Note about Eric Voegelin

Among 20th century political philosophers, Eric Voegelin is probably one of the most intriguing. Like Leo Strauss, Voegelin is quite influential among conservatives in the US (although he disliked the label). Whereas with Leo Strauss, one often ends up with the feeling that religion is nothing more than a “noble lie” aimed at protecting social and moral order, one finds in Voegelin a true political mystic. His writings bear witness of an authentic experience of the Divine.

Voegelin is mostly known for his criticism of modernity as a neognostic attempt to re-divinize the world. The idea is synthetically developed in his   book The New Science of Politics. Voegelin  reduces modern political ideologies from liberalism to the secular religions to an attempt to immanentize the eschaton, the process beginning with Joachim of Flore in the 12th century.

One may wonder though if this heresiological interpretation of modernity represents the most interesting dimension of his work. The concept of “Gnosticism” in Christian thought is relatively vague, encompassing anything that seems to contract an itself problematic orthodoxy (from the historical gnosticist schools of the first centuries of our era to modern secular philosophical systems and non-western sapiential schools of Islam and Hinduism). Voegelin by presenting Gnosticism as a kind of transhistorical threat insufficiently breaks with a dubious literature on the topic and fails to turn it into a true analytical tool for understanding political phenomena.

More interesting to us is his philosophy of consciousness (partially inspired by his early reading of Husserl). For Voegelin, there is an enduring tension between human consciousness and the divine ground, this tension he refers to as metaxy. The most important problem is therefore the problem of the symbolization of the human experience with the Transcendence. Voegelin describes a process of evolution of consciousness from a more compact experience to a more differentiated one, a turning point being what he calls the “Ecumenical Age”, a period going roughly from Jasper’s Axial Age to the rise of Christianity. Voegelin distinguishes between 3 types of political representation: elemental, existential and transcendental, the latter referring to the process by which society imagines itself as representing a higher Truth.

It is this evolving experience with the Truth that has translated historically into different political orders. In the case of the Western world, Voegelin distinguishes between 3 truths: the cosmological truth of the ancient empires, the anthropological truth of the Greek city and the soteriological truth of Christianity. Whereas before the Axial Age, the Sacred was essential experienced on a cosmological mode, after the rise of Christianity, the world has been totally dedivinized, the Transcendence being experienced afterwards only inwardly.  Voegelin follows here the anti-Schmittian verdict of Erick Peterson about the impossibility of a Christian political theology. There is no representation of the Christian Mysteries and no continuity between the City of God and the City of man.

One may regret that Voegelin remains dependent upon a Christian apologetic narrative, the idea that the experience with the Transcendence  finds its fulfillment in Christ. The paradox is there: it is Christian civilization that has given birth to an entirely secularized world. To explain how the full disclosing of the Truth may have led to its own negation, Voegelin had to postulate a return to Gnosticism at the root of modernity, an explanation that many will find unconvincing.

Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness provides however a very compelling model to think the relationship between the political and the religious experience of humanity since the Axial Age. It also represents a sort of antidote to the positivist/behaviorist conception of Political Science that has come to prevail in some areas. For Voegelin, the goal of a political philosopher should be to recapture, beyond reifications, the primordial experiences that have produced orders and symbols. Political philosophy is essentially anamnesis. At this level, Voegelin was probably more a platonist than Strauss.

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