Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hesperado Book Club

Selected writings of Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) in the context of a discursus on Universalism (and its deformation into PC MC)

The problem is that Universalism isn't a quantity that can be measured, or dosed. It's divine revelation itself, which, as Voegelin reminded us, not only irrupted into (and then over centuries was expressed by) Israel, and then Christianity, but also was experienced in Graeco-Roman culture in various places and times by various individuals (Homer, Hesiod, the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, later post-Platonic philosophers, Cicero, Chrysippus, Marcus Aurelius -- not to mention the sundry mythologoumena spanning a good millennium or two, for much of which Aristotle, in his elderly wisdom recognized himself a "philomyther"), and woven into the fabric of its complex tapestry of a mythos -- also uniquely illuminated and complicated by the Greek discovery of Noesis (otherwise known as "Reason").

The West seems to have been uniquely graced with this revelation, although there are glimmers of it in Chinese civilization, as Voegelin explored in one chapter of his fourth volume of Order and History.

While of course I am not saying that this epiphany has not been misused, misunderstood, misapplied, deformed, and caricatured in various ways by various Westerners through various sociopolitical movements, the problem of why this has happened, and continues to happen in myriad ways is not to be found outside of the process in some demonized scapegoat, but rather reflects an internal syndrome of a diseased patient we do not want to kill, but rather want to try to treat. As Plato and Aristotle knew -- indeed it was the genius of Graeco-Roman culture in general (with, of course, various exceptions) as Eric Voegelin analyzed in his superb essay Reason: The Classic Experience -- the treatment, the healing process is perennial and mysteriously resistant to perfection (indeed, the bewitching seduction of Perfection is one major aspect of the pneumopathology under treatment).

This revelation of Universalism is part and parcel, indissolubly and reflecting extraordinary complexities, with other related symbolisms such as "Mankind" and "Human Nature" and "Human Being", etc. It has also unfolded as a process over large arcs of history with, again, extraordinary complexities, woven into massive civilizational movements, of which "Judaeo-Christian" and "Graeco-Roman" are mere rubrics easily misleading when encouraging over-simplification. In short, it's not just some nice idea we can "measure out" like a spice or tabasco sauce.

One concrete problem that arises from over-simplification is precisely the fixation on "liberals" and "Leftists" and "Marxists" as the all too handy Satanas Ex Machina explaining large and seemingly intractable sociopolitical problems that beset the West. Eric Voegelin not only had to labor through the production of four dense tomes with his Order and History grappling with these problems of Modernity -- it is safe to say that his entire career of profoundly erudite scholarship in the philosophy of history, spanning a remarkable career of books and essays from the 1920s clear through to his deathbed in 1985 (when he was still revising his final work, Quod deus dicitur, otherwise titled as "In Search of the Search" reflecting the mysterious paradox that is at the heart of Western philosophy and theology), was a grappling with this phenomenon.

The closest Voegelin came to "naming the disease" was with his term "modern Gnosticism" (first introduced to pop Academe in his slim paperback Science, Politics and Gnosticism.  He certainly saw Marxism as one important feature of that (ironically, some of his detractors accused him of obsessing about Marxism, as well as Hegelianism, as a bĂȘte noire -- reflecting, however, a typical misunderstanding of his analyses). But it is going too far and smacks of Gnosticism itself to erect Marxism as, in effect, the cosmic Demiurge and aeonic Enemy of Mankind, as so many in the Counter-Jihad do (particularly many of those of the "Gates of Vienna Circle" in their more or less witting consanguinity with Breivik).

As for the roots of the modern Western transmutation of its own Universalism into the cheaper knock-off (or, as Voegelin would term it, "deformation") -- PC MC -- my Montaigne essay attempted to palpate the question.  In this regard, I would follow Voegelin, though he never used the term "PC MC" and didn't like to use the terms "Leftist" or "liberal" or "conservative" either. His terms were Noesis (classical Reason) and pneumatic Revelation on the healthy side, as it were, of Western Civilization. A typical phrase of his is, for example:

...the Platonic conception of education as the art of periagoge [turning around] toward the goal of spiritual order of man and of society.

On the unhealthy side, he used the term Gnosticism most broadly, with other terms describing the disease, such as "deformation", "revolt", "alienation", etc. The revolt and alienation in question here are postures taken against the order of the cosmos (the classical equivalent to the order of Judaeo-Christian Creation).

Where ancient Gnostics sought a spiritual escape from this wicked cosmos/Creation -- and thought they had found the "key" of hidden knowledge showing the way to escape back to their true home -- modern Gnosticism sought to try transform this world, chiefly through violent revolution and/or conquest.

