The Methods of Voegelin, Strauss, and Arendt

HomeArticlesThe Methods of Voegelin, Strauss, and Arendt

Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss

Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt were all forced to flee Germany when that country fell under the sway of the National Socialists. They have been grouped together by hostile critics and by those who admired their work; their interpersonal relations have been the subject of gossip, speculation, and occasional analysis. Whatever the motives one may have for an interest in the persons, the outstanding quality of their work was bound to attract the attention of scholars.

It is regrettable that the public exchanges of these three thinkers were so few. In the event, Voegelin did have occasion to comment publicly on the work of both Arendt and Strauss, and they to reply. Moreover, the two books he reviewed were both concerned with understanding the significance of the war and of the evils that had appeared with two of the major participants, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.1

Characteristically, Arendt’s account of totalitarianism was direct and explicit, while Strauss’s was indirect and implicit. Both of Voegelin’s reviews (and the two authors’ replies) raised important and serious questions regarding the proper method to be employed in political science, especially as concerns vile and evil regimes.

The first edition of Strauss’s On Tyranny appeared in 1948; Voegelin reviewed it the following year. Most of the commentary on this book has revolved around the issues raised by the “debate” between Strauss and Alexandre Kojève, who had known one another for many years and apparently agreed on the agenda of questions considered philosophi­cally important, though not on the answers to them.2

Whether the term debate is indeed le mot juste, whether the two participants did establish the fundamental alternatives, or whether theirs was properly speaking an intramural contest are all topics of considerable appeal as intellectual puzzles. Our present concern, however, is to make clear the terms of Voegelin’s analysis of Strauss’s political science, and to consider the general question of method.

Strauss: Contaminating Political Science with Religious Faith

In 1942 Voegelin had sent Strauss a copy of his review of Huntington Cairns’s Theory of Legal Science, which was discussed in the previous chapter [of this volume]. Strauss thanked him and praised the excellence of Voegelin’s refutation of Cairns but expressed a number of significant reserva­tions concerning Voegelin’s argument.3

“The position you attack,’ wrote Strauss, “is only the last remnant of the science established by Plato and Aristotle,” which he then characterized by enumerating five attributes, the first four of which concerned Strauss’s understanding of the “posi­tion” of Plato and Aristotle. The fifth attribute of Platonic-Aristotelian science was “the impossibility of grounding science on religious faith.” Cairns, according to Strauss, had derived his position from a rejection of Voegelin’s position and thus indirectly, and perhaps unconsciously, from that of Plato and Aristotle.

“Now, you will say,” Strauss continued, “that the Platonic-Aristotelian concept of science was put to rest through Christianity and the discovery of history. I am not quite persuaded of that.” Strauss’s first objection, then, was that Voegelin had contaminated the classical understanding of political science with considerations of “religious faith” and “history,” which were in turn connected to a spe­cific, historical religious faith, Christianity.

Strauss went on to say that he was persuaded by a “countercriticism of the Cartesian position,” namely that it would be wrong to “adopt the thesis of Descartes and all his successors that Plato and Aristotle are fundamentally inadequate.” Such a position would be intelligible and adequate only if it could be shown successfully that a “direct critique of Plato and Aristotle,” based upon an “adequate understanding,” had been completed.

In the evident absence of such a critique, the central question of Plato and Aristotle versus Descartes must remain “entirely open.” In other words, once philosophical questions were purged of religious faith and a concern with history, then a straight-ahead contrast between ancient and modern science was possible.

There remained, however, the possibility that an equivalent to reli­gious faith might be found in Plato. If so, the prospect of a simple con­frontation of ancients and moderns across the playing fields of “science” would have to be recast or augmented by “religious” questions. Strauss rejected that possibility: “I can especially not agree with you when you speak of Plato’s attempt ‘to create a new myth’: his effort was directed toward grounding science anew and especially the science of the soul and of the state.”

Voegelin: Platonic Political Science Founded in Myth

Voegelin replied in a letter dated December 9, 1942. He thanked Strauss for his “dear letter,” agreed with his observation that Cairns’s critique of positivism solved nothing, and indicated his desire to pro­vide, “if not solutions, at least possibilities of clarification.”

As did Strauss, Voegelin found “the inevitable starting-point” in the Platonic-Aristotelian problem. Voegelin distinguished the two components in the following way: first, at the center of Platonic political thinking stand the fundamental experiences bound up with the person and death of Socrates. Specifically, the right ordering of the soul, the Platonic dike, was formed by the experiences of “catharsis through consciousness of death and the enthusiasm of eros.”

These fundamental experiences, moreover, were expressed through the great mythic representations in the Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, and Laws. Of secondary importance to the fundamental experiences and the expression of them through the form of the myth, therefore, was the “theoretical political-ethical achievement,” because only after the fundamental order of the soul had been established could “the field of social relations determined by it be systematically ordered.” For this reason Voegelin considered Platonic political science to be founded in myth.

Moreover, the persuasiveness of the actual content of the Platonic myths as well as the suitability of the form for the expression of fundamental experiences was what made possible the ” ‘scientific’ treatment of political and ethical problems,” in Voegelin’s view because the persuasive truths of the myths established “the stable point for the choice of the relevant materials.”

That is, myth, and its ability to persuade philosophers of its truth, was the analytical center of what would later be called philosophical anthropology. And for Voegelin a sound philosophical anthropology was a crucial element of political science.

The Bio Theoretikos, The Christian Adaptation, and Disagreement

In the second place, and in contrast to Platonic political science, Aristotle’s episteme politike was founded not on the Socratic myth but on “the bios theoretikos of the intellectual mystic.” The “system of relevance” achieved by the Socratic myth could be assumed by Aristotle to be valid; on the basis of that assumption, Aristotle was able to consider extensive empirical materials “under the now conceptualized mythical image.”

Third, therefore, Voegelin did not agree with Strauss’s paraphrase that Platonic-Aristotelian political science “was put to an end through Christianity and the discovery of history.” Rather, he said, “the very possibilities of the Platonic-Aristotelian science already have their roots in myths and . . . Christianity and historical consciousness only changed them.” The change wrought by Christianity was to replace “Hellenocentric man” by the individual, “the person in direct communication with God” rather than by way of the Delphic omphalos.4

Precisely from the Hellenocentric position of Plato and Aristotle, therefore, “a universal political science is radically impossible.” The universalization of the image of man in Christianity “is the decisive reason for the superiority of the Christian anthropology over the Hellenic.”

Strauss replied on December 20,1942, indicating his general disagree­ment with Voegelin’s interpretation but adding, “it is so toweringly superior to nearly all that one gets to read about Plato and Aristotle, that I would greatly welcome its being presented to the American public.” He then raised the specific objection that, even if Greek political science was not universalizable, which he denied, the universalization did not take place in the Renaissance but with its reception “by the Muslims and the Christians (from the ninth century on).”5

So far as the sources indicate, Voegelin did not reply to this observation of Strauss. He did, however, ask for Strauss’s publication on Arabic and Jewish medieval political philosophy, and their epistolary conversation moved on to other things.6

Strauss’ On Tyranny: Voegelin’s Qualified Admiration

In a letter dated October 16,1946, Strauss asked for Voegelin’s advice on finding a suitable venue for his “first attempt to interpret Xenophon’s dialogue on tyrants (the Hiero)” A little more than two years later Voegelin had On Tyranny in hand, and Waldemar Gurian had asked him to review it.7

The “nucleus” of Strauss’s book, Voegelin began in his review, was the analysis of Xenophon’s much neglected dialogue Hiero, and in that respect it constitutes a valuable contribution to the history of political thought. Strauss’s interpretation will compel revision of judgment with regard to Xenophon’s “psychological subtlety and his skill of compo­sition” but not with regard to his stature as a thinker.

In addition to textual exegesis, Strauss reflected systematically on the broader problem of tyranny in ancient and modern times, on differences between ancient and modern political science, and on the connection between Hiero and The Prince of Machiavelli. “Every political scientist who tries to disentangle himself from the contemporary confusion over the problem of tyranny will be much indebted to this study and inevitably use it as a starting point.”

More specifically, according to Voegelin, Strauss was particularly interested in the problem “of freedom of intellectual criti­cism under a tyrannical government.” In Hellenic antiquity, critics were adept at describing the defects of tyranny without being executed for their trouble. Strauss’s mode of interpretation brought this and related problems into focus particularly well, Voegelin said.

One of the related problems and “one of the finest parts of Professor Strauss’s analysis concerns the subtle gradation of human ranks”–the wise man, the just man, the brave man, the gentleman, and so on, leading to “the socially relevant type which the tyrant must face in the mass” who “can be handled by various enticements and fears, by prizes for good conduct and by persuasion.”8 In general, therefore, Voegelin had great admiration for Strauss’s achievement.

Tyranny Before and After Democracy

Even so, “we miss a proper evaluation” of the following point: for Xenophon, as for Plato, the problem of tyranny was “one of historical necessity” as well as a topic suitable for theoretical discussion. Notwith­standing the defective character of tyranny, it had become in Xenophon’s day “the inevitable alternative to a democracy which had ceased to func­tion effectively.” Historically, of course, the “age of tyrants” preceded the development of Athenian democracy.9

For Voegelin, though not for Strauss, this historical sequence was theoretically, methodologically, and scientifically significant. More specifically, Voegelin raised the ques­tion of whether, in the sequence tyranny-democracy-tyranny, the term tyranny meant the same thing in the sense of referring to substantially the same regime in both the pre- and postdemocratic context, which is to say in the pre- and postconstitutional context.

Strauss’s own textual analysis had pointed to the curious change in vocabulary: in the first part of the dialogue, ” ‘Tyrant’ (and derivatives) occurs relatively much more frequently in the first part (83 times) than in the second part (7 times); on the other hand, ‘ruling’ (and derivatives) occurs much more frequently in the much shorter second part (12 times) than in the much more extensive first part (4 times).”

This was significant because “the wise” Simonides “wants to induce Hiero to think of his position in terms of ‘ruling’ rather than in terms of ‘tyranny.'”10 Voegelin agreed with Strauss that the change in usage reflected the dramatic development of the dialogue but was of the view that something more was involved. The changing, or inconsistent, usage “may derive from the fact that a new political situation,” one where a postdemocratic and postconstitutional regime appears to be necessary for public order, “is discussed in terms of ‘tyranny’ because a vocabulary more suitable to the new problems is not yet developed.” The change from “tyrant” to “ruler,” therefore, may indicate “the genuine necessity of dropping an inadequate term.”

This observation introduced the question of what an adequate term might be so that preconstitutional (and genuine) tyranny might be distinguished from the postconstitutional regime that had been identified by Xenophon and indicated indirectly through a change in the frequency of usage of the two terms, tyrant and ruler. Only a “careful reader,” to use a favored Straussian locution, would notice so subtle a hint.

Understanding The Prince

Pushing this line of interpretation [tyrant vs. ruler] further, Voegelin then argued that the opposition Strauss maintained as existing between Xenophon’s mir­ror of the prince, Cyropaedia, and the mirror of the tyrant, Hiero, was not the whole story. In one respect, the two dialogues were on the same side, namely, both texts explored the question of establishing a new rulership “that will make an end to the dreary overturning of democracies and tyrannies in the Hellenic polis.” By this interpretation, the apparent opposition of the perfect king and the improved tyrant may be nothing more than an artifact of Xenophon’s inadequate conceptual vocabulary. The comparison with Machiavelli, which was stressed by Strauss, sharpened the issue.

By Strauss’s interpretation, the tendency of both Hiero and The Prince to neglect the distinction between king and tyrant was the closest and most important point of contact between ancient and modern political thought. For Strauss, Machiavelli’s indifference to the distinction be­tween king and tyrant was one of the deepest roots of modern political thought.11 Voegelin did not disagree with Strauss’s observation and pro­vided the following explanation for it: the parallel between Xenophon and Machiavelli existed, he said, because both are in the position of “moderns” in their respective civilizations; the parallel between the two thinkers is due to the parallel between their historical situations.

