Voegelin on Gnosticism – A Revisitation

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Eric Voegelin’s critique of modernity claims that Liberalism, the creed of the Enlightenment, is “Gnostic.” Voegelin (1901-1985) drew the term “Gnosticism” from its scholarly application in theological discussion to a strain of Late Antique religiosity. The term “Gnostic” refers to that array of sects and cults, the adherents of which saw themselves, as forming a saintly elect among the perishing masses on account of their possessing, as their souls, sparks of divinity that had become trapped in the world of matter. The ancient Gnostics abhorred the world of matter and claimed to sojourn in it only as exiles from a realm of pure light, which was the “real” world despite appearances. Voegelin labeled Gnosticism an anticosmic rebellion, a rebellion against reality, emphasizing the tendency of Gnostics to construct what – borrowing from novelists Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer – he called a second reality built on principles contrary to those governing what morally and intellectually adjusted people understand to be the actual or first reality. Gnosticism for Voegelin constitutes a social pathology for the reason that the upholders of the second reality, once having invested their emotion in it, make it a fetish and regard criticism of it as lèse majesté. Organized Gnosticism tends to become a censorious war, a jihad, to protect the second reality from examination and, more aggressively, to coerce assent to the second reality’s existence.

It belongs to Voegelin’s critique of modernity as the re-emergence of Gnosticism that its object – the social pathology of the political religions – corresponds to an attitude (namely, rebuke) rather than to some specific doctrine that has persisted since antiquity. Voegelin never meant to argue that let us say the Valentinian speculation or Manichaeism as such could be identified with Marxism, National Socialism, Leninism, Feminism, Multiculturalism, or any other particular ismatic discourse. Yet, as Voegelin saw it, the ancient and the modern rebellions stubbornly resembled one another in their basic dispositions. When, therefore, in his posthumous In Search of Order (1987), Voegelin alludes to the characteristic modern “divinization of men,” he takes as his exemplar of the genus “the Feuerbach-Marx divinization of man,” whose purpose consists in “explaining divine reality as a human projection that, if returned to man, will produce full humanity.” That normative consciousness is false, that religion is false, that institutions are false and tyrannical, and that only an elite recognizes the situation: These motifs structure both ancient Gnostic speculation and modern ideological discourse – both of which envision their fulfillment in the abolition, one way or another, of existing reality.

Voegelin distinguishes the ancient and modern rebellions in this way: “At the extreme of the revolt in consciousness, ‘reality’ and the ‘Beyond’ become two separate entities, two ‘things’ to be magically manipulated by suffering man for the purpose of either abolishing ‘reality’ altogether and escaping into the ‘Beyond,’ or of forcing the order of the ‘Beyond’ into ‘reality.’ The first of the magic alternatives is preferred by the gnostics of antiquity, the second one by the modern gnostic thinkers.”

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I. The magisterial analysis of pneumopathology, or spiritual sickness, that Voegelin undertakes in the final great phase of his life in the five volumes of Order and History solicits further consideration, which the discussion shall undertake in due course. But as Voegelin’s analysis of pneumopathology consummates many decades of his concerted meditation on the problem of “the modern Gnostic thinkers,” it will be helpful to begin where Voegelin himself began, in his early, sobering study of The Political Religions (1938), which heralds so much in his subsequent authorship. That book’s publication coincided with the Anschluss, with Voegelin’s loss of his teaching position, and with his flight through Switzerland to England in company with his wife. The Political Religions, like The New Science of Politics (1952), either stymied or outraged its earliest readers, or did both at once. Voegelin opens the discussion with a calculated understatement: “Speaking about political religions and construing the movements of our times not only as political but also, and primarily, as religious movements is not accepted as a matter of course yet, even though the factual situation would force the attentive observer to take this stand.” The difficulty actually worsens when one considers that the “movements” of which Voegelin writes identify themselves, not as sacral or religious but quite vehemently as secular; and that they practice open hostility to traditional creeds and churches.

And yet – in looking past the claims of the ideologies, in looking to the organization and behavior of the “movements,” the outward signs of sectarian religiosity begin to make themselves visible to an observer. Among these signs, a fanatical enmity towards any competing spiritual or doctrinal authority strongly resembles the postures that scholarship associates with the zealotries of Late Antiquity religiosity, on the one hand, and with the cultic propaganda of the period of the European religious wars of the Seventeenth Century, on the other. This recurrent attitude of absolute justification is also the shared attitude of contemporary dogmatic Liberalism and Islam – each of which thinks to use the other in the completion of its program of abolishing Christianity despite the many differences that make them finally incompatible. A generation after Voegelin’s death, the cumulus of historical material apposite to the recognition of concupiscent spirituality has greatly increased.

Voegelin’s vocabulary of spiritual aperture and closure structures the argument in The Political Religions. Already in 1938 Voegelin describes normative consciousness – the type of consciousness on which the classical political arrangement is based – as having its root in certain fundamentals that universal perception emphatically attests. As Voegelin writes, “man experiences himself as being natural [kreatürlich] and, therefore, questionable,” where the final adjective means amenable to investigation or analysis which can indeed reveal the truth about a thing. All order begins with man’s sense, as Voegelin argues, that “his soul is linked to the cosmos,” and that when he acts his actions place him in a relation “to a suprapersonal, all-powerful something,” with which the actions can either be in accord or out of tune, healthy or unhealthy. The suspicion that time is out of joint or that something is rotten in the state only makes sense in light of this intuition of a transcendent non-temporal source of temporal order – of an archetype of order or a Logos. For the ancients it resided in the visible cosmos, for Christians, in the unseen City of God. As Voegelin writes, “The Beyond surrounding us can be searched for and found in all the directions in which human existence is open to the world: in the body and in the spirit, in man and in the community, in nature [Natur] and in God.” The “spiritual religions,” which are “trans-worldly,” respond to the intuition of “the Beyond.”

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The historical archive of symbolizations, including the distorted ones, makes an opportunity, however, for derailment. The living, plastic symbols can “firm up as systems, become filled with the spirit of religious agitation and fanatically defended as the ‘right’ order of being.” This type of reification of a symbol-system, invested with the full measures of anxious emotion and literal-mindedness, is closed. It takes itself for the end-point of existence or for a final codification of reality beyond which there is no further development or history. “Our time,” writes Voegelin, “is overcrowded with religious orders of this kind, and the result is a Babylonian confusion of tongues, since the signs or symbols of a language have immensely different holy, magic, and value-related qualities, depending on the speaker using them.” The subject’s relation to the symbols of this-worldly (“immanent”) faith then conforms in a debased way to a lowly thing-relation: The subject encounters the words as though the phenomena designated by them were mere items in the world; he encounters them moreover as fetishes or idols, valorized by the gestures of charismatic gurus or leaders. “Followers of the movements that want to be anti-religious and atheistic refuse to concede that religious experiences can be found at the root of their fanatical attitude, only venerating as sacred something else than the religion they fight.”

In The Political Religions, Voegelin classifies secularization under the heading of “religious developments” but in the direction of immanence rather than transcendence. He reminds readers that the “process of withering” that afflicts European civilization “has its origins in the secularization of the soul and the ensuing severance of a consequently purely secular soul from its roots in religiousness.” Later in the text, Voegelin writes this: “Precisely the secularization of life that accompanied the doctrine of humanism is the soil in which such an anti-Christian religious movement as National Socialism was able to prosper.” Once the propaganda in denial of a “Beyond” of this world has sufficiently pervaded the social domain the only possible remaining sources of valid propositions are “a powerful person,” “organization accompanied by glamour and noise,” and the combination of “force and terror.” The “powerful person” never invites his followers to test on their own the rightness of his doctrine; he promulgates it aggressively in the mode of absolute authority – thus as unquestionable Gnosis, the term that Voegelin would later employ. Voegelin observes that ideological-totalitarian states invariably imitate the trappings of sacred societies. Think of Hitler’s flag-ceremonies or the mummified bodies of the Bolshevik leaders, to which the Communist faithful must make pilgrimage.

