Today is the birthday of Eric Voegelin, who was born on this date in 1901 in Cologne, Germany. A member of the great generation of German-language scholars who left Europe in the '30s in the face of the Nazi rise to power, Voegelin was thinker of remarkable breadth and depth, who turned his formidable learning and extremely hard-working curiosity to the task of understanding the deep metaphysical roots of the political ruin that had overtaken the West in fascism and Bolshevism. If he remains under-read today by philosophers who should know better, it is partly because his work was adopted by the political right. This infatuation on the part of the conservative movement was fairly tepidly returned. William F. Buckley Jr. offered Voegelin a monthly column at The National Review, only to be turned down; and Voegelin consistently declined to be associated with American conservativism, although occasionally an article by him would appear in a right-leaning publication. When the historian George H. Nash, wrapping up work on his book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (published 1976), wrote to Voeglin requesting a photograph to include, Voegelin wrote back: "Just because I am not stupid enough to be a liberal, does not mean that I am stupid enough to be a conservative." Nonetheless, the net effect was still that the academic left had, and still has, little interest in him, if they have even heard of him. (There is no article on Voegelin at the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, although he gets some mentions in various other articles; his name seems not to occur anywhere in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at all.) An equally plausible rationale for this neglect would seem to be Voegelin's idiosyncratic vocabulary; particularly in the works of his final two decades, Voegelin made a terminology for his project that, while not quite a jargon, nonetheless walks the line between an arsenal of terms of art and an etymological curiosity cabinet. Phrases suchas "metastatic faith," "luminosity of being," "egophanic history," and (one of my favorites, as you might imagine), "metaleptic consciousness," appear without notice or explanation; the reader is expected to rise to the occasion, which is an act of either great trust or tremendous presumption on Voeglin's part. They can be bewildering at first; but it must be said that, if one is willing to start at the beginning, re-read when one doesn't understand, and go deliberately, the terms usually open up and Voegelin's project becomes comprehensible. (And, just in case, the editors of Voegelin's Collected Works have included a glossary in the last volume.)
My own reading of Voegelin is doubtless as off-center as that of all my other "influences." I happened to read him early, mainly by chance -- his volume Anamnesis was in the public library. This central volume to his work is a really strange and wonderful book. It begins in an autobiographical vein, weaving his philosophical concerns together with an account of how they arose for him (his learning of Hebrew and Greek; his study of Husserl with Alfred Schuetz; and so on), and then goes even further back: the third chapter is entirely made up of vignettes from his early childhood: the old seamstress who told him about paradise; the time he was laughed at for predicting rain because the steamboats by the docks had made great quantities of clouds. Only then does he cast his net wider, giving explorations of nature and reason, political reality, language and consciousness. What is Voegelin doing? He is wrestling with the great problem of historicism, which had come to preoccupy so much of German scholarship, and he is wrestling it down to the fundamental unit in which it is encountered: the experience of the human individual.
The best short summary (at least, the best I can come up with) of Voegelin's project -- though not one that I presume he ever considered himself -- frames it in terms of the famous debate between Cassirer and Heidegger at Davos in 1929. Heidegger had in some sense "won" (or at least had been judged as having won by the younger generation), by going "back" behind Cassirer's philosophy of culture to the unsettling ground of all of Dasein's works. His gaze was towards the origin, uncanny and dark; Cassirer's meanwhile is upon the positive project and achievement that has emerged. We could gloss this, at considerable risk of oversimplification, as the difference between nothing and something.
Voegelin is almost alone in both taking seriously the problem Heidegger has named, and also in really seeing the agreement that Cassirer maintained -- over Heidegger's indifference -- was there between them. (Another who saw this point, at least in practice, was Hannah Arendt.) Voegelin's concern, all throughout his career, is the tracing of how the "symbols" (his word, but clearly resonant with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms") emerge in the tension between consciousness and its ground, its being situated always in the "metaxy," the middle -- not at the beginning, not at the end; and how these symbols suffice and then fail, because this work is unfinished by definition (this is part of what being in the middle means), but also often because symbols get reified and set into would-be-permanent systems. Voegelin was especially interested in the way a healthy cultural life could live in its symbols without rigidity, continually open to the luminosity of being; but he spent a great deal of energy on those unhealthy systems which had, he said, erected a "second reality" that fundamentally deformed consciousness if it tried to live within them. Voegelin's word for all these systems is gnostic, and it is this characterization -- first set forth in The New Science of Politics -- for which he is most famous. (It has also come under scrutiny and critique, as the scholarship on gnosticism has continued since Voegelin wrote.)
