(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1714, the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz asked a seemingly simple question which is at the heart of all serious explorations of human existence and the cosmos itself: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” In a very real sense, that is the question which Eric Voegelin confronted through his entire career, and it is the question which forms the core of Anamnesis.

In earlier phases of his career, Voegelin had approached Leibniz’s question by examining discrete, particular institutions or ideas which have occurred in history; in a sense, he sought his answers in specific examples or actions. By the mid-1940’s, however, Voegelin had begun to move away from this approach and had, instead, adopted the view that ideas as such are only embodied in human culture; he believed that societies, nations, even civilizations, are but part of the unfolding of human consciousness expressed as history.

In Anamnesis, Voegelin further links the evolving human consciousness both with the particular individual and with the mysterious and divine beginning and end of the cosmos as perceived by human beings. In this sense, the patterns of human history are subordinate to the larger patterns of human consciousness, and the question for Voegelin is how to link these two polar points.

In order to effect this linkage, Voegelin first found it necessary to clear away what he considered philosophical debris from the past two centuries. In the opening pages of Anamnesis, he dismisses those philosophical systems which define reality and consciousness only in the most narrow and limited terms; he rejects philosophers who he believes ignore everything they cannot explain or understand. For Voegelin, the questions concerning history, reality, and consciousness are as important as their answers. He believes that it is in questioning that human beings learn and grow:A consciousness of this kind is not an a priori structure, nor does it just happen, nor is its horizon a given. It rather is a ceaseless action of expanding, ordering, articulating, and correcting itself; it is an event in the reality of which as a part it partakes. It is a permanent effort at responsive openness to the appeal of reality, at bewaring of premature satisfaction, and above all at avoiding the self-destructive phantasy of believing the reality of which it is a part to be an object external to itself that can be mastered by bringing it into the form of a system.

In the first part of Anamnesis, Voegelin seeks just this sort of apprehension of reality and history. In his theory, individual human consciousness is shaped by events in human development, salient experiences that awaken human beings to what Voegelin calls the “awe of existence.” There is a clear...

(The entire section is 1146 words.)