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Mr. Casaubon in America

It is also the theme of The New Science of Politics (1952), Voegelin’s first book in English, and of the grand, multivolume work he called Order and History, which began appearing in 1956. Fresh from the experience of the war and the destruction caused by the “political religions,” Voegelin wanted to develop a new political science that would analyze the symbols by which all societies conceive of themselves and order their institutions in history. His concept of “symbol” was somewhat vague, but also flexible, allowing him to compare, for example, the symbolism of ancient Mesopotamian kingship to that of American democratic rhetoric. It is, of course, an anthropological commonplace that aspects of political life—such as the crowning of a king, the architecture of palaces and assemblies, the rituals of voting—have symbolic meaning. What was novel in Voegelin’s thought was that he wedded that commonplace to a theory of history, suggesting that a universal process of symbolization was surreptitiously at work in human civilization, giving world history a discernible direction.

This process could be revealed, he argued, once we see every society as a “cosmion,” a self-contained imaginative world invested with meaning and believed to match the structure of a transcendent order. Take, for example, the preamble to the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, which Voegelin cites:

When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called [the land of] Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.

(translated byLeonard William King)

Here the structure of the “everlasting kingdom” is compared straightforwardly to that of the cosmos (“Heaven and earth”), and the prince’s dominion over his people likened to the gods’ dominion over “earthly man.”

Sometime in the first millennium BC, Voegelin asserted, this symbolic order became more complex, more “articulated.” Man and society began to be viewed independently of each other, and both as needing philosophy or revealed religion to bring them into alignment with divine order. The true man was now one who worked to bring about that harmony in his own soul, and the true ruler was one who tried to achieve it in society. A whole new set of symbols was developed to reflect this outlook, which reached its greatest clarity in ancient Athens. In this “golden hour in history,” as Voegelin called it, the philosophy of Plato and the dramas of Aeschylus expressed the newly revealed truth about human existence.

Voegelin’s sweeping view of the development of civilization owed much to the mystical speculations on the “ages of man” of the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling in the nineteenth century, and to Spengler, Toynbee, and Karl Jaspers in the twentieth. He did something new, though, when he made his story revolve around the phenomenon of gnosticism. “Gnosticism” is a term that has meant many things to many people over the centuries. Coined in the antiheretical literature of the early Church, it was used to tar different heterodox groups that had sprung up in late antiquity, some claiming to be Christian, others Jewish. These groups were thought to share three basic beliefs: that the created world was the work of an evil lower deity, or demiurge, and thus utterly corrupt; that direct access to a higher, spiritual divinity was possible for those with a secret knowledge (gnosis) developed from a divine spark within; and that redemption would come through a violent apocalypse, led, perhaps, by those possessing gnosis. Today an enormous scholarly literature exists on these sects, and also on whether they shared much at all.

A narrow subject, it might seem. But in fact the concept of gnosticism has had a large role in German thought ever since the early nineteenth century, when theologians and biblical scholars clashed over whether gnosticism was at the root of Christianity. Soon this academic controversy turned into a very public debate over the degree to which even modern thought was indebted to heterodox and heretical religious ideas of the ancient world. Already in the 1830s Hegel was being attacked as a modern gnostic, and the charge was soon leveled against the utopians and revolutionaries who came after him.

This polemic was revived after World War II when Hans Jonas, a German-Jewish scholar who had fled Hitler, published an influential study called The Gnostic Religion. As a young student of Martin Heidegger, Jonas was drawn to ancient gnosticism by what he thought were religious anticipations of the philosophical truths expressed in his teacher’s early existentialism. After the war, and after Heidegger’s public embrace of Nazism, Jonas developed a much darker view of the gnostic impulse and how it affected politics. His final judgment on Heidegger’s thought was that it expressed a “modern nihilism infinitely more radical and more desperate than gnostic nihilism ever could be.”2

Voegelin’s argument in The New Science of Politics was that the entire modern age, which grew out of a rebellion against Christianity, was gnostic in nature. Christianity had advanced beyond the symbols of the Greek world, articulating what it held to be the truth that, though individuals are products of nature and society, they are also direct children of God whose lives are aimed ultimately toward salvation. This was Christianity’s great revelation—and its secret weakness. The life of the Christian pilgrim is hard, his progress slow. It offers no solace on earth, certainly not in political life, which is subordinated to the spiritual mission of the Church. And human beings are impatient: told that salvation awaits them, they rush ahead, building towers up to heaven or hastening the apocalypse.

