Eric Voegelin

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Eric Voegelin

The German-Austrian political theorist Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), who became an American citizen after exile from Nazi Germany, will probably gain influence as the most subtle rethinker of Augustine's City of God and the leading Christian philosopher of history of the 20th century.

Eric Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany, on January 3, 1901, and moved as a boy to Vienna, Austria. He received his doctorate with a dissertation written under the legal positivist Hans Kelsen in 1922. His American education, under a Rockefeller grant from 1924 to 1927, was most significant. In contrast to the positivism which dominated political philosophy in Europe, what he discovered in the United States was intellectual life still rooted in Christianity and in classical culture. His first book, On the Form of the American Spirit (1929, not yet translated into English), although on the interpretation of law, was broadly based on a knowledge of the great American Golden Age of Philosophy (James, Santayana). And he had heard Dewey and Whitehead lecture. He also was familiar with such concrete problems of American life as the Eighteenth Amendment, class conflict, and La Follette's Wisconsin ideal.

Voegelin's career as instructor at the University of Vienna was broad in its international interests, yet coupled with the practical problems of the civil service, such as supervision of schools. He knew what was then the avant garde of English literature and was probably the first non-English-speaking professor to teach James Joyce's Ulysses. He also made a specialty of the writings of Paul Valéry. He served as secretary of the Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, set up under the League of Nations (1936-1938).

Political and Philosophical Crises

It remains controversial how sympathetic Voegelin was with the Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuss. Voegelin's conservative friends insist that The Authoritarian State (1936) is only a study of the Austrian constitution. What is important and very clear is that Voegelin's two other books, also in German, did not satisfy the Nazis who submerged Austria into the Third Reich in 1938. Hitler's idea of eliminating the so-called "inferior and non-Aryan" people was based, according to Race and State (1933) and The Idea of Race in the History of Ideas (1933), on specious 19th-century sources. Voegelin's contempt for the very idea of a "Master race" led him to the conclusion that no just government can be based on anything but universal humanity. Voegelin was dismissed by the Nazis in 1938, and Voegelin and his wife narrowly escaped apprehension by the Gestapo. They became political refugees in Switzerland.

Exile was the occasion for Voegelin to reflect on what had gone wrong with the modern state. The monarch of the 17th century, particularly Louis XIV of France, who considered himself the sun-king, the source of light, thus tended to replace God. The English ideal state of Hobbes was a Leviathan, headed by an almost absolute supreme head of both church and state. All the symbols of modernity, according to Voegelin's The Political Religions (1938), succeeded in "decapitating God" and thus robbed the modern hierarchy of the true source of norms. There is no political legitimacy without transcendent sanction.

Voegelin was fiercely independent in his political science and failed in several noted institutions—Harvard, for example—to get permanent status. Finally, beginning in 1942 he had a long period of 16 years during which he was Boyd Professor at Louisiana State University and wrote and published the first half of the projected six-volume Order and History. Voegelin became an American citizen by naturalization in 1944.

Voegelin's Interpretation of History

His interpretation of history is designed, as Augustine's City of God, to show the sources of civic order in the divine order proclaimed by the prophets of Israel and reasoned by the Greek philosophers. The point of Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, and Plato and Aristotle is not antiquarian nor is it "scientific historiography," but the historical evidence that the order established in the soul of Western man depends upon transcendence. Only when nature and history are regarded as created by God can man discover the true norms according to which human affairs are to be regulated. But the modern world, in freeing philosophy from theology, freeing the arts from the church, and making state power supreme and independent of traditional prohibited excesses, has plunged man into disorder. This program is best studied in The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (1952). Originally the great work Order and History was to include Empire and Christianity, The Protestant Centuries, and The Crisis of Western Civilization. What we now have is The Ecumenic Age and From Enlightenment to Revolution, and what we will soon have is In Search of Order. All the secular ideologies of modernity are departures from what Voegelin believed were established principles of order. No set of abstract principles arrived at by reason, however powerful the deductive and inductive methods, can ever provide the rich symbolic meanings of the classical Christian tradition. Voegelin rather abhorred metaphysics and refused ever to define order or demonstrate his principles of order. Nonetheless, many readers became convinced that there was a 20th-century crisis and that the only answer to modern barbarity, such as Hitler's Nazidom, was the recovery of human order based ultimately in God.

The stature of Voegelin can be measured in two ways: by his astonishing scholarship, which extended from ancient Near and Far East through Biblical, classical, medieval, and modern periods and with respect to which there is little disagreement; and by his achievement of wisdom, with respect to which there is a division between a few loyal followers who count Voegelin a great prophet and the majority who say they cannot comprehend his ideas of mythical symbolism, memory and consciousness (anamnesis), the leap in being, and, most of all, his attack on modernity as the perversion of "gnosticism." Voegelin never professed to know God, but only to deal with the symbols of transcendence found in literature. His Christianity was deeply credal and included a defense of the Incarnation (that God became man) and the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost).

Voegelin returned to Germany in 1958 where, at the University of Munich, through the Institute of Political Science, he exercized great influence on the political theory of the Federal Republic. The wide respect he was accorded can be judged from the papers in his honor, presented on his 60th birthday, Politische Ordnung und Menschliche Existenz, München (1962).

When Voegelin retired he became associated with the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. He died at the age of 84 on January 19, 1985. Happily, for his 80th birthday, a group of essays, probably the best dealing with his concepts, was published: The Philosophy of Order (1981).

Further Reading

Voegelin's philosophy can best be explored in his own works, which include "The German Universities in the Nazi Era," in The Intercollegiate Review (Spring/Summer 1985); the series Order and History which consists of Israel and Revelation (1956), The World of the Polis (1957), Plato and Aristotle (1957), The Ecumenic Age (1974), and In Search of Order (1987); Anaminesis (translated by Gerhart Niemeyer, 1978); The New Science of Politics (1952); and Science, Politics and Gnosticism (translated by William J. Fitzpatrick, 1968). Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba, The Philosophy of Order: Essays on History, Consciousness and Politics (Stuttgart, 1981); John H. Hollowell, From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975); and Ellis Sandoz, The Voegelinian Revolution: A Biographical Introduction (1981) explore his philosophy.

Additional Sources

Sandoz, Ellis, The Voegelinian revolution: a biographical introduction, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1981.

Voegelin, Eric, Autobiographical reflections, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Webb, Eugene, Eric Voegelin, philosopher of history, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981. □