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Meeting Index

Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2002

     Voegelin on Some Sources of Modernity:

Eschatology, Asceticism, Gnosticism

  Copyright 2002 Arpad Szakolczai

Draft version; please, do not quote without permission

  The aim of this paper is to resume and assess Voegelins work on the theme of modernity. It consists of three parts. The first is devoted to the place and status of the question of modernity in Voegelins work; the second resumes his central ideas; while the third explores the possibilities of opened up by this work and makes some suggestions about taking it further.

  1. The question of modernity in Eric Voegelins work

Though the question of modernity - the constitutive problem of sociology but rather peripheral for political science - was not at the centre of Voegelins interests, it was nevertheless present, and with considerable emphasis, at various and important stages of his work. The best known example, of course, is the New Science of Politics of 1952, which is built around the diagnosis of a Gnostic modernity, and which is by the way still the best known and most widely read work of its author. But important statements can be found both before and after in the oeuvre and in instances where Voegelin was supposed to be working on something quite different from a diagnosis of modernity.

Let me quote here two statements of particular clarity and importance one well-known and from a most prominent place, while the other not much known even by the experts. In a 1942 letter to Karl Loewenstein, Voegelin stated that '[w]e possess the great critiques of our civilization by Nietzsche and Max Weber, and for me at least they are the indispensable starting-point for every work in the field.' [1] The letter is an important document showing that already in 1942, thus at a rather early stage in the work of the History of Political Ideas, when allegedly writing a textbook on the history of political ideas, Voegelin was working on a diagnosis of modernity; and that he was taking off from where Nietzsche and Weber stopped.

The second quote is from the programmatic Preface of the first volume of Order and History, published, finally, almost a decade and a half later. It states that the work should be read, not as an attempt to explore curiosities of a dead past, but as an inquiry into the structure of the order in which we live presently (Voegelin 1956: xiv). The quote clearly implies that an epochal consciousness underlies the monumental project, and the plan outlined in this book also projected a final volume to be devoted to The Crisis of Western Civilization, or to a diagnosis of modernity. Finally, as it will be discussed in detail in the third part of this paper, of crucial relevance for the study of modernity is the fourth volume of Order and History, The Ecumenic Age, of 1974, the last new book Voegelin would publish.

            However, as it is also well-known, this part of Voegelins work never got finished. The diagnosis of Gnostic modernity contained in the New Science of Politics gave the promise of a detailed substantiation of the thesis and created high expectations that were never met. Part of this may be due to a displacement of interest. An early, if not the first, characterisation we have of Voegelin, by Gregor Sebba, from the early 1920s, is that of a young Weberian sociologist (Sebba 1982); and this is certainly very distant from the late image of a mature Christian-Platonian philosopher. But still, even if the explicit thematisation of modernity receded, the concern with a diagnosis of the present never disappeared. Something is missing here.

            It might be argued that the problem lay with the specific thesis about Gnosticism that according to some recent arguments - was partly rooted in a Cold War rhetoric, and partly in a excessive generalisation beyond the empirical material. [2] The Gnosticism thesis was indeed modified later several times by Voegelin, taking out some of the excessive polemics and adding further elements to the picture, like eschatological, neo-Platonic or hermetic thought. However, the thesis has never been either analysed conclusively, or disowned. Once again: something is missing here; it would be vital to have a detailed, argued substantiation of the Gnostic modernity thesis.

            I think that the answer to this problem, the unresolved character of Voegelins analysis of the present, the order in which we actually live, can be found in a very delicate interlinking of the personal and substantial elements of the life-work. Voegelins work was profoundly personal; he furthermore developed an entire methodological approach related to anamnetic experiments, meditations and the experiential basis of symbols. However, at the very moment when the foundations of this approach were laid, in August-September 1943, the work to some extent also got caught in a modern version of the old philosophical aporia formulated by Zenon. If a Cretan proclaims that all Cretans lie, the truth value of the statement cannot be assessed. The modern (European) paradox is related to the diagnosis of modernity. As Nietzsche put it, it takes a nihilist to diagnose nihilism a pity that Marx did not have the same reflexive distance when coming up with his diagnosis of alienation. The case of Voegelin was slightly different, but even more paradigmatic. As it is well-known, in 1943, when reading Husserls Crisis, Voegelin came to recognise that entire mental framework of Husserl, and by implication of all modern thought, was not opposed to and different from the murderous mass ideologies of the age, but shared the same intellectual landscape. The problem, of course, is that by definition Voegelin was also a modern, i.e. a 20th century thinker.

            As further consideration of this delicate issue would take very far from the central aim of this paper, [3] only two short points will be mentioned. Let me first sketch with just a few words the existential implications, or the identity games, of the Husserl reading experience. Voegelin discussed Husserl with one of his oldest, best and intellectually closest friends, Alfred Schutz. During and after their university years, the most important intellectual encounter for both Schutz and Voegelin was the reading of Weber; but at the same time both familiarised themselves also with the work of Husserl. In fact, the entire project of Schutz can be resumed by the expression that he wanted to give a philosophical foundation to Webers sociology, using Husserl. We can therefore understand that at stake in the dialogue between Voegelin and Schutz was not merely the assessment of a classic of philosophy (as Husserl is for us, contemporary readers), but something much more vital, personal. It also helps to understand why the New Science of Politics contains a violent, unjust and untenable attack on Weber, much different in mood and substance from Voegelins numerous earlier and later assessments of Weber. Second, the central question in such a situation is to find an Archimedean point, in this case fully outside modernity. For Voegelin, this was represented by Greek philosophy, especially Plato, and also by aspects of Christian thought. This, however, poses the problem of the actual link between and compatibility of these two systems of thought; and the even more thorny issue of the Greek and Christian roots of modernity. After all, and in spite of all the politically correct talk about multiple modernities, modernity emerged out of only one civilization, for better or worse, and this is Western Christianity. It is significant that Voegelin not only never delivered a definite diagnosis of modernity, but fall short of an exhaustive analysis of the early Christianity Middle Ages modernity links, to which the larger part of the History of Political Ideas and than of Order and History was supposed to be devoted. [4]

The inconclusive character of Voegelins discussion of modernity is all the more lamentable as it contains at least two major conceptual developments: the linking up of modernity with intramundane eschatology and with Gnosticism.

