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samedi, 09 septembre 2017

Eric Voegelin and the "Orient"

Review: Éric Voegelin et l’Orient: Millénarisme et religions politiques de l’Antiquité à Daech. Renaud Fabbri. Editions L’Harmattan, 2016.

EvoeBook1.jpgRenaud Fabbri is a professor of political science at l’Université de Versailles. Over the past few years he has been quietly blogging away at a post-secular age, applying the ideas of Eric Voegelin to Hinduism and Islam. Éric Voegelin et l’Orient seems to be his first book and it is a very welcome addition to Voegelinian thought indeed. Just about anyone familiar with Voegelin’s output should be able to admit that what he had to say in relation to India and Islam, two of the most important players in world history, was inattentive at best and perhaps downright woeful, Eurocentric and dismissive at worst. Voegelin was a very prolific thinker, yet one cannot do equal justice to everything one supposes. Happily, Fabbri is seeking to remedy this by charting what he sees as a decline in Hindu and Muslim luminosity into immanentism, nationalism and millenarianism in the form of contemporary phenomena such as Daesh (ISIS) and the Iranian Revolution. As one might expect a great deal of the blame for these eastern “political religions” falls squarely (and rightly) on “Gnostic” influences absorbed from the West during the colonial period: Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, “process theology”.

At 123 pages Eric Voegelin et l’Orient is a very short text. My overwhelming sense when reading it the first time was that it is simply an opening salvo for a much larger and more detailed work we can expect from Fabbri in the near future. Moreover, one can tell Fabbri is a blog writer. Even in producing a monograph he writes in linked short bursts of a few pages on certain important figures in the history of the two religions in question. However, this is not to denigrate the book; rather we should celebrate it for its adventurousness. Fabbri is an abstract and thematic thinker, like Voegelin at his most experimental. Anyone picking up this book expecting something akin to the Voegelinian-Straussian The New Political Religions, written not long after 9/11 on the pneumatopathological history of Islamic terrorism (including its eye-opening essay on the ethics of suicide bombing), is going to be more than a little surprised.[1] Fabbri leaps around, he reads between the lines and conjures up obscure thinkers, both as nodes in the history of the decline of Islamic and Hindu religious experience, and as accessories to aid him in his explorations.

The two most important accessories Fabbri uses besides Voegelin are the French thinkers René Guénon and Henry Corbin, the former of which he uses largely in his discussions on Hinduism and the latter on Islam. Many readers may not be familiar with either of these so perhaps a little explanation is in order. Guénon is the father of an esoteric movement known commonly as Traditionalism or Perennialism. He believed that for all the diversity of the world’s religions, they call contained a transcendental unity of shared truth. Ergo, Guénon was a universalist, a very unpopular opinion in our post-colonial era. However, he was a very eccentric universalist, even for the early 20th century. The basis of Guénonian history is the idea that the cosmos passes through cycles of decline, from all quality and no quantity (=God) to all quantity and no quality. This comes to a final Kali Yuga, a scientistic “reign of quantity”. Finally the world collapses into total atomisation and spiritual decay before another Golden Age begins.[2]

However, this does not tend to make Traditionalists millenarians trying to force the Golden Age to come back. There is of course the exception of far-right outliers such as Julius Evola and Russian “New Rasputin” Aleksandr Dugin, in whom there is at least as much Nietzsche as Guénon.[3] In my experience with Traditionalists (all my teachers when I was an undergrad religious studies student were Guénonians), there is a far more profound sense of a pessimistic acceptance of a pre-determined order to things. There are no “Guns, Germs and Steel”, theories about millenarian “political religions” or Heideggerian blame-Plato-for-the-reign-of-quantity in Guénon.[4] The West simply drew the short straw in a natural cosmic process. Nonetheless, in Guénon’s successor Fritjof Schuon one can certainly find the idea that the West was metaphysically broken from the start because of Greek rationalism, scepticism and materialism. To Schuon Islam and Christianity got more out of the Greeks than they got out of themselves:

“The true “Greek miracle, if a miracle there be – and in this case it would be related to the “Hindu Miracle”- is doctrinal metaphysics and methodic logic, providentially utilized by the monotheistic Semites”.[5]

The aim for the Traditionalist becomes to find what is left of an imagined universal sophia perennis of esoteric truth in Sufism, Hinduism, the Western Hermetic traditions – the part of inferno that is not inferno, so to speak. Thus, as one might imagine, Fabbri seems to believe that the Guénonian narrative of decline can be laid over the Voegelinian narrative of pneumatopathology. There are problems with this, perhaps. Compared with Voegelin’s open-ended “order in history” as the produce of human experiences of social crisis, there is very little metacritical about the deterministic Guénonian historical narrative. All of this is amusingly epitomised by the Guénonian who put me on to Fabbri and his book: “Oh Voegelin? Too historicist for my liking. But then again you have to be if you want the academy to take you seriously.” However, I think that what Fabbri has done, nonetheless, is attempt a highly original experimental dual focus using both thinkers well, yet erring on the side closer to Voegelin and historicity.

Fabbri utilises the ideas of Guénon to patch up what he sees, quite reasonably, as Voegelin’s faults in understanding India. For Voegelin India had never been the recipient of any great historical upheavals, as occurred in the Ancient Near East with the collapse of the ancient cosmological empires. Thus no one ever really had to think about rationalising an order to history. Moreover, because God/Brahman in Hinduism is always atman (the self) and never Other, this also prevented any emergence of a “differentiation in being” to take place. Voegelin writes:

“In the culture of Hinduism, historical consciousness is muted by the dominance of late-cosmological speculations on the cosmos as a “thing” with a beginning and an end, as a “thing” that is born and reborn in infinite sequence. The hypostasis of the cosmos, and the fallacious infinite of cosmological speculation, can be identified as the stratum in the Hinduist experience of reality that has not been broken by epochal events comparable to the noetic and pneumatic theophanies in Hellas and Israel. As a consequence, the Brahmanic experience of reality does not develop the self-consciousness of the Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy as a noetic science; in its self-understanding it is a darshana, a way of looking at reality from this particular thinker’s position… The most striking manifestation of this phenomenon is the nonappearance of historiography in Hindu culture.”[6]

Now, so one might think, to Voegelin all this would be a good thing – none of the dualism and millenarianism that caused the decline of Near Eastern and Western religious experience into secular political religions. However, Voegelin simply seems to snub India as something which never really went anywhere. He shows some passing interest in the Greco-Bactrian cultural exchange, but the only thinker of note is Shankara with his advaitya vedanta. This is perhaps because of similarities between the neti neti (God is not this, not this) of Shankara and the via negativa (negative theology) of the Christian Cloud of Unknowing, which Voegelin initially took to be a Gnostic text, but later came to embrace because of its refusal of “Gnosis”- ultimate positive knowledge.[7] There are other problems, small but niggling. We are never even told by Voegelin whether, as with China and its t’ien hsien (all under heaven), anyone in Indian history ever attempted to symbolise a universal “humanity”.[8] Even more invitingly, as Fabbri (p. 39) suggests, we are left wondering why Voegelin never had anything to say about the great Indian epic the Mahabharata. Let’s hope that Fabbri or someone else in the near future gets around to fixing this. I would love to read such a thing.


