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Introducing Eric Voegelin

Voegelin was not charismatic. He was a “gentleman thinker.” He didn’t like small talk and valued his time. His personality didn’t attract a cult-like following. He didn’t establish a school or movement. But he’s important.

Photo by Victor Malyushev / Unsplash
Eric Voegelin is the premier historian/philosopher/thinker to have explored the Tao in politics and how its loss resulted in the secular religions of the past few hundred years. 
Ah, Vienna, City of Dreams!
There’s no place like Vienna!
The Madman in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities

A Micro History of the Holy Roman Empire

Otto got the crown from John in 962 or Charlemagne got it from Leo in 800. Regardless of which start date you prefer, the Holy Roman Empire stuck around a long time after.

It went through twists and turns, up and downs, but it dissolved under Napoleon’s boot in 1806. It continued for another 100 years as the Austrian Empire, merged with Hungary to form the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1867, lost WWI, and then dissolved for good.

Vienna: 1850-1950

Vienna was the focal point of late HRE and the Austrian Empire. It was the seat of Europe’s most formidable family, the Hapsburgs. The last fumes of empire lingered there, a source of pride to the Viennese and a source of hatred to the rest of the world.

It made Vienna unique: twelve hundred years of European history were squeezed into it.

And that history was over.

Bismarck had beaten the snot out of the Austrian Empire in 1866, ending Hapsburg hegemony in central Europe. In 1873, a disastrous stock market crash brought economic devastation. The Viennese were taking their minds off it with a newfangled dance, the waltz, which was “lust let loose”[i]and the embodiment, according to observers, of late-empire decadence.

Cafes lined Vienna’s streets. Its educated classes were known for spending their days in the cafes, leisurely drinking coffee or wine, and reading newspapers. Meanwhile, the working class labored 7/70.

Its leading families saw themselves as emulators of the Hapsburgs. They revered the paterfamilias and furnished their apartments lavishly, even if their wealth didn’t prudently allow it. Meanwhile, its poor denizens were cramped in terribly living quarters due to a severe housing shortage.

Catholicism dominated and eroticism was rampant.

So was suicide. The City of Dreams became, for a disturbing number of people, the City of Nightmares.

It briefly came under Nazi control, its native-son Hitler personally entering the city in 1938 and signaling the start of severe Jewish repression. Austria ceased to exist as a separate country and Vienna was no longer the capital of anything. It then briefly came under Soviet control and was then divided into five zones: Soviet, U.S., British, French, and neutral. In 1955, the Soviets left, but with assurances that Austria would remain neutral between NATO and the Soviet Bloc.

Viennese Intellectuals

Out of this paradoxical mish-mash of empire, Fascism, Catholicism, tradition, and modernity stepped a big dose of genius. Men who became giants in their fields, ranging from music to economics to psychoanalysis, many of whom fled Fascism to settle in western Europe or the United States. A partial list: Carl Menger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolph Carnap, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, Karl Popper, Viktor Frankl, Arnold Schoenberg, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek.

And Eric Voegelin.

Voegelin is possibly the least known but possibly the greatest among them. He was poor at self-promotion, his prose was difficult, and his ideas were nearly impossible to appreciate. To compound the problem, he refused to “write down” to make his prose more accessible, insisting the reader make the required effort to understand the problem that was modernity, and then he compounded the problem even more by using neologisms that no one understood. Voegelin biographies spend a lot of time defining words, some even including a separate glossary at the end.

But I suspect the real reason Voegelin never really caught on like, say, Freud or von Mises: He simply didn’t resonate. Luther wouldn’t have resonated in the 11thcentury; Nietzsche would have lived with the wolves in the 8th.

Voegelin, with the analytic precision of a mathematician, tried to explain how transcendence plays into earthly politics. It wasn’t a song that played well in the exuberant and optimistic days of post-WWII America, which cared for such things about as much as Stalin cared about the Pope’s legions.

On top of that, I believe Voegelin set himself an impossible task. The Tao can’t be explained in mathematical terms. But he was also correct: The Tao can’t be ignored, whether currently or in historical explanations.

A Brief Bio

Voegelin was not a charismatic guy that went to a lot of parties. He was, they say, a “gentleman thinker.” His recreation was the occasional cigar and reading the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He didn’t like small talk and valued his time.

His personality didn’t attract a cult-like following. He didn’t establish a school or movement.

But he’s important. So even though I’m not sure the details of his life lend a lot of insight, it seems a brief biographical sketch is in order.

1901: Born in Cologne.

1910: Moved to Vienna.

1922: Received doctorate in political science from the University of Vienna. While there, he attended seminars by Ludwig von Mises and developed a lasting friendship with F.A. Hayek.

1922-1926: Studied at the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, Oxford, Columbia, Harvard, and Wisconsin. Also at the Sorbonne.

