Voegelin and Heidegger as Critics of Modernity

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Unlike the word “modern,” which in common usage usually connotes progress and improvement over the past, “modernity” is a more abstract, less commonly used word that is often pejorative, suggesting the negative cultural underside of “progress.”  The  “culture war” in which the Western world is currently engaged is a contest between those who regard the modern age of secularism, scientism, and moral relativism as a great advance beyond the metaphysical darkness of the past and those who see modernity as a period of decline in which something essential has been lost.  The period since the sixteenth century that we call modernity has had quite a few critics, two of the most prominent in the twentieth century being Eric Voegelin and Martin Heidegger.  Although Voegelin and Heidegger were roughly contemporaries and shared some insights into the disorders of the modern world, their analyses are nonetheless substantially different.

Both grasped quite clearly the problems posed by the modern positivistic, scientistic, anti-metaphysical worldview and both sought to reawaken human awareness of a reality beyond the limitations of our senses.  But, although early in their careers both were strongly influenced by Husserl, they later moved away from Husserl and developed philosophies quite different from each other.  Voegelin was a political or social scientist whose constant search for understanding led him gradually to a theory of consciousness and the soul’s participation in the divine.  Heidegger, who eventually decided to call himself a thinker, rather than a philosopher or scientist, began his career as a Catholic theologian but ended up as an atheist (or at least agnostic) vates of “Being,” who wanted to replace not only modern positivism and scientism but also metaphysics itself with a kind of poetic meditation on Being, the ultimate hidden ground of all beings.

Although Voegelin and Heidegger were concerned with essentially the same questions and problems, the considerable differences between their philosophies became quite obvious in their starkly different reactions to Nazism. In 1933 Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and became the Rector of Freiburg University.  In 1938, just after the Anschluss, Voegelin was fired from his position at the University of Vienna and fled the country almost literally one step ahead of the Gestapo because he had written books criticizing the Nazi race theory.  There is a common attitude, attested to by the extent of Heidegger’s influence, that, although his Nazi affiliation was certainly deplorable, this really does not reflect on the significance of his thought, which many even consider quite compatible with Christianity.  But is it possible for a thinker whose thinking is truly sound and possesses intellectual honesty to be seduced by such a primitive, violent, and anti-intellectual ideology?  This is a question that will have to be addressed in order to evaluate Heidegger as a critic of modernity.

First we must consider in what sense each is a critic of modernity. Both Voegelin and Heidegger believed that modernity was a decline in the understanding of reality and that comprehending the problems of modernity required a return to philosophy’s origins among the ancient Greeks. There, however, the resemblance ceases, because Voegelin considered Plato the most important ancient philosopher and returned to him again and again as the source of inspiration, but Heidegger came to regard Plato’s philosophy as already a falling away from the primordial truth of Parmenides and Heraclitus into mere metaphysics. The loss of reality that both Voegelin and Heidegger found in modernity was interpreted by the latter as “homelessness.”  Near the beginning of his lengthy analysis of boredom (Langeweile—long while) in his 1929-30 lectures The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude Heidegger says, “This profound boredom is the fundamental attunement. . . .[E]specially in Alemannic usage, it is no accident that ‘to  have long time’ means the same  as ‘to be homesick’ . . . [P]hilosophizing, we heard somewhere, is supposed to be a homesickness.”[1]

Analyzing this homesickness as a feeling of emptiness, he diagnoses the prevailing mood in Germany as one of deep metaphysical boredom, a sense of uprootedness and homelessness[2] which is not a lost relationship with Transcendence, but an alienation from the essence of Being’s history.[3]  The search is for a return to “German Being” or “German culture,” the Fatherland. But there is more here than a desire for rootedness in one’s native soil.  Philosophically, as well as Germanically, Heidegger’s thinking expresses a homesickness for a lost Eden, a primordial time when Being unconcealed itself to man, when man lived in a complete, pre-rational, pre-conscious wholeness, before man fell away from Being into reasoning and metaphysics with its concentration on entities, their nature and their production.  He came to believe that the only salvation from the alienation of modernity is in a patient waiting for the next epiphany of Being, and the way to evoke this attitude of expectation is through the sort of mystical poetry written by Hölderlin, Rilke, and Trakl. Heidegger’s lifelong concern was to restore a home for man in an awareness of Being (das Sein), the mysterious something that manifested itself in the world of beings (Seiendes). Human beings as Da-sein are the “clearing” where Being can emerge from concealment into presence, presence, apparently to itself, since Da-sein is part of Sein.  This fundamental ontology, which Heidegger began to develop in his early works, is a stark challenge to the positivism of modernity, for Heidegger sought that ultimate Being beyond all appearances, yet yielding itself as the beings that appear. In the Letter on Humanism of 1947 he says that

“ homelessness . . . consists in the abandonment of Being by beings.  Homelessness is the symptom of oblivion of Being.  Because of it the truth of being remains unthought.  The oblivion of Being makes itself known indirectly through the fact that man always observes and handles only beings.”[4]

Although Heidegger frequently spoke of the gods or God as part of the whole and was fond of quoting Hölderlin’s line that “only a god can save us,” he did not identify Being, or even divinity, with God and, unlike Voegelin, showed no interest in the soul and its relation with the divine.[5]  These matters he relegated to theology, which he considered a positive science.[6]  In general Heidegger regarded Christianity, along with metaphysics, as responsible for the decline in the West from Parmenides to modern positivism. In one of his clearest statements he bluntly says in his 1924 lecture The Concept of Time, “Der Philosoph glaubt nicht,” that is, “The philosopher does not believe,” or, more freely translated, the philosopher is not concerned with God or eternity or the transcendent.  The philosopher, he says, is resolved “to understand time in terms of time,” and not time in relation to eternity.[7]

In order to demonstrate how far we have fallen from the primordial “truth” or unconcealment of Being, Heidegger attempted to recapture its spirit by subjecting traditional interpretations to a careful rethinking in the light of an exhaustive etymology of Greek and German.  Perhaps the most egregious example of this is in his analysis of the Anaximander fragment.  He begins by presenting the conventional translation:  “Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.” He then states that before this fragment can be more adequately translated into German it must first be translated into what is really being said in Greek, comparing a thoughtful translation of what is spoken in this fragment to “a leap over an abyss.”  After deciding that only the last part of the fragment is authentic and working his way through a great deal of complex etymologizing, he then winds up with the translation (as I have attempted to render it into English):  “along the lines of custom; for they let the fitting belong, consequently also appropriateness of one to the other (in the recovery from) the unfitting.”[8]  This has the Heideggerian virtue of being less intelligible, and Karl Löwith, for one, considers it a “violent interpretation of Anaximander” with which no classical philologist could agree.[9]

What does Heidegger mean by Being?  In an essay called “The Turning” Heidegger says that Being “is itself the placeless dwelling of all presencing,”[10] In the Letter on Humanism Being “is It itself.  The thinking that is to come must learn to experience that and to say it. ‘Being’—that is not God and not a cosmic ground.  Being is farther than all beings and is yet nearer to man than every being, be it a rock, a beast, a work of art, a machine, be it an angel or God.”[11]

Of course, this is still not very clear.  Being is neither an entity nor God.  In fact, God or the gods are simply entities, different ways in which Being may or may not reveal itself.  “Whether God lives or remains dead . . . is determined from and within the constellation of Being.”[12]  In 1927  Heidegger wrote that “faith . . . is in its innermost core the mortal enemy of . . . philosophy . . . Accordingly, there is no such thing as a Christian philosophy; that is an absolute “square circle’.”[13]  Yet Heidegger had his own faith in Being. Being reveals itself poetically, not rationally.  He once put this quite bluntly:  “Thinking begins only when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought.”[14]  Poetry was the true language handed over to Da-sein from Being (“Language is the house of Being”).  This is, for Heidegger a language liberated from grammar and filled with mystery rather than clarity.

