How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case For An Environmental Conservatism by Roger Scruton, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012, 457 pp., US$ 29
What colour is conservatism?
The answer to that question, historically and traditionally, has been blue. To be even more precise, it has been royal blue. To be conservative is to be on the side of tradition, custom, religion, old and established ways of doing things, the ancient constitution of church and state. Historically, this has meant that conservatives have defended royalty against modern forces that seek to do away with it. For this reason, the official colour of the Conservative Party is the colour long associated with royalty and aristocracy, blue.
Here in Canada, however, there are those who believe that the traditional conservatism of Britain and Canada shares common ground with the political left in their mutual suspicion of classical liberalism. Those who identify as conservatives, but who wish to emphasize this perceived common ground with the left, borrow the colour of the radical left and are known as “Red Tories”. (1) They could not have picked a left-wing symbol that is further removed from what conservatism stands for. The red of the left stands for the blood spilled in violent revolution.
With the publication this June of How to Think Seriously About the Planet, by philosopher and true blue Tory Roger Scruton, a new colour is contending for a place on the conservative banner: environmental green.
We have become accustomed, in recent decades, to think of concern for the environment as being the intellectual property of the left. The left encourages this, claiming the environmentalist movement as its own, and denouncing the right as supporting the despoilers of the environment. Conversely, conservatives have often been willing to concede the environment to the left. We find it difficult to take seriously the concerns of environmentalists when they so often seem to be hysterical alarmists who resemble Chicken Little running around warning everybody that the sky is falling.
In How to Think Seriously About the Planet, Roger Scruton makes the case that concern for the environment would be more at home on the right than on the left and outlines a conservative approach that he convincingly argues would handle the matter of the preservation of our physical environment better than the leftist approach currently favoured by the environmentalist movement.
He begins by addressing the matter of the left’s perceived monopoly on the environment, and saying that “that image is highly misleading”, a contention he backs up by providing a brief outline of the history of the environmentalist movement in Britain and the United States, showing how conservatives were involved from the beginning alongside those of other persuasions. If this is the case, why do conservatives and environmentalists so often seem to be at odd with one another?
Environmentalists distrust conservatives, Scruton says, because they “have been habituated to see conservatism as the ideology of free enterprise, and free enterprise as an assault on the earth’s resources, with no motive beyond short-term gain.” (p. 7) This seems to be a very accurate diagnosis, one which shows that the environmentalists have erred both in the way they see conservatism and the way they see the free market. This error is not entirely their fault, however, because many “conservatives” have contributed to this understanding of conservatism and the market. It is, however, an error because conservatism is not first and foremost about the free market.
If conservatism is not “the ideology of free enterprise”, what is it?
Conservatism, as I understand it, means the maintenance of the social ecology. It is true that individual freedom is a part of that ecology, since without it social organisms cannot adapt. But freedom is not the only goal of politics. Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal. These resources include the social capital embodied in laws, customs, and institutions; they also include the material capital contained in the environment, and the economic capital contained in a free but law-governed economy. (p. 9)
This is an excellent short definition of conservatism (2) that shows exactly why conservatism and environmentalism should go together. Conservatism is about preserving and passing on a heritage we have received from past generations to future generations. That heritage includes the sort of things conservatives have traditionally valued, which Scruton in the above quotation describes as social capital, but it is also includes the sort of things environmentalists cherish, our physical surroundings, places and the beauty and life contained therein.
If conservatism is about preserving what we have received from past generations – social institutions, associations, and customs, our physical environment, economic and political freedom, etc. – and passing it on to future generations, it follows that conservatives will understand the purpose of politics in these terms. Scruton says that the purpose of politics, as conservatives understand it, is “to maintain a vigilant resistance to the entropic forces that threaten our social and ecological equilibrium” and that it “concerns the maintenance and repair of homeostatic systems – systems that correct themselves in response to destabilizing change” (pp. 9, 11). Left wing groups and movements, on the other hand, tend to see the purpose of politics as “mobilizing society towards a goal “ (p. 34).
This left wing tendency can clearly be seen in the environmentalist movement today. The response of many environmentalist organizations, to potential threats to the environment, is to sound the alarm and try and rally society behind the cause of saving the environment from those threats. This means that environmentalist causes tend to be conceived of on the largest scale possible causing environmentalists to look to government action on the highest level possible as the solution. Scruton believes that a conservative approach, that treats the environment as homeostatic system to be watched over and adjusted from time to time to maintain the equilibrium would be more appropriate and that the left wing approach is a significant cause of the ineffectiveness of this kind of environmentalism. (3)
The objection can be made that today we are dealing with environmental problems on a scale so large that they require large scale government action. Currently, the issue that is most likely to be pointed to as an example of such a problem is climate change. In his second chapter, Scruton addresses this objection. After pointing out that it serves the interests of those who believe in extensive government action and control for problems to be treated like world threatening catastrophes, and that previous alarms such as Paul Ehlrich’s predictions about global overpopulation and – ironically – the global cooling warming of the 1970’s preceded the current concern with global warming, Scruton addresses the hot topic of anthropogenic global warming. He presents the claims of those arguing for a worst case scenario and those of the skeptics, treating both sides with respect. The greenhouse effect was established as a scientific phenomenon as far back as the 1860’s, he says, and global warming and cooling are both “fairly routine occurrences”, with human activity such as the release of greenhouse gasses being one of many factors that contribute to both. If the worst case scenario is true, however, if the survival of our species is under an immediate threat by the emission of greenhouse gasses, the action that it will be necessary for us to take will require collective cooperation, which he argues is best rooted in a sense of community. “It is precisely to the definition and maintenance of this ‘we’” he writes “ that conservative politics of the kind I shall defend is directed.” (p. 68)
Perhaps the most important theme of this book is the question of what motivates people to act in ways which preserve the environment. There are various motivations to act in ways which harm the environment, but these tend to be variations of the basic human desire to pass the costs of our actions onto others while claiming the benefits for ourselves. Environmentalists recognize this motivation, especially when they see it in the actions of large corporations, but, as Scruton points out, the capacity for governments to export their costs onto others and into the future is much larger. So what then would motivate us to bear the costs of our actions ourselves and to act in ways which will preserve our environment and the natural capital and beauty contained within it for future generations?
