Can a Philosopher be a Prophetic Witness to the Truth?

Meeting Index

Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2007

"Can a Philosopher be a Prophetic Witness to the Truth?

Copyright 2007 Brendan Purcell

 

Since we're in Chicago , I'd like to start with some lines of Saul Bellow's principal character. Albert Corde, a college dean in Chicago , says in The Dean's December: We couldn't ourselves observe the dulling of consciousness, since we were all its victimsThe genius of these evils was their ability to create zones of incomprehension.' And Corde is later noted as saying, Scholars who were supposed to represent the old greatness didn't put up a fight for it. They gave in to the great emptiness. And "from the emptiness came whirlwinds of insanity' [1] I'd suggest Voegelin too in the Hitler and the Germans lectures was trying to deal with those pervasive zones of incomprehension,' but that he certainly did put up a fight against the great emptiness. One way of seeing that fight is in terms of his being a witness to the truth.

 

Can a Philosopher be a Prophetic Witness to the Truth?' Let's leave out prophetic' for the moment, and ask simply, can a philosopher in the Heraclitean-Platonic-Aristotelian tradition not be a witness to the truth?  It's enough to remind ourselves of Voegelin's remarks in the talk he gave a year after the Hitler and the Germans' lectures when he reminds us of Heraclitus' insistence on public commitment to actualizing our participation in the common logos, and criticizes von Humboldt's notion of an academic existence closed off from such shared actualization. So it can surely be suggested that the lectures themselves were an expression of Voegelin's consciousness of his responsibility as a political philosopher to witness to the truth. What I'll try here is to suggest a way in which he can be seen to do this throughout the lectures.

 

1. Voegelin had a special relationship to Max Weber--he gives commemorative lectures 5 and 10 years after Weber's death, and The Greatness of Max Weber' on the centenary of his birth. Perhaps the Weber lecture may be understood as Voegelin's interpretation of how he saw himself in relation not just to the Hitler and the Germans' lectures, but as fulfilling Weber's own calling to politics--in the wider sense of the practice of political philosophy--as a vocation.

 

In the Weber lecture, Voegelin characterized a period which he saw as not understood as a whole: the age of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Weber, with each answering a certain aspect of cultural crisis. David Walsh, in After Ideology, takes another four figures, this time Dostoevsky, Camus, Solzhenitsyn and Voegelin to characterize a wider period, that of resistance to 19th and 20th century ideologies. [2] If Weber was a key figure in that earlier period, I'd suggest Voegelin was heir to more than Weber's chair at the University of Munich , and that he understood himself as      implementing a more profound response to the crisis of his time.

 

If we read some of the phrases from The Greatness of Max Weber,' it's hard not to find indications of how Voegelin may have been carrying out his philosophical witness to truth in the Hitler lectures:

 

[D]istance requires that a person must himself stand somewhere. The entire immanent reality of being is the reality from which one must have distance. Still, where can one find this distance, if not in the nonexistent [ = transcendent] reality of reason and of spirit?

 

Since Weber was a man fully conscious of the transcendentas a scientist he had to translate into world-immanent types everything whose meaningful content required that it be interpreted by the symbolism of reason and of spirit. That is, he had to develop, from world-immanent social processes, ideal-types that would reflect the order of spirit and of reason. (27172) [3]

 

2. But how could Voegelin develop his diagnosis in terms of ideal-types that would reflect the order of spirit and reason'? These lectures were aimed at a general, mainly young student audience, and we can take it for granted that he was aware of the problematic touched on by Kierkegaard in his Point of View for My Work as An Author:

 

[I]f real success is to attend the effort to bring a man to a definite position, one must first of all take pains to find him where he is and begin thereIn order to help another effectively I must understand more than he--yet first of all surely I must understand what he understands. If I do not know that, my greater understanding will be of no help to him... [4]

 

