The New Science of Politics

By Eric Voegelin, 1952

This short book, originally called Truth and Representation, is, in my opinion, the greatest work of political philosophy produced in the twentieth century, and it has had a profound influence on me.  Voegelin examines societies by exploring the symbols they use to understand themselves.  The very self-consciousness of a people as a distinct group (of which the state is one expression) is one such symbol, the symbol of “existential representation.”  Whatever else they express, the public institutions of a society (e.g. the state) express the people’s existence as an organized group.  Of course, most societies see deeper meanings in their organizations than mere existence.  Ancient societies see themselves as part of a cosmic order, like the laws of nature or the motions of the stars.  This is the symbol of “cosmological representation”.  The ancient empires saw themselves as representatives of divine truth, and their expansion was thought to spread God’s order through the world.  It should be pointed out that Voegelin does not regard these symbols as illusions; still less does he see them as tools for the cynical manipulation of the populace.  These symbols really do represent the truth about man’s place in the world.  The order of being which he senses and tries to express through cosmological symbolism is real.  However, some symbols express the truth more precisely and more deeply than others.  Voegelin calls this advance from vague to more precise symbolism “differentiation”.  The next moment of differentiation came with the reimagining of society on moral lines in ancient Greece.  Rather than order in general, it was now thought that society should conform itself to the order of the soul.  At the same time, men began to understand themselves as beings confronted by the demands of morality and justice.  Voegelin calls this the “discovery of the soul” and the ideal state was thought to embody the truth of the soul (“psychological truth”).  The most complete articulation of the human condition to date came with the arrival of Christianity and its doctrine of grace.  Christianity is seen here as a differentiation of the truth of the soul, where now the soul is not only confronted by a divine standard of justice, but transformed through God’s initiative.  This introduced “soteriological” symbolism into society, so that a new organization, the Church, became the primary social embodiment of the truth of the soul.

There was a danger inherent in the new symbolism, however.  The state was almost entirely stripped of its sacral character.  There was no longer a “civic theology”, so the interests of a temporal polity no longer had any necessary connection to God or one’s soul.  Only the Church and the holiness of individual souls had this connection.  Many men could not stand to have ultimate meanings pushed to such ethereal realms; they demanded a more “solid” congress with the gods.  Thus arose Gnosticism, beginning with Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century, as an attempt to resacralize the temporal sphere.  According to Voegelin, the Gnostics attempt to immanentize the Christian eschaton by reimagining the Kingdom of Heaven as a future utopia to be constructed by human effort.  All modern revolutionary doctrines, particularly Marxism, can be seen as versions of this Gnostic fallacy.  The Gnostic utopia replaces heaven as the ultimate end of mankind, so that any crime or tyranny is justified in realizing it.  The burst of chiliastic energy released by Gnosticism may be credited with the rapid advances of the modern world, but they ultimately destroy their own foundation.  The Gnostic counterfeit of the Christian eschaton debases and falsifies the truth of the soul, and so it must ultimately erode the human spirit.

Any one page summary of this book will fail to do justice to it.  One finds in its pages a study of Sir John Fortescue’s theory of the state, an account of Mongol emperor Kuyuk Khan’s correspondence with the pope, an analysis of Aeschylus’s play The Suppliants, a comparison of Varro, Cicero, and Augustine on civil theology, etc.  Most importantly, it should convince readers on two essential points:  to understand a society one must understand its symbolization of truth, and understandings of society are intimately connected to understandings of the soul.

7 Responses

  1. […] The New Science of Politics by Voegelin […]

  2. […] of patriarchs is not what a Voegelin or “bonald” reader would be led to expect.  In The New Science of Politics, for example, we start with “existential representation” (Jacob, in this case), from […]

  3. […] is first of all a people’s symbol of itself, the embodiment and voice of the collective (what Voegelin called society’s “existential representation”).  But the government also […]

  4. It has had also a profound influence on me. After that I read Voegelin extensively.

  5. […] communes, businesses, national estates, and, most notably, the state itself.  Eric Voegelin identifies the innovation of mystic body language (above and on top of the usual organic metaphors) in Sir […]

  6. […] and splendor of Christian culture.  Rejecting Whig history is only the beginning of thought.  Eric Voegelin has taught us to study the symbols through which a society represents itself and its worldview.  I […]

  7. […] and splendor of Christian culture.  Rejecting Whig history is only the beginning of thought.  Eric Voegelin has taught us to study the symbols through which a society represents itself and its worldview.  I […]

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