Life in the Middle: A Review of Jarosław Duraj’s “The Role of Metaxy in the Political Philosophy of Eric Voegelin”
Jarosław Duraj. The Role of Metaxy in the Political Philosophy of Eric Voegelin. Peter Lang Press, 2021.     Jarosław Duraj has penned an important study of Eric Voegelin’s philosophy in The Role of Metaxy in the Political Philosophy of Eric Voegelin. Analyzing the role of metaxy in Voegelin’s thought is no small undertaking, but… The post Life in the Middle: A Review of Jarosław Duraj’s “The Role of Metaxy in the Political Philosophy of Eric Voegelin” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Jarosław Duraj. The Role of Metaxy in the Political Philosophy of Eric Voegelin. Peter Lang Press, 2021.

 

 

Jarosław Duraj has penned an important study of Eric Voegelin’s philosophy in The Role of Metaxy in the Political Philosophy of Eric Voegelin. Analyzing the role of metaxy in Voegelin’s thought is no small undertaking, but Duraj aptly argues and demonstrates that metaxy is the cornerstone of Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness, on which turns his conceptions of individual well-being, political well-being, history and religion.  Metaxy symbolizes the characteristic of man’s place between a transcendent ground or source of truthfulness regarding the order of being and the manifold libidinous, immanent, corporeal and timely aspects of his being which may deform his vision of reality and his experience of it.  When man becomes aware of this, which is symbolized by metaxy, he becomes endowed with the capability to more effectively pursue virtue and wisdom, and to more effectively pursue a good life with others who also share in the quest for virtue and wisdom.  But even more, this consciousness of the structure of reality provided Voegelin with a manner of orienting and understanding history in a non-linear manner that accentuates the various human potentialities or forms, as opposed to a narrative of outcomes through time.  Voegelin’s non-linear understanding of history is guided by his theory of consciousness; both are formed and ordered by Voegelin’s insight, adapted from Plato and other classical thinkers, that human beings and human societies are actors amidst an historical drama whose unfolding mysterious character is in fact revealing to us the complex of possible individual and societal fates.  We may learn from this not how to build utopia, but rather how to exist in loving tension with the divine ground of reality beyond time that orders the flux of reality in time.  Through love of wisdom attuned to reality we may achieve the happiness fitting for humans; not by cultivating and pursuing the libidinous desires championed in various ways by the various modern ideologies that deformed Voegelin’s era, and which continue to plague our own.
The virtues of this volume include the thoroughness of the study – Duraj shows the integral nature of many aspects of Voegelin’s wide-ranging writings – and its simple though important thesis: Voegelin’s view that metaxological meditation is necessary to comprehend reality truthfully is accurate and constitutes an important remediation of modernity’s ideological untruthfulness.[1]   Metaxological mediation attempts to draw out the experience of the consciousness of truth as it is situated within the whole complex of the human experience – not merely of a single human’s experience – involving man, society, history and God.   The question of being concerns the situation of man as between the origin of creation and the nothingness of oblivion,  between the curious questing for wisdom and the arrogant though ignorant proclaiming of knowledge; as taut between the divine ground of being as the source of truth and the libidinous, carnal and animalistic aspects of being a human as the source of untruth.[2]  Developing out of this complex nature of reality, metaxological meditation is an open-minded, interdisciplinary questing or wondering that seeks truth as an effervescent discovery experienced in tension between human seeker and divine revealer.  Indeed, Duraj argues that the tension symbolized by metaxological meditation “constitutes the universal and central feature of all symbolisms” because “the knowledge about true reality that symbols express will never be the definite possession of knowledge, because experiences and symbols are only a part of the process of reality.”[3]  The concept of metaxy, thus, is critical to understanding Voegelin’s thought, which accentuated uncertainty as integral to the essence of truth; Duraj performs a meaningful service to Voegelinian students by so carefully developing the role of metaxy in the political philosophy of Eric Voegelin.