Central to an interpretation of the lectures is his remark regarding conversion in the German University talk, that, "In order to pursue critical history, therefore, it is not enough to speak differently--one must be differently. [5] Jrgen Gebhardt reminded us some time ago that the evocation of experiences of transcendence is what Voegelin's philosophy is about. [6] How did Voegelin seek to evoke such experiences of transcendence, and awareness of a cultural aversion from that experience, in his audience? While of course Voegelin doesn't refer to Kierkegaard's programme of eliciting in his audience a triple conversion, aesthetic, ethical and religious, let's use those categories as an interpretive framework for understanding how Voegelin's philosophical witness unfolded. We'll add to Kierkegaard's existential categories a fourth conversion, towards the truth of existence, implied in all of them. [7] I'd like to suggest that Voegelin's teaching at the level of this fourfold conversion is the best expression there can be of his witness to the truth of existence.

 

For his audience, encountering Voegelin delivering the lectures was like meeting someone coming up from the underworld of Plato's cave, who could be their Socratic guide. In that sense, Manfred Henningsen remarked that their greatest impact was in their actual performance, in expectation of a German metanoia.' [8] Which is not unlike Plato's remark in the Seventh Letter regarding his own work--that philosophy occurred in the shared search for truth-justice and could never be encapsulated by written words, even his own.

 

So, while the Hitler lectures lay bare the spiritual malaises in German historiography, the Churches and the law, an existential narrative underlies this diagnosis: the non-existence of the ethically mature human beings Voegelin called, after Aristotle, the spoudaioi, and his attempt at rebuilding such spoudaioi in 1960s Germany . What Voegelin can be seen to be enacting--with the intent of eliciting it in his audience--is the active remembering of a truth of existence that had been forgotten.

 

Now for a few examples.

 

3. Manfred Henningsen has told how Voegelin deliberately adopted Karl Kraus's use of irony and satire as his preferred mode of communication in the lectures. [9] In fact, the frequently burlesque, farcical treatment is just the right one to awaken consciences. This might indicate not only Voegelin's affinity with Kraus, but philosophically also a kinship with Kierkegaard, whose use of irony and humour attempts to enlist his audience for the harder work of moral and religious conversion. So, a first conversion we can see Voegelin aiming at is aesthetic, the conversion that will prepare for the further ethical and religious conversions.

 

Voegelin, like Kraus, often lets the material speak for itself, The arrangement itself, as in The Last Days of Mankind and Third Witches' Sabbath, is satirical. Voegelin's added comments within the quotes only highlight this work of self-satirization (Kraus is writing of a Nazi propaganda recording that went wrong, but was still issued):

 

In the last dialogue a failure could be detected, followed by a terrible break in the sound, not caused by the airwaves, and after this a stammering by the interviewer, whose manner of speaking up to then was recognizable as professionally illiterate. That unfortunate prisoner, when asked whether he had been mistreated, as the lying propaganda had asserted, had broken out with sobbing words:

No, no one cut my ears off--but my existence--has been annihilated--

 

[Voegelin comments:] That now is one of the passages. May I add that in the '30s there was a saying, in constant use, that the National Socialists had never touched a hair on anyone. No one ever had a hair touched. But that is about the only thing that they did not do. (92)

 

His rhetorical asides are always, it seems to me, aimed at healing through cauterization, with the ironic presentation distancing his audience from the commonly accepted doxa of academic contemporary historiography, and through satire, leading them towards an ethical judgment:

 

Here is this noble old Westphalian [Pastor Niemller] of farming stock and a fine naval officer, who voted for Hitler since 1924, and it is terribly painful for him that God had the bad taste to incarnate himself in a Jew and not in Pastor Niemller. But now one just has to accept it; Westphalians would have been better suited for this purpose, but one cannot do a thing about it. (173)

 

4. That first, aesthetic conversion was intended to facilitate the other three kinds. What we can call intellectual conversion, in the specific sense of the truth of concrete human existence, a truth that is lived out in the Socratic manner, can be seen instantiated in Voegelin's attack on the higher stupidity that's the subject of Glenn Hughes' talk. Typically, for Voegelin, engaged in a profoundly anti-ideological work of reversing the idols of the age, that struggle to help his audience arrive at the truth took the place of extremely pointed references to the cultural tradition he considered largely forgotten in academic circles.

