Volume IV, No. 4                                          August 1998

IN THIS ISSUE:  Professor Eugene Webb's reply to his critics.


           Persuasion and the Problem of Polarizing Rhetoric
                               Eugene Webb

I am pleased to have the opportunity, in response to comments by Thomas 
J. Farrell (V-RN 3.2) and Maben W. Poirier and Geoffrey L. Price (V-RN
3.5) to clarify further some issues I raised in my review article of
Michael Franz, _Eric Voegelin and the Politics of Spiritual Revolt_ 
(V-RN 3.1).  Franz had questioned the value of "gnosticism" as a cate-
gory to refer to the particular package of ideas Eric Voegelin used it
to refer to.  I said that I agreed with him that the term itself was 
not as useful as Voegelin had once considered it, and I also linked its
use to a particular polemical style that I consider to be unduly
polarizing.  I suggested that this was a rhetoric that may have had a
place in the context of the Cold War but which no longer seems as
appropriate as it might have then.  My concern was with finding a more
effective way to present Voegelin's main message, which I think tends 
to be masked or even distorted, at least for many readers, by that 
style of rhetoric.  This will be my focus in this reply to those ear-
lier responses.

First, however, I would like to clarify precisely what it was I did and
did not say in the original review-article.  Farrell wrote, "Genuine
dialogue with philosophical opponents is not always possible, contrary 
to what Professor Webb seems to imply."  I did not want to imply that
genuine dialogue with philosophical opponents is always possible; I
recognize that sometimes it is not.  What I did want to suggest is that
the use of polarizing rhetoric tends prematurely to cast philosophical
opponents as either simply irrational (Farrell's preferred designation)
or demonically malevolent (Poirier's) and to preclude any possibility of
further communication.  In much of the 20th century, during the Cold War
and also the hot one that preceded it, I think there were ideologists 
who could be aptly described in such terms.  Voegelin fled Vienna with
some of them on his heels, and I think he was right to combat them
vigorously, along with many others like them.  But, as I will explain 
in more detail in a moment, he also tended sometimes to be undiscrimi-
nating in his attacks--as have some of his followers also (I remember
once hearing Abraham Lincoln denounced as a "gnostic" by one of them 
for having emancipated other people's private property).  For the mo-
ment, however, I only want to make clear that I did not say or mean
anything so simplistic as what Farrell thought I seemed to imply.

In the case of Poirier's characterization of what I said, I think one
finds a more interesting problem of misunderstanding because it seems 
an illustration of the very point I am concerned with, that is, the
tendency of a polarizing rhetoric to remove the nuances from what some-
one has said and reduce him to a simple ideological enemy.  To quote 
him: "Webb affirms that `...Voegelin [is] a voice of the Cold War era.'" 
(The "[is]" is Poirier's editorial emendation.)  What I actually wrote
was not so simple:  "From the present vantage point Voegelin must seem
very much a voice of the Cold War era.  Some of his works...would be
scarcely imaginable outside it.  But there are also aspects of his
thought that transcend that context altogether and even seem to speak
especially to our situation today.  Of particular pertinence is his 
focus on human spiritual universality, especially in his later work..." 
I hope that given the whole statement the reader can see that what I 
said was that although Voegelin may seem simply a polemicist (if one
reads certain writings and overlooks the larger framework of his 
thought) there was actually a great deal more to him.  My own concern 
is that sometimes some of Voegelin's advocates tend to emphasize the
polemic more than the philosophy and that many potential readers of 
him turn away because they see only that side of him and never dis-
cover the rest.