2. Two diagnoses of modernity: intramundane eschatology and Gnosticism

Both concepts were developed in the stage when Voegelin was working on the History of Political ideas. Furthermore, both played a decisive role at the beginning and end of this process. The discovery of the significance of  intramundane eschatology, or the recognition that the revolutionary aspects of the rise of the modern nation state can be traced to the immanentisation of eschatological thought was decisive in transforming the original textbook project into a Nietzsche-Weberian diagnostic undertaking; while the discovery of the Gnostic character of modernity, around 1949, would soon lead to the abandonment of the entire History of Political ideas project and its transformation into Order and History.

            The parallels can be extended even further. Both concepts were developed while Voegelin was working on the then current draft of the People of God section, the first in 1941 while the second in 1949. This section has long been identified as the most important of the thousands of unpublished manuscript pages of the History of Political ideas. It was destined for publication by Voegelin himself, and it was only a clear lack of editorial insight, as manifested by Leo Strauss, that prevented the publication of this section already in 1942, in the prestigious Social Research. Furthermore, this section played a crucial role in the entire project, by linking up the chapters of the Middle Ages and on modernity. Indeed, the assessment of the sectarian movements analysed in this section never loses a fundamental ambivalence: did the medieval sects show signs of modernity in the Middle Ages; or were the modern sects, from Puritanism up to the 20th century, only survivals of obsolete medieval sectarianism?

            Still at the level of parallels, both concepts can be rooted in the Nietzschean Weber. Intramundane eschatology is closely linked to the Weberian diagnosis of inner-worldly asceticism, central to the Protestant Ethic and then for Webers entire sociology of religion. [5] While Weber was interested in a genealogy of capitalism, putting the emphasis of the spirit of capitalism and the more general concept of economic ethic, Voegelin focused on the political aspect, the rise of the nation state, and the question of political spirituality. Gnosticism, on the other hand, is closely related to the Weberian concern with the religious rejections of the world, used at the prominent place of the sub-title of Webers single most important theoretical essay, the Zwischenbetrachtung (see Weber 1948).

            The presence of the two concepts is conspicuous in the People of God essay. In its first part, written in the early 1940s, the term intramundane eschatology plays a dominant role; while in the second part, Gnosticism takes over. [6]

            The problem, however, is that these two parts were never brought together. Gnostic and eschatological-apocalyptic-millenarian sects, movements and forms of thought show many similarities, and were historically closely related together. These connections, however, were never analysed comprehensively and in detail by Voegelin, and the crucial section on the People of God remained in manuscript.

3. Taking up Voegelin

In the third part of this paper Ill explore the avenues opened up by Voegelin in the understanding and diagnosis of modernity in two directions: the first is in linking up and interpreting the ascetic, eschatological and Gnostic aspects of modernity, while the second through a re-interpretation of the ecumenic age as a first age of globalisation.

3.1. The Christian character of ascetic, eschatological and Gnostic modernity

Voegelins work, following the track of Nietzsche and Weber, and in parallel with the undertakings of Foucault and Elias (among others), could be used to solve the thorny dilemma of the Christian origins of modernity, or the old and controversial secularisation thesis. In his genealogy of (Christian) morality, Nietzsche came to assign a crucial significance to ascetic practices, or the ascetic ideal, a direction taken up and developed further by Weber and Foucault. It is here that Nietzsche traced the roots of modern nihilism, understood as a hostility to life, a questioning of the value of existence and the very reality of the world in which we live, thus identifying the basic principles of Christianity, even Christian love, with ressentiment. The diagnosis of inner-worldly eschatology presents a complementary perspective. If the basis of the ascetic ideal was an attempt to live by imitating the life of Jesus, than the eschatological perspective was related to expectations about his second coming.

            Still, though the connections between asceticism, eschatology and Christianity seem to be water-tight, almost logical, this is only apparently so, and the consideration of Gnosticism helps to clarify the point. As it is well-known, the Gnostics were the main heretic opponents of early Christianity, and just as ascetic practices and eschatological expectations existed well before the life and death of Jesus. The link between asceticism, eschatology and Christianity is therefore exactly analogous to the link between historiogenesis and Greek philosophy and historiography or, for that matter, between historiogenesis and Christian (Augustinian) philosophy of history. New events and experiences require new symbols, a new discursive framework for interpretation and explanation; but more often than not, they eventually become cast in exactly the old terminology that was exploded by their very appearance. Far form lying at the heart of Christianity, i.e. the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as told in the Gospels, and the one hand, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus and the ensuing missionary activities of the Apostles, as told in the rest of the NT, on the other, ascetic and eschatological practices and thought had a hard time in getting admitted into the new faith. [7] They were in fact much closer to the practices and mentality of the various Gnostic and heretic sects.

