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Friends in History: Eric Voegelin and Robert Bellah

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Document pages: 28 pages

Abstract: There are striking resonances between the scholarly works of political scientist Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) and sociologist Robert Bellah (1927-2013). The most conspicuous are substantive, and are the result of Bellah’s conscious appropriation of Voegelin’s thought. In his pathbreaking essay “Religious Evolution” (1964) and throughout his opus magnum Religion in Human Evolution (2011), Bellah approvingly cites Voegelin’s monumental study Order and History (1956-1987). In 1964 Bellah adopts Voegelin’s vocabulary, defining religious evolution as a transition from “compact” to “differentiated” sets of “symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.” He retains this terminology in Religion in Human Evolution, where he credits Voegelin and S. N. Eisenstadt as the two scholars most responsible for the further development of Karl Jaspers’ idea that the first millennium BCE constituted an “axial age” in human history, marked by what Voegelin called “multiple and parallel leaps in being.” Finally, Bellah adopts Voegelin’s term “mythospeculation,” meaning “myth with an element of reflective theory in it,” as an analytic concept that applies not only to forms of thinking that emerged in archaic societies, but also to modern attempts — such as Bellah’s — to convey theoretical truth in narrative form. While it warrants further scholarly attention, Bellah’s substantive debt to Voegelin’s Order and History is perhaps less remarkable than his unwitting agreement with a methodological argument Voegelin makes elsewhere. The present study will show how the theoretical outlook, empirical argument, and rhetorical presentation of Bellah’s Religion project resonate with the philosophy of history Voegelin articulated in the 1950s; it will focus on a shorter work that helps situate Order and History in the context of twentieth- and twenty-first-century intellectual history. The New Science of Politics (1952), originally given as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951, offers a compact version of the grand narrative Voegelin develops in Order and History as well as an explicit argument why such a philosophy of history is necessary from the standpoint of social-scientific theory -- a viewpoint shared by the mature Bellah.

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