The South Dinning Hall
JOHN ROOS: We would often watch out for Voegelin on campus. There was a professor named Anton-Hermann Chroust, a real character. He was a lawyer, philologist, and classicist who had written on various texts of Aristotle. He and Voegelin would hold court, so to speak, over in the South Dining Hall, in a place called the Oak Room. They both smoked cigars, and they would go over there in the mornings and have their coffee. They were both about the same age and had gone through some of the same experiences. Chroust had this line when he would go to class; he would tell Professor Voegelin (I still call him Professor Voegelin, this gives you an idea of the ambience at the time!) that he was going to cast real pearls before real swine.
JOHN KENNEDY: I recall a kind of tableau there in the South Dining Hall. Eric lived at the Morris Inn when he was here, but he generally went over to the South Dining Hall for dinner. And Tony Chroust inhabited the place. I can still see him and Tony and a couple of other faculty members at a table together. Their erudition was very impressive. Voegelin’s in particular was really impressive.
Q. Did you know that Voegelin would dine regularly with Professor Chroust?
JOHN GUEGUEN: I wasn’t aware that Voegelin associated with him. Professor Chroust was an elderly law professor and extremely eccentric. He drove around in a flaming red convertible, this elderly man. He was more different, so to speak, than the people he associated with, yet he was trying to be as modern as he could.
DENNIS MORAN: Chroust would go off to Europe and buy a new car every year, a sports car, a very, very expensive one. He would drive it for one year, then he would come back, and ship it back in a boat. Sometimes he’d give Voegelin a lift home to the Morris Inn, even though it was only about a hundred yards.
I remember their lunches together. They were the salt of the earth, the two of them. Voegelin would sit there in the South Dining Hall in his brown tweed jacket and smoke his cigar. That was in the good old days when you were allowed to smoke, even in the cafeteria. Sometimes he would be by himself, but he was very often with dinner companions — usually, with Tony Chroust. Basically, Tony and Voegelin didn’t give a damn that they were teaching in a Catholic university and they were both agnostics. One time I went into the cafeteria on a Saturday morning. The two of them were there having lunch, and I joined them.
We ended up arguing about Lucretius. Chroust was arguing about something Lucretius said, and I said, “Oh, I don’t think you should believe anything he wrote! It was just an effort to convince people to think about what they think.” Voegelin thought that this was humorous. Chroust was annoyed and said to me, “What do you know about Lucretius?” I said, “I read it.” And he said, “Oh yeah, but you didn’t read it in the original.” I said, “No, I read it in the original.” He just looked at me, then he turned to Voegelin and said, “Tell him he’s wrong!” But Voegelin just smiled and said, “I can’t because I agree with him.” So, Voegelin laughed because he also thought that Lucretius didn’t believe anything himself and was trying to say that you should avoid superstition.
Then we started talking about superstition, which involved the question of the significance of what Lucretius was doing. Voegelin liked to talk about that. I think he was fascinated with people who believed. I don’t think Voegelin saw himself as a nonbeliever, but he wasn’t a believer either. They used to joke about it. They loved just to scandalize us: in fact, that’s pretty much what we were there for. But Voegelin, more than Chroust, was not just laughing about the Lucretius thing. He was genuinely concerned about people who were superstitious, who were overly devotional. I think that that was part of what he was really worried about: about people who go off the deep end.
Q. So you would see these distinguished guys sitting there and you’d just go over?
MORAN: They’d usually invite you. That Saturday they said, “Hey, come sit down with us” — which probably meant that they were bored with each other and were going to devour this graduate student. As it turned out, Voegelin decided I wasn’t so stupid after all. Although, I remember once — I can’t remember in what context — Voegelin turned to me and said, “You’re a Dummkopf.” And I thought, “God, that’s an honor.” I must have slipped into whatever trap Chroust was trying to set for me and missed it altogether and made a fool of myself.
Q. Did they have serious debates?
MORAN: They would argue, but Chroust was always irreverent. Voegelin would sit there; he would slightly lean back and smoke his cigar. And he used to have tweed jackets and kind of knit ties. He didn’t always wear white shirts, but most of the time they were laundered, nice white shirts. He was a very stiff man. And Chroust was this rumpled-up person who probably hadn’t had anything dry cleaned in months, and he would always smoke his pipe and would always be a mess. So, the two of them: Chroust, this rumpled-up character, and Voegelin, this wonderful — someone should make a bust of him. We always used to sit there and think, “Where’s he going to put the ash?” Chroust was rumpled up with stains on his clothes and Voegelin would sit there with his cigar and you’d be waiting for the ash to fall. But he never spilled any on himself. He was always impeccable; it was delightful.
Sometimes they would get into current events. I think that Voegelin was like Cardinal Newman in certain ways; he was very interested in the angelism of humanity. Chroust was interested in the other side: he was interested in corruption. My impression was that they really defined each other: Chroust was a skeptic, whereas Voegelin was clearly not a skeptic, there was no cynicism about him at all. Chroust wanted to know everything; he wanted to know all the gossip about the university, especially about the priests. Voegelin was much more involved in bigger ideas and he liked to talk about bigger things. They would talk together about big things, too. They argued about the Republic, for example.
But at that time, we were all pretty amused to have these two people thrown together. Life could be very amusing! Voegelin was a Lutheran. And Tony was sort of a Catholic, sort of a Jew, sort of an agnostic. He saw everything as a mystery to be solved. He saw everything that was mystery as a detective story, whereas Voegelin’s notion of mystery was cosmic. For Chroust, life was a back alley mystery novel! Chroust was always reducing things to the lowest common denominator, to money and women. You must also remember that he was spending his life trying to prove that Aristotle was a spy — on the basis of the lost works of Aristotle!
Q. So their approaches to scholarship were antithetical?
MORAN: Right. They were on different ends of the telescope. I think what bound them together was that, for any expatriate types, this was the Café Roma of Notre Dame. And in general, they were both kind and generous. They would argue and it would be about something serious, but it wasn’t textual. Ordinarily, I would be the unnamed interlocutor in the dialogue. You know, they would simply turn to me and say, “Was that Keats or Shelley?” And I would just say, “Shelley.”
FREDERICK CROSSON: He was an interesting figure. He was around here at Notre Dame intermittently over a period of, I guess, fifteen years. Father Stanley Parry, the chairman of the department, brought him here. Parry was a Holy Cross priest.
Q. Sorry, a what?
CROSSON: Holy Cross, that’s the order that founded Notre Dame: the Congregatio Sancta Crucis. It’s a title, not an adjective! Father Parry had done a Ph.D. in political science at Yale with a well-known conservative, Wilmoore Kendall. Kendall had really put his stamp on Parry. So, when Parry came back here, he did a lot to influence the department toward the conservative side of things. He was the one who brought Voegelin here.
Q. Because he was a naturalized citizen, he had to spend a certain amount of time in America.
CROSSON: Yes. The first time he came was certainly early on — it would have been the late ’50s or early ‘6os. And he had of course acquired national visibility long before then, whether you loved him or hated him. It was, I guess, thanks in large part to that Walgreen Lecture, The New Science of Politics. It tugged him out of Louisiana onto the larger scene. And it was certainly a boon for us, for our students and for the faculty members who interacted with him.
The first time he came, Father Parry invited him. He was going to give a graduate seminar, and the first meeting of it was an open meeting. Maybe I was invited to that because I had done a minor in the Government department here when I was working on my Ph.D. I remember that session very well, mainly because of what might have been a quasi-embarrassing moment for me! His talk that night was on Aristotle, and in the course of it, he said — I can still almost quote the words — “Aristotle says that if you want to understand human nature, you should read the poets.”
In the discussion afterward, I raised my hand and said, “I don’t think that’s an Aristotelian sentiment. Where does Aristotle say that?” And he responded in Germanic fashion, which was the way he generally talked, “In the Poetics!” I said, “Gee, I’ve read the Poetics a couple of times and I don’t remember him saying anything like that.” He said, “Read it again!” He must have been thinking of the passage where Aristotle compares history to poetry and says, “Well, poetry is more philosophical than history.” But that doesn’t make it more philosophical than the philosophers! So, he must have been giving his own hermeneutics on that.
Q. Professor Kennedy, how did you know Professor Voegelin?
KENNEDY: Eric had been a professor on the faculty at this department for a couple of years at least, maybe more, when I met him. He generally came in the spring semester. I believe he was looked upon as part of the regular faculty. He was not a visiting professor. There were inconveniences with the German universities, coordinating his schedule, because the German semester does not coincide with ours. I think he always had to go back early, which caused inconvenience for him at some point. He lectured in the political theory field and also gave public lectures, maybe three of them during the semester in addition to his classes.
Q. What was your impression of him?
KENNEDY: Basically he was an enjoyable man, a nice person, as far as I was concerned. He had a sense of humor. He was, as I say, an asset. The negative side was the scheduling.
