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What is “The Good Society?” Voegelin at Rheinfelden

What Is “The Good Society?” Voegelin At Rheinfelden

ERIC VOEGELIN: I would like to raise one problem as briefly as possible, the one I consider most essential, namely, the organization of a “good society” for the “good life.”

This is an extremely delicate matter, a very difficult speculation for many reasons, which I shall try to explain. The difficulty lies in the fact that today there is no common accord as to what constitutes a good society and a good life, and the classic definitions are such that they would not be readily accepted today.

Still, it will be necessary for me to go back to these classic definitions and use them at least as a point of departure, because they offer important insights into the meaning of the terms good society and good life.

What I liked most about Mr. Aron’s paper was his insistence on the fact that for a society to be well ruled from any standpoint it must defer to the process of reasonable debate. One might say that this is the cornerstone of Western belief in constitutional government–government through reason. What then are the con­ditions for reasonable debate?

I would like to begin with a remark Einstein made about phys­ics. One day Einstein remarked that the only unintelligible thing in the universe is its intelligibility.

This admirably describes the problems of physics and the natural sciences in general, but espe­cially physics. In the social sciences, and more especially in polit­ical science, we find ourselves in a much less favorable situation. We might say that there are many unintelligible things and that the only one which is not unintelligible is intelligibility. Here we find ourselves involved with a number of mysteries, which we must recognize as such, because we falsify the structure of reality as soon as we attempt to pierce the mystery by scientific means.

Borrowing Terms from Medicine

First let us see how the question of a “science of society” came about.

We sometimes tend to forget this; and it is important to recall, since it will immediately enable us to define the limits of what we can or cannot do through political science and political philosophy.

The idea of a social science, of a political science in the classic sense, originated with medicine. The term eidos–ideas–originally signified the syndrome or set of symptoms used to identify an illness. This medical term subsequently passed over from Hippocratic medicine to the analysis of society, and in The Peloponnesian War, where the syndrome of kinesis was outlined, Thucydides uses the terms eidos and idea to describe the com­plex of symptoms characteristic of a social illness.

It was only following this transfer of terms that Plato was able to ask himself whether it would be possible to conceive of a syndrome, or series of symptoms, for a healthy society. Thus any approach to political science is psychologically or emotionally colored by the realization of the evil in society and the desire to transform an unhealthy condition into a more healthy one.

But this is more easily said than done. We are all sensitive to all sorts of ills in our society, for which we each doubtless have our own drastic remedies. But then we find ourselves stumbling (so to speak) from one unsatisfactory state to another, from one unhealthy society to another that may be even more unhealthy–unless we can actually claim that for one reason or another the newly created situation will be a definite improvement over the present.

Can We Reach Objective Truth?

It is at this point that the following question arises: Do there exist objective crite­ria that enable us to define what is “better”? This is where we get into certain problems of actual political science and what I refer to as the “life of reason,” which is nothing more than a fairly free translation of what Aristotle would have called bios theoretikos.

How can we arrive at objective opinions?

First of all, distinc­tions have been made that ought to be used nowadays, but un­fortunately they have gotten lost in the course of our daily lives.

When Plato tried to compare what he considered objective truth with the prevailing opinions of what was good and bad in society, that is, the doxa, he introduced the term philosophos for the per­son who was striving to achieve this objective truth, and episteme, or science, for his knowledge. And he used the word philosopher–a term that has survived–as the antithesis of the philodoxer, or lover of prevailing opinions. The latter term has been forgotten.

But a number of the difficulties we run into in intellectual discus­sions today stem from the fact that we use the word philosophies in precisely the opposite sense that Plato intended it, that is, we apply it to the doxai and use the word philosopher where Plato would have used philodoxer. Thus it is impossible today even to define or clarify the nature of the illness, because the illness itself has assumed the name of health.

