Archive | July, 2014

The Parting of Allies (Part I)

1 Jul


In 1953 Eric Voegelin wrote, “The true dividing line in the contemporary crisis does not run between liberals and totalitarians, but between the religious and philosophical transcendentalists on the one side, and the liberal and totalitarian immanentist sectarians on the other side.” Voegelin had the tendency to needlessly use rather difficult words, so let me explain this quote before moving onto my thesis.

There are some very nasty political orders that human beings can find themselves establishing. The “contemporary crisis” is the appearance of these political orders (like Nazism and Communism) and the potential for the recurrence of these malignities. According to Voegelin, people generally place “liberals” opposite “totalitarians.” However, Voegelin thinks this is a mistake. The West was mistaken to view WWII as a conflict between Liberal Democracy and Fascism. (After all, didn’t the Stalinists play a role in the defeat of Nazism?) Voegelin views this dichotomy as discredited and wishes to replace it.

Voegelin claims that some people resist these bad political orders (religious people and philosophers) while other people seek them out (totalitarians) or unwittingly hasten their arrival (liberals). So we have the good guys and the bad guys.

Voegelin calls the good guys “Transcendentalists.” Transcendentalists think that there is a human nature and that it is irrevocable. This group has two sub-groups: philosophers and religious people. The philosophers believe in certain higher truths and religious people believe in a God who gives order to the world, making it intelligible. While the two groups may not always agree, neither are relativists. They think the world is intelligible and that “ a right way of life” as well as “the wrong ways” are knowable because a standard can be found. There is a standard that “transcends” or “Stands Above” the flux of atoms, giving all thoughtful or reverent people a reference point.

People of the transcendentalist persuasion are naturally opposed to totalitarian-tyrannical governments because tyrannical governments seek to change or eradicate human nature.[1] Obviously the people who think that human nature will point us towards the right way of life do not wish for people to try to change that nature, much less eradicate it. And if they think change or eradication is impossible, they will still fear the attempt to do so because of the disastrous consequences of Communism and Nazism. As for religious people, if it is not human nature that points the way, it is a relationship with God that does. But perhaps there is something about the human that can only be satisfied with God.

Voegelin calls the bad guys “immanentist sectarians.” The bad guys want to “bring heaven to earth.” People who want this are the “immanentists” because they want to make “immanent” something they consider to be very good.[2] However, the connection between liberals and tyrants is more difficult to see than the connection between religious people and philosophers. Why does Voegelin think liberals aid tyranny, even if they do so unknowingly?

Tyrants are men for whom there is no moral right or wrong. They do not believe in justice. The only thing that matters is power – its acquisition and retention. The liberal does not “go in” for this sort of view. He may even denounce tyrannical men. However, the liberal lacks a coherent moral grounding. He cannot say why tyranny is unjust, just as he cannot say why one lifestyle is better than another. He refuses to make “value judgments” and as such paves the way for the men who take a world without inherent value seriously. Such men take things “for the way they really are” and try and get all the good things they can possibly get. Such men think: “Why not? It seems like only the suckers abide by moral rules. Their delusions deprive them of the greatest goods in human life., whereas I accumulate power and can use that power to get the things I want.”

Confusingly, the liberal inexplicably acts as if he does have “values.” Although he says “my way isn’t any better than your way” he elaborates a list of Rights to which “all men without exception” are entitled. In the face of Islamic views of women he is enraged, but it is hypocritical anger. Although hypocritically held, liberal values (The Rights of Man) are extremely potent – perhaps the most potent set of values in the history of man. We will see later how these values can lead to Tyranny. For now it suffices to recommend to the reader the chapter in Democracy in America titled, “On What Form of Despotism The Americans Have to Fear.”

So Voegelin’s quote has been sufficiently explained. Philosophers and religious people are the good guys because they have a standard. Tyrants and liberals are the bad guys because they lack such a standard. My thesis is the following: that the good guys are soon to part ways. The defection, I am sorry to say, will come from the religious people who will join the liberals. Christians and liberals, while collectively denouncing tyrannical men, will nevertheless help bring about the most horrific tyranny in the history of the world. Why are the good guys going to part ways?

Enlightenment philosophy injected a liberal-atheistic notion into Christianity in order to liberalize it. Christians were tricked into accepting a line of argument naturally inimical to religious belief. A good example of this trickery can be seen in John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. [3] In that letter, Locke injected into Christianity the liberal-atheist notion that wicked actions are a result of ignorance rather than a willful decision to act immorally. The implications of this notion are far reaching and Christianity has been slowly succumbing to the power of Locke’s argument. I will open this inquiry in my next post.


[1] Think of the “people” inhabiting Socrates’ ideal city in speech. As has been observed of the modern factory worker: while it is true that Tasks benefit from the dictum “one man, one task,” it is not at all clear that the Man benefits.

[2] Voegelin also attaches the epithet “sectarian” for no very clear reason. His work focuses much more on the “immanentist” aspect. It is not really worth speculating too much about what he specifically means by “sectarian.” It suffices to say they are probably “narrow” in their thinking and “self-serving” insofar as they don’t care for those outside the sect.

[3] I pick out Locke as an exemplar of Enlightenment Philosophy. I do not mean to imply that he accomplished the transformation of Christianity single-handedly.