Tag Archives: Voegelin

Thoughts on Israel and Revelation

An Important Book:  Israel and History by Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin, philosopher and historian,is not considered a religious thinker; as a result he may receive less attention from religious students than he merits.

The basic argument of Eric Voegelin’s entire Order and History series, of which this volume was the first, is simply stated elsewhere by him:

““The life of people in a political community cannot be defined as a profane realm, in which we are concerned only with legal questions and the organization of power.  A community is also a realm of religious order.” (“The Political Religions)

He identifies Israel as the first civilization to develop a conscious sense of its existence in relation to both time and a God acting through time.   This was a breakthrough, a “leap in being” for a world with generally cosmological perspectives: eternal earth and sky, universe and kingdoms, all revolving around a central sun or king-god, with time moving (if at all) in great cycles.

EV has a reputation as a difficult read, and there is something in that.  He uses terms that I have to look up, and certain terms that he uses in a unique way.  Best known of these is “immanentizing the eschaton,” by which he means hurrying up the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the apocalyptic transformation of the world.  Most insightful for me is his use of “gnosticism” to describe modern political ideologies, especially Marxism.

His great summation of the modern/modernist crisis is contained in The New Science of Politics:

“The death of the spirit is the price of progress.  Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered.  This Gnostic [ideological] murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization.  The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit.  And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline…Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization”

In Israel and Revelation he sees the Hebrew Exodus from cosmological Egypt as the beginning of the discovery of history.

“When the spirit bloweth, society in cosmological form becomes Sheol, the realm of death; but when we undertake the Exodus and wander into the world, we discover the world as the Desert. The flight leads nowhere, until we stop in order to find our bearings beyond the world. When the world has become Desert, man is at last in the solitude in which he can hear thunderingly the voice of the spirit that with its urgent whispering has already driven and rescued him from Sheol.”

Thus Israel began its journey with God, a journey that would reach its anticlimax in the Prophets:

“On its pragmatic wandering through the centuries Israel did not escape the realm of the dead.  In a symbolic countermovement to the Exodus under the leadership of Moses, the last defenders of Jerusalem, carrying Jeremiah with them against his will, returned to the Sheol of Egypt to die.  The promised land can be reached only by moving through history, but it cannot be conquered within history.  The Kingdom of God lives in men who live in the world, but it is not of this world.”

“And the climax of the Exodus, the actual establishment of the new dispensation through the Berith [covenant], is not at all a happy ending but the very beginning of the perpetual rhythm of defection from, and return to, the order of human existence in the present under God.”

He goes on to analyze Israel’s schizophrenia over the issue of monarchy.  “The relationship between the life of the spirit and life in the world is the problem that lies unresolved at the bottom of the Israelite difficulties.” (And our own difficulties as well.)

He compares the Israelite difficulty with the Christian inverse problem.

“In Christianity the logia [words, teachings]of Jesus, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, had effectively disengaged the meaning of faith, as well as the life of the spirit, from the conditions of a particular civilizational order. The separation was so effective indeed that the loss of understanding for the importance of civilizational order was a serious danger to many Christians.  While the Prophets had to struggle for an understanding of Yahwism [Judaism] in opposition to the concrete social order of Israel, a long series of Christian statesmen, from St. Paul to St. Augustine, had to struggle for an understanding of the exigencies of world-immanent social and political order…The Prophets had to explain that social success was not a proof of righteousness before God; the Christian thinkers had to explain that the Gospel was no social gospel, redemption no social remedy, and Christianity in general no insurance for individual or collective prosperity.”

EV’s consideration of the 10 Commandments was for me an eye-opener.

“The author of the Decalogue has discerned the human desire to create a manageable God,” and yet the Decalogue is “animated by the insight that right order will somehow grow in a community when the attunement to the hidden divine being is not disturbed by human self-assertion.  Since it does not issue positive rules, either cultic or moral, the field remains wide open, in both respects, for civilizational growth.  Nevertheless, the Decalogue restrains and directs the growth by its injunctions against rebellious existence.”

My review of this book was sparked by a recent reading on crisismagazine.com, a great source of inspiration.  On Feb. 1 they re-printed an essay by Dennis Praeger first published 25 years ago in Crisis magazine.  (Link here.)“Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality” got me thinking about the revolutionary uniqueness of Israel’s contribution to human thinking and history.  And that reminded me of Voegelin.



LUCRETIUS – The Consistent Atheist

I have just read a book that has achieved a rather impressive audience recently: The Swerve, by Harvard Professor of Humanities Stephen Greenblatt.  Accurately subtitled “How the World Became Modern”, it is a look at the re-discovery and modern embrace of Roman Epicurean philosopher-poet Lucretius and his epic work On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura).

Little is known of Lucretius’ life. One historian writes that “Lucretius was probably a member of the aristocratic gens Lucretia, and his work shows an intimate knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle in Rome. Lucretius’s love of the countryside invites speculation that he inhabited family-owned rural estates, as did many wealthy Roman families, and he was certainly expensively educated with mastery of Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy.”

In chapter 8, Greenblatt  summarizes Lucretius:

Everything is made of invisible particles, eternal, infinite in number but limited in shape and size, all in motion in an infinite void.  The universe has no creator or designer.

Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve [i.e. random motion]; the swerve is the source of free will.

Nature ceaselessly experiments. The universe was not created for or about humans; humans are not unique. Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.

The soul dies; there is no afterlife; death is nothing to us.

All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and invariably cruel.

The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.

Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

Continue reading


I referred recently to the difficulty of fully uprooting the weed of anti-Semitism from the Catholic Church, despite the heroic efforts of modern popes (Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and Benedict XVI).

Consider Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras: papabile, (considered possible pope material), indeed a leading contender as John Paul II’s successor, and one of eight cardinals chosen by the current pope to reform the church.

I described him earlier as a Liberation (i.e. Marxist) Theologian.  Let me demonstrate, from his speech on October 25 (read it all here):

He rails against “the neoliberal dictatorships that rule democracies” and advises that “to change the system, it would be necessary to destroy the power of the new feudal lords.Continue reading

The Great Sophist

Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle (the third volume of his Order and History) studies Plato’s exposes of the Sophists, especially in The Republic.

It has become clear to me that these clever men, whose inherent corruption so troubled Socrates/Plato, were the true models of much of modern Western society.

“Plato described the Athenian society in which he lived as the Sophist written large, explaining the peculiarities of Athenian order by referring them to the socially predominant sophistic type,” says EV, and it seems to be true again in our own day.  The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

In EV’s words, “In Plato’s immediate environment the sophist is the enemy and the philosopher rises in opposition to him; in the wider range of Hellenic history, the philosopher comes first and the sophist follows him as the destroyer of his work through immanentization of the symbols of transcendence.”

These “symbols of transcendence” seem to me the rhetorical use of reason, the existence of truth and right order, and the concept of justice.  These are the classic tools of the Advocate, taught in law schools and embodied in politics.  But they have also become the tools of the mass media and higher education, among others homes of the elite.

Again EV paraphrasing Plato: “The general social environment in courts, assemblies, and theaters is the principal formative influence on young men, not the teaching of this or that individual sophist.  The many who exert the continuous pressure are ‘the Great Sophist’.

Plato/Socrates, The Republic:  “The individual sophists who teach for money have no doctrine of their own but echo the opinion of the multitude; and that is what they call their wisdom.  The professional sophist is rather comparable to a man in charge of a ‘great beast’;  he will study the habits of the animal and find out how to manage it.  Good will be what the beast likes, and bad will be what arouses its temper.”

Another “type” which seems to characterize modern society is the Therapist, as ably articulated by Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic).  But I begin to suspect that the Therapist is yet another variation on the Sophist.  He is an Advocate for the person paying the bills, spinning arguments to demonstrate that the subject is not responsible for his own problems.   (Consider the modern role of defense psychiatrists in courtrooms, invariably arguing for a frame of mind that renders the accused person less than fully responsible for his crimes.)  As EV put it, “The sophist proclaims his disease as the measure of human and social order.”

Flannery O’Connor wrote that “Plato’s enemies were the Sophists, and Socrates’ arguments against them are still today the classical arguments against that sophistic philosophy of existence which characterizes positivism and the age of enlightenment.”

Plato puts the contrast between philosopher and the sophist in the starkest possible light when he writes in The Laws: “God is for us (philosophers) the measure of all things, of a truth;  more truly so than, as they (sophists) say, man.”

Or, as EV put it, “The validity of the standards adapted by Plato and Aristotle depends on the conception of a man who can be the measure of society because God is the measure of his soul.”

The “Mere Flabbiness” of the Elites

by Ben Finiti

I came across a passage which seems to describe in remarkably succinct terms the process of the “avant garde” elite’s degradation of our culture.  It is in a 1940 book on Aeschylus by the classical scholar Gilbert Murray.  He is contrasting his subject with the turmoil raised by the Sophists of Athens.

“The development is one which has often been repeated in ages of great intellectual activity.  Vigorous minds begin to question the convention in which they have been brought up and which they have now outgrown.  They reject first the elements in them which are morally repulsive, then the parts that are obviously incredible; they try to reject the husk and preserve the kernel, and for a time reach a far higher moral and intellectual standard than the generations before them or the duller people of their own time.

“Then, it seems, something is apt to go wrong.  Perhaps a cynic would say – and it would be hard to confute him – the element
of reason in man is so feeble a thing that he cannot stand successfully except when propped in the stiff harness of convention. At any rate there is always apt to come a later generation which has carried doubt and skepticism much farther and finds the kernel to consist only of inner layers of husk and then more husk, as the place of George IV’s heart, according to Thackeray, was supplied by waistcoats and then more waistcoats.

First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them. “

(Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus pp. 79-80)

I must confess that, not being a classical scholar myself, I found this only by reference in Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle, the third volume of his Order and History.  EV’s analysis of Plato’s exposes of the Sophists has made it clear to me that these clever, clever men were the true models of much of modern Western society. ”Plato saw Athenian society as the Sophist writ large”, says EV somewhere, and it seems to be true again in our own day. The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

I am working on a larger exploration of this subject.  But I felt I had to share this amazingly apt quote.