Philosophy of History, Millenarianism and Revolution

Once certain structures of reality become differentiated and are raised to articulate consciousness, they develop a life of their own in history. One of the important insights gained by philosophers, as well as by the prophets of Israel and by the early Christians, is the movement in reality toward a state beyond its present structure. So far as the individual human being is concerned, this movement obviously can be consummated only through his personal death. The great discovery of the Classic philosophers was that man is not a “mortal,” but a being engaged in a movement toward immortality. The athanatizein—the activity of immortalizing—as the substance of the philosopher’s existence is a central experience in both Plato and Aristotle. In the same manner, the great experience and insight of Paul was the movement of reality beyond its present structure of death into the imperishable state that will succeed it through the grace of God—i.e., into the state of aphtharsia or imperishing. This movement toward a state of being beyond the present structure injects a further tension into existential order inasmuch as life has to be conducted in such a manner that it will lead toward the state of imperishability. Not everybody, however, is willing to attune his life to this movement. Quite a few dream of a shortcut to perfection right in this life. The dream of reality transfigured into imperishable perfection in this world, therefore, becomes a constant in history as soon as the problem has been differentiated. Already the Jewish apocalyptic thinkers expected the misery of the successive empires of which they were the victims soon to be superseded by a divine intervention that would produce the state of glory and the end of empire. Even Paul expects a Second Coming in the time of the living and revises the dream only under the impact of the experience of believers in Christ dying before the Second Coming.

Metastatic expectation of a new world succeeding the old one in the time of the presently living has become a permanent factor of disturbance in social and political reality. The movement had been suppressed by the main church with more or less success; at least the apocalyptic expectations were pushed into sectarian fringe movements. But beginning with the Reformation these fringe movements moved more and more into the center of the stage; and the replacement of Christian by secularist expectations has not changed the structure of the problem.

In the modern period, an important new factor entered the situation when the expectation of divine intervention was replaced by the demand for direct human action that will produce the new world. Marx, for instance, expected the transformation of man into superman from the blood intoxication of a violent revolution. (…) The eschatological state of perfection will be reached through direct violence. The experience of a movement in reality beyond its structure has been transformed into the magic vulgarity of aggressive destruction of social order.

Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflexions.

This entry was posted in Bibliotheque philosophique, History and Revolution. Bookmark the permalink.

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