skip to Main Content

Voegelin Today

Voegelin Today

The goal of this volume is to demonstrate the relevance of Eric Voegelin’s works from the 1950’s and early 1960’s to the political atmosphere of the early twenty-first century. The contributors to this volume argue that this relevance should be taken seriously; the thesis is collectively produced that Voegelin’s writings from this time are particularly adept at diagnosing and offering therapeutic insights into ideologically charged political circumstances. We believe that today’s political environment may be described as especially ideologically charged. Despite Voegelin’s adeptness in this area, the problems which he understood very well continue to plague humanity today. For this reason, we hope that this volume will, in some modest measure, help those who wish to understand the ideologically hostile atmosphere which has characterized Western civilization for some time now.

The twelve year stretch spanning from the publication of The New Science of Politics (1952) to the delivery of the lectures which would be published as Hitler and the Germans (1964) marked a period in Voegelin’s career in which he grappled with the radical ideological movements of twentieth century Europe, Nazism and Communism. Voegelin’s analyses continue to represent a uniquely powerful diagnosis of the spiritual maladies of a century hall-marked by genocidal death camps, on one hand, and amazing technological progress, on the other. Throughout his voluminous works from this time, Voegelin repeatedly argues that the true problem with modernity lay in the closure of the soul to the classical and Christian ideals of higher and objective truths; placing the ground of truth instead on the desires pursued by individuals in our immanent experience. The product of this closure has been the frequent manifestation of revolutionary movements that aspire to fulfill their ideological proclivities, eventually revealing that they will pursue their ideological goals at any toll to truth or to human lives. Certain particular measures are taken by these ideological groups, because they share the basic goal of altering the human experience. Voegelin’s ability to characterize and categorize the spiritual deficiencies of modern political ideas which indulge in this desire to alter reality is unsurpassed in the political commentary of the twentieth century and remains applicable to the ideas and ideologues of today. A few words of introduction to Voegelin’s biography and to the critical philosophical ideas that he presented during this time span will be useful to those who are trying to understand Voegelin’s political philosophy or the political environment of the early twenty-first century. Indeed, anyone seeking knowledge about the latter may learn much from the former.

In 1952, Voegelin was an accomplished scholar, and a faculty member of Louisiana State University’s Department of Political Science. He had already experienced, witnessed, and written much. Born in Germany in 1901, he was educated at the University of Vienna (a classmate of Hayek), and taught there until the German annexation in 1938.  He was subsequently fired for his political views and fled Gestapo soldiers by fleeing overnight into Switzerland and eventually to the United States. He joined the faculty at LSU in 1942 and remained until 1958, when he filled Max Weber’s former chair (left vacant since his death in 1920) at the University of Munich. Three of Voegelin’s most powerful critiques of the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century appeared first in lecture form during this time span: The New Science of Politics (1952), Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1960), and Hitler and the Germans (1964). Though these works are cited throughout this volume, we have scrutinized a number of lesser-known essays and lectures in which Voegelin expanded on his theories of modernity as presented in the above works. These essays and lectures are compiled in the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volumes 10 and 11. This approach has allowed us to better apply Voegelin’s thought to issues which are more deeply developed in these other works and of some importance today, such as liberalism and scientism.

Voegelin’s work from this era contains two consistent themes that are readily applicable to the 21st century and evident throughout this volume. The first theme that appears regularly in this volume is the closure of the soul of the modern ideologue to the life of reason. Voegelin deals with this issue at numerous places within the essays reviewed in this volume. “In Search of the Ground” (Collected Works, Volume 11) explains the basic features of the life of reason. The reasonable life is one guided by Logos or Nous-reason in the classical sense. This life consists in contemplating about the nature of existing things and of acting in accordance with those contemplations and within the limits circumscribed by the nature of things. Voegelin wrote of this reason as “an experienced reality of a transcendent nature which one lives in a tension.”[1]  The Platonic periagoge or Pauline formula of love, hope, and faith are both historically powerful articulations of the “ground” of reason in western civilization (CW 11, 230).  He put like this:

“It all comes back to the question: what is that ultimate purpose toward which we are rationally oriented? This leads us to the question of the nature of man, and to the answer that his nature differentially, as against all other creatures, is openness toward the ground. That is reason: openness toward the ground” (CW 11, 232).

Voegelin explains that such openness facilitates the only true type of community. Reason is cultivated in the individual through a sort of “respect for the organ in himself by which he is aware of and desires for a life toward the ground” (CW 11, 230). That organ is the “intellectual self,” “noetic self,” or “the divineness, the divine part, in man” (CW 11, 230). Reason is cultivated by that faculty which grasps that by tapping into the order of things, one may fare well. This understanding is fomented by a sincere love of self whose nature means a love of others as well: “since every man participates in love of the transcendent Being and is aware of such a ground-Ground, Reason, or Nous-out of which he exists, every man can, by virtue of this noetic self, have love for other men” (CW 11, 230-1). This reasonability is of considerable importance in the formation of political communities: “community in the nous, carried by that noetic self, is for Aristotle the basic political virtue, the philia politike [political friendship] because only if the community is based on that love in the noetic self will it have order” (CW 11, 231-2).

