In The New Order and Last Orientation, Eric Voegelin explores two distinctly different yet equally important aspects of modernity. He begins by offering a vivid account of the political situation in seventeenth-century Europe after the decline of the church and the passing of the empire. Voegelin shows how the intellectual and political disorder of the period was met by such seemingly disparate responses as Grotius's theory of natural right, Hobbes's Leviathan, the role of the Fronde in the formation of the French national state, Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and Locke's Second Treatise, the blueprint of a modern middle-class society. By putting these responses and the thought of Montesquieu, Hume, and others in the context of the birth pains of the national state and the emergence of a new self-understanding of man, Voegelin achieves a brilliant mixture of political history and profound philosophical analysis.
Voegelin's verdict of modernity is pronounced most powerfully in the opening part of "Last Orientation," in the chapter entitled "Phenomenalism." His discussion of the intellectual confusion underlying the modern project of scientistic phenomenalism is the most original criticism leveled against modernity to date. It is at the same time the first step toward a recovery of reality through philosophy conceived as a science of substance in the spirit of Giordano Bruno. Voegelin's first example of such an effort at recovering reality is the chapter on Schelling, one of the spiritual realists who has not been affected by the prevailing rationalist or reductionist creeds that are part of the modern disorder. Schelling's indirect yet powerful influence on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud more than justifies Voegelin's interest in his philosophy and character, even though Voegelin would later distance himself from some of Schelling's positions.
The volume's concluding chapter, "Nietzsche and Pascal," applies the understanding gained from the study of Schelling to the thought of the most powerful critic of the age, Nietzsche. Nietzsche's self-avowed affinity with Pascal provides the key to an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of his thought and reaffirms the connection that links the beginning of modernity with its most recent crises and the efforts to overcome them.