At the risk of incurring the displeasure of certain people, I sub­mit that what Plato called philodoxer we generally term intellec­tual. Personally, I would be very upset if anyone classified me as an intellectual. I am opposed to the intellectual in the sense of philodox, that is, I am against the expression of an opinion that is not justified by rational analysis.

Seeking Philosophical Anthropology

This brings us back to the question of where does rational analy­sis begin.

I use the term analysis because Plato used it. By analysis I mean that we approach any study of society from the standpoint of the opinions of those around us. We find in our immediate circle both the opinions and the terminology expressing ideas of right or wrong; our job is to find the path leading from this vocabulary and these customs toward the objective element.

This is introduced by the postulate that there is such a thing as human nature, and if we can discover what it consists of we can offer advice as to how soci­ety ought to be organized, since the organization of society should aim at the full flowering of human nature.

However, there is no sense talking about good or bad institutions or making concrete suggestions about this or that social problem unless we first know what purpose or end these institutions are supposed to serve. This we cannot know unless we are familiar with the human nature that is going to develop within this social context. Thus the focal point of political science should always be what today we call philosophical anthropology, which in fact corresponds to the first chapter of The Nicomachean Ethics.

The Good Society Supports Worship and Contemplation

I shall concentrate on one basic point to which too little atten­tion is currently paid.

Plato and Aristotle suggested that human nature develops fully if it actualizes the participation in the tran­scendent being. Man is a creature who participates in the tran­scendent Nous and the transcendent Logos. Man leads a life of reason insofar as he cultivates this participation.

Otherwise, if he begins to express ideas without cultivating this participation in the transcendent Logos, his conception of the human order will be twisted, for the overall order of the individual is formed by his relation with the transcendent Being. If this is eliminated, the result will be a warped idea of man’s position in the universe.

Then all the opinions expressed by those who maintain that man need not concern himself with the participation in transcendental reality–that is, the immanentists or secularists, to employ con­temporary terms–fall into the category of doxa, or opinion in the technical sense of the term. So the “immanentists” or “secularists” are actually the disorganized spirits who are quite incapable of conceiving of ideas about the just order of society.

If Rational Debate is Impossible

All this may seem somewhat aggressive, but let us now come to the facts of the matter. If we fail to adopt this attitude, the consequences will be unpleasant, because the rational arguments concerning man’s action and the order of society are based on cer­tain premises that are closely connected with the attitude I have just described.

The first problem I want to stress is the problem of action. It is easy enough for us to talk of action–of rational action in that we coordinate the means with a view toward the end without wondering whether the end is particularly rational or reasonable, as Mr. de Jouvenel would call it. But we cannot settle for this if we want to speak objectively about problems of action.

As long as we live in a group or society or within a larger cultural complex where there are accepted canons of action, there will be no problem, since we do not have to ask ourselves whether or not they are really rational. All we have to do is coordinate the means with the premises that tradition supplies us.

But where tradition is questioned, or when we live in a pluralistic society of many varying opinions, we must have criteria in order to distinguish between opinions that are valid and those that are not.

This means we can have no science of action, or no rational discussion or de­bate, as long as we have failed to agree rationally as to the ultimate goal, or, to hark back to the classical expression, the summum bonum. This is a matter of analysis.

It does not follow that we can rationally determine the “sovereign good.” Many people will say that perhaps it cannot be determined by rational means; but we must accept the consequences of these words, for if we subscribe to this thesis, then we may as well stop our discussions right now, for our debates will no longer have any rational basis.

Undefined Human Nature is Meaningless

The second point is that the summum bonum is not unrelated to the actualization of human nature. Here again we have the problem of transcendence, for the full flowering of human nature on the highest level is itself the search for transcendence.

In classi­cal antiquity, human nature was defined by man’s openness to the transcendent being, or, to use a Bergsonian term, by the openness of the soul to transcendence. Thus this “openness of the soul,” as a historical phenomenon which is the basis for all rational debate, is a postulate that we ought to take as our point of departure. If we do, however, we find ourselves faced with another problem concerning human nature.