Fabbri attempts to turn Voegelin’s remarks on their head. From a Guénonian perspective India’s atman and lack of “historicism” makes it far more spiritually healthy. To Fabbri India represents a more complete primordial view of things, spared from the dualism inherent in monotheism that leads to obsessions with mastery over nature and the millenarian immanentisation of an alien God (pp. 40-1). This only begins to come apart with the introduction of Western ideas during the colonial period (p. 43). Fabbri’s main target of interest is Sri Aurobindo, a British-educated turn of the century figure who reshaped Hinduism towards a progressive view of history – a Hegelesque “integral” view of the world. The whole world comes to be united in a futuristic enlightened communist consciousness emanating from India and its god-man sages (pp. 49-60). Indeed Aurobindo and those like him such as the Theosophists have done a lot of damage to Indian thought. Without them there would have been none of the “New Age” millenarianism of the 60s that the West (and India) came to be soaked in. What is curious, and what Fabbri fails to mention, is that Guénon initially had some enthusiasm for Aurobindo, but eventually realised that his evolutionism was a modern corruption of the traditional Hindu cyclic view of history.[9] However, the supreme sin of Aurobindo for Fabbri is the fact that he transformed Maya, the veil of illusion separating the individuated entity from realising it is part of atman, to Lila, merely the cosmic playfulness of entities coming into being and perishing (p. 57). The phenomenal world becomes a joyous, immanentised plenitude, reminiscent of “process theology”. Such views in my experience are of course extremely prevalent in New Ageism and its gutting of Hindu thought, especially the twee Spinozism of “Deep Ecology”.

This brings us to two curious absences in Fabbri’s take on India. The first is that although he traces the influences of Aurobindo down to modern Indian nationalism and communism and New Age gurus, he does this perhaps too succinctly. For instance, he mentions Radhakrishnan only in passing (p. 48). This thinker not only actively engaged in attempting to square Hindu thought with western progress narratives, science and “process thought”, but also played an enduring part on the international stage as a representative of Indian nationalism.[10] At least something on this figure would have been welcome. The second issue is that although Fabbri (p. 41) mentions the idea of the kalki-avatara, the tenth and final avatar of Vishnu, who is supposed to come at the end of this cosmic cycle to renew the world, he never queries whether even this idea might have come from the millenarianisms of the Abrahamic religions. Some thinkers have certainly asked this before, as also in regard to the closely related legend of the eschatological kalki kings and armies of Shambhala in Buddhism, for which at least some Islamic influence has been posited.[11] Nonetheless, Fabbri (p. 42) is very much right to remind us that there are thousands more years of the to go before any kalki-avatara might be expected. Anyone, especially all those dubious New Age gurus, who claim otherwise, seem testament to the idea that millenarianism should perhaps be called the opiate of the Kali Yuga. Everyone wants out but Great Disappointments keep on coming.

Fabbri then moves from India into tracing a similar history in Islam. In fact India disappears for the rest of the book. This largely seems to be because Islam is a far greater issue in relation to contemporary global politics. Fabbri’s (p. 67) understanding of Islam takes its bearings from two things. The first is the idea that Islam has always been troubled by a “noeud gordien” (Gordian Knot), wherein prophesy and empire-building have had an uneasy coexistence. He attributes the origins of this understanding to Voegelin, which does not actually seem to be the case, though the conception still seems quite valuable. Rather, if we are to look at what Voegelin has to say about Islam in The Ecumenic Age, the results are even more woeful than what he has to say about India. All we get is a couple of pages, most of which are simply block-quotes from the Koran and the declaration that Islam was little more than the combined empire-and-church approach of the Byzantine and Sassanid ecumenai. These, so Voegelin says, formed the “horizon” in which Mohammad thought:


“Mohammed conceived the new religion that would support its ecumenic ambition with the simultaneous development of imperial power. The case is of special interest as there can be no doubt that Islam was primarily an ecumenic religion and only secondarily an empire. Hence it reveals in its extreme form the danger that beset all of the religions of the Ecumenic Age, the danger of impairing their universality by letting their ecumenic mission slide over into the acquisition of world-immanent, pragmatic power over a multitude of men which, however numerous, could never be mankind past, present, and future.” [12]

Whether we are talking about “Gordian Knots” or “sliding over”, for all the briefness of Voegelin’s observations, there would certainly seem to be something profound to work with here. It seems that Islam, like Christianity with its Heavenly and Earthly City, millennium and later its “two swords” of Church and State, was troubled from the moment it began to set down concrete notions of the historical finalisation of the nature of things.

This brings us to the second basis for Fabbri’s history of Islamic spiritual decline – his reliance on the ideas of Henry Corbin (pp. 70, 83-5). Like Guénon, the name of Corbin in not well-known (except perhaps within Islamic mystical circles or in the writing of Norman O. Brown). Corbin was the first French translator of Heidegger, but his main importance comes from his enterprising work on angelology and proposed Zoroastrian influences in Shi’a Islam.[13] Corbin describes the existence of a “mundus imaginalis” (imaginal world) – a medial realm between man and God –  peopled by angelic beings. This Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd, “Country of Non-Where”, or “Eighth Clime”, is accessible only through the consciousness and is the organ for the reception of the visions and prophesies that are brought to men from God via the angels. The “imaginal” is not to be confused with modern western understandings of the “imagination”, which largely view this term to mean simply a source for entertaining aesthetic produce or downright falsity. Imagination isn’t “fantasy”. However, so I am tempted to propose, if one looks closely at the history of these two terms their confusion seems to lie in the mediaeval reception of the ideas of Avicenna in Europe. Many tangled arguments ensued over which term meant a purely receptive capacity for external images and inner divine visitations, and which the organ of active creativity from pre-received material.[14]

What both Corbin and then Fabbri do is chart the history of Islam as the history of the decay and forgetting of the angelic reality – the death of ongoing prophesy. As one might imagine Fabbri finds similarities between the medial nature of this “mundus imaginalis” and Voegelin’s metaxy or In-Between and his reading of history as the breaking down of this dynamic experiential system into dualism and then immanentism. Without a “resolving third” full of intramundane spirits and myths one’s ecumene and consciousness becomes very empty indeed. Fabbri also sees this inherent in the discarding of the cult of the gods, the Ishtadevas, in Hinduism by thinks such as Aurobindo. In a later essay I would like to return to such questions in relation to the history of the West and its own loss of angels. However, for now it is more important to emphasise that all this means that both Corbin and Fabbri come down hard on the side of Shi’a rather than Sunni Islam. The root of Islam’s issues is the “tragédie fondatrice” (founding tragedy) of the Sunni-Shi’a division (the fitna), just as much as the “Gordian Knot” of prophesy and empire mentioned above. For the Shi’a, prophesy kept on going to a certain point, depending on how many Imams each faction take to be rightfully guided, up to the Great Occultation of the mahdi – the imam in hiding. For the Sunnis, Muhammad was the “seal of the prophets” and that was that. This means that those claiming to be the recipients of new prophesies and divine knowledge have always had a strained relationship with mainstream Islamic thought.


Fabbri (pp. 74-7) lays out the history of these difficulties through figures such as Al Farabi, whose mixture of Platonism and Islamic revelation produces an image of a proto-Kantean world state ruled by “philosopher kings”. Following Corbin, Fabbri (p. 75) ponders whether Farabi was a “crypto-Shiite” trying to think beyond the Grand Occultation of the last imam. Another important thinker is the Sufi Ibn Arabi who represented the rulers from Adam to Muhammad as God’s representatives on Earth, and those thereafter as simply secular rulers. History instead is controlled from the outside by the saints and angels. As Fabbri (pp. 88-9) notes there is something strongly anti-millenarian and “realist” about this. Yet, at the same time, this descacralisation of the caliphate opens up the space for a “spiritual anarchy” where the secular rulers are unimportant compared with the Gnostic claims of holy men.