This has an important corollary concerning the secularisation thesis. While this term is perennially controversial, put recently into the centre of discussion, among others, by the criticism of Lowith by Blumenberg in a book that gained popularity in English only in the last decade or so (Blumenberg 1983), and has a number of different meanings, these can be divided in two major groups. According to one, the thesis of secularisation implies the progressive decline of religious faith, with the increase of education, urbanisation, and economic development; in sum, with modernisation whether referring to all religions, or only to Christianity. According to the other major (and more Weberian) interpretation, secularisation means that the modern institutional framework, and even central elements of modern thought and mentality, are only secularised versions of Christian thought - eschatology and asceticism being prominent among them.

However, through the emphasis on Gnosticism, Voegelins work helps to reassess the articulation of these two versions of the secularisation thesis. If eschatology and asceticism were not central to Christianity, but indeed central to modernity, then the driving force behind the rise of modernity was the secularisation of exactly those aspects of Christian thought and practices that came from outside, though already in the first Christian centuries, and that were the adaptation, by the early Church fathers, of an existing form of symbolism that was not fully appropriate to express and symbolise the new message. It would then be exactly the rise and gaining of prominence of these forms of thought and practices that were conducive both to the rise of modernity and of the loss of effectiveness (secularisation in the first sense of loss of faith) of those aspects of Christian practice and thought that were indeed central to the message.

From this perspective, the question of the incompatibility of Christianity and modernity could be posed anew. Ill return to this point at the end of the next and last section.

3.2. The ecumenic age as a first age of globalisation

The second possible track takes as its point of departure the fourth volume of Order and History where Voegelin, ostensibly, was no longer concerned with the problem of modernity. In this last section of the paper I offer more an interpretative than a reconstructive analysis.

            The ecumenic age, characterised by the rise of the ecumenic empires, or the first empires with the explicit aim of conquering the entire inhabited planet an objective plainly absent from earlier Egypt and Mesopotamia, or from the world image of India and China can be considered as the first era of globalisation; the major difference between that in this first era globalisation was to be achieved by purely military means, while in our age economic considerations predominate, in line with a line of interpretation that goes back at least to Benjamin Constant and Saint-Simon. The axial age, or the rise of transcendental religions and philosophies, centring on the human personality and the soul, on reason and truth, emerged as a response to the outbreak of an unheard-of level and scope of violence, accompanying the building of global empires on their spatial and temporal margins, thus can be considered as a phenomenon of liminality (Turner 1967, 1969). In terms of time, the axial age incorporates the period lasting from the late 7th to the mid-4th centuries BC, or from the collapse of the first empire with the aim of global conquest, Assyria, to the successful establishment of the first truly ecumenic empire, the empire of Alexander the Great. In terms of space, axial thought emerged at the geographical margins of the Persian and Macedonian empires, with special importance being played by two regions, Palestine and Ionia - two similarly located coastlines that became touched, already in the late 7th-early 6th century, by the first outbreaks of the spiral of violence. As a telling indication, the two great prophets of the first phase of the axial age, Jeremiah (who had his call between 627 and 587) and Ezekiel (his call between 597 and 570), and the first two Ionian philosophers, Thales (624-546) and Anaximander (610-546), were all but exact contemporaries.

            In spite of the parallels, the story of ancient Greece and Israel shows a major difference. Though Ionia was conquered by Persia, the majority of the Greek city states, led by Athens, and in opposition to Israel, managed to resist successfully, thus giving rise to the democratic experiment, the Golden Age of Athens, and the extensive flowering of axial thought four about a century and a half. It culminated in the achievements of Socrates, Aristotle and especially Plato who and here I closely follow the interpretation of Voegelin managed to formulate both the diagnosis of the sources of concupiscential conquest and the possibility of a different type of society with particular clarity. The diagnosis centred on the various qualities of the motivating, erotic impulses inside the human soul. At stake was the development of a new measure of human conduct, after the collapse of the old norms, laws and values. In order to be effective, this new measure had to be embodied, beyond mere formulation on words; and somehow, this model had to be transformed into an effective force. Voegelin seems to imply that Plato gave the answers. I would argued that he only posed, rightly, the problems; and the effective answer, exactly to the form of problematisation (Foucault 1986) provided by Plato, was the figure of Jesus and the rise of Christianity. Here I speak as a Weberian sociologist, not appropriating, abusively, a theological argument. Plato did not succeed to create a new society, while Christianity did so, effectively managing to create a new, highly localised while at the same time universalistic new world out of the ashes of the collapsing Roman empire, the last and most remarkable of the ecumenic empires.

            At this point, we can return to the previous argument, concerning secularisation. The forces diagnosed by Voegelin, and others, as lying at the origins of modernity - asceticism, eschatology, Gnosticism, Platonism (and neo-Platonism), but also Stoic and Cynic philosophy - were exactly those modes of thought that emerged, originally before Christianity, to give a response to the ecumenic or global crisis, and failed to do so effectively. It is another matter of concern that after the rise of Christianity, due to the evident affinities, they came to be incorporated, in various modes and forms, into Christian thought and practice. There, they remained contained until the Renaissance, a first genuine period of secularisation in the sense of a weakening of faith, and the ensuing Reformation, when exactly these alternative modes of spirituality became particularly effective, eventually becoming, first in a highly spiritual and than in a secularised form, the driving force of modernity.

This, of course, is only a hypothesis, a suggestion for further research, on the basis of research already done, and rendered possible by the magisterial, if unfortunately inconclusive, ideas of Voegelin on the rise and character of modernity.


