Voegelin and the Conservative Intellectuals

Turning partly against the theoretical and, as it were, noetic shortcomings of historicism, Voegelin protested against the historian George H. Nash’s grouping of him with the conservatives in what Nash called “the conservative intellecutal movement. [The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (1976).] But the conflict between Voegelin and the Burkean historicists turned out in the long run to be much less sharp than that between the latter and Leo Strauss and his school. [The best philosophical articulation of a non-relativist historicist position – including the historicist criticism of the Straussians –  is that of Claes G. Ryn; for the fullest expression of his so-called ‘value-centred historicism’, see Will, Imagination and Reason: Irving Babbitt and the Problem of Reality (1986; 2nd ed., with the subtitle Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality, 1997). Ryn builds on the imaginatively renewed classicist humanism of Babbitt, and supplements it with a selective appropriation of elements of Benedetto Croce’s Hegelianism, in the footsteps of his Swedish teacher Folke Leander. All of this has been discussed in this blog in several posts in Swedish.]

Voegelin’s thought was not unhistorical and based on onesided abstractive rationalism, and the Burkeans were never historicists in the relativist sense; Peter Stanlis’ interpretation of Burke as a defender of classical and Christian natural law was immediately accepted by Russell Kirk, for instance, who always remained highly respectful of Voegelin, even after he became critical of Strauss. [Peter J. Stanlis, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (1958 (1986); on Kirk, see Nash, passim.]

Even more importantly, Voegelin himself, alongside Strauss, exercised such an influence on the conservative movement chronicled by Nash that the kind of historicism he criticized never came to define it. A remarkable example of this is Frank S. Meyer’s – one of the figures in the early National Review circle – attack on even the non-relativist historicists from a partly Voegelinian perspective.

Meyer’s criticism is significant in this connection, since despite the exaggerated and unfair nature of his charges, the proximity of his position to that of the Straussians, and his in some respects extreme libertarianism (although he famously spoke of and claimed to represent “fusionism”, i.e. the fusion of libertarianism and conservatism), it drew out, if only in a brief, sketchy, and essayistic manner, the implications of Voegelin’s analysis of differentiation with respect to the dimensions I have mentioned as to some extent actually missing in Voegelin’s own work. [Frank S. Meyer, In Defense of Freedom and Related Essays (1996); the relevant essays, ‘In Defence of Freedom: A Conservative Credo’ and ‘Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom’, were published in 1962 and in 1968 respectively. On Meyer, see Nash, passim.]

Awaiting a more detailed scholarly linking of the specific contributions of the Voegelinian analysis of differentiation to the understanding of personhood and freedom, I will therefore make some reference to and preliminarily elaborate on it – as well as on Jaspers’s insights and more general, long-standing historical interpretations – in my outline of some aspects of the general import of the Greek and Judaeo-Christian development.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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