Liberalism and the Search for the Ground: Another Visit with Eric Voegelin
From the desk of Thomas F. Bertonneau on Sun, 2010-02-07 15:14
Western society, including North American society, is, then, positively something, a “this” and not a “that,” whose plasticity, while ample, nevertheless falls short of the limitless and whose viability if not mortality corresponds to those limits. A successful attempt to “change” this society, such as the one currently being organized by Barack Hussein Obama and his political minions, will be indistinguishable from a successful attempt to destroy the society. We must not think that the recent electoral development in Massachusetts alters the long-range plan of the Obama regime. The consequence of “transforming America” (or any other Western nation) will not be the utopian dream world of the regnant radical usurpation, which remains unrealizable; it will simply be destruction in and for itself: Widespread misery compounded in equal parts of manipulative tyranny through bureaucratic regulation and the hedonistic chaos of entitlement-driven demands. Governments will exploit carefully created divisions to squelch dissent through “hate-speech” laws and programs of so-called anti-discrimination.
One important problem that stands in the way of our coming to grips with the current crisis – or with the current phase of the extended crisis – is the inadequacy of our vocabulary. Voegelin stands ready to serve us, for one reason, because he made it an important part of his task to set definitions straight and clear up obscurities that, in the centuries since the Eighteenth, have progressively muddied public discourse. I propose, in what follows, to summarize and comment on two of Voegelin’s independent essays from the 1960s – “Liberalism and Its History” (written 1960; published 1974) and “In Search of the Ground” (1965), the last originating as a lecture delivered in Montreal.
I. That “change,” alternatively “progress,” of the activist variety, as advocated by radicals, actually means destruction and that the identity of the two locutions goes largely unnoticed are two facts that together adequately characterize the delusional state of our contemporary politics. The term “liberal,” like the term “change,” lends itself rather more to mendacious abuse than to just employment, especially when adopted as a label by the Left, which likes to hide its havoc-making program of transforming the un-transformable beneath the “L-word’s” ointment-like blandness. That the term “liberal” had long since devolved into something meaningless or misleading struck Voegelin already in the 1960s as a hindrance to transparent discourse. A philosopher particularly of history, Voegelin naturally addressed the term in respect of its specific temporal origin and its subsequent varying usage in modern political oratory. Voegelin remarks right away, in “Liberalism and its History,” that as distinct items of discourse both “liberal” and “Liberalism” emerged quite recently and contingently in a locus little suspected by their current users.
“The word liberal,” as Voegelin notes, “appears for the first time in the second decade of the nineteenth century when a party of the Spanish Cortes of 1812 called itself the Liberales.” These Spanish liberals, constitutionalists who opposed restoration of the monarchy, welcomed the abolition of stultifying class-differences and the diminution of clerical influence on their national polity; their cause sprang from Napoleon’s peninsular campaigns, some effects of which they wished to preserve, and Napoleon’s campaigns sprang in turn from the French Revolution and its imperial metamorphosis. In Voegelin’s observation, “Liberalism is a political movement in the context of the surrounding Western revolutionary movement”; and then again “the new attitude is so tightly bound up with the attitudes it opposes that the entire complex of attitudes becomes a unity of meaning that overshadows each of its elements.”
In Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, Liberalism came to denominate a political position that endorsed selected results of revolution while disdaining – or at any rate claiming to disdain – the violent means utilized by the Jacobin insurrectionists in attaining them. Because the year 1789, the year of the Bastille, represented not the last but merely the first in an indefinite succession of revolutionary waves, the immediately post-revolutionary Liberalism, as instantiated for example by the Spanish Liberales, swiftly found itself surpassed by new pitches of revolutionary radicalism. Some self-denominating liberals, unwilling to ape the ever-more-stringent attitude of the rising revolutionary demand, became conservatives: they endorsed the abolition of monarchy; they preferred a constitutional order and representative institutions to despotic ones, but they resisted a violent attack on habit and custom and they increasingly understood themselves as not Socialists or Communists or atheist-crusaders against Christian doctrine, but rather as the resistance to these movements.
Some of these classical liberals continued indeed to call themselves liberals, while others, more carefully attuned to the relation between language and the existing political situation, began to use the term “conservative.” Other people, also calling themselves liberals, nevertheless used the term to denote something quite different from what men of cautious, constitutionally democratic outlook meant by the same gloss.
