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(Originally presented, in altered form, at the 2011 meeting of the Atlantic Provinces Political Science Association...)

The completion, in 1948, of Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny presaged deepening of the dialogue which lay between that scholar and his fellow émigré, Eric Voegelin. On January 14th of 1949, Voegelin writes that he received a copy of the book in his mail from the publisher (apparently as a gift from Strauss), as well as a request by Walderman Gurian to write a review of the work for The Review of Politics. In his correspondence to Strauss, Voegelin unreservedly praises the results of his compatriots labours, making easy recourse to the term “excellent”, and referring to the “great importance” of the systematic problems which Strauss has raised. This is indeed very high praise from a man who has been noted as nearly infamously blunt in his criticisms, and who suffered neither fools nor the “pneumopathological” without openly and often publicly providing his assessment of their intellects and character.

Voegelin’s incisive dissection of the issues raised to light by Strauss should thus be understood as a gesture of the highest respect. It would seem to say that his fellow traveller’s intellectual clarity and scholarship were beyond reproach: let them dispense with scholarship, and get down to brass tacks. What does a philosopher have to say about modern tyranny and to the tyrant him or herself? Strauss takes the compliment as such, and returns it: only two reviews of his work have proven sufficiently weighty as to be worthy of reply – that of Eric Voegelin, and that of Alexander Kojève.

A conversation which had begun some years earlier thereafter took on a greater level of engagement, as both men groped towards a fundamental, theoretical understanding of the issues, while simultaneously groping towards an understanding of one another. For, it seems, mutual respect did not necessarily presuppose mutual comprehension. In particular, and more to our interests, in spite of agreement upon the essential difference of modern tyranny from that which Socratic philosophy had diagnosed, dissected, and classified, they disagreed as to the essence of that difference. As a consequence, different diagnoses would seem to stem from their thoughts. For, while both could find a great deal of agreement as to both the novelty of the disease, its general range of symptoms, and the inability of political scientists of their time to grapple with, let alone treat, the phenomenon (both men even go so far as to say or imply that the social sciences had been overrun by political and philosophic incompetence), they found themselves in disagreement as to its underlying causes. It is to the issue of the varying, though not necessarily opposing, diagnoses which we shall presently address.

In the case of both men, one finds broad consensus that the emergence of new, socially effective political disorders characterizes that time period commonly referred to as the modern era. However, they find themselves in disagreement as to the origins of the disorders which had resulted in a radical break with the premises of Greek, Roman, and Medieval Christian civilizations, and which had somehow culminated in the apocalypse of Auschwitz and the Soviet gulag. Both find evidence to suspect that contributions to the emergence of totalitarianism may be implicated to “modern philosophy”, in one guise or another.

What then characterizes “modern philosophy” as such? In what way does it differ so greatly from classical or ancient philosophy, on the one hand, and upon Jewish, Christian, and Islamic law and theology, on the other? How do such differences, if they exist, reflect or constitute a radical shift in the premises of political order?

For Strauss, it would seem, the salient feature of modern, liberal philosophy has been the rejection of both the science of virtue of the ancients, together with the revealed law of the Abrahamic religions. Essentially, modernity is a rejection of both Athens and Jerusalem. In place of a science of virtue – a practical philosophy or philosophy of praxis – the modern philosophers, particularly Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, together with Bacon and Descartes, erected a science of matter in motion. With Hobbes’ publication of The Leviathan, the premises of a political science were radically, and explicitly transformed. Political matters, religion, and even language, Hobbes declared, must be submitted to the standards of precision of geometry. Politics would be remodelled under a mathematical science, and both philosophers, theologians, and statepersons would leave-off consideration of any such meaningless concept as a summum bonum, about which men could reach no agreement, despite centuries of argumentation and debate.