Blumenberg, Hans (1983)  The Legitimacy of Modernity, Cambridge, MA:  The MIT Press.

Foucault, Michel (1980) The History of Sexuality, Volume One. New York: Vintage. [1976]

____ (1986) The Use of Pleasure, Vol. 2 of History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage. [1984]

____ (1987) The Care of the Self, Vol. 3 of History of Sexuality.  New York: Vintage. [1984]

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1967) On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage.

Rossbach, Stefan (2001) Gnosis in Eric Voegelins philosophy, paper presented at the August 2001 meeting of the American Political Science Association.

Sebba, Gregor (1982) 'Prelude and Variations on the Theme of Eric Voegelin', in Ellis Sandoz (ed.) Eric Voegelin's Thought: A Critical Appraisal. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Szakolczai, Arpad (2000) Reflexive Historical Sociology, London, Routledge.

____ (2001) 'Eric Voegelin's History of Political Ideas: A Review Essay', The European Journal of Social Theory 4 (2001), 3: 351-68.

____ (2003) The Genesis of Modernity, London, Routledge. (forthcoming)

Turner, Victor (1967) 'Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage', in The Forest of Symbols. New York: Cornell University Press.

____ (1969) The Ritual Process. Chicago: Aldine.

Voegelin, Eric (1952) The New Science of Politics. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

____ (1956) Israel and Revelation. Vol. 1 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

____ (1957a) The World of the Polis. Vol. 2 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

____ (1957b) Plato and Aristotle. Vol. 3 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

____ (1974) The Ecumenic Age. Vol. 4 of Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

____ (1978) Anamnesis. Notre Dame, Ill: University of Notre Dame Press.

____ (1993) 'Letter from Voegelin to Alfred Schutz on Edmund Husserl', in Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-64, Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper (eds). University Park, PA; The Pennsylvania State University Press.

___ (1998) Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. 4 of History of Political Ideas, D. L. Morse and W. M. Thompson (eds), Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Weber, Max (1948) 'Religious Rejections of the World and Their Direction', in From Max Weber; Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds). London: Routledge. [1915]

____ (1995) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Allen and Unwin. [1904-5]

[1] Letter of Eric Voegelin to Karl Loewenstein, 23 August 1942, Voegelin Archives, box 23, file 23.

[2] This has been covered extensively by Stefan Rossbach in an important paper presented at the 2001 APSA meeting, on which I rely here and elsewhere.

[3] This point is covered in more detail in my Genesis of Modernity (Szakolczai 2003 (forthcoming): 61-4).

[4] What I have in mind is not a fully closed, systematic theory of the rise of modernity, Christianity, and their links, but a detailed, coherent, book-length analysis which his entire works and interests promised.

[5] The difference of terminology might require a few comments. The original Weberian term was innerweltliche askese. Parsons 1930 version of the Protestant Ethic essays, however, translated it as simply worldly asceticism. The adjective inner-worldly was therefore simply not in currency in English in the early 1940s.

[6] For more detailed analyses of these points, see Szakolczai (2000, Chapter 8; and 2001).

[7] The practices of asceticism, well-known in ancient philosophy, only got admitted into Christianity with the rise of monasticism in the 4th century, and then against considerable adversity (for details, see Foucault 1980 Collge de France lectures); while the admittance of the Apocalypse of John into the New Testament was similarly controversial, succeeding mostly due to its alleged, and highly dubious, authorship by the evangelist.

What Does Democracy Mean Today?

Copyright 2002 Martin Palou

What does the word democracy mean today?  There is certainly more than one answer to this question, because democracy is a word with a long and rich history and multiple meanings. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the meanings and then (being cognizant of the old scholastic wisdom distinguere sed non separare) examine their interdependencies and relationships.  I suggest that the problem of todays democracy be approached from four perspectives:

         Democracy as a form of government;

         Democracy as a political culture; the ethos of democracy;

         Democracy from the historical perspective: ancient and modern;

         Democracy as a central and truly cosmopolitan value in the age of globalization; democracy as a   precondition for peace among nations; the internationalization of democracy.

I. Democracy As a Form of Government

According to its classical definition, democracy is a form of government. It is the rule by many, in contrast to a monarchy, which is the rule by one, or an oligarchy, which is rule by a few. As with any other rule, democracy requires a system of offices and institutions designed to order the social body, to administer its necessary functions, and to defend its vital interests in the external environment. Successful institution building and marketing are necessary conditions for democracys development and its enduring vigor and prosperity. The institutional setup of democracy (which may include constitutional frameworks; executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the national government; political parties; elections; local or regional governments; the protection of individual, economic and social rights before independent courts of justice; media and information; civilian control of the military; the system of education; etc.) can be described and studied from all possible perspectives. Legal, functionalist, or historical analyses of democratic institutions are the principal points of departure for every student of democracy today, making up the bulk of our cognitive basis for understanding and evaluating its current (actual) state.            

Nonetheless, democracy is always more than a static functioning system. Fundamentally and above all, it is a political idea that is endowed with the power to set human matters in motion rather than to keep them as they wereto open human society under its rule, rather than to keep it closed. Therefore, a synchronic analysis is not sufficient to grasp the very essence and principle of democracy. One needs to look at the process by which democracy came into existencethe transition from the traditional, hierarchical way of administering human matters to a radically new, egalitarian organization of human society.  

