Voegelin Forum Submission

Our colleague, Fritz Wagner, has been very helpful in citing works and passages from writings of Eric Voegelin during a time when I am completing a book on American democracy and the phenomenon of “Celebrity.”  That effort titled, Can This Country be Saved? examines the fragility of democracy in America as seen in the election of a television “celebrity,” Donald Trump.

As always, both Fritz and I fall back upon the writings of Eric Voegelin whom we encountered in classes at Notre Dame.  His influence has shaped how we think about reality. For that reason, I contacted Fritz to ask his opinion on a problem in religion and philosophy that I discuss in a chapter on the Medieval in a new book I am completing.

In my 2015 study titled The Conservative Rebellion published by our colleague, Bruce   Fingerhut at St. Augustine’s Press, I account for what I was taught by the men in the Government program at the University of Notre Dame that included Eric Voegelin, Gerhart Niemeyers and Stanley Parry. (pp. 42-68)

The works of political philosophy,   history, theology and literature that I read with them from Abraham and Moses in ancient Israel, through the Presocratics and Greek tragedian to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine in 410 AD were world-shaking in their importance. But, I did not feel a personal familiarity with them as I do with the Medieval men and women I encountered in developing Chapter 2 which I titled, “How We Got Here.”

In that Chapter I attempt to recover for a new audience, the Western philosophic  tradition in some forty pages that examine Ancient Israel, Ancient Greeks and Romans, Christianity and The Middle Ages.

A citation from Voegelin’s works on St. Thomas, that Fritz directed me to read,  reveals why I have that “personal familiarity” with the men and women of the Medieval era and addresses the reason why in my new book I ask whether  democracy in America can survive.

In “Chapter 2,” I reprise the truths we discovered (with Eric) from ancient Israel    to Augustine, and I examine what the “Founding Fathers,” or technically, the “Framers” of the Constitution learned from antiquity. These men were not philosophers (though James Madison was taught by John Witherspoon at the    College of New Jersey) and none fully appreciated the contemplative life that             engendered the political wisdom of the ancient Greeks.

Aristotle spoke of constitutions and Plato of the best regime from the perspective of men for whom humanity was not universal. The understanding of the           universality of mankind which we derive from the Gospels compels us to    reconstruct their political prescriptions and introduce new concepts. We begin to        see that in St. Thomas and the divisions between the university schools and             some of the monastic orders, especially the Franciscans,  that disdained  knowledge and intellectual inquiry.

Resistance to that truth is built into us by our culture, the decline of the West which it embodies, and what, as I recall, Huizenga in 1919 called the ”waning” of   the Middle Ages. I’ll have to read his book again because the greater issue I address when examining the fragility of democracy in America is a “waning” of    the Christianity that shaped the West in the “Middle Ages.”

That reality was often addressed by the novelist Tom Wolfe when he observed, as he did on several occasions, that loss of faith in Christianity has cultural consequences.

We Americans of Fritz Wagner’s and my generation enjoyed a great life of  freedom and the benefits of a culture of a powerful country at its moment of decline. No revival is possible, our clergy is corrupted and we no longer ask the important questions.

I wasn’t raised a Catholic, so I had to become a quick study in ideas and thinkers  that Catholics absorbed before entering college. In my rush to comprehend what I did not know nor what I had not be taught, I discounted what I had been taught  in a little, three room, Missouri Synod Lutheran parish school.

While mastering the insights into St. Thomas that Eric reveals in this passage from Vol. 3, Order and History, and in Gerhart Niemeyer’s course on Modern Ideology, I began to appreciate the tension between Biblical faith and philosophic reason in the history of Protestant Christianity.

In Contra Gentiles, written to provide intellectual support for Dominican missions in Muslim Spain, St. Thomas observes that in refutation of errors with Muslims and pagans, “We must … have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent.”

Reason leads to the judgment that “There must therefore be some being by whose providence the world is governed.”[1]  And that “first author and mover of the universe is an intellect.”[2]

The end of intellect is truth and thus all men may “easily be able to have a share in the knowledge of God, and this without uncertainty and error.”[3]  That was not an assumption made by Plato or Aristotle.

Eric Voegelin observes:

The common man is … not left without knowledge. What the philosopher knows through the activity of his intellect, the layman knows through the revelation of God in Christ. The supranatural manifestation of the Truth in Christ and its natural manifestation in the intellectual as the mature man stand side by side.[4]

Not only has St. Thomas understood that reason is a universal capacity of all men, he carves out a place in Western consciousness for both philosophy and Revelation.

As a consequence of the Reformation, Protestant Christianity forgot, lost or, perhaps, rejected its connection to philosophy, and that presents problems in social order. The presence of Protestant colleges and universities–many self-styled as “Bible Colleges”–are a         constructive presence in American society. I think of Regent University, Liberty  University, Pepperdine and others affiliated loosely with Baptist, Lutheran,  Reformed and Methodist denominations. A problem I have encountered in working with them, however, is the way by which they collapse the limits that St. Augustine’s sees in the City of Man and assert a belief in a “doctrine” of the millennial future in which life in the City of God is brought into this world.

This is a longstanding aspect of American culture. Men of good character seeking to establish heaven on earth–have been on the     American scene for generations–as may be inferred from this list of “preachers” cited by Ernest Lee Tuveson.

Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Priestly, Richard Price, Timothy Dwight, Alexander Campbell, Henry Boynton Smith, Lyman Beecher, Mark Hopkins, Horace Bushnell, Enoch Pond and Josiah Strong.[5]

Their powerful religious message of redemption in the world has appeal to persons of a special disposition willing to breach the barrier between the City of Man and the City of God.

Fritz Wagner cites an interview with Eric Voegelin in Montreal in 1970 from Vol. 33 that may be useful in understanding this phenomenon. Titled “Woodstock, the Beatles and Community: Relating without God,” Voegelin refers to “the deculturation period when meditatiave (misspelling) practice disappears.”

To the extent that religious higher education in Evangelical and Fundamentalist higher education has lost its connection to the Western philosophical tradition, and seeks a transformation of reality in prophecies of the millennium, the seeds of social disorder are sown more deeply.

Voegelin observes, however, that even this shall pass: “Nothing lasts forever! We’ll get a religious revival; it will come. . . .” The sceptic in me says, “I’m not so sure,” though I am aware that classical philosophy is a subject in some Protestant seminaries even as it is replaced by “Social Justice” at Catholic institutions.

Perhaps the mere recognition that this is a problem will engender serious discussions or at least a response from fellow EVForum participants.

Richard J. Bishirjian, Ph.D.




            [1] Contra Gentiles, Book One: God, Anton C. Pegis trans. Online at          http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles1.htm#2.

            [2] Book One, par. 2.

            [3] Book One, chapter 4, par. 6.

                [4] Voegelin, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. III, History of Ideas, p. .

            [5] Tuveson, Redeemer Nation, pp. 53-54.