The distinction between king and tyrant is obliterated in The Prince, because Machiavelli, like Xenophon, was faced with the problem of a stabilizing and regenerating rulership after the breakdown of constitutional forms in the city-state; it is obliterated because Machiavelli, too, was in search of a type of ruler beyond the distinction of king and tyrant that is politically significant only before the final breakdown of the republican constitutional order.

Machiavelli’s Armed Prophet

The difference between Xenophon and Machiavelli lay in the fact that Machiavelli was able to discover a new term to designate the postcon­stitutional ruler, whereas Xenophon was able only to indicate that a new situation had arisen by means of the shift in usage that Strauss had noticed. Machiavelli’s new term was armed prophet, for which he claimed Xenophon’s Cyrus (not Hiero) as a predecessor.12 Within the new type of postconstitutional ruler, the old categories of good (royal) and bad (tyrannical) reappeared.13

Moreover, Voegelin added, there was an in­direct influence of Xenophon on Machiavelli that Strauss overlooked. Machiavelli’s image of an armed prophet and a savior prince drew upon several conventions, including a standardized Life of Temür, which we shall discuss in detail in Chapter 7 [of this volume].

The pattern for the Life of Temür, which appeared most clearly in Machiavelli’s Life of Castruccio Castracani (but also in the closing chapter of The Prince), was drawn from Xenophon’s portrait of a young and ruthless Cyrus who compelled obedience through fear and terror.14

In addition, however, Machiavelli incorporated non-Hellenic apocalyptic spiritual elements into his evoca­tion of a postconstitutional prince. Accordingly, while Machiavelli and Xenophon were both “modern” with respect to their own civilizations, in the context of Western rather than Hellenic civilization, Machiavelli’s “modernity” is “burdened with the tradition that leads from medieval and Renaissance Paracletes to the secularized Superman of the nine­teenth century and after.”

We may note in passing that for Voegelin ancient and modern were terms that took their meaning from a historical or, as he said, following Toynbee, a “civilizational” context. We shall discuss this problem further in Chapter 8. For the present we would note only that, for Voegelin, the methodological distinction proper to the political and historical sciences involved was between Western and Hellenic civilizations, not ancient and modern (Western) civilization, which was the position of Strauss.

Strauss’ Sophistic Response to Voegelin’s Review

In January 1949, Voegelin sent Strauss a copy of his review. Strauss thanked him and expressed the hope that he might “argue out” their differences in print. In May 1949 Kojève wrote Strauss and suggested that they publish together a volume combining a French translation of Xenophon’s dialogue and of Strauss’s book, along with a review article that Kojève was in the midst of writing.

In August 1950, Strauss informed Voegelin of Kojève’s project and said he would begin his “Restatement” with a response to Voegelin’s review. “I am not sticking strictly to what you expressly said,” Strauss wrote, “I must come to terms with your unstated premises, which in part I know from your other publications, and in part presume.”15 By September 1950 Strauss had completed his “Restatement” and sent it off to Kojève. As promised, the first few pages dealt with Voegelin’s review.16

Strauss’s “Restatement” was a mixture of reasoned disagreement re­garding, for example, Voegelin’s interpretation of Xenophon’s intention in writing Cyropaedia or of Machiavelli’s intention in writing Life of Castruccio Castracani, with transparently sophistic remarks on whether the distinction between good and bad rulers was not more fundamental than that between constitutional and postconstitutional situations, or whether such postconstitutional regimes as Voegelin said were justified by historical necessity were not thereby necessarily inferior to those that were inherently choiceworthy.

Such statements may be called sophistic because, first, neither Voegelin nor anyone with a modicum of common sense would disagree with them and, second, Voegelin’s remarks, in context, concerned the proper interpretation of a historical pattern or configuration, not a moral claim. In short, part of Strauss’s “Restatement” was simply the rhetorical ploy of suppresio veri suggestio falsi.

The presupposition of Voegelin that Strauss considered to be the most questionable was the opinion that “what is decisive is not Xenophon’s conscious intention, stated or implied, but the historical meaning of his work, the historical meaning of a work being determined by the historical situation as distinguished from the conscious intention of the author.”

Strauss believed that Voegelin subscribed to this doctrine and that, therefore, Voegelin was a historicist and subject to the standard, and in Strauss’s view decisive, criticism, which Strauss leveled at all historicists, that they presumed to understand an author better than the author understood himself. This was, for Strauss, particularly to be regretted when it came to an ancient, classical, and Greek thinker. “After the experience of our generation,” he wrote:

“the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who assert rather than on those who deny that we have progressed beyond the classics. And even if it were true that we could understand the classics better than they understood themselves, we would become certain of our superiority only after under­standing them exactly as they understood themselves. Otherwise we might mistake our superiority to our notion of the classics for superiority to the classics.”

Strauss was genuinely concerned that Voegelin had fallen into error because he sent Voegelin a copy of his longer discussion, analysis, and refutation of historicism.17 From Voegelin’s perspective, Strauss had accepted the system of rel­evance (to use the language of the last chapter) or the philosophical anthropology (to use the language of the next chapter) of classical po­litical philosophy. It served Strauss well, and Voegelin maintained the highest regard for his scholarship.18

Voegelin Defends Strauss

Voegelin was particularly critical of attempts to turn Strauss’s scholarly achievements into support for a conservative political agenda. In 1977, for example, he wrote to John P. East, in response to East’s characterization of Strauss as a conservative:

“It was a pleasure to read your article; and I have no quarrel with its positive content. Still, I am not quite happy about it. For Strauss, after all, did not [do] the work he did, in order to extend comfort to Conservatives.”

“He was a great scholar; and by the influence on his students he was instrumental in restoring a certain amount of serious scholarship to a field as sadly lacking in it as is political science. If one puts the weight as strongly as you do on the incom­patibility of his classic and Judaeo-Christian tradition with the current isms, you underplay perhaps the fact that such a thing as “science” in the classic sense really exists, and that the various isms represented in our universities are not only immoral but objectively wrong.”

“They are not euphemistically ‘utopian,’ they are phony, dilettantic, illiterate, and fraudulent. Whenever a utopian ismist cashes his salary-check, he takes money for merchandise which he cannot deliver. In every other profession but the academic that is called commercial fraud.”

“A political theorist who cannot read the classics in his field because he is too lazy to learn Greek and Latin, should be immediately fired on elementary grounds of business ethics. I am expressing myself unequivocally, in order to make it clear that there is more at stake in a society than a liberal-conservative conflict when the universities become training centers for permissiveness, sloppy work, and intellectual confidence games.”

“I am far from agreeing with Strauss on everything, but he certainly has been a noticeable force in raising the awareness of standards in science.”19

A year later, East was preparing a similar article on Voegelin’s “contri­butions” to conservative thought. Voegelin’s response to the article, as was his response to the behaviorists of southern California, was that East had assembled the materials for a satire. But, Voegelin said:

“The Satire itself has remained incomplete. In order to make it complete, you would have to confront the actual content and purpose of my work, which has nothing to do with conservative predilections, with these predilections as illustrated by your selection of quotations.”

“Why you have left the satire incomplete, I am sure, you will know best yourself. But as a basis for satirical purposes your study merits high praise, and I shall use it perhaps sometime.”20

Voegelin wrote similar letters on other occasions in an attempt to defend himself, Strauss, and other scholars against the smothering embrace of conservatives.21

In short, neither Strauss nor Voegelin was a “conserva­tive,” notwithstanding the many, many publications and interpretations of their work that declare the opposite. As Voegelin observed, it is material for satire, which is a sophisticated as well as an acquired literary taste. The question of the use made by self-described “conservatives” of Strauss’s and Voegelin’s work is akin to the use made, for example, of Nietzsche or Hegel.

A serious consideration of this problem would begin by an analysis of the status of terms such as liberal and conservative.22 Because this is seldom if ever done, and because the work of the two political scientists is not distinguished from vulgarian appropriation by political activists, Voegelin’s satirical reference to materials for satire adopted just the right tone.

A Critical Review of Arednt’s Origins

In 1951, Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Voegelin was again asked by Waldemar Gurian to write a review for Review of Politics. The eight-and-a-half page review was then sent by Gurian to Arendt for her eight-page response, and Voegelin was given a final page to reply. It was, to say the least, an unusual procedure.23

Voegelin began by characterizing the significance of the phenomenon of “the totalitarian mass movements of our time.” First, to all intents and purposes, the entire population of the world had been affected one way or another, even if only as potential victims. “The putrefaction of Western civilization, as it were, has released a cadaveric poison spreading its infection through the body of humanity” and has, in consequence, cre­ated something unprecedented, an ecumenic “community of suffering under the earthwide expansion of Western foulness.”

The chief problem, therefore, was confined to an analysis and theoretical understanding not of a complex and grandiose historical episode but of events that were fundamentally evil as well, a problem that had explicitly concerned Voegelin since the publication of Political Religions in 1939. The methodological problem was, in principle, straightforward: the totalitarian phenomenon, as any other historical phenomenon, could be discussed by political science along the three different but coordi­nated interpretative lines of space, time, and subject matter.

In space, one must have a knowledge of the pertinent facts regarding a plu­rality of civilizations; in time, one must be able to trace the genesis of the totalitarian movements within one civilizational area, the West, over the preceding millennium; in terms of subject matter, “the inquiry will have to range from religious experiences and their symbolization, through governmental institutions and the organization of terrorism, to the transformations of personality under the pressure of fear and habituation to atrocities.”

Unfortunately, Voegelin continued, political science was currently ill equipped to undertake such an analysis owing to “the insufficiency of theoretical instruments” that in turn was the great legacy of “the positivistic destruction of political science” to which reference has already been made in Chapter 3.

A Science Deficient in Three Areas

Voegelin identified three areas where inadequate theoretical instru­ments would lead to defective analysis.

First, in the absence of a sound philosophical anthropology, it is difficult to construct adequate cate­gories by which to classify and describe political phenomena, to say nothing of the significance of acts aiming at the transformation of the personality under the pressure of fear and habituation to atrocity. Like­wise, in the absence of a sound theory of the spirit, it is difficult to classify and describe phenomena of spiritual integration in the light of which spiritual disintegration appears on its own.

What Voegelin was indirectly indicating by these observations he later identified as pneu­mopathology, as distinct from psychopathology. For example, certain personalities appeared to be perfectly habituated to atrocity but were not, for that reason alone, properly described as sadistic psychopaths. They were, however, spiritually disordered, and their disorder would not be properly diagnosed or properly described unless one had an adequate account of human spirituality available in light of which one might undertake the diagnosis.

Finally, without a sound philosophy of history the revolutionary eruption of totalitarianism would appear unrelated to the long historical process of secularization. The most obvious consequence of relying on inadequate theoretical instruments, therefore, is that one may be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the horrendous events associated with totalitarian mass movements and totalitarian domination. Accordingly, one’s preanalytic or conventional response to these events may make analytic, theoretical, or scientific understanding of totalitarian politics all but impossible.

Reacting to the Horrors of War

As we saw in Chapter 2, during the war there was considerable misunder­standing of the strategic objectives of the Nazis that, in Voegelin’s view, resulted directly from the deficient theoretical instruments employed by political scientists. Postwar explanations of well-adjusted SS officers in terms of authoritarian personalities or more serious psychological disorders belong to this category of defective instrumentation as well.

Whatever the condition of their science at midcentury, political scientists would be bound to give an account of the events of the preceding thirty years. The most obvious way of doing so would be to permit the phenomena to speak for themselves, as it were, even while the author of the narrative maintained an awareness of the danger that the sheer awfulness of events may prove overwhelming. If practiced by a scholar of intelligence, talent, and integrity, such an interpretative strategy would result in something like a phenomenology of totalitarian evil.

