A few years ago, for a class, I read Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers (2005), which is a history of the conflict between and commingling of religion and politics in 19th century Europe. The fundamental argument of the book is that 20th century totalitarianisms are really ‘secular religions,’ or ‘political religions,’ or simply fundamentalisms. Whatever one’s terminological preference, the argument is that revolutionary politics of the left and right—1793, 1917, but also 1933—must be understood in terms also used for religious fundamentalism. Burleigh’s book is a popularizing history, and I don’t judge it harshly. Still, I found and continue to find this interpretive framework rather shallow. Burleigh invokes in his introduction a number of the early interpreters of the totalitarianisms of the 1930s—many with direct experience of these forms of politics. The most philosophical among the writers he cites is Eric Voegelin. Recently, hoping to break a sort of intellectual circle I’d fallen into expressing certain things in my dissertation writing, I read Voegelin’s short essay Science, Politics & Gnosticism (1959, 1968). I have just finished an earlier, slightly longer essay, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (1952).
I read the second text because I found the first one enormously frustrating. In Science, Politics & Gnosticism, Voegelin spends a great deal of time castigating various thinkers, but most especially Marx, for conducting an enormous, elaborate, “intellectual swindle.” Marx’s whole body of work, Voegelin, argues (or perhaps simply asserts) is one long denial of reality. Many of Voegelin’s specific analyses are elegant, and great erudition is evident in places. Yet at no point in this text is it explained how Voegelin himself has such clear access to truth that he can say with confidence, outside of dubious textual evidence that Marx isn’t interested in ‘reality,’ that Marx is entirely wrong? The whole text is negative—an attack on gnosticism.
The New Science of Politics (and we should certainly note the definitive article) is not nearly so negative. Indeed, I wish I had started there. Voegelin’s argument is much more subtle and thought-out than it would seem to be, based on the anti-Marx screeds of the later text. Essentially, Voegelin believes that science and truth originate in personal, individual, experience. He is, we might say, a methodological individualist—although I get the sense that he would reject these terms. History cannot be the bearer of truth in a Hegelian or Comtean sense because it is outside of experience. On the other hand, crucially, individual experience is certainly in history, and has a history. This is important because while it is typically gnostic to build one’s politics upon a philosophy of history (the Christian apocalypse, the Communist paradise, the advent of the Superman), all political philosophy implies a vision of history. The relevant truth of personal experience here is the experience of transcendence. Certain historical events—most importantly Greek philosophy and Christian theology—opened the soul to transcendence. Another way of saying this is that until Greek philosophy, truth and the socio-political structure and tradition were inextricable. Philosophy ‘arrived’ after the real unity of the Athenian polis was broken because with the dissolution of the social structure, it seemed necessary to find a new source of truth. Philosophy, then, and especially political philosophy, is a truth that stands in opposition to the established order of society. Of course, Greek philosophy was relatively limited in its psychic impact. Christianity, on the other hand, eventually penetrated quite deeply into the population of the areas under its political control. This penetration is, for Voegelin, the transition from antiquity to the middle ages. It is also, crucially, the rise of a new kind of truth. Experience becomes more complex because the dimension of the transcendent has been opened. Voegelin is willing to say that this constitutes a kind of individuality that had not, previously, existed. This new form of experience brings with it new sorts of problems. In particular gnosticism, which he understands as a psychological response to the uncertainty generated by the opening to the transcendent. Gnosticism in the Middle Ages took the form of Christian chiliasm, arrived at something like a high point with the total dominance of vulgar positivism around 1900, and exists in the middle 20th century as, on the one hand, liberal progressivism, and on the other, Communism.
I do not expect to be durably interested in Voegelin. However, I think it would be interesting to approach his work as I understand it by trying to specify and contextualize three of his basic concepts: experience, the individual, and truth. Obviously, these three concepts are closely related. We can even express their relation in a restrictive sentence: truth is established only in individual experience. I would suggest, in an offhand way, that Foucault’s perspective on the generation of subjects and truths would be useful. Martin Jay’s Songs of Experience would, I think, be at least the beginning of a useful contextualization of Voegelin in terms of 20th century European ideas of truth. Similarly, Jerrold Seigel’s Idea of the Self might do the same for Voegelin’s fairly aggressive individualism. There is, I know, a certain amount of historiography on interwar writing on gnosticism. It would also be interesting to know more about Voegelin compared to Leo Strauss—for instance, to put Strauss’ book on natural right next to The New Science of Politics. If Strauss provides a contextually similar comparison, it seems to me that the most interesting recent comparison might be with Jacques Rancière’s work on politics as the partition of visibility. The New Science is, at least nominally, about the idea of political representation. Certainly, Rancière’s distinctions between the archi, meta, and para-political could all interfere in interesting ways with Voegelin’s analysis of pre- and post-philosophical political thought.
For the moment, I will file Voegelin away with my notes on him as a figure with whom I disagree deeply, but who does manage to have a perspective much at odds with my usual way of thinking. This is no doubt because I am myself totally compromised by gnosticism.