Know Your Gnostics
Eric Voegelin often is regarded as a major figure in 20th-century conservative thought—one of his concepts inspired what has been a popular catchphrase on the right for decades, “don’t immanentize the eschaton”—but he rejected ideological labels. In his youth, in Vienna, he attended the famous Mises Circle seminars, where he developed lasting friendships with figures who would be important in the revival of classical liberalism, such as F.A. Hayek, but he later rejected their libertarianism as yet another misguided offshoot of the Enlightenment project. Voegelin has sometimes been paired with the British political theorist Michael Oakeshott, who greatly admired his work, but he grounded his political theorizing in a spiritual vision in a way that was quite foreign to Oakeshott’s thought. Voegelin once wrote, “I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology… 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, and of course a Hegelian.”
But whatever paradoxes he embodied, Voegelin was, first and foremost, a passionate seeker for truth. He paid no attention to what party his findings might please or displease, and he was willing to abandon vast amounts of writing, material that might have enhanced his reputation as scholar, when the development of his thought led him to believe that he needed to pursue a different direction. As such, his ideas deserve the attention of anyone who sincerely seeks for the origins of political order. And they have a timely relevance given recent American ventures aimed at fixing the problems of the world through military interventions in far-flung regions.
Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany in 1901. His family moved to Vienna when he was nine, and there he earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1922, under the dual supervision of Hans Kelsen, the author of the constitution of the new Austrian republic, and the economist Othmar Spann. He subsequently studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg and spent a summer at Oxford University mastering English. (He commented that his English was so poor when he arrived that he spent some minutes wondering why a street-corner speaker was so enthusiastic about the benefits of cheeses, before he realized the man was preaching about Jesus.) He then traveled to the United States, where he took courses at Columbia with John Dewey, Harvard with Alfred North Whitehead, and Wisconsin with John R. Commons, where he said he first discovered “the real, authentic America.”
Upon returning to Austria, he resumed attending the Mises Seminar, and he published two works critical of the then ascendant doctrine of racism. These made him a target of the Nazis and led to his dismissal from the University of Vienna after the Anschluss. As with many other Austrian intellectuals, the onslaught of Nazism made him leave Austria. (He and his wife managed to obtain their visas and flee to Switzerland on the very day the Gestapo came to seize his passport.) Voegelin eventually settled at Louisiana State University, where he taught for 16 years, before coming full circle and returning to Germany to promote American-style constitutional democracy in his native land. The hostility generated by his declaration that the blame for the rise of Nazism could not be pinned solely on the Nazi Party elite, but must be shared by the German people in general, led him to return to the United States, where he died in 1985.
During his lifelong search for the roots of social order, Voegelin came to understand politics not as an autonomous sphere of activity independent of a nation’s culture, but as the public articulation of how a society conceives the proper relationship of its members both to one another and to the rest of the cosmos. Only when a society’s political institutions are an organic product of a widely shared and existentially workable conception of mankind’s place in the universe will they successfully order social life. As a corollary of his understanding of political life, Voegelin rejected the contemporary, rationalist faith in the power of “well-designed,” written constitutions to ensure the continued existence of a healthy polity. He argued that “if a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a [truly] representational ruler will sooner or later make an end of it… When a representative does not fulfill his existential task, no constitutional legality of his position will save him.”
For Voegelin, a truly “representative” government entails, much more crucially than the relatively superficial fact that citizens have some voice in their government, first of all that a government addresses the basic needs of “securing domestic peace, the defense of the realm, the administration of justice, and taking care of the welfare of the people.” Secondly, a political order ought to represent its participants’ understanding of their place in the cosmos. It may help in grasping Voegelin’s meaning here to think of the Muslim world, where attempts to create liberal, constitutional democracies can result in Islamic theocracies instead: the first type of government is “representative” in the narrow, constitutional sense, while the second actually represents those societies’ own understanding of their place in the world.
Voegelin undertook extensive historical analysis to support his view of the representative character of healthy polities, analysis that appeared chiefly in his great, multi-volume works History of Political Ideas—which was largely unpublished during Voegelin’s life because his scholarship prompted him to change the focus of his research—and Order and History. This undertaking was more than merely illustrative of his ideas, since he understood political representation itself not as a timeless, static construct but as an ongoing historical process, so that an adequate political representation for one time and place will fail to be representative in a different time or for a different people.
The earliest type of representation Voegelin described is that characterizing the ancient “cosmological empires,” such as those of Egypt and the Near East. Their imperial governments succeeded in organizing those societies for millennia because they were grounded in cosmic mythologies that, while containing cyclical phenomena like day and night and the seasons, depicted the sequence of such cycles as eternal and unchanging. They “symbolized politically organized society as a cosmic analogue… by letting vegetative rhythms and celestial revolutions function as models for the structural and procedural order of society.”
