Autobiographical Reflections

This is an outline of Autobiographical Reflections by Eric Voegelin, edited by Ellis Sandoz, published in 1989 from interviews done in 1973.

The numbered headings are the chapter titles.

Your comments and corrections are always welcome: please e-mail Bill McClain.

Return to the Eric Voegelin Study Page.


1. University of Vienna

Teachers and associates at the University of Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s. EV's Circle: the Geistkreis. Marginal Utility economists such as Mises, Hayek, Morgenstern and Machlup.

2. High School

Early interest in physics and math. A Marxist for five months.

3. Max Weber

Max Weber an important early influence on EV:
  1. His essays on Marxism completed EV's rejection of that ideology as unscientific.
  2. He wrote that ideologies are premises, not scientific propositions. However, Weber was not able to analyze the premises of ethics, or how materials are selected for science.
  3. He demonstrated the vast range of comparative knowledge required by a scholar.

4. Comparative Knowledge

Oswald Spengler, Eduard Meyer, and Alfred Weber also demonstrated breadth of comparative knowledge. Spengler's Decline of the West, although dubious in several respects, was valuable for showing how historical knowledge allows comparisons of civilizations. Meyer provided the background for Spengler and Toynbee. His technique: understand a historical situation through the self-understanding of the persons involved.

5. Stefan George and Karl Kraus

The contributions of Stefan George's Circle. Karl Kraus on politics and the press. The corruption of language, especially in Germany after 1870. Regaining language meant recovering the subject matter, breaking out of the false consciousness engendered by Marxists and Positivists. Their symbols expressed not reality but their own alienation from it. Hitler was made possible by the breakdown of German intellectual life.

6. The Pure Theory of Law: Neo-Kantian Methodology

Graduate work under Hans Kelsen. How "values" were invented to (unsuccessfully) bring subject matter back into science which had been excluded by Kantian methodology.

7. Political Stimuli

EV was stimulated by the rise of Communism and National Socialism to investigate the problem of ideologies. Writings on race. Interest in the Neo-Thomism of Sertillanges, Gilson and Maritain, the Augustinianism of Balthasar and Lubac, and medieval philosophy.

8. Concerning My Dissertation

Apparently not very memorable.

9. Concerning Oxford in 1921 or 1922

Lectures by Gilbert Murray.

10. American Influence

Notable teachers at Columbia University, especially John Dewey. English and American common sense philosophy caused EV to break out of his Central European academic provincialism. A continuous tradition without technical analysis, corresponding to articulated Classic and Stoic philosophy. This common sense tradition missing in Germany and not strong in France.

Teachers at Harvard (including Whitehead) and Wisconsin. Influence of Santayana and his Lucretian materialism. Santayana and Paul Valéry representatives of a mystical skepticism. Book on America. The direct experience of the plurality of civilizations immunized EV against certain European philosophizing.

11. Concerning the Year in France

Studied and improved his French, learned Russian (later lost). French literature and law, more Paul Valéry. In Paris again in 1934, researching Jean Bodin. The Mongol invasions of the 15th century. Also in 1934: in London at the Warburg Institute studying alchemy, astrology, and the gnostic symbolism of the Renaissance.

12. Return to Vienna

Began and abandoned a system of political theory. Two books on the race question. Found that political theory, especially when analyzing ideologies, must be based on Classic and Christian philosophy. Learned Greek. Contempt for academics who cannot read the materials of their subjects.

Civil War in 1934. When younger he had inclined toward the Social Democrats, later toward the Christian Socialists, who at least represented the traditions of European culture. The stupidity of ideologists. Book on the authoritarian state in 1936.

13. Anschluss and Emigration

His "unlimited fury" in 1938 when the Western democracies did nothing about the German occupation of Austria. Fired from the University. Dodging the Gestapo. That one could have opposed the National Socialists and not be a Communist or a Jew was inconceivable to bureaucrats and academics.

14. Concerning Ideology, Personal Politics, and Publications

EV's reasons for hating National Socialism (and ideologies in general):
  1. Scholars require intellectual honesty which ideology does not allow.
  2. He had an aversion to killing people for the fun of it. Later, he decided that the fun of killing comes from acquiring a pseudo-identity to substitute for the human self that has been lost.
  3. He liked to keep his language clean. Notes that some people of mental energy prefer to be Hegelians rather than Marxists because the jargon is more complicated. Ideology implies the destruction of language, sometimes on a vulgarian level, sometimes on an intellectual level of complicated jargon.

