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November 15, 2018

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Voegelin left at his death a mass of books, monographs, and essays, published and unpublished, the greater part of which the University of Mississippi Press has made available in the Collected Works, whose issuance began in the 1990s.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.


Voegelin wrote The Gospel and Culture in response to an invitation from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to address the issue of “what a philosopher has to say about the Word’s difficulty to make itself heard in our time and, if heard at all, to make itself intelligible to those who are willing to listen.” Voegelin promises in the essay’s opening remarks that it will also take up related matters, such as the questions: “Why could the gospel be victorious in the Hellenistic-Roman environment of its origin?” and “Why did it attract an intellectual elite who restated the meaning of the gospel in terms of philosophy?” and “How could the church . . . survive the Roman Empire and become the chrysalis . . . of Western Civilization?” These questions in their turn imply others equally important, most especially that concerning the tendency of truth—which for Voegelin always stems from a vatic encounter with reality—to shrink down to a mere doctrine in whose dogmatic validity the vital dimension of existence goes missing; and again that concerning the position of the gospel in the stream of revelation by which the specifically Western idea of existence has constituted, or in one of Voegelin’s favorite locutions, differentiated, itself. As to the latter, Voegelin insists, as did the Christian patres, that the Greek mind, from the Pre-Socratics to Plato and Aristotle, communicated with the same divine inspiration that later spoke through the evangelists; this theme works its way through The Gospel and Culture. To the extent that modern Western civilization remains orderly (its order runs nowadays to the severely defective), it has inherited its orderliness from specifiable discrete moments involving identifiable individuals, among whom figure chiefly poets, prophets, philosophers, and evangelists.

Indeed, the decaying away of the ordering “Vision” (Voegelin tends to capitalize the noun) until it becomes so many disconnected propositions, over the interpretation of which the dogmatists contend, belongs integrally to the reality that the visionary realist so powerfully intuits. Plato, a frequent critic of myth, nevertheless knew that myth at one time sufficiently symbolized the ordering experiences to which he wanted to give renewed expression in his own intellectually differentiated language. The myths had become topics for poetry. Plato found a way to restore their lost meaning from its merely literary declension. Reviewing Justin Martyr, Voegelin recognizes that, “The gospel and philosophy do not face the thinker with a choice of alternatives, nor are they complementary aspects of truth which the thinker would have to weld into the complete truth . . . the Logos of the gospel is rather the same word of the same God as the logos spermatikos of the philosophers, but at a later state of its manifestation in history.” As Voegelin says, Justin Martyr “started as an inquiring mind and let his search, after it had tried the philosophical schools of the time, come to rest in the truth of the gospel.” Philosophy and gospel coexist in fair compatibility because both are modes of participating in life as a flow of existence that moves (is in motion) from imperfection towards perfection, tugged in the direction of decay by base motives and in the direction of improvement by the gravity of a divine principle that penetrates into le monde without being contained by the worldly horizon.

As the inquiring subject seeks, among other goals, to become more fully human than he finds himself to be at the moment of his setting out, he must adopt the attitude of a questioner; he must take up the quest for his own witting nature as a participant in the ordered flow of existence even before he can take up the search for answers to the pressing inquiries about prevailing troubles that he begins arduously to articulate for himself and for his time.

As he anxiously but quietly takes stock of his situation, then, the seeker grows aware that his life has its stage in a realm in between the baseness of his low-grade social ego, with its vain appetites, and the attraction of the beyond where he senses the divine ordering principle to dwell. So as to name this place in between the tugging poles of experience, Voegelin borrows the Platonic term metaxy. The metaxy is the seat of awareness and the region that revelation illuminates, both in its defects and in its goodness; it is, to quote a construction from The Gospel and Culture that recurs many times, in many forms, in Voegelin, “the In-Between of poverty and wealth, of human and divine.” The metaxy, in its intermediateness and instability, gives ground for an inevitable and provocative experience of spiritual tension. The metaxy exerts on the seeker its conflict of movements and induces him to formulate his existential questions.

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.”

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!”

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.”

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