The sensible course for members of a society with such a self-understanding was to reconcile themselves to their fixed roles in the functioning of this implacable, if awe-inspiring, universe. The emperor or pharaoh was a divine being, the representative for his society of the ruling god of the cosmic order, and as remote and unapproachable as was that god. The demise of the cosmological empires in the Mediterranean world came with Alexander the Great’s conquests. After his empire was divided among his generals following his death, the new monarchs could not plausibly claim the divine mandate that native rulers had asserted as the basis of their authority since their ascension was so clearly based on military conquest and not on some ancient act of a god seeking to provide the now-conquered peoples with a divine guide.
The basis of the Greek polis was the Hellenic pantheon. When the faith in that pantheon was undermined by the work of philosophers, the polis ceased to be a viable form of polity, as those resisting its passing recognized when they condemned Socrates to death for not believing in the civic gods. The Romans, a people not generally prone to theoretical speculation, managed to sustain their republican city-state model of politics far longer than had the Greeks but eventually the stresses produced by the spoils of possessing a vast empire and the demands of ruling it—as well as the increasing influence of Greek philosophical thought in Rome—proved fatal to that republic as well.
Mediterranean civilization then entered a period of crisis characterized by cynical, imperial rule by the Roman emperors and an urgent search for a new ordering principle for social existence among their subjects, which produced the multitude of cults and creeds that proliferated during the imperial centuries. The crisis was finally resolved when Christianity, institutionalized in the Catholic Church, triumphed as the new basis for organizing Western society, while the Orthodox Church, centered in Constantinople, played a similar role in the East.
Voegelin contends that this medieval Christian order began to fracture due to the de-spiritualization of the Church that resulted from its increasing focus on power over secular affairs. Having succeeded in restoring civil order to Western Europe during the several centuries following the fall of Rome, the Church would have done best, as Voegelin saw it, to have withdrawn voluntarily “from its material position as the greatest economic power, which could be justified earlier by the actual civilizing performance.” Furthermore, the new theories of natural philosophy produced by the emerging “independent, secular civilization… required a voluntary surrender on the part of the Church of those of its ancient civilizational elements which proved incompatible with the new Western civilization… [but] again the Church proved hesitant in adjusting adequately and in time.”
The crisis caused by the Church’s failure to adjust its situation to the new realities came to a head with the splintering of Western Christianity during the Protestant Reformation and the ascendancy of the authority the nation-state over that of the Church.
The newly dominant nation-states energetically and repeatedly attempted to create novel myths that could ground their rule over their subjects. But these were composed from what Voegelin called “hieroglyphs,” superficial invocations of a pre-existing concept that failed to embody its essence because those invoking it had not themselves experienced the reality behind the original concept. As hieroglyphs, the terms were adopted because of the perceived authority they embodied. But as they were being employed without the context from which their original validity arose, none of these efforts created a genuine basis for a stable and humane order.
The perception of the hollow core of the new social arrangements became the motivation for and the target of a series of modern utopian and revolutionary ideologies, culminating in fascism and communism. These movements evoked what had been living symbols for medieval Europe—such as “salvation,” “the end times,” and the “communion of the saints”—but as the revolutionaries had lost touch with the spiritual foundation of those symbols, they perverted them into political slogans, such as “emancipation of the proletariat,” “the communist utopia,” and “the revolutionary vanguard.”
This analysis is the source of the phrase “immanentize the eschaton”: as Voegelin understood it, these revolutionary movements had mistaken a spiritual symbol, that of the ultimate triumphant kingdom of heaven (the eschaton), for a possible goal of mundane politics, and they were attempting to create heaven on earth (the immanentizing) through revolutionary action. He sometimes described this urge to create heaven on earth by political means as “Gnostic,” especially in what remains his most popular work, The New Science of Politics. (Voegelin later came to question the historical accuracy of his choice of terminology.)
But communism and fascism were not the only options on the table when Voegelin was writing: the constitutional liberal democracies, especially those of the Anglosphere, resisted the revolutionary movements. While Voegelin was not a modern liberal, his attitude towards these regimes was considerably more sympathetic than it was towards communism or fascism. He saw certain tendencies in the Western democracies, such as the near worship of material well-being and the attempted cordoning off of religious convictions into a purely private sphere, as symptoms of the spiritual crisis unfolding in the West. On the other hand, he believed that in places like Britain and the United States there had been less destruction of the West’s classical and Christian cultural foundations, so that the liberal democracies had retained more cultural resources with which to combat the growing disorder than was present elsewhere in Europe.
As a result, he firmly supported the liberal democracies in their effort to resist communism and fascism, and his return to Germany after the war was prompted by the hope of promoting an American-inspired political system in his native land. We can best understand Voegelin’s attitude towards liberal democracy as being, “Well, this is the best we can do in the present situation.”