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The religiosity of the Twentieth Century ideologies combined with their reactive anti-Christian impulse had not occurred to Voegelin alone. In Metapolitics (1941), Peter Viereck devotes a chapter to “Nazi Religion versus Christian Religion” – remarkably Voegelin-like construction although Viereck in the early phase of his authorship would have had no acquaintance with Voegelin. Viereck writes, “Now that Stalin has purged the old-Bolshevik intellectuals and Soviet Russia has stopped philosophizing, [Alfred] Rosenberg remains the leading anti-Christian philosopher in the world today.” Not only, in Viereck’s view, is Nazi philosophy, as far as it is philosophy, essentially anti-Christian, but it is also essentially religious: “Through romantic incantation and mass ecstasy Nazi religion would reawaken the elemental powers of pre-civilization days.” Voegelin, himself, had he enjoyed the opportunity to read Viereck’s assertion, would undoubtedly have agreed with it, pointing out an implication that Viereck might have had but omits to record: Namely that Nazi religion, like Gnosticism, is an instance of total, world-rejecting nihilism, particularly in its attitude toward civilization. One might easily hunt up observations similar to those of Viereck in numerous works of the 1920s and 30s – in those, say, by René Guenon, José Oretga, and Nicholas Berdyaev, and by certain novelists and satirists.

In The Political Religions, to recur to it, Voegelin undertakes a critique of scientism. As he writes, “the common trend of the new symbolism is its ‘scientific’ character.” Thus Nazi race-theory is “scientific,” complete with catalogues of skull-measurements. All Marxist theory under the Soviet regime is “scientific,” with the word becoming mere reflexive approbation in official discourse. Once “the world as contents has suppressed the world as existence,” and once the “counter-formulas against the spiritual religions and their worldviews are coined and legitimated by the claims of secular science as the [sole] valid form of cognition, contrary to revelation and mystical thought”: Then, as Voegelin writes, “the inner-worldly apocalypse needs only to remove from [medieval religious] thinking the transcendent end realm… to have at its disposal a language of symbols suitable for the secular world.” The “end realm” remains, non-transcendentally, as in the sequence of Feudalism-Capitalism-Communism, after which there is no fourth term; or similarly in the National Socialist coinage of a “Third Reich,” which will also be a “Thousand-Year Reich,” that is to say, permanent and unchangeable.

A skeptic might object to Voegelin’s account of secularization that if intuiting the link to “the Beyond” belonged to human nature then the curtailment of the transcendental orientation could take place only with great difficulty. Why do the addressees of the Robespierre- or Lenin- or Hitler-appeal yield to the leader’s closed vision in the first place? The answer is that the capacity for profound intuition never develops equally in all people, nor does the capacity to articulate intuition in transparent symbols; these talents develop powerfully only in a few. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, who might well have been a Gnostic, for a few there is intuition, but for the rest there is only tuition, often at a steep price. Even the capability of understanding the symbols, once the vates or logothete articulates them, finds only unequal distribution, with increasingly diminished currency. Because pride and laziness really exist, moreover, the appeals to them, and to other base motives, always enjoy greater popularity than the admonitions against them. Whereas normative religion, which carefully admonishes everyone, preaches a higher power, humanism preaches the autonomy and supremacy of man. The majority will tend to vote for the second over the first, if only because men like to think of themselves as supreme, whereupon many will eagerly say, “we are the ones we have been waiting for” and “the debate is over.”

Viereck once again makes a similar analysis in Metapolitics. The “German Faith Movement,” as he observes, is simply a seductive appeal to the ordinary man with a slight inferiority complex intended to recruit him into uncritical approbation of the regime by elevating him to superman-status – and by training him to focus his disappointments, or rather to transfer them, to the sub-human scapegoats of the creed. Thus, for Viereck, “racism is itself less a science or philosophy than a religion an anti-Christian brand of mysticism,” which “worships blood as sacred, but only the blood of its own tribe, making it a narcissistic self-worship.” Here again Voegelin would likely be quick to notice the parallelism with the Late-Antique Gnostic creeds, which made a similar appeal based on the sharp division between election and preterition and similarly regarded the preterit as a sub-human rabble fit in its ignorance only to be abolished in the eschaton of the Pleroma.

II. Voegelin’s New Science of Politics not only constitutes the natural sequel to The Political Religions; it brings to maturity the line of thinking, stimulated by Voegelin’s clash with totalitarianism, that found its tentative discourse, only lacking one or two key symbols, in the earlier book. Yet one should avoid the temptation to underestimate The Political Religions, either on account of its brevity or its schematic construction. With its invocations of Pharaoh Akhenaton’s Aton-cult, as the first political religion, and of Joachim di Fiore (1135-1202) and the history-closing terminology of the “Third Age,” the book forecasts the subject matter not only of The New Science of Politics but also of the volumes of Order and History. The style of The Political Religions again forecasts the style of The New Science of Politics. Voegelin writes as one who participates in a “transcendent truth,” the gist of which, being universally attested, is other than an entry in the range of competing sectarian opinions. Rather, the range of opinions must be judged against the permanence of that truth. Hence the definite article in the book’s title: Not A New Science of Politics, but rather The New Science of Politics, a grammatical delimitation that outraged academic readers of the book on its appearance.

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The New Science takes its place among kindred works in its time-period of the immediate post-war years, but less in the realm of non-fiction or direct political discourse than in the realm of fiction or indirect discourse and novelistic social criticism, Voegelin himself having mentioned Musil and von Doderer. The Finnish writer Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979) wrote his best-known and most powerful novel The Egyptian during the war-years and issued it in 1945 just as hostilities concluded. The Egyptian narrates in the first person the experiences of one Sinuhe who lives through the social upheaval caused by Akhenaton’s precipitous and badly calculated religious and social reforms. Waltari’s Pharaoh has had a vision, not unlike those of the Hebrew Prophets in the Old Testament, but he interprets it literally and enacts it as policy with revolutionary abandon. Near the end of Pharaoh’s deconstruction of traditional arrangements, an ex-slave tells Sinuhe: “His [Akhenaton’s] god is assuredly a very remarkable one, for he causes Pharaoh to act like a madman. Robbers and murderers now wander freely through the Two Kingdoms, the mines are deserted, and the wealth of Egypt sees no increase.”

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Waltari’s Danish contemporary Martin A. Hansen (1909 – 1955) published his novel of the Thirty Years’ War, Lucky Kristoffer, also in 1945 at the cessation of hostilities. Like Waltari’s Egypt of the Tel-El-Amarna Period, Hansen’s Denmark of the early Seventeenth Century is a hellish landscape of social breakdown, homicidal fanaticism, and the insane abrogation of everything belonging to traditional law and order. Hansen’s sympathies lie with Catholicism although the Church comes in for its share of condemnation. Instead of the single half-sympathetic Pharaoh who, his vision overtaking him, would reshape reality according to it, there is the Polyphemus of innumerable convinced men each of whom has become his own spiritual authority and seeks to impose that authority on all others – or punish or eliminate them should they refuse the privilege. “During [the] lovely midsummer,” as Hansen’s narrator records, “Johann Rantzau swept the Lübeckers out of Fyn, and so many peasants lost their lives.” A young woman wants to make confession, but the narrator tells her, “All the father confessors are now extirpated.” The landscape has become “rubble and blood-stained gravel” in which men “flounder”; and “the corpses hanging in the gallows outside the ramparts [have] turned black with the rain.” Whether it is Waltari writing of the Bronze Age or Hansen of the Late Medieval period, the real reference is the shattered soul of Europe in 1945.