Scuton’s answer, in one word, is oikophilia. This word, which seems to be of Scruton’s own coinage, and which is derived from the same Greek word as the more familiar English words economy and ecology, means the love of home. That means more than just the love of the building you live in. The oikos, Scruton writes, “means not only the home but the people contained in it, and the surrounding settlements that endow that home with lasting contours and an enduring smile” and it is a place “that is not just mine and yours, but ours” (p. 227). In explaining how oikophilia is a motivation to preserve the environment, Scruton points to the classic expression of conservative thought in the antirevolutionary writings of Edmund Burke. Burke saw society as being an association in which past, present, and future generations are united, and concern for future generations is a duty owed to past generations. He taught that people belong to “little platoons” – small social associations such as families, churches and clubs and it is in the intimacy of these associations that public affection is born and spreads outward. Scruton draws out the environmental implications of these ideas – out of love for our ancestors and descendents, in our little platoon in society, we are to dutifully maintain the home/oikos we have inherited from past generations and to pass it on to future generations.
An obvious implication of all of this is that the work of maintaining and protecting the environment ought to be done on the local level. Throughout this book Scruton is a consistent advocate of local groups and communities acting to preserve their local environment as being preferable to attempts to protect the environment on a global scale. Government has a role to play in preserving the environment, but it can also contribute to the problem of environmental irresponsibility when it confiscates the problems and responsibilities of smaller groups, generating moral hazard.
The idea that environmental responsibility is rooted in oikophilia has implications for how we conceive of the environment itself. A home is not something that we find for ourselves in nature untouched by man. Scruton is critical of the idea in American environmentalism, of thinking of the environment as wilderness, something to be valued for not being influenced and shaped by man. Nor is a home something that we value only for its utility, its usefulness to us. We build, shape and decorate our homes, which we value for their beauty as well as their utility, and try to make as aesthetically pleasing to ourselves as possible. If our environment, our surroundings, is to be cared for as a home, this means that we will be as concerned about how it looks as we are in conserving the natural resources contained within it. In his eighth chapter Scruton shows how concern for beauty, connected with a sense of the sacred, has traditionally inspired people to care for their surroundings. He indicts modernism in architecture for creating buildings to stand out rather than to fit in to an aesthetic whole and indicts functionalism for designing buildings that become obsolete when their original purpose disappears.
How To Think Seriously About the Planet will probably meet with objections from two quarters – the kind of “conservative” who seems to believe in nothing but the free market and the kind of environmentalist who is wed to activism, government control, and international agreements – both of whom agree about little else, but would come together to dismiss Scruton’s classical conservative notions of tradition, loyalty, and the home as antiquated mysticism. For those of us who still share these ideas, however, this book makes an excellent argument for the care and upkeep of our physical surroundings as part of the heritage we hold in trust for those who will follow us.
(1) In the United States, states that tend to vote Republican are called “red states” and states that tend to vote Democrat are called “blue states”. This is unrelated to the Red Tory phenomenon in Canada.
(2) For his much more in depth explanation of conservatism, see Roger Scruton’s earlier The Meaning of Conservatism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980).
(3) Another such homeostatic system, according to Scruton, is the market economy under the rule of law. While free enterprise and national loyalty are frequently condemned by conventional left-wing environmentalists, whatever problems exist within a national market are exacerbated by attempts to replace the market with socialism, or to create a market that transcends national boundaries. Scruton explains why this is. In each case accountability is removed increasing irresponsibility. In a socialist economy laws fail to hold enterprises accountable because they are owned by the same entity that makes the law. In an international free market, multinational corporations are not accountable to any one set of laws. This same unaccountability, Scruton also notes, exists among environmentalist NGOs, which, unlike traditional civil associations, “often exist purely for the sake of their goals” (p. 28) and neither respond to nor desire feedback from their supporters and are accountable only to themselves.
For as long as human societies have existed upon this planet they have fought wars against one another.
This is a statement that I believe most people would agree with. The same consensus, however, does not exist with regards to the following statement:
Wars will continue to be fought for as long as human societies continue to exist upon this planet.
This second statement is as true as the first. While specific wars have specific causes, the cause of war in general is to be found in human nature. The only way to eliminate war, therefore, is to eliminate human beings. As long as men live upon this planet they will from time to time go to war against one another.
Consider what the history of the 20th Century has to teach us. Conflicts in the Balkan region in the first decade of that century, broke out into a world-wide conflict between the great powers in the second decade. This conflict was dubbed “the war to end all wars” by those who continued to hold to the progressive optimism of the 19th Century. A little over two decades after it ended, however, it broke out again, this time to be conducted on an even larger, costlier, and more destructive scale. This time, it was brought to end by a technological innovation, the development of which would have, if anything ever could, permanently checked man’s propensity for war. That innovation was the first nuclear weapon, the atomic bomb. The development of nuclear weaponry raised the potential cost of war to what should have been a prohibitive level by making the extinction of the species a real possibility as an outcome of war. This did not, however, prevent the outbreak of future wars. Major, multi-national conflicts were fought in Korea in the 1950’s and Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s and if the large nuclear arsenals of the United States of America and the Soviet Union prevented the superpowers from directly confronting each other in war, it did not prevent them from using smaller allies, all over the globe, like pawns on a giant chessboard. The second half of the century saw conflict after conflict in the Middle East between the Arab nations and Israel and there is no end to those hostilities in sight. In the final decade of the 20th Century, the nations of the Balkans resumed the fighting that had led to the first World War earlier in the century.
