Memory and Conflict in Augustine

Meeting Index

Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2002

"Eric Voegelin: Early Unpublished Writings, Some Enduring Themes"

Copyright 2002   William Petropulos


Since Eric Voegelin's unpublished writings constitute neither a "secret doctrine", nor are they mere bits and pieces which fell from his writing desk, they should be discussed in relationship to his work as a whole. The focus of this work is stated in the motto to Order and History "'In the study of creature one should not exercise a vain and perishing curiosity, but ascend to what is immortal and everlasting'." (1) Thus Voegelin's theme is conversion: the turning of the soul away from all forms of self-love toward the order of charity. Since the soul is a symbol of concrete spiritual experience, Voegelin's contemplation of the soul takes place where he considers specific individuals. Most prominently, Saint Augustine; but Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche and Stefan George are the objects of such contemplation into the mid 1940's, a period which marks a particularly important time in Voegelin's work. I will return to the mid 1940's below. First I want to look at several published and unpublished texts, written between 1922 and 1944, with attention to Voegelin's treatment of the soul in his discussion of Weber, Nietzsche and Stefan George, before concluding with remarks on an unpublished manuscript on T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.


Voegelin's early unpublished writings can be grouped around two major texts: his dissertation, "Interaction and Spiritual Community" written in 1922 and "The Theory of Governance" written ten years later. (2) In the first, national cultures constitute the spiritual horizon. This is partly due to the subject matter. Voegelin investigates the "creative spirit" that brings forth the social aspect of phenomena. For example, sociology does not look at the essence of art, but it helps us to understand why a particular painting is a Dutch painting and not a French or German one. At the border of this theme we do encounter issues which later move to the center of his work. For example Voegelin discusses the relationship of spiritual experience and language, pointing out that meaning can be lost if we do not keep the way open through language back to engendering experiences. (3) There are however deeper reasons for the orientation to national culture in 1922 than merely the limits imposed by the theme of his dissertation. These reasons can be seen in two essays on Max Weber which Voegelin wrote in 1925 and 1930, (4) to which I now turn.

As a result of the supposed dissolution of the medieval spiritual cosmos and the growth of inner-worldly rationality, the cultural world has been divided. On the one hand we have the space time continuum in which human actions are the objects of causal rational science, on the other we have the value dimension which exists at the irrational levels of national culture and individual personality. The great contemporary figure in German culture, Max Weber, attains to that place where meaning in the world is revealed to be the "object of play on the part of world-creating demonic powers". (5) From this "most lonely of places" (6) Weber returns to write the history of his own spirit as the history of occidental spirituality itself. In thus placing the stamp of his personality on the times he becomes their most powerful symbol. (7) To recapitulate: The stream of events which constitutes history can be explored by the causal laws of means-ends rationality. Human actions which enter the stream originate in irrational levels of being. There is a tension between the soul's freedom to create and the necessary conditions under which value decisions must be implemented in the world. And the instance which governs the soul's intervention into the stream of history is called "demonic". (8)

Much of what Voegelin says here is difficult to interpret. How do we know that the world divides radically between the external "world" of means-ends rationality and the soul embedded in the irrational? And what experience of the soul can the term "demon" refer to in a "disenchanted world"?


In the unpublished "Theory of Governance", written several years after the 1930 essay on Weber, the dichotomy of world and soul is overcome. More than a work on government it explores the nature of the human being in the concrete experience of the meditative search for the ground of being. The meditating person contemplates the levels of being from the inorganic to the divine. At the beginning the meditating person's own heart seems to be the origin and motivation of the journey. After the reorientation brought about by the conversion, s/he realizes that the meditation is a response to divinity and not an autonomous act. Voegelin therefore speaks of meditation as the "finite form of the blessed contemplation of God". (9) Referring to Descartes' third meditation Voegelin writes: "The act of creation fills not a moment of finite time, but is the continuously working force which conserves the person's life in time". (10) The position we encountered in the essays on Weber is overcome. There is not an unbridgeable dichotomy between a rationally controllable world without value and an irrational demonic source of value. Rather the soul in its attunement to the creative center of spiritual order has been formed by that center. Following such a conversion, there is no longer a danger of mistaking the laws governing the exploration of empirical reality for the laws of rationality as a whole. Nor is there is any longer a theoretical motive for constructing the "demonic" soul which imposes its image on the so-called external stream of events. Under these new circumstances Voegelin only uses the term "demonic" to refer to the closed soul. This change of meaning is documented in Voegelin's essay on Nietzsche published in 1944.


Voegelin examines Nietzsche's attempt to create a new order of values in an effort to overcome the spiritual crisis which had brought forth the conditions which Weber, a generation after Nietzsche, had accepted as irreversible "fate". Nietzsche believes that the occident's lost spiritual unity can be regained by a change of heart. But, because the philosopher's soul remains closed to divinity, his model for the regeneration of the spirit--the so-called superman--is willfully constructed and cannot serve as a pattern of true order. (11) The demonically closed soul resists the conversion and therefore fails to reach the fructifying ground of being. It is not the creative soul but merely the private one.

Voegelin contrasts Nietzsche's unsuccessful attempt at spiritual renewal with the more hopeful effort of Stefan George as it manifests itself in his poem "The War", written in 1917. Voegelin points out that although George is not a Christian, nevertheless the "sense of the sacramental unit of Western mankind" is still alive in him. In George's view, the catastrophic political disorder is the result of a falling away from divinity. (12)

Writing in 1944 Voegelin no longer shares the hope which animated Stefan George in 1917 that spiritual renewal might still come from Germany. Indeed in the period between 1943 and 1945 we see Voegelin taking leave of Germany; a Germany, which as his anamnetic experiments show, was no less mystical than George's. It is the period in which Voegelin becomes an American citizen and it marks the last time that German thinkers seem to dominate his work: the letter to Alfred Schtz on Edmund Husserl, the two extensive essays on Nietzsche, the key chapter on Schelling in the History of Political Ideas. It also marks the turn from Stefan George to T. S. Eliot; specifically to the Christian meditation of The Four Quartets. Alfred Schtz and Eric Voegelin discussed the poem in the Autumn of 1943, or at about the same time Voegelin was conducting his own meditative experiments. The poem's subject is the soul, divinity and conversion. I turn now to Voegelin's unpublished notes on that poem. (13)


The titles of the four sections which make up the Quartets are place names, each corresponding to a phase of spiritual development. Burnt Norton is the place in empirical space and time where the meditation begins. The village of East Coker introduces the historical dimension. It is where Sir Thomas Elyot lived, the sixteenth century humanist whose concern, like T. S. Eliot's, was to keep the language of the spirit alive. For, as Voegelin writes: "History is constituted in the continuity of generations and civilizational meaning" (p.6). In the third poem, The Dry Salvages, the scene shifts to America. This is not just an emigration from place to place. It also evokes the deeper stratum of the soul where action is not experienced pragmatically in its relation to historical community, but in its immediacy to death. Such action is beyond the texture of history, but it is not beyond effectiveness in building community. The attainment of this depth is the one act that "'shall fructify in the lives of others'". (In other words, the conversion opens the soul for participation in divine love which is the creative source of both action and contemplation). The last poem "Little Gidding" evokes an English place name and a monastic founding. Here is the intersection of "'timelessness and time'". From Burnt Norton to Little Gidding, and corresponding to the stages of the meditation, we see the place names steadily yield their material and empirical meaning. At the end of the poem reflection turns back to the beginning. Eliot writes: the end of all exploring is "to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time." (IV, 5, 28-29). For it is the converted soul which regards its beginnings in their true light; not as a geographical places, but as a states of the soul.


What light can the conversion, which does not take place in time, although its "occurrence" can be correlated to calender events, cast on the enduring aspects of Voegelin's "early writings"? Two points:

1.From the days of his dissertation, through his essays on Weber and up to the "Theory of Governance", we have been able to follow a transformation in Voegelin's discussion of the soul. The full range of the soul could not come into view in the 1922 dissertation in which national culture provided the spiritual horizon. But quickly Voegelin turned to investigate the implications of this orientation by contemplating the life and works of Max Weber, a representative of German national culture. In further comparisons with, and approaches to, Nietzsche and Stefan George, Voegelin articulated the universal Christian understanding of the soul which he had developed in the "theory of Governance".