Arendt’s Brilliant Insights and Theoretical Confusion

The Origins of Totalitarianism, Voegelin said, attempted to make con­temporary phenomena intelligible by considering the development of totalitarianism from the eighteenth century, “thus establishing a time unit in which the essence of totalitarianism unfolded to its fullness.”

Arendt penetrated to the heart of the subject matter, but her analysis “bears the scars of the unsatisfactory state of theory to which we have alluded.” Notwithstanding its “brilliant formulations and profound in­sights,” the book was also characterized by embarrassing but instructive “derailments” that “reveal the intellectual confusion of the age, and show more convincingly than any argument why totalitarian ideas find mass acceptance and will find it for a long time to come.”

Arendt’s book, therefore, achieved a certain clarity with respect to the phenomena but, from the more comprehensive perspective afforded by Voegelin’s political science, was also significant as a symptom. Considered simply in terms of method, to the extent that Arendt provided a phenomenol­ogy of totalitarianism, it remained a prelude to scientific analysis–an indispensable prelude perhaps, but a prelude nonetheless.

Shock as a Valid Source of Motivation

The organization of the topics–anti-Semitism, imperialism, and total­itarianism–Voegelin observed, was roughly chronological; more im­portant, it was also ordered by “increasing intensity and ferocity in the growth of totalitarian features toward the climax in the atrocities of the concentration camps.” This organization, furthermore, was intelligible in light of its emotional motivation. The fate of human beings—of the Jews, of the victims of mass killings, of displaced persons–is a “center of emotional shock” from which derived Arendt’s desire to understand the causes of similar events and how to stop them from recurring.

The moti­vations of Arendt’s procedure determined her treatment of the sequence of topics, namely the disintegration of political and social institutions along with modes of conduct appropriate to them, and the replacement of these institutions and modes of conduct, which we conventionally call Western civilization, with new ones–the “cadaveric poison” Voegelin mentioned earlier.

Specifically, the governing theme of the book was the obsolescence or disintegration of the national state as the sheltering orga­nization, the “cosmion” of Western political societies. Historical changes that made new sections of society “superfluous” reached the end point with “the disintegration of national societies and their transformation into aggregates of superfluous human beings.”

By describing Arendt’s book as having been motivated by emotional shock at the fate of human beings, Voegelin did not mean to imply that it was simply an “emotional”–that is, an irrational, sentimental, or polemical–book. On the contrary, Arendt’s motivation was the source of its strength. In this context Voegelin drew attention to Thucydides’ opening words in his History of the War in the Peloponnese, which illus­trated, he said, the fact that sensitivity to the fate of others may be a motivating source of great historiography.

“The emotion in its purity,” Voegelin said, “makes the intellect a sensitive instrument for recognizing and selecting the relevant facts; and if the purity of the human interest remains untainted by partisanship, the result will be a historical study of respectable rank–as in the case of the present work, which in its substantive parts is remarkably free of ideological nonsense.” In other words, Arendt’s phenomenological efforts had produced a sound and detached account of the circumstances that occasioned the growth of totalitarian movements and totalitarian domination.24

“Civilization Disintegration” Too Narrow a Focus

Voegelin then provided a brief and favorable account of the subject matter covered “in order to convey an idea of the richness of the work.” The value of this digest of enormous amounts of evidence was clear, but even so, “at this point a note of criticism will have to be allowed.” The overarching source of the difficulties, in Voegelin’s view, stemmed, as we have seen, from the destruction of science during the era of positivist ascendancy.

This did not mean that Arendt was in any sense a positivist; indeed, if her work is to be categorized at all, it is part of the partial recovery of a sense of the problems that is conventionally associated with existentialism in general, and with Jaspers and Heidegger in particular. Voegelin’s “note of criticism,” however, was directed not against any taint of positivism or against any theoretical difficulties of existentialism. Rather, he criticized Arendt on scholarly or methodological grounds for not using the “theoretical instruments” that were available to her. Had she used them, the organization of the subject matter might have been improved.

Specifically, according to Voegelin, “her principle of relevance that orders the variegated materials into a story of totalitarianism is the disintegration of a civilization into masses of human beings without secure economic and social status; and her materials are relevant insofar as they demonstrate the process of disintegration.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with using such a principle of relevance to tell the story of social disintegration. Voegelin’s point was that such a story is, in fact, no more than a chapter in a book; it is not a self-sufficient little gem of meaning.

Looking to Toynbee for Help

“Obviously,” he went on, “this process is the same as has been categorized by Toynbee as the growth of the internal and external proletariat. It is surprising that the author has not used Toynbee’s highly differentiated concepts.” If she had, Toynbee’s work “would have sub­stantially added to the weight of Dr. Arendt’s analysis” by providing a more comprehensive principle of relevance than Arendt’s univocal story line of disintegration—which, to be sure, was adequate so far as it went.

Voegelin’s point, to repeat, is that “the theoretical instruments which the present state of science puts at her disposition” –specifically, the arguments developed by Toynbee in A Study of History–would have enabled Arendt to carry her analysis further, had she availed herself of them. Voegelin’s criticism of Arendt is similar to his criticism of Strauss inasmuch as he had no quarrel with what either had done, only with the fact that there was more to do, that the evidence that their analyses brought to light was not given adequate theoretical form.

Regarding Arendt, two “theoretical defects” followed from her limited principle of relevance. First, dealing with political and social institutions and types of conduct as determined by them “is apt to endow historical causality with an aura of fatality.” Situations require but do not deter­mine human responses: human character–the virtues, the range and intensity of passions, the element of personal spiritual freedom–also plays a part. “If conduct is not understood as the response of a man to a situation,” Voegelin said, “and the varieties of response as rooted in the potentialities of human nature rather than in the situation itself, the process of history will become a closed stream, of which every cross­cut at a given point of time is the exhaustive determinant of the future course.”

Now, Arendt knew this: social situations do not make people superfluous and superfluous people do not necessarily respond to their situation with resentment, hatred, and cruelty. She knew as well that the spiritual core of the human personality was crucial to the kind of response people make. As she remarked:

“Nothing perhaps distinguishes modern masses as radically from those of previous centuries as the loss of faith in a Last Judgment: the worst have lost their fear and the best have lost their hope. Unable as yet to live without fear and hope, these masses are attracted by every effort which seems to promise a man-made fabrication of the Paradise they had longed for and of the Hell they had feared.”25

Voegelin made the following comment on this passage: “The spiritual disease of agnosticism is the peculiar problem of the modern masses, and the man-made paradises and man-made hells are its symptoms; and the masses have the disease whether they are in their paradise or their hell.” Arendt’s first “theoretical defect,” therefore, was that she treated the story of Western disintegration as a fatal sequence, even though she was aware of the importance of human spirituality, and therefore of human freedom, in the process of disintegration.

Neglecting the Seen Spiritual Disorder

In terms of philosophical an­thropology, spiritual diseases cannot be reduced to the conditions of their occurrence: they are not caused by superfluousness or resentment. On the contrary, superfluity and resentment are symptoms of the spiritual disease, identified here by Voegelin as agnosticism. Arendt was aware of the problem, or she would not have mentioned it. But she was not aware of its significance.

A second theoretical defect, therefore, followed from the first: because she did not acknowledge the significance of the spiritual disorder of ag­nosticism, her treatment of the vast array of materials she brought to light was out of focus. In short, Arendt’s knowledge of the problem of spiritual disorder did not affect her treatment of the materials.

If, as she rightly observed, the spiritual disease that hankered after fabricated paradises and stood in terror of fabricated hells was the problem, and not simply the institutional breakdown of society and modes of conduct, then one would reasonably expect the study of the origins of totalitarianism to be devoted to spiritual as well as to institutional questions.

And then one would look not just to the fate of the nation-state but, more important, to “the rise of immanentist sectarianism since the high Middle Ages; and the totalitarian movements would not be simply revolutionary movements of functionally dislocated people, but immanentist creed movements in which medieval heresies have come to their fruition.” And so, Voegelin concluded, Arendt “does not draw the theoretical conclusions from her own insights.”

The Essence of Totalitarianism Recognized

Before offering an account of why Arendt did not draw the proper theoretical conclusions from her own insights, Voegelin explored the problem further. To begin with, there was no doubt that Arendt was as aware of the spiritual and intellectual breakdown as she was of the institutional. “What totalitarian ideologies, therefore, aim at,” she wrote, “is not the transformation of the outside world or the revolutionary trans­mutation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself.”26

Voegelin agreed: “This is, indeed, the essence of totalitarianism as an immanentist creed movement.” Totalitarians, whether Nazis, Bolshe­viks, or something else, are not, in fact, interested in social reformation “but want to create a millennium in the eschatological sense through the transformation of human nature.” Not the grace of God but an act of human beings would, by the totalitarian vision, usher in a new heaven and a new earth—or rather, a heaven-on-earth. It is for this reason that Voegelin said that totalitarians are participants in immanen­tist creed movements in which medieval heresies, which also promised heaven-on-earth by substituting human action for divine grace, come to fruition.

An Incomplete Experiment?

At the end of the paragraph from which the above quotation was drawn, Arendt wrote:

“Human nature as such is at stake, and even though it seems that these experiments succeed not in changing man but only in destroying him . . . one should bear in mind the necessary limitations to an experiment which requires global control in order to show conclusive results.”

The “experiment” to which Arendt referred involved the reduction of human beings to bundles of responses made to various stimuli under conditions of terror in concentration camps.27 The pragmatic implication seemed to be: we cannot tell whether these experiments work because we have not yet achieved the necessary conditions for a proper experimental trial, namely the creation of a single ecumenic, totalitarian regime.

The grave defect of the totalitarian “experiment,” therefore, was the existence of nontotalitarian political regimes that, in one way or another, contaminated the results. The final contamination of the experimental results was achieved, in the example of the National Socialists, by a world war that ended with the destruction of the Nazi regime and the military occupation of Germany.

Voegelin was, of course, concerned with these grotesque pragmatic events.28 His focus, however, was on the theoretical issue. “Nature,” he said, “is a philosophical concept; it denotes that which identifies a thing as a thing of this kind and not another one.” To use a familiar example: what makes the animal on the mat a cat is its catty nature, which it does not share with a dog; a dog is distinguished by its doggy nature, even though it, too, might share a place on the mat.

Consequently, wrote Voegelin, “a ‘nature’ cannot be changed or transformed; a ‘change of nature’ is a contradiction in terms; tampering with the ‘nature’ of a thing means destroying the thing.” For example, in order to transform a cat into a dog the catty nature of the specific and actual animal must be destroyed and replaced (somehow) with a doggy one.29 The fact of the matter is, all humans can do is destroy a cat. Only God can “make” a dog, and the reason for this is philosophical, not theological, and not technological either.

Voegelin was, therefore, surprised that Arendt would seriously entertain the possibility of undertaking a philosophically impossible act, namely the experimental transformation of human nature, by terror, in an ecumenic concentration camp. He, therefore, characterized her remark as “a symptom of the intellectual breakdown of Western civiliza­tion.”

Arendt, too, had apparently adopted “the immanentist ideology” that characterized the historical events she so thoroughly examined, which led to the following consequence: “she keeps an ‘open mind’ with regard to the totalitarian atrocities; she considers the question of a ‘change of nature’ a matter that will have to be settled by ‘trial and error’; and since the ‘trial’ could not yet avail itself of the opportunities afforded by a global laboratory, the question must remain in suspense for the time being.”

An Error Shared with Totalitarians

So as to prevent any misunderstanding, we should again stress that Voegelin’s criticism concerned Arendt’s “theoretical derailment,” which had the effect of limiting the theoretical formulations of the insights her book contained. It was nevertheless, in Voegelin’s view, a serious theoretical error to entertain as an intelligible anthropological possibility the “immanentist ideology” that characterized the “intellectual breakdown of Western civilization.”

