Eric Voegelin
Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin

(1901-01-03)January 3, 1901
DiedJanuary 19, 1985(1985-01-19) (aged 84)
Alma materUniversity of Vienna
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolPerennial philosophy[1]
Doctoral advisorHans Kelsen[2]
Main interests
Notable ideas

Eric Voegelin (born Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin, German: [ˈføːgəliːn]; January 3, 1901 – January 19, 1985) was a German-American political philosopher. He was born in Cologne, and educated in political science at the University of Vienna, where he became an associate professor of political science in the law faculty. In 1938, he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna. They emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

Early life

Voegelin was born in Cologne on January 3, 1901. His parents moved to Vienna in 1910, and he eventually studied at the University of Vienna. The advisers on his dissertation were Hans Kelsen and Othmar Spann. After his habilitation there in 1928, he taught political theory and sociology. In Austria, Voegelin began lasting friendships with Alfred Schütz[4] and with F. A. Hayek.[5]


As a result of the Anschluss in 1938, Voegelin was fired from his job. Narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo and after a brief stay in Switzerland, he arrived in the United States. He taught at various universities before he joined Louisiana State University's Department of Government in 1942. Voegelin remained in Baton Rouge until 1958, when he accepted an offer by Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität to fill Max Weber's former chair in political science, which had been unoccupied since Weber's death in 1920. In Munich, he founded the Institut für Politische Wissenschaft. Voegelin returned to the United States in 1969 to join Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace as Henry Salvatori Fellow. There he continued his work until his death. He was a member of the Philadelphia Society.[6]

Although some have found his books obscure, according to his student Ellis Sandoz, he was a "wonderfully lucid lecturer with the gift of explaining with complete intelligibility the most abstruse theories to the comprehension and fascination" of his students.[7]


In his later life Voegelin worked to account for the endemic political violence of the twentieth century, in an effort variously referred to as a philosophy of politics, history, or consciousness. In Voegelin's Weltanschauung, he "blamed a flawed utopian interpretation of Christianity for spawning totalitarian movements like Nazism and Communism."[8] Voegelin eschewed any ideological labels or categorizations that readers and followers attempted to impose on his work. Nevertheless, his work came to the forefront during the Cold War and was adopted mainly by conservatives.

Voegelin published scores of books, essays, and reviews in his lifetime. An early work was Die politischen Religionen (1938; The Political Religions), on totalitarian ideologies as political religions due to their structural similarities to religion. He wrote the multi-volume (English-language) Order and History, which began publication in 1956 and remained incomplete at the time of his death 29 years later. His 1951 Charles Walgreen lectures, published as The New Science of Politics, is sometimes seen as a prolegomenon to this series, and remains his best known work. He left many manuscripts unpublished, including a history of political ideas, which has since been published in eight volumes.

Order and History was originally conceived as a five-volume examination of the history of order occasioned by Voegelin's personal experience of the disorder of his time. The first three volumes, Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, and Plato and Aristotle, appeared in rapid succession in 1956 and 1957 and focused on the evocations of order in the ancient Near East and Greece.

Voegelin then encountered difficulties which slowed down the publication. This, combined with his university administrative duties and work related to the new institute, meant that seventeen years separated the fourth from the third volume. His new concerns were indicated in the 1966 German collection Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik. The fourth volume, The Ecumenic Age, appeared in 1974. It broke with the chronological pattern of the previous volumes by investigating symbolizations of order ranging in time from the Sumerian King List to Hegel. Work on the final volume, In Search of Order, occupied Voegelin's final days and it was published posthumously in 1987.[original research?]

One of Voegelin's main points in his later work is that our experience of transcendence conveys a sense of order. Although transcendence can never be fully defined or described, it may be conveyed in symbols. A particular sense of transcendent order serves as a basis for a particular political order. A philosophy of consciousness can therefore become a philosophy of politics. Insights may become fossilised as dogma.

Voegelin is more interested in the ontological issues that arise from these experiences than the epistemological questions of how we know that a vision of order is true or not. For Voegelin, the essence of truth is trust. All philosophy begins with experience of the divine. Since God is experienced as good, one can be confident that reality is knowable. Given the possibility of knowledge, Voegelin holds there are two modes: intentionality and luminosity. Visions of order belong to the latter category. The truth of any vision is confirmed by its orthodoxy, by what Voegelin jokingly calls its lack of originality.

