The Pathos of Science and the Spiritual Eunuchs

HomeThe Collected Works of Eric VoegelinThe Pathos of Science and the Spiritual Eunuchs

We have spoken metaphorically of the cancerous growth of the rational-utilitarian segment in modern civilization. We now must go beyond the metaphor and indicate the concrete sentiments and ideas that determine this growth in its formative stage. The sudden and disproportionate expansion of one single element in a total structure at the expense of other elements presupposes a serious disturbance of a previously existing balance.

We have amply discussed the nature of the disturbance already under such titles as the disorientation of existence through weakening or loss of faith, and we have seen the disturbance expressing itself in such symptoms as Locke’s “primitivization” of intellectual culture. The sentiments and attitudes that appeared on the occasion of the discussion of the problem of absolute space are further specific symptoms of primitivization in the wake of a general existential disorientation. The absolutism of a Galileo or a Newton cannot be labeled and shelved as a theoretical mistake to be corrected in the future.

The attribution of “absoluteness” to the new science expresses the will of finding an absolute orientation of human ex­istence through intramundane experience, and the correlate to this new will is the unwillingness to orient existence through openness toward transcendental reality.

The new science assumes the func­tion of a new order of existence. In his “Ode to Newton” (printed in the first edition of the Principia) Edmund Hailey celebrated the achievement of his hero by placing it higher than the civilizing work of the sages and founders of antiquity: what is an ancient lawgiver (presumably a Moses or Lycurgus) who orders nothing more important than human society beside the man who discovers the order of the heavenly polity?

Even if we make due allowance for conventions and cliches, and discount the generally hyperbolic tone of the ode, there will still remain the sentiment that a discovery concerning the order of phenomena is an event of the same rank, if not of a higher one, than a new spiritual insight.

The Pathos of Autonomy

Intimately related to the sentiment of absoluteness is the pathos of autonomy and self-reliance that animates the advancement of science. Exactness of mathematical form and verification through experiment become self-sufficient standards of truth. A scientist need not look left or right in his pursuit of knowledge as long as he abides by his standards, and no extraneous speculation can affect the truth of a proposition in science. The Newtonian hypotheses non fingo has become the proud expression of this pathos. At this point we touch on one of the most important sources of the mod­ern existential disorder.

If this pathos expressed nothing but the peculiar methodological situation of the exact sciences, it would be perfectly legitimate. Unfortunately, however, it has come to express a good deal more. The expansion of meaning is achieved through a process that we may call the transfer of pathos from a special pursuit to the existence of man. Science as an evolving system of knowledge is the result of an occupation of human beings.

The Warping of Human Personality

If the pathos of science is transferred from the occupation to the existence of the man who is engaged in it, such transfer may result in a serious warping of the individual personality, and if this transfer of pathos from science to the scientist becomes a model that is imitated on a socially relevant scale, it will result in far-reaching civilizational destruction.

As a matter of fact, this transfer and its social imitation have occurred on such a scale in our civilization that the destructive effects defy repair in any visible future. Let us briefly characterize the attitudes and ideas through which this work of destruction is effected: The transfer of pathos from science to existence expresses itself concretely in the growth of the belief that human existence can be oriented in an absolute sense through the truth of science.

Ignoring the Existentially Important Problems

The transfer of the pathos from science to existence expresses itself concretely in the growth of the belief that human existence can be oriented in an absolute sense through the truth of science. If this belief is justified, then it becomes unnecessary to cultivate knowledge beyond science. As a consequence of this belief, the preoccupation with science and the possession of scientific knowledge has come to legitimate ignorance with regard to all problems that lie beyond a science of phenomena.

The spreading of the belief has had the result that the magnificent advancement of science in Western civilization is paralleled by an unspeakable advancement of mass ignorance with regard to the problems that are existentially the important ones. Such mass ignorance would be bad enough in itself. Even so, mere ignorance could be repaired by learning. Scientistic ignorance becomes a civilizational disaster because the substantial ordering of existence cannot be achieved through the acquisition of knowledge in the phenomenal sense. It requires the formation of personality in an educational process, and this process requires institutions.

Scientistic Pathos in Education

Once the scientistic pathos has penetrated into the educational institutions of a society, it has become a social force that cannot easily be broken, if it can be broken at all. The problem, therefore, is no longer one of mere ignorance. If belief in the self-sufficient ordering of existence through science is socially entrenched, it becomes a force that actively prevents the cultivation of human substance and corrodes the surviving elements of the cultural tradition still further. The spiritual desire, in the Platonic sense, must be very strong in a young man of our time in order to overcome the obstacles that social pressure puts in the way of its cultivation.

The Social Science of the Spiritual Eunuchs

Moreover, with regard to the cultivation of substance men are gifted differently (gifted in the Pauline sense of endowment with spiritual charismata). The active carriers of the scientistic pathos will be the men who are deficient in such gifts, and the penetration of society with the scientistic pathos creates an environment that favors the social success of the deficient human types. Hence, the advancement of science and the growth of the rational-utilitarian factor are accompanied by a restratification of society that hitherto seems to have escaped attention because it cannot be expressed in terms of social classes.

Restratification through the social prestige and success of the deficient types must be expressed in terms of human substance. We shall use the term spiritual eunuchism for the designation of personality traits that make a man a likely victim of scientistic pathos, as well as for the designation of the traits that a society acquires when this human type gains social ascendancy . . . .

Aggressive Dilettantism in Philosophical Matters

A further trait connected with the transfer of pathos is the rise of aggressive dilettantism in philosophical matters. Again, this is not a question of simple ignorance or dilettantism that may occur at any time. The new and dangerous element is the readiness of the dilettante to impose his ignorance as a standard on others. Clarke’s ” I do not understand” in answer to Leibniz’s exposition of the problems of time and space is the ominous symptom of the new attitude. He really does not understand — and that settles the argument in his favor. What the scientistic dilettante cannot understand must not be proposed in discussions of a problem . . . .

What Newton had to say in his definitions of space affected the formation of political ideas immeasurably. The social success of Newton’s theory of absolute space is the first great instance of successful dilettantic theories, advanced either by scientists themselves or (after the transfer of the pathos of science on a relevant scale) by the great spiritual eunuchs of the nineteenth century. Without the prestige effect of scientism, such major intellectual scandals as the social success of Positivism, or Darwinian evolutionism, or Marxism would be unthinkable.


This excerpt is from History of Political Ideas (Volume VI): Revolution and the New Science (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 24) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric Voegelin

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