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Voegelin’s Order

No creature in all of creation has it as difficult as do humans. Being flesh as well as spirit, humans share in the natures of both the animals and the angels. Unlike either, however, the human has true free will. We choose good and ill at every moment of our lives. Animals, merely creatures of instinct, react to pleasure, pain, and the herd. Angels, beings purely of the spirit, make one choice, knowing that that one choice predetermines all others.

As physically incarnate souls, humans exist within the Great Chain of Being—the hierarchy connecting all things from God down to the lowest aspect of creation—as the metaxy, the in-between. Because of these two vital aspects of the human person and because of the glorious burden of free will, we often make horrible mistakes. That is, we get the balance of being spirit and flesh wrong, and we tend—individually and as a group—to veer toward one aspect of our being, ignoring the other. In some ages, we overly focus on the material aspect of things. In other times, we overly focus on the spiritual aspect of our existence. At this moment in history, we are clearly in the extreme of a materialist phase.

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

The goal of all aspects of human life—from procreation and family to economics and government—should be to find the balance of spirit and flesh and live according to that balance.

Given such thought, philosopher Eric Voegelin served as one of the single most important defenders of the Heraclitan ideal and idea of Logos as that which brings harmony and order to all things. In this, he shared much with many other thinkers, ranging from T.S. Eliot to Russell Kirk to Pope Benedict XVI (who greatly admired Voegelin and who, as young Joseph Ratzinger, met with him).

Raised as a Christian, Voegelin’s personal faith radically shifted in and out of existence, near and around orthodoxy, but ending, seemingly, in some extreme heterodoxy. At best, we can state that Voegelin’s Logos was certainly Heraclitus’ Logos. Whether it was also John’s Logos is a matter of debate. Though nominally Lutheran as a young man, Voegelin continued to reject aspects of orthodoxy toward his later years, even dismissing many of St. Paul’s writings as Manichaean and, thus, illegitimate.

To get back to the point made above—that humans must balance the spirit with the flesh: Voegelin believed that humans must intentionally search for a proper, cosmic, and earthly understanding of order as Natural Law. Once they have re-discovered such understandings as humanly possible, they must order their own communities at whatever level, based on the order they perceive to be true.

For better or worse, Voegelin frequently discussed these things, employing either archaic language or inventing neoterisms, so great was his dislike of the corruptions of modern language.

Of government he said:

“To set up a government is an essay in world creation. Out of a shapeless vastness of conflicting human desires rises a little world of order, a cosmic analogy, a cosmion, leading a precarious life under the pressure of destructive forces from within and without, and maintaining its existence by the ultimate threat and application of violence against the internal breaker of its law as well as the external aggressor. The application of violence, though, is the ultimate means only of creating and preserving a political order, it is not its ultimate reason: the proper function of order is the creation of a shelter in which man may give to his life a semblance of meaning.”[1]

For such a government to maintain its order—that is, for it to be something more than a mere mechanism or a means to fulfill human desire—it must function as something organic and meaningful rather than as something merely utilitarian:

But the utilitarian argument, while not being without sense in justifying a political order, does not reach the emotional center of the [cosmion], this center being the desire to create a world of meaning out of these human [emotions/aspirations/appetites] and desires, such as the desire for procreation and to outlive the fragmentary personal life by a projection into the life of [emotion and character] or of a more comprehensive tribal or national group; the desire to give the questionable achievements of an individual life an added meaning by weaving it into the texture of group achievement.[2]

Fearful that such a government—working for the common good rather than the greater good of the people—will acquiesce to the problems of this world without necessarily trying to solve them (think, in particular, of an issue such as war: why can’t we all just get along?), opposition will certainly arise in any society. Radicals—really Gnostics who might or might not realize they are Gnostics—will demand the perfection of society, even at the cost of order and harmony, which they now see as “privilege” for the few, an excuse for authority to have authority.

When the evocative power of an idea has been seriously shattered under the pressure of disenchanting analysis it may shade off into the twilight of an ideology. A further class of ideas are the utopian dreams. They occur frequently in history since there are always men who wish to overcome the misery of the finite imperfection of the political cosmion by the invention of an order of intrinsic value that would settle definitely the struggle of the evocative forces. Dreams of this kind, openly or silently, that one or the other of the essentials of human nature [with need for] change can eliminate from a social order. The elimination of an essential feature of human nature may be said to define technically a utopia. And, finally, men have cherished the idea of abolishing political order altogether and [living] in an anarchic community…. The problem of politics has to be considered in the larger setting of an interpretation of human nature.” [3]

Voegelin considers all descent of a properly-ordered society as an aspect of mis-remembering, whether by ignorance or intentional misdirection, as a form of Gnosticism. That is, man decides that the order he can imagine is greater and more important than the one that nature has given us.

06_french_revolution.cover_The solution for Voegelin? Anamnesis: To remember; to wash away the corruption that has adhered to words and meanings and to return—through much difficulty—to first principles, right order, and the natural law. The historical success of such endeavors, however, has proven suspect, at best. When the Athenians collapsed, Socrates tried to remind them of first principles. They killed him. When Western Europe collapsed during the Reformation, Luther tried to prevent it, while Calvin revolutionized its collapse. When Britain began to collapse in the eighteenth century, George Washington led the most successful return to right order in the modern world.

Since the French Revolution, Voegelin believed, the Gnostics have grown even more cunning and more hateful and more willing to try anything to destroy the Natural Law and right reason. They assassinate leaders, kill civilians in terrorist attacks, and undermine thought in the academy. There is no conspiracy, but there has been a groundswell.

And yet, despite serious losses over the last two centuries to those who desire disorder, man is never powerless. After all, Voegelin argued in his magisterial four-and-a-half volume history of western civilization, Order and History, participation of being [that is, being fully human, spirit and flesh] is vital to our whole existence. Therefore, our search for order must always exist on the “edge of freedom and necessity.”

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Notes:

[1] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, vol. 1, 225.

[2] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, vol. 1, 226.

[3] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, vol. 1, 231.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Penetrating analysis here!

    One comment: I read, somewhere among the Voegelin literature, that he spoke privately with a Lutheran pastor just prior to his death. And, it remains possible he embraced the orthodox, mainstream, faith?

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