The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 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

The questions arise in part because the splintered fragments of earlier revelatory articulations clutter the metaxy like so many dead letters, like the Olympian myths in Plato’s century. In Justin Martyr’s time, the Second Century, the Platonic revelation had in turn long since lapsed into the doctrine of Platonism or Neo-Platonism, the squabbling of whose spokesmen for status as authoritative exegetes obscured the light of the Plato’s original insight. In the new divine penetration of this world in the form of Christ’s teaching and his Passion, Justin found the resuscitation, on a higher level, of the ossified topics and assertions of the Post-Platonic schools. Christianity itself, as observers are now in a position to see, would unfold historically as a series of extinctions and resuscitations of its spiritually vivifying Word.

The seeker instinctively dismisses as officious and inadequate the clerical or bureaucratic reduction of the once vital Vision to a reified code of petty commandments and sententious clichés—hence, illustratively, the attitude of the early Jewish Christians with respect to Rabbinic Judaism or of Luther to the Roman Church. It is not only the reification of rules and opinions; it is also the invariable injustice and shoddiness of civic, national, or imperial life against which the sensitive individual recoils in disgust and from which, as he sees brightly or dimly, humanity might be delivered but cannot because of the inertia of bad habits. Voegelin calls the abuse of symbols “deculturation.” He calls the revelatory response to such abuse, “the Saving Tale”; he finds the “Tale,” in convergent expressions, in Plato and the gospel alike. In The Republic, it emerges in the story of Er the Pamphylian, whose excursion into the underworld, where he witnessed the judgment of the dead, prefigures the “representative death” of Socrates and the posthumous victory of the philosopher over death through his enshrinement in “the part of reality,” as Voegelin writes elsewhere, “that goes by the name of Plato.” Voegelin reminds his readers that the term Pamphylian means “the man of all tribes,” anticipating the gospel phrase, “Son of Man,” and implying a universally applicable significance. The Myth of Er does not say that the Tartarean judges rewarded people who had followed a particular commandment, nor that they condemned people who had flouted that commandment; far more generally, the myth says that the judges punished those who had flouted the beckoning of the divine principle and rewarded those who heeded its tug.

As he turns from The Republic of Plato to the Logos theology of John, Voegelin asserts that, “The noetic core . . . is the same in both classic philosophy and the gospel movement.” One is not saved by knowledge, by a doctrine, but by willingness, as Voegelin puts it, to heed the tug of the undefined good. “Since there is no doctrine to be taught but only the story to be told of God’s pull becoming effective in the world through Christ, the Saving Tale that answers the question of life and death can be reduced to a brief statement.” Here Voegelin quotes John (17:3): “And this is life eternal—To know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” To respond to the good means to respond to the immortalizing impulse that in part structures the metaxy and so offers a counter-pull to deculturation. This truth stood in place in fifth-century BC Athens, a society that still symbolized divinity as “intra-cosmic gods”; it remained true in the increasingly monotheistic centuries of the Roman Empire, and it remains true in today’s secular-atheistic dispensation. Thus, “At a time when the reality of the gospel threatens to fall apart into the constructions of an historical Jesus and a doctrinal Christ, one cannot stress strongly enough the status of a gospel symbolism engendered in the metaxy of existence by a disciple’s response to the drama of the Son of God.” The disciple responds to no doctrine but rather to a person involved in an event.

A danger nevertheless remains. When the differentiated, fully transcendent God—either Plato’s God beyond the gods in Phaedrus or “The Father” to whom Jesus refers in the evangelists—breaks into reality the articulation of the breakthrough inclines no less than any other idea to false objectification, to a discourse of propositions to be endorsed or refuted and of things in the social fabric that one might alter, rearrange, or eliminate. As Voegelin carefully notes, however, not only is “existence . . . not a fact,” but “if anything, existence is the nonfact of a disturbing movement in the In-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness . . . and ultimately of life and death.”

Page 3 of 5
By This Author
LeMay, Curtis

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