The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 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 Gospel and Culture ends with Voegelin’s formulation of four conclusions: (1) The generative anxieties of the conscious individual stem from a deep past of successive differentiations; thus whenever the individual experiences the waking of his own consciousness, he necessarily sees this event as one among similar occurrences “in the process of a reality whose truth advances to higher stages of realization,” but whose movement also tends distractingly to drag the mixed-up detritus of earlier differentiations with it. (2) “The cosmos does not cease to be real” when consciousness becomes aware of the divine principle beyond the contingent world of time and space; but the tension between contingency and necessity rises to consciousness as a structuring principle of the cosmos in its character as metaxy. (3) Symbols, even the validly differentiating ones, can become so vivid that they lead the thinker into devaluing the cosmos and thus cause him to lapse further into a state of alienation. (4) A movement of communal alienation can—and usually does—parallel and imitate the movement of non-doctrinal awareness in an agitated or stressed society; such a movement, in revulsion from worldly existence, can turn on worldly existence either to reform it radically or even obliterate it.


As to the last, the historical cases are well known. Where The Gospel and Culture focuses on the positive character of the sense of reality in the movement of history, the Eranos Conference lecture on Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme focuses on the impulse of alienation—on the lopsided destabilizing “Sense of Imperfection” or what one might call, in a Voegelinian coinage, noetic pathology. The two essays thus directly complement one another. The title, Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme, serves for a disjunction. Wisdom seeks to participate in the movement towards perfection without professing a doctrine and without designing to realize its dream in the realm of mortal existence. Opposite to wisdom stands the aspernatio rationis.

Voegelin begins by noting how haters of reality plague modern society: “Even in our so-called free societies not a day passes that we are not seriously molested, in encounters with persons, or the mass media, or a supposedly philosophical and scientific literature, by somebody’s Utopian imagination.” Such alienated people would impose on unwilling others the prison house of their rebellious dreams. Once again, the historical cases are well known. In his essay, Voegelin concerns himself with the analysis of the pathology. He places Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129—“Th’expense of Spirit in a waste of shame / is lust in action”—at the beginning of his analysis, commenting on its place in the erotic symbolism of the sonnets generally. Why does eroticism form part of the argument here? The healthy subject’s response to the divine tug always corresponds to a loving endeavor; such eros or amor is present in both the Platonic and the gospel text. “Expense” means a type of orgiastic expenditure; a “waste of shame” means a wasteland from which shame is absent. Shakespeare defines “lust” as the perversion of love through its subservience to the libido dominandi and its redirection to purely egocentric and mundane ends. Atop the poem’s erotic metaphors, Shakespeare builds a systematic related symbolism concerning the action of the libido in the epistemological and political realms. Voegelin quotes the poem’s catalogue of the libido’s methods—“lust / Is perjured, murderous, bloody full of blame, / Savage extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust”—and comments that Shakespeare’s list “characterizes to perfection the activities of a totalitarian ministry of propaganda.”

Skewing the truth, as we have seen, serves Voegelin for an equivalent of original sin. The individual “madness” in one ego’s “lust” is therefore but the simple of the collective “madness” in an ideological dictatorship disguising itself under the Utopian label. Like the criminal, the ideologue recoils in paroxysm from the world’s failure to conform to his wishes. He desires fiendishly to impose his will.

Voegelin moves through a sequence of texts—by the orator Gorgias, Plato again, and the German satirist-poet Karl Kraus—until he arrives at Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (1848), often dismissed by conservative judgment as a manifestation of decadence. Not so, in Voegelin’s view. Rather, Baudelaire, two and a half centuries after Shakespeare, has experienced historically the very triumph of zeal that the bard foresaw in Sonnet 129: the Puritan and Jacobin regicides against l’ancien régime, revolutionary massacres, Napoleonic wars, colossal public lies, and the brutal suppression of truth in its dissent, representing, as Voegelin says of G. W. F. Hegel, “the hubris of enlightenment” in its character as “a revolt against reality.” Truth is not a doctrine, but rather the recognition of the inalterable structure of existence and the limit of human intellectual competency to penetrate it, beyond which only a careful faith can take the subject. “The more clearly the word of the ‘saving tale’ speaks in history, the more obstinately man, or at least some men, will raise the question why existence should have a structure from which man has to be saved. And if a noetic answer is impossible within the fides of the vision, an imaginative dream must provide the answer without regard for noetic truth.” In “To the Reader,” Baudelaire, alluding to one of Plato’s symbols of existence in The Laws, sums up modern intellectual derangement in the figure of Lucifer: “On the pillow of evil it is Satan Trismegistus / Who soothes a long while our bewitched mind, / And the rich metal of our determination / Is made vapor by that learned chemist. // It is the Devil who holds the reins which make us go!”

Page 4 of 5
By This Author
LeMay, Curtis

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