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Continental Freedom

Fall 2014 - Vol. 56, No. 4


This review appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought,
edited by Lee Trepanier and Steven F. McGuire (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010)

Originality and independence of thought are evident within the continental tradition. Yet the search for freedom and for truth has been marked by growing concerns about the possible collapse of modern Western society. Conscious reflection on the social order and on the philosophical foundations of world civilizations has increased steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. A crisis within modernity was detected when the fundamental structures of reality were shaken by “revolutionary political movements” and by “totalitarian ideologies” (1). Man’s quest for autonomy in experiences of existence, transcendence, and truncated reason were ever more regarded as private and often suspect beliefs. The willed separation of modern man from “the community of being”—that is, from God, man, society, and world—by an act of intellect had now turned into a “second,” arguably “deformed” reality (4).

The political and philosophical consequences of modernity’s predicament and of the deformations and intrinsic skepticism of “postmodernity” were severely criticized by the twentieth-century German-born American political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901–1985). Much of his work argues against what he called modernity’s “Gnostic Revolt” (4). Voegelin supposes that man’s spiritual freedom and consciousness of the “fundamental structure of reality” are threatened by the tendencies of secular or Gnostic ideologies that attempt to refashion the world in man’s own image. Voegelin rejects the belief in a transformed reality through “secret knowledge and social action” (4). Moreover, he is strongly convinced that such action toward social-political freedom is ultimately doomed to failure. Experiencing the rise of National Socialism in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, Voegelin was alerted to the consequences of the inherent failure of modernity’s attempt to transform “the order of reality into some sort of magical utopia” (5). This not only truncated the experience-symbolization of man’s spiritual freedom; it cost the price of millions of lives.

Voegelin witnessed how European civilization had fallen into a “spiritual and intellectual malaise” that echoes the prophetic words of the nineteenth-century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen” (“Where they burn books, in the end they also burn people”). The “phenomenon of Hitler” and his success in the context of an intellectually or morally ruined society had made religious faith, free thinking, questioning, or even having a particular sexual orientation or handicap increasingly dangerous and life threatening (1). Victims of Nazi ideology and racial politics, irrespective of their political beliefs, were arrested and then deported to be murdered. Voegelin, who escaped to the United States following the Anschluss in 1938, struggled with this calamity throughout his career, holding the modern continental tradition largely responsible for the atrocities of war and the inherent disorder.

Turning to “premodern philosophy,” Voegelin searched for a nobility of soul, for a new philosophy—a new science—that would restore the sense of man’s connection with society (3). What is required is a proper understanding of reality that would reestablish a basis for its representation. The crisis of modernity, Voegelin argues, was implicated in and partly the fault of the “modern philosophical trajectory” (2, 8). Although his analysis of the continental philosophical tradition is very critical, Voegelin’s work also bears marks of its influence. Apparently, he has much more in common with the continental style of philosophizing than is usually acknowledged (2).

In offering these introductory observations, I hope to elucidate why the volume Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought is a compelling introduction and a fresh reinstatement of Eric Voegelin’s relationship to the modern continental tradition in philosophy. The book is significant not only as a document in political thought but also as an example of the relevance of Eric Voegelin’s works to the modern history of philosophy, from Kant to Derrida, and, beyond that, a kind of testament to the philosopher’s quest for spiritual freedom.

Editors Lee Trepanier and Steven F. McGuire present a distinctive guide, showing the way through the trajectories of Voegelin’s thought by carefully outlining his critique of modernity. Voegelin was critical of the modern continental philosophers, but it is the contention of Trepanier and McGuire that he, nevertheless, has something in common with them. The reader is alerted to new exciting developments in Voegelin scholarship, as the study discusses the similarities between his thought and the work of other thinkers in the continental tradition.

In short, the explorations in the book go beyond Voegelin’s critical apparatus and explore how his “search for order” can be enriched by a more sympathetic reading of continental philosophical writings. The commonalities between Voegelin and the other modern thinkers are highlighted, and an attempt is made to understand both the crisis of modernity and the path beyond it. Although not every relevant thinker is included, Trepanier and McGuire’s careful selection process applies three criteria: first, the modern philosophers selected are those whom Voegelin had either written about or was influenced by, and who had asked similar questions about the structure of reality; second, the published analyses covering philosophers already compared with Voegelin were avoided; and, third, the chosen contributors were not only familiar with a modern philosopher’s works but equally sensitive to Voegelin’s own philosophical quest (8). Thus, considering these and other significant omissions, the volume is far from a complete account of Voegelin’s relationship to modern philosophy, but it is definitely a noteworthy and exciting starting point for further scientific analysis of his work.