Chapters 1 and 2 provide a review of thinkers who developed the idea of metaxy throughout the history of political thought, and transition into an analysis of Voegelin’s view of meditation in chapter 3.   These chapters have three related achievements that taken together make these chapters a useful review for even advanced students of Voegelin’s thought.  First, Duraj demonstrates clearly how Plato and Aristotle discovered the notion of metaxy and provided the linguistic symbols pertinent to it.  Duraj attributes much weight to the nature of the discussion amongst the participants in Plato’s Symposium, noting that Voegelin saw in it the fundamental dynamic of all of philosophy, namely that the “erotic tension” experienced by any individual’s soul is difficult to disentangle; Socratic dialogue therefore represents “an event in the Metaxy where man has ‘converse’ with the divine ground of the process that is common to all men.”[4]  Thus, in Plato we find the fundamental development that truth is not a mere proposition discovered by some individual and then reported to others, but rather revealed through a more complex process by which various participants in reality may experience only some ephemeral angle of the truth, and not the entirety of it.  In this way philosophy becomes the questing or wondering about wisdom and truth, in opposition to the Sophists’ method of proclaiming some opinion as truth, and must become, as Voegelin would eventually see, revealed through the complicated historical processes involving many individuals, various societies, multiple forms of expression, across historical settings.  This basic philosophical method of robust participatory experience as portrayed in Symposium is reflected in other Platonic texts, most notably, as is well known, the presentation of the Allegory of the Cave in Republic.  In Aristotle, the contemplative life as contemplative action and the nature of the virtues as tensions between extremes further develops the notions of participation, experience, and tension already present in Plato.[5]
Second, Duraj demonstrates how Voegelin’s understanding of metaxy surpasses the Christian development of meditation in Saint Augustine.  In Augustine Voegelin saw “the paradigmatic form of meditation.”[6]  Augustine’s mediation was especially attuned to understanding “the nature of the universe and, above all, that which is its real ground … the transcendent and divine reality.”[7]  Moreover, this attunement to divine reality, expressed in Christian language as amor Dei, is the “necessary force and motivation for existential exodus from slavery, be it spiritual or socio-political.”[8]  Augustine was attuned to the pull of truth through the divine pole of the metaxological experience. The problem, however, was that Augustine “subordinated” his distinction between civitas Dei  and civitas terrena  “to a historiogenetic pattern whose unilinear history came to its meaningful end in the dual ecumenism of Church and Roman Empire.”[9]  This unilinear history is deeply problematic from Voegelin’s perspective, and Duraj notes that “the view of history in the West since the time of Augustine remained basically the same in its unilinear structure.”[10]  An important achievement of Voegelin, one Duraj helps to clarify, was to enliven the Augustinian devotion to the divine pole of the metaxy while also correcting the unilinear view of history that has tended to plague and deform the human capacity to contemplate truth in a robust and honest manner.  Duraj also shows how Voegelin productively engages modern philosophers to enliven metaxological philosophy in contemporary times, for instance, showing how Voegelin builds upon Descartes through his critique of Husserl to bring the idea of metaxy into the milieu of modern political philosophical language.
Third, the product and synthesis of Voegelin’s analysis of past thinkers is useful to us today; he did not merely envision a return to the ideas and language of the classics as a panacea for contemporary challenges.  Meditative experience is critical to a philosopher’s ability to recognize the “in-between” nature of his quest for knowledge; meditation provides the awareness of the subjectivity of the thinker to the thinker himself.  Voegelin became aware that the presentation of philosophical ideas was often inadequate because ideas are usually presented as a hypostatized view of the good.  Voegelin’s theory of consciousness was so beneficial because it tapped into the fact that humans occupy very specific places in the milieu of reality: we are one person amongst many individuals, existing within one society amongst many societies, at one time amongst many times.  Any idea of the good, because it is a mere symbol expressing the concrete experience of one person, cannot be adequate.  Rather, any expression of the good can only be a point of reference by which other individuals, separated by time, space, culture and language, may gain a foothold onto the good experience of the individual creating the symbol.  A symbol is just a symbol; it is the authenticity of the underlying experience of the soul in a moment of theophanic awareness that really matters.