When democracy first emerged in ancient Greece in the eighth century BC, it was perceived as an epoch-making, truly revolutionary event: power that had originally been in the possession of kings, who administered human communities as their own households, was given unto the midst of the people. Prior to the discovery of democracy, it was the will of the deified rulers, who acted as mediators between heaven and earth, that was recognized as the ordering principle in human society and the basic source of their laws. A polis governed democratically was placed under the law (NOMOS), which was above all of its members. It was the rule of law that made all citizens of a polis free and equal, that endowed them with certain unalienable rights, and that enabled Aristotle to say that in the polis, those who rule and those who are ruled are the same. It was freedom based on equality that made the Greeks see themselves as different and more human than the barbariansthose who were subordinated to the unconditional will of their rulers like immature children. Freedom based on equality was the fundamental valuethe raison detre of their democracy.

In short, in order to understand the actual state of democracy, we must start not only with a description of a democratic form of government, but also with a historically informed analysis of the processes of democratization. It is essential to study the conditions under which the democratic idea historically was set in action.  Sections II, III and IV will address three areas of interest that are relevant in this context.

  II. Democracy As a Political Culture; The Ethos of Democracy

As I stated in Section I, a democracy is not just a state whose goal is to survive and maintain existence; rather, a democracy must always have the character of a dynamic process driven by the conscious decision to make people equal before the law; it must be informed by the deliberate will to institute freedom as one of the fundamental human values; it must be animated by the belief that being free is not just a privilege of some individualsaccording to their statusbut an open possibility for  every human being,  something that all humans can achieve under favorable conditions because it is rooted in human nature. Thus we shift our focus from the objective components of the democratic system to the subjective preconditions of a democratic, open society.

Without proper institutional architecture, the life of a democratic society is likely to be emotionally loaded, messy and short. Without people sharing the conviction that the Greek form of a free life (even if sometimes harsh, demanding and full of uncertainties) is incommensurably better than the barbarous life of slaveryin short, without individuals truly committed to the democratic values of freedom and equality, a democratic society simply cannot come into being.

While the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life, according to Aristotle in his Politics (1252b31). In both ancient and modern political theory, the origin of the state is connected with a kind of primordial agreementa social contract that must be upheld as binding by future generations.  The debate on the state of democracy in the contemporary world reminds us of what such a social contract is about. It affirms the recognition of the difference that Aristotle was speaking ofthe difference between a sheer life that might be luxurious, pleasant and sufficient for ones material well-being and a good lifeone that will flourish only in the freedom of the polis and in the openness of its public space. A democratic society, then, is a community which has deliberately selected a democratic form of government where all activities and functions are performed under the conditions of the rule of law, in which the respect for privacy and the individual rights of the citizens are upheld, and where there exists an open political system in which those in power can be replaced peacefully by others with different policies.

The contractual basis of democracy requires a democratic ethos and political culture, a democratic education, and the intermediary bodies of civil society, which occupy the space between the private sector and government. It is these intermediary bodies of civil society that Alexis de Tocqueville recognized as essential to democracy during his visit to America in 1831. The intermediary bodies not only perform various functions that do not need to be performed by the state government, they also act as guardians of the social contract and important indicators that the decision to choose the freedom of a good life over the slavery of a sheer life continues to be cherished and unconditionally recognized as valid.

III. Democracy From the Historical Perspective: Ancient and Modern


The principal objection to the use of historical arguments in discussing democracy, especially the Greek example, is well known.  There is a fundamental difference between the very foundations of ancient and modern societies. The number of free citizens in the Greek city-states was both proportionally and in absolute numbers rather small, and the vast majority of their inhabitants, including slaves, women and foreigners with permanent residency, had no chance to participate in the political processes and enjoy the freedom of democracy. Nevertheless, I believe that those who argue that what might be considered  Greek nostalgia has no place in current progressive political thought are mistaken.

It is true that Greek society did not reach our level of individualism and emancipation. Nonetheless, the trend to free more and more individuals and to enable their entry into the public space was one of the most dynamic factors animating Athenian politics, triggering several fundamental constitutional reforms in Athens. The political culture of the period was ingrained in the dominant polytheistic religious beliefs as well as in kinship and blood ties (the web of gentilian relationships), which had a profound influence on the formation of human identitymore than we can ever imagine in our current context, which has been formed predominantly by a Judeo-Christian monotheistic personalism. Notwithstanding major differences, we need to acknowledge that the very idea of an open society and of a democratic government structure was born among the inhabitants of small city-states in the Aegean region that shared common language, common religious traditions, common cultural heritage, and that called themselves, in opposition to all barbarians in their region, HELLNS.

The ancient Greeks were the first nation to discover the liberating power of the public sphere, where individualsfreed from duties to their families, tribes or gentescould stand face to face with other free men as equals among equals, ready to deal with the matters of the world.  Having emerged as equal citizens, they had the right to speak and to be heard, to voice their agreements or disagreements, to participate with their peers in collective decision-making, and to protect their polity by common action. The very fact that the public space was constituted in the midst of people, with free individuals ready and able to leave the privacy of their households and to act, as Hannah Arendt often said, in concert, changed the whole of human existence, giving history a new direction. The previous tendency of human societies to be protected against the erosive impact of time and to participate in the immortality that the cosmic divinities bestowed upon their deified rulers was overruled by the tireless efforts of mortal men to immortalize their finite existence on earth by virtue of their own words and deeds.