The modern political science would instead contend with what all its atomistically determined materials (which is to say, human beings) have in common, and which makes them equal – their motions, or, in other words, their passions. In particular two most pressing, passions come to the fore – vainglory, and the fear of violent death. The modern science of the passions, the summum malum of violent death, and the calculated avoidance of the latter, is asserted against the ancient science of the cultivation of human nature in accordance with virtue and a vision of the summum bonum and the vita contemplative. The science of politics of the moderns is therefore perceived to take upon itself the aspect of a techné, of a technical art or technology aimed at creating, steering, and controlling an “artificial man”, a “mortal god” composed of a conglomeration of more or less equal particles (human beings), with well determined properties (the passions, and the proclivity for pleasure maximization and pain avoidance), who are set into and kept in motion by various environmental pressures. The science of the good, the just, the virtuous, and the beautiful, which the ancients had claimed had an indelible and eternal claim upon the human soul, was forgotten, denigrated, or obscured under the new science of human bodies in motion. The political science of the common good, which necessarily implied the cultivation of virtue in the souls of the citizens of the city (to whatever extent practical) , and their relative liberation from the rule of the passions, made way for the art of reducing frictions among bodies which had been liberated in a well-controlled pursuit of the objects of their immanent desires.

Human nature under modern philosophy, by this account, came to be treated as if it were simply a slightly more complicated variant of the nature of atoms, with the consequence that political thought and statecraft shifted in their concerns. Having tacitly dismissed the objective reality of virtues along with that of a summum bonum—which could not, after all, be mathematically determined and experimentally controlled – “modern” politics turned itself ever more to the liberation and rationalization of the passions. With the accompanying rejection of revelation, irrational by the very definition of rationality of the new, calculative science, the atomization of Western societies could progress apace. The very existence of the non-calculative, un-self-interested ways of the love of one’s own – love of country, friends, family, teacher, lover – could be called into question on a society-wide basis, as modern philosophy, now vulgarized and gradually disseminated, became the new effective social force at the centre of the modern state. For Strauss, then, it is the vulgarization and popularization of philosophy that has culminated in the modern rejection of Athens and Jerusalem, and, ultimately, distorted and vulgarized the human soul in the West. He would seem to stand with Nietzsche in judging that the modern transvaluation of values and the secularization of Judeo-Christian, revealed morality into a sort of expedient, worldly, utilitarianism has left the West with the abyss of an increasingly self-conscious nihilism spread among the masses of atomized and rootless last-men. From there it is but a short hop to the sort of mass political enthusiasms which drive the totalitarian movements of recent times. The centuries-long process of deracinating Westerners into a sort of “washed-out, non-descript creature”, one alone in a crowded and darkened cave, gives rise to the desperation to escape modernity by willing anything at all.

Voegelin’s analysis of modern thinkers varies widely from that of his colleague, though it is no less critical. In one exchange of letters with Strauss on the subject of the latter’s treatment of John Locke, Voegelin, for instance, poses the question as to whether Locke should be called a philosopher at all, if, as Strauss says, he so esoterically dissembles his intentions, not only in order to fool the hoi polloi, but also to hide his immanentism under a cloud of traditional symbols and terminology.

In letter #42, dated April 15th, 1953, Voegelin provided his own analysis and answers his own, rhetorical, question. John Locke is not in fact a philosopher by any acceptable use of that symbol. He is, rather, a “swindler”, an “ideological constructor” who has distorted reason (ratio) into little more than a handmaid to the passions and to the political aims of oligarchs of dubious character.

Voegelin’s extremely harsh judgement of Locke can perhaps be understood only in consequence of a further analysis of his own thoughts.

Voegelin, like Strauss, would seem to perceive that the unprecedented political insanity of the 20th century related in some manner to the development of philosophy and the physical sciences since the time of Galileo. A reading of his The Origins of Scientism, however, and of letters #18 and #10 of the correspondence (which includes an appended copy of Voegelin’s letter to Alfred Schutz on Edmund Husserl) reveals the extent of the divergence. There, we find an interpretation of the Meditations of René Déscartes which faults not the meditative exercise per se. Rather, the German philosopher observes the principle of the meditation to be perfectly in keeping with an established tradition and literature of Christian meditative exercises, including that described in the anonymously authored The Cloud of Unknowing.