But I would like to caution against mis-reading intellectual development in terms of chronology. Such a reading runs the risk of focusing on external events and of attributing intellectual insight to psychological "causes" or "impulses". This brings me to my second point.

2. Since the "immortal and everlasting" are equally distant--and equally close--to all points in time, the spiritual dimension is always present. In discussing Voegelin's dissertation I pointed out that his theory of language dealt with the need to protect the spiritual and experiential roots of meaning. He warned against the danger of losing the meaning in language which had lost touch with the engendering experience. The concern with the experiential roots of meaning is constant in Voegelin's work. In the examples I have used, it accounts for the close attention to Weber's language as well as for the interest in Stefan George and T. S. Eliot as preservers and renewers of language. For what is preserved is meaning, and optimal meaning is found in the experiences of the soul open to divinity. Thus Voegelin's themes are present at all stages of his work--sometimes directly articulated, sometimes more compactly presented. And I therefore conclude that his early work should be read in the same light in which his later works are read. For if we are to try to understand the works of a human soul, an author's or our own, we too must overcome a "vain and perishing curiosity" and ascend to what is "immortal and everlasting".


1. 1. St. Augustine, De Vera Religione. Quoted in: Eric Voegelin, Order and History, vols. I-V, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1956-1985), preface.

2. Eric Voegelin, "Wechselwirkung und Gezweiung". Typescript, Eric Voegelin Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, box 51, file 5.

Eric Voegelin, "Herrschaftslehre und Rechtslehre" (ca. 1930-1932). Typescript, Eric Voegelin Papers, box. 53, file 5.

3. "When...the meaning is fixed in words and these are all we have connecting us to the meaning, it can happen that if the person receiving the communication does not understand it the way the person imparting it does, i.e. because the two do not share the same intuition, that thinking in terms of words takes the place of thinking in terms of meaning". Interaction and Spiritual Community, translated by W. Petropulos, Typescript, p. 47.

4. Eric Voegelin, "ber Max Weber", in: Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift fr Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte. Vol. III (1925), 177-193. Reprinted in: Eric Voegelin, Die Gre Max Webers. Edited by Peter J. Opitz. (Munich: Fink Verlag, 1995),9-29.

Eric Voegelin, "Max Weber. Rede gehalten anllich der zehnten Jahreswiederkehr seines Todestages am 13. Juni 1930 in der Wiener Soziologischen Gesellschaft", in: Klner Vierteljahreshefte fr Soziologie. Vol. IX (1930), 1-16.

Reprinted in: Die Gre Max Webers,29-48.

5. Voegelin, "ber Max Weber", 14.

6. "ber Max Weber",27.

7. "ber Max Weber", 27-28.

8. "ber Max Weber",12,27-28.

9.Voegelin, "Herrschaftslehre", Chap. 1, 15.

10. "Herrschaftslehre", Chap. I, 13-14.

11. Eric Voegelin, "Nietzsche, the Crisis and the War" in: The Journal of Politics (1944), 177-212. Here 185-186, 196-197.

12. Voegelin, "Nietzsche", 198-200.

13. Eric Voegelin, "Notes on T. S. Eliots The Four Quartets, Typescript, Eric Voegelin Papers, microfilm reel 64 [The box and file no. must be checked--W.P.]


Memory and Conflict in Augustine, Dante, and Voegelin

Copyright 2002   Henrik Syse & Asbjrn Bjornes



  It is a trademark of war that previous injustices are customarily used to legitimize ones present cause, however noble or ignoble. At times these injustices are real; equally often they represent contested interpretations of past events, tailored to suit ones rhetorical and political needs. The wars in the Balkans during the 1990s offer some of the most egregious examples of perceived injustices used to create resentment and hatred towards others. Most famous but certainly not untypical is the Serb re-telling of the battle at Kosovo Polje in 1389, used to great effect to prove the injustices needed to be avenged (see, for instance, Vetlesen 2000). On other sides in the conflict, centuries-old memories were used in similar ways.

            The following remarks do not aim to recount such uses of history. This paper simply takes as its point of departure that memory has indeed been exploited in violent conflicts in order to legitimize the use of force against others. There is nothing new in this; battle orators in the Middle Ages, for example, were no strangers to including colorful depictions of past enemy transgressions. But the combination of memory and modern ideology, as seen in the Nazi movements evocation of Aryan legends and Norse myths, combined with blatant racism and hard-nosed nationalism, makes for a lethal mix.

            It is our claim that such uses of history and memory stand in stark contrast to an important strand of the Christian tradition, which emphasizes the use of memory as a path towards uniting human beings before God. In Augustine and Dante we find vivid examples of such anamnetic exercises, digging into ones personal memory, while essentially searching for a divine reality common to and in theory open to all human beings. There is a continuity between these meditations on memory and the work of the German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). Therefore, the paper will conclude by drawing a line to the Voegelinian concept of Anamnesis remembrance.

  Augustine Confessiones and De trinitate

  Both in Augustines Confessiones (Confessions) and De trinitate (On the Trinity), we find a remarkable preoccupation with memory. As Roland Teske (2001, pp. 148-158) shows in a recent essay on Augustines philosophy of memory, Augustine initially even after his conversion held on to a Platonic view of recollection, gradually substituting for this the teaching of illumination. There is little doubt that the Platonic schools reflections on memory and eternal ideas influenced Augustine.

However, we do not here have to decide on the presence or absence of Platonic elements in Augustines teaching, since Augustines mature emphasis on recollection and memory as keys to the human mind is not dependent on a belief in the souls pre-existence or the reality of Platonic ideas. The general Platonic background should, nonetheless, be kept in mind.

In our context, the most important elements to notice are the following:

        Memory for Augustine is not only a passive remembrance of things past, but also an active ability of the mind which includes the present and anticipates the future (ibid., p. 151). Thus, memory helps make sense of the present state of affairs, and makes possible an anticipation of the future.

        Memory is indispensable in mans search for God (cf. Confessiones 10). As Augustine pointedly says: How, then, am I to find you, if I have no memory of you? (Confessiones 10, 17; in Augustine 1961, p. 224).

        The search for human happiness which is ultimately to be found in God is a function of memory. For desiring to be happy, which is common to all, would not be possible if the desire were not somehow known already.

All of this is interesting, because the Confessiones is decidedly not meant to be a work about the general recollections of mankind. It is intensely personal. Yet, Augustines anamnetic meditations focus on the common experiences of humankind, grounded in the desire to be happy (cf. Confessiones 10, 21-22).

            There seems to be an important lesson contained here: In exploring ones own memory, one actually joins in a human quest for happiness. One should realize that one has in ones palace of memory (cf. Confessiones 10, 8) the matter that makes it meaningful indeed, possible to speak of joy and happiness. Yet, so has everyone else. In digging ever deeper into personal memory, one does not thereby become estranged from the rest of mankind, but one ideally realizes more fully the unity of the human quest. However, one also comes to understand that true joy can be found only through belief in the one, true God. When some do not see this, it is not because they have become estranged through an intensely private and thus separatist use of their memory, but rather because they do not use memory to look back into their life and mind in order to discover the presence and truth of God:

Why are they not happy? It is because they attend far more closely to other things whose power to make them unhappy is greater than the power of their dim memory of truth to make them happy. [But there] is still a faint glow of light in man (ibid. 10, 22; in Augustine 1961, p. 229).

The final sentence quoted here brings forth both a Platonic and Johannitic image of the light of truth in man. Regardless of how that reference to the light is to be understood, the ideal is clear: Memory unites people, because memories while certainly different due to the various circumstances human beings live under enable human beings to situate their life in a larger context that is ultimately henological (a Greek term often used by Norwegian philosopher Egil A. Wyller; see, e.g., Wyller 1981), i.e., unifying. Accordingly, Augustines own travels through memory and experience, as recounted for everyone to read in the Confessiones, is meant to highlight not what separates Augustine from others, but the presence of the One God in any human life in this case, Augustines own (cf. Kristo 1991, esp. ch. 4).

