Eric Voegelin Society Meeting in Toronto

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Political Correctness, Parliament, and Princeton

The Eric Voegelin Society annual meeting in Toronto featured no fewer than thirteen panels, some of which this observer found noteworthy. First to be mentioned is the panel on “Political Correctness,” more formally styled “Conscience, Expression & Liberty: Pitfalls of Political Correctness.” A great deal was said about the Canadian Human Rights Commissions, a subject which has already been considered at VoegelinView in a John von Heyking book review and in an analysis of the Kafkaesque enforcement machinery constructed alongside and parallel to normal law.

More interesting to this observer would have been a discussion by the panel of the psycho-social environment (to paraphrase Juergen Gebhardt) which made such a law possible.  Sitting near Barry Cooper at dinner later that evening I wondered out loud if the political enforcement of superficial unity of public manners was accepted by Canadians because of an unintended consequence of  Parliament’s expansive (keep up with the U.S.) immigration policy that results in a thinning out of the social substance?  After all, it is rather difficult to become a Canadian by mere conscious effort if one comes from somewhere else.  Being Canadian involves a complex and rather subtle set of attitudes not evoked by uttering the names of great mythical figures and events, so ably described by Juergen Gebhardt in Americanism:  The Genesis of a Civil Theology. It at least suggests a fruitful area of inquiry by one of the several Voegelinians who might look into this sort of thing.  But perhaps not Canadians.  Juergen G. has shown how important distance can be when examining a culture. Perhaps it should be examined by someone who doesn’t have to live with the hard stares of his neighbors!

David Warren, columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, looks like a great unmade bed, a cross between H.L. Mencken and Evelyn Waugh.  He told me a tale to illustrate a Canadian penchant for rather mindless kow-towing to authority (one sort of “political correctness”).  He recalled to me his being ordered off a streetcar along with all other passengers by an ignorant and disgruntled operator who declared the car unavailable for public service.  When Warren remonstrated with the operator, he was threatened with arrest.  The other passengers, stranded on the pavement with no means of transportation, then turned on Warren and berated him for causing trouble! (I think you had to be there to appreciate the comedy!)

Of particular interest and most amusing was the presentation by Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, a leader in the new natural law movement. He spoke about political correctness in the university and the necessity for acting against it, even at some personal risk, which must always be taken into account. George argued that Freshmen need to be cleansed after their freshman orientation brain washing by telling them it is OK to think for themselves and to refuse to adopt the values which the administration attempts to impose on them.  They are most grateful to learn this!  The establishment is always shocked when anyone resists and the powers that be don’t know how to meet resistance through rational argument.  But “we are Christians” so how are we to resist institutional evil?  A bit tongue in cheek, perhaps, George suggested: “Forgive them.  Then retaliate!” Thereupon came the week’s loudest laughter!

Professor George then reminded us that of course the fight never ends because administrators are patient. They know that classes graduate and the status quo ante will return eventually. When it was proposed that it was difficult to discuss “political correctness” without having a workable definition, “Robbie,” as he likes to style himself, replied, quoting Justice Potter Stewart, ‘I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it’ (a reference to pornography in his concurring opinion in the US Supreme Court opinion Jacobellis vs. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 [1964]).

During the question period something quite remarkable and amazingly pointed, not to say hilarious, happened.  A member of the audience brought up the subject of police prejudice against minorities and gave as an example a black man being stopped by police in a wealthy white suburb, and all the racial stereotyping and prejudice that that implied. EVERYONE fell all over themselves to assure EVERYONE that they deplored such police conduct!  I bit my tongue.  I didn’t wish to be remembered as the person who was a racist!  I should have stood up and said, “As a former elected city Attorney I can tell you why police stop certain people and I thank God they do.  And I could tell you something about the sociology of the family if that would help explain risk factors leading to social disorder.” But no.  I sat there in cowardly silence.  The speaker had achieved his object, whether a conscious or an unconscious object I could not say: he had momentarily become the symphony conductor, and everyone was playing his tune to his beat! Quod erat demonstrandum!