Voegelin did not explain why Arendt adopted “the immanentist ideology” in the sense of providing a psychological explanation of her action, but he did indicate what her “theoretical derailment” meant. As a conceptual, analytic, or scientific term, the adjective immanent takes its meaning in opposition to transcendent. In the particular exam­ple considered here, the noun so modified would be world. Accordingly, the phrase immanentist ideology refers to an act of ignoring, reducing, transfiguring, or perhaps explaining away the existence of experiences of world-transcendent reality, a reality conventionally described as “di­vine.”

In the context of the present problem, Voegelin said, “the true di­viding line in the contemporary crisis does not run between liberals and totalitarians, but between the religious and philosophical transcendentalists on the one side, and the liberal and totalitarian immanentist sec­tarians on the other side.” The implication, therefore, was that Arendt’s theoretical derailment into “the immanentist ideology” was shared with the totalitarians whom she opposed vigorously as a matter of practice.

That Arendt opposed totalitarianism has several times been averred, but we must emphasize: that was not the issue Voegelin raised. Indeed, her opposition to totalitarianism may serve as a textbook example of the problem discussed in the previous chapter that several positions might oppose one another in terms of doctrine, ethics, policy, or method but nevertheless be allied in principle. Voegelin’s conclusion was therefore clear: if the fundamental dividing line was between religious and philosophical transcendentalists and a rich variety of immanentist sectarians, Arendt clearly belonged among the latter.

Thinking Human Nature Can Be Changed

Her remarks regarding the concentration camp laboratories and their experiments with human nature, her “theoretical derailment,” Voegelin said, might properly be characterized as reflecting “a typically liberal, progressive pragmatist attitude towards philosophical prob­lems,” and so reveal “how much ground liberals and totalitarians have in common; the essential immanentism which unites them overrides the differences of ethos which separate them.” That is, liberals and totalitar­ians can find any number of intelligible grounds upon which to oppose one another, but a full understanding of their opposition would have to include an awareness of their shared spiritual immanentism.

The con­trast between Voegelinian and Arendtian political science with respect to this problem was expressed with considerable clarity by Arendt. “The criminal attempt to change the nature of man,” she said, has provided her with the “trembling insight that no nature, not even the nature of man, can any longer be considered to be the measure of all things.”30 To this trembling insight a Voegelinian political scientist, conscious of the signif­icance of philosophical or religious experiences of world-transcendent reality, might properly reply: the nature of man has not ceased to be the measure simply because a collection of spiritually disordered criminals has conceived of the project to change it and has succeeded in committing large-scale murder in the pursuit of its impossible project.

Voegelin concluded his review with an account of Arendt’s evocation of a “nihilistic-nightmare” in place of “a well considered theory.” It would be unfair, he said, “to hold the author responsible on the level of critical thought for what obviously is a traumatic shuddering under the impact of experiences that were stronger than the forces of spiritual and intellectual resistance.” Indeed most of the book “is animated, if not penetrated, by the age-old knowledge about human nature and the life of the spirit,” notwithstanding the unsatisfactory theoretical formulations that occurred chiefly in her conclusions.

He ended with the proposal that we “take comfort in the unconscious irony of the closing sentence of the work where the author appeals, for the ‘new’ spirit of human solidarity, to Acts 16:28: ‘Do thyself no harm; for we are all here.’ Perhaps, when the author progresses from quoting to hearing these words, her nightmarish fright will end like that of the jailer to whom they were addressed.”31

Arendt Responds to Voegelin’s Critique

Voegelin’s review considered several fundamental theoretical ques­tions and was by no means simply an external summary of Arendt’s text followed by a seal of approval or disapproval. And Hannah Arendt was not just a distinguished professor who happened to write a controversial book on a topic of considerable current interest. She was, along with Strauss and Voegelin, one of the great political thinkers of the century.

When, therefore, Gurian received Voegelin’s review, prudence alone might well have counseled him to ask for her response. Arendt agreed to respond because of the “general questions of method” and “gen­eral philosophical implications” that Voegelin discussed and because “I failed to explain the particular method which I came to use, and [failed] to account for a rather unusual approach . . . to the whole field of political and historical sciences as such.”32 What, then, was Arendt’s approach?

She began, after some conventional introductory remarks, by indicat­ing her view of the methodological question: “The problem originally confronting me was simple and baffling at the same time: all historiogra­phy is necessarily salvation and frequently justification; it is due to man’s fear that he may forget and to his striving for something which is even more than remembrance.”

Working from this assumption, writing on the topic of totalitarianism posed a particular problem: she did not wish to preserve its memory but, on the contrary “felt engaged to destroy” it. One may say, therefore, that her book was not, properly speaking, a work of theory at all but had an immediately practical purpose.33 Still, the question remained: how to write about this vile phenomenon?

Her solution “was to discover the chief elements of totalitarianism and to analyze them in historical terms, tracing these elements back in history as far as I deemed proper and necessary.” By this account, Arendt’s “principles of relevance” were simply what she deemed proper and necessary.

The Origins of Totalitarianism was not, therefore, “a history of totalitarianism but an analysis in terms of history,” not an account of the origins of totalitarianism but “a historical account of the elements which crystallized into totalitarianism” followed by “an analysis of the elemental structure of totalitarian movements and [of the structure of totalitarian] domination itself.” The book, therefore, had a structure; Voegelin’s criticism, however, was that its principle of relevance was overly narrow, and on that question Arendt was silent.34

Spiritual Analysis is Needed

A second methodological problem was, in Arendt’s words, “a problem of ‘style.'” According to Arendt, the morally abhorrent character of totalitarianism was descriptively part of the phenomenon. To describe concentration camps sine ira “is not to be ‘objective’, but to condone them.” More generally, she said, “the problem of style is a problem of adequacy and of response.” If one tries to be objective with morally re­pugnant phenomena, rather than to use one’s imagination to grasp their significance, one renounces “the human faculty to respond to either. Thus the question of style is bound up with the problem of understanding.”

On the other hand, imaginative sensitivity to “differences of factuality,” par­ticularly as concerns totalitarianism, was, for Arendt, “all-important.” Accordingly:

“the ‘phenomenal differences’, far from ‘obscuring’ some essential sameness, are those phenomena which make totalitarianism ‘totalitarian’, which distinguishes this one form of government and movement from all others and, therefore, can alone help us in finding its essence. What is unprecedented in totalitarianism is not primarily its ide­ological content, but the event of totalitarian domination itself.”

Arendt’s observation, considered as a historical aperçu, is true enough. Voegelin, it may be recalled, acknowledged the importance of the morally repugnant appearance of totalitarianism and indicated his views by using striking metaphors of putrefaction and cadaveric poison. His criticism of Arendt was obviously directed not at the area of their agreement regarding morally repugnant political phenomena but at the adequacy of her analysis of the intellectual and spiritual perversions that accounted for the phenomena.

This question was not engaged by Arendt either.

An Unrecognized Absence of Substantive Criteria

Arendt then characterized her differences with Voegelin. “I proceed from facts and events,” she said, “instead of intellectual affinities and influences,’ which was apparently the way she thought Voegelin pro­ceeded. In particular, because totalitarianism did not exist factually or as an event prior to the twentieth century, Arendt did not see the point of Voegelin’s remarks regarding immanentist sectarian creed movements in which medieval heresies had come to fruition. She simply “doubted” Voegelin’s theory of medieval intellectual affinities and influences:

“un­der no circumstances would I call any of them [the heretical medieval immanentist sectarian creed movements] totalitarian.” Indeed, accord­ing to Arendt, trying to proceed by means of such affinities and influences places too much weight on ‘ideas’ at the cost of ignoring ‘events.'”

Voegelin did not maintain that medieval heretics or modern liberals were totalitarians, though Arendt seemed to think he did (“Mr. Voegelin seems to think that totalitarianism is only the other side of liberalism, positivism and pragmatism”).

Considered as political phenomena there is no reason anyone would confuse liberals and totalitarians or An­abaptists and Nazis. Voegelin’s point was that phenomenal differences provided insufficient material for a comprehensive political science and that substantive and spiritual criteria and evidence were also required. This certainly entailed something more than “intellectual affinities and influences.” Indeed, phenomenal evidence, or a focus on “facts and events,” was insufficient for Arendt as well. Nazis and Bolsheviks were also phenom­enally distinguishable, yet both were identified by Arendt as totalitarian.

Second, by the early 1950s considerable historical evidence had come to light regarding the continuity of medieval heretical sects with various enlightened, secular, and then revolutionary sects.35 Voegelin relied on these interpretations in writing his History of Political Ideas, at least with respect to general strategies of textual and historical interpretation.

The Absolutist Background: Unam Sanctam

In the course of a review Voegelin obviously could not introduce these problems. In History of Political Ideas, however, he was able to argue in extenso for the position he had adopted regarding Arendt’s interpretation. We will take as an example Voegelin’s discussion of the sentiments surrounding the fourteenth-century clash between the papacy and France.

This problem has the advantage of being concerned less with medieval heresies and the triumph of sectarians than with relatively low-key intellectual and institutional shifts. Even with this conventional focus, however, several spiritual issues that had a direct bearing on the problem of totalitarianism were brought to light.

In 1302, the papal bull Unam Sanctam asserted the supremacy of the papal spiritual power over all temporal powers.36 It was issued at a time when the political affairs of the West, particularly those of the Atlantic powers, France, and Britain, were separating from the politics of Christendom directed against the Muslim East. Unam Sanctam was not simply a diplo­matic assertion of an obsolete papal power under circumstances that were growing increasingly inappropriate; it was also a document based on argumentation. It began from the statement of Saint Paul (Rom. 13:1) that all power is “ordered” and argued that order implied hierarchy, and mediation of powers from the divine, through the papal to the temporal.

This doctrine, which had been introduced into the ongoing debate over spiritual and temporal authority by Bertrand of Bayonne half a century earlier, was based on two pseudo-Dionysian treatises dating from antiquity on the parallels between ecclesiastical and celestial hierarchies. The neo-Platonic doctrine was influential chiefly because it was attributed (in fact, wrongly) to Saint Paul’s Athenian convert, Diony­sius the Areopagite. In any event, Bertrand argued that the ecclesiastical hierarchy was an analog to the hierarchy of angels. The pope was the chief human hierarch from whom subordinate powers descended.

Combing the Temporal and Spiritual

The importance of this doctrinal innovation was that it tended to eclipse the constitutional theory of the sacrum imperium according to which the charismata have been distributed by God directly, the spiritual and temporal functions were to be exercised within the corpus mysticum freely, and the members of the community have become bound together by mutual love in the sense indicated by Saint Paul (1 Cor. 13).

Under the hierarchical theory of power, in contrast, the term ecclesia, for example, came to mean members of the church hierarchy rather than members of the Christian community. More broadly considered, Voegelin pointed out, the theory of the charismata and of the balance of spiritual and temporal power expressed in Pope Gelasius’s doctrine of the two swords was historically and politically applicable only so long as a single impe­rial head could represent the temporal power more or less uncontested.

With the disintegration of the temporal power–evident, for example, in the ongoing conflicts between France and England–the danger that the new temporal political units would acquire the status of separate spiritual units became apparent as well. One method of maintaining the spiritual unit of the West appeared to be the establishment of an absolutistic hierarchy of power, centered on the papacy.

Important as the historical and diplomatic contexts were, the spiritual factors were at least as significant. “The evocation of Bertrand,” wrote Voegelin, “constitutes a closed community, organized as a pyramid of ranks, with the power substance pervading the ranks from the top to the bottom.”37 Bertrand’s theory was of a closed spiritual community, but it could be easily transferred to the closed administrative community, with the substance of power descending from the prince, through the bureau­cratic hierarchy, to the people.