In composing The New Science, and in letting his intuition be moved by a novelistic sense of spiritual disaster, Voegelin took as his task nothing less than to restore “the science of human existence in society and history” in an age when “the consciousness of principles is lost.” In the last, Voegelin meant not only that contemporary political science so-called had lost sight of basic insights available only through the study of the classical texts (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Dante) but also that the reigning positivism of the social sciences rejected the idea of principles, confining its method to empirical description. An unstated but strongly implied sub-thesis of The New Science would be then that the contemporary political science of the mid-Twentieth Century has become merely another iteration of a general restrictive scientism, bound by its dogmatic commitment to material causality to eschew any traffic whatever with pre-modern thought and to blind itself to the important role of symbolization in the gaining of insights into the order of being. Because a symbol resists reduction to a logical proposition, the scentistic mentality rejects it as intrinsically meaningless, but in doing so it only sacrifices its faculty of cognition to its Puritan fundamentalism.

It is once more a case for Voegelin of the distinction between transparency and occlusion in the cognition of reality, for by the clarity of cognition alone man puts his soul in order. As Voegelin puts it, “if the adequacy of a method is not measured by its usefulness to the purpose of science, if on the contrary the use of a method is made the criterion of science, then the meaning of science as a truthful account of the structure of reality, as the theoretical orientation of man in his world, and as the great instrument for man’s understanding of his own position in the universe is lost.” Voegelin declares that valorizing as knowledge only those results generated by a single approved method amounts to “perversion” in the epistemological realm. That term, perversion, occurs many times in the text. Voegelin uses it to emphasize the unnatural – the spiritually sick – character of modernity. All of these indictments, including the repeated one of modern intellectual perversion, rankled the scholarly mentality, but none so much as the common thesis of the three concluding chapters, the thematic content of which the chapter-titles themselves adequately convey. They are “Gnosticism: The Nature of Modernity,” “The Gnostic Revolution: The Puritan Case,” and “The End of Modernity.” On the one hand, Modernity, once established, ought to remain eternally in place and undisturbed. On the other, since its end, as aim, can only be the abolition of man, it avoids publicity concerning that end or aim.

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The critique of scientism in The Political Religions shades logically into the theory of Gnosticism as the “nature of modernity” in The New Science of Politics. Gnosticism, of which scientism is a variety, constitutes the radical case of “perversion” in the realm of knowledge and in the articulation of that knowledge in a shared, effective social symbolism; Gnosticism is meanwhile related – in its modern manifestation, as mandatory Liberalism – to Puritanism, as previous remarks will have indicated. A vast occasion for offense obviously offered itself in Voegelin’s prose to everyone from the Trotskyites to the Mayflower Society, and the situation has hardly improved with time. But it is in the nature of Gnosticism to take offense, apropos of which Voegelin observes: “One can easily imagine how indignant a humanistic liberal will be when he is told that his particular type of immanentism is one step on the road to Marxism” or when he is told that “totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.”

To quote these particular remarks is to put the cart ahead of the horse somewhat, but the quotations have the value, exemplarily, of pointing toward one of Voegelin’s essential insights about Gnosticism as the essence of modernity. It is also important to put them in their proper historical perspective: Voegelin made those remarks more than sixty years ago – and the subsequent cumulus of experience bears them out today even more than it did in 1952. Voegelin contends that Christianity “de-divinized” politics and permitted the articulation of political forms in a purely temporal realm – a gain for human self-understanding and for freedom. The phrase Gnostic Modernity is synonymous, however, with the “re-divinization” of the political-temporal order and therefore not at all with anything that could rationally be called progress, but that must, on the contrary, be grasped as an atavism. Naturally, such “re-divinization” dissimulates itself, even appearing in the form of militant atheism, but it always renders itself identifiable through its vehement hostility to established religion and to the Tradition generally.

Citing the parallel observation made by Viereck in Metapolitics will once again be useful. In the chapter on “Nazi Religion versus Christian Religion,” in a sub-chapter entitled “The Dark Gods Awaken,” Viereck writes: “Through romantic incantation and mass ecstasy Nazi religion would reawaken the elemental powers of pre-civilization days.” National Socialism amounts, in Viereck’s characterization, to nothing less that “a bloody war of Kultur against civilization.” In the chapter on “Rosenberg as Journalist,” Viereck observed the dependence of Nazi rhetoric on figures of resentment. “The correct beginning for every Nazi pamphlet,” Viereck writes, “is to list all it damns, always a list huger in space and fervor than that of what is praised.” Thus the cognitive content, so to speak, of National Socialism is not really cognition at all – it is a spasm of petulant rage directed at the world as it is currently arranged, under the form of civilization. The Hitlerian program is nothing less than the abolition of the existing world and its replacement by another. The program requires what Voegelin calls “re-divinization” because the new world can only issue from a world-creator who triumphs over his original.

What was it that drove the atavistic program of “re-divinization,” by the dubious symbolism of which Joachim and his successors, in Voegelin’s words, “achieved certainty about the meaning of history”? In the previous “de-divinized” symbolism, history resisted its own dogmatization as a definition or “eidos.” But as Voegelin writes, “history has no eidos, because the course of history extends into the unknown future.” The meaning of history, in the “de-divinized” symbolism, belongs to the transcendent realm, with the Ideal Republic or the City of God. One could say that under Christianity the meaning of history is indefinitely deferred and that the deferral helps guarantee freedom. “Certainties,” Voegelin argues, “are in demand for the purpose of overcoming uncertainties with their accompaniment of anxiety.” What unresolved issue or lacuna in knowledge gives rise to anxiety so acute that even an “illusion,” the mendacious “meaning of history,” becomes preferable to it? “Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity,” and by corollary, “the feeling of security in ‘a world full of gods’ is lost [when] the world-transcendent God is reduced to the tenuous bond of faith,” as it is by Paul and the Patres.

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Voegelin denies that High Medieval Humanism and the Renaissance correspond together to a new espousal of Paganism. For one thing, Paganism had never disappeared; rather it had been absorbed by Christian philosophy and thoroughly permeated the new Christian culture of the Late Roman Empire. In addition, Paganism was an instance of healthy adjustment to the world, which is why the successor religion could absorb it without distorting itself. In this way the Renaissance in particular is not a complete novelty but a return to something like the Constantinian religious dispensation; it is a re-extension of philosophical tolerance that abolishes the dogmatic political Christianity of Justinian. The Renaissance, through its cult of beauty, also reacts against the various forms of iconoclasm – Islamic, Byzantine, Catholic, and Proto-Protestant – that interrupted the continuum of beauty of the Western Tradition in the Late Medieval Period. Iconoclasm, if it were not itself necessarily Gnostic, would nevertheless be characteristic of Gnosticism, which is the rebellion against the order of being. Normative religion, whether Pagan or Christian, affirms the order of being and calls people to reconcile themselves to it. It is unsurprising therefore to find Voegelin remarking that, “Gnosis… had accompanied Christianity from its very beginnings” and remained available in certain themes and attitudes in Scotus Erigena, Dionysius the Areopagite, and related writings.

