Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis

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Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis is a 2008 book by Dutch philosopher Dr. Meins G.S. Coetsier, staff member of the Etty Hillesum Research Centre (EHOC), director of the Centre of Eric Voegelin Studies (EVS) at Ugent and founder of the Flow of Presence Academy (FPA).

"Using the views of Eric Voegelin on the nature of consciousness, Coetsier explores the mystical thought expressed in the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, who died at Auschwitz at twenty-nine, revealing the inner development of her mystically grounded resistance to Nazism and the symbolism of her spiritual journey"--Provided by publisher.
Author(s) Meins G. S. Coetsier
Country United States
Language English
Subject(s) Etty Hillesum, Eric Voegelin, Religion, Philosophy, Mysticism, Spirituality, World War II, memoirs, diary
Genre(s) Eric Voegelin Institute Series in Political Philosophy: Studies in Religion and Politics
Publisher University of Missouri Press
Publication date 2008
Media type Hardcover, Paperback

ISBN 0-8262-1797-4 and ISBN 978-0-8262-1797-4


OCLC Number 183147395
Dewey Decimal 940.53/18092 B 22
LC Classification DS135.N6 H5447 2008


Eric Voegelin

Coetsier's reflections on the German philosopher and political scientist Eric Voegelin entered his philosophical journey during his stay in Ireland.[1] Voegelin’s philosophy of experience and symbolization touched Coetsier's search for meaning. He was struck by Voegelin’s rearticulation of the experience of the In-Between (Plato:[2] metaxy[3]), the central locus for the recapture of reality historically lost to consciousness. The existential authenticity of the language symbols that Voegelin uses challenged Coetsier to write a book on the flow of presence. Meditating on Voegelin’s philosophical symbols helped him to realize that the experience of such attunement to the flow of presence is the key to being human.


Etty Hillesum

During his stay in Dublin, Coetsier studied the works of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch woman. Considering his own Dutch nationality and the historical background and sufferings of some of his family members during World War II, he has tried to make his philosophical approach to her work as “real” as possible. Coetsier visited Etty’s family home in Deventer, Amsterdam, where she studied; Camp Westerbork in the Netherlands, where she was detained; and Auschwitz in Poland, where she was imprisoned and murdered. In the light of his research journeys and of those visits to Auschwitz and Westerbork and as a result of having had the privilege of reading and studying the original diaries of Etty Hillesum in the Dutch language in the Jewish historical museum (JHM)of Amsterdam, he has gradually become aware of how Etty Hillesum brought “mind” and “heart” together in a personal attunement to the flow of presence.


  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • INTRODUCTION___ Spiritual Filter[4]
  • ONE____________ Etty Hillesum
  • TWO____________ The Letters and Diaries
  • THREE__________ Eric Voegelin
  • FOUR___________ Etty Hillesum in the Flow of Presence
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Coetsier's Flow of Presence Analysis


Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis revisits the core of valuable materials of two major thinkers of the twentieth century, Eric Voegelin and Etty Hillesum. It contributes to a new understanding of familiar material by treating it in an original and thought-provoking manner. This study blends the thought and life experiences of two mystical thinkers in one overall vision for the twenty-first century.[5] Prof. Dr. Macon Boczek writes: "Coetsier devotes the opening chapter to Etty Hillesum’s life. He follows this with a chapter on her letters and diaries. He then devotes a further chapter to the thought of Eric Voegelin and in the final chapter, shows the remarkable coincidence of her spiritual experiences with Voegelin’s own."[6] The major contribution of Voegelin's notion "the flow of presence" is that it makes the inner development of Hillesum’s mystically grounded resistance to Nazism transparent. The theory of Voegelin’s analytic[7] of experience and symbolization is brought to life in relation to Hillesum's work.[8] The book thereby confirms the hermeneutical value of such an approach as well as retrieving one of the lesser known heroes of the Holocaust. The Voegelin material is well expressed and the argument is tight as, for example, in Chapter 4 where Hillesum’s scattered meditations are comprehended within a number of the categories Voegelin has made available.