Just as democracy cannot be reduced to a form of government, it is also insufficient to add to the objective components of a democratic system its subjective preconditions and highlight the democratic ethos as the necessary condition for the formation of civil society and democratic political culture. The emergence of democracy is a historical event of enormous magnitude, one of the crucial events in the history of both man and being. Only when man invented democracy, did he become fully conscious of the historical dimension of his existence. The founders of democracy in ancient Greece were the first people that we know of who realized and acted upon the insight that the human condition does not bind human beings to a stable and unchangeable place in the cosmos; that humans qua humans can abandon their inherited passive attitude; that they can adopt an active stance toward the world; that they can understand and challenge the finiteness and fragility of their own historical situation, accept responsibility for it and thus begin to shape their own history.

On the one hand, the process of democracy must be by definition reversible: it must allow for the replacement of those in power by others with different policies, functioning even as the pendulum swings from one side to another. It is the steady pendular rhythm of the democratic process that provides the element of order and regularity in public space, which is disorderly by the very fact of the diversity of those who occupy it. Democracy functions by moving back and forth between extremes and hovers around the center. On the other hand, the major virtue of a true democracy is not so much its smooth functioning, but its open-mindedness and creativity; its capacity to tolerate and integrate historical change; its readiness to take difficult, courageous decisions and actions.

Where a genuine democratic spirit and culture prevail, there is an inclination to move between the conservative forces committed to maintaining the status quo and the progressive forces of innovation and change. But there is even more than that. Democracy derives its strength and persuasiveness from its philosophical underpinnings, from the very concept of human nature, which in turn opens the question of the historicity of the human condition. Is it not this ontological status of democracy that makes it the greatest disturber of the tranquility of the status quo and endows it with the power to cause a new beginning in the course of human history? Is not the disposition toward democracy part and parcel of human nature, enabling humans to break the circle of necessity imposed on them and making them open to the freedom of the world?

To sum up the results of our inquiry: are we not confronted here with a kind of paradox of democracy? Is it not true that democracy, by its very nature, seems doomed to work towards two opposing objectives at the same time: to stabilize and preserve itself as a social and political order as a static historical formationand to destabilize itself in the name of its own ideals and standards of achievement, acting as the most powerful cause of instability and movement in human history? To keep a democratic system in existence presupposes the reversibility of democratic political processes. But vulnerability to historical change has always existed in the human world, regardless of how stable and everlasting any existing political order or power constellation may have appeared. Democracy, closer to human nature than any other form of government, somehow knows about the elements of irreversibility behind the regular swings of its election pendulum and perceives human history not as a linear process with a knowable end, but as an open-ended adventure whose final outcome remains, and will remain an unsolved mystery. Its outstanding protagonists have repeatedly shown the courage to act accordingly, i.e. against their own power ambitions, struggling selflessly for the freedom of the world and not only for the selfish and narrow-minded national interests of their own states; jeopardizing for the sake of  truth of history, which they know cannot be had or known, their political, and sometimes even physical self-preservation. 

In analyzing democracies over the course of history, we must never forget that the capacity for self-reflection and self-transformation is both the main virtue and the grave weakness of every democracy. Remember The Iliad, in which Homer, the respected teacher of Hellas, mentions the famous choice that Achilles faced --choosing between a long but tedious life at home and a short but adventurous life out in the world. Taking part in the Achaean military campaign against Troy, Achilles chose the second option -- a short life filled with deeds worthy of being remembered and transformed into song. Being genuinely democratic does not necessarily mean being as militant and bloodthirsty as the ancient Homeric heroes. It does, however, mean that one should be prepared to face a similar dilemma often and to be able to make choices similar to the one made by Achilles.  It requires the awareness that democracy is always fragile and in a state of danger; and the belief that the liberating power of human deeds and words is capable of shedding light on human affairs, which can otherwise be dark and tedious. It means, too, keeping public space open not only to make the authors of these deeds or words famous and immortal, but for the sake of our common freedom in the ever changing world, our common human values, and, last but not least, our civility.


Democracies as we know them today are products of a different historical era. The rediscovery of the democratic form of government coincides with the transition of the European Judeo-Christian civilization from the Middle to the Modern Age.  The origins and growth of modern democracy are part of the all-encompassing process of modernization, which includes the gradual but profound transformation from predominantly agrarian societies to industrial societies; the crises of medieval political and religious authorities; the emergence of new arts and sciences; the formation of modern political nations; and the radical enlargement of the inhabited world resulting from the discovery of new naval routes and new lands.

In the context of this treatise, we will consider ancient and modern democracies, looking at the similarity of the basic attitude and the state of mind of their respective advocates and protagonists. What is important to our debate is the fact that the rediscovery of democratic ideas by the emerging European nation-states was perceived by those who had the courage to dethrone the established regal rule and replace it with the political rule [1] as a major historical eventa new beginning. We know well from the biographies of English political thinkers and politicians of the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as from the American founding fathers and those who inspired the French Revolution, how much attention those well-educated men paid to ancient political thought and how deeply they were influenced by classical Greek and Roman authors. The three great revolutions of the modern eraEnglish, American and Frenchwhich set the whole civilized world on its way towards constitutionalism and democracy as we know them today, were not inspired so much by utopias, even if certain utopian elements are embedded in all political revolutions, but by the readiness of their spiritual and political leaders to rediscover and find new uses for the old, well-tested liberal ideas of classical antiquity.