 

But that puts the onus on the audience too. Just how well were they able to gauge what Voegelin was doing in the light of the truth? As Voegelin has noted of himself, in Remembrance of Things Past': it will depend on his desire to know' (letting know' stand for the whole range of experience covered by classic philosophical love of wisdom). [10] It's a bit like his response to the zones of incomprehension Sndor Mrai describes in 1948 Budapest :

 

An acquaintance passing by on the street might speak to me, but while we exchanged words, I would suspect that he wasn't saying anything he wanted to but reeling off something warily and then looking around because, for all we knew, what he was saying confidentially could be overheard. I could go right or left in a city whose inner and outer map I knew tolerably well, but now a shadow enveloped everything familiar to me in the city.

 

It took me aback because for the first time since I returned home from the West, a suspicion dawned in me which had not occurred to me before. I began to suspect that what surrounded me was something worse than the brute force present. I began to suspect that what surrounded me was not just organized terror but an enemy more dangerous than anything else, an enemy against which there is no defense: stupidity. [11]

 

If I don't have a standard for truth within myself, I don't know what I could make of this, and I think that's what Voegelin's audience in Munich had, which made it possible for them to recognize and rise to his philosophical witness to truth during the lectures.

 

5. Voegelin's approach towards eliciting ethical conversion has some similarities to Solzhenitsyn's approach in the Gulag Archipelago--moral judgment allied to moral indignation. In his German University lecture of 1965 he explicitly referred to On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, where Nietzsche wrote of the need for critical, that is, evaluative and judgmental history.' [12] Again, an example:

 

And now in the report of March 24 on the Auschwitz trial we find a very interesting item:

 

The cry "murderer rang out on Monday in the Auschwitz trial at Frankfurt through the courthouse. The fifty-six-year-old former concentration camp prisoner Hugo Breiden from Stuttgart lost control in the witness stand when he was shown a model of the notorious Boger "swing on which, according to his testimony, he was beaten into a cripple by the accused Boger

 

I am reading out this passage because the journalist here reports that the victim lost control when he was confronted with this murderer, whom he saw killing others--he himself escaped death and was beaten into a cripple. It is due to a loss of self-control that he now cries "murderer. Please note the enormity of this report, for what it is saying is that one should peacefully allow oneself to be killed and shouldn't in any way shout "murderer!As long as I have not been killed, I must not say that the other person is a murderer. If I see that this other one is committing murder, I still may not say "murderer! before he has been convicted in a proper court. (64)

 

This second example is the twin of one of Solzhenitsyn's towering expressions of moral judgment, where he quotes a New York State Supreme Court judge in Life magazine, having visited the Gulag: what an intelligent, farsighted, humane administration from top to bottom. In serving out his term of punishment the prisoner retains a feeling of dignity.' Solzhenitsyn adds: Oh, fortunate New York State , to have such a perspicacious jackass for a judge!' And follows with an account of a young woman prisoner whose moans he himself had heard from his relatively comfortable prison in Marfino, Moscow . For some minor infringement she is made to stand out all night in the freezing wind, every now and then begging, Citizen Chief! Forgive me! Please forgive me! I won't do it again!' Solzhenitsyn goes on: to you girl, I promise: the whole wide world will read about you.' [13] Voegelin quotes Kraus:

 

They should

not be surprised--says the race warden--if one day they get a thrashing.

But who would still be surprised at anything? Everywhere the one who administers the beating is precisely the one who deserves it. In the satrapy of that Streicher [who was the "Gauleiter of Franconia] from whose brain the thought of a more comprehensive boycott arose, a barrier was broken, and a girl with shaven head was led by six uniformed men through the bars, so that she could be spat at by the public. Someone, who on Sunday August 13 [1933, that is] saw it, reported it, and The Times also reported that a board had been hung around her neck with her plaits, which had been cut off fastened to it, and these words could be read:

            I offered myself to a Jew.

Storm-troopers surrounded her from time to time on the stage of the cheap music-hall and, with abuse, roared out the text into the hall. The girl, "slim, fragile and in spite of her shorn head, exceptionally pretty, was led along the block of international hotels.

