence of types: the alchemistic opus in the medieval sense, the laboratory opus, the work of art, which is still a problem today in surrealistic art, then the system, and then the magic of violence, as developments, transformations of the alchemistic opus.

JD This may seem a triviality after that very illuminating exposition.  I have always been tremendously struck by the phenomenon in the life of Goya in which Goya painted two pictures of the outburst of violence at Madrid when the French invaded Madrid.  He painted a picture, which I think is called The 7th of October in the manner of David, with heroic, perfectly resolved figures of the people attacking the cavalry and they are all in very heroic attitudes in the manner of a court painter.  But [there is] none of the sardonic humanity or insight in which his real court painting abounds.

EV There is a whole series of etchings –

JD Yes, but before we come to that, this particular thing that has always fascinated and baffled me: how he then had a nervous breakdown when he discovered that the French in reprisal for the attack on the French troops had taken out hundreds of boys from Madrid and shot them in a quarry by lantern light.  He was in delirium for about a month, after which he painted a picture called The 8th of May and expressionism was created in that picture.  If you put the two together it’s almost unbelievable, and in fact it is really incredible that the technique of expressionism had to wait until…and the German expressionists to be suddenly born.

EV You have this problem of a man who first falls for the violence and then sees what happens also in our time. The famous English case is Orwell. He fought in the Spanish civil war, but see how he came out of it.

BP Professor Voegelin, you have done work on Plato’s notion of judgment and I gather you say he is using a myth he has written–he is using it in an existential fashion.  In other words, he is not thinking of a doctrinal last judgment in which the people are here and God is there.  What precisely does he mean–it’s at the end of the Gorgias?

EV He means that a society is in transition, and that the older society based on belief in the gods was no longer working.  People will misbehave. What has to be done is to create the existential consciousness which makes you yourself judge of what you are doing.  Which of course, in many cases, is educationally a lost endeavor.

JD Then again it would depend on the assumptions behind the need for a society.  If you took the view of St. Thomas, the purpose of a society was to make it possible for a relatively small number of good men to live among a very large number of evil men: there you would have a quite different view of this.

EV There is probably a point about which we cannot argue much.  The whole classical politics, both Plato and Aristotle, is based on an empirical assumption: that the type of person whom Aristotle calls the spoudaios, the mature man, is a development which is possible always only to a minority.  And that for the others, who do not have the eidos tou agathou to behave, you can’t do anything much but punish them.  He makes it as an empirical observation.  I’m not taking a stand on it but in common sense, it seems to be true.

BP Would you find a parallel in a Gospel reading we had a few Sundays ago from Matthew 18: If your brother sins against you, argue with him, try to persuade him.  If he won’t make up, bring a few more, make it objective.  If he won’t listen to the church, presumably the mature men, the men who are open, then let him be to you as the heathen.  Would you find that that is something the same?  He is no longer within the group of men who are in this likemindedness we were speaking of earlier, he is inaccessible.

EV Yes. It’s a practical problem. We are always talking partly about ethical problems and partly about the public/legal problem.  You can’t start a huge affair of education for everybody who commits crime.  It’s a short cut to protect society, short of finding out all about the environmental causes and short of healing him in some way, permitting therapy.

BP Could you say something about consciousness? Would you have the time?

EV I have time.  That is the perennial problem.  That is what we corresponded about.  I asked him [BP] a question.  He said he is a psychologist and I always ask anyone who says he’s a psychologist if he’d explain to me, because I couldn’t find out what was going on in a man like Hegel or Marx, who are not exactly stupid and who know perfectly well that the system which they construct is wrong, and say so, and do it nevertheless. Obviously a schizoid type.  And the problem, of what looks like schizophrenia, worried me.  It is characteristic of most of the so-called modern thinkers since the eighteenth century.  Especially in Marx, in the Paris Manuscripts where he develops his conception of the socialist man.  He had had a good philosophical education so he knew that the problem of human existence is always the quest of the divine ground.  But he simply says: “Yes, all that is so, but I simply do not ask those questions and I invite you not to ask them either. Be a socialist man and don’t ask questions.”  I’m quoting him literally.  That is what he says in the Paris Manuscripts.  And he stuck to that to his death, knowing perfectly well that it was all wrong because he had a classical philosophical education.  So how do these things happen?  That was the question I was asking.  You have the same problem in Hegel and other thinkers.

BP Did you come to some type of articulation of this problem?

EV What looks like a split personality, like a divided self in the sense of Laing, is a deformation of the original tension between the divine and the human, in the existential tension, the search for the ground.  Here is man, there is God: you are in search of the divine ground and when you now abolish that tension because you want to have nothing to do with God, the problem of the existential tension doesn’t disappear.  But in your intellectual production you must be, on the one hand the man who is in search, and [on the other hand] the second self which gives you the answers which no longer come from the divine ground but from the second self which you have to invent for that purpose.  So, in the state of alienation, you get the structure of existential tension repeated as immanent to the ego.  One self represents God, the other represents the man.

BP Is that what you meant when you said that you regarded Hegel as a mystic manqué?

EV Yes, but I was not yet able to express it in that manner.  But that is, for instance, Hegel’s problem.  He is, on the one hand, as he describes in the Preface to the Enzyklopadie, the Logos before the creation of the world and man in the sense of St. John.  He is the Logos.  On the other hand, he is Professor Hegel.  And the Logos-Hegel tells Professor Hegel how to write the system.  So that is not a schizophrenia in the clinical sense.  But it is a peculiar disorientation of the existential tension in which both the human and the divine pole of the tension must be represented by two different selves in the ego.


Part 6 of the Audio Recording begins here.

JD Is it, do you think, also present even in mythological, undifferentiated man?

EV I don’t. Except that you have also in early cosmological civilizations like the Egyptian, the same type of crisis that we have, and you get already in the third millennium [BC] a crisis literature, scepticism, and elaborate literary documents expressing alienation, and this alienation is couched already in the same symbols in which the alienation symbols reappear later.  We live in a world as in a prison, as in a hospital from which we have to get out, in death from which we have to go into life, all these things.  In the Egyptian case, I am referring to The Dialogue of a Man, Contemplating Suicide with his Soul, to be solved by suicide, because the possibilities like, say, Christianity, were not there yet.

JD There is an extraordinary early one, I don’t know if you are familiar with it, the Sumerian What Shall I Do Today?, of the same time.  The slave answers the master in what he considers to be the reply that the master wants. [The master says] “I will have women today,” and he says, “oh yes, of course, have all the beautiful girls that are there.”  And then he says “I will not have women today, they are a cause of destruction and dissension.”  Finally, it ends up, [with the question] whether there is happiness, and the slave turns around and says, “to break my neck, and then break thine, that is happiness.”

EV So you have this alienation literature, you have this analysis of the situation. But the solution, to construct a system in that situation, was not found yet.

BP What about more artistic expressions of alienation?  You mentioned Kafka, Henry James, and also Beckett. Could you just say a word or two about those as explicating alienation?  You mentioned that Henry James wasn’t the clearest example of someone who is explicating an alienation, but obviously Beckett is an extremely clear one.

EV Well you see, that is a much lower level of intellectual technical perfection. Hegel after all was a competent philosopher: he knew his business and he could think through a problem–even if he perverted it–to perfection, in the perversion, which was beyond the range of a man like Henry James or Kafka.  They just didn’t have the philosophical competence to pervert a problem completely.

BP Were they better off as a result of that?

EV I don’t think they were better off, no.  By the way, that is the reason why a man like Hegel is the most instructive, because there you can .  They know what they are doing.  While a man like Henry James or Kafka, they never quite know what they are doing.

GH A phrase you have used quite a few times is “the divine ground of existence.”  I was just wondering if you were to meet an analytic philosopher –

EV British analysis?

GH Yes. It strikes me as the type of phrase they would immediately take exception to, as being completely vague and incoherent–I wonder, have you ever had discussions with them?

EV Yes. That requires a technical elaboration.  Symbols like prote arche, that would be the divine ground, [are] not vague at all.  It means, quite precisely, the divine pole of the tension.    There is nothing vague about it; the definition as one pole of a tension.  The one is the human pole, the other is the divine pole.  How the divine pole will reveal itself in a particular experience, that is another matter which one can never predict, because after all, there you get the divine reality which seems on some occasions to prefer to reveal itself in one way, and on other occasions in another way.  But the prote arche is a perfectly exact concept.  It isn’t vague.

And they are to be found gradually.  For instance, the term tension which I have used is not to be found in classical philosophy.  The term tension, tasis, appears for the first time after Aristotle in the Stoics.

JD It’s not to be found in Aristotle?

EV No. It’s a dictionary question.  It isn’t there, but only the concrete aspects of tension.  You get terms like eros, philia, like elpsis, like pistis. That you get, but the term tension is an abstract [one], comprising all of these concrete aspects of tension. It’s not used yet.

