Eric Voegelin Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Download Eric Voegelin Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Eric Hermann Wilhelm Voegelin (VURG-uh-lihn) is one of the most important political philosophers and historians of the twentieth century. He was born to Otto Stefan Voegelin, a civil engineer, and Elisabeth Ruchl Voegelin. In 1910 his family moved to Vienna, Austria, where Voegelin entered a Realgymnasium that had a strong emphasis on ancient and modern languages and the sciences. He completed his Ph.D. in 1922 at the University of Vienna in the political science program of the law faculty. From 1923 to 1924 he was an assistant in the law faculty at the university. In 1924 he received a Laura Spellman Rockefeller Fellowship, which allowed him to study in the United States and France for three years. In 1929 he was appointed as a Privatdozent and then, in 1936, as an associate professor of law at the University of Vienna. In 1932 he married Lissy Onken. In 1938 he was dismissed from his faculty position, largely because of his criticisms of the Nazi ideology on race. That same year he fled to the United States. From 1938 to 1939 he held short-term appointments at Harvard University and Bennington College, and in 1939 he became an assistant professor in the political science department of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Three years later he joined the political science department of Louisiana State University, where he was made Boyd Professor of Government in 1952. In 1958 he accepted an invitation from the University of Munich to hold its first chair in political science. In 1969 he returned to the United States as Henry Salvatori Distinguished Scholar at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California. He spent the remainder of his career at Stanford.

Of the five books Voegelin published in German before leaving Austria, two dealt critically with the idea of racial superiority and one examined the nature and character of the authoritarian state. The fourth introduced the concept of political religions, that is, social and political orders that purport to save humankind from economic, social, and political disorder, and the fifth examined American political and social theory. Voegelin’s reputation, however, rests primarily on the work published after his forced emigration. In 1952 he published The New Science of Politics, a criticism of positivistic social science which also introduced his concept of modern Gnosticism, the pervasive belief in the soteriological power of knowledge. In 1956 he published the first volume of his magnum opus, Order and History. This volume, Israel and Revelation, examined the concept of political order and disorder in the Ancient Near East. The second and third volumes, The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle, examined the experiential and theoretical developments in Greece that led to the creation of philosophy and political science as the cornerstone of the Western understanding of political order and disorder. Three more volumes were scheduled to appear in 1958 and 1959: the first, to be titled Empire and Christianity, was to cover the rise of multicivilizational empires through the end of the Middle Ages; the other two, “The Protestant Centuries” and “The Crisis of Western Civilization,” were to cover the twentieth century. Only the next planned volume, The Ecumenic Age, appeared, but not until twenty years later, in 1974, and a fifth volume, In Search of Order, was published posthumously, in 1987.

Three other important books appeared in the interval: Anamnesis contains a critical analysis of positivist science and a theoretical discussion of what a science of politics must encompass; Science, Politics, and Gnosticism develops the concept of later Gnosticism more fully; and From Enlightenment to Revolution provides a critical analysis of the eighteenth and nineteenth century efforts to establish a new science of society and history. When the fourth volume of Order and History did appear,...

(The entire section is 898 words.)