That war will be around for as long as human beings inhabit the earth is not universally recognized, however, and liberals in particular are inclined to reject this truth. In fact, liberalism’s primary error concerning war, is the idea that it can be eliminated and a permanently peaceful world order established. This is not the same thing as pacifism. Far too many conservatives make the mistake of associating liberalism with pacifism. Pacifism is the refusal to participate in war on the grounds of a belief that war is always morally wrong. Pacifists are susceptible to the charges of cowardice and free-riding (1) and for this reason accusing one’s opponents of pacifism makes for effective rhetoric. Liberals, however, are not pacifists. Indeed, history would seem to demonstrate that they are more likely than conservatives to involve their country in a war.
Consider the major wars the United States of America was involved in during the 20th Century. It was liberal Democrat Presidents who led the United States into the four largest of these wars. It was a liberal Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into World War I declaring that they needed to “make the world safe for democracy”. It was another liberal Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who brought the United States into the second World War. (2) Liberal Democrat Harry Truman was the president who got the United States into the Korean War and Liberal Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson got the United States into the Vietnam War. In contrast, conservative Republican President ordered the bombing of Libya, the invasion of Grenada, countless covert-ops and the support of anti-communist contras in Latin America, but he did not get his country involved in anything on the scale of World Wars I and II, Korea or Vietnam and, in fact, negotiated an end to the arms race and the 40 year Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Similarly, here in Canada, after the Statute of Westminster declared that our own Parliament would decide from then on whether or not we were at war, it was Liberal Prime Ministers who led our country into World War II (William Lyon Mackenzie King), Korea (Louis St. Laurent), and Afghanistan (Jean Chretien).
Clearly liberals are not pacifists. Liberals and conservatives have different ideas about war but those differences are not the same differences which distinguish doves from hawks. Liberalism’s error is to believe that mankind can build a world that is free of war.
This idea lies behind several significant liberal projects of the last couple of centuries. Liberals began calling for free trade – the elimination of tariffs, quotas, and other protectionist measures so as to merge the economies of all countries into one big market – as far back as the eighteenth century, arguing that the economic interdependence that free trade would bring, would merge the nations of the world into one, bringing about universal brotherhood and peace. Richard Cobden, the 19th Century British “Apostle of Free Trade”, proclaimed that free trade:
[A]rms its votaries by its own pacific nature, in that eternal truth—the more any nation trafficks abroad upon free and honest principles, the less it will be in danger of wars.(3)
In a speech given on January 15, 1846 he declared:
I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.(4)
Similar utopian sentiments can be found in the speeches and writings of many other 18th and 19th century free traders.
When Woodrow Wilson asked the American Congress to declare the United States’ entry into World War I, he told Congress that “The world must be made safe for democracy”. This goal was connected in his mind with that of world peace. He immediately went on to say “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty”. (5)
Wilson’s idea of world peace is very similar to that of free traders such as Richard Cobden. The difference is that Wilson saw elected government as being the means to world peace rather than international commerce.
The idea that democratic governments are more likely to be peaceful government is not borne out by history. The roots of democracy go back to ancient Athens and Athenian democracy is widely regarded as having reached its peak during the years of Pericles, which are often spoken of as Athens’ Golden Age. This was not, however, an era in which Athens lived in peace and harmony with its neighbors, but the era of the Peloponnesian War fought by Athens and her allies against Sparta and her allies. This war, the history of which we know from an account written by Athenian general Thucydides, was not a conflict in which a democratic state, desiring peace, was forced to defend herself against the aggression of her non-democratic neighbors. Athens was as belligerent and ambitious as Sparta. From that day to this, democracies have been no less likely to go to war than any other kind of country. Nor is it true that democracies do not go to war with each other. Historians often refer to the War of Southern Independence (6) as the “first modern war.” Both sides in that conflict, however, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, were democratic republics. Furthermore, this was a particularly bloody war in which more Americans died than in any other war they have ever participated, including both World Wars and Vietnam combined.
At the end of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Emperor Karl von Hapsburg I of Austria were both forced off of their thrones and Germany and Austria became democratic republics. By Wilson’s logic, this should have made these countries less likely to want to resume the conflict at a later date. In fact it had the exact opposite effect. In the 1930’s Germany and Austria came under the control of Adolf Hitler who launched a second war that was far worse from the first. Now the point might be made that under Hitler, Germany and Austria ceased to be democratic. However true that might be it is very much the case that had the German Kaiser and the Austrian Emperor kept their thrones, Hitler would never have had the opportunity to rise to power. Hitler was a demagogue and democracy is the ladder a demagogue climbs to achieve power.
The spread of democracy was not the only part of Wilson’s plan for world peace. The last of his famous Fourteen Points was that:
A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small nations alike. (7)
This association took the form of the League of Nations. Although it was proposed by the American President, the United States never joined it. The countries that did join need not have bothered because it failed completely in its appointed task.
