Bedeviled by Boredom

Meeting Index

Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2001

Bedeviled by Boredom:

Eric Voegelin’s Theory of Consciousness in Dostoevsky’s Possessed*

Copyright 2001  Richard G. Avramenko



Eric Voegelin’s thought emerged from a generation recently dubbed "the greatest generation." His is the generation whose sensibilities and thoughts were invigorated, whose courage was elevated, and whose understanding of the human condition was deepened by the face-to-face encounter with the devilry of 20th century totalitarianism. It is the generation of Vimy Ridge and Auschwitz. It is then, in my estimation at least, a mistake to conflate this generation with the next―the generation informed by the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, and other curiosities of the Cold War. As with all fathers and sons, there is a distinction to be made between Voegelin and his students. I make this distinction not to cast a shadow on Voegelin’s thought as historically contingent. On the contrary, that Voegelin’s thought penetrates both the Vimy/Auschwitz and the Mutually Assured Destruction generation testifies to its theoretic depth. My concern, however, is the place of Voegelin’s thought with the next generation. I point to my own cohort―a generation that came of political age with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Variously called Generation X, second-wave baby boomers, or the MTV generation, Vimy is for us as distant as Waterloo; Auschwitz is being relegated to grainy pictures in odd-smelling museums. ICBM’s, though still skulking in the hills of the Dakotas, are more relevant for the curators at the Smithsonian than they are for our political discourse. Our concerns are quite different from our fathers’, whose political consciousness and political concerns are bound up with Voegelin’s.

I am not claiming that my generation is without passions and interests. Like our grandfathers and fathers, we too set out to rectify injustices, but the villains we hunt are much more abstract, much more intentional: we have, for example, set out to destroy fur as fashion, to eradicate intolerance, to put an end to global warming. More recently we have set our sights on even less proximate injustices: landmines, sweatshops, and that ever-evasive devil, globalization. The simple fact of the matter is that it is becoming more and more difficult to turn to Voegelin’s language of gnosticism and immanentization to inform our contemporary political experiences. Simply put, the foes of our grandfathers and fathers do not excite us; consequently, as we press forward into our 21st century concerns, Voegelin’s thought runs the risk of fading with the memories of the 20th century.

Is, then, this generation remiss? Should we not stand ever vigilant against excesses like those of the 20th century? There are folks who, correctly I might add, contend that we must be ever vigilant lest we be duped by another Hitler, swindled by epigonic Marxists. But are these not just cranks or holdovers from an earlier era? It might well be that we are still in danger of losing our hard-won liberties but in actuality the threat is not what it once was. If we buy into the idea of progress at all we must acknowledge that lessons have been learned from the 20th century and that the human race is collectively wiser as a result. We are no longer susceptible to the sort of lies that were heaped on our European brethren 70 years ago. To distort a Voegelinian term, why should we not consider cacophanic events to be as important as theophanic events for the differentiation of consciousness? Surely the conflagrations at Dachau, Dresden, and Hiroshima are as important as the little fire of Exodus 3.

Simply put, the threat to life and liberty that was so real in the 20th century has waned. A few crankpots here and there, like lighthouse keepers in the day of GPS, will keep us from foundering on the rocks of ideologically inspired totalitarianism. But what does this say of Voegelin’s warning of Gnostic ideologues, sorcerers, and eschaton immanentizors? Should this too go the way of the sextant? Can we continue to find our way without the instruments of old? My position is that, for the time being at least, we can shelve the language of Gnosticism. As a political threat, it is passé. While it was once a convenient tool to help us make sense of the world in which we live and especially the world in which our fathers and grandfathers lived and fought, the category has run its course. Having said this, however, I must be clear: we should not be so quick to dismiss Voegelin. Voegelin’s political science does not begin with the category of gnosticism. It begins with a theory of consciousness. Gnosticism is merely one possible symptom that may emerge from a deeper pathology―it is a symptom of what Voegelin calls the deformation of consciousness.

In what follows I would like to bring to the surface an older, yet somehow more current symptom emerging from the deformation of consciousness Voegelin so masterfully describes. This problem, which is not only neglected in scholarship on Voegelin but in political philosophy in general, is that of boredom. Voegelin himself does not entirely ignore the problem but when he does mention it, he gives us but a taste of the issue. In his essay on Hegel, Voegelin begins with the problem of boredom but after the first few paragraphs, he leaves it behind to elaborate on Hegel’s prestidigitatious attack on reality. This is, of course, quite understandable; Voegelin’s explicit concern is with the problems of the 20th century; boredom is the uncanny visitor returning to knock on our 21st century door. But nevertheless, when Voegelin alerts us to the problem of boredom, he is alerting us to the more fundamental origin of Gnosticism. He begins the essay with the theme from a lost manuscript of Hegel: "When the gods are expelled from the cosmos, the world they have left becomes boring." According to Hegel, this boredom of the world has occurred twice before, once "in the wake of Roman imperial conquest; and a second time in modernity, in the wake of the Reformation." In the Roman case, imperial expansion not only destroyed the political structures of the free states of antiquity, it also destroyed the potency of the conquered peoples’ gods. In the case of the Reformation, Protestantism "abolished ‘the poetry of sacrality’ by tearing the new fatherland of man asunder into the inwardness (Innerlichkeit) of spiritual life and ‘an undisturbed engagement (Versenken) in the commonness (Gemeinheit) of empirical existence and everyday necessity.’" In both instances a new historical development emerged that effaced the pre-existing pillars of sacrality. The result, as Hegel calls it, is die Langeweile der Welt. In this particular essay, Voegelin goes to great lengths describing how exactly Hegel tries to free himself from the bonds of this new boredom. In short, he argues that Hegel resorts to Gnostic "sorcery" to reconcile not only his, but the age’s diremption from the sacrality of the world.

From Voegelin’s analysis of Hegel not only are we provided with a remarkable commentary on Hegel’s thought, we can also deduce a further refinement of his philosophy of history―a refinement in need of some consideration. Voegelin holds that in the course of human affairs it so happens that political events (e.g., imperial conquests) can disrupt the order of consciousness. Voegelin makes this point quite clear in his Ecumenic Age. The problem is that in the usual rendering of Voegelin a leap is made from this disruption directly to a particular symptom. This is premature: the disruption does not necessarily result in Gnosticism; instead it results in one of two things: boredom or perplexity. In the case of Hegel, the perplexed Hegel is the "sensitive philosopher and spiritualist, a noetically and pneumatically competent critic of the age, and intellectual force of the first rank." The bored Hegel "cannot quite gain the stature of his true self as a man under God. From the darkness of this existential deficiency, then, rises the libido dominandi and forces him into the imaginative construction of a false self as the messiah of the new age." Thus whereas Voegelin correctly recognizes that boredom is "the spiritual state of a society for whom its gods have died," we must bear in mind that perplexity has the same origin. Put succinctly, the murder of God begets both boredom and perplexity. I am here concerned with boredom because we must understand Gnosticism, Hegelian sorcery, or whatever we choose to call it, as a misguided bid to be free of boredom. My point is straightforward: boredom is enslaving and this enslavement may beget Gnosticism. I repeat, Gnosticism is a bastard son of boredom. But there is more: Gnosticism is not the only possible progeny of boredom. One can imagine a catalogue of expressions of, and cures for, profound boredom. These manifold cures will, of course, vary from society to society and, importantly, from generation to generation, which is precisely why I have begun this discussion with a demarcation of generations.

In my judgment there are but two thinkers who provide a useful analysis of boredom. Martin Heidegger, first of all, called boredom the fundamental mood of modernity and devoted a third of a lecture course to the problem shortly after the publication of Being and Time. Since my intention here is not to provide a phenomenology of boredom, I will leave Heidegger out of these present considerations but the importance of these lectures must be kept in mind. Since our interest here is with 21st century problems, it will be more profitable if we turn our attention to Fyodor Dostoevsky. To be sure, Dostoevsky is not a 21st century man, but it is in his thought that we find a striking portrayal not only of a problem mirroring what Voegelin calls Gnosticism, but also, and more importantly, a recognition that Gnosticism is but one possible way humans can be bedeviled by boredom. In short, Dostoevsky understood well the threat to civilizational order engendered by the deformation of consciousness Voegelin envisions, but from his own unique experiences and through his vivid imagination he gives us a resume of symptoms, several of which should certainly take note as we press forward in the 21st century. Beginning with a philosophical anthropology remarkably similar to Voegelin’s, he discovered the violent restlessness of Russian society to be the direct result of the murder of the Russian god and the consequent boredom. By Dostoevsky we are shown pathologies, though with the same origin as Gnosticism, that exhibit rather different symptoms.

In what follows I would like to call attention to these alternative symptoms. To do so it will first be necessary to demonstrate that Voegelin and Dostoevsky are discussing the same pathology, namely, an unbalanced consciousness. I will establish this by first providing a brief overview of Voegelin’s theory of consciousness. Next it will become clear that from the deformation of consciousness emerges boredom and from boredom, a variety of symptoms including, but not limited to Gnosticism. As such, it will become evident that although Voegelin’s category of Gnosticm is not as salient as it once was, his work continues to be an important theoretical starting point for understanding our current political and spiritual order. It will be evident that if our concern is violence in our political community, no matter what its scope and no matter what livery it dons, we would be well advised to continue to read Voegelin.


Voegelin’s Theory of Consciousness

Let me begin with a few words concerning Voegelin’s theory of consciousness. First, that Voegelin begins his political science with a theory of consciousness is quite clear. In The New Science of Politics he asserts that it is "clear beyond a doubt that the center of a philosophy of politics [has] to be a theory of consciousness." That is to say, he holds that it is only from a theory of consciousness that the analyst can acquire an adequate idea of man. This idea of man¾ this philosophical anthropology¾ will then guide the analyst in his search for man’s creation of order. The problem with this position, however, lies in the fact that the study of consciousness is, to say the least, a rather difficult endeavor. Unlike the study of institutions or systems as a source of order, the study of consciousness is not amenable to the usual methods of scientific investigation. Voegelin recognizes that approaching politics in this way is difficult and points to the analyst’s tools as the primary problem. The difficulty, he claims, is that when beginning a study of a political community with a study of consciousness, the analyst has no other instrument than his own "concrete consciousness." As such, the "quality of this instrument, then, and consequently the quality of the results, will depend on what [he calls] the horizon of consciousness; and the quality of the horizon will depend on the analyst’s willingness to reach out into all the dimensions of the reality in which his conscious existence is an event, it will depend on his desire to know." Thus a successful study of order depends on the analyst’s own consciousness and the quality of this tool lies in the analyst’s ability and willingness to remain constantly open and responsive to the pull of all reality. In part, Voegelin is claiming this method of investigation will never be successful if one insists on the Procrustean use of scientific methodology or ideology. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he is claiming that the challenge for the political philosopher is to find a theory of consciousness that fits the facts of the world in which we live rather than the other way around¾ rather than trying to find (or force) facts to fit the theory.

It is from this position that Voegelin begins his theory of consciousness. In the 1930’s, when he was originally considering a theory of consciousness, he began with Edmund Hüsserl’s phenomenology, agreeing with Alfred Schuetz that it was "the most thorough and competent analysis of certain phenomena of consciousness that was available at that time." However, by 1943 he concluded that Hüsserl, like others before him, was attempting to put an end to a former history of mankind with his own new understanding. Voegelin found this to reek of the sort of arrogance one finds in other "final philosophies like those of Hegel or Marx, and also of the conviction of National Socialists that theirs was the ultimate truth." Hüsserl’s attempt to banish history was unacceptable because, in Voegelin understanding, history is a "permanent presence of the process of reality in which man participates with his conscious existence." History cannot be eradicated in a study of order.

His theory of consciousness is therefore predicated on the following three points: first, human consciousness must exist in reality; second, humans are aware of this existence in reality and thus express it in symbols; and finally, within this world of consciousness, man is necessarily drawn to questioning, seeking, and wondering. In short, "man’s conscious existence is an event within reality, and man’s consciousness is quite conscious of being constituted by the reality of which it is conscious." If a theory of consciousness is to be accepted, it must express concrete experiences by real people who are able to express these experiences. This, then, is to say that the cornerstone of the theory is found in the symbolic expressions engendered by the experiences themselves. The study of symbols will therefore become an experience in itself that re-engenders the original historical experience. Accordingly, for Voegelin there is a truth of consciousness that can be shared¾ a truth that "reveals itself through participation in the process of reality." A theory of consciousness, Voegelin argues, must begin with encounters within the usual scope of the usual human being. Many of the theories being thrown around were inadequate because they were based on "an artificial abstraction of the ‘normal’ experiences."

