Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

region = Western Philosophers
era = 20th-century philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption = Eric Voegelin

name = Eric Voegelin
birth = January 3, 1901 (Cologne, Germany)
death = January 19, 1985
school_tradition = Western Philosophy
main_interests = History, Consciousness, Religion, Political Science
influences = Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Church Fathers, Alfred North Whitehead, Karl Kraus, Ernst Cassirer, Karl Jaspers, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Hans Jonas, William James, Ludwig von Mises, Hans-Georg Gadamer,John Fortescue,Giambattista Vico, George Santayana, Paul Valery, Jean Bodin, Leo Strauss
influenced = Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr., Leo Strauss,Charles R. Embry, Olavo de Carvalho

Eric Voegelin, born Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin, (January 3, 1901 – January 19, 1985) was a political philosopher. He was born in Cologne, Germany, and educated in political science at the University of Vienna, where he was advised on his dissertation by Hans Kelsen and Othmar Spann. He became a teacher and then an associate professor of political science at the Faculty of Law. In 1938 he fled with his wife from Nazi Germany, emigrating to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He then spent considerable parts of his academic career at Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.


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. [Federici, Michael: Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order, pg1 ISI Books 2002] 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.

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.


Voegelin worked throughout his life to account for the endemic political violence of the twentieth century in an effort that is variously referred to as a philosophy of politics, history, or consciousness.

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 and their structural similarities to religion. His "magnum opus" was 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 sometimes seen as a prolegomena to this, and remains his best known work. He also 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 series attempting to discern the order in history through an examination of the history of order, using recent explosive growth of knowledge about the past and occasioned by Voegelin's personal experience of the disorder of his time, in the Nazi genocide. 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 societies of the Near East and Greece.

At this point Voegelin encountered difficulties that forced him to rework parts of his theory and 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 theoretical 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.One of Voegelin's later main points seems to be 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 which can evoke the sense of order in others. A particular sense of transcendent order serves as a basis for political order. Over time the symbols may become fossilized as a dogma, and no longer able to evoke the same experiences – in which case the society is threatened. It is in this way that a philosophy of politics becomes a philosophy of consciousness. The main aim of the political philosopher is to remain open to the truth of order, and to convey this to others. To some extent 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. Voegelin's thought does have an epistemological basis, but since he does not constantly return to it, it can easily be overlooked. For Voegelin, the essence of truth is trust. All philosophy begins with God — with experiences of divine reality. Since God is experienced as good, one can be confident that reality is knowable. As Descartes, who derived his epistemology from the same sources as Voegelin, would say, God is not a deceiver. However as Voegelin has a tendency to dismiss those he disagrees withFact|date=October 2007, or who question his assumptions, as 'smart idiots' or as 'spiritually diseased'Fact|date=October 2007, then these others may tend to wonder if it is not Voegelin who is avoiding the hard questions Fact|date=October 2007 – especially as his work is so voluminous.

Voegelin's work is extremely difficult to characterize and does not fit in any standard classifications, although some of his readers have found similarities in it to the concerns found in contemporaneous works by, for example, Ernst Cassirer, Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. It is further complicated by a very unapproachable style and a heavy reliance on the reader's background knowledge. Moreover, Voegelin often introduced new technical terms or new uses for existing ones. But primarily, the difficulty stems from the unusual subject matter and an approach that is likely to be unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, to most readers. Also, he followed in English a stylistic rule more appropriate to academic German: if the subject was difficult, the style should be difficult to cue the reader to be careful. Voegelin's works are often controversialFact|date=October 2007, and are sometimes perceived as (merely) a large chain of loosely-linked factsFact|date=October 2007, comprising a heterogeneous conspiracy theoryFact|date=October 2007. However, there are repetitions and patterns of analysis in the work with which the reader can quickly become familiar.