The essential trait of modern Gnosticism consists in its “immanentist eschatology.” In Search of Order defines “immanentist eschatology” as the project “of forcing the order of the ‘Beyond’ into ‘reality.’” But the topic here is The New Science of Politics. So pervasively does “immanentist eschatology” propagate itself in Western thinking after Joachim that one fails to notice its presence in the schoolbook and encyclopedia truism that the Modern Age, so-called, succeeded the Middle Ages, pejoratively understood as an era of intellectual obscurantism and superstition. Once one puts the first term, Antiquity, in place, one has the Joachitic “eidos of history” in three phases. The third phase may assume a variety of specific shapes: Joachim’s universal monastery-utopia, Dante’s Apollinian Imperium, Condorcet’s Age of Reason, or Auguste Comte’s Church of Man. That Comte was the confabulator of Positivism reminds Voegelin that, “scientism has remained to this day one of the strongest gnostic movements in Western society.”

Voegelin takes as his sample case of a Gnostic movement erupting in a society the English Puritans. He relies on the account of Puritan agitation given by theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594). Hooker, a Protestant whose thinking remained rooted in Aristotle and Aquinas, insisted on the intellectual continuity of the Logos from its Pagan to its Christian manifestation. Rather than being a participant in the Logos, the Puritan (Voegelin’s Gnostic) is a man with a “cause.” This “cause,” invariably moralistic and denunciatory, aims its ire at the constituted order of society in Manichaean terms of an absolute division between the good of the “cause” and the evil of the constituted society. Voegelin picks up on Hooker’s observation that the Puritan relies, not on Scripture, but on selective quotation from Scripture with tendentious commentary to propagate his agenda.

In Voegelin’s coinage, every Gnostic insurgency requires its “Koran.” He mentions that Calvin’s Institutes constitute such a “Koran” – in its mildest variety – whereas the proliferating pamphlet-literature of Puritanism waxes swiftly fanatic. With the printing press, a type of programmatic stridency begins to characterize sectarian discourse. A tendency to identify scapegoats and to urge their violent expulsion from the polity accompanies such stridency. Voegelin continues: “In the Communist movement, finally, the works of Karl Marx have become a kind of Koran of the faithful supplemented by the patristic literature of Leninism-Stalinism.” Today there are numerous Korans, just as there were numerous pamphlets in Northern Europe under the agitation of the Protest, and just as there were numerous broadsides and tracts during the heyday of Puritanism in England. Today’s pamphlets and tracts generally issue from those conspicuously non-profit enterprises called university presses. Current weird mutations of Catholicism are not excluded from this generalization.

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III. Oswald Spengler remarks in The Decline of the West that the Glorious Revolution prefigured the French Revolution stage by stage, including the execution of the royal sovereign. Voegelin was certainly aware of Spengler’s thesis. In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin, drawing both on Hooker and on the Puritan pamphlets, to which Hooker refers, compares the Puritan insurgency to the Bolshevik insurgency, stage by stage. At the time of the Puritan pamphlet called Queries (1649), a threatening document in which the rebellious saints entitle themselves to “authority and rule over the nations and kingdoms of the world,” as Voegelin writes, “the revolution… had reached a stage corresponding to the stage of the Russian Revolution at which Lenin wrote about ‘next tasks.’” The pamphlet forecasts the violent insurgency to come and thus anticipates “the stage at which, in the Russian Revolution, Lenin wrote his reflections under the coquettish title, ‘Will the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?’” As Voegelin remarks, “They will, indeed; and nobody will share it with them.” English Puritan rhetoric and Russian Bolshevik rhetoric resemble Nazi rhetoric, as assessed by Viereck in Metapolitics. All three are cases of world-resentment driven to the highest pitch until it becomes a type of God-delusion.

In another Puritan pamphlet, A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory (1641), Voegelin discovers the invariable nihilistic strain of the Gnostic imagination in its agitated mood. Drawing on apocalyptic imagery from the Bible, the pamphleteer gloats over the imminent destruction of the constituted order, here characterized as “Babylon.” “While God is the ultimate cause of the imminent happy change,” Voegelin wryly comments, “men should indulge in some meritorious action, too, in order to hasten the coming.” Such action, quoting the language of the pamphlet, will include “dashing the brats of Babylon against the stones.” The language of A Glimpse bears comparison with the languages of Bolshevism and Nazism. The Seventeenth-Century pamphleteering imagery doubtless put itself into practice at the time, but it also found vivid actualization under the Bolshevik and Nazi regimes and it finds contemporary actualization in the bloody deeds – recorded on video by the perpetrators – of the Neo-Caliphate calling itself the Islamic State or the Islamic State in Syria. Ideological polities, as Waltari and Hansen asserted in novelistic mode, invariably resort to the hoary practice of human sacrifice.

A previous essay to this one put under examination various Gnostic documents of the Second Century and came to the conclusion that discursively those documents represented a resurgence of sacrificial thinking: The abolition of the world means the justified holocaust of all save the elect, who alone qualify as worthy enough to inhabit the new creation. This pattern reappears in A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory, in the infanticide-imagery. The world of the saints will arise on the lifeblood and sweetmeats of the unbelievers. The acknowledgment, as Voegelin writes, that, “the Scriptural camouflage cannot veil the drawing of God into man,” should not, in turn, veil the bloodthirsty character of the pamphleteer’s God. Like the Moloch of the Carthaginians, that God demands the newborn in his honor. Hence Voegelin’s judgment: “All this has nothing to do with Christianity,” even while it has everything to do with religion, in a primordial cultic sense. God, responding to “meritorious action,” will reverse all social relations, leveling the mountains of established difference, so to speak. Voegelin adds this: “In this God who comes skipping over the mountains we recognize the dialectics of history that comes skipping over thesis and antithesis, until its lands its believers in the plain of the Communist synthesis.”

HIS292256 Soldiers Plundering a Farm during the Thirty Years' War, 1620 (oil on wood) by Vrancx, Sebastian (1573-1647); 50.8x69.5 cm; Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany; (add.info.: Soldaten pluendern einen Bauernhof;); © DHM; Flemish, out of copyright

In Science Politics and Gnosticism (1958), Voegelin widens the scope of such recognition. Quoting Gnostic documents at second hand from Hans Jonas’ Gnostic Religion, Voegelin avers that in them “the reader will have recognized Hegel’s alienated spirit and Heidegger’s flungness [Geworfenheit] of human experience.” Voegelin reiterates the dichotomy that he had employed in The New Science of Politics. Ancient Gnosticism sought grace through the abolition of the material world and the restoration of the Pleroma. In post-Enlightenment Gnosticism, by contrast, the subject overcomes anguish “through the assumption of an absolute spirit that in the dialectical unfolding of consciousness proceeds from alienation to consciousness of itself.” The reassimilation of the alienated element “transforms man into superman.” Structures of consciousness that in the Gnostic’s view inhibit or preclude the advent of the superman become obsessive targets of coercive correction and abolition. The ceaseless public diatribe of the modern Gnostics against everything received or traditional intends the dissolution of the abhorrently false (but to everyone else, normal) consciousness.

