The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 11, 2018

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The Gist of Voegelin: His Two Late Essays on Constitutive Vision and Noetic Pathology
Thomas F. Bertonneau - 08/27/08

Eric Voegelin (1901—1985), perhaps the keenest philosopher of recent modernity and the most clairvoyant diagnostician of modern social pathology, while stylistically plainer in expression and more accessible than the writers of the mid-century phenomenological and existential schools, nevertheless demands from his readers a range of prior knowledge and a capacity for studious attention that render him difficult by ordinary standards. The five volumes of Voegelin’s magnum opus, his Order and History (1956—1981), are, like Søren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript or Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, something on the order of a lifetime’s devotion: one would not blame even an otherwise ambitiously educated person for not having made himself familiar with them. Voegelin’s books have certainly never belonged to the standard curriculum in American graduate humanities programs. Even The New Science of Politics (1951), smaller in scale than Order and History and about as “popular” as its author ever got, can present an uninitiated reader with a daunting challenge. While aware of the disordering effect of neologisms and arcane terms, for example, and ready to chastise those who employ them for mystification, Voegelin does have a way of calling up recondite locutions—he would argue that his is rescuing them from abeyance or deformation—from Plato and Aristotle, from Augustine and Aquinas, that, having long lapsed from currency, hardly strike a novice as plain in their intention and leave him wondering about the meaning. A reader can nevertheless rise to Voegelin.

Voegelin left at his death a mass of books, monographs, and essays, published and unpublished, the greater part of which the University of Mississippi Press has made available in the Collected Works, whose issuance began in the 1990s. The Collected Works have increased Voegelin’s authorial profile considerably: the project includes, revealingly, the abandoned multi-volume History of Political Ideas, which its author judged a failure after more than a decade of work, but which forms the background to the more concise and coherent Order and History. The Collected Works also make available several volumes of essays, collected by period. The most fascinating of the collections, Essays 1966—1985, contains occasional ricercari and meditations from the terminal decade of Voegelin’s life when he had arrived at a refined ability to communicate his basic insights in their most crystalline and transparent form. Among the author’s late quintessential articulations, two items stand out as magisterial achievements on the highest level—the essays on The Gospel and Culture (1971) and on Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme (1983).

These two essays express elegantly, with appropriate examples and explanations, Voegelin’s discoveries that the origin of consciousness as civic and historical awareness lies in the visionary encounter with a divine ordering principle; that the order of history lies in the studious history of order; that truth lies in an awareness of the subject’s movement, in an imperfect existence, towards a source of order that is not an entity in, but rather a force beyond, the field of existence; and that consciousness, hence also the social structure, is vulnerable to predictable pathological deformations that immiserate whole communities. Among such deformations one encounters the libido dominandi (“lust for power”) and the aspernatio rationis (“spurning of reason”). To Voegelin, both these forms of morbus animi (“sickness of the soul”) appear to afflict severely the modern age, even to the extent that they characterize contemporary life. The same two essays reiterate Voegelin’s thesis that truth is not a doctrine, but rather a recognition of structure in reality, and they refer in remarkably helpful ways to a set of texts that Voegelin held up as touchstones of theoretical penetration into the character of consciousness and the order of existence: The Bible, Plato’s dialogues, the Christian patres, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and—however surprising it might seem—the French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire. Taken together the two essays add up to the gist of Voegelin; they serve well as an entrée into his larger oeuvre.

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LeMay, Curtis

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