Eric Voegelin

Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin (03 January 1901 – 19 January 1985)

Today is the 121st anniversary of the birth of Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin (03 January 1901–19 January 1985), known today as Eric Voegelin, who was born on this date in 1901.

Many philosophers of history are better known as political philosophers, since the two fields overlap considerably; why the political appears to take precedence over the historical I cannot say, other than to observe that politics is a more popular subject than history. This is the case with Voegelin.

Eugene Webb has written Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, specifically addressing Voegelin’s philosophy of history. After dismissing what is commonly called speculative philosophy of history (What Mandelbaum called material philosophy of history and Danto called substantive philosophy of history)

“Voegelin’s own conception of the philosophy of history is entirely different. In fact it is quite the opposite. He does not seek to identify determining forces that would enable a philosopher to explain or predict an immanent course of events. Rather he conceives of history as a function of the life of man, which means that there is always in history an irreducible element of freedom, both the possibility and the obligation of choice on the part of the historical agent, the individual human being. His choices may be either more conscious and rational or less so, depending on the degree of clarity with which the individual responds to the values of truth and responsible action, but nonetheless a measure of freedom always remains. For Voegelin the philosophy of history is the analysis of human life in its historical dimension, that is, of human life as a process in which choices are made and in which, through the values that are served and no served, one may or may not live up to the calling of one’s potential humanity. History is an enterprise, in other words, in which one may succeed or fail, and what the philosophy of history must offer is criteria by which that success or failure may be measured.”

In any philosophers of history we have seen a contrast between a philosophy of history that seeks meaning in historical events and a philosophy of history that seeks to clarify historical knowledge. Thus the contrast that Webb draws in Voegelin’s conception of philosophy of history is a bit unexpected, since after just in the previous paragraph dismissing philosophies of history that find meaning in history, here in the next paragraph we find a new way of discerning meaning in history: as a criterion by which success and failure can be measured.

The two essays in Science, Politics and Gnosticism, “Science, Politic and Gnosticism” and “Ersatz Religion: The Gnostic Mass Movements of Our Time,” have been influential and are perhaps the most widely read of Voegelin’s works. Part III of “Science, Politic and Gnosticism” is “Note on Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of World History’,” which recapitulates the earlier argument of the book in terms specific to the philosophy of history. Here is an extract with an embedded quote from Hegel:

“The program of exhaustively penetrating the depths of the godhead through its unfolding in world history is tied to the condition that the ultimate goal of the world has indeed fully unfolded in world history and become comprehensible. Just as on the level of “philosophy itself” the truth of Hegel’s “view” is justified by “the presentation of the system,” so on the level of the “philosophy of world history” the validity of his thesis about complete revelation is proved by the execution of the program:

Thus, the result of the study of world history itself has been and is that things have come to pass rationally, that world history has been the rational, necessary course of the world spirit. (p. 30.) [Note the perfect tense.]

That a last end is the governing principle in the events of peoples, that reason is in world history — not the reason of a particular subject, but the divine, absolute reason — is a truth that we presuppose; its proof is the treatise on world history itself: the image and the work of reason.”

Voegelin returns to Hegel’s philosophy of history in “Ersatz Religion”:

“The factor Hegel excludes is the mystery of a history that wends its way into the future without our knowing its end. History as a whole is essentially not an object of cognition; the meaning of the whole is not discernible. Hegel can construct, then, a meaningfully self-contained process of history only by assuming that the revelation of God in history is fully comprehensible. The appearance of Christ was for him the crux of world history; in this decisive epoch God had revealed the Logos — reason — in history. But the revelation was incomplete, and Hegel considered it man’s duty to complete the incomplete revelation by raising the Logos to complete clarity in consciousness. This elevation to consciousness is in fact possible through the mind of the philosopher — concretely, through the mind of Hegel: in the medium of the Hegelian dialectic the revelation of God in history reaches its fulfillment.”

Perhaps the most influential idea in Voegelin is his conception of immanentization:

“This position is ontologically determined by the central importance of the question of immanentization. All gnostic movements are involved in the project of abolishing the constitution of being, with its origin in divine, transcendent being, and replacing it with a world-immanent order of being, the perfection of which lies in the realm of human action. This is a matter of so altering the structure of the world, which is perceived as inadequate, that a new, satisfying world arises. The variants of immanentization, therefore, are the controlling symbols, to which the other complexes are subordinated as secondary ways of expressing the will to immanentization.”

Voegelin took the idea of Gnosticism out of the particularity of its historical context and realized that it could be applied elsewhere, just as we saw with Gilbert Murray’s failure of nerve thesis, which Murray formulated in terms of late antiquity, but which could also be employed to identify the same problem at in other historical milieux. I find it interesting that both Murray’s failure of nerve and Voegelin’s gnoticism had their origins in late antiquity, which thus appears as an era productive of significant historical ideas, even as it was also a era of decline for classical civilization.

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