All of these obstacles have led to many readings conflating Voegelin's work with reactionary political opinion and Christian triumphalism. His advocates increasingly reject this equivalence in the now-burgeoning secondary literature on Voegelin. Fact|date=October 2007 Among indications of growing engagement with Voegelin's work are the 305 page international bibliography published by Munich's Wilhelm Fink Verlag in 2000; 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 publishing efforts like the nearly complete 34 volume collection of primary works from the University of Missouri Press and the various series of primary and secondary works offered by the "Eric-Voegelin-Archiv" of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Voegelin's work, though, remains most influential among political scientists; he receives little attention from philosophers or theologians.

Voegelin on Gnosticism

Voegelin became the leader of an intellectual movement through books he authored like "The New Science of Politics", "Order and History" and "Science, Politics and Gnosticism" this movement opposed what they believed to be unsound Gnostic influences in politics. Apart from the Classical Christian writers against heresy, Voegelin's sources on Gnosticism were of secondary nature, 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 German philosopher Hans Jonas. [The Collected Works of Eric VoegelinBy Eric Voegelin, Ellis Sandoz, Gilbert Weiss, William PetropulosPublished by Louisiana State University Press, 1989ISBN 0807118265, 9780807118269 [] ] Voegelin identified a number of similarities between ancient Gnosticism and those held by a number of modernist political theories, particularly communism and nazism.

He identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnection with society and a belief that this lack of concord with society 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 as Voegelin described it, to "Immanentize the Eschaton", to create a sort of heaven on earth within history.

Voegelin's definition of Eschaton would be more toward the idea that 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. [ 1]

Voegelin also argued that gnostics had a constructive intention in their motive, rather than a purely destructive orientation derived from the belief that the material world was evil and should be destroyed rather than repaired or improved. Moreover, an "improvement" of the world brought about through knowledge could also be indirect (pertaining to the individual/psychological) rather than, say, a direct improvement of the material world. In other words, knowledge for knowledge's sake.

In some respects Voegelin's use of the term 'gnosticism' is problematicFact|date=October 2007 as it suggests a kind of pseudo-continuity between religious movements and modern revolutionaries (though Voegelin himself believed one "could" trace modern gnostic movements back to ancient gnosticism, cf. "Science Politics and Gnosticism"). However, 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, supermen, newmen, 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, or through the action of the Judeo-Christian God (through the God-man) or even Greco-Roman gods (see Sethianism and Neoplatonism and Gnosticism). Thus Marxism qualifies as 'gnostic' because it purports that we can establish the perfect society on earth once capitalism has been overthrown by a special group of people, 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 from the parasitic influence of the racially inferior and the degenerate.

In the two cases specifically analyed 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 conviction of the imperative of the Gnostic's 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 in society who are impacted by the resulting politics, which ranges from coercive to calamitous (e.g the Russian proverb: "You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet").

According to Stephen McKnight, after 1970 Voegelin began to take issue with the tendency of his readers to place special emphasis on the concept of gnosticism. He was now more inclined to stress factors such as apocalypticism, hermeticism and neoplatonism as being equally important in the constitution of modernity and to see an undue emphasis on gnosticism as obscuring important problems. However, McKnight's view is not universally accepted.Fact|date=October 2007

Ultimately, Voegelin's analysis of the disorder of the West and the rise of totalitarianism suggests that the primary cause is spiritual pathology rather than social disorganization, or rather that the first inevitably leads to the second.Fact|date=October 2007 Voegelin's later works discuss this idea and explore the ontological and experiential problems that spring from this realization.

The totalitarian impulse in modernism has been noted by Catholic writers, particularly in Henri de Lubac's work "The Drama of Atheist Humanism", which explores the connection between the totalitarian impulses of political communism, fascism and positivism with their philosophical progenitors Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Comte Saint-Simon and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Immanentizing the eschaton

Voegelin acknowledges his debt to "The Drama of Atheist Humanism" in creating his seminal essay "Science, Politics, and Gnosticism". The Catholic catechism makes an oblique reference to the desire to "Immanentize the Eschaton" in article 675-6::"Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism."

One of the more oft-quoted passages from his work on Gnosticism 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."Eric Voegelin (1987). "The New Science of Politics", 2, p. 120.]