In De trinitate, Augustine sees memory as a triune aspect of the mind, along with understanding and will. Many observations regarding memory are made in that vast work, but we choose to highlight two points, the first being the idea of having a memory of Christs life. In book 13, Augustine holds forth this central pedagogical point: Anyone who has once learned of Christ and his life, death, and resurrection in the Gospel stories, can come to love and believe in them through holding them fast in ones memory (cf. Teske 2001, p. 156). Even one who tries to refute the events of Christs life, will come to have them in his memory. By knowing about Christ and meditating on ones recollections of Him (as Augustine surely had done even prior to his conversion, having learned about Christianity through his mother), one may come closer to the deepest truth about God. Thereby, memory ideally serves to unify human beings around the Christian faith.

The other and even more important point of Augustines meditation De trinitate, is his view of mans mind as itself representing an image of God. Indeed, if memory is to serve the kind of role accorded to it in the Confessiones, it seems that God cannot be found only through the outer (external) things which a human being recollects, but must be found in recollection itself not in the Platonic sense, which Augustine had quite explicitly broken with by the time of De trinitate, but in the sense of the mind bearing the imprint of the triune God, thus in itself reflecting the great work of the Creator:

Whoever, then, can understand the word, not only before it is sounded externally, but even before the images of its sound are present in thought [...] can already see through this glass and in this enigma some likeness of that Word [of which Saint John wrote in his Gospel] (De trinitate 15, 10; in Teske 2001, p. 156).

This is the work of memory working in concert with will and understanding: the mental word, as Teske puts it, which is brought forth from memory (ibid.). This is an inner word, which is not dependent on any concrete language, but a sort of knowledge that the mind holds, and which is accessible through the right use of memory.

  Dante: the Vita nuova (New Life)

  As mentioned above, memory for Augustine is not only a passive remembrance of things past, or a mere mechanical representation of previous experiences. The same can also be said about Dante Alighieris early work the Vita nuova (New Life), even though it does not have the same metaphysical or philosophical form as the works of Augustine (Confessiones and De trinitate). We believe that the Vita nuova represents an important work within the Christian tradition to treat personal memory as providing a road to divine knowledge.

Dante wrote the Vita nuova between 1293 and 1295. The book is one of his so-called minor works, consisting of 42 short chapters, and it is a combination of poetry and prose. Its basic theme is the new life the protagonist finds through his love for Beatrice (Beatifier), whom Dante describes both as an earthly and a divine woman.  

According to Barbara Reynolds, Dante did not make his most important literary innovations in structure or vocabulary, but in the way he combined experience and fiction, in the gradually increasing admittance of reality into the enclosed garden of poetic convention ... (Reyolds 1969, p. 17). It is this combination of experience and fiction that provides the foundation for the Vita nuova.

The Vita nuova is, like the Confessiones of Augustine, intensely personal. It is a poetic autobiography written in retrospective, describing the authors spiritual development. This is an important point: While personal almost to the extreme, dwelling on purely private memories of an erotic nature, it simultaneously points towards a love for the divine. Thereby, the anamnetic process of the Vita nuova does not lead us to a merely personal, private conclusion, but rather points us towards the divine ground of love.

            According to Aristotle, memory implies elapsed time. As with Augustine in his Confessiones, the protagonist in the Vita nuova looks back on past experiences. He remembers the meetings he had with Beatrice as well as his reflections, thoughts, and visions of her (e.g., ch. 2; 3; 23-24; 29). He writes down all these experiences in his book of memory. This book like any autobiography is shaped through memory.

The literary story of the new life comes out, in other words, of his own experience and memory. He recalls the sensory impressions he had of Beatrice when he was a child and when he became the young lover:

Many times [Love] commanded that I seek to behold this youthful angel; thus many times in my childhood I sought her, and I saw in her such noble and laudable bearing that of her could certainly be said those words of the poet Homer: She seemed no child of mortal man, but of god (Vita nuova 2, 8).

Chapter 1 marks the starting point for the works self-reflexive discourse and indicates that the new life is grounded in the lovers own experience. It is here that Dante describes the Vita nuova as the protagonists own book of my memory (libro de la mia memoria; Vita nuova, ch. 1). It is, in Ginsbergs words, [an] analogy of memory and book (Ginsberg 1999, p. 74). The book is the story about how he through the literary language gradually arrives at clarity concerning the divinity of Beatrice:

In that part of the book of my memory before which little could be read, a rubric is found that says: Incipit vita nova [Here begins the new life]. Beneath this rubric I find written the words that it is my intention to transcribe into this little book: if not all of them, at least their substance (Vita nuova, ch. 1).

Dantes conception of his work as a book of memory underlines the acknowledgement which finds expression in the lovers writing process. The narrator-protagonist looks back in time. He writes out of his own memory, and the proem (ch. 1) constitutes the program of the protagonist: He wants to tell about his new life, that is, that life he has found in and through Beatrice. It is thus the metaphor of the Book of Memory, his own memory and experience, which is the starting point of the protagonists knowledge, writing project, introspection, and self-centredness. The metaphor of the Book of Memory provides the starting point for his journey towards the divine.

            In order to understand the connection between individual memory on the one hand and praise of the divine on the other, we must realize that for Dante the book of memory is not not even primarily about private experiences. For Dante as for Augustine, memory and experience point to the universal, the highest to God. In the Vita nuova, Beatrice is described as a reflection of divine, universal love.

The structure of the Vita nuova should also be noted. The Dante scholar Mark Musa divides the work into three parts: Dantes three movements in love (Musa 1992, p. viii). The thematic movement suggests levels in the lovers increasing knowledge of Beatrices divinity and of the nature of love. The knowledge is both poetical and theological. By degrees the protagonist is through Beatrice led to the higher goal.

In the first part of the Vita nuova the protagonist is subordinate to an earthly love (chapter 1-16). Dante is deeply rooted in the courtly tradition of the troubadours and the Italian sweet new style (dolce stil nuovo). The lovers feelings are characterized by physiological sufferings, weeping, sighs, despair, etc. His feelings explain the direction of the protagonists love only to a certain degree. We gradually become aware of his true feelings for Beatrice; thus the meaning of the lovers feelings is best understood in a retrospective process. In reading parts II and III (ch. 17-31 and 32-42) we become aware that his feelings point beyond his previously exclusive self-centeredness, toward Beatrice and, finally, to God, who represents the highest form of love.

The meetings with Beatrice indicate an increasing knowledge of divine love. Memory is a central aspect of the protagonists experience and process of knowledge. Indeed, divine love becomes known through memory without the retrospective process, the protagonist would not have become aware of Beatrices divine significance.

In a very real way, therefore, the movements in love are also movements in memory. Memory forms an important part of the lovers process of knowledge in the sense that memory leads to wisdom. With that, memory is not only a looking back, but equally much a looking within, even a looking up, to God. Maybe Musa (1973, p. 171) is right when he says about the protagonists self-centredness: What contempt Augustine, either as saint or as the lover he had been, would have felt for Dantes lover in the Vita nuova! But, on the other hand, the process of memory in the Vita nuova is strikingly similar to Augustines process in the Confessiones!

We hold that the Vita nuova represents a hallmark in the medieval Christian tradition in its treatment of personal memory in relation to love and God. The short book was certainly controversial at the time (and for a long time after), seemingly collapsing earthly and divine love. Yet, read in light of Augustines anamnetic road to divine illumination, we believe it exemplifies a view of introspection and memory as providing an important path towards the universal love of God.


  The intention of this short essay has been to show the unifying as opposed to the divisive power of memory in two great Christian thinkers, Augustine and Dante. We believe that the same sort of impetus towards a less conflictual use of memory is found in Eric Voegelins powerful (and largely autobiographical) essay Remembrance of Things Past, which was written specifically for the English translation of Anamnesis (Voegelin 1978, pp. 3-13). Voegelin calls for an opening of the field of questioning, so that the analyst of reality can refer to the concrete consciousness of himself and, by extension, the consciousness of human beings in search of truth, without ideological deformations that distort historical restoration and original perception (ibid., p. 5).