Therefore, when it comes to the modern utilitarian, technological world Heidegger is less a critic than an observer.  In The Question Concerning Technology he says that “modern technology as an ordering revealing is…no merely human doing.” [15] The modern view that regards all beings as useful in the present or the future is merely the way in which Being both reveals and conceals itself in our time. This is a necessary, difficult period that we must go through, but also dangerous because technology is the ultimate distance from ontology, the inquiry into Being.  Nothing mysterious and poetic is left in the spiritual wasteland of the technological world.

The goal of Heidegger’s thinking and teaching was to make a new beginning, to reawaken in human beings the awareness of the mystery of Being which is Nothing because it is No-thing.  It is an ultimate, ungraspable, impersonal reality that has revealed itself to the few philosophers and poets who are the “heralds” of being.  Heidegger hoped that a god would save us by overcoming the emptiness and meaninglessness, the homelessness and anxiety of modernity, but whether or not a god appears is something we can only wait for in an attitude of Gelassenheit, or releasement.

Voegelin is starkly different.  Like Heidegger he also seeks to revitalize the experiences that gave rise to philosophy, but he has a radically different understanding of those experiences as noetic, that is, they involve the nous, the human faculty for entering into a relationship with divine transcendence.  In 1943 he wrote to Alfred Schütz that the philosopher of history had to explore his own consciousness for participating in the world of meaning.  This requires penetrating “every historical spiritual position” to the point “where it is deeply rooted in the experiences of transcendence of the thinker in question.”[16]  Throughout all his later work he followed the conviction that he arrived at while working on his two volumes on the race question, that “a political theory especially when it was to be applicable to the analysis of ideologies, had to be based on Classic and Christian philosophy,”[17] which had explored the experiences of transcendence.  For more than half a century Voegelin strove for increasing clarity, within a wider horizon of mystery, and he would say “Der Philosoph glaubt.”  Having a solid standpoint put Voegelin in a position to give quite a different critique of modernity and to provide a detailed explanation of what has gone wrong.

Voegelin’s philosophy gradually evolved into an understanding of the true nature of consciousness as the central issue, and, contra Husserl, it seemed to him that it was “ridiculous to pretend that there was nothing to consciousness but the consciousness of objects of the external world.”[18]  He developed a theory of the center of consciousness as “the experience of participation, meaning thereby the reality of being in contact with reality outside myself.” This reality includes all kinds of experiences, not only the spiritual, and they must be kept in balance in the soul.   Voegelin argued that the central experience is not in an isolated mind but in what Plato called the metaxy, the In-Between, and the most crucial In-Between experiences were those that involved response to the movements of divine presence.  These experiences are expressed in linguistic symbols that participate equally in divine and human reality and signify the “divine reality in its presence itself.”[19]

Consciousness is “the specifically human mode of participation in reality”[20] and the reality of this world is grounded in the divine ground of Being, so that  “there are no things that are merely immanent.”[21]  In other words, everything, not just human beings, is drawn toward the divine as much as it has material existence (an idea already clearly expressed in Plato’s Phaedo [74d-75b]) and the soul is the sensorium of transcendence.  There is nothing beyond God for Voegelin, and God is the source of all things that come to be.

In the In-Between man experiences his earthly existence as unrest and those who are most sensitive to the attraction to the ground of existence engage in searching for it.  “The ground is not a spatially distant thing but a divine presence that becomes manifest in the experience of unrest and the desire to know.”[22]  The divine subjectivity merges with human subjectivity and the human commitment to the search for our origins calls forth the divine presence, as the divine can move within the human soul and call forth a response, although the soul is also free to refuse and can demonically close itself against the divine presence.  It is this demonic rejection that Voegelin sees as the principal source of the pneumopathological disorders of modernity.  The public order has been de-spiritualized, Christian transcendental experience has atrophied, souls have closed themselves off from Christianity, and the state has become entirely secular, all of which has had a somewhat dehumanizing effect on human self-understanding.  The culmination of this process in the twentieth century has, of course, been the metaphysically and physically violent totalitarian ideologies that replace the tension toward a divine transcendent perfection with a tension toward an earthly future human perfection.

