The Matrix from Reason: The Classic Experience

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In his essay Reason: The Classic Experience, Voegelin presents a matrix he used as a teaching tool which allowed the student to categorize various errors of opinion. His comments are quite terse and the matrix has been the source of much speculation. This page documents my attempt to understand it.

The original text

From Reason: The Classic Experience (1974):
It will be apposite, therefore, to present a diagram of the points to be considered in any study of human affairs, of the peri ta anthropina in the Aristotelian sense:
Person Society History
Divine Nous ^
Psyche - Noetic      
Psyche - Passions      
Animal Nature      
Vegetative Nature      
Inorganic Nature      
Apeiron - Depth      
The left vertical column lists the levels in the hierarchy of being from nous to the apeiron. Man participates in all of them; his nature is an epitome of the hierarchy of being. The arrow pointing down indicates the order of formation from the top down. The arrow pointing up indicates the order of foundation from the bottom up.

The top horizontal column lists the dimensions of man's existence as a person in society and history. The arrow pointing to the right indicates the order of foundation.

Principle of completeness: A philosophy peri ta anthropina must cover the grid determined by the two coordinates. No part of the grid must be hypostatized into an autonomous entity, neglecting the context.

Principle of formation and foundation: The order of formation and foundation must not be inverted or otherwise distorted, as for instance by its transformation into a causality working from the top or bottom. Specifically, all constructions of phenomena on a higher level as epiphenomena of processes on a lower one, the so-called reductionist fallacies, are excluded as false. This rule, however, does not affect the conditioning causality which is the very essence of foundation. Neither are inversions of the order of foundation in the horizontal column permitted. Specifically, all "philosophies of history" which hypostatize society as an absolute, eclipsing personal existence and its meaning, are excluded as false.

Principle of metaxy reality: The reality determined by the coordinates is the in-between reality, intelligible as such by the consciousness of nous and apeiron as its limiting poles. All "eristic phantasies" which try to convert the limits of the metaxy, be it the noetic height or the apeirontic depth, into a phenomenon within the metaxy are to be excluded as false. This rule does not affect genuine eschatological or apocalyptic symbolisms which imaginatively express the experience of a movement within reality toward a beyond of the metaxy, such as the experiences of mortality and immortality.

The diagram has proved of particular value for students because it gives them a minimum body of objective criteria for "true" and "false" in their struggle with the flood of contemporary opinion literature. With the help of the diagram it is possible to classify false theoretical propositions by assigning them their place in the grid. On occasion it has become an exciting game for the students to place ideas which enjoy the popularity of the moment in one of the twenty-one squares. Beyond its function as a technical aid in mastering contemporary phenomena of intellectual disorder, the diagram had the important psychological effect of overcoming the students' sense of disorientation and lostness in the unmanageable flood of false opinions that presses in on them every day.

Additional Voegelin text

This is an extract from About the Function of Noesis, the last segment of What is Political Reality? (1966):
As the noetic consciousness of the flowing presence intends "objectively" the realm of man, there unfolds a nexus of problems the structure of which is determined by the noetic movement. The movement originates in the existential tension that drives toward the noetic exegesis of consciousness. When the movement transcends the concrete, self-interpreting consciousness and expands toward the interpretation of order in the realm of man, it must move along certain objective lines; along these lines there are found certain objective areas; and the areas, in turn, are related to each other in intelligible ways. The objective lines, objective areas, and their relations are the parts of the model, with the help of which noesis discharges its critical function.

The objective lines, along which the exegesis expands toward interpretation, are, first, the line from man to humankind and, second, the line from consciousness to the corporeal foundation. Let us characterize the model that is engendered by the movement of the noetic consciousness along these lines:

(1) The existential tension toward the ground is man's center of order. Starting from this center and moving along the line toward humankind, three objective areas can be distinguished: (a) In the first place, the order of the concrete-human consciousness from which the movement originates; following, (b) the order of human existence in organized society, as well as the order of nonorganized social fields; further (c) the order of human and social existence in history. The following relations link these areas to each other: (a) the series is neither reversible, nor can (b) an objective area exchange its place with another, nor can (c) any of these areas become an object independent of the two others.

