by Federico Soldani – 6th Dec 2020
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Eric Voegelin (Jan. 3, 1901, Cologne – Jan. 19, 1985, Stanford, Calif., U.S.) was a “German-American political scientist and interdisciplinary scholar. He examined not only political institutions but also language symbols and the nature of civilization in current and ancient texts. His work centred on the interpretation of the governing symbols and myths of political society, the understanding of which he viewed as basic to the success of political theory.”
His doctoral advisor was the Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen. He was a personal long-time friend of Friedrich Hayek and corresponded with influential figures such as Leo Strauss, a scholar seen by many as sharing similar anti-modern and anti-scientism/anti-positivism views and who influenced U.S. neo-conservatism, however this latter association was criticized and even led to accusations of Straussophobia (see also McAllister ‘Revolt against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order’ 1996).
Voegelin worked at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace in Stanford, California, during the last part of his life.
Voegelin was generally interested in political thought as well as in the psychological and spiritual dimensions in relation to the political one.
He discussed issues of consciousness and psychology, including so-called “pneumopathology” – “condition of a thinker who, in his revolt against the world as it has been created by God, arbitrarily omits an element of reality in order to create the fantasy of a new world” – this way leading towards a psychologization and even a spiritualization of politics (see ‘Politics of the Soul, Eric Voegelin on Religious Experience’ ed. G. Hughes 1998).
Voegelin was interested in political theology – the relationship between theological and political spheres, famously studied by German jurist Carl Schmitt – in his specific case viewing political movements of the 20th century as secular religions.
In one of his most renowned essays ‘Science, Politics and Gnosticism’ (1959), Voegelin highlighted structural similarities, also based on historical continuity, between ancient gnosticism and modern thought that he identified as gnostic, including key authors such as Hegel, Comte, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger as well as movements such as psychoanalysis.
Voegelin highlights in his Foreword: “In America, the gnostic nature of the movements mentioned had been recognized early in the twentieth century by William James [considered the father of U.S. psychology, ed.]. He knew Hegel’s speculation to be the culmination of modern gnosticism.”
According to Ellis Sandoz, who wrote a preface and introduction to a more recent paperback edition (ISI Books 2004), the book “encapsulates much of the author’s diagnosis of the maladies of modernity” and “provides an analysis of the demonic in modern existence… diagnosing the maladies of contemporary political existence and supplying their therapies, within the modest limits of reason and science.” In his The New Science of Politics (1952), Sandoz continues, Voegelin highlighted how in his view the “essence of modernity is gnosticism.” However later, in the 70s, he mentioned how he possibly paid undue attention to gnosticism only, while other relevant traditions might be of equal importance in modern thought, for instance apocalyptic, Neo-Platonic, hermetic and magic.
Sandoz highlighted how Voeglin “begins with common sense understanding as a given and ascends analytically to a clarification of the key experiences in which every man shares.” Plato is Voegelin principal philosophical mentor and “the philosopher as physician of the soul is evoked.”
Voegelin – accodring to Sandoz – “argues for both a historical continuity and an experiential equivalence between the ancient movements and such modern phenomena as positivism, Marxism, Freudianism, existentialism, progressivism, utopianism, revolutionary activism, fascism, communism, national socialism, and the rest of the “isms”.
“Alienation from the world as a hostile place and rebellion against the divine Ground of being…. Modern gnosticism arise from the lust for power – libido dominandi – … takes the form of speculations on the meaning of history construed as a closed process manipulated by the revolutionary elite who understand the path, process, and goal of history in its movement from stage to stage toward some sort of final perfect realm (Hegel, Marx, Comte, National Socialism).
This characteristic of radical immanentization or secularization of reality – Sandoz wrote – means that the “reality” question underlies all of the lesser issues. This, in turn, gives rise to Voegelin’s utilization of the symbol “Second Reality” for the dream-world constructs of the gnostic ideologues whose closure to divine Being, their reductionist exclusion of troublesome aspects of reality by forbidding questions, mutilates and falsifies the consciousness of reality given through common experience. … The elements of reductionism, transformation of the world, and systems construction in Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, and Hegel figure prominently in the diagnosis of “pneumopathology” […]
Knowledge – gnosis – of the method of altering being is the central concern of the gnostic. The focus on changing the world as an exercise in futility with disastrous consequences for mankind is repeatedly countered by Voegelin’s insistence on the stability and givenness of reality. The point must be underscored: the only reality we have is reality experienced.”
“On the profusion of gnostic experiences and symbolic expressions – Voeglin wrote in his essay – one feature may be singled out as the central element in this varied and extensive creation of meaning: the experience of the world as an alien place into which man has strayed and from which he must find his way back home to the other world of origin.
“Who has cast me into the suffering of this world? – asks the ‘Great Life’ of gnostic texts, which is also the “first, alien Life from the worlds of light”. It is an alien in this world and this world is alien to it. “This world was not made in accordance with the desire of Life”.
The world – continued Voegelin – is no longer the well-ordered, the cosmos, in which Hellenic man felt at home; nor is the Judaeo-Christian world that God created and found good. Gnostic man no longer wishes to perceive in admiration the intrinsic order of the cosmos. For him the world has become a prison from which he wants to escape: “The wretched soul has strayed into a labyrinth of torment and wanders around without a way out… it seeks to escape from the bitter chaos, but knows not how to get out.”
What was expressed in ancient chiliastic gnosticism in term of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the apocalypse, is expressed by modern parousiastic gnostic mass movements as Promethean revolt and revolution.