JD There is a pathology, again, to fall back on your assurance, not a medical pathology, but a cultural pathology.

EV Well, I don’t know whether it’s cultural.  It can be caused by a cultural situation.  If a man is not spiritually energetic enough to cope with a situation in which one could feel alienated, he succumbs to the alienation.

JD You know the thing that Gilbert Murray describes in The Five Stages of Greek Religion, where “the failure of nerve” which surely is a pathological collapse of a collective consciousness, the collapse of a collective…when you get a withdrawal, the first symptom of which, I think, is Socrates himself, where you get a withdrawal into interiority in order to make the world bearable.

EV Well, That is the great question.  You see, I’m not sure about that.  I simply don’t know.  Because the cultural situation [is] where through participation in a certain degree of corruption, you don’t achieve anything except your own corruption.  That is the point at which what you call interiorization may become a duty.  That would not be a failure of nerve, but an understanding of the true situation.  You don’t get anywhere by playing the game, except to –

JD I wish–Is this being recorded?

BP We have it on tape –

JD This is tremendously important.  This is tremendously important.

EV This was Plato’s whole reason why he did not go into politics: Socrates’s fate, once!  If you do it a second time you make yourself ridiculous.

JD Aristotle says this: I must leave Athens because the crime against philosophy must not be committed again.  This is the resignation syndrome.

How would you feel about that in the context of the German universities of Nazi times?  Would you say that then the academic–presumably the man who had the means and the leisure to analyze the situation–by remaining, he couldn’t help but be corrupted?  Do you figure this is what happened?

EV Yes. This is.

JD So you think that a man like Bonhoeffer was corrupted?

EV Well, you see, Bonhoeffer is perhaps not the best case.  Bonhoeffer has become very famous–because he was killed.  But that doesn’t elevate him to the rank of a first-rate thinker. And I am skeptical a bit about Bonhoeffer. There were other people  who were better.

JD But would you share a certain suspicion that I have of people who will only read masterpieces who won’t read minor poets?  It’s not a criticism of him to say that he was not a first-rate thinker.  He could have been a first-rate man.

EV  Yes, but somehow you must see where the first-rate is.  For instance, out of that whole mess have come a number of first-rate novelists, some of them Austrians, like Broch [who wrote] The Death of Virgil.

The recording available to us comes to an end at this point.

He really grappled with that problem.  But he had to leave, of course.  If he had remained, (he was a Jew), he would have died in a concentration camp probably.  So what is the sense of staying there and letting oneself get killed in a Nazi concentration camp?  He left Austria and he wrote his work.

BP What about Brecht, who was a Marxist?

EV He was a first-rate dramatic talent, but again, not much of a thinker.  All his dramas–when you analyze them, what is their real substance–there isn’t very much to it. It was a talent.  And good dramatic talents are rare.  You might just as well take a case like Bernard Shaw. Everything that Bernard Shaw wrote was first rate, but not profound.

Joseph McCarroll Do you mean that in a corrupt situation people should turn to cultivating the interior life?

EV If they can.

JMcC Do you suggest that that is bad?

No.  It’s not bad at all. It’s the only thing you can do in such a situation.

JMcC Does that make it good?

EV What else do you –?

JMcC But can’t you stay and change it?

EV No, you can’t change anything, say, under a Nazi regime.  You can’t persuade the Politburo to behave differently.

JMcC Can we transfer the question to another situation?  Can you hope to change a technological bureaucracy?

EV Well, a technological bureaucracy in itself may be a nuisance but it isn’t a physical danger, unless you get a totalitarian sect governing it, for example, in the communist case.

JD Wait now! We’ve had some experience ourselves. You do, and it’s of quite a new character.  And its tyranny is as absolute as the Nazis’, but it uses a process of assimilation which is essentially corruption, corruption with the alternative of isolation.

EV In big corporations’ bureaucracies for instance?

JD Yes.

EV Yes! You can get that. You get bureaucracies an assimilating force–you may get corrupted.

JMcC But it’s not possible to survive outside it.

EV Oh yes it is!

JD Oh yes it is!

EV I do, for instance!

JD I did!

EV I know a lot of people who do.

JD You reach a point where you have to say: what you are saying is corrupt, and I am now helpless.  I have done all that can be done.  I am now helpless.  I opt out.  I will not serve.

EV You can always refuse to continue your service.