(2) Moving on from the consciousness of existential tension into the corporeal basis, we run, in the realm of man, into the synthetic nature of man, in Aristotle's sense, with its realms of human-psychic, animalic, vegetative, and inanimate being. These tiers of the hierarchy of being are related to each other in (a) the material dependence of the higher on the lower and (b) the organization of the lower by the higher ones. The relations are not reversible. On the one hand, there is no eu zen, not good life in Aristotle's meaning, without the basis of zen; on the other hand, the order of the good life does not emerge from the corporeal foundation but originates only when the entire existence is ordered from the enter of the existential tension.

(3) Inasmuch as neither man, nor society, nor history occur without a corporeal foundation, the objective areas overlap and fit together into a comprehensive structure of the realm of man. The relations and the rule of their irreversibility apply to the model as a whole.

The model does not concretize the multitude of problems that were mentioned in our investigation by way of examples, but rather the model is confined to the two great objective lines in the realm of man, In spite of this simplifying limitation, it is of considerable value, given the state of science in our time, because it draws attention to violations of the model in the socially dominant ideologies. The violations occur either against the rules of the relationships within the model or against the structure of the model as a whole.

An example of a violation against the rules of relations is the conception of order of the ideological mass movements. The series man-society-history is reversed so that, under the title "philosophy of history," history itself becomes the dominant factor of interpretation which dislodges the existential center of order as well as the organized society.

Excerpts from the final paragraphs of The Ecumenic Age:
...there are the strata in the hierarchy of being in which the process of consciousness is founded. There is no flux of presence in the Metaxy without its foundation in the biophysical existence of man on earth in the universe. By virtue of their founding character, the lower strata reach into the stratum of human consciousness, not as its cause but as its condition. Only because the strata of reality participate in one another, through the relations of foundation and organization, in the order of the cosmos, can and must the time-dimensions of the strata be related to one another...

...The physical universe as the ultimate foundation for the higher strata in the hierarchy of being cannot be identified as the ultimate reality of the Whole, because in the stratum of consciousness we experience the presence of divine reality as the constituent of humanity. In man's consciousness, the foundational movement within reality from the physical depth becomes luminous for the creative construction of all reality from the height of the divine ground...

...the hierarchy of being comes into view, not as a number of strata one piled on top of the other, but as movement of reality from the apeirontic depth up to man, through as many levels of the hierarchy as can be discerned empirically, and as the countermovement of creative organization from the divine height down, with the Metaxy of man's consciousness as the site where the movement of the Whole becomes luminous for its eschatological direction...


First, recognize that the Apeiron-Depth and Divine Nous levels of the hierarchy are different from the others; they are limiting poles, not finite categories. Schematically, we should represent them as unbounded on the outer borders; infinite, ungraspable. The areas in-between are just that: a schematic of the Metaxy of human existence.

The intermediate vertical levels are somewhat arbitrary in detail. They are what we discover empirically when looking at the world. For example, in the future we could conceivably make further distinctions on the level of organic life, the orders of the passions, etc.

The order of foundation works from both bottom to top and from left to right. This simply means that there is no life without atoms, no passions without animal life, etc. On the horizontal axis, there is no society without real people as its members, no history without society and people.

Note that the upper levels are "caused" by the lower only in the sense that foundations are a necessary condition of what is above them. Voegelin uses Aristotle's example that the "good life" is made possible by life itself, but life in general is not the cause of a "good life". I suggest another image: a city may be built on a hill, and even be composed of the same stones as the hill, but we do not say that the hill "causes" the city. This is true even if the same earthquake damages both the hill and the city.

This brings us to the order of formation operating from the top down. This means that the upper strata "organize" the lower, what Voegelin also calls "creative construction". This concept is implicit throughout his writing: when we speak of a direction or tension of existence, of being attuned to a transcendent order, we are presuming an ordering flow from Beyond. In a vivid image, Voegelin speaks of the Metaxy as the site of countering movements: the movement of reality up from the depths, and that of creative organization from the divine height down.