Modern revolutionaries took these ideas from their original contexts and, by using them in a new situation, gave them new content and new meaning. Still, the building and strengthening of democracy presented them with a challenge very similar to the one experienced by their ancient predecessors. When we look closely at how modern democracies came into existence and how they function, what we see is the old problem of isonomy and the rule of law; questions of the protection of individual, unalienable rights; questions of the independence of the judiciary; and struggles for political emancipation and corresponding constitutional reforms. We are again reminded that it is the ethos of the society that is the most important condition for the survival of its democracy; the belief that the free life is better than enslavement, that the good life lived in the public space is worthy of defense and personal sacrifice.

What we have then is an open society that must exist without being able to offer a final answer to the question concerning its place in the course of human history; a society trying to discover, but never knowing with certainty who are its friends and who are its enemies.

IV. Democracy as a Central and Truly Cosmopolitan Value in the Age of Globalization; Democracy as a Precondition for Peace Among Nations; The Internationalization of Democracy

The final part of this brief journey through the world of democracy will focus on democracys international life, on the behavior of democracies toward the external environment in which they operate. I will begin with an analysis of the question in the context of the historical evolution of international systems. Second I will comment on the ideas, visions and blueprints that are currently being considered. These concepts are in some cases too idealistic or even utopian, and in others are too dangerously down-to-earth.

War or Peace?

There is a traditional, well-tested response to threats to the existence of states, and democracies are no exception in this regard: the use of force. When the Greek cities, discovering, constituting, and occasionally experimenting with the democratic form of government, had to resist the military campaigns of the Persian Empire, they were left with only one option to keep themselves in existence: to fight and win. After the American founding fathers signed their famous Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, they also had no other choice but the use of force if they were to succeed in turning their political ideas into a political reality and separate their republican cause from the British Crown. They had to defeat the British colonial armies if they were to declare as well as gain their independence. In these cases, war was not only an act of self-defense, but also a crucial state-making event. It gave their revolutionary ideals full meaning, laid the foundations for state traditions, and endowed the political body with a proper raison dtat and state ideology. Democracies eventually stopped being so bellicose and were ready to negotiate agreements with their former enemies. But regardless of how peaceful and peace-loving they became, they never abandoned the golden rule of all statesregardless of whether they are democratic or undemocratic: to protect themselves in the environment of international anarchy and to survive. The states survival, the sacrosanctity of its famous prerogatives, such as territorial integrity and sovereign equality, remained the supreme  meta-value above all values that animate the civil society contained within its borders. It is true that the rule of law was the landmark of a democratic government. But all good democrats were aware of the iron logic that dominated the tough world outside: in order to have democracy, you have to have law; in order to have law, you must first have a state; in order to have a state, you must be able to defeat and to ward off its enemies.

The realistic conceptions of the international behavior of statesbased on the belief that  international society is doomed to operate in the state of nature and, thus, by definition  anarchic (in the state of permanent war of all against all) have had their fundamentum in re throughout human history. At the same time, however, it is evident that the realists do not offer the full picture of the world of international relations. Although confrontation is an indisputable fact of life for states in the international environment, it is not the only possible modus operandi of states among themselves. What always has been available as a plausible and more attractive alternative is their peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Under which conditions are states inclined not to fight each other, but rather to cooperate?

What has been, traditionally, the most important instrument to define, promote and bring into existence various forms of cooperation? Is a democratic form of government more conducive to the peaceful solution of international conflicts? Or is the international behavior of a state entirely independent on its internal organization, influenced only by the nature of international system? Every elementary textbook on international relations answers these questions. States show the tendency to cooperate when they do not threaten one another, and especially when they have to face a common enemy, when the way of life their inhabitants cherishthe civilization they embody, the religious or cultural values they stand foris in danger. The instrument they use to define cooperative frameworks, to determine and gradually to broaden the scope of their cooperationbe it military, trade and economics, culture, people-to-people contacts, education or anything elseis international law.

Due process of law instead of the use of force in the realm of international relations is undoubtedly a very attractive alternative, but there are many good reasons to remain cautious. On the one hand, there have been situations in human history when democratic ideals and values turned out to be powerful enough to influence decisively the international politics of the time, motivating the collective resistance of civilized nations to barbarity, initiating intensive activities in the field of international law; giving birth to new treaties or whole legal corpuses; inspiring the founding of new international organizations or even starting the process of integration of cooperating nation-states into a larger, supranational political unit. Still, it is not advisable to succumb to the illusion that the fundamental difference between domestic and international politics and law can and should be abolished entirely; that the planetary mankind can be brought to its final historical stageinternational civil societywith a democratic world government and independent global judiciary. Such an idea could be rather more dangerous than helpful for the future of democracy. The situation of the world at the beginning of the 21st centuryin the ever faster and more dynamic process of globalization, and considering the horrible experience with totalitarianism in the 20th centuryoffers many good reasons why it is advisable to be cautious not to stretch the capabilities of the democratic idea beyond its natural limits. The problem of democracy in the international environmentregardless of how much power is eventually delegated to democratic international institutions, how large is the territory under their jurisdiction, or how strong and enforceable is their international lawraises a most difficult question: should international democracy be conceived as a state (i.e. a stable form of government), or should it rather be perceived, for substantive reasons, as an open-ended process?

Let us consider in this context once more the case of the Greek poleis that managed to organize themselves in defense of their Hellenic civilizationformed by their common religious and cultural heritage, the noetic insights contained in the common corpus of Greek philosophy and most important, by the common idea of democracy and politicsagainst their common barbarous enemy during the Persian Wars. Their coalition held together and their customary international law was able to survive only in the unique situation of confrontation with the Persian Empire. After that war had been won and the Greek poleis had experienced their golden age, life-and-death conflict burst out among them. The war between former allies set the entire Aegean region in motion, and the whole Greek political experiment, the entire Hellenic civilizationas though inspired by Achilles who also preferred a short, but glorious life to a long but tedious onewas turned into ruins in a couple of decades. Thanks to Homer, the heroic deeds of Achilles were turned into a song. In that sense, there is undoubtedly something Homeric in Greek political thought as well: it has, indeed, illuminated the path of mankind through history, from the beginning until today, even in dark times, and despite the fact that, seen from the perspective of contemporary political theorists or practitioners, it is safely a matter of the past.