Giles of Rome: From Corpus Mysticum to Supreme Power

Initially, the hierarchy was introduced as an analog to, and so justification for, spiritual and political liberty or individualism. But analogies move in both directions and, as Voegelin observed “the pendulum now seems to [have swung] in the direction of a new spiritual-temporal hierarchy in totalitarian communities.”

In this respect, Unam Sanctam expanded Bertrand’s construction, orig­inally designed to justify the privileges of the Mendicant Orders, from the ecclesiastical order to a general theory of power, including temporal power. Giles of Rome’s treatise On Ecclesiastical Power (1302) influenced the structure and the language of Unam Sanctam.

Voegelin also detected (as did Dempf) the ambitions of an intellectual anxious for political rule. In his youth, Giles of Rome had written a defense of monarchic absolutism, On Princely Rule (1285), which argued the opposite position to that set out in the treatise of 1302. The Carlyles observed that this radical change in position was “arresting and even startling.”38 Voegelin commented that his change of heart:

“loses its enigmatic character if we recognize that Giles was less interested in spiritual or temporal power than in power as such. He was willing to advocate any power as absolute so long as he was associated with it. If Giles were placed in a modern environment we would have to say that he was a Fascist by tempera­ment.”

Voegelin went on to explain analytically his use of an obvious anachronism. As soon as “the idea of the spiritual unity of mankind is translated from the free coexistence of Christians as members of the body of Christ into terms of a spiritual unity controlled by the holder of supreme power, the outlines of a form of government appear that today we are accustomed to calling totalitarian.”

Giles of Rome’s contribution to Western political thought was to substitute for a doctrine of powers, in the plural, that was relative to purposes and institutions a doctrine of power, in the singular, that was applicable, in principle, to them all.

Total Dominion Also Means Spiritual Dominion

In the event, Egidius applied his doctrine to the papacy. A plenitude of material as well as spiritual power was in the hands of the pope, who exercised the spiritual power on his own account but directed the secular princes in the exercise of the material.

All laws must conform to ecclesiastical laws; all organs of government were to be administered in conformity with the will of the church. The result was to create “a closed governmental system with respect to legislation, administration, and the use of instruments of coercion,” at the head of which, and representing the whole, was the pope. At the same time, Egidius insisted on control over the hierarchy of sciences: philosophers were not to question theological doctrines but rather were to adapt their arguments to the service of the church. Finally, the intrusion of the church into the area of civil society was justified on the grounds that, through the Fall, human beings lost whatever rights they may have had by nature.

“Such rights as they have,” Voegelin observed, “they receive through their status in the sacramental order of the church, which has total dominion over all things. The whole sphere of natural law is abolished, and the legal status of men is made dependent on their obedient integration into the absolute governmental machine headed by the pope. The outlines of a totalitarian organization become recognizable.”

The conclusion Voegelin drew from this analysis of medieval political theory did more than establish an intellectual pedigree for totalitarian activists. It illustrated as well a general methodological principle, that no account of power, including totalitarian power, would be complete if it ignored dimensions of spirituality and of the orientation of the spirit in a world-transcendent or intramundane direction.

From Absolute Church to Absolute Secular Power

In the example of these medieval texts and events, Voegelin’s insight was clear: once the case was made for the defense of an absolute church, it was a relatively simple matter to effect a transfer “to the secular political sphere when the particular national units had reached a degree of concentration that would permit the raising of spiritual claims in addition to the legal claims.”

The first occasion when the new theoretical arguments were elaborated in a context of national bodies politic was in The Leviathan of Hobbes, which even Arendt allowed had a connection with the origins of totalitarianism.39 With respect to the differences in method between Arendt and Voe­gelin, one may say that although Arendt could “analyze the element of expansion insofar as these elements were still clearly visible and played a decisive role in the totalitarian phenomenon itself” rather than write a history of anti-Semitism and a history of imperialism, she ignored the evolution of Western spirituality as an independent contributory element.

If one asks why this omission was made, the most obvious, and perhaps the only, answer is: because it was not visible to her in the totalitarian phenomenon. And this consideration may serve to reemphasize Voegelin’s point regarding the importance of philosophical anthropology philosophy of the spirit, and philosophy of history as providing the necessary principles of relevance.40

From Nominal Taxonomy to Realistic Analysis

An alternative way of formulating the differences between Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin would be to say that Arendt’s theorization was nominalistic whereas Voegelin’s was realistic. As Voegelin pointed out in a letter to Francis Wilson, “nominalistic theories will be the best one can do in areas where penetration to essence is yet prevented by the state of science.”41

Nominalistic taxonomy or elemental analysis of the kind followed by Arendt would, therefore, distinguish totalitarian domination from lib­eral democracy, constitutional monarchy, classical tyranny, and so on. And, of course, Arendt did just that; indeed, she often insisted on the importance of making distinctions.42

Distinctions are obviously impor­tant, and one must always begin with the phenomena that attract one’s attention. Voegelin’s point was that nominalistic theorization can indeed achieve a taxonomy of type concepts, but that such a result is no more than a first step. In contrast, “realistic theorization” moved “beyond the appearances of phenomena” by way of analysis to a definition of essence. Even so, Voegelin continued, “realistic theorization” is possible only in cases where the subject has genuine “ontological status.”

Accordingly, one could develop a realistic theory of “the nature of man or of society, or of the order of the human soul” but not of the “accidence of order” such as appear through a typology of regimes, including that of totalitarian domination. Voegelin made the same point in another paper published about the same time.43 As is clear from his remarks on Egidius’s temperament and his use of the term totalitarian in connection with his doctrine of power, Voegelin was not opposed to the critically justified use of anachronistic terminology provided it helped clarify a particular problem.

In this as well, Voegelin and Arendt were likely to differ.44 He was, however, opposed to the uncritical anachronistic use of the term totalitarian, par­ticularly when it was applied by modern, secular intellectuals to aspects of medieval political thought that did not meet with their approval. Re­garding an example of such usage Voegelin made the following remark:

“The term [totalitariansim] has arisen, in the 1920s, within the modern Gnostic mass move­ments. It does not denote the measures of extraordinary atrocity which these movements use in their expansion and domination, but the faith in human intramundane (not transcendent) perfection through political action by groups who are in possession of eschatological knowledge about the end of history.”

This substitution of human self-salvation, of something like a transfiguration of human nature through historical action, for the Christian idea of perfection through Grace in death is, indeed, a matter of principle insofar as it can be maintained only if the whole range of experiences of transcendence is disregarded.

Totalitarian politics is based on an immanentist philosophical anthropology, as distinguished from Platonic-Aristotelian and Christian anthropologies which find the ordering center of human person­ality in the experiences of man’s relation to transcendent reality:

“It seems to me impermissible to apply the term ‘totalitarianism’ to both types alike, for such indiscriminate usage would obliterate the essential difference of principles and stress the non-essential similarity of prudential measures which, in various historical circumstances, may be used for the protection of a society against spiritual disintegration.”45

Voegelin made his critical point on the basis of a realistic theory of the nature of man and of society that enabled him to distinguish violent measures taken on prudential grounds [in the Middle Ages to protect Faith in God] from violent measures taken on the basis of faith in the possibility of an intramundane transfiguration of human existence. Among other things, the first type of violence would in principle be limited whereas the second, because it is used in pursuit of an impossible goal, would be limitless.

Might Man be Stripped of his Soul?

In Arendt’s opinion, the basis of the disagreement between the two lay elsewhere. According to her, Voegelin’s “sharpest criticism” con­cerned Arendt’s remarks on human nature. In response she wrote:

“The problem of the relationship between essence and existence in Occidental thought seems to me to be a bit more complicated and controversial than Mr. Voegelin’s statement on ‘nature’ (identifying ‘a thing as a thing’ and, therefore, incapable of change by definition) implies, but this I can hardly discuss here.”46

She did, however, amplify her remarks somewhat:

“I hardly proposed more change of nature than Mr. Voegelin himself in his book on The New Science of Politics; discussing the Platonic-Aristotelian theory of soul, he states: ‘one might almost say that before the discovery of psyche man had no soul.’ (p. 67) In Mr. Voegelin’s terms, I could have said that after the discoveries of totalitarian domination and its experiments, we have reason to fear that man may lose his soul.”

To this rhetorically powerful statement one must nevertheless raise a few objections. Voegelin’s point was methodological and concerned precisely the distinction that Plato and Aristotle achieved in their analytical use of the term psyche, which was, moreover, grounded in a specific class of experiences that can be identified by the methods of classical philology.47

Arendt was, of course, too well grounded in classical scholarship to be unaware of this problem; her usage, however, seemed to imply that the application of terror or the conduct of totalitarian “experiments” led to certain discoveries concerning souls. If, prior to Plato and Aristotle, “man had no soul,” it was also true, according to Arendt, that after the “experiments” humans would also become without souls. But what did this mean? Obviously, souls were not things to be lost like marbles or teddy bears. Plato and Aristotle were fully aware that the imagery of losing one’s soul referred to a kind of existential choice of injustice and ignorance over the desire for justice and wisdom.

What Arendt had in mind may be indicated in one of her earlier accounts of the operation of the death factories:

“and they all died together, the young and the old, the weak and the strong, and the sick and the healthy; not as people, not as men and women, children and adults, boys and girls, not as good and bad, beautiful and ugly–but brought down to the lowest common denominator of organic life itself, plunged into the darkest and deepest abyss of primal equality, like cattle, like matter, like things that had neither body nor soul, nor even a physiognomy upon which death could stamp its seal.”48

One is reminded in this account of the reduction of animal vitality to the stimulus-response organisms that emerged from the laboratories of Pro­fessor Pavlov. Human beings, like dogs, when placed in “experimental” conditions, can be destroyed, in the sense that the higher structures of consciousness can be reduced and suppressed. In this rather specific sense totalitarian experiments can, indeed, destroy souls along with bodies.49

Rejecting an Unchanging Nature of Man

Arendt meant something more than this, however, for it is also true that some survivors of the camps did not “lose their souls” and that the soul-destroying intentions of the camp operators could be frustrated.50 Arendt’s argument did not consider these possibilities, and in the fol­lowing paragraph she amplified her remarks:

“In other words, the success of totalitarianism is identical with a much more radical liquidation of freedom as a political and as a human reality than anything we have ever witnessed before. Under these conditions, it will be hardly consoling to cling to an unchangeable nature of man and conclude that either man himself is being destroyed or that freedom does not belong to man’s essential capabilities. Historically, we know of man’s nature only insofar as it has existence, and no realm of eternal essences will ever console us if man loses his essential capabilities.”

Her first sentence indicated again that totalitarian terror was highly effective in degrading human beings and that degraded human beings may be said to have “lost” their souls. But then one wonders whether they would be lost for good or could be “found” again. Arendt’s language was clearly preanalytic, not to say mythic. Of course, it conveyed a meaning; but it did not follow that the mythic meaning would be altered even under conditions of ecumenic totalitarian experiments.

Her second sentence, however, took a different tack. She seemed, first, to imply that Voegelin was mistaken (or naïve or perhaps cowardly) to “cling” to his insupportable views at a time when totalitarian experi­menters were at large and at work. They must be stopped! The conso­lation of Voegelin’s philosophy, she warned, would be short. Second, the conclusion she drew, “that either man himself is being destroyed or that freedom does not belong to man’s essential capabilities,” was an obvious non sequitur. To recall Voegelin’s commonsensical point: totalitarian murderers succeeded only in killing people, not in “changing human nature.”

Accordingly, her last sentence, that we know of man’s nature only insofar as it has existence, must be met by the rather strict observation Voegelin made in his review. It is:

“a sentence which, if it has any sense at all, can only mean that the nature of man ceases to be the measure when some imbecile conceives the notion of changing it. The author seems to be impressed by the imbecile and is ready to forget about the nature of man, as well as about all human civilization that has been built on its understanding.”