The failure of the League of Nations did not prevent a second liberal American President from repeating the experiment at the end of the second World War. FDR’s United Nations was conceived of as a forum in which the nations of the world could voice their grievances with each other and resolve those grievances without resorting to war. If the League of Nations was useless, the United Nations was worse than useless. The General Assembly simply became a platform upon which the representatives of every Soviet vassal state, Third World dictatorship, and Islamic theocracy in the world, were invited to stand and espouse their poisonous drivel to the world. The Security Council is powerless to oppose wrongdoing on the part of any of its permanent members, each of which has a veto. Since the Soviet Union was one of those permanent members the Security Council was powerless against Communist aggression in the Cold War, just as it is powerless to stop the sole remaining superpower, the United States of America, from doing whatever she wants. The only thing the United Nations has proven effective at doing has been wasting the money it receives from its member states as it tries, thankfully less effectively, to tell them how to manage their own affairs, usually in the name of some inane left-wing agenda. It has not made the world a more peaceful place.
These examples, I believe, are sufficient to establish the truth of my contention that there is a strong tendency in liberalism to believe that it is possible to construct a peaceful world order in which war is eliminated and that this belief lies behind several of liberalism’s most important projects. They also demonstrate that whatever the scheme the liberal comes up with his goal of world peace continues to elude him. (8) Today the economies of the world have been integrated into a global market, democracy is widespread, and the United Nations has been established for almost seven decades, yet perpetual universal peace is nowhere in sight.
(1) A free rider is someone who benefits from participation in a group without paying his fair share of the dues. A pacifist is susceptible to the charge of free-riding because he enjoys the benefits of living in his country, including the security provided by his country’s military, although he is not willing to serve his country militarily if called upon to do so.
(2) Granted, the Japanese empire attacked the United States first. However, FDR was in favour of the United States entering the second World War long before Pearl Harbor. He and his advisors in the year leading up to Pearl Harbor talked about war with Japan as a “backdoor” into the war with Germany. At the time, public opinion in the United States was strongly against American involvement in the war with Germany. See Thomas Fleming, The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001) and Robert Stinnett Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor (New York: The Free Press, 1999).
(3) Richard Cobden, The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, (London: William Ridgway, 1878) p. 126.
(6) This is usually called the “American Civil War”. Ordinarily, the phrase “civil war” refers to an internal struggle for control of a state. In the English Civil War, the Roundheads fought to turn England into a Puritan republic against the Cavaliers who fought to keep it an Anglican monarchy. In the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans and the Nationalists fought each other for the control of Spain. In American history, however, the North and South did not struggle for control of the United States, but over whether the secession of the Southern states and their independence from Washington D. C. would be allowed.
(8) If permanent world peace is an unattainable goal and it is inevitable that men will from time to time go to war with each other it does not follow from this that any particular conflict is inevitable and that attempts to prevent particular wars are always foolish and doomed to fail.
The New Science of Politics: An Introduction by Eric Voegelin, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1952, 1987, 193 pp.
Eric Voegelin was born in Germany and educated in Austria where he began his career as a university professor. After the Anschluss of 1938, in which the Third Reich annexed Austria, he fled the Nazis and ended up in the United States where he continued to teach political science. Unlike many refugees of that era, his experiences with Nazism did not make him sympathetic to Marx and Communism. Throughout his career he condemned both movements and was highly critical of his academic colleagues whose liberal and progressive views seemed to blind them to the evils of Communism. What all of these ideologies – Nazism, Communism, liberalism – have in common is their modernity and Voegelin became an able and outspoken critic of modernity.
Voegelin was a prolific author. His most laborious literary project, was his Order and History, a multi-volume work in which he traced the development of civil order throughout Western history. He is more widely remembered, however, for a small book which began as a series of six lectures sponsored by the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation, which he gave at the University of Chicago in 1951. The transcriptions of these lectures, with a new introduction, were published by the university a year later, under the title The New Science of Politics.
The New Science of Politics was a very influential book among English-speaking conservatives in the second half of the Twentieth Century. One of the slogans William F. Buckley Jr. made popular among young American conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s was “don’t immanentize the eschaton”. This slogan, which means “don’t try to create Paradise on earth”, is an allusion to a passage in Voegelin’s book. While Buckley was disseminating Voegelin’s terminology, the ideas in The New Science of Politics influenced such conservative thinkers as Russell Kirk in the United States, and George Grant in Canada. British conservative Michael Oakeshott, in his review of The New Science of Politics for the Times Literary Supplement, described it as “one of the most enlightening essays on the character of European politics that has appeared in half a century” and said that it was a book “powerful and vivid enough to make agreement or disagreement with even its main thesis relatively unimportant”.(1)
So what is this important book actually about?
If you are already familiar with what we usually refer to when we talk about “political science” then the title may mislead you. (2) It is not about comparing, contrasting and categorizing different systems of political organization. Right at the beginning of his introduction Voegelin made it clear that he considers this kind of political science to be a “degradation of political science to a handmaid of the powers that be.” (p.2) This is the kind of political theorizing, he said, that takes place in periods of stability. True political science, “the science of human existence in society and history”, he claimed, is developed in a period of crisis. “In an hour of crisis, when the order of a society flounders and disintegrates, the fundamental problems of political existence in history are more apt to come into view than in periods of comparative stability.” (pp. 1-2) He identified three major crises - the Hellenic, Roman/Christian, and Western - and the major political philosophers these crises produced – Plato/Aristotle, St. Augustine, and Hegel, respectively. Here, the theme of this book crosses over with that of his Order and History, the first volumes of which were released a few years after The New Science of Politics and which he was obviously working on at the time he gave these lectures and wrote the introduction.
