The article from which I have taken the quotes below, appears in “The American Conservative“ linked here, I hope it will be found interesting enough to encourage reading of the entire articles, which poses some very deep questions both on the war on Iraq and today’s dilemma over Iran and its nuclear programme.
The earliest type of representation Voegelin described is that characterizing the ancient “cosmological empires,” such as those of Egypt and the Near East. Their imperial governments succeeded in organizing those societies for millennia because they were grounded in cosmic mythologies that, while containing cyclical phenomena like day and night and the seasons, depicted the sequence of such cycles as eternal and unchanging. They “symbolized politically organized society as a cosmic analogue… by letting vegetative rhythms and celestial revolutions function as models for the structural and procedural order of society.”
The basis of the Greek polis was the Hellenic pantheon. When the faith in that pantheon was undermined by the work of philosophers, the polis ceased to be a viable form of polity, as those resisting its passing recognized when they condemned Socrates to death for not believing in the civic gods. The Romans, a people not generally prone to theoretical speculation, managed to sustain their republican city-state model of politics far longer than had the Greeks but eventually the stresses produced by the spoils of possessing a vast empire and the demands of ruling it—as well as the increasing influence of Greek philosophical thought in Rome—proved fatal to that republic as well.
Voegelin contends that this medieval Christian order began to fracture due to the de-spiritualization of the Church that resulted from its increasing focus on power over secular affairs. Having succeeded in restoring civil order to Western Europe during the several centuries following the fall of Rome, the Church would have done best, as Voegelin saw it, to have withdrawn voluntarily “from its material position as the greatest economic power, which could be justified earlier by the actual civilizing performance.” Furthermore, the new theories of natural philosophy produced by the emerging “independent, secular civilization… required a voluntary surrender on the part of the Church of those of its ancient civilizational elements which proved incompatible with the new Western civilization… [but] again the Church proved hesitant in adjusting adequately and in time.”
The crisis caused by the Church’s failure to adjust its situation to the new realities came to a head with the splintering of Western Christianity during the Protestant Reformation and the ascendancy of the authority the nation-state over that of the Church.
The newly dominant nation-states energetically and repeatedly attempted to create novel myths that could ground their rule over their subjects.
The Western moral tradition developed primarily by the Greek philosophers and Christian theologians denied that a claim of good intentions was a sufficient defense of the morality of an action. This tradition held that anyone seeking to pursue the good was obligated to go further, giving as much prudent consideration to the likely ramifications of a choice as circumstances allowed. But in the Gnostic dream world, the question of whether the supposed beneficiaries of one’s virtuously motivated crusade realistically can be expected to gain or lose as a result of it is dismissed as an unseemly compromise with reality. What matters to the Gnostic revolutionary is that his scheme intends a worthy outcome; that alone justifies undertaking it.
While historical circumstances never repeat, Voegelin understood human nature and its relation to the eternal to create a similar ground in all times and places, an insight that surely is at the core of any genuine conservatism. Thus, it is our task to recreate, in our own minds, the brilliant advances in understanding the human condition that were achieved by such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. Those advances serve as the foundation for our efforts to respond adequately to the novel conditions of our time. Voegelin’s message is one that any thoughtful conservative must try (to) heed.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.