We all talk about human nature as though it were a concept descended from heaven. But we should remember that human nature is something the classical philoso­phers defined, and when we do not use it in the technical sense it is meaningless.

This is why we ought to realize that certain uses of the term human nature are actually misuses. Nowadays we all talk about changing human nature, saying that by revolutions and reorganizing society we can effect such a change. This is patently impossible, because human nature in the classical sense, by its technical definition, is what cannot be changed, what remains constant.

Human nature is therefore a multiple problem: On the one hand it leads us to the question of transcendence and involvement in this transcendence, and on the other it is a term that has to be accepted in its classical sense, failing which it becomes mean­ingless. But when it is taken in its classical sense, the greatest part of contemporary ideological politics crumbles as material for debate, since we cannot discuss changes in human nature, which is the basis of Comtian positivism or any kind of Marxism: Their whole credo is founded on the conviction that human nature can be changed, or in some way transfigured.

The Life of the Spirit without Embarrassment

Everything I have just said was largely hypothetical, but I would like to emphasize that I personally agree with the classical posi­tion and would thus contend that a good society (in the classical sense, but also as the expression was used by John Stuart Mill in 1859) is one in which there is room for a life of reason to develop and flourish in such a way that men can devote themselves to it without embarrassment and make it an effective part of so­cial organization.

Such would be the definition of a good society. Where these conditions are lacking, serious spiritual troubles will develop. Then this problem: If our era is marked by such spiritual troubles, where do we have to begin in order to restore something resembling a good society? Here I should like to mention the posi­tive aspect of the situation.

To my mind, this is an aspect that has been sadly neglected, because the discussion has always turned around questions of ideology but never around what is important for a good society.

It is striking that the places where we note a renaissance of the life of reason in our society–that is, a renewed awareness that participation in transcendence is central to the life of man and society, are in the sciences (and this does not mean the social sciences), whose very goal embodies an element that is healthy.

The very fact of working at something healthy draws the attention of the researcher to the problems of rational order.

This is why I find myself in the following curious situation when I try to orient myself and learn something: I discover I have very little to learn from the specialists in political science, who for the most part are not concerned about problems that relate to the order of the good society.

Where I do find this concern is with the classical philologists, the specialists in mythology, the orientalists, and especially among theologians and philosophers who work closely with the various religions. Here you discover the foundations for reconstructing a Science of Order.

This brings us to the curious situation mentioned in Mr. Aron’s paper. A unilateral debate is constantly emanating from these enclaves of the life of reason that still do exist in our society and at the present time are perhaps even increasing. Here rational discussion does go on, and a compact body of science concern­ing the ideologies, for instance, is being compiled.

But there is no dialogue, for those for whom the discussion is intended–the ideologists–refuse to participate; they simply ignore the works in question. A kind of iron curtain exists not between East and West, but within the West itself, between what might be called the “consubstantial” Western society, which is still living the life of reason and perhaps even advancing within it, and those who turn their backs on it.

In order to present clearly all sides of the problem, I shall have to list the various ways and techniques used to keep the life of reason from making its unpleasant presence felt.

The Techniques for Preventing Discussion

As a matter of fact, we have developed a whole range of techniques to prevent discussion: the use of long speeches in place of rational give-and-take, in keep­ing with the tactics used by Protagoras in the Platonic dialogue of the same name; the “valet” psychology, which consists of trying to figure out the opponent’s motives instead of engaging him in rational discussion; classification, which means pinning a label on him, etc.

Beside these evasive tactics, which aim at skirting the problem, we should also mention the systematic techniques that have been elaborated into whole systems whose goal is to stifle any discussion.

For example, positivism and logical empiricism are based on the premise that from the standpoint of methodology only those methods analogous to the methods of the physical sci­ences can produce valid results in the field of the social sciences. Anyone who resorts to this argument automatically precludes any possibility of discussion about anything relating to political science in the classical sense of the term.