Voegelin’s mature diagnosis of the spiritual disorder produced by what he calls the “lust for massively possessive experience” can be found in the old type of thinking called gnosticism and the “second reality,” a much more recent term coined by the novelist Robert Musil, The core of gnosticism, which dates back at least two thousand years, is the sense of homelessness, “the experience of the world as an alien place into which man has strayed and from which he must find his way back home to the world of his origin.”[23]  Salvation from the prison of the world is through an alien or hidden God who sends messengers or heralds who show the way to escape.  In gnostic faiths “the aim is always in destruction of the old world and passage to the new.  The instrument of salvation is gnosis itself—knowledge.”[24]  But reality stubbornly remains reality, even though the gnostic thinker constructs the most elaborate theory of salvation and escape to a new, imaginary world.  The new world is the second reality which is intended to conceal the first, true reality on which it is forcefully imposed.  But like all attempts to live a lie, the result is enormous psychological stress and dislocation.

While Heidegger drifted off into poetry and Eastern philosophies that reject reason, Voegelin honed his reasoning powers to the sharpness of a scalpel.  Heidegger had a state of mind that, while rejecting reason as thinking, nonetheless was aware that human beings exist in tension toward something beyond the world of sense experience and human technological control.  But because he eliminated the depths of the soul he could not criticize modernity in terms of the extent to which it is caused by and has an effect on spiritual disorders, but only in terms of the mood of “sacred mourning” for the gods who have “died” and our own homelessness in a world it is our role to care for but in which nothing cares for us, who are merely “thrown” into existence.  His poetically enigmatic style of thinking is too dull an instrument for a substantive and truly enlightening critique of modernity.  Heidegger simply finds modern technology and positivism unfulfilling for us “whose hearing and seeing are perishing through radio and film under the rule of technology.”[25]

So, although both Voegelin and Heidegger reject the positivism of modernity and seek to return to a supersensuous world, their methods and goals are enormously different.  Heidegger longed for a primordial, mythic, impossible Arcadia in which Being would presence itself in its plenitude.[26]  He was unhappy with modernity because he could not find a place in it for the primordial and the simple peasant life.  Voegelin, on the other hand, believed that humanity has lost the awareness that fulfillment in the true order of existence comes only through the loving response to the constant movements of the divine reality in the In-Between.

Another important question to consider is why Heidegger (along with quite a few other German philosophers) joined the Nazi Party while Voegelin was declared persona non grata.  To a great extent, of course, this comes down to a difference of personalities or, more precisely, a difference of souls, but Voegelin was certainly aided by his years of study outside of Germany, in America and France, which enabled him to escape the insulated Germanic approach to philosophy and discover other philosophic traditions of which he had previously been unaware.  Commenting on his two years in America in the 1920s Voegelin says that America was a world:

“in which this other world in which I had grown up was intellectually, morally, and spiritually irrelevant.  That there should be such a plurality had a devastating effect on me.  The experience broke for good . . . my Central European or generally European provincialism without letting me fall into an American provincialism. . . . The immediate effect was that upon my return to Europe certain phenomena that were of the greatest importance in the intellectual and ideological context of Central Europe, for instance the work of Martin Heidegger, whose famous Sein und Zeit I read in 1928, no longer had any effect on me.  It just ran off, because I had been immunized against this whole context of philosophizing through my time in America and especially in Wisconsin.”[27]