From this comes the catch phrase: "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." The phrase was popularized by US conservative readers of Voegelin's work, most notably William F. Buckley, Jr., which in turn inspired, for instance, Robert Anton Wilson to use it as a pun from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Others find this notion to be a misunderstanding stemming from Voegelin's broad use of the term 'gnosticism' to refer to any system of belief or thought based on human perfectibility and the special knowledge to make it so, rather than using the term in its well-developed historical sense. In either case, Voegelin's work on gnosticism has proved at once seminal and questionable to readers for decades.


Further reading

Primary literature

All of Voegelins writing is published as his "Collected Works" (CW).

People usually recommend beginning with CW 5 "Modernity Without Restraint", which includes 'The Political Religions', 'New Science of Politics' and 'Science, Politics, and Gnosticism'. This will introduce you to the Gnostic argument, and the main features of Voegelin's style and methods of argument. (Others suggest starting with "Immortality: Experience and Symbol".)

However, those more interested in anchored empirical works might prefer "Hitler and the Germans" (CW 31) or "Order and History vol.2: The World of the Polis" (CW 15). Those of a more philosophical bent might prefer "Order and History vol.3: Plato and Aristotle" (CW 16). In many ways this latter is a central text, as Voegelin's reading of Plato seems vital for his understanding of Politics and Order.

After that, people should embark on the Philosophy of Consciousness phase with "Anamnesis" CW 6. This is not easy going, but is rewarding, and by now you should have enough background to steer through it.

After that, if you are still reading, the two final volumes of Order and History, "The Ecumenic Age" and "In search of Order", are worth the effort, as Voegelin attempts a new formulation of the problem.

CW 12, the essays from 1966–85, is also valued very highly by Voegelinians.

Other people would make still further cases for other volumes in the series.

econdary literature

Perhaps the best introductions to Voegelin are:
*Webb, Eugene: "Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History" Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1981.
* 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, and the more complex
* Sandoz, Ellis: [ "The Vogelinian Revolution: A Biographical Introduction"] Louisiana State UP, 1981.
* The closest to an introduction to Voegelin's thought in his own words is the: "Autobiographical Reflections", (forthcoming? as) CW 34, but there are other editions.
* [ Coetsier, Meins G. S.] " [ Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis] ". Columbia Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2008.
* [ Coetsier, Meins G. S.] ' [ God? ... Licht in het duister: Twee denkers in barre tijden: de Duitse filosoof Eric Voegelin en de Nederlands- Joodse schrijfster Etty Hillesum,"'in Etty Hillesum Studies: Etty Hillesum in context] ," red. Ria van den Brandt en Klaas A.D. Smelik, Assen: Gorcum, 2008.

See also

*James Billington
*James Webb
*Plato's The Statesman
*Zahi Hawass
*Mary Lefkowitz
*Sociological positivism
*Charles Peirce
*Latin Averroism
*Bernard Williams (see Williams critique of utilitarianism)

External links

* [ The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin]
* [ Eric-Voegelin-Archiv]
* [ The Eric Voegelin Institute]
* [ The Centre of Eric Voegelin Studies(EVS),Ghent University]
* [ (dt.)]
* [ Coetsier, Meins G. S.] " [ Heaven in Hell: A Voegelinian Exploration of the Life and Writings of Etty Hillesum] " [ PDF]
* [ Eric Voegelin Study Page]
* [ An Eric Voegelin page]
* [ Immanent correctionssatirical article by Jonah Goldberg]
* [ Stephen Mcknight "Gnosticism and Modernity: Voegelin’s Reconsiderations Twenty Years After The New Science of Politics"]
* [ The Eric Voegelin Colloquium (Discussion Forum)]
* [ Voegelin and Dostoevsky's Immanence of God and Boredom]
* [ Intellectual Conservatives Greatest Works No 23]
* [ The suggestion of pneumopathological consciousness as the proper term of Voegelin's intended Gnosticism]

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