It is thus not the meditation of the practitioner, the theoretical position, which is held to be problematic, but rather the misuse of corruption of the meditative experience. In this we may apprehend the threads of a larger argument which need be unpacked. What does it mean to say that Descartes misused or misapplied the experiences of the meditative complex? Is Voegelin’s analysis but a bland appeal to the authority of tradition, if not the Medieval Church – an assertion that Descartes simply ought not to have done what he did? In what manner does this critique of Descartes relate to the phenomena of “scientism” as opposed to science, and modern thought as opposed to philosophy?

By the account given by Voegelin in the correspondence, and which we may clarify by employing his later, more developed terminology, the disorder represented personally in Descartes, and more generally in the phenomena of modern though and particularly scientism, is one, not of simple intellectual incompetence, but of the deformation of the structures of consciousness. In essence, it is the deformation man’s own humanity through his own self-assertion. This deformation, however, takes a peculiar form, one which cannot be described simply as a truncated form of classical philosophy. Whereas Strauss often regards “modern science” as a lesser form of classical or ancient science – a stunted child as it were – Voegelin’s assessment of “scientism” and modern thought does not peg either as immature varients of a true science of the whole which have gone amok. Rather, it is characterized as a distortion, and a potentially dangerous one at that.

By this account, scientism, and the Cartesian meditation proceed in the manner of a gnostic exercise – a term which shall be clarified in context. What begins as a proper meditative “assent” to the Ground of being, degenerates into something quite different. In the proper version of the meditation, the meditator causes herself to “unknow” the objective world and forget herself as a “subject” moving about and intending a manifold of “things”. Through the meditative exercise, she comes to “remember” herself in her dimension as an event predicated of a comprehending reality which becomes luminous for its truth through her response and or receptivity to the formative presence (Parousia) of the Beyond.

For the Christian meditator, the experience of transcending her subjectivity through her formative response may be typically symbolized in the practice of contemptus mundi, the Augustinain sapientia of nosse, esse, volle, and the persons of the Trinity. More important to Voegelin, though, is the intent of meditation which Déscartes distorted – to illuminate existence as participation in being, in-between (Metaxy) the conditions of the limited, concrete, embodied reality of spatio-temporal being, and the timeless fullness intimated in the experienced Parousia of an inexperienceable Beyond. The Christian assent to a God beyond being is distorted, in the Cartesian meditation, into a proof of being through the cogitare of the res cogitans. The sapientia of Augustine, the symbolized pregivens of perception which permit and underpin the possibility of scientia (scientific knowing), are broken from their context as differentiated moments in the structure of consciousness. The sum of the meditator, which was to be illuminated through her transcendence of her intentionality, becomes another “thing” intended, as does the formative reality which grounds its spatio-temporal existence in the Metaxy.

With both the Beyond and consciousness reduced or distorted as “things” intended for the sake of analysis of the cogito “thing”, the stage is set for scientia to be reduced and distorted into the endless study of “things” by an ego “thing” whose nosse and esse can only be construed as operations of its volle – the intentionalistic acts of an un-self-reflective consciousness.

This distortion of existence is “gnostic” in the sense that it gives rise to, encourages, or permits certain eristic fantasies. First is the monumental inflation of the ego, symbolic of the intentionalistic dimension of consciousness, even as existence is radically contracted into the self. This feat occurs through the occlusion of the participatory dimension of consciousness. “I know and will myself, my identity, freely in successive acts of intent”. A second arises from the need to explain the process of reality, which manifestly has not ceased, through recourse to the greatly reduced language of intentionalistic consciousness, thus giving rise to the various historicisms of the 19th, 20th, and perhaps the 21st centuries.

The reduction of existence to a historically determined “thing” created in the process of the self-revealing or self-unfolding of intentionality in time lends itself to political disorders of the modern type in more than one way. First, there is the reduction of the scope and depth of the social and political sciences to predicates of “scientism” or handmaidens to modern thought qua ideology, which draws the practitioners of those sciences into the spiritual wasteland of intentionalistically determined, and thus relative, “values”. Second, the conditions encouraged by the assent of scientism and modern thought give rise to the phenomenon of “god-ed men”, whose egos have drawn the Beyond into themselves. Of these, Voegelin seems to chiefly had in mind Hegel, Marx, the National Socialists, and other such types. In such cases, the formative presence of the Beyond out-of-time, which once symbolized the experience of a divine movement towards perfection, is replaced by the symbolism of a Beyond in-time to be realized though the annihilation of the bourgeoisie, the inferior races, the unbelievers, or so forth. The process of reality and its implied eschaton is reduced from a mystery beyond human cunning to a immanent goal to be attained by human action. “History” comes to symbolize the immanent process of reality moving towards its End under the guidance of the gnostic visionary through revolutionary violence against the given order, rather than symbolizing the horizon of circumstances and events in which takes place the questing of human existence moving in responding search of its transcendent Ground. The Beyond the horizon of being-things is replaced, by the gnostic revolutionary, with the Beyond the horizon of the current epoch.