In its spirit of total resentment, post-Enlightenment Gnosticism insistently revalues all values; that is, it reverses all values simply because they are received, declaring presence privative and absence plenary and turning everything else on its head. Nietzsche heralded the movement as an explicit program as early as The Birth of Tragedy (1872), where he argues that the action of the Greek stage refers to nothing – or rather only to the delirious vision of the chorus, intoxicated by the god (Dionysus) and seeking ecstatic escape from the horror of being. The tragic vision becomes in this reading the tragic hallucination while life, far from being exalted, as often seems to be the case in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883 – 85), is in fact degraded to meaningless animal suffering. In the 1980s in North America, Anglophone academics seized on the translations of Nietzsche’s successors, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, to provide themselves with a mechanical vocabulary of value-revaluation, the issue of which is the current in-group style of college-professor writing whose two functions are to baffle outsiders and intimidate them, on the one hand, and to affirm a sense of moral superiority based on the rhetorical annihilation of traditional morality, on the other.

While The Gospel of Truth or the Hermetica is infinitely more intellectually refined than the Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, the latter is nevertheless, in style and form, Gnostic. The content (or anti-content) of the Gnostic vision (or anti-vision) need not be intellectual – indeed, it can be quite vulgar and boorish, as the PMLA often is. All the more so, then, the need for politically correct injunctions to protect shoddy doctrines against being examined in light of their coherency or their comportment with evidence and observation.

Voegelin anticipated all of this in Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. Because the Gnostic’s premises cannot withstand scrutiny, the Gnostic, when he acquires power, either within an institution or over a society, seeks to establish “the prohibition of questions.” Voegelin instances this implacable sanction in a sequence of close readings of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. In the case of Marx, “a speculative gnostic,” Voegelin begins by calling attention to a semantic sleight-of-hand in the Manuscripts, 1844. Marx asserts that human being is continuous with nature, which produced humanity; but he also asserts that humanity, in laboring to transform nature, has produced itself. In Voegelin’s comment, “The purpose of this speculation is to shut off the process of being from transcendent being and have man create himself.” Marx prestidigitates by “playing with equivocations in which ‘nature’ is now all-inclusive being, now nature as opposed to man, and now the nature of man in the sense of essential.”

Such a theory – or rather such a series of verbal slippages, masquerading as a theory – leaves hanging the question of origin. It invites interrogation because a longstanding consensus is that things are best understood in relation to their origin, the examination of which reveals a thing’s necessity. Understood in context of its origin, property, for example, reveals itself as an institution aimed at the preservation of the social order against concupiscence arising from resentment. Resentment, moreover, belongs to human nature; it is ineradicable, but it can be channeled and controlled. Marx has sided with resentment. In doing so he pits himself against the ineradicable structure of human reality. In his “speculation,” Marx, as Voegelin now registers, tries to interdict inquiry by labeling any doubt about his assertions “a product of abstraction.” Voegelin writes: “The questions of the ‘individual man’ are cut off by the ukase of the speculator who will not permit his construct to be disturbed. When ‘socialist man’ speaks, man has to be silent.”

Voegelin 22 Hegel

In the case of Hegel, Voegelin begins by quoting from the preface to The Phenomenology: “The true form in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of it. To contribute to bringing philosophy closer to the form of science – the goal of being able to cast off the name of love of knowledge [Liebe zum Wissen] and become actual knowledge [wirkliches Wissen] – is the task I have set myself” (Hegel). Voegelin observes that Hegel’s phrase “love of knowledge” translates the Greek term philosophia directly and that his phrase “actual knowledge” corresponds to the Greek term gnosis. It follows that “if we translate them back into Greek… we then have before us the program of advancing from philosophy to Gnosis.” Anticipating Marx’s antics, Hegel, according to Voegelin, “conceals the leap by translating philosophia and gnosis into German so that he can shift from one to the other by playing on the word ‘knowledge’” (Voegelin). Hegel’s system, as built up on this flimsy basis and as supposedly justifying it, Voegelin sees as a “swindle.” The system itself serves “libido dominandi” purely and simply, another example of the Gnostic desire for “dominion over being.”

It is true that Hegel, apart from the egomania revealed in his construction, bequeathed to posterity many valid insights, including a defense of the inherited legal order, and indeed of many medieval institutions, against a revolutionary challenge. In categorizing Hegel’s thought in The Phenomenology as Gnostic, Voegelin does not mean to reject Hegel in toto; he means, rather, to approach the Hegelian text in a spirit of genuine criticism, which must take into consideration the verbal slippages of the exposition. It is quite possible that one can learn a great deal from a confidence trickster, but one is not compelled by that fact to become the dupe of the confidence trickster. A characteristic of the confidence trickster, however, is that he wishes to gain the supportive cooperation of his clients, who, having become attached to him, defend him even after he has cheated them; he is not content with a critical client who picks and chooses the details of the Big Deal, inspiring others with his doubtfulness. The skeptic annoys the confidence man, who insists on all or nothing – a wager that exerts its appeal on certain parties.

As for Heidegger: Voegelin, like Jonas, discerns the kernel of nihilism in his discourse. Heidegger represents in Voegelin’s judgment “the mentality that expects deliverance from the evils of the time through the advent, the coming in all its fullness, of being construed as immanent.” Like the English Puritans who, trusting their God, nevertheless saw a need for “meritorious action” on their own, Heidegger contented himself not merely to await what in one moment he referred to as a “New God”; he became a Nazi, whose first act as state-approved Rector of Freiburg was to complete the expurgation of Jewish faculty members begun by his precursor. This contemptible cleansing action affected Heidegger’s own teacher Edmund Husserl, whose emeritus privileges the new official suspended. Heidegger summarily dropped Hans Jonas from the doctoral program in philosophy, also on account of the pupil’s Jewishness.

Voegelin 23 Heidegger

IV. In Science Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin repeatedly acknowledges that declaring secular modernity a sectarian religious triumph flouts the touchy self-understanding of modern secular people. Voegelin acknowledges also that his imputation concerning thinkers on the order of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger that they were intellectual swindlers can only, in a modern context, arouse the ire of a large part of his readership. Perhaps even some self-described conservative readers will feel a twinge of irritation on being made acquainted with a harsh critique of Nietzsche in combination with a sustained defense of normative religious ideas about the structure of existence. Such an emotion, were it to occur, would itself be a datum explicable within the framework of Voegelin’s analysis. The sentiment easily attaches to venerated figures – and Nietzsche would be one of them – to the effect that to question their assertions is somehow to transgress the permissible. Science, in its institutional aspect, also enjoys this type of tacit immunity from criticism whereas, on the other hand, casually bashing religion is more or less a sport for many self-consciously modern people, even those who identify themselves politically by their opposition to collectivist projects and political correctness. Is sarcasm, the usual mode of contemporary discussion about anything traditional, Gnostic? Sarcasm is invariably a pose of being sure of itself; it blusters against the haunting suspicion that it can be wrong by making out that it believes that it cannot be wrong – and it typically responds to criticism by a heightening of its forced superciliousness.

Contemporary institutional discourse could hardly exist without sarcasm. Actual humor has mostly disappeared and few contemporary people would recognize it. Audiences of millions guffaw at the smarmy jokes of comedian-atheists for whom Christian religiosity is an object of scorn guaranteed not to fight back. (Sarcasm means something like “flogging a corpse.”) Is God not dead, after all, whether one is a liberal or a conservative? Are values not simply assertions, without transcendent source or justification, and therefore implemented by power alone, quite as Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, all English professors, and the spokesmen for the European Union say that they are? Is the cosmos not simply what we want it to be, as a plastic object of our Eros or lust? Nowadays people “identify” as this or that, men as women and vice versa, white as black, male infantilism as grown-up sophistication, and people with schoolteacher salaries as billionaires, no doubt. Mere preference has acquired a pseudo-ontological significance. Why I am this and not that? Why is reality thus-and-such and not otherwise, as I would have it? More cogently: Must I be as I am and is to will not the same as to be?

