Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin was born in Cologne, Germany in January 1901, just as Western civilization was about to tear itself apart. He grew up in Vienna, the child of rather typical Protestant parents, and joined the Law Faculty at the University of Vienna before becoming a dedicated political science professor there. Because of his vocal opposition to the Nazis — he had written two books criticizing their “master race” absurdities — the university dismissed him soon after the 1938 Anschluss. He narrowly escaped the Gestapo as he fled briefly first to Switzerland and then to the United States.
Living through the devastation of the World War and the terror of Nazi Germany fueled his desire to understand the sources of acute disorder in Western civilization. It was a desire evidently shaped by Vögelin’s American experience. When he came to the United States during World War II it was not for the first time. When he was but 23 years old, the newly minted Austrian Ph.D. had visited the United States thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation grant. He stayed for about three years, not ensconcing himself at a single university but roaming from Columbia to Harvard to the University of Wisconsin and beyond in search of America’s greatest thinkers. His experience of America’s stability, its Christian religiosity, and its non-positivist philosophical environment heightened his sense that social and political orders shared certain key features. Years later he continued to pursue the answers to what he viewed as an ongoing crisis of western Civilization, working as a professor of political science at several American universities, as well as at one in Munich, until his death at age 84.
By the time he became an American citizen in 1944, his name respelled to Eric Voegelin, his overarching question had come down to this: What is political reality? In its simplicity, it reminds one of Einstein’s early obsession: What is light? Voegelin’s query, and the means of discovery he presents as the best way to an answer, in turn produce a kind of orientation for how to live within that reality. That is what makes Voegelin relevant to a troubled late modernity that clearly sensed the same ongoing crisis but, in Voegelin’s opinion, used inadequate tools to understand the problem.
Modernity’s self-imposed limits, one of which was to declare philosophy and theology incommensurate, or at any rate not on speaking terms, simultaneously explain its crisis and its inability to understand it. Voegelin’s ambitious political and philosophic endeavor aimed to reunify the two disciplines, and by so doing move Western man back in line with the revelatory and philosophical traditions that had made him so successful. He came to believe that the truth of reality was revealed in a simple precept: The basis of order is found in the “ground of being”, which is the divine. Only through conscious interaction with the divine can man know truth. Ancient Greek philosophy and the Mosaic revelation are both required to comprehend this actuality; applying the logic of this world to a truth beyond it is the necessary formula.
In his reverence for the ancients, Voegelin is sometimes likened to Leo Strauss, but the comparison becomes strained once it moves beyond the superficial. Strauss once claimed (on a bad day, one would hope) that Maimonides could not be a Jew by religion because he took philosophy seriously. Strauss immersed himself in philosophical esoterica in presumed opposition to theology, perhaps in hopes that its shimmering, elusive status would rub off on him—as indeed it has for some. While Voegelin’s highly esoteric writing style belied it, he had little use for gnostic shenanigans.
At the heart of modern Western civilization’s dramatic struggle to maintain its inherited understanding of truth, Voegelin believed, were new gnostic attempts to replace traditional truths with a new formula for order that rejected any notion of divine partnership. Voegelin’s personal and professional “resistance” to the untruth he saw in modern Gnosticism—better known then as now as supposedly secular, utopian ideologies, namely Marxism and fascism—led him to seek a deeper understanding of the process by which humanity comes to know the structure of reality and its attendant symbols and indices. Voegelin examined the best our ancestors had to offer in tempering humanity’s darker angels. His examination, he hoped, would reveal how to avoid the catastrophe of these dark angels becoming our political rulers.
For Voegelin, only a rejuvenation of both traditional Greek philosophy and Christian morality and revelatory experiences could stem the tide against disorder and inhumanity. Voegelin diagnosed the problem and offered a means to understand both what we have lost and what we stand to gain through the noetic and pneumatic participation in consciousness with the divine nous. Sound complicated? It is, and the philosophical and theological concepts he uses require some explanation.