An interesting sentence from Meins Coetsier’s book on Etty Hillesum. He comments on the fact that her writing and silent meditation helped her to “tap into an area within herself that in society had mainly vanished.” Voegelin believed that the disappearance of meditation as a ‘cultural factor’ resulted in the practical ignorance of those aspects of reality touched on by myth, philosophy and mysticism. In other words the secularisation of society has deprived people, or most people perhaps, of an awareness of the depth of reality, of the spiritual dimension. He goes on to talk about a ‘perverse closure of consciousness against reality’ (p. 129). I wonder about the ‘perverse’. For some, perhaps, yes. They make a conscious decision to ignore any spiritual promptings. But for many, I think, socialisation into a secular and materialist culture has simply obscured any such awareness. The occasions when they might perhaps suspect that there is more to reality than the material surface of things are when they encounter a limit situation. Though it is also the case, as David Hay found in his Nottingham survey,[2] that many people feel that there is ‘something there’, that there is more to reality than surface appearances. But ‘a feeling’ is about as far as it goes. This is not something people generally feel they can talk about with others. Spirituality, religion, mysticism are all taboo subjects. We all have capax dei and in some exceptional people, like Etty Hillesum, awareness of it develops in spite, or maybe because of external circumstances. But in most of us it needs to be nurtured and guided.[9]

Eric Voegelin and Etty Hillesum could help us to 'nurture and guide,' they contribute to our understanding of cathartic resistance to totalitarian crisis, and to the spiritual truth emergent within such existence. Hillesum's search as presented in this book fits well within themes integral to the Voegelin literature. 

Scholarly Contribution


Scholarly Contribution

Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis is the thorough reading of the symbol world of Hillesum’s interior journey. She was a remarkable witness both in terms of the substance of her work and of her literary formulation. Professor Boczek writes: "Etty Hillesum, as a young woman in Amsterdam, had been a secular, non-observant Jew from a troubled yet creative family. She entered adulthood in a state of psychological distress and was caught up in the twentieth century sexual revolution. Yet she was driven by a search for meaning in life. The people and events in her life, plus her rich educational and linguistic background, brought her to the “discovery of an existential interior openness to the divine.” “Here is a personal odyssey,” Coetsier writes, “a spiritual turnaround, an emotional healing, an emergence of representative consciousness, that is eminently worthy of study.” (p. 6)"[10] Under extraordinary conditions Hillesum underwent the growth of the soul that enabled her to triumph over the totalitarian nightmare. Thereby, she found the linguistic means of making this development available to succeeding generations.[11] To follow it however we must be prepared to take the full measure of the rich symbol world she developed for the task. This book, with its access to the Dutch sources[12] and the dissection of the linguistic universe of Etty Hillesum, contributes both to Hillesum research and Voegelinian scholarship.[13] Professor Boczek argues:


Coetsier is able to employ Voegelin’s thought to analyze Hillesum for two reasons: first because Voegelin carried out extensive diagnoses of the spiritual disorder that grounds modernity as well as an exhaustive exegesis of the divine/human encounter as constitutive of human nature. And second, “the rich philosophical and religious symbolisms” in Hillesum’s less technical and more poetic Letters and Diaries make them an excellent source that both illustrates and substantiates Voegelin’s work as revealed in the “Drama of Humanity.” The nature and definition of what it is to be human emerge in these symbols, i.e., reason as a sensorium of transcendence and the metaxy as the site of the “flow of presence” with its human and divine poles. Voegelin’s theoretical apparatus can shed light on the core development Hillesum underwent in the process of writing about her rich interior life. While Voegelin offered a systematic analysis of the Greek philosophers’ insights into humanity, Coetsier demonstrates the remarkable adequacy of Voegelin’s philosophy for interpreting Etty Hillesum’s writings.[14]

In his review of Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence in Theological Studies, Prof. dr. Francis T. Hannafey (Religious Studies, Fairfield University) writes:


Coetsier carefully studies the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, devoting special effort to a linguistic analysis of central Hillesum language symbols. Drawing extensively on the philosophy of Eric Voegelin—and particularly on his concept of "the flow of presence" (100) in the response of the human soul to the divine, C. seeks to better understand the “relationship between the life of Etty Hillesum and her writings” (193), proposing that Hillesum had an experience “that broke with the ordinary diary” (197, i.e., that pushed her beyond an ordinary form of diary writing), revealing a “symbolic form of transcendent address” (198). C. suggests that this interpretive insight can help us more fully understand Hillesum’s encounter with the “transcendent Other” (197), an encounter that eventually emerged at the center of her extraordinary life, suffering, and relationships. C. actually offers carefully detailed analysis of both Hillesum and Voegelin. Hillesum’s writings and central Voegelinian ideas enter into creative dialogue, resulting in richer understandings of each. In places, however, the book progresses slowly, due mostly to its technical analysis and extensive quotations of Hillesum and Voegelin. This density may challenge some readers. Others might question the use of a comprehensive philosophical framework to examine diaries and letters that often break beyond linguistic analysis, at least in their spiritual and mystical dimensions. These questions aside, C’s analysis is original, carefully researched, and highly creative. His study of the original Dutch texts is a particularly valuable contribution, placing the volume among the best English, book-length studies of Hillesum. In the end, C’s appeal to Voegelin's theory of “the flow of presence” succeeds in presenting more fully the depth and power of Hillesum’s astounding prayer-filled experience during a period of horrendous violence, evil, and suffering—a time, but also an experience, that must never be forgotten. [15] 


Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis is an account of the life, works and vision of two prominent mystical thinkers, Etty Hillesum and Eric Voegelin, whose lives were shaped by the totalitarian Nazi-regime. This book explores how mystical attunement to the flow of presence is the key to the development of Etty Hillesum’s life and writings. Eric Voegelin’s analysis of the history of order is focused on the responses of individuals and societies to the divine presence. Etty Hillesum’s The Letters and Diaries illustrates her heroic struggle to come to terms with her personal life in the context of her gradual response to the flowing presence.