Q. When did you first meet Voegelin and where?
WALTER NICGORSKI: I’m not absolutely sure whether I was reading The New Science of Politics when I first heard Voegelin lecture, or whether it was a result of that first lecture that I got started on it. But I was in the audience. It was a small audience at the Opus Dei residence on the South Side of Chicago, near the University of Chicago, called Woodlawn Residence. There was quite an interest in Voegelin among the graduate students at Chicago. This was partly caused by graduates of Notre Dame who had encountered him here and then gone up to Chicago into graduate studies.
I remember much more vividly my first encounter with him here at Notre Dame. I had been appointed as an instructor and was still finishing my dissertation, working under Leo Strauss on Cicero. This was the fall of 1964, and it was either that fall or the next spring that Voegelin was lecturing here. He was in residence for a term, and back again in 1968 — that was when he did the lectures on Hegel. I asked Voegelin a question at the end of another of his lectures having to do with certain of the Socratic passages in Plato. I didn’t realize at the time that I must have touched sensitive ground; I wonder in retrospect if I didn’t really touch some of the ground that he and Strauss had gone over long before early in their correspondence, in the letters about myth in Plato. In any case, I remember his intimidating response; he glared down at me and said, “Where did you get that question?”
Q. “From my head!”
NICGORSKI: Right! He was pretty upset with it. I can’t remember now whether I wormed out of the situation or if he simply moved on to another questioner and dismissed it. Then I went home and wrote him a long, two- to three-page single-spaced letter in which I cited the Platonic texts that had informed the question I gave him.
Next day I dropped it in his box at the Morris Inn and taught my class. Not long after I got out of class, the phone rang in the office. It was Eric Voegelin. And his opening lines were, “Oh, Professor Nicgorski, I didn’t realize that it was you posing that question!” Certainly in the American university system, we have our attachments to rank and all, but in his experience, attention to rank was much more important! And now he was very cordial; he invited me to lunch to talk it over, and we began a very good and fruitful relationship. Subsequently, others have told me that they also had a very rocky time in the early days of studying with him, but that it turned into a very good relationship as well. But I’m sure my question had something to do with Strauss’s emphasis on the Socratic turn and the priority of practical philosophy over myth.
Q. How did he respond to other questions?
NICGORSKI: He could be pretty rough on people who challenged him.
Q. It was my recollection that, if he thought that you were challenging him, he could he rough. But if he thought that you were asking a question because you didn’t know, then he would be a gentleman.
NICGORSKI: I had similar thoughts. As one comes to understand more the range of his knowledge, and grows in experience and understanding oneself, and faces teaching and lecturing situations — one maybe wouldn’t ever have quite the same manner he had, not coming out of the same background and experience, but one has more understanding of what might have been his impatience with certain challenges. Given the clarity with which he saw matters, one comes to be more sympathetic with the passage of time and the gaining of experience.
Teaching at Notre Dame
JAMES BABIN: I asked him once where he liked most to teach. He said he liked to teach at Notre Dame, because he could assume the students had at least some basic grounding in philosophy and theology. But otherwise, he liked Harvard because of the library.
Q. When did you first meet or hear about Voegelin?
GUEGUEN: I was an undergraduate, a major in liberal arts at the University of Notre Dame in the early ’50s. The chairman of the department, Father Stanley Parry, and Professor Gerhart Niemeyer were, I guess you could say, strong fans of Eric Voegelin at the time. No one in the department failed to hear about him and to be directed to his writings: to Order and History and The New Science of Politics. He was always the grey eminence in the background, the great interpreter of texts in our field.
I returned from Chicago to teach at the Government department in 1962, the year Voegelin returned, and I was assigned as his teaching assistant. My duties were strictly academic. I sat in on his graduate seminar and administered his undergraduate class, provided counseling for the students, read their papers, and assigned their readings. Voegelin had as little to do with the students as possible.
Q. What were his lectures like?
GUEGUEN: His undergraduate lecture was delivered on the stage at the law auditorium. He would parade back and forth across the stage. I think it wouldn’t have mattered if there were anyone there or not! He was discoursing on the subject, always attired in the same dark suit and the same red plaid tie, which made him a celebrity with the students: some of them were profoundly appalled by this, others found it amusing. He used no notes. He talked continuously while he paced back and forth on the stage without stopping. He appeared to have no difficulty whatsoever following the thread of his own thought. There were no interruptions. He came promptly on time and departed promptly on time.
Q. Did the students find this intimidating or amusing?
GUEGUEN: I got a variety of responses. Some of them thought he was posturing. His eccentricities were the subject of little jokes and that sort of thing. But for serious students, especially those who had been led to take his course by other members of the faculty who knew why he was there and what they were supposed to get from it, I think they learned a great deal. He had a gift of speaking in an audible, easily understood English. Of course, his vocabulary was special. I spent much of my time with the students trying to explain these special words, this special terminology that he had developed.
Q. What would their characteristic difficulties be?
GUEGUEN: Well, the graduate seminar, for example, consisted of a number of people who eventually got into careers in the university. These were very impressive students. And yet on the second day of the meeting, Voegelin announced that our response to the opening class had persuaded him that we were not ready for what he had originally intended to present. He was more surprised than we were as to the difficulties that he was going to encounter.
Q. What was the defect he saw among the students?
GUEGUEN: A complete lack of knowledge of history, of culture, of languages — classical languages. We had all been the recipients of a proper gentleman’s middle-class education, whereas he was used to an older classical tradition. He may have been teasing us a bit too, because he had been teaching at Louisiana State and he surely understood the kind of student he would have. Maybe he just wanted to intimidate us to help us, to make us more open to what he was doing.
Q. Did it work?
GUEGUEN: I think it did. I think it did lead to people making a more serious effort. There were study groups; students would get together trying to figure out what this strange professor was up to.
TOM FLANAGAN: There were about fifty students enrolled in his undergraduate course. I didn’t know it then, but I now realize that it was conducted in the manner of a German Vorlesung. It probably should have had more students to make it really authentic. I don’t believe there were any assigned readings — possibly The New Science of Politics, but I had already read that the year before. For the most part, Voegelin simply came in and lectured. Sometimes he talked out of his head, sometimes he used material in black binders, which I think must have been his unpublished “History of Political Ideas.” He lectured on Machiavelli for a while and also on the Encyclopedists of the French Enlightenment; those were two cases where he resorted to his binders.
Everything he discussed was fascinating to me at the time. He was for me an oracle. In the previous year in Niemeyer’s course, I had read books like Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, and Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, and it all culminated with The New Science of Politics. So, in my mind, Voegelin had synthesized current scholarship and everything revolved around that. It really didn’t matter much what he did, I would have found it interesting.
Some undergraduate Recollections
Q. You studied with Voegelin as an undergraduate?
ROOS: Yes. I went to Notre Dame from 1961 to 1965. At the time, Professor Voegelin would come every three or four semesters and teach generally an undergraduate course and sometimes a graduate seminar. The one I remember most was either in 1964 or in 1965 and was entitled “Gnosis, Apocalypse, and Christianity.” There were about forty or fifty students, and it was a quite striking topic for us. It wasn’t quite as obscure as it might have been for a typical American undergraduate at the time, who would have known relatively little about Gnosis and apocalypse. First, we were a Catholic university. Second, Gerhart Niemeyer was here. I had become interested in political philosophy very early on and had taken courses from Gerhart, from Edward Goerner, and from Father Parry. It was a very active place at the time. People like Paul Ricoeur and Yves Simon would lecture relatively frequently, and Hannah Arendt would come down. Through a variety of factors, we had in fact read some of the materials that Professor Voegelin was working on. So, we obviously thought we knew more than we did, but at least we weren’t wholly in the dark about some of the themes he was talking about.
Q. What text did he use?
ROOS: He never used a text.
Q. No, I mean what did he have you read?
ROOS: Oh, what readings? The reason I emphasized that he used no text is that one of the advantages of our education back then was that, for students who were really interested in political philosophy, none of our teachers used texts. We would read monographs and original works, so that once we got to graduate school, we had some of the skills we needed. We read Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium; we read Hans Jonas, Gnostic Religion; I think we read Gilgamesh; we read Frankfort’s book, and Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind. Those are the ones that stand out.
Voegelin focused on the basic pattern whereby Christianity raises the possibility of an impulse toward reimmanentizing the eschaton. This was found in early Gnosticism and in the irruption of it with Joachim of Fiora, and then it reemerged in modern totalitarian movements. And so the punch line of the course was that modern totalitarianism in some way can be seen as a Christian Gnostic heresy that tries to reimmanentize the eschaton, which the Incarnation had actually placed outside time.
Q. There was a debate between Voegelin and Hannah Arendt published in the Review of Politics on just that question. Did you ever read Hannah Arendt in his course?
ROOS: No, we almost never turned to what might be called the contemporary secondary debate. We never read Strauss, never read Heidegger, never read Hannah Arendt. Obviously, Voegelin would alert us to the existence of various views on these materials. But he treated Cohn, for example, as representing to us more or less archaeological evidence, as it were. Our task with this guy was to theorize about these materials rather than engage in secondary debates.