Gershom Scholem had discovered similar dynamics in Jewish mysticism, but in Voegelin’s eyes they reached the highest intensity in Christianity, whose messiah had already arrived, then inexplicably departed. And so, at a certain point, European Christians got tired of waiting; lacking “the spiritual stamina for the heroic adventure of the soul that is Christianity,” they rebelled and decided to build their paradise on earth, using their own powers. This was how the modern age was born, through a gnostic “immanentization of the Christian eschaton”—that is, the pursuit of the millennium in the political here-and-now.

This is the idea for which Voegelin was best known in his lifetime, and it earned him many admirers among American conservatives such as Willmoore Kendall and Russell Kirk, who saw a “crisis of the West” in the cold war, in mass popular culture, in the student rebellions—in just about everything. By dismissing Hegel and Marx as gnostic prophets, “petty paracletes in whom the spirit is stirring,” Voegelin gave world-historical reasons for dismissing them and their epigones. The histories of modern political revolutions, of liberal progressivism, of technological advance, of communism, of fascism—what were they but testimonies to gnostic rebellion against the very idea of a transcendent order? That Voegelin thought Christianity was partially to blame for this rebellion, and that the American Revolution was one result of it, somehow escaped his conservative readers. In 1968 he published a short, dyspeptic book called Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, in which he called modern gnostics the “murderers of God,” Marx an “intellectual swindler,” and all modern mass political movements forms of “ersatz religion.” The American translation was a hit and has remained in print at conservative publishing houses ever since. It is even available as an audiobook.

Shortly after the appearance of The New Science of Politics Voegelin published in rapid succession the first three volumes of Order and History, which began tracing the entire arc of civilization, starting with the ancient Near East and running down to the present. This was conceived less as a survey than as a rational reconstruction of the process by which the symbolization of human experience had become increasingly articulate up until the birth of Christianity, and then had declined owing to modern gnosticism. These early volumes offer a brilliant if eccentric ride through ancient history, beginning with Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Israel, then taking up the Greek story, from the Cretans and Achaeans down to classical Athens. They are not embarrassments. Voegelin was an earnest amateur historian who seemed to have read everything and could make connections among myths, inscriptions, urban planning, zodiacs, prophecies, epic poetry, biblical stories, Greek tragedies, and Platonic dialogues. His first three volumes quickly established the human ascent up to Christianity, and his cold war American readers looked forward—strange, but true—to reading about their own civilizational decline.

Then something happened: Mr. Casaubon changed his mind.

The next volume of Order and History did not appear for seventeen years, during which time Voegelin spent a decade building his German research institute. When it was finally published in 1974 his readers discovered that he had renounced much that he written up until that point. The book opens with a startling confession by Voegelin that his original historical schema had fallen prey to the very impulse he had criticized, the “monomaniacal desire to force the operations of the spirit in history on the one line that will unequivocally lead into the speculator’s present.” Now he had come to realize that history is “a mystery in the process of revelation,” an open field where the divine and human meet, not a highway without exits. For centuries mystics had tried to express this truth in hermetic language, and in the early twentieth century Karl Barth and Martin Heidegger made new attempts in the languages of Protestant theology and modern philosophy. But the results were just as mysterious as the phenomenon they tried to explain. What was needed, Voegelin now declared, was an objective, scholarly discipline for discovering the truth of this “theophanic” encounter without robbing it of its fundamental mystery. That now became the program of Order and History.