In this we find a plea for historical studies to become oriented towards a respectful rendering of mans search for meaning and truth throughout history, rather than becoming tools for conflict-prone agendas of nationalist, racist, or other ideological movements. And that call is deepened and intensified in a way interestingly parallel to what we have found in Augustine and Dante in the essay Anamnetic Experiences (ibid., pp. 36-51), which, in a moving way, illustrates the connection between personal memory and experiences of transcendence.

This call for a less conflictual use of memory may seem like a simple plea. But history and present experience show us it is surely not easily attainable. An awakening of the positive potential of memory in Christian thought as explored, however briefly and incompletely, in this short essay should surely be as welcome as it is necessary.

Works Cited

  Augustine 1961. Confessiones, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin.

  Dante 1995. Vita Nuova. Italian text with facing English translation by Dino S.

Cervigni and Edward Vasta. Notre Dame and London: The University of Notre Dame Press.

  Ginsberg, Warren 1999. Dantes Aesthetics of Being. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

  Kristo, J. G. 1991. Looking for God in Time and Memory. Lanham: University Press of America.

  Musa, Mark 1973. Dantes Vita nuova: A Translation and an Essay. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  Musa, Mark 1992. Introduction. In: Dante Alighieri. Vita nuova, trans. Mark Musa. Worlds Classics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

  Reynolds, Barbara 1969. Introduction. In Dante. La Vita Nuova (Poems of Youth), trans. Barbara Reynolds. London: Penguin.

  Teske, Roland 2001. Augustines Philosophy of Memory. In: The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, eds. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  Vetlesen, Arne Johan 2000. Genocide: A Case for the Responsibility of the Bystander, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 519-532.

  Voegelin, Eric 1978. Anamnesis, trans. Gerhart Niemeyer. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

  Wyller, Egil A. 1981. Enhet og annethet [Oneness and Otherness]. Oslo: Dreyer.


Voegelins Account of Tragedy in the New

World Disorder


Copyright 2002 Paul Corey


Voegelin, Tragedy, and Athenian Democracy

Voegelin did not publish an extended volume on Greek tragedy.  In his writings, there is a brief account of tragedy in The New Science of Politics, and a more extensive chapter on the subject in The World of the Polis. [1]   In each case, the bulk of Voegelins analysis is concerned with Aeschylus, but in neither case is his analysis comprehensive.  His comments in New Science amount to a few pages.  He expands upon these comments in The World of the Polis, but much is still missing.  In The World of the Polis, he speaks generally about the purpose of tragedy in the Athens of Marathon, and he provides an interpretation of Aeschylus plays The Suppliants and Prometheus Bound.  However, he spares only one sentence for Sophocles (OH II, 252). In that sentence, Voegelin claims one can already see the demise of tragedy in Sophocles works. Voegelin has more to say about Euripides, but here too his analysis is scant.  Echoing Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, Voegelin claims that Euripides plays are a degradation of tragic art and reveal the extent to which Athens deteriorated during the Peloponnesian war (OH II, 252, 264-6).  However fair an assessment this may be of Euripidean tragedy, Voegelin does not consider in detail the significance of Euripides better works, and what these reveal about the nature of Athenian tragedy.

While Voegelin does not set aside much room for tragedy in his writings, much of what he does say is compelling.  We learn more about tragedy by reading Voegelins brief remarks than we often do by reading an extended meditation on the subject, such as Aristotles Poetics. [2]   Recent volumes on the subject of tragedy, including Christian Meiers The Political Art of Greek Tragedy, J. Peter Eubens The Tragedy of Political Theory, and Mera Flaumenhafts The Civic Spectacle, do not cite Voegelin as a source, but they nevertheless support much of what Voegelin has said. [3]   Meier, Euben, and Flaumenhaft are aware, like Voegelin, that tragedy was essential for Athenian democratic culture.  To put it simply: tragedy was the medium through which the average Athenian citizen did political philosophy.

            When reading New Science of Politics, one is struck by the regard with which Voegelin holds tragedy, particularly Aeschylean tragedy.  The emergence of the annual tragic festival in Athens the City Dionysia is, for Voegelin, a high point of civilization.  It is the moment when a democratic body of citizens fostered an aesthetic forum in which to consider the nature of the soul.  Voegelin writes:

Here, for a golden hour in history, the miracle had happened of a political society articulated down to the individual citizen as a representable unit, the miracle of a generation which individually experienced the responsibility of representing the truth of the soul and expressed this experience through the tragedy as a public cult. (NSP, 71)

For Voegelin, the truth of the soul that the Athenians experienced was the souls ability to deliberate and take appropriate action for the soul to, in Voegelins words, descend into its depth and respond adequately to the demands of justice [Dike].  Tragic action, in the fullest sense, is a movement in the soul that culminates in the decision (proairesis) of a mature, responsible man (OH II, 247). Voegelin describes this movement in the soul as the Dionysiac descent into man, to the depth where Dike is to be found (OH II, 251).  Aeschylean tragedy, for Voegelin, presents this Dionysian wrestling with justice, in which a hero is forced to choose between hard options one of which more closely approximates Dike.  Voegelin writes:

Tragedy as a form is the study of the human soul in the process of making decisions, while the single tragedies construct conditions and experimental situations, in which a fully developed, self-conscious soul is forced into action. (OH II, 247)

Voegelin, however, provides only a single example of a tragedy in which a fully developed, self-conscious soul makes a choice in accord with Dike a soul who then persuades the people to consent to this choice through persuasion (Peitho).  The tragedy is The Suppliants by Aeschylus, and the heroic soul is the character Pelasgus, the King of Argos (NSP, 71-3; OH II, 247-53).  No other extant tragedy fit this model quite so well, not even the remaining works of Aeschylus. [4]   Nevertheless, in a general sense, Voegelins depiction of tragedy as a liturgy which re-enacts the great decision for Dike is illuminating (NSP, 73).  In tragedy, humans both individually or collectively are faced with difficult choices and must live with the consequences of these choices.  The way in which humans arrive at the best choice the choice most in accord with Dike is through individual and public deliberation.  Aeschylean tragedy presents the horrors that result when humans proceed without discretion.  It also reveals the fragile justice, or the lesser evil, which emerges when reasonable reflection and public persuasion precede action.

            The struggle for justice that Voegelin associates with tragedy reflects the concerns of Athenian citizens in the fifth century BCE.  After the victories over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, Athens possessed unprecedented control over the Greek world.  This power resulted in part from the militancy, courage, and ingenuity of Athenian citizens, who led the Greek resistance against Persian expansion.  Athens, against all expectations, was able to hold the Persian Empire at bay and gain authority over the city regimes in Hellas, Thrace, Asia Minor, and the Aegean Sea.  The involvement of middle-class citizens in Athens sudden triumph accelerated the birth of democracy in the city.  The citizen body was no longer content to have political decisions made by a select few.  For the first time in history, so far as we can judge, a city disposed its aristocratic leadership and replaced it with the rule of the people.  The people and by this I mean the male, land owning citizens of Athens were now directly involved in determining the affairs of the polis.  Athens was a direct democracy, not a representational one; roughly six thousand citizens were required to participate in the peoples Assembly, which had final authority.  Political decisions in the Assembly were determined by a vote.  The way in which citizens voted depended on which speaker could best persuade.  Citizens were also required to serve as judges in legal cases. [5]  

Athenian democracy was a bold and unique experiment. The average citizen suddenly found himself with unprecedented political and judicial power power that required him to make life and death decisions.  However, the Athenian people had no formal education or experience in political and legal matters. There was a high probability that mob rule and unruly passions could overtake the city.  Thus, the Athenians recognized the need for a public forum that could refine judgement an institution that was political but that also gave citizens a certain degree of reflective distance from politics.  Thus, they created an aesthetic space in which to consider experimental situations and nurture the art of deliberation. This was the primary political purpose of the City Dionysia.  The yearly festival of watching tragedies, and comedies, was not simply entertainment that Athenians could take or leave.  Attendance at the Dionysia was mandatory.  For all of the revelry and drinking that took place at the festival, its intent was to inspire thoughtful debate.  The Dionysia forced citizens to consider the horrific aspects of life, along with the choices that human beings make under duress.  Hopefully, such representations of suffering and decision making would assist citizens when they returned to the Assembly and found themselves faced with difficult choices. [6]

