Eric Voegelin (1901-85) is often portrayed as one of the severest critics of modernity–its belief in human reason’s ability to understand and convey the fundamental structures of reality and its dismissal of transcendent teleologies as private and suspect beliefs. For Voegelin, modernity was a “Gnostic revolt” against reality: the belief that human beings can transform the nature of reality through secret knowledge and social action. According to Voegelin, Gnosticism had three primary features: a strong feeling of alienation stemming from a sense that some essential aspect of one’s own humanity remains unfulfilled, a revolt against the conditions in the world that purportedly caused this alienation, and a belief in that esoteric knowledge and political will is sufficient to overcome these conditions. In short Gnosticism is the belief that human beings have the power to transform both themselves and reality into some sort of magical utopia.
However, this portrayal of Voegelin is incomplete. In Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition, Steven F. McGuire and I have gathered a group of scholars who contend that Voegelin’s relationship with modernity and its thinkers is more ambiguous than initially described. Although it cannot be denied that Voegelin was highly critical of modern philosophy, he also praised many philosophers in the modern continental tradition. He refers to Kant’s philosophy as a brilliant development; Schelling’s philosophy as one of the most profound ever; and Hegel’s philosophy as a rediscovery of the experiential sources of symbolization. Such statements of praise may be rare, but they cannot be discounted.
Not every relevant thinker is included in this volume, but there are comparisons with Voegelin’s philosophy to Kant and neo-Kantianism, Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Strauss, Kojève, and Derrida. Although Voegelin himself worked at a distance from the continental tradition, his philosophy is nevertheless a part of it insofar as he both studied the thinkers normally associated with this tradition and grappled with many of the same philosophical problems that they did. This volume attemps to demonstrate that Voegelin made an important contribution to the philosophical conversation of modernity, all of which is not negative, and can provide a helpful approach to some of the most important questions that we face today.
To overcome the problems of modernity we must work through it. That is, we cannot romantically go back to some pre-modern view of the world; instead, we must somehow reconcile what has been lost in modernity with what has been gained. We must be willing to take the achievements of modern philosophers while casting aside their errors. Voegelin did not reject modern philosophy entirely; there still remains a need to explore Voegelin’s own project in a different light than often portrayed.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative, October 14, 2013.