viernes, 4 de septiembre de 2015

ERIC VOEGELIN: The greatest historical achievements are events of philosophical inquiry and of religious revelation


by Glenn Tinder

First, the basics: born in Germany in 1901, Eric Voegelin received a doctorate in political science from the University of Vienna, carried on several years of postdoctoral study in England, America, and France, and hem took up an academic career in Austria. He drew the hostility of the Nazis with two early works on race, and in 1938 he fled to America, where he taught for many years, mainly at Louisiana State University. He ended his professional career at the Hoover Institution and died in 1985.

Voegelin wrote voluminously and is known today for two works in particular. One, quite short, is an erudite and powerfully argued effort to shift political science from positivist to transcendental, or “religious,” foundations (The New Science of Politics: An Introduction [1952]). The other (Order and History [1956-1987]), which is much longer and generally seen as his major work, is a five-volume study of the rise and development of human awareness of divine transcendence, and of the resulting order in the soul and society; the first three volumes concentrate on ancient Israel and Greece, while the last two reach toward the modern world.

Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order by Michael P. Federici is a brief and lucid introduction to Voegelin’s main ideas. While the author is cognizant of possible weaknesses in Voegelin’s thought, his aim is not to write a critique. Nor is it to offer a new interpretation of Voegelin’s intentions or accomplishments. Rather, his book represents an effort to illuminate Voegelin’s philosophy as a whole and to do this in terms readily understandable (as Voegelin’s terms sometimes are not) to the general reader. 
This is Voegelin made accessible.

Voegelin is an imposing, and at the same time puzzling, figure in modern thought. He is imposing for several reasons. He was as scholar of vast learning. He possessed an expert’s knowledge of Near-Eastern civilizations, carried out studies of ancient Israel that commanded respect for Old Testament scholars, and wrote two probing volumes on the institutions and literature of ancient Greece. With a mastery of all relevant languages, he was at home in the entire history of political philosophy. In the next-to-last volume of Order and History he even extended his gaze to China, displaying his usual scholarly care and competence.

He was not only a scholar, however. He was also a thinker, and in his research was always philosophically reflective, looking not only for truth about the past but also for truth about human nature and the human condition. Whether or not he originated any one great idea, he was unquestionably an original mind. His vocabulary, his method, and his angle of vision were distinctively his own. There is no one quite like him the intellectual world of the twentieth century.

Finally, Voegelin is imposing in the steadiness and tenacity of his transcendental orientation. For all the range and diversity of his interests, it can be fairly said that he devoted his mature life to the search for transcendence. In a manner reminiscent of France’s great Catholic thinker Gabriel Marcel, he understood man’s vocation to be the task of entering into the mystery of being. For Voegelin, as for Marcel, this mystery could not be captured in an ontology, which would only objectify and thus destroy it. We can, however, study human consciousness, where we find an intrinsic drive toward transcendence. The true order of the soul, as Voegelin put it, lies in its “existential tension toward the ground.”

Voegelin’s breadth of vision is evident in the fact that these concerns were always placed in the context of history. Humans discover their humanity only in the course of time and through the progress of philosophical and religious understanding. The greatest historical achievements, however, are not those that are conspicuous to any eye. They are events of philosophical inquiry and of religious revelation—events though which humanity becomes attuned to the mystery of being.

But, as noted, Voegelin is also puzzling. This is because he does not quite fit the categories we ordinarily use in mapping out the intellectual universe. Thus, for example, many readily think of him as a philosopher. Yet on the basis of Order and History, he appears to be an historian of philosophy rather than a philosopher pure and simple. None of the great philosophers, with the possible exception of Hegel, devoted themselves to the history of philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein: all knew something of the history of philosophy (although Wittgenstein evidently very little); none were historians of philosophy. Blurring the distinction between philosophy and the history of philosophy risks confusing philosophical reflection with scholarly research and wisdom with erudition.

Voegelin’s political views, too, are difficult to classify. Even to put him on the side of constitutional democracy, while not false, is not very revealing. As the title of his major work makes clear, he was preoccupied with order. Yet he may leave readers unclear as to his definition of good order. As a refugee from Nazism, he was decidedly opposed to totalitarianism, and in mid-career spent some years at the University of Munich with the reported aim of instilling in the German mind an allegiance to constitutional democracy. Yet in Plato and Aristotle, the third volume of Order and History, his is strikingly uncritical of Plato, whose work, for all of its spiritual grandeur, was arguably in tension with the open society.

Voegelin also defies the usual ideological classifications. Aspects of his thought will appeal to conservatives. He was profoundly hostile to revolutionary movements of the kind that began with the French Revolution. He was a principled opponent of both ideology and political activism. Yet Voegelin did not call himself a conservative, and he spoke of conservatism as simply another ideology. He paid little attention to Burke and did not embrace the cardinal proposition of classical conservatism: that tradition can effectively embody and safeguard human wisdom.


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