The title of the book, therefore, refers to a restoration of political theory, which he was quick to tell us means “a return to the consciousness of principles, not perhaps a return to the specific content of an earlier attempt.” In other words, adopting the specific formulas of Plato, St. Augustine, and Hegel is not the answer, the principles embodied in such theories need to be reformulated to be accessible to us today. Why did he think this was the case?
Much can be learned, to be sure, from the earlier philosophers concerning the range of problems, as well as concerning their theoretical treatment; but the very historicity of human existence, that is, the unfolding of the typical, in meaningful concreteness, precludes a valid reformulation of principles through return to a former concreteness. (p. 2)
The above quote raises the interesting question of the similarities and differences between the thought of Voegelin and Leo Strauss. Voegelin and Strauss were both émigrés, who fled from German speaking areas of Europe during the Nazi era, to pursue academic careers in political science in the United States. Both were fierce critics of modernity who drew heavily upon classical antiquity and particularly the thought of Plato. Strauss, however, in his criticism of modernity, focused upon the problem of relativism which he believed to be the fruit of historicism. Historicism is the idea, associated especially with Hegel, that historical context is of foremost importance for the understanding of people, their civilizations, and their ideas. In Voegelin’s critique of modernity, however, a very different problem than relativism and historicism takes centre place, that of Gnosticism. We will shortly look at what Voegelin meant by Gnosticism, for it is a major theme of the book we are considering. As for historicism, Voegelin’s idea that the historical nature of human existence makes it necessary for the principles of political order to be reformulated for the present era bears a certain resemblance to it. Although it would be a digression to pursue the matter much further here, historicism is a subject of debate which keeps popping up in discussions of Voegelin’s thought, and he has been interpreted both as an historicist and as a Straussian anti-historicist (3).
Voegelin said that this reformulation of political principles had been underway for about a half a century in several different disciplines. This book was not an attempt to undertake that reformulation but to introduce it. Voegelin devoted the introduction to his book to an explanation of why such a reformulation was necessary. This explanation is as interesting as the main discussion of his book. “A restoration of political science to its principles implies that the restorative work is necessary because the consciousness of principles is lost.” (pp. 3-4). This consciousness was lost, he argued, because of positivism, by which he means not “the doctrine of this or that outstanding positivist thinker” – such as Comte – but “the intention of making the social sciences ‘scientific’ through the use of methods which as closely as possible resemble the methods employed in sciences of the external world.” (p. 8). The centuries in which positivism developed were centuries of tremendous discovery and achievement in the physical sciences. The positivists, perhaps understandably, concluded that the methodology which produced such impressive results in the physical sciences would have similar results in other branches of knowledge as well. Voegelin traced the development of this idea through three stages. In the first stage, positivism’s elevation of method over theory brought about an accumulation of facts regardless of their relevance. In the second stage, even relevant facts were interpreted in a perverse manner because positivism’s dismissal of theory eliminated the foundational principles for a sound interpretation and thus they were replaced with “the Zeitgeist, political preferences, or personal idiosyncrasies”. (pp. 9-10) He gave as examples of this, works by men who insisted upon reading modern political movements and phenomena into thinkers and events of the ancient past. In the third stage, the positivists began to speak of “value-judgement” and “value-free” science. This terminology came from the positivist belief that only facts about “the phenomenal world” could be discussed objectively, a belief which dismissed the “classic and Christian science of man” as a subjective collection of “value-judgments”. Classical and Christian ethics and politics were nothing of the sort, Voegelin objected, and while the goal of a “value-free” science was useful against the intrusion of personal preferences into science, when it was used against classic and Christian metaphysics it was destructive of science itself, and led only to relativism.
Voegelin began the first lecture by pointing out that while political science studies man in his historical societies, human society does not wait for political science to tell it how to understand itself. Human societies interpret themselves by means of symbols, and these symbols are an integral part of those societies. The political scientist must therefore deal with two sets of symbols – the symbols whereby the societies he studies interpret themselves, and the symbols of political science. The two sets of symbols are not identical but there is a large amount of overlap and part of the process of developing political theory is clarifying the meaning of the symbols a society uses to understand itself.
One of those symbols is that of “representation”. Western countries have representative governments and when most people are asked what this means point to those governments being elected to represent the people. Some details, such as whether the chief executive is directly elected or elected by the parliament, whether election is territorial or proportional, and the presence or absence of a non-elected constitutional monarch, do not affect a Western government’s being considered representative.
The meaning of “representation” becomes cloudier, however, when the example of the Soviet Union is considered. The political institutions of the USSR were defined in the Soviet constitution as representative institutions similar to their Western counterparts. Yet the USSR was not regarded as being a legitimate representative government by Western democrats because its people had no “genuine choice”. The Communist response was that only a Communist Party monopoly could truly represent the people because all other parties represented special interests.
Rather than deciding which of these viewpoints is correct, Voegelin summarized the points on which there is general agreement – that representation means that government is in some way responsible to the popular will, that true representation does not automatically exist just because government institutions are representative in design, and that parties have something to do with government being more or less representative.
He then moved on to point out that if the government of the USSR was not truly representative in this sense, it was undoubtedly representative in another sense. Governments represent their societies by acting on their behalf, both internally in passing laws which receive general obedience and externally through their military actions. All governments, even the Soviet government, are representative governments in the sense that they act for their societies on the historical stage. Political societies come into being, Voegelin said, through a process he calls articulation, in which rulers become the representatives of the society who are constitutionally empowered to act for the society in the sense of making decisions on its behalf. This kind of representation, he called existential representation to distinguish it from the earlier kind of representation which he called elemental representation. It is existential representation that is of use to the theorists of political science. Voegelin concluded the lecture with the observation that if a government which is representative in the elemental sense fails to be representative in the existential sense it will soon be replaced by a government that is representative in the existential sense.