    The Hegelian universe and the refusal of Hegelian thinkers to argue premises. Attacking Hegel's premises requires a philosophic background few of his followers possess. With Marx, the falseness of premises is more obvious. Marx deliberately distorts Hegel. An intellectual swindler whose purpose was to build an ideology supporting violent action justified by a show of moral indignation. The swindle is that Marx refuses to enter into the argument of Aristotle that man does not exist out of himself but out of the divine ground of all reality.

    Because of the deculturation of the intellectual and academic world, opinions are dominant now which would have been laughed out of court in the late Middle Ages or the Renaissance.

  4. Ideologists vulgarize intellectual debate. Philosophical and historical knowledge is condemned by functional illiterates. Debate with such is not possible, although they may be objects of study.

Book on political religions, 1938. He later rethought the material of this work.

His 1936 book on the authoritarian state was "forced labor". Its parts:

  1. The symbols "total" and "authoritarian". The concepts of theory must be distinguished from other language symbols which do not express the order of existence. Parallels between the authoritarian state and Averroes' conception of mind. Carl Schmitt's racial objections.
  2. Austrian constitution making since 1848.
  3. The new constitution and Kelsen's Pure Theory of Law. Such a theory no substitute for a theory of politics.

15. Concerning Emigration in 1938

Gestapo investigation.

16. Life in America: From Harvard to LSU

Harvard and Bennington. Wanted to get away from the East Coast because:
  1. The strong Leftist environment there.
  2. The region was overrun with Central European refugees.
  3. Wanted to teach American government, which would not have been allowed in the East.
Two and one-half years at the University of Alabama. Louisiana State University in 1942. The Southern Review group. Acquired idiomatic English, awareness of social stratification by language. Cleanth Brooks and English abilities of academics.

17. From Political Ideas to Symbols of Experience

Learned Hebrew and Chinese. Began a new textbook, The History of Political Ideas, but the project foundered because:
  1. It took too long.
  2. He produced too much text.
  3. New knowledge invalidated the model of unilinear constitutional progress.
  4. Political ideas themselves are not the primary material of science, but are deformations of the immediate experience of reality.
Struggled 1945-50, breakthrough while preparing the Walgreen Lectures in 1951, published as The New Science of Politics. The distinction between "existential" representation by which a government functions regardless of how it comes to power, and "transcendental" representation, where government symbolically represents the divine order of the cosmos. In ancient times this divine order was taken to be a god of some sort. Today an ideology of history substitutes for divinity.

The difference between ancient and modern symbolizations is due to Gnosticism. EV first became aware of its modern implications through Hans Urs von Balthasar's Prometheus (1937). Usage of the term is justified by experts.

EV later revised his position on Gnosticism, added analyses of:

  1. The metastatic apocalypse of the Israelite prophets surviving in Christianity. It is detailed in Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium.
  2. The process of immanentization originating in an abortive revival of neo-Platonism in the late 15th century. Study of this is difficult because terminology has been degraded by acceptance of the premises of the reductionist position.
Metastatic faith: that reality can be changed by an act of faith. He coined the phrase to avoid using the word "magic", but later thought "magic" might be the appropriate term.

18. Alfred Schütz and the Theory of Consciousness

Correspondence with Alfred Schütz during the 1940s on the problems of consciousness, published in Anamnesis (1966). Inspired by Husserl's The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Contrary to that book, it seemed ridiculous to say that consciousness was nothing but sense perception. His recollections (anamnesis) showed otherwise. To restore the openness of reality is the principal task of philosophy.

The center of consciousness is the experience of participation, being in contact with reality outside oneself, "consubstantiality". Confirmed by William James and vastly more so by Plato with his metaxy, the "In-Between". An experience is neither in the subject nor the object, but In-Between the poles of man and the reality he experiences.

Movements of divine presence are experienced in this In-Between. The experience is the reality of both divine and human presence. It is a fallacy to say that either pole of the participatory experience is self-contained. Reality becomes luminous ("intelligible") to itself in human consciousness.

