Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order

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Few political philosophers of the twentieth century can lay claim to as much original brilliance as can Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), the Austrian-born philosopher who after fleeing the Nazis taught for most of his career at Louisiana State University. In this introduction to Voegelin's thought, Michael Federici synthesizes Voegelin's massive corpus of work, making the contributions of this important philosopher readily accessible to the interested scholar and layman.Armed with amazingly broad learning in numerous ancient and modern languages, Voegelin's philosophical project was to restore order in human souls and human societies in a century of civilizational catastrophe. For Voegelin, the "crisis of the West," reflected in the horrific wars and social chaos of the twentieth century, was the result of the gradual detachment of the our theoretical language from the unique, historical encounters with transcendence that lay at the foundation of Western civilization. As Federici shows, Voegelin undertook two massive efforts to provide evidence for this thesis in his five-volume Order and History series and in his posthumously published multi-volume History of Political Ideas.The ultimate goal of Voegelin's project, Federici argues, was to liberate modern men and women from the grasp of ideologies, which Voegelin characterized as simplified constructions of reality that always distorted and obscured the truth. Hence, Voegelin was especially critical of Nazism, Marxism, gnosticism, and scientism. But he was also a critic of doctrinal Christianity and conservatism, positions that Federici explains in detail. Federici also introduces the reader to Voegelin's difficult but influential philosophy of consciousness, and he includes a helpful glossary of Voegelinian terms.Readers intimidated or puzzled by Voegelin's often daunting prose will find Federici's volume, the fourth entry in ISI's Library of Modern Thinkers series, an invaluable guide to one of the twentieth century's most imposing-and most impressive-philosophical minds.
About the Author

Michael P. Federici is Associate Professor of Political Science at Mercyhurst College and Co-Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the National Humanities Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Challenge of Populism.
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What People Are Saying

Ellis Sandor
This concise and authoritative introduction to Eric Voegelin's philosophy will be invaluable for the reader approaching his thought for the first time and be of interest to the experts as well. It is lucid, cogent, and insightful. Federici takes account of much of Voegelin's published work and of some of the important and extensive critical literature. His treatment of such complicated questions as Voegelin's relationship to philosophy or to Christianity or to political conservatism (among other issues) is balanced, lively, and clarifying. Eric Voegelin deserves a prominent place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in understanding the mind of perhaps the premier political philosopher of the last century, the great diagnostician of the crisis of our times. Warmly recommended.
— Director of Louisiana State University's Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies.
Daniel J. Mahoney
This lucid and intelligent book provides a much-needed introduction to Eric Voegelin's rich and demanding corpus. It will be indispensable for introducing a new generation to one of the most significant political philosophers of the age.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781882926756
  • Publisher: ISI Books
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 285
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Eric Voegelin

The Restoration of Order
By Michael P. Federici

ISI Books

Copyright © 2007 Michael P. Federici
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-882926-75-6


Writing a book about Eric Voegelin's political theory is a challenging task. The author must explain the philosophical and historical substance of Voegelin's work, capture the importance of his contribution to scholarship and to the restoration of Western civilization, and evaluate criticisms of his political theory. Several factors, including the volume of his scholarship, make forming these objectives into a cogent study of his political philosophy a formidable project. Voegelin wrote twenty-one books and more than one hundred scholarly articles that together mark the intellectual and existential journey of a seminal twentieth-century philosopher. The philosophical density and historical scope of his work add to the challenge of explaining and analyzing his political theory. Moreover, there are several dimensions to Voegelin's intellectual achievement, including a history of political ideas, a new science of politics, a philosophy of order and history, and a philosophy of consciousness.

The volume, scope, theoretical complexity, and multidimensionality of his work make it difficult to convey the meaning of his political philosophy intricately and to connect all its aspects in a brief book. To review as much of Voegelin's political theory as possible, and to introduce it to a wide audience, it is necessary to be expository when discussing some parts of his work and analytical when discussing others. This book focuses on the central components of Voegelin's political philosophy and tries to leave esoteric issues regarding his work to more specialized scholars.

