The Misery and Greatness of Liberal Democracy

The Apotheosis of Washington in the Capitol Rotunda (Architect of the Capitol)
Revisiting Eric Voegelin, who saw that the truth of our existence in Providence is what defines the scope of state power

Eric Voegelin is one of those thinkers many have heard of but few have closely read. That’s understandable; reading certain passages of the German professor can clog the brain, leaving you wondering if you even understand yourself. To make matters worse, he coined nearly ten pages worth of neologisms in Greek, according to Eugene Webb’s Eric Voegelin: Philosophy of History, each representing Voegelin’s attempt to get to the core of what philosophy and religious seeking really are. But this means he’s also sane. Voegelin wants to know the truth about God and man. Fogginess comes with that territory.

Notwithstanding his obscurity today, the ideas of this 20th-century political philosopher have been a staple in diagnosing the problems with utopian political thinking, and for good reason. After spending some time with the excellent and just-released Eric Voegelin Reader, I want to argue that he may be even more prescient now as liberal democracies in the West face a different, mostly internal set of threats. Voegelin has much to tell us about our existences as self-governing peoples.

The Modern Vocation of Anti-Politics
Modern political thinking, Voegelin informs us, isn’t quite political. It attempts to replace politics with eschatological criteria. He says the beginning of our problems lies in the insistence of our intellectuals that man can construct his own reality. Our intellectuals evince this closure of the soul, Voegelin observes, when they insist that they define meaning, including the meanings of words, from the inside out. This is the beginning of ideology, most noticeable in the refusal of the modern intellectual to submit to questioning. The premises of ideologists like Georg Friedrich Hegel or Karl Marx are dogmatic, Voegelin argues, because we are not permitted to interrogate the formulas of alienated existence that constitute the heart of their systems. According to Voegelin, determining which questions cannot be asked is central to understanding what part of reality has been deformed by the ideologist.

The ideologists’ Gnostic project of salvation-by-technique begins with their turn away from the divine ground. Modern ideology fundamentally rejects our consciousness of the human condition: that we are the in-between being, caught between mortality and immortality, God and the devil, angel and animal, good and evil, and thus are pulled to the divine ground for a full measure of ourselves. If man turns away from the divine ground, he may then conclude that man alone is the measure of the soul.

The good news is that the most sustained revolt against nature in the 20th century was Communism, and it failed spectacularly to overcome human nature. One piece of bad news is that we continue to struggle to know who we are and what our freedom is for. We no longer think that we have the ability to work toward the truth with others; conscience is now an exercise of the imperial, autonomous self. The consequences for political order, as Voegelin would have known, are ominous.

Where We Are Now
Our communications with one another, most notably in politics, are shrill and irrational precisely because of the reduction of reason that Voegelin diagnoses so well in his essay “In Search of the Ground.” We don’t actually believe we can reach a common good in our democracies, he writes, so we resist attempts to move us politically in one direction. Everyone, it seems, is trying to make suckers of us. But our resistance to ideological persuasion, Voegelin says, points to our inner desire for truth. Unfortunately, elite symbol-mongers of various stripes know this, and make their appeals even more intoxicating in order to secure our consent to their various financial, political, and social projects. We know enough to tell that something is wrong, but we don’t actually think we can articulate the goodness of our political existence to overcome the acids of progressive ideology.

Surely one problem of our converged elites is that they lack the soulful ability even to understand that political leaders should be accountable to both their friends and their enemies. Their ongoing ignorance about the different dimensions of relational human personhood, with its social, religious, familial, economic, and political aspects, has come to look like a lack of class, a lack so revealing that it authorized the brutish boor Donald Trump to push hard against them and be rewarded for it. But it’s more than that.

Returning to the plight of the liberal democracies, what enlightenment does Voegelin offer us? The severe threats the West now faces are largely pre-political, yet their consequences shape the public square in the most profound of ways:

(1) The crises of familial stability and the consequent failure in fertility, which has created numerous fiscal and economic problems, but ultimately indicates that a constituted people may no longer have the political will to live;

(2) A failure to instill in enough members of rising generations an education in the liberal arts and the consciousness of the full range of human depth and excellence across time; instead we have produced a demi-educated cohort of Millennials who are unable to weigh with informed seriousness the decisions in front of them;

(3) A deformed understanding of liberal-democratic order that measures its goodness by the standards of an absolutizing equality and humanitarian ethos;

(4) And a complacent, teleocratic insistence that history just moves in the direction of individual emancipation and material comfort.

