Reason: The Classic Experience (1974)
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Reason: The Classic Experience (1974) 218 From Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 12: Published Essays, 1966–1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 265–92. [Voegelin recounts in this essay the discovery of “reason” by the Hellenic philosophers—­“Nous in the classic sense”—­ and explains why it was a transformational event in the history of humankind. He begins by describing how reason, in the classical analysis, is understood as both the “force and criterion of order in personal and social existence”; and he goes on to explore how the analysis reveals human life to be, normatively, a state of unrest, a “tension” of seeking for meaning and for the divine ground of existence. The Greek analysis makes clear, Voegelin explains, that if a person is closed toward the divine ground and existential openness to it, the result will be various forms of “psychopathology.” Healthy existence, by contrast, remains aware that it is always a tension “in-­ between” divine and human, knowledge and ignorance, immortality and mortality, “true life” and existential death. Identifying his own essay as an act of resistance to the modern “climate of opinion,” he concludes it with an “Appendix” that offers a diagram laying out all possible theoretical relationships through which philosophies might eclipse one or another essential component in the structure of conscious existence or reality.—Eds.] Though Reason is the constituent of humanity at all times, its differentiation and articulation through language symbols is an historical event. The genius of the Hellenic philosophers discovered Reason as the source of order in the psyche of man. This essay will be concerned with Reason in the sense of the Platonic-­ Aristotelian 219 reason: the classic experience Nous, with the circumstances and consequences of its differentiation as an event in the history of existential order. I shall not deal with the “idea” or a nominalist “definition” of Reason but with the process in reality in which concrete human beings , the “lovers of wisdom,” the philosophers as they styled themselves , were engaged in an act of resistance against the personal and social disorder of their age. From this act there emerged the Nous as the cognitively luminous force that inspired the philosophers to resist and, at the same time, enabled them to recognize the phenomena of disorder in the light of a humanity ordered by the Nous. Thus, Reason in the noetic sense was discovered as both the force and the criterion of order. Moreover, the rise of Reason to articulate self-­ consciousness was accompanied by the philosophers’ consciousness of the event as an epoch that constituted meaning in history. Once man’s humanity had become luminous for its order, one could not return from this meaningful advance of insight to less differentiated modes of experience and symbolization. The discovery of Reason divided history into a Before and After. This consciousness of epoch expressed itself in the creation of symbols which intended to characterize the new structure in the field of history. The central symbol was the “philosopher ” in whose psyche humanity had become luminous for its noetic order; parallel symbols were Plato’s “spiritual man” (daimonios aner) and Aristotle’s “mature man” (spoudaios). The man who was left behind in a less differentiated state of consciousness remained the “mortal” (thnetos) of Homeric language; the man who insensitively resisted the advance of insight became the “unwise” or “dull-­ witted man,” the amathes. In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, myth and philosophy denoted the two symbolisms by which, in historical succession , compact cosmological and differentiated noetic consciousness expressed the respective experiences of reality. And regarding the same epochal advance, Plato developed in the Laws a triadic symbolism of history in which the ages of Kronos and Zeus were now to be followed by the age of the Third God—­ the Nous. The epochal consciousness of the classic philosophers, however , did not derail into apocalyptic expectations of a final realm to come. Both Plato and Aristotle preserved their balance of consciousness . They recognized the noetic outburst for the irreversible 220 part four | philosophy and the open soul event in history that it was, but they also knew that Reason had been the constituent of humanity before the philosophers differentiated the structure of the psyche, and that its presence in human nature had not prevented the order of society from falling into the disorder which they resisted. To assume that the differentiation of Reason would stop the rise and fall of societies would have been absurd; Hellas was not...