Whatever the level of analysis, explaining Voegelin's political philosophy requires both the exposition of his ideas and an understanding of the context in which they were created. The context for Voegelin's political philosophy includes the political and historical circumstances in which he wrote and the evolution of his scholarly work as a whole, with its shifts in emphasis and its development of new philosophical vistas. It is also important to have some grasp of Voegelin's biographical profile, since his political philosophy was shaped by personal encounters he had with totalitarianism and other spiritually suffocating ideologies.

But as complex as Voegelin's political philosophy may seem, there is a common thread running through his work. Whether Voegelin was focusing on the philosophy of history and order, the philosophy of consciousness, the race problem in Germany, or the history of political ideas, his primary concern was to engage in the open philosophical search for the truth of existence. The responsibility of political philosophers who make this search their lifework is to articulate the truth of existence and defend it from untruth. The search for truth and order is always met with resistance-not only in society but in the imagination of the philosopher who searches for ways to articulate truth by sifting through alternative conceptions of reality (OH V, 53-54). The search cannot take place outside the war in the imagination between competing perceptions of reality. The presence of untruth is a part of the structure of consciousness that must be confronted and overcome. Voegelin's search for the truth of existence included resisting prevalent ideological distortions, diagnosing their spiritual causes, and tracing their historical development. This approach put Voegelin at odds with the dominant forces of his age.

The Contemporary Context

Our own intellectual and cultural context adds to the difficulty of explaining Voegelin's political philosophy. Voegelin's work is not well known outside a relatively small group of academics and their students. Yet within this domain Voegelin's influence is impressive. His work has inspired a growing secondary literature and his political philosophy has been applied to a variety of topics in a broad range of academic fields. His philosophy of history and philosophy of consciousness have influenced the work of thinkers who are significant in their own right. Among these are Gerhart Niemeyer, Flannery O'Connor, David Walsh, Marion Montgomery, Russell Kirk, James L. Wiser, Ellis Sandoz, Dante Germino, and Jürgen Gebhardt. Further evidence of Voegelin's influence is the creation in 1987 of the Voegelin Institute at Louisiana State University and the establishment of the Centre for Voegelin Studies in the Department of Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester. But while Voegelin's work has influenced several first-rate scholars, his political theory has not found its way into the broader culture.

Several factors have contributed to the obscurity of Voegelin's work. For one thing, as Ellis Sandoz notes, Voegelin made few concessions to those readers who were not prepared to intellectually digest difficult historical and philosophical material. While Voegelin did write some essays intended to be accessible to a wider audience, until recently many of these works were either unpublished or only available in German. In addition, the recent secondary literature on Voegelin tends to focus on his deeper theoretical work. Another factor that contributes to Voegelin's obscurity is that while he lectured at some of the leading universities in America and Europe, he spent a good part of his academic career at Louisiana State University, a school that did not provide Voegelin with institutional prestige. Furthermore, because Voegelin was so intent on working his way through a broad range of historical and philosophical sources, he generally did not take on Ph.D. students. Consequently, he has not benefited from the activity of dozens of graduate students passing on his ideas to new generations of scholars. Finally, Voegelin was often misunderstood or ignored because his political philosophy was intellectually alien to conventional ideological dispositions. Not only did the New York Times fail to review even one of Voegelin's books while he was living; its obituary of Voegelin conveys no sense of his contribution to scholarship, his intellectual genius, or his imaginative vision.

Time did publish a feature five-page article on Voegelin's analysis of gnosticism, which appeared about a year after the publication of The New Science of Politics. The context for the article is interesting, and it provides some sense of how Voegelin's work was perceived by the broader culture in a rare case of its popular dissemination. In the March 9, 1953, issue of Time, which celebrated the magazine's thirtieth year of publication, the editors put forth a list of "convictions" and a "birthday thesis" based largely-and remarkably-on Voegelin's analysis of gnosticism. The portion of the article that dealt with Voegelin's work was a rough sketch of his understanding of gnosticism and how it has influenced the evolution of Western thinking and politics. The title of the article, "Journalism and Joachim's Children," was a reference to the thirteenth-century Calabrisan monk Joachim of Fiore (Flora), who figures prominently in Voegelin's analysis of the Western cultural crisis.