Voegelin can seem an unabashedly religious thinker, but he does not obviously belong to any sect. He sometimes called himself a "pre-Nicene Christian," and he declined to apologize for any particular confession; moreover he writes with as great sympathy of Israelite prophets, Chinese historians, Egyptian poets, as he does of Christian theologians or saints. The only figures for whom he clearly has little sympathy are the "gnostics" -- but by this term, Voegelin might have meant Valentinus, or Joachim of Fiore, or Auguste Comte. (Even for certain "gnostics," Voegelin retains an ambivalent respect, especially for Hegel, a figure who epitomizes for Voegelin the modern turning-away from reality, but whose intellectual power he clearly acknowledges with respect.) Voegelin's problems are not primarily theological, and certainly not specific to a particular scriptural tradition; they are those of a thinker engaged with transcendence. Here is the another reason why Voegelin's star is so deeply eclipsed at the present time. No thinker of the twentieth century was so uncompromising in his insistence that the turning away from transcendence was a philosophical disaster. Voegelin was very conversant with the theologians; he cites Barth, von Balthasar, de Lubac, and others; but his argument was not theirs.
"Gnosticism" means, for Voegelin, a hankering for certainty. He sees it in fascism and in Marxism; he sees it in the overweening confidence of Hegel (which Marx inherited despite himself, and which Kierkegaard mocked). It is an attempt to bring about permanently in this world, here-and-now, a vision of meaning and understanding that can only happen fleetingly and is anticipated by Biblical faith beyond the horizon of the world. The desire to stage it within the world, Voegelin dubbed the attempt to "immanentize the eschaton." Of all the aforementioned special vocabulary, this is undoubtedly the most famous instance; it entered the general intellectual arsenal of American conservativism in the 50's, and thence into the counter-culture through Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's monumental spoof of paranoid style, the Illuminatus! Trilogy. Wilson and Shea glossed it, with facetious literalness, as "trying to bring the end of the world closer;" but to Voegelin it meant trying to instantiate within history what could only be realized with the abolition of history.
He traced this hankering back via Joachim of Fiore (whose "three stages of history" corresponding to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Voegelin saw as recapitulated over and over in the historicist schemes of Comte, Schelling, Marx, and even Husserl); he traced it all the way to the gnostics of Irenaus' diatribe. This was not in itself an novel move, as Voegelin was at pains to point out; Hegel had been seen as a gnostic even by his contemporaries. But Voegelin was astonishing in the tenacity with which he tracked this tendency down; and even more remarkable in the cause to which he attributed it. What could have occasioned such a drive to certainty, he asked? And he answered: obviously, Christianity itself.
Certainties, now, are in demand for the purpose of overcoming uncertainties with their accompaniment of anxiety; and the next question would be: What specific uncertainty was so disturbing that it had to be overcome by the dubious means of fallacious immanentization? One does not have to look far afield for an answer. Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity. The feeling of security in a "world full of gods" is lost with the gods themselves; when the world is de-divinized, communication with the world-transcendent God is reduced to the tenuous bond of faith, in the sense of Hebrews 11:1, as the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen. Ontologically, the substance of things hoped for is nowhere to be found but in faith itself; and, epistemologically, there is no proof for things unseen but again this very faith. The bond is tenuous, indeed, and it may snap easily.(The New Science of Politics p. 122-123)It seems to me that this account is more remarkable than anyone -- either Voegelin's critics or his partisans -- has yet accepted. It is of course not uncommon -- it was to become all too common in the years after Voegelin wrote this -- to trace to Christianity's door some catastrophic loss of meaning, a great draining-away of pagan joi de vivre. This too was not a novel move; it had long been suspected, on both sides of the argument, that the falling-silent of the oracles had something to do with the ascendancy of the cross -- something deeper than the mere political pressure that closed the temples (as witnessed by Plutarch writing of it long before this development came to pass). But it was unusual for a thinker who seemed to be on Christianity's side ("pre-Nicene" notwithstanding) to take this stance. Moreover, it remains eyebrow-raising to this day for Christians to be told that the essence of their religion is uncertainty; it certainly would have come as surprising news to those of Voegelin's readers who were really interested in what he was arguing, and not just looking for ammunition against communism.