The “Gordian Knot” problem leads down to the “presque schmittienne” (almost Schmittian p. 90) political theorisations of Ibn Taymiyya. Here maintaining the sharia and the temporal rule of the Islamic states against heathens becomes the onus. So too is the cult of the saints pejorated as idolatry, leaving no intermediaries or intercessors between man and God. The genesis of Islamism then emerges in a kind of dual spiritual desperation. On the one hand there is the destruction of the Caliphate by the Mongols (and later the collapse of the Ottoman Empire). On the other there in an increasing shutting out and disappearance of prophetic claims and the intercession of saints. What then emerges is a kind of panicked assumption that if the Caliphate is restored, Islamic consciousness then too will be restored to how it was during its early period. Increased persecution of Sufis, attempts to rid foreign corruptions from an imagined pure, original Islam and abject literalism ensue through Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid ibn Qutb and other prominent thinkers among contemporary Sunni Islamists. Fabbri (pp.91-3), in comparison with The New Political Religions, only gives these influential thinkers a couple of pages and he has nothing to say about Westernised Pan-Arabist movements like Ba’aathism. He remains far more interested in the stranger, more obviously “Gnostic” cases.

Fabbri (pp. 95-101) then descends into the influence of Western political religions on Islam during the colonial period. The most important thinker here is Muhammad Iqbal, who attempted to square Einsteinian cosmology, and the “process” thought of Whitehead and Bergson with Islam, and ends up producing a series of bizarre “Gnostic” visons about modernity. Marx becomes the angel Gabriel of the new age, feminism appears manifest as a monstrous Priestess of Mars. Reading all this strongly reminds me of the way in which in the Soviet Era the old religious and heroic oral epics of “minorities” in the USSR were secularised to replace millenarian heroes such as Geser Khan and his titanic foes with Marx, Engels and Lenin flying through the cosmos battling the fifty-headed hydra of capitalism.[15] The strange syncretism of the old religions and the political religions seems to have got into everything in the twentieth century.


Finally, Fabbri (pp. 103-11) comes to Ali Shariati, Khomeyni and the Iranian Revolution. Fabbri deftly notes the influence of a number of Western thinkers such as Sartre and Marx (“red Shi’ism”) on the formation of these ideas and the degeneration into millenarian theocracies ruled by Gnostic “philosopher kings”. Yet, there is one very obvious absence in his analysis. This is Heidegger. Fabbri mentions Heidegger numerous times throughout Eric Voegelin et l’Orient in connection with globalism, subjectivity, technology and nihilism (pp. 30, 46, 50, 58, 100). However, like his references to Leo Strauss (ie. pp. 99-100), Heidegger is always cited as a kind of minor accessory – one of the “good guys” – but not as important as Corbin, Guénon and of course Voegelin himself. Fabbri does not at all mention how the influential concept gharbzadegi (“westosis/weststruckness”- being infected with western nihilism) from the Iranian Revolution is nearly entirely down to Heidegger’s influence through Ahmad Fardid, who propagated Heidegger’s ideas about cultural “authenticity” in Iran and organised a group of “Iranian Heideggerians” in the 1970s.[16] Fabbri (p.104) in passing names Jalal al-e-Ahmad who popularised the concept, but Ahmad and his Heideggerianism is never dealt with at all.

Heidegger is a very troublesome thinker, far more than the occasional ritualistic hand-wringing about his Nazi period in contemporary continental philosophy usually conveys. Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism has its basis in the idea that the Germans had a unique primordial and “authentic” link with the Greeks and Being, which was under threat by the flattening effects of capitalist and communist nihilism.[17] There is quite a profound legacy to this idea of one’s people possessing an ancient and unique manifest destiny and identity to overcome global nihilism. Shortly after Heidegger’s infamous Rektor speech in 1933, some of the Japanese philosophers of the “Kyoto School” such as Keiji Nishitani, who studied with Heidegger, took this up, replacing Being with the Zen Void, to construct a Japanese imperial manifest destiny.[18] “Reactionary” Heidegger returns in the Iranian Revolution and more recently in the “Fourth Political Theory” of Aleksandr Dugin and his obsessions with building a Eurasian Empire to combat the “post-liberal” monster of globalised American consumer culture.[19] As Foucault said of the Iranian Revolution – it was to be the first great rebellion against the Western “world system”. Just as much as Heidegger, his reputation never managed to live this down.[20] Thus, I think that Fabbri should have expended at least some attention on dealing with the millenarian and deforming aspects of Heidegger’s ideas outside the West.

In comparison, perhaps, as Chinese Heideggerian Yuk Hui has recently shown with his book The Question Concerning Technology in China, which touched upon the uneasy Heideggerian legacy in Dugin and the “Kyoto School”, there might be some hope of using Heidegger’s later ideas to undertake culturally-specific “rememberings of Being” without it all just turning into a “metaphysical fascism”. This possibility is based around re-investigating how imported Western conceptions of technology have covered over the ongoing relationship between Qi and Tao in Chinese philosophy. Knowing the dangers of an emerging China simply repeating Western global empire building and technological nihilism seems to be the first step; to live with technology China must learn to reintegrate it, the world, life and society together into a “cosmotechnics”. One can only hope this doesn’t backfire and we end up with some sort of exceptionalist Taoism with a transhumanist immortality complex.[21] Heideggerian “traditionalism” remains a dangerous animal.

Fabbri draws his book to a close by attempting to consider how to deal with contemporary Islamism. Although one is unsure of his political leanings, he does seem very much aware of the weaknesses of the contemporary left and right in Europe (though it could be America, Australia…) in understanding Islam and its history. To the liberal left Islam is a magical victim, which must be defended at all costs, often to the point of naivety; to the increasingly reactionary right and the actively anti-religious left it is simply anathema – it has no place in Western society (p. 121). Fabbri’s (pp. 116-9) beginning of an answer to this is in the vague hope he seems to find in the figure of Tariq Ramadan, a popular Islamic public intellectual. Ramadan believes that Islam needs to reform the Sharia for the “complexities” of the modern world and understand that there is a “double revelation of God” – the koran and nature.


What is it that Fabbri finds promising about Ramadan? It simply seems to be that he is not necessarily a priori against the ideas from Sufi thinkers (p. 118). This doesn’t really sound like much. Fabbri himself recognises that Ramadan’s attitude towards the metaphysical aspects involved in the nature of modernity and Islam are gravely lacking. Moreover he admits that Ramadan is rather “naïve” in his attempts to square Islam with modern science. All in all to Fabbri (p. 116), Ramadan “illustre bien la vitalité mais aussi les limites de cette literature de résistance au fondamentalisme en terre d’Islam” (illustrates well the vitality but also the limits of this literature of resistance to fundamentalism in the Islamic world). These days there seem to be “Ramadans” everywhere, many far worse than the man himself. Some of them are atheists simply flying the identity politics flag of “cultural Islam”. They people TV talk show panels and public lectures telling everyone of the wonders of some liberal Islamic reformation, which seems to exert almost no influence outside of educated liberal Western circles. As to how the Islamic world might actually go about such a thing, and moreover, how it might do so without losing even more of its spirit than it already has done through the “Gordian knot” and Western influence, seems extremely fanciful.[22] Nonetheless, it seems difficult to consider how the Islamic world might actually go about a renewal of the spirit, and moreover, how it might do so without losing even more of its spirit than it already has done through the “Gordian knot” and Western influence.

