Reluctant Inferences

The crime scene after the murder of Moritz Schlick
at the philosophers’ staircase of the University of Vienna in 1936.
Austrian National Library, Picture Archives Contemporary History.

This is the evening when I usually pen the weekly essay for “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.” Till I take pen in hand, I never know exactly what I’m going to write. Often, I don’t even know the topic! So what you read is not anything I’ve planned in advance. But normally, by the time I’m putting pen to paper, the sense of what there is for me to say comes to me.

There are a few controlling principles: I won’t write anything where I pretend interest contrived for this purpose, nor anything I believe to be false.

What’s on my mind this evening is difficult to write about. In recent years, I’ve given papers at meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society, which meets with the American Political Science Association. Its members are devoted to the study and continuation of the work of Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). He was an immensely erudite, productive and creative thinker — a near-genius somewhere between political scientist and philosopher of history.

Narrowly escaping the Gestapo in an Austria engulfed in Nazism, he valued America for embodying an intellectual openness and common sense that, to his mind, compensated for the European scholar’s erudite intellectual systems. What stood out in Voegelin was another quality, however. He looked to discover — in the widely different cultural phases of world history — the spiritual springs of thought and action. 

Such an orientation is uncommon among contemporary political scientists, historians or philosophers of history. Perhaps for that reason, the EVS attracts refined and accomplished academics and others. When they meet to hear papers and converse, there is a sense of finding refuge from the storms of skepticism, cynicism and crass know-it-all-ism raging outside.

Which brings me to my present discomfort. Recently, I’ve become aware of passages about Jews in Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation, volume one of his five volume Order and History, for which “regrettable” would be the politest word. It’s odd that I seem to be the first person who’s been struck to the heart by these passages. They stand out, incongruous where they appear on the page. This is partly because Voegelin became a particular target of the Nazis by reason of books he had written criticizing Nazi race theories. What is more, he belonged to an outstanding intellectual circle in Vienna that included a number of Jews. He surely knew from experience how easily words that deny the cultural or spiritual worth of a people (words like “demonic derailment” or “hatred of mankind” or “grotesque result of post exilic synoecism” or “suicidal impasse”) can slide into rationales for mass murder. Why he permitted such vilifications to survive an author’s rereading of his original draft is beyond me. Did he just write in a stream-of-conscious way and then send the uncorrected draft off to the publisher?

One possible reason why, up to now, no sincere seeker from the EVS has dealt with this matter occurs to me. The anti-Jewish insults get folded into the Voegelin text at widely dispersed intervals in a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t manner. That’s a phenomenon I dealt with in one previous instance. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a book titled, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The gist of her “report” was that Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer who, more than any other, got the Holocaust planned and implemented, was a mere mindless, boring bureaucrat, while his victims (about five million out of the six million total) were so needlessly compliant as to be practically complicit in their own genocide. The two claims, both of them false and misleading, took hold immediately and widely in the culture. No wonder! Taken together, they got everybody off the hook except the silent dead.

I am of course not accusing Voegelin of writing any book like Arendt’s Eichmann. The similarity that came to mind had to do with the style of the slur. What style was that? With regard to her accusations against the victims, Arendt followed a strategy that deflected critical assault. She would say and then unsay the same thing, denouncing in one paragraph and then exonerating a few paragraphs later. So her critics could point to what she said, and her defenders to the passages where she unsaid it! The dispute would end in a draw. You could not sustain an intelligible charge. And after all, quarrelsomeness sounds shrill, self-serving and petty. By the time, years later, information surfaced that decisively overturned Arendt’s case, all the original parties to the dispute were dead and the whole topic was out of fashion.

That said, Arendt’s book was a lot shorter than Voegelin’s volume one. It was refutable, if one took the trouble to compare it to the Eichmann trial transcript and to Eichmann’s recorded reminiscences in Argentina that came to light later. By contrast, Voegelin’s work takes in evidences that span a period of several thousand years and include a succession of scholarly opinions. So the say-it-and-later-unsay-it strategy is harder to unearth and is found only in isolated sentences, strung across unrelated evidential layers of different types and purposes.

Such were the reasons not to challenge Voegelin’s authority. The more I reread his text and saw that his claims are never easy to controvert — because they are peculiarly hard to identify — the less confident I felt about what I might set out to do. After all, nobody’s paying me to do anything about Voegelin’s claims regarding the religion of Israel, Jews or Judaism, pre-exilic, post-exilic or post-Biblical! I could lose valued collegial friends. There are countless counter-examples that readers could point to, even if elsewhere there are examples in a different vein. Give it up, girl! You have all your academic ribbons. You don’t need an extra line on your c.v. And nobody needs a paper from you at the next EVS meetings.

Feeling disheartened and decentered, I decided to cut off work for the evening and go downstairs to catch a little TV. Perhaps because Yom ha Shoah is approaching, I happened to click on a program featuring a Holocaust survivor. He’d been just a boy when his country (Roumania I think) was overrun by the Nazis. His parents were farmers and their pre-War relations with neighboring farmers had been very good. Once a week, the local priest would drop in to ask for a charitable contribution which his father unfailingly donated. Till one day the same priest stood outside in their yard with several Nazi officers.

“Jews live there,” they heard him say.

I take “coincidences” like this to invite attention. Authority – even well earned authority – can lend itself to bad uses. It seemed to me that I was being shown this recollection to remind me that all this was not about fitting smoothly into a certain collegial society. The inferences I was drawing about the consequences of defamatory words were correct. They were the right ones to draw. 

It was my duty to go ahead with my paper for the Eric Voegelin Society.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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