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Vico, Voegelin and the End of History
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-07-26 10:09:38
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My last contribution to Ovi magazine ended with a reference to the Christian concept of the end days, or the end of history. Of course I was not referring to Fukuiama’s End of History but rather to St. Augustine’s concept of history in his City of God. However, it is generally agreed among scholars that the father of modern historicism philosophically speaking is Giambattista Vico who published the Scienza Nuova in 1725. Another great political philosopher and historicist who came to the fore in the mid-19th century within the American academic world is Eric Voegelin. We have already looked at him briefly in another article (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/7374 ) where I compared his political philosophy to that of Leo Strauss and took a look at the divergence of their respective interpretation of Vico’s opus. I’d like to return to Voegelin as a genuine interpreter of Vico’s historicism.  

In 1952 Eric Voegelin published the first volume of the scholarly work for which he has became justifiably famous in the world of scholarship: The New Science of Politics. It contained a whole chapter dedicated to Vico’s historicism. Soon afterward, some scholars began talking of Voegelin’s work as another unique way of looking at history or a hitherto non-existing way of knowledge similar to Vico’s New Science. But that is misleading, for unlike Vico, Voegelin did not intend to convey that he himself had founded a new science, but rather that he had pulled together the widely scattered results of a “process of re-theoretization” that had been going on in different sciences since the beginning of the 20th century. He was searching for a theoretically intelligible order of history into which these variegated phenomena could be organized.

This general achievement can be represented best by the two concepts: “Order,” and “History.”  Voegelin assigns the crowning rank to a construction of history. He defined the nature of this construction thus: “The order of history is the history of order.” In constructing history, he first had to re-create a suitable concept of order. That concept of order is a far cry from that of most contemporary political scientists, not excluding that of Leo Strauss, as we have already seen in the above mentioned article. For him, as for Vico too, this means that the problems of political order can be rightly understood only as one adopts the position of the self-interpreting man, looking out on life, as it were, from the inside, trying to illumine from within the reality of self and of the larger manifestations of being.

The perspective is that of man participating in a whole in which he knows himself embedded without, however, being able to look on it from the vantage point of a completely detached outsider. Man thus explores himself, but he does so necessarily in a setting of larger realities that transcend his person, his community, and even the race as such. Political order inevitably involves symbolizations, mythologies and speculations concerning these transcending realities. As man relates his own fleeting existence to something that he experiences as foundation, he finds meaningful orientation possible. There is, in other words, a return to origins and without it man dehumanizes himself. This echoes Vico’s concept of self-knowledge.

For Voegelin, political thinking has a claim to the title “theory” only when motivated by a selfless love of truth. When political ideas root in a willfully chosen position” to which a system of facts is made subservient, they constitute a perversion for which Voegelin has reserved the term “ideology.” Which is to say,  we need to thank Voegelin for making it possible for our time to re-orient itself in terms other than ideology,  shoulder-shrugging pragmatism, or blind traditionalism. Voegelin, in fact, always denied that he had begun with a point of view or with a philosophical underpinning which he wished to propagate.

The “order of history” emerged in the studies of different types of political order. At a certain period, a widely prevalent form was that of the “cosmological empire,” in which the rhythmical pulse of nature, the cycle of fertility, divinities, and the political ruler were tightly packed into an undifferentiated ordered cosmos. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia are cases in point. Against their background, then, came significant discoveries: the discovery of the soul, that of a God of righteousness, that of eternity, that of life after death. Where such discoveries had been made, peoples were seized by a “new truth” which had turned their life in a new direction and lifted it to a higher plane. Thus the distinction between types of political order is more than a taxonomic one. It leads to the discovery of something Voegelin calls a “leap in being.”

One day, peoples, or rather, a particular people, found itself confronted with new insights, new symbols of reality, new visions of life, in the light of which the old order faded and became unlivable. Lest he live “improperly” man felt compelled to re-orient himself. Thus he experienced, in Voegelin’s words, a “turning around, the Platonic periugogi, an inversion or conversion toward the true source of order.” The leap of being thus involves a new order of existence, something which by comparison must clearly be called “higher” than the preceding order. In the total record of political order, certain peoples and places can be identified as steps or movements toward a higher insight into life’s meaning. As the movements of these people communicated themselves to all mankind, they must be considered representative. All of this echoes Vico’s three historical cycles: the cycle of the gods, the cycle of heroes and the cycle of men.