The response to the article was, as one might expect, varied. In the following two issues, Time ran several related letters to the editor. Some were comical: "I find your recent gobbledygook about Gnosticism revolting. You and the Pope can play God if you want to, but whether or not man can ultimately attain perfection is far beyond the depth of either of you, let alone anything to do with newsreporting. ..." Other readers applauded Time. One reader thanked the editors for the "absorbing synopsis of Political Scientist Voegelin's thesis." Another called the article "[t]he most realistic and mature analysis of the world situation to appear in a leading magazine." But, in general, if the almost three dozen letters to the editor were any indication of the general public's ability to understand Voegelin's work, it seems probable that popular news magazines were not the best outlet for disseminating Voegelin's political philosophy.

Further evidence of the problems one faces when explaining Voegelin's political theory is the fact that he was classified by critics and supporters alike as belonging to one or another of a broad spectrum of categories. He refused, however, to identify himself with ideological labels, and therefore there is no ready-made ideological group prepared to embrace his political theory. His political philosophy tends to attract individuals who are more contemplative than they are political, and just where Voegelin's political philosophy fits in contemporary political categories is not clear. Even today, while his followers tend to be politically and intellectually conservative, they include individuals with a broad range of political intuitions. This may be attributed, in part, to Voegelin's insistence on an open philosophical search and his rejection of political ideology. But it can also be attributed to an often lamentably high degree of abstractness in his political theory.

Chapter 1 will give readers some indication of who Voegelin was and will explain the context of his scholarly work. Later chapters emphasize Voegelin's political philosophy. It may be that this emphasis on his political writings will leave some readers with the impression that Voegelin's work on the philosophy of consciousness is less important, or that there is a lack of continuity between his political philosophy and his philosophy of consciousness. To a certain extent this implication is intentional. Voegelin's work on the philosophy of consciousness is, no doubt, a genuine achievement, and in some respects it represents a natural evolution and culmination of his work. Voegelin believed that the crisis of the West demanded a transformation of consciousness. Yet there is an extent to which his philosophy of consciousness is distant from politics, and, unlike most of his earlier work, it has less direct relevance to political life. Furthermore, Voegelin's work on the philosophy of consciousness is highly abstract and philosophically dense-it is difficult to imagine a philosophy of consciousness being otherwise. Thus, for most beginning students of Voegelin's work, his philosophy of consciousness is not the place to start. Voegelin's political writings serve as the best introduction to his political theory. Before going on to explain and examine that theory in detail, it is worth introducing the major components of Voegelin's thought.

The Restoration of Engendering Experience

Faced with widespread and profound cultural, social, and moral decay, Voegelin theorized that the West had lost its consciousness of certain historical experiences vital to the formation of political, social, and existential order. In Voegelin's terms, historical experiences and their corresponding language symbols illuminated the truth of reality. Language was necessary to articulate "experiences of order" and preserve them over time, since such experiences were rare. The truth of existence embodied in experience was an ordering force because it attuned the open soul to the Agathon (the Good). And a just political and social order, like the just soul, is dependent on this sort of attunement.

Unfortunately, historical experience cannot have an ordering effect if the language symbols that preserve it lose their original meaning, as occurs when they are transformed or obscured by ideological movements. Such movements act to detach language symbols from their engendering experiences. To regain consciousness of the engendering experiences-and in turn to restore social, political, and existential order-the philosopher must "reactivate the engendering experience in his psyche" and "recapture the truth of reality living in the symbols." In particular, the language symbols of myth, revelation, history, and especially philosophy must be restored to luminosity-that is, reattached to the historical experiences that they attempt to convey-'before rational discussion of the questions of order can occur. This recovery of meaning requires the philosopher to recreate the experience imaginatively in an act of meditation and to create "reflective symbols" that articulate the truth of the "original symbols." This understanding of the modern crisis as a loss of consciousness of symbols and experience helps to explain why Voegelin turned to the philosophy of consciousness in his later work.

