Eric Voegelin’s Redemption of Modernity
by David Walsh ( http://voegelinview.com/author/davidwalsh/) (*)
Political theorists, like literary and social theorists, occupy a kind of twilight zone in relation to philosophy. Their disciplines are at once empirical and philosophical, an indeterminate status compared to the strictly autonomous unfolding of philosophy. Yet it is by virtue of this difference of perspective that they may have something to contribute to philosophy. The problem, however, is that the contribution remains largely invisible to the philosophical core. As practitioners of these twilight sciences we may be acutely aware of their potential application to philosophy itself, but it is difficult for philosophers to grasp the implications for their discipline in the work of Tocqueville, Weber, or Derrida. The same is surely the case with Eric Voegelin. His work may indeed be philosophical, but it is not philosophy and, therefore, does not necessitate a philosopher’s taking notice. For philosophers, this is a reassuring state of affairs. Not having to take account of every thinker who has philosophical thoughts allows them to concentrate their efforts on the canon of bona fide members. Professional narrowness is a welcome time-saver, although that is not our principal concern here. Our focus is less on the consequences for philosophy of neglecting its neighboring disciplines than it is on the reverse. The consequences seem larger if social, literary, or political theory fails to take philosophy as fully into account as is possible. That is the justification for the present reflection on Voegelin’s relationship to modern philosophy.
This relationship goes far deeper than mere professional association, although that is a context that is not insignificant. The fact that Voegelin’s work was not exposed to regular philosophical critique is a factor that must not be overlooked. It meant that he did not have to pass muster before the most intellectually rigorous scrutiny. The chances of professional historians, the proprietary practitioners of the empirical side, paying attention were even less. As a consequence, Voegelin’s work was left to fend for itself among the ignoranti of political science. It was among the latter that he appeared as a figure of philosophical weight, an estimate that reaches no higher than its source. Even political theorists, Voegelin’s own sub-field within the discipline, are not well equipped to furnish philosophical critique.
Having only recently stepped outside of the boundaries of constitutional theory, political theory has sought to live off an acquaintance with only one strand of the larger philosophical tradition. A focus on the strictly political texts has been deemed to be sufficient. Voegelin, at any rate, cannot be accused of that kind of parochialism. His omnivorous interests ranged far and wide and certainly included the centrally philosophical texts, not just their political applications. The problem was that he rarely encountered professional situations in which his broader philosophical interpretations were subjected to challenge. As a consequence, his approach to the history of philosophy became peculiarly settled. Having once mapped out a line of interpretation, there was little stimulus to reconsider it, especially as it was readily taken as dispositive by readers who had even less philosophical training. This is no doubt a hazard of the disciplinary setting within which Voegelin worked. It is a situation that was no different for such mentors as Max Weber. Both were clearly men with a good grasp of the history of philosophy, but that was never enough to enable them to make philosophical progress on the problems to which they addressed themselves.
In the case of Voegelin, the situation is even more remarkable. Despite the fact that he locates himself outside of the discipline of philosophy, he nevertheless persists in working his way toward the resolution of philosophical problems. Of course he still interacts with philosophical texts, but it is not an interaction that is connected with any contemporary conversation. Instead it is an isolated inner conversation in which Voegelin occasionally makes contact with fragments from the great thinkers. His final work, In Search of Order, gives the very strong impression of a man working almost completely alone. A tendency toward isolation may well be a trait of great thinkers who find no adequate partners for their work. Yet there is something more than the vicissitudes of greatness at work here.
Looking back over Voegelin’s career we see that there has been a deliberate turning away from the modern philosophical conversation, even while remaining sensitive to its echoes in his own work. A rejection of the modern philosophic project remains so strong a note in Voegelin’s thought that most readers have concluded his avowed opposition to modernity as such. The characterization of modernity as Gnostic was only the most notorious such expression. Much has to do with the totalitarian crisis that became the lens through which Voegelin viewed modern civilizational development. To the extent that totalitarianism was the defining feature of the era in which he lived, it was difficult to shake the sense that everything else was implicated either positively or negatively in its unfolding. It remained difficult to integrate those other counterbalancing assessments of modernity that he was always careful to insert.
Focusing on the extreme instances that illuminated the essence, the intermediate developments tended to slip from Voegelin’s view. As a result, we are left not only with an overwhelmingly negative assessment of modernity, but also with a suspicion that the disorder extends to the very core. What is positive in the philosophical achievements of modernity still carries the taint within it. Little can be expected, therefore, by way of a genuine restoration of order from the philosophic enterprise it has simultaneously sustained.
Negative Assessment of Modernity
We need only recall how few were the unalloyed heroes in the struggle for order in the modern world. Voegelin singled out Bodin, Vico, Schelling, and Bergson, a line of equally solitary figures whose connection with their own times had also been among the most tenuous. What he admired most about them was their achievement of a degree of detachment that made it possible to invoke a sense of universal humanity. Epitomized by the mysticism of Bodin, they had all found a way beyond the chaotic disintegration of symbols to an unassailable reality forever on the other side of them. This was an insight that informed all of Voegelin’s work because it undergirded the possibility of communication across historical differences. It is no accident that the major turning points in Voegelin’s own intellectual odyssey came through his reading of these thinkers.
(*) A specialist in political theory, he is the author of a three-volume study of modernity addressing the totalitarian crisis, the resurgence of liberal democracy, and the philosophical revolution of the modern world.
Intended as a guide to the multiple facets of the age in which we live the volumes appeared as After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (1990), The Growth of the Liberal Soul (1997), and The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (2008).
He has also published The Mysticism of Innerworldly Fulfillment: A Study of Jacob Boehme (1983), The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason (1999), and Guarded By Mystery: Meaning in a Postmodern Age (1999). Walsh has edited three volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin.