The Heterodoxy of Eric Voegelin

June 1991By Glenn N. Schram

Glenn N. Schram, a Lutheran, taught political science at Marquette University, and now lives in Hammond, Indiana, and devotes all his time to research and writing in the area of political philosophy. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Politics, Comparative Politics, and other academic journals.

Essays 1966-1985.  By Eric Voegelin. Louisiana State University Press. 416. $32.50.

What Is History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings.  By Eric Voegelin. Louisiana State University Press. 256. $22.50.



Eric Voegelin's future reputation will rest on his recovery of certain spiritual truths of the Old Testament and of Plato and Aristotle and on his critique of the "spiritual disorder" at the root of much modern thought. This disorder became progressively worse until it finally led to the rise of totalitarian states in the present century. Plato and Aristotle, as well as modern thought, receive a great deal of attention in these two books, whereas Voegelin's discussion of the Old Testament is largely confined to the previously published Volume I of his five-volume Order and History.

The books under review here are the first to appear in the publisher's projected 34-volume set of Voegelin's collected works, which will include Voegelin's hitherto largely unpublished history of political thought and a reissue of Order and History. Of the books under review, the second contains previously unpublished material and reveals the depth of Voegelin's animus toward the churches and doctrinal Christianity.

In the two books Voegelin comes back repeatedly to Plato's idea of the metaxy, the "In-Between" in which man experiences a tension between human and divine "poles" in his consciousness. Voegelin tried to elicit in the reader an experience of "erotic tension" toward the divine pole. In speaking of this pole, Voegelin prefers the term "divine reality" to "the God of the Creed" because he opposes the "reification" or "hypostatization" of the components of the metaxy. In other words, he opposes their being treated as things in the world about us.

Here many Christians will be troubled, for Voegelin's warnings against reification and hypostatization boil down to an assertion that God is "nonexistent reality," that He exists only "by courtesy of analogy." One must not ascribe properties to God, even the property of existence, for in doing so one becomes involved in propositional metaphysics, which Voegelin holds to be almost as great an evil as doctrinal theology.

For Voegelin, God "is not a spatially distant thing," an "object of cognition," but a presence in the human soul. In a previously unpublished paper, he says that the soul "is the sensorium for divine reality and the site of its luminous presence." He might of course mean that it has a nonluminous presence outside the soul, but I see no evidence for such an interpretation.

Instead, in the same paper he renounces his earlier reference to God as "transcendent reality," a term suggesting that He is "out there" (my term, not Voegelin's) he denies that the world was created "in time" and thus denies the existence of a Creator God in the usual sense of the term; he says that the cosmos is permeated, not by God, but merely by "the divine mystery of its existence"; and he is troubled by Plato's idea of a "surplus of divine reality" which is not exhausted by the human experience of the divine pole of the metaxy.

God is restricted to the soul for Voegelin because he says he wants to go behind two millennia of propositional metaphysics and doctrinal theology, and recover the spiritual experiences which engendered the metaphysics and theology in the first place. This procedure means making as clear as possible what Plato and Aristotle, especially Plato, really said about "man's consciousness of tension toward the divine ground of his existence." This last quotation is Voegelin's definition of reason. Voegelin accepts in principle the distinction between reason and revelation, and he is more at home with the spiritual experiences of the Greek philosophers, which we ordinarily identify with reason, than he is with the spiritual experiences of the Hebrew prophets, which we ordinarily identify with revelation. But he insists that the traditional sharp distinction between reason and revelation (and between philosophy and religion) is invalid, in part because the divine pole of the metaxy exerts a revelatory pull to which reason responds.

As for Christianity in particular, an appendix to the volume of previously unpublished writings contains correspondence between Voegelin and Louisiana State University Press over the years showing his frequent changes in plans for Order and History. Hannah Arendt once said that he could not complete the work as originally planned because he did not know what to do with Christianity. I suspect she was right.