JD It seems to me that our utilitarianism, which is inherent in all of us, will say: You will do far better to stay inside the system and make it work. How many priests, for example, who were innocent until the Vatican Council, are now totally corrupt, and who become daily more and more corrupting influences because they wouldn’t face the issue that to remain there was in itself to accept corruption?

JMcC Does that mean that to move outside of taking part in the operation of a particular bureaucracy is not being corrupted?  Are you still benefiting indirectly when you move just out of one organization or maybe out of two or out of three–are you not still benefiting from the whole movement or the whole system?

JD Are you asking, do you still continue to exist?  As I sometimes say to my own colleagues in politics, one is not obliged to commit suicide because one lives as a socialist in a capitalist system.

JMcC But how can we avoid it? I mean this as an existential question.

JD Well, I suggest you avoid it in the Socratic [manner].  You see the analogy I draw in the hope of provoking a response which it seems to me has not happened.  Where the analogy rather breaks down is that most priests stay inside the system and make no attempt to disrupt it.

JMcC But can you see the dilemma that I find myself in?  As a member of the middle class sitting on the pig’s back I am doing very well, and no matter what I do, I’m still doing very well.  Even if I became extraordinarily revolutionary, I’m still doing very well, and I have better food and accommodation than anybody else, well, 90% of the world.

JD You’re to be congratulated.  I think you’re very fortunate.

Anon. If you become a revolutionary you wouldn’t be doing that much longer!

EV Of the Church now, and of its personnel, it’s very frequently something which they cannot deliver, because the present intellectual crisis in the Church is due to millennially repeated problems of which an individual man, say Henri de Lubac, can get an idea and can say something about. But how many de Lubacs are there around?

JD More of them than are prepared to come out of their holes!

Well I don’t know enough about it.  I’m just asking the question.  I don’t know how many de Lubacs there are, I know there is one!  A man like Rahner,  for instance, does not have this quality.

JMcC The idea of the Socratic answer to the problem of moving out of corruption, does that do any good to the corruption?  Does it change it in any way or does it just withdraw from the process?

EV No, of course it changes it.  The corrupt Athens: nobody knows anything much about the people who were the great men in the corruption.  But Socrates and Plato have survived to this day.  They have had a world historical influence.

JMcC But are they a world influence?

EV Of course!

JMcC Remember you spoke about the different type of man who emerges in the eighteenth century–

EV Oh well you see there are dominant waves, but what Whitehead  said is true, that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

JMcC But all history, apart from the history of philosophy, is it a footnote to pragmatism?

EV No. Definitely not. You cannot say that.

JD Pragmatism has no history.  It is a denial that there is history.

EV You cannot say that Alexander’s conquests, and his conception of empire and of the function of a king in an empire, has anything to do with pragmatism.  I would rather say that he was a fantastic romantic who was in search of the borders of the world, but not a pragmatist.  And the great expansion, even on a drier scale, like the Roman Empire: it was perfectly obvious to people like Polybius and Scipio as a senseless activity, but they did it nevertheless, and not for pragmatic reasons.

JMcC But what followed after Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas, to what extent were they a good influence on it?  Or were they just a lid on top of it?

EV I don’t know what you mean. Plato and Aristotle lived in the fourth century [BC].  What do you mean, “What followed it?”

JMcC Up till now?  They have survived, whereas the corrupt people have not survived?

EV They have survived. Take, for example, Plotinus. You get the great surprises.  For instance when you look at the Encyclopedie Français, which certainly is the classic of the Enlightenment, there you will find in the introductory essay by d’Alembert and Diderot, and then in the articles, Eclecticism, as it is called, the great presentation of the neoplatonic system as the model of the Encyclopedie. The encyclopedists are neoplatonist, and Hegel was a neoplatonist in the wake of the Enlightenment.  [It is there] that he gets the basis.

JMcC Does that mean that there is a move of history, the general flow, picture it as a straight line, which is generally a process of continuing and increasing corruption which –

EV It isn’t generally increasing corruption. There are ups and downs.

JMcC But the ups and downs are all going that way, generally down.

EV No, you can’t say that.  You can’t even say that today.  After all, the natural sciences and technology have also certain positive results.

JMcC Yes, but what I was going to suggest was that very stress of the downhill movement is sparking off various people to realize that the Socratic attitude is the only solution.  But the solution doesn’t move down and change the corruption process from going down to more corruption. It just goes off itself at a tangent.