A couple of notes.  If political correctness is required on most college campuses, might the present US administration view the whole of the US as one great campus to be trained in political correctness?  Victor Davis Hansen has a most intriguing article on the web expounding this view.  It makes the administration seem laughable, which perhaps we need after eight months. We provided Hansen with a copy of the Voegelin in Toronto DVD and we hope he found time to watch it.  After the panel concluded I went up to the front and asked Professor George if he had received the same DVD which a mutual friend had sent to him.  He replied with enthusiasm “Yes! I have watched it many times!”

Slouching Toward Toronto to be Bored?

I was surprised to learn in Toronto that some Voegelin scholars expressed their sense that Voegelin studies has “had its day” and that it is time to move forward to a present time in which we must deal with problems Voegelin never faced. In fact, after one such post-panel comment from a member of the audience, we heard from somewhere a quiet but clear “Hear! Hear!” Are these people onto something? Is there an elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring? Perhaps in some ways, yes.

That favorite term for the devout and mechanical follower, a term popularized by Voegelin, “epigone,” comes to mind. For how many years can you type the word “metaxy” without numbing yourself into indifference?  And, as was made evident in Toronto, there is a rather widespread uncertainty about the continued usefulness of the term “gnosticism,” the signature concept used in Voegelin’s break-through to public awareness in his 1952 The New Science of Politics. Furthermore, Mathias Riedl pointed out in his presentation that new historical evidence has undone the image of Joachim of Fiora, upon which Voegelin relied, in mapping out his ideas of modern gnosticism. Lastly, there was a general celebration of David Walsh’s new book, The Luminosity of Existence, which Brendan Purcell, in his paper read by Michael Franz, characterized as fit to take its place as an equal, alongside Voegelin’s magnum opus, Order and History.

So where does this lead? My own reflections have led me to a number of observations. First, there is the old guard, the people who were actual students of Voegelin. They were mostly graduate students who spent a good deal of time with him. They have, to paraphrase Voegelin’s remark about Christianity in a secular culture, Voegelin’s own enthusiasm for truth about the depth and breadth of existence imbedded “in the very creases of their skin.” But in five or ten years, they will be silent. I count myself in this group.

The “middle managers,” if one might describe them as such, seemed to me to be the people who suggested a restlessness, while the youngest don’t yet fully know what the issues are.

Let me suggest some possibilities::

1.  We move toward adulthood with thousands of ideas competing for our attention, our adherence and devotion. We are thrown about in a tossing sea. We must find land. Something steady. There is only so much time. We can’t examine everything ourselves. We must set our priorities. What must we do and who must we be? Whom shall we trust? Let us say we grew up as Christians. Now it seems hard to sustain.

How do we do that?  We grew up with natural science solving every problem, or so it seems. Does it really do this? If we wish to read philosophy where do we start? What do we skip? How much time do we spend on the Greeks, the Medievals, the  Moderns? What is the relationship between thought to action, to political action? Should thought be systematic? Is our present time the culmination of meaning in history placing us in a position of authority? Can human nature be modified by training or education? Can government be improved to the point that human frailty is irrelevant?

These are the sorts of questions that Voegelin addressed with a passionate concern for the well-being of the student. He characterized himself as leading the life of a curé de lâme, a caregiver of souls. These questions and their answers are what draw the young to reading Voegelin. So one of the reasons, perhaps the only important reason, for continuing Voegelin studies is to help the young in their intellectual and spiritual formation.

2. Although a student may be helped in his formation by reading Voegelin, that fact does not necessarily lead  him or her to become a Voegelin scholar, as such. I myself became a lawyer and I would have to say Voegelin never came up once in all my years of practice!  But for those who go on to lead the life of a teacher and scholar, there will be at least two paths open to him: the first is teaching and writing about Voegelin’s life and work. Now writing about Voegelin is where we may be approaching the end of an era—from exhaustion of subject matter—if we wish to write creatively and not merely transmit knowledge to the next generation. I strongly suspect that the “murmurs” heard in Toronto originated in this feeling of “I need to move on to something new.”

