Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1146
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 reference here to a kind of metaphysical transcendence. Clearly, Voegelin believes that individual consciousness is developed because of a certain “tension” unique to human beings. In his theory, this tension comes from the fundamental state of human beings, longing for fulfillment of some transcendental goal yet lodged here in what Voegelin calls the “metaxy.”
The word is taken from Plato and means “the between.” In both Plato and Voegelin, it is a philosophical symbol of the experience of human existence, caught between higher and lower levels of reality: between human imperfection and divine perfection or between knowledge and ignorance. The fact of existing in this metaxy creates the tension felt by humans, and it is this tension that causes consciousness to grow and evolve.
The specific theater for the evolution of human consciousness is in history. In earlier works, Voegelin sought to connect specific historical events to his developing theories. In Anamnesis, however, he is more concerned with the broader patterns, often repeated, which form the total growth of human consciousness, especially in its perception and use of symbolic forms. In Voegelin’s view, humans cannot directly share their experience of reality; instead, they must share symbolizations of their experiences. These symbolizations come in various forms: myths, language, political and social institutions. The sum of these shared symbols is human history. These symbols, which produce nations and societies and civilizations, are created in “the between,” or Plato’s metaxy.
In the second part of his book, Voegelin addresses the theme of history, and it is clear that his ultimate definition of history is that of a mystery in the process of revelation. The revelation comes through specific developments in human consciousness that perceive, and in part create, a reality that is not external but actually part of that consciousness. An example of this kind of development would be Aristotle’s consideration of what is “right by nature.” The concept of “right by nature” has no meaning outside a developing human consciousness which can conceive of such possibilities.
Voegelin believes that Aristotle and Plato demonstrated this relevant point and that the clear perceptions of classical philosophy were later lost. Much of Voegelin’s task has been to clear the accretions of later philosophers who imposed a “second reality,” or an elaborate but limited system which masked the true reality. Several of the essays in the central section of Anamnesis are concerned with explaining and explicating the terms used by Plato and Aristotle precisely for this reason: so that earlier philosophical insights can be recovered and further progress made.
There is a second reason for Voegelin’s concern with philosophical terminology. Voegelin believed that language is a prime form of man’s symbolization of reality; philosophical language, in particular, was to him a mediating instrument between the external cosmos and the human consciousness. For this reason, Voegelin was interested in restoring philosophical language to its most precise and exact form, thus allowing it to become again a tool to help humans correctly gauge reality.
Anamnesis concludes with the conjunction of Voegelin’s two earlier concerns, the fact of human consciousness and the process of history. Both of these phenomena are created by the tension of human existence, and this tension is caused by man’s relationship to what Voegelin terms the “divine ground.” By this Voegelin means that supreme, transcendent reality which humans can sense yet neither define nor completely grasp. This transcendent reality is the origin of the world and of the state of metaxy, or “the between,” in which humans find themselves.
Finally, this process works on both an individual and cosmic level. Human consciousness is formed because of the tension between worldly existence and the divine ground—that is, the realization of the gulf between ignorance and knowledge, mortality and immortality, the sacred and the profane. This consciousness expresses itself in symbols of numerous sorts, from words to governments, and, according to Voegelin, it is the presence of these symbols which becomes history. It would seem then that Voegelin has answered Leibniz’s question: There is something called history because that is how and where the cosmos achieves its own consciousness through human beings.