On Classical Studies

This is an outline of Eric Voegelin's essay On Classical Studies, which can be found in: The contents of the table listing disagreements between classic philosophy and modern opinion is a large quote from the essay, reformatted.

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

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A reflection on the purposes and prospects of classical studies.

The original definition as "the study of man's nature as it has become manifest in the Greeks" is no longer accepted because of:

The loss is not seen as a catastrophe because in the current "climate of opinion" the nature of man is not of interest. It has even become an object of hatred because man's nature has proved resistant to change by those motivated by the will to power.

And yet, man's nature is real and there is always a struggle against the climate of opinion (the "age") which in the light of reason becomes a pathological deformation of experience. Classical studies are considered objectionable because they inevitably lead to investigation of human nature.

Some of the disagreements between the classic "philosophy as the science of the nature of man" and the modern climate of opinion:

Classic Modern
There is a nature of man, a definite structure of existence that puts limits on perfectibility. The nature of man can be changed, either through historical evolution or through revolutionary action, so that a perfect realm of freedom can be established in history
Philosophy is the endeavor to advance from opinion (doxa) about the order of man and society to science (episteme); the philosopher is not a philodoxer. No science in such matters is possible, only opinion; everybody is entitled to his opinions; we have a pluralist society.
Society is man written large. Man is society written small.
Man exists in erotic tension toward the divine ground. He doesn't; for I don't; and I'm the measure of man.
Man is disturbed by the question of the ground; by nature he is a questioner (aphorein) and seeker (zetein) for the whence, the where to, and the why of his existence; he will raise the question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Such questions are otiose (Comte); don't ask them, be a socialist man (Marx); questions to which the sciences of world-immanent things can give no answer are senseless, they are Scheinprobleme (neopositivism).
The feeling of existential unrest, the desire to know, the feeling of being moved to question, the questioning and seeking itself, the direction of the questioning toward the ground that moves to be sought, the recognition of the divine ground as the mover, are the experiential complex, the pathos, in which the reality of divine-human participation (metalepsis) becomes luminous. The exploration of the metaleptic reality, of the Platonic metaxy, as well as the articulation of the exploratory action through language symbols, in Plato's case of his Myths, are the central concern of the philosopher's efforts. The modern responses to this central issue change with the "climate of opinion".
  • In Locke the metaleptic reality and its noetic analysis is transformed into the acceptance of certain "common opinions" which still bear an intelligible relation to the experience from which they derive. The reduction of reality to opinion, however, is not deliberate; Locke is already so deeply involved in the climate of opinion that his awareness for the destruction of philosophy through the transition from episteme to doxa is dulled. Cf. Willey's presentation of the Lockean case. [Basil Willey, Background studies, beginning in 1934].
  • Hegel, on the contrary, is acutely aware of what he is doing when he replaces the metaleptic reality of Plato and Aristotle by his state of alienation as the experiential basis for the construction of his speculative system. He makes it explicitly his program to overcome philosophy by the dialectics of a self-reflective alienated consciousness.
  • In the twentieth century, the "climate of opinion" has advanced to the tactics of the "silent treatment". In a case like Sartre's, metaleptic reality is simply ignored. Existence has the character of meaningless facticité; its endowment with meaning is left to the free choice of man. The choice of a meaning for existence falls with preference on the opinion of totalitarian regimes who engage in mass-murder, like the Stalinist; the preference has been elaborated with particular care by Merleau-Ponty. The tactics of the "silent treatment", especially employed after the Second World War by the "liberation rabble", however, make it difficult to decide in individual cases whether the counterposition to metaleptic reality is deliberate, or whether the libido dominandi is running amok in a climate of opinion that is taken for granted, without questioning, as its ultimate reality. On the whole, I have the impression that the consciousness of a counterposition is distinctly less alive than it still was at the time of Hegel. Philosophical illiteracy has progressed so far that the experiential core of philosophizing has disappeared below the horizon and is not even recognized as such when it appears in philosophers like Bergson. The deculturation process has eclipsed it so thoroughly by opinion that sometimes one hesitates to speak even of indifference to it.
Education is the art of periagoge, of turning around (Plato). Education is the art of adjusting people so solidly to the climate of opinion prevalent at the time that they feel no "desire to know". Education is the art of preventing people from acquiring the knowledge that would enable them to articulate the questions of existence. Education is the art of pressuring young people into a state of alienation that will result in either quiet despair or aggressive militancy.
The process in which metaleptic reality becomes conscious and noetically articulate is the process in which the nature of man becomes luminous to itself as the life of reason. Man is the zoon noun echon. Reason is instrumental reason. There is no such thing as a noetic rationality of man.
Through the life of reason (bios theoretikos) man realizes his freedom. Plato and Aristotle were fascists. The life of reason is a fascist enterprise.

The international student revolt revealed cracks in the established climate of opinion, "but one should not expect the life of reason to emerge from the confrontation of two vacua".

More important are the advances of the historical sciences which form a a sort of underground resistance. Since critical analysis of the current "age" is not allowed, they are refugees into the past.

The question is whether scientists in these advancing historical sciences will ever go beyond description of certain phenomena and ask whether the phenomena are true.

If the historical sciences lead to restoration of the life of reason, classical studies will have an important role. Greek philosophy made human nature intelligible and developed the symbols for its self-interpretation.

In the following two areas, no major advance of science is possible without recourse to, and resumption of, Greek philosophy:

  1. theoretical exploration of the mountains of data collected by modern historical science
  2. exploration of existential deformation (for example, "alienation") and its varieties

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Bill McClain (wmcclain@watershade.net)