skip to Main Content

Autobiographical Reflections

In June of 1973 Ellis Sandoz went to Eric Voegelin’s home in Palo Alto, California to help record his reminiscences about his life and work. These reminiscences were eventually published as Autobiographical Reflections and later included in Volume 34 of the Collected Works. It was agreed that a stenographer would take down everything Voegelin said and that a tape recorder would be employed as a backup. Over a period of days Voegelin recalled the past. The tape recordings altogether run for about eleven hours and were subsequently used to check the accuracy of the stenographic record.

Last year the Eric Voegelin Institute made the recordings available to the public on its website. Because Voegelin was, in fact, dictating to a stenographer, his speech was slow and deliberate, with long pauses, and listening was difficult. We have cut out the long pauses, so that the rate of speech approximates normal conversation. This also has the effect of reducing the length of the recordings by about half. There are twenty-two recordings altogether and we will try to present them here on a regular basis.

Part 1: Vienna’s Intellectual Horizons

Ellis Sandoz introduces the recording. Occasionally one hears the stenographer ask for clarification and Voegelin then spells a word. Some of these have been omitted to maintain the flow of the presentation. Voegelin discusses his experiences at the University of Vienna in the 1920’s and the important scholars he was exposed to during this formative period in his life, among them being Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, Heinz Hartmann, Hans Kelsen and Othmar Spahn.

Part 2: Mises’ “Geistkreis,” Preparatory School, and Max Weber

Voegelin considers Ludwig von Mises and the (later-distinguished) group of students who met on a regular basis for a number of years. Then he describes his good fortune in having high caliber preparatory school teachers. Finally he offers some comments on Max Weber, whom he deeply admired.

Part 3: Voegelin’s Great Teachers

Voegelin describes his life work as restoring the rational order of existence to science. He sought to take up where Max Weber left off. The range of knowledge required in political science was established by Comte and exemplified by the great Eduard Meyer. Meyer also taught that history must be studied from the point of view of the participants in the historical action. Also considered are Alfred Weber on the sociology of culture, the Stefan George Kreis, Friedrich Gundolf; Paul Friedlander and Kurt Hildebrand on Plato; and Karl Kraus and his periodical, die Fackel.

Part 4: Karl Kraus and Hans Kelsen

Karl Kraus published a journal, Die Fackel, which described the corrupt language used in Germany, particularly by journalists. He wrote Die Letzte Tage der Menscheit about the lies told during World War I and Die Dritte Walpurgisnacht about the the Hitler regime. Voegelin believed one must study Kraus in order to be able to see the intellectual morass that made Hitler possible.

Hans Kelsen, together with Othmar Spann, supervised Voegelin’s doctoral thesis.  Kelsen was a great lawyer and in addition to developing his still persuasive “Pure Theory of Law,” he taught Voegelin how to read a text. Voegelin describes Othmar Spann as having a broader ranger and as having led him to classic thought.

Part 5: Nazi and Paris

Voegelin describes the political environment that made possible the Nazi occupation of Austria (Anshluss) in 1938 and his subsequent escape from the Gestapo into Switzerland and the difficulties people had in understanding his motives for leaving Austria. The topic then changes to the year he spent in Paris which enabled him to study French literature, poetry, memoires, law and philosophy. He has something to say about Gustav Flaubert, Mallarmé, Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, le Duc de la Rochefoucault and Henri Bergson. And along the way he learned Russian in Paris from White Russian émigrés.

Part 6: Oxford and Columbia

Voegelin discusses his shorter 1934 study in Paris where he became aware of the Mongol invasions and their influence on Machiavelli. He visits the Warburg Institue in London and there first learns about alchemy and astrology. Then he goes back a decade and discusses his time at Oxford in the early ’20s when he improved his English and heard Gilbert Murray lecture. He then briefly discusses his dissertation. He reviews his study with Dewey and Giddings during his year at Columbia University in New York and recalls the latter’s attempt to reduce community to biology.

The recollections turn to the corrupt intellectual. “The fun consists of gaining a pseudo-identity through asserting one’s power, optimally by killing someone, a pseudo identity as a substitute for the human self that has been lost.” He calls himself “a man who likes to keep his language clean.”

Part 7: Marx the Swindler

Voegelin turns to G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx. One must have a thorough philosophical and historical background to criticize Hegel. Marx is easier to expose. He deliberately misunderstands Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. “I flatly state that Marx was consciously an intellectual swindler.” Marx refused to enter into the etiological question of Aristotle that man does not exist out of himself but out of the divine ground of all reality.

Voegelin then considers his Political Religions of 1938, in which he used the term “religion” more loosely than later on. While still at the printers the entire edition was confiscated by the Nazis. Then he considers The Authoritarian State of 1936, a study of Austria’s 1934 civil war and its aftermath. This came before his refined distinctions between topoi and concepts in The New Science of Politics.