People hesitate to pose these questions because they hesitate to answer them. They know that the “correct” answer, the officially sanctioned answer, is “yes,” in both cases; they sense at the same time that “no” is at least as likely an answer as “yes,” maybe far more likely. Put more simply, the undeniable prohibition of questions overawes everyone so that everyone maintains silence. The fact that secular modernity defines itself, with increasing stridency and intolerance, as non-religious must be assessed, furthermore, by reference to the specific religiosity against which that antithetic self-definition occurs. In the Communist countries and in Nazi Germany, Christianity and Judaism filled this role, with the initial emphasis landing in Russia on Christianity and in Germany on Judaism. The Holocaust made anti-Semitism embarrassing for Western radicals (who are by definition on the Left) for fifty years, so that, in the United States and Europe, the Left had to concentrate on anti-Christian agitation. Now that the lingering super-ego effect of the Holocaust seems to have vanished, the Left has added open anti-Semitism to its “Glimpse of Sion’s Glory.” But the anti-Christian mood never weakens; it grows stronger. The analysis is not concluded, however.

Voegelin 24 Soviet Banner

The contemporary Left’s sympathy with Islam tells us that the Left is not, as it pretends, anti-religious, but merely anti-Christian and anti-Semitic. If Buddhism had greater purchase in the West, the Left would be anti-Buddhist too. That is to say, the Left is anti-Western and anti-normative. The Left then gleefully welcomes whatever or whoever helps it in its program of annihilating Western (Judaeo-Christian) norms. The Left indeed seems to share Islam’s contemporary religious excitation, nothing being as imitable as an adrenal spasm, so that the idea of “Globalism” can refer equally well to the latest Leftwing plan for utopian-redistributive “world governance,” using the jargon of “sustainability,” or the Islamist plan for a revived Caliphate. It is madness – “pneumopathology” – on either side. But it is also ferociously crusading, massively organized, and mutually supportive madness à deux (or rather à maint) that wants to dominate existence and monopolize the representation of truth. Voegelin’s last word on Gnosticism, the fifth, supplemental volume of Order and History, called In Search of Order, describes the spiritual straits of the early Twenty-First Century with startling lucidity.

Voegelin praises the faculty of imagination as the capacity by which people make sense of the unalterable givenness of existence, the fact that it is what it is whether one likes what it is or not. He writes movingly of the crucial difference between “the reality that reveals itself in imaginative truth” – that is, in symbols – and a parasitic exploitation of the received symbols that attacks reality from a motive of spite or envy. The first is the realm of investigation of philosophy, the nobility of the Platonic as opposed to the Marxian dialectic; the second is the instrument of Gnostic libido. Voegelin also addresses the subtle relation-in-tension between philosophy and its object, truth, preserving the Platonic insistence that the philosopher loves truth without claiming to possess it; indeed, no desire for wisdom could exist if the subject already possessed wisdom, for, as Plato notes in his Symposium, no one seeks what he already calls his own.

Voegelin writes: “Imagination, as a structure in the process of a reality that moves towards its truth, belongs both to human consciousness in its bodily location and to the reality that comprehends bodily located man as a partner in the community of being. There is no truth symbolized without man’s imaginative power to find the symbols that will express his response to the appeal of reality; but there is no truth to be symbolized without the comprehending It-reality in which such structures as man with his participatory consciousness, experiences of appeal and response, language, and imagination occur.” These words contain a lifetime’s worth of meditation. They stand in contrast, among other things, to the decades-long war on what the crusaders call stereotypes. Whole college curricula are structured around the “deconstruction” of “stereotypes.” But what is a stereotype, really? It is synonymous with a concept. But what is a concept, really? A concept, like a stereotype, is a distillation of experience. It is a tool in the kit of survival. If one were not a bit allergic to Darwin, one might even say that a concept is an item of wisdom that has proven its validity by permitting those acknowledge it and put it into practice to survive.

Hillary Smug

Imagination must be carefully distinguished from delusion, the one being spiritually healthy and the other signifying a lapse into pneumopathology. Imagination is related to truth. As Voegelin writes in the Search, “In the depth of the quest, formative truth and deformative untruth are more closely related than the language of ‘truth’ and ‘resistance’ would suggest.” This condition would be the case because truth, despite the positivistic definition of the term that prevails today, “is not… a something lying around to be accepted, rejected, or resisted.” Indeed, “imagining ‘truth’ as a thing would deform the structure of consciousness in the same manner as does the transformation of the symbols ‘reality’ and ‘Beyond’ into things for the purpose of manipulation.” Correcting the positivistic error Voegelin defines imagination as “this ability to find the way from the metaleptic experiences to the imagery of expressive symbols.” A “metaleptic experience” is an insight into transcendence that specifically does not entail the degradation of existence or demand its abolition. Whether it is Moses or Socrates, the subject of the “metaleptic experience” grasps the tension between the mortal realm and the immortal realm as belonging to the order of being and therefore, in theodical language, as justified.

For Voegelin, “man is a creative partner in the movement of reality toward its truth.” Man acts as the self-consciousness of the universe, but this can only be the case because the universe is present before him, in both senses of “before.” Voegelin writes, “If the creative partner is exposed to deformative perversion, if the creative partner imagines himself to be the sole creator of truth,” then the partner in fact alienates himself from truth and elevates himself to illusory godhood. Thus “the image of the world becomes the world itself” – the “second reality.” But only in the mind of the pervert. Now Voegelin is not one to use words casually. “Pervert” and “perverse” are vocabulary items that irritate the Liberal mind, but the defensive nature of the reaction is obvious to anyone except the Liberal. “Pervert” and “perverse” are strong words, but they remain applicable to a horrific century that has not yet fully run its course and whose perversion will no doubt fell many millions more victims before it comes to its end. That a relation exists between murky concepts and public massacres is one of the important things concerning Gnosticism about which Voegelin reminds his readers.

A concept might one day prove inadequate – that much the philosopher will readily grant. A concept might also seem to prove inadequate and then later on re-validate itself, as in the case of heliocentrism. Modern people never think of the second of those two possibilities. For them there is only steady progress or evolution that annihilates the past as it advances day by day. Wise people remain open to evidence whether affirmative of assumptions or suggestive of their inadequacy. Openness to reality is precisely the point. To participate in reality requires of the subject his willing postponement of any definitive knowledge of the whole, what elsewhere Voegelin criticizes as “the eidos of history.” The wise man according to Voegelin “is a creative partner in the movement of reality toward its truth” – who must exercise patience and faith. He knows many things, but he does not violate modesty by proclaiming to know what God knows. Virtues being in short supply always, “this creatively formative force [imagination] is exposed to deformative perversion.” In such mischievous self-deception “the creative partner imagines himself to be the sole creator of truth.” The last clause offers a definition of Gnosticism, which Voegelin concludes is “a constant in history” and therefore part of the structure of reality that imaginative participation in existence needs to visualize and understand. The cumulus of words designating pathological egocentrism suggests that the Gnostic perversion really is an historical constant. Voegelin cites “such symbols as hybris, pleonexia, alazoneia tou biou, superbia vitae, pride of life, libido dominandi, and will to power,” as having reference to the Gnostic phenomenon.