Voegelin's work does not fit in any standard classifications, although some of his readers[who?] have found similarities in it to contemporaneous works by, for example, Hans Jonas, Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Voegelin often invents terms or uses old ones in new ways. However, there are patterns in his work with which the reader can quickly become familiar.

According to Ellis Sandoz, Voegelin may well be America's leading philosopher, and is rightly compared with the premier minds of our century and, perhaps, of the millennia.[7] Thomas Altizer has said that Order and History "may someday be perceived as the most important work of Old Testament scholarship ever written in the United States," adding that it is noteworthy that it was written by a political scientist and philosopher.[9]

Among indications of growing engagement with Voegelin's work are the 305 page international bibliography published in 2000 by Munich's Wilhelm Fink Verlag; the presence of dedicated research centers at universities in the United States, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom; the appearance of recent translations in languages ranging from Portuguese to Japanese; and the publishing of a 34 volume collection of his primary works by the University of Missouri Press and various primary and secondary works offered by the Eric-Voegelin-Archiv of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität.

On gnosticism

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In his The New Science of Politics, Order and History, and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin opposed what he believed to be unsound Gnostic influences in politics.

Eugene Webb stated that Voegelin understood "gnosis" as

a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite[10]

and "gnosticism" as

A type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. Gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism).[11]

Accordingly, Voegelin distinguished between ancient and modern gnosticisms: whereas the former sought salvation in a realm transcending the actual world, the "modern" form aimed to change it immanently (see below).

Apart from the Classical Christian writers against heresy, his sources on Gnosticism were secondary since the texts of the Nag Hammadi library were not yet widely available. For example, Voegelin used Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Hans Jonas.[12]

Voegelin perceived similarities between ancient Gnosticism and modernist political theories, particularly Communism and Nazism. He identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnection from society and a belief that this lack is the result of the inherent disorder, or even evil, of the world. That alienation has two effects:

According to Voegelin, the Gnostics really reject the Christian eschaton of the kingdom of God and replace it with a human form of salvation through esoteric ritual or practice.[citation needed]

The primary feature that characterizes a tendency as gnostic for Voegelin is that it is motivated by the notion that the world and humanity can be fundamentally transformed and perfected through the intervention of a chosen group of people (an elite), a man-god, or men-Gods. The Übermensch is the chosen one who has a kind of special knowledge (like magic or science) about how to perfect human existence.[citation needed]

That stands in contrast to a notion of redemption that is achieved through the reconciliation of mankind with the divine. Marxism, therefore, qualifies as "gnostic" because it purports that the perfect society on earth can be established once capitalism has been overthrown by the proletariat. Likewise, Nazism is seen as "gnostic" because it posits that utopia can be achieved by attaining racial purity once the master race has freed itself of the racially inferior and the degenerate.[citation needed]

In both cases specifically analyzed by Voegelin, the totalitarian impulse is derived from the alienation of the individuals from the rest of society. That leads to a desire to dominate (libido dominandi), which has its roots in the Gnostic's conviction of the imperative of his vision but also in his lack of concord with a large body of his society. As a result, there is very little regard for the welfare of those who are harmed by the resulting politics, which ranges from coercive to calamitous (such as the English proverb: "You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet" or its Russian variety: "When you chop wood, chips fly").[citation needed]

Immanentizing the eschaton

Main article: Immanentize the eschaton

One of his most quoted passages (by such figures as William F. Buckley Jr.)[13] is:

The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.[14]

From this comes the catchphrase: "Don't immanentize the eschaton!", which simply means: "Do not try to make that which belongs to the afterlife happen here and now" or "Don't try to create Heaven on Earth."

When Voegelin uses the term gnosis negatively, it is to reflect the word as found in the Manichaeism and Valentinianism of antiquity. As it is later then immanentized (or manifest) in modernity in the wake of Joachim of Fiore and in the various ideological movements outlined in his works.[15] Voegelin also builds on the term "Gnosticism" as it is defined by Hans Jonas in his The Gnostic Religion, in reference to Heidegger's Gnosticism, which is to have an understanding and control over reality that makes mankind as powerful as the role of God in reality.