Thus the starting point, Voegelin says, "for describing the structure of consciousness is to be found in the phenomenon of attention and the focusing of attention." In other words, whereas others had focused on sense perception, Voegelin turned to "concentration." In this theory of consciousness one can focus, so to speak, on either a broad or narrow horizon. This ability, he says, is like a quantum of energy that has "no fixed magnitude but rather varies from individual to individual, and it may even vary from time to time within the consciousness." In either case, it has "the character of an inner illumination." When he uses the expression ‘inner illumination’ he has two major features in mind. First, this attention-character of consciousness "is not blind but can be experienced in its inner dimensions of past and future." Consciousness is first and foremost an inner illumination of two nodes¾ past and future. The second feature, then, is its inwardness. It is a mistake, Voegelin writes, to think "that the dimensions of consciousness are something like empty stretches on which data can be entered." Consciousness is not to be characterized as simply a problem of time especially if the problem is considered apart from the process of a substance.

From this understanding of consciousness it becomes clear that attention, insofar as it illuminates dimensions of past and future, makes "one become aware not of empty spaces but of the structures of a finite process between birth and death." This is a crucial point in his theory: attention makes one experience the reality of man’s temporality, the reality of life and death. Consciousness is, at bottom, awareness that one exists as a finite being¾ as a limited being. At the same time, however, it brings to the fore that one exists as a finite being along side processes that transcend the finitude of human existence. Consciousness, in short, illuminates to man both finite and infinite processes. The problem is that in revealing infinite processes, consciousness discloses an inherent incompatibility with finite processes. As such, man exists in an inevitable tension in-between these two nodes. This is complicated by the fact that we only have symbols for finite occasions:

since the processes transcending consciousness are not experienceable from within and since for the purposes of characterizing their structures we have no other symbols available than those developed on the occasion of other finite experiences, there results conflicts of expression.


These conflicts are often mediated by the use of myth. For example, Voegelin points to myths of creation that clear up the contradiction of a beginning for a transfinite world; the myth of an immaculate conception which reconciles the notion of a spiritual beginning for a transfinite being; in general, myths that have as their basic function the mediation between the finite and the infinite, the complete and the incomplete, the limited and the unlimited.

Voegelin points out, however, that insofar as they are myths they may not always be adequate for reconciling the tension man experiences as a finite being in the face of infinite processes. Put otherwise, consciousness engenders periodic yet acute bouts of awareness of the mysterious nature of reality¾ of Being. These bouts can be at the level of the individual or on a civilizational scope. Whatever the cause and scope, when the reconciling myth loses its vitality, the individual is provoked to questioning, to demanding an explanation, to perplexity. Consciousness thus provokes the individual to a process of meditation; it is comprised of the "experiences that impel toward reflection and do so because they have excited consciousness to the ‘awe’ of existence." Since, however, meditation is not the proper domain of all human beings, the effort to ameliorate the inherent tension can go awry. Voegelin’s meditations, for instance, provoked him to conduct the anamnetic experiments in Anamnesis. These experiments brought to light the actual experiences that constituted his consciousness and, as he says, unless his childhood experiences were fundamentally different from every other child in history, these experiences are of the same variety that begets consciousness in general. The particulars of the experiences, to be sure, will vary from person to person but the substance will perforce remain the same. From its very nature such meditation will reveal that

man is not a self-created, autonomous being carrying the origin and meaning of his existence within himself. He is not a divine causa sui; from this experience of his life in precarious existence within the limits of birth and death there rather rises the wondering question about the ultimate ground, the aitia or prote arche, of all reality and specifically his own.


In short, Voegelin is positing that contained within our pre-reflective experiences¾ the source our consciousness¾ is an awareness of our participation in a larger reality.

And what is this larger reality? The larger reality that naturally comes to presence in consciousness is the experience of a tension between temporal and eternal being. As such, consciousness, the "reality of existence, as experienced in the movement, is a mutual participation (methexis, metalepsis) of human and divine." To be sure, this is somewhat confusing and this is precisely why Voegelin finds it necessary to employ a unique symbol for the experience. He says that the experience of the tension of being, both temporal and eternal, occurs "in the ‘in-between,’ [in] Plato’s metaxy, which is neither time nor eternity." The experience therein is thus akin to the endeavor of the philosopher and to philosophy which itself is a dwelling "in the In-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness, of imperfection and perfection, of hope and fulfillment, and ultimately of life and death." Voegelin elaborates on this explanation in many places, but his point is made especially clear in the following:

Existence has the structure of the In-Between, of the Platonic metaxy, and if anything is constant in the history of mankind it is the language of tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfection and imperfection, time and timelessness, between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence; between amor Dei and amor sui, l’ame ouverte and l’ame close; between the virtues of openness toward the ground of being such as faith, love and hope, and the vices of unfolding closure such as hybris and revolt; between the moods of joy and despair; and alienation in its double meaning of alienation from the world and alienation from God.


Thus for Voegelin, consciousness is comprised of and exists through participation in the manifold spheres of reality. The heart of consciousness is participation In-Between the dichotomous nodes of Being―between finite being and infinite Being. Consciousness itself, which Voegelin interchangeably calls the psyche, the soul, or the metaxy, is constituted by the tension, nay, by the irreconcilability of man’s participatory existence between finite processes on the one hand, and an unlimited, intracosmic or transmundane reality on the other.

Meditation, however, does not always end up with an acceptance of one’s participation in this larger reality. With this understanding of consciousness, the possibility arises that one may recoil from the "conflict between the finiteness of the model of experience and the ‘infinite’ character of other processes." For Voegelin, then, especially in terms of political and psychical order, what is important is how one reacts after the irreconcilability of the two nodes of the metaxy is forced into the foreground. In most of Voegelin’s thought two general possibilities emerge: a disordered soul and a properly ordered soul. In Voegelin’s language: an unbalanced consciousness and a balanced consciousness. As I put it: boredom and perplexity. The question of consciousness and order thus pertains directly to how one orients oneself when the principles of this In-Between reality obtrude upon us. Right order is neither living obliviously in the metaxy nor simply living with the tension of the two modes of existence as part of one’s consciousness. Instead, the challenge is maintaining "a balance of consciousness" when confronted with the two nodes of this existential reality. Whether Voegelin calls these nodes time and eternity, limitedness and unlimitedness, being and non-being, death and transfiguration, Apeiron and thinghood, History I and History II, Beginning and Beyond, immanence and transcendence, the challenge is to avoid distorting or rejecting either node.

For Voegelin it is clear that on the one hand a standard of conduct is set by Aristotle’s existentially mature man¾ the spoudaios¾ who Voegelin describes as "the man who is formed by the existential virtues of phronesis and philia; as a result of this formation he achieves a consciousness of reality and insights into right human conduct which enable him to speak ‘truly’ about the order of reality, as well as of human existence." He is the man who stands resolutely when the balance of the In-Between reality of existence is disrupted. On the other hand, it also becomes clear that the deformed consciousness will "attempt to escape from the Metaxy

by splitting its poles into the hypostasis of this world and the Beyond." He will "attempt to abolish the Metaxy by transforming the Beyond into this world." In other words, the deformation of consciousness stemming from the unbalancing of the metaxy often leads not to any perplexity or amazement at the nature of reality and existential order, but rather to an existence that is itself construed as burdensome. If infinite processes are hypostatized, effaced, or rejected, all that remains is finite processes. Without eternity, there is but time. Existence can therefore be construed as burdensome because it becomes nothing more than a duration of time. If it is a long duration, then, like any suffering of a meaningless long duration of time, it is boring. It becomes a "long-while," or Langweilig. This, then, can be the impetus for efforts to escape the principles of reality altogether. From the interpretation of existence as burdensome comes an instinctive hatred and rejection of the In-between reality of human existence. Simply put, from the instinctive hatred of reality, the unbalanced consciousness declines the possibility of restoring a balance to the metaxy by 1) rejecting the existence of the transcendent node altogether or 2) hypostatizing the transcendent into the immanent node or 3) by elevating the immanent node into an ersatz transcendent node, or both. Howsoever the balance of the metaxy is rejected, the result is a field of consciousness bereft of the counterbalancing forces of either the immanent or the transcendent pole. And, it is important to add, this refusal to restore the balance, while on the one hand is a bid to be liberated from boredom, must also be understood as rebellion against uncertainty, against the perplexity arising from the awareness of consciousness as a metaxic field. It is rebellion against perplexity and a bid to impose "a stronger certainty about the meaning of existence." The question, of course, is how exactly these efforts to escape boredom manifest themselves because, as Dostoevsky is about to show us, there are a variety of ways for human beings to be bedeviled by boredom.


The Possessed

Let me begin by restating my schema. First, from Voegelin we have learned that a differentiated consciousness can be subject to a variety of unbalancing forces. What ever the disrupting force might be, the consequence is pneumopathological in that the order of being is destroyed. Voegelin employs Nietzsche’s symbol here and refers to this deformation as the murder of God. Second, we have discovered the two possible corollaries of living in a world devoid of divine presence: perplexity or boredom. Since, however, perplexity is both dangerous and difficult, boredom becomes the fundamental mood of human existence after the death of God or the gods. As such, human beings will attempt to liberate themselves from the burden of boredom and they will do so in an assortment of ways that will, as Barry Cooper puts it, "express but not cure their malaise." Gnosticism is one possibility among others of the effort to be liberated from the weight of boredom. In short, boredom has a variety of bedeviling effects. In turning to Dostoevsky we find a thinker who is well aware of this. In his Possessed, for example, not only does he paint a damning portrait of the folly of the devilish ideologues, he also exposes two other violent possibilities: I will illustrate these possibilities with what I call Kirilov’s Error and Stavrogin’s Sin.

To begin, it can be pointed out that the general structure of the social problems Dostoevsky exposes maps very well onto the schema just derived from Voegelin. For example, in our interpretation of Voegelin, we begin with the disruption of the metaxic balance. In turning to Dostoevsky we find same pathology, though in Christian terminology. This is not to say that Voegelin does not formulate his theory around Christian categories but rather that the language of transcendence and immanence applies to a variety of religions. Thus whereas Voegelin informs us of the eclipse of the transcendent node of the metaxy, Dostoevsky describes his effort in The Possessed as follows: "the main question, which is pursued in all the parts, is the same one I have been tormented by consciously and unconsciously my whole life―the existence of God.” Like Voegelin, Dostoevsky points to the eclipse of the divine as the root source of the imbalance and disorder. The Possessed itself begins with a description of a play written by Stepan Verkhovensky. The elder Verkhovensky, along with his matron Varvara Stavrogin, represents the ‘fathers’ as we understand them from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. His is the generation full of idealistic optimism; he is a Hegelist, as Turgenev says. He is "an old fighter for social justice." He cheers gaily when he hears of the social reforms brewing in Petersburg. Sometimes he carries Tocqueville into the garden, but more often he has a sentimental Paul de Kock hidden in his pocket. However we construe Verkhovensky’s character, Dostoevsky is pointing directly at the recklessness of his generation for expelling the gods from the cosmos. He is pointing to Verkhovensky’s generation as being directly responsible for the abandonment of the divine and for the eclipse of an essential source of existential and political order. In the last scene of Verkhovensky’s play, "...the Tower of Babel crops up [and] some athletic looking men are helping to complete its construction while singing a song of new hope. When they have completed the job the lord of something (Olympus, I believe) flees ignominiously, looking ridiculous, and mankind, having gained insight into things, takes over and immediately starts to live differently." In Dostoevsky’s thought the Tower of Babel (likewise the "Crystal Palace") is repeatedly used as a symbol of self-salvation; it is his symbol for the modern effort to expel the divine from the ordering principles of consciousness and political community. The Tower of Babel, he says elsewhere, "is being erected without God, not for the sake of reaching heaven from earth, but for the sake of bringing heaven down to earth." His point is clear: the troubles begin with the older generation’s banishment of the divine.

From this generation comes the sons who find themselves living in a world devoid of divine presence, i.e., in a world where they must struggle to free themselves from boredom. Stepan Verkhovensky realizes rather late in life the source of the imbalance and laments: "I want to tell them about that perverted, stinking flunky who was the first to climb a ladder with scissors in hand to slash the divine image of the human ideal in the name of equality, envy, and digestion." It is, however, too late. He has set the tone for his son, Peter Verkhovensky, and his surrogate sons, Nikolai Stavrogin and Alexei Kirilov. The pattern is established by the fathers and has been bequeathed to the sons. The bedeviling has begun.


Kirilov’s Error

In the character of Kirilov we find the most absurd plan for escaping boredom. Rather than freeing himself from boredom by restoring the balance of consciousness, he moves in precisely the opposite direction. In fact, he devises a plan that will complete the collapse of the di-nodal metaxic field. In a conversation with Nikolai Stavrogin, Kirilov says,

Real freedom will come when it doesn’t make any difference whether you live or not. That’s the final goal. ...One day there will be free proud men to whom it will make no difference whether they live or not. That’ll be the new man. He who conquers pain and fear will be a god himself. And the other God will disappear.

Boredom, as it is understood by Kirilov, can only be truly overcome after the deliberate creation of a new god―a man-God. He believes that the old God (and religion in general) was the main barriers to freedom. This God, however, can be overcome through human aritifice. To escape boredom, he says that there must be a “physical transformation of man and the Earth. Man will be a god and he’ll change physically and the whole world will change. Man’s preoccupations will change; so will his thoughts and feelings.”