I will offer an example of what I mean, but first let me preface it 
with a comment on what Geoffrey Price says in his "The Language of
Political Diagnosis" (V-RN 3.5).  I take this item to be addressed,
at least in part, to me, since Price begins by saying, "In the con-
text of the current debate about Voegelin's use of strongly polarized
language, this note examines passages in his correspondence where
equivalent points are put to him directly, and he defends his analy-
sis."  He refers in particular to Voegelin's response to a letter 
from an old friend, Mrs. Elizabeth de Waal, regarding the tone of 
his article "The World of Homer" (1953).  She had written:

   The only quarrel I have with you is about the tone in which you 
   write.  Why are you so contemptuous and derisive about Homer's 
   heroes?  ...  In all their human frailty, shortcomings and even
   moral turpitude, they and their surroundings are surely clad in 
   the dignity of great poetry, and do not deserve to be spoken of 
   like a gang of bandits or the inmates of a thieves' kitchen.  You
   call Achilles `a healthy _specimen_,' as if he were a dog or a 
   head of cattle; Priam `the royal gentleman,' as if he figured in
   a musical comedy piece; Penelope's suitors are constantly referred 
   to as `rotters,' as if they were members of a gang of thugs.  By 
   this contemptuous and if I may say so, inappropriate language--
   of which I have only given a few instances that have stuck in my 
   mind, but which prevails throughout the essay--I feel that you 
   do less than justice to your theme, and you debase Homer to the 
   level of one of the less reputable popular newspapers.  It is a 
   pity.  --you are rather inclined to use this tone when you are 
   disputing a point with an author with whom you do not agree.  I 
   have noticed it in the `Science of Politics,' and I think it 
   weakens the argument (apart from being unpleasant,) but you have 
   never applied it to your subject matter as you do here.

   Will you forgive me for saying this?  I presume on our old 
   friendship for the liberty of making this criticism, and because 
   I would wish many readers for your most significant ideas, and I 
   wish these readers to enjoy them, without that feeling of 
   distaste and slight sickness aroused by the slangy expressions 
   in which they are presented.  But then, perhaps Americans like 
   that sort of language; I'm afraid we don't over here.

I have quoted this letter at some length because I think it can help
to clarify what I mean (and do not mean) in my own critique of some of 
Voegelin's rhetoric.  Mrs. de Waal seems to have been troubled by two 
distinct matters, even if she does not seem herself to have distin-
guished between them.  One is the manner in which Voegelin represents
Homer's poetry--in part a question of the appropriate diction for
literary criticism (too "slangy") and in part a question of how the 
poem should be interpreted (are the suitors really "rotters," for
example?).  The other is his polemical style in his own writings: 
"...you are rather inclined to use this tone when you are disputing a
point with an author with whom you do not agree."  She says the latter
tendency had troubled her for some time but that her objection here is
that he applied the same tone to his subject matter, attributing its
implications to Homer's judgment of the characters he depicts.

Voegelin replied that he was himself aware of his "defect" in tending 
to use "slangy expressions" and that he was trying in his revision to 
"eliminate such sores."  But he also goes on to say that he is "[n]ot 
so sure...about the justice of [her] remarks about the `tone' of con-
tempt with regard to Homeric heroes.  While `rotter' is slang and should
not be used when speaking of the suitors, I cannot be blind to the fact
that for Homer they are `dogs.'"  Price points out that when this
material was incorporated into chapter 3 of _The World of the Polis_
Penelope's suitors remained "rotten."

Here I think Voegelin was quite correct; his reading of Homer was care-
ful and accurate, and he represented it perfectly.  Homer created a
mythic picture in which good and evil are more clear cut than they tend
to be in real life, and Voegelin's analysis was faithful to that.  This
is not, therefore, an example of what I consider the problem of
polarizing rheoric.

Now let me point to an example that I hope will clarify what I am con-
cerned about.  One of my favorite essays of Voegelin's, and one that I
have used often in teaching, is "Reason: The Classic Experience" (1974). 
I am sure almost every reader of V-RN is so familiar with it that it does
not even call for quotation.  It contains some of his best formulations
of the philosophical issues I was thinking of when I said there was more
to Voegelin than simple polemics.  But there is at least one place where
it drops into exactly that: the passage in which he, not without some
point but nevertheless glibly, writes off Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger,
Sartre, and Levi-Strauss in a single sentence (_Collected Works_,
12:277-78).  It is fun to read if one enjoys polemics (and I must admit
that I am not incapable of enjoying them), but it IS glib.