In his second lecture, “Representation and Truth”, Voegelin introduced two other kinds of representation. In existential representation governments represent their societies by acting for them in history, but societies can also be regarded as themselves representing an order which transcends themselves. In this kind of representation, societies regard themselves as being small-scale representations of the cosmic order. Voegelin demonstrated how cosmological representation dates back to the earliest human empires and how the rulers of these societies, as the existential representatives of societies that themselves represent the cosmological order, were regarded as representatives of truth and their enemies are regarded as representatives of falsehood.
Just as there are different kinds of representation, however, so there are different kinds of truth, and in the period between 800 and 300 BC a new truth in rivalry to the cosmological truth represented by the empires broke out across the ancient world, whose representative was the theorist. This was the period which saw Confucius in China, the Buddha in India, the prophets in Israel, and the tragedians and philosophers in Greece. The “dynamic core” of this new truth, Voegelin said, could be found in Plato’s statement from The Republic that “the polis is man written large”. Voegelin called this the anthropological principle, that a political society “should be not only a microcosmos but also a macroanthropos”. (p. 61) There are two sides to this principle, first that a society will reflect the kind of men who comprise it, and second, that a society ought to represent the true order of the soul. It is the mature man’s experiences with the transcendental, with God, in his psyche, that produces this order within the soul, and so the anthropological principle is supplemented by the theological principle. The theorist clarifies and explains these experiences.
There are different kinds of truth then, the cosmological truth represented by the ancient empires, and the anthropological truth represented by the tragedians and theorists. There is also, Voegelin added at the beginning of the third lecture, soteriological truth, represented by Christianity. In the metaphysics of the Greek theorists, man through his psyche reaches towards God. In Christianity, God, in the incarnation of the Logos, reaches towards man. Voegelin explained how the implications of this truth unfolded in the history of Rome. The Roman republican constitution provided insufficient representation as Rome became a vast empire covering the Mediterranean world. Therefore a new office had to develop to represent the entire earthly world ruled by Rome. In the Roman republic, wealthy and influential patrons conferred favours on clients in return for loyalty. Out of the most powerful patrons, came the princeps who sometimes formed alliances with each other and other times feuded with each other. Out of the princeps arose the triumvirates, then the rivalry of Octavian and Anthony, and finally the triumph of Octavian left him as Augustus, the emperor, who would represent in himself all the peoples of the empire. The oaths of loyalty, which patrons demanded of their clientele, were now demanded of the entire empire, at first upon the installation of a new empire, then, in the reign of Caligula, annually. Reforms were made to the civil religion to place the standing of the emperor on a firmer representative foundation – he was declared to be the earthly representative of the highest god. But who was the highest god? This was a period of synergism, in which the religions of the various peoples controlled by Rome were mixing. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, borrowed the metaphysical concept of the one supreme God, who governed the world through lesser deities the way the Great King of Persia ruled his empire through his satraps, and applied it to the God of the Jews. Eusebius, then borrowed Philo’s arguments and incorporated them into Christianity, pointed to the fact that the Incarnation had occurred during the reign of Augustus, who had established the Pax Romana which facilitated the spread of the Gospel throughout the world. Constantine, Eusebius argued, had brought what Augustus had begun to its final fulfillment by converting to Christianity, and so becoming the representative of the true God. For a time in the fourth Century, the Empire believed Christianity to be the solution to its existential problem, but the alliance was precarious and doomed to fail once the orthodox Church developed the symbols of trinitarianism. When Rome was sacked by Alaric in the early fifth century, pagans blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome. St. Augustine, in refuting their arguments in the Civitas Dei, clarified the Christian view, that there are two spheres of representation, the empire and the church, and that only the latter represents God and His transcendent order, that the empire being merely the representative of temporal man.
This idea, that the empire is the representative of temporal man, while the church is the earthly representative of the eternal, was the orthodox Christian view that prevailed for centuries following the fall of Rome. Voegelin dubbed the process whereby this viewpoint was achieved de-divinization which he defined as:
The historical process in which the culture of polytheism died from experiential atrophy, and human existence in society became reordered through the experience of man’s destination, by the grace of the world-transcendent God, toward eternal life beatific vision. (p. 107)
The subject of his last three lectures, was the modern crisis of representation brought about by the re-divinization of political society. Re-divinization did not mean a return to pagan polytheism, however. Its source lay within Christianity itself, in ideas that the orthodox church had condemned as heretical.
There was tension in the early church, due to Christianity’s origins in Jewish messianism, between the expectation of the Parousia (Second Coming of Christ) to establish the Kingdom of God on earth and the idea of the church as the ongoing earthly representation of Christ. The eschatology – vision of final perfection – of early Christianity evolved from an “eschatology of the realm in history”, in which final perfection would be achieved on earth, in history to an “eschatology of transhistorical, supernatural perfection”, in which final perfection awaited the believer in the beatific vision, in a supernatural realm, outside of history. The earlier eschatology would pop up periodically in response to persecutions but the latter eschatology became the orthodox view because it was more compatible with the idea of the church as the earthly representative of the Kingdom of God. Despite this, the church included the Revelation of St. John within the canon, but St. Augustine in the Civitas Dei was able to reconcile the two by interpreting the millennial reign described in Revelation as the reign of Christ in the church.
Then, in the twelfth century, came Joachim of Flora. Joachim used the symbols of the Trinity to develop an idea of history. It consisted of three ages, the Age of the Father beginning with Abraham and the Age of the Son beginning with Christ would be followed by an Age of the Spirit upon the appearance of a new leader who Joachim believed would appear around 1260 AD. In the Age of the Spirit, Joachim believed, there would no longer be a need for the church as the earthly representative of Christ because everything necessary for spiritual perfection would come to each person directly without sacramental mediation.
