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The Life of Eric Voegelin: An Entertainment for the Soul

The Life Of Eric Voegelin: An Entertainment For The Soul

Voegelin Recollected: Conversations on a Life. Barry Cooper and Jodi Bruhn, eds. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2008.


Conversations is a telling account of the life of Eric Voegelin, who was and remains one of the most intriguing and illuminating thinkers of the twentieth century. Barry Cooper and Jodi Bruhn certainly understate their accomplishment when they say the book is a collection of conversations. The authors have given the reader an exquisitely rendered life of Professor Voegelin through the crafted use of hours of interviews with former students, colleagues, and friends in Europe and the United States. In fact, the account of Voegelin we have here offers more detail and drama than any existing intellectual biography to date.

Lissy Voegelin must receive special mention here. She is the constant in a constellation of scholars and associates. For more than fifty years, she and Professor Voegelin led their lives together. It is, therefore, a special gift and even privilege for the authors to have captured Lissy Voegelin’s remembrances of the places and people in their life. Lissy was interviewed less than a year before her death. In fact, it is our good fortune that so many of the significant people in Professor Voegelin’s life were interviewed while there was still time. The hows and whens and wheres of the interviews must be a story in itself. What remains utterly astounding to me is the incredible deftness with which the authors have created the story. As Michael Naumann reminds us late in the volume: “The philosophical core of Voegelin’s thinking was anamnesis, remembrance, and the role of consciousness in remembrance.” (276) And in that spirit Conversations unfolds in a looking back toward the future.

The book has six core chapters along with an introduction and an epilogue. In counterclockwise fashion, the authors start the journey at its end, in Palo Alto, California, where Professor Voegelin was a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution. The Voegelins came to live in Palo Alto in 1974 and stayed there for the last decades of their lives, Eric dying in 1985, Lissy in 1996.  By this time in his career, Eric Voegelin had become well-known and had many admirers and friends who visited him. Palo Alto speaks of a period of subtly diminished friendships. And as always there are the personal interchanges like Glenn Hughes’ recollection of being told “Your question doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” (33) an experience not unlike what others will remember.

Yet there are also the moments that set you wondering how to measure the person you thought you knew. Professor Voegelin had in his backyard a Zen garden of sorts. Yes, a Zen garden! What a quizzical reminder of who he was. Alessandra Lippucci sums it up best: “like an organic metaphor for progress of some kind–you know, about how long it takes to make progress and we have to be patient.” (56)

The second stage of the journey is Eric Voegelin’s return to Germany in 1958 to assume the post of Professor at the University of Munich. It was a period of much struggle, filled with hope and expectation. But as so often is the case, much promise frequently brings great disappointment. Seemingly the time in Munich was professionally fulfilling from the aspect of daily routine and association, yet as Hans Maier makes clear (101), Professor Voegelin could be “blunt.” Whether it was this personality quirk or perhaps that he was too American for the German, things did not go as hoped. Quite the opposite of what Voegelin had told Ellis Sandoz on his departure from Baton Rouge, the situation was anything but “permanent.” (10) For all the good will and fondness, and aside from the mean-spiritedness of some, the hopes for a successful venture were dashed, and the Voegelins came back home to the United States.

It must be remembered, as Sandoz tells us, that Professor Voegelin never cut his ties with the United States. (101) Voegelin had been a naturalized citizen since 1944 and was required to return to the States periodically to maintain his citizenship. Moreover, during these years, he regularly taught classes at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The Notre Dame visits form the next chapter in the story. (I am pleased to acknowledge that I am one of those who was interviewed for the volume–although my part in the drama is small.)

The circumstances of these teaching semesters underscore the remarkable resilience of Voegelin’s appeal to the serious students. While undergraduates were not always aware of his importance, the graduate students anticipated his arrival. In some sense it was always more than a routine teaching assignment, it was a royal visitation. The intellectual life of Notre Dame grew with Voegelin’s presence. He commanded people’s attention. Of course some will disagree, but it is my impression that he won over the hearts of the Notre Dame community.

Chapter five of Conversations, “Baton Rouge”–perhaps the richest episode of the entire book–takes the reader back to the United States in the late 1930s and ’40s. Here there is a turnaround that is not a return, but a new beginning. Lissy and Eric Voegelin immigrated to the United States in 1938 in the wake of unrest in Austria and, after a few brief stops elsewhere, found a comfortable home at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 1942. For me the book’s great disclosure occurs here. You realize the narrative of the book has had you traveling in circles of time and the return to the United States is not a return but a beginning–a remembrance of time to come. T. S. Eliot said it best:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(Four Quartets, Little Gidding, V.)

The time in Baton Rouge echoes all the other chapters. The discussions of how Professor Voegelin taught, how the students responded, his interaction with colleagues and staff recur. The concerns about his reception in the scholarly community are repeated. But what we hear are the voices of those who have said the same in Palo Alto, Munich, and Notre Dame, and we know so much more than before.

The book’s last chapter is a brief overview of the personal lives of the Voegelins in Vienna before their escape. Painful as that period was, with its threat of the Nazi takeover of Austria, family troubles, and the disagreeable relations between Eric and Lissy’s families, there is an odd sense of closure to the goings-on in the crumbling Vienna of those days. It was not an easy time. But the outcome testifies to the quiet courage of Eric and Lissy, best captured in their silence and determination to survive.

The authors conclude with an epilogue, “Enigma: Variations.” At this point in our explorations it must come as no surprise that Professor Voegelin was a complicated person. Like the Zen garden he liked so much, it took patience to appreciate him fully. Whether he was the puzzle we never could work out or the one person we had met in our lives who had come closer than any of us to solving the puzzle, Professor Voegelin was, as Michael Hereth says, “morally intact.” (64) Though you may have thought he had hurt your feelings, you knew he would never offend your moral sensibilities. He was the epitome of Cardinal Newman’s gentleman.

I recommend Conversations without reservation. The artistry with which Barry Cooper and Jodi Bruhn have given us a look into the life of this truly remarkable man will astound the reader. This is an entertainment for the soul.

Dennis Wm. MoranDennis Wm. Moran

Dennis Wm. Moran

Dennis William Moran (1943-2018) was the Managing Editor of The Review of Politics for nearly 40 years. He received his Ph.D. in Literature at the University of Notre Dame.

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