Picture of Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901 - 1985): Political Scientist and Philosopher of History

Photograph: Eric Voegelin Archiv, Munich.

Even though his most important works are on intellectual history and on the philosophy of history, Eric Voegelin primarily considered himself a political scientist. He regarded it as his most important task to revitalize the science of political order with the help of an exegesis of classical religious and philosophical scriptures. In Voegelin's opinion our knowledge of political order should be based on an authentic experience of transcendence fostered by the words of eminent philosophers and prophets; an experience that has largely fallen into oblivion due to the processes of secularization in modern times. Voegelin was firmly convinced that the Western societies can only withstand the temptation of totalitarian ideology by regaining a proper consciousness of transcendent "reality".

In his early period (until 1938) Eric Voegelin tended to an authoritarian conservativism, somewhat influenced by the ideals of the circle around the sectarian german poet Stefan George. Although Eric Voegelin was certainly not a democrat at this time, his rejection of National Socialism must still be considered as genuine. When Austria was unified with the German Reich in 1938, Voegelin, who was then living in Vienna, had to flee from the Gestapo. Together with his wife Lissy he emigrated to the U.S., where he found a new home in Baton Rouge in Louisiana. His time in Baton Rouge may justifiably be considered as the most important creative period in Voegelin's life: It was during this period that the first three volumes of "Order and History" originated and that Voegelin wrote his programmatic "New Science of Politics".

Most important during this period is Voegelin's determined embracing of Christianity and antique philosophy. Already in the 1930s Voegelin had promoted a more or less mythological view of politics. In this later period it is more and more the christian religion as well as a very christian reading of the ancient greece philosophers that provides the core of religious "truths" for Voegelin's political philosophy. At the same time Voegelin radicalizes his polemic against secularization in modern times, which he holds to be responsible for the rise of totalitarianism. This may sound somewhat naive, but still one must admit that the renaissance of Christian ethics in post war Germany had a certain right of the time on its side. After the outrageous crimes of National Socialism a return to Christian values and to the Christian tradition was certainly a very reasonable reaction. (The same would hold true for a return to the values of enlightment; a fact that Voegelin, however, would have been very hesitant to admit.) This taken for granted it remains more than doubtful that the turning away from Christianity is a good scientific explanation for the rise of totalitarianism, as Voegelin undoubtedly believed it to be.

In 1958 Voegelin once more returned to Europe, where he teached Political Science in Munich. When he went back to the U.S. after about one decade, he had become quite outfashioned in Germany. That he can still be counted to the mentors of the 1968 student revolt in Germany is presumably due to the strong moralistic trait in his teaching as well as the uncompromising manner with which he was talking about Germany's totalitarian past in his lectures.

Voegelin died in 1985 in Palo Alto, California.

For an introduction into Voegelin's thinking, I can recommend the Voegelin's "Autobiographical Reflections". It contains a very understandable and easy to read description of the main themes of Voegelin's (late) philosophy.

Further information on Eric Voegelin can be found on the website of the Eric Voegelin Institute in Louisiana or at the Eric Voegelin Archiv in Munich.

For myself, I have a very critical opinion about Voegelin's philosophy, the reasons for which I have put down in detail in my book on Voegelin's philosophy of consciousness. Have a look at it, if you like. (The book is written in German!) The most important points of my criticism of Voegelin are summarized in Chapter 5.3 and Chapter 6.

CC0 To the extent possible under law, Eckhart Arnold has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to the short biography Eric Voegelin (1901 - 1985): Political Scientist and Philosopher of History. This work is published from: Germany.