Eric Voegelin

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Eric Voegelin
Born January 3, 1901
Cologne, Germany
Died January 19, 1985
Stanford, California, U.S.
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Main interests History
Consciousness
Religion
Political science
Influences
Influenced

Eric Voegelin (born Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin, German: [ˈføːgəliːn]; January 3, 1901 – January 19, 1985) was a German-born American political philosopher. He was born in Cologne, then within Imperial Germany, and educated in political science at the University of Vienna. He became a teacher and then an associate professor of political science at the Faculty of Law. In 1938 he, with his wife, fled from the Nazi forces which had recently entered Vienna, emigrating 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.

Biography[edit]

Voegelin was born in Cologne in 1901. He taught political theory and sociology at the University of Vienna after his habilitation there in 1928. While in Austria Voegelin established the beginnings of his long lasting friendship with F. A. Hayek.[1] In 1933 he published two books criticizing Nazi racism, and was forced to flee from Austria following the Anschluss in 1938. After a brief stay in Switzerland, he arrived in the United States and taught at a series of universities before joining Louisiana State University's Department of Government in 1942. His advisers on his dissertation were Hans Kelsen and Othmar Spann.

Voegelin remained in Baton Rouge until 1958 when he accepted an offer by Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität to fill Max Weber's former chair in political science, which had been empty since Weber's death in 1920. In Munich he founded the Institut für Politische Wissenschaft. Voegelin returned to America in 1969 to join Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace as Henry Salvatori Fellow where he continued his work until his death on January 19, 1985. He was a member of the Philadelphia Society.[2]

Work[edit]

After fleeing Nazi Germany, Voegelin worked throughout his life to account for the endemic political violence of the twentieth century in an effort variously referred to as a philosophy of politics, history, or consciousness. In Voegelin’s complex Weltanschauung, he "blamed a flawed utopian interpretation of Christianity for spawning totalitarian movements like Nazism and Communism."[3] Voegelin first and foremost wished to be remembered as a scientist, and he eschewed any ideological labels or categorizations that readers and followers attempted to impose on his work.

Although he did not express his scholarly aims didactically, there is a consistent, implicit claim throughout Voegelin's works that he could establish a set of scientifically based criteria for recognizing, examining and evaluating transcendent experiences through their various textual symbolizations.

Voegelin published scores of books, essays, and reviews in his lifetime. An early work was Die politischen Religionen (1938), (The Political Religions), on totalitarian ideologies as political religions due to their structural similarities to religion. His magnum opus is the multi-volume (English-language) Order and History, which began publication in 1956 and remained incomplete at the time of his death 29 years later. His 1951 Charles Walgreen lectures, published as The New Science of Politics, is generally seen as a prolegomenon to this, and remains his best known work. He left many manuscripts unpublished, including a history of political ideas that has since been published in eight volumes.

Order and History was originally conceived as a six-volume examination of the history of order occasioned by Voegelin's personal experience of the disorder of his time. The first three volumes, Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, and Plato and Aristotle, appeared in rapid succession in 1956 and 1957 and focused on the evocations of order in the ancient Near East and Greece.

Voegelin then encountered difficulties that slowed the publication down. This, combined with his university administrative duties and work related to the new institute, meant that seventeen years separated the fourth from the third volume. His new concerns were indicated in the 1966 German collection Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik, and the fourth volume, The Ecumenic Age, appeared in 1974. It broke with the chronological pattern of the previous volumes by investigating symbolizations of order ranging in time from the Sumerian King List to Hegel. Continuing work on the final volume, In Search of Order, occupied Voegelin's final days and it was published posthumously in 1987.[original research?]

One of Voegelin's main points in his later work is that a sense of order is conveyed by the experience of transcendence. This transcendence can never be fully defined nor described, though it may be conveyed in symbols. A particular sense of transcendent order serves as a basis for a particular political order. It is in this way that a philosophy of politics becomes a philosophy of consciousness. Insights may become fossilised as dogma. The main aim of the political philosopher is to remain open to the truth of order, and convey this to others.

Voegelin is more interested in the ontological issues that arise from these experiences than the epistemological questions of how we know that a vision of order is true or not. For Voegelin, the essence of truth is trust. All philosophy begins with experience of the divine. Since God is experienced as good, one can be confident that reality is knowable. As Descartes would say, God is not a deceiver. Given the possibility of knowledge, Voegelin holds there are two modes: intentionality and luminosity. Visions of order belong to the latter category, lights within a limited horizon bounded by the unknowable. The truth of any vision is confirmed by its orthodoxy, by what Voegelin jokingly calls its lack of originality.

