Voegelin letters background

As recorded in the published correspondence between Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate, McLuhan visited Brooks in Baton Rouge and Tate and in Sewanee in 1945.1 In a postscript to a June 27, 1945 letter to Allen Tate, Brooks wrote: “Marshall McLuhan has written of seeing you and the pleasant time that he had at Sewanee. We were delighted with him here.” (124) It was during this visit with Brooks at LSU that McLuhan met Eric Voegelin and others in Voegelin’s circle like Robert Heilman (to whom along with Voegelin McLuhan often sent greetings through Brooks). If Wilmoore Kendall was not away from Baton Rouge then, McLuhan would surely have met him at the same time. The two had long known of each other through their mutual friend, Felix Giovanelli.

Prior to this visit, Brooks and McLuhan had gradually become close friends in the early 1940s through two channels.

In the first place, through his reading of G.K. Chesterton McLuhan had been an ardent distributist2 since his undergraduate and MA years at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. When he won a scholarship to Cambridge and studied there from 1934 to 1936, his interest in distributism only grew through friends he made in the movement there and through the link he identified with it in the work of F.R.Leavis, a Cambridge don and editor of the influential journal of English literature, Scrutiny. While at Cambridge, McLuhan attended a distributist dinner in London with Chesterton himself in attendance, and wrote a letter that appeared in G.K.’s Weekly, the movement’s unofficial organ. McLuhan published his first academic article, ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ early in 1936 while he was still in the UK, and then, in the spring of 1937 during his first part-time teaching job for one year at the University of Wisconsin, he followed Chesterton in converting to Catholicism. Distributism was clearly a matter of fundamental importance to him.

When McLuhan obtained his first fulltime teaching position at St Louis University in the fall of 1937, one of his colleagues there was John Rawe, S.J., the head of the American branch of the distributist movement. The year before, in 1936, a convention had been held in Nashville where the distributists led by Rawe had met with the southern agrarians, including John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Cleanth Brooks. The express purpose of the convention had been to explore the possibility of forming a united front between the two movements. Although the convention decided in favor of the idea, it did not succeed, perhaps in good part on account of the serious (ultimately fatal) illness Rawe contracted around 1940. However, a loose association had been identified between distributist/agrarian social policy and the ‘new criticism’ group in literature. Since this association had already been formed in McLuhan’s mind in England with his combined allegiances to Chesterton and Leavis, it was natural for him to fall in with the parallel American manifestation and particularly with Brooks, whose interest in the history of criticism was close to his own. In the two volume Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957) by Brooks and his Yale colleague, William Wimsatt , a pointer to McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis appears in its preface: “A more or less pervasive debt in several chapters to a manuscript book by H. M. McLuhan concerning the ancient war between dialecticians and rhetoricians is here gratefully acknowledged and is underscored by the quotation, following chapter 4, of two substantial excerpts from published essays by Mr. McLuhan.”

In the second place, one of McLuhan’s closest friends at SLU was Felix Giovanelli who began to teach in the Romance Language department there in 1940 after obtaining his PhD from the University of Illinois. A good friend of Giovanelli in grad school at Illinois had been Wilmoore Kendall.3

 While the interests of the agrarians overlapped with McLuhan’s in multiple ways, establishing personal relationships with them was another matter. It is highly probable that the first personal contact between McLuhan and the great cohort of minds then at LSU (Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren and Bob Heilman in the English department, along with Voegelin and Kendall in political science) came about through the mediation of Giovanelli and Kendall. Perhaps the two arranged a meeting between McLuhan and Brooks at some English association meeting? In any case, starting around 1943, McLuhan and Brooks became lifelong friends and frequent correspondents.

Now when McLuhan met Voegelin in 1945, this was the third time in short succession he had met great European scholars who would have decisive influence in his career.4 In 1943 McLuhan had met, separately, Wyndham Lewis and Sigfried Giedion and his relationship with them would in both cases last until their deaths in 1957 and 1968 respectively.5

In the context of the 1953 exchange with Voegelin, McLuhan’s association with Giedion was particularly important. Giedion’s 1941 Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition was based on lectures he gave at Harvard in 1938 and is still in print today. In his introduction to the first edition, Giedion brilliantly observed :

Unity, for us, will have to come about through the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts. There are indications that we are nearing a spontaneously established harmony of emotional and intellectual activities. In both contemporary science and contemporary art it is possible to detect elements of the general pattern which our culture will embody. The situation is a curious one: our culture is like an orchestra. where the instruments lie ready tuned. but where every musician is cut off from his fellows by a soundproof wall. It is impossible to foretell the events that will have to come before these barriers are broken down. The only service the historian can perform is to point out this situation, to bring it into consciousness.

Giedion’s answer to this problem of communicating orchestral harmony, proposed in the midst of a world war that would culminate in the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, was given in the title of an essay which he published in a series of different journals between 1942 and 1944: ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’.6 This was an answer which functioned on a series of theoretical and practical levels at once. On a theoretical level, “the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts” were based on dynamics. That is, they were based on the Aristotelian explication of Plato’s forms as dynamic possibilities that unfold in the multifold shapes of actuality. The implication was that there is ‘a faculty of interrelations’ common to all physical nature and to human beings (though with complications in the latter that are absent in the former) between possibility and actuality and that it is this ‘faculty’ that allows for, and is the key to, the intelligibility of all actual forms.

In 1927 in his introduction to Sein und Zeit Heidegger had stated that phenomenology must begin with the principle that “higher than actuality stands possibility”. The year before, Born and Heisenberg had seen that the mathematics of quantum mechanics were graphs of possibilities. For decades before that, Freud and Jung had been reading psychopathologies as expressions of underlying unconscious possibilities. And for decades before that, in turn, painters, musicians and poets had been probing the ‘abstract’ parameters of their arts as possibilities that were manifested in some fashion in every actual work (so, eg, color and form in art, scale and rhythm in music). In science, the interrelation between the chemical elements and their expression in physical materials particularly exemplified such dynamics. Today, genetics is grounded in an analogous understanding of the role of DNA.

A faculty of dynamic interaction between possibility and actuality was the “general pattern” that had already “tuned” modern society — but only in chaotic fashion where the various disciplines based on it did not know of their mutual “established harmony” and so were unable to explicate the general possibility of peace which could be formulated on its foundation.

How the required recognition might be brought about lay, in Giedion’s view, in another reading of the phrase, ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’. Namely, a new faculty was needed in universities and research institutes that would be dedicated to this interrelation of possibility and actuality and to the further interrelation grounded in it between the institution’s various other ‘faculties’ (like the arts and sciences). As had been seen at least as far back as Plato, such a general faculty might ground truth in a new way and so provide the basis in society, and between societies, in the δικαιοσύνη (justice, mutual recognition) described in Plato’s Republic.

McLuhan would later state that his meeting with Giedion in St Louis in 1943 was one of the great events in his life. In fact, it is not too much to see the remainder of his career as dedicated to the further explication and communication of Giedion’s “faculty of interrelations” in such guises as ‘culture and technology’, ‘communications and society’, etc.

His first concrete attempt to implement Giedion’s strategy was made with Brooks. In the mid 1940s the University of Chicago attempted to recruit Brooks from LSU and he spent the academic year 1945-46 there as a visiting scholar. By this time McLuhan had already been in contact with UC because Giedion, immediately after their meeting in 1943, had written to his friend John Nef, a close lieutenant of Robert Hutchins and one of the founders of the UC Committee on Social Thought (after whom it is now named), to recommend McLuhan for Chicago.7

The result had been some correspondence between McLuhan and UC, including with Chancellor Hutchins, and the submission of some of McLuhan’s papers for review there. But the result was negative, apparently because McLuhan’s Catholicism, on the one hand, and his ‘the academy is full of idiots’ attitude, on the other, somehow did not sit well with the overwhelmingly secular academics there. No doubt this was especially the case when McLuhan’s scorn extended to the Great Books program which was intended, at least, to address the very oblivion of principles that concerned Giedion and McLuhan. Its proponents, like Mortimer Adler, might have been thought to be natural allies of McLuhan’s ideas and potentially also of McLuhan himself. But he had been a sharp critic of Adler for years and apparently found it impossible to adjust his course for strategic purpose.

Brooks’ presence at UC as a prized recruit apparently gave McLuhan a second chance there two years later. Brooks set up a meeting between McLuhan and Chancellor Hutchins in 1946. Now McLuhan’s aim was no longer the seemingly hopeless one of him joining the UC faculty (particularly when Brooks had decided not to accept the offer to remain there). Instead, he had a far more important and far more ambitious goal. He hoped to elicit Hutchins’ help in financing, at UC or elsewhere, “a faculty of interrelations” that would implement Giedion’s strategy of a practical “editorial” interrelation between scholars in the different faculties of learning. Could whole nations be expected to exercise themselves in some sort of mutual harmony with each other if individual academics and their respective disciplines could not?

In his proposal to Hutchins, McLuhan put forward only two scholars whose participation he saw as essential to it: Voegelin and Etienne Gilson (now McLuhan’s colleague in Toronto and yet another of the great Europeans McLuhan met in the 1940’s.8

McLuhan’s proposal went nowhere with Hutchins, but he did not give up the ambition formulated in it. It even reached a sort of concrete realization in the ‘Culture and Technology’ seminar funded by the Ford Foundation at the University of Toronto starting in 1953 — the year of McLuhan’s correspondence with Voegelin.





  1. This visit is recorded in Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism by Mark Royden Winchell (1996) as follows: “Friends of Cleanth and (his wife) Tinkum remember seeing the Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan at the Brooks home. Born and reared in the western provinces of Canada, McLuhan could claim a background every bit as rural as that of the Agrarians. Although McLuhan identified himself with the social vision of the Nashville group, his literary views were a bit too moralistic for him to be considered a formalist critic (among the Cambridge literati, he was far closer to F. R. Leavis than to I. A. Richards). Upon returning from Cambridge in 1936, McLuhan taught for the next decade at the Catholic University in St. Louis. Although Missouri is not a southern state, it was close enough to the South that McLuhan could travel in the Old Confederacy and become a kind of honorary Fugitive-Agrarian.” (114) Winchell does not mention that McLuhan’s wife, Corinne, was a Texan from Fort Worth who retained her southern accent all her long life. Furthermore, Winchell’s description has a number of small factual errors, only one of which has any real importance. It concerns the fact that McLuhan was already back in Canada when he made his visit to Baton Rouge and to Sewanee. That he went to considerable trouble and expense to make these visits testifies to the importance he saw in them. As regards his teaching experience after graduating from Cambridge, McLuhan taught a year at the University of Wisconsin before obtaining a position at St Louis University where he remained for seven years from 1937 to 1944.
  2. Distributism was an economic ideology asserting that the world’s productive assets should be widely owned rather than concentrated. Since the animus against concentration in this context meant not only ‘not in a few hands’, but also ‘not only in urban hands’, the fit with the Agrarians was close.
  3. Letters from Kendall to Giovanelli dating from 1941-1943 are preserved in the Giovanelli papers at the University of Illinois archive. It is possible that there are letters from Giovanelli to Kendall preserved at the Hoover Institute archive in Kendall’s papers there.
  4. The influence of Voegelin on McLuhan’s work can hardly be compared to that of Lewis and Giedion. However, the title of the book McLuhan was preparing when he died at the end of 1980, and that eventually appeared posthumously in 1988, The Laws of Media: The New Science, echoed Voegelin’s New Science from their encounter in 1953. Both, in turn, echoed the proposals for scientia nova in the work of Bacon, Leibniz and Vico.
  5. McLuhan’s relationship with Lewis had its ups and downs – like everyone else’s with Lewis.
  6. This short paper appeared in Education in 1942, in the Weekly Bulletin of the Michigan Society of Architects in 1943 and in Architect And Engineer in 1944. Giedion plainly thought it formulated essential concerns for a time of world war.
  7. See Giedion to Nef re a “promising young scholar”.
  8. Before meeting Gilson in person, presumably in 1947 at St Michael’s college of UT (where the two were colleagues), McLuhan had already studied his work closely. Gilson is the single most cited authority in McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Nashe and the classical trivium from 1943.