In France, Charles Comte, not a relation of Auguste Comte but, like his namesake, a man of the Left, used his periodical Globe to make manifest his agenda of la révolution permanente. This “permanent revolution” would bring about radical social change, not through direct upheaval and insurrection, as in active revolution, but rather through “peaceful change.” Voegelin writes: “The idea of peaceful change – a policy of timely adaptation to the social situation that, in the age of the industrial revolution, changes very quickly – has become today a constant in all shades of liberalism.”
When we examine the present scene in the United States, we discover just this conceit in the rhetoric of the sitting Democrat-dominated federal government. Vehement commitment to “progress” (“change we can believe in,” as Obama’s electoral slogan put it) differs hardly at all, perhaps only in a few small degrees, from vehement commitment to “permanent revolution,” quite as Leon Trotsky understood when he revived Comte’s coinage in his new Bolshevik context. Voegelin writes: “The radical revolutionary must make the revolution into a permanent condition… for as soon as a plateau of stabilization is permitted, the revolution is over.”
This is again precisely what even a cursory glance at American politics since, say, Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, will reveal. The “New Deal” itself steeply ratcheted up its radicalism until checked, temporarily, by the Supreme Court; and no Democrat regime has ever been satisfied with the FDR or the LBJ “Great-Society” status quo. Predictably, the Obama regime can take no satisfaction in merely stewarding the socialist achievements of the Clinton and Bush II regimes, but must proceed grossly and imprudently to abolish the market economy and replace it with a Marx-inspired centrally-planned economy and to increase governmental disruption of continuity in all non-elite-sanctioned habit and custom – in both agendas as fully and as rapidly as possible.
Wherever sympathizers of these agendas control institutions, they endeavor to bring about the same indefinitely deferred goal of radical reconstruction – in fact, deconstruction and annihilation – within the domains defined by their offices. Voegelin observes, as he does frequently elsewhere, that consummation of the process remains forever beyond possibility. The aspirants can never reach their utopian goal “because [utopia] requires the transformation of human nature.” The would-be alchemical-political transformers of human nature claim their schemes to be rational, as though that implied their full justification, but, as Voegelin writes, “man is not only rational but much else besides.” Ultimately, the liberal-revolutionary utopia requires that those who have grabbed power imitate the original act of creation, by which the God, in whom they disclaim belief, established nature, and human nature, in the first place.
Since none of the radical reformers is God, they all lack the superhuman potency requisite to the deed, but with a superbia so pronounced that none will admit it.
In the foregoing observation, we come to an essential point of Voegelin’s thinking, namely that political radicalism is fundamentally religious and apocalyptic – and at the same time extraordinarily anti-spiritual and resentful – or what Voegelin calls “gnostic.” That “everlasting peace” or utopia “might be achieved through a constant process of reform,” falls, for Voegelin, in the category of “gnostic-utopian” dementia. The original Gnostics appeared in the centuries of Late Antiquity in sharp reaction to Philosophical Judaism, Platonism, and Christianity, which share among other traits the tenet that the world is God’s creation and that, as such, it must be good, whether life entails sorrows or not; the sorrows being part of the reality, they must have justification at some level. The Gnostic, unable to square his existence with reality, experiences his disappointments as a colossal broken promise or as a conspiratorial betrayal. His mentality is one of world-hatred and world-rejection rather than reconciliation with nature and faith.
Typically, Late-Antique Gnosticism emphasized the imagery of destructive transformation in the most apocalyptic passages of Scripture and related literature while interpreting the story in Genesis as presenting a false or secondary creation that usurped an original creation in which men and women suffered no sorrows, but lived as Adam and Eve lived, bound to no tilth, in Paradise. The Gnostics sought to restore the supposed original creation, which, in their imagery – and in their practice – entailed the destruction of existing reality. For example, Gnostics eschewed procreation, on the principle that offspring merely added to the grossness of the world.