The fact that Athens founded this tragic festival reveals that the city was, for a short time, constituted by a remarkable citizenry a citizenry who, in Voegelins words, were disposed to regard tragic action as paradigmatic.  Voegelin claims that, for tragedy to flourish, the heroic soul-searching and suffering of consequences must be experienced as having valid appeal.   The Athenian spectators were not an assembly of heroes to be sure, but they were a relatively thoughtful and politically engaged group who turned to tragedy in their moment of need (NSP, 73).  As J. Peter Euben writes, Probing the shaping force of institutions and traditions, tragedy was itself a political institution and part of a tradition.  Educating the judgement of the community ... tragedy sought to nurture an audience capable of appreciating what [it] was and did. [7]

It is interesting that the Dionysia, for all its celebration of the city, did not possess the usual triumphalism that we often associate with civic holidays. Voegelin writes, The meaning of tragedy as a state cult consists in representative suffering (NSP, 73).  Citizens were required by civic ordinance to watch depictions of evil to gaze on those things that disrupt civilized life, cause suffering, and contaminate good with evil. [8]   As Voegelin writes, the audience must watch  the fate of the hero and the suffering of consequences a fate that arouses a shudder in the soul of the spectator (NSP, 73). The tragedies also reveal the difficulty of establishing order in a world that contains evil. Even a hero who makes a decision that approximates Dike, such as King Pelasgus in the Suppliants, is fated to suffer the dire consequences of that decision.  The best decision does not guarantee happiness or success, but it can perhaps mitigate surplus suffering.  The best chance that humans have, even in the worst case scenarios, is careful deliberation.  Tragedy declines, according to Voegelin, when it depicts heroes who are simply crushed by fate.  This decline, for Voegelin, is manifested in the works of Sophocles and, especially, Euripides, where the demonic capriciousness of the gods becomes stronger than the faith in the ultimately harmonizing order of Dike (OH II, 252). 

But even in Aeschylean tragedy, evil is ineradicable.  It is possible to, in Voegelins words, create a shining bulwark of order in a very disorderly world (OH II, 253).  That said, this bulwark is unstable.  In the Aeschylean vision, there is no transcendent or immanent utopia; there are limits to what any endeavour can accomplish; good is always accompanied by something bad; heroic suffering does not indicate eternal salvation; death is final.  Voegelin claims that the great problem for the Greek tragedian is the morass of demonic evil surrounding the island of order (OH II, 243). The Athenians presented this stark vision of reality just as Athens was at the height of its glory.  It appears they felt the need to check their own hubris by reminding themselves of the sober realities embodied in the older Homeric and Hesiodian myths.  Tragedy recasts these myths which portray a world of gods, heroes, and royal families to address the new democratic situation. [9]   Perhaps there were fears amongst the citizens that Athens military success, political daring, and technical ingenuity had crossed certain limits, and that disorder would soon overtake their newly established island of order.  This fear proved to be well founded, as Athens would eventually deteriorate under the stress of the Peloponnesian War.

Case Study: Voegelins Interpretation of Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus Prometheus Bound can be interpreted as an expression of anxiety concerning Athens recent accomplishments.  In this tragedy, the god Prometheus, according to Voegelin, symbolizes the demonic drive of human existence in its self-assertion and expansiveness (OH II, 261).  That is to say, Prometheus represents some of the very drives through which the Athenians rose to power.  The play presents the struggle between Prometheus, the older Titan deity, and Zeus, the younger Olympian god who is now King.  Zeus punishes Prometheus for the excessive pity he has shown human beings.  Prometheus, however, is not the tragic hero of the play, according to Voegelin (OH II, 261).  Rather, both Prometheus and Zeus equally stand for forces that are experienced in the soul of man (OH II, 257).   What we see presented in Prometheus, according to Voegelin, is the tragedy of the soul in tension with itself: the struggle between unruly technical reason (as represented by Prometheus) and the intelligence guided by justice (as represented by Zeus).   Zeus, according to Voegelin, rules in relative accord with Dike.  Zeuss defeat of the older Titan deities resulted in the order of Dike, which is a rule of law replacing the ancient horrors (OH II, 256).   Prometheus had initially supported Zeus in the struggle against the Titans.  However, tension between the two deities resulted when Zeus decided to abolish the human race because it belonged to the old, chaotic order.  Prometheus intervened on behalf of humanity. Zeus agreed to spare humans, but Prometheus proceeded to show excessive pity on the human race by giving them a multitude of technical abilities. In addition to these, Prometheus gave human beings fire an act which, for Zeus, goes too far.  But, as Voegelin points out, this is not the specific reason why Prometheus is punished. Prometheus, we are told, is guilty because he has talked so high and haughty and is not yet humble before the new King of the gods. [10] Prometheus hubris is disrupting the new order established by Zeus; he takes too much pride in the civilizational inventiveness he has given humanity (OH II, 259).

Aeschylus, according to Voegelin, is concerned that the civilizational impulses represented by Prometheus will, ironically, undermine civilization itself if taken to excess. Voegelin writes, When the civilizational drive has disrupted the order of Dike and caused a social catastrophe, then man is helpless (OH II, 261).  Prometheus claims that he gave humans beings their wits and that all arts that mortals have come from Prometheus. [11] Because of Prometheus philanthropy, human beings now possess the arts of writing, housing, astronomy, mathematics, sailing, medicine, metallurgy, domesticating animals, and reading omens. [12]   However, Prometheus has not given humans the art of politics, or, more precisely, prudential statesmanship.  Ruling in accord with Dike is a practical pursuit distinct from the applied arts symbolized by Prometheus.  Technological intelligence cannot pursue its possibilities at the expense of prudential governance, just as Prometheus cannot continue to defy Zeus.  If technological possibilities are pursued without practical wisdom, and if a fetish for contrivance overwhelms human consciousness of justice, then, Aeschylus fears, we will descend into chaos. This applies to Athens, who should not take too much pride in its contrivances.  As Voegelin writes, there is the danger of the sophistic intellect ... overreaching itself and destroying the order of Dike through the unmeasured, demonic pursuit of its possibilities (OH II, 260).

There are moments in Voegelins analysis when he seems to present the tragic vision of the world as similar to the Gnostic.  Tragedy, in Voegelins words, presents a battle against a demonically ordered world (NSP, 73).  His frequent use of the term demonic to describe the tragic representation of evil is potentially misleading.  Voegelin, as we have seen, claims that Prometheus symbolizes the demonic drive of human existence in its self-assertion and expansiveness, whereas Zeus symbolizes the just order that confronts the demonic.  Explained in these terms, it seems as if tragedy presents a dualistic struggle between a Jovian Dike that is thoroughly good and an immanent demonic reality that is thoroughly evil.  But Voegelin is aware that it is not quite this simple.  He writes: On the one hand, Prometheus is more than a villain who breaks the law; and on the other hand, Zeus is less than a pure force of goodness and right (OH II, 261).  Or, as Albert Camus observes, Prometheus is both just and unjust, and Zeus who pitilessly oppresses him also has right on his side. [13]   Prometheus has taken his love of humanity too far, but his impulse to help humanity is justified and can be acted upon in accord with Dike.  As Voegelin writes, Man and his Promethean drive are part of the order of things (OH II, 261).  Human beings would not be polis dwelling creatures without the technical abilities given to them by Prometheus.  These abilities allow humans to meet their basic needs in a hostile world and provide the foundation for political life. That is to say, the Promethean drive is not inherently demonic, but it becomes evil when taken to excess.  Zeus, on the other hand, is not a force of pure goodness.  He establishes a relatively just order in the cosmos, but his notorious philandering and tyrannical tactics reveal, in Voegelins words, the demonic component in Zeus that strikes the innocent with misery (OH II, 262).  So Zeus, the symbol of Dike in the world, also has a demonic side.