Contemporary usage of the word "philosophy" illustrates the consequences of detaching language symbols from their engendering experiences. "Philosophy" has become, in common usage, to mean the same as "ideology" or "value system." But philosophical clarity depends on distinctions such as that between philosophy and knowledge (episteme) on the one hand and ideology and opinion (doxa) on the other. The contemporary use of philosophy and ideology as synonyms implies, for instance, that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle should not be regarded as truth-claims about reality, but simply as two ideologies among many that individuals are free to choose based on their personal preferences or political interests. The political implications of the symbol "philosophy" becoming opaque are evident in the emergence of "spin doctors," a character type that Plato classified as philodoxers (lovers of appearance and opinion). Their intentional distortion of reality erodes the ability of individuals to see life for what it is. Modern philodoxers draw their arguments from the common misconceptions of the day. In such an environment politics is not a search for either truth or the foundation of order based on that truth. Politics is rather a power game played by philodoxers who sell their opinions with the Sophistic understanding that what matters is merely power, not truth. This context makes it difficult to establish the existence of truth (aletheia) about reality, particularly transcendent reality. Indeed, references to an objective reality are now usually met with deep existential and intellectual skepticism, if not complete intolerance. Voegelin classifies this reaction to philosophical insight as "narcissistic closure." He believes that it is characteristic of the spiritual alienation and estrangement of modern man (PE 1966-1985, 1-35). Meaningful discussion cannot take place under such circumstances because the preconditions for rational debate do not exist (PE 1966-1985, 36-51).

Because important language symbols have lost their meaning, Voegelin found it not only necessary to restore the original meaning of old symbols, but also to create new terms to explain philosophical issues. Examples of Voegelin's new symbols are "logophobia" (fear and hatred of philosophy) and "pseudological speculation" (nontheoretical speculation-speculation that is closed to aspects of reality because of adherence to rigid ideological preconceptions such as that seen in "spiritually diseased" thinkers like Karl Marx). Voegelin created these terms to explain the spiritual depravity that engenders ideological systems. The creation of new terms and concepts was a necessary part of creating or restoring a new science of politics, the science of classical political philosophy, which was able to effectively analyze and diagnose the modern crisis. The combination of unfamiliar philosophical terms and neologisms opened Voegelin to the charge of being pedantic or esoteric. But he was neither. Upon careful study of Voegelin's political theory, it becomes clear that the use of unfamiliar philosophical terms and neologisms was warranted by the nature and context of his political philosophy. Penetrating to experiential meaning and the truth of reality in an age of deforming ideologies required the reactivation of the meaning of symbols that articulated the experiences of reality, and the creation of new ones to describe complex philosophical problems. Voegelin was not being intellectually vain in his terminology; he was attempting to genuinely describe reality and to restore political science.

Rejection of Dogma and Doctrine

Although Voegelin recognized the practical need for doctrine and dogma, he was philosophically opposed to the codification of the good as dogma, doctrine, or "ism." For Voegelin, the philosophical objective was to get beyond traditions and codifications of reality to the "predogmatic reality of knowledge" (A, 189), by which he meant the engendering experiences with reality that revealed the truth of the human condition. The problem was that experiences and symbols are apt to diverge when original experiences are formulated into doctrines. That is, the process of doctrinalization shifts the focus of human consciousness from experience to dogma. The separation of doctrine and experience is problematic because dogmatism and doctrinalization prohibit philosophical searching, since such searching is seen as infidelity to established principles.


Excerpted from Eric Voegelin by Michael P. Federici Copyright © 2007 by Michael P. Federici. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Biographical Sketch and Early Works
Chapter 2 The Crisis of the West
Chapter 3 The History of Political Ideas
Chapter 4 The New Science of Politics
Chapter 5 Philosophy of History: Order and History
Chapter 6 Philosophy of Consciousness
Chapter 7 Voegelin's Critics
Conclusion Voegelin's Contribution
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