World-Class Historian Finds Order Beyond Disorder
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL REFLECTIONS by Eric Voegelin, Edited by Ellis Sandoz, Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press, 123 pp., $16.95
THIS little book is part of a much larger project. Editor Ellis Sandoz is a member of the editorial board that will oversee the publication of the collected works of Eric Voegelin. We are promised more than 30 volumes, many in English for the first time.
The project has its ironies. Is it a triumphal arch, or a ruin? Along with Arnold Toynbee, Eric Voegelin attempted a universal history of mankind; unlike Toynbee, his point of view did not disappear in the process. Toynbee has been seen as ``a man who chose a subject so vast that he evaporated into it'' (C.H. Sisson). But as readers of Voegelin's monumental ``Order and History'' are all too aware, Voegelin changed with his knowledge of what he was trying to do, but he did not evaporate. Rather his vision of history became more concentrated, more exquisitely tuned to the order behind the disorder of the modern world.
Seen from the prismatic, light-washed pages of these ``autobiographical reflections,'' Voegelin's triumphal arch looks more like a rainbow. Each color reveals a salient experience. Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1901, Voegelin had established himself as a writer before being driven out by the Nazis. His German style was refined by the influence of Vienna, where he got a doctorate in political science. He eventually became a United States citizen and continuously sought elegance as well as precision, sometimes achieving a memorable blend.
His philosophy of history turns on what he calls ``structures of reality.'' The evidence for these structures is not architectural but verbal. As he says here, from his European education he accepted the high standards of comparative knowledge; he would know history ``through the self-understanding of the persons involved.'' Eventually Voegelin would learn Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese, among other languages, by studying late at night after teaching American government at Louisiana State University.
From his American experience Voegelin learned about ``the strong background of Classical and Christian culture'' lacking in Europe. On a trip to the States before he emigrated, he discovered, with a ``shock,'' ``a plurality of worlds,'' and ``that experience broke for good (at least I hope it did) my Central European or generally European provincialism without letting me fall into an American provincialism.''
When the Western democracies failed to check Hitler's occupation of Austria, Voegelin experienced what he calls ``a state of unlimited fury.'' From then on, spiritual torpor of one kind or another would be among his obsessive themes. Contemplating the low level of discussion of ideas since the war, he says that ``the general deculturation of the academic and intellectual world in Western civilization furnishes the background for the social dominance of opinions that would have been laughed out of court in the late Middle Ages or the Renaissance.''
Voegelin's laughter was contagious. As the blurbs on the jacket of this book indicate, he left a strong impression on a variety of persons, among them Cleanth Brooks (who says Voegelin is ``surely one of the most profound and exciting thinkers of our twentieth century''), Paul Kuntz, Walker Percy, and Robert Nisbet (who calls him an ``authentic titan'').
Despite the subject matter of empire and transcendence, Voegelin can be an attractive writer. He confesses that he was once a Marxist - for a few months, while still a schoolboy. He paid attention to Marx and the Marxists throughout his career. Here his view is boiled down: ``The Marxian swindle concerns the flat refusal to enter into the etiological argument of Aristotle - that is, on the problem that man does not exist out of himself but out of the divine ground of all reality.'' Idioms - ``flat refusal'' - sort oddly with technical terms like ``etiological,'' but Voegelin cares enough to paraphrase himself.
In general, for Voegelin, man is in motion. He is either turning toward or away from ``the divine ground.'' As he grew up, Voegelin witnessed the breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Throughout his work he is sympathetic to the universal experience of the frailty of the mightiest of empires. But he also shows how philosopher and prophet found an order beyond the disorder of the age.
In our time, we learn from Voegelin, the temptation has been to seek ``magic'' resolutions of the conflict between spiritual desire and political chaos. Marxist revolution is a common example, though he distinguishes the philosopher, who knew that revolution was prologue to an even bigger change, and his followers, who simply seem to enjoy revolt.
Among the words Voegelin has made his own is ``luminous.'' For him, man-the-wanderer, man-the-seeker, becomes ``luminous'' when he turns toward the divine ground of his existence. Alienation, on the other hand, involves turning away from his divine destiny.
The impression left on the reader is one of charm and supple understanding. In his attacks on the anti-intellectualism and anti-Americanism of leftist thinkers, Voegelin can sound like Allan Bloom. There is a big difference. The author of ``The Closing of the American Mind'' will be remembered most for the fierceness and the brilliance of his attack. Voegelin will be remembered for his discovery, or recovery, of ``the great discovery of the Classic philosophers'' - that ``man is not a `mortal,' but a being engaged in a movement toward immortality.'' Voegelin made that discovery for us in our time and in our language. Contemplating his complete works, one sees not a huge, scaly, glittering triumphal arch, but a rainbow.