Duraj does a splendid job of demonstrating the philosophical seriousness of meditation for Voegelin and the relevance of meditation to metaxological awareness.  For Voegelin, consciousness is at the heart of meditation.  To meditate is not to navel-gaze or to speculate, it rather “aims at more commitment to and engagement in reality.”[11]  This commitment and engagement in reality is the at the heart of Voegelin’s mature idea of consciousness.  Consciousness, for Voegelin, was “concretely personal.”[12]  We can only be conscious of the aspects of reality that moved our souls directly.  Duraj quotes Anamnesis to develop this point: “A philosopher … had to engage in an anamnetic exploration of his own consciousness in order to discover the constitution of his own experiences of reality if he wanted to be critically aware of what he was doing.”[13]  Integral to Voegelin’s understanding of consciousness, even though it is the experience of an individual, is that “what happens in consciousness is not an isolated event in the human mind but is actually a larger experience within the metaxy as ‘in-between.’”[14]  The ideas expressed in philosophical language are not hypostatic discoveries of ubiquitous truthfulness that must obtain in all places and all times for all individuals in exactly the same manner prescribed by the individual who experienced the event and expressed it as a symbol; philosophical ideas are rather merely symbolic expressions of a more general experience or movement of a soul that is actively experiencing an ineffable truthfulness in a specific, concrete manner.
The ineffability of truthfulness and the subjectivity of the philosopher are two very important components of the structure of reality described by the symbol metaxy.  Voegelin views the awareness of truth as becoming conscious of (or remembering) (or apperceiving) the experience expressed by others previously in symbolic form.  It is this experience of participation within reality, not the symbol or the idea, that is essential to philosophy and is the essential act of the philosopher.  Voegelin came to realize that the complex nature of reality (many individuals, many societies, many times, but one reality) means that a philosopher cannot simply review the history of ideas in a linear fashion to discover the essentials of reality; one must instead move forwards and backwards and sideways through history to detect the various symbolic expressions or realizations of the transcendent ground of truth or reality in various times and places.  History does not move from oblivion to luminosity in linear fashion; rather, various individuals and societies move from oblivion to luminosity and back again in their own times and own ways.  The art of philosophy and work of philosopher, as Voegelin saw it, is to understand the flow and the flux of these symbolic expressions in history.
Chapters 4 through 6 form the practical body of the analysis, applying Voegelin’s ideas of meditation and consciousness to history, anthropology, politics and religion.  In these chapters Duraj masterfully demonstrates the overarching coherence of Voegelin’s mature thought.  Duraj sees “the philosophy of consciousness became the foundation of his philosophy of history, political philosophy and philosophy of religion.”[15]  Thus, the experience of metaxological awareness may enlighten many areas integral to human organization that have become corrupted within modernity’s fixation upon ideological thinking.  This fixation, Voegelin saw, as the driving feature behind totalitarianism.[16]  Thus, Duraj demonstrates the application of Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness to practical fields of study in the social sciences, especially political philosophy and history, and that Voegelin’s philosophy offered therapy to the profound disorder of his time.
Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness, as I have been hinting, had profound consequences for his understanding of history.  The primary problem with history had been the traditional simplification of it, into a linear historiogenesis (or “speculation on the origin and cause of social order”) that portents to explain the movement of history on a single axis.[17]  Voegelin noticed that reality was much more complex than this, and Duraj places the concept of metaxy as a repudiation of such simplifications.[18]  It is important to understand reality in its complexity and not ideas in their abstract presentations.  Disentangling abstract idea from concrete experience requires the proper meditative approach to consciousness:
from the outset we find ourselves in an experiential tension when we observe phenomena of untruth and problems of disorder in our environment.  On the basis of such observations we seek to discover the true order which is desired and intuited in anticipation.  This tension of being moved, of questing and finding, is an initial instance of such meditative tension.[19]
The problem, of course, is that such questing can give way to the belief that it was not the questing but the discovering that posed the solutions to the issues that motivated the quest.  Thus political philosophers must be wary of dogmatism and “propositional knowledge.”[20]  The moment one gives up on questing, or seeking luminosity, one gives up on that which was illuminating; the belief that one possesses concrete knowledge destroys the tension felt by humans towards truth; the meditative grasping of truthfulness through metaxological meditation is forestalled, the experience that follows is one of oblivion; the individual becomes unaware of truthfulness as questing for knowledge in the belief that a proposition is concretely truthful.  No philosopher properly sets out to attempt to save the world with his insights on the historical process, or with his organization of historical ideas; rather, as Duraj quotes Voegelin, the philosopher must simply “work himself free from the rubble of idols which, under the name of an ‘age,’ threatens to cripple and bury him; and he can hope that the example of his effort will be of help to others who find themselves in the same situation and experience the same desire to gain their humanity under God.”[21]
Voegelin’s profound insight into the order of history is an underappreciated achievement of humanity in the 20th century.  From Voegelin’s anachronistic view of history comes the insight that political science depends upon a proper understanding of anthropology – one consistent with Voegelin’s metaxological understanding of history, developed from his close kinship to Platonic philosophy.  For Voegelin as for Plato, “man stands in between the world and God.  By his participation in the tension of metaxy man becomes the locus of the encounter between world and God.  This encounter is expressed in a plurality of forms.”[22]  From the plurality of forms of human soul arises the like plurality of forms of societies: virtuous men form aristocracies; miserly men from oligarchies, and so on.   For Voegelin as for Plato, the range of forms represents the range of types of men and societies.  Of course, the raw amount of historical evidence available to Voegelin but not to Plato allowed Voegelin to greatly deepen the forms the presented by Plato, explaining historical changes through the lens of the differentiation of the human soul through time and across civilizations.