Part 8: Take the Hitler, Please!

Voegelin offers further comment on his The Authoritarian State of 1936 and how he sensed the Averroist impulse in the transfer of the medieval intellectus unus to the idea of “nation” or “race.” He notes how the book got him into trouble with Hans Kelsen who failed to recognize that a theory of law cannot be a substitute for a theory of politics. Further recollection of his escape from Vienna in 1938 brings out some “humorous” details, including the actions of the Gestapo man who searched through his office for incriminating books.

Part 9: Audio problems made it impossible to post Part 9. We will post it if we can fix it.

Part 10: Existential Representation

Voegelin discusses the period in his work, from 1945 to 1950, when he came to doubt the usefulness of a history of ideas and developed the concept of existential representation in his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago, in 1951, which later became The New Science of Politics. He then discusses his work on the problems of Gnosticism and his introduction to them through Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 1937 book, Prometheus. He notes that studies of Gnosticism date at least back to the work of Ferdinand Christian Baur’s Chistliche Gnosis of 1835. Voegelin’s noteworthy comment: “. . . Gnosticism and it is history [is] a vastly developed science and [the idea] of interpreting contemporary phenomena as Gnostic phenomena is not as original as it may look to the ignoramuses who have criticized me for it.” Finally he mentions other contributing factors that he later considered, including apocalyptic movements and Neo-platonism.

Part 11: Anamnesis

Voegelin now turns to the problem he encountered when trying to characterizie Isaiah in Israel and Revelation and the terminology of “metastatic faith.”  On this question he turned to Gerhard von Rad in Heidelberg. Next he considers the development of his philosophy of consciousness to refute the work of Husserl which depended on sense perception in the external world. He worked it out in the 1940s in the course of correspondence with his closest friend, Alfred Schütz.

The work is recounted in Anamnesis, which offered 20 brief childhood experiences, including the tale of the Monk of Heisterbach and the festival moments of watching passing steamers on the Rhine with their night parties, experiences which are not reducible to sense perception. He then considers the influence of Henry James and his radical empiricism.

Part 12: Alienation Explained

This is a short session but it covers a large question. Voegelin turns to the problem of alienation. He briefly mentions the disorder in Egypt in the 3rd Millenium B.C. and then moves to the Stoics  who originated the term “alienation,” as well as the later work by Plotinus. They defined alienation as the withdrawal from one’s own self as constituted by the tension to the divine ground of existence–the source of order and reason. Alienated existence leads to the construction of systems and the falsification of reality. Systems are characteristic of modernity and Hegel was an alienated man who constructed the greatest system. Systems inevitably lead to the death of God, not because God is dead, but because the divine reason has been rejected in the egophantic revolt.

Part 13: Order and History

Voegelin describes the breakdown of his projected History of Ideas. Among the problems were the fact that mythology and revelation were not “ideas.” He developed Order and History as the understanding of compact symbols and their differentiation through successive experiences, such as the “leap in being.” The doctrinal conversion of language symbols into concepts referring to no reality had become an empty game. He would have needed another 7 or 8 volumes to complete Order and History along the original plan, but the concurrent excellent work by modern scientists made it possible for him to turn to specialized studies which referred to their work to provide the empirical data.

Part 14: Teaching in Vienna and Munich

After a few remarks about unilinear history, the abstraction of “humanity,” and that Marx and Engles knew they were “talking impertinent nonsense,” he describes his early years tutoring and teaching to earn enough to continue in school. At one point he was asked  by colleague and chief socialist ideologist Max Adler to help him get arrested because important socialists had been arrested during the 1934 Austrian crisis and he wished to join them in jail. Voegelin tried to help but failed. Voegelin finally discusses his years in Munich from 1958 to 1969, in which he established his institute, stocked an excellent library and directed important monograph work by such then young scholars as Arabist Peter von Sievers.

Teaching 15: American Students vs. German Students

Voegelin continues discussing his years in Munich from 1958 to 1969, the important monograph work of other young scholars such as Klaus Vondung, Manfred Henningsen and Ellis Sandoz.  He then goes on to compare his American students with his German students. Later Voegelin goes on to consider the factors that led him to leave LSU and accept the appointment in Munich, including the urging of the scholar Alois Dempf. Finally he talks about the elimination of the great scholars as a result of the Nazis regime and their replacement by “mediocrities.”

Part 16: The Motivations for Voegelin’s Work

In one of the most penetrating sessions of the Reflections, Voegelin discusses the relationship of language to ideology and his living in a community where the language describes real experience. He talks about Bacon’s Novum Organum and its “Idols” of the cave, the market place, etc, and then how Solzhenitsyn borrowed “Idols” for his Cancer Ward. He briefly discusses the spiritual and intellectual breakouts from the environment by Orwell, Camus and Thomas Mann.

