Review – Voegelin, “The New Science of Politics”

Who is the beady-eyed philosopher king

Eric Voegelin, “The New Science of Politics” (1952) – When I was a teenager, I sometimes carpooled to school with a boy from the next town over. His father, a minister and learned man with a deep rumbling voice, found out I was interested in politics and asked me questions about it. One was “…do you seek to… immanentize the eschaton?” I did not know what “immanentize” or “eschaton” meant, and the dad informed me it meant something like bringing about the end of time and the kingdom of Heaven on earth. I don’t know what I told him. Eventually, through reading about the history of conservatism, I found out that that “immanentize the eschaton” line, usually preceded by the words “don’t” or “don’t try to,” was a minor slogan of the American conservative movement popularized by William Buckley and adapted from the works of German refugee scholar Eric Voegelin. It was a cutesy way of getting across the point that efforts to bring about utopia lead to worse situations than before (and therefore, don’t inconvenience the wealthy and powerful). Apparently, there were bumper stickers with the slogan on it.

Voegelin may have inspired a bumper sticker slogan but he fell into obscurity after his death in 1985, especially compared to similar figures like his fellow emigre Leo Strauss. Voegelin has a fervent but small cult following, a little think tank somewhere where foundation money keeps a few pedants going, but nothing like what the Straussians had in terms of access to power, or to go a bit further afield in the movement, the Objectivists or even anarcho-capitalists ala Rothbard. He hasn’t become a meme, either, like assorted right-leaning thinkers like Julius Evola or Emil Cioran, unless the boomer, pre-Internet version of a meme — recalled slogans from yesteryear imparted on a captive (but willing enough!) audience of teenagers — counts. 

This is too bad, because as far as I’m concerned, Voegelin had more on the ball than any of them, with the possible exception of Strauss- and unlike Strauss, Voegelin did not play. He laid his cards — his erudite, well-written (in a chunky, Teutonic way), deeply whack cards — on the table for all to see. It probably didn’t help his cult grow, compared to Strauss’s self-flattering mystery cult. But it made for an interesting read.

Voegelin was a totalitarianism theorist, but not like Arendt or any of the others I know. For one thing, he was stringent enough to attract gestapo attention even though he wasn’t a Jew or a leftist, which took some doing and promoted his move to the US. You can characterize Arendt and other totalitarianism thinkers by their philosophical reaches, their rummaging in the past for tools, metaphors, and explanatory schema (which all seems a little gratuitous to materialist me, but when done well makes for some toothsome reading). But I can’t think of any who reached as far back, with so rigorous a set of rummaging tactics, brushed up against and sometimes made good use of critical ideas we lose at our peril, and came back from this journey into the past with such a honkingly absurd but internally self-consistent set of schema as Voegelin does in “The New Science of Politics,” a set of lectures meant to be a prologue to the sprawling philosophical history of politics that he never finished.

It’s like this: forget power conflicts, or rather, forget their material dimensions, Voegelin tells us. All that does — Voegelin doesn’t say it but it’s what happens, in this and in idealist political thought more generally — is separate the wheat from the chaff, the rich powerful activist countries that matter and the rest who don’t (you gotta figure one of the reasons “traditionalists” — and Voegelin is related to big-T Traditionalism in some important ways — hate contemporary life is because a lot of rich countries can’t be bothered to play classical power politics anymore… though post-Ukraine invasion, who knows?). Politics is actually about representation. He doesn’t mean that as in “what should go along with taxation” or “brown faces in high places,” but an altogether more metaphysical representation, the instantiation of capital-T Truth, in some vaguely Platonist way, on earth. Representation, undertaken correctly, assures order, which in this sense basically means an alignment of the human and something like the divine. Voegelin doesn’t insist, explicitly, on a Catholic reading of the universe to agree with his system, but does see the Christian-classical synthesis of the high Middle Ages as the height of “philosophical anthropology,” the proper understanding of man in the cosmos. 

“Order” is an interesting and fraught problem. I organize- I know getting people to do stuff, even stuff they want to do, in an efficient manner, takes coordination. But even a relatively type-A type like me gets that some kind of order generates itself without some mandate from the nous if there’s enough earthly motivation. Why isn’t that good enough, at least as a basis upon which to improve? Especially for self-proclaimed “conservatives”? (It clearly is for many!)

