Voegelin and Jaspers

The claim that the philosophical concept of the person is in important respects distinctive to Western civilization must, I think, rest partly on a certain interpretation of the difference made by the development of Greek philosophy and Israelite religion in relation to the surrounding contemporaneous civilizations, and of the further reinforcement of that difference through the development that took place with the spread and consolidation of Christianity. The tenability of these interpretations in turn depends partly on how the import of what Karl Jaspers called die Achsenzeit is to be understood both in those surrounding cultures of the Near and those of the Far East.

Eric Voegelin made some pertinent objections to Jaspers’ analysis, but he too was well aware of early developments in the East which corresponded to the transformations in Greece and Israel. [Voegelin’s objections are briefly discussed in my introduction to my Swedish translation of Voegelin’s Wissenschaft, Politik und Gnosis: Vetenskap, politik och gnosticism (2001).]

Jaspers is certainly right that there are elements of individuality, individual freedom and social change in the East to some extent of a similar kind, although both their legitimation, as it were, and their extent were different. It is also, as we will see, quite possible that the West, through some of the problematic consequences of its specific developments – consequences of which Voegelin was in fact well aware – came in time to lose, in its too radical critical questioning, some of the strengths of traditional, pre-differentiational civilization.

But even if the validity and applicability of Voegelin’s analysis of the development from the cosmological, compact civilizations to the differentiated civilizations of Greece and Israel – an analysis which in important respects supplements that of Jaspers – should be limited to some aspects of the relation between the Near Eastern empires like those of Egypt and Mesopotamia on the one hand and Greece and Israel on the other, this analysis is still essential for the understanding of the development and specificity of Western civilization, and not least for the understanding of the development of the concept of the person. [The analysis is found primarily in the first three volumes of Voegelin’s Order and History (1956-87): Israel and Revelation (1956), The World of the Polis (1957), and Plato and Aristotle (1957); the last two volumes, The Ecumenic Age (1974) and In Search of Order (1987), contain mainly some revisions in the light of further developed theoretical perspectives.] It is in this perspective that what could perhaps be called the relative modernity of specifically Western premodernity must be understood.

Indeed, it seems Voegelin’s contribution is even more essential than he is himself aware. For all the depth, comprehensiveness, and historical detail of his analysis of this decisive cultural shift, it seems he does not place enough emphasis on individuality, on the person, and on freedom. In these respects, we still need to rely on Jaspers, with some developments and modifications of his line of analysis. For individuality, the person, and freedom can be seen to be inseparable from the differentiational experiences and their historical consequences which in other respects Voegelin delineates with such lucidity.

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