Voegelin's work does not fit in any standard classifications, although some of his readers have found similarities in it to contemporaneous works by, for example, Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. He has a sometimes unapproachable style and a heavy reliance upon extensive background knowledge. Voegelin often invents terms or uses old ones in new ways. However, there are patterns in his work with which the reader can quickly become familiar.

Among indications of growing engagement with Voegelin's work are the 305 page international bibliography published in 2000 by Munich's Wilhelm Fink Verlag; the presence of dedicated research centers at universities in the United States, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom; the appearance of recent translations in languages ranging from Portuguese to Japanese; and the publishing of the nearly complete 34 volume collection of his primary works by the University of Missouri Press and various primary and secondary works offered by the Eric-Voegelin-Archiv of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität.

Voegelin on gnosticism[edit]

In his The New Science of Politics, Order and History, and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin opposed what he believed to be unsound Gnostic influences in politics. He defined gnosis as "a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite."[4] Gnosticism is a "type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. Gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism)."[5]

Apart from the Classical Christian writers against heresy, his sources on Gnosticism were secondary, since the texts in the Nag Hammadi library were not yet widely available. For example Voegelin uses Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and the Jewish German philosopher Hans Jonas.[6]

Voegelin perceived similarities between ancient Gnosticism and modernist political theories, particularly communism and nazism. He identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnection from society and a belief that this lack is the result of the inherent disorder, or even evil, of the world. This alienation has two effects:

  • The first is the belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin (the Gnostics themselves referred to this as gnosis).
  • The second is the desire to implement and or create a policy to actualize the speculation, or Immanentize the Eschaton, i.e., to create a sort of heaven on earth within history.

According to Voegelin the Gnostics are really rejecting the Christian eschaton of the kingdom of God and replacing it with a human form of salvation through esoteric ritual or practice.

The primary feature that characterizes a tendency as gnostic for Voegelin is that it is motivated by the notion that the world and humanity can be fundamentally transformed and perfected through the intervention of a chosen group of people (an elite), a man-god, or men-Gods, Übermensch, who are the chosen ones that possess a kind of special knowledge (like magic or science) about how to perfect human existence.

This stands in contrast to a notion of redemption that is achieved through the reconciliation of mankind with the divine. Marxism therefore qualifies as "gnostic" because it purports that we can establish the perfect society on earth once capitalism has been overthrown by the "proletariat." Likewise, Nazism is seen as "gnostic" because it posits that we can achieve utopia by attaining racial purity, once the master race has freed itself of the racially inferior and the degenerate.

In the two cases specifically analyzed by Voegelin, the totalitarian impulse is derived from the alienation of the individuals from the rest of society. This leads to a desire to dominate (libido dominandi) which has its roots not just in the Gnostic's conviction of the imperative of his vision but also in his lack of concord with a large body of his society. As a result, there is very little regard for the welfare of those who are harmed by the resulting politics, which ranges from coercive to calamitous (e.g. the Russian proverbs: "You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet", "When you chop wood, chips fly").

Immanentizing the eschaton[edit]

One of his most quoted passages (by such figures as William F. Buckley, Jr.[7]) is the following:

The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.[8]

From this comes the catchphrase: "Don't immanentize the eschaton!" which simply means: "Do not try to make that which belongs to the afterlife happen here and now." or "Don't try to create heaven on earth."

When Voegelin uses the term gnosis negatively, it is to reflect the word as found in the Manichaeism and Valentinianism of antiquity. As it is later then immanentized (or manifest) in modernity in the wake of Joachim of Fiore and in the various ideological movements outlined in his works.[9] Voegelin also builds on the term gnosticism as it is defined by Hans Jonas in his The Gnostic Religion in reference to Heidegger's gnosticism. Which is to have an understanding and control over reality that makes Mankind as powerful as the role of God in reality.

Voegelin was arguing from a Hellenistic position that good gnosis is derived from pistis (faith) and that the pagan tradition made a false distinction between faith and noesis. Furthermore, this dualist perspective was the very essence of gnosticism via the misuse of Noema and caused a destructive division between the internal and external world in human consciousness. To reconcile the internal (subjective) and external (objective) world of consciousness was the restoration of order.[10][11]

Social alienation[edit]

Voegelin identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnection with society, and a belief that this disconnection is the result of the inherent disorder, or even evil, of the world. This alienation has two effects:

  • The belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin (the Gnostics themselves referred to this as gnosis).
  • The desire to create and implement a policy to actualize the speculation, or as Voegelin described it, to Immanentize the Eschaton, to create a sort of heaven on earth within history by triggering the apocalypse[citation needed].