Another path is to do one’s scholarly work without invoking Voegelin at all. I haven’t read David Walsh’s The Luminosity of Existence yet (We expect to present plenty of commentary here at VoegelinView starting soon.), but if it bears more than a passing resemblance to his earlier books, one can say that Voegelin doesn’t come into it in the sense of quotes and footnotes, and yet on many pages one realizes that without Walsh’s reading of Voegelin over many years, these words couldn’t have been written. For one thing, at least in past books, Walsh eschewed Voegelinian technical vocabulary, which really is a kind of shorthand that must be memorized. The avoidance of this technical vocabulary makes Walsh’s thought more accessible to the general reader. (From the little I have read from his new book, Walsh finds redemptive value in the work of some who Voegelin discarded, and exudes a general sense of intramundane hope now that the 20th century totalitarianisms are dissipated; gone is Voegelin’s sense of Augustinian watching and waiting.)

Voegelin himself would have been the first to remind us that concrete results from the social and historical sciences are always subject to refinement by new research and understanding and so we must not cling to particular formulations or findings. For instance, Professor Riedl shows persuasively that Joachim was not a gnostic even though Voegelin used him as an archetypical gnostic in working out his explanation for modernity. Yet that does not invalidate the conclusions Voegelin drew from comparing the common spiritual illnesses found in the instances of the Puritans, or the French revolutionaries, or the positivists or Marxists or Communists or Nazis or fascists—the same symptoms occurring in new manifestations into the present and presumably continuing indefinitely into the future. (But will David Walsh allow this? We will see.)

Voegelin studies, writing, and teaching will stand or fall on their own merits. We can’t popularize them or make them attractive in terms of power and influence.(That is the exclusive preserve of the Straussians!) We make no claims for tomorrow or ten years from tomorrow. For today, we can help equip those who seek understanding in both its philosophical and its spiritual dimensions.

Short takes:

•  Richard Avramenko was asked how it was to go from teaching at Georgetown in Washington, D.C. to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In fact, I asked him, “How is life on Lake Monona?” He replied with a very satisfied grin, “Life is easy.” He described the paved biking trails, the boating and swimming and the beauty. He seemed as fit as a track athlete so it must be true! I was born in Wisconsin and spent six years in Madison so perhaps I took it all too much for granted. It is so nice to talk to someone who is not restless in his current appointment!

•  When you have arrived for a tour of purgatory, what do you do if your Virgil gets sick? Max Arnott was present on the first day, Thursday, but by that night he was in the emergency room of the hospital and was then admitted with a serious bout of influenza. The Friday night party at his home was nixed, and of course we no longer had a personal guide. We did have Max’s thoughtful two part essay on what to do and see in Toronto which we had printed off from VoegelinView and brought with us. Not really the same thing. Max took several more days to recover but is fine now. He strongly recommends a flu shot. Nasty variety this year.

A Little Anamnesis

Voegelin in Toronto. The DVD, that is. Panel 12, held late on Saturday just before the business meeting, was devoted to a discussion of the 1978 conference that has been preserved as a video showing the brilliance of Voegelin, Gadamer, Lonergan, Bloom, Poole and Lawrence in disussion with one another.  The conference might have been forgotten had not panel chairman Zdravko Planinc, then a student at York University, transcribed Voegelin’s lecture and comments which were subsequently published on the Web by Maben Poirier in the erstwhile Voegelin—Research News, which in turn led to the obtaining of the conference tapes and eventual issuing of the DVD. The pamphlet prepared to go with the DVD gives the conference history and Voegelin’s own comments afterwards.

