Reading Eric Voegelin gives one the satisfaction of reposing in fundamental truths about man and God. Yet it is no substitute for the duty and privilege of living one's life in openness to the promptings of Grace. And Voegelin does not deal with philosophic first principles per se ( Being and Essence , for example) nor does he expound a theology of prayer and love, sacramental life and scriptural devotion. What then is his value? Why not go directly to Theology and embrace the truths therein given us by God through Jesus Christ and through lesser agents, resting in that certain knowledge which is connatural with the love of God, available alike to the clever and the slow?
First, I would say that if one is raised in a healthy, holy environment, one can go directly to theology and bypass philosophy. But if one has endured an "enlightened" upbringing, then one may have suffered greatly and have been damaged in more ways than one can readily count up.
In my own case, although I had been always enrolled in Catholic schools right up to the moment when I first walked into Professor Voegelin's classroom, there was, in my mind, a definite wall between religion and serious modern scholarship. I took for granted the primacy of the natural sciences in speaking of the world and man's place in it. I rather accepted the notion that literature was subjective and irrational in its appeal. And I believe I was rather schizoid in a number of areas: for instance, I wanted religion to be true, but I was inclined to accept the notion of history's division into three phases, ancient, medieval, and modern, the second being a primitive melange of tribalism and Roman fragments, thankfully interred by the Renaissance and sodded over by the Enlightenment.
I rather accepted my Catholicism as an emotional attachment to a remnant of an earlier, better time. I clung to religion despite not getting good answers from the good priests and perhaps in part because there was a stench, a hateful miasma rising from the classrooms of the social scientists and the psychologists, the biologists and the literati, the moral philosophers and even the theologians. They knew not what they were doing. Many of course knew the limits of what they taught and advised students to find completion through an unrelated spiritual life.
So this is what Voegelin offered and offers to me:
1. A fundamental critique of modernity. He burns away the underbrush. He clears the paths. He makes visible once again the great trees: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, St. Thomas, Bruno, Bodin, and Schelling. And, of course, Voegelin himself IS one of the great trees! And his prophetic anger in the face of evil forces the reader to accept or reject his personality and thought. No fence-sitters need apply.
2. He always examined and showed the genealogy of the question with which he was dealing. Nothing just pops up out of nowhere without its historical context. His work is restoration, not invention, and he was deeply suspicious of anyone claiming to have made an important new discovery about man, society, or history. One does not talk about what it means "to be" without first reading the Greeks and mastering their exposition. Everything must be mastered and at the tip of one's fingertips. A scholar must do this or he cannot be a scholar. Translation is so difficult and uncertain that a scholar of a man must read that man in the language in which he wrote.
3. Not only does Voegelin lay bare the great "isms" like positivism, scientism and communism, he actually works his way through the materials and diagnoses the disorder in second-rate ideologues, such as Calvin, John Locke, Helvetius, Condorcet, J.S. Mill, and Sartre.
4. He extracts the useful from the poisonous shell from Hobbes, Voltaire, and even Marx and Freud.
5. He shows the essential role of literature, in exposing and explaining the pathos of an age, and he gives you the Egyptian Lamentation, the Deutero-Isaiah, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Henry James and T.S. Eliot.
6. He provides a wonderful and broad bibliography for the great questions of the ages. If one merely wants to know something about a particular problem, what does one do? Where does one begin? Well, for many, if not most problems, the work of analysis has been done by someone but how will you know where to look? After reading Voegelin for awhile you begin to figure out how to search, but he helps an awful lot, both with general notions and specific references.
7. He demonstrates a technique of philosophical-linguistic analysis which allows one to apply the same to everyday experience and show the fallacious assumptions of some supposedly learned men, the common mendacity of the media, and the systematic taboos applied by cultural elites to prevent an effective public examination of core issues and hidden motives.
I like to have fun with Voegelin, for as he reminded, life is a play ( this in context of THE LAWS), and one of the things I like best about the man was his sense of humor ( sometimes a little Teutonic)rather like a pathologist keeping his sense of proportion while sawing and cutting.
So I have decided to put up here on this web page a few observations from time to time, in the spirit, at least, of Eric Voegelin, if not with the trenchant voice and scholarly substance.