Although things might seem rather dark, Fabbri (p. 122) ends his book with the optimistic hope for a “New Axial Age”, a renewal of Islam, Hinduism (and presumably Western traditions too) that might emerge by looking back over their histories and rediscovering the moments of luminosity that produced them. Yet because of the narratives of spiritual decline inherent in Voegelinian and Guénonian perspectives, there might seem no real exit beyond simply enduring “modernity without restraint” as best one can. In the words of Peter Sloterdijk on Voegelin, one of the few popular thinkers to engage with his ideas in recent years: “defences of philosophia perennis in the twentieth century frequently become involuntary obituaries instead.”[23] Here Sloterdijk might as well have been speaking of Guénon. The elephant in the room, however, is whether announcing a new epoch like this is not an act of millenarianism in itself. In light of this one should perhaps recall Georges Sorel’s apt observation that it is pessimist desperation that gives rise to millenarian will-to-deliverance and revolution, not optimistic images of the world.[24] Maybe the best we can do is stay positive about what remains of esoteric tradition, name the devil of millenarianism for what it is, and keep an open mind to different traditions, experiences and ecumenical histories. All in all Fabbri has written an amazing little book, as much as it cannot help but seem to be slightly tinged with obituary. I look forward to finding out more about this “New Axial Age”.


[1] Barry Cooper, The New Political Religions, or, An Analysis of Modern Terrorism, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 2004.

[2] René Guénon, The Essential René Guénon, World Wisdom, Sophia Perennis, Bloomington, 2009.

[3] Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for Aristocrats of the Soul, trans. Jocelyn Goodwin, Inner Traditions, New York, [1961] 2003; Aleksandr Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory, Arktos, London, 2014.

[4] For an example of just how dependent upon the idea of deterministic primary causes in the narrative of the cosmos Guénonian thought is, compare Voegelin’s conceptions of order and history with this: Fritjof Schuon, The Essential Fritjof Schuon, edited by Seyyed Hussein Nasser, World Wisdom Publishers, Bloomington, Indiana, 2005,  p. 181:”…traditions having a prehistoric origin are, symbolically speaking, made for “space” and not for “time”; that is to say, they saw the light in a primordial epoch when time was still but a rhythm in a spatial and static beatitude…the historical traditions on the other hand must take the experience of “time” into account and must foresee instability and decadence, since they were born in periods when time had become like a fast-flowing river and ever more devouring, and when the spiritual outlook had to be centred on the end of the world.”

[5] Fritjof Schuon, The Essential Fritjof Schuon, p. 144. Cf. p. 138 uses the anti-philosophical arguments of the Sufis against the philosophical obsessions with laws of causation and the “outer world”. Here Schuon refers to the “best of the Greeks” as those who saw immanent Intellect at work in the world, but even here he has to emphasise that he believes the Arabic mismatch of Plato, Plotinus and Aristotle was superior because Islamic thinkers considered them holy men and used their ideas as a combined instrument to search for the truth. Also see: Ibid, Art from the Sacred to the Profane: East and West, World Wisdom Publihsers, Bloomington, Indiana, 2007, p. 48.  Perhaps an anecdote might shed some light on the occasional habit among Traditionalists to pejorate the “Western tradition” in favour of Hinduism and Islam. Many years ago when my old teacher Roger Sworder hired Harry Oldmeadow for his Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Latrobe University Bendigo, Australia he asked him one important question over the phone: “What do you think of Guénon and Schuon’s attitudes towards the Greeks?” The appropriate answer that got him the job was “They said Plato was the best the West had available. They didn’t say enough.” Sworder spent his whole life in many ways trying to redeem the Greeks (especially the Neo-Platonic tradition) from a Traditionalist perspective. See: Roger Sworder, Mining, Metallurgy and the Meaning of Life, Sophia Perennis, San Rafael CA, [1995] 2008.

[6] Eric Voegelin, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Vol. 17: Order in History Vol IV: the Ecumenic Age, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2000, p. 394. Cf. Idem, Anamnesis, trans. Gerhart Niemeyer, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1990, p. 123 on India: “but no historiography.”

[7] Idem, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Vol. 21: History of Political Ideas Vol. III: The Later Middle Ages, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, p. 177: “the civilizational destruction perpetrated by a peasant group fighting for the perfect realm does not differ in principle from the annihilation of the world content in the…Cloud of Unknowing.” Cf. Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1981, pp. 28-9.

[8] Eric Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, esp. pp. 375-6.

[9] Pierre Feuga, “Rene Guenon et l’Hindouisme,” http://pierrefeuga.free.fr/guenon.html#_ftnref25 last accessed: 11th July 2017. Also see: René Guénon, Studies in Hinduism, trans. Henry D. Fohr and Cecil Bethell, Sophia Perennis, Hillsdale NY, 2004, p. 168 where he quotes Aurobindo at length against the Freudian unconsciousness.

[10] See: Radhakrishnan, An Idealist View of Life, Unwin Books, London, 1970.

[11] Mahabharata Vol. II, trans. and ed. by J. A. B. van Buitenen University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1975, Book III. section 188.86-189.12. See: A. L. Basham, The Wonder that Was India, Rupa, Calcutta, 1986, p. 309 which mentions similarities with Christ’s second coming on a white horse as a similarity with Kalki; Zoroastrianism and Buddhism are mentioned as possible sources for the myth too. Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010, pp. 486-7. On Shambhala, Kalki and Islam see: Alexander Berzin, “Holy Wars in Buddhism and Islam,” Alexander Berzin Archive:www.studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/history-culture...islam last accessed: 19th June 2016; Jan Elvserskog, “Ritual Theory Across the Buddhist-Muslim Divide in Late Imperial China,” in A. Akasoy, C. Burnett and R. Yoeli-Tlalim, (eds) Islam and Tibet: Interactions Along the Musk Road, Ashgate, Farnham UK, 2011, pp. 1-16 and 293-312. On the Soviet use of the Shambhala myth to spread communism: Alexander Znamenski, Red Shambala: Magic, Prophesy and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia, QuestBooks, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, 2011.

[12] Eric Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, pp. 198. The koranic quotes are carried over onto pp. 199-201. Perhaps Voegelin didn’t like Islam very much, as is suggested in The New Science of Politics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1952, pp. 139-42 where he uses the term “koran” pejoratively to indicate the Gnostic habit of writing heretical third testaments to biblical history.

[13] Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, trans. Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J., 1969. Idem, “Mundus Imaginalis, or, The Imaginary and the Imaginal,” Zurich, Spring 1972, available from:  https://ia600201.us.archive.org/28/items/mundus_imaginali... last accessed: 6th July 2017.

[14] For a commensurate overview see: Dennis L. Sepper, Descartes’ Imagination: Proportions, Images and the Activity of Thinking, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996, pp. 19-25.

[15] Jonathan Ratcliffe, “The Messianic Geser: from Religious Saviour to Communism,” Paper delivered at Geser Studies Conference, 23rd June 2016, Buryat Scientific Centre, Ulan Ude. English and Russian versions. http://anu-au.academia.edu/JonathanRatcliffe last accessed: 6th July 2017.