For conservative politicians, “order” generally means keeping the poor and whoever the local downtrodden ethnicities are around in a subordinate place. Simple! It becomes complicated when someone tries to make a transcendent order of that, which right-leaning intellectuals seemingly can’t stop themselves from attempting. I run into this with the fashy teens I try to get information out of after they ineptly troll some of my goodreads reviews. No matter how much they claim to venerate the pre-modern past, they always punt to evo-psych explanations: “traditional” oppressive order is good because we evolved with it, it’s old (it’s usually not that old but w/e) so that proves it’s stability, and with the era of accelerating disaster in which we live… it runs into the usual problems even taking as read the anachronism and factual errors involved. If it’s so natural and self-evidently good, why do you need oppressive structures to instantiate and maintain it? And you get the usual answer- because Those People are evil and want to destroy it, and we all know who Those People turn out to be.

Well, if Voegelin was an anti-semite, it doesn’t turn up here, though he’s notably uninterested in Jewish concepts of the relationship between divine mandate and worldly order, to which I understand Jewish thinkers have given a lot of sophisticated thought. Voegelin makes throwaway references to Jewish and Islamic ideas of representation to prove his concept is global and perennial, but the big show goes from Athens to Augustus to Augustine to Aquinas. They didn’t get it right right away. That’s one of the interesting things about Voegelin- his Truth is transcendent, but the ways people interact with it change according to circumstance, and he understands some of those changes as valid, necessary even. Let’s not make too much of it — they’re necessary to unfold god’s plan or something — but still. You got to something like an ideal representation of a divine order that is the most important fact of the universe, a critical element of which was that unknowability-but-demand-making combo that makes monotheism so spicy, in the Middle Ages, where Emperor represented political order and Pope represented spiritual order. 

I didn’t agree with Voegelin by the point, maybe three fifths into the lectures, where he was making this point, but I was impressed with his erudition, his writing, and the sophisticated way he laid out the various elements of the system of order as he understood it. There were some farrago elements from the beginning, the nose-in-the-air way intellectuals of his kind, like his friend (and to my mind, substantial intellectual inferior) von Hayek, dismissed materialism based on straw-manning no one would accept for their own beliefs. More than — or along with being — a farrago, a dodge away from unacceptable ideas, it also got deeply derpy with Voegelin’s — and here, it’s good to GIS him, his beady eyes and big forehead behind his spectacles — insistence that all social science, including any history that partook of positivism, is wrong on its face because of its lack of “theory” i.e. value statements… but I’m used to that. And then came the turn. The turn wasn’t enough to ruin the experience of the book, not hardly. But it was enough to transform my enjoyment of it from intellectual appreciation to something like high camp.

It’s the gnostics, folks! It’s not the Jews, or whoever else, who brought the snake into the garden of the high Middle Ages, who play that role that all conservative world-building needs, but the ding-dang gnostics! Just when you thought it was safe, that pesky Joachim of Fiore has his vision and all of a sudden they’re immanentizing the eschaton all over the place! All modern political philosophy other than reactionary conservatism and, Voegelin grudgingly allows, some forms of very conservative classical liberalism, are just Gnosticism warmed over. Communism, socialism, most types of liberalism, fascism, nazism- all just Gnosticism, and all lead inevitably to totalitarianism, the erasure of all individuality and freedom in the great blaze of that immenatinized eschaton. 

You can see it coming, if you read the text. For someone breezing over hundreds of years of history in a set of lectures for an American collegiate audience, Voegelin writes carefully, but not ploddingly, covering his bases, when he talks about ancient and medieval philosophy. But things get awful hurried and poorly-documented when he gets to his gnostic conspiracy theory. He can’t help it (well, maybe he could, if he threw his thesis overboard). There aren’t a lot of actual records of what the gnostics — and contemporary scholars often hate the word, because it implies a much more unitary movement than what record there is would suggest — actually believed or did. Most of what we “know” about Gnosticism comes from the records of the inquisitors who hounded them to destruction and burned their texts. Poor Voegelin- at the time he was writing in the early fifties, archaeologists were just piecing together the Nag Hammadi archive, the major source of stuff actually written by gnostics — about fifty texts in all — that we have. Voegelin wasn’t in the archaeology mafia, and translations wouldn’t appear until the sixties. Another way Strauss was lucky- he stuck to canon. Voegelin was more adventurous and it cost him.