An Example of Anamnesis. Barry Cooper was one of the students who attended the 1978 conference. But he did something quite unexpected when he received his copy of the Voegelin in Toronto DVD. He did not do what I and most others would have done: pop it in the player and watch it. Instead he sat down and did not watch it. He sat and summoned from the past his personal recollections. Afterwards, he watched the DVD. He offered these comments, among others:

• About the ’78 conference itself, Barry felt it was, and is, unique. He marveled at the depth of learning shown by Gadamer and Lonergan and Voegelin—a learning which he doesn’t think exists today. He also thinks it is unlikely today that intellectual prima donnas would appear together in the same forum; they would prefer to be the main figure in the room. The interchange that took place among the panelists was one in which they actually listened to what the others said. They didn’t merely await their turns and deliver written remarks but instead thought and responded as the discussion unfolded.

• On the panel Reading the Republic: Bloom was not at that time considered a man of stature equal to Gadamer and Voegelin, having until then only a translation of The Republic to his credit. His fame came years later. It was a case of Bloom vs. Gadamer and Voegelin, and the fundamental disagreement was over whether the ideas were absolutes or attributes of God. Actually, Bloom embraces the term atheist toward the end of the discussion.

Nicholas Graham is an incommensurable sprite shouldering well-planed lumber. In 1978 he was the York University student body president. He organized the whole conference and is seen and heard introducing the panelists at the beginning of the discussion, Reading the Republic. Professor Graham, now President of the Northrop Frye Society, told wonderful stories about the conference.Two of them were especially memorable:

The Money. The conference might never have taken place at all had normal procedures been followed. Apparently, through lack of university foresight, the student government officers could incur obligations of up to $10,000 without prior faculty approval. So they did!

The Media is the Message.  Another story involved panelist Roger Poole, the literary critic and Kierkegaard scholar.The students met the arriving panelists at the airport and took them to their hotels, except for Roger Poole, who was to be a house guest of Marshall McLuhan. They took him to McLuhan’s old mansion and were invited inside. As they passed from one room to another, they noticed in each room there hung a painting of Marshall McLuhan. When they finally reached the patio and sat down, a McLuhan assistant slipped about unobtrusively and took photos. One of the other guests was the poet, Martha Zaborska. It was her volume, Seeing Stone, that Roger Poole mentions in the panel on Reading. (McLuhan was the inventor of pop culture criticism. He became very successful through his best selling books and consulting work. In 1977, the year before the conference, he had famously appeared in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall. The year following the conference he suffered a stroke and died the next year.)

When this year’s conference was almost over, Professor Graham brought me a backpack stuffed with the original ’78 conference video tapes, the recording of which is to his credit. These huge cassettes were 1½ times the width of the standard VHS tape. Before forwarding them on to Paul Caringella for delivery to the Voegelin Archive at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I had a comparison done between these tapes and the final DVD, which had been based on second generation copies of the originals. I was surprised to see there was no quality loss. In fact, our video engineers had produced a product more viewable than the original through the use of sophisticated restoration technology.

Best Quip. Panel Chairman Zdravko Planinc:  “On the basis of this conference, I decided to become a philosopher. What they were doing is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I later learned it was not going to be like that.”

Young Scholars.  What a delight to listen to and talk a bit with the young scholars who participated in the panels. I have perhaps forgotten some aspects of being young, but I was reminded by one participant of how one must swallow one’s fears when speaking in front of potential critics, sympathetic though they may seem. It will be these young scholars who transmit Voegelinian thought to the next generation. They should be encouraged.

Osso Bucco. We came home from Toronto with some congenial memories. The weather was glorious with marvelous blue skies and a warm sun. The dining was memorable, especially at Pier 4, where we sat at the edge of the Lake Ontario Harbor and watched ships of all types sail past us, as though they had been paraded for our entertainment: a three-masted schooner with full sails, a stern-wheeler tourist boat, ferries, a police boat, and an enormous sea going yacht flying the Union Jack that anchored near us, presumably so its passengers could catch a bite to eat. There was also Little Anthony’s, a northern Italian bistro with good service, good linen, and respectably prepared osso bucco and risotto.  I was surprised to see that the lively restaurants in the city center that were jammed with young people on Thursday and Friday were deserted on Saturday and closed on Sunday. But it is understandable once one thinks about it.

