Sense and Nonsense: The Meditative World of Eric Voegelin

At supper at Xavier Hall at the University of San Francisco last summer, I was talking with Father William Monihan, a man who knows as much about books as anyone I know and whose annual symposia at USF are so stimulating. Somehow, he had just come into contact with Eric Voegelin and was, as we all should be, considerably excited by the discovery. I had mentioned Ellis Sandoz’s marvelous book, The Voegelinian Revolution. Monihan brightened to recall, “Yes, he was at the service at the Memorial Chapel at Stanford University after Voegelin had died in Palo Alto the previous January.” In fact, Monihan told me, he made a tape of the whole service, which he thought very moving. He let me listen to it, and it was a powerful experience, this Memorial for Eric Voegelin. Curiously, Father Monihan remarked, and this rather astonished me, there were only about forty people at this occasion. Here in supposedly one of the great universities of our time, certainly one of its greatest thinkers is eulogized and but few of the resident intellectuals show up. I found that both ironic and indicative of the distance most professional thinkers really are from the reality that counts.

The Memorial Service (Feb. 4, 1985) was very beautiful on tape, powerful. Four brief statements of Voegelin’s life and influence were read by Voegelin’s friends or students: Jurgen Gebhardt from Munich, Gregor Sebba from Emory University, William Havard from Vanderbilt (whose statement was read by Eugene Webb of the University of Washington, who made some touching remarks of his own), and finally Ellis Sandoz from Louisiana State University. The language of the service was elegant English; Scriptural passages which Voegelin used often were recited, from Ezechiel and John. The second movement from Schubert’s Ninth Symphony was played, as was the second movement of Schubert’s Quartet #14 in D. Father Gerhart Niemeyer, who has done so much good work on Voegelin, was likewise there.

Professor Havard noted that Voegelin was not a “spiritual father” to his students, but properly a philosopher who saw his life as one in the pursuit of truth, of the contemplative life as such. For Voegelin, life was a preparation for death, not a despair at extermination or a desire for praise or recognition. The tape Father Monihan made of the service was clear and distinct; one had a sense of great dignity and solemnity, conducted by gentlemen whose lives had been deeply affected by Voegelin. One sensed, while listening, a special elevated tone corresponding to the status of existence which Voegelin’s work and life demanded of us all. In a brief Memorial in Modern Age (Summer, 1985), John Hallowell from Duke University remarked that “Voegelin differs from most modern thinkers in that he takes God seriously.” I wondered if that was not why there were so few at his memorial at Stanford, since it is the intellectual who has the most difficulty with the whole of the reality that is

Professor Havard, I believe, had noted the little book Conversations with Eric Voegelin, published in Canada in 1976. Father Monihan told me I could borrow his copy, but I told him I preferred to own it. He told me he bought his copy at the theology book store in Berkeley. But when I went over there one morning, they were sold out. Since then I have managed to borrow a copy from Father Peter Flemming. I can see that my students at Georgetown will soon be reading this marvelous little book.

Voegelin, to put it mildly, was not convinced that the genuine life of reason could be pursued in a university today. “I knew ten years ago,” he said, “that our universities, not only in America but in Europe, were completely rotten: brothels of opinion, no science, nothing. But I could not have predicted that five years later, in 1965, we would already have an open outbreak which recognizes that the universities are dead.” Voegelin thought God was always about, drawing at least some few to Himself, whatever the condition of the world. And he thought intellectual death was the definition of reason that excluded in principle our relation to the tension in each of us caused by God’s real presence.

Voegelin, to me, has seemed always to be ambiguous about Aquinas, even when Voegelin talks like him, as he often does. Voegelin’s notion of “revelation” at times seems so “ecumenical” that nothing is excluded except those who suspect some revelations are not authentic. “Many Greek poets and philosophers have given their revelation-experiences. They are conserving the structure of reality, while Thomas is dealing with the salvational problem in reality: salvation out of the structures.” One is hardpressed to know why Aquinas did not deal with both of these elements.

When asked why the contact with truth is so obscured, both our attraction to it and our being each drawn by the Divine itself, Voegelin remarked, “The practice of meditation has disappeared as a cultural factor . . .  I can quite definitely see that I got the practice of meditation by reading Upanishads, by reading the Symposium of Plato, by reading the Confessions of St. Augustine. These are the classics of meditation to which one has to turn . . . ” Obviously, Voegelin was right to sense what was lacking. He heard the same God in all voices, though perhaps not equally clearly.

“You can’t control openness toward transcendence because that is controlled by God. Part of what openness towards transcendence means is that you know that you cannot control the relation: If you think you can, you have transformed your understanding of man from what I call a theomorphic conception to an anthropological conception: a human controller. That is an ideology.”

Voegelin’s search for the order within being characterized his life. Again and again he asked students, readers, and audiences, “why is there something, not nothing, the problem of existence; why is there this thing and that, the problem of essence.” Gregor Sebba noted Voegelin’s principle, “you cannot find God unless you seek him, and you cannot find him unless you already have him.” And Ellis Sandoz recited a passage from Psalm 25 which Voegelin loved, “O hear, my soul, and deliver me, let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in Thee.”

In a passage from Aquinas, which Dante Germino is fond of citing, Voegelin wrote, “There is no revelation lying around somewhere. Revelation is a process in history. Thomas has the fundamental formulation in the Summa, Part III: Christ is the Head of all mankind from the beginning of the world to its end.” When we do not accept this—and it is a choice—we construct the world as if this were not true. And when we actively formulate what this means, we become men “in revolt,” who structure the world on our own premises and powers. Voegelin always suspected that Christians, or post-Christians in particular, were especially tempted to do this, and here he was most prophetic. Indeed, we could say, on this basis, that we live in a time—because of a loss of meditation?—in which Christians, especially clerics, are tempted to embrace anthropological myths and ideologies, to construct a world wherein there would be “faith and justice,”—a faith and justice based not on what is, but on “man-in-revolt” against the structures of being. The absence of the cleric and the don at the death of Voegelin at Stanford was not, then, an accident. When the light did shine in the darkness, the darkness chose not to comprehend it. This is the essence of our era.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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