[16] Mohammad Rafi, “Re-Working the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger: Iran’s Revolution of 1979 and its Quest for Cultural Authenticity,” Telos Press, 19th April 2013, http://www.telospress.com/re-working-the-philosophy-of-ma... last accessed: 6th July 2017.

[17] Martin Heidegger, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” in Richard Wolin, The Heidegger Controversy, MIT Press, London, 1993, pp. 29-39; idem, Nature History and the State 1933-1934, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, various contributors, Bloosmbury, London, 2015.

[18] Yuk Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, Urbanomic, Falmouth, UK, 2016, pp. 241-69.

[19] Aleksandr Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory; Alexander S. Duff, “Heidegger’s Ghosts,” The American Interest 11/5 25th February 2016, http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/02/25/heidegger... last accessed: 17th September 2016.

[20] Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005. Cf Slavoj Žižek, In Defence of Lost Causes, Verso, New York, 2008, esp. pp. 107-17.

[21] Yuk Hui never talks about transhumanism, but is very much dependent upon Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China Vol II: History of Scientific Thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1956.  However as noted by one of the most millenarian thinkers of the last century: Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown Connecticut, 1959, p. 311: “But Needham’s enthusiasm for Taoism as a human and organismic response to life in the world must be qualified by recognising that the Taoist perfect body is immortal: Taoism does not accept death as part of life.”

[22] Exemplary is this book: Paul Berman, The Flight of the Intellectuals, Scribe, Melbourne, 2010. This is little more than a kind of rather ineffectual beat-up about Ramadan, all based on his father’s connections with the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the thinker’s own character. The conclusions of its author were simple: replace the public intellectual Ramadan with another, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What’s so special about Ali? She’s an ex-muslim, she loathes Islam and campaigns against it. Ergo, the only good Islam in Europe (or possibly everywhere) is no Islam.

[23] Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, trans. Wieland Hoban, Polity, Cambridge UK, 2016, p. 283 n.4.

[24] Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, trans. J. Roth and T.E. Hulme, Collier Books, New York, 1961, pp. 34-6.


Written by


Jonathan Ratcliffe is a doctoral candidate in Asian History at the Australian National University. He is working with Chris Heggie-Brown on a history of technology and politics, provisionally titled "Voegelin Among the Machines."

jeudi, 31 août 2017

Eric Voegelin: A Philosopher of Crisis

Many people, I suspect, find themselves in this position. They have heard that Eric Voegelin is a great philosopher of history, much esteemed by such eminent conservatives as Willmoore Kendall, Russell Kirk, and Mel Bradford, and that he and Leo Strauss rank as the most influential political theorists of the contemporary American Right.1 They eagerly obtain a copy of Voegelin’s most comprehensive work, Order and History. They are intrigued by the book’s opening: “The order of history emerges from the history of order”; but after reading a few pages, they turn away in bafflement. Though he can on occasion write with great beauty, Voegelin’s style is often dense and his train of thought difficult to follow. Even the great economist Murray Rothbard once told me that he found Voegelin’s “leap in being” unfathomable.

Reading Voegelin is well worth the effort his demanding books require, and Jeffrey C. Herndon’s insightful new book Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Order offers a useful guide to an important part of Voegelin’s work.2 Before turning to it, however, it will be helpful to look at the historical situation that formed Voegelin’s thought. Mark Lilla here grasps the essential point. In an excellent survey article on Voegelin, Lilla remarks: “In the twentieth century, European history writing became a kind of Trümmerliteratur, a look back at the civilization that collapsed in 1933 . . . or 1917, or 1789, or further back still. . . . Edmund Husserl spoke for many German thinkers when he declared, in a famous lecture just before the Second World War, that ‘the “crisis of European existence” . . . becomes understandable and transparent against the background of the teleology of European history that can be discovered philosophically.’”3

How did the Nazis, a gang of brutal thugs, succeed in gaining power in Germany? Once Hitler attained power, why did the Western powers fail to stop him before his bid for European mastery? To Voegelin, as the quotation from Lilla suggests, these questions were of prime importance. Only a spiritual collapse could explain the failure to resist such an obvious menace.

But we must here avoid a misleading impression. Voegelin was by no means a head-in-the clouds philosopher who was never willing to descend from the empyrean to analyze mundane events. Quite the contrary; he often had penetrating and unusual insights on political affairs. He once told me he thought that Britain, blinded by ideology, had wrongly insisted on sanctions against Italy after its invasion of Ethiopia, thus driving Mussolini into alliance with Hitler. He also contended that Christian Science had exercised a deleterious pacifist influence on such British appeasers as Lord Lothian and recommended that I read Christopher Sykes’s biography Nancy: Lady Astor for background on the issue. (Although I’m fairly familiar with the literature on World War II origins, I’ve never seen anyone else make this point.)

His insights were by no means confined to the 1930s. He sharply rejected the influential book by Fritz Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht (1961), which placed near-exclusive blame on Germany for the First World War. (He thought that the only decent German prose in the book was in some of the letters of Kaiser Wilhelm that it included.) He said that the diplomatic crisis after the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia should have been settled though a conference of the Great Powers. The smaller nations such as Serbia should have been told, “taisez-vous!”


To cope with political upheaval, Voegelin believed that severe measures were required. He points out in The New Science of Politics, his most popular book, and elsewhere that if one adds the votes for the Nazis and the Communists in the last years of the Weimar Republic, one obtains a large majority of the population in favor of revolutionary overthrow of the existing order. In this circumstance, the ruling authorities would have been justified in suspending ordinary democratic rule. Voegelin supported for this reason the clerical regime of Engelbert Dollfuss, which was willing to act forcibly to counter revolutionary violence; and in his The Authoritarian State, buttressed with learned citations from Ernest Renan and the French jurist Maurice Hauriou, he offers a detailed defense of emergency authoritarian rule.4 

This might stave off immediate disaster, but as I suggested earlier, a deeper problem—spiritual crisis—finally had to be confronted. Voegelin believed that order in society is much more than a political problem in the conventional sense. Besides the everyday world, there is a transcendent realm: human beings exist in tension between it and the world we grasp through the senses. Voegelin calls this tension the In-Between or, using a term of Plato’s, the Metaxy. The transcendent cannot be described in language that is literally true: myth and symbol are our only recourse. As he puts the point in his philosophically deepest book, The Ecumenic Age, Plato “is aware of the limits set to the philosopher’s exploration of reality by the divine mystery. . . . Since the philosopher cannot transcend these limits but has to move in the In-Between, the Metaxy, . . . the meaning of his work depends on an ambiance of insight concerning the divine presence and operation in the cosmos that only the myth can provide.”5

But what has all this to do with politics? Voegelin thought that the rulers of a society must mirror their society’s conception of cosmic order in the way they organize the government. In doing so, it is vital that the governing authorities preserve the tension between the human and divine realms.

If this requirement is flouted, disaster threatens. If, e.g., a society thinks that God’s kingdom on earth can be established, its futile attempt to overcome the tension in which human beings exist will result in tyranny or chaos. Voegelin thought that this “derailment of being” paralleled the ideas of the Gnostics, a movement that flourished in the first few centuries of the Christian era. As the name suggests, the Gnostics believed in salvation through the possession of esoteric knowledge. In like fashion, Voegelin argues, Comte’s positivism, Marxism, and Nazism contend that human nature can be completely remade under the guidance of a revolutionary elite. In seeking to bring an end to the tension between human beings and the divine, these movements “immanentize the eschaton,” as Voegelin famously put it in The New Science of Politics.6 That is to say, these movements treat the symbol of the end of history as if it were a project that can be achieved in ordinary time.