Voegelin was arguing from a Hellenistic position that good gnosis is derived from pistis (faith) and that the pagan tradition made a false distinction between faith and noesis. Furthermore, the dualist perspective was the very essence of gnosticism via the misuse of noema and caused a destructive division between the internal and external world in human consciousness. To reconcile the internal (subjective) and external (objective) world of consciousness was the restoration of order.[16][17]

Social alienation

Voegelin identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, (a sense of disconnection with society) and a belief that the disconnection is the result of the inherent disorder or even evil of the world. The alienation has two effects:

Critique of rationalism and phenomenology

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Spiritual revival

Voegelin's work does not lay out a program of reform or offer a doctrine of recovery from what he termed the "demono-maniacal" in modern politics. However, interspersed in his writings is the idea of a spiritual recovery of the primary experiences of divine order. He was not interested so much in what religious dogmas might result in personal salvation but rather a recovery of the human in the classical sense of the daimonios aner (Plato's term for "the spiritual man"). He did not speculate on the institutional forms in which a spiritual recovery might take place but expressed confidence that the current 500-year cycle of secularism would come to an end because he stated that "you cannot deny the human forever."[citation needed]

In an essay published in 1965,[18] Voegelin suggested that the Soviet Union would collapse from within because of its historical roots in philosophy and Christianity. Later, at an informal talk given at University College, Dublin, Ireland in 1972,[19] Voegelin suggested the Soviet Union might collapse by 1980 because of its failure to succeed in its domestic commitments and external political challenges.


Eugene Webb criticized Voegelin's conception of gnosis and his analysis of Gnosticism in general. In the article "Voegelin's Gnosticism Reconsidered," Webb explained that Voegelin's concept of Gnosticism was conceived "not primarily to describe ancient phenomena but to help us understand some modern ones for which the evidence is a great deal clearer."[20][page needed] Webb continues, "the category (of Gnosticism) is of limited usefulness for the purpose to which he put it… and the fact that the idea of Gnosticism as such has become so problematic and complex in recent years must at the very least undercut Voegelin's effort to trace a historical line of descent from ancient sources to the modern phenomena he tried to use them to illuminate."[20][page needed]

Because Voegelin applied the concept of gnosis to a wide array of ideologies and movements such as Marxism, communism, National Socialism, progressivism, liberalism, and humanism,[21] critics have proposed that Voegelin's concept of Gnosis lacks theoretical precision.[22][23] Therefore, Voegelin's gnosis can, according to the criticis, hardly serve as a scientific basis for an analysis of political movements. Rather, the term "Gnosticism" as used by Voegelin is more of an invective just as "when on the lowest level of propaganda those who do not conform with one's own opinion are smeared as communists."[24]