This is not Voegelin reading Homer, but it is also not Voegelin seriously
reading Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Sartre, and Levi-Strauss either;
it is a mere dismissal of a series of major philosophical figures that I
think it would not be inappropriate to refer to as thinkers "who may even
have valid points of their own to argue."  I must admit that I would not 
recommend any of them as the best guides to wisdom, but I must also 
acknowledge that I have benefited from reading them.  At the very least 
each has offered a sufficiently precise articulation of a position to
help make clear its limitations, and in some cases I feel that they have
helped me to appreciate some facet of the complex reality of the world
that I would not have seen so clearly without them.  When my students
read Voegelin's marvelous essay and then come to this passage, they find
it disconcerting.  I realize some may say that this is not necessarily a
bad thing, but it does make it more difficult for me to persuade my
students to dig for what Voegelin himself really has to offer (especially
since many have already heard from some of my learned colleagues that 
Voegelin "is not a respectable thinker").  When he appears in the next 
paragraph to be referring to the same list of thinkers in speaking of
"the perversion of Reason through its appropriation by...mental cases,"
it is as though he is calling them all "rotters" or "dogs," like
Penelope's suitors.  Here we seem to slip from philosophical analysis
into a mythic vision in which one is either a true "philosopher" or a
demonic or lunatic pervert.

Which brings me back to the exchange between Voegelin and Mrs. de Waal.  
As I said, Homer created a mythic vision in which good and evil were 
more clear cut than they tend to be in real life.  That is one of the 
characteristic features of myth.  Within Homer's poem, Penelope's suitors
really are bad eggs, and it is constructed in such a way as to lead his 
readers to rejoice in seeing them get what they deserve.  To object to
the story's judgment of a villain in a story (as Mrs. de Waal may have
been doing) is to fail to maintain the critical distance necessary to the
reading of a work of fiction.

But myth has its dangers.  As Rene Girard has emphasized in many writ-
ings (such as _Violence and the Sacred_ and _Things Hidden Since The
Foundation of the World_), myths not only tend to construct polarizing
visions but they also tend to draw us into them.  That is an additional
way in which we can lose the critical distance that clear thought re-
quires.  Instead of standing outside the myth and regarding its polar-
ized vision as such, we can be drawn into viewing our own world through
the polarizing spectacles the myth places on our noses.  Girard has made
his critique of this problem and the elucidation of its critique by the
gospels the main focus of his work.  Perhaps along with her concerns
about the appropriate diction for literary analysis, Mrs. de Waal also
sensed this danger in connection with Voegelin's tendency sometimes to
slip into and be somewhat carried away by a polarizing rhetoric.

I sensed it myself from the early years of my acquaintance with Voegelin.
Poirier said at the end of his piece, "I believe that if Professor Webb
is serious in the points he makes, then he has obviously had a profound 
change of mind about who Voegelin was, and indeed about what human 
identity is, for what he recommends is nothing less than the complete 
denaturing of both."  I will leave the question about "human identity" to
Poirier; he is entitled to his own opinion about that.  But I do feel I
should address the question of whether or not I have "had a profound
change of mind" about Voegelin and am "denaturing" him.

In fact, the issue I speak of troubled and perplexed me long ago when I 
was in close contact with Voegelin in the process of writing my book 
about him (_Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History_, 1981).  It was to be 
the first book published about his thought, and I was concerned with 
finding a way to present that persuasively to a larger audience, most of 
whom could be expected to know little about him.  I wanted to draw new 
readers to him and provide them with a basic guide to his thought that 
would both make it easier for them to read further in his own writings 
and appealing to them to do so.  I was keenly aware that Voegelin had two
sides to his personality: one that was courteous and committed to
non-coercive persuasion and another that might be described as rough and 
hairy.  These were not two personalities, like a Jekyll and Hyde, just
two faces of a single personality, but I felt I had to make a decision
about which to emphasize.  I sometimes said to my wife that I felt as if
I was "giving him a shave and a haircut" to make him presentable to a
potential audience beyond his coterie.

