Crisis is the mother of history. Beginning with Herodotus the urge to write history has been bound up with the need to explain the seemingly inexplicable reversals of fortune suffered by nations and empires. The best histories satisfy that need while still capturing the openness and unpredictability of human action, though the best histories are not always the most memorable. Historians who offer “multicausal explanations”—and use phrases like that—do not last, while those who discover the hidden wellspring of absolutely everything are imitated and attacked but never forgotten.
In the twentieth century, European history writing became a kind of Trümmerliteratur, a look back at the rubble of a civilization that collapsed in 1933…or 1917, or 1789, or further back still. Germans have specialized in this kind of literature of ruins, and not only because so much debris litters the German landscape. In the nineteenth century, historians wanted to imitate Hegel, whose grand philosophical vision wove together every aspect of human culture into a seamless dialectical account of historical progress. After the catastrophe of the First World War the challenge was to transform that story into an apocalyptic one of rupture and decay. Spengler was not alone. He was joined by German philosophers, beginning with Heidegger, who came to see their own intellectual tradition as implicated in the collapse of modern Europe, and to believe that the reorientation of philosophy was a necessary—and perhaps even sufficient—condition of social regeneration. 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.”
For reasons of its own, America has never cultivated crisis history, despite the apocalyptic streak in our native religious imagination. But when German scholars fleeing Hitler began arriving in the United States in the 1930s, they imported some very large and very dark ideas about the crisis of the age, which then found resonance here. Though the diagnoses of Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno were very different, they all assumed that it was transformations in Western thinking that had prepared the unthinkable, and that a new intellectual path had to be found. So did Eric Voegelin. An Austrian émigré who was on friendly terms with both Arendt and Strauss, Voegelin never acquired a wide public readership in his lifetime, nor did he develop a vast network of students to spread his ideas or apply them to political life. There are Voegelinians, in North America and Europe, and thanks to their efforts the vast project of bringing out The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin is nearly complete. But he was too solitary and idiosyncratic a thinker to leave behind a proper school, which is a good thing. Eric Voegelin was an original, a hothouse flower transplanted from the dark garden of German Geschichte to the land of the open road. A curious fate for an Old World thinker, though not unusual for his generation.
Eric Voegelin was born in Cologne in 1901 and left Germany for Vienna when he was nine. He was trained in law and political science but his real education, he later said, came from reading Karl Kraus, the acerbic Viennese journalist whose attacks on the hypocrisy and vulgarity of his time shaped the generation coming of age around the First World War. Voegelin’s detachment from his Austrian homeland prepared him to take an unusual step for a young European academic. In 1924 he traveled to the United States on a fellowship and spent two years studying in American universities, attending the courses of John Dewey at Columbia and discovering the works of George Santayana. This experience inspired his first book, On the Form of the American Mind (1928), which owes more to German thinkers like Max Scheler and Wilhelm Dilthey than to American pragmatists like Dewey. Still, Voegelin’s American experience had large effects. When he returned to Vienna to accept a university appointment, he brought with him an abiding hatred of racism and the shameful intellectual justifications of it. After pseudoscientific works supporting the Nazis’ biological racism began circulating in Austria, he attacked them in two books published not long after Hitler seized power. These and other of his writings made him a choice target of Austrian Nazis, who ordered his arrest immediately after the Anschluss in 1938. He escaped by train while the police searched his apartment.
Though neither a Communist nor a Jew, Voegelin found himself among the mass of émigré scholars seeking work and safety in the United States. Despite his previous American experience, unheard of in this group, he had trouble finding a position teaching American government because he was a German-speaking foreigner. He finally ended up at Louisiana State University, where he taught until 1958, and began writing books in English. On the basis of these works he was invited back to Germany to establish a research institute in Munich, where he stayed for ten years until the poisonous political atmosphere of the late Sixties drove him away. (“Between the staid dummies of tradition and the apocalyptic dummies of revolution,” he declared in Die Zeit, “it has become hard to work intellectually free in Germany.”) He returned to the United States in 1969, taking a position at the Hoover Institution in California, and died there in 1985.
Voegelin was astonishingly productive during his American years, but in an odd way. Shortly after arriving he was asked by an American publisher to do a short history of political thought to compete with other standard textbooks in the field, and he began writing an enormous, unfinished manuscript called History of Political Ideas, which takes up eight volumes of The Collected Works. After abandoning it as too unwieldy in the 1950s, he then launched a projected six-volume study of “order and history” that also remained unfinished at his death. On top of these undertakings Voegelin produced hundreds of reviews and essays, several more books, extremely long and involved letters, interviews, and a charming short autobiography. Such logorrhea, and in a foreign tongue, inspires amazement. And suspicion, too.