Voegelin certainly considered Marxism to be one historical expression of modern Gnosticism, but he found precursors related in broad terms -- by sharing approximately same mindset of "alienation" from and "revolt" against the cosmos -- in the century before Marxism was explicitly developed: i.e., in the 18th century Enlightenment.

However, Voegelin went further back, and traced roots to this "revolt" of Modernity in centuries before the 18th. He was all set to continue his multi-volume analysis of the history of the disease of Modernity (The History of Political Ideas) and had published eight volumes (along with a parallel study called "Modernity Without Restraint") before he realized the problem he was grappling with was too complex to be approached in a typical history of ideas format. At this point he embarked on his Order and History -- and even after the first three volumes he had another realization about the complexity of the problem that profoundly altered his methodology, reflected in the long foreword to volume four ("The Ecumenic Age").

In a nutshell, Voegelin traces the roots of the problem of Modernity all the way back to the "ecumenic age", his term for roughly the period of 300 BC to 300 AD. But he didn't merely restrict his search for the roots of disorder to a timeline; more deeply, he diagnosed the roots to be a perennial constant in human nature and human culture. This latter realization is most amazingly articulated in what I think is his best piece of writing, published rather late in his life, a long essay entitled "Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation". Among other things, he comes to the conclusion in that essay that the Gnostic "temptation" -- the seduction of the "extreme" of perfection -- is part of human nature, and that what distinguishes the ordered soul from the Gnostic is not that they are two types of human being, but simply that the former resists that temptation -- though Voegelin is literate enough to know, and acknowledge, that the mystery of grace (which he noted had its pre-Christian equivalents in various Graeco-Roman philosophers, chiefly Plato) is a crucial factor in this regard.

Nevertheless, Voegelin didn't dissolve the problem in abstruse mush, as may possibly be inferred from my rather sketchy description above. His aforementioned The History of Political Ideas contains copious and detailed studies of key figures in the history of the West, including Marx and Engels, along with Comte, Diderot, Condorcet, Voltaire, and dozens of others -- whose primary works Voegelin read in their original languages.

Noteworthy also was Hegel in the pantheon of the pneumopaths diagnosed by Voegelin. His essay "On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery" is particularly apt in this regard.  Another was Nietzsche.  In his seventh volume of his History of Political Ideas, he puts Nietzsche's "revolt against god" in fascinating context of Pascal's philosophy; and elsewhere, in his essay "The Eclipse of Reality", he explores this further using the insights of a little known German poet known as "Jean-Paul" (1763-1825; full name Johann Paul Friedrich Richter), whose spiritual health Voegelin unstintingly approved of as an antidote to Nietzsche's "deformation".

A fairly good if rather verbose) overview on Voegelin's thought may be found here.

Does the term "Universalism" implicitly connote a blanket application?  Yes, but not necessarily indiscriminately. This I maintain remains a pragmatic issue, not an existential one -- except insofar as we recognize that the imperfections (including the differentation of Mankind) are part of the mystery of existence. The application thereafter, however, should remain pragmatic. There should be no problem with a balance that respects the revelation of Universalism, while balancing that with the recognition of the mystery of imperfection and differentiation of Mankind. Problems only arise when the level of pragmatism is left behind for some existential goal -- either in the direction of a utopian Universalism, or in the opposite direction of a Hobbesian tribalism.

Is Universalism the ultimate form of cultural and moral relativism?  Only ideally; not when tempered with pragmatism. The Christian concept of a distinction or tension between "this life" and the "next life" afforded a useful framework for retaining the ideal (eschatologically) while recognizing its limitations (in history). This tensional balance has been perennially liable to imbalance insofar as there is always the temptation to "immanentize the eschaton" -- either by enthusiastic Christians, or by various modern Gnostic movements. That doesn't vitiate the virtue of the balance. A paideia based on that virtue is a pragmatic goal; though it will always be a struggle, beset by various forms of imperfection.

Universalism is not some kind of unfortunate tendency in Western history. Though it is a mysterious source of the ongoing problem, to construe it as some sort of a strangely necessary vice lugged around by Westerners as part of their heritage-baggage is curiously, and grievously, to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is not only a source of the problem, it is also the source of the West's greatness by which it distinguished itself, spectacularly, from all other cultures in history. It is also the revelation of love itself, whose call to all Mankind is simultaneously a noble mystery contiguous with divinity itself; and a seduction unto a utopianism ranging from the mistaken to the disastrous. Neither pole of this tension should be sacrificed for the other.

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