This idea became the foundation of modernity. It was reinterpreted in several different ways – as the humanist division of history into ancient, medieval, and modern, the positivist idea of the scientific succeeding the theological and metaphysical, the Marxist view of history progressing from primitive to final perfect Communism through the class society, and the National Socialist concept of the Third Reich.
The Joachitic/modern eschatology has to be understood in contrast with the traditional, Augustinian, Christian orthodox view. In the latter, there are two histories, the profane history of political societies and the sacred history in which Christ came and established His church. The latter is part of transcendental history, which includes events in the supernatural realm. Transcendental history, including sacred history, moves towards the telos of final perfection. Profane history does not, it merely awaits its end. Joachim, therefore, in his conception of a third age in which perfection would be achieved on earth, assigned to profane, earthly history a meaning which belongs to transcendental history, and so created the fallacy that history has an eidos – a form that gives meaning. In other words he “immanentized” – brought into the earthly realm, “the eschaton” – the final perfection of the supernatural realm. This is what Voegelin meant by the technical phrase for which he is most remembered.
This fallacy, although seemingly elemental, cannot be explained by stupidity or dishonesty. It comes, Voegelin said, from the drive for certainty about the meaning of history and one’s own existence. Orthodox Christianity assigns this meaning to the transcendent God and calls upon people to exercise faith. When faith breaks down, men cannot fall back upon the pre-Christian pagan culture which is no longer around. Instead they fall back upon an alternative experience to faith which provides them with certainty. This alternative experience is gnosis – the experience claimed by the chief rivals of orthodoxy since the beginning of Christianity. Modern Gnostic experience takes several forms – Voegelin gives examples of intellectual, emotional, and volitional varieties – and these experiences “are the core of the redivinization of society, for the men who fall into these experiences divinize themselves by substituting more massive modes of participation in divinity for faith in the Christian sense.” (p. 124) Joachim’s view of history arose through a combination of the Gnostic drive for certainty with a search for meaning in the growth of Western civilization. The “growth of gnosticism” is the “essence of modernity”, and the immanentization of the eschaton into the meaning of history as movement towards a teleological end – whether that end is specified as in utopianism or not – is the progressive interpretation of history. Since this idea makes salvation itself something to be achieved by men within the temporal sphere it is not surprising that it results in impressive accomplishments – but “the death of the spirit is the price of progress” which is what Nietzsche meant when he declared God to have been murdered. (p. 131)
In the penultimate lecture, Voegelin discussed how Gnosticism, which had been slowly growing throughout the Middle Ages, burst on the scene around the time of the Reformation, and he gives the Puritans in England as a case example of this revolutionary aspect of Gnosticism. He begins by referring to the analysis of Puritanism found in the first book of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity where Hooker describes the methodology by which the Puritans developed a popular following through condemnations of the upper classes and established order, which caused these to be identified with evil and falsehood, and the Puritans themselves with virtue and truth, among their hearers, and how they gave this following a sense that they as an elect remnant, were the sole possessors of the truth. The Puritans claimed Scriptural authority, but their use of the Scriptures consisted of quoting select verses out of context and ignoring the interpretive rules developed over a millennium and a half of Christianity. They claimed to believe in freedom of interpretation, but actual freedom of interpretation would have led to chaos if practiced and would have undermined their arguments against church tradition, because it too is an interpretation of Scripture. To prevent critical challenges to their doctrine they developed certain devices. The first was an authoritative interpretive tool which would preclude the need to refer to the interpretive tradition (Calvin’s Institutes). The second was a taboo on the “instruments of critique”, which at the time meant classic philosophy and scholastic theology, a taboo which was devastating to Western intellectual culture to the extent that it was followed.
Voegelin then turned from Hooker’s analysis of Puritanism, to Puritan literature itself and demonstrated a number of parallels between Puritanism and the primary Gnostic revolutionary movement of his own day, Marxist-Leninism. Both movements used apocalyptic terminology to describe themselves as a kingdom of light engaged in battle with a kingdom of darkness, over which their victory was assured. The new age would be brought about with the help of God – or the dialectics of history – but not without armed revolt on the part of the forces of light. The details of the new order to come are vague, but it will be universal in extent. In each case “the revolution of the Gnostics has for its aim the monopoly of existential representation” which will not be accepted until after a war between “two universal armed camps engaged in a death struggle with each other.” (p. 151) In this “Gnostic mysticism of the two worlds”, Voegelin detected “the pattern of the universal wars that has come to dominate the twentieth century.”
The Puritan revolution in England demonstrated the threat Gnostic revolutionaries pose to the public order, and therefore revealed a need for the a theoretical restatement of that order. Thomas Hobbes developed such a restatement in his Leviathan, the “great and permanent achievement” of which was to have clarified that “public order was impossible without a civil theology beyond debate” (p. 159) but Hobbes himself fell into the Gnostic trap by asserting that through the spread of a new truth, a constitution could be made eternal, “abolishing the tensions of history” (p. 160).
