The University and the Order of Society – Part 1

HomeThe Collected Works of Eric VoegelinThe University and the Order of Society – Part 1
Eric Voegelin

Please see the endnote which explains the origin and format of this lecture delivered in 1970.

Mr. Chairman, let me thank you for your kind words of introduction.FN

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have to make a preliminary remark. I have acquired a grippe [flu], and I do not feel quite well. I hope you will excuse me if I cannot stick it out, for I don’t know how much time is provided — an hour or two hours — and we’ll see how far it goes.

This subject matter — “The University and the Order of Society” — is, in itself, about as hashed to death in the last two years as anything possibly could be. There is hardly a day when you do not get a paper or article or something of the sort in one of the major communications media on the subject.

I just picked up this yesterday in The Wall Street Journal — there is an article by Mr. [Robert] Nisbet — here from California [U. of California Vice-Chancellor] — on the restoration of academic authority. Let me reflect on that for a moment, so that you can see the manner in which I shall handle the subject matter a little bit differently.




Mr. Nisbet considers academic authority to be a willingness to submit to the inevitable discipline of an institution and to follow the authority of those in charge — which means that [we have] large department heads and so on who have to organize a university and when all sorts of disruptive activities take place — then the university will be disrupted [and that] will impress badly the donors — be they state legislators or private donors — and it will not be tolerated and we can expect therefore next year the reestablishment of authority through power — meaning thereby that the ordinary authority which would be the authority of science and discipline and work in a university — since it has broken down — he finds it has broken down — will have to be replaced by forceful intervention if further interruptions occur. And he makes it a sort of rule: When authority breaks down, the alternative is not a lack of authority or a breakdown, but power to reestablish the external order.


Now, this situation of a breakdown of authority which he finds obvious in the last[recent] years — he traces back to the 1950s when, in his opinion, the internal organization of the universities — in the departments and the graduate faculties and so on—indeed broke down, in his opinion (He doesn’t specify wherein this breakdown consists — apparently professors do not obey the rules of keeping classes or doing the class work or something like that — whatever is done accounts for student grievances. And these breakdowns of authority have started in the early ‘50s and now come to a head in the contemporary situation with no prospect yet in view that— he is especially down on the faculty not on the students — that the faculty will have sense enough to stop this breakdown of authority by proper behavior within the framework of the university.


Now that is a view of matters — and views of the kind you find, of course, in great masses. I did not want to go into this kind of approach but when I speak of the temporal order in relation to the university I want to go back to the classic, academic meaning of the order in society, because after all, we still have something like an academic world, an academic freedom; science is organized within the framework of an academic institutions and so on; and it will be good therefore to remember for a moment just what academic freedom and academic organization mean in the case of the man who had founded the academy, and that is Plato. Because, this is not an historical remembrance or a spreading out of interesting antiquities — but, I believe, there is still the core of the academy enterprise — through Plato — is still the core of every university. And, as a general rule, you can call an institution a “university” until you are blue in the face: it isn’t a university unless that core is there.



So, let’s first get the criterion by which a university is a university so that we have something as a basis for discussing problems. That is perhaps not too popular because it is part of the academic theme today that there are no objective criteria today for anything by which you can discuss problems — but I am afraid that’s what we have to do — what we have to start with. If you talk about academic problems you first have to find out what is the core of an academic enterprise — and that would deliver the criteria by which we can decide what’s wrong with the universities today, what could be improved, and so on.




The Academic Core of a University


So let’s get to the academic core.


The academic core is — I am referring principally to the Republic of Plato — is the fitting of the enterprise called “Academy” into a social situation which is interpreted by certain principles. Now the first of these principles is that every society is man written large. (You know that already from lecture courses on Plato’s Republic here — You have heard it, as “society is man written large.”) And that is for Plato the first principle for understanding society — for good or for bad. If the men are no good, then the society, which is man written large, will be no good. And if the men are moderately decent then the society will be moderately decent. This is the first rule. You can’t have a good society with bad people.


Now, that’s granted. You have now a situation in which an academy — which has been uniquely founded by Plato — there was no academy before Plato — has a certain function. And this function is dependent on the situation which formerly did not exist — say 100 or 200 years earlier — There is a certain amount of obvious intellectual and spiritual disorder in the society, connected of course with the fact that the human beings in that society have become intellectually and spiritually disordered and the task for him — as a philosopher — as it was for Socrates his teacher — is: How to regain, personally and in society, intellectual and spiritual balance, which under the conditions of the society in which these people live, are obviously unobtainable. Can one do something about a balanced life, a balanced existence, in a disordered society?