Q. What kind of a lecturer was he?
ROOS: Hah! I had never been to Germany, but I had certain stereotypes of the German professor. Whether these were right or wrong is another matter, but Professor Voegelin certainly fit the stereotypes I had. That is, he was businesslike, he was didactic, he was intent on covering the material, and he was not inviting of class discussion. He was there to lead us through the materials. And it was partly because it was a large class — there were fifty students! — but the emphasis was certainly on his voice leading us through materials rather than on discussion. If you wanted to argue with him about something, there was always the feeling that he didn’t have much stomach for spending the entire class period arguing about something that might turn out to be simply an assertion of will rather than genuine inquiry.
Q. Did Voegelin ever talk to you about his experiences in Europe?
ROOS: In class, he would try not to get terribly involved in particulars. H would make reference to the atmosphere, not to the particulars of his actual leaving, but to what he considered the gangsters in the classroom, you know — the leftists versus the rightists in the classroom — and becoming a pawn. One got the sense that his attachment to the university was enduring, to the idea of a university. And he wasn’t going to let that happen again, so he maintained those boundaries. With the undergraduates, he was not one to reminisce a lot about his personal experiences.
I think what I would say — I mean, gee, this is how you perceive things when you’re twenty years old! But we really had a group of good students: people like Tom Flanagan; John Gearen was a Rhodes; in the senior class we had five Woodrow Wilsons; we had seven National Science Foundations, six Marshalls; and we were all relatively close. Most of us had already worked with, say, Edward Goerner and Father Parry and Gerhart Niemeyer. So, we were relatively motivated and relatively docile; we already thought that this was pretty good stuff. We might not have agreed with his approach, but there was no real conflict.
Around the edges, of course, there would be some adolescent tendencies. The funniest story is about his final exam. The question was, “Relate these terms: immanentization, eschatology, Christianity, Incarnation, Gnosis, apocalypse.” Then, “Make reference to readings in the semester.” So, he gave the exam and we wrote the exam. Now, I had read not only the materials of this course, but had done a lot of work in political theory and had never received a grade less than A, deservedly or not. And I was getting too big for my britches. So, I wrote this long essay that included Eliade, Frankfort, Cohn, Thomas, Augustine; I had all these materials and I understood the basic linkages. I finished the exam and then, with a little bit of humor, I went back to the top of the exam and wrote, “One hypothesis about the relationship between these terms is as follows . . .” Okay? Then I wrote down Voegelin’s thesis of The New Science of Politics, although the exam itself laid out what his exposition was in greater detail! Well, the exam came back with the comment, “This is not a hypothesis, this is science.” D-! I was willing to take that; I mean, I was being a smart-ass of course. But the real injustice was when he gave Edward Goerner his grade list saying, “I sometimes make mistakes; look this over. If I have made any outrageous grades, change them to whatever you think is just.” Well, Edward looked at mine and he read this exam and the really unjust thing was that he gave me a B! So on my transcript, a D- and all these A’s was clearly better than a B from Voegelin!
So, we were a little feisty around the edges. But more seriously, Voegelin was already sensitive to what became even more full-blown with postmodernism: that everything is constructivist and everything is simply a hypothesis and all hypotheses are from a perspective. And he just didn’t want to hear that.
Voegelin and Science, Seminars and Students
Q. Did you get a sense of what science meant for him?
ROOS: I remember two things. One was that his conception of theory was different from what might be called the hypothetical-deductive mode. That is when one simply posits possible axioms, deduces consequences, then compares them to reality and has to refer back to the reality of concepts. Even as an undergraduate, I knew that, by theory, he meant something much like science in Aristotle’s science: speculative reason. That is, true deductions from true premises: one had to get the premises, and the premises had to be in touch with being before one could proceed. There would be all kinds of serendipity and coming and going and adjusting and revision, but from the get-go, it was not a question of beginning with simply hypothetical or constructivist principles. So, I certainly had a very vague sense — and I hadn’t read a lot of analytic philosophy then — that he was closer to something like what might be called a metaphysical or ontological realist than a constructivist.
The second was that he believed that this proceeded in political theory, not by an analysis of sense experience, but by a critical clarification of the relationship of symbolization and the relationship back to being. Now, this was deep water for us. But the great mystery was: how can it be that he at the same time pretty clearly thinks of what he’s doing as not simply poetic, simply existential, simply personalistic, but that it has this element of reality? He has also introduced us to the importance of history and changes of consciousness. Of course, the question everyone else always came to was: why doesn’t this result in radical historicism and relativism? But in the classroom, it was really clear that he didn’t think the historical move ended up in relativity. As little nineteen-year-olds, we couldn’t quite dot all the i’s, but that is the sense we got.
Q. Somebody said about Voegelin’s idea of science that it would seem to be dogmatism or arrogance. Surely that must have occurred to you with your experience with the test?
ROOS: At the time, of course, that occurred to me. What also occurred to me was that I was being a smart-ass! I knew what I was writing at the top of it and thought he was giving me my just dessert in a curious way! There weren’t many conflicts because we thought that it was good to read these books; that was why we were at the university. But sometimes it seemed that he envisioned himself as fending off the chaos. He was going to get on with business, there were things to learn, they could be known, and arguing for the sake of arguing — what Socrates called the eristic person — he just wasn’t going to put up with it! The sense of the classroom as fragile, I think, is one way that I would probably construe part of his demeanor in the classroom.
At that time, we had every excuse to dismiss him as churlish, but we at least knew enough to pose what we thought was an interesting question and not a frivolous one, and we had actually done some work on some of these materials. And he would perhaps sometimes not listen. But rather than feel outraged, many of us simply had a sense that he was mistaken in his judgments of our capacity for civilized discourse. Yet, we also had a sense that it was not because of any personal desire for domination, but a sense of his role as needing to preserve an atmosphere of inquiry.
Q. How did he run his seminar?
GUEGUEN: The graduate seminar? Well, there was the commanding presence of Voegelin, who had everything planned out, and we were all flying along behind to the best of our abilities. I don’t recall people having to prepare seminar papers. I think it was really a lecture, a sit-down lecture. It was in a room on the third floor of O’Shaughnessy Hall around a table, and he was continuing to do what he did in the auditorium, but at a slightly different level.
Q. So, the normal distinction that we make between a lecture and a seminar made no difference to him?
GUEGUEN: No, the difference was simply cosmetic, a different setting. He always did what he knew how to do and hoped that we would pick up some of the scraps falling from the master’s table! I think that analogy is good. And the students could see that too.
Q. How did Voegelin get along with students?
KENNEDY: I’m taking so long to answer you because I’m trying to find a positive side. What I have recollection of is fairly negative in the sense that . . . . Now, I cannot recall who of the colleagues made this complaint, but someone in the department said that you could never get Eric to direct a dissertation.
FLANAGAN: Once there was an evening with Eric Voegelin that was organized for students in the class. Maybe some other people came, too, but it was mainly for students in the class, and they had a chance to have a cup of coffee with him and to ask him a few questions. I asked him about his mastery of foreign languages, which had always amazed me — that he was able to read material in so many different languages. And I was saying what an advantage in scholarship that gave him, and his response was, “Well, I wasn’t born knowing all those languages.” So, the message was that, if you want to be a scholar, you have to be willing to invest the time.
But in retrospect, I would say that Gerhart Niemeyer was a much better teacher for North American students than Voegelin. Niemeyer was a remarkable teacher. He didn’t teach in the German grand manner: he used a reading list, and everybody was expected to keep up with the reading. And he worked with a kind of Socratic method of questions and answers. He was constantly asking people questions and getting them to explore. And he orchestrated all this so that we would also come together. I can remember all the books I read in Niemeyer’s class.
In contrast, I can’t remember anything specific that Voegelin said, although he was there for an entire term. I was mesmerized by him at the time because he was a good speaker and because what he had to say was tremendously erudite and interesting. But it is striking that I actually don’t remember anything. So, is it the teacher’s responsibility to be erudite and impressive or is it actually to stir something in the minds of students? I think Niemeyer, on that point, was a better teacher.
But Voegelin was a phenomenon. He wasn’t really a teacher, he was a phenomenon, and he was treated that way. Various people in the department would encourage their students to take Voegelin’s classes as a peak experience of your time at Notre Dame. So, Goerner and Parry and Niemeyer and various others were encouraging their students. All of us who were seriously interested in political philosophy took his course. And in a sense, it was an experience. I just don’t remember what it was all about now!
ALFONS BEITZINGER: He had a kind of pugnacity about him that could be very antagonizing. I remember at one lecture he was very sharp to a student, and I didn’t think it was warranted. The student had had a legitimate point he wanted to make. But you know, he came from a Germanic tradition, although he did study at Wisconsin.
Q. Was Voegelin a popular teacher?
BEITZINGER: Well, let’s put it this way: he had his enemies. That word may be too strong: there were people who opposed him. And some of them were enemies you ought to have, but others were serious people who . . . Well, you could tell that his emotions sometimes would come out very strongly and that that would irritate people.