EV But you don’t know what the long run effects will be. Take a case like Solzhenitsyn.  Sure, Solzhenitsyn will not change the policies of the Moscow government.  But there is, and it surprises me, in Cancer Ward,  a chapter on idols, idola in the sense of Bacon, and he uses the classification of the idola of Bacon to analyze the communist system.  I don’t know of anyone else in the West who is philosophically competent enough to do that.  But he does it.  And where he got it, I don’t know.

BP He refers to Francis Bacon in the chapter.

EV That’s why it’s called idols, from the idola of the Novum Organum.

BP And as a matter of fact, Joe, meeting people in Eastern Europe, everyone has heard of Solzhenitsyn, they’ve all read his first little book and the very fact that they know, even people studying Russian in Russia–they ask their professors in Moscow and the professors are very embarrassed–the very fact that they know that there is a great writer, even if he is inaccessible, and that he is analyzing the situation.  In fact it’s a glimmer of hope to young people and gives them a certain amount of intellectual courage and stamina: that some of the things they suspected can’t actually be true.  And this is even before they’ve read them.

EV This is only a short run effect.  Even to get the idea of Bacon’s Novum Organum in the situation of contemporary ideologies as an instrument of critique, to clean out the garbage of the ideology, is a magnificent philosophical idea.

JMcC But you classified the artist as one of the persons who were going away from the process.  Like the alchemist, he was [in] one of the attitudes of moving away from the actual process of corruption.

EV But with the change of generations, the new younger generation will come and they will follow Solzhenitsyn!

JD But behind your question isn’t there the same assumption, the utilitarian assumption: is there a payoff?

JMcC Yes.

BP Well, could you redefine payoff in terms of existential development?  A person who comes to understand and appreciate themselves–would this be a possible payoff for you?  Because it seems to me that if you would accept as a payoff, even in the short term example that I gave, then your question is answered.  If in fact it is a value for people to understand their situation better, more truly.  Or if the only payoff you will be satisfied with is here and now a change in the actual political institution.  It strikes me that there is, even in the short term, an existential payoff which would shatter a purely institutional change, or what you [EV] spoke of as a pragmatic political change.

EV I would rather agree with you on that question.  In the Soviet Union there is today an established bureaucracy, and bureaucracies are difficult to overthrow.  But you do not know what will happen.  If you talk about such matters, perhaps talk about facts.  There is for instance the problem that the Russian government has no military position of any consequence on the Pacific.  In about three or four years, Japan will be the third biggest economic and military power in the Pacific.  And the Chinese bureaucracy may improve internally the situation of China to their economic advantage.  Let’s take a time span up to 1980 when China could become strong enough, if she has recovered from the Cultural Revolution, if Mao dies, and if the Chinese bureaucracy develops further.  If the Japanese development does not break down for other reasons, but goes on, there will be a weakness of the Russians in the East, they must concentrate in the East.

Or the whole Eastern European empire including perhaps the Ukraine [where] everywhere there are nationalist movements: perhaps these forces will have dismembered the USSR by 1980.  One solution is possible for the Soviet government in that predicament, and that is to conquer Sinkiang and Manchuria and amputate China, and at the same time give them a position in the Pacific that would be strong enough to face Japan. Here are prospects for the next twenty years.  In this atmosphere of prospects one has to gauge what possibly could be the internal developments in Russia.  Perhaps in 1980 the Soviet government will be gone.  That is the present situation in the pragmatic situation.

JD We have left out of this discussion the fact that Socrates died from his withdrawal.  And because he died he gained tremendous influence in the Greek schools, and in European history.  And if we take the situation of Christ who underwent the withdrawal, almost immediately and at an unprecedented rate of acceleration there was an explosion of a new concept of man’s relationship to man and to the world, out of a withdrawal.

The first question that comes to me is, What should I do now?  The second question is, How should I work out what I should do now?  If the suggestion is that my moral existential position is improved by merely an increase in my understanding without increasing in my doing good acts, then what, I want to know is, is there any indication that this is really an improvement at all?

You mean, is there a guarantee?

No. Is there an indication from Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas in what they wrote, down to now, that there has been a payoff or is it merely an escape?

EV I would say you have a fallacy: you always consider that you have a personal influence in changing things.   They will take care of that [themselves], probably.  You don’t have to do it.  Empires break down.  The situation is much less stable than we believe.  Lots of things may happen.  You don’t have to worry about that part.

The end of the original recording.


Eric Voegelin

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