Voegelin relied heavily on Plato and Aristotle to explain how man derives his highest reasoning powers. Noetic or noesis is an ancient Greek conception of man’s orientation to the highest forms of intuitive reason. Pneuma or pneumatic literally means the “breath of God” in Christian philosophy. Voegelin used the term to show how man comes to know revelation in his conscious transcendental reaching toward God; in Christ, he argued, God reaches back. Nous is an ancient Greek concept regarding man’s capacity to seek truth while attracted to and guided by transcendental experience, a capacity that is the basis of reason. In this view, reason is not opposed to mysticism but derives from it.
The ancient Greeks conceived of a psychic space called the metaxy where man and God interacted in a kind of partnership. Christians added an important dimension to the metaxy as revelation changed the interaction. According to Voegelin, the Christian notion that God “reaches back” toward his human creation allowed for greater clarity in the interpreted symbols of order. These symbols are typically moral and legal, and point toward justice, harmony, and excellence in political leadership.1 Voegelin thus offers the hope that there is a way to see, know, and experience truth as found in the order of being.
Agreement on the basis of order, Voegelin warned, cannot be systematized in any narrowly scientific sense. Science cannot speak to the politics of sustaining a social order, for truth about human institutions is not of the same order as that which science may apprehend. Rather, a social order remains stable only to the extent that the bedrock moral and legal-political traditions of Western civilization remain intact. It is therefore vitally important to derive these bedrock ideas of order from the most fundamental truths we can know. When correct, they remain potent and powerful as the basis for social agreement for many generations.
This is a difficult task, Voegelin acknowledged, but one that must be perennially undertaken. The crisis of Western civilization lies in the steady decay of truth in the symbols of order rooted in philosophic and spiritual traditions. In his own time Voegelin judged that these traditions were being abandoned by Western man, leaving a gradually degraded form of order in some Western societies and eruptions of disorder in others where the “divine as the basis of order” is replaced by “man as the maker of order.”
In brief, Voegelin argued that Western societies had viewed themselves for many centuries as endowed with both divine and human meaning, which brought order to mankind in direct reflection of a cosmic order. Voegelin detected a shift in the era of post-Enlightenment modernity as Western society twisted itself around a cancerous misinterpretation of “the transcendent order of being.” In his view, this cancer stemmed from the works of Comte, Bakunin, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and other Enlightenment thinkers.
Then, as Western man struggled with the profound cultural change wrought by industrialization, economic upheaval, and war, he longed to escape the dehumanizing effects of modernity. There were many late 18th– and early 19th-century heralds of this longing, from Thomas Carlyle to back-to-the-land romantics in nearly every Western society. But some sought utopic salvation on earth through collective human political effort. For Voegelin, this involved a substitution of true ends for artificial and capricious man-made ones: This was the problem of the unreliable interpretation of the transcendent, and the essence of modern gnosticism’s danger. He defines this modern gnosticism as a belief that a particular type of supposedly master-scientific knowledge could enable an individual or society to attain salvation or deliverance from an alienated existence. Earthly perfection for humanity supposedly could be achieved through the mundane human knowledge offered by science.
It was no great secret as to how this happened. Since the Enlightenment, Western man had come to expect science to identify and correct many human problems, whether in medicine or agriculture or engineering. So it long ago became fashionable to apply the scientific method to political life — an inclination that strengthened as the scientific worldview deepened its hold on society and as times got desperate — the presumption here being that all truth was of the same ontological order. This is what Voegelin rejected, along with Karl Popper and several others of that generation. Yet he had some sympathy for this impulse, since he believed human history was driven by our unyielding desire to live in a political order founded in moral legitimacy. He was unsympathetic in the extreme, however, toward those who looked for it in all the wrong places.
To illustrate the difference between genuine truth and the gnostic offerings, Voegelin developed a powerful conception of a benign social structure. Political order will be unjust if it is not founded in moral truth, and that truth comes from a transcendental reality that is apprehendable, albeit with some difficulty, to all. If that reality is rejected or unseen, an individual or a whole society lives in what he called a secondary reality. In this reality, anything is arguably moral as long as man declares it to be so and then believes his own assertion.