The Late-Antique Gnostics claimed that their knowledge of these matters belonged uniquely to them and elevated them to elite status; gnosis means “knowledge,” a type of knowledge not based on experience but vouchsafed to the knower exclusively and in a manner theosophical. Voegelin’s argument for a continuity of Gnostic rebellion from the Classical to the modern world involves a complicated genealogy based on recondite documents, but one can see in the array of shared traits a similarity, at least, between ancient religious and modern political ideology. Both erect social structures based on a principle of doctrinal fidelity, as distinct from competency or merit; both prohibit questions and demand non-deviation; both are anti-historical, directing great ire against custom and tradition; both seek an impossible restructuring of existence, which, if it were to succeed, would amount to the destruction of existence; both, pitting themselves in tension with reality, tend to impatient irritation – and both, on the justifying basis of such impatience, show a tolerance of brute force as an instrument of transformation.
What about the content of Liberalism? Voegelin argues, in “Liberalism and its History,” that politically, liberals, like revolutionaries, want the leveling of society (egalitarianism) and despise institutions even as they establish and defend institutions of their own. “Economically,” writes Voegelin, “liberalism means the repeal of limits to free economic activity.” We note, however, that liberals can come to claim that it is the market itself, rather than regulation, which impedes free economic activity (Obama adviser Cass Sunstein argues just this); thus originally, liberals were free-market advocates, but nowadays they favor a type of corporatism, which imposes itself, sphinx-like, on the free market. In religious terms, Voegelin characterizes Liberalism as “anti-clerical,” bent on repudiating “revelation and dogma as sources of truth”; liberal doctrine “discards spiritual substance and becomes secularistic and ideological.”
Liberalism’s “scientific position” consists largely in “the assumption of the autonomy of immanent human reason as the source of knowledge.” Thus, “Liberals speak of free research [only] in the sense of liberation from ‘authorities.’”
II. Voegelin felt considerable unease about the label “conservative,” which he preferred that his friends not settle on him. In “Liberalism and Its History,” Voegelin addresses this discomfort with the term through a pair of ironic attributions. “Raymond Aron,” Voegelin writes, “answered the question about his political attitude by saying he was a liberal, that is, a conservative.” And respecting Friedrich von Hayek: “He is a liberal, that is, a conservative with respect to socialism, Communism, or any other variant of the phase of revolution that has overtaken liberalism.” The ambiguity stems from the fact that in both Europe and North America, earlier and later, “the old liberals shifted toward the right and became conservative, occasionally with distinctly Christian overtones.” The Left, meanwhile, true to its logic as a movement, has, wherever it exists, shifted through increasing degrees of radicalism, as illustrated perfectly by the trajectory of the Democrat Party from Roosevelt II to Obama.
Yet if those who stand in opposition to the radicals were not adequately described as conservatives, as Voegelin strongly implies is the case, how then would one describe them? Or how, in this connection, is one to describe the current “Red-Blue” division in American politics?
Voegelin’s answer to such questions involves his identification of the radical-revolutionary mentality with Gnosticism, that is, with baroque, reality-denying doctrines, sprung from acute anxiety about existence, that bespeak the cause in the fashion of an unquestionable Koranic pronouncement, deviation from which constitutes a punishable offense. (Think: political correctness.) The opposite of Leftwing doctrinaire-ism, as we might call it, is not, however, some antithetical second doctrinaire-ism, equally baroque and locked in Manichaean agon with the first; it is what, in Voegelin’s discourse of the 1950s and 60s, goes by the name, among variants, of openness to existence. The Montreal lecture, “In Search of the Ground,” later appearing as an essay, offers one of the clearest expressions in Voegelin’s massive authorship of this concept.
An element in existence to which the mature individual maintains his “openness” is the cumulus of historic “differentiations in consciousness,” Voegelin’s term from Order and History. The phrase is not obscure: it refers to the fact that the prevailing knowledge of the world in any given cultural continuum – that of the West, for example – sometimes deepens and becomes richer through an individual insight; a “Leap in Being” can happen, as in Western thought when it jumped from mythic to philosophic ideas of existence. By example, in Hesiod’s Theogony, an early Greek myth-poem, Earth emerges from Chaos and the earliest Gods apart from Mother Earth, including Sky, spring from Her; and the procreative acts of all the early divinities then give rise to the later, increasingly anthropomorphic generations of gods, the Titans and Olympians.
In Hesiod’s view of existence, the world has no “beyond,” but everything that is, including the gods, is contained within the world. Call that the cosmic or mythic view of existence, as Voegelin does. In it, all causes are immanent, the question why is this so in any particular case being answerable invariably through reference to something else in the world, either mortal or immortal.