The careful analyses by the eminent Voegelin scholars in the book explore thoughtfully the diverse connections between Voegelin’s intellectual endeavours and continental thought, and are laid out in ten sections. In “ ‘Out of Such Crooked Wood’: How Eric Voegelin Read Immanuel Kant” (15–43), Thomas W. Heilke discusses the role of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) in the formation of Voegelin’s thought. Drawing mainly on Plato and Augustine, Voegelin rejected “Kantian epistemology of intentionality” (8). Some aspects of Kant’s philosophy, however, possibly influenced Voegelin’s writings. Heilke persuasively suggests that neo-Kantian epistemology affected Voegelin’s “theory of consciousness” and his philosophical analysis of history, which Voegelin primarily based on man’s experiential encounter with trancendent reality. Heilke’s contribution overall inspires the reader with the question whether Kant effectively influenced Voegelin’s political thought and his theory of consciousness. He concludes by saying that “Kant’s philosophy was, in fact, an element . . . of the wide-spanning philosophical conversation in which Voegelin was taking part” (40).

Cyril O’Regan’s remarkable essay “Voegelin and the Troubled Greatness of Hegel” (44–63) analyzes Voegelin’s relationship to the German idealist Georg W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), one of the creators of German idealism. Hegel’s historicist and idealist account of reality revolutionized European philosophy and played a major role in Voegelin’s critiques of “Gnosticism.” O’Regan is aware of Voegelin’s “negative assessment of Hegel,” as the representative of the “apocalyptic” crisis of modernity (9). However, Hegel’s influence can be felt, O’Regan suggests, in Voegelin’s understanding of the nature of modernity. The account of the differentiation of philosophy, reason (nous) and history, and other significant themes implies an undercurrent of Voegelin’s appreciation for Hegel’s meticulousness. Or, to put it in O’Regan’s own words, “Hegel is worth approaching”; his is a “troubled greatness, worth the trouble of difficult reading and worth the trouble of constant vigilance” (57).

“Voegelin and Schelling on Freedom and the Beyond” (64–84) is Steven McGuire’s careful assessment of the crucial differences and commonalities between Voegelin and the German philosopher Friedrich W. J. Schelling (1775–1854). Schelling’s “philosophy of freedom” is reasonably considered as “the midpoint” in the development of German idealism (9, 69–72). For Schelling man’s “attempt to conceive the order of reality in consciousness necessarily becomes distorted,” and, therefore, his “true knowledge of order must exist prior to its articulation” (9). McGuire argues that Voegelin’s arguably similar insights were not articulated owing to his “framework of a philosophy of consciousness.” McGuire offers the striking account that Voegelin, although indebted to Schelling’s philosophy, did not learn Schelling’s “deepest lesson” (9). McGuire is convinced that the “next step would have been to recognize that the search for order must move beyond a science of the soul and become also a metaphysics of freedom” (82).

Eugen L. Nagy’s contribution, “Noesis and Faith: Eric Voegelin and Soren Kierkegaard” (85–107), argues that Voegelin could have gained from those aspects of modern philosophy that he neglected. Where the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) took a “leap of faith” as the respectable resolution and response to God’s self-revelation, Voegelin’s path was more a “noetic (Socratic) endeavor” to understand man’s participation in reality (106). Nagy persuasively discloses “the similar structures of reality” in their works: the “in-between” (metaxy) state of “finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, worldly and divine” (10). Nagy’s analysis is absorbing as it shows how both thinkers were concerned with man’s attunement to divine reality, while reaching different conclusions. Voegelin’s analysis of the structure of reality could have been enhanced by a more “sympathetic reading” of Kierkegaard’s works (10). Nagy believes that “continuing this work of clarification and applying it to our very own pursuit remain crucial tasks for our own faithful pursuit of the path of understanding” (106).

“Dionysus versus the Crucified: Nietzsche and Voegelin and the Search for a Truthful Order” (108–136) by Rouven J. Steeves illuminates Voegelin’s search for order in comparison to the quest for meaning of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Steeves argues that “Eric Voegelin’s Nietzsche is a complex figure” (108). Voegelin did not fully appreciate Nietzsche’s claim that “existential truth” is a resolute exposition of a “transcendentally devoid reality” (10). According to Steeves, Voegelin did not take Nietzsche seriously, and he saw no alternative mode of the quest for order. He ultimately condemned Nietzsche as a Gnostic. Steeves gives a more nuanced approach. He suggests that the Nietzschean search for “immanent meaning,” for the “truth of existence,” would have supported Voegelin’s own understanding of modernity. It may even have clarified Voegelin’s search for transcendent order (10). Steeves concludes, “for it is only from within, as fellow combatants in the wars of the spirit, that we can truly understand the struggle for order” (131).