And under the Maple Leaf. You will recall that we did have a panel on “political correctness” with an emphasis on the Canadian denunciatory “Human Rights” commissions. But wholly apart from political considerations, I had a sense of disquiet as I walked the streets and interacted, though superficially, with the people I met. Many people seemed to be from other countries. This is typical in large cities. But in Chicago the Russian cabdriver complains about the Mayor with Chicago gruffness. In Washington D.C. the Haitian cab driver seems sarcastic in an American way. My Canadian contacts displayed an impenetrable reserve so that I could get no “reading” or sense of what they were like.  Perhaps that is the Canadian version of British reserve. Max Arnott warned us we might find it so in his primer on Toronto. But there was one noteworthy exception. I was speaking on the phone to a hotel manager, a lady, and I remarked that her last name was the same as that of a famous person doing the kind of work she did. She replied, “Oh, that is my ex-husband’s name. I’m divorced but I haven’t gotten around to changing the name yet.” I almost dropped the phone!

Déja vu all over again. I must give thanks to the Sheraton Centre Toronto manager, who kindly saw to it that I was credited for the value of the TomTom GPS unit stolen from my car while it was being kept by the hotel. The venerable Canadian Innkeepers Act, presumably politically immune to modernization, absolves hotels from liability beyond $40, except for stolen horses and carriages. So the compensation was a matter of good will, which I especially appreciated, since 12 years before, while staying at another hotel in Toronto, burglars found my car in the underground garage adjacent to the hotel and punched out my driver’s side door lock to gain entry to the trunk release so they could steal the trunk’s contents. When I reported this to that hotel’s front desk I was informed that my car had been parked in a public garage for which the hotel bore no responsibility, despite it being their elevator which carried us from the garage to their lobby!

Manifest Destiny. Timothy Hoye chaired a panel on the Languages of Political Order beyond western thought. In his commentary, Thomas McPartland added a Voegelinian notion to Yu Nam Kim’s exposition on the future of the two Koreas: China, Japan, Russia, and the United States—the four outside powers in the six power talks over the Korea nuclear weapons— have a history of indulging in “ecumenical concupiscence,” a Voegelin term. Of course, as he pointed out, in the U.S. we never called it that. Instead, we called it “manifest destiny!”   Also commenting were Timothy Lomperis and Robert John “Haj” Ross. I would very much have enjoyed passing some time with them and asking them some questions.

Dare we Innovate Next Year? Which brings up a question that has occupied my thoughts since we returned home from the conference. What were we doing there at EVS? Young scholars must participate in these conferences as a part of their career development. And for the older scholars it is an opportunity to come together again with friends from distant places. But for the observer hoping for stimulating thought, one is given fragments, sometimes hastily chosen, usually from unpolished papers, and the subjects of which are sometimes a bit arcane. It was obvious that the best time was had when people were dining and relaxing with friends. Is it our manifest destiny to hold as many panels as the law allows and to be profession-al at every moment of the day? Is anyone enlarging his capacity to understand and care in this meeting format? Perhaps housed beneath the positivist-tinted umbrella organization APSA (The American Political Science Association), we must be content with what we have?

What would be the result if we sat around in a lounge in comfortable chairs, with the chosen speakers sitting in our midst? And what if they read nothing but talked about what they knew and thought, with the chairman guiding the conversation? The papers could be filed and published later, as they always are. Now that is a manifest destiny we could get excited about.

Fritz Wagner

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Frederick (“Fritz”) J. Wagner graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1962 with a B.A. in English Literature where in the Fall of 1960 he took the political science course by Eric Voegelin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1968 and worked for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and then entered private practice. He founded the evForum listserve in 1999; started publishing and editing VoegelinView in 2009-13; and still maintains a personal website at www.fritzwagner.com.