With the Hebrew Prophets and the Greek Philosophers, however, a key “differentiation” occurs: Instead of plural “intra-cosmic gods” the most sensitive and articulate men now commonly intuit one God who not only stands transcendentally beyond the world but also stands to the world as Cause or Creator, as in Genesis or Plato’s Timaeus. This one God, moreover, is identical with the principle that distinguishes human from animal existence – namely reason, but not the degraded, immanent, instrumental reason of Eighteenth-Century Illuminisme and Le culte de la Raison. This God is, for Heraclitus and the Gospels alike, the Logos, and for Plato and Aristotle, Nous, another term that passes into Christian usage.
It would be pointless to argue whether the Logos or Nous intuited by the philosophers and theologians “exists,” for the intuition itself is a fact of reality and therefore part of the fabric of existence in consequence of the philosophers and theologians originally having had it, having codified it, and having seen it accepted as the kernel of a new view of life and the world; had the intuition not been shared by others at the time and continuously thereafter for millennia, no alteration in the fabric of existence would have occurred, nor, be it said, has any subsequent differentiation occurred. That last clause is important because self-denominating modern thinkers, since the Eighteenth Century, have claimed repeatedly to overturn the Platonic-Jewish-Christian dispensation, which they denigrate, not seeing the irony, under the pejorative term of myth.
But, as Voegelin remarks, the theory of causality of the modern thinkers curiously resembles the “intra-cosmic” thinking of the pre-philosophical myth-poets. Ask Marx or Darwin why is this so in any particular case and he can only refer the questioner to “the mode of production” or to “random selection and the survival of the fittest” – in other words, to something else in the world.
Modern thinking actually shrinks back from the boldness of Classical thinking, most probably, as Voegelin argues, because awareness of the transcendent God, who constitutes an “ultimate ground” of existence, creates an unprecedented “tension toward the ground.” In this manner, “The experience of the tension toward transcendent Being is the experiential basis for all analysis [of values and purposes.]”
Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment doctrines, like Gnostic doctrines, represent a frightened and petulant reaction against the discovery that reality possesses an inalterable structure originating in a cause outside itself and that values and purposes, in their hierarchy, have therefore an objective quality that limits the range of rationally justifiable actions. The “immanent reason” so beloved of materialists is, as Voegelin remarks, “empty of content,” so that, to establish at least the appearance of rational discourse, he who spurns reality faces the desperate task “of filling up reason from various immanent sources.” Voegelin writes: “You find, therefore, as an example of the meaning of reason, the profit motive in the economic sense… or striving for power in competition… or [in] productive relations [that] produce all the so-called superstructure of culture in society.”
The variety of these “misplacements of the ground” remains limited, however, so much so that the extent of their variety already reached its completion in the period between the French Revolution and The Communist Manifesto. Nevertheless “the power of ideologies” is that “they last a long while, because there is a vested interest in them.”
Precisely because of human nature, there is always a “vested interest,” as Voegelin says, in easy theories over difficult ones, in theories of irresponsibility over ones of self-reliance, and in theories of the magical malleability of reality over ones of created, that is to say fixed, nature. Late-Antique Manichaeism and medieval alchemy dealt in grand ideas; contemporary Obama-type liberalism deals in paltry ones. (Think: Faust on the one hand and “Cash for Clunkers” on the other.) Despite the difference of imaginative scale, both react against the fact of natural limitation revealed in the intuition of the transcendent Being and both employ ideological “misplacements of the ground” for sneaky rhetorical purposes. The racial pseudo-theology of Reverend Wright’s Chicago congregation, in which Obama maintained his membership for twenty years, stands as a case in point.
Voegelin – who, of course, could have had no inkling of Wright or Obama – nevertheless describes the Wright-Obama race-ideology to the proverbial t. Wanting a narcotic replacement for the tension-generating “ultimate ground,” one could “look to race relations” and assert that, “people belong to this or that race and that makes for their general intellectual makeup; that is the cause, the ultimate ground, and will determine the whole course of history.” It is worth saying that Voegelin’s description is ample enough that it can take in Alfred Rosenberg and Frantz Fanon as well as Wright and Obama.
