ERIC VOEGELIN
(1901-1985)
A Biographical Sketch

Eric Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1901. Some of his earliest experiences are described in Anamnesis. He migrated to the United States in 1938. He devoted his life to understanding the spiritual disorders and political violence which began in the fifteenth century and reached their apogee in our own time.

His work is variously described as a philosophy of politics or a philosophy of history. He often characterized his work as political science. Some refer to him as a philosopher of consciousness. His theological writings have drawn both accolades and criticism. He has published original historical studies on such varied topics as Marx, the Mongols and Machiavelli. His skill as a literary critic was remarkable, whether interpreting Henry James or T.S. Eliot.

He did post-doctoral studies in the United States from 1924 to 1926 and in Paris after that; later he taught political theory and sociology at the University of Vienna after his habilitation in 1928.  He published two books analyzing racism in 1933 and this forced his flight from Austria following the Anschluss in 1938. After a brief stay in Switzerland, he arrived in the United States and taught at a series of universities before joining Louisiana State University's Department of Government in 1942. He became a U.S. citizen in 1944.

  He remained in Baton Rouge at LSU until 1958 when he accepted the Max Weber chair in political science at Munich's Ludwig Maximilians Universität. The chair had been vacant since Weber's death in 1920. While in Munich he founded the Institut für Politische Wissenschaft. Voegelin returned to America in 1969 to join Stanford University as well as the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. After retirement from the university he continued his work to the very day of his death on January 19, 1985.


Publications

Voegelin published many books and scores of essays and reviews in his lifetime.  In addition to this, he left a number of manuscripts unpublished, including the massive History of Political Ideas that has since his death been published in eight volumes. His 1951 Charles R. Walgreen lectures at the University of Chicago, "Truth and Representation," were published in 1952 under the title, The New Science of Politics . This small book made him famous, even earning a "cover story" in Time Magazine, a leading weekly news magazine of the mid-to-late 20th century. This book is often seen as seminal for some of his later work.

 His magnum opus is the five volume Order and History , the last volume of which he was working on when he died.   Order and History was originally conceived as an attempt to discern meaning in history through an examination of the history of order, an examination made possible by the burgeoning of non-ideological historiography. Voegelin undertook this task after he decided his previous large undertaking—the History of Political Ideas (existing then only as a manuscript)—was miscast by focusing on ideas rather than on experiences; and of course like all his writings, it was undertaken in response to his experience of the ruinous and often murderous disorder of our time.

 The first volume, Israel and Revelation , was produced largely on the occasion of writing Order and History. The second and third volumes, The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle , drew much of their material from the manuscript of the History of Political Ideas. All three appeared between 1956 and 1957 and focused on the evocations of order in the ancient societies of the Near East and Greece, —particularly the "pneumatic" in revelation and the "noetic" in philosophy.

  This effort took much longer than originally planned because Voegelin came to understand that a linear conception of history was inadequate to account for equivalent spiritual outbursts in parallel civilizations. He believed he had to broaden his horizon by familiarizing himself with different civilizations. He also had duties at the new institute. Thus seventeen years passed before Volume 4, The Ecumenic Age , appeared in 1974.

 Midway in these years of late development, in 1966, Voegelin published his philosophy of consciousness under the title of Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik , which many consider central to his profound work.

The Ecumenic Age broke with the chronological pattern of the previous volumes by investigating symbolizations of order ranging in time from the Sumerian King List to Hegel. Voegelin was working on the final volume, In Search of Order , when he died; it was published in 1987.

Among his special studies is the popular and accessible Hitler and the Germans , based on his 1964 Munich lectures, and his brief summary of modern spiritual disorder entitled Science, Politics and Gnosticism . Also most accessible is the series of four Conversations with Eric Voegelin preserved from colloquies at the Thomas More Institute in Montreal over a 30 year period. There were four colloquies. The first was published in Volume 11 and the other three were published in Volume 33 of the Collected Works. For a number of years the popular Autobiographical Reflections , a recorded and transcribed interview conducted over a period of time, has been available as a lively introduction to his person and thought.

Reading Voegelin

Voegelin's work is difficult to characterize using the categories found in contemporary university philosophy departments. His philosophical work shares some of the same interests found in Cassirer, Whitehead, Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer or Lonergan, as well as Historians such as Eduard Meyer, Mircea Eliade, and Arnold Toynbee (names that come to mind), yet Voegelin seems to command more material than any one of them while propounding a realism rejected by several of them, a realism based on the "realissimum" , the "intuition of Being," the "Divine Ground" of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

 Mastering Voegelin's thought can be difficult. He is erudite and assumes the reader is more or less familiar with the material, or at least has a grasp of history, philosophy, theology, psychology and sociology. A reading knowledge of Latin, Greek and modern European languages can only help. One can only read Voegelin with understanding if one reads more than a few others as well.  Moreover, Voegelin often felt compelled to introduce new technical terms or employ old terms in new ways.  A further difficulty stems from the restorative nature of his work which requires the conventionally schooled student to approach things in a fresh way—especially difficult for that poorly nourished individual deprived of a religious foundation.  

These difficulties have led to superficial readings. Voegelin's work is rejected out of hand by most secularists and liberals. Forty years ago his work was adopted simplistically by communist-era conservatives. And he is not embraced as one of their own by the historians or theologians or political scientists or philsophers because they cannot compass him within their specialized fields. He remains an outsider—much like any man who has developed his reflective consciousness in openness to the Divine Ground.

The secondary literature has become an "industry."  Among the indications of the engagement with Voegelin's work are the 305 page Eric Voegelin: International Bibliography 1921-2000, [ See also the partial Bibliography compiled by Bill McClain on his website.]. There are Voegelin research centers at universities in the United States, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. His works have been translated into languages ranging from Portuguese to Japanese and a Chinese edition of Order and History is underway. Then there is the nearly complete 34 volumes Collected Works from the University of Missouri Press as well as the twenty (and growing) number of secondary works by contemporary scholars in the Eric Voegelin Institute Series in Political Philosophy, from the same publisher. One can also mention the various series offered by the Eric-Voegelin-Archiv of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität.

A number of those who have studied Voegelin think he is the most important thinker since Thomas Aquinas or Plato. This sounds like an astonishing claim. But if one looks at Voegelin's predecessors, it might not seem astonishing after all. Among those who have read and corresponded with Voegelin is the current Roman Pontiff, Benedict XVI. One may fairly conclude, however, that his work is too difficult to become popular either in the academy or in the government. However some of his thinking has been and will continue to be popularized in common language that avoids theoretical precision.

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