Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Fallacies of Voegelian Antiliberalism

Fall 2000

Published Essays, 1953-1965: The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 11 Edited by Ellis Sandoz (University of Missouri Press, 2000 lx + 273 pgs.)

Among many American conservatives, Eric Voegelin ranks as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. Even the merest glance at the present selection of his essays suffices to show the qualities that impressed, among others, Russell Kirk and M.E. Bradford. For one thing, Voegelin's erudition staggers belief.In the present work, e.g., Voegelin comments on gnostic elements in the Gospel of John, Henri Bergson's notion of an open society (far different from Karl Popper's), Maurice Hauriou's theory of institutions, and R.G. Collingwood's Manichaean philosophy of history. One would, I think have to go back to A.E. Taylor and Etienne Gilson to find philosophical scholars who matched his learning.

Given his impressive achievements, the question arises: Is Voegelin a writer whom classical liberals should view as a master thinker? At times he makes comments very much in line with Mises, whose seminar in Vienna he attended. He fully grasps, as few of his contemporaries did, that increases in wages depend on rises in productivity. Often technological developments make labor more efficient, and workers under capitalism benefit from what they do not directly cause: "Above all there was posed the basic issue as to what right labor could have to claim a proportionally equal share of yearly profits from the increases in productivity. This is because the production increases in single industries depend on the society's overall state of technology. Why the profits from these entrepreneurial achievements should accrue to labor in this or that firm, or why they should not be translated into price decreases (which would benefit all consumers) is not altogether clear" (p. 210).

Voegelin holds no illusions, either, about the motives of government bureaucrats. They do not selflessly devote themselves to the public interest: quite the contrary, they are the playthings of special interest groups. He trenchantly remarks: "Wherever we undergo the coercive division of the federal budget into subsidies, we could assemble lists of profiteers and parasitic existences on which probably every sizable group in German industrial society would have its own representatives" (p. 214). Voegelin here speaks of Germany in the 1960s, but he clearly wishes his point to apply more generally.

Unfortunately, Voegelin by no means benefitted to the maximum extent from Mises's seminar. He opposes "dogmatic" adherence to laissez_faire, since the economic model on which classical liberalism was based has collapsed. "When society differentiated into capitalist and worker, the model of the society of free, equal citizens was overtaken by a reality that pressed toward the crisis of class struggle. There arose the social-ethical problematic, which after long political struggles led to the massive introduction of socialist elements into the liberal economic structure" (p. 96).

Voegelin neither supports these socialist measures uncritically nor opposes them root_and_branch. He, for one, is no ideologist, he is anxious to inform us. He has learned from Aristotle that, in political affairs, general principles do not dictate concrete policies. Prudence must be our guide: a fixed rule, e.g., "no governmental interference in the economy," violates Aristotelian wisdom.

But am I not, as usual, being unfair? Voegelin was not an economist. Why then judge him by whether his opinions on economic topics always conform to Misesian orthodoxy? To do so seems to be an example of the ideological dogmatism our author combatted so valiantly. Should he not be assessed in accord with his true métier, that of a philosopher who sees far beyond the superficialities of lesser minds?

But here is where the real trouble starts. When Voegelin addresses the ideas of classical liberalism, his capacious mind draws a blank. He misconceives the doctrines and personalities of nineteenth_century liberalism in a bizarre way.

Two examples must here suffice. The great French liberal Charles Comte wrote of a "permanent revolution." The institutions of society never perfectly meet ideal requirements. Hence they stand always subject to reform, by peaceful means. What could be more harmless?

To Voegelin, Comte's phrase manifests a revolutionary ardor to overturn the order of being. Comte's view denies that the world and the human beings who inhabit it are composed of fixed essences. As such, it stands in the same line as Leon Trotsky's doctrine of permanent revolution. "Charles Comte's idea that the goal of the revolution could be achieved through a constant process of reform, without the unpleasant side effects, belongs in the gnostic-utopian class. Liberalism too is a part of the revolutionary movement that lives to the extent that it moves. From Charles Comte to Trotsky there runs a line of growing insight that the reform movement, to which liberalism also belongs, is a unique state of affairs insofar as its final goal cannot be actualized" (p. 89).

