The publication of Eric Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections is a small but highly significant step in an enormous project that has been undertaken by the Louisiana State University Press, the publication of his collected works. The editors estimate that, in all, this project will run to 34 volumes, at least 15 of which will include heretofore unpublished materials.
Reflections is the outgrowth of Ellis Sandoz’s research for his book, The Voegelin Revolution: A Biographical Introduction (LSU Press, 1981). It consists of Voegelin’s transcribed responses to queries put to him in the summer of 1973 by Sandoz; queries that center-on the major events of Voegelin’s life, as well as on the course of his intellectual development. For this reason, there is a considerable overlap between Reflections and The Voegelin Revolution; that is, a good deal of what we find in Reflections concerning major components of and developments in Voegelin’s approach—e.g., his theory of consciousness, the sources and nature of gnosticism in the modern world, the need for openness to the whole—is also found in The Voegelin Revolution, frequently in the form of a direct quotation from these interviews. Sandoz’s book, however, also provides an extremely coherent and lucid overview of Voegelin’s approach and findings. For those approaching Voegelin for the first time, or even for those who are familiar with his work but who lack a comprehensive knowledge of his methods and concerns. Reflections by itself is not a good starting point. It should be read in conjunction with The Voegelin Revolution so that Voegelin’s concerns, observations, and refinements can be appreciated in the context of his major works.
This does not mean that new and original material is not to be found in Reflections. The major contribution of this book, and what renders it most appropriate as the prelude to his collected works, is the insights it provides us into Eric Voegelin as a human being. Many of these insights we glean indirectly from his reflections about the state of the world and society he sees about him. In this respect most readers are bound to find his observations about the United States of particular interest, if only because the two years (1924-25) he spent as a young student in this country at Columbia, Harvard, and Wisconsin had such a profound impact on his thinking. In his words, “There was the strong background of Christianity and Classical culture [in the United States] that was so signally fading out, if not missing, in the methodological debates in which I had grown up as a student. In brief, there was a world in which this other world in which I had grown up was intellectually, morally, and spiritually irrelevant.”
One can see that Voegelin had a genuine affection for the America that uniquely reflected this Christian and classical culture: the commonsense America unpolluted by ideology. For this reason, he was far more at home in the South than the Northeast. Indeed, during his teaching stint at Bennington, shortly after his emigration to the United States in 1938, he observed that the “leftist element”—”Communists among the faculty and still more among the students”—had created an “environment . . . no more to my taste than the National Socialist environment that I just had left.” He is outspoken about “the ideological corruption of the East Coast” that he observed; a corruption so profound that some students would on occasion “betray the behavioral characteristics of totalitarian aggressiveness.” By contrast, he found the students at LSU, where he taught from 1942 to 1958, to be refreshingly “open-minded.” They “did not have the knowledge one would expect of European students,” but they nevertheless “had . . . something that the European, especially the German, students usually lack—a tradition of common-sense culture.”
Voegelin’s contempt for ideology and ideologists is manifest in these pages, and therefore it seems the height of irony that various critics have accused him of being an ideologue, a captive of one “ism” or another—from communism to Nazism and just about everything in between. The charges, of course, are absurd. They are mindless retaliations leveled against him, we may surmise, because he was such an articulate and trenchant critic of the dominant intellectual climate in the academic world, particularly at our most prestigious universities. He speaks of “a massive social force of aggressive, intellectual dishonesty that penetrates the academic world”; of a “willful divorce from reality” that pervades our institutions of higher learning and poses a potential threat to democratic government.
Voegelin, at the end of the Vietnam era, could speak of a “contemporary spiritual turmoil” that produced a “divided society” that would, in due course, heal. This division, he felt, could be traced to influences on the intellectual community alien to the American political tradition. In this vein, he remarks upon the animosity of French and German intellectuals towards America: “such a revolution [as America’s] should not be successful because the intellectuals want to make a revolution of their own in the tradition of the French destruction of cultural order.”
Reflections, viewed as a whole, suggests that the distance between the commonsense America and its intellectual community is much wider and deeper than even Voegelin pictures it. That perhaps the most profound thinker of this century was, on the one hand, treated in a manner ranging from indifference to hostility by the major part of the intellectual community and, on the other, so much admired and appreciated by his students at LSU—the products of a tradition as yet uncorrupted by ideology—is one interesting measure of that gulf.
[Autobiographical Reflections, by Eric Voegelin, Edited and introduced by Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press) 123 pp., $16.95]