Brief consideration is given to Plato’s development of the concepts of opposition, such as philosopher vs. philodoxer and then he goes on to consider the sciences of intact experiences: classic philosophy, patristic and scholastic philosophy, Near East history, comparative religion, and paleolithic research. Brief attention is given to his own Neo-Kantian environment as a young man.

Part 17: The Prohibition of Questions

Voegelin shows how intellectual fraud works. Intellectuals construct a “second reality,” as described in the 20th century novels of Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer, whose characters live in a state of  alienation, who refuse to “apperceive” reality. The mass disorientation of our time, alienation, was recognized long ago by the stoics. They called it allotriosis. They understood mental disease to result from the turning away, the apostrophe, from the ground of being (God). Voegelin developed the idea of propositional metaphysics to describe the loss of contact with underlying experiences, and later the ideologies of the last four centuries. The latter are fake systems which exclude some essential part of reality, almost always involving a turning away from the ground towards a self which is imagined to be human without its relation to the Divine presence. In our time this has lead to secondary symptoms like the undisciplined expansion of the passions.

Parts 18 & 19: Highly Unpleasant and Murderous Processes

Voegelin discusses the probems of civilization and empire which led to his rethinking of the major units that make up history and led to his writing of The Ecumenic Age. He considers the shortcomings in Arnold Toynbee’s earlier work and lists as the three principle characteristics to be the spiritual outbursts (à la Jaspers), the concupiscential outbursts of the empires, and the development of historiography in which the destruction is weighed against the new understanding of existential order.

He notes that dominant ideologies in the U.S. will not last because the pressure of reality cannot be resisted forever. The exclusion of existential order from public consciousness will come to an end. Finally, he offers two predictions. The first is the collapse of the Soviet Union because of the tenacity of cultural ethnicity of non-Russian peoples in the face of cultral destruction.(This was 1973.) The other is a prediction that America will be transfored into a different society while absorbing its immigrant populations.

Part 20: When Consciousness Becomes Luminous

Voegelin turns to the fundamental problems of existence: the equivalences of experiences and the differentiation of understanding, recognized by Aristotle in his recourse to the myths of Uranos and Gaia. He then considers how new differentiations may lead to neglect of other areas, such as the model of knowledge through physics and the consequent neglect of the constituents of man’s humanity, or the Christian division of the sources of knowledge into natural reason and Revelation, neglecting the theophanic expereiences of classic philosophy. He describes the need for developing terminolgy to allow comparisons between the noetic theophany of a Plato and the pneumatic theophany of a Paul. He finally considers St. Thomas Aquinas and his recognition of Christ as the Head of all mankind from the creation of the world until the end.

Part 21: Modern Ideologists in the Media and the Academy

Voegelin considers the nominalism that sprang up in the wake of St. Thomas and the nominalist faith which is separated from experience and can no longer be controlled by recourse to experience. This since the 18th century is the form ideology takes in the modern intellectuals. He looks at Jean Bodin and Henri Bergson:.”These two French spiritualists are for me the representative figures for the understanding of order in times of signal disorder.” He later considers the insights of his friend, Raymond Aron, who wrote about the revolutionary antics of students in 1968.

He looks at American intellectuals in the media and the academy, who like the French and German intellectuals who influenced them, resent the success of the American revolution and try to install their dream worlds which lead only to destruction. Finally he warns about the power of mass media controlled by the intellectual establishment, and catalogs their distortions which affected the Vietnam War. He notes the destruction of academic culture and is concerned about trends that might damage the people’s contact with reality.

Part 22: Immortality

The tranquility of a mature philosopher is apparent in this final segment. Voegelin begins: “Nothing lasts forever, and also the present polarization will pass away.” He describes the then current (and still today) “huge force of aggressive intellectual dishonesty” in the centers of academic and public influence. Today we must contend with what Alfred North Whitehead called “the climate of opinion.”

He observes that the great discovery of classic philosophers was that man is not mortal, but a being engaged in a movment toward immortality. The same experience came through St. Paul and transformation through the Grace of God. But these discoveries injected a further tension into existence because not everyone is satisfied with organizing his life on the basis of a movement towards immortality, but instead prefers a shortcut–prefers certainty in this life.

A philosophy of history must understand that history is not a process within this world but a process between temporal existence and the beyond. There is no fixed definition of the nature of man and history has no constant structure; rather, nature becomes luminous through time and we remain in spatio-temporal existence as the viator, the wanderer, the pilgrim toward eschatological fulfillment, but still a wandered in this world.

At the very end, Ellis Sandoz tells us that the interviews are completed.

 

Back To Top