Selected bibliography

The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin

See also


  1. ^ David R. Cole, The Political Philosophy of Eric Voegelin and His Followers, Edwin Mellen Press, 2008, p. iv.
  2. ^ Christian Damböck (ed.), Influences on the Aufbau, Springer, 2015, p. 258.
  3. ^ Eric Voegelin, "Reason: The Classic Experience," in Voegelin, Published Essays, 1966–1985, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 289–290; Order and History, Volume IV: The Ecumenic Age, vol. 17 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Michael Franz (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 408.
  4. ^ Szakolczai, Arpad (January 25, 2013). "Eric Voegelin and Alfred Schütz: A Friendship That Lasted a Lifetime". VoegelinView. Archived from the original on October 4, 2020. Retrieved September 9, 2015.
  5. ^ Federici, Michael. Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order, ISI Books, 2002, p. 1
  6. ^ Distinguished members (PDF), The Philadelphia society, archived from the original (PDF) on January 18, 2012
  7. ^ a b Ellis Sandoz: "Eric Voegelin, January 3, 1901 – January 19, 1985", Political Science Reviewer 16 (1986).
  8. ^ McDonald, Marci (October 2004). "The Man Behind Stephen Harper". The Walrus. CA. Archived from the original on November 7, 2014. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
  9. ^ Thomas J.J. Altizer: A New History and a New But Ancient God? A Review-Essay Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1975 Vol. XLIII; Iss. 4. Archived from the original on 9 December 2021 on the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ Webb 1981, p. 282: 'According to Voegelin, the claim to gnosis may take intellectual, emotional, and volitional forms.'
  11. ^ Webb 1981, p. 282 "'"A type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. As a religious or quasi-religious movement, gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism)." [Webb 1981:282]'"
  12. ^ Voegelin, Eric (1989), Sandoz, Ellis; Weiss, Gilbert; Petropoulos, William (eds.), The Collected Works, Louisiana State University Press, ISBN 0-80711826-5.
  13. ^ Buckley Jr., William F. Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes & Asides from National Review, Basic Books, 2007, pp. 23–24
  14. ^ Voegelin 1987, p. 120.
  15. ^ Voegelin 1987, chap. 4.
  16. ^ Voegelin, Eric, The ecumenic age, order & History, vol. 4, esp. Introduction & chap. 5.
  17. ^ Voegelin, Eric (2000), Franz, Michael (ed.), The collected works, vol. 17, University of Missouri Press.
  18. ^ "In Search of the Ground", Published Essays, 1953—1965, p. 239 (Collected Works Vol 11)
  19. ^ Brendan Purcell (February 17, 2009). "The Irish Dialogue with Eric Voegelin". Voegelin View. Archived from the original on July 15, 2018. Retrieved July 15, 2018.
  20. ^ a b Webb 2005.
  21. ^ Voegelin, Eric (1987). The new science of politics : an introduction (pbk.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 128ff., 173ffn. ISBN 978-0-22686114-2. OCLC 16992786. Archived from the original on January 20, 2023. Retrieved December 21, 2022.
  22. ^ Hans, Kelsen (April 2017). Secular Religion A Polemic against the Misinterpretation of Modern Social Philosophy, Science and Politics as "New Religions". Walter, Robert, Jabloner, Clemens, Zeleny, Klaus (2. Auflage ed.). Stuttgart: Franz-Steinerm. ISBN 978-3-51511760-9. OCLC 988613915.
  23. ^ Jabloner, Clemens (2013). Secular religion : Rezeption und Kritik von Hans Kelsens Auseinandersetzung mit Religion und Wissenschaft. Wien: Manz. pp. 19–42. ISBN 9783214147556. OCLC 864572584.
  24. ^ Kelsen, Hans; Voegelin, Eric (2004). Arnold, Eckhart (ed.). A new science of politics : Hans Kelsen's reply to Eric Voegelin's "New science of politics" : a contribution to the critique of ideology. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag. p. 107. ISBN 978-3-11032737-3. OCLC 607253659.
  25. ^ geplant: Wien 1938. Nach der Besetzung Österreichs durch die Deutschen in der schwedischen Firmen-Neugründung erschienen
  26. ^ Im Inhaltsverzeichnis ist Voegelins Originaltext nicht explizit genannt, sondern er steht lediglich unter einem summarischen Titel der Hg'in. Drei Teile auf deutsch: die Rezension selbst, Eine Antwort Arendts S. 42–51 und eine Abschließende Bemerkung Voegelins S. 51f. In einem Schluss-Kommentar geht die Hg'in auf die Unterschiede der beiden ein. Die Originaltexte zuerst in Englisch: E. V., The origins of totalitarism, in: Review of Politics, Hg. University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN. Jg. 15, H. 1, 1953, pp. 68–76; sowie Arendt, A reply, pp. 76–84; und Voegelin, Concluding remarks, pp. 84s. Alle drei Teile auch im Reprint-Sammelband The crisis of modern times: Perspectives from the Review of Politics 1939–1962, Verlag: wie das Heft, 2007, ISBN 0268035067, E. V. pp. 272–280; Arendt pp. 280–287; E. V. pp. 287–289

Further reading

Primary literature

All of Voegelin's writing is published as his Collected Works (CW), reviewed by Mark Lilla, "Mr. Casaubon in America" The New York Review of Books 54/11 (June 28, 2007): 29–31.

Primary sources

Secondary literature

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