MORAN: I have another weird memory. We had a conference here for him, on him. And he got up at the end of it and lambasted everybody for misreading his works. While he was talking, he would march back and forth on the stage smoking his cigar. It was really a magisterial performance.
Alone in the Stratosphere
Q. Could you say something about the 1971 symposium?
JOHN GUEGUEN: “Departures in Western Political Thought: The School of Eric Voegelin.” I think he objected to that title. He was somewhat truculent during that session at the end of April in 1971. He found himself quite put on the spot and intimidated by the whole idea of this symposium. He was argumentative and sharp in his remarks that day.There was a great deal of tension in the atmosphere. He was quite defensive, concerned–and that’s a sign of his sort of mind–that this would obscure the record of his achievements. That’s my recollection. I had come from Chicago, and a lot of other people came from different places. Very many of the people who were on the program were his former students. I think he was afraid that those who had come to take part or listen who hadn’t had much previous contact with Voegelin would find his stature diminished. And I think, in fact, that that’s what happened, because he didn’t seem very appreciative of this kind of exposure.
Q. Was that a reflection of his personality or of misinterpretation?
GUEGUEN: I think it was much more of his personality and of his awareness that he was operating at stratospheric levels of thought. I think he was always afraid of authorizing someone to interpret his thought. He did not appreciate the various conservative groups who sought to enlist him for their own purposes.
Q. But most mortals like to be admired!
GUEGUEN: There was a deep humility about him. He did not like the limelight; he didn’t think that he needed it. Paul Caringella would agree with me, I think. And I would also think that, as he was hearing these presentations, he was possibly dissenting from what people were saying and finding that they had fallen so far short. It must have been a painful experience for him, to hear these lower-level intelligences saying things about Voegelin’s significance.
Q. I remember a similar occasion when he gave a talk in Montreal. Charles Taylor, who is something of a celebrated personality, made a comment on Voegelin’s understanding of Hegel. And Voegelin probably didn’t care, but his response was so abrupt as to be quite rude. I was quite happy to see it of course, but there was no compunction about saying, “No, that’s wrong.”
GUEGUEN: That’s right. But I think that would be part of his understanding of the philosopher. You say the truth; you are a conservator of the truth. You can’t misrepresent the truth. The more I think about it, the more I think that there would be people who would have thought that he was very arrogant. But I think he was a man of deep humility. At the same time, I can see why the external signals that he was sending could have been interpreted as arrogance.For example, he was always very, careful to distinguish his own understanding from that of others and perhaps to exaggerate that distinction. Niemeyer told us that that was a sign of a creative thinker, that Voegelin was not simply a commentator on ancient texts, but was developing his own theory. But he did this even with his peers, even with other professors operating near or at his own level.
Q. It was a reflection of his personality?
GUEGUEN: I think so. I think his personality was very strong and also influential in everything he said. I don’t think his demeanor with peers was any different from his demeanor while he was lecturing. He was always the same, no matter who was there, whether it was a formal occasion or not. He was always the same. Whether he was conscious of it, I wouldn’t know. I don’t know if he even thought about it or reflected on it. He was certainly not doing anything with a deliberate intention to intimidate people; he was just being himself. And he was somewhat amused at them not being themselves too!
ELLIS SANDOZ: Voegelin’s characteristic was to never pull punches. It’s not that he was a particularly abrasive person; he wasn’t. But he believed that people who were professors were supposed to know what they were talking about. And if a professor would ask him a dumb question, or if he would make a statement such as, “Autonomous man is our only hope,” he would be vivisectioned. The guy would receive an absolute blast from which he would never recover.If it was someone who turned out to be a Marxist, or a positivist, or somebody perverting the history of mankind, and if he had perhaps reaped the rewards for having done so, it was absolutely annihilation time when it came to debate. Because he was an extremely effective debater and it was “Katy bar the door” on such occasions.He also couldn’t tolerate laziness.
For example, Tommy Cook at Johns Hopkins was a commentator at the APSA meeting that may have been the first one I attended. Certainly, it was a very early one–1960. The subject was Israel and Revelation. Thomas I. Cook was one of the commentators, and there were a couple of others, including Dante Germino. There was a big audience for this, and Voegelin was there. The book was on the table as the various presentations were going on, and Voegelin would then stand up to respond. W. F. Albright was also on that panel, one of the great scholars of Egypt and Mesopotamia.When it was his turn to make a comment, Cook made a remark about Voegelin not having included a particular book in his presentation. Voegelin reached over and got the copy of the book, looked at something, and put it back.When it came time for him to speak, he said, among other things, “Perhaps the criticism against me has been a little harsh, since the book that you cited was published the year after I published my book, so I couldn’t very well have used it.” And it became evident to everybody in the room that Thomas Cook had not read the book he had been assigned to comment on. He talked about this and that, and Eric sat there very straight-faced. But during his response, besides upbraiding Professor Cook, he suggested that several of his comments were in fact addressed in the book on page so and so and in this way and that way.
So, it was evident to Voegelin, obviously–and evident to me; I had read the book–that Cook hadn’t read the book. We now know from the correspondence that Voegelin later wrote this very terse little letter: “Dear Tommy, it was good to see you, but what you should do is try to do a little work some time so that you’d know what it is you’re talking about. Cordially, Eric.”
Beyond “the Work”
Q. Even for a scholar, there is more to life than work. Do you have any sense of this side of Voegelin?
DENNIS MORAN: How did Voegelin spend the day? I don’t know. I wonder if anyone really knows. I mean, we would imagine Chroust all crumpled up over his desk asleep the way he was in his old cardigan. But no one could imagine how Voegelin would sleep–in his shirt sleeves, sitting there with his tie and his cigar!He was very dismissive of any intrusions on his life. We would joke about it: we didn’t even know if he was married. There was never a reference to his wife. We might have had ten meals together in a semester, and I just assumed that he was an old German professor who had never married. I don’t think any of us shared any confidence with him.The last year I remember seeing him, I was married and had a child. Chroust would come over and say “gah gah, goo goo,” but Voegelin would maybe wave at the baby and that was it.There were no women around, ever, including graduate students. But I don’t think he noticed. He was married, but I think he didn’t like women. You know, he didn’t want women in the workshop! I don’t think he would have actually rejected a woman just because of it, but he was not uncomfortable with there being no women around.
Q. There must have been some women on the university staff?
MORAN: Oh, there were. And he was always polite; his language was never gross or anything. Chroust could be condescending. I remember going through the line at the cafeteria, and Chroust would say, “Get me some of that, dearie,” and things like that. Of course, that was Chroust’s way of being charming.
Q. Did he socialize with anyone while he was on campus?
GUEGUEN: I don’t think so. At one point Dr. Niemeyer said, “Why don’t you invite Professor Voegelin to your home?” I lived in a student residence at that time. “Why don’t you invite some of the graduate students in and have just a little informal discussion?” And we did in fact, but it was an absolute disaster. He didn’t find himself amenable to that kind of situation. He would lecture and expound upon things that he thought were important, or nothing. So, there was no question of trying to hold a discussion with him, as we very often did with professors or faculty here. We only attempted it once.
But virtually everything we would say . . . . I remember one student, for example, early in the discussion, said, “Professor Voegelin, what is your position on . . . ?” And he said, “Obviously, a philosopher does not hold a position on anything. We are all inquiring.” In other words, he would quickly put down a question with one short phrase, and that would close the conversation from there on. Rather than trying to reinterpret the intent of the student’s question and so on, he would take the language very strictly at each meeting and say that only ideologues hold positions.
Q. Why do you suppose he did that?
GUEGUEN: Well, I think that probably this was so deeply ingrained in his style as an educator that it would have been impossible for him to adapt to a different situation. It could have been tactical–an attempt at overcoming superficiality in the students. Maybe it was kind of an irony, but I don’t think so: I didn’t detect even the slightest hint of Socratic irony. I think it was probably just that he couldn’t adapt to the kind of environment that the students were accustomed to at that time.Around the same time, from ’60 to ’62, I was in Leo Strauss’s class and there was a very similar–I suppose a European, German, Continental way of handling the subject matter. I saw many similarities in the approach. But Strauss was more open, particularly in selecting some students who were close to him, whereas Voegelin had no one. He was absolutely alone as far as I could tell. I don’t think he even socialized very much with the people who admired him so much on the campus. I think he stayed pretty much to himself, avoided such situations.
Q. You never saw Mrs. Voegelin?
GUEGUEN: Not to my knowledge. But Strauss never mentioned his wife, either, and Mrs. Niemeyer stayed very much in the background. This may have been something that was very typical of German scholars.
Q. If he didn’t see students and he didn’t socialize, what did he do all day?
GUEGUEN: He read all day.
Q. At his room in the Morris Inn?
GUEGUEN: Yes. And he was not seen out and about in the town to my knowledge.
Q. Didn’t go to a football game?
GUEGUEN: I doubt it! I doubt whether he was even invited to go to one.