To put the matter in Arendtian terms, we in fact know man’s nature to the degree we do because it is not exhausted in human existence. It is also “nonexistent” or “eternal” so that, to use a Platonic image, human existence does indeed participate in a “realm of eternal essences.” Arendt then ended her response by restating her fears and linked them to the fears of Montesquieu rather than to the jailer of the apostles.

Voegelin’s Reply

Voegelin’s reply summarized the problem in astringent methodolog­ical terms. “It is the question of essence in history, the question of how to delimit and define phenomena of the class of political movements.” Arendt’s procedure was to deal with facts and events and to describe “well distinguished complexes of phenomena of the type of ‘totalitarian­ism’; and [she] is willing to accept such complexes as ultimate, essential units.”

Voegelin, however, rejected this procedure because the presenta­tion of factual configurations was insufficient. The state of science was not quite so inadequate as to preclude moving from nominalistic taxon­omy to realistic analysis. The investigation inevitably will start from the phenomena, but the question of theoretically justifiable units in political science cannot be solved by accepting the units thrown up by the stream of history at their face value.

What is required for a proper theoretical justification of the units of analysis depends on the rational elaboration of principles of relevance developed for the purpose–hence Voegelin’s remark that Arendt might have benefited from Toynbee. “What a unit is,” he said in closing, “will emerge when the principles furnished by philosophical anthropology are applied to historical materials. It then may happen that political movements, which on the scene of history are bitterly opposed to one another, will prove to be closely related on the level of essence.”

There was a postscript to this controversy. In the fall of 1952 Carl Friedrich was in the process of organizing a conference on totalitarian­ism. He wrote Gurian asking for his suggestions regarding participants. Gurian replied that Voegelin should be added to the list because he “could contribute to the verification of the historical and ideological background of totalitarianism.” Friedrich thanked him for his advice, but Voegelin was not invited.51

In the spring of 1953, however, Friedrich wrote to Voegelin:

“I have read your critical discussion of Hannah Arendt’s book with a great deal of interest. I am afraid, though, I cannot agree with you either about her or about totalitarianism. I very much deprecate efforts to explain totalitarianism by reference to some antecedent theory or intellectual movement, be it Hegel, Hobbes, Protestantism, or now, with you, ‘immanentism.'”

“The arguments for these positions are always very intriguing, because there usually is some con­nection, and to that extent our understanding is illumined. I am convinced, however, that a genuine understanding of totalitarianism must start with the essential novelty and uniqueness of the phenomenon, and I strongly agree with Arendt’s emphasis upon this. When, however, she in turn picks upon certain antecedents and then claims that they ‘crystallize’ into totalitarian­ism, she is constructing the type of “explanation’ which I question.”

“I have not yet read your new book, but I hope to do so soon.”52

Answering a Critic who Misunderstood

For Voegelin, Friedrich labored under misconceptions heavier in some respects than those of Arendt. He replied:

“Thanks for your kind letter, and for the attention that you give to a rather occasional effort.”

“Much as I appreciate disagreement as a spice of life, I am afraid, on the particular count that you raise we must forgo the pleasure of the condiment. I do not try to explain totalitarianism, or anything of the sort, by reference to antecedent theories.”

“The term ‘immanentism’ is an ontological type concept which derives its validity from the principles of philosophical anthropology. It denotes, not a theory, but a state of the psyche. There can only arise the question whether the concept is well constructed, and whether totalitarian movements can be subsumed under it.”

“Obviously, there arises the further question whether immanentist move­ments have a history in the sense that the adumbrated state of the psyche is slowly unfolding its potentialities, and spreading socially, over longer periods of time.”

“But that is a plain empirical question which must be decided by reference to the materials. Balthasar, in his Prometheus, tried to show such an unfolding in Germany since 1775; more recently, Albert Camus has made a similar attempt in his L’Homme Révolté for France, for the same period. In my New Science of Politics I have tried to show that for certain components of the essence ‘immanentism’ one must extend the continuity (of experience, not theory) even to certain movements of the twelfth century (following Burdach).”

“In no case, of course, does the existence of long-range psychic and social processes abolish the uniqueness of each sub-movement in its historical place. Here again I quite agree with you. Either Hannah Arendt should have stuck to the contemporary totalitarian movements as unique and been satisfied with a description; or, if she wanted to be ambitious, and tackle the difficult problem of long-range processes, she should have boned up on the highly developed methodology for handling such problems.”

“As the book stands, it is a rather messy performance, valuable only for its historical materials.”53

In his letter to Friedrich, but also from the tone of his review, it was clear that Voegelin’s admiration for Arendt was far from unconditional.

A Refusal or Inability to Engage

In fact, Voegelin’s unadorned view was that Origins was “a messy performance, valuable only for its historical materials.” In a letter to Gurian that accom­panied his final response to Arendt’s reply he expressed disappointment, even irritation, with Arendt’s refusal or inability to engage in a serious discussion:

“I cannot say that I am particularly happy about this development. But I must say that the fault is mine. The good lady, in spite of all her merits, has, I am afraid, not quite understood the explosive implications of what she is doing in theory.”

“I have committed the mistake of honoring her with a careful review, taking her seriously, and entering into the issues. One shouldn’t do that; it has cost me a lot of time to disentangle the decisive points from a rambling context, and the time seems to have been wasted.”54

A few months later Arendt published a longer discussion of ideology. Both from the title, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Govern­ment,”55 and from the content, it is evident that Arendt had not passed from nominalistic taxonomy to realistic analysis, notwithstanding the many interesting observations her article contained. After it had ap­peared, and several months following Voegelin’s expression of his initial response to Arendt’s position in the letter to Gurian, he had an occasion to reflect on the whole episode with more detachment and irony.

Marshall McCluhan Hits on the Problem

Marshall McLuhan had read Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, on the advice of Cleanth Brooks, and provided Voegelin with a lengthy exposition of the presence of Gnosticism in the arts. He complained at one point, “A person feels like an awful slacker to have spent twenty years of study on an ‘art’ which turns out to be somebody else’s ritual.” Voegelin replied that the most interesting thing “is the fact that you have hit on the problem at all.”

Rather than complain about losing twenty years of work, McLuhan should take heart from the realization that it takes time to “disengage ourselves from the creeds of a dying world (I have lost more years than I care to remember with neo-Kantianism and Phenomenology, before I dropped the nonsense).” Besides, Voegelin said, the time is not really lost: one finds the right way more surely by oneself than if someone else just pointed it out. More to the point, who wants a “hearing” from the dead anyhow? You begin to live “with the Exodus from the civilizational realm of the dead, and the beginning begins with the discovery of the world as the Desert–if I may use well-known symbols.”

Voegelin ended his remarks with some strategic advice on how to deal with such individuals: simply “know so much more, in a plain technical sense, than the others that they will be afraid to molest you. In detail, you will probably soon discover what I have discovered, that it is a lot of fun to bait the ungodly when they get impertinent” and make them “hopping mad.” As an example, Voegelin included “the reprint of a little controversy I had recently, that will illustrate what I meant by having ‘fun’ with the ideologues. The good lady who was the subject of my critique was so disturbed by it, that she wrote a whole article clarifying her point after a fashion in a more recent issue of the same periodical.”56

Voegelin’s Techniques of Scientific Analysis

The controversy with Arendt illustrated a number of points. First, Voegelin’s attitude changed from one of irritation that his efforts at a rational exposition of the problems had been turned aside by Arendt to one of detached resignation. At the end of the day, about all that anyone can really do with individuals who will not or cannot discuss the important questions is gain whatever enjoyment one can from the experience of sheer disagreement. In the history of political philosophy, ironic resignation to the incomprehension of one’s potential interlocutor is not without precedent.57

Second, while at the end of the controversy with Arendt, Voegelin’s attitude concerning her position was similar to that he held toward the behaviorists, he reached his conclusion by a different route and over a longer time. To recall an earlier observation: with the behaviorists, there was simply nothing to learn. Their actual commitments to scientism made their pretensions to science a bad joke.

Third, Voegelin’s attitude regarding the approach of Leo Strauss re­flected the possibility of honest disagreement between scholars who understood and respected one another. It was, therefore, a relatively straightforward problem to analyze and present the issues that arose in Voegelin’s review of On Tyranny.

Likewise in considering the dis­agreement regarding Plato and Aristotle or the difference made by Christianity to the conceptualization of political philosophy, misunder­standings were kept to a minimum. For example, both parties agreed that historical sequence mattered much more to Voegelin than to Strauss. Accordingly, the continuity of spiritual politics from medieval paracletes to the several varieties of supermen of the nineteenth century was for Voegelin a positive center of intellectual activism, whereas for Strauss it was sufficient to know that the doctrines espoused by such persons could be adequately comprehended and criticized from the standpoint of classical political philosophy.58

Using Voegelin’s language in his review of Arendt, if the real division was between immanentist sectarians and re­ligious and philosophical transcendentalists, then Voegelin was in closer agreement with Strauss than with Arendt: no reasonable person would argue that Strauss was an immanentist sectarian. He was, as Voegelin said of him, a scholar who knew his business.59

The Need for an Adequate Terminology

With The Origins of Totalitarianism Voegelin directly encountered a problem that was discussed somewhat abstractly in Chapter 3. Thinkers such as Plato or Aquinas, or even Strauss, present their arguments in technically competent philosophical or theoretical language. In the absence of such competence, if one is to make sense of an author’s ideas and arguments, they must be referred to a rational standard or to a philosophical, theoretical, or scientific context that transcends the one employed by the author. With Arendt, as with Voltaire, discussed in Chapter 6, this means that one must develop an adequate terminological apparatus to deal with a defective or spiritually impoverished language. The example of Arendt indicates that there is no guarantee that the author in question will accept the correction offered.

To illustrate Voegelin’s understanding of what a properly scientific treatment of these questions might entail, let us conclude this chapter with a brief recollection of Voegelin’s discussion of one aspect of to­talitarian domination, Nazi race ideas, introduced above in Chapter 2.60 Voegelin began by distinguishing the concept of race, which may or may not prove useful in anthropology, natural science, population biology, and so on, from the idea of race, the purpose of which is to create an image of a group as a unit–because, as observable phenomena, groups dissolve into the actions, purposes, and motivations of individuals.

Second, he further distinguished the race idea as one of a series of body ideas that have developed historically and proposed a nominalistic taxonomy of his own around the three types: the body politic created by the Greek polis, the mystical body of Christ, and the race idea.

Third, however, Voegelin moved beyond the classification of types toward a realistic analysis of the human spiritual essence expressed in or through the body ideas. As with the discussion of Egidius, Voegelin was particularly concerned with the historical development of modern political ideas from medieval ones–or rather, from the one-sided interpretation of medieval ones.

Balancing Both Homonoia and the Mystical Body

In the symbolism of the mystical body of Christ, two antecedent elements came together.

First, the idea of like-mindedness, homonoia, re­ferred generally to the bond of sentiment among members of any type of community. Second, however, the symbolism of Christ as a second Adam established the genealogical principle of a common ancestor: Christ was, however, a common spiritual rather than corporeal ancestor of humanity.

The idea of the mystical body, in the technical sense that Voegelin used the term, “is based on an interpretation of the persons of Christ and of man. Both [Christ and ordinary human beings] consist of the body, the soma, and the mind [or spirit], the pneuma.” The ontological basis for the union of Christ and the human community of Christians is the assumption (or confession of faith) that the nature of Christ is both fully human and fully divine.

Accordingly, in their like-mindedness all members of the community, the ekklesia, participate in the spirit, the pneuma, of Christ, which, being also fully divine, is centered beyond the range of ordinary earthly experience. That is, the unifying force, the ontologically real bond of the ekklesia, is the divine and world-transcendent personality of Christ.