In the books under review, Voegelin shows himself to be of a mixed mind about Christianity. For example, while he praises the Gospel for the "noetic core"-- the core of reason -- which it contains despite its strongly revelatory nature, he attacks the churches and their doctrines in another previously unpublished paper. He speaks of the "perversion of transcendence through the fundamentalism of ecclesiastic Christianity" and charges this "perversion" with having lost the "ground of existence," or God. By "fundamentalism" Voegelin means here, not just scriptural literalism, but all belief in doctrine; he refers to doctrinal belief as a "disorder." The reason for such language becomes clear in an autobiographical note shortly afterwards where Voegelin says, "There were a great number of people for whom the Churches lost their faith...." Because he could accept few if any teachings of any church, he turned to Greek philosophy.

On what from an orthodox Christian perspective is a more agreeable note, Voegelin continues in the books under review the critique of modern thought that he began in his 1952 masterpiece of political philosophy, The New Science of Politics. There he defined the essence of modernity as the growth of gnosticism, or the belief that it is possible to create a state of earthly bliss by remaking man in one or another image of moral perfection; he defined totalitarianism as the final, most extreme form of gnosticism.

Later he explored the consciousness of gnostic thinkers, arguing that they suffered from "spiritual disorder" and were rebels against the "order of being" and ultimately against God as the "origin" of this order. A doctrinal theologian might formulate the problem by saying that because of original sin men cannot be made perfect, and that, when they try to perfect their own kind, they are guilty of the sin of pride.

In the books under review, Voegelin advances our understanding of gnosticism in four ways:

(1) He interprets the tragic character of the governess in Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw as having a soul demonically closed to God and as seeking salvation in the manner of gnostic intellectuals -- i.e., entirely through her own devices. In the process Voegelin elaborates on the idea of John Milton as gnostic, which he introduced in The New Science of Politics.

(2) He stresses the "eclipse" of divine reality begun by the gnostics of the 18th-century Enlightenment through rebellion against ecclesiastic "fundamentalism" and consummated by l9th-century gnostics such as Hegel, Comte, Marx, and Nietzsche, at whose hands occurred the "death of God" from which gnostic and other intellectuals tend to suffer to this day.

(3) He elaborates on the "magic" nature of gnosticism and is especially concerned to reveal Hegel to be a "sorcerer." According to Voegelin, Hegel was faced in his day with the hypostatization and separation of the poles of the metaxy and sought to restore their relationship by collapsing them into the fictitious consciousness of the "man-god," who was Hegel himself. The result was the "death of God" -- not in fact, but in the minds of many gnostic thinkers.

(4) He continues the discussion, begun in The New Science of Politics, of anxiety as the source of gnosticism, paying special attention to philosophical "systems" such as Hegel's. Voegelin writes, "The system is the assuaging device, developed as a response to anxiety, when man in revolt has sunk...into spiritual impotence." A more satisfactory assuaging device would be the "search of order" in the soul through attunement to God.

Growing out of Voegelin's critique of gnosticism is social criticism which, with one exception, is scattered throughout the two books and tends to focus on the preponderance, in European and American universities, of "epigones" of the major gnostic thinkers of the past. His remarks are always incisive, at times witty, and usually harsh.

The exception is an entire chapter devoted to the German university, including the Nazi experience. Voegelin, who was a professor at the University of Munich from 1958 to 1969, may be right when he says that the task of the German university is, among other things, "to close men off narcissistically," "to rob them of their spiritual orientation," and "to make them unfit for public life." But, in discussing the Nazi experience, Voegelin goes too far in attacking Pastor Martin Niemoeller and Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., for being exclusively concerned for the Christian victims of the regime. Both men opposed the regime when it took great courage to do go, and Voegelin should not try to deprive present-day German Christians of two of the few men from the Nazi period with whom they can identify.

In conclusion, I wish to say a word about the future of doctrinal Christianity in light of Voegelin's work. If, as Voegelin once said, totalitarianism is the end form of gnostic civilization, and if gnosticism is still very much with us in the forms of positivism, scientism, various liberationisms, and so on, then a renaissance of non-gnostic religion, especially among the intellectual elite, where the leading gnostics are concentrated, would seem to be desirable. The doctrinal Christianity of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds is most definitely non-gnostic. A renaissance of such religion would, therefore, seem to be desirable, even though Voegelin himself could not believe in it.



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