The last two volumes of this work are very tough going, not least because Voegelin felt the need to develop a specialized vocabulary all his own, using terms like “eristics,” “metaleptic consciousness,” “metastatic faith,” “pneumatic theophany,” and “egophanic history,” as if they were transparent. (The final volume of The Collected Works has a thirty-eight-page glossary to help the reader navigate it all.) And there is a regrettable elephantiasis, as the writing veers from lists of Sumerian kings to Max Weber, Saint Paul to Mircea Eliade, Xerxes to Jacob Burckhardt, the Shang dynasty to Rudolf Bultmann. A reader unfamiliar with these epochs and writers will make nothing of it.

Which is a pity, since the intuition inspiring these last works is a deep one. Voegelin first expressed it in an unusual book he published in Germany called Anamnesis (1966), and which was translated into English only a decade later. It begins not with the problem of history, but with the problem of memory—in Greek, anamnesis. What is it about consciousness, Voegelin asks himself, that makes us conceive of our experience in terms of beginning and end, rupture and continuity? And how does that psychological proclivity affect the way we construct our societies? He was now convinced that “the problems of human order in society and history”—including the problem of gnosticism—“originate in the order of consciousness.” In the 1940s he even began his own private “anamnetic experiments,” as he called them, in which he explored his childhood memories and tried to recover the emotions at their core, reflecting on how such feelings might have shaped the construction of his own past. His strange but suggestive notes on these experiments are included in the book. But the guiding thought behind it all is that the human and transcendent realms meet in human consciousness, an old mystic notion that Voegelin extends to history, suggesting that through us “eternal being realizes itself in time.”

When this odd and stimulating book appeared in Germany, Voegelin confessed to a friend that it had certain affinities with the mysticism of Plotinus and The Cloud of Unknowing, and that he was trying to master a “new literary form in philosophy.” He never did. In the last works this poetic impulse lies etherized upon the table of scholarship. Nor did he satisfy his cold war American readers, who, after a seventeen-year wait, hoped to find in the final volumes of Order and History more ammunition for their battle against modern progressivism. One conservative critic declared in a review that “the hope of Christian conservatives” had become “a latter-day Pilate.” Voegelin was amused by the American need to pigeonhole him, remarking in his Autobiographical Reflections that in his long career he had been called a Catholic, a Thomist, a Protestant, a Hegelian, a Platonist, “not to forget that I was supposedly strongly influenced by Huey Long.”

Where The Collected Works will leave his intellectual legacy is difficult to say. Whatever people feel about the “crisis of Western civilization” today, they are unlikely to address it by writing—or even reading—multi-volume tomes of universal history. And Voegelin’s early work reminds us why: universal histories teach us more about the historical crises that inspire them than they do about the civilizations they describe. Those hoping to understand how the shock of the two world wars shaped subsequent European and American thought need to confront Voegelin, whose ambitions, however imperfectly realized, gave measure to the felt enormity of the twentieth-century disaster. And those concerned with the revival of political messianism in our time also have much to learn from him.3 But beyond that, The Collected Works will probably remain a welcome oddity, a monument to a very unusual mind. Eric Voegelin was many things—an American traveler, a critic of racism, an amateur historian, a mythologist, an antimodern thinker, a system builder, a self-reviser, an explorer of human consciousness, a mystic. And beneath all that Wissenschaft he was also something Dorothea never found in her poor Mr. Casaubon: a free spirit.

  1. 2

    The Gnostic Religion, second edition, revised (Beacon, 1972), p. 339. This is a popular edition drawn from his classic two-volume study published in Germany, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1934–1954). A far more optimistic view of early Christian gnosticism as a path to self-knowledge has been developed over the years by Elaine Pagels, beginning in The Gnostic Gospels (Random House, 1979). On the polemical disputes surrounding the concept of “gnosticism” see Karen L. King’s helpful study, What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2003), and the joint study by Pagels and King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (Viking, 2007).

  2. 3

    This has already begun. Recent works that owe a large debt to Voegelin include Emilio Gentile’s Politics as Religion (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Michael Burleigh’s two-volume set, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War (HarperCollins, 2005) and Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror (HarperCollins, 2007).

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