Advice for those who want to read Eric Voegelin

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What is an easy introduction? I don't know of any.

Where to begin? Much of Voegelin's work made no sense to me until I had read a lot of it more than once. I had something of a breakthrough by reading Autobiographical Reflections, Science, Politics and Gnosticism and The New Science of Politics in quick succession, and then once again. I then started keeping these Study Pages.

Integral to Voegelin's political and historical work is a theory of consciousness which pulls it all together. It is covered in Anamnesis, a collection of rather difficult essays. Again, time and rereading brings his themes into focus.

Patience. Voegelin's work is not as arcane as it may seem at first, but it takes a while to see that. Much of what he writes about are things you probably already know, but he provides fresh illumination. Only when you become familiar with his style, usages and materials will you grasp what he is getting at. Until then: be patient, keep reading, and don't jump to the "answers" prematurely.

Language. When puzzling over difficult passages I sometimes wondered if Voegelin's English wasn't at fault. In retrospect, I see that was almost never the case. He wrote very fine prose. The problem was with my understanding. Passages that once seemed obscure became much more clear with time.

Do not look for what is not there. An author can seem difficult when you are looking for things that are not in his work. In Voegelin's case you will not find:

The primacy of experience. This will be the greatest stumbling block for those who don't get it. Part of reality we know from the "outside", by the phenomena of the natural world. But we also know reality from the "inside", from our experience of consciousness and life, from having a self or a soul. We are parts of a reality which has become aware and can now reflect on the event. This sort of knowledge of reality cannot truthfully be treated as if it were the knowledge of external phenomena.

When Voegelin writes of the primary experience of the cosmos, he uses the term in the sense of "first", not "most important" or "deepest".

The human condition. We do not exist in a void. We are restless, always seeking, feeling ourselves drawn to the good, the true and the beautiful. We realize we are finite beings and that what we seek is not a finite goal. Not everyone understands this equally well; it requires an openness of mind and heart, and efforts of meditation and study. Developments in understanding have occurred in many places and times; Voegelin has written extensively about the revelation of the ancient Hebrews, the origin of philosophy with the Greeks, and the Christian apostles' experience of the Incarnation. He says that these are all experiences of the same type of event, understood and described differently by the participants.

How do you know? Very often I would read Voegelin's account of the human condition and ask "How does he know that [some proposition] is true?" But the critical question of "How do you know?" does not properly apply to the experience of reality. When someone drops a brick on his foot it is obtuse to ask "How do you know you are in pain?" What applies to sensation also applies to movements of the soul. These are not propositions to be argued, but direct experiences. What I was actually saying was "You say you have this experience. I don't, so why should I believe that your experience and description are valid or somehow applicable to me?" That is a different problem.

Also note that the inner experience is described in terms of love and hope and faith, truth "seen through a glass darkly," not in terms of specific facts about the immanent world.

Transparent and opaque symbols. An experience cannot be captured by language after the event. We use symbols to refer to the indefinable. When the symbol is properly "transparent" our attention is directed not to the symbol itself, but directed by it to the experience to which it refers. If someone mistakes the meaning of the symbol, literalizing it and treating it as an object of thought, it becomes "opaque" and detached from the original experience.

An example: suppose a group of people have a revelatory experience which, among themselves, they speak of in symbols of their "brotherly love", that they are "children of God", being "equal in his sight". Later, someone who has not had the experience overhears them and takes "equality" as an object of thought with attendant disputes about propositions of "equality": in what respect? to what degree? with what ethical implications? And: "how do you know?" The once-transparent symbol has become opaque; not only has its meaning been lost, but it prevents the person who uses it from rediscovering the original experience.

Compact and differentiated. Voegelin often explores the historical events where consciousness moves from "compact" to "differentiated" structures. "Compact" simply means that consciousness contains aspects which could be, but have not yet been, distinguished. Self-reflection reveals aspects which we had not previously recognized. Examples: "myth" is a compact symbolization of truths later differentiated as "philosophy". "Common sense" is a compact form of reason which can be differentiated into logic and virtues of prudence, experience, etc. "Compact" is not more primitive than "differentiated"; symbols of each sort can be evaluated as to their adequacy in representing truth.

The In-Between. One of Voegelin's favorite symbols is Plato's metaxy, the "in-between" of subject and object, man and God, time and eternity, mortality and immortality. We exist at neither of the "poles" in this "tension", but in the reality between them. It is an error to believe that we can move to a really existing end point in either direction. The "poles" are directions or "indices", not objects we can pull into the metaxy.

A metaphor: in some cities, "Uptown" is a neighborhood. "Where are you?" "I'm in Uptown." In other cities, "uptown" is a direction: "Where are you going?" "I'm headed uptown." The poles of the metaxy are like the second case: directions, not endpoints.

The Divine. Voegelin often speaks of the transcendental pole of the metaxy as "the Divine ground of being", "the Beyond", or as "God". Many people understand that "God" is not an object of thought and can be spoken of only analogically. Whether the Beyond can be adequately represented as the Void or as Emptiness is unclear to me. Given Voegelin's frequent references to the loving pull of the Divine, I think that he would not have done so.

At this point everyone will wonder about the character of Voegelin's religious faith. He called himself a "pre-Reformation Christian" (later: in a letter he said that was a joke meant to put off questioners trying to label him) and a "Christian humanist", but he was not a member of any congregation. He said that just as the history of philosophy was the history of its derailment, such was the case with Christian religion. Theologians were not satisfied with the answers to questions put to him, and I suspect he was not very pleased with the questions.

The history of order. Ancient civilizations in which men interpreted the world from their primary experience of the cosmos are called cosmological. The world was seen as an organic whole, full of gods, with human institutions mirroring phenomena of nature. The Israelites added a revelatory experience, where God and world were radically separated. The classic Greeks developed philosophical and anthropological order, where the human psyche participated in the transcendental ordering of reality. The Christian Incarnation added the soteriological or "salvational" order of truth, where there is a mutuality between man and God.

Gnosticism. The use of "gnostic" as a term describing the derailment of philosophy is famously linked to Voegelin. Although he defended the usage as one approved by specialists in the field of ancient Gnosticism, he later said that had he to do it over again, he would have chosen a different term. One problem is the natural confusion between the general use of the term and its specific original meaning, as well as disputes about its proper applicability. Another problem is that the general term is too broad, covering both the (mostly ancient) attempts to know perfectly, or merge with, the Divine, as well as the (mostly modern) numerous attempts to reduce humanity to purely immanent existence.

Rhetoric. Although usually humane and gentle, Voegelin's writing does have a rough side. This comes out strongly in Science, Politics and Gnosticism and, I'm told, in From Enlightenment to Revolution. He calls certain figures "mentally diseased", and is sometimes dismissive of other thinkers. Although from his biography and writings we can imagine why he might sometimes be harshly polemical, I'm inclined to take him as he is, rather than making excuses or apologizing for him. It is unfortunate that his intermittent roughness will keep some people from taking him seriously.

Pronunciation. Voegelin "Americanized" the pronunciation of his name, dropping the "h" in "Erich" and rhyming the first syllable of his last name with "vole" rather than with "fur".

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