About an excerpt from “The Eclipse of Reality”

Analyzing the phenomenon of production of “secondary reality” in ideological movement, Voegelin writes:

“The great projectors of second realities are social forces because they are able to transform rational agreement on an unexceptional point into sweeping existential assent to the deformation of humanity. They are surrounded by the social fields of secondarily deformed humanity in their schools, adherents, admirers, vulgarizers, followers, fellow- travelers, and so forth. Inversely, the imaginator must always be on his guard, because he can never be certain when he enters a discussion that Reason will not suddenly raise its ugly head. His interlocutor may be a man who desires to know and will therefore not abide by the imaginator’s rule of the game that a discussion must never touch the question of existence, for if this question were touched, not only would the project have to be abandoned, but the imaginator’s existence itself would be in danger of being engulfed by its own nothingness.” (Voegelin,“The Eclipse of Reality,”p.134)

The description applies well not only to political movements but also to the so-called “new religious movements”. The leader of a new religious movement, even if he (or she) is initially a sincere seeker of Truth, finds himself surrounded by admirers who end up doing more harm than good to him. The phenomenon frequently happens in Ashram, or Ashram-type of organizations in which the Guru slowly becomes prisoner of his followers and of the mythology he has himself created to prevent the irruption of critical thinking. Sectarian movements have always existed but the tendency of these new religious movement to get ride of the protecting boundaries of tradition increases the magnitude of these “pneumopathological” phenomena.

Voegelin and the decolonization of the mind

Jerry Day’s Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence (2003) shows the magnitude of the influence of Schelling on Voegelin, both on his philosophy of consciousness and his phenomenology of religion. The book indirectly raises another question. To what extent Voegelin remained dependent upon the same Eurocentric (or Orientalist) and Christocentric presuppositions that inform Schelling’s philosophy of mythology and revelation?

This type of bias is nowhere more transparent than in the discussion that followed Voegelin’s conference on the topic of “Theology confronting world religions”. Having insisted on the pre-requisite of a common ground for the dialogue between religions, Voegelin flatly dismisses the rational foundations of non-western thought:

“The great differentiation of consciousness, with the development of philosophy, has happened in the West. It hasn’t happened in China, it hasn’t happened in India, it hasn’t happened in Africa, but only in the West. And it means not only that we must go back to our own classic philosophy but that Hindus (for example) also—if they want to talk rationally and not just repeat a complex of compact symbols—must go back at least to classic philosophy and know what it is all about. One has to make this very clear. Becoming rational can’t be done by being proud of what we have.” (Republished in The drama of humanity, p.261.)

Well, they should just study Plato and Aristotle … The impracticality of the solution does not seem to bother Voegelin the least. The transcript of the whole conversation reflects on Voegelin’s side both a lack of interest and of elementary knowledge about Asian philosophical and religious traditions that could be excused in the case of Schelling, writing in the early 19th century but certainly not in the case of a 20th scholar of first rank. The problematic of the equivalence of symbols and their relation to experience of the ground is gone, replaced by orientalist prejudices, the same that Husserl could shamelessly express in his Krisis. Not a word for instance about the achievements of Shankara, Nagarjuna, Abhinavagupta to name just a few. The “incomplete” nature of the differentiation of consciousness in non-western civilizations remains an act of faith that Voegelin is unwilling to discuss.

This type of disheartening passages in Voegelin’s work may lead to two radically opposite conclusions:

–          Either Voegelin is “a dead old white man” whose work has no substantial contribution to make to the study of religion and politics in a post-colonial world in which at all levels, and intellectually in particular, the West has become only one actor among others.

–          Or Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness needs to be critically reinterpreted to make it suitable for an examination of the place of “Eastern” religions like Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam in the history of order and consciousness.

A first and simple step would be to dissociate the core assumptions of his philosophy of consciousness from certain confessional and cultural prejudices that Voegelin himself seemed to have failed to overcome and that may obscure the revolutionary nature of some of his insights.