Voegelin’s “The New Science of Politics”: Chapter One: Representation & Existence

In this chapter Voegelin sets out towards a useful understanding of representation as it relates to governance, because for him the current ways in which we think and talk about representative government is provincial and not useful.

First, he sets the Aristotelian procedure of symbols in reality and concepts in science as our standard. He then proceeds to demonstrate that our supposed scientific understanding of representative government is really more of an elemental understanding, since the idea of representation means different things to different people and groups. Each group—democratic, Marxist, monarchist—all claim their forms of governments are representative, hence relegating these definitions to symbolic.

To get at an existential (conceptual) understanding of representation, Voegelin makes the distinction between an agent and a representative.

An agent is authorized to conduct specific business and to do so only in ways specifically instructed by the authorizing party. A representative, however, is a person who has power to act on behalf of society based on his position within the structure of the community, without specific instructions for specified business, and who’s acts will not be denied validity by members of the society.

Having made this distinction, we begin to see a concept of representation that is more existential and more useful, one which eliminates the subjective and relative nature of the symbolic.

So, now we have representational government to mean the state as represented by an individual or set of individuals. We can easily imagine a king over his realm.

Voegelin spends a little time tracing the evolution of this concept and in the merging of the will of the people with that of the representative, although he shares this not to modify the concept of representation but rather to trace the playing out of the idea through history and up to our present time.

What follows is a chain of thinking by Maurice Hauriou:

  • A government’s power is legitimate by virtue of its functioning as a representative of the institution of the state
  • At the state’s core is the idea and the body of the state is organized around this core for the realizing and expanding of the idea and its power
  • The function of the ruler is the conception of the idea and its realization in history. The institution is perfected when the ruler becomes subordinate to the idea and the members give customary consent
  • Thus, to be a representative means to guide, in a ruling position, the work of realizing the idea through institutional embodiment
  • And a ruler has authority insomuch as he is able to make his power representative of the idea

Thus, in order to be representative, it is not enough to represent in a constitutional sense. The representative must represent in the existential project of realizing the idea of the state or institution, otherwise that representative will be replaced by one committed to an/the idea.