Voegelin writes that the transcendent vision in fact prevents such “misplacements of the ground”: “If the nature of man is to be found in his openness toward a divine Ground, you cannot at the same time see the nature of man in having certain kinds of passions or in having a certain race or pigmentation or something like that.” Openness toward existence and orientation to the Divine, on the other hand, removes certain problems that the genuine philosopher is obliged to solve. Voegelin observes that Plato and Aristotle, for example, both directly addressed the analytical problem that any contingent “end” that a person might identify can become a “means” by adjusting the context – and so on indefinitely.
How does one rein in the indefinite regress? Let us stipulate that man’s highest value is reason, while leaving the term undefined. When a man wants to build a building, in Voegelin’s example, he must “coordinate [his] means to that end… and if that is done adequately we say [he] has proceeded rationally.” Even so, “in a theoretical examination of the problem we cannot be satisfied with the simple coordination of means to end because every end can be conceived into a means by asking, for instance, ‘For what purpose have we built this building?’” When finally, Voegelin writes, we want to know in certainty whether we act rationally we can only determine the answer based on measuring actions against “an ultimate purpose.”
III. In the aftermath of the Montreal lecture that gave rise to “In Search of the Ground,” one of Voegelin’s auditors asked this question: “Is it possible that a synthesis of all the current theories on the structure and operation of the human psyche could produce a new concept of the nature of man? And would this not produce a new ideology?” Voegelin responded: “The nature of man is in principle known. You can’t produce by new insights a new nature of man. The nature of man is openness to transcendence.” The questioner returned: “If the nature of man is known, it doesn’t seem to be known well enough to be controlled.”
Voegelin responded again: “You can’t control openness toward transcendence, because that’s controlled by God.” And a bit further on, after the questioner has solicited the topic of “proof,” Voegelin says: “It has nothing to do with proof. Either openness is a reality and then you can’t prove it – you can’t prove reality; you can only point to it – or it isn’t. Well it is. We know – we have the documents of the experiences… Plato… Saint Augustine… the thornbush episode in Exodus.”
Voegelin’s examiner reveals the attitude – the anti-philosophical, repellently infantile attitude – of the Gnostic crusader, not least in a desire for control. Implicit in his question is the self-contradictory assumption that the nature of something can be changed. But what else, pray tell, is revealed in the assumption, lying at the basis of all radical political action, that a society, which also possesses a nature and is limited in its malleability by that nature, can be changed? This is not to assert that there is no discernible history of social development or that any given society continues to exist only insofar as it refuses to permit any internal alteration whatsoever. People tend, however, to exaggerate the extent of change.
I would argue, for example, that the abolition of slavery in the United States, while it abruptly and positively altered the condition of the ex-slaves, altered the larger society hardly at all, since only a tiny minority had ever owned human chattels; nor later on did the repeal of “Jim Crow” make much of a difference for the larger society even though it altered social conditions somewhat for American blacks in Democrat-dominated regions of the nation where anti-black feeling ran high.
In a slightly different way, Voegelin cites the case of Utah, when it petitioned for admission to the Union. The Union stipulated its condition: Membership in the federal polity or polygamy, one or the other for the Mormons, not both. The larger society would not assimilate change of that sort or the precedent it would set.
The limits of change for any society are much smaller than liberal or radical or Gnostic zeal ever admits. To be reconcilable with the society, such change as occurs must reflect a spontaneous consensus, because coercive change, as I have already argued, is tantamount only to annihilation. In the Eighth Century BC, Hellenic society was happy with the symbolism of the “intra-cosmic gods” and the world they implied; by the Fourth Century AD, Mediterranean humanity, by a long-gestating like-mindedness, found the old “intra-cosmic gods” no longer convincing or meaningful and began to reorient itself, either through Alexandrian Judaism and its offshoots, or through Neo-Platonism, or through Gospel Christianity to the later-emerging transcendent Divinity.
As country custom and as household ritual and as semi-comic superstition, the “intra-cosmic gods” lived on and they survive, attenuated in their potency, even to this day. As the image of divinity, wistfully, they perished, a new image replacing them that offered to its recipients a richer understanding of existence. That image, representing the discovery of a new depth in reality, has stood in place in the West for two thousand years.