At that same time I also had occasion to write the paper that was sub-
sequently published as "Faith, Truth, and Persuasion in the Thought of
Eric Voegelin" in _Voegelin and the Theologian_ (edited by John Kirby 
and William M. Thomson, 1983).  I remember feeling even more acutely 
the tension between the two aspects of Voegelin in writing that piece,
since it more explicitly emphasized the non-coerciveness of the
philosopher's persuasion.  I was encouraged, however, by the fact that
when Voegelin read it, he liked very much the image of himself that 
essay presented.  He had said in his letter to Mrs. de Waal that he felt
himself there was a "defect" in his tendency to rheorical aggressiveness,
and perhaps when he read my portrayal he felt it was true to something
contrasting that he deeply valued in himself.  Allow me to quote a few
paragraphs from it (pp. 362-363) in closing, because I still feel it
depicts well the truth of what I loved in him:

   When truth is conceived in existential and transcendental terms...
   or as Voegelin expresses it, in philosophical terms, faith and 
   reason do not conflict because they are parallel expressions not 
   of answers, but of the Question.

   To conceive of truth in this way has a further important
   implication: persuasion, too, must be reconceived not as a form
   of coercion (not even the gentle coercion of logic), but as
   invitation.  Logic can test opinions and lead to changes of 
   opinion, but existential truth or openness of existence is not
   an opinion but a life.  This is not to say that such a life may 
   not involve a level on which opinions are formulated and 
   rigourously tested.  Voegelin is not at all an irrationalist.  
   On the contrary, openness of existence as he conceives it is
   characterized essentially by willingness to admit a free flow
   of truth--factual as well as existential--into consciousness,
   and a change of opinions may be a necessary preliminary to a 
   change in mode of existence.  But it cannot be more than
   preliminary:  false opinions are a symptom of closed existence,
   not its essence.  Its essence is a retreat from mystery, the 
   eclipse of the Question.

   Because this openness is the free acceptance of the conditions of
   authentic human existence, it can never be coerced.  Coercion would
   negate the freedom that is essential to it.  The philosopher's logic
   may make life even more uncomfortable than it already is for the
   person attempting the closed mode of existence (who must
   constantly defend himself not only against the pressures of reality
   from without, but also against the voice of his own smothered
   self-awareness)--but it cannot itself effect his transition into
   openness, which requires his free acceptance.  Plato's Socrates
   demonstrates the biting sting logic can have on those occasions
   when it can gain a hearing.  But what is ultimately effective in 
   Socrates is his ability to evoke in an interlocutor who has any
   inclination at all to open existence a sense of his homesickness
   for the reality to which openness would be the path of return.
   Logic, one might say, is a minor weapen in a philosopher's arsenal.
   It may be effective as an instrument of aggression against
   complacent closure.  In this way it can serve to drive the hearer
   into a more acute and conscious realization of anxiety, from which
   he may be willing to listen to the appeal of a radically different
   mode of existence.  Ultimately, however, the philosopher must give 
   up aggression, must lay down all of his weapons and expose himself 
   unarmed as one who, like the hearer, suffers from a longing that can  
   never be conquered, but to which one can only surrender.

   It is that surrender that is existential openness.  What one 
   surrenders to is love of transcendent truth, and the price of that 
   love is accepted vulnerability, the willingness to endure the
   tension of existence.  The ultimate task of the philosopher is to
   invite his hearer to this surrender and to give the invitation
   persuasive force by evoking in his hearer a heightened homesickness
   and vulnerability.  Is it any wonder that Socrates and Jesus, both 
   of whom, according to Voegelin, issued this type of invitation, were
   unheeded by people who preferred not to hear it?


---------   Archive Address:  vax2.concordia.ca/~vorenews   ----------
Dr. M.W. Poirier                  | Dr. Geoffrey L. Price
Dept. of Political Science        | Dept. of Religions and Theology
Concordia University              | University of Manchester
Loyola Campus                     | MANCHESTER M13 9PL
7141 Sherbrooke Street W.         | United Kingdom
MONTREAL, Quebec                  |
H4B 1R6                           |
E-Mail: poirmw@Vax2.Concordia.Ca  | E-Mail: g.price@manchester.ac.uk