EV's incomplete participatory philosophy of symbolism, where language is engendered by the metaxy character of symbolism.

19. Order and Disorder

"Order" means:
  1. The structure of reality as experienced.
  2. The attunement of man to a cosmic order.
The knowledge of order goes back to prehistory, as do experiences of disorder (both social and cosmic) which produce extreme alienation. Categorization of experiences of disorder first appear in the Stoics who saw alienation as withdrawal from oneself as constituted by tension toward the divine ground. This is a withdrawal from reason. Man's reasoning powers will then be used to justify existence in the state of alienation.

In modern times the state of alienation is taken as the basis for understanding reality. The modern phenomena of systemizations such as Hegel's is an example. Such systemizations reject divine reason and must arrive at the death of God. These interpretations are no longer open to the reality of the ground. Systems always falsify reality.

Investigation of such falsifications in modern politics. A brighter future.

20. The Background of Order and History

EV decided that his History of Political Ideas was a senseless undertaking because "ideas" are secondary phenomena. They began with the Stoics, intensified in the Middle Ages and have radically unfolded since the 18th century. Ideas are likely to deform the truth of experience. The problems:
  1. There is no continuity between Greek philosophy and Israelite prophecy and revelation.
  2. Symbolizations such as myth and revelation cannot be classified as "ideas".
EV calls the primary experience of the cosmos "compact" and the resulting articulated truths various "differentiations". He previously referred to the decisive transitions as "leaps in being".

Doctrines entail a deformation of existence, if the original contact with reality is lost and language degenerates into an empty game. An example: doctrinal metaphysics.

The new subject matter: the experience of reality--personal, social, historical, cosmic. The method of exploration: through the articulation of the experiences through symbols. EV's principle: the reality of experience is self-interpretive.

The original and revised plans of Order and History. New developments. History has become diversified, involving many independent differentiating acts. Cultural diffusion may have occurred much earlier than supposed. Ideology often contradicts known history.

21. Teaching Career

Teaching at various levels, ideological debates, relations with radicals. Building the Institute for Political Science in Munich, 1958-1969.

Comparisons of German and American students. Common sense culture, East Coast radicals: swamp them with information. German universities destroyed by the National Socialist period, now staffed by mediocre minds. Marxists and other radicals at a university can be countered by a professor training non-ideological students.

22. Why Philosophize? To Recapture Reality!

The corruption of language by ideology makes debate impossible. The community of language must be discovered and established. This has happened before, for example Francis Bacon in Novum Organum complained about "idols": language symbols that have lost their contact with reality. Example of Solzhenitsyn, a good model. Plato and philosophy vs philodoxy. The comprehending community. Recently: Orwell, Camus, Mann.

The most important means of regaining reality: recourse to the thinkers of the past who had not lost reality or who were engaged in regaining it. Also: those sciences which deal with intact experiences. For EV the most important sources have been Classic, Patristic and Scholastic philosophy.

Comparative religion, early symbolisms.

It often happens that spiritual ground is regained by studying the long ago, not by staying within the dominant contemporary culture.

To recapture reality:

  1. Reconstruct the fundamental categories of:
    1. existence
    2. experience
    3. consciousness
    4. reality
  2. Explore the techniques and structure of deformations.
  3. Develop concepts by which deformation and its symbolization can be categorized.

All the while being opposed by those who ought to be defenders of reality.

Methodological rules: go back to the experiences that engender symbols. All language symbols must be suspected of corruption. The "refusal to apperceive" and construction of "second reality". The idealogical ban on questioning. Diagnostic: determine which part of reality has been excluded to make the fake system possible. Always excluded is the experience of the divine ground.

The modern restriction of consciousness to sense perception is the hidden trick in the construction of systems. Classic philosophers knew that consciousness is the experience of structures and of turning toward the divine ground. If sense perception is dominant, experiences of divine reality are eclipsed and must be deformed into propositions about transcendent reality. Propositional metaphysics is a deformation of philosophy.

Why do people persist in this? The problem of alienation. Turning toward or turning away from the divine ground are the fundamental categories descriptive of human order and disorder. Now the fundamental problems are being rediscovered.