Voegelin 31 Screaming Protester

All such terms designate a subjective conviction of “autonomous ultimacy,” in which the person who feels the tension in existence cannot bear the tension and so “deform[s] the beginning of his quest into a Beginning that brings the End of all beginnings.” In 1806 possibly only Hegel felt that way – and maybe Fichte. Nowadays, it is an automatic self-conviction of the common man, degenerating at its lower end into pure petulance and narcissism. Such terms as petulance and narcissism might justifiably be added to Voegelin’s list. Not all petulance or narcissism is Gnosticism, but petulance and narcissism certainly play a role in the Gnostic self-conception and in the related behavior.

Waltari gives us the paradigm of the Gnostic evangelist in his picture of Akhenaton in The Egyptian. The Pharaoh’s policies have left Egypt a shambles, with ruin and starvation, crime and treachery everywhere, but Pharaoh himself has lost touch with reality completely: “Thebes is night to me, and so I spurn it… I put my faith in the young and children… Those who from childhood dedicate themselves to the teaching of Aton are purified, and so the whole world shall be purified.” In Pharaoh’s vision, “Schools shall be transformed, the old teachers driven forth, and new texts written for children to copy.” These programs, about which the mad sovereign speculates, were already abundantly familiar in actuality to Waltari in 1945. They are all the more so today for any discerning person.

The self-deceiver who initiates the spiritual swindle cannot entirely eliminate the awareness of his mendacity. The swindle pricks the self-deifier constantly, charging him with his pretentious bad faith. The Gnostic’s abyssal hypocrisy explains his need to propagate his delusion. The Gnostic requires the voluble seconding of others – as many others as possible – to assuage the guilt of his initial tying-into-knots of his own soul. Thus Voegelin characterized Gnosticism in all its forms as being “metastatic,” a term used in oncology to describe the tendency of cancerous cells to spread their destabilization to all cells surrounding them in a cascade of cytoplasm-corruption that overwhelms the body. Gnosticism must compel belief because it lacks belief. Gnosticism runs frightened of its own radical inadequacy from the moment it conjures itself into being. Gnosticism is likely therefore to be mortally self-limiting, but a Gnostic movement can wreak enormous civic and material destruction before it perishes ignominiously from its own spiritual rottenness.

Voegelin 25 Ruins

Afterthoughts 2015: The notions of Gnosticism and nihilism, the latter with its many slogans and key words, circulate in Voegelin’s discourse concerning modernity, along intersecting paths, as though they had a peculiar gravitational attraction to one another that drew them together. In The New Science, a signal characteristic of a Gnostic movement is its ceaseless agitation or unrest. Of “reason,” in its Post-Enlightenment usage, in an essay under that name (“Reason,” 1974 – in Anamnesis), Voegelin, in discussing the modern inversion of the term’s Ciceronian meaning, writes, “The health or disease of existence makes itself felt in the very tonality of the unrest.” Further, “In the modern Western history of unrest… the tonality has shifted from joyful participation in a theophany… to the hostile alienation from a reality that rather hides than reveals itself.” According to Voegelin, Hegel built such alienation into his phenomenological system, and just so Hegel’s successor Marx rejected any participation in the given by insisting that all truly conscious men join him in the new creation of socialist man, which entailed the abolition of the existing human reality. It is hardly different in Heidegger, who subsumes much of Nietzsche’s yearning for the Superman into his negative ontology. That intellectual perversion has become reigning secular dogma is signified to Voegelin by fact that “Lévi-Strauss assures you that you cannot be a scientist unless you are an atheist,” such that “the symbol ‘structuralism’ becomes the slogan of a fashionable movement of escape from the noetic structure of reality.”

To be a self-glorifying atheist is to be already, in comparison to the benighted, a Superman, and, to paraphrase a recent revolutionary pronouncement, we Supermen are the ones we have been waiting for.

A kind of climax of this same trend appears in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in whose case, Voegelin writes, one sees “the transition from intellectual imperialism to the support of mass murder.” Merleau-Ponty has precursors, after all, a near one in Jean-Paul Sartre and another, just behind Sartre, in Dadaism. In the recorded remarks apropos the lecture “In Search of the Ground” (Montreal, 1965), Voegelin remarks that ideology, invariably having its origin in some mere part of Christianity, tends to be apocalyptic; but, “a second element is gnostic, that is, knowledge of the recipe for bringing about the more perfect realm,” the one forecast in apocalypse. The choice of the word recipe is not casual. A recipe is a set of instructions for a short-term result. An investment in short-term results signifies an impatient mentality, an infantile mentality, or a revolutionary mentality, which is the same as a savage mentality, the mark of immature humanity. In any case all these are one and the same. The Revolution, as Edmund Burke rightly called it, demands total alteration in reality now, as though the order of being might respond to a magical ukase. The order of being, however, is what and as it is, unalterably, without heed to anyone’s will, even the revolutionary’s.

The revolutionary, having put himself to an impossible task, namely abolishing the structure of reality, has set himself up to be perpetually stymied, and therefore to experience an accelerating hyperbolic increase of resentment against the stubborn object of his will – until such resentment rises to murderous heights. Insofar as the revolutionary, or Gnostic, mentality cannot at last create a new world by his own recipe, he can, at least, as he comes to believe, destroy a world – or if not the physical world (although he might try) then at least, in order to garner some perverse satisfaction, the cultural world, or those portions of the physical world called people, who, as biological entities, are vulnerable to violent and satisfying obliteration. Adoption of Gnostic premises leads by its own insidious logic to the nihilistic stance.

Voegelin 06 Seraphim Rose 01

On the one hand, the words Gnostic and Gnosticism never occur in Father Seraphim Rose’s book on Nihilism (1968); on the other hand, Father Seraphim’s analysis of the nihilistic impulse, its origin and agenda, runs closely parallel to Voegelin’s analysis of Gnosticism, so close that the conclusion presents itself that the two thinkers must be addressing one and the same phenomenon. Father Seraphim (1934 – 1982) writes, for example, of the “messianic fervor that animates the greatest revolutionaries, a statement that squares perfectly with Voegelin’s remark about agitation being a prime Gnostic trait. Whereas for Father Seraphim Nihilism has taken several successive forms during the centuries since the Fifteenth Century – Humanism, Liberalism, Vitalism, Communism, Fascism, and even Industrialism – all of these phases are essentially anti-Traditional and therefore, because the Tradition of the West is Christian, anti-Christian. Thus while in Liberalism, this animus “is not an attitude of open hostility,” nevertheless Liberalism’s attitude towards the cultural inheritance is one of supercilious false tolerance. Classical Liberalism reduces the vocabulary of verities stemming from Christian Revelation to a collection of metaphors on the way of banishing them from usage altogether. Under Liberalism, “Truth, in a word, has been ‘reinterpreted’; the old forms have been emptied and given a new, quasi-Nihilist content.”

In Father Seraphim’s argument, “The modern mentality cannot tolerate… God”; that is, the God of Christian Revelation, who “is the supreme end of all creation and, Himself, unlike his creation.” Liberalism, in the form of the Enlightenment, creates a counter-God although perhaps a counterfeit God would be a more accurate locution. As Father Seraphim writes, “A ‘new god’ is clearly required by modern man, a god more closely fashioned after the pattern of such central modern concerns as science and business.” The “new god” may take many – even dazzling – forms but “all modern gods are of the same construct, fabricated by souls dead from the loss of faith in the true God.” In Father Seraphim’s argument, once again, atheism is at best hypocritical. Even when Liberalism has advanced through Realism and Vitalism to become active Nihilism, the atheism that it espouses, institutes, and would force on everyone through implacable “re-education,” is not God-less. Father Seraphim addresses the paradox this way: The self-proclaimed atheist is actually a partisan against God. In the case of Proudhon, for example, the polemicist “declared himself, not an atheist, but an ‘antitheist.’” The active Nihilist is theologically a rebel against God – like Proudhon or Nietzsche or Sartre.