Heidegger did not study outside of Germany, but instead spent six years as a high school seminarian, followed by a very short stay in a Jesuit novitiate.  In 1916 he began teaching Catholic philosophy at Freiburg University, and was considered a promising Catholic thinker, but early in 1919 he wrote a letter to a colleague in which he said that he wanted to be a philosopher unrestrained by outside influences and that the “system of Catholicism”, but not Christianity and metaphysics, had become problematic and unacceptable to him.[28]   This was the beginning of a lengthy process in which he became anti-Catholic, then anti-Christian, and ultimately anti-metaphysics. Yet, oddly enough, near the end of his life he said that he had never left the Church and was given a Catholic burial.  His philosophy, which has certain mystical qualities, is certainly a displaced form of religious thought, but a religion without God.  It is a pseudo-religion, as was National Socialism, and like the Nazis, Heidegger sought to mesmerize his audience.[29]

Was Heidegger really teaching his students to think or was he simply casting spells with oracular statements that sounded more profound than they really were?  He was not asking them to follow a rational argument any more than the Nazis did (since he rejected reason and regarded thinking as poetizing), but instead to follow him as he led them on a gradually disappearing path into the middle of a dark and misty wood.  With Heidegger there was more enigma than clarification.  Also, Heidegger apparently thought that as Rector of Freiburg University and the most prominent “thinker” in Germany he could be the “Führer” of Hitler, guiding him and the Nazi movement into the truth of Being.  In Nazism he saw salvation from the Bolsheviks and the Americans who represented socialist industrialism and capitalistic industrialism, respectively.  In June of 1933 Karl Jaspers described Heidegger as “like a man intoxicated, with something threatening emanating from him.” Presumably Heidegger thought that the saving god had arrived and that he himself would have a significant role in the salvation of Germany.  Jaspers also reports that in the same year Heidegger said “that he could not see why there had to be so many philosophy professors in Germany: two or three would be enough.”[30] Apparently he did not mention who the other one or two should be.

There is some disagreement among those who have investigated the matter regarding how long and how deeply Heidegger was committed to Nazism. After the war he remained essentially silent about his involvement and about the Holocaust.  He had certainly not given up on Nazism by 1935, as evidenced by the passage in The Introduction to Metaphysics, lectures given at the University of Freiburg in the summer of that year.  Near the end he says, “The works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of Nationalism Socialism but have nothing to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter between global technology and modern man)—have all been written by men fishing in the troubled waters of ‘values’ and ‘totalities’.”[31] .  Ultimately Heidegger became disillusioned, it seems, when the Nazis turned out to have their own interest in non-poetic industrialism and technology.

In short, while Voegelin had been inoculated against this sense of Germanic salvific mission (although I strongly suspect that he would have rejected Nazism even if he had not studied in America), Heidegger had precisely the sort of mentality and philosophy that could meld itself to the Nazis’ semi-mythical pseudo-mysticism.  Like the Nazis he rejected transcendence and thought of salvation in intramundane terms, and in the midst of the post-World War I German crisis he could see in the Nazis the coming revelation of Being because, for Heidegger whatever happens is essentially the work of Being.  According to Thomas Sheehan, “Heidegger put the blame (if we can call it that) for the tragedy of World War II and the Holocaust not on any individuals or political movement but on an impersonal planetary force, the Will to Power, which he thought lay beyond anyone’s responsibility or control.”[32]  The planetary force is simply the current presencing of Being.

Voegelin was eventually able to diagnose Nazism as one of the modern revolutionary gnostic movements, closed against transcendence and bent on achieving immanent perfection.  Heidegger was seeking a return to a lost earthly paradise but apparently never understood the spiritually destructive implications of this as clearly as Voegelin did.  Also, before 1938 Voegelin had already written two books on the development of the sort of racial theories that Nazism peddled.  While Voegelin was subjecting Nazi ideology to tough critical analysis Heidegger never subjected anything to this sort of analysis.  His analyses generally took the form of plodding meditations that often raised significant questions but led to no solid or clear conclusions.  The differences between Heidegger’s and Voegelin’s evaluations of Nazism are symptomatic of the significant differences in their evaluations of modernity and the validity of their basic assumptions about reality.  While Heidegger focussed on the ontological he overlooked the soul and transcendent divine reality.