It follows that sensible people should behave with extraordinary circumspection where it concerns cavalier, wishful, or resentful programs of “change” because, as Voegelin so poignantly shows in his essays, radical “change” based on passions is definitely not the “progress” that it claims itself to be: It is not the “Leap in Being” but the frightened, dangerous opposite – a lapse into primitive thinking and myth.
Opposition to “change” for the sake of change, and to “change” as goalless indefinite regress, which is what the vaunted “progress” really is, will likely take the name of Conservatism, the very label that Voegelin wanted not to descend on him as the sign of his political identity. Voegelin knew that words, like ideas, have consequences. Under this admonition, a number of cautionary remarks can be made about the word “Conservatism” and what it implies. For one thing, as soon as one posits Conservatism, one has created an inevitable verbal artifact – Conservatism versus Liberalism – that is structurally Manichaean. This should give us pause. Manichaean, dualistic structures are a characteristic Gnostic appurtenance, which philosophers should avoid.
I recall here my earlier argument that the opposition to ideological doctrine cannot be another ideological doctrine, for that would be ideological rivalry without meaning rather than engagement in debate for the sake of truth. It would be other than the dignified quest, as, to use Voegelin’s essay-title, “In Search of the Ground.”
What the organized Right-leaning opposition to the Party of Destruction does is, finally, more important than what it calls itself even though words have meanings and usages signify something. I am encouraged, slightly, by the way in which spontaneous demonstrations of popular ire against overweening big-government schemes – like “bailouts” and socialized medical insurance – have surprised and actually checked the dictatorial bullying of the Obama regime. When an amateur journalist-reporter, FOX News Channel’s Glenn Beck, publicized the curriculum vitae and words of Obama adviser Van Jones, a nutty Marxist-racialist, it led to the first departure-under-outside-pressure of an Obama appointee. It is a sign of the times that actual investigative reporting is now done by someone like Beck, who previously was little other than a radio-comedian whose main shtick consisted in making prank telephone calls to predictably dimwitted people in a recurring feature called “Jeopretardy.”
Far from being offended, currently one of the most offensive words in the political jargon, by the silently mouthed “That is not true” – uttered by Supreme Court Justice Alito when President Obama gratuitously insulted the court during his State of the Union Address – I take heart in it because Obama’s disrespect was rooted in a falsehood and Robert’s quiet but visible contradiction was rooted in truth. There should be a good deal more clear articulation of the fact that the deconstructors of society have doctrines, false doctrines galore, and that we, by contrast, have an interest in truth, to the objectivity of which we remain open.
Cultic doctrines kill freedom; they demand its immolation in the sacrificial flames of their causes. Truth and free will – truth and freedom – by contrast require and nourish one another. We must vigorously remind our friends and neighbors of these facts.
@ Dr. Bertonneau
Submitted by traveller on Mon, 2010-02-08 12:54.
Thanks, this is a sublime text, there is no other word for it.
I will reread this time and time again.
War against demagogues.
Submitted by 4Symbols on Mon, 2010-02-08 06:24.
Note how everyone has to believe in global warming, believe in multiculturalism and worship which ever demagogues the neo liberal disciples of death pontificate and celebrate.
This is not a war of political ideologies this a war against a false religion.
In hoc signo vinces
Submitted by retired on Mon, 2010-02-08 06:11.
I agree completely with the author & would like to add some insights
1)The extreme statists are in fact doomed to failure because,as doctrinaire ideologues,they are mediocrities who lack the scope of thought needed to govern,once in power.If they were free thinkers & creative leaders they would not be followers of dogmatic ideology.As a result their regimes always degenerate into futility.
2)Once their rule reaches the stage of futility their only means of retaining power is brute force.In the case of Obama & the Democrats now in power this will not be the case;the police & the military in America despise the leadership in Washington & will not overthrow the Constitution for them!
3)Many fear that Obama Will become an American version of Hitler or Stalin.It is my opinion that if things get that far out of control he will end as a North American Salvador Allende.
4)The only hope that Obama's "soft Socialism" had was to seize power gradually,in small increments,without the public knowing what was happening.This plan has been made impossible by the advent of the internet & the bloggers,as well as talk radio & Foxnews.The Democrats cannot control the the flow of information coming out of these sources.This information,largely negative to the Democrats,is having a huge impact on the voting public.It is of utmost importance to any dictatorial regime to control all information reaching the public!