You see there are already decisions taken and directions followed because, you might say, of course, that a society is so rotten that no enterprise of this type — of an academy — will be of any good, and, you might as well not do it. And if you look at Plato’s experience — that Socrates was killed for his efforts — you might understand he was not too much interested in doing anything about the rottenness of the social and political order of Athens.


As a matter of fact, he didn’t. He did not further participate in politics. But, there is left, of course, the other problem, that even when the public order of a society ends and the great majority of people are in power and determine the public opinion of society, are rotten, there are always some people — individuals — in that society who don’t like to be rotten and who would prefer to acquire something like an order in their existence, something like the truth of existence — the meaning of life — in spite of the general, unsatisfactory situation. Therefore, the primary function of the academy — as organized by Plato, is a therapeutic function — to help young people who are in a state of alienation in their society, and set them straight if they want to [be set straight].


So the first is what we may call a psychiatric or therapeutic function with regard to young people who are interested in receiving an education are dissatisfied with the state of the society in which they live.



Now this education has a very definite content — that is, a content that has already been discussed here in former lectures — the thing that is set forth in the parable of the cave, the periagoge — the turning around from disordered conceptions of life and habits of life and the understanding of the truth of order — turning around toward the Agathon and the vision of the Agathon. This periagoge, this turning around, from the shadowy existence in the cave — you see? — that is Plato’s definition of “education.” Education is — the formulation of the definition is — “the art of turning a man around.” That is the definition of education. And that has remained the definition of education [since Plato through] the course of western history right to this day. Anything else, like pure information, to be used for technical instruction, is not education.


Here we have one of the great problems that in our universities, we get highly developed organizations for instruction in all sorts of fields — say on the level of various vocational activities. But, the education — in the sense of Plato — leaves much to be desired — so much to be desired that probably most people in the university — I say most people — when I say most people (don’t think always in the first place of yourselves — I’m not critical of the students) — I’m critical of the faculty — that the faculty haven’t the faintest idea what it is all about. They’ve never heard of such a thing.


Now, the therapeutic function is the first. Now part of the therapeutic function is — if you deal with young people who are rightly dissatisfied with the state of their society — is a critical function with regard to society. You have to explain what is wrong in the society so that students — young people — who do not have the experience to know what is really wrong — and have taken all sorts of crazy courses for their dissatisfaction — at least find out for [once] what is wrong in their society.


Most students do not know what is wrong and that is the reason why you get all the fantastic [responses] on the wars in Viet Nam in America and on the Shaw of Iran in Persia — all things which have no primary interest to the mass of the students — as a pretext for venting a dissatisfaction which is caused by quite different things which never becomes articulate. So a critical study of the society — to make young men aware of what is wrong — is part of their education.




What is Wrong Intellectual and Spiritually

Now we come to a principle of the Platonic education that will arouse — perhaps not resentment (just among you) — but at least some surprise — and it would arouse certainly resentment among liberal intellectuals — is the difference between science and opinion. What is wrong with people is that they have wrong opinions about what the meaning of life, the order of existence, the purpose of their actions, and so on, is.  And this wrongness of irrational opinion has to be substituted — replaced — by science in the classic sense (The term “science” was created by Plato for this purpose.) — by an objective understanding of the structure of existence which enables you to understand certain opinions about existence as wrong.


If you do not know what is wrong you will become a victim to everybody who would propagate certain ideas for his private purposes and wants to get a large following and you may be taken in by it because you have no criteria for understanding whether the opinions proffered by these gentlemen are wrong or are right or where you have the origin and so on, and therefore a part of the education is — and you find very strongly a part in the Republic of Plato — is, therefore, a critical science of opinion and of the types of existential deformation. You cannot do without [it] .


Now at this point, perhaps, you will see, already in anticipatory fashion, what is deeply wrong with our universities, because under the aspect of education, all the things which are wrong must [should] be taught in a university — but not as partners in a discussion but as types of wrong. If we have no criteria to classify, say, a Marxian conception or a Comtean conception properly with regard to its wrongness — if you do not have the intellectual apparatus to do that — the mere introduction of the materials — say the ideas of Comte, or the ideas of Marx or of Hegel or of anybody else who has developed this or that opinion that is wrong — will be completely bewildering. So one cannot have — (or it doesn’t make sense — one can have — as a matter of fact — one has very much so) — but it does not make sense to teach all the things which are wrong as a piece of information without giving the criteria why they are wrong.