Our consciousness informs the individual and society we become.  One becomes aware of the truthfulness or goodness of a virtuous life for humans because of the questing for wisdom spawned within one’s soul, or one remains oblivious to the untruthfulness or badness of one’s life and order because this questing is never spawned.  When this questing is authentically experienced and felt it occurs as a tension or a pulling from beyond reality, endowing the individual experiencing the truthfulness through his questing with an effervescent awareness of the truthfulness of his discovery.  When this questing is lacking, man wanders without transcendent grounding through the libidinous adventure of corporeal life, seeking thing and desire after thing and desire until death.  Hence the metaxy becomes the locus whereby man is aware of or open-minded towards a truth about reality as an objective “It.”  This experience of transcendence – of noting that truth transcends thing-reality and is defined by some overarching “It” – “has strong consequences for anthropology, because the human order is based on the experience of the order of transcendence.”[23]  In short, we become aware through metaxological mediation that, as for Plato, “God is the measure,” or as for Augustine, man is created imago Dei.  In classical language, this is achieved through the differentiation of nous from rational thought, and in Christian language this is achieved through grace – in any event, it is achieved through a concrete awareness in the soul of the individual of the transcendent nature of truthfulness.  A good society may be formed when on a societal level many men from the society share in this noetic revelation or discovery of truth, what Aristotle called homonia.[24]
This view of truth as transcendentally grounded ends up making all the difference.  Voegelin stated it plainly: “One cannot dedivinize oneself without dehumanizing oneself.”[25]  The negation of noetic truth “has far reaching consequences for man and society, because it ends up in ‘immanentizing the eschaton’ in gnostic self-conceit and delusion, and in alienation from the ground of being.”[26]  As developed in The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, the negation of the transcendent ground of truth hallmarked the modern era, and various forms of this negation mark all of modernity’s ideologies.  A proper view of religion is, therefore, integral to developing a proper consciousness of reality.  This aspect of the book follows reasonably from previous sections: an earnest and individually experienced attunement to the transcendent ground of being is needed by individuals to fare well and to cultivate homonia at the societal level.  Individuals need some sort of authentic theophanic or hierophantic experience for this to occur.  Indeed, dogmatization and hypostatization of religious ideas is a true problem in our ideological era.
Duraj concludes that Voegelin’s use of metaxy is philosophically correct and offers therapy to the maladies of modernity and post-modernity.  Duraj makes several concluding points that summarize the thrust of his argument.  First, Voegelin does take the concept of metaxy further than Plato or any other previous thinker.  By applying metaxy to his understanding of history and weaving together individual, societal and historical elements of reality, Voegelin indeed stands on the shoulders of history’s greatest philosopher to offer a therapeutic philosophy of order for our era.[27]  Second, the Voegelinian use of metaxy resolves the debate between the compatibility of classical and Christian thought regarding the concept of grace.  Duraj argues that Plato’s thought contains kernels of grace within it, as exemplified by the “golden chord” myth, wherein “man, in his metaxic participation in reality, experiences movements in his soul attracting and inviting him to follow the divine pull that is the will of God.”[28]  Finally, as is consistent with the spirit of Voegelin’s work, Duraj notes that this innovative use of metaxy was not envisioned by Voegelin to magically solve all of modernity’s ideological problems, indeed that would turn his thought into the type of system that Voegelin so vehemently fought against, but that Voegelin’s work was merely “an important contribution to the diagnosis of the political reality and a possible aid in overcoming the modern crisis.”[29]  He appeals to the need to employ interdisciplinary meditative practices to achieve a philosophical practice that is animated by the experience of consciousness in tension between the immanent and transcendent.