Voegelin’s analysis of totalitarianism differs on a crucial point from the view of Hannah Arendt in her famous The Origins of Totalitarianism. Voegelin and Arendt knew each other, and he clarified the difference between them in a notable review of her book, to which she responded. He thought that she correctly saw that totalitarian movements aimed to change human nature. “This is, indeed, the essence of totalitarianism as an immanentist creed movement.” But “I [Voegelin] could hardly believe my eyes” that Arendt did not rule out such a change as impossible. For Voegelin, the structure of being is unchangeable: precisely because of this, attempts to alter it lead to disaster.7


Voegelin’s view that society represents cosmic order may strike those new to it as hard to grasp. Here Herndon’s book offers considerable help. Before Voegelin wrote Order and History he planned a massive History of Political Ideas. This he abandoned as unsatisfactory, but Herndon thinks that, to a large extent, it reflects Voegelin’s mature views. The History has the advantage of presenting certain aspects of Voegelin’s thought in more detail than is available elsewhere. Herndon gives us a detailed account of one part of this massive treatise; he covers the period from the rise of Christianity to the Reformation.8 Someone new to Voegelin who reads Herndon’s book will get a good grasp of the basics of Voegelin’s thought.

Herndon brings out that for Voegelin, Saint Paul devised a series of “compromises” that enabled the Christian community to survive and grow in the world. These compromises preserved the necessary tension between the divine and human: in doing so they enabled the members of the community to achieve concord (homonoia). Herndon remarks, “Christian homonoia as understood by Saint Paul was no mean achievement in history.”9 Herndon ably expounds the extensions and alterations of the Pauline compromises in the Middle Ages, culminating in the thought of Thomas Aquinas.10(Herndon might have mentioned the great influence on Voegelin’s account of the Holy Roman Empire of Alois Dempf’s Sacrum Imperium.) The Reformation overthrew the delicate balance between the divine and the human described at its best in Aquinas’s thought, though never fully achieved in practice; and Voegelin is scathing in his account of Luther and Calvin as political thinkers. Luther divorced the political world from the sacred; worse yet, Calvin attempted to construct an immanent universal Christianity. Herndon comments, “If Voegelin’s treatment of Luther was harsh, his examination of Calvin borders on the scandalous.”

What are we to make of all this? I find Voegelin’s thought impressive and his erudition staggering; but it seems to me that he fails to address a fundamental issue. Why should we accept what he says about the nature of being? Voegelin often does not give arguments for his views; indeed, in these matters, he distrusts the use of propositions altogether. For him, the mystical insights of certain great thinkers, Plato foremost among them, are primary, and Voegelin devotes most of his philosophical attention to an exposition of the myths and symbols of these thinkers. He was certainly capable of argument: to see this one has only to examine in The Authoritarian State the nimble dialectics he uses to analyze the new constitution proposed for the Dollfuss regime. But he thought that its place in philosophy was distinctly minor. I well remember one conversation in which he several times corrected me for referring to a philosopher’s “position,” a word he deemed unacceptably ideological.11

Voegelin also is open to challenge about the way he thinks society represents the cosmic order. Why must it be the ruling authorities who establish the order of society? In the classical liberal view, such matters belong entirely to civil society. Why should the police and defense departments decide how human society represents God? To ask this question is not at all to challenge Voegelin’s assumption that society mirrors cosmic order.12


Although Voegelin had been a member of the private seminar of the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and had a good understanding of free-market economics, he dismissed what he considered extreme or dogmatic classical liberalism. He treated John Locke with scorn, hardly viewing him as a major thinker at all. The great classical liberal Charles Comte was for him someone who wished to overthrow the order of being. For Voegelin a strong state is essential.

I disagree with Voegelin here, for reasons set out elsewhere. But accept or reject the fundamental tenets of Voegelin’s thought, no one who studies him can fail to benefit from his insights and synoptic vision.13


  1. Voegelin and Strauss corresponded intermittently over many years, and their letters have been published: Faith and Political Philosophy (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004). On one occasion, Strauss asked Voegelin what he thought of Karl Popper. Voegelin responded that Popper had deliberately twisted the meaning of Bergson’s phrase “open society” in his The Open Society and Its Enemies. Bergson meant societies open to the transcendent, as Popper decidedly did not. Strauss wrote back that Voegelin’s letter had been very useful to him in his efforts to block Popper from teaching at the University of Chicago. Voegelin once told me that he thought a major weakness of Strauss’s thought was that he never attempted an interpretation of Christianity.
  2. The book is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation at LSU. It is on the whole well written, though I regret to report that the author is guilty more than once of the solecism “mitigate against.”
  3. Mark Lilla, “Mr. Casaubon in America”, New York Review of Books, June 28, 2007, 29. Voegelin esteemed Husserl highly, and he wrote illuminatingly about him in his correspondence with Alfred Schutz. He thought, though, that Husserl at times succumbed to a positivist view of history.
  4. This book led to the unfair claim by Aurel Kolnai, in The War Against the West (1938), that Voegelin sympathized with fascism.
  5. The Irish philosopher William Desmond also uses the concept of the Metaxy. See, e.g., his Being and the Between(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995).
  6. Arthur Versluis in The New Inquisitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) assails Voegelin for his view of the Gnostics. He contends that totalitarian movements endeavor to impose a fixed system of beliefs. The Gnostics, by contrast, were a spiritual movement without rigid dogmas. Versluis’s critique fails to confront what for Voegelin is the key point, the direct possession of saving knowledge by an elite. In his later works, though, Voegelin thought that he had overemphasized the role of the Gnostics. Other movements were involved in the derailment of being as well. Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Return in Modernity (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001) is an outstanding analysis of Gnosticism, with some attention to Voegelin.
  7. Voegelin analyzed Nazism as a deformation of being in his early The Political Religions and in his lectures Hitler and the Germans. In the former work, he notes the importance of the symbol of light in Nazi propaganda: images and descriptions of “shining” abound.
  8. Voegelin never published the History, but it is now available in his Collected Works in eight volumes.
  9. On his visit to the United States in the 1920s, Voegelin attended the lectures of the sociologist Franklin Giddings at Columbia University. Giddings’s “consciousness of kind” influenced Voegelin’s later discussions of homonoia.
  10. Herndon does not mention that after his treatment of Aquinas in the History, Voegelin sometimes suggested that Aquinas held overly rigid notions of being and natural law. He in part anticipated the controversial work of Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being.
  11. Frederick Wilhelmsen, among others, has criticized Voegelin for his departures from Christian orthodoxy. Whether Voegelin was a Christian obviously depends on how one characterizes Christianity. Herndon gives a good account of the controversy. Incidentally, when he was Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) sent Voegelin a letter in 1981 saying that his thinking had “fascinated and enriched” him.
  12. I owe this insight to my late friend Robert Nozick, who immediately raised the problem after he asked me to give him a brief account of Voegelin’s thought.
  13. For my criticisms of Voegelin on classical liberalism see my “The Fallacies of Voegelinian Liberalism,” Mises Review, Fall 2000. My tone in that essay is much too harsh.