She tripped a few times and then was brought to her feet again by the men, sometimes lifted up high so that the onlookers further away could see her. On this occasion she was roared at by the public, ridiculed and for a joke invited to give a speech.

The children of the American consul saw it. Europe heard it. Never before was anything like it experienced in a nightmare. Some days later it was reported that she had gone mad. If all the revenge of a dishonored mankind was paralyzed at the sight of the specter of blood that besieged it--this act and this fate will one day kindle it into flame!

One case among thousands. Read these pages of the Dritte Walpurgisnacht, and then those incomparably obscene reports from Der Strmer, which are included there. That is how the German man stands with regard to woman, and particularly HitlerNow Hitler of course was aware of these things, and it was reported that when Goebbels told him about events of this kind, he could not stop laughing at how comic and amusing it all was.

            So that is the aspect of Hitler's relation to women that Schramm discreetly says nothing about. Again this odd lack of contact with reality, that it is not a question of what stupid stuff Hitler said about women on any kind of private occasion, or that he took pleasure in a pretty girl, or more things like that--these are the things Schramm reports; but what is suppressed--again one cannot say whether deliberately or carelessly--is that precisely here a totalitarian system extending into these things was in operation. (13132)

 

6. Voegelin requires conversion to the transcendent, insofar as his understanding of the spirit is as open or closed to the transcendent, and it's here that most frequently he re-minds the audience of the core of the Western experience, in a passage where he could not put it more sparely: that we don't exist of ourselves:

 

What does it mean to exist as constituted by reason and spirit? The experiences of reason and spirit agree on the point that man experiences himself as a being who does not exist from himself. He exists in an already given world. This world itself exists by reason of a mystery, and the name for the mystery, for the cause of this being of the world, of which man is a component, is referred to as "God. So, dependence of existence (Dasein) on the divine causation of existence (Existenz) has remained the basic question of philosophy up to today. (86)

 

Again and again, this is a key aspect of Voegelin's critique: the Novalis quote as summing up Hitler, the refusal of inwardness, of unknowingness, because we ideologically claim to know everything, the false self-assertiveness:

 

In this sense we speak of a loss of realityThe typical manifestations of this loss of reality are that the reality of man is put in the place of the lost divine reality, which alone grounds the reality of man, so that in place of the ground of being as the cause of being, man as the cause of being advances to the point of exaggeration in the idea that man must be the creator of the worldI will here quote this one sentence of Novalis: "The world shall be as I wish it! There you already have in a nutshell the whole problem of Hitler, the central problem of the dedivinizing and dehumanizing. (8788) 

 

The two chapters on the Evangelical and Catholic Churches are reminiscent of the late Kierkegaard's Against Christendom, or Nietzsche's attack on Christianity, with--at least equivalent to Kierkegaard--the attempt at reminding the Churches of their responsibility to witness to the Spirit. So, Voegelin's Against [German] Christendom' can easily be seen, not as against Christianity but against the failure to live it institutionally.

 

David Walsh in his forthcoming The Luminosity of Existence quotes from Nietzsche's last work, The Antichrist--which he notes can be translated just as appropriately as The Antichristian--and indicates the distinction Nietzsche develops between Christ and Christianity: "In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross. (I, 39) The Churches' failure to witness to the transcendent does not invalidate their duty: it's up to them to take it up again or lose their claim to bear witness to the Gospel or to represent universal humanity.

 

7. Voegelin as Witness: It's not that often that Voegelin spoke of his own commitment as a philosopher, but a few remarks not too many years after the lectures give us an insight into how he saw his philosophical work as involving witnessing to the truth:

 

In his course outline, Geschichtsphilosophie,' (1968, University of Munich, 7), speaking of the lie of existence, he wrote that Recognition of the existential-ethical demands as an intellectual situation is not enough--it must be followed by the passionate work of daily resistance against the lie of existence--the work is lifelong.'

 

And in the transcript of his exchange with some heckling students in the same year, he told them--provoking laughter from those heckling him--that authority is something acquired by living in existential tension: Whoever lives in this existential tension has authority, and whoever doesn't live in it, doesn't have it.' [14]

 

Again, he finished his interviews with Ellis Sandoz with these words: These chores--of keeping up with the problems, of analyzing the sources, and of communicating the results--are concrete actions through which the philosopher participates in the eschatological movement of history and conforms to the Platonic-Aristotelian practice of dying.' [15]

 

You'd imagine that, to give some basis for his right to deliver these lectures, Voegelin would have referred to his brushes with the Nazi regime immediately prior to and after the Anschluss--but he refrains. Maybe he had in mind both Socrates' and Kierkegaard's awareness that one lives rather than talks about one's work as a witness to the truth.  

 

How is Voegelin a witness in the Socratic sense? One test of his bearing witness is the sheer unpopularity of what he's saying in declaring these philosophical positions. The fact that Voegelin was persona non grata, for example, purposely not invited to a seminar on the German University in the National Socialist period by the conference organizers at his university, gives some idea of how unacceptable he was to some of his Munich colleagues.

 

What's the difference between a mere media-star type of teacher and a philosophical witness to truth? How does one recognize a witness to truth as distinct from a hypocrite, an ideological Pied Piper, or straight fraud? There are two questions here--the existential adequacy of the witness and of the audience. We could say that the witness is adequate if he or she matches up, not just to one area of reality (which is what the ideologist does), but to all of reality in the light of truth already attained. My suggestion, that the lectures be read as an expression of a fourfold conversion in Voegelin himself--aesthetic, intellectual, ethical and spiritual--is one that has to be left up to each reader's judgment.

 

8. But can a philosopher be a prophetic witness to the truth? Isn't prophetic going too far? Well, in a strict sense, no one but a Hebrew prophet in the Bible can be prophetic. Still, Dostoevsky's biographer, Joseph Frank has no problem entitling his final volume Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet.' [16] Nor would it be out of place to understand  Solzhenitsyn's comment on his work of historical anamnesis, The Red Wheel, as in some way prophetic--even if, like most of those Voegelin called spiritual realists, his prophecy is fated not to be acted upon: I feel like a bridge thrown between pre-revolutionary Russia and the post-revolutionary Russia to come, spanning the chasm of the Soviet years, a bridge which the train heavily laden with history passes over with great difficulty, so that its precious burden is not lost to the future.' [17]

 

But closer to home, there is Voegelin's own treatment of Jean Bodin in vol. V of his History of Political Ideas, where he links Bodin's self-understanding of his prophetic role to conversion, with its range of meanings. [18] There are also Voegelin's remarks on Max Weber as an intellectual mystic (including the dialogue between Max and Marianne that's rather suggestive of a possible dialogue between Eric and a Lissie, who also had a lot of common sense,') that I think could also be applied to himself as a kind of philosophical mystic. And of course, there is his own remark in The Eclipse of Reality':

 

There are no more than two principal types of "prophetism: the Greek and the Israelite. The term prophetes originally denotes the Greek seers and poets in their capacity as speakers of the godsAnd the prophetic poet--epic, lyric, and tragic--is followed, in a more differentiated mode of experience, by the philosopher, the lover of the god's wisdom. By way of translation, the term prophet was transferred to the nabi, the Israelite speaker of Gods word... Besides the principal types, there are unique representatives of truth like Moses and Christ, the "servants of God. There are, furthermore, the metaphysicians and theologians who cast the truth of experience into the form of concepts and propositions. And finally there are the mystics. This is the representative personnel of existential truth in history that the imaginator must eclipse if he wants to eclipse reality. [19]

 

In this, generous and existential sense, aiming at what Henningsen has indicated as the metanoia of a people, I don't think it's too much to consider Voegelin in his Hitler and the Germans to have enacted philosophically what he considered Thomas Mann enacted artistically in Dr Faustus--which he called the great lamentation of a German over Germany,' giving him a role equivalent to the prophet Jeremiah. [20]

 

But one of the functions of classic philosophical witness and of prophecy was to constitute--if we can use Voegelin's own expression here--a community of existential concern.' That's perhaps the fullest significance of those lectures--they expressed Voegelin's own philia politike, his attitude of political friendship towards his audience. They were intended to ground in a common homonoia--likemindedness in participation in the same divine nous--a new generation of German spoudaioi, of an inner dignity and external civic virtue equivalent to Max Weber's.