Q. Perhaps you could say something about “the mugging?”
GUEGUEN: One day he appeared for his lecture with a small bandage on his forehead, a very small bandage. I was informed as his assistant that he had been assaulted. He would regularly walk in the evening, when he would get back to his lodging somewhere in South Bend. But he would go out for a walk. This had been observed by some of the lowlife in the neighborhood, and they lay in wait for him one day. They got no money, I’m sure. As a result of the mugging, he was brought onto campus to stay at the Morris Inn. But he never alluded to it himself, and the small bandage quickly disappeared.
Q. Did you ever see him outside of class?
JOHN ROOS: Not really. We would go to public lectures, and he would be there and would nod or something like that. And we would see him in the South Dining Hall with Chroust, and he would nod or say hello. But he was here only one semester at a time and was very busy. That dimension of campus life with the undergraduates wasn’t there.
Q. And social activities?
ROOS: Well, we were not a terribly social department, anyway. There was not an extraordinarily broad social life. It was a different culture, partly because I was born in 1943. It made all the difference in the world: if you were born during the war or immediately after, you respected boundaries more. There was an awe of his generation, of what they had gone through, so you wouldn’t presume as a junior faculty member that they were your best buddies.
ROOS: By the time I came back in ’69, there was heroin on campus and there was a general mood of disintegration. The next spring, after the shootings at Kent State, there was turmoil. But even then, Notre Dame was still in a much less violent, much less irrational mode. The highlight of the weekend was when Father Hesburgh said, “Let’s have a Mass on the quad.” I helped organize a movement to work on congressional campaigns. The administration thought that was a good idea, so we had hundreds of students knocking on doors rather than burning down buildings. So, it certainly changed by the ’70s, but back when Voegelin was here, in ’65, there was something of a discrepancy. It was almost as though he thought, “They’re all going to jump up and say ‘Sorel must liberate us!'” But for the most part, we were not very radical.
Q. Were there any dogmatic and conservative Catholics?
ROOS: There are always some of those. It seems to me to be an occupational hazard of the institutional Catholic Church! Notre Dame was in a period of transition. The university had had this extraordinary infusion of Europeans after World War II. They leavened the place. The real problem with Notre Dame was this kind of backwater, textbook, neo-Scholastic kind of dogmatism that tended to reign in both philosophy and theology. Believe it or not, it was part of what this protest was against.
This is a completely corrigible recollection, but around the edges, even though he was very strict and appeared to be authoritarian, he was jovial. We didn’t feel like he hated us in any way. He was just his own person and he was going to do it his way. We sat and chafed, I think, because we felt (justified or not) that we had more to offer in terms of dialogue. Because we had been lucky enough to be exposed to some of this stuff, we were a little resentful that we were being treated like babies. But he would come in with a smile on his face and would tell us stuff and go over it in class. There was no bitterness then. I think as time went on, he was thinking “God, we’re going back through it, the same kind of disintegration, only in a softer tone.” This was the decade of the ‘6os.
Q. Did he talk about current events?
ROOS: He would make occasional references to the news, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, what it meant to be a liberal Democrat at the time. We knew that Gerhart Niemeyer had been involved in the ’64 campaign with Barry Goldwater. And on the side of the undergraduates, I think, we were kind of looking for whether we would get the current political position on what was going on from the two. But from Voegelin, we did not get much. He would occasionally comment on the banality of contemporary civilization and the triviality of current events, but he didn’t go into any great detail.
MORAN: He was very dismissive of all that current events stuff. We didn’t think that he voted. I don’t think anybody had the guts to ask him, but we suspected that he never voted.
WALTER NICGORSKI: When he returned in ’68, I was in attendance at his lectures, and one of them was a paper called “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery.” The interesting personal thing about the 1968 encounter was that our friendship had developed enough that, for some reason, I invited him to dinner with my family–my wife and my two small children. And he came. In retrospect, I am trying to figure out why I was comfortable with that setting! I remember that the two children were five and two and our third was not yet born. I can’t remember any dinners back then as having been particularly easy, so I wonder why I wanted to talk to Eric Voegelin in this context! I assume that something had developed; that he had either asked about the family or that he had met my wife. So, I just decided, why not have him over? And he came.
The night we had scheduled for dinner, in April of ’68, was the night that President Lyndon Johnson, intimidated by the results of the early presidential primaries, bowed out of the race. I had heard that Johnson was going to make a special statement that evening. We didn’t know the nature of it, but knew that he was under great pressure from the Vietnamese war and the disaffection regarding it. My wife thinks that Eric Voegelin had heard about this and asked that we turn on the TV at the appropriate time. We were just about to sit down to dinner, and we had a TV set on wheels that we turned inward as we sat at the dinner table with a salad. He was intensely interested and made some comments about the forces that were driving Johnson from the presidency.
Q. Did he talk about those forces?
NICGORSKI: Well, I think he said they were either people who were enemies of the Western tradition or terribly naive about the Cold War situation. That was the sense I had of the way he reacted to them.
Q. Was he forthcoming about contemporary politics?
NICGORSKI: He was quite forthcoming. I mean, he seemed to make it very clear that, in terms of Cold War politics, he was a strong conservative: strong arms, strong methods were the way to deal with it.I once asked him about his experiences in Munich. Apparently, he had run into some leftist reaction among his students, including disruptive behavior at some of his lectures. He made some rather strong statements. I can’t recall now if he actually did this or he was just thinking of doing it, but he mentioned hiring bouncers from beer halls–he had just the right people in mind!–who were going to remove these people the next time they disrupted his lectures.
The Enemy of My Enemy. . .
JOHN KENNEDY: I don’t recall any comments about contemporary politics, but I do recall an incident once when there was a cocktail party somewhere and I was talking with him. And he made a point of telling me in a very friendly way that he was not one of “those conservatives.” In other words, he seemed to want to be considered somewhat distanced ideologically. I’m trying to be cautious about recollecting that far back, but I remember that I was a little surprised at his emphasis. Somehow I had always put him, not necessarily in the conservative category, but at least into a traditional mold of thought. I remember he used these words, though: “I am not a conservative.” And I had this reaction: “I always thought you were!”
Q. Why did conservatives like his work?
FREDERICK CROSSON: I think that is a good question. I think it’s probably more a question of common enemies–you know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Because he certainly smote thigh and bone, or whatever the quotation is, liberal conceptions of politics and their independence from historical and cultural, religious context. That was probably what drew the conservatives to him. They found impressive critiques of modern liberal democracy and didn’t so much notice the other things that were there.Gerhart Niemeyer was intensely conservative, and he was really his Sancho Panza. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense! But they were together a lot. Niemeyer was not here, I think, when Voegelin first came; I think he came afterward. But once Gerhart came, they were the two strongest presences here.
BRUNO SCHLESINGER: Voegelin always said, “I’m not a conservative,” but Niemeyer was the opposite. I think that Niemeyer needed a man that was profoundly anti-Marxist as a philosophical connection. And of course, Voegelin was strongly against Marx, that’s for sure.
ALFONS BEITZINGER: Niemeyer had a break with him at one time–I don’t know if you knew that–over some question of faith. Niemeyer was a very dedicated Christian who was ordained an Episcopalian minister and then became a Roman Catholic because he couldn’t take the introduction of women priests. But he was a very, very dedicated and devout man. He had a Germanic dedication to the cause. Definitely, I think, he helped Voegelin, but he and Niemeyer had this difference. I think it had to do with religious beliefs. Because Niemeyer was a very devout Christian. Whereas Voegelin, while I have no doubt he was a Christian also, there were aspects Niemeyer discerned that he didn’t like. And they had a difference–I remember Niemeyer told me that when he learned of it. They were on the phone for hours and they were going back and forth.
PAUL CARINGELLA: As Eric was writing the “Anamnetic Reflections” in October of 1943, do you remember him telling you about what he was trying to do?
LISSY VOEGELIN: Oh, maybe we talked about it.
Q. Reading those memories is wonderful. You would think about what the imagery might have meant to a six-year-old boy. Looking out, say, at the steamer on the Rhine.
L. VOEGELIN: Well, the Rhineland is full of stories. Everybody knew these stories, and his mother told him these stories, too. They talked about these things.But when Anamnesis was translated by Gerhart Niemeyer, Niemeyer did not want to keep the stories in there. And Eric hit the ceiling, I can tell you that. He said, “It’s ridiculous to leave out the anamneses!” “It belongs together,” he said, “and to leave them out is simply incredible.” It was terrible: Eric was yelling and Niemeyer was saying, “hoo, hoo, hoo.”
CARINGELLA: Still, Niemeyer left one of the letters out. He kept the experiments, but he left out the foreword to the whole volume. So, Eric wrote another one, “The Remembrance of Things Past,” in 1977. But Niemeyer left out the very important “In Memoriam, Alfred Schütz,” where Voegelin says, “These are a meditative unity.” Niemeyer took one of the pieces out, and he was going to take out the memories themselves!
Q. Niemeyer didn’t understand the significance of the unity.
CARINGELLA: No, he never did get it.
