Differentiation, Person, and Freedom

In what Voegelin calls the cosmological civilizations, old institutions could not, because of the compactness of those civilizations’ forms, easily be replaced by new and better ones, distortions and corruptions were difficult adequately to correct, and new and deepened insight was hard to absorb. But differentiated culture could of course not do without institutional embodiment and transmission; all individuals do of course not have a sufficient awareness of transcendence or perception of the moral and spiritual alternatives between which they must choose.

The disappearance of the Greek city-states and the partial independence of Judaea, as well as the Eastern-inspired empires that succeeded them, made necessary a recourse to the individual for other reasons than and alongside the differentiational focus. But the differentiational focus did not in itself mean that the institutions, structures, and forms, the traditions of the immanent sphere, were necessarily overthrown and rejected. In some forms or with some interpretations, it certainly did have a problematic, destructively revolutionary potential, as we will see. Yet these in turn had distinct, additional historical causes.

As generally described by Voegelin, differentiation simply implied, in this respect, the acqusition of higher standards, of an improved faculty of discernment, and of the authority to exercise that faculty in accordance with the higher standards and with concrete results. Some traditional institutions, structures and forms were seen to have to be rejected, while others ought to be preserved. Many needed to be adjusted and modified. New ones had to be added. And of course the values of transcendence and the moral order themselves as now more adequately percieved had to be institutionally embodied and transmitted to the extent that this was possible.

Freedom was superior to the compulsion of compactness, but it was a result of the differentiation which distinguished more sharply the moral and spiritual alternatives. Orientation in accordance with the transcendent order of values increasingly became the moral obligation and the spiritual call of the individual, and to the extent that it was possible, and with constant critical vigilance and creative renewal, this order of values had to be embodied in and transmitted by the institutions of differentiated civilization no less than the values of the compact civilizations were in theirs. Given the unsuspendable element of relativity in human phenomenal existence and historical life, such embodiment, like the new moral judgement, could not be a matter of rigorous casuistic precision, but it could be a matter of general orientation.

The crucial difference is that in the differentiational order the individual is at least to some extent given the moral space of free choice. It is not that in a compulsory, compact, ancestral order, where everything simply is the way it always has been and has to continue to be that way, the orientation towards the true, the good, and the beautiful – or the partial immanent, pantheistic manifestation of those transcendent values, if that is indeed the way individuals in such a civilization are, and have to be, oriented – is not valid and right. Nor is it that other meanings of freedom – the meanings defended by Russell Kirk and others – are unreal, such as the freedom from vice and the proclivities to sin, the freedom of virtue and the spiritual life. [Kirk was criticized by Meyer for ignoring freedom in the strict sense of free choice; while both defended order, Kirk consistently placed it above freedom.] It is just that the free choice of virtue, the transcendent values, and the spiritual life adds a decisive value to their possession.

This dimension of freedom in the strict sense is a cardinal characteristic of a person-centered, differentiated culture and worldview, in contradistinction to all impersonalistic and pantheistic ones. Although in the differentiated society the transcendent order of values must be institutionally embodied and transmitted to the extent that it is possible, it cannot simply be enforced by a central, absolute power. While authority remains indispensable, the individual must be given the moral space which allows him both to criticize and correct the institutions if they deviate from proper embodiment and transmission, and to make his own choice between the embodied and transmitted or individually experienced values and their opposites. This means that the person-centered, differentiated society must also accept the possibility and, within reasonable limits with regard to the consequences, the actuality of the wrong choice.

Although the cultures and societies of early pantheism that Voegelin refers to were compact, they were nevertheless structured and ordered; in many respects, the process of differentiation is a gradual one, both Greece and Israel build on their legacy, there is no absolute break. Yet it is legitimate for some purposes to focus on specific manifestations of the result of the process in the Greek and Israelite societies and worldviews, shaped by their distinct forms of the experience of transcendence. For these purposes, they can be construed as ideal types, with regard to the way in which they were differentiationally structured and ordered.

In Greece, through Socrates and Plato, the differentiation came about through philosophical inquiry, intuition, speculation, and dialectic; the reality of transcendence in the form of an impersonal sphere of ideal value was at the same time an intellectual intuition and a reasoned conclusion. A higher form of reason here supplied the experiential material on which the discursive and logical reason was set to work. In Israel, it came about through revelation and existential and historical prophecy, and what was revealed and prophesied came to be perceived to have been transcendence in the form of a supreme personal God with moral qualities, who was understood to intervene in history and guide Israel and, increasingly, the individual Israelite, through individual providence.

The difference between these modes implied the differentiation of philosophy and religion as such, of reason and faith. But they had the differentiational experience of transcendence in common, and this set both of them apart from the immanent orientation of the preceding and neighbouring cultures. Thus the structures of their cultures and societies no longer formed a simple unity with the fixed, unchanging stability of the larger natural and cosmic order. Some structures were revealed as not inherently divine and necessary, and these could be remade in accordance with the experiences of differentiation, with a clearer awareness of the values of supracosmic transcendence and a more adequate understanding of the nature and existential situation of man. The humane proportionateness of the forms of classical Greek culture and the new forms of ethically oriented, monotheistic piety in Israel were the products of this differentiated reconceiving of ordered structure and of the cultures and mentalities that made it possible. [The differentiational character of classical humanism is well expressed in Babbitt’s imaginative renewal of it.]

With the new consciousness of dualities, the human individual acquired a new significance and status, and became the principal agent in a newly open and undecided spiritual and moral drama: history. At the peak of the differentiational development, the individual became the subject of moral choice and critical judgement, responsible for his eternal destiny, a seat of authority and the locus of the meaning of history. He was free not least through the deeper grasp of his own rational, moral, and spiritual nature as understood through higher intuition and dialectic or the revelation of his being created in the image of God. Man belonged to all levels of being, and his rational participation in or his relation as imago dei to the highest, transcendent level was constitutive of what, in time, came to be termed his personhood.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
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