 

If I may intrude my personal experience of those I've met who attended those lectures, along with the most impressive list given by Henningsen, [21] the right answer to the question Plato put in Socrates' mouth, if asked of Voegelin's delivery of those lectures: has Callicles ever made any of his fellow-citizens a better human being?' (Gorgias, 515a), seems a resounding yes. Those auditors certainly belong to the new generation of a German community of existential concern. And in those lectures Voegelin achieved a transfer of authority from power and the lie to the spiritual authority of the philosopher.

 



[1] Saul Bellow, The Dean's December, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 141, 298 (all emphases in quotations are mine).

[2] David Walsh, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

[3] All unreferenced quotations are from Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans, Eds. Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999).

[4] Sren Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 27.

[5] Eric Voegelin, Die deutsche Universitt und die Ordnung der deutschen Gesellschaft,' in: Die deutsche Universitt im Dritten Reich, ed. Ludwig Kotter (Munich: Piper, 1966, 24282): gengt es daher nicht, anders zu reden--man mu anders sein.' 246.

[6] Jrgen Gebhardt, The Vocation of the Scholar,' unpublished essay, 12.

[7] As Glenn Hughes will do in his presentation to this panel, I'm drawing on Bernard Lonergan's Method in Theology and earlier writings for the notion of conversion used here--not that far from what Voegelin called existential virtues,' basic orientations of the subject towards the concrete universals of the beautiful, true, good and holy. The classic account of these three conversions is in Plato's Symposium, which Kierkegaard narratively expanded into his Stages on Life's Way.

[8] In the sense of this pedagogical expectation of a German metanoia, deriving from the spirit of Plato's mythical "parable of the Cave, the lectures were more important than [a] book.' Manfred Henningsen, Eine Mischung aus Schlachthof und Klapsmhle, Einleitung zu Eric Voegelin,' Hitler und die Deutschen ( Munich : Wilhelm Fink, 2006), 38.

[9] Personal communication, 11th July, 2007 .

[10] Eric Voegelin, Remembrance of Things Past,' in: Published Essays 19661985, Edited by Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 305.

[11] Sndor Mrai, Memoir of Hungary 19441948 (Budapest: Corvina, 1996), 38687. 

[12] Eric Voegelin, The German University and the Order of German Society: A Reconsideration of the Nazi Era,' in: Published Essays 19661985, Ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1990), 3.

[13] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 2: 1918 1956, Parts III and IV (London: Collins, 1976), 13435.

[14] Ausschnitte aus der Vorlesung vom 15. Mai 1968, 8. It's interesting to note that when Max Weber in 1920 protested the mild sentencing of Count Anton von Arco-Valley for his murder of Kurt Eisner, his students forced him out of his lecture theatre. Cf. Michael Behrendt, Hans Nawiasky und die Mnchner Studentenkrawalle von 1931,' 1542, in: Die Universitt Mnchen im Dritten Reich, Aufstze. Teil I, Ed. Elisabeth Kraus ( Munich : Herbert Utz Verlag Mnchen, 2006), 17.

[15] Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 123.

[16] Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871 1881( Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2002).

[17] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Esquisses d'exil: Le grain tomb entre les meules II: 1979 1994 ( Paris : Fayard, 2005), 11819.   

[18] Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Vol. V: Religion and the Rise of Modernity, edited and introduced by James L. Wiser (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), especially 196204.

[19] Eric Voegelin, What is History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings, Eds. Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 14546.

[20] Eric Voegelin, The German University and the Order of German Society: A Reconsideration of the Nazi Era,' in: Published Essays 19661985, 16.

[21] Manfred Henningsen, Einleitung zu Eric Voegelin,' Hitler und die Deutschen, 19.