Voegelin, Eric (Herman Wilhelm) 1901-1985

views updated

VOEGELIN, Eric (Herman Wilhelm) 1901-1985

PERSONAL: Given name sometimes cited in German as Erich; born January 3, 1901, in Cologne, Germany; immigrated to United States, 1938, naturalized citizen, 1944; died of congestive heart failure, January 19, 1985, in Palo Alto (some sources say Stanford), CA; son of Otto and Elisabeth (Ruehl) Voegelin; married Lissy Onken, July 30, 1932. Education: University of Vienna, Dr. rer. pol., 1922; graduate study at Oxford University, University of Berlin, and University of Heidelberg. Religion: Lutheran.

CAREER: University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria, assistant in law faculty, 1923-24 and 1928, privatdozent, 1929-35, extraordinarius, 1936-38; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor and tutor in political science, 1938-39; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, instructor, 1939; University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, assistant professor, 1939-42; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, associate professor, 1942-46, professor, 1946-52, Boyd Professor of Government, 1952-58; University of Munich, Munich, Germany, professor of political science, 1958-69; Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Henry Salvatori Distinguished Scholar, 1969-74, senior research fellow, 1974-85. Member of administrative board of Volkshochschule, Vienna, and of Austrian Commission of Civil Service Examiners, both 1936-38.

MEMBER: American Political Science Association, American Social Science Association.

AWARDS, HONORS: Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellow, 1924-27; Lippincott Award from American Political Science Association, 1980; Gold Medal from City of Munich, Germany, 1981; honorary doctorates from Colorado College, Emory University, Marquette University, University of Augsburg, and University of Notre Dame.


Ueber die Form des amerikanischen Geistes, Mohr (Tuebingen, Germany), 1928.

Rasse und Staat, Mohr (Tuebingen, Germany), 1933, translation by Ruth Hein published as Race and State, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1997.

Die Rassenidee in der Geistesgeschichte von Ray bisCarus, Junker & Duennhaupt (Berlin, Germany), 1933.

Der Autoritaere Staat: Ein Versuch ueber das oesterreichische Staatsproblem, J. Springer (Vienna, Austria), 1936.

Die politischen Religionen, Bermann-Fischer (Stockholm, Sweden), 1939.

The New Science of Politics, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1952.

Order and History (also see below), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), Volume 1: Israel and Revelation, 1956, Volume 2: The World of the Polis, 1957, Volume 3: Plato and Aristotle, 1957, Volume 4: The Ecumenic Age, 1974, Volume 5: In Search of Order, 1987.

Wissenschaft, Politik und Gnosis, Koesel (Munich, Germany), 1959, translation by William J. Fitzpatrick published as Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Regnery (Lanham, MD), 1968, reprinted, 1997.

(With others) Christentum und Liberalismus, Zink (Munich, Germany), 1960.

Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik, Piper (Munich, Germany), 1966, translation by Gerhart Niemeyer published as Anamnesis, University of Notre Dame Press (South Bend, IN), 1978.

(Editor) Zwischen Revolution und Restauration: Politisches Denken in England im 17. Jahrhundert, List (Munich, Germany), 1968.

From Enlightenment to Revolution, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1975.

Autobiographical Reflections, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1989.

The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), Volume 1: On the Form of the American Mind, Volume 2: Race and State, Volume 3: The History of the Race Idea: From Ray to Carus, Volume 4: The Authoritarian State: An Essay on the Problem of the Austrian State, Volume 5: Modernity without Restraint; The Political Religions; The New Science of Politics; and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Volume 6: Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, Volume 7: Published Essays, 1922-1928, Volume 9: Published Essays, 1934-1939, Volume 10: Published Essays, 1940-1952, Volume 11: Published Essays, 1953-1965, Volume 12: Published Essays, 1966-1985, Volume 13: Selected Book Reviews, Volume 14: Order and History, Volume 1, Israel and Revelation, Volume 15: Order and History, Volume 2, The World of the Polis, Volume 16: Order and History, Volume 3, Plato and Aristotle, Volume 17: Order and History, Volume 4, The Ecumenic Age, Volume 18: Order and History, Volume 5, In Search of Order, Volume 19: History of Political Ideas, Volume 1, Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity, Volume 20: History of Political Ideas, Volume 2, The Middle Ages to Aquinas, Volume 21: History of Political Ideas, Volume 3, The Later Middle Ages, Volume 22: History of Political Ideas, Volume 4, Renaissance and Reformation, Volume 23: History of Political Ideas, Volume 5, Religion and the Rise of Modernity, Volume 24: History of Political Ideas, Volume 6, Revolution and the New Science, Volume 25: History of Political Ideas, Volume 7, The New Order and Last Orientation, Volume 26: History of Political Ideas, Volume 8, Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man, Volume 27, Nature of the Law and Related Legal Writings, Volume 28: What Is History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings, Volume 31: Hitler and the Germans, 1989-2003.

