The best known volume by Eric Voegelin is The New Science of Politics (1952). His discussion of philosophical and revolutionary “gnosticism” is the most popularized aspect of the work; however, in this post I want to examine the concept of “representation” that Voegelin uses to evaluate political cultures of both the past and modernity.
An interesting point made at the outset is the author’s critique of “value-free” science as it developed in the nineteenth century. According to Voegelin it “was created through the positivistic conceit that only propositions concerning facts of the phenomenal world were ‘objective,’ while judgments concerning the right order of soul and society were ‘subjective.'” As one student of the German thinker puts it, “the quality of life in a society is determined by the degree of order in the souls of the politically and socially predominant persons in it.”
This is the starting point for understanding Voegelin’s notion of “representation,” which is much more than ballot boxes and legislative assemblies. An outwardly “democratic” framework may not always adequately voice a society’s deeper aspirations. This was true for Weimar Germany (1919-33), which implemented republican mechanisms, but quickly deteriorated under the demands of leftist and fascist agitation. The government did not develop organically – the transition from monarchy to democracy was too abrupt. Likewise, overly optimistic attempts to impose Anglo-American regimes on Third World countries during the past century have frequently met with disaster.
If a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a representative ruler in the existential sense will sooner or later make an end of it; and quite possibly the new existential ruler will not be too representative in the constitutional sense.
He is undoubtedly alluding to Hitler, whose dictatorship he openly opposed. It is not that Voegelin disdains the classic western system. He also reminds us that the idea of making the individual, rather than the class or community, the primary unit of representation was unique to that heritage. Nevertheless, he notes, as do other critics of the Enlightenment model, that political science cannot begin “with a tabula rasa on which it can inscribe its concepts; it will inevitably start from the rich body of self-interpretation” and the “symbols” of religion and culture which precede everything else.
“Value-free” theories of order do not satisfy a basic human instinct for meaning and purpose. Any attempt to eliminate metaphysics creates an unstable vacuum. We see this even in those regimes which claim to radically overthrow tradition. “In Marxian dialectics… the truth of cosmic order [which underlay the empires of the past] is replaced by the truth of a historically immanent order.” In other words, totalitarian utopians impose new forms of worship, albeit inverted in their aim and perverted in their method.