The succession of types of political order in time is not without meaning. While one cannot consider all of history as an intelligible data, lines of meaning are discoverable in the time sequence. A movement through time in the direction of a telos becomes evident and forms a legitimate and necessary object of speculation. History appears in an indistinguishable maze of meaningless events, as certain moments stand out fraught with profound and lasting significance. These moments, capable of being linked with each other, can be characterized as irruptions of the transcendence into man’s existence, the impact of the eternal on time. In this sense Voegelin remarks that only a people under God have history. This paradoxical concept of transcendence operating immanently within man’s history, the idea that man freely makes history and then history in turn makes man, is quite similar to Vico’s paradoxical concept of Providence which is both transcendent and immanent at the same time. What remains important is that man does not conceive these cycles in a deterministic mode and that he remains able to return imaginatively and even rationally to preceding cycles where the origin of his humanity lies.

It cannot be denied that the order of history has been the West’s besetting difficulty, ever since Voltaire demolished the last vestige of the Augustinian construction, in the form of Bossuet’s Histoire Universelle. Into the void rushed ideological substitutes, each more eager to impose its will to change things than the other. The first was Turgot’s teaching that impersonal forces linked by a universal causal nexus brought forth out of all human activities, even the most destructive ones, the automatic progress of “the total mass of mankind.” Turgot was followed by Condorcet, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Herder, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Comte, Spencer, Spengler, Toynbee, to name just the more prominent among the creators of historicist ideologies. For two centuries, the West never got over the original shift of the subject character from man to History itself. The process of “becoming” was construed as if it were a substance, certainly as something that propelled itself according to its own impersonal laws, men being nothing but products or adjuncts. Hence we now are in the habit of saying “history decrees. . . ,” “history moves . . . ,” “in accordance with history . . . ,” “we are on the side of history…” Those who desired to study human affairs hoped to find the key in an exploration of this mysteriously forward moving force, history. That is true not only for Marx, but, through Comte and Mill, for the entire Western intelligentsia. All modern ideologies, including those that created the aggressive totalitarianisms of our age, have substituted the knowledge of history for ontology and ethics.

One thing is presently sure: after Hegel, one cannot simply go back to Augustine. To hang the entire concept of history on to a structure of sacred events was possible then but is not possible now. Eric Voegelin was acutely aware of this and so, very much like Vico, he returned to Augustine in constructing the order of history on certain life-shaping experiences that happened to men in certain times and places, rather than on an assumption of forward pushing forces. In a number of respects, however, he has gone beyond Augustine. Beyond Augustine, that is, in his method, disciplined and critical scientific concepts. Beyond Augustine, too, is his range of evidence. Like Augustine, Voegelin explores, not only the meaning of history, but evidence concerning the meaning of time appearing in history. Although the evidence does point to movement in a certain direction, Voegelin, just as Vico, not falsify it by making it deterministic through an assumption of automatic progress. Nor does he admit the ideological twist that makes the perspectives of meaning in history meet at a point within time when man’s destiny shall be fulfilled. Methodically as well as empirically, a rational order of history can be construed only in terms of an eschaton, a terminal point or a telos, located beyond time. It is such a concept of history that alone makes possible an idea of mankind that does not deteriorate into the narcissistic idolatrous substitute-for-God notion of humanity set up by Comte as the proper object of worship.

This very brief survey of Voegelin historicism, echoing Vico’s, as Voegelin himself frankly acknowledges, may give some Ovi readers an inkling of what Voegelin meant when he remarked that only a people under God have a history and of how important historicism remains to understand anything about the European cultural identity. For after all, the Incarnation did not take place in a theoretical Mount Olympus but at a particular time, at a particular place, within a particular people; and so, no history, no Christianity, no Christianity, no multiculturalism and no EU either as conceived by the EU founding fathers. Perhaps it is time to return to their vision!


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