He saw the pendulum of order and decay as always in motion, and he was convinced that one day a new cosmology would arise that would be the basis for a new civilizational order. In the meantime, the Western democracies had at least worked out a way for people with profoundly divergent understandings of their place in the cosmos to live decently ordered lives in relative peace. Always a realist, Voegelin was not one to look down his nose at whatever order it is really possible to achieve in our actual circumstances.
But the liberal democracies are liable to fall victim to their own form of “immanentizing the eschaton” if they mistake the genuinely admirable, albeit limited, order they have been able to achieve for the universal goal of all history and all mankind. That error, I suggest, lies behind the utopian adventurism of America’s recent foreign policy, in both its neoconservative and liberal Wilsonian forms. Voegelin’s analysis of “Gnosticism” can help us to understand better the nature of that tendency in Western foreign policy. (We can still use his term “Gnostic” while acknowledging, as he did, its questionable historical connection to ancient Gnosticism.)
Voegelin was no pacifist—for instance, he was committed to the idea that the West had a responsibility to militarily resist the expansive barbarism of the Soviet Union. Yet it is unlikely that he would have had any patience for the utopian Western triumphalism often exhibited by neoconservatives and Wilsonians.
What Voegelin called “the Gnostic personality” has great difficulty accepting that the impermanence of temporal existence is inherent in its nature. Therefore, as he wrote, the Gnostic seeks to freeze “history into an everlasting final realm on this earth.” The common view that any nation not embracing some form of liberal, constitutional democracy is in need of Western re-education, by force if necessary, and the consequent fixation on installing such regimes wherever possible, displays a faith that we in the West have achieved the pinnacle of social arrangements and should “freeze history.”
One of the chief vices Voegelin ascribes to Gnosticism is the will to live in a dream world and the reluctance to allow reality to intrude upon the dream. During the many years of chaotic violence following America’s “victory” in Iraq, the difficulty of continuously evading the facts on the ground compelled some who supported the war to admit that things did not proceed as envisioned in their prewar fantasy. Even so, few of these reluctant realists are moved to concede that launching the war was a mistake. A popular dodge they engage in is to ask critics, “So, you’d prefer it if Hussein was still in power and still oppressing the Iraqi people?”
That riposte assumes that, if a goal is laudable when evaluated in a vacuum from which contraindications have been eliminated, then pursuing it is fully justified. Unfortunately, as the post-invasion years in Iraq demonstrate, it was quite possible to depose Hussein while creating greater misfortunes for Iraqis. The Western moral tradition developed primarily by the Greek philosophers and Christian theologians denied that a claim of good intentions was a sufficient defense of the morality of an action. This tradition held that anyone seeking to pursue the good was obligated to go further, giving as much prudent consideration to the likely ramifications of a choice as circumstances allowed.
But in the Gnostic dream world, the question of whether the supposed beneficiaries of one’s virtuously motivated crusade realistically can be expected to gain or lose as a result of it is dismissed as an unseemly compromise with reality. What matters to the Gnostic revolutionary is that his scheme intends a worthy outcome; that alone justifies undertaking it. Such contempt for attending to the messy and complex circumstances of the real world is exemplified in the account of George W. Bush’s foreign policy that one of his advisers provided to a puzzled journalist, Ron Suskind, who described their encounter in the New York Times Magazine:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
As it became obvious that their Iraq adventure was not living up to its promise of rapidly and almost without cost producing a stable, democratic, and pro-Western regime in the midst of the Arab world, supporters of the war were loath to entertain the possibility that its failure was due to their unrealistic understanding of the situation. Instead, they often sought to place the blame on the shortcomings of those they nobly had attempted to rescue, namely, the people of Iraq. Voegelin had noted this Gnostic tendency several decades earlier: “The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should according to the dream conception of cause and effect.”
Much more could be said concerning the relevance of Voegelin’s political philosophy to our recent foreign policy, but the brief hints offered above should be enough to persuade those open to such realistic analysis to read The New Science of Politics and draw further conclusions for themselves.
While it is true that Voegelin resisted being assigned to any ideological pigeonhole, there are important aspects of his thought that are conservative in nature. He rejected the notion, sometimes present in romantic conservatism, that the solution to our present troubles can lie in the recreation of some past state of affairs: he was too keenly aware that history moves ever onward, and the past is irretrievably behind us, to fall prey to what we might call “nostalgic utopianism.” Nevertheless, he held that our traditions must be studied closely and adequately understood because, while it is nonsensical to try to duplicate the past, still it is only by understanding the insights achieved by our forebears that we can move forward with any hope of a happy outcome.
While historical circumstances never repeat, Voegelin understood human nature and its relation to the eternal to create a similar ground in all times and places, an insight that surely is at the core of any genuine conservatism. Thus, it is our task to recreate, in our own minds, the brilliant advances in understanding the human condition that were achieved by such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. Those advances serve as the foundation for our efforts to respond adequately to the novel conditions of our time. Voegelin’s message is one that any thoughtful conservative must try heed.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.