Voegelin describes the ideological problems of his time as originating in the closure of the modern soul to a transcendent source of order:

“What has happened to the transcendent ground . . . ?  It has become, let us say, immanentized. We still have, of course, the quest of the ground; we want to know where things come from. But since God [in revelatory language] or transcendent divine Being [in philosophical language] is prohibited for agnostics, they must put their ground elsewhere. And now we can see, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, in the Enlightenment, a whole series of misplacements of the ground. The transcendent ground is placed somewhere in an immanent hierarchy of being . . . The eighteenth century has been called “the Age of Reason” because human, not divine, reason is considered to be the ultimate measure and ground of all actions and everything within the world. This human reason, however, is empty of content. A transcendent Reason, the tension toward transcendence, gives you a criterion, because if you are oriented in your action toward transcendence and see that “here is the nature of man,” then obviously certain things are impossible. If the nature of man is to be found in his openness toward a divine Ground, you cannot at the same time see the nature of man in having certain kinds of passions or in having a certain race or pigmentation or something like that.  It is in the openness to the ground; there is a content in it” (CW 11, 234-5).

The second theme that appears regularly in this volume is the ideological nature of the political ideas that developed into mass movements during Voegelin’s life. To be sure, this theme is a symptom of the first. Voegelin enumerated the important elements of ideology in “In Search for the Ground.” He included, “the misplacement of the ground within an immanent hierarchy of being,” “knowledge of the recipe for bringing about the more perfect realm,” “immanentization,” and “an apocalyptic element” (CW 11, 244, 236). One may summarize the sum of these characteristics as a political movement which claims to know how to improve the world through some specific change (which is the substance of the ideology), and which moves toward that change despite philosophical or practical obstacles. This certainty of knowledge is tied to the closure of the soul to the ground; for openness toward the ground precludes such certain knowledge of the future. Importantly, ideologies share these basic features even if they are substantially distinct. Indeed, these elements are readily identifiable in various specific ideologies; Voegelin often focused on National Socialism and communism. Today, these elements are identifiable in the modern liberal movement, as several chapters will argue herein. Voegelin, therefore, helps us to move beyond the obvious differences between liberalism and twentieth century totalitarianism. Some of these differences do suggest that the ideology of today is much less worrisome than the ideologies of the twentieth century; for instance, the value for individual life in liberalism versus the totalitarian use of individuals. But few were worried about the death camps before they were built. A Voegelinian view into ideologies, therefore, provides a warning concerning the ideological character of contemporary liberalism, even if the substance of the movement today appears salutary to many. Many said the same of both National Socialism and communism in the early twentieth century.

The questions which occupied Voegelin’s scholarship were generally tied to the political situation of his time. It is reasonable to ask if his thought has anything to offer today. Although much today appears to be different from the political circumstances of the 1950’s and 1960’s, there is a fundamental similarity between that time and our own, and therefore much that Voegelin’s thought can teach us today. We continue to deal with mass political movements and with questions of nationality that result when a mass movement becomes internationally successful. Voegelin’s writings from this era grapple with the construction of supranational political movements and political institutions both before and after World War II. Today, we are dealing with the nationalist political movements and the potential break-down of the supranational institutions that were thrown together in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Voegelin’s writings grapple with the problem of racial genocide. Today, we are dealing with radical issues of race, gender, and sexuality that derive from the desire to include all identity groups in society. The ideological radicalism of the twenty-first century is not all that different from that of the twentieth, though the application of that ideology to practical issues is essentially opposite from the twentieth century. The basic motivation of fanaticism-immanentization-remains today, but in a subtler form and directed at different ends than Voegelin witnessed in his lifetime. Put a little differently, though communism and National Socialism are essentially fringe movements in the West today, many Western liberals today act in ways that share a fundamental ideological character with communists and national socialists of yesteryear.

The confederation of European states (which has evolved into the European Union), for instance, was constructed in the early 1950’s to better prepare the smaller European states to compete geo-politically with the much larger United States and Soviet Union. The cosmopolitan philosophical trends belying the communist and national socialist movements had not dissipated in Europe despite the recent historical evidence of failure but were rather tapped into by cosmopolitan liberalism in the wake of the deaths of communism and National Socialism. It was the persistence in Germany of ideological behavior which had inspired Voegelin to return to Europe to attempt to help develop a political atmosphere which might remediate the ideological fanaticism. Indeed, Voegelin laments in “Freedom and Responsibility in Economy and Democracy” the continuation of ideologically derived world-views in Europe in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He had hoped to spread American-style civics, religion, and rationality to a Germany that remained awash in existentialist philosophy and secular motivations and was struggling to recover from their world war era behavior.

