Beyond Revolution: Symbol and Mystery in Eric Voegelin’s Philosophy of Magic

“What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”


Tractatus Logico-Philsophicus

Abstract: Eric Voegelin’s search for truth ends where it begins—in mystery. This paper suggests that at its center is Eric Voegelin’s philosophy of magic. I argue Voegelin’s emphasis on magic and its role in gnostic revolution further places it as a cornerstone for his larger body of work; Moreover, this study of magic must be situated in its traditional context in order to articulate a common framework for any future study of magic to draw from.

Keywords: Magic, Gnosis, Sorcery, Revolution, God, Symbol, Time, Divinity, Mystery


Introduction: On the Crisis of Existence

This section locates Eric Voegelin’s work as focused initially on the symbol as cosmion, or named order, of an existing world, evoked and reified in language and performative utterance. The implications of the misplaced fallacy of political doctrine were made relevant to Voegelin when he narrowly escaped National Socialism’s system of science with his life, a system rooted in what Voegelin defines as an outburst in the “magic imagination”: the “magic dream.”

Early on, Voegelin articulated the problem inherent in political ideas, e.g. the national economy: A linguistic symbol to create and call into existence a world through the power of naming it as such. On the potency of this performative utterance, with the ability to speak reality into existence, we have only to think of Parmenides’ dictum, “by being, it is.”

Because symbols have no meaning apart from the experience they express, any symbol of history means nothing apart from what it is—its own nature. It’s nature, reborn in each moment, becomes the very meaning of the symbol itself, offering an ideal image for meaning: it stabilizes meaning by controlling the term’s “purpose,” or intent. Voegelin understood this as the attempt “to enclose a temporal process in the rigidity of a spatial construct, an attempt that, being in its essence unrealizable, must not lead to truths, but always to further unsolved problems.”[1]

That is to say, the objectification and reification of “spirit” as a term deforms the truth of reality into a doctrinal truth about reality. This misplaced concreteness is nowhere more relevant than in the self-organization of political religions, where political will constitutes and self-directs the nature and form of its own political process. Admitting knowledge of phenomena as a key to utilitarian mastery, Voegelin states that understanding human substance does not provide a similar key to society and history:

“The expansion of the will to power from the realm of phenomena to that of substance, or the attempt to operate in the realm of substance pragmatically as if were the realm of phenomena—that is the definition of magic.”[2]

With this definition of magic at hand, we can now begin to understand the relevance magic would hold both for Voegelin and us today. To restate the issue in Voegelin’s words,

“We have ventured the age of science will appear as the greatest power orgy in the history of mankind; we now venture the suggestion that at the bottom of this orgy the historian will find a gigantic outburst of magic imagination after the breakdown of the intellectual and spiritual form of medieval high-civilization. The climax of this outburst is the magic dream of creating the Superman, the man-made Being that will succeed the sorry creature of God’s making. This is the great dream that appears first imaginatively in the works of Condorcet, Comte, Marx, and Nietzsche, and later pragmatically in the Communist and National Socialist movements.”


Voegelin’s Magical Thesis: Pure and Simple

This section follows Voegelin’s initial inquiry into the “magic cosmion of order,” from its evocative constitution to repetitive objectification and the systematic murder of alternatives. The deformative potential of the “magic of the word” implies the active divergence in the “magic imagination” between dream and reality. Thus “magicians” use “grimoires” and “magic operations” for a “magic effect.” The “magic trick” does not work however, so Voegelin can diagnose the “magic program,” and in particular the “magic act of violence” as a symptom stemming from the rejection of reason, a spiritual disease seeking to realize its utopian dream by transfiguring reality.

Identified as the outburst of magic imagination, the magic dream is deliberatively used to control or influence factors, intending its images as the archetypal symbols of divine power, whose evocative power of language, “the primitive magic relation between a name and the object it denotes,” transforms the field of human forces into an ordered unit in the evocative act—what Voegelin calls the “magic cosmion of a constituted order.”[1]

Voegelin main concern with these “magic evocations—that is, historical articulations of experience constitutive or regulative of political order”—is due to the “power of magic evocation,” the function of the immanent psychological language that evokes the presumption that any term refers to an objective reality, facilitated by a persuasive “symbol of the magic unit,” whereby the power of name to evoke a political unit is described “as something not magically but empirically and objectively real.”[2]

The privileging of utilitarian mastery of reality becomes an idolatry of sorts, where science is held as the key to curing evil and transform humanity. For Voegelin, “the interrelation of science and power, and the consequent cancerous growth of the utilitarian segment of existence, has injected a strong element of magic culture into modern civilization.” It is for this reason, the attempt to “create an absolute cosmos out of the finite forces of human desire and will” that Voegelin is able to tell us the process “may be called magic.”[3] Voegelin explains:

“By accident, studying other problems, I found for instance that the term magic, in the sense of the magic of the word, appears for the first time in a production by Gorgias the sophist, in the fifth century, in the Encomion Helenes, where he speaks of the magic of the power of Paris in persuading Helen to come along with him. That’s where the magic of the word appears. And he compares that magic of the word to the magic of addiction to drugs. So you have two main sources for getting drugged: either the magic of words or chemical drugs.” 382

Such structuring power in the form and function of language implies its close connection with divinity and the many names attributed to the eternal, self-existent nature of God. Voegelin’s concern with the legalese that transfers power to the sovereign, through which a group transforms itself into a person with distinctive political force in history, is apparent: Throughout history, this “magic function of kingship” creates political order by symbolizing it through a unity of human personality, imposing a conceptual framework in which speech assumes itself as a function of God, bestowed to man by God, for example to Adam in the Old Testament, or Thoth, interpreting the will of God in words, through which all things are made, coming into being through an act of speech. This power of naming divinity becomes the symbol of infinite perfection, a royal art, emphasizing human power and will in the “reascension” toward spiritual enlightenment to accomplish marvelous actions.[4] The difference between the magic dream and reality is therefore, for Voegelin, the “activist’s faith in his power to transfigure the structure of reality. He must imagine himself to be a magician…”[5]