In addition to the realm of final perfection, another symbol developed by Gioacchino da Fiore (Joachim of Flora, as referred to in English), according to Voegelin, was the leader, the dux, who appears at the beginning of the new era. The first who was identified by many as such a leader of the realm of the Holy Spirit was St. Francis of Assisi. This in turn influenced Dante‘s conception of such a leader-figure.
“The idea dominated the sectarian movements of the Renaissance and Reformation – Voegelin wrote – their leaders were paracletes possessed by the spirit of God, and their followers were the homines novi or spirituales. Dante’s notion of a dux of the new realm emerged again in the period of national socialism and fascism. There exists a German and Italian literature in which Hitler and Mussolini are at times glorified as the leaders foretold by Dante.
In the period of secularization leaders could not be presented as God-possessed […] a new symbol, that of the “superman” appeared. The expression – coined by Goethe in Faust – is used in the nineteenth century by Marx and Nietzsche to characterize the new man. […] As the main types of superman we can distinguish the progressivist superman of Condorcet (who even has the hope of an eternal earthly life), the positivist superman of Comte, the communist superman of Marx, and the Dionysian superman of Nietzsche.”
It is my view that Voegelin’s interest in the psychological and theological bases of politics and in particular in the themes of gnosticims and consciousness is relevant for todays’ so-called Psychedelic Renaissance and discourses emphasized in Jungian psychology such as “ego dissolution” or “ego death.”
Of note about such resurgence of hallucinogens use, including in medicine, the same rhetoric that was used in psychiatry in the past for electro-convulsive treatment, better known as electro-shock, is now being used for the hallucinogen psilocybin / magic mushrooms: in the rhetoric of their proponents, these interventions would re-set the depressed brain.
In his considerations about ‘Voegelin Among the Machines’, J. Ratcliffe attempts to use Voegelin’s views to analyze so-called trans-humanism and points to an author of the 50s, later influential in the vast New Age movement, the French Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
In his book The Phenomenon of Man (Le phénomène humain, 1955) – which in English had an introduction by Sir Julian Huxley, first Director of UNESCO, brother of Aldous and father of Francis, both deeply involved in the study of hallucinogens, including LSD – Theilhard de Chardin “famously put forward the concept of a “noosphere”, a spiritual version of the lithosphere or biosphere; the collective consciousness of all human beings as though it is a physical substance. Chardin posited that it was the destiny of this “noosphere” to evolve into a future humanity of ego-less, immortal electrical Christ-energy.
Individualism is just some passing phase which we are to overcome in Jesus and be united with one another” (J. Ratcliffe ‘Voegelin Among the Machines: Teilhard de Chardin, Olaf Stapledon and the Millenarian Kernel of Transhumanism’ 2016).
A final point of evolution, called Omega Point, was postulated.
As reported by the Jesuit ‘America Magazine’ in 2017 “Participants at the recent plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture that discussed “The future of humanity: new challenges to anthropology” unanimously approved a petition to be sent to Pope Francis requesting him to waive the “monitum” issued by the Holy Office in 1962 regarding the writings of Father de Chardin. […] They said, “we unanimously agreed, albeit some of his writings might be open to constructive criticism, his prophetic vision has been and is inspiring theologians and scientists.” They mentioned that four popes—Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis—had made “explicit references” to his work.
In his 1958 introduction to the English edition of Teilhard de Chardin ‘The Phenomenon of Man’, Sir Julian Huxley – also the author of the collection of essays ‘On Living in a Revolution’ – wrote: “he and I were on the same quest, and had been pursuing parallel roads ever since we were young men in our 20s […] just before meeting PèreTeilhard [I] had written a pamphlet entitled ‘UNESCO: its purpose and philosophy’, where I stressed that such a philosophy must be a global, scientific and evolutionary humanism. […] This thesis I developed years later in my ‘Uniqueness of Man’ [Man in the Modern World, ed.] adding that man’s evolution was unique in showing the dominance of convergence over divergence: in the same volume I published an essay on Scientific Humanism (a close approximation to Père Tilhard’s Neo-Humanism), in which I independently anticipated the title of Père Tilhard’s great book by describing humanity as a phenomenon, to be studied and analysed by scientific methods. […] The conditions of advance are these: global unity of mankind’s noetic [relating to mental activity or the intellect, ed.] organisation or system of awareness, but a high degree of variety within that unity; love, with good will, and full co-operation; personal integration and internal harmony; and increasing knowledge.”
The concepts of “ego” and “harmony,” as discussed in a previous article in these pages, were central to Paul Goodman’s 1945 essay about Freudian political thought, an essay later referenced by George Orwell. Such concepts are increasingly central in some of the Holy Father Pope Francis‘ recent public statements.
Given also current political tendencies towards scientism and technocracy on one side as well as mysticism including via mass hallucinogens on the other side (see the ‘CyPsy’ hypothesis formulated in these pages), both of which can been seen as working together towards the “ego death” of the common man, at present Voegelin appears as an author worth further reading.
“Gnostic man must carry on the work of salvation himself…. Through his psyche (“soul”) he belongs to the order, the nomos, of the world; what impels him toward deliverance is the pneuma (“spirit”).
The labor of salvation, therefore, entails the dissolution of the worldly constitution of the psyche and at the same time the gathering and freeing of the powers of the pneuma.”
– Eric Voegelin, ‘Science, Politics and Gnosticism’ 1959
Last Updated on December 8, 2020 by Federico Soldani