What nonsense! Voegelin, by playing fast_and_loose with terms such as "gnostic derailment" has lumped two diametrically opposed political programs into one revolutionary movement. What has peaceful change aimed at a free economy to do with a world revolutionary plan to abolish capitalism? Does it not make more sense to see Comte's idea of reform as an instance of precisely the Aristotelian prudence our author is so concerned elsewhere to celebrate?

But it gets worse. The great German liberal Wilhelm von Humboldt fervently championed individual freedom. His stress on the creative powers of persons left free by the state famously inspired John Stuart Mill, who quotes Humboldt in On Liberty. To Voegelin, though, things are not as they seem. Humboldt, one of the founders of the University of Berlin, wanted students to cultivate their humanity rather than receive tutelage in state administration. As such, was he not a precursor of the Nazis?

Surely, you may think, I have gone too far in my exercise in caricature. No one could possibly say what I have attributed to Voegelin. But, as always, I am a sober voice of moderation. "Humboldt expressly expounded the antithesis between the political citizen of the ancient polls and the apolitical citizens of the constitutional government of his times. In his educational ideal he decided for the second type. In this special idea there is scarcely a trace of the Platonic conception of education as the art of periagoge [turning around] toward the goal of spiritual order of man and of society. In contrast, if you draw out the lines of this idea there is sketched out for us in its results the political-spiritual vacuum of a nation in which unfortunate things like National Socialism could be spawned" (p. 219).

Contained within this passage is the key to Voegelin's thought and, not by accident, the reason friends of freedom should steer clear of him. As Voegelin sees matters, man exists in tension between the ordinary world and the Divine Ground. If you ask what this means, I am afraid that you do not grasp the point.

Knowledge of the order of being cannot be stated in ordinary sentences: to think otherwise is to be guilty of what Voegelin terms a "fundamentalist fallacy." On the contrary, we can only symbolize the Higher Things. These endeavors are based on the mystical experiences of certain persons whose spiritual development has world_historical importance. (Voegelian himself, one is given to understand in Anamnesis, is a mystic of some standing.)

Now comes what for our purposes is the vital issue. The leaders of the state must somehow represent the order of being by the way they organize society. People must not be left to their own devices, as classical liberals mistakenly think. An elite of true philosophers must, on the contrary, organize society so that Platonic education of the soul may take place.

Thus, our author views with great sympathy the contention of the French legal philosopher Maurice Hauriou that a society must be organized according to a directing idea (idée directrice) imagined by an elite. Hauriou erred, however, in failing to see that the elite should not pluck the directing idea from their imaginations. They need instead (you will have guessed) to consult the Divine Ground through mystical participation.

Here danger threatens. Some political and religious movements fail to realize that the Divine Ground can be conceptually grasped only in symbols. They try to build a divine society on earth: in so doing, they seek to derail the order of being. These attempts to, in a famous phrase, "immanentize the eschaton," lead quickly to disaster.

These misguided movements need by no means be explicitly religious. Quite the contrary, Marxism, National Socialism, and classical liberalism all pervert, in their various ways, spiritual symbols to purely mundane ends.

I shrink from the broad and ambitious task of evaluation of Voegelin's philosophy. Even the lesser labor of translation into clear English eludes me. But one glaring weakness in the edifice must at once strike the attentive reader. Even if mystics grasp an incommunicable Divine Ground that they can at best symbolize, why need this have anything to do with the state? In what way is a monopoly apparatus of coercion suited to represent the order of being? When Voegelin ascends to his Olympian heights, he neglects his insight, earlier quoted, concerning the malign pressures of special interest groups on the state. Is the corrupt plaything of pressure groups a fit agency to represent Divine order?

As to the mystical philosophy itself, readers must consult Voegelin's extended account in Anamnesis and volumes 4 and 5 of Order and History and judge for themselves. I permit myself one observation. Although Voegelin describes with elaborate care the "differentiation in being" achieved by Judaism and Christianity, he presents what to my mind is a distorted account of these religions. His convoluted exposition of mystical participation falls within the appeal to the "religious genius" memorably condemned by Karl Barth in his commentary on Romans. One wonders whether, to Voegelin, the God of whom he so often speaks is a personal being at all. R.J. Rushdony hit the nail on the head when he characterized Voegelin as himself a gnostic. Readers may profit greatly from Voegelin's learning, but those in search of philosophical or political wisdom had best proceed with caution.


Close Window