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April 23, 2020

Eric Voegelin and the Metaphysics of History

A seminar led by Matt Bowman and Sarah Thomas ’19 (Zephyr Institute)
Eric Voegelin and the Metaphysics of History

Time & Location

April 23, 2020


Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) was one of the 20th-century’s greatest thinkers. Most remembered for his theory of politics in The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1951), and for his five-volume philosophy of history, Order and History (Louisiana State University Press, 1956-1987), his work is notable for its reception of ancient Greek philosophy, its attentiveness to the historical dimension of human existence, and its incorporation of noetic experience in analyses of world and polity. 

A German émigré who experienced firsthand the political disorder of the 20th-century, Voegelin devoted much of his work to a search for the source of order in history. In the first three volumes of Order and History, published prior to Voegelin’s turn to the philosophy of consciousness, and prior to his consequent reassessment of the meaning of historical time, he studies the efforts of civilizations to articulate experiences of order through cosmological myth, scriptural revelation, and philosophy. His argument is that this movement of symbolic forms—from compactness to differentiation—was accompanied by greater insight into the structure of the community of being. According to Voegelin, this awareness, and its attuning effects on the soul, are crucial for a genuine renewal of political order. 

This seminar led by Matt Bowman and Sarah Thomas ’19 (Zephyr Institute) focused on Voegelin’s philosophy of history in Order and History. Ms. Thomas gave an overview of Voegelin’s intellectual biography, the main trajectories in his work and its interpretation, and the central points of the readings. The evening’s discussion, which included scholars well-versed in Voegelin’s thought, focused on four issues in particular: 

  • How the classical symbols of nous and psyche inform Voegelin’s understanding of the tension of existence

  • How Voegelin’s concept of essential ignorance affects the possibility of consciousness of the truth of existence

  • Whether attunement to the ground of being would require an ontological awakening alone, or also religious faith

  • Whether the seemingly inexorable guiding power of art—and, therefore, of aesthetic reason—challenges Voegelin’s critique of reason in modernity as immanentized


Eric Voegelin, “Introduction: The Symbolization of Order,” Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation (Louisiana State University Press, 1956), reprinted in Maurice P. Hogan, ed., The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 14 (University of Missouri Press, 2001), pages 39-50

Eric Voegelin, “In Search of the Ground,” 1965 lecture, originally printed in R. Eric O'Connor, ed., Conversations with Eric Voegelin (Thomas More Institute, 1980), reprinted in Ellis Sandoz, ed., The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 11 (University of Missouri Press, 2000), pages 224-239 (excerpt)

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Related Publications

Order and History, Volume 1: Israel and Revelation
Order and History, Volume 1: Israel and Revelation

“Eric Voegelin's Israel and Revelation is the opening volume of his monumental Order and History, which traces the history of order in human society. This volume examines the ancient near eastern civilizations as a backdrop to a discussion of the historical locus of order in Israel. The drama of Israel mirrors the problems associated with the tension of existence as Israel attempted to reconcile the claims of transcendent order with those of pragmatic existence and so becomes paradigmatic.

According to Voegelin, what happened in Israel was a decisive step, not only in the history of Israel, but also in the human attempt to achieve order in society. The uniqueness of Israel is the fact that it was the first to create history as a form of existence, that is, the recognition by human beings of their existence under a world-transcendent God, and the evaluation of their actions as conforming to or defecting from the divine will. In the course of its history, Israel learned that redemption comes from a source beyond itself.

Voegelin develops rich insights into the Old Testament by reading the text as part of the universal drama of being. His philosophy of symbolic forms has immense implications for the treatment of the biblical narrative as a symbolism that articulates the experiences of a people’s order. The author initiates us into attunement with all the partners in the community of being: God and humans, world and society. This may well be his most significant contribution to political thought: ‘the experience of divine being as world transcendent is inseparable from an understanding of man as human.’”

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