Kirilov’s central premise is that "God is the pain of the fear of death." From this he concludes that by overcoming the fear of death, not only will God be killed, but the one who overcomes Him will become a god himself. History, he says, paralleling Voegelin’s schema of differentiation and deformation, "will be divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God and from the destruction of God to…." He is interrupted here by the narrator who tries to complete his sentence by suggesting "To the gorilla?" Kirilov’s response is the aforementioned godification man. Dostoevsky is clear holding this character up as an extreme representation of the strange way "Russians not only get all sorts of ideas into their heads but even try to act upon them." He is deliberately using him as an example of the fallacy not only of the deification of man, but also of the inadequacy of the theory as a whole.

Kirilov’s theory is clearly laid out in an intense dialog with Stavrogin. Kirilov begins:


"He who succeeds in teaching men that they are all good will end the world."

"He who tried to teach that was crucified."

"He’ll come and his name is man-god."


"No, man-god―that’s the crucial difference.”

His point could not be clearer. The salvation of mankind is the responsibility of not only man, but of the godified man after the murder of God. Kirilov thinks human will is solely responsible and, like Raskolnikov, he acts on his idea. He says: "If God exists, then the whole will is His and I can do nothing. If He doesn’t exist, then all will is mine and I must exercise my will, my free will." When asked why he must exercise his free will Kirilov’s response is typical of the unbalanced consciousness. He thinks that since he has discovered this new truth, he is an extraordinary man and, as Raskolnikov says, is duty bound to do what must be done. He absolutely must exercise this free will because, since he has discovered both that God must be killed to ensure eternal freedom and happiness for all humanity, and that he can be killed, he is obliged to do so. His action will be the supreme sacrifice that establishes freedom and happiness for man once and for all. Kirilov must exercise his free will because:


the whole will has become mine. I can’t imagine that there’s not one person on our whole planet who, having put an end to God and believing in his own free will, will dare to exercise that free will on the most important point. It would be like a pauper inheriting a bag full of money and not daring to put his hand into it, thinking himself too weak to own it. I wish to express my free will even if I am the only one to do so. ...I have an obligation to shoot myself because the supreme gesture of free will is to kill oneself.

He is saying this to Peter Verkhovensky, who very much wants Kirilov to kill himself because it will serve "the Cause". On hearing this theory, however, Verkhovensky quickly formulates an idea similar to Raskolnikov’s―that if one has made oneself a god, then one is free to step over the boundaries of good and evil. Further, he thinks that if such a man is willing to take such a drastic action in order to confirm his own free will, then he may be of even greater use to the movement by becoming a murderer. Verkhovensky says, “D’you know, in your case I’d have shot someone else rather than myself.” The tendentiousness of Kirilov’s idea, however, does not permit a "devil" like Verkhovensky to distort his ‘pure’ idea. He says that, "Killing someone else would be the most despicable manifestation of free will" and maintains his intention of shooting himself.

Kirilov’s plan hinges on the basis that he will be godified. In doing so, as Peter Verkhovensky says, he will put an end to "the lies that were simply due to belief in the former god." Kirilov is elated that Verkhovensky has finally understood and thus reveals the rest of the idea:


Now, if this thought can be proved to everybody, it will bring salvation for all. And who is to prove it but me? I don’t understand why an atheist who is certain that God doesn’t exist doesn’t kill himself right away. To recognize that there’s no God without recognizing at the same time that you yourself have become God makes no sense, for if it did, you would have to kill yourself. On the other hand, if you do realize that you have become God yourself you are the king and don’t have to kill yourself but can live in the greatest of glory. Only one - the one first to realize it - must kill himself. And who else will begin and thereby prove it? So I’ll kill myself and begin to prove. ...I’ll be the first and last, and that will open the door. And I’ll save them. That alone can save people, and the next generation will be transformed physically. ...For three years I’ve searched for the attribute of my divinity and I’ve found it - my free will! This is all I have at my disposal to show my independence and the terrifying new freedom I have gained. Because this freedom is terrifying all right, I’m killing myself to demonstrate my independence and my new, terrifying freedom.

He then scribbles on a suicide note a face with a tongue sticking out of the top of the page and retires to the back room to shoot himself in the head.

Here Dostoevsky provides two objections to this ploy. The first is tacit and rather obvious: if Kirilov kills himself to prove there is no God, how would anybody, save himself, know if he was correct? If the unbalanced consciousness has gained some knowledge, he will have taken it to his grave with him. There is no way to impart this knowledge on the survivors; as such, the rest of humanity can breath a sigh of relief because a devil has removed himself before he’d "thought out another theory [and] done something a thousand times worse!"

The second objection is contained in the drama of the suicide itself. Recall Kirilov’s statement that history will be divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God and from the destruction of God to..." a physical transformation of man and the earth." Bearing in mind that the narrator interrupted him and suggested that the second half of the equation would be from the destruction of God back to the gorilla, the scene that Dostoevsky paints of the suicide becomes very revealing of his opinion of the murder of God and man’s place in a world devoid of divine presence. There is something very bestial in Kirilov’s countenance as he is about to kill himself. When Verkhovensky peaks into the back room "there was a wild roar and something rushed at him.... He had caught a glimpse of Kirilov’s face as he stood at the opposite end of the room, by the window, before throwing himself at Peter with the fury of a savage beast." Later, after waiting for a gun shot, Verkhovensky becomes impatient and decides to go back in the room to investigate. The bestial images leave no doubt that Dostoevsky intends Kirilov to revert to the "gorilla" rather than God, as he had deduced in his theory. Dostoevsky even goes so far as to have Kirilov bite the finger of Verkhovensky confirming the bestial descent rather than the divine ascension.


Shigalov’s Folly

The other ‘devils’ in the narrative are afflicted by the same boredom. These young atheists go about the town perpetrating numerous heinous acts that express, but do not cure their malaise. For example, when this gang hears of a young man’s suicide in a local inn, they decide to investigate. After all, they had never seen such a thing before. A member of the group says, "I’m so bored with everything that I can’t afford to be fussy about entertainment―anything will do as long as it’s amusing.” They rush off to see the corpse and debase the entire scene by bursting into the hotel room and eating the grapes that had been part of the youth’s symbolic last supper.

As this profanation was taking place, "somebody wondered aloud why people had suddenly taken to hanging and shooting themselves so often around here. Had we suddenly been uprooted, he wanted to know, or had the ground suddenly started slipping from under our feet?" His query goes unnoticed except, of course, by the narrator and as Dostoevsky attempts to show, the quest to be liberated from boredom continues. These sorts of questions, though, do not go unnoticed by the other group of devils who are the crux of Dostoevsky’s exposé in the Possessed―the socialistic, atheistic nihilists led by Peter Verkhovensky.

Peter Verkhovensky’s character is based on the life of Sergei Gennadevich Nechaev. Nechaev was the leader of the People’s Avengers, a secret revolutionary group based at the Agricultural Institute in Petersburg. Nechaev orchestrated the murder of Ivan Ivanevich Ivanov, a fellow conspirator, on the pretext of a false rumor that Ivanov was about to betray the revolutionary group. In actuality, Nechaev had simply found the student a hindrance to his plan and wanted to liquidate him. MacAndrew states that Nechaev was “a grim fanatic [who] was ready to use blackmail, lies, and violence to attain his ends. His Jesuitical methods were condemned by Russian socialists of the seventies, but until his arrest he held a hypnotic power over his followers.” Verkhovensky fits this description rather accurately, and in The Possessed he perpetrates a crime very similar to that of Nechaev.

Verkhovensky is also the leader of the "movement" that aspires to overthrow the existing order in the name of a grand future harmony for all mankind. It is this type of organization that Dostoevsky is attacking because of, among other things, the atheistic foundations on which it is based. He is showing that while some people, in their boredom, will shoot themselves in the head and others will go about perpetrating disgusting pranks while offhandedly remarking on the moral collapse of society, others will decide that it is time to do something about the boredom. The group in The Possessed alleviates the tedium by coming up with the final solution for the reordering of society after the death of God. Their conclusions are based entirely on the very thing at which Dostoevsky’s Underground man wags his tongue―analytic reason detached from compassion.

The writer of the project is Shigalov. He begins by saying:


I have come to the conclusion that all those who have devised social systems, from antiquity down to this very year, have been nothing but dreamers, writers of fairy tales, and fools who have understood nothing about the natural sciences or about that strange animal called man. Plato, Rousseau, Fourier, aluminum pillars―all that may be fit for sparrows, but certainly not for human society. ...I therefore wish to propose my own system of world organization.

This is only the beginning of his manifesto. The plan itself is predicated on the idea that the world is poorly organized not because of some predetermined constitution but because the constructors of the political realm have hitherto been human and suffer the flaws that naturally accompany such an unfortunate predisposition. Hence Shigalov has derived a plan based not on things human (like compassion), but on reason and scientific method. The problems of the world, he holds, can be resolved because he, like Kirilov, has the knowledge for bringing about the salvation of mankind. He has, as Voegelin describes it, "the knowledge from which its possessor can learn the magic words that will evoke the shape of things to come."

This proclamation sounds very much like Kirilov’s solution, but with Shigalov "the boredom is transformed "from a personal malaise of existence to a social disease." The destruction about to be incurred is not private, but public. He says "there’s no longer any cure for the world and the only way is the radical measure of chopping off a hundred million heads." It is doubtful that boredom would lead many to declare openly such a thing, although it does happen. In any case, Dostoevsky has the "godless flunkies" make their manifesto explicit and when they do so they evoke the same tone of finality he felt before the Crystal Palace. This finality is based on the fact that Shigalov’s conclusions are derived strictly from mathematical formulae and thus, "there wasn’t the slightest doubt in our minds that this thousand year-old matter would be settled with a snap of the fingers in our age of humanitarianism, industry, and railroads."

It is this transformation of faith in God to faith in scientific reason that caused Dostoevsky the greatest concern. His concern was that when this shift occurred, there would arise a new religion demanding strict discipline and consequently the humanness of society would be rejected even when the scientific method contradicted the original premise. He makes this point abundantly clear when Shigalov explains his scheme:


I have become entangled in my own data and my conclusions directly contradict my original premises. I started out with the idea of unrestricted freedom and I have arrived at unrestricted despotism.

He discovers a contradiction―i.e., he begins his project with freedom and happiness for all mankind, based on science and reason, but finds human nature to be incompatible with such a formulation―but refuses to change his method. Believing completely in the scientific method, he concludes: “any solution of the social problem other than mine is impossible.” The Crystal Palace must be built according to reason and science in the name of freedom because, as we often hear in our own departments of political science, "that’s what the numbers show."

Shigalov’s actual plan is interesting for several reasons. First, it demonstrates Dostoevsky’s almost uncanny prescience and, second, because of its irony. Out of boredom a group of idealists hatches a scheme to end their enslavement to the eternal cycle of balance and boredom. However, with all their knowledge and transmogrifying Zauberworten, all they derive is a scheme in which nine-tenths of mankind "will lose their individuality and become something like a herd." Shigalov’s entire plan is as follows:


He offers as a final solution the division of mankind into two uneven categories. One-tenth will be granted individual freedom and full rights over the remaining nine-tenths, who will lose their individuality and become something like a herd of cattle. Gradually, through unlimited obedience and a series of mutations, they will attain a state of primeval innocence, something akin to the original paradise on earth, although, of course, they’ll have to work.

The tone here seems to be mocking; the plan is, after all, ridiculousness. The speaker, however, is serious. He continues:


The procedure Mr. Shigalov suggests, which would deprive nine-tenths of mankind of their free will and transform them into a herd through re-education of entire generations, is very interesting; it is based on data gathered from the natural sciences and is very logical. We may disagree with some of his conclusions, but we must give the author’s intelligence and vast knowledge their due.

Their due, according to Dostoevsky, is nil. Whereas the older generation began with the idea of improving the lot for nine-tenths of mankind, the younger generation has commandeered that idea. It has been "taken over by inexperienced, clumsy hands that drag it out into the street and share it with other fools as stupid as themselves." It is something they have "come across in the flea market, unrecognizable, grimy, presented from a ridiculous angle, without sense of proportion, without harmony, used as a toy by stupid brats." These ‘stupid brats’, though, are entirely convinced of their rectitude and are not to be dissuaded. Of the tyranny that Shigalov suggests he says, "what I am doing is not degradation but paradise on earth." Later, Lyamshin concludes the deformation by insisting that "instead of your paradise on earth...I’d grab those nine-tenths of mankind and blow them sky-high, leaving only the well-educated tenth, who would live happily ever after in accordance with the scientific method."