Voegelin recognizes this “magic opus” as a System of Science, a second reality intending itself as an operation in first reality, attempting to escape control and judgment by the criteria of First Reality: the System’s “magic program” intends human transformation as a technical “magic effect,” not through gradual moral reformation, but via “total revolution” and the “orgy of destruction” it offers.[6] The dream denotes a self-generating reality that disposes actual reality through speech acts and language, purely imaginative acts with no basis in reality whatsoever.

In turn, new evocative orders are self-interpreted by utopian activist dreamers who expect the first reality to conform to the second reality of the dream, distinguished by a “trick action” from ordinary action that results in a “transfigured reality”— The magic, Voegelin shows, does not work but rather “reveals the terror at the core of the magic dream.”[7]

The elimination of an essential feature of human nature defines the dream as a utopia, whose disenchantment gives rise to spirited revolt against the injustice of such an act. Voegelin reiterates the disconnect between the means and end inherent to the process, explaining how most “ideologies” are in fact “magic operations in the same sense that Malinowski uses magic of the Trobriand Islanders,” beliefs and rudimentary rites standardized into permanent traditional forms that enable man to carry out with confidence important tasks—“the sublime folly of hope,” which, if used carelessly, becomes dangerous blasphemy.[8]

In a sense, Voegelin defines magic, especially the “magic of violence,” by its inefficacy for transforming reality into its intended object. His point that “magical activism” has been catastrophic for the process of history is vindicated in his analysis of Hegel, the “master magician” of the 19th century.[9] Hegel attempts to conjure an image of history, using it as an instrument of power, so that the “grimoire of the magician…will evoke for everybody the shape and the reconciliation that for himself he cannot achieve in the reality of his existence.” Knowledge of this system of science allows one to learn the “magic words that will evoke the shape of things to come.” Thus Hegel’s Science of Spirit is a search for the “magic words” and the “magic force” “that will determine the future course of history by raising ‘consciousness’ to its state of perfection.”[10]

Voegelin offers the only true test there is: “The effectiveness of the grimoire depends on the transformation of First into Second reality as a fait accompli.”[11] Hegel’s does not. The scientism invoked by Hegel is a magic attempt to achieve mastery over history and reality, and ultimately fails.  Here, Voegelin traces the magician’s dream to its origin in the “activist’s passion of transforming the truth of divinely created order into the terror of humanly created nontruth, if not antitruth.” By making the imaginary results of the magic operation acceptable as real resolutions to real problems in reality—whether changing the nature of man by writing a book or resorting to violence; the judgment embedded in the utopian imagination is realized as a formative social force in the world. For in substituting phenomenal for substantial reality, the atrocity does indeed change reality in the manifestation of the “magic act of substitution.”[12] As Voegelin explains,

Magic means the attempt to realize a desired end that cannot be realized if one takes into account the structure of reality. You cannot by magic operations jump out the window and fly up—even if you so desire. If you try such things—for instance, producing a change in the nature of man by the dictatorship of the proletariat—you are engaged in a magical operation. There you have the problem of disease and the magic.”[13]

Voegelin diagnoses the act of violence as a symptom of a disease of the mind, prompting his concern for its pathogenesis and the structure of consciousness that both confuses dream and reality and makes it a real force in society and history.[14] Yet in pursuing the surface motivations for resistance “to the extreme of their expression in magic operations,” Voegelin’s analysis

“could not be conducted without constantly touching on the deeper stratum of resistance, i.e., on its source in the structure of questioning consciousness itself. In the depth of the quest, formative truth and deformative untruth are more closely related than the language of ‘truth’ and ‘resistance’ would suggest.”[15]

Voegelin names this rejection of reason, in which one believes themselves possessed of a magical power to transfigure reality, and where the two images rival each other for the claim of reality, a “spiritual disease,” or “pneumapathology,” his analysis of which emerges in his most mature works, as in the “key to all his other works,” where he specifically identifies the magical dream to abolish the reality we participate in: [16]

“At the extreme of this revolt in consciousness, ‘reality’ and the ‘Beyond’ become two separate entities, two ‘things,’ to be magically manipulated by suffering man for the purpose of either abolishing ‘reality’ altogether and escaping into the ‘Beyond,’ or of forcing the order of the ‘Beyond’ into ‘reality’…The first of the magic alternatives is preferred by the Gnostics of antiquity, the second one by the modern gnostic thinkers.” [17]

To summarize what has just occurred in this last section, research indicates that from Voegelin’s first encounter of the magic cosmion of order, his in-depth analysis of the magic of word, magically evoked by those claiming divine inspiration, precipitated a theory of active divergence in the magic imagination of dream and reality: self-described magicians use magic operations whose magical effects—the system of science, grimoire, and magic program—are found to not work; Moreover, the active rejection of reality is no more apparent than in the attempt to transfigure it through the magic of violence, which collapses into pneumapathology.


In the next sections, we explore the relationship between gnostic revolution and revolutionary gnosis, the various disciplines of chronology, chorology, and cosmology in understanding the nature of space-time and the expression of its order, as well as the movement of a divine presence as it is contextualized by the silence it is birthed from, and its potential for ecstasy, a stepping out of ordinary states of consciousness for the sake of moving toward wholeness…


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