Eric Voegelin (1901–1985) penned an essay entitled On Classical Studies (1973)–an essay that was shaped by the Classical west and the Christian faith and is philosophically opposed to the distortions of Enlightenment rationalism.
Reading Voegelin is akin to reading Amos or Joel. But instead of ancient Israel, it is the modern academy that is being rebuked. Here are just a few portions from his essay On Classical Studies to illustrate the significant problem that had occurred by 1973, “the fragmentation of science through specialization and the deculturation of Western society…specialized histories…institutional reduction…the life of reason; the end of ineluctable condition of personal and social order, has been destroyed.” In addition, Voegelin says, “the climate of our universities certainly is hostile to the life of reason…the fanatically accelerated destruction of the university since the Second World War…a pathological deformation of existence.”
This essay is a powerful indictment of the spirit of the age and the 1970s that had been a logical extension of the 1960s and earlier. But, all is not lost. There are always those who are in opposition to the new dark ages of the modern university. Voegelin paints a dark picture of higher education, but does not despair.
At the very center of Voegelin’s critique is the observation that until the modern world there was a clear understanding of the nature of humanity. It is at this point that Voegelin does a masterful job of distinguishing between the Classical and the modern mind in several categories:
1) The nature of man
2) The movement from opinion to understanding
3) Society for humanity
4) The human being’s relation with the Divine
5) Humans seeking and reflecting
8) The nature of reality
9) Reason and freedom
There are numerous references to various philosophies and philosophers who shaped the modern mind, in particular Comte, Locke, Hegel, and Sartre. Voegelin encourages the modern person to expand the list that he started accordingly, especially in light of “the opinion literature and the mass media.” One phrase that Voegelin examines that has become normative in the modern university, including in Bible and Theology programs, is the use of the phrase “critical theory” which Voegelin says is “a euphemism for irrational, nihilistic opining.”
Some other prophetic phrases addressing the tone, telos, and tenor of the modern university found in this important essay include, the drivel of opinions…educational institutions have cut them off from the life of reason…and the flabbiness and emptiness of the institutionalized climate.” Voegelin conjectures about the future of historical sciences. He proposes that Classical Studies would be a sound ally to Historical Sciences if they would merely open up to Classical Studies. This did not happen. And it is not happening.
Upon conclusion of reading this essay by Voegelin, the reader could easily despair. His essay is significantly darker than many others considered in this series on Liberal Arts. What was occurring was properly diagnosed in the early 70s and has disintegrated to the point of complete functional ruin. On the other hand, homeschoolers, a handful of Christian schools not in line with the national norm of the public school, and many Classical Christian schools are communities of character and genuine learning. There is hope, small, but it is there.
For books by Eric Voegelin visit The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.