Voegelin’s most powerful example for this is, not surprisingly, Nazi Germany. Voegelin believed that the death of “spirit” left German society in this “secondary state”, lacking critical judgment and a consequent ability to resist what was dehumanizing. He traces the birth of the “secondary state” to Nietzsche’s announcement that God was dead and that He had been murdered, leaving man with no choice but to become the sole means of his own salvation and the arbiter of justice. Hitler, much like Stalin or Mao, could easily fill this void with evocative but flawed systems that justified the persecution of enemies of the state, and abetted the deconstruction of justice into the arbitrary whims of a few powerful individuals.
Christian rulers throughout history did the same, Voegelin observed, when they allowed the illegitimate use of the legitimate political apparatus of the day. It is not acceptable to invoke God and at the same time disassociate the justice found in God’s moral law from the implementation of political power for power’s sake—particularly in the guise of some salvationist crusade that offers a convenient pretext for amassing power.2 Voegelin’s famous command to both Christians and modern gnostics alike was, “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” Humanity must not try to play God by forcing the end times or by seeking utopia on earth. It will only lead, he warned, as in the Tower of Babel parable in the Bible, to political disorder and senseless human suffering.
The 20th-century gnostic dream was to use the power of mass movements controlled by the state to transfigure the nature of man and thereby establish a terrestrial paradise superior to the cruel and unjust world that some supposed God had created. That dream became the totalitarian nightmare of the 20th century—one that any decent person could see midway through the century, if not earlier.
But Voegelin was consumed with wanting to know why it happened. His answer was that, for Western Christian civilizations, God had been the traditional “equalizer” because they believed man was created in God’s image. Christianity professed God as the essential part of human nature, and respect for the divine provided an external source of moral order not subject to the whim of a political ruler. There was a higher law that even heads of state had to obey. In the absence of God, the modern gnostic political leader can invent whatever law he likes and apply it in a manner befitting the decision-making apparatus and the supposed needs of the state.
God needed to be exiled from science, philosophy, and all evocative social symbols to achieve the gnostic dream. That is why the Nuremberg rallies and the alluring arts of Italian fascism have all the evocative power of earlier religious symbols and expressions, but never mention God. The ideology and the state it justifies have together become the new god. Voegelin saw all this clearly, and he conceptualized it before anyone else.
Over the course of his lifelong search for the roots of social order, Voegelin came to understand politics as more than an autonomous sphere of activity bound to a nation’s culture. All genuine politics must articulate how a society conceives the proper relationship of its members both to one another and to the rest of the cosmos. A successfully ordered social life will occur only when a society’s political institutions are an organic product of a widely shared and existentially workable conception of mankind’s place in the universe. As a consequence of his understanding of political life, Voegelin rejected the liberal conception that the “well-designed” written constitution could ensure the continued existence of a healthy polity. Just as the spiritually sick dictates of totalitarian ideology will separate man from the truth of his transcendental reality, a simply secular constitution will either fail to inspire or, in compensation for such failure perhaps, end up placing man before the transcendental as the basis of political order. When a political representative does not fulfill his existential task, no constitutional legality will save him or his fellow citizens from sliding into moral decay and a “second-ordered reality.”
Voegelin saw the pendulum of order and decay as always in motion. He was therefore convinced that one day a new cosmology would arise that would be the basis for a new civilizational order. Meanwhile, the Western democracies had at a minimum worked out a way for people with profoundly divergent understandings of their place in the cosmos to live decently ordered lives in relative peace. As a realist, Voegelin appreciated that each society must chose the form of order that is both available and best suited to its reality. That is why he never advocated for a particular governmental formation; instead, he used an approach reminiscent of the via negativa to explain what does not work, suggesting that political systematizers of all kinds are to be feared.
Thus, the ideal of the polis offers no sanctuary for modern man, for it is too small to fit the technological proteanism of the contemporary world. Authoritarianism works in certain situations but is undesirable given its disregard for the rights of the individual. Communism and National Socialism are dreadful ideologies and an abomination to mankind. Ancient Rome worked on certain levels, when church and state were one, but when those functions split it became feeble. And Greece, even in the best of times, still evinced an appalling lack of humanity.