So, from that situation — giving materials which are wrong opinions, ideas, and so on, without criteria that enable you to decide why they are wrong — that opens then the way to the ulterior claim that all the opinions should be represented in a university in the name of academic freedom. That of course is the exact opposite of academic freedom in the Platonic sense, because academic freedom in the Platonic sense means the culture of reason that provides you with the criteria for understanding wrong opinion and not the propagation of wrong opinion in the institution of the academy. The purpose of the academy is precisely to get them out of your existence, not to introduce you to them.



Our Universities are Brothels of Opinion


Now one of the defects of our universities today (We will come later to other problems) is that, under this aspect, very few of our universities — with regard to that core — are universities at all — least of all the so-called “great universities”, the famous “top ten” — but they are, by public declaration, as you can read every day in the newspapers — when the case of academic freedom comes up — brothels of opinion.


So you have opinions being advanced by people who do not have any rational culture and do not possess the intellectual instrument of reason to criticize an idea, because they have never learned it. So if you get, for instance, famous cases [such as] recently agitated in California — Should the Marxists be allowed to propagate Marxism in the classroom? [Doubtless you know of course it is not a] purpose of the university, but then, should such a person, for that reason, be removed from the university? Again I would say, “No.” The reason why the person should be removed is a quite different one: because he is professionally incompetent.


Anyone who propagates an opinion in good faith in the university, without knowing the intellectual criteria for the right or wrong of opinions, is an intellectual crook or mountebank. Let’s be clear about that.


Now, this taboo to say anything, because — I don’t want to engage in arbitrary estimates — but I would suggest that the percentage of this type of crooks and mountebanks in our college population (meaning the faculty) is very high — very high — who do not know what they are talking about.


Now. So, the purpose is to teach the difference between science and opinion, to teach types of deformed existence, to give types of opinion (which of course today would be different opinions from the opinions analyzed by Plato — though in some kinds of cases we still have the same ones. One of the most important opinions, for instance, analyzed by Plato and shown why it is wrong is the idea that society can be based on free agreement or free contractual relations between individuals — a problem which has again come to the fore in the 17th century, through Hobbes and Locke, and so on — and that is one of the wrong opinions that can work horrible havoc. If you are interested in these matters, read Book 2 of the Republic and inform yourself of why societies can not be based on the construction of contractual relations between individuals. Very important to know.)


Very important — especially for the society — not referring to you — of course you do not know much because you haven’t learned much — but, the real problem in the universities are the faculty, not the students. The students, I have always found, are quite willing to learn.


But it is very difficult, once they are exposed for a number of years to that disintegrated intellectual environment, to influence them at all. Because, first of all, in order to be disrupted by such an environment, in part, requires a language of disorganization.


And, one of the most difficult things is:  you get a man who talks in ideological clichés — [and you try to get him] again to learn English, because [he has] never heard of such a problem — that one has to know English — or if you are French, French — and cannot express yourself in ideological clichés because then you have lost the contact with reality.


So it is very difficult.      {#emotions_dlg.VoegelinViewsm}


This is the first part of a two part article. Part 2 will appear next week.





Origin of this Text


The text was transcribed from a tape recording made in the summer of 1970. Voegelin was presenting a lecture in the summer school program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, not far from his home. Voegelin had retired from his position at Munich in 1968 and returned to the US where he was given a fellowship at the Hoover Institution for War and Peace. The recording stops after 40 minutes so we do not hear the end. A CD made from the original tape recording was sent to VoegelinView by Father Brendan Purcell of Dublin, Ireland. The recording can be heard by visiting The Lighter Side page here at Vv. But the voice recording seems quite different. It seems ephemeral, evanescent, like John Keat’s “beaded bubbles winking at the brim.” This text version leads one to stop and ponder as one reads along.


Uncertain Words or Punctuation


Voegelin was speaking from notes, not delivering a written lecture. It does not appear that the lecture was given with the notion that it would be published. Brackets have been inserted where the recording is uncertain or where Voegelin used a word that is not idiomatic English. If one listens to the recording it becomes evident that Voegelin used his voice a great deal for emphasis and as a form of punctuation as he spoke, so there is occasionally a lack of typical sentence structure, which is compensated for in this text by the extensive use of dashes.

—The Editors       



The University and the Order of Society

Unpublished Lecture

Delivered at Stanford Univeristy, Summer, 1970

Recording time: 42 minutes



This excerpt is taken from a collection of Voegelin quotations which can be found HERE.

Eric Voegelin

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