One specifically German invention, which unfortunately, like so many other German inventions such as Marxism, seems to have spread throughout the world, is the theory of Wertbeziehung and the idea that in science it is possible to constitute an object by relating the subject or question to a set of values, preferably contemporary values.

If you introduce the notion of values as the point of reference for the choice of objects to be studied, you have simultaneously stifled any discussion of these values, since the question is limited to ascertaining what the controlling categories are for the selection of the objects. Whenever anyone refers to values and says that they lie beyond the pale of rational discussion and must be accepted as contemporary values without resubmit­ting them to further debate, it becomes obvious that the whole system of the Wertbeziehende Methode, as the Germans call it, is merely another instrument for preventing discussion.

I could list a number of other similar techniques, and if you add them all up you will doubtless see that a large portion of what currently passes as rational discussion in political science and the social sciences is not that at all; it is pure ideological rhetoric. This situation should be of major interest to all of us, and I submit that a renaissance of the life of reason, consonant with its original definition, is one of the most urgent tasks that lies before us.

Rational Discussion in America

RAYMOND ARON: The doctrine we have just heard presented with such uncompromising rationality can be summed up as follows: For there to be any rational or reasonable discussion of politics, there first has to be agreement on the common good. There can be no agreement on the supreme good, however, if one does not have a conception of human nature.

This conception implies the im­mutability of human nature, however, and this is linked to a cer­tain conception of man’s participation in a transcendent reality, a transcendent Nous.

I believe that Professor Voegelin himself would admit that in a given cultural system, such as that of the United States, the possibility for rational discussion does exist, even if there is no conscious awareness of the supreme good. But he would perhaps add that the only reason this rational discussion is possible under the American system is because in a sense this system is the translation of a philosophy of the supreme good and of human nature.

This “translation” is debased because the supe­rior concepts have tended to be lost. Yet it is their invisible pres­ence that enables rational dialogue to persist and go on.

Professor Voegelin has already reminded us how difficult it is to discuss a thesis of this sort. If one rejects his premises and postulates, rational discussion is obviously circumscribed, since the most one can do is pursue the discussion to the point of irreconcilable values.

This means at best a partial discussion, which will break down when one reaches the point of supreme values. This first hypothesis is the one that proved true in the course of the present conference, and this is the type of discussion for which someone Professor Voegelin knows as well as I, and perhaps even better, provided the model: Max Weber.

Weber accepted the possibility of rational discussion as to the means, the institutions, and the organizations, but he said that this discussion ended and came to grief when it came to fundamental affirmations of values. Ratio­nal dialogue, he claimed, stopped at this point.

The Limits of Attempting Realism

But the other hypothesis, whereby one accepts the supreme good and human nature, poses at least two difficulties. First, we have to know how far reason is capable of determining the tran­scendent Nous in which the minds of men participate.

Second, even if we accept the immutability of human nature–and to my mind this is self-evident, if we talk of human nature, it means it does not change, it is a question of definition–then on what level of abstraction does what we call human nature reveal itself, and to what extent can this conception of human nature comprise a kind of finality and not be defined simply by what psychoanalysis would call a system of impulsions.

Thus we see that no matter which of the two terms we choose, the problems remain impressive.

Changing Human Nature Through Genetics

S. ANDREZJEWSKI: Is the idea that human nature can change re­ally such a mad one? Personally, I do not believe it is all that absurd. We already have sufficient knowledge of biology to know that the species is not fixed, that selection does operate on the human level, and that certain types do disappear while others multiply more rapidly.

If we move toward the possibility of a planned, manipulated selection, we could probably change human nature fairly rapidly. Moreover, there is the imminent possibility that we will find a way to manipulate the genes. If all this helps increase man’s average intelligence or lower the level of his ag­gressive tendencies, the impact on future societies will obviously be tremendous.