I truly enjoyed Duraj’s clear and thorough analysis of metaxy.  A systematic review of Voegelin’s thought is no easy undertaking, and Duraj’s organization of it around the concept of metaxy proved a tenable and intelligent way for a scholar to organize his understanding of Voegelin’s work.  Duraj perhaps makes too much of the transition in Voegelin’s thought in The Ecumenic Age regarding the development of his theory of consciousness.  At times, Duraj paints this transition as a fundamental turn in Voegelin’s thought.  At other times, Duraj demonstrates that, despite this transition, the fundamentals of Voegelin’s own experienced tension towards the divine ground were always quite strong throughout his career, including in his early writings.  Perhaps Voegelin’s transition from ideas to consciousness was a natural development or growth of his earlier work, and not the hard break from it that is sometimes put forward in scholarship.  This small inconsistency did not meaningfully diminish the broader achievements of the volume, which, again, demonstrated well the overall consistency of Voegelin’s thought within a reasonable framework.
The practical conclusion of Voegelin’s project and Duraj’s interpretation of it is a deadly serious and deeply philosophical argument for the experience of robust curiosity in the souls of humans as the best means of achieving a truthfully good individual life and societal order.  It is so serious because waiting for us in oblivion is the practical experience of totalitarianism, ironically often discovered by striving too hard after the divine pole within the metaxy, not understanding the tensions within it.  This idea is sustained by Platonic and Aristotelian thinking, from which the metaxy was itself discovered, but goes beyond them in its understanding of history as dramatizing the human soul and offering an index of human and societal potentials through time.  Duraj’s work helped me to understand just how innovative Voegelin’s view of history and time is.  The idea of history as non-linear opens some interesting questions regarding our understanding of time and brings forth some real obstacles when it comes to overcoming the ideological malady of modernity.   Linear arguments about history are today integral to the formed disorder within liberal regimes, just as they have been integral to the understanding or lack of understanding about order in most times; left-leaning politicians and activists often win the day by proclaiming that their opponents are “on the wrong side of history.”  Voegelin may well be correct in showing us the fallacy of this linear and speculative view of history, but a challenge exists in persuading modern ideologues of the inaccuracy of their ideology through an argument such as: ‘your linear understanding of history is incorrect: we cannot understand history correctly through linear chronology – the very method by which history is recorded.’  Time is a mundane and basic element of the human experience that is nearly always taken for granted as a thing within reality whose essence as linear is obvious and closed to debate.  To enliven the full scope of Voegelin’s thought, especially regarding the non-linear nature of history, would require an almost unimaginable reconceiving of time itself on a socially proliferate scale.  We struggle to teach our children elementary subjects of late; this innovation requires open minds with contemplative souls, a character lacking in today’s ideological regimes.  Moreover, to conceive of time in a way that we do not practically experience it would contradict the essential point of Voegelin’s work – that our understanding of reality must be grounded by the actual experiences of our consciousnesses.  At this juncture very deeply seeded questions about the nature of time and our experience of it emerge, questions not reasonably addressed here.  Perhaps, then, a service of Duraj’s work is to reveal to students of Voegelin the work that remains in turning Voegelin’s truly innovative return to classical philosophy into an effective (socially widespread) therapy for modern ideology.  Perhaps, indeed, Voegelin’s understanding of metaxy as the battlefield of consciousness may help future scholars to turn and pull the cave dwellers of tomorrow towards the light that is emanating from outside of time.  If Voegelin is correct about the structure of reality, such a turn has proven itself to be an indelible component of the human experience that will most likely come around again.
NOTES:
[1] Jarosław Duraj, The Role of Metaxy in the Political Philosophy of Eric Voegelin, (New York: Peter Lang Press, 2021), 10-11.
[2] Ibid.,  11
[3] Ibid.,  205
[4] Ibid., 44
[5] Ibid.,  63
[6] Ibid.,  64
[7] Ibid.,  65
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.,  66
[11] Ibid.,  101
[12] Ibid.,  116
[13] Ibid.,  115
[14] Ibid.,  116
[15] Ibid.,  186
[16] Ibid.,  185
[17] Ibid.,  200
[18] Ibid.,  189
[19] Ibid.,  191
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.,  222
[22] Ibid.,  249
[23] Ibid.,  253
[24] Ibid.,  255
[25] Ibid.,  257
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.,  360-1
[28] Ibid.,  366
[29] Ibid.,  362

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