But he did it to himself. Stuck-up German that he was, he should’ve known better than to just sort of slide a few half-apocryphal historical guesswork suggestion gnostic transmission from their utter destruction before the Late Antique period was out and into the 1200s, when Joachim of Fiore was doing his thing, let alone to Voltaire, Marx, and Hitler, into such a key place in his edifice. Amateur hour! The stupid thing is, he probably could have had his cake if he didn’t insist on eating it. He could’ve said the Enlightenment thinkers walked backwards into Gnosticism, reconstructing the creed (or Voegelin’s version of it) out of their interests, desires, and found intellectual parts. I’ve seen other right-wing theoreticians of history, lesser lights than Voegelin but perhaps more savvy, do stuff like that. The gnostics make great villains. You can argue that the Church instantiated their version of who the gnostics were, complete with weird rituals and underground dwellings, quite deep into the western idea of villainy, nestled comfortably next to stereotypes about Jews. John Whitbourn, who I’ve owned an email to for about eighteen months, made good use of gnostic villains in his anarcho-Jacobite fantasy stories. They’re a chestnut, and it’s easy enough to grow their ideas out of whatever soil you want to use for planting- intellectual pride, depression, decadence, neuroticism, whatever.

But no, that won’t do, not for Voegelin. Because ideas matter, dammit! And not in some positivist, pragmatic sense, some John Dewey feel-goodery where you pick what ideas “work!” They matter because they’re metaphysical concepts that we need to instantiate on earth to keep the darkness at bay, to make the world make sense. It’s touching, really, that Voegelin would want to extend this metaphysicality to his enemies, who he also regards as intellectually inferior (well, until you realize there’s really only one solution for dealing with them…). But it leads him to some excruciating readings of history and theory. I’m a lumper, rather than a splitter, in history- I like bigger categories than some people find legitimate. But everything from this Joachim guy to Keynes being a gnostic… when we barely know what they actually believed… and that it’s an actual intellectual lineage, a conscious project, like Catholic scholasticism! And he means it! That’s too much, man. He just gets himself deeper in the mire the further he goes until he sounds like Glenn Beck with a thesaurus. 

It’s funny but it’s also sad, and gets crooked as you figure it would. Voegelin was giving these talks at the behest of some conservative foundation trying to bolster the Cold War on campuses. John Whitbourn, the anarcho-Jacobite Catholic fantasist, would probably agree with Voegelin’s condemnation of the Puritans as the first truly modern gnostic totalitarian movement. But Whitbourn had the balls to include all of Protestantism in the condemnation, Luther right next to Cotton Mather. If Puritanism was a rebellion against the divine settlement of Catholicism, it had a starting point: the Reformation, on which good Catholic traditionalist, but better Americanized Cold War conservative Voegelin, does not lay a glove, and doesn’t even mention. Shameful! If you’re going to go down this crazy road, go all the way! Similarly, at the very end, Voegelin cops out when granting that the American Revolution and even the English Civil War — where, mind you, the Puritans executed a sitting king! — were ok, for reasons too boring to get into but translate to “conservative cold warrior Americans sign my checks, and while they’re fine digging at Puritans — Mencken did that after all — they won’t tolerate smacking down the founding fathers or parliamentarian oligarchy.” Lame. 

Well, campy conspiracy and lame-puts towards the end and all, I got a lot more enjoyment out of this than any right-wing material I’ve read recently. I don’t plan on chasing down any more Voegelin, and certainly not his little cadre of sad followers trying to pipe up with their imitation of the master’s erudition in the sea of bullshit on the right-wing internet. But this one was definitely well worth reading, in many of the veins in which my readings on the right work. *****

Review – Voegelin, “The New Science of Politics”

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