1928: Published his first book, On the Form of the American Mind.

1930s: Published Race and State, The History of the Race Idea, and The Authoritarian State, which made him a target of the Nazis, who withdrew the latter two from circulation. History was vigorously de-platformed.

1938: The Anschluss, fired from the University of Vienna, fled to America.

1939: Published The Political Religions.

1939-1942: Bounced around Harvard, Bennington College, and University of Alabama.

1942-1958: Professor at Louisiana State University.

1952: Published The New Science of Politics, which made him famous for a short spell, thanks to Time Magazine’s feature story about the book.

1956-1957: Published first three volumes of his magnum opus, Order and History: Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, and Plato and Aristotle.

1958: Professor at the University of Munich.

1968: Published Science, Politics and Gnosticism (his most-accessible book; beginners: start with this!)

1969: Professor at Stanford.

1985: Died and buried pursuant to the Lutheran rites of burial.

The Voegelin Industry

After his death, interest in his work boomed. From VoegelinView:

Secondary literature on Voegelin has virtually become an industry. Among the indications of the engagement with Voegelin’s work are the 305 page Eric Voegelin: International Bibliography 1921-2000. Voegelin research centers have been founded in universities in the United States and Europe. His works have been translated into languages ranging from Portuguese to Japanese and a Chinese edition of Order and History has recently been published. The 34 volumes Collected Works of Eric Voegelin as well as numerous secondary works by contemporary scholars published by The University of Missouri Press, St. Augustine’s Press, and the Eric-Voegelin-Archive of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität.


I hope to explore that in future essays, but if you’ve seen references to “ersatz religion” and “Gnosticism” in these essays, you’ve seen a preview of what I’ll be explaining and why so many people are interested in the work of this man who has been described as 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, a Hegelian, and a man under the influence of Huey Long.


My Interest in Voegelin

I came to him in 1990 while reading Russell Kirk’s under-appreciated Enemies of the Permanent Things. His chapter on Voegelin inspired me to jump into his five-volume Order and History.

Back then, it was hard to buy such a set. It was very expensive, especially for a newly-married man, and very difficult to find. My brother’s mother-in-law, who managed a bookstore, was able to get it for me. It took over a month for it to arrive.

When it did, I eagerly started reading Israel and Revelation. I read and I read and I read.

And I didn’t understand a thing, a thing, a thing.

I got frustrated and, quite frankly, lost my temper (albeit in a measured, nerdy way). My angered reason said, “Russell Kirk got you into this mess. Russell Kirk can get you out of it,” so I dialed information, got his phone number in Mecosta, Michigan, and called him (yes, I was (still am) an ass). Dr. Kirk came to the phone and spoke with me, a complete stranger (borderline crank call) for quite awhile, trying to explain what Voegelin was getting at. I honestly don’t even recall what he said, and I remember having a hard time understanding him, but I was struck by Dr. Kirk’s willingness to come to the phone.

Years later, I had breakfast with Kirk’s widow, Annette. I told her about it. She wasn’t surprised. She said, “That was Russell. He talked with anyone who showed an interest in such things” (rough quote).

In any event, after my conversation with Dr. Kirk, I plunged back into Order and History and got through it. I then read the core Voegelin corpus: Science Politics and Gnosticism, The New Science of Politics, From Enlightenment to Revolution, Anamnesis, Autobiographical Essays, and a collection of essays (What is History?), the latter two of which I had to copy at the Notre Dame library on a Xerox copier . . . page by page.

I also absorbed a handful of books about his thought (which I list here in order of preference): Michael Franz, Eric Voegelin and the Politics of Spiritual Revolt; Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History; Michael Federici, Eric Voegelin; Ellis Sandoz, The Voegelinian Revolution.

The Voegelin Stage of Existence Strikes Back

That concludes the introduction to Eric Voegelin.

Next week, we start the Eric Voegelin stage of the Existence Strikes Back project. Even though this stage is not the climax of the project, it is the climax of Part II of the project.

For those who aren’t aware that Existence Strikes Back is divided into three parts (or even that ESB is a coherent project):

1. What is the Tao? Also called “the act of existence (actus essendi),” “the first principle of Zen,” and the region on the other side of Aldous Huxley’s doors of perception. This part emphasizes “The Reality Spectrum”: The Tao-->Essence-->Existence

2. Modernity rejected the Tao portion of the Reality Spectrum and focused almost exclusively on the “essence” part of the Reality Spectrum: things we can count, measure, and understand through reason and logic. “The Great Rejection.” Voegelin probably did more than anyone else to explore the political problems that arose as a result of The Great Rejection.

3. This rejection is a rejection of reality, but reality can’t be denied so the Tao keeps bubbling to the surface, often in troubling, but occasionally good ways.

[i] [i]Janik and Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1996), 34.