Arpad Szakolczai’s essay “Eric Voegelin and Neo-Kantianism: Early Formative Experience or Late Entrapment?” (137–165) explores Voegelin’s relationship to modern philosophy. He stresses the role of “neo-Kantianism”—a revived type of philosophy along the lines of Kant—in Voegelin’s development. Voegelin was familiar with neo-Kantian thinking but had some reservations about its methods. In The New Science of Politics, he explicitly and publicly rejected this form of philosophy. Voegelin’s rejection had a personal dimension: his doctoral supervisor, Hans Kelsen, was a neo-Kantian professor of law. “The Kelsen correspondence focused on two key terms: ‘destruction’ and ‘Gnosticism’ ” (160). This “Gnostic character of Kelsenian neo-Kantianism became impossible to specify” (162). Szakolczai discusses the neo-Kantian influences on Voegelin but also realizes that Voegelin’s rejection of “neo-Kantianism” was in fact unfinished due to this complex human relationship with Kelsen (9).

In his thought-provoking essay, “Voegelin and Heidegger: Apocalypse without Apocalypse” (165–91), David Walsh puts the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Voegelin into a conversation. Heidegger is noticeably absent in Voegelin’s writings. Today’s critic could make the strong statement that Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, was overall a “narrow-minded thinker,” which contrasts with Voegelin’s more open historical approach to reality. Walsh suggests, however, that both thinkers attempted to “ ‘refound’ Western philosophy in the wake of its ‘derailment’ ” (10). And so Voegelin’s philosophical quest may well have benefited from an engagement with Heidegger’s thought. “The remarkable convergence we have traced between Voegelin and Heidegger suggests that we might also reflect on the point at which they could actually meet” (183). Walsh states that (re-)reading Voegelin’s theory of consciousness in the light of Heidegger, might lead to new insight about man’s relation to the structure of reality (10, 183–90).

Fred Lawrence’s contribution, “Voegelin and Gadamer: Continental Philosophers Inspired by Plato and Aristotle” (192–217), presents the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) and Voegelin as two philosophers who confronted the crisis of modernity. They searched for wisdom in ancient texts. Their methodological approaches to the interpretation of these texts were fairly similar, that is, Voegelin’s “meditative exegesis” and Gadamer’s “hermeneutic reflection” (197). These thinkers, Lawrence argues, sought “the truth of existence through Platonic anamnesis” (11, 198). They both developed an “expansive understanding of consciousness” that goes beyond the phenomenology of the German Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). Lawrence suggests that Voegelin and Gadamer found an understanding of truth (aletheia) as “performative” or “participatory” (metaleptic). Where Voegelin discussed the spiritual dimensions of human existence in his work, Gadamer showed how to read scripture in a method quite similar to the one Voegelin used in his meditation on biblical texts (11). Above all, Lawrence wants to express “how worthwhile the study of their thought can be” (213).

In “Voegelin, Strauss, and Kojève on Tyranny” (217–39), Barry Cooper describes Voegelin’s relationship to the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973) and the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève (1902–1968). All three thinkers had experienced the outcome of totalitarianism: they “had the direct experience of the mortal threat of modern tyranny” (234). Cooper focuses on Strauss’s understanding of “Xenophon’s dialogue Hiero” (220) and the succeeding reflections by Kojève and Voegelin. Cooper writes that Strauss and Voegelin knew one another personally. Their relationship was cordial, but their correspondence shows disagreement concerning interpretations of classical Greek philosophy. Voegelin, who did not know Kojève personally, thought that his lectures on the Phenomenology were indispensable for understanding Hegel, despite “the temptation to become a magician like Hegel” himself (11, 219). Notwithstanding their differences, Cooper effectively shows that Strauss and Voegelin stand in contrast to Kojève, “since they were never tempted to become ideologists” (11, 234), nor were they interested in exchanging “uncertain truth for certain untruth” (236).

In the final chapter of the volume, “The Paradoxes of Participatory Reality” (240–59), Lee Trepanier puts Voegelin into conversation with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004). Voegelin and Derrida were arguably engaged in a similar philosophical quest that would oppose “Cartesian subjectivity” (257). According to  Trepanier, they both attempted to overcome its “ontological dichotomy” (11). Voegelin had made a severe stance against so-called Gnostic certainty. Both thinkers suggest “a recovery of philosophy and a mode of existence that is both paradoxical and participatory” (11, 257). Trepanier concludes: “Voegelin and Derrida were responding to the same problem and devised similar solutions because they subscribed to the same premises about consciousness, ontology, and linguistics” (257).

Trepanier and McGuire have done an admirable job of showing Voegelin’s important contribution to the philosophical conversation of modernity. This volume provides us with an interesting alternative to the traditional view of Voegelin as a severe critic of modern philosophers. The case for the importance of his contribution to modern philosophy in the continental tradition is a strong one. The analyses of Voegelin’s thought with other modern philosophers present helpful analytic tools to overcome the problems of modernity. The book encourages a more sympathetic reading of modern philosophy. ♦


Meins G.S. Coetsier is affiliated scholar at Zurich University and staff member at the Etty Hillesum Research Centre. He is author of Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis and The Existential Philosophy of Etty Hillesum: An Analysis of Her Diaries and Letters.