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

Voegelin identifies Plato’s “Golden String,” representing the tug of the divine in The Laws, with Baudelaire’s “rich metal . . . made vapor.” Satan seduces, like the rebellious system-makers, with promises of transfiguration and godhood in exchange for a renunciation of faith. To the degree that a man condemns reality and dreams that he can alter its structure so also he yields to the allure, the magic, of the extreme; and he abjures the tug of the divine. Voegelin remarks that Baudelaire understood his age as a “satanistic situation” in which, with terrible jealousy, maddened speculators sought “self-divinization” through prevaricating word-magic, or ideology, and through the pharmaceutical alteration of brain chemistry. Voegelin records that in Baudelaire’s book on drug taking, Artificial Paradises, the Symbolist poet says that the addict can perfectly well substitute Rousseau for hashish to achieve his inebriation. Ideology intoxicates. Intoxication, however, leads ultimately to death whether in the case of the dope fiend who slowly poisons his liver or in the case of the ideological usurpers of society and their mass of followers whose murderousness, once unleashed, devours all life. Like the devil or the pusher, the ideologue promises heaven on earth, a nihilistic swindle, as the gullible enthusiasts soon perceive but only too late. The antidote of the ideological death-swindle consists, Voegelin says in turning back to Plato once more, of the “noetic ascent [that] reveals the truth of order” and of the larger, encapsulating truth that existence has the form of an “undying struggle” of the psyche to eschew baseness and hew to the path of the immortalizing attraction.

Just as truth is not a doctrine, so the movement in reality, in the metaxy, is not a closed or even a predictable process that culminates in a specific empirical goal and then comes to a halt, as it were in Paradise. The movement in reality, in the metaxy, is open and unpredictable, revealing no specific empirical goal. Such openness and unpredictability are, of course, unsettling; existence therefore unsettles. The dipsomaniac man doses himself with narcosis or stimulation because he cannot bear the unsettling tension in reality; societies in crisis dose themselves with fierce ideological delusions also because they cannot bear the tension, as experienced collectively. Addiction follows a curve: the addict must constantly increase the dose or substitute ever-stronger drugs to achieve a decreasing result of existence-alleviation, hence the appeal of the extreme in the modern de-acculturated societies of the west. The incessant agitation by excited people with feral causes, the hot impatience with the Constitutional order, the subscription by the masses to one side or other in a venomous party-dichotomy that resembles a perpetual low-grade civil war: these things run in diseased organic parallel with the increasing pornography and violence of so-called popular culture, the hedonism of a too-abundant and unformed leisure, and actual widespread pharmacological addiction. Order takes form as a unity and it dissolves as a unity.

Voegelin paints a stark picture, but he only paints the same stark picture bequeathed by the prophets, who railed against resurgences of barbaric ritual, and by the philosophers, who fought against the exculpatory sophistries of the demagogues and tyrants. Our condition being one of radical disinheritance from the continuity of structuring symbols, renewed dedication to those symbols offers the only possible restoration of cultural health in a deconstructive age. The duty of philosophy, says Voegelin in the last sentence of his essay, which will also be the last sentence of this one, is, finally, “to recover, through anamnetic meditation, certain structures of consciousness whose repression by the public unconscious is one of the causes of contemporary disorder.”

Page 5 of 5
By This Author
LeMay, Curtis

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