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Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin's Political Philosophy: 15 Week Module

Eric Voegelin was a German-American political scientist who created a comprehensive theory of man, society, and history. Although his writing is difficult to understand and categorized, Voegelin remains one of the most important contemporary political theorists whose interdisciplinary approach provides unique insights into metaphysics, epistemology, and politics. Voegelin’s focus on the symbolic nature of politics as well as his incorporation of transcendence into man’s experience has placed his works with the likes of Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Leo Strauss.

Consciousness: First Week

We begin with Eric Voegelin’s theory of consciousness which becomes the basis of his mature writing. In this essay, “On the Theory of Consciousness,” we discover that Voegelin understood consciousness as participatory with several ontological levels: vegetable, animal, human, and divine. This epistemology allows Voegelin to argue that certain experiences are “equivalent” with each other in spite of their different symbolization in history, society, and politics.

Readings: Anamnesis (pp. 62-84) and “Equivalences of Experiences and Symbolization in History”

Multimedia: Eric Voegelin Picture, Eric Voegelin Insitute Website, and Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Website

Faith and Reason: Second Week

Voegelin’s incorporation of man’s experience of transcendence into his epistemology and politics is questioned by Leo Strauss, who believed that reason and revelation were distinct epistemologies. The correspondence provides the distinct and different approaches that both Strauss and Voegelin approach classical political philosophy.

Readings: Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964

Early Works: Third Week

Voegelin’s essay, “Theory of Governance” contains his early understanding of the relationship between language and metaphysics, the nature of political society, and thoughts on Henri Bergson, Othmar Spann, Georg Simmel, and Edmund Husserl.

Readings: Theory of Governance (pp.224-372)

Gnosticism: Fourth Week

Voegelin introduces the concept of Gnosticism as man’s spiritual disorder in his desire to transform civilization into his own image. Although initially political inactive, Gnosticism has evolved into an ideological mass movement that was willing to use violence to achieve its objectives.

Readings: Science, Politics, and Gnosticism

The New Science of Politics: Fifth Week

The alternative to Gnosticism was various forms of symbolizations of truth: cosmological, anthropological, and soteriological. Cosmological symbols portray a society's institutions as a reflection of nature; anthropological symbols reflect the discovery of the individual psyche and its relation to right order that is beyond nature; and soteriological symbols indicate the experience of humans who encounter divine revelation. Although he believed these symbols of truth have declined in the West as principles of ordering society, Voegelin nonetheless thought a possible reversal of the decline of modern civilization was possible in the recovery of Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity.

Readings: The New Science of Politics

The United States: Sixth and Seventh Weeks

At the end of The New Science of Politics, Voegelin thought that the United States still retained the experiences of Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity within its institutions and the character of the people. Although this was his first publication, Voegelin’s book reflected his later belief that the United States managed to avoid the Gnosticism because of its institution and “common sense” philosophy.

Readings: On the Form of the American Mind

Israel and the Ancient Near East: Eighth and Ninth Weeks

Voegelin’s first systematic attempt to understand cosmological truth, revelation, and history as the basis for political society. In this work, he contrasted the cosmological truth of Egypt and other Mesopotamian civilizations with Israel with its discovery of history and a transcendent God.

Readings: Order and History Volume I: Israel and Revelation

Classical Greek Civilization: Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Weeks

After the study of cosmological symbolization and revelation of the Ancient Near East, Voegelin next looks at classical Greek civilization. Here he discovers that the Greeks existed with both cosmological and anthropological truths in the works of the poets and the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

Readings: Order and History Volume II: The World of the Polis, Order and History Volume III: Plato and Aristotle

Christianity, China, and Rome: Thirteenth and Fourteenth Weeks

In the Ecumenic Age, Voegelin repudiates his earlier thesis that society moves from cosmological to anthropological and finally to soteriological truth; rather, there is no pattern which civilizations undergo to symbolize themselves in history. Any attempt to impose a pattern in history is nothing short of Gnosticism. Voegelin underscores these points with an examination of ecumenic civilizations, such as Rome, Christianity, and China.

Readings: Order and History Volume IV: The Ecumenic Age

The Paradox of Consciousness: Fifteenth Week

Voegelin's last work concludes with final thoughts on consciousness, language, and experience.

Readings: Order and History Volume V:In Search of Order


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  • Equivalences of Experiences and Symbolization in History by Eric Voegelin

    Eric Voegelin's essay was originally published in Eternita e storia: I valori permanenti nel divenire storico (Florence: Valecchi, 1970, pp. 215-234). In this essay Voegelin searched for a philosophical vocabulary to explain the constants of human experience. The term "equivalent"…

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