Etty Hillesum died at the age of twenty-nine in Auschwitz midway through World War II. All her energy had been absorbed in a daily search for the meaning of her life, for an understanding of her relationships with others, and for an insight into the ultimate purpose of each individual’s contribution to the well being and maintenance of the human spirit.


Eric Voegelin’s philosophical symbol "the flow of presence" ("the intersection of time with the timeless") is designed to “catch’’ changes and shifts in the mode of human responsiveness to the divine presence and it is especially helpful in clarifying what is taking place in the soul of Etty Hillesum. Her response to the flow of presence while she was undergoing significant breakthroughs in her spiritual life in the context of a period of overwhelming social disorder, amounts to a testament of great courage. It is an inspiration and an affirmation of the indestructible wonder of life. In one of his final conclusions Coetsier writes: “The complexity of the human condition will require the ability to be human in transcending our immediate and simply given context through an attunement to the flow of presence.” Etty Hillesum and Eric Voegelin have provided a welcome antidote to the restless and wandering spirit of a complex and turbulent era and this book guides the reader to the heart of their mystical thought.


With the current explosion of interest in inter-religious dialogue, peace studies, Judaism, the holocaust, gender studies and mysticism, it is an attempt to respond to the signs of the times. Accompanying the treatment of Voegelin’s and Hillesum’s writing, this book includes an extensive bibliography of international scholarship on both authors.