In the final lecture, Voegelin examined the implications of Hobbes’ insight into the necessity of a civil theology. He first recapped the history covered in the preceding lectures. Christianity could function as the civil theology of Western civilization as long as the church was the predominant civilizing factor – since that ceased to be the case, Gnosticism, at first using Christian terminology then later explicitly anti-Christian, has rushed to take its place. This has brought Western civilization to a point of crisis. The totalitarian movements of the twentieth century are the final destination towards which Gnosticism as a civil theology is headed. There is reason, however, to hope that its influence will soon be broken. The traditions of classic philosophy and orthodox Christianity are still alive, and in the dangers posed by Gnosticism as a civil theology, its self-defeating nature can be seen. By immanentizing the eschaton, Gnosticism has confused the real world with the dream world, which causes it to make mistakes in action. It responds to threats in the real world with magic operations that work only in the dream world:
[D]isapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind, branding of enemies as aggressors, outlawing of war, propaganda for world peace and world government, etc.(p. 170)
The end result of all of this nonsense will be that either Gnosticism will bring about the physical destruction of Western civilization through a series of wars and revolutions, or reality will shatter the Gnostic dream.
Voegelin next briefly discussed the varieties of Gnosticism, two of which were “antagonists in battle on the world scene” (p. 174) at the time he was writing, and diagnosed the threat to the West in that conflict (the Cold War) as coming not from the military strength of the Communists but from the “paralysis and self-destructive politics” (p. 175) of the Gnostic dream. He then analysed Hobbes’ response to the manifestation of Gnostic revolution in Puritanism. If the Puritans immanentized the eschaton, Hobbes’ solution was to do the exact opposite, to make the existential order the society into the truth which it represented. For all its genius, this too is inadequate and Voegelin concluded his analysis of Hobbes’ symbols, by pointing out that Leviathan “adumbrates a component in totalitarianism which comes to the fore when a group of Gnostic activists actually achieves the monopoly of existential representation in a historical society” so that, ironically, “the Leviathan is the symbol of the fate that actually will befall the Gnostic activists when in their dream they believe they realize the realm of freedom.” (pp. 186, 187). He then concluded the lecture, and the book by pointing out that the symbol of Leviathan had arisen in English society in response to Puritanism, and that England and America were the societies which were most resistant to Gnostic totalitarianism because they experienced Gnosticism when it was at an early stage and were thus able to preserve as national institutions “the institutional culture of aristocratic parliamentism as well as the mores of a Christian commonwealth” (p. 188), providing them with a “glimmer of hope” in the present crisis.
So, after this extensive summary of Voegelin’s book, what can be said in response to it?
While there are obviously elements which are out of date, such as the references to the particular circumstances of the Cold War, it is remarkable how much of this book is still relevant today. Perhaps this should not be surprising considering the nature of its subject matter, fundamental political theory rather than political issues, and the author’s rejection of the positivist’s elevation of method over relevance. The Gnosticism that Voegelin wrote about is still with us today and the “end of the Gnostic dream” which he suggested was “perhaps closer at hand than one ordinarily would assume” (p. 173) is nowhere in sight, but his prediction that Gnosticism’s confusion of dream and reality would result in constant wars accompanied by constant talk of peace has been born out. At the end of his first lecture, after making the point that existential representation in which a government acts as decision-making representative of its society on the stage of history is more fundamentally important than elemental representation (a democratic constitution) Voegelin said:
Our own foreign policy was a factor in aggravating international disorder through its sincere but naïve endeavour of curing the evils of the world by spreading representative institutions in the elemental sense to areas where the existential conditions for their functioning were not given. (p. 51)
Following the end in 1989-1991 of the conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union which was the original historical backdrop to these lectures, the USA announced, during her first war with Iraq, the dawn of a “New World Order” in which a coalition of free countries, led by the United States, would police the world against “aggressors” like Saddam Hussein (remember what Voegelin had to say about the magic operations Gnostics who had lost the distinction between the real and dream world engaged in). Following the events of September 11, 2001, the USA renewed its commitment to the Wilsonian policy of spreading democracy with a vengeance. She entered into two major wars and several smaller conflicts with the goal of democratizing the Middle East. At the cost of billions of dollars and countless lives, America brought herself to the brink of bankruptcy, only to watch these countries use the democracy she had brought them to vote in jihadist and Islamic theocratic governments. Voegelin’s observation seems more timely today than in the day he first made it.
Interesting, Wiliam F. Buckley Jr. was an enthusiastic supporter of both American wars on Iraq, although he later admitted the second one to be a mistake. Perhaps if he had absorbed more of Voegelin’s theory in addition to his lingo he would not have made this mistake.
Voegelin’s lectures, however, were not intended as a guide to practical political decision making but as an introduction to political theory and the idea of representation. Perhaps, the most important things to glean from this introduction, are not lessons but questions. If modernity is derived from an ultimately Gnostic view of a third realm or age in history, what then is the significance of the fact that the Modern Age is now widely believed to be over? What is the relationship between the relativism and nihilism of the “post-modern” era and the Gnosticism of the Modern Age? If the various movements of Gnosticism each sought the “monopoly of existential representation in a historical society” what does the post-modern rejection of all meta-narrative mean for the future of representation? If the classic philosophers were correct in believing that the political society represents first the order of the cosmos and then the order of the soul in man and if Christian theologians were correct in believing that the transcendent order of God to be represented on earth by the church, while the political society represents the temporal order of man, what form will these truths take in a world that has passed through Gnosticism and the nihilism of post-modernism?
(1) The review, entitled “The Character of European Politics”, which appeared in the August 7, 1953 issue, was originally published anonymously, but Oakeshott is identified as the reviewer in the online historical archives of the Times Literary Supplement, http://www.tlsarchive.com
(2) Dante Germino, in the foreword to the 1987 edition, tells us that the original title of the lectures was “Truth and Representation”.
(3) The correspondence between the two political philosophers was translated and edited by Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper and published by the University of Missouri Press in 1993 and 2004 under the title Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca