Immanentize the Eschaton


Say that title five times fast. Made famous by the renowned 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin and popularized by the venerable William F. Buckley, is the “catchphrase” “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton!” I am quite sure the National Review marketing team had a few issues with that particular catchphrase, the first probably being what? And second being, how do you spell it? So what does this endlessly hard to type/spell/say phrase mean exactly? Well, the simple, which is the better definition in almost all cases in this author’s esteemed opinion, is the process of bringing about heaven on Earth. Or bringing what should rightly belong in the afterlife into the world.

Now you don’t need to be a “Pastor because devil-stomping ninja isn’t a job title” to understand a problem with this. This, of course, is the fallacy of the perfectibility of man. Or man’s ability to bring about heaven on Earth.

Well, let us begin with the last part of this frustrating phrase (you’re welcome, Thomas). The word eschaton means “day at the end of time following Armageddon when God will decree the fates of all individual humans according to the good and evil of their earthly lives” according to thefreedictionary. This is where the theological subject of Eschatology comes from; the study of end-times. While Christians will debate the meaning of specific scriptures having to do with the end-times, there are those who, knowingly or vocally or not, seek to bring about this end on Earth. That is to say, to bring about a utopia or if you were one of the early Christian Progressives, make Earth a place Jesus would want to come back to.

So why did Eric Voegelin take a theological term and apply it to politics? Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1901, Voegelin would ultimately find refuge from the European totalitarianism that so plagued the continent during the 20th century by immigrating to the United States. It was in the United States where “Voegelin dedicated his life to the study of widespread political violence and the devastation that results when totalitarian ideologies that closely resemble religions foster the notion that pursuing the creation of utopias on Earth is achievable and worth any cost, including death.” A part of this study was a group’s tendency to immanentize the eschaton.

This phrase can be gleaned from Voegelin’s 1952 book The New Science of Politics, “The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.” Or, in normal people’s terms, the world’s problems can be conquered through the right thoughts and practices. That if people were just enlightened enough then the problem could be conquered. We have all heard the phrase “spreading awareness.”

As a person who identifies as lazy, I love nothing more than someone else already doing the boring philosophical readings for me. This someone happens to be the venerable-ish Jonah Goldberg (you’re not at Bill Buckley levels yet Goldberg), who laid out Voegelin’s argument here.

The debate now stands, are those on the Progressive Left really trying to immanentize the eschaton, or are they merely participating in a cynical push for power? Well, as with all things in life, this is debatable and disputable and another d-word. According to another renowned political philosopher Hannah Arendt, the totalitarian wave of the 20th century came about as due to the breakdown of tradition. Voegelin sees the rise of totalitarianism as the building up, by any means necessary, of a heaven on Earth, while, as was just said, Arendt argues for it is the breakdown of society.

So which is it? To take the fence-sitter position (the most uncomfortable position I assure you), it is both and neither. The problem with any one theory of politics or human behavior is that humans are, in fact, very complex. Any one answer is overly-reductionist in the sense that no man can look into another’s heart. Some might be trying to bring about Nirvana, while others might just be all about that power. Or maybe both are only components of the real reason. As Johnny Cash sang, “I guess things happen that way.”



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