The longing for the Beyond, which characterized philosophy and Christianity to a particularly strong degree, comes to be construed as a drive for a perfect arrangement of “things” (including human “things”) to be achieved through revolutionary political action – a utopia at the end of history. “Alienation” is to be overcome through the metastatic transformation of the given order. The supporters of scientism aid and abed in the emergence of such modern tyrannies – characterized as attempt to realize such metastatic projects – first by forbidding the questions of existence ground the social sciences and humanities (for such questions are “unscientific” by virtue of being unreferrable to sensible “things” or objects), and by hypostatizing the poles of the tension of existence into a “thinking substance”, self, or ego intending a scientifically determined Beyond, which must lie in the future, if we are to admit that “is” anywhere.
In so far as the sciences are practiced in accordance with the demands of scientism, they are, by this account, potential instigators or supporters of modern tyranny. At best, they are conceived of as half-hearted and spiritually underequipped opponents to gnostic political movements.

For Voegelin, however, modern tyranny in itself is unthinkable independent of the epochal differentiations of consciousness achieved in the noetic differentiations of Hellas and the pneumatic differentiations of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Without the symbols of existence in the Metaxy which had thereby been achieved (to eon, to me on, to planeton, epeikeina, telos, eschatos, and so on), there would be no such symbols of the luminosity of consciousness to hypostatize into concepts referring to “things” or conditions to be achieved in the here and now. The price for the greater possibilities made possible by a richer, more varied order of the soul would seem to be the potential for a much greater fall.

In the end, however, Strauss and Voegelin were unable to reach agreement on the issues which at once united and separated them. Strauss, for his part, wrote on May 22nd, 1953, in a postscript to letter #44 that “I pass over our perennial difference of opinion concerning gnosis.” That difference, which seems to have been crucial, seems also to have remained unresolved between them at the time at which their correspondence drop in 1958. The chief point which would appear to separate the two, at the end of the day, would seem to regard what has been termed Voegelin’s “mysticism”. Strauss, for his part, accepts the logos of philosophy as being a fully autonomous activity of human life, and classical science construed as the bios theoretikos to as not only the highest activity of the human soul, but one which is most righty engaged in, in a manner most empirical. Philosophers in their erotic desire for the whole, question, they talk, they look, and through these and other activities, they comprehend nature in thought, and seek to know that which is eternal and good.

For Voegelin’s part, the logos of the philosophic zetema ultimately finds its footing in the concrete experience Socrates, as related to posterity by Plato’s mythos of the soul of Socrates. The ascent to the highest things is made possible first and foremost through the opening of the soul to its ordering by the comprehending reality. Such ordering cannot be solely achieved through logos, however, for the ordering force cannot be pointed at, or conceptualized without falling into the language games of the sophists. The soul must rather be turned around (periagogé) by the myth, so that it may be ordered. That achieved, the philosophic quest proper may begin. Stated otherwise, the direct engagement in the logos without the formative experience of the mythos would amount to engaging in the search for wisdom purely through the operations of intentionality, thus distorting the quest itself, and the philosopher, in their status as events in reality. A mythos must underpin the logos.

Strauss does not seem to have conceded this argument to Voegelin, which he must likely have felt came too close to closing the chasm he perceived separating Athens and Jerusalem. Voegelin’s anaylsis would seem to come close to indicating that philosophy is founded on pistis and that revelation should be reasonable. Whatever the case, Voegelin’s departure to Munich in 1958 largely brought the conversation to a close, with no final agreement as to whether the two cities were reconcilable.

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