I am not sure how seriously it was taken at the time by anyone else; but Voegelin himself was absolutely committed to not being tied down to any reified system, even one that was about the unfolding of the tendency to reification. This commitment was to undermine his most ambitious project -- originally planned as a six-volume series called Order and History (with The New Science frequently seen as prologue.) The first three volumes (of between 450 and 500 pages each) appeared in 1956-57, quite a short time for such dense and extensive work. They were well-received by scholars and popular among Voegelin's conservative audience. There was every reason to build success upon success. Instead, Voegelin suddenly applied the brakes. It was not until ten years later that Anamnesis appeared. This book -- not an official part of Order and History -- is, as I mentioned, in some ways the key to everything else. It signaled the serious conceptual difficulties that Voegelin had encountered along the way. In brief, he began to suspect that the entire project -- originally conceived as a tracing of historical consciousness from the ancient Near East and Greece to the present day in terms of the arising of symbol-complexes and their dissolution or their reification -- was itself suspect as too orderly, too much like a secret "system" purporting to give the real sense of history.
Volume four of Order and History, The Ecumenic Age, was not published until an additional seven years had passed. (Some of this delay is attributable to Voegelin's administrative responsibilities as well -- he had founded the Munich Institute for Political Science after returning to Germany in 1958 to occupy Max Weber's academic chair, vacant since Weber had died in 1920.) When volume four did appear, declaring at the outset that the whole enterprise had been re-thought and that the (real) gains of the first three volumes needed to be situated in a different and more flexible and open conceptual and symbolic context, reviewers were exceedingly divided. Already Voegelin's polymathy had frustrated attempts to understand what he was at -- was he an historian, a philosopher, a political scientist? Now this frustration was redoubled. No one could simply dismiss the book -- it was obviously a work of brilliance -- but no one knew quite what to do with it either. Many were disappointed.
But this revision -- a more far-reaching and profound kehre, in my opinion, than the failure of Heidegger to ever publish the second part of Being and Time -- was the mark not of Voegelin's inconsistency but of his integrity. The slowing-down and continual re-evaluation of his work meant that volume five, In Search of Order -- the last in the now-revised plan forOrder and History -- appeared only posthumously and in much smaller compass than the other volumes. (It should really be read in conjunction with volumes 12 and 28 of the Collected Works, which present his late published and unpublished essays, respectively.) This body of late work is extremely challenging, but not cripplingly so; anyone who is willing to go slowly and methodically can "get it." I will give one passage as an example of the substance and style, which moreover addresses the same issue as was mentioned above -- the transition from the "world full of gods". Note, too, in this excerpt, that the surpassing of the notion of "stages" with the conception of simultaneous poles of tension is part of the letting-go of an historicist account.
[S]ensitivity of human response to the mystery of divine revelation never was, and still is not, popular with dogmatic thinkers who want their fides to speak the language of the compact, personal gods. But the mystery resists and persists. The noetic thinker, who is conscious of this persistence, knows that even the fides of the One God does not put an end to his quest for the truly One in a reality that has to tell a story of tension and movement. ...On the one hand, the symbolization of the differentiated divine Beyond as One God would burden the symbol with the very compactness of the many gods that the differentiation tends to overcome; on the other hand, the insight into this difficulty lets the many gods appear in their dignity as experientially diversified representatives of the divine One. ... This tensional pressure appears to be a constant in the history of revelation. Neither will the gods disappear, nor will the Beyond let them live in peace. Compactness and differentiation, then, would not be simply historical stages of consciousness, the one succeeding the other in time, but poles of a tensional process in which the revelation of the Beyond has to overcome progressively a hard core of compact resistance without ever dissolving it completely. (In Search of History p 115-116)Voegelin said (I paraphrase) that reading Santayana early in his life immunized him against the vogue of existentialim and particularly of Heidegger's influence. (It should be mentioned that one of his early books was On the Form of the American Mind -- it is Volume One in the Collected Works -- and in this, Voegelin was ahead of the curve.) In any case, I could say the same thing of Voegelin himself. I read him before I did any serious study of Heidegger, and I suspect that this helped ensure that, after the initial (quite significant) excitement had passed, I was able to pass more readily on to seeing Heidegger as one more philosopher, and not the culmination of a teleological process of the unfolding of the destiny of Western thought. Not that I understood Voegelin well -- I still feel I am only just beginning to understand sometimes what he was driving at. But from the beginning I suspected that he was one of the deepest, furthest-seeing, and least dogmatic of thinkers in the 20th century. I still think so, his mistakes, occasional slip ups, and false starts notwithstanding.