A first glance at Voegelin’s works leaves the unprepared reader baffled, since they seem to be about everything—Byzantine history, medieval theology, gestalt psychology, Paleolithic and Neolithic visual symbols, Greek philosophy, American constitutional development, the Dead Sea scrolls, Chinese imperial history, Old Testament interpretation, Polynesian decorative arts, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian and Mesopotamian cosmology, Renaissance images of Tamerlane, and much else. He brings to mind George Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon, the obsessive polymath whose search for the “key to all mythologies” left him only torsos of unfinishable works. But the advantage of having The Collected Works at hand is that all this writing finally begins coming into focus. Guiding it all was a basic intuition about the relation between religion and politics, and how transformations in that relation could explain the cataclysms of modern history.
The germ of all Voegelin’s major works is to be found in The Political Religions, a dense pamphlet dashed off just before the Anschluss, and which had to be published in Switzerland after he fled. In it he attacked the Nazis as children of darkness, though he blamed the modern secular West for making Nazism possible. This was, to say the least, an unusual perspective, since the modern secular West was just then gearing up for war against Hitler. To make his case, Voegelin sketched out a story that he would elaborate and refine over the next three decades.
The story begins with the early civilizations of the ancient Near East, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, where states were endowed with a divine aura giving them legitimacy. In that lost world the king was thought symbolically to be the representative of the divine order, serving either as an intercessor with the gods or as a god himself. For Voegelin, this was the original condition of all civilizations, which cannot establish an order without believing in its sanctity. The bond between the divine and the human was a tight one in the ancient world and only loosened with the rise of Christianity, which was the first world religion to offer theological principles for distinguishing divine and political orders.
Though those principles were honored mainly in the breach, as Voegelin recognized, the very idea of distinguishing a transcendent City of God from a terrestrial City of Man had deep spiritual and political implications for Western history. On the one hand, it opened up paths to God that did not have to pass through the royal palace; on the other, it raised the prospect of human beings governing themselves without direct divine guidance. Spiritual enrichment came with the risk of political impoverishment, and eventually with the temptation to free man entirely from divine supervision. The radical Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries willingly succumbed to that temptation, completing the work begun by Christianity: in Voegelin’s words, it “decapitated God.”
Yet the modern liberation of politics from God did not mean the liberation of man from man. Quite the contrary. Though the Enlightenment banned God from the city, it could not abolish the practice of divinization that had originally given rise to civilization. What happened in modern Western history after the Enlightenment, in Voegelin’s view, was that human beings began to conceive in sacred terms their own activities, in particular their creation of new political orders free from traditional sources of authority. Modern man became a Prometheus, believing himself a god capable of transforming anything and everything at will. “When God has become invisible behind the world,” Voegelin declared, “the things of the world become new gods.” Once this is understood, the true nature of the mass ideological movements of the twentieth century—Marxism, fascism, nationalism—becomes evident: they were all “political religions,” complete with prophets, priests, and temple sacrifices. When you abandon the Lord, according to this conception, it is only a matter of time before you start worshiping a Führer.
This hydraulic notion of a religious drive that reappears in secular life if it is denied access to the divine has been a staple of Counter-Enlightenment thought since the nineteenth century, especially among Christian theologians protesting the course of modern history.1 But the theologians had a clear remedy in mind: return to the one true faith. Was this Voegelin’s remedy as well? It was not—though reticence about his own religious views led more than a few of his conservative readers to think it was. Voegelin, who was raised a Protestant, wrote casually about the “transcendent” or “divine” as if its existence were unquestionable, but he never expressed any particular doctrinal faith about it and was openly critical of Christianity, which he blamed for preparing the advent of modern politics. Instead, he wrote about the history of religion and philosophy as the story of man’s continuous attempts to make sense of what lies beyond the temporal sphere and determine its relation to individual consciousness and the social order. Though we cannot know anything about Voegelin’s private beliefs, he clearly valued the power of religion itself as a vitalistic force shaping human society, a force that could be directed to good ends so long as its proper function was respected. He left no doubt that he accepted in his own way the existence of a divine transcendent order. The basic theme of The Political Religions is that the fantasy of creating a world without religion, a political order from which the divine was banned, led necessarily to the creation of grotesque secular deities like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.
Voegelin cites approvingly two such contemporary works by influential Catholic theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar's Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (Apocalypse of the German Soul) (Salzburg: Anton Pustet, three volumes, 1937–1939) and Henri de Lubac's Le Drame de l'humanisme athée (The Drama of Atheist Humanism) (Paris: Spes, 1945).↩
Voegelin cites approvingly two such contemporary works by influential Catholic theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (Apocalypse of the German Soul) (Salzburg: Anton Pustet, three volumes, 1937–1939) and Henri de Lubac’s Le Drame de l’humanisme athée (The Drama of Atheist Humanism) (Paris: Spes, 1945).↩