Father Seraphim characterizes “the Nihilist faith” as “the precise opposite of Christian faith” although being opposite it also constitutes a mirror-image. Rebelliously such a doctrine founds itself on “doubt,” partly externally and partly internally directed, in the common pattern; “suspicion, disgust, envy, jealousy, pride, impatience, [and] blasphemy.” Moreover, this anti-faith consists in “an attitude of dissatisfaction with self, with the world, with society, with God,” and it cannot rest until it alters these to correspond with its own image – or abolishes, annihilates, them. It would be easy to identify specific instances of this attitude in writers like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, or in twenty or thirty of their contemporaries who fit the bill. More importantly, the character that Father Seraphim attributes to his active Nihilists is the same as the one that Voegelin attributes to his Gnostics whether ancient or modern.

Voegelin 07 Lubac 01 Portrait

Another incisive critic of modernity in whose pages the terms Gnostic and Gnosticism go conspicuously absent is Henri de Lubac (1896 – 1991). In The Drama of Atheist Humanism (1944), dealing with Nietzsche, Lubac composes a phenomenology of Gnostic conviction – first, that all received truths are in fact false and then, by a contradiction in terms that the convert ignores, that this revelation of total falsehood is, itself, a truth. This inverted knowledge, which justifies the murder of God, is, as Lubac writes, dizzying. The news that “God is dead” sends the mere common man reeling in vertigo, but not so the Superman: “At last, a few, rare spirits who carry in them the destiny of mankind resist the dizziness that assails them. They feel it, at first, like the others, for they are human, and more than all the rest they are aware of the enormity of what has happened and the losses involved.” Gradually it dawns on these extraordinary specimens of humanity that, learning to command their inebriation, they might grow empowered: “Their energy is equal to their perspicacity. Alone in their power to see things as they are, they bring a perfectly clear mind to bear upon the outrage they have perpetrated and thus transform the crime into an exploit.”

In reading Zarathustra, Lubac remarks how Nietzsche’s pseudo-prophet, using a pseudo-religious language borrowed from Luther’s Bible, extols his own great “loneliness” after the death of the God whom he has killed. The demiurgic responsibility now befalls the deicide to “produce out of himself – out of nothingness – something with which to transcend humanity.” Indeed, in Lubac’s commentary, “The endurance test to which [the Superman] has condemned himself will reveal to him his own divinity by bringing it into being.” Employing a word that the contemporary North-American Left of 2015 has just about made its shibboleth, Lubac writes that for the Nihilist, who is not an atheist but an anti-theist, “the corpse of God in decomposition is not… a sign of death: It is the sign of a gigantic change.” [Emphasis added] Lubac concludes that Nietzsche was just as much a revolutionary as Marx. Given the confluence of their rhetorics in the self-image of Modernity, “it was not surprising that the drama that had taken shape in human minds quickly reached the point at which it burst forth in fire and slaughter.”

The foremost commentator on Voegelin, Ellis Sandoz, writes in his Voegelinian Revolution (1981) how “with the fall of faith, which broadly characterizes the modern era, an experiential alternative was demanded that lay close enough to faith to substitute for it.” As Sandoz writes, while “Gnosticism is the essence of modernity [in] Voegelin’s philosophy of politics,” nevertheless “it is not the whole of it.” Sandoz wrote those words thirty-five years ago. The passage of time has shrunk the part of the contemporary world that is not Gnostic; it has seen a marked decrease in the public influence of Philosophy and Christianity and an ever-widening metastasis of sub-Marxian and sub-Nietzschean attitudes. Thus when Sandoz reminds his readers that “the aim of Gnostic activism is the transfiguration of man into superman,” the observation will be even more poignant in 2015 than it was in 1981. A particularly repulsive variant of the Gnostic myth is currently working itself out in the West.

The Superman-goal of Gnosticism would seem to be incompatible with the radical egalitarian goal of the contemporary Left, which owns and controls all the central institutions of Western Society, including increasingly the Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church at its diocesan level and above. The apparent incompatibility of Supermanism and Multiculturalism is easily resolvable. It is important to remember that Gnosticism is perpetually parasitic: It invariably borrows the forms of Tradition so as, in the formula of Sandoz, to “supplant the truth of the soul” and, equally, to misrepresent reality, replacing it with “a counterexistential dreamworld” (Voegelin’s term). In addition, Gnosticism overlaps with Nihilism, which is implacably anti-Christian. Modernity is essentially anti-Christian. Finally, in Nietzsche’s codification, the Superman is not defined by intellectual sophistication but only by his brutal capacity not to cavil about the exercise of his will “beyond good and evil.” Under Gnostic manipulation, the word for this propensity is “peace.” The war against reality will be carried out under the password of “peace.”

The Marxian equivalent of Nietzsche’s Superman is the representative of what Lenin called the socially friendly classes – namely criminals, including murderers and rapists, who, like the revolutionaries, made war on middle class society. In Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera (1933), Mack the Knife – whose exploits include burning down an orphanage in the middle of the night – is a socially friendly person. The people today euphemistically called refugees are also socially friendly from the point of view of the Multiculturalist Left. To say that the people called refugees are hostile to Western Civilization is to make an understatement. Although Western Civilization is at best vestigially Christian, both the elites of the Multiculturalist Left and their pets, those refugees, see it as Christian and hate it. Insofar as the proxies extravagantly hate and ferociously attack Western Civilization and actual flesh-and-blood Westerners, they qualify as Supermen, perfect soldiers of the Left’s Gnostic program of annihilation because even more than the Leftists they are beyond good and evil. Destruction, for the Gnostic, is a magical act that transforms reality, including the agent.

The deranged religiosity of the contemporary Western, anti-Western elites, and of their proxies, their devotion to the Cult of the Multi-Cult, fulfills the prediction in Voegelin’s mid-century analysis of the direction in Western civilization. Voegelin found a succinct portrait of the Gnostic regime in Hooker’s Laws and quoted that text in The New Science. Let the present essay close through a quotation from the Laws. “When the minds of men are once erroneously persuaded,” Hooker writes, “that it is the will of God to have those things done which they fancy, their opinions are as thorns in their sides, never suffering them to take rest till they have brought their speculations into practice.” For “the will of God” one may substitute “the agenda dictated by the doctrine.” The result will be “merciless cruelty” and the perpetration of “sacrifice,” as demanded by the mental idols.

17 thoughts on “Voegelin on Gnosticism – A Revisitation

  1. Pingback: Voegelin Gnosticism – A Revisitation | Neoreactive

  2. Around twenty mintues ago, I thought to myself, “I would really like to read something by Thomas Bertonneau regarding gnosticism.” No joke, I even googled Dr. B to find articles published in alternative sources that I had not yet read.

    • The semester has slowed me down considerably from regular posting. I saw a window of opportunity this morning and worked patiently to reformat the text after uploading it. Perhaps intentness broadcast itself somehow. I do not profess to know how!

    • No – he would not. There is a chapter in The Ecumenic Age on “The Chinese Ecumene” in which he discovers parallelisms with the West.

      PS. Manichaeism did make it all the way to China at about the same time as Christianity. Apparently the Mandarinate could not sufficiently distinguish the two creeds, so, being disturbed, it discouraged both. The Mahayana school of Buddhism passed through the cultural prism of