I don't know that he would approve of the usage, but I tend to think of the order of formation as the classic "final cause", as in "purpose" or "end". Just as the "good life" is biological life (indeed, all the strata of being in which a person participates) ordered to an end from above, so is the city founded on the hill.

Problems. I am still uncertain about the orders of formation and foundation. I can accept them at the top and bottom of the hierarchy, but not in the middle. That consciousness is not solely explained by material foundation is believable. The computer scientists and neurophysiologists have not yet explained how immaterial psyche arises from material causes; framing the problem that way makes it seem unlikely that they can. Similarly, the emergence of physical phenomena from the depth is not itself a physical process and is therefore outside the scope of natural science. Both the top and bottom seem believable venues for "creative construction".

The middle strata are more troublesome for me. This is the domain explained by natural evolution, which seems to operate by the sort of bottom-up causality that Voegelin denies. Inorganic components will "naturally" form organic compounds, and so up to animal life. What more is required?

Where is the movement of creative construction here? Would it add anything to claim that divinity operates on this realm by virtue of existence being the way it is, and not otherwise (God as architect)? Or am I misapplying a model that pertains only to the human Metaxy, not to the rest of the physical universe? Could creative construction simply mean, at this level, that man orders his bodily existence, not that God orders the physical universe for a purpose? But: Voegelin does say "all reality" in this context.


Although the matrix is a schematic of true philosophy of the human realm, its main use seems to be as a tool for categorizing errors of opinion, and my examples are all of this nature.

Principle of completeness

Partial coverage

There are too many instances to survey. All the modern ideologies exclude various aspects of reality, "but the one item that always has to be excluded is the experience of man's tension toward the divine ground of his existence." [Voegelin, AR:98-99]

One could imagine an Aristotelian individualist anarchist who had a complete theory of the person, but who denied the reality of society and history. (Murray Rothbard?)

Many libertarians envision a "community of spiritually autonomous persons": men who can live without the support and mediation of institutions.

Hypostatization of a part

Hypostatization meaning "reification" or "literalization" of an aspect of reality into a detached piece. There are many possible examples, as people seem rather good at this sort of thinking.

Entries here might as easily fall under the errors of shuffling the orders of formation and foundation.


Inorganic nature.
A strict materialist thinks a person is composed of nothing but matter and its motions. This was the view of Lucretius, and the stance is actually quite popular in the natural sciences today.

Vegetative nature.

If I can include organic processes below the level of the organism, then the Darwinism that emphasizes survival of genes fits here. See The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Animal nature.


Psyche - passions.


Psyche - Noetic.


Perhaps: Pythagoreanism; reality as "number". Still rather popular with the quantum mechanics crowd.


Animal nature.


Psyche - passions.

Racial theories. Class conflict theories?

Psyche - Noetic.

Perhaps: Jung's collective unconscious.


Principle of formation and foundation

Order of foundation of the hierarchy of being

Order of formation of the hierarchy of being

Voegelin: "all constructions of phenomena on a higher level as epiphenomena of processes on a lower one, the so-called reductionist fallacies, are excluded as false."

Order of foundation of person, society and history

Voegelin: "philosophies of history" which hypostatize society as an absolute, eclipsing personal existence and its meaning.

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon: "The Party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal. At every bend in her course she leaves the mud which she carries and the corpses of the drowned. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in History does not belong in the Party's ranks."

Principle of metaxy reality

The divine as phenomenon

Immanentist constructions which attempt to pull the divine into the phenomenal world:
  • The gnostic political movements.
  • The metastatic apocalypse.
  • The neo-platonic revival of the 15th century.

"God" as a synonym for the demiurge is an ancient usage. More recently, he is sometimes a space alien, or a scientist in another universe.

The apeiron as phenomenon

When physical scientists wax philosophical they often confuse physics and metaphysics. They presume that advances into the fundamental structure of physical nature either explains or eliminates the need for a cause of being itself. This is not true. The apeiron is always beyond the reach of physical science. See God and the Cosmologists by Stanley Jaki.

Return to the Eric Voegelin Study Page.
Bill McClain (