Eric Voegelin

American philosopher

Eric Voegelin (3 January 190119 January 1985) was a German-born American philosopher.



"From Enlightenment to Revolution" (1975)Edit

(written in the 1950s)
  • The tenacity of faith in this complex of ideas is certainly not caused by its merits as an adequate interpretation of man and society. The inadequacy of a pleasure-pain psychology, the poverty of utilitarian ethics, the impossibility of explaining moral phenomena by the pursuit of happiness, the uselessness of the greatest happiness of the greatest number as a principle of social ethics - all these have been demonstrated over and over again in a voluminous literature. Nevertheless, even today this complex of ideas holds a fascination for a not inconsiderable number of persons. This fascination will be more intelligible if we see the complex of sensualism and utilitarianism not as number of verifiable propositions but as the dogma of a religion of socially immanent salvation. Enlightened utilitarianism is but the first in a series of totalitarian, sectarian movements to be followed later by Positivism, Communism and National Socialism.
    • p. 52
  • The criterion of integral sanity [for Littré] is the acceptance of Positivism in its first stage. The criteria of decadence or decline are (1) a faith in transcendental reality, whether it expresses itself in the Christian form or in that of a substitute religion, (2) the assumption that all human faculties have a legitimate urge for public expression in a civilization, and (3) the assumption that love can be a legitimate guiding principle of action, taking precedence before reason. This diagnosis of mental deficiency is of an importance which can hardly be exaggerated. It is not the isolated diagnosis of Littré; it is rather the typical attitude toward the values of Western civilization which has continued among "intellectual positivists" from the time of Mill and Littré down to the neo-Positivistic schools of the Viennese type. Moreover, it has not remained confined to the schools but has found popular acceptance to such a degree that this variant of Positivism is today one of the most important mass movements. It is impossible to understand the graveness of the Western crisis unless we realize that the cultivation of values beyond Littré's formula of civilization as the dominion of man over nature and himself by means of science is considered by broad sectors of Western society to be a kind of mental deficiency.
    • p. 139
  • But it is useless to subject this hash of uncritical language to critical questioning. We can make no sense of these sentences of Engels unless we consider them as symptoms of a spiritual disease. As a disease, however, they make excellent sense for, with great intensity, they display the symptoms of logophobia, now quite outspokenly as a desperate fear and hatred of philosophy. We even find named the specific object of fear and hatred: it is "the total context of things and of knowledge of things." Engels, like Marx, is afraid that the recognition of critical conceptual analysis might lead to the recognition of a "total context," of an order of being and perhaps even of cosmic order, to which their particular existences would be subordinate. If we may use the language of Marx: a total context must not exist as an autonomous subject of which Marx and Engels are insignificant predicates; if it exists at all, it must exist only as a predicate of the autonomous subjects Marx and Engels. Our analysis has carried us closer to the deeper stratum of theory that we are analysing at present, the meaning of logophobia now comes more clearly into view. It is not the fear of a particular critical concept, like Hegel's Idea, it is rather the fear of critical analysis in general. Submission to critical argument at any point might lead to the recognition of an order of the logos, of a constitution of being, and the recognition of such an order might reveal the revolutionary idea of Marx, the idea of establishing a realm of freedom and of changing the nature of man through revolution, as the blasphemous and futile nonsense which it is.
    • p. 260
  • We see again confirmed the correlation between spiritual impotence and antirationalism: one cannot deny God and retain reason.
    • in reference to Marx and Comte, p. 298


  • The course of history as a whole is no object of experience; history has no eidos, because the course of history extends into the unknown future.
    • Eric Voegelin (1987), The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, ISBN 0226861147, p. 120
  • The death of the spirit is the price of progress.
    • Eric Voegelin (1987), The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, ISBN 0226861147, p. 131
  • Philosophy springs from the love of being; it is man's loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it. Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being the Gnostic constructs his system. The building of systems is a gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one.
    • Eric Voegelin (1999), Science, Politics, and Gnosticism in The Collected Works, Vol. 5: Modernity Without Restraint, edited by Manfred Henningsen, ISBN 082621245X, p. 273.
  • Christ is the head of the corpus mysticum, which includes all men from the beginning of the world to its end. He is not the president of a special-interest club.
    • Eric Voegelin (1999), The Collected Works, Vol. 31: Hitler and the Germans, edited and translated by Detlev Clemens and Brandon Purcell, ISBN 0826212166, p. 200.
  • 'The order of history is the history of order.'

About VoegelinEdit

  • The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.

Mark Lilla, "Mr. Casaubon in America"Edit

Mark Lilla, "Mr. Casaubon in America", The New York Review of Books (June 28, 2007)

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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