Whatever the pretensions of political atheism — even its softer version, as expressed in John Rawls’s “public reason” — every society acts as if it embodies a truth that transcends the contemporary generation.

These factors constitute, more or less, the substance of social and political life in Western democracies today — including in the United States. Ours is a politics that is deeply insufficient because it refuses the drama of a free people actively shaping their future together. Instead, we are a part of a degrading political servility.

Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics demonstrates “the nature of representation as the form by which a political society gains existence for action in history.” His analysis also requires that we look deeply at the symbols that political societies use to demonstrate how they are representing “a transcendent truth.” Voegelin wants to remind us that something as worthwhile as a free and limited political order comes from somewhere other than human will, making the defense of such an order all the more significant and dramatic. He punctures our comfortable and flat secular theorizing about democracy. Whatever the pretensions of political atheism — even its softer version, as expressed in John Rawls’s “public reason” — every society acts as if it embodies a truth that transcends the contemporary generation. Just as Voegelin says that even agnostics live as if they were immortal, the same is true of political societies whose members want to surmount their inevitable generational decline.

The Truth about Liberal Democracy
In applying Voegelin’s basic political thought to our liberal democracies, we can say that while we formally separate religion and the state, we might consider humbly that our duties to the public good are built on what Voegelin terms “the anthropological principle.” Voegelin explicates this as a true order of the soul that is built on the love of divine wisdom, and it is that wisdom that reveals a new center in man open to transcendental reality. This true order of the soul is the source of public authority. Likewise, its eclipse or subjugation by, say, the ideology of progressivism — which looks only to empirical science, emancipated individuals, and ipso facto humanitarian sentiments as the sources of rights — can work only by dismissing the appeals of the anthropological principle. This principle ultimately means that man can be the measure of political society — so far so good, progressivism affirms — but, Voegelin adds, only because God is the measure of the soul.

This is not to invoke the specter of theocracy, or even the Catholic-Christian integralism we now read in the pages of First Things. What it does mean is that because man’s soulful existence is rooted in God, man becomes the ultimate authority over the public sphere, limiting and defining its powers in concord with other citizens. Voegelin, while open to the word of Christian revelation, never focuses on a specific creed. Instead he looks to that basic fact of man’s pull to the divine ground. In different ways, he finds this pull in Parmenides, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, and the Jewish prophets, as much as he finds it in Saint Paul the Apostle. With Israel, “the world-transcendent God reveals himself as the original and ultimate source of order in world and man.” The Jewish prophets, says Voegelin, become the scene of the battle between a divine-willed reality and the disorder of Israel’s collective existence. What is crucial, however, is that the human personality has become “the authoritative source of order in society.” Plato epitomizes the contribution of philosophy, which Voegelin sees arising from “the resistance of the soul to its destruction by society.” This resistance, however, emerges from and is formed by the soul’s participation in divinity. This fact makes possible the creation of a new order, one that can resist corruption and, for that matter, serve as the basis of political science.

Man must embrace the turn towards the divine in order to know the truth about himself, setting human existence above the city. The state cannot define man; rather it is man finding the truth of his existence in Providence that will define the scope of state power.

Our democratic political pursuits, with Voegelin’s tutoring, take on a more measured, but, I think, a more hopeful and firmer meaning. We love others and work for their best ends because we know they too are open to the divine ground. As such, our neighbors might be our competitors in many ways, but we deal fairly with them. Like us, our neighbors are working things out. In seeking our own ends, we realize that we must seek our neighbor’s ends as well. Politically, this means that there is a common good rooted in man’s nature. In reaching for the common good, we know that it cannot be a matter of simple materialism or autonomous individualism. The common good is not a matter of dollars and cents in spending programs, nor is it a matter of how small we can shrink the size of the state.

What the common good does require is that we think honestly and deliberatively about what human beings in our particular political order need to live well as free and dignified beings. At a minimum, Voegelin’s analysis of the existential truth of political order should lead us beyond the categorical absolutes and abstractions that inhibit our own liberal democracies. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” the Psalmist inquires, and that, I think, is also Voegelin’s question. Taking on this question would allow us to begin to understand why we embraced liberal democracy in the first place.

Richard M. Reinsch II — Mr. Reinsch is the editor of the online publication Law & Liberty and a co-author, with the late Peter Augustine Lawler, of A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty.


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