SIDELIGHTS: Historian and political philosopher Eric Voegelin is regarded as one of the most important scholars of the twentieth century. He drew upon an immense knowledge of languages and academic disciplines to construct his theories about human civilization, impressing peers with thoughtful, well-documented arguments. In works such as The New Science of Politics, From Enlightenment to Revolution, and especially in his five-volume masterwork, Order and History, Voegelin explored modern political institutions in light of pre-modern forms, and in so doing he fashioned a comprehensive view of human history. A National Review obituary noted that Voegelin "reminded the West of the real stakes involved in thinking, even when we are attempting thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls—the only thinking worthy of men."

For his philosophy Voegelin articulated a specific opinion on the nature of reality. He argued that human civilization is part of a larger cosmos, divine but mysterious; that the world existed before humanity began and will exist after it ends as well. While human beings inevitably long to discover the secrets of their origin and fate, that longing is destined to remain unfulfilled. The desire to know that which is unknowable, though, produces a "tension" of existence that fuels all human activity and creation. For those who understand and accept that reality is open-ended, this inner conflict is a healthy one: the quest to unlock the secrets of existence gives meaning to life and makes progress possible.

The importance of accepting reality applies to society as well as to individuals, and it is this larger scale that Voegelin sought to chronicle. By studying the symbols of civilization—evident in the art, literature, and political and religious institutions of all societies—he built a philosophy that integrates his theory of reality with the way societies have ordered themselves throughout history. In ancient cultures such as those in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, noted Voegelin, humans created political and social forms that recognized the existence of a world beyond everyday life. Those cultures strove to understand that world and align themselves in harmony with it. By the twentieth century, however, humanity had faltered, producing the totalitarian systems of nations such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. These regimes claimed to have the keys to human perfectibility and earthly paradise and denied the existence of any world beyond the present one. In other words, such cultures exalted a "closed" existence, which precludes significant human achievement and leads inevitably to disorder and conflict. Voegelin himself was forced to flee from Germany in 1938, and critics have noted that much of his subsequent philosophy was a reaction to the political makeup of his native country.

Voegelin's theories encompassed both individual experience and larger societal forms and ranged across the whole of human history. He was particularly interested in the symbols created by societies to explain their existence, and because of his vast knowledge of languages he was able to explore those symbols by reading original sources, whether from ancient Greece or modern Russia. Thus, his arguments were always well documented, eliciting admiration from peers and critics. "He rarely hazards an important generalization which is not supported by a cautious reading of the primary sources," noted Dante Germino in a National Review article about From Enlightenment to Revolution. "Here is a man who speaks with intellectual authority, and the sources of that authority are displayed for all to see."

Order and History remains Voegelin's most important achievement. He published the first volume of the series in 1956 and was completing the final volume when he died in 1985. Critical comment about the series gives further indication of the esteem in which the author is held. Writing in the Yale Review in 1957, Russell Kirk called Voegelin "probably the most influential historian of our century, and certainly the most provocative." And Christian Century contributor R. L. Shinn commented that "[Voegelin's] is one of the monuments of scholarship of our time."

In 2002, The University of Missouri Press released The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, a thirty-one-volume project that includes many texts previously unavailable in English translation. This includes reprints of Order and History as well as Voegelin's eight-volume The History of Political Ideas. According to Thomas Heilke in the Journal of Church and State, in these volumes—and particularly in his essays—Voegelin "raises the discipline of political science to a level of theoretical insight and sophistication that it rarely attains."



Dempf, A., H. Arendt, and F. Engel-Janosi, editors, Politische Ordnung und menschlich Existenz: Festgabe fuer Eric Voegelin, C. H. Beck (Munich, Germany), 1962.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Germino, Dante L., Political Philosophy and the OpenSociety, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1982.

Kirby, John, and William M. Thompson, editors, Voegelin and the Theologian: Ten Studies in Interpretation, Edwin Mellen (Lewiston, NY), 1983.

McKnight, Stephen A., editor, Eric Voegelin's Search for Order in History, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1978.

O'Connor, Eric, editor, Conversations with Eric Voegelin, Thomas More Institute (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 1980.

Opitz, Peter J., and Gregor Sebba, editors, The Philosophy of Order: Essays on History, Consciousness and Politics; for Eric Voegelin on His Eightieth Birthday, Klett-Cotta (Stuttgart, Germany), 1981.

Sandoz, Ellis, The Voegelinian Revolution, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1982.

Sandoz, Ellis, editor, Eric Voegelin's Thought: A Critical Appraisal, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1982.

Webb, Eugene, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1981.


Christian Century, September 17, 1958.

Journal of Church and State, summer, 2000, Thomas Heilke, review of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 5, p. 568.

Journal of Religion, January, 1999, Thomas Heilke, review of History of Political Ideas, Volume 1, Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity, p. 136; April, 1999, Thomas Heilke, review of History of Political Ideas, Volume 2, The Middle Ages to Aquinas, p. 291.

Library Journal, September 15, 1995, Leon H. Brody, review of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 1 p. 72.

National Review, January 14, 1969; October 25, 1975.

New Republic, October 29, 1956.

Times Literary Supplement, August 7, 1953.

Yale Review, spring, 1957.



Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1985.

National Review, February 22, 1985, "Eric Voegelin, RIP," p. 21.

Newsweek, February 4, 1985.

New York Times, January 23, 1985.

Time, February 4, 1985, p. 81.

Times (London, England), February 5, 1985.

Washington Post, January 25, 1985.*