With this, Voegelin identifies a central feature of tragedy: no single force in a tragedy, not even the most just, is absolutely just.  Tragedy does not present a melodramatic conflict between angelic good and demonic evil.  This characteristic of tragedy checks the totalitarian impulse to declare one side absolutely just and encourage excessive actions in the name of justice. Camus, like Voegelin, also notes this characteristic of tragedy, and contrasts it with the dualistic account of justice contained in melodrama:


tragedy is ambiguous and [melo]drama simple-minded.  In the former, each force is at the same time both good and bad.  In the latter, one is good and the other evil (which is why, in our age, propaganda plays are nothing but the resurrection of melodrama)....This is why the chorus in classical tragedies generally advises prudence.  For the chorus knows that up to a certain limit everyone is right and that the person who, from blindness or passion, oversteps this limit is heading for a catastrophe if he persists in his desire to assert a right he thinks he alone possesses.  The constant theme of classical tragedy, therefore, is the limit that must not be transgressed....To make a mistake about this limit, to try to destroy the balance, is to perish. [14]     


It is a mistake, however, to proclaim, like Camus, that the forces confronting each other in tragedy are equally legitimate, equally justified. [15]   Certain forces may be more justified than others in a tragedy.  In the case of Prometheus Bound, Zeus is more justified than Prometheus.  However, Zeus is not absolutely justified, nor is Prometheus completely unjustified.

Camus speaks of an uneasy balance between antagonists.  We do not possess the other two plays in Aeschylus Prometheus trilogy, but we can be fairly certain that in the concluding play, Prometheus Unbound, Zeus and Prometheus come to an agreement. [16]   A fragile order emerges from this conflict between deities, much like the tenuous order established at the end of Aeschylus Oresteia trilogy. [17]   For Voegelin, as for Camus, this insecure realization of order is a hallmark of Aeschylean tragedy:


It was the greatness of Aeschylus that he understood the order of Dike in society as a precarious incarnation of divine order, as a passing realization wrung from the forces of disorder through tragic action by sacrifices and risks, and even if momentarily successful under the shadow that ultimately will envelop it. (OH II, 255)     


Voegelins comments reveal yet another crucial feature of tragedy.  Not only is there no force in tragedy that is absolutely just, but there is no anticipation in tragedy of a final, permanent reign of justice.  Tragedy, in this sense, is radically non-eschatological.  By eschatology I am not referring to the orientation of the soul towards the good beyond being, but rather to the belief that history will one day culminate in a once and for all victory of the absolute good a victory that will see either the destruction or transformation of the present world.  In tragedy, there is no immanent or transcendent defeat of evil.  Even Zeus relatively just order in the cosmos will not last.  Voegelin writes: As far as Zeus is concerned, his order is not a divine, eternal order in the Christian sense.  It has come into existence and will pass away, being no more than a phase in the life of the cosmos.  And Zeus himself is not the God beyond the world, but a god within it (OH II, 261).  The idea of the God beyond the cosmos revealing himself definitively, in either a person or a text, with a message indicating a once and for all defeat of evil, is absent in tragedy.  The soteriological truth of eschatological faith is unacceptable to the tragic Greek mind. Any kingdom to come, or for that matter, any democracy to come, will be temporary.  Equally unacceptable is the melodramatic selection myth common to all forms of eschatological faith, a myth that divides humanity between the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the damned.  Tragedy does not undertake such divisions. 

This non-eschatological, non-providential aspect of tragedy is what is most at odds with Christian and post-Christian civilization.  It is here that we see the major fault line within the Western world, between the eschatological orientation on the one side and the tragic vision on the other.  This rupture, I contend, is greater and more decisive than the conflict between Christianity and Gnosis, as well as the break between medieval Christendom and modernity. Whatever major differences exist between Christianity, Gnosticism, and modern political ideologies (such as Nazism, Communism, and certain forms of liberalism), all are united in their expectation of a future culmination of a once and for all victory of the good.  This victory may be said to occur through a transcendental irruption into history (Christianity), or through a pneumatic flight out of history (ancient Gnosticism), or though an immanent developmental process within history (modern ideology).  Notwithstanding these substantial differences between various eschatological sects, all are united in the belief that history will end and evil will be defeated.  Tragedy rejects all such eschatological visions. [18]

The Relevance of Tragedy in the Midst of Globalization and Terror

This brings me to the relevance of tragedy for today.  It is frequently taken for granted that Athens laid the foundation of Western civilization.  Tragic art, however, has been a marginal aspect of Western culture. Camus observes that tragedy is one of the rarest of flowers that only blossoms during moments of high stress and transition. [19] After Athens, the tragic vision was replaced, first by the ecumenic triumphalism of the Macedonian and Roman Empires, and second by the eschatological ethos of the Christian and post-Christian West. [20]   Camus claims that tragic art flourished in the West on only one other occasion: during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, Spain, and France the moment at which Europe was experiencing the stress of transition from medieval Christendom to the modern world.  After that, tragedy is eclipsed once again, this time by the ages of Reason, Enlightenment, and Revolution.  Other than ancient Athens and early modern Europe, the tragic voice is muted or silent. [21]

The rarity of tragic art may be something to be lamented.  As we have seen, Voegelin claims that Aeschylean tragedy is a high-water mark, a golden hour in history, in which the truth of the soul in its struggle for justice was represented in a public forum (NSP, 71).  This would suggest that the insights of the soul expressed in Greek tragedy, and further developed by Plato, can be applied to our current historical moment and given new form, much like Shakespeare did for his contemporaries.  But there are other moments in Voegelins analysis where he suggests that Aeschylean tragedy was superseded by revelatory religion.  In The World of the Polis, Voegelin claims that the Hellenic experience of history, as well as its symbols is less differentiated than Israelite and Christian experiences and symbols.  In terms of degree of differentiation, Voegelin places tragedy one step above the compact Chinese experience of cosmological empire, but one step below the Israelite experience of Chosen People in the present under God, and two steps below the Christian experience of universal humanity under God.  The experience of tragic history, according to Voegelin, carries a mortgage, in part because it is bound by political conceptions of the polis (OH II, 263).   But, more importantly, there is a  mortgage in tragedy because its symbols do not indicate a divine irruption from the God beyond being, such as is found in Judaism and Christianity.  Voegelin writes:

the polis of Aeschylus, unlike the people of Moses, does not exist freely under God through the leap in being, but approaches such existence through the tragic efforts of its people to descend from the divine depth of Dike.  The Dionysiac component in tragic existence precludes the irruption of a divine revelation from above.

            The qualifications should not detract from the greatness of Aeschylus.  The revelation of God to man in history comes where God wills.  If Aeschylus was no Moses for his people, he nevertheless discovered for it the psyche as the source of meaningful order for the polis in history.  (OH II, 263-4)

Voegelin here reformulates a commonplace Christian distinction between worldly reason and supernatural revelation, and uses it to suggest that Aeschylus, for all his greatness, is deficient precisely because he lacks revelation.  Aeschylus soul descended to the depths to find justice, but he did not ascend to the heights with Gods grace.   For this reason, Aeschylus was no Moses.  This implies that he was certainly no Jesus or Paul, since, for Voegelin, Christian revelatory symbols are even more differentiated than their Old Testament predecessors.  Christian revelation, in Voegelins words, reveals the experience of the universal history of mankind under God through Christ and thus is not limited by the more compact experiences of cosmos, psyche, polis, and chosen people (OH II, 263).  Voegelin does not get into the details of Christianity here, but substantively, the content of Christian revelation is found in its symbols of the incarnation, the trinity, divine providence, bodily resurrection, final judgement, and so on.  Humans cannot discover these articles of faith through unassisted natural reason or descent into the depth.  Such knowledge requires a definitive act from God.   

I am aware that Voegelins discussion of these matters is not exhausted by these few comments in his chapter on tragedy. [22]   However, I refer to them to suggest that Voegelin is ambivalent about tragedy.  On the one hand, tragedy is a miracle that reveals the truth of the soul in its struggle with Dike; on the other hand, this truth has been surpassed somewhat by Judeo-Christian revelation.  If the basic insights of Aeschylus have been superceded by subsequent revelatory events, then it would seem that the tragic vision has little to say to us today.  Tragedy may be important and helpful, but more decisive truths have been unveiled.  Thus, tragedy art, once again, recedes to the margins of an eschatologically oriented civilization.

However, I want to suggest that the general vision contained in Athenian tragedy, and developed by Plato, has not been superceded by eschatological faith.  Tragedy addresses out current situation more directly, and with less potential for psychological and political derailment, than eschatology.  It is certainly possible, as Voegelin has shown, to order the soul by a revelatory eschatology that does not descend into an immanent revolutionary enterprise.  The thought of St. Augustine stands as the pre-eminent Christian example of this type of eschatology, since it is aware that humans cannot realize the heavenly eschaton and that there are limits to politics. [23]   However, Augustinian symbolism, or some form of Augustinian-derived eschatology, may not be the best remedy for our current malaise.  The new world disorder [24] that we presently inhabit is characterized, in large part, by millennial battles sparked by various forms of secular and religious eschatology what we often call fundamentalism.  To counter the eschatological excesses of our age, it may be best to cultivate a new tragic ethos.  For tragedy is less inclined than any form of eschatology to become intoxicated by a transcendental order, and thus to forget that the world is what it is (OH II, 255). [25]   A tragic acceptance of the limit-conditions of this world without the intoxicating promise of a future transfiguration means that the soul is less inclined towards excesses and delusions.  It is less likely to try to flee this world for a fantastic transcendence, or to believe that a transcendental order will irrupt into the world at some unknown point in the future, or to mistake the experience of transcendental order as a world-immanent order.  The good remains the measure in tragedy, but it can only be approximated in a world containing ineradicable evil.

In modernity, the Promethean drive of human-self assertion manifested itself in the major eschatological political movements of the twentieth century, all of which promised a definitive transformation of the world through human initiative, state planning, political expansion, and technology. [26]   Western liberalism is the movement that triumphed at the end of the twentieth century over the more genocidal eschatological movements of Nazism and Communism.   But the Wests victory unleashed some of its more radical eschatological tendencies.  Capitalist democracies presented themselves as the eschaton as the end of history, to borrow Fukuyamas phrase whose mission was to transform the world in accord with Western values, markets, and technology.  This victorious Promethean drive is now the ecumenic movement we broadly call globalization a movement characterized, on the one hand, by the demand to uphold universal human rights, and, on the other, to spread technology and free markets around the globe.

The new world order that was trumpeted at the end of the cold war has, in fact, descended into disorder and uncertainty.  Not everyone is happy with the hegemony of the West.  Resistance to Western domination has taken new forms.  One symptom of the new world disorder is the current struggle between globalization and radical Islam. The September 11th attacks stand as the ultimate symbol of this conflict.  But it would be a mistake to understand the new world disorder as a struggle between Western ecumenism and Islamic apocalypticism.  There is, instead, a more general resistance to Western domination.  This resistance is found both within the West and outside. Everywhere, new expressions of individual, nationalistic, and religious violence are disrupting the operational perfection and free-market deregulation dreamed of by Western visionaries.  Terrorism has now become the most effective mode of resistance.  Jean Baudrillard writes:

When the world has been so thoroughly monopolized, when power has been so formidably consolidated by the technocratic machine and the dogma of globalization, what means of turning the tables remains besides terrorism?...All those singularities (species, individuals, cultures) that have been sacrificed to the interests of a global system of commerce avenge themselves by turning the table with terrorism....Terrorists, like viruses, are everywhere.  There is no longer a boundary that can hem terrorism in; it is at the heart of the very culture its fighting with, and the visible fracture (and the hatred) that pits the exploited and underdeveloped nations of the world against the West masks the dominant systems internal fractures.  It is as if every means of domination secreted its own antidote....It is a mistake, then, to characterize this as a clash of civilizations or of religions.  It goes well beyond Islam and America, on which one might be tempted to concentrate in order to create the illusion of a confrontation resolvable by force....This is the clash of triumphant globalization at war with itself....[I]f Islam were dominating the world, terrorism would rise up against Islam.  The globe itself is resistant to globalization. [27]

Baudrillards reflections on globalization and terror serve as the backdrop against which a contemporary tragic vision can be formulated. Baudrillard is articulating a tragic truth about the limits of human endeavour.  The closer a power approximates absolute totality, the more violence it commits to sustain its domination.  The greater the monopoly on power that a single force has, the more likely that resistance will take the form of covert terrorism rather than open warfare.  The type of totality that dominates the world  does not matter; any global movement will encounter intensifying degrees of terroristic resistance as it moves closer to totality. In response, the global movement will increase its military and surveillance capabilities to unprecedented levels.  This means that the West will probably not be undermined by a single terroristic faction (such as al-Qaeda).  With the passage of time, however, the cumulative effect of multiple resistant forces internal and external, religious and secular, individual and group based could potentially undermine the spirit of Western ecumenism.

Furthermore, the endeavour by a single movement to spread its values around the world does not just lead to an escalation of violence, but also to a dilution of the very values that it seeks to globalize. Baudrillard speaks of a neutralization of values due to their proliferation and indefinite extension.  This is how it is with human rights, democracy, etc.: their expansion corresponds to their weakest definition, their maximum entropy.  Degree Xerox of value. [28]   Bad photocopies of Western ideals are now proliferating.  Indeed, it is not so much Western values (democracy, jurisprudence, freedom, human rights) that have become global in recent years as Western markets and technology.  In the meantime, Western values have decayed at home. Commodity fetishism has eclipsed our sense of democratic responsibility; the consumer has replaced the citizen as the paradigm of liberty;

From Baudrillards comments, we can draw a parallel between the present crisis in globalization and the world of tragic Athens.  Like Athens and its Greek allies after the battles with the Persians, so America and its Western allies have emerged triumphant from the ideological struggles of the twentieth century.  Just as democratic Athens stood out as a beacon of light against authoritarian Persia and Sparta, so Western democracy for all its failings is preferable to Fascist and Communist alternatives offered in the past century. Now the West sits victorious; there is not a single power that can match the West economically, technologically, or militarily.  But also like the ancient Athenian Empire, which began to encounter fierce resistance at the very moment of its triumph, so too Western based globalization must deal with a multitude of reactions to its ascendancy.  Like Athens, the Wests triumph may ironically be the start of its undoing.  The West must now deal with a multitude of terroristic reactions that will become increasing hard to contain.  The battle lines are not as clear as they were in the ancient world.  Nevertheless, for the time being, America and the West sit in triumph.  But unlike Athens, which at the height of its power created an aesthetic institution dedicated to showing the limits of power, contemporary Western democracies have not developed a corresponding cultural space. The post-cold war ethos in capitalist democracies has been expressed predominantly through an exported free market triumphalism and a home-grown culture of indifference.  And yet, everywhere there are signs that should mitigate our blind optimism and political apathy.  September 11th has made this all-too-obvious.

We must wonder, then, if it is possible, or even desirable, for a tragic aesthetic theatrical or otherwise to emerge today, and whether it can have impact beyond a select group of citizens. [29]   If tragedy re-enacts the great decision for Dike, then we are in need of such re-enactments in theatre, but also in literature, music, philosophy, and art especially at this time when the decision for justice has never been more difficult.  We are caught between the need to mitigate the excesses of our own civilization and the need to defend ourselves against terrorism.  We can no longer cling to quasi-eschatological accounts of liberalisms global triumph, nor can we continue to spawn cultural forms that encourage moral and political indifference (such as we find in the current entertainment industry).  A culture of indifference is a breeding ground for both apathy and extremism.  The aims of our civilization, and how we can best protect it, need to be addressed through a broad-based cultural discussion. As the West defends itself from attack, citizens must work to encourage new cultural expressions that in some way echo the public cult of tragedy expressions that are politically engaging and uncompromisingly honest about the evils in this world.  This will require a citizen body that is, once again, inclined to regard tragic action as paradigmatic.