The third question to be considered here arises from a remark made by Karl Löwith who, in his trenchant analysis of Heidegger (originally published in 1953), states that “genuine opponents, those who are not simply against Heidegger but rather could treat him as an adversary, can scarcely be found in the philosophical efforts of the most recent decades.”[33]  The question is whether Voegelin could be considered an adversary of Heidegger. First of all, they have some common ground.  Both reject propositional, dogmatic metaphysics and both seek to restore a true understanding of reality by a return to the original experiences.  Second, for Heidegger the modern technological age is dominated by the will to power over beings.

Similarly, Voegelin, while acknowledging that there is a core of rational and practical usefulness in the power of science, nonetheless believes that with the rapid scientific developments the core has become “a cancerous growth carried by the mass creed that the utilitarian dominion over nature through science should and will become the exclusive preoccupation of man as well as the exclusive determinant for the structure of society.”[34]   Voegelin expected that in retrospect the age of science would appear as “the greatest power orgy in the history of mankind” caused by “a gigantic outburst of magic imagination after the breakdown of the intellectual and spiritual form of medieval high civilization.”

Heidegger and Voegelin agree that the emphasis on man’s power over nature has been detrimental to other, more important considerations.  Heidegger objected to what he called “production metaphysics” because it was concerned exclusively with beings and with the human will dominating nature seen only as a collection of objects that can be used for human purposes, the “standing-reserve.”  He believed that producing things should be a more holistic and poetic act, a letting-things-be, as the sculptor allows the figure to emerge from the stone.  But Voegelin’s analysis is clearer in its ability to point to the spiritual sources and effects of positivism and the expectation that scientific and technological manipulation of nature will bring human fulfillment.  Heidegger can say little more than that technology is the way in which Being is currently presencing itself to us.

Moreover, Voegelin was definitely a critic of Heidegger, but since his longest discussion of Heidegger is little more than two pages it is necessary to piece together his analysis from scattered references, of which I shall mention three.

In Science, Politics & Gnosticism Voegelin says that a gnostic thinker is “the herald of being, which he interprets as approaching us from the future.”[35]  Marx and Nietzsche thought along these lines but did not work out all the consequences of this position.  “It remained for that ingenious gnostic of our own time, Martin Heidegger, to think the problem through, under the heading of fundamental ontology.”  He refers to some passages in Heidegger’s  Introduction to Metaphysics with the comment that “Heidegger’s speculation occupies a significant place in the history of Western gnosticism” because Heidegger, like the speculative gnostics of the nineteenth century, rejected all the insights of Hellenic philosophers, especially Plato.  In the place of the positivist and socialist imaginations of the future “Heidegger puts being itself, emptied of all content, to whose approaching power we must submit.  As a result of this refining process, the nature of gnostic speculation can now be understood as the symbolic expression of an anticipation of salvation in which the power of being replaces the power of God and the parousia of being, the Parousia of Christ.”[36]  In a backhanded sort of way Voegelin is acknowledging Heidegger as a master gnostic who has eminently, if unwittingly, succeeded in clarifying the nature of modern gnosticism.

In Voegelin’s 1964 lecture series on Hitler and the Germans he considers the semantic problems found in modern logic that arise in the conflicts between a first (true) and a second (false) reality.  He says that “if one amuses oneself with a second reality, then language too becomes part of second reality, and then these problems arise, which indeed are only semantic and are resolved as soon as one starts thinking.”[37] He gives the example of saying that someone is a liar, which clearly does not mean that every statement this person makes is a lie, but that he lies in certain socially relevant situations.  This is certainly the common-sense understanding of the judgment that someone is a liar.  However, if someone wants to misunderstand this judgment then we arrive at the logically paradoxical self-reference problem, such as the Cretan paradox, which takes the judgment to mean that the person always lies, even when he says that he lies.  This is a denial of reality that creates semantic problems that disappear as soon as reality is recognized.  He then applies this to Heidegger: the semantic problems “only arise if one does not think in relation to reality, but within language itself—briefly, if the situation that Heidegger formulates arises, that is, the situation in which ‘language speaks.’  Now it is certainly not Heidegger’s intention thus to characterize language as a second reality, but he has in fact done that.  That is to say, if language speaks, then…one is no longer thinking in relation to reality.”[38]

