The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, September 1, 2012

How the Gnostics Destroyed Civilization

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,

(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.


  1. As always, most interesting, especially for the insight you continue to provide into the thinking of the Puritans.

    One question. If positivism has 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,” is it correct to say that it represents an "elevation of method over theory" or "method over relevance"?

    The scientific method doesn't proceed to data collection without there being a theoretical proposition in need of disproof. Nor do scientists collect data irrespective of its relevance to their purpose. Method proceeds in view of theory and data collection is within the outlines of project at hand.

    I don't see anything wrong with trying to employ in the "social sciences" the methods of science in exploring the material world. The danger is that scientific method might be used to claim more for the conclusion than is warranted or to cloak the "social scientist" with an unwarranted patina of authority.

    1. Thank you Col. B. Bunny. I think that there is a difference in nuance between what Voegelin meant by "theory" and the working hypothesis in the scientific method. I'm not sure how familiar you are with the work of Richard M. Weaver, but in his book "Ideas Have Consequences" he too offered a critique of the breakdown of Western thought and one of his criticisms he makes of nominalism and positivism is that they broke down an integrated system of looking at reality as a whole and replaced it with a number of disciplines each of which accumulated vast amounts of data about a fragment of what used to be a whole. As the disciplines grew more specialized the fragmentation increased. Of course, within each discipline, theories in the sense of scientific hypotheses were used, but I think what Voegelin had in mind by theory, was the kind of integrated approach that treats reality as a whole that Weaver spoke about. I'll have to re-read the relevant pages to be sure this is what he meant, but it would make sense as there were a number of parallels between the two books' critiques of positivism and modern thought.

      One problem I would see with trying to make the social sciences fit the template of say chemistry or physics is that the social sciences deal with human beings who are moral agents with minds and souls and wills. To try and explain and predict their behaviour in the way a chemist can explain and predict the result of combining certain elements in certain conditions would require us to be merely highly advanced machines. If we are not merely that, then attempts to explain and predict our behaviour as if we were will be bound to go wrong, possibly with very unpleasant consequences if there are also attempts to condition and change that behaviour.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    No I'm not familiar with Richard Weaver and we are straying off into terra incognita with this reckless talk about nominalism and positivism. :-)

    I'll have to look at those two things more without expressing an opinion just now. (After I finish my courses on electronics, mathematics, and calculus!)

    The obsessive focus on narrow areas of sub-disciplines and related aimless data accumulation seems like a mirror image of the bizarre focus on language. You've seen the "postmodern language generator I'm sure. E.g.:

    "Thus, if neosemanticist semiotic theory holds, we have to choose between cultural nihilism and neosemiotic materialist theory. Lacan uses the term ‘neosemanticist semiotic theory’ to denote not dematerialism, as Derrida would have it, but postdematerialism."

    It's funny but, then, it's not. People who write the genuine article are not concerned with accuracy, logic, rigor, testing, or sense. So, a breakdown of the understanding of the scientific method can occur with even intelligent people. Whether of good will or not is hard to say, though the departure is so great . . . .

    No question that moral agency sets the social "sciences" apart. Behavioralism has its uses but the explanations for behavior have to be offered with reservations. I remember reading a clever blog article about school districts where one couple was studiously anti-racists or, at least, worked at being color blind, but when they had a kid they sold their house and moved to a community that had "good schools." The author checked the demographics and found that the community was something like 98% white. But I digress.

    PS – I think you will find this interesting: "Evangelicalism’s Worldwide Explosion May Strengthen Progressivism," by Peter Burfeind.

  3. According to Talhelm, political conservatives in the United States, generally, and East Asians, particularly, are intuitive or "holistic" thinkers, while Westerners, generally, and American liberals, in particular, are more analytical thinkers.

    The so-called "culture war," he said, is an accurate if dramatic way to state that there are clear cultural differences in the thought processes of liberals and conservatives.

    "On psychological tests, Westerners tend to view scenes, explain behavior and categorize objects analytically," Talhelm said. "But the vast majority of people around the world -- about 85 percent -- more often think intuitively -- what psychologists call holistic thought, and we found that's how conservative Americans tend to think."

    Holistic thought more often uses intention and the perception of whole objects or situations, rather than breaking them down to their parts -- such as having a general feeling about a situation involving intuition or tact.

    Analytic thinking styles tend to look at the parts of a situation, and how they work together toward the whole. This involves "slicing up the world and analyzing objects individually, divorced from context," Talhelm said.

    I thought this might interest you. I think that ideology is just an obsessive focus on one or a few simple concepts to the exclusion of ALL ELSE. Typically, liberals obsess about achieving their one major goal and are indifferent to collateral or unintended consquences. If the state will acquire yet more power or if liberty is diminished, this is simply ignored if it is even perceived. There must be a federal right to abortion and if it takes a debasement of the Constitution to achieve it, well, then who cares. I have never heard my liberal friends speak of the Constitution. Not one. It simply isn't in their thinking. But abortion, welfare, income redistribution, global warming, environmentalism are in a big way.

    This all with reference to the earlier point regarding ever more hyper-focused research on less and less.