Such a tragic renaissance would, hopefully, be accompanied by a renewal of democratic life.  Instead of trying to spread our ideals around the world through state and corporate apparatus, it might be better to concentrate on enhancing our own democracies at home. What has eroded in present day democracies is the existence of small-scale associations within civil society that cultivate social virtues.  Jean Bethke Elshtain has argued this point. [30]   She defines civil society as the many forms of community and association that dot the landscape of a democratic culture.  This network, according to Elshtain, lies outside the formal structure of state power. [31]   It is only within such small-scale civitates that, she argues, it is possible for individuals, as citizens, to cultivate democratic virtues and possibilities, to play an active role in the drama of democracy. [32]   In Athens, it was precisely such politically engaged individuals who felt the need for tragic art and who saw tragic deliberation and suffering as paradigmatic.  As Christian Meier writes, [Athenian] citizens did not belong to a large-scale political unit such as a present-day nation; it was not a society of specialists and did not have to contend with our manifold processes of change, fuelled from all sides, beyond comprehension, and so difficult to influence....[A]s soon as they had the city in their hands, they must surely have felt the challenge of applying great mental effort to understanding the world. [33]  

It must be said immediately that the emergence of a vibrant civil society is no guarantee against extremism.  Furthermore, even if a more tragically oriented culture were to emerge, it would not guarantee perpetual prudence in the citizen body.  The endeavour by the Athenians to understand the world through tragedy did not save them. Within a generation, the glorious Athens of Marathon had disintegrated into the horrors of the Peloponnesian War a war in which the Athenians made an increasing number of bad decisions.  Voegelin notes that as the Peloponnesian War dragged on, the citizens of Athens were no longer representable by the suffering heroes (NSP, 74).  Plato and the philosophic schools subsequently expanded upon the truths of tragedy.  The tragic ethos moved from the polis to the university.

My primary concern, however, is not whether the tragic understanding can thrive amongst a select group of individuals.  I am more interested in whether this ethos can have a broad-based, cultural impact, with better consequences for us than for the Athenians.  Perhaps this is not possible in the current climate, characterized as it is by the parade of screen images, brand names, technological diversions, and quasi-eschatological remedies.  The present situation may have to play itself out before we can speak seriously of a tragic renaissance.  Nevertheless, the stress of our times may eventually spawn a new tragic orientation an orientation that is acutely aware that there are no eschatological solutions to our current dilemmas, just tough choices.  This turn towards tragedy that I am suggesting should not be understood as defeatist or despairing.  Rather, it should be seen as an effort to gain lucid awareness of our current situation to understand the frontiers of politics, the dangers of technology, the indelible nature of violence, our inescapable mortality, and the need for prudence.  From this lucidity it might be possible for the West to build the character necessary for preserving, enhancing, and defending the best of its democratic culture against the pathological and fundamentalist forms of terror that threaten not just globalization but the basis of any reasonable politics.

It is frequently said that the current war on terror is a struggle for civilization. I contend that civilization is not equivalent to the eschatological drive we call globalization.  That said, the tragic resources that serve as the bases for order in the soul and in society are found in the civilization that is currently promoting globalization in the West.  It is these resources that need to be enhanced and defended.  A revived tragic ethos will mean relinquishing all Western eschatological illusions of radical liberation, universal consensus, uninhibited markets, and global democracy.  But tragic recognition might bring with it a more realistic assessment of our political responsibilities

[1] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 70-5, and The World of the Polis, Volume II of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 243-66.  All subsequent references to New Science of Politics are documented in parentheses by the abbreviation NSP and page number.  References to The World of the Polis are documented in parentheses by the abbreviation OH II and page number.

[2] For Voegelin, Aristotles analysis in the Poetics reveals very little about the substance and historical function of tragedy.   See OH II, 246-7.

[3] See J. Peter Euben, The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Christian Meier, The Political Art of Greek Tragedy, trans. Andrew Webber (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993); Mera Flaumenhaft, The Civic Spectacle: Essays on Drama and Community (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1994).

[4] Voegelin writes, The Suppliants is the finest study of the essence of tragic action, but of no more than this very essence (OH II, 253).

[5] For an account of Athens rise to power, and the emergence of democracy, see Meier, Political Art of Greek Tragedy, 8-43.

[6] See ibid., 1-7

[7] Euben, Tragedy of Political Theory, 58.

[8] Mera Flaumenhaft writes, the tragedies reveal rape, parricide, incest, cannibalism, and defiled corpses....In the theatre, spectators must face what is mixed and mingled, mangled and impure(Civic Spectacle, 74).

[9] See Meier, Political Art of Greek Tragedy, 41-3.

[10] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, lines 321-2.  The translation is by David Grene in The Complete Greek Tragedies, Volume 1: Aeschylus, eds. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).  I refer to this translation throughout.

[11] Ibid., lines 441, 506.

[12] See ibid., lines 437-71, 477-504.

[13] Albert Camus, On the Future of Tragedy, Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), 301.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., my italics.

[16] See Voegelins comments in OH II, 262.

[17] In the court scene in Aeschylus Eumenides, Apollo and Orestes are pitted against the Furies.  Orestes has murdered his mother Clytaemestra in revenge for her killing his father Agamemnon.  The Furies torment Orestes for his crime and demand that he be punished.  The goddess Athena and twelve Athenian citizens adjudicate the case.  Apollo and Orestes are right: Orestes could justifiably kill his mother in revenge.  The Furies are not wrong: Orestes killed his mother, which is an unspeakable outrage that must be punished.  Both defendants and plaintiffs have a certain amount of right on their respective sides.  The difficulty of this case is reflected in the way in which the Athenian jurors vote.  After listening to arguments on both sides, the jurors split the vote right down the middle, with equal ballots for Orestes and the Furies.  A tie means that Orestes escapes the charge of murder, but Athena must appease the Furies by establishing a permanent cult for them in the city.  Thus, no side in this struggle is proclaimed absolutely right, but, through public deliberation, persuasion, and compromise, order emerges out of the private cycle of revenge, violence, and chaos.  A perilous and uneasy balance is struck.

[18] For an analysis of how the eschatological vision of reality developed in history, and how it is distinct from non-eschatological mythology, see Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World To Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[19] Camus, On the Future of Tragedy, 298.

[20] Roman tragedy, for Camus, is a vulgar imitation of the Greek original. In medieval Christendom, tragedy is completely eclipsed. The Western Church was always wary of theatre, often restricting its subject matter to biblical themes, and frequently putting a stop to staged performances altogether. For nearly a thousand years, from the decline of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, theatre was almost non-existent. See ibid., 302-04.  Also see Camuss comments about Rome in The New Mediterranean Culture, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 193-4.  

[21] See Camus, On the Future of Tragedy, 296-98. Camus identified an effort by some of his contemporaries to revive tragic art in the twentieth century, but he was not prepared to declare it a full flowering of tragedy.

[22] The suggestion that revelatory irruption is an experience superior to anything experienced by Aeschylus is in tension with Voegelins later argument that human experiences are equivalent throughout history.  See Voegelins essay Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History, in Published Essays: 1966-1985, Volume 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 115-33.

[23] See Voegelins commentary in NSP, 107-10.

[24] I borrow this phrase from Ken Jowitt.  The meaning I give the phrase, however, departs somewhat from Jowitt.  See Ken Jowitt, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

[25] Voegelin makes this comment during a critique of the theodicy problem.

[26] Voegelin writes, Modern Prometheanism is in fact a form of Gnosis (OH II, 254, n. 7).

[27] Jean Baudrillard, LEsprit Du Terrorisme, trans. Donovan Hohn, Harpers, February 2002, 14-5.

[28] Jean Baudrillard, Paroxysm, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1998), 12.

[29] There have been efforts to demonstrate how tragic culture can address our contemporary problems and have political relevance.  See Robert C. Pirro, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Tragedy (De Kalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001).  Also see J. Peter Eubens commentary on Thomas Pynchon in The Tragedy of Political Theory, 59-63, 281-308. 

[30] See Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial (Concord, ON: Anansi, 1993), 3-34.

[31] Ibid., 6.

[32] Ibid., 10.

[33] Meier, Political Art of Greek Tragedy, 38.