Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

First, the basics: born in Germany in 1901, Eric Voegelin received a doctorate in political science from the University of Vienna, carried on several years of postdoctoral study in England, America, and France, and hem took up an academic career in Austria. He drew the hostility of the Nazis with two early works on race, and in 1938 he fled to America, where he taught for many years, mainly at Louisiana State University. He ended his professional career at the Hoover Institution and died in 1985.

Voegelin wrote voluminously and is known today for two works in particular. One, quite short, is an erudite and powerfully argued effort to shift political science from positivist to transcendental, or “religious,” foundations (The New Science of Politics: An Introduction[1952]). The other (Order and History [1956-1987]), which is much longer and generally seen as his major work, is a five-volume study of the rise and development of human awareness of divine transcendence, and of the resulting order in the soul and society; the first three volumes concentrate on ancient Israel and Greece, while the last two reach toward the modern world.

Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order by Michael P. Federici is a brief and lucid introduction to Voegelin’s main ideas. While the author is cognizant of possible weaknesses in Voegelin’s thought, his aim is not to write a critique. Nor is it to offer a new interpretation of Voegelin’s intentions or accomplishments. Rather, his book represents an effort to illuminate Voegelin’s philosophy as a whole and to do this in terms readily understandable (as Voegelin’s terms sometimes are not) to the general reader. This is Voegelin made accessible.

Voegelin is an imposing, and at the same time puzzling, figure in modern thought. He is imposing for several reasons. He was as scholar of vast learning. He possessed an expert’s knowledge of Near-Eastern civilizations, carried out studies of ancient Israel that commanded respect for Old Testament scholars, and wrote two probing volumes on the institutions and literature of ancient Greece. With a mastery of all relevant languages, he was at home in the entire history of political philosophy. In the next-to-last volume of Order and History he even extended his gaze to China, displaying his usual scholarly care and competence.

He was not only a scholar, however. He was also a thinker, and in his research was always philosophically reflective, looking not only for truth about the past but also for truth about human nature and the human condition. Whether or not he originated any one great idea, he was unquestionably an original mind. His vocabulary, his method, and his angle of vision were distinctively his own. There is no one quite like him the intellectual world of the twentieth century.

Finally, Voegelin is imposing in the steadiness and tenacity of his transcendental orientation. For all the range and diversity of his interests, it can be fairly said that he devoted his mature life to the search for transcendence. In a manner reminiscent of France’s great Catholic thinker Gabriel Marcel, he understood man’s vocation to be the task of entering into the mystery of being. For Voegelin, as for Marcel, this mystery could not be captured in an ontology, which would only objectify and thus destroy it. We can, however, study human consciousness, where we find an intrinsic drive toward transcendence. The true order of the soul, as Voegelin put it, lies in its “existential tension toward the ground.”

Voegelin’s breadth of vision is evident in the fact that these concerns were always placed in the context of history. Humans discover their humanity only in the course of time and through the progress of philosophical and religious understanding. The greatest historical achievements, however, are not those that are conspicuous to any eye. They are events of philosophical inquiry and of religious revelation—events though which humanity becomes attuned to the mystery of being.

But, as noted, Voegelin is also puzzling. This is because he does not quite fit the categories we ordinarily use in mapping out the intellectual universe. Thus, for example, many readily think of him as a philosopher. Yet on the basis of Order and History, he appears to be an historian of philosophy rather than a philosopher pure and simple. None of the great philosophers, with the possible exception of Hegel, devoted themselves to the history of philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein: all knew something of the history of philosophy (although Wittgenstein evidently very little); none were historians of philosophy. Blurring the distinction between philosophy and the history of philosophy risks confusing philosophical reflection with scholarly research and wisdom with erudition.

Voegelin’s political views, too, are difficult to classify. Even to put him on the side of constitutional democracy, while not false, is not very revealing. As the title of his major work makes clear, he was preoccupied with order. Yet he may leave readers unclear as to his definition of good order. As a refugee from Nazism, he was decidedly opposed to totalitarianism, and in mid-career spent some years at the University of Munich with the reported aim of instilling in the German mind an allegiance to constitutional democracy. Yet in Plato and Aristotle, the third volume of Order and History, his is strikingly uncritical of Plato, whose work, for all of its spiritual grandeur, was arguably in tension with the open society.