The Idea of Man Does Not Depend on Biology

ERIC  VOEGELIN: We must realize that the idea of man is not given to us automatically by history, but emerges gradually. That men are truly men and that all men are equal represents a considerable ad­vance, which is imputable to Western philosophy beginning with the fifth century B.C.

The idea of human equality became clear only in the light of man’s equality before God. The idea of man grew up through the experience of the universal existence of men equal before a universal God, and no problem of biology can alter this concept.

Immutable Human Nature or Transfiguration

When you introduce the problem of perfectibility, you move to another plane. On the one hand we have history, dur­ing which man has realized his possibilities in a most remarkable way: Think of his domination of nature, for example. But this has not altered nature, which remains immutably consistent with the classical definition.

But the idea of perfectibility in the ideological sense, the “transfiguration” à la Condorcet into a progressive or communist superhuman, into Nietzsche’s Dionysian or Comte’s positivist superman, poses a totally different problem. Rational argumentation can show you that a specific type of perfectibility is the equivalent of metastasis or transfiguration and that here we come in conflict with what we know empirically about human nature.

RAGHAVAN IYER: The question of perfectibility or nonperfectibility cannot be resolved through experience. This is true not only because the facts and values are intermixed, but also because this question implies a whole cosmology. If you really want to start a debate on the subject of human nature, its possibilities of change and perfec­tion, you must answer the question, What is your cosmology? In fact it is significant that Plato, Rousseau, and Gandhi, as opposed to Marx and numerous other political theorists, all had a theory of education. Is it really possible to speak of changes in human nature without proposing some theory of education?

ERIC VOEGELIN: I would like to re-emphasize that what I presented was not a personal opinion, but more or less a rundown of historical facts.

Reason and its works were discovered at a certain period in history. The attendant concepts such as human nature, hu­man rights, freedom, etc., are symbolic extrapolations, if I may call them that, of certain experiences that I called transcendent.

I doubt that the terms we use every day in our discussions have other roots than these experiences. For this reason, it is impossible to analyze the structure of society without referring to the oper­ations of the life of reason.

We did not really go into detail about social structures in the spiritual or intellectual sense of the term, but if, for instance, you want to know in which direction Chinese civilization is evolving or what its affinities and differences with communism are, you cannot reply without studying the history of China and the spiritual edifice of Chinese civilization. If you pose a similar question about India and Indian civilization, the same will hold true. And this cannot be accomplished by the methods of logical positivism or empiricism, which deny that there is a problem of the life of reason.

Backing Away to be Amicable

What is more, there are political overtones to what I suggest. By concentrating on the problems of the industrial society, we have perhaps tended to forget that we live not only in the age of industrial society but also in the era of ideological movements, ideological regimes, and ideological wars, and that in our time tens of millions of people have died to further these ideologies. This is a fundamental fact.

And I shall add here that to insist on the problems of the life of reason is equivalent to a sort of new declaration of human rights against the ideologies. I often say to my students: “God did not create this world for the ideologists alone; man also has the right to live here.” What then is man? Here is a problem for the life of reason.

To come back to our discussion, obviously it is possible to carry on an important discussion within the framework of a given set of cultural traditions and general premises, about which there is common accord. This is what we have done here. It can be done with complete rationality, without questioning any of the premises, because they are far enough removed not to interfere with the concrete problems under review.

For all practical pur­poses, this level of concrete discussion probably suffices for inter­national exchanges, unless we run afoul of an ideology with uni­versal pretentions. Then, of course, we have to move to another kind of discussion. But our level suffices for most of our purposes. It is in this sense that I would qualify our discussions as most enlightening and fruitful.



Eric Voegelin appeared at a conference on modern industrial society in Rheinfelden, Switzerland, in September 1959. The conference, organized by Raymond Aron, included Michael Polanyi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, M. M. Postan, Bertrand de Jouvenel, S. Andrzejewski, and Raghavan Iyer.


This excerpt is from The Drama of Humanity and Miscellaneous Papers: 1939-1985 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 33) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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