  1. ^ For the completion of Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis, Coetsier owes credit to the patience and helpful criticism of many people. This book owes an incalculable debt to the vital encouragement of Dr. Gabriel Slattery. Slattery's enthusiastic interest, and critical support, helped Coetsier’s understanding of Voegelin to evolve. As a native Dutch speaker, Coetsier initially struggled with Voegelin’s often complicated technical vocabulary. Slattery guided Coetsier’s exploration of Voegelin’s thought in relation to Etty Hillesum’s letters and diaries. Fr. Brendan Duddy and Dr. Joe McCarroll challenged Coetsier in philosophical debates concerning the flow of presence. Besides McCaroll it was Fr. Alan McGuckian who brought Coetsier into contact with Hillesum’s writings. During these encounters with various scholars Coetsier's idea for this study took shape. As Coetsier mentions at the beginning of his book, Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis could not have been written without the help, humor, and, at times, fiery criticism of fellow scholars. Thanks to McCarroll and his golden suggestions Coetsier’s work took off. Dr. Brendan Purcell (University College Dublin) not only helped Coetsier to clarify the direction of his thought but also brought this study to America. Prof. Dr. Ronald Commers, head of the department of philosophy and moral sciences, and the director of the EHOC, the Etty Hillesum Research Center, Prof. Dr. Klaas A. D. Smelik and Dr. Denise de Costa, played essential parts in Coetsier’s search and writing of the book.
  2. ^ Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, edited with an introduction by Dante Germino, Vol. 3 of Order and History, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, 16 (Columbia (Missouri): University of Missouri Press, 2000).
  3. ^ Metaxy (μεταξύ) (1) as defined from Plato's Symposium, via the character Priestess Diotima, is the “in-between.”(2) Metaxy is defined as the “in-between” or “middle ground” (3) Diotima as tutor to Socrates uses the term to show how oral tradition can be perceived by different people in different ways. (4) In her depiction in the poem by Socrates showing that Eros was not an extreme or purity. That Eros as a daimon was in-between the divine Gods and mankind. (5) Thus showing the flaws of the oral tradition in its use of contrast to express the truth showing oral tradition's weakness to sophistry. Pointing to the idea that reality is perceptive though ones character which includes ones desires and prejudges and ones limited understanding of logic. That man moves through the world of becoming or the ever changing world of sensory perception into the world of being which is the world of forms, absolutes and transcendence. (6) Man transcends his place in the becoming by eros, were man reaches the Highest Good, an intuitive and mystical state of consciousness.(7)The metaxy symbolises the experience of the noetic quest as a transition of the psyche from mortality to immortality. Diotima expressed that Eros was in-between the Gods and mankind. Neoplatonists like Plotinus later used the term metaxy to express an ontological placement of Man between the Gods and animals. For Voegelin: Man experiences himself as tending beyond his human imperfection toward the perfection of the divine ground that moves him. The spiritual man, the daimonios aner, as he is moved in his quest of the ground, moves somewhere between knowledge and ignorance (metaxy sophias kai amathias). “The whole realm of the spiritual (daimonion) is halfway indeed between (metaxy) god and man” (Symposium 202a). Thus, the In-Between – the metaxy – is not an empty space between the poles of the tension but the “realm of the spiritual”; it is the reality of “man’s converse with the gods” (202-203), the mutual participation (methexis, metalepsis) of human in divine, and divine in human, reality.
  4. ^ For the idea of "Spiritual Filter" see also Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, ‘The Smatterers’ in From Under the Rubble, Fontana Collins, 1976, 272-273. “Forming the ‘backbone of a new people’ is not something that can be done as safely and light-heartedly as we are promised, at weekends and in our spare time, without giving up our scientific research institutes. No, it will have to be done on weekdays, as part of the mainstream of our life, in its most dangerous sector – and by each one of us in chilling isolation... A society so vicious and polluted, implicated in so many of the crimes of these last fifty years – by its lies, by its servility, either willing or enforced, by its eagerness to assist or its cowardly restraint – such a society can only be cured and purified by passing through a spiritual filter. And this filter is a terrible one, with holes as fine as the eye of a needle, each big enough for only one person. And people may pass into the spiritual future only one at a time, by squeezing through… By deliberate voluntary sacrifice… There is no way left for us to pass from our present contemptible amorphousness into the future except through open, personal, predominantly public (to set an example) sacrifice. We shall have to ‘rediscover our cultural treasures and values’ not by erudition, not by scientific accomplishment, but by our form of spiritual conduct, by laying aside our material well-being and, if the worst comes to the worst, our lives… The first tiny minority who set out to force their way through the tight holes of the filter will of their own accord find new definitions of themselves, either while they are still in the filter, or when they have come out on the other side and recognize themselves and each other. It is there that the word will be recognized, it will be born of the very process of passing through…It would not be inaccurate to call them for the moment a sacrificial elite.”
  5. ^ In his Article 'The Philosopher's Vocation: The Voegelinian Paradigm,' in The Review of Politics, Cambridge University (2009) 71: 54-67 Press [1] Prof. dr. Ellis Sandoz refers to Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis to discuss the 'mystic philosopher.'
  6. ^ Exegesis of a Mystic's Experience: A book review by Macon Boczek. Available at: VoegelinView [2]
  7. ^ The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin
  8. ^ Etty Hillesum, (2002). Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943. Ed. Klaas A. D. Smelik. Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans. Ottawa, Ontario: Novalis Saint Paul University - William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Exegesis of a Mystic's Experience: A book review by Macon Boczek. Available at: VoegelinView [3]
  11. ^ Cf. Klaas A.D. Smelik, Ria van den Brandt, and Meins G. S. Coetsier, Eds. Spirituality in the Writings of Etty Hillesum: Proceedings of the Etty Hillesum Conference at Ghent University, November 2008 (Supplements to the Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy). Boston: Brill, 2010.
  12. ^ Etty Hillesum, Etty: De nagelaten geschriften van Etty Hillesum 1941-1943. Ed. Klaas. A. D. Smelik. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Balans,1986.
  13. ^ In the Introduction to “Hitler and The Germans” (Collected Works, 31) Brendan Purcell refers to Etty Hillesum and Voegelin as participants in “the biography of the flowing presence,” inviting us to be differently: The “Hitler and the Germans” lectures are a powerful anamnesis of the humanity of each man and woman as imago Dei, as participating in “the biography of the flowing presence.” Only within the context of that presence can we ground a judgement regarding the absolute dignity of each victim and the awful guilt of each attempt at desecrating that image of God. Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), herself a Dutch Holocaust victim, while at Westerbork concentration camp spoke of her “love for all our neighbors, for everyone made in God’s image.” And she reveals the source of actualization of her participation in universal humanity to be her intense consciousness of the fact that each one is a you-for-God, when she writes, “My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, my God, a great dialogue.” Voegelin’s belonging, in its existential height and depth, to the worldwide “community of suffering” would not claim comparison with Etty Hillesum’s. Yet, by his reminding us that our judgement of the Nazi period must be made within the perspective of her “great dialogue,” he is inviting us too, not just to think or to speak differently, but to be differently. Vgl. Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works, Vol. 31, 40.
  14. ^ Exegesis of a Mystic's Experience: A book review by Macon Boczek. Available at: VoegelinView [4]
  15. ^ Francis T. Hannafey, "Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence (Book review)" Theological Studies 70, no. 2 (June, 2009): 512.

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