NICGORSKI: I was in conversations in Chicago and down here with faculty. I was keenly interested in what Voegelin was doing, because I was formed in part in the Thomistic tradition, in a Catholic framework in which metaphysics played a very important part. So, I was interested in a thinker who, you might say, was more directly open to those issues than Strauss had been. These questions were leading me to question Strauss hard about how you make Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics defensible without his Metaphysics.
The Aristotelian Voegelin
Q. In the course of your conversations, did you come to an understanding of what the word science meant to Voegelin?
NICGORSKI: I think I was partly there. Science for him meant a true understanding of our complete existential situation. That’s why it has an empirical dimension, but not with the kind of constraints that positivism imposes on the concept; rather, it embraces good historical study; it is full empiricism with regard to the introspective dimension, integrated into true understanding.
Q. He was very Aristotelian?
NICGORSKI: Yes, definitely. Would you agree with that?
Q. Yes, yes. I remember a conversation with him. It was obvious that science meant understanding over the whole range of human experience and that this understanding is empirical, too. That was quite a thing for a graduate student in the 1960s to hear, because we thought empirical political science was something altogether different from what Voegelin held it to be.
NICGORSKI: It’s true. This is one example of how Voegelin’s distinctive vocabulary–and let’s say “peculiar” in the contemporary context–created problems for him in getting a hearing. It would put people off that he would use science in a way that wasn’t customary. But Voegelin had a powerful tradition to draw on in making that claim; and, of course, his use of the term science is hardly the most perplexing of his terminology.His terminology was no doubt the big obstacle to a lot of the graduate students at Chicago, who would have heard of him and seen The New Science of Politics in the same series with Natural Right and History. They dipped into it and found themselves very put off by his strange language and terminology. Even if Strauss had some of that, he always had less of it. And Strauss, of course, was there to explain himself in a way that Voegelin wasn’t.
Q. Did you know of any persuasive criticisms of Voegelin when he was here?
NICGORSKI: I think persuasive would mean that I had finished conversations that are worth a lifetime and had decided about some of these things!Unfortunately, that’s not the case. What was really interesting was going to Chicago immediately after being an undergraduate under Voegelin. It was interesting for several reasons. One was that there was a tendency for some of the students in political theory to have encountered one powerful undergraduate teacher and then to have gone on to graduate school on the basis of that. That has a lot of benefits, but it also has some weaknesses. We felt very lucky in the sense that we came to graduate school already having been exposed to the young Edward Goerner and Father Parry, Stephen Kertesz, Paul Ricoeur, Yves Simon, Voegelin, and Gerhart Niemeyer.
And I was struck when I got to Chicago: those who had been primarily exposed to what might be called the Straussian perspective as undergraduates had decided that Voegelin was radically historicist and, hence, relativist. Certainly, on a surface level, it was clear to us that it wasn’t quite that simple; he was trying to reconcile things. So, that question became a very interesting one, and one I have thought about a lot.What was he up to? How does one recognize an awareness of the historical turn for a teaching that claims in some way to be in touch with reality? Obviously, being doesn’t change; our connection with it changes. So that would be one question I think a number of people still have. The other, I think, was whether there would be any reason to believe that there could be another leap in consciousness or leap in being of the same magnitude as those, say, of the Incarnation or the discovery of the mind.
Church, Faith, and Dogma
Q. Do you ever recall Voegelin discussing the Catholic Church while he was at Notre Dame?
SCHLESINGER: Never, no. That’s one reason why I thought it was hilarious that he was exalted at a Catholic university: there was no shred of sympathy, there was nothing. I never saw a shred of any religious commitment. He interpreted all kinds of texts–Paul, Augustine, everything–but I never detected any kind of religious commitment.
JÜRGEN GEBHARDT: Do you know what the Denzinger is? The Denzinger is the Latin collection of all the dogmatic statements of the Church.1 Voegelin once said, “All these theologians do not believe in Christ or God, but in the Denzinger.” That’s the problem. I went several times with him to lectures that were given to Catholic organizations.When he talked about transcendence and God, they were in agreement. The problems arose with closer inspection of dogmas. He would explain to them what the dogmas are. Certainly, this was the American problem: his interpretation of the Fall and the Risen Christ would not have tied in with dogmatic Catholicism. And mainstream Catholicism in Bavaria never got very interested in Voegelin either.
Of course, he would give talks. The New Science of Politics was the most Christian book he ever wrote, and on the basis of that, he was well received. [But Cardinal] Ratzinger never got very much interested. They were not against him, but still, they knew he was a Protestant. He was not a Catholic, he was not one of us; therefore, he was allowed to say these things. He was at least much better than the positivists and the Marxists. God and Christian experience is important: that, then, would be the common ground to deal with each other. But German Catholics were never very much interested in what he was doing.
Q. The theology faculty ensures that Munich is a very Catholic university. Some people sought him because they felt that he would be a good Catholic political scientist–or, if not a good Catholic one, then at least a solid Christian. But of course he was rather more independent than perhaps they had anticipated. Was this obvious?
KLAUS VONDUNG: That’s a very interesting question. I think that, in a way, he tried to cover himself. He was not very outspoken on these things; and, indeed, there were all kinds of doubts and uncertainties. Just to give you an example: two years ago at a conference on Expressionist literature, I met an old professor of German literature from the University of Munich who now is in his seventies. He was a professor when Voegelin taught there.We talked about Voegelin, and he was of the opinion that Voegelin was Catholic. He said, “What? He was Catholic. I know it for sure because there was a circle of Catholic professors in Munich. I know it for sure! All these Catholic professors, including Voegelin, went to their meetings. A circle of Catholic professors.” Many people thought he was Catholic–or at least, as you said, a good Christian.
As I’ve said, he was not very outspoken. One could, of course, draw the conclusion that he would be a good Christian from certain things he wrote. On the other hand, in his lectures, “Hitler and the Germans,” he said very nasty things about theologians–Protestant and Catholic both.
Q. Do you ever recall Voegelin discussing the Catholic Church while he was at Notre Dame?
KLAUS VONDUNG: He didn’t publish Volume IV [of Order and History] before he was back in the United States and had more leisure to write it and to break with the original concept of Order and History. But while I was studying with him in the ‘6os, everybody was waiting for the publication of Volume IV.People were always asking, “When will Volume IV come out? What about Volume IV?” Because one of the most interesting things to look forward to was what he would say about Christianity, what he would say about Jesus Christ and about Saint Paul in Volume IV.He was not very outspoken. What he thought about the Israelite prophets and the apocalyptics and about Plato and Aristotle, of course, we knew, and then later on the philosophers of modernity. But not what he really thought about Christianity. So, everybody was waiting for Volume IV because everybody thought, “Finally, we will see what he says about Christianity.”
Q. And then, when Volume IV was published, he was gone. Was there any response in Munich to what he said in Volume IV?
VONDUNG: Not much. Again, that’s an interesting phenomenon. And it’s of course a pity that, in contrast to many other professors of political science who had returned from exile after some time, he didn’t manage to make an impression on a larger scholarly public.
Q. In the United States, as in Bavaria, many American conservatives thought he was one of them, but he had nothing to do with Catholicism.
TILO SCHABERT: No, no. Nor with conservatism in their sense.
Q. There are some remarks in The History of Political Ideas that aren’t complimentary to the Church.
SCHABERT: He didn’t emphasize it, but he was more open in Munich, more direct, than he was in the United States. In the United States, he was much more prudent and kept himself clear of this kind of issue. Whereas in Munich, from very early on, he made it very clear that you just can’t rejuvenate medieval times and go back to Thomas Aquinas. That’s not the way you win the Cold War; that’s not the way you restore a spiritual order. Whereas the Catholic milieu here wanted that: go back to Aristotle, go back to Plato, go back to Thomas Aquinas, and then everything will be fine.
Q. How was he regarded by the Thomas scholars at Notre Dame?
JOHN KENNEDY: That’s interesting. Father [Stanley] Parry, certainly, looked on him as a very fine scholar. I don’t know of anybody who didn’t. And as a very productive one, because he had turned out all these volumes. But I had a thought in my mind. This has nothing to do with his stay at Notre Dame, but Bob Harris, a political scientist I knew, had worked with Eric at Louisiana State University, and he told me this story. Bob Harris once said to him, “Eric, maybe you should join the Catholic Church.” And Eric’s reply was, “I would, if they would only go back to being catholic. You know, the Catholic Church has not been catholic since about the eleventh century!”Now, I’m sure he would have had more serious thoughts if he had organized them. But Harris, who had a great sense of humor, could tell this with a smile. And certainly, to talk to him, Eric was not a convert to Catholicism, although he certainly was at home with Catholicism, even if it had disappointed him since the twelfth century.
Q. Did he ever run into any difficulties with Church authorities at Notre Dame?
FREDERICK CROSSON: No, not at all. I was going to say that maybe it was because he was being courteous about his differences with Church doctrine, but I don’t think he would have been. We were already opening up, if I could put it that way. There was a time when Catholic universities in this country were very much a closed kind of network. But when our longtime president Father [Theodore M.] Hesburgh came in the early ’50s, he began to open things up. Not to secularize, but to open the university up to other voices and other perspectives. So, by the time Voegelin came, I don’t think there was any closedness about the place, either intellectually or religiously. I think he found it comfortable here, as a matter of fact.