Near the end of Anamnesis Voegelin says that he has some, limited, sympathy with the anti-philosophical resentment of the ideologists because it was not directed against the classical, Platonic noesis, of which the ideologists were ignorant, “but against Thomas’s design of a propositional ‘metaphysics’ treating of universals, principles, and substances.  The ideological rebellion . . . was indeed strongly provoked.”[39]  He argues that modern philosophers who tried to restore metaphysics all failed because they did not return to the classic philosophers but took as their opponent the propositional metaphysics of the eighteenth century.  “Even Heidegger’s remarkable attempt, in his ‘fundamental philosophy,’ to regain for his feet the firm ground of the reality of knowledge, was heavily inhibited by his orientation to eighteenth century ‘metaphysics’ as his philosophical antagonist, as well as by the analytical inadequacy of his return to classical philosophy.”[40]

What conclusions can we derive from all this?  It certainly seems to be Voegelin’s judgment that Heidegger is more a part of the problems of modernity than a valid critic of them.  Voegelin is not without a certain sympathy for Heidegger as someone who inherited a deformed tradition that he made a valiant but failed attempt to correct, but he is very clear that Heidegger ended up as another modern gnostic and creator of a second reality.  As Voegelin puts it, “the structure of the spirit cannot be abolished through a revolt against the spirit.  The revolt itself must assume the structure of the spirit.”[41]   So, as a modern gnostic living in a second reality Heidegger’s thinking still has the same basic structure of homelessness, longing, and searching for what we lack, of a fall and the need for salvation, and participation in something greater than the merely human.  But what is missing, or rather displaced, in Heidegger is love for the transcendent divine and the structure of the soul as it exists in the In-Between.

Does this make Voegelin an adversary of Heidegger?  Clearly Voegelin has understood Heidegger far better than the mesmerized disciples and the positivists (and probably better than Heidegger himself), and he finds in him the worst deformations of reality, of which he was certainly an adversary.  On the other hand, Voegelin has so little to say about Heidegger that he apparently thought him important only because his writings helped to clarify the nature of modern gnosticism.  Voegelin is not the anti-Heidegger, but he was definitely an adversary of Heidegger’s type of thinking.

Heidegger set out to be an original thinker, claiming in effect that only he has clearly understood what is really going on, although some of the early Greek philosophers supposedly had primordial glimmerings of the truth.  In contrast, Voegelin, who never sought or desired to be known as an “original” thinker, dissects modernity thinker by thinker, problem by problem, error by error, while also pointing out the correct insights and significant achievements, on the assumption that the truth of existence was understood and articulated in varying degrees of accuracy by a number of thinkers long before him.  Whether or not one agrees with all of his arguments and judgments, Voegelin was certainly a very tough-minded thinker who, in contrast to Heidegger, achieved clarity and significance and is definitely not part of “modernity.”

Therefore, with respect to their relative merits as critics of modernity, Voegelin  incisively analyzed it and clearly explained Heidegger as someone who grappled with a difficult problem and came up with a structurally deformed answer, but Heidegger could only have relegated Voegelin to the non-thinkers who have lost the true understanding of Being.



[1] Tr. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington and Indianapolis, University of Indiana Press, 1995), 80.

[2] See Michael Zimmerman’s excellent study, Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990),  23.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism” in Basic Writings, Revised & Expanded Edition, ed. David Farrell Krell (HarperSan Francisco, 1993), 241.

[4] Heidegger, Basic Writings, 242-43.

[5] Zimmerman, 171.

[6] Martin Heidegger, “Phenomenology and Theology,” in Martin Heidegger: Pathmarks, ed. By William McNeill (Cambfidge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 40-54.

[7] Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time, tr. William McNeill (English-German Edition).  (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 1 (1E) and 14 (14E).