Voegelin’s conception of gnosis and his analysis of Gnosticism in general has been criticized by Eugene Webb. In an article entitled "Voegelin’s Gnosticism Reconsidered," Webb explains that Voegelin’s concept of Gnosticism was conceived "not primarily to describe ancient phenomena but to help us understand some modern ones for which the evidence is a great deal clearer."[12][page needed] Webb continues, "the category (of Gnosticism) is of limited usefulness for the purpose to which he put it…and the fact that the idea of Gnosticism as such has become so problematic and complex in recent years must at the very least undercut Voegelin’s effort to trace a historical line of descent from ancient sources to the modern phenomena he tried to use them to illuminate."[13][page needed]

Spiritual revival[edit]

Voegelin's work does not lay out a program of reform or offer a doctrine of recovery from what he termed the "demono-maniacal" in modern politics. However, interspersed in his writings is the idea of a spiritual recovery of the primary experiences of divine order. He was not interested so much in what religious dogmas might result in personal salvation, but rather a recovery of the human in the classical sense of the "daimonios aner" (Plato's term for "the spiritual man"). He did not speculate on the institutional forms in which a spiritual recovery might take place, but expressed confidence that the current 500 year cycle of secularism would come to an end because, as he stated, "you cannot deny the human forever."[citation needed]

In a lecture given in Dublin, Ireland in 1973, Voegelin predicted that within a decade the Soviet Union would collapse from within[citation needed].

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Federici, Michael. Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order, ISI Books, 2002, p. 1
  2. ^ http://phillysoc.org/DistinguishedMembers.pdf
  3. ^ Marci McDonald (October 2004). "The Man Behind Stephen Harper". Walrus. Retrieved 2013-01-18. 
  4. ^ "According to Voegelin, the claim to gnosis may take intellectual, emotional, and volitional forms." [Webb 1981:282] – Glossary of Voegelin terms online
  5. ^ of Voegelin terms online [Webb 1981:282]
  6. ^ Voegelin, Eric, Ellis Sandoz, Gilbert Weiss, and William Petropulos. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Louisiana State University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-8071-1826-5
  7. ^ Buckley, Jr., William F. Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes & Asides from National Review, Basic Books, 2007, pp. 23–24
  8. ^ Voegelin, Eric (1987). The New Science of Politics, p. 120.
  9. ^ Voegelin, New Science Of Politics, chap. 4
  10. ^ Voegelin, THE ECUMENIC AGE, ORDER & HISTORY, vol. 4, esp. introduction & chap. 5,
  11. ^ THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ERIC VOEGELIN, vol. 17, ed. Michael Franz (University of Missouri Press, 2000)
  12. ^ Webb, Eugene (2005), Voegelin’s "Gnosticism" Reconsidered, Political Science Reviewer 34 
  13. ^ Webb 2005.
  14. ^ The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict by Robert S. Ellwood Publisher: Rutgers University Press ISBN 0-8135-2346-X ISBN 978-0-8135-2346-0 [1]

Further reading[edit]

Primary literature[edit]

All of Voegelin's writing is published as his Collected Works (CW), reviewed by Mark Lilla, "Mr. Casaubon in America" The New York Review of Books 54/11 (June 28, 2007): 29–31.

Primary sources[edit]

  • The closest to an introduction to his thought in his own words is the Autobiographical Reflections.
  • Wagner, Gerhard; Weiss, Gilbert, eds. (2011), A Friendship That Lasted a Lifetime: The Correspondence Between Alfred Schutz and Eric Voegelin, Petropulos, William transl, University of Missouri Press , 240 pp.
  • Register of the Eric Voegelin papers 1901–1997 at the Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University Stanford, CA, 2012 (120 PDFs).

Secondary literature[edit]

  • Cooper, Barry: Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science, University of Missouri Press, 1999.
  • Federici, Michael: Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order, ISI Books 2002, basic introduction.
  • Sandoz, Ellis: The Vogelinian Revolution: A Biographical Introduction Louisiana State UP, 1981, advanced.
  • Trepanier, Lee, and Steven F. McGuire, eds. Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought (University of Missouri Press; 2011) 284 pp; essays on his relationship to Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Gadamer.
  • Webb, Eugene: "Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History" Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1981.

External links[edit]