The constitutional liberal democracies of the Anglosphere offered Voegelin some hope. The United States and United Kingdom offered the best resistance to the revolutionary fascist and communist movements, both physically and spiritually. Western democracies promote individual rights, judicial competence, access to government, and other economic and legal benefits. But Voegelin saw trouble ahead for liberal democracies, as well. The near worship of material well-being and attempts to cordon off religious beliefs into a purely private sphere, he thought, were symptoms of a spiritual crisis unfolding throughout the West. In other words, what some see as the West’s unique achievement — the creation of a secular sphere for a politics that could be something other than an all-or-nothing battle over transcendent truth — Voegelin saw as a sign of decay when pushed too far.
In Voegelin’s estimation, Britain and the United States had preserved more of the Western classical and Christian cultural foundations than other European countries. He therefore considered them best able to combat the growing disorder he perceived in Cold War-era Europe. Part of his rationale for returning to Germany in 1958 was the hope of promoting an American-inspired political system in his native land. He did not achieve much success in this regard, but he did provoke the ire of Germans who resented any suggestion that the Nazis’ rise called for some self-examination. He took Max Weber’s honorific chair as the head of Political Science at the University of Munich — one could hardly ask for a more illustrious post — but stayed in Germany only a few years before returning to America.
Although he admired America and its government, Voegelin never explicitly advocated democracy for others, as did so many of his patriotic Cold War contemporaries. Some criticized him for withholding credit to liberal constitutions and democracy, but they misunderstood his approach to the subject. As we have already seen, he never believed that a single political system could work for all people in all times. What mattered was not “the system” but the way a people sought the truth that validated man as being created imago Dei, each in their own particular time and circumstance. The process of choosing trumped whatever final institutional form a political order took, for the form would inevitably change and ultimately pass away, but the truth would not.
It is hard nowadays even to count the number of books and essays that observe of fascism, communism, and other secular salvationist doctrines that, whatever their claim to be scientific, they adopt the logical syntax of religious faith. Nor do we lack a kindred perspective even on the Enlightenment, which many argue is a thinly veiled, secular version of prior belief systems, and depends more on those prior belief systems than on the scientific rationality claimed to its radical, foundational departure from those systems. However helpful it may be, none of this is new or surprising anymore, and one need not be a postmodernist to credit the observation. But the germ of the observation had to start somewhere. It started with Eric Voegelin.
Voegelin is hard to categorize and to contain. He is in many ways a premodern thinker perhaps most useful in a postmodern world. He is a religion-based moral universalist who nevertheless reached radically relativist conclusions about political systems. He married descriptive and ascriptive elements in his writing, something moderns are not supposed to do, not openly at least. He insisted that a person could live out a proper understanding of politics and morality, not just intellectualize it, which pushes him toward the character of a prophet. American political science department faculty members tend not to think of their professional obligations in that way. He disdained esoterica and yet wrote esoterically. He admired America and became an American citizen, yet he avoided manifestations of patriotism that were standard in the academy of his time. Rest assured that most any assumption you bring to Voegelin’s subject matter and his times will get thoroughly scrambled in the process of understanding his thought.
Voegelin may be enigmatic and difficult, but he is appealingly so to many. There is a society named after him. He has become a near cult figure to a small coterie of conservative religious intellectuals. One fears for what can happen to someone’s reputation when it falls into the hands of those with a particular axe to grind or a narrow perspective to vindicate. Be that as it may, wrestling with Eric Voegelin is bound to do any thoughtful person a world of good, whether one ends up agreeing with him or not.
1. Voegelin, Anamnesis (Notre Dame University Press, 1978 [originally published in 1966]), pp. 83–7.
2. Hitler and the Germans (University of Missouri Press, 1999 [lectures delivered 1964]), pp. 204–11, 228–9, 236.
This was originally published with the same title in The American Interest on December 10, 2014.