Voegelin drew a contrast with pre-Christian possessions by spirits (or demons), which were usually confined to a single other person; the full­ness, the pleroma, of the spirit of Christ, however, meant that it may live in an indefinite number of others, beginning “when two or three are gath­ered together” in Christ’s name, to use the formula of the Book of Com­mon Prayer. With the emphasis on the mystical body, we may call this the more pneumatic account of the construction of the Christian community.

A second, and balancing, account, which lays the emphasis on the mystical body and which we may call the more somatic one, symbolizes Christ as “the head of the body, the ekklesia” (Col. 1:18). The point of this second version is to avert the obvious danger that the Christian community might consider that it was simply a collection of like-minded individuals. By analogy with the human body, the head does not exist apart from the body; by the same token, the relationship between head and body must be specified.

The Pauline Balance Fragments into National Communities

Paul clarified this problem by means of the diversification of the one spirit of Christ into the charismata, the divine gifts, that determine the status and calling of the several members of the one body. In 1 Cor. 12, for example, Saint Paul begins by considering the diversities of the charismata but then remarks:

“But all these [gifts] worketh that one and selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.” (1 Cor. 12:11-14)

As was mentioned above in the discussion of Egidius, the Pauline balance consists in the infusion of the more somatic account with the specifically Christian meaning expressed through the Christological interpretation of like-mindedness, which is to say, through what we have called the more pneumatic account.

With the fragmentation of medieval Christian universalism into particular national or other communities, the more so­matic interpretation, “which is most intimately dependent on the Christology, is referred to the background while the idea of the diversification of a spiritual unit into spiritual functions is transferred to spiritual sub­stances other than the pneuma of Christ,” such as, for example, the nation.

In other words, when the emphasis shifts from a balance of somatic and pneumatic to a heavily skewed pneumatic interpretation of com­munity, the way is opened “for a reconstruction of the spiritual meaning of community along lines diverging from the Christian.” The devel­opment was not toward a recovery of the polis symbolism or of the like-mindedness of the empire of Alexander the Great, but in a direc­tion unconnected to symbols of family, kinship, or bloodline.

Specifi­cally, the fragmentation or particularization of the Christian community substituted for Christological like-mindedness the like-mindedness of particular national communities, each endowed with “a more or less systematized body of symbolic doctrine asserting the superior qualities of the several national spirits and their consequent particular mission in history.”

Substituting New Symbols for Christological Content

The new parochial symbolism, therefore, presupposes the Christian form of the mystical body and simply replaces the Christological content, substance, and reality with something else. Moreover, because these new communities are fragments of a Christian community, “they are capable of evolving almost any new set of symbols out of elements which are offered by the civilizational situation of the mo­ment.” Such “elements” might include economic factors, as in the case of the Bolsheviks, or biological ones, as in the case of the Nazis. In either instance, these real but fragmentary factors are endowed with an imaginary spiritual meaning that, as a political idea, can serve as an image to unite a group and motivate it to act.

We need not provide a detailed account of the changes from the medieval Christian symbols and experiences that, following Bergson, Voegelin called “open” to the modern intramundane or “closed” equiv­alents in order to understand what a properly scientific account of the dynamics of the changes entailed: “The formerly open group with spiritual threads running from every single member beyond the earthly reality into another ontological realm closes by the transfer of the center from the beyond into the very community itself.”61

The actual content of the symbolism of closure has, in turn, varied across the range of political societies. As a mere matter of fact, racial symbolism (in 1940) was more acceptable in Germany than in France or Britain. In order to account for this fact, Voegelin introduced historical considerations similar to those that marked a point of major divergence with Strauss. Voegelin made the point in different contexts throughout his scholarly life, and we will encounter it again in the course of this study. In the formulation of 1940, he used the phrase “the structure of institutions and ideas” to describe what might be called a three-dimensional type-construct.

A two-dimensional categorization is familiar from Aristotle’s Politics. Good and bad versions of rule by the one, the few, and the many (Politics 1279a 25) can be plotted on a bivariate table. Similar categoriza­tions can be drawn up for the national state or the Western democracy or the authoritarian state. These two-dimensional type-categories neglect, however, the importance of “the relative time position of the characteris­tics” and so neglect as well the “relative historical weight” of the various constituent elements of, for example, the category of regime classified as a national democracy.

An example may clarify Voegelin’s point. In order to understand the French national democracy, one must not only look to the juridical construction of the French state but also bear in mind that the political unit of France was founded during late medieval times and to all intents and purposes was well established by the mid-seventeenth century. The bourgeois and democratic revolutions, which began in the eighteenth century, took place within a solid administrative structure established over the preceding centuries. Moreover, the political ideas that ani­mated French society during the eighteenth-century revolutions were eighteenth-century ideas of the rights of man, not ideas of race or class.

In contrast, a country such as Germany or Italy may belong to the same two-dimensional juridical type as France; indeed, it may even have a constitution that is modeled on the constitution of France. At the same time, however, it may have a perfectly different time structure when the fixation of the territory and political independence follow the awakening of national consciousness of the bourgeois stratum of society, instead of preceding it, as in the case in Germany and Italy, and in the Central and Eastern European states.

The Protection Afforded by the Weight of Centuries

National groups attaining statehood without the weight of centuries to provide stability to the regime are apt to have different political ideas than did the eighteenth-century French who established the legal state that was subsequently copied elsewhere. Specifically, the increased virulence of totalitarian domination in Italy, Germany, and Russia was, in Voegelin’s view, “strictly determined by the time structure of their democratic periods.”

In Italy the period of liberal republicanism preceded national unification by decades; in Germany national unification coincided with the Prussian wars, which were con­ducted independently of the liberal republicanism of the 1840s. “And the totalitarian revolution in Russia is probably the most complete one because the effective liberal revolution preceded the communistic one only by a few months.” A relatively long duration of a liberal democratic regime may act as a kind of inoculation against the totalitarian “virus.”

Using  less metaphorical language, Voegelin observed that:

“racial symbolism has comparatively little chance in a society which has gone through an eighteenth century revolution, because the collective element of racialism is hardly compatible with the belief in the value of the sovereign person and the indestructible soul, and its rights and liberties; and because the biological determinism is incompatible with the idea of reason as a spiritual substance independent of the qualities of the body which houses it.”

At the same time, however, such symbols are not simply self-evident. Even the American Declaration of Independence begins with the affir­mation “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Accordingly:

“whatever criticism can be launched rightly against the race symbolism under moral and religious aspects, as an interpretation of reality the idea that men are different, and that their differences may be due to differences in their biological structure, is not more unrealistic than the idea that all men are equal. Moreover, in a revolutionary upheaval the authority of established symbols is, practically by definition, highly impaired so that whatever symbols have currency are likely to prevail.”


In the context of the totalitarian revolutions of the twentieth cen­tury, pride of place must go to what Voegelin here identified as “the superstition of science,” or scientism, to use the terminology of the last chapter. Likewise the “positivist destruction of science” may be intel­ligibly linked to totalitarian domination with the observation that the eclipse of an awareness, even among scholars, that social symbols create theological and metaphysical problems, not quantitative and phenome­nal ones, constitutes the background for the introduction of new social symbols, expressing specific spiritual experiences, under the guise of “science.”

This is why Bolsheviks called themselves “scientific socialists” and revered Marx as the founder of scientific socialism and also why Nazis considered their “race theories” to be scientific. One of Arendt’s insights regarding totalitarian domination is that the regime, if that is the correct word, is less a structure than a movement, which means that it “can have only a direction, and that any form of legal or governmental structure can only be a handicap to a movement which is being propelled with increasing speed in a certain direction.”62

Voegelin offered his own account of the phenomenon:

“when science ‘progresses’ farther and new symbols evolve on the basis of new materials, the older ones cannot defend themselves by the authority of a religious belief of intrinsic value, but they are exposed to attack and dissolution on the level of their superstition.”

The history of symbols during the last century offers to a detached view the spectacle of a somewhat hectic sequence of scientific fads. Voegelin’s observation regarding the sequence of scientific fads needs to be distinguished from the progress of genuine science. He did, after all, criticize Arendt for not being up-to-date in her choice of analytic instruments, and urged her to take a look at Toynbee.

On the other hand, Strauss’s answer to the problem of scientism or of “scientific fads” was to consider it as an aspect of historicism, the self-refuting nature of which can be demonstrated easily enough. In more positive terms, Straussian political science is based on the philosophical anthropology of the classical thinkers. For Voegelin, however, historicity was a funda­mental dimension of human existence. This is why he was able to dismiss Aristotle’s classification of regimes as no longer relevant to the analysis of contemporary political problems, whereas Strauss considered such a position premature, to say the least. In this chapter we have seen in outline how Voegelin’s political science sought to incorporate the historically contingent with the nonhistorical or essential.



1. Voegelin usually sent both Arendt and Strauss copies of his major publications, and they usually responded with polite thanks. Strauss’s Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953) is in Voegelin’s library at Erlangen, but it is unmarked even by his usual light pencil lines in the margin. Strauss’s copy of Voegelin’s New Science of Politics in the Strauss Archive at the University of Chicago is accompanied by fourteen pages of notes evidently prepared with a view to writing a review. Voegelin agreed to review Strauss’s book for Review of Politics, but if ever he completed the work it remained unpublished. Voegelin to Gurian, September 28, 1953, University of Notre Dame, Archives, URP06/Box 6.

2. Leo Strauss, On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero, with a foreword by Alvin Johnson (New York: Macmillan, 1948); a second edition appeared in French six years later, De La Tyrannie, par Léo Strauss, Précédé de Hiéron, de Xénophon et suivi de Tyrannie et sagesse par Alexandre Kojève,trans. H. Kern (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), containing an edited version of the review by Kojève, which had originally appeared as “L’Action politique des philosophes,”Critique 6 (1950): 41-42,46-55,138-55, along with Strauss’s “Mise au point,” which replied briefly to Voegelin and at greater length to Kojève. In 1963 an English translation, On Tyranny: Revised and Enlarged, ed. Allan Bloom (Glencoe: Free Press, 1963), was published, and a paperback was issued by Cornell University Press in 1968. Finally, there is a critical edition, On Tyranny: Revised and Expanded Edition, Including the Strauss-Kojève Correspondence, ed. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth. Reference is to the last text. Voegelin’s review was published as “On Tyranny” in 1949.

3. Strauss to Voegelin, November 24, 1942, in Faith and Political Philosophy, 5-7. Other quotations are taken from this edition. Most of the letters are in HI 37/1.

4. In his review of Cairns’s book, Voegelin did not say that (in Strauss’s words) “the Platonic-Aristotelian concept of science was put to rest through Christianity and the discovery of history.” Voegelin wrote there substantially what he wrote in his letter to Strauss: “the appearance of Christ has added to the idea of man [in Plato and Aristotle] the dimension of the spiritual singularity of every human being, so that we cannot build a science of social order, for instance, on the anthropologies of Plato or Aristotle” (CW, 27:104; emphasis added).

5. Voegelin’s point about the Renaissance concerned not the question of universal­ity but rather that of its impossibility, owing to what, in his review of Cairns, he called the discovery of the “dimension of historic singularity,” which was added to the spiritual singularity of Christianity (CW, 27:104). This problem is discussed in detail in connection with Vico in Chapter 9. In addition, and notwithstanding Voegelin’s admiration for Strauss’s access to the Arabic texts, Voegelin’s understanding of the medieval Arabic failasauf did not accord with that of Strauss. Compare Voegelin, “Siger de Brabant,” esp. 514 ff., with Strauss, “How Farabi Read Plato’s Laws,” in What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies, esp. 137-39.

6. Voegelin had been asked by Social Research, of which Strauss was an associate editor, to review a book on phenomenology, and the next topic the two men discussed was Husserl. The issues involved are discussed in Chapter 5.