Voegelin also defies the usual ideological classifications. Aspects of his thought will appeal to conservatives. He was profoundly hostile to revolutionary movements of the kind that began with the French Revolution. He was a principled opponent of both ideology and political activism. Yet Voegelin did not call himself a conservative, and he spoke of conservatism as simply another ideology. He paid little attention to Burke and did not embrace the cardinal proposition of classical conservatism: that tradition can effectively embody and safeguard human wisdom.

Voegelin’s hostility toward ideology and revolutionary action flows from his concept of gnosticism—one of the most widely known and debated of his ideas. The ancient gnostic movement was characterized by a radical dualism. The world was not merely fallen from God but was the creation of an evil God. This perception led directly to the project of escaping from the world, and gnostics typically saw such an escape as possible though a secret but teachable knowledge (gnosis) in the possession of the spiritual elite. Voegelin sensed that this unwillingness to submit to the structure of reality, and to bear the evils of the world, was a kind of spiritual disease, one that arose again in the Middle Ages and spread into modern times. It affected most modern political thinkers and movements, and, in his view, became the very essence of modernity. Modern Gnosticism differed from ancient Gnosticism in one crucial sense, however: rather than promoting escape from the world, it called for transformation of the world though human action. It was thus a revolt not only against the structure of things but against transcendence itself.

Voegelin’s interpretation of gnosticism provides a dramatic way of conceptualizing the history of political though and even of Western culture. It echoes, although it does not really reproduce, the Judeo-Christian concept of human fallenness. And it accounts for the way in which the rejection of transcendence and the assertion of human mastery have shaped modern history. But at the same time, the gnostic theme can be another source of puzzlement.

One difficulty has to do with the relationship between the political and revolutionary activism of modern gnosticism and the otherworldliness and political detachment of its ancient variety. Can the same name be applied to both movements without creating confusion? Likewise, Voegelin applies the concept so broadly that it seems to take in almost everything—and thus tell us next to nothing at all. Puritanism, positivism, progressivism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism, and fascism were all, in Voegelin’s eyes, gnostic or seriously infected with gnosticism. The same is true of minds as diverse as Isaiah, Joachim of Fiore, Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Hitler. Voegelin was even led to suggest that liberalism and totalitarianism, so commonly regarded in our times as polar opposites, were both fundamentally forms of gnosticism. Readers can wonder whether so all-inclusive a category does not obscure vital differences.

In the issue of Voegelin and Christianity, he can be considered a Christian only with qualifications so severe as almost to nullify the characterization. He reportedly spoke of himself in conversation as a Christian, and in his writings he occasionally seemed to express a Christian allegiance. Eugene Webb, a well-known authority on Voegelin, states unequivocally that he was a Christian, although an unorthodox one. Yet Voegelin writes critically, although vaguely and briefly, of the doctrines both of the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. Jesus receives hardly any attention in Order and History, and Paul receives only brief—and not entirely favorable—attention. Christ is certainly not the axis of history for him. If anything plays that role it is the discovery of transcendence in ancient Israel and Greece. Although Voegelin was keenly aware of how “the existential tension toward the ground” could be distorted and stifled, this is hardly the same as the concept of original sin. And if there is any idea in his writings of justification by faith, it is apt to escape the notice of most Christian readers. In sum, even though he was absorbed by the spiritual crisis of modern man—a crisis he traced back to the ancient gnostic movement—it can hardly be said that he viewed history in a Christian fashion, that is, as a drama of sin and redemption.

Voegelin planned to devote the final two volumes of Order and History to Christianity, carrying forward into the Catholic and Protestant centuries the spiritual advance begun in ancient Israel and Greece. That would have produced a single story encapsulating the major spiritual developments in the West. However, by the time he began work on Volume IV (which had been tentatively entitled Empire and Christianity), Voegelin had come to feel that the past could not be comprehended with a unilinear account. Historical analysis had to move sideways as well as forward, he claimed. It is not easy to know, from the evidence of the final two volumes, just what this means, and whether it produces history in the usual sense of the term.

There is a greatness to Voegelin, but a singularity that makes him difficult to comprehend. That he is worthy of study is not open to doubt. Federici’s book is a splendid place to begin.

Image by Levan Ramishvili licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.