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On Reason and Revelation

 The Correspondence between Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss*

by Yotam Hotam**


Introduction

 

In the last decade, we have witnessed an increase in scholarly interest in the relations between ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious,’ politics and theology, faith and political action. This increase in scholarly interest in the relations between politics and theology could be labeled as a ‘theological turn’ in research that echoes today’s global revival of religion on all political fronts.

It is against this background that past discussions on the relationship between the modern-secular world and its religious heritage have gained renewed relevance. In the following presentation, I would like to sketch, in broad lines, one such discussion concerning the relationship between political philosophy and religious experience, or between “Reason and Revelation” that preoccupied two leading twentieth-century political philosophers, namely, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss.

Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) was a Catholic political philosopher and a professor of Law in the 1930s in Vienna. Leo Struass (1899-1973), who is probably more familiar to most of you, was a German-Jew and one of the iconic figures of modern political thought. Both Voegelin and Struass were of the generation of German scholars who had to flee Nazism in the 1930s (Voegelin had found refuge in Luisiana State University and Struass landed eventually in Chicago in 1948). However, unlike their colleagues such as Horkheimer, Adorno, Arendt or Löwith, both scholars are considered to be conservative and therefore disputed political philosophers. As the historian Ian McAllister for example argued, Voegelin and Strauss, are considered to be founding fathers of the American neo-conservatism. Strauss in particular is the object of a recent debate concerning the alleged influence of his teachings on the political thinking that led to US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Historical research, therefore, emphasizes the common anti-modernist and anti-liberal aspect in these scholars’ writings. In opposition to this approach, however, I would like to demonstrate the political-theological aspect which deeply separated between them. Although they might have shared an anti-liberal (conservative) political conclusion, they were political-theological rivals.

            For this purpose, in the following, I present the Voegelin-Struass dispute over “Reason and Revelation”, meaning a dispute over the relationship between religious experience (revelation) and political philosophy (reason) with which humans construct their social and political order. I confine my discussion to the manner in which this dispute was expressed in their more than forty years long correspondence.[1] The correspondence between Voegelin and Strauss demonstrates that while for Voegelin a religious experience (revelation) informs political philosophy (reason), for Struass the two – reason and revelation – are disconnected. This dispute over reason and revelation, though relating in their correspondence to Greek philosophy, had modern implications. For Voegelin the modern-secular world was a revolt against the connection between reason and revelation that characterized Greek philosophy and Christian theology alike. Secular modernity was for him a type of heresy. For Struass the modern world was a mere secular transfiguration, and thus a dangerous adaptation, of the false theological connection between reason and revelation, which stands against the Greek philosophical disjunction between the two – a disjunction he approved of. 

The importance of Voegelin - Struass dispute over reason and revelation lies not only in demonstrating a fundamental difference between two conservative political-philosophers who are usually read together; rather, more profoundly, the dispute demonstrates the importance of theology to the understanding of modern political thought in general.

 





*This Lecture was presented at "Negotiating Jewish Knowledge – Transitions and Transformations" (November 2007, Jerusalem), organized by the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture.

**Dr. Yotam Hotam is the Editor of The Koebner Yearbook for Central European History, Culture, Society and Thought, published by the R. Koebner Center for German History, a fellow of the Rosenzweig Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History and a Lecturer at the Beit Berl Academic College.

[1]  See: Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper, Faith and Political Philosophy, The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin 1934-1964, London: University of Missouri Press 2004.

 


 


This e-lecture is from the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought
        Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel