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 leaned towards an authoritarian conservatism. For some time, he tried to position himself within the National Socialist political discourse. To this end he wrote two books on race theory, which must be seen as a constructive-critical contribution to racism as a "political idea", not at all as a critique of racism as Voegelin later claimed. Otherwise he would hardly have sent his books to leading Nazi ideologues such as Alfred Bäumler and Ernst Krieck, explicitly emphasizing his Aryan descent in the accompanying letter to Krieck. Voegelin did not take a clearly critical view of racism until later in his American exile. His book about the authoritarian corporative state in Austria still seeks proximity to fascist and National Socialist theorists. His attempts in to get a professorship in National Socialist Germany remained unsuccessful, however. With his book "The Political Religions" he turned against National Socialism for the first time in 1938. When a few month after its publication Austria was unified with the German Reich, 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 greek 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 a return to the Christian values and tradition in the post war period was certainly a reasonable reaction to the outrageous crimes of National Socialism (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 also found adherents among the 1968 student revolt in Germany is presumably due to the strong moralistic trait in his teaching as well as the fact that he was speaking quite openly about Germany's totalitarian past in his lectures - denying, however, his own former sympathies for National Socialism.

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. As a historical source it is not always reliable, though. 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.

My own opinion about Voegelin's philosophy is rather critical. The introduction of religious premises into science is questionable in itself. But I see the main problem of Voegelin's religiously grounded political philosophy in its tendency to deny the right to political participation to people how are assumed to suffer from a lack of spiritual openness. If put into practice this would lead to a theocratical state like the one in Iran. The importance of spiritual openness for the political order is doubtful, if only because there does not seem to be any causal connection between the lack of spiritual openness, as Voegelin understands it, and actual political disorder. For Voegelin the maximum of spiritual openness had been reached in the pre-reformatory medieval christianity. How this relates to heresy persecutions, witch burnings, crusades and progroms against the Jews, i.e. phenomena of political disorder that would hardly have been conceivable in this form without the rule of the Christian religion in the Middle Ages, Voegelin is unable to explain.

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.