His Independence from Institutions
Q. Did he ever run into any difficulties that you were aware of with respect to the Church?
JOHN GUEGUEN: No, we asked him about it. Whenever it came up, we got the impression that he had his own version of Christianity that was profound and, he thought, completely harmonious with his philosophy. And a second thing was that he deeply respected other people’s persuasions and would never have said anything intended to undermine their faith. I know that this came up in his course on apocalypse and Christianity. And he would say, “Most of you are Catholics, and you should know about the Fathers, the Patres, you should know that! You don’t know your own literature!” He would encourage us to pursue the original sources of our tradition.
JOHN ROOS: We were certainly exposed to the dangers of accepting any particular narrow triumphalist formulation of the wisdom of the Church, which was always a temptation with persons thus situated: all the textbooks on Thomism and so on and so forth.Professor Voegelin invited us to learn that the question of pursuing God, also a kind of no-God, is complicated; it is not some big formulation! But that also fit in with some of the areas of theology at the time, because Notre Dame had been powerfully influenced through three or four successions of filtration of what might be called the orthodox version of modernism. What the modernist movement was in the Church of the nineteenth century was the rejection of ultramontanist triumphalism and the acknowledgment of a historical turn. So, there were people like Newman and the themes of development and doctrine. And later there was Catholic Action.
Then there was the “historical Jesus” issue, and Frank O’Malley, a great teacher of literature, here at the university. There was the Second Vatican Council, and [Cardinal] Ratzinger was writing at the time on Bonaventure and the Holy Spirit. So, there was a whole variety of what might be called dynamic elements we were exposed to at the time. Knowledge was no longer static, simple objective formulas; it was something that had to be lived to be authentic. So there was a context in which his historical awareness would have fit.
Q. Did you get any sense of his relationship with the Catholic hierarchy at Notre Dame?
DENNIS MORAN: Only the impression that he lived in a vacuum in the sense that he would notice no hierarchy and no hierarchy would ever notice him. I think he admired what Father Hesburgh said about the Vietnam War, but most of us did. And I don’t know that he ever talked to Hesburgh. I don’t think that he thought those people were important. [Anton-Hermann] Chroust loved to complain and jaw about the “damn CSC;” he loved to criticize. And of course he’d get his digs in about the celibates, although Chroust probably hadn’t had a date since the Depression!
Q. Voegelin’s independence from institutions: it’s repeated in Munich and it’s repeated at Stanford.
MORAN: I think it had some unhappy results. The suspicion among some of us was that he liked his privacy because he just didn’t trust them. Especially Catholics: he thought that they would never understand him. What he was doing was so subtle. He had separated himself from the world because he just didn’t want to get involved with idiots.
Q. Well, he went to Munich through the efforts of a Catholic, Alois Dempf. And Dempf sold him to the archbishop as being just the sort of the good Catholic-minded intellectual they wanted.
MORAN: Really? He wasn’t even a good Lutheran! Creedal Christianity
DANTE GERMINO: One day Voegelin called me in and said, “I understand that you’ve been asking questions about whether I’m a Christian or not.” I said, “Well, there are no ulterior motives.” And that was that. He obviously trusted me enough to know that I was not out to judge him dogmatically or ideologically. With regard to his Christianity, the most remarkable thing he ever said about it was some years later at Virginia, where he was giving a lecture at a small college near the University of Virginia. I asked him again the question, “Do you consider yourself a Christian?” And his answer was, “I try to be and also to be a philosopher.” It was a quite rapid answer.
Q. Not dismissive though?
GERMINO: Certainly not. “I try to be.”[Juergen] Gebhardt calls him a modernist in his theology and says that he was not interested in the Church at all. I asked him a number of times, “Don’t you think creeds are important? For example, the Nicene creed? That dogma has its place?” He said, “Oh yes, yes.” So, I’m not so sure he was completely dismissive of the Church as an institution, especially the Catholic Church. Indeed, in The History of Political Ideas, there is a lot of appreciation for medieval Catholicism. Where he really comes down hard is on Luther and Calvin and the Reformation.
Q. Do you think that he kept that stance toward Christianity?
GERMINO: Well, The New Science is his most Christian-centered book. His later reflections become more cosmic. He’s trying to do something different, rather than taking Christianity as a base, which he could have done, and Thomas’s principle of Christ as the head of all mankind. One could declare that there was the presence of Christ in the Buddhist hymn and the meditations of a Muslim mystic. He could have taken Christianity as his base, but he did not.
However, I think it’s a basic mistake to try to impose some dogmatic straitjacket on Voegelin. You have to remember his emphasis on faith as central to Christianity, which is the experience of uncertainty in the sense of Hebrews 11:1. And what we have in Voegelin is fiercely anti-systematic. Indeed, if you are thinking about him in the form of a closed system, then you are a Gnostic thinker: that seems to me to be his message. So, what we find in Voegelin is openness, an exploration of questions, a constant receptivity to new scholarly discoveries.
One must see it in context. To me, church ceremonies are important. But Voegelin lived when the churches were behaving scandalously by submitting themselves to Hitler, and so he was very alienated from Lutheranism. You can understand why he didn’t want to go to church and his distaste for the traditional church. I don’t agree with him on that, but I don’t want to say, I have the right to excommunicate him and say that he wasn’t a Christian. That is a very presumptuous thing. He may have been a greater Christian than many of us!
ELLIS SANDOZ: He didn’t want to be identified with any institution or any partisan position that might impugn the validity of his own desire for objectivity and his desire that his work be received as objective. The first thing I published on him said that he was a Christian philosopher. When he read the essay, he came to the word Christian and he took the pencil and crossed out Christian. This has always amused me a little bit. It’s not that he was anti-Christian, but there was the desire to be empirical, to be impartial. If Christ is the flash of eternity into time, it’s not to say that there are not some other flashes of eternity into time.
DAGMAR HERWIG: There was a time when I thought that, in a part of his thinking, he was dogmatic. You will find other people who studied with him who would never say that. What I mean is that he seemed to be dogmatic by insisting that you had to concede that there is a transcendent source of truth. And, of course, people who had a religious way of thinking or who had families and a background in which religion was normal could easily follow him there. You wouldn’t have had to be an institutional churchgoer, because that doesn’t mean anything about how you think or what you believe. But it was easier for you if you had this feeling there must be something like God, as people usually call it.
Of course, he never talked about God, he talked about transcendence. There are things that are transcendent to human recognition that one has to accept. And I think that was a point where you could get the impression that he was dogmatic. Actually, it was not discussed at that time. It took me some time to understand that, at the core, there was no such dogmatism. But at a certain time, his way of presenting things gave rise to misunderstandings.
FRIEDEMANN BÜTTNER: When it came to the Erfahrung vom Grund [experience of the divine ground], he became rather apodictic. Everybody was supposed to be able to have these experiences; and if students doubted it, he said that that was their problem, their refusing to open themselves. So, very often, the type of question asked in a lecture did not lead to answers that encouraged discussion. In a way, it ended where the question started: “But if I don’t have the experience, then what?” And Voegelin would say, “That’s your problem!”
In that connection, I have always wondered about two things. One: what did all these experiences of the deepest source of being, all this talking about the Erfahrung vom Grund, mean to Voegelin existentially? I have always wondered whether he was a deeply religious person or whether it grew instead out of a philosophical discourse. At the point inside its structure beyond which you cannot go, you then have the source of everything in the beyond, in transcendence. I never knew what it meant for him as a person.
And the second thing I always wondered about is this: did it matter to him whether this divine source of our being exists beyond our experiences of it? This question as to the existence of God outside my experience is not part of Voegelin’s discourse. But for a religious person, it might be a serious question.
Q. You told a very charming anecdote the other day.
ALESSANDRA LIPPUCCI: The one about Jesus? Well, I had been struggling with Christianity. I had been raised in it; my grandfather was a minister. But being honest with myself, I couldn’t really believe in Christ. I just didn’t believe it. I liked what he had to say, and I could believe that that was a good way to live, but it was really hard for me to accept that I couldn’t really do any more than that.
And so, I asked Voegelin one day after our seminar: “What do you think of Christ?” And it was really interesting, because I immediately got his attention. There was no one else around. My husband was around, but I don’t think anyone else was around; they had already walked out. I even remember what side of the table I was sitting on when he told me this—I remember it that vividly.
And he looked at me and there wasn’t an immediate answer, but it came in about four seconds. He just said, “Well, Christ is a true myth.” I don’t believe he elaborated on it much—at least I don’t recall what he said after that. What I remember is that when he said the words, that was the solution to my problem. I understood that I was free now to believe in Christ and to see him as revealing truth, but I did not have to believe in the historical facts that went with it. So, the spiritual life had been differentiated by him for me. That was Voegelin’s contribution, his statement that historical facts about Jesus didn’t really matter.