Today, the forces of ideologically inspired mass movements remain strong. Although the supranational institutions of the post-war Era are beginning face resistance, the ideological fanaticism which Voegelin had noticed and worked to alleviate in his own life continue unabated in Europe and have also now contaminated America. The first twenty years of the twenty first century have witnessed, along these lines, not the attenuation of racial tensions in America but the expansion of them. Civil rights issues, women’s rights issues and sexual rights issues have all seen tremendous improvement since the 1950s, yet the call to arms by ideological activists is louder today than then. There is no end in sight to the progressive movement. We have also witnessed the mass immigration into Europe and America of Middle Easterners, despite the warning that cultural differences would lead to trouble. This bespoke an ideologically engrained cosmopolitanism that outweighed the ability to entertain common sense criticism. Some of these immigrants, inspired by the mutually exclusive ideological goal of building a world-wide Islamic caliphate, undertook massive sprees of violence upon civilian gathering places. With these historical developments, the international cosmopolitan movement became frustrated by the emergence of nationalist movements throughout the Western world.

This has predictably intensified ideological squabbling by cosmopolitan activists. Although excellent defenses of nationalism along the lines of meaningful community as described above would bear fruit, and although analyses of nationalism as a rational alternative to cosmopolitanism have been recently penned (i.e., Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism), such views must deal with a new face of ideological liberalism.[2] Fanatical responses from within Western civilization to any idea of nationalism are today common. For instance: “Muslims were viciously stereotyped . . .There was also an attempt to rehabilitate the dark forces that had plunged Europe into world war.”[3] The inflammatory manner in which opposing viewpoints are cast within the West today suggests that we have more in common with radical Islam or with twentieth century totalitarians than we recognize.

The complex of issues mentioned above shares the trait that each issue contains actors who behave in a way that is reminiscent to the behaviors characterized as ideological by Voegelin in his writings from 1950-1965. The essays in this volume focus on the themes and issues highlighted above, though often discuss other relevant subject matter that would have been tangential to these introductory remarks. The essays are generally organized into two categories: commentary on liberalism and related issues, and commentary on geo-politics in some capacity. Many of the contributors to this volume address the problems of radical liberalism in some fashion or another.  David Corey organizes the evolving nature of liberalism and highlights its ideological character; I attempt to explain, through a Voegelinian framework, how political behavior in America today is more ideologically extreme than when Voegelin wrote; David Whitney demonstrates the ideological nature of modern science by building upon Voegelin’s work from Volume 10 of The Collected Works; and Grant Havers applies Voegelin’s analysis of the Oxford Political Philosophers to the work of Rawls.

The amount of ink contributed within this volume to dealing with the ideological problems within Western civilization is easily identifiable evidence of the concern expressed within this volume over the direction of Western civilization. In the collection of essays which focus on geo-politics, Lee Trepanier explains how Voegelin’s remarks on the soul and rationality could provide a deeper and more meaningful organization to comparative politics than obtains today; Scott Segrest applies the problems of the closure of the soul to explain the ideological nature of radical Islam; Christopher Morrissey discusses the question of world-empire; and Nathan Harter discusses the general pattern of world history.

Voegelin saw the need for a resurgence of the type of Aristotelian and Christian thought which had placed weight on common-sense rationality (on openness to the ground) in the formation of political communities. Each of the essays presented in this volume argues or implies that in the twenty first century this need remains. Perhaps, however, patience is a virtue.   With the following quote, I hope that the material presented herein deepens your curiosity for and understanding of the politics and culture of the early twenty first century; a transitional time in world history that is perhaps poorly grasped in our time:

Now for the phenomenon of exhaustion. In a sense, ideologies are criticized to pieces.  We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it: Ideologies are finished . . .  The symptoms show that after this generation nobody can be an ideologist if he is intelligent to any degree or a man of any stature. That one can say with certainty, but again I must warn: no optimism with regard to the actual power of ideologies. Things go on in China and elsewhere just as they did in the past, and they will go on for a long while.[1]

 

Notes

[1] Voegelin, Collected Works Volume 11, 238.

[1] Eric Voegelin, Published Essays 1953-1965 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 11), Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 229. Hereafter CW 11.

[2] Yarom Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

[3] John B. Judis, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization (New York: Colombia Global Reports, 2018), 97.

 

This is from Eric Voegelin Today: Voegelin’s Political Thought for the 21st CenturyAlso available are Scott Robinson’s “The Necessity of Moral Communication in a Pluralistic Political Environment,” Grant Havers’ “Voegelin, Rawls, and the Persistence of Liberal Civil Theology,” Nathan Harter’s “Eric Voegelin’s 1944 ‘Political Theory and the Pattern of General History’: An Account from the Biography of a Philosophizing Consciousness,” and Lee Trepanier’s “The Comparative Politics of Eric Voegelin.” Our review of the book is available here.

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView, Assistant Professor of Government and Assistant Director of the Center for Law and Liberty at Houston Baptist University. He is currently working on a book on John Locke’s political rhetoric and its long-term impact on American political thought.

Back To Top