First published: February. This article is reprinted with the author’s permission.

mercredi, 20 février 2013

Know Your Gnostics


Know Your Gnostics


Eric Voegelin diagnosed the neoconservatives' disease

Eric Voegelin often is regarded as a major figure in 20th-century conservative thought—one of his concepts inspired what has been a popular catchphrase on the right for decades, “don’t immanentize the eschaton”—but he rejected ideological labels. In his youth, in Vienna, he attended the famous Mises Circle seminars, where he developed lasting friendships with figures who would be important in the revival of classical liberalism, such as F.A. Hayek, but he later rejected their libertarianism as yet another misguided offshoot of the Enlightenment project. Voegelin has sometimes been paired with the British political theorist Michael Oakeshott, who greatly admired his work, but he grounded his political theorizing in a spiritual vision in a way that was quite foreign to Oakeshott’s thought. Voegelin once wrote, “I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology… a Communist, a Fascist, a National Socialist, an old liberal, a new liberal, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Platonist, a neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, and of course a Hegelian.”

But whatever paradoxes he embodied, Voegelin was, first and foremost, a passionate seeker for truth. He paid no attention to what party his findings might please or displease, and he was willing to abandon vast amounts of writing, material that might have enhanced his reputation as scholar, when the development of his thought led him to believe that he needed to pursue a different direction. As such, his ideas deserve the attention of anyone who sincerely seeks for the origins of political order. And they have a timely relevance given recent American ventures aimed at fixing the problems of the world through military interventions in far-flung regions.

Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany in 1901. His family moved to Vienna when he was nine, and there he earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1922, under the dual supervision of Hans Kelsen, the author of the constitution of the new Austrian republic, and the economist Othmar Spann. He subsequently studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg and spent a summer at Oxford University mastering English. (He commented that his English was so poor when he arrived that he spent some minutes wondering why a street-corner speaker was so enthusiastic about the benefits of cheeses, before he realized the man was preaching about Jesus.) He then traveled to the United States, where he took courses at Columbia with John Dewey, Harvard with Alfred North Whitehead, and Wisconsin with John R. Commons, where he said he first discovered “the real, authentic America.”

Upon returning to Austria, he resumed attending the Mises Seminar, and he published two works critical of the then ascendant doctrine of racism. These made him a target of the Nazis and led to his dismissal from the University of Vienna after the Anschluss. As with many other Austrian intellectuals, the onslaught of Nazism made him leave Austria. (He and his wife managed to obtain their visas and flee to Switzerland on the very day the Gestapo came to seize his passport.) Voegelin eventually settled at Louisiana State University, where he taught for 16 years, before coming full circle and returning to Germany to promote American-style constitutional democracy in his native land. The hostility generated by his declaration that the blame for the rise of Nazism could not be pinned solely on the Nazi Party elite, but must be shared by the German people in general, led him to return to the United States, where he died in 1985.

During his lifelong search for the roots of social order, Voegelin came to understand politics not as an autonomous sphere of activity independent of a nation’s culture, but as the public articulation of how a society conceives the proper relationship of its members both to one another and to the rest of the cosmos. Only when a society’s political institutions are an organic product of a widely shared and existentially workable conception of mankind’s place in the universe will they successfully order social life. As a corollary of his understanding of political life, Voegelin rejected the contemporary, rationalist faith in the power of “well-designed,” written constitutions to ensure the continued existence of a healthy polity. He argued that “if a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a [truly] representational ruler will sooner or later make an end of it… When a representative does not fulfill his existential task, no constitutional legality of his position will save him.”

For Voegelin, a truly “representative” government entails, much more crucially than the relatively superficial fact that citizens have some voice in their government, first of all that a government addresses the basic needs of “securing domestic peace, the defense of the realm, the administration of justice, and taking care of the welfare of the people.” Secondly, a political order ought to represent its participants’ understanding of their place in the cosmos. It may help in grasping Voegelin’s meaning here to think of the Muslim world, where attempts to create liberal, constitutional democracies can result in Islamic theocracies instead: the first type of government is “representative” in the narrow, constitutional sense, while the second actually represents those societies’ own understanding of their place in the world.

Voegelin undertook extensive historical analysis to support his view of the representative character of healthy polities, analysis that appeared chiefly in his great, multi-volume works History of Political Ideas—which was largely unpublished during Voegelin’s life because his scholarship prompted him to change the focus of his research—and Order and History. This undertaking was more than merely illustrative of his ideas, since he understood political representation itself not as a timeless, static construct but as an ongoing historical process, so that an adequate political representation for one time and place will fail to be representative in a different time or for a different people.

The earliest type of representation Voegelin described is that characterizing the ancient “cosmological empires,” such as those of Egypt and the Near East. Their imperial governments succeeded in organizing those societies for millennia because they were grounded in cosmic mythologies that, while containing cyclical phenomena like day and night and the seasons, depicted the sequence of such cycles as eternal and unchanging. They “symbolized politically organized society as a cosmic analogue… by letting vegetative rhythms and celestial revolutions function as models for the structural and procedural order of society.”

The sensible course for members of a society with such a self-understanding was to reconcile themselves to their fixed roles in the functioning of this implacable, if awe-inspiring, universe. The emperor or pharaoh was a divine being, the representative for his society of the ruling god of the cosmic order, and as remote and unapproachable as was that god. The demise of the cosmological empires in the Mediterranean world came with Alexander the Great’s conquests. After his empire was divided among his generals following his death, the new monarchs could not plausibly claim the divine mandate that native rulers had asserted as the basis of their authority since their ascension was so clearly based on military conquest and not on some ancient act of a god seeking to provide the now-conquered peoples with a divine guide.

The basis of the Greek polis was the Hellenic pantheon. When the faith in that pantheon was undermined by the work of philosophers, the polis ceased to be a viable form of polity, as those resisting its passing recognized when they condemned Socrates to death for not believing in the civic gods. The Romans, a people not generally prone to theoretical speculation, managed to sustain their republican city-state model of politics far longer than had the Greeks but eventually the stresses produced by the spoils of possessing a vast empire and the demands of ruling it—as well as the increasing influence of Greek philosophical thought in Rome—proved fatal to that republic as well.

Mediterranean civilization then entered a period of crisis characterized by cynical, imperial rule by the Roman emperors and an urgent search for a new ordering principle for social existence among their subjects, which produced the multitude of cults and creeds that proliferated during the imperial centuries. The crisis was finally resolved when Christianity, institutionalized in the Catholic Church, triumphed as the new basis for organizing Western society, while the Orthodox Church, centered in Constantinople, played a similar role in the East.

Voegelin contends that this medieval Christian order began to fracture due to the de-spiritualization of the Church that resulted from its increasing focus on power over secular affairs. Having succeeded in restoring civil order to Western Europe during the several centuries following the fall of Rome, the Church would have done best, as Voegelin saw it, to have withdrawn voluntarily “from its material position as the greatest economic power, which could be justified earlier by the actual civilizing performance.” Furthermore, the new theories of natural philosophy produced by the emerging “independent, secular civilization… required a voluntary surrender on the part of the Church of those of its ancient civilizational elements which proved incompatible with the new Western civilization… [but] again the Church proved hesitant in adjusting adequately and in time.”

The crisis caused by the Church’s failure to adjust its situation to the new realities came to a head with the splintering of Western Christianity during the Protestant Reformation and the ascendancy of the authority the nation-state over that of the Church.