Another less poetic, but perhaps more relevant case of historical dynamism for our debate is the history of European (or Western) civilization in the Modern Age, which gave birth to the idea of nation-states and their international politics. The history of international systems came into existence after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and has been evolving up to the present. From time to time, it is exposed to the strikes and blows of revolutions, ravaged by either local or all-out wars or struggles for independence; turned into a battle between those who strove for reunification of their nation and those who were the champions of fragmentation; suffering periodic major crises of identity, and genuinely seeking in the aftermath of all these events to renew stability and achieve reconciliation.

Those who debate the future of international (or even cosmopolitan) democracy should be aware of the long and winding road that modern political thought has traveled from its origins in the works of Bodin and Hobbes, who laid down the theoretical foundations of the concepts of state sovereignty, state supremacy and sovereign equality of states formed within the orbit of European civilization, to current discussions concerning European integration, striving to cope with its endemic democratic deficit, transatlantic cooperation between Americans and Europeans, or possibilities for international cooperation in the environment of a more and more connected world. What must be considered is the dynamic evolution of modern international law, from Grotius and Vatel to current conceptions of human rights and fundamental freedoms. From the classical doctrines of humanitarian intervention, which set the first and most important limitation on the otherwise unlimited power of the sovereign Christian princes, we go to the language of the European Convention of Human Rights, which states solemnly that common understanding and observance of Human Rights, hand in hand with an effective political democracy, represents a major instrument for achieving greater unity between its Membersbetween European countries which are like-minded, have a common heritage of political traditions, ideals, freedom and the rule of law.

Despite the fact that our post-modern climate of ideas is very different from the spiritual and political atmosphere of the Enlightenment, it seems to me that Kants 1795 project of perpetual peace represents an unsurpassed and most articulate theory for bringing the idea of democracy to the international level. Starting with the simple postulate that all men who can mutually influence one another must accept some civil constitution, Kant not only formulates his famous thesis that for the sake of peace all civil constitutions should be republican, but proceeds first to the idea that the rights of nations be based on a federation of free states, and, second, to the cosmopolitan right that shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality. It is true that Kants peace proposal, scorned by the political realists as sheer utopia, has remained safely in the realm of philosophy. At the same time, one has to admit that Kants key postulate of the project of perpetual peace, (it is the republican constitution that provides for this desirable result, namely, perpetual peace) has been empirically confirmed by modern European history.  Democracies, indeed, have not been launching wars against one another, and this simple idea is being tested day after day by the existence and everyday life of the European communities (the European Union).

Some  Questions for  the  Future Debate  on Democracy

Whatever results from the current debate on Europes future, European integration proves that the internationalization of democracy has become a political reality; that it makes sense to talk about democracy among like-minded states, within a region which has been historically and spiritually tied to the concept of civilization.

Can we extend this debate to democracy on the global level? Is it possible to confirm the principle of the rule of law as valid in the universal realm of international relations, and by doing so limit in an unprecedented way the sovereignty of nation-states and their territorial jurisdiction?  Who should approve this step? And how? In history, it was the citizens of small city-states and, later, the larger, well-defined political bodies born in the Modern Age, who entered into the social contract, constituting their civil societies and polities. It was always a finite, exclusive and homogenous people that shared the same elementary values and common understanding of the difference between the good life of democratic polis and the forms of sheer life available to the members of non-democratically administered communities. Is it not somewhat beyond our common sense, and therefore somewhat unrealistic, to expect that humankind, with all its cultural, religious, social and historical diversities, could ever enter into a social contract that expresses the consent of the governed with the idea of a global, even if very limited, government?

Can we think meaningfully about a democracy that is all-inclusive? Shouldnt we, on the contrary, be worried that the transformation of the whole planet into one big would-be democratic monster would kill the very idea of democracy, its open political culture and its ethos? Is it not more likely that such a step would not bring us into the promised land of peace and justice for all, but would, rather, deprive us of our freedom and democratic traditions, condemning us and our posterity to live in a prison or in a concentration camp, from which there would be really no escape, because it would embrace all territories of our Mother Earth? Would it not be advisable not to indulge in the fantasies of cosmopolitan democracy, international civil society, and the New Age, etc., but rather to raise once more the century-old question posed by Woodrow Wilson, the question of how to make the world safe for democracy?

I am going to stop here and leave the rest for future discussions. In trying to clarify the theoretical roots of our currently used political concepts, it is useful to look back in history, to refresh our political thought, making it less rigid and more dynamic, less judgmental, and more open to making political judgments appropriate to our changing world. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: whether we are liberal reformers or political realists, uncompromising supporters of standard party politics, NGO activists promoting the idea of civil society or even anarcho-socialists, democracy has indeed become the flagship of our hopes for a better future. The possibility of its wreckage in the ocean of international affairs, indeed running extremely high after September 11, 2001, would rightly be perceived as a major disaster.                                                                                                                                                

[1] These terms  were already used in the 15th century by Sir John Fortescue in his famous treatise,  The Governance of England.