The deformation of consciousness is clear. Although Peter Verkhovensky is the leader of the movement and is himself responsible for the violence, he is quite aware of the fact that the people who follow him are unaware of the their own deformation. He therefore formulates his revolutionary plan accordingly. He says: "And finally, the main force, the cement holding the whole structure together, is shame about their own personal opinions. Yes, that’s a real force!… They’re ashamed of anything they may think of for themselves." Verkhovensky, though, certainly does not think of himself in this way, because he is the mastermind. He is convinced that he has adequate ideas and that he himself ought to inform the thinking of his followers so as to transform world organization successfully. However, when confronted by one of his gang who has actually considered the moral implications of the movement, his response is to put a bullet in the questioner’s head. Shatov is the unfortunate individual who decides to leave the organization and is rewarded with Verkhovensky’s bullet. When accused of being a deserter he says:


But whom have I deserted? Well, the enemies of everything that’s really alive; the obsolete liberals afraid of independence; the slaves of some rigid idea or another; the enemies of freedom; the senile preachers of death and decay! What do they have to offer? Senility; the golden mean; the most Philistine, petty-bourgeois mediocrity; equality based on envy; and equality without pride, as it is conceived by a flunky, as the French conceived it in 1793.

But such arguments always fall on asinine ears when spoken to those deeply afflicted by the deformation of consciousness. The one who utters such a thing will be considered, as the Underground Man says, an obscurantist or a complete madman and either be persecuted and/or prosecuted. After the murder Verkhovensky says, "a generation must be re-educated to become worthy of freedom. We will have to face thousands and thousands of Shatovs still." Verkhovensky is so shallow he can conceive of no alternative besides violence; he can deal with a balanced consciousness in no other way. He knows that thinking will be the end of the movement and will thwart his own lust for power. He thus declares: "we shall kill that desire; we shall spread drunkenness, gossip, information on others; we shall strangle every genius in infancy." Everything must be reduced to the common denominator of complete equality.

Verkhovensky’s father also recognizes his son’s asinine ears and says to him, "…if you push that guillotine of yours into the foreground it is because nothing is easier than lopping off heads and nothing is more difficult than developing ideas. Vous êtes des paresseux! Votre drapeau est une guenille, une impuissance!" He is, of course, correct to say that nothing is easier than lopping off heads, but he is quite wrong in thinking it une impuissance. The attraction of the movement is quite powerful, particularly among the bored. These people are desperate to be liberated from the weight of boredom and the drapeau can be very appealing. The banner under which the charismatic Verkhovensky gathers his following says ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘happiness’ and whatever else it needs to say in order to attract "rank-and-file fanatics [who] cannot understand the idea they are supposed to serve without fusing it with the person who, in their opinion, expresses it." When this banner purports, as Verkhovensky’s does, to be the vanguard of a higher moral reality it will indeed bring about an inextricable confusion of ideas, much to the advantage of demagogues and despots. In this case the despot is Verkhovensky himself―the leader of the movement.

Dostoevsky exposes Verkhovensky’s real intention by having Stavrogin confront the would-be despot. He says, “so you’re really not a socialist at all but just a man thirsting for political power.” Verkhovensky explains to him that freedom is not his goal at all. He plans to create chaos and unrest―“Russia will be shrouded in mist and the earth will weep for its old gods.” When he has completed this project then he will give them their new god, which he calls the fairy-tale prince. He proclaims:


We shall launch a legend that is even better than the one the sect of the Castrates has: he exists but no one has ever seen him. Ah, what a marvelous legend we could let loose on them! The main point is that a new authority is coming and that’s just what they’ll be longing and crying for. What use can we have for socialism? It destroys the old authority without replacing it. But we will have authority―authority such as the world has never before heard of. All we need then will be a lever to lift the earth, and since we have it, we’ll lift it!

This declaration is not so shocking today, in a world after Stalin and Hitler. The cult of personality has become another banal evil, strangely intriguing, but much less a threat. At the time Dostoevsky wrote this, this scope of totalitarianism was unimaginable. But even if we are now inured against such excesses, there is still a lesson here. In a world where boredom is the fundamental mood, just causes may not be motivated by any sense of justice at all. Boredom paves the way for the libido dominandi.


Stavrogin’s Sin

The character most bedeviled by boredom, and, not surprisingly, the one who speaks most loudly to the 21st century, is Nikolai Stavrogin. In Stavrogin, Dostoevsky gives us a character who is worse than the "cold" unbelieving atheists. He is a complete nihilist because he believes in nothing. That is to say, Stavrogin is no mere atheist holding himself beyond good and evil as with Kirilov, Peter Verkhovensky, and for that matter, as with Raskolnikov. He is neither atheist nor believer. He is lukewarm. He believes in the Devil, but not God. As a man, he is, both literally and metaphorically, wandering aimlessly. He has no horizon orienting him to earth or the heavens. For Stavrogin, that there could be such a thing as belief or disbelief, good or evil, is of no matter. His character is described at length in the novel and, according to the narrator, "in sheer wickedness, Stavrogin went further than Lunin and Lermontov too. He had more viciousness in him than both these men put together, but his viciousness was cold and controlled and, if it possible to say so, reasonable―the most repulsive and dangerous variety there is.” Stavrogin is beyond good and evil; but he is beyond good and evil not by choosing to be a god and permitting his conscience to step over, but because for him the balance of consciousness has completely collapsed. His pneumopathology, according to Dostoevsky, stems from the fact that not only has he "lost touch with the people of his country" but also that he has no connection with Russia and the Russian god. In Voegelinian terms, for Stavrogin, neither node of the metaxy is in focus. For Dostoevsky, it is from precisely this two-fold diremption that Stavrogin has "lost the ability to distinguish good and evil." He has become godless and indifferent, and, as is the case after the flight of the gods, profoundly bored.

In one of the more gripping passages in all of Dostoevsky’s work, Stavrogin presents his confession to Bishop Tikhon. Stavrogin, who is haunted by apparitions and insomnia, is drawn to the monastery almost involuntarily. There he is recognized without introduction and is taken to the retired Bishop. The Bishop, who is one of Dostoevsky’s entirely holy men, also recognizes Stavrogin without introduction. He invites him into his study where, after some light theological repartee, Stavrogin begins to suspect that the Bishop, like a spy or psychologist, can "pry into [his]soul." He then hands the Bishop either three or five sheets of paper and demands he read them without interruption. In this, his written confession, Stavrogin says he was living in Petersburg, "wallowing in vice from which I derived no pleasure." He reveals the order of his consciousness:


I could have hanged myself out of boredom, and if I didn’t, it was because I was still hoping for something, as I had hoped all my life. I remember that I was then seriously preoccupied with theology. It distracted me a little but afterward things became even more boring. As to my political views, I just felt I’d have liked to put gunpowder under the four corners of the world and blow the whole thing sky-high - if it had been only worth the trouble. But even if I had done it, I would have done it without malice, simply out of boredom.

Of course, Stavrogin does not put gunpowder under the four corners of the earth and blow it sky high. Instead, what he does is even more violent.

In Petersburg, in one of the two extra flats he had rented for his various love affairs, there lived a family with a girl, Matryoshka, who was in her twelfth year. The girl’s mother was often too quick to thrash her and, shortly after a patently unjust whipping, the incident of Stavrogin’s penknife occurred. The knife, it seems, had gone missing and from his report the young girl was once again unjustly implicated in its theft. In Stavrogin’s humiliating presence, she was whipped until she was covered with welts. Shortly after the whipping, Stavrogin found the knife on his bed. Rather than addressing the injustice, he disposed of the knife and told no one. He says, "I immediately realized I had done something despicable, but at the same time I felt a pleasurable sensation which burned me like hot iron and with which I became very much preoccupied." Three days after this incident Stavrogin finds himself alone with Matryoshka, his heart pounding wildly. He approaches her and, exerting the same hypnotic influence he has over all his acquaintances, he proceeds to debauch her. Whether we interpret the intercourse as consensual or not is of no matter. The profanation, like his other acts of violence, was probably committed "with an air of boredom―with a lazy, indifferent expression on his face.” Reflecting on the incident, a hint of his disrupted consciousness occurs to him. He confesses:


I believe that what had happened struck her in retrospect as an abomination; the thought of it must have revolted her. Although she must have been exposed to foul language and all sorts of conversation ever since she was a baby, I am convinced that she herself was totally innocent in those things. For, certainly, it appeared to her, after it was over, that she had committed an unspeakable crime, that she was guilty of a mortal sin, that, indeed, she had "killed God."

Of course, it is not the girl who had killed God, nor was it Stavrogin―it was from the previous generation that the Gods had fled ignominiously, looking ridiculous. And indeed mankind had immediately started to live differently immediately thereafter. Matryoshka’s sin, if we may call it such, was being bedeviled by the bored Stavrogin.

Immediately after the debauch, Matryoshka became quite ill. On the third day, when he had the opportunity be alone with her, Stavrogin returned. She was in somewhat better health and, after a long period of silence, she leapt out of bed and went to his doorway. Perhaps she sought an apology, perhaps confirmation, perhaps even rebuke, but Stavrogin only stared at her in silence with, as he says, “that hatred stirring in me again.” The confession continues:


She suddenly began shaking her head the way simple, common people do to mark their disapproval of you. Then, incongruously, she raised her little fist and shook it at me threateningly form where she stood. At first her gesture struck me as funny, but after a while I couldn’t stand it any more. I got up and took a step toward her. There was an expression of despair on her face that was quite unimaginable in a child. She kept shaking her head reproachfully and threatening me with her fist. I spoke to her then, softly and kindly, because I was afraid of her, but I soon realized she didn’t hear me and that frightened me even more.


He then turned his back to her and she fled into a little closet. He then sat in his armchair, dozed a little, and watched the time impatiently waiting for the inevitable: the girl hanged herself in the closet behind him. Dostoevsky’s point is clear: not only does Stavrogin wander aimlessly amidst his own pneumopathological boredom, the metaxic imbalance of his private world reaches out and corrupts his immediate field of human relationships. Both Stavrogin and Tikhon espy the pathology but Stavrogin, however, only recognizes the symptom. He admits, "The main trouble was that I found life so boring it drove me mad."

In our schema, we have discovered that the alternative to boredom is perplexity. Perplexity, however, is conterminous with meditation, perhaps even anamnesis. For Stavrogin this anitdote is impossible and as such the depth of his pathology becomes even clearer. Despite the fact that he maintains his reasonableness and analytic clarity―a point Dostoevsky makes very pointedly―he is incapable of an anamnetic restoration of the balance.

A couple of years ago, passing a stationery store in Frankfurt, I saw, among other post cards, the picture of a small girl, very richly dressed. She reminded me of Matryoshka. I bought it and when I returned to my hotel I placed it on the mantelpiece. I left it there without moving and without as much as glancing at it, and when I left Frankfurt I forgot to take it with me.

I mention that to prove again how clear my recollections are and with what detachment I can view them. I could reject them wholesale at will. Reminiscing has always bored me and I have never felt nostalgic for the past as many people do, especially since I loathe my past, like everything else connected with me. As to Matryoshka, I even forgot her picture on that hotel mantelpiece.


Tikhon, the good soul doctor, sees deeper into the pneumopathology. Bearing in mind that for Dostoevsky "native soil" and God are synonymous, his diagnosis is telling. He says to the lukewarm confessor, "there is one torture for those who have torn themselves from their native soil―it is boredom and the inability to do anything.” Stavrogin, of course, is not completely paralysed―he is able to do violence, both to himself and others. He is unable to do anything to restore the balance of consciousness.



It is this inability to restore the balance of consciousness that is the most pressing concern for the 21st century. It appears that, as I stated at the outset, we have inoculated ourselves against the excesses of Shigalov’s Folly. What remains to be seen is how we will react if, as Voegelin says, Kirilov’s Error and Stavrogin’s Sin "develop from a personal malaise of existence to a social disease." Both the error and the sin end in suicide; there is no telling how such a social disease would be concluded. If we have learned anything from our 20th century folly, it is that our understanding of the deeper pneumopathology is limited, that our capabilities for human and humane behavior are limited, but that our capacity for error and sin are not. What we have developed are institutional balms and bandages for the ugly external signs of the disease. As yet, we have neither therapy nor pharmacopoeia to address the root cause of the boredom. From Voegelin’s science, however, we can arrive at a fairly well informed position. Without a balance of consciousness we have two options: perplexity and boredom. The former is the beginning of order, the latter disorder. In the late hours of his life, the older Verkhovensky recognizes just this. Taking on the mien of the spoudaios, the old Hegelist announces the source of disorder, both psychological and political. On his deathbed, in what is reputed to be Dostoevsky’s own proclamation of faith, he says:


Much more than man needs happiness for himself, man needs to know and to believe at every moment of his life that somewhere there is an absolute and assured happiness for everyone, including himself. The law of human existence consists of man’s always having something infinitely great to worship. If men were deprived of this idea of infinite greatness, they wouldn’t want to live and would die of despair.


Our task as political scientists in the 21st century is then clear. We must recognize the two existential options: boredom and perplexity. We must also recognize that the 21st century will be the most boring century yet. Hopefully in so recognizing we will become perplexed and not be bedeviled thereby.


Copyright 2001 Max Arnott

What use might Voegelin be to poets, and vice versa?

It is a difficult question. Voegelin is a subtle author and poetry is difficult even to define. Moreover, poetry and politics are apt to arouse extraordinary rancour. What follows, therefore, is suggestion, not dogma, certainly not ideology.

The simplest tack, of course, might be to write poetry on Voegelinian themes, rather as Lucretius did for Epicurus. One might compose an ode on the Metaxy or a sonnet sequence on the failings of Martin Luther.

This would be a very bad idea.

Sermons in verse are deadly to write, and worse to read.

Also, by the consensus of our society (not something to be ignored lightly), we communicate information in prose and mathematics, not poetic numbers. And finally, and most importantly, such an approach would only bear on the subject of this or that poem, not on poetry as a whole.

How then to find a deeper connection?

Memory, like a sieve, not only discards but selects. From what I had read of Voegelin, five themes, stood out in my memory: transcendence, response, tension, symbolism, and luminosity.

These terms are not items of information but indices to experience . Further, none of them may be correctly understood without the others. There is no response without transcendence, no tension without response, no symbolism without the recognition of tension.

The experience to which this nest of terms points is familiar. John, Mary, Socrates, confront a universe and recognize themselves as individuals and the universe as a mystery. They articulate the experience with language symbols, such as "mystery," "zetesis," "tension," and "myth." The language symbols thus created are liable to various deformations.

A similar pattern occurs, I believe, when we compose and read poetic imagery.

A very simple example:

O, my Luve is like a red, red rose

Consider this line from a Voegelinian point of view.

The poet speaks in response to an unsettling and mysterious reality, in this case, the lady in question. Anyone who has taken up a new field of study, whether another person, the Latin Language, or the income tax code, knows that it is only at this point that one learns how far one stands from the new object of passion.

Burns articulates the experience by the creation of two poles. The woman becomes the "Luve" and the poet by implication, the lover.

Note that these terms are understood as provisional and partial. No one believes or is expected to believe that the parties involved are defined by such language.

The tension between these poles, between the mystery and the respondent, is bridged with the image of the rose.

So far, so good.

But the line cannot work by itself.

To communicate truth, it needs, firstly, the rest of the poem (which we will not go into), and secondly, from the reader, a balanced response.

If the poet is lucky, the reader will understand the line for what it is; that is, in its formal capacity, as an element of an entire poem, and as an example of a large class of imagery: and the reader will also understand it for what it is not; for example, a doctoral thesis. The reader, if the poet is lucky, will use this line as a help to understanding the poet's reality, and thus, as far as that reality may match the reader's experience, his or her own situation.

Often, of course, the poet is not lucky.

The poet's writing may be simply clumsy. The author may misjudge the audience, as in the example quoted by D.L. Sayers:

The [something] torrent, leaping in the air,

left the astounded river's bottom bare;

More sinister errors arise from the audience's side.

A valid image may become a cliche through overuse. No "I see what you mean," is evoked from the audience. Many of our most familiar political terms, such as "democracy," "fascism," and "human rights," have suffered this fate.

Very often, in political and philosophic language, a cliche ossifies into dogma. There is not much danger to Burn's line, unless we were to debate learnedly whether, as a rose, the beloved should be pruned or covered with compost. But the dogmatization of poetic language in the Bible, and in other scriptures, is still with us.

Worse, we may mistake the poetic process itself.

Someone may assert, perhaps someone has, that Burns did not, could not, concern himself with the woman he speaks of in her own reality. On this view, no one operates except from appetite; our image is therefore an instrument of seduction, or domination (he is reducing her to a plant!). In this case, the lady is understood as real only as reflection of the poet himself. She has, in fact, been immanitized.

Even worse would be to adopt the error as a tool. This takes us into the realm of verbal magic, sophistic rhetoric, and advertising.

Is this similarity in pattern accidental?

I believe not. Rather, I would like to suggest, with great diffidence, that Voegelin and metaphor, (and metaphor is the heart of poetry) may work from a similar deep principle.


Whatever else a poem is, it is an artifact, like a chair. It is, further, an artifact made of words. It has to be made, and made of words to be a poem. This has necessary consequences.

Like a chair, a poem is meant to maintain its own shape and form. In this it differs from prose, whose words, as Valéry notes, are meant to be dissolved into understanding; or bread whose point is to perish into nourishment.

A poem's purpose therefore, whatever that purpose is, is in its form and not its elements. If the purpose cannot be inherent in all its elements, it cannot be in any single element.

The purpose of a poem, while it does concern the subject material (whether a lady or the foundation of Rome) cannot be limited to that subject material. Like a chair, a poem is designed to fit an exterior end.

Further, since words are necessary then whatever words are meant to do must be taken into that final poetic purpose.

The base purpose of words is communication of truth, of some sort, about reality, in some aspect.

Thus, if a poem is all it should be, then whatever the subject material of the particular poem in question, the message of that poem is an unspoken truth about that particular subject material.

Further, since poetry is one as a genus, it ought to have a generic message.

I submit that the only message that transcends all subjects in this way, and yet is true in every particular subject is the message of transcendence itself. I have to conclude, with hesitation, that the message of poetry, as a genus, is that reality as a whole and every part of it, is charged with significance beyond itself.

Whatever is, is strange.

Now here is the point of this neo-scholastic rambling. The same attitude to reality, the poetic core, as it were, works, I suggest, in the vision of Eric Voegelin.

In the Voegelinian universe, we operate between an upper and lower limit. Below us is an unsettling sense that we are not quite as real as we would like to be. We have names for this fearsome possibility, such as death.

Above us, described in the two famous questions of Leibnitz, is a horizon of mystery.

In the altogether tense middle ground we describe as life and reality, our political and philosophical terms are responses, true but qualified, to our situation, and are meant to be understood as such.

Clearly, Voegelin is not composing poetry. He works in prose and that prose aims to formulate insight as explicitly as words will allow. But his central insight is that the phenomena of politics and philosophy are poetic, that is, symbolic, potentially luminous for transcendence, and working by persuasion.

This insight is, I believe, part of Voegelin's essential flavour. It may explain why he appeals so intensely to a limited audience, and is so widely and thoroughly ignored. That the universe may mean more than itself, that it has a symbolic, not to say sacramental core, is a most disquieting thought.

What does this say for politics and political science?

Poetry, according to our consensus, is personal, private, allusive, and non-judgemental (in a nice way). Politics is, or ought to be, realistic, that is, founded on money or force majeur. Actually, as Chesterton pointed out years ago, a politics founded on money or force is almost wildly un-realistic. He is quite right, it is unrealistic, and it is unrealistic because it is unpoetic. It is unpoetic because it has been made so. The great theme of the History of Political Ideas is the more-or-less deliberate "thinning" of the poetic, that is, the transcendent, dimension from our civic affairs. The unspoken theme of Order and History is the re-discovery of this dimension.

What can Voegelin do for the poets? In our society, for the most part, we keep poetry and politics apart. Many poets are rabid partisans (usually on the left), but little is written on the political process itself. The Muse, it seems, is not interested in the committee meeting or the sewer bill.

Voegelin's insight, and his decades of acute analysis, restore the whole range of politics as an object of poetic contemplation. It may provide a road to authentic public poetry. After all, if the universe is mysterious, so is everything in it. The luminosity that shines through our great political symbols--Rome, Jerusalem, Tienamin, Washington--continues through the whole fabric, down to the county clerk's office.

Clearly, we are not looking for propaganda. The job of poets is to communicate wonder, not state policy. We do not need any more late Horatian odes.

However, if we remember the insights of Eric Voegelin in this matter, we will remember too, and bear more closely in mind, Plato's insight that the state is the best of dramas, and it may be that in doing so, both in politics and poetry we will do all right.



M. Arnott



Personal Participation:

Michael Polanyi, Eric Voegelin, and the

Relationship Between Epistemology and Politics

Copyright 2001 Mark Mitchell

 "The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid."

G.K. Chesterton


Both Michael Polanyi and Eric Voegelin fled their homeland (Hungary and Germany, respectively) to escape the Nazis, and this experience helped motivate the concerns and shape the thought of these two thinkers. Polanyi and Voegelin witnessed firsthand the moral and political depths opened up by those who were willing to embrace (whether explicitly or tacitly) a Weltanschauung which denied the reality of transcendent moral truth. Both sought through their scholarly work to point a way out of the philosophical dead-end which produced the horrors from which they managed to escape. In this paper I want to examine certain aspects of the thought of Polanyi and Voegelin with an eye to highlighting the important ways in which they are similar. I will begin by indicating how both find the modern conception of knowledge seriously wanting. What Polanyi terms "objectivism" and Voegelin calls "scientism" is the modern tendency to reduce knowledge to only that which can be scientifically demonstrated. This severely truncated view of knowledge has serious moral and political implications. These implications¾ what Polanyi identifies as "moral inversion" and Voegelin calls "gnosticism"¾ will be discussed. I will then briefly examine the view of reality held by both as well as the implications of their thought for the so-called fact/value dichotomy. Finally, I will indicate the complementary ways in which these two thinkers believe recovery is possible. I will argue that the epistemological solution encompassed in Polanyi’s personal knowledge fits well with Voegelin’s insistence that we must recover an awareness of human participation in transcendent reality. In the end, while certainly not identical, the solutions offered by both provide useful supports for the other: Polanyi’s theory of knowledge adds an important dimension to Voegelin, while Voegelin’s insistence on openness to the transcendent makes explicit what Polanyi only occasionally intimates.


1. Modern Deformation of Knowledge

Polanyi and Objectivism Modern philosophy is characterized by, among other things, a rejection of tradition. The early moderns initiated their inquiries by explicitly and categorically rejecting the authority of the Aristotelian and religious traditions. Those traditions were seen as oppressive and a hindrance to the pursuit of truth. Any reliance on belief or tradition as a starting point for investigation was rejected. This ideal has continued to our day. Polanyi writes:


To assert any belief uncritically has come to be regarded as an offence against reason. We feel in it the danger of obscurantism and the menace of an arbitrary restriction of free thought. Against these evils of dogmatism we protect ourselves by upholding the principle of doubt which rejects any open affirmation of faith.

The twin streams of early modern philosophy, rationalism and empiricism, both rejected any dependence on tradition and authority. As Polanyi puts it, "Cartesian doubt and Locke’s empiricism…had the purpose of demonstrating that truth could be established and a rich and satisfying doctrine of man and the universe built up on the foundations of critical reason alone." Polanyi believed that the modern-day descendants of Descartes and Locke were still pursuing their ideals in the twentieth-century, and that they manifested themselves in the form of both logical positivism and skepticism. These modern empiricists and skeptics "are all convinced that our main troubles still come from our having not altogether rid ourselves of all traditional beliefs and continue to set their hopes on further applications of the method of radical scepticism and empiricism."

The attempt to reject all dependence on tradition and authority gave rise to the ideal of explicit, objective knowledge. Tradition and authority are mediating elements which inevitably influence the mind subjected to them. A mind subjected to such influences cannot obtain the necessary distance to attain a purely objective and explicit grasp of the facts. Thus, the war on tradition is the attempt to rid the mind of epistemological mediaries that cloud and influence the mind and prevent the knower from accessing unmediated truth. According to Polanyi, "objectivism has totally falsified our conception of truth, by exalting what we can know and prove, while covering up with ambiguous utterances all we can know and cannot prove, even though the latter knowledge underlies, and must ultimately set its seal to, all that we can prove." We must ask, then, whether or not such things as belief and tradition are epistemologically necessary. If so, then the ideal embraced by modern philosophy is self-contradictory, and it would follow that those who embrace this ideal inevitably produce incoherence within their systems of thought. Polanyi recognizes the epistemic role played by tradition and belief; thus, for him the rejection of these must be overcome if modern man is to recover the proper epistemological balance. In Polanyi’s phrase, a "post-critical philosophy" must be developed.

Voegelin and Scientism Voegelin traces the same movement of thought as does Polanyi. In a 1948 essay titled "The Origins of Scientism" Voegelin locates the early signs of scientism in the second half of the sixteenth century, for "it is a movement which accompanied the rise of modern mathematics and physics." According to Voegelin, the impressive gains made in the various sciences created a self-assured cast of mind that led to an over-extension of science. In other words,


They began in a fascination with the new sciences to the point of underrating and neglecting the concern to experiences of the spirit; they developed into the assumption that the new science would create a world view that would substitute for the religious order of the soul; and they culminated, in the nineteenth century, in the dictatorial prohibition, on the part of scientistic thinkers, against asking questions of a metaphysical nature.


Voegelin finds three principle features common to all scientistic enterprises:


(1) the assumption that the mathematized science of natural phenomena is a model science to which all other sciences ought to conform; (2) that all realms of being are accessible to the methods of the sciences of phenomena; and (3) that all reality which is not accessible to sciences of phenomena is either irrelevant or, in the more radical forms of the dogma, illusionary."


Voegelin argues that Newtonian physics, which requires as a postulate the notion of absolute space, along with the Cartesian materialization of extension, served to produce a philosophical picture of the universe in which there was no need—indeed, no room—for God. This theoretical removal of God denied the fundamental structure of reality and caused a loss of balance that manifested itself in the political movements of modernity. Indeed, for Voegelin, the "advancement of science and the rationality of politics are interwoven in a social process that, in the perspective of a more distant future, will probably appear as the greatest power orgy in the history of mankind."

The theoretical removal of God—what Voegelin in another work memorably terms "the murder of God"—necessarily places man in a new position of autonomy and self-reliance. Armed with this new freedom from divine control along with the ontological autonomy that comes with denying the existence of an essential human nature, scientistic men are at liberty to attempt to re-create human nature in a more suitable fashion than that which had previously been tolerated. In short, scientistic man is now free to exert his creative passions to produce "the man-made being that will succeed the sorry creature of God’s making." The political outcome of this attempted reformulation of human nature, though, is quite at odds with any utopian visions of peaceful kingdoms, for "historically, the murder of God is not followed by the superman, but by the murder of man." Thus, according to Voegelin, a denial of God necessarily produces a false view of reality, which manifests itself in political movements that rest on raw power and ultimately results in murder. This historic reality highlights an important point: we must never fall victim to the belief that "an idea is politically unimportant because philosophically it is stark nonsense." But sadly those who, due to their scientistic commitments, deny the reality of God, and thereby deny the fundamental structure of reality, spiritually emasculate themselves—they are in Voegelin’s words "spiritual eunuchs." With the modern dominance of scientism, "the spiritual eunuchs became the socially effective formers of ideas for the masses." Thus, scientism produced spiritual eunuchs who became the vanguard of the intellectuals, who in turn, by their commitment to scientism gave it a respectability that was undeserved on its purely scientific merits. This respectability paved the way for more scientistic endeavors, for in Voegelin’s words, "without the prestige effect of scientism, such major intellectual scandals as the social success of positivism, or Darwinian evolutionism, or Marxism would be unthinkable."

Scientism¾ what Polanyi calls objectivism¾ seeks to reduce all knowledge to that which can be empirically verified. Thus, the realm of facts is susceptible of scientific knowledge and is therefore objectively knowable, while the realm of values lies outside of the scientific methodology and therefore admits of only subjective knowledge. But, as with any theory of knowledge, there are inevitable moral and political implications.


2. Moral and Political Implications: Moral Inversion and Gnosticism

Moral Inversion Harry Prosch notes that Polanyi’s "critique of contemporary epistemology was, in fact, generated by an ethical problem: the damage he thought this epistemology was doing to our moral ideals." Indeed, the moral and political implications of objectivism is a frequent topic in Polanyi’s writings. This, perhaps, is not surprising given Polanyi’s firsthand experience with and lifelong concern about the philosophical roots of totalitarianism. Polanyi’s account of the moral implications of objectivism begins with an account of the historic changes wrought by modern thought.

As discussed above, the scientific revolution led by such men as Descartes and Bacon included a disdain for any knowledge based on tradition or authority. At a certain level this rejection was warranted, for in the limited range of scientific investigation empirical observation must be given a prominent role. The success of science in the last three centuries attests to the positive impact of a rejection of certain assumptions that found their roots in Aristotelian metaphysics and in sanctioned interpretations of Biblical texts. But, while a limited rejection of tradition and authority was beneficial to the scientific enterprise, the momentum of modern philosophy continued to push toward the wholesale rejection of all tradition and authority. This culminated in the intellectual and political events surrounding the French Revolution. Due to this radical shift in orientation away from tradition and authority, Polanyi argues that history can be divided into two periods. First, all societies that preceded the Revolution in France "accepted existing customs and law as the foundations of society." While it is true that there "had been changes and some great reforms…never had the deliberate contriving of unlimited social improvement been elevated to a dominant principle." On the other hand, the French Revolutionaries embraced with zeal the ideal of the unlimited progress of man, both morally and materially. "Thus, the end of the eighteenth century marks the dividing line between the immense expanse of essentially static societies and the brief period during which public life has become increasingly dominated by fervent expectations of a better future."

This optimistic and passionate drive toward human perfection, which resulted in a wholesale rejection of tradition and authority, produced another equally significant result. The combination of Cartesian doubt and Lockean empiricism produced a theory of knowledge that precluded any truth claims that did not admit of explicit rational justification. Thus, religious and moral claims were a priori ruled out-of-bounds by a theory of knowledge that was construed in such a manner that its boundaries did not admit of such claims. This effectively produced a skepticism about all claims to knowledge not grounded in empirical investigation. Thus, the authority of religion, specifically Christianity, which had held a dominant position for fifteen centuries, was undercut at its foundations. Scientism became the new religion, and its priests, the scientists and modern philosophers, employed epistemological objectivism as their instrument of worship.

Skepticism, of course, is not unprecedented. In antiquity there were those who embraced a skeptical view of the world, but modern skepticism is different because it occurs in a culture steeped in the residue of Christianity. "The ever-unquenching hunger and thirst after righteousness which our civilization carries in its blood as a heritage of Christianity does not allow us to settle down in the Stoic manner of antiquity." Thus, although modern philosophy does not permit the consideration of the truth claims of Christianity, the memory of Christianity remains and produces a passionate urge to pursue righteousness despite the fact that modern philosophy has rendered the reality of moral truth impossible.

The result of this two-fold change is a situation in which deep moral impulses, which are the product of a Christian heritage, are combined with a skepticism that denies the reality of the very impulses modern man feels most acutely. Polanyi describes this situation as follows:


In such men the traditional forms for holding moral ideals had been shattered and their moral passions diverted into the only channels which a strictly mechanistic conception of man and society left open to them. We may describe this as a process of moral inversion. The morally inverted person has not merely performed a philosophical substitution of material purposes for moral aims; he is acting with the whole force of his homeless moral passions within a purely materialistic framework of purposes.


Moral inversion, then, is the combination of skeptical rationalism and moral perfectionism, which is nothing more than the "secularized fervour of Christianity." But, whereas moral perfectionism within a Christian context is moderated by the doctrine of original sin and the consequent need for divine grace (which spawns humility), the perfectionism of a post-Christian world provides no such moderating counterbalance. Thus, the moral perfectionism of Christianity persists despite the rejection of the doctrines which, in times of belief, prevented it from wrecking havoc on the society committed to its ideal. Furthermore, skeptical rationalism prevents any adequate justification for the moral impulses that course through the veins of western man. This seemingly contradictory marriage of incompatible elements allows individuals and societies to commit the most immoral acts¾ which according to the skeptic are not really immoral, since morality is an empty category¾ all in the name of a perfectionism, which is a longing rooted in a Christian heritage that has been rendered unbelievable. Thus, the ideal of moral perfection, which in Christianity was rooted in the transcendent, was immantentized due to the parameters established by modern epistemology. This immanentization occurred so that scientific methods could be brought to bear on what were heretofore moral and religious affairs. Thus, the objectivity of science was allowed to sanction what were previously moral impulses in an attempt to bring about a purely immanent perfection without the hindrance of moral limitations on the means to that end. But why, Polanyi asks, should such a doctrine so obviously contradictory, be held, especially by moderns who pride themselves in their intellectual rigor? "The answer is, I believe, that it enables the modern mind, tortured by moral self-doubt, to indulge its moral passions in terms which also satisfy its passion for ruthless objectivity."

Polanyi distinguishes between two manifestations of this combination of rational skepticism and moral perfectionism. The first is personal, while the second is political. The first is found in the modern existentialist. In this view, traditional morality has no justification. Man’s choice is all that exists apart from the bare facts of science. Thus, all moral ideals are discredited. "We have, then, moral passions filled with contempt for their own ideals. And once they shun their own ideals, moral passions can express themselves only in anti-moralism." This is the modern nihilist who denies any distinction between good and evil. Thus, on the personal level, moral inversion produces the individual nihilist, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, for example. The second manifestation is political. When rational skepticism and moral perfectionism are embraced, the political restraints provided by traditional morality are destroyed. The perfectionist element demands the total transformation of society, but because moral distinctions are denied, there is no limitation on the political means to achieve the desired result. Thus, in political terms, moral inversion produces totalitarianism.

The problem of moral inversion is, for Polanyi, the direct result of a false theory of knowledge that does not allow the admission of moral truth as legitimate knowledge. While it is true that modern man has produced a stunning array of scientific and technological advances, moral progress has been much more ambiguous. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of rationalism and skepticism. Thus, modern man "must restore the balance between his critical powers and his moral demands." This restoration, as we will see, takes the form of a return in the direction Augustine who, like Polanyi, recognized the fiduciary element undergirding all rational thought.

One question remains in the present discussion: how is it that some modern societies have apparently escaped the frenzied passion produced by moral inversion while others have not? This question is important because it appears to be the case that all modern western societies have, in fact, embraced the twin elements that constitute moral inversion, namely rational skepticism and moral perfectionism. The answer, according to Polanyi, is found in what he terms "pseudo-substitution." In short, those societies that have avoided the descent into immoral morality (i.e. totalitarianism) in fact continue to embrace traditional morality in practice all the while denying its reality in theory. This, according to Polanyi, merely indicates that "men may go on talking the language of positivism, pragmatism, and naturalism for many years, yet continue to respect the principles of truth and morality which their vocabulary anxiously ignores." Polanyi argues that both Britain and America have managed to escape the grim inhumanity of moral inversion by virtue of this dichotomy between practice and theory. This achievement was rendered possible by a sort of "suspended logic" by which the British and the Americans did not pursue their theoretical positions to their practical ends.

While pseudo-substitution apparently provides (at least temporarily) a way to avoid the negative consequences of moral inversion, it is obviously is not ideal, for it does not dispense with the problem but merely holds it at bay through a process of self-deception. What Polanyi refers to as a recovery of balance between man’s moral demands and his critical powers indicates a more stable solution, for it attempts to overcome the epistemological shortcomings of modernity, which have created the possibility of moral inversion in the first place. Thus, a recognition of the a-critical framework of our knowledge will re-open the philosophical possibility of obtaining real moral truth, and that recovery will destroy skepticism and thereby knock out one leg supporting moral inversion. Furthermore, such a recovery would once again make possible the legitimate discussion of religion and at least open the door to a more suitable religiously-informed anthropology which would knock out moral inversion’s second leg. While a return to orthodox Christianity is perhaps unlikely, it is not, in Polanyi’s argument, a necessary condition for avoiding the perils of moral inversion. A return to traditional religious forms might, though, be one of the outcomes produced by overcoming objectivist epistemology in favor of a theory of knowledge that recognizes the fiduciary framework upon which all knowing rests.

Voegelin and Gnosticism Although Voegelin, too, identifies the foundations of scientism in the sixteenth century, a broader category of noetic pathology of which scientism is a part is the class of movements Voegelin terms gnostic. Gnostic heresies were the focus of much attention by the early Christian writers, and according to Voegelin, the same gnostic impulse has continued within Christendom to our day. In brief, Voegelin identifies six characteristics of gnosticism. First, the gnostic is dissatisfied with his situation. Second, the gnostic believes that this unsatisfactory situation is due to the fact that the world is intrinsically poorly organized. Third, he believes that salvation from this poorly organized world is possible. Fourth, he holds that the order of being will have to be changed. Fifth, this change in the order of being can be produced through human effort. Sixth, this change can only be wrought by those who possess the special knowledge, the gnosis.

The gnostic is motivated by an all-consuming desire to escape the uncertainty of reality as encountered within the metaxy¾ the In-Between bounded by the divine ground of being and nothingness within which human noetic existence occurs¾ for the gnostic craves certainty above all else. Christianity, though, does not afford the certainty sought by the gnostic, for "uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity." One must walk by faith, which according to Hebrews 11:1 is the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." In short, certainty is not the core of Christian belief. "Ontologically, the substance of things hoped for is nowhere to be found but in faith itself; and epistemologically, there is no proof for things unseen but again this very faith." Thus, gnosticism is an attempt to circumvent the ontological and epistemological uncertainty of the life of faith by attempting to alter the fundamental structure of reality better to produce certainty. This can only be accomplished by bringing the meaning of existence into the purview of human control: the transcendent truth of reality must be immanentized.


The attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt at bringing our knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith, will afford; and Gnostic experiences offer this firmer grip in so far as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man.


As we saw earlier, when God is murdered¾ that is when He is placed under the domination of man¾ the ensuing vacuum is filled by man, and historically, the result has been the inhumane treatment of man.

While the fear of uncertainty provides a negative impetus to grasp the ostensible certainty offered by gnosticism, the positive impetus driving modern gnosticism is the "Christian idea of perfection." But with God removed from the realm of theoretical possibility, the drive for perfection must be duly divorced from the transcendent context of the Christian tradition. This immanentized impulse toward perfectionism, which is unconstrained by any transcendent moral commitments, manifests itself in all manners of inhumane acts, the goal of which is a purely mundane perfection.

By way of a brief summary, Polanyi’s moral inversion overlaps considerably with Voegelin’s symbol of gnosticism. The two elements of moral inversion¾ rational skepticism and moral perfectionism¾ find counterparts in Voegelin’s account. First, modern skepticism denies the existence of anything that cannot be empirically verified. Thus, the transcendent God of Christianity is rendered a priori untenable. Skepticism thoroughly immanentizes reality. Likewise for Voegelin, a central theme in modern gnostic movements is the denial of any transcendent reality. The second element of moral inversion is perfectionism. It is an impulse born within the Christian milieu which finds itself removed from its original context by the skepticism that made Christianity (indeed, theism) impossible. Cut loose from its theological moorings, this perfectionist impulse directs itself toward refashioning the world unhindered by transcendent moral restraints. The goal is a new world, one free from the flaws inherent in the old which was bound by superstition and transcendent commitments. This is gnosticism. For the gnostic is characterized by dissatisfaction with the given order of reality and an all-consuming desire to reform reality according to his purely immanent vision of the good, which is derived from the Christian idea of perfection. He optimistically believes that such an effort will produce the certainty for which he longs, that is, a perfected knowledge in which all uncertainties dissipate as he gains noetic dominance over reality by subsuming it within his immanent and finite capacities.


3. Recovery

Both Polanyi and Voegelin believe that the harmful consequences of modern thought can be overcome only by a fundamental reorientation of the mind. While their respective solutions are somewhat different, they are largely compatible and in many respects complementary. I think it is useful to understand these two approaches as addressing the same broad issue from two distinct perspectives. The core issue is one of belief. On the one hand, Polanyi presents a descriptive account of the fact of belief, while on the other hand, Voegelin offers a normative account of the object of belief; or perhaps more simply, one focuses on epistemology while the other focuses ontology. Polanyi emphasizes the descriptive and epistemological while Voegelin emphasizes the normative and ontological.

Polanyi and a Return to St. Augustine According to Polanyi, philosophy was born in Greece, and Greek rationalism reigned until the spiritual fervor of Christianity reached a climax with the thought of St. Augustine. Augustine "brought the history of Greek philosophy to a close by inaugurating for the first time a post-critical philosophy. He taught that all knowledge was a gift of grace, for which we must strive under the guidance of antecedent belief: nisi credidertitis, non intelligitis." Thus, for the ancient Greeks, reason was primary. Augustine overturned that tradition by arguing that faith preceded reason. Modern philosophy, in turn, rejected the Augustinian primacy of belief with its rejection of all forms of tradition. Polanyi’s critique of modern thought reveals its incoherencies. Modern thought has reached a dead-end, and in order to remedy the error, Polanyi claims "we must now go back to St. Augustine to restore the balance of our cognitive powers." This call for a return to Augustine is a call for a new post-critical philosophy.

Polanyi is quick to point out that he does not repudiate the incredible gains made in the modern period. "Ever since the French Revolution, and up to our own days, scientific rationalism has been a major influence toward intellectual, moral, and social progress." Yet, in spite of the obvious progress, there has been a darker side. Polanyi is convinced that the moral and political tragedies of the twentieth-century clearly reveal the logical consequences of an errant view of knowledge. "The question is: Can we get rid of all these malignant excrescences of the scientific outlook without jettisoning the benefits which it can still yield to us both mentally and materially?" For Polanyi, then, the obvious benefits produced by modern science have been accompanied by a corresponding crisis of knowledge, which has manifested itself in inhumane acts of unspeakable proportions. The problem must be dealt with at its roots: a new approach to knowledge must be adopted.


Keeping these awful aspects of our situation tacitly in mind, I shall try to trace a new line of thought along which, I believe, we may recover some of the ground rashly abandoned by the modern scientific outlook. I believe indeed, that this kind of effort, if pursued systematically, may eventually restore the balance between belief and reason on lines essentially similar to those marked out by Augustine at the dawn of Christian rationalism.


Polanyi’s call for a return to Augustine is not a call to reject all appeals to reason or to reject the importance of science or other secular pursuits; instead, it is a call to recognize the indispensable role belief plays in all knowing. Modern philosophy, which insists that all knowledge be either rationally or empirically demonstrable, produced a discrediting of belief¾ all claims to knowledge that were not susceptible to demonstration were denigrated as subjective opinion. Polanyi is attempting to recover a view of knowledge that once again recognizes the indispensable role of belief. In a key passage he writes:


We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework.


But if belief necessarily underlies all thought, it follows that authority, submission, and trust precede knowing, for belief entails submitting in trust to an authority and only subsequently understanding fully the content of that to which one submitted. Thus, for Polanyi, belief—that is a fiduciary framework—is an essential component of all knowing, and although one can deny that this is the case, such denials reflect a blatant error that requires affirming in practice that which is being denied in theory. Belief, then, is central to Polanyi’s descriptive account of the fundamental structure of all knowing. Although the denial of this structure has severe moral and political implications, the actual structure is impossible to obviate. There are, then, normative implications for denying the descriptive fiduciary account, but the structure itself is unavoidable.

Polanyi’s account of tacit knowing make clearer the fiduciary nature of knowing. Tacit knowing is comprised of two types of awareness. When we attend directly to an object we are aware of it focally. It is the explicit object of our attention, and our awareness of it is the subject of our concerns. But all focal awareness is accompanied by subsidiary awareness. We attend focally to a particular object (or concept) while attending subsidiarily to a variety of clues that are not the objects of our attention. The integration of these two kinds of awareness constitutes tacit knowing. Polanyi appropriates the findings of Gestalt psychology to describe his theory of knowledge. In short, Gestalt psychology, in Polanyi’s words, claims that "the particulars of a pattern or a tune must be apprehended jointly, for if you observe the particulars separately they form no pattern or tune." Polanyi gives his readers several examples that serve to clarify the distinction between focal and subsidiary. The following is one of his favorites.

When a person employs a probe to explore a hidden cavity, or when a blind person uses a stick to find his way along an unknown path, the individual is aware of the impact the handle produces in his hand when the probe strikes an object, but the individual attends to these impacts subsidiarily. His focus is upon the end of the stick, and by attending focally to that while attending subsidiarily to the impact of the stick in his hand, he is able to comprehend objects by virtue of the stick. In a certain respect, the probe becomes an extension of his own body, and it is for this reason that subsidiary awareness and focal awareness can be understood in terms of physiology and identified as proximal and distal. The proximal term is that which is closest to one’s body¾ in actuality it is that which is either part of one’s body, as in a hand or a limb, or that which becomes an extension of one’s body, as in a probe or any other tool. We dwell subsidiarily in the proximal term in order to dwell focally upon the distal term. This subsidiary-focal relationship is one that can be characterized as a from-to relation. We attend from the subsidiaries to the focal target. All knowing this thus constituted.

The from-to nature of tacit knowing reveals an important feature of the nature of human cognition, for it puts the human knower at the center of the knowing process. This is the central motivating purpose of Polanyi’s epistemological project. The modern ideal is strict detachment in which complete objectivity is achieved by removing the knower from the knowing process. In his preface to Personal Knowledge Polanyi admits that the ideal of detachment is perhaps a harmless (though false) ideal when dealing with the exact sciences, but "it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science. I want to establish an alternative ideal of knowledge, quite generally." Since all knowledge is rooted in the subsidiary-focal integration, it is quite accurate to claim that "all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable." Furthermore, "the ideal of a strictly explicit knowledge is indeed self-contradictory; deprived of their tacit coefficients, all spoken words, all formulae, all maps and graphs, are strictly meaningless." But if all knowledge consists of the subsidiary-focal relationship, and the subsidiaries represent the bodily indwelling of the knower in an active integration of the two elements, then it follows that "all tacit knowing requires the continued participation of the knower, and a measure of personal participation is intrinsic therefore to all knowledge." If this account of knowing is accurate, the twin ideals of objective detachment and completely explicit knowledge are rendered impossible, for the active participation of the knower is indispensable as are the subsidiaries which do not admit of explicit formulation.

Voegelin and Belief For Voegelin belief is no less important, but his account entails a primary normative element that is not present in Polanyi, whose account, as we have seen, includes a secondary normative element but is primarily descriptive. In other words, while Polanyi focuses on arguing that belief underlies all we know, Voegelin focuses on the normative structure of that belief¾ the content or direction of belief is of primary concern for Voegelin. One of Voegelin’s later essays, "The Beginning and the Beyond," which was published posthumously, contains a detailed discussion of the topic of belief, and this will provide us with important insights into the manner in which Voegelin held belief to be indispensable. But prior to looking at that essay we must first briefly investigate Voegelin’s symbol of metaxy, for only when that is clearly understood can we comprehend Voegelin’s account of belief.

Throughout his later work Voegelin devotes considerable time to describing the nature of the metaxy, the In-Between, which is a symbol denoting the ontological characteristic of human experience. Taking his cue from the Anaximandrian fragment and several Platonic dialogues (especially the Symposium and the Philebus), Voegelin envisions human conscious existence as a participatory (metaleptic) event that differentiates within the questing of human nous toward the divine ground of being. But this movement is not unidirectional, for the "reality of existence, as experienced in the movement, is a mutual participation (methexis, metalepsis) of human and divine." Furthermore, and creating an extraordinary philosophical complexity, "the language symbols expressing the movement are not invented by an observer who does not participate in the movement but are engendered in the event of participation itself." Thus, there exists, by virtue of human conscious existence, an epistemological uncertainty that makes indubitable noetic foundations unattainable. The fact that human existence is uncertain, though, is surprisingly revealing, for the fact of uncertainty implies an awareness of the possibility of ignorance, which in turn opens the door to the possibility of truth. In other words, the fact that human minds are capable of identifying the categories of ignorance and knowledge implies a certain degree of knowledge, but the fact that ignorance is a live possibility also implies the tenuous and uncertain stance human consciousness takes toward knowledge. This In-Between characteristic of human existence pertains to those elements most fundamental to reality: knowledge, time, perfection, and life itself. Thus, metaxic existence is "in the In-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness, of imperfection and perfection, of hope and fulfillment, and ultimately of life and death." Human existence, for Voegelin, lies between these opposing nodes; thus, the "metaxy is the domain of human knowledge. The proper method of its investigation that remains aware of the In-Between status of things is called ‘dialectics’; while the improper hypostasis of In-Between things into the One or the Unlimited is the characteristic defect of the speculative method that is called ‘eristics.’"

For those not content with the painstaking noetic gains achieved through dialectics, the uncertainty of existence in the metaxy is disconcerting and can produce abortive attempts to consummate the metaxy by forcing the transcendent node into the realm of the immanent, for only if reality is so reduced can human understanding pretend to know reality with certainty. This rebellion against metaxic existence is driven by an (understandable) desire for "a stronger certainty about the meaning of existence." But, ironically, in an attempt to dominate reality by immanentizing it, this "pneumopathological" movement in actuality so distorts reality that the pseudo-knowledge gained from the deformation is not of reality at all but a metastatic counterfeit that ultimately produces disorder in the souls of those who stage such revolts against reality.

Any philosophical investigation into the nature of the metaxy will only exhibit truth if the investigation, itself, is conducted from within this tensional structure. In other words,

Since no reflection on the Metaxy can be true unless it is conducted from a position within the metaleptic truth-reality, neither the events of experience and symbolization, nor the process of the events as a whole, can become objects of analytical conceptualization for an external subject of cognition.


Thus, since the truth of existence is only approachable from within the metaxy, which is an ontological orientation that cannot be demonstrated or even adequately comprehended except from within the metaxy itself, philosophical investigation begins not with an Archimedean point that in Cartesian fashion can be indubitably known; instead, true knowing must begin with a commitment of faith or belief in the ontological reality of metaxic existence. In short, ontology must precede epistemology, and one’s initial commitment to the ontological truth of the metaxy requires faith. Thus, faith or belief provides the framework within which reason properly operates, and the noetic quest occurs as a consequent as reason seeks to provide a rational account of the initial movement of faith. Both faith and reason, then, play essential noetic roles, and to ignore or deny the importance of either is to deform the nature of the knowing process.

Voegelin looks to Saint Anselm as an example of one who, in the Augustinian tradition, understands the necessary relationship symbolized in fides quaerens intellectum, faith in search of understanding. Voegelin’s reflection on the structure of this symbol "is consciously an expansion of the fides quaerens intellectum beyond Anselm’s Christian horizon to the manifold of non- and pre-Christian theophanic events, as well as to such order as can be discerned in the revelatory process." Thus, Voegelin looks to this symbol for insight into the structure of knowing and extends it from the explicitly Christian field in which it was first articulated into the broader context of non-Christian experience.

According to Voegelin, commentators have consistently misconstrued the intention of Anselm’s Proslogion, epitomized perhaps most clearly in Kant dubbing it the "ontological" argument for the existence of God. These commentators have been so intent on considering whether or not the argument succeeds that "the fides behind the quest has practically faded away." Far from being at its core an argument attempting to prove the existence of God, the Proslogion is presented by Anselm in the form of a prayer. Obviously, a prayer presumes the existence of God; thus, it would appear that Anselm is assuming that which he is attempting to prove¾ a classic case of begging the question. But he is guilty of the fallacy only if the primary function of the Proslogion is to demonstrate the existence of God. Voegelin denies this is the case. Instead, "the Proslogion is not a treatise about God and his existence, but a prayer of love by the creature to the Creator to grant a more perfect vision of His divinity." This prayer is "a movement of the soul" in which "not Anselm’s reason is in quest of understanding but his faith."

The nature of Anselm’s quest indicates that "one cannot prove reality by a syllogism; one can only point to it and invite the doubter to look." But such looking implies a degree of trust in the one who points as well as "a trust in the existence of the unknown structure, a sort of anticipatory knowing of the unknown." Here we see at the core of true inquiry a necessary movement of faith, which far from being replaced once an adequate rational account is achieved, remains as an essential ingredient in all true knowing. Thus, "the noetic act, as a fides quaerens intellectum, does not destroy the fides it tries to understand." The essential structure of belief remains intact and ultimately undergirds the noetic questing of reason.

The thought of both Polanyi and Voegelin presupposes a commitment to the moral structure of reality, and it is to their respective commitment to this concept that we will now briefly turn, for this view of reality has important implications for the so-called fact-value distinction so broadly accepted by modern philosophers.


4. Reality and Values

Polanyi Polanyi’s commitment to realism is a central feature of his thought. But for him reality is not simply and readily accessible. He frequently speaks of "contact with a hidden reality" and an "intimation of a hidden reality." This view of reality as given but not immediately accessible in its totality underlies Polanyi’s account of discovery, for an intimation of an unknown yet knowable coherence explains how one can pursue an answer that is yet unknown and justifies his claim that "we can know more than we can tell." He writes:


We can account for this capacity of ours to know more than we can tell if we believe in the presence of an external reality with which we can establish contact. This I do. I declare myself committed to the belief in an external reality gradually accessible to knowing, and I regard all true understanding as an intimation of such a reality which, being real, may yet reveal itself to our deepened understanding in an indefinite range of unexpected manifestations.


The above definition of reality contains at least four important points that recur throughout Polanyi’s work when he defines reality. First, reality is external to the knower. In other words, the essence of reality is not dependent upon the mind of the knower¾ it exists even if it is not apprehended. Second, reality is knowable. We can establish contact with it. Our minds are such that they can comprehend the reality that is external to them. Third, contact is gradual. We continually attempt to extend or strengthen our contact with reality, but this is never a once-and-for-all event. Instead, it is an endeavor we share with those who have gone before and anticipate for those who will come after us. Finally, the real, being real, may manifest itself in "indefinite" and "unexpected" ways. Thus, "when we accept the discovery as true, we commit ourselves to a belief in all these as yet undisclosed, perhaps as yet unthinkable, consequences."

Polanyi’s theory of knowledge, which includes his commitment to realism, clearly calls for a reconsideration of the so-called fact-value distinction. If we agree with Polanyi that all knowing includes the personal participation of the knower and operates within a fiduciary framework, then it follows that all knowing, both scientific and humane, are on the same epistemological footing. Thus, "the moment the ideal of detached knowledge was abandoned, it was inevitable that the ideal of dispassionateness should eventually follow, and that with it the supposed cleavage between dispassionate knowledge of fact and impassioned valuation of beauty should vanish." The obvious conclusion to be drawn is one that "denies any discontinuity between the study of nature and the study of man." This conclusion flies in the face of modern thought which, in its attempt to protect science from any subjective element, erected the fact-value barrier. But, in Polanyi’s words, "it has now turned out that modern scientism fetters thought as cruelly as ever the churches had done. It offers no scope for our most vital beliefs and it forces us to disguise them in farcically inadequate terms." Polanyi offers his post-critical theory of knowledge in an attempt to give legitimate voice to those things we value most despite the fact that they are not empirically verifiable.

Polanyi argues that moral reality, like scientific reality, has a status that is independent of the knower. Polanyi refers to the truths that direct our actions and to which we ought to submit as "transcendent obligations," which include truth, justice, and charity. These cannot be derived as conclusions to a deductive argument. Instead, "belief in them can therefore be upheld now only in the form of an explicit profession of faith." These ideals serve as subsidiaries in the active event of tacit knowing, and as subsidiaries they are largely unspecifiable when serving in that capacity.


Indeed, we cannot look at our standards in the process of using them, for we cannot attend focally to elements that are used subsidiarily for the purpose of shaping the present focus of our attention. We attribute absoluteness to our standards, because by using them as part of ourselves we rely on them in the ultimate resort, even while recognizing that they are actually neither part of ourselves nor made by ourselves, but external to ourselves.


Voegelin No less that Polanyi, Voegelin’s thought is undergirded by a commitment to the view that reality is given and that this reality is normatively structured. Voegelin frequently employs such phrases as "the structure of reality" and "the order of being" to describe his conception of the nature of reality. For Voegelin reality is an unchanging fact the structure of which remains a constant regardless of the variety of ways humans attempt to conceptualize it. As we saw above in his discussion of Saint Anselm, Voegelin argues that "one cannot prove reality by a syllogism; one can only point to it and invite the doubter to look." Reality, then, is knowable but ultimately not demonstrable. We achieve deeper insight into the structure of reality by first believing that there is a structure given in reality and that human questing (with divine help) is capable of gaining deeper insight into that reality. The ensuing noetic quest seeks the hidden structure of reality and is motivated by a longing for that which is not yet known. In this way contact with reality is achieved.

Reality is a whole, and humans, being part of that reality, exist within this given structure. Human existence within the structure of reality is neither one of domination nor pure objectivity, for one cannot dominate that of which one is a part nor can one separate one’s self from the fundamental structure that makes the noetic quest possible. Instead, "man’s existence is participation in reality." This participation is neither a particular mode of thought nor an occasional posture, for "participation in being…is not a partial involvement of man; he is engaged with the whole of his existence, for participation is existence itself."

As we have seen, for Voegelin, human participation in reality takes place within the metaxy, in which humans exist between the divine ground of being, which is ontologically non-contingent, and the non-being of death. The divine ground of being is that toward which men ought to strive, for participation in reality "imposes the duty of noetically exploring the structure of reality as far as it is possible and spiritually coping with the insight into its movement from the divine Beginning to the divine Beyond of its structure." A duty noetically to pursue the divine ground of being implies that humans can choose to ignore this duty or deny the divine structure of reality that makes such a duty comprehendible. But such a rejection of the fundamental structure of reality results in the pathology of gnosticism of which we have already spoken.

Scientism, one of the most prevalent forms of modern gnosticism, rests on the false assumption that it is possible for the scientist to achieve a completely detached viewpoint from which to observe the facts of his investigation with absolute objectively. According to scientistic thought, any investigation into the world of facts must necessarily separate itself from the subjective influence of values. Like Polanyi, Voegelin recognizes that this ideal is not only false in practice but necessarily false. It is necessarily false if reality is as Voegelin describes it, for if the human situation is inevitably one of participation, then objective detachment is simply an impossible ideal. Furthermore, despite claims to the contrary, scientists do bring values to bear on their scientific investigations. If scientism operated consistently within its own premises, every fact acquired by means of the prescribed methodology would be considered precisely equal in value. But this is patently not the case, for the very scientist who denies any overt appeal to values inevitably values some methodologically-derived facts over others. This preference, while essential to the work of science, is inexplicable in scientistic terms. According to Voegelin the fact-value distinction "made sense only if the positivistic dogma was accepted on principle." But such a position could only be accepted by thinkers who had either rejected or ignored classical and Christian philosophy.


For neither classic nor Christian ethics and politics contain ‘value-judgments’ but elaborate, empirically and critically, the problems of order which derive from philosophical anthropology as part of a general ontology. Only when ontology as a science was lost, and when consequently ethics and politics could no longer be understood as sciences of the order in which human nature reaches its maximum actualization, was it possible for this realm of knowledge to become suspect as a field of subjective, uncritical knowledge.


In short, only by rediscovering the science of ontology with the implied anthropology entailed therein, can the false and ultimately harmful divide between facts and values be overcome. This rediscovery of ontology will have at its center a recognition that human existence is participation in reality one pole of which is divine.




The essential structure of belief, which provides the framework within which reason finds its existence, presupposes an ontological commitment in Voegelin that is less explicit in Polanyi. For Polanyi, knowing necessarily entails the integration of the focal and subsidiary elements by the active participation of the knower. This is an epistemological claim that requires no mention of transcendent reality. At the same time, Polanyi is quick to point out that his theory of knowledge, by giving credence to beliefs that are not empirically verifiable, provides a way to reclaim religious, moral, and aesthetic belief that was rendered purely subjective by modern philosophy. But this opening toward religious belief is a consequent of his theory of knowledge rather than its antecedent. For Voegelin, on the other hand, openness to the divine ground of being is a necessary antecedent for all subsequent true knowing. To begin the noetic quest by first closing off any access to the transcendent is to deform reality and necessarily results in a distorted conception of that reality. True knowing requires a proper orientation to the metaxy, and such orientation presupposes a recognition that the noetic quest occurs within the metaxy and is characterized by an openness to the transcendent reality of divine being. This is an ontological claim that is also normative in nature. It is qualitatively different than Polanyi’s conception of knowing which is epistemological and descriptive.

That these two thinkers should approach the present subject from such different directions is not surprising considering their respective backgrounds. Polanyi, the scientist-turned-philosopher begins with the practice of science. As a practitioner, he understood better than most that the accounts of scientific discovery offered by the objectivists were simply wrong. He understood the epistemological role played by tradition and authority as well as the fact that unspoken, tacit elements make all explicit knowing possible, and therefore, he recognized the impossibility of epistemological detachment. Thus, Polanyi begins with a description of the process of knowing and moves in the direction of ontology. On the other hand, Voegelin begins his inquiry from the position of a theorist and seeks to establish an account of human consciousness in terms of the reality in which consciousness exists. Thus, Voegelin’s work focuses on the ontological and engages epistemology only as a sub-set of larger concerns.

The fact that these two thinkers begin from such different contexts yet end up in much the same place provides a note of confirmation that they are grasping the same reality, and because they are approaching this reality from quite different perspectives, their respective theories serve as complements to each other. If both are analyzed in light of the other, it becomes clear that the epistemological insights of Polanyi are helpful additions to Voegelin’s understanding of knowing, while Voegelin’s ontological account of reality provides an overarching context for Polanyi’s description of the nature of knowing.

On the one hand, Polanyi’s account of tacit knowing fits comfortably and beneficially within Voegelin’s account of the metaxy whereby human knowing proceeds without the security of an indubitable foundation and where belief necessarily initiates the noetic quest. Polanyi’s profound insights into the nature of knowing can add an important dimension to Voegelin whose concerns are less with the mechanics of knowing than with a theory of consciousness that makes knowing possible. Furthermore, while Polanyi begins with epistemology, his conclusions lead him in the direction of Voegelin’s concerns, so we should not be surprised when his arguments often bring him to the frontiers of the divine. Sounding a Voegelinian note, Polanyi argues that objectivism must be overcome if we are to "restore the balance of our cognitive powers" and such a restoration can only occur if we "go back to St. Augustine." In other words, we must recognize the fiduciary framework of all knowledge and in so doing overcome the prejudice produced by our modern commitment to objectivism. This shift in self-understanding will reestablish the contingent and dependent nature of human cognition and ultimately serve to point to a truth that transcends human cognition. This, in Polanyi’s words, is "a clue to God."

On the other hand, Voegelin’s recognition that human noetic existence occurs within the metaxy, and that human nous strives toward insight into the divine nature of reality, provides an important ontological as well as normative structure that Polanyi’s account does not provide in any systematic fashion. For although Polanyi frequently nods in the direction of God, he only occasionally makes extended reference to the implications of his theory of knowledge for our understanding of divine reality. He does, though, acknowledge that an openness to God may be the final end of society, for he admits that "the advancement of well-being therefore seems not to be the real purpose of society but rather a secondary task given to it as an opportunity to fulfill its true aims in the spiritual field. Such an interpretation of society would seem to call for an extension in the direction towards God." This Polanyian intimation lends itself to a Voegelian extension and shows how these two thinkers ought to be understood in reference to each other.

As we have seen, Polanyi’s theory of knowledge opens the door to a recovery of religious as well as moral and aesthetic truth. But this movement comes as a consequent of his theory of knowledge. On the other hand, Voegelin’s account of the metaxy presupposes a divine reality. He asserts this claim as a necessary postulate of further true thought not as a consequence of an argument. Thus, like Saint Anselm, Voegelin begins with a commitment to a vision of divine being, and his philosophical efforts represent fides quaerens intellectum, faith in search of understanding. Polanyi’s descriptive account of how belief functions on the epistemological level furthers this understanding, for Polanyi recognizes that his theory of knowledge seems to point toward the divine. Thus we have with Polanyi a reasonable account of how a theory of knowledge can have transcendent implications¾ an account that ultimately provides a rational justification for Voegelin’s initial movement of faith. In short, Voegelin’s fides quaerens intellectum is furthered by Polanyi’s theory of knowledge, while Polanyi’s theory of knowledge is given ontological moorings by Voegelin.

Despite the fact that Polanyi and Voegelin are working from quite different directions, both are trying to secure similar ends, for by making room for real knowledge of transcendent truth both Polanyi and Voegelin stake out their positions in opposition to those whose view of knowledge is truncated by a false conception of both the nature of knowing and the nature of reality. The moral and political ramifications of these false positions can only be thwarted by a reconceptualization of knowledge along the parallel lines suggested by Polanyi and Voegelin, a reconceptualization that is rendered even more formidable by a marriage of the two.