[8] “. . . entlang dem Brauch; gehören nämlich lassen sie Fug somit auch Ruch eines dem anderen (in Verwinden) des Un-Fugs.”  The particular difficulty here is with the word Ruch.  Heidegger himself admits “Wir wissen gar nicht mehr, was Ruch bedeutet.”  In contemporary German it seems to be used only to mean a [bad] reputation.  However, Heidegger connects it with the Middle High German word ruoche meaning solicitude or care, which to him means caring for something so that it remains in its essence.  On this basis he somehow he transforms Ruch into the German translation of τίσις which, when combined with the verb δούναι, as it is in the Anaximander fragment, means to suffer punishment.  I have translated Ruch as “appropriateness” in an attempt to convey his meaning of ruoche as well as some of the meaning of the Greek.  One German expert I consulted pronounced Heidegger’s “translation” “unintelligible gibberish.”

[9] Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, ed. Richard Wolin, tr, Gary Steiner (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 43.  As Löwith comments, if someone asked Heidegger if his sort of explanation makes the matter clearer he would answer, “No, nothing is clear; but everything is significant!”  (41).

[10] In Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, tr. By William Lovitt (New York:  Harper Torchbooks, 1977),  43.

[11] Heidegger, Basic Writings, 234.

[12] Quoted in John Macquarrie, Heidegger and Christianity, (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), 107.

[13] In Pathmarks, 53.

[14] “The Word of Nietzsche,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, 112.

[15] “The Question Concerning Technology”, 19.

[16] Quoted in Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science, by Barry Cooper. University of Missouri Press. 1999, 197.

[17] Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, ed. By Ellis Sandoz.  Louisiana State University Press.  1993, 38.

[18] Autobiographical Reflections, p. 70.  Voegelin, nonetheless, had great respect for Husserl’s achievement.

[19] Ibid., 72, 74.

[20] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, tr. and ed. by Gerhart Niemeyer, University of Notre Dame Press. 1978, 4.

[21] Anamnesis, p. 78.  By “being” Voegelin understands the term that replaces cosmos as the name for the context of order containing all experienced complexes of reality (135).

[22] Anamnesis, p. 95.

[23] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics & Gnosticism, Henry Regnery Company, Gateway Edition.  1968, 9.

[24] Ibid.,11.

[25] “The Turning” in The Question Concerning Technology, 48

[26] “The Word of Nietzsche: “God is Dead” in The Question Concerning Technology, 109.

[27] Autobiographical Reflections, pp. 32-33. In Wisconsin he had acquired an interest in American government as the core for understanding American political culture.

[28] See “Reading a Life: Heidegger and Hard Times” by Thomas Sheehan in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, 71-72.

[29] There are a number of comments on the spellbinding effect that Heidegger had on his students, such as those of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Hannah Arendt (See Dallmayr, The Other Heidegger, 133)   For a dissenting voice here, see Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, 4.

[30] Quoted in Jeff Collins, Heidegger and the Nazis.  Cambridge and New York.  Totem Books, 2000, 26.

 [31] Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, tr. By Ralph Manheim. Yale University Press.  1959, 199.

[32] Sheehan in The Cambridge Companion, 314.

[33] Löwith, 35.

[34] History of Political Ideas, VI, 207.

[35] Science, Politics and Gnosticism, 45-46.

[36] Ibid., 47-48.

[37] Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans, tr. and ed. by Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell, in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 31.  University of Missouri Press.  1999, pp. 249.

[38] Ibid., p. 250.

[39] Ibid., p. 194.

[40] Ibid., p. 194.

[41] History of Political Ideas, VI, p. 113.


This article was originally published in Modern Age: A Quarterly Review 43.2 (2001): 118-27.

Michael Henry

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Michael Henry is a Board Member of VoegelinView, Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York, and was editor of The Library of Conservative Thought series at Transaction Publishers (1998-2016). His latest book is The Loss and Recovery of Truth: Selected Writings of Gerhart Niemeyer (St. Augustine's, 2013).