23. Philosophy of History

Recently the purpose of history has been to justify the state of alienation. After periods of order, periods of disintegration are followed by misconstructions of reality by the disoriented. Thucydides describes a previous cycle. "Modernity" includes both the degradation and the attempted restoration.

Characteristics of the "Ecumenic Age":

  1. The spiritual outbursts of around 500 BC which Jaspers called the "axis time".
  2. Imperial outbursts.
  3. The beginnings of historiography, where the order vs disorder caused by empire are weighed.

Hellenic philosophy and Christian revelation replaced the cosmological understanding over a wide area. Contrary to Toynbee, civilizations are not the units of historical study.

Problems of ethnic and cultural diversity, warnings about US immigration.

24. Range, Constancy, Eclipse, and Equivalence of Truth

Reality is constant but there are various differentiations of experience. Aristotle first stated the problem. Philomythos is similar to philosophos and directed toward the same divine ground. Myth may be more comprehensive than philosophy. "Equivalence": the same reality may be symbolized on various levels of differentiation.

New differentiations may eclipse old ones, as when "reason" used by the natural sciences obscured "reason" in the Classic sense, as the constituent of man's humanity. The latter was rediscovered by existentialism which, however, confuses the issues.

Another eclipse: the differentiation of pneumatic consciousness ("revelation") by Christ and Paul obscured earlier compact pneumatic strata, as for example the revelation of the nous to the Greek thinkers. The theophanic core of Classic philosophy is largely unknown today.

One can explore the parallel noetic theophany of Plato and the pneumatic theophany of Paul. An unexplored problem: what is the content of Christian pneumatic differentiation beyond the noetic differentiation of the Greeks? The problem is made difficult by the language of natural reason and revelation. The Christians assumed reason was natural and revelation supernatural. Aquinas was aware of the problem, but it is still not clear how Christ can be the head of all mankind.

Some scholars pursue this problem in a semiconscious way.

25. Consciousness, Divine Presence, and the Mystic Philosopher

During the Ecumenic Age the process of differentiation became located in the psyche. The divine presence shifted from "gods" to the psyche. The most radical symbolization of the experience is the symbol of the Incarnation.

The symbols representing the experiences of the psyche became recognized as such: as symbolizations of truth emerging in the process of history, which is partly in this world and partly transcendent.

Symbols are secondary insights; beyond them is an understanding that cannot be expressed by any symbolization. This stratum of experience is called "mysticism". Articulated in the 5th century but known earlier, by Plato for example.

After Aquinas, theologizing split between the nominalism of Ockham and the mysticism of Eckhart. Nominalism became ideologizing. Jean Bodin and Henri Bergson as mystics in search of order.

26. Revolution, the Open Society, and Institutions

English and American revolutions as "conservative", retaining the cultural structure of Western Civilization. Later revolutions as destructive, the cause of German and French animosity. Their ideas contaminate America. American "intellectuals" too illiterate to be real Communists. A class detached from social reality.

The American race problem. The Vietnam War. Parallel between Hitler's Germany and North Vietnam. The power of mass media. American politics impaired by utopian fantasies.

27. Eschatology and Philosophy: The Practice of Dying

The philosophers, Israelite prophets and early Christians realized that reality moves toward a state beyond its present structure. For an individual this movement is consummated in death. Man is not a "mortal", but a being engaged in a movement toward immortality. This movement introduces another tension: the manner of conduct of life such that it will lead toward the state of imperishability.

The dream of a shortcut to imperishable perfection emerged immediately. First as Jewish and Christian apocalyptic expectations, then as secular movements of direct action.

Marx and blood intoxication. He understood that purely external events such as the establishment of a Communist government would not cause the transfiguration to perfection. Vulgar Marxists have now lost this knowledge, replacing it with something like a magic of action.

The real experience has a permanently motivating effect that is visible even in the deformations. History moves in the In-Between and is experienced as a movement that will end in a state beyond the In-Between and beyond time.

The nature of man is not fixed, in the sense that in history it becomes luminous for its eschatological destiny. The nature of man cannot be transformed within history. Man is a pilgrim toward eschatological perfection, but the pilgrim's progress is in the world.

The chores of the philosopher by which he engages in the practice of dying: keeping up with the problems, analyzing the sources, and communicating the results.


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Bill McClain (wmcclain@watershade.net)