7. Subsequent quotations are from Review of Politics 11 (1949): 241-44.

8. This aspect of Xenophon’s dialogue was an important topic in the “debate” between Kojève and Strauss owing to its connection to the Hegelian notion of “recognition,” which was central to Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel. See Barry Cooper, The End of History: An Essay on Modern Hegelianism, 266-72.

9. See, for example, A. Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants and Greek Society, chap. 4, and N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322B.C., 2d ed.

10. Strauss, On Tyranny, 65.

11. Ibid., 23-24.

12. Machiavelli, The Prince, chap. 6.

13. Ibid., chap. 8.

14. Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.4-5.

15. The correspondence is reproduced in Faith and Political Philosophy, 44-72. Voegelin wrote to Strauss that he was looking forward to learning “what the un­stated presuppositions of my work are.” Strauss replied to Voegelin: “My terrible handwriting must have brought about a terrible misunderstanding. How could you ever believe that I wrote that you will learn finally with clarity from my ‘Restatement’ what the unstated premises of your work are?” (71). Strauss probably possessed no copy of his handwritten letter and, in any event, did not provide a correction. Strauss’s handwriting was notoriously hard to decipher, and it is entirely possible that he wrote something else. To Voegelin (and to the editors of the correspondence) his words looked to be what Voegelin took them to be.

16. See the correspondence reproduced in Strauss, On Tyranny, 241-63; Strauss’s “Restatement” is available in On Tyranny, 178-85, reprinted from Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?

17. Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History.” See Voegelin’s letter of March 12, 1949, in Faith and Political Philosophy as well as his blunt account of the whole business in a letter to Alfred Schütz, March 22,1949, HI 34/11.

18. In addition to defending Strauss against ill-informed, presumptuous, and often ignorant critics, Voegelin on several occasions sent his best undergraduates from LSU to do graduate work at Chicago. He served on the examination committee of one of Strauss’s Ph.D. students and wrote a strong letter to the William Volker Fund in support of Strauss’s proposal to establish a political philosophy seminar at Chicago. For details see the correspondence between Voegelin and Edward Shils, HI 36/11; Willmoore Kendall, April 8,1948, HI 20/39; Richard Cornuelle of the Volker Fund, July 14,1954, HI 42/1; James W. Fesler, March 20,1957, HI 42/18.

19. HI 10/23. East’s article appeared in Modern Age 20 (1977).

20. HI 10/23.

21. See, for example, Voegelin to Russell Kirk, April 23, 1956, HI 21/6; Robert Heilman, October 8, 1960, HI 17/9; David Collier, Modern Age, May 12, 1961, HI 25/26; Peter Berger, Social Research, December 19,1967, HI 36/29; Jeffrey M. Nelson, April 2, 1969, HI 27/1; Stephen J. Tonsor, April 3 and July 30, 1969, HI 37/27; Robert Schuettiger, October 13, 1969, HI 43/5; Ronald F. Docksai, Young Americans for Freedom, May 13, 1971, HI 42/19; Wolfram Ender, November 1, 1971, HI 44/11; Henry Regnery, June 14,1972, HI 18/2; George H. Nash, December 9,1974, HI 26/13; William F. Buckley, National Review, June 20, 1979, HI 26/19; Michael Berheide, March 9, 1981, HI 8/7.

22. See, however, Voegelin, “Liberalism and Its History,” trans. Mary and Keith Algozin, and Strauss, Liberalism: Ancient and Modern (New York: Basic Books, 1968).

23. See, however, Arendt, “The Personality of Waldemar Gurian,” Review of Politics 17 (1955): 33-42. References to The Origins of Totalitarianism are to the “new edition.” The Gurian-Voegelin correspondence is in HI 15/27. Voegelin’s review, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” appeared in Review of Politics 15 (1953): 68-76; Arendt’s “A Reply,” 76-84; Voegelin’s “Concluding Remark,” 84-85.

24. There were “nonemotional” studies of various aspects of totalitarianism, but they were, in Voegelin’s view, defective in other respects. See his review of Maxine Sweezy, The Structure of the Nazi Economy, and Earnest Fraenkel, The Dual State (1942). Voegelin used Herman Rauschning’s The Revolution of Nihilism in the summer school course he gave on totalitarianism at Northwestern in 1939 (HI 27/19).

25. Arendt, Origins, 446.

26. Ibid., 458.

27. Ibid., 459. “The concentration camps are the laboratories where changes in human nature are tested, and their shamefulness, therefore, is not just the business of their inmates and those who run them according to strict ‘scientific’ standards; it is the concern of all men” (ibid., 458).

28. The review copy, which is part of Voegelin’s personal library, has numerous pencil lines in the margin of the concluding chapter, from which most of the quota­tions given in the text are drawn. Voegelin marked passages only very occasionally.

29. The qualification somehow is necessary in this imaginary example because “natures” are usually conceived as being uncreated by humans–though perhaps created by God. Obviously modern technological actions, which have fabricated new life-forms, have compelled a certain amount of qualification and elaboration of the problem. It is within the realm of possibility that one might genetically transform a cat into something that looked like a dog, barked like a dog, and so on. But would it be a dog? Or must dogs be begotten by dogs not made by humans from (former) cats? For a discussion of this question, see Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), and the discussion in Cooper, Action into Nature, 216 ff.

30. Arendt, Origins, 434 in the first edition. The remark, of more than philological interest, was omitted from subsequent editions. The jailer, in a panic, is about to commit suicide when Paul tells him not to worry because no one has escaped. The jailer then seeks salvation by conversion; Paul adds the jailer’s family, and they are all baptized. It is perhaps worth noting that Arendt also changed this ending after the first edition.

31. In the story recounted in Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in jail; their prayers to be freed are apparently answered by an earthquake that opens the doors of the jail.

32. These and subsequent quotations are taken from Arendt’s “Reply” referred to above.

33. In the preface to Origins, Arendt wrote:

“Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us–neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality–whatever it may be.”

Heilke has argued in “Science, Philosophy, and Resistance” that Voegelin’s books on Nazi “race ideas” served a similar, though less explicit, purpose.

34. In NSP, chap. 1., Voegelin discussed the question of “elemental” analysis in connection with the problem of representation and indicated that such analysis dealt with only the external aspects of the problem; the internal aspects, which considered the question of meaning, required a critical or scientific approach based on a comprehensive philosophical anthropology.

35. For example: Henri de Lubac, Drame de l’humanisme athée, 2d ed. (1947); Hans Urs von Balthasar, Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937); Jakob Taubes, Abenländische Eschatologie (1947). Several times in his postwar correspondence Voegelin mentioned the work of these scholars as constituting genuine science. Often he would add, for the medieval period, the work of Etienne Gilson and Alois Dempf. See, for example, his letters to Kurt Wolff, HI 42/15.

36. The discussion is in the chapter “The Absolute Papacy–Giles of Rome/’ in HPI, III:43-53. The papal document is widely reprinted. See, for example, Brian Tierney, ed., The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 188 ff., or Ernest F. Henderson, ed., Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London: Bell, 1903), 435 ff. See also Alois Dempf, Sacrum Imperium: Geschichtes ­und Staatsphilosophie des Mittelalters und der politischen Renaissance, 449-55.

37. “Siger de Brabant,” in HPI, II:178-204.

38. R. W. and A. J. Carlyle, A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West, 5:403.

39. Arendt, Origins, 139-41.

40.Voegelin would not, therefore, accept without qualification Arendt’s previ­ously quoted statement that “all historiography is necessarily salvation and fre­quently justification.” It is true that the sentiment can be extracted from Thucydides, and Arendt has done so in “The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern,’ in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, chap. 2, but for Voegelin the more immediate source is the “pathos” of he Renaissance historiographers. See Chapter 7 below [of this volume].

41. HI 42/5.

42. In her response to Voegelin, for example, she wrote: “my chief quarrel with the present state of the historical and political sciences is their growing incapacity for making distinctions” (“A Reply,” 82).

43. Voegelin, “The Oxford Political Philosophers” (1953). This essay is now availalbe in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol 11, Published Essays, 1953-1965, beginning at p 24.

44. See Arendt’s remarks on the “unusual” distinction she made between labor and work based on striking “phenomenal evidence,” namely “the simple fact that every European language, ancient and modern, contains two etymologically unre­lated words for what we have come to think of as the same activity, and retains them in the face of their persistent synonymous usage” (The Human Condition, 79- 80). For Arendt, the question of historical usage was particularly revealing; Voegelin would not disagree, but the demands of realistic theorization might necessitate the use of terms, such as political society, that for Arendt would in principle be avoided. Compare The New Science of Politics, 1, with The Human Condition, 38 ff.

45. “Oxford Political Philosophers,” 103. [pp 31-2 of CW Vol 11. See fn 43 above.]

46. Arendt has, of course, had her defenders against Voegelin’s criticism. One way of dealing with the issue of “human nature” and its changes that does not get lost in semantic divergencies was indicated by Voegelin himself. In a letter to Dal R. Evans (January 18,1974, HI 12/6), he wrote:

“The ‘change’ in the nature of man . . . is of course real, but a change is precisely what is called ‘history’ and the history of the differentiation is the content of Order and History.  No differentiation of the psyche would be recognizable as such, unless it were the differentiation of something that was there before.”

Such an understanding of the meaning of the term nature of man is defensible in itself, but that was not what either Voegelin or Arendt meant in the exchange of 1953. The other possibility, derived from Schelling, has been given a systematic formulation by Emil Fackenheim and is discussed in Chapter 10.

47. See, for example, Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer.

48. Arendt, “The Image of Hell.”

49. In the contemporary words of Everett Chance, “when you hold all the cards, erasing faith is easier than you might think. All you have to do is erase the mind it inhabits.” Everett was speaking specifically about drug “therapy.” David James Duncan, The Brothers K (New York: Bantam, 1992), 605.

50. Solzhenitsyn’s testimony in The Gulag Archipelago provides evidence of this, as do the psychological studies of Bruno Bettelheim. In this connection See Cooper, End of History, chap. 8.

51. Harvard University Archives, HUG(FP) 17, 12, Box 34; Gurian to Friedrich, November 12,1952; Friedrich to Gurian, December 9,1952. The conference proceedings were subsequently published under the editorship of Friedrich as Totalitarianism: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1953.

52. HI 13/16.

53. HI 13/16.1 have found no record of Friedrich’s reply to Voegelin’s remarks either in Voegelin’s papers at HI or in Friedrich’s papers at Harvard.

54. HI 15/27. According to Arendt, however, she and Voegelin were united in their hatred of ideology but divided on the grounds that she was not a Christian (HI 6/23). See also Voegelin to Gurian, May 5, 1951, University of Notre Dame, Archives, URP06/Box 6.

55. The article was included as a chapter in subsequent editions of The Origins of Totalitarianism.

56. HI 25/3.

57. See Apology 35e-38c. On other occasions as well Voegelin indicated that the appropriate response when pressed to discuss ideologically deformed topics is a firm refusal, a wry smile, and some consolation from Heraclitus B107: “The eyes and ears are bad witnesses for a man whose soul is barbarous” (HI 17/2).

58. For a discussion of these and related questions see Faith and Political Philosophy, pt. III.

59. HI 26/31.

60. Voegelin, “The Growth of the Race Idea.”

61. Ibid., 303. The details were in fact summarized in the article and set out at greater length in The History of the Race Idea and Race and State. Regarding the latter book, Arendt said it was “the best historical account of race-thinking in the pattern of a ‘history of ideas’ ” (Origins, 158).

62. Arendt, Origins, 388.


This excerpt is from Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science (University of Missouri Press, 1999).

Barry Cooper

Written by

Barry Cooper is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. He is the author, editor, or translator of more than thirty books and has published over one hundred and fifty papers and book chapters. He writes a regular column in the Calgary Herald.