The newly dominant nation-states energetically and repeatedly attempted to create novel myths that could ground their rule over their subjects. But these were composed from what Voegelin called “hieroglyphs,” superficial invocations of a pre-existing concept that failed to embody its essence because those invoking it had not themselves experienced the reality behind the original concept. As hieroglyphs, the terms were adopted because of the perceived authority they embodied. But as they were being employed without the context from which their original validity arose, none of these efforts created a genuine basis for a stable and humane order.

The perception of the hollow core of the new social arrangements became the motivation for and the target of a series of modern utopian and revolutionary ideologies, culminating in fascism and communism. These movements evoked what had been living symbols for medieval Europe—such as “salvation,” “the end times,” and the “communion of the saints”—but as the revolutionaries had lost touch with the spiritual foundation of those symbols, they perverted them into political slogans, such as “emancipation of the proletariat,” “the communist utopia,” and “the revolutionary vanguard.”

This analysis is the source of the phrase “immanentize the eschaton”: as Voegelin understood it, these revolutionary movements had mistaken a spiritual symbol, that of the ultimate triumphant kingdom of heaven (the eschaton), for a possible goal of mundane politics, and they were attempting to create heaven on earth (the immanentizing) through revolutionary action. He sometimes described this urge to create heaven on earth by political means as “Gnostic,” especially in what remains his most popular work, The New Science of Politics. (Voegelin later came to question the historical accuracy of his choice of terminology.)

But communism and fascism were not the only options on the table when Voegelin was writing: the constitutional liberal democracies, especially those of the Anglosphere, resisted the revolutionary movements. While Voegelin was not a modern liberal, his attitude towards these regimes was considerably more sympathetic than it was towards communism or fascism. He saw certain tendencies in the Western democracies, such as the near worship of material well-being and the attempted cordoning off of religious convictions into a purely private sphere, as symptoms of the spiritual crisis unfolding in the West. On the other hand, he believed that in places like Britain and the United States there had been less destruction of the West’s classical and Christian cultural foundations, so that the liberal democracies had retained more cultural resources with which to combat the growing disorder than was present elsewhere in Europe.

As a result, he firmly supported the liberal democracies in their effort to resist communism and fascism, and his return to Germany after the war was prompted by the hope of promoting an American-inspired political system in his native land. We can best understand Voegelin’s attitude towards liberal democracy as being, “Well, this is the best we can do in the present situation.”

He saw the pendulum of order and decay as always in motion, and he was convinced that one day a new cosmology would arise that would be the basis for a new civilizational order. In the meantime, the Western democracies had at least worked out a way for people with profoundly divergent understandings of their place in the cosmos to live decently ordered lives in relative peace. Always a realist, Voegelin was not one to look down his nose at whatever order it is really possible to achieve in our actual circumstances.

But the liberal democracies are liable to fall victim to their own form of “immanentizing the eschaton” if they mistake the genuinely admirable, albeit limited, order they have been able to achieve for the universal goal of all history and all mankind. That error, I suggest, lies behind the utopian adventurism of America’s recent foreign policy, in both its neoconservative and liberal Wilsonian forms. Voegelin’s analysis of “Gnosticism” can help us to understand better the nature of that tendency in Western foreign policy. (We can still use his term “Gnostic” while acknowledging, as he did, its questionable historical connection to ancient Gnosticism.)

Voegelin was no pacifist—for instance, he was committed to the idea that the West had a responsibility to militarily resist the expansive barbarism of the Soviet Union. Yet it is unlikely that he would have had any patience for the utopian Western triumphalism often exhibited by neoconservatives and Wilsonians.

What Voegelin called “the Gnostic personality” has great difficulty accepting that the impermanence of temporal existence is inherent in its nature. Therefore, as he wrote, the Gnostic seeks to freeze “history into an everlasting final realm on this earth.” The common view that any nation not embracing some form of liberal, constitutional democracy is in need of Western re-education, by force if necessary, and the consequent fixation on installing such regimes wherever possible, displays a faith that we in the West have achieved the pinnacle of social arrangements and should “freeze history.”

One of the chief vices Voegelin ascribes to Gnosticism is the will to live in a dream world and the reluctance to allow reality to intrude upon the dream. During the many years of chaotic violence following America’s “victory” in Iraq, the difficulty of continuously evading the facts on the ground compelled some who supported the war to admit that things did not proceed as envisioned in their prewar fantasy. Even so, few of these reluctant realists are moved to concede that launching the war was a mistake. A popular dodge they engage in is to ask critics, “So, you’d prefer it if Hussein was still in power and still oppressing the Iraqi people?”

That riposte assumes that, if a goal is laudable when evaluated in a vacuum from which contraindications have been eliminated, then pursuing it is fully justified. Unfortunately, as the post-invasion years in Iraq demonstrate, it was quite possible to depose Hussein while creating greater misfortunes for Iraqis. The Western moral tradition developed primarily by the Greek philosophers and Christian theologians denied that a claim of good intentions was a sufficient defense of the morality of an action. This tradition held that anyone seeking to pursue the good was obligated to go further, giving as much prudent consideration to the likely ramifications of a choice as circumstances allowed.

But in the Gnostic dream world, the question of whether the supposed beneficiaries of one’s virtuously motivated crusade realistically can be expected to gain or lose as a result of it is dismissed as an unseemly compromise with reality. What matters to the Gnostic revolutionary is that his scheme intends a worthy outcome; that alone justifies undertaking it. Such contempt for attending to the messy and complex circumstances of the real world is exemplified in the account of George W. Bush’s foreign policy that one of his advisers provided to a puzzled journalist, Ron Suskind, who described their encounter in the New York Times Magazine:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

As it became obvious that their Iraq adventure was not living up to its promise of rapidly and almost without cost producing a stable, democratic, and pro-Western regime in the midst of the Arab world, supporters of the war were loath to entertain the possibility that its failure was due to their unrealistic understanding of the situation. Instead, they often sought to place the blame on the shortcomings of those they nobly had attempted to rescue, namely, the people of Iraq. Voegelin had noted this Gnostic tendency several decades earlier: “The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should according to the dream conception of cause and effect.”

Much more could be said concerning the relevance of Voegelin’s political philosophy to our recent foreign policy, but the brief hints offered above should be enough to persuade those open to such realistic analysis to read The New Science of Politics and draw further conclusions for themselves.


While it is true that Voegelin resisted being assigned to any ideological pigeonhole, there are important aspects of his thought that are conservative in nature. He rejected the notion, sometimes present in romantic conservatism, that the solution to our present troubles can lie in the recreation of some past state of affairs: he was too keenly aware that history moves ever onward, and the past is irretrievably behind us, to fall prey to what we might call “nostalgic utopianism.” Nevertheless, he held that our traditions must be studied closely and adequately understood because, while it is nonsensical to try to duplicate the past, still it is only by understanding the insights achieved by our forebears that we can move forward with any hope of a happy outcome.

While historical circumstances never repeat, Voegelin understood human nature and its relation to the eternal to create a similar ground in all times and places, an insight that surely is at the core of any genuine conservatism. Thus, it is our task to recreate, in our own minds, the brilliant advances in understanding the human condition that were achieved by such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. Those advances serve as the foundation for our efforts to respond adequately to the novel conditions of our time. Voegelin’s message is one that any thoughtful conservative must try heed.

Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.