I didn’t believe in salvation in some other world; I just couldn’t. But I do believe that I’m a spiritual being. And I felt that Voegelin believed that Christ was a true myth also and that’s how he could answer the question. In a way, it wasn’t necessary to have a lot of conversation about it after that, because it seemed to me to be something that you just get or you don’t. And I got it.
DAVID EDWARDS: Discussing the church, we asked him whether he went to church. And he said, “I’ve only been to church twice in my life.” Once was his wedding, and the other was some other event. It was never for worship as such.
LIPPUCCI: I found that really reassuring too, because I would go into a church and I would get upset because of the doctrines and things. I felt that what I was really there for had been obscured. This was my irritation with the context I was in.And I’m guessing that that was his problem, too. You know, maybe you can carry on these essential things with texts, so that they’re part of your meditative life. Now, this is my interpretation, but I believe that he didn’t separate the two: for him, his intellectual search and his spiritual life were one and the same. They were not distinct.Resonance at Notre Dame
CROSSON: I think Voegelin certainly stirred up something that already existed but gained impetus during the years he was visiting, namely, our concentration in political theory, political philosophy. That had started relatively early. Of course, every department of political science had some political theory requirement at that time—witness Sabine’s book and its endurance. But we now have, and have had for a number of years, three or four professors who worked strictly in political theory. That concentration, I think, came about because of the presence of people like Voegelin.
I think I would be right in saying that he was far and away the most powerful and best-known person in political theory and political philosophy of the visitors that we had. We had other European visitors, but they were generally in comparative government. He had quite an influence on the direction of our program here in the Government Department—and, I think, all to the good.His importance was unmistakable. Not only was he a powerful figure and a well-known figure, but he came over a long period of time—my guess would be that it was over a period of fifteen, maybe twenty years, which is a long time to be influenced by his presence and his ideas. Not only in the Government Department, although that is what I stress. That’s where he had his major impact, but he had impact on a number of other departments as well.
MORAN: As a person, he seemed to be so unapproachable, so formidable, although he did have a great sense of humor. Order and History was like that: Volume IV, try again! He was in his late sixties when he decided to start all over again! But you know, he’d done that once before. That seems to be the most remarkable thing. But that was the mystery of his personality, that he was actually much more pliable, much more agreeable than his ego allowed. We really did like him.
james babin (interviewed May 6, 1996, in Baton Rouge) first met Voegelin in 1965 as a graduate student of John Hallowell at Duke University. A professor of English recently retired from Louisiana State University, Babin lives in Baton Rouge.
alfons beitzinger (interviewed April 21,1997, at Notre Dame) knew Voegelin while teaching in the government department at the University of Notre Dame. A professor and scholar of American government, Beitzinger is now retired and lives in Granger, Indiana.
friedemann büttner (interviewed September 1, 1995, in Chicago and May 31,1999, in Berlin) was an undergraduate at the University of Munich when he first met Voegelin in 1958. A specialist in the history and culture of the Near East, he became a research assistant at the Institute for Political Science in 1964. A highly reputed scholar and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Free University of Berlin, he retired in August 2006. He lives in Berlin.
paul caringella (interviewed May 23, 1995, in Mountain View, California) became Voegelin’s assistant in 1978 and provided Voegelin both scholarly and personal support until his death in 1985. Now a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Caringella is director of the Eric Voegelin Archive there. He lives in San Francisco.
frederick crosson (interviewed April 21,1997, at Notre Dame) knew Voegelin at the University of Notre Dame, first as director of the Program of Liberal Studies, and later as dean of the College of Arts and Letters. A former editor of the Review of Politics, Crosson enjoyed a long teaching and research career in Notre Dame’s philosophy department before retiring in 2000. He lives in South Bend, Indiana.
david edwards (interviewed August 31, 1997, in Washington, D.C.) was a junior member of the government department at the University of Texas at Austin when he met Voegelin there in the mid-1970s. He now teaches international relations, political theory, and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
tom flanagan (interviewed February 15, 2006, in Calgary) attended Voegelin’s courses as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. The author of several books on Canadian politics, Flanagan is now a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, Alberta.
dante germino (interviewed June 8,1999, in Amsterdam) met Voegelin in London in the early 1960s, then visited him regularly during his tenure at the University of Munich. After joining the political science department at the University of Virginia in 1968, Germino actively furthered Voegelin studies in America. He retired from UVa in 1997, then taught at universities in Amsterdam and Bangkok until his death in May 2002.
jürgen gebhardt (interviewed April 27, 1996, in Nuremberg) was Voegelin’s senior research assistant at the Institute for Political Science in Munich. A highly reputed scholar and teacher at universities in Bochum and Erlangen, Gebhardt also founded the Eric Voegelin-Bibliothek at the Universität Erlangen-Niirnberg before retiring in 2002. He lives near Munich.
john gueguen (interviewed April 23, 1997, in Urbana, Illinois) was Voegelin’s teaching assistant at the University of Notre Dame in the spring of 1963. A former professor of political science at Illinois State University in Normal, he introduced many students to Voegelin’s works there. He is now retired and lives in Kirkwood, Missouri, where he maintains a Voegelin archive.
dagmar herwig (interviewed June 5,1999, in Saarbrücken, Germany) was one of Voegelin’s doctoral students in Munich. After teaching political theory at several German universities, she went into the civil service. She held a high-ranking position in Saarland’s Ministry of Labor till her retirement in May 2006. Together with Manfred Henningsen, she recently prepared Voegelin’s 1964 lectures, Hitler und die Deutschen, for publication in Germany. She lives in Saarbriicken.
john kennedy (interviewed April 29,1997, at Notre Dame) was head of Notre Dame’s department of government in 1964, when Voegelin was at the University of Notre Dame. Kennedy is now deceased.
alessandra lippucci (interviewed August 31, 1997, in Washington D.C.) was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin when she first met Voegelin. After attending his seminars there in the mid-1970s, she maintained regular contact with him until his death. Lippucci now teaches public policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
dennis moran (interviewed on April 21, 1997, at Notre Dame) was a graduate student in the department of English when he encountered Voegelin almost daily in Notre Dame’s South Dining Hall. Now managing editor of the Review of Politics, Moran lives in South Bend, Indiana.
walter nicgorski (interviewed April 22, 1997, at Notre Dame) first met Voegelin as a junior faculty member in the department of government at the University of Notre Dame. As a teacher, scholar, and former editor-in-chief of the Review of Politics, Nicgorski has actively promoted the study of Voegelin’s work. He now lives in South Bend, Indiana, where he is a professor in Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies and in the political science department.
john roos (interviewed April 22, 1997, at Notre Dame) studied under Voegelin as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. After completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, he returned to Notre Dame, where he teaches political theory and institutions in the department of political science.
ellis sandoz (interviewed October 1 and 2,1995, in Calgary and November 4,1995, in Indianapolis) met Voegelin as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, completed his M.A. there with him, then wrote his doctorate under him at the University of Munich. A prominent Voegelin scholar and promoter of Voegelin studies in America, Sandoz teaches political science at Louisiana State University, where he also leads the Eric Voegelin Institute. He lives in Baton Rouge.
tilo schabert (interviewed April 17, 1996, in Munich) studied under Voegelin at the University of Munich, where he received his Ph.D. under Voegelin’s direction. Schabert also assisted him as a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution. Now a highly reputed scholar and director of the Eranos conferences, Schabert teaches political science at the University of Erlangen. He lives near Munich.
bruno schlesinger (interviewed May 5, 1997, at Notre Dame) first knew Voegelin when he attended his course on public law at the University of Vienna. Also forced to flee Vienna after the Anschluss, Schlesinger met Voegelin again at the University of Notre Dame. He founded a new department of humanistic studies at nearby St. Mary’s College, where he taught for sixty years before retiring in April 2005. He lives in South Bend.
Lissy voegelin (interviewed May 28 and 29, 1995, in Palo Alto) was Eric Voegelin’s wife from 1932 until his death in 1985. His lifelong companion, constant support, and frequent adviser, Lissy joined him in exile after the Anschluss and accompanied him in all relocations up to their final move to Palo Alto in 1969. Lissy Voegelin remained in Palo Alto until her death in 1996.
klaus vondung (interviewed April 24,1996, in Siegen) first knew Voegelin as an undergraduate in Munich, then worked more closely with him during his two-year fellowship at the Hoover Institution. A recognized Voegelin scholar and researcher of political religions, Vondung teaches literature at the University of Siegen in Siegen, Germany.
1. Denzinger, Heinrich, and Schönmetzer, Adolf. Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum. Freiburg, Basel, Rome & Vienna: Herder, 1997.
This excerpt is from Voegelin Recollected: Conversations of a Life (University of Missouri Press, 2007); also see “Voegelin in Baton Rouge: Parts One, Two, and Three,” “Voegelin in Munich,” “Voegelin and his Contemporaries,” and “Voegelin Recollected.”