Whatever his criticisms of liberalism, progressivism, and socialism, Eric Voegelin shunned the word and the concept of “conservatism,” claiming that his ideas could never be harnessed by any political movement.
Arrested by the Nazis in 1938, Voegelin had already established himself in the U.S. and in Europe as a formidable scholar. In Europe, he had studied with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. In England, he had studied with classicist Gilbert Murray, and, in the United States, he had studied with John Dewey. In 1933, he published his first two books, Race and State and The History of the Race Idea. Three years later, he wrote The Authoritarian State. And, in the same year the National Socialists arrested him, he had written The Political Religion, in which Voegelin first advanced his most important idea that all modern ideologies stemmed from the anti-Christian heresy of Gnosticism. No fan of any form of liberalism, Voegelin stressed in this 1938 book that “the doctrine of humanitarianism is the soil in which such anti-Christian religious movements as National Socialism were able to prosper.” No wonder that Hitler personally signed Voegelin’s arrest order.
In his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, Voegelin explained his position on Gnosticism with relatively clarity.
The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and he had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline. A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes civilization in an empire under its rule. Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.
Whatever his criticisms of liberalism, progressivism, and socialism, Voegelin shunned the word and the concept of “conservatism,” claiming that his ideas could never be harnessed by any political movement. William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, he thought,
didn’t understand him. They didn’t understand him, and he simply shrugged it off. I don’t know whether he was even pleased by this kind of attention. I mean, he knew that these accolades translated into generous financial support for his research from conservative foundations, and Eric was in that sense a Machiavellian: he would simply be friendly and he would accept the money, but he would not accept any conditions. And I think they never made any conditions.
Regardless, Voegelin accepted conservative money numerous times in his career.
Not surprisingly, scholars in his own day and age have found Voegelin brilliant, but frustrating. Praising his exacting scholarship and tight argumentation regarding the history of the ideas of race, racialism, and racism, sociologist Robert Nisbet lamented that while almost everyone knew of Voegelin, hardly anyone had actually read him. Even the most learned, though, Nisbet cautioned, would find Voegelin frustrating in his exactness and, especially, in his wallowing in his own terminology, not easily understood or rendered into modern English. Here’s an example of Voegelin’s dense prose.
To set up a government is an essay in world creation. Out of a shapeless vastness of conflicting human desires rises a little world of order, a cosmic analogy, a cosmion, leading a precarious life under the pressure of destructive forces from within and without, and maintaining its existence by the ultimate threat and application of violence against the internal breaker of its law as well as the external aggressor. The application of violence, though, is the ultimate means only of creating and preserving a political order, it is not its ultimate reason: the function proper of order is the creation of a shelter in which man may give to his life a semblance of meaning.
Meaningful and fascinating, to be sure. But, nonetheless, dense, perhaps unnecessarily so. And, here he is, a page later, attempting to clarify.
But the utilitarian argument, while not being without sense in justifying a political order, does not reach the emotional center of the [cosmion], this center being the desire to create a world of meaning out of these human [emotions/aspirations/appetites] and desires, such as the desire for procreation and to outlive the fragmentary personal life by a projection into the life of [emotion and character] or of a more comprehensive tribal or national group; the desire to give the questionable achievements of an individual life an added meaning by weaving it into the texture of group achievement.
Still, Nisbet gushed, “Voegelin has done more than any other philosopher with whom I am acquainted—with the exception of St. Augustine—to bring an empirical, reasoned conception of individual consciousness as the dynamo of history.”
One of Voegelin’s early friends and colleagues—they were members of the George Fleischer Society together—considered the Austrian in a very different light. He was, Aurel Kolnai claimed “a fascist savant of rare acumen and coolness.”
With Nisbet, though, Russell Kirk took this enthusiasm to the level of ecstasy.
With Gabriel Marcel, the historian of this school–let us call it, for our immediate purposes, the Christian school of historical scholarship–sets his face against ‘this crowned ghost, the meaning of history.’ For the ends of man and society are not to be found in history: those ends are transcendent, attaining fruition only beyond the limits of the time and space which we know in this little world of ours. History has many meanings, but they are particular meanings for the regulation of private conduct and public polity, not a Gnostic plan for immanent regeneration before which we must abase ourselves. Who are the historians of this Christian school? To name three almost at random, St. Augustine, Bossuet, Edmund Burke, Professor Voegelin is our present principal representative of this body of conviction, which he advances with impressive scholarship and systematic argument.
From Kirk’s perspective, Voegelin’s work undid all of the errors of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
Voegelin, however, bristled at the attention given to him by conservatives such as Kirk. One of his students remembered Kirk visiting Voegelin at Stanford and the chilliness that separated them.
I once saw Russell Kirk at Stanford. Lissy called me up and said, “You have to come over, because I’ve scratched myself bloody in the back of my head. Here you have these two idiots, my husband and Russell Kirk, staring at each other and mumbling one-sentence statements and then falling silent again.” I thought she was making it up, but I went over there around nine o’clock in the evening and it was exactly like that: Eric Voegelin and Russell Kirk were sitting at opposite ends of the room, both smoking cigars and emitting phrases and then falling silent. They had nothing to say to each other. Russell Kirk was a little bit more willing to add maybe a sentence or two to the original sentence, but Voegelin was totally out of it. He hoped that Russell Kirk would go away! When we drove him to the hotel, I had to go with them; I was not allowed to drive home. Voegelin said “No, we have to talk about this experience.” So, we drove Kirk to the hotel, then we came back and talked about him and the idiocy of American conservatism.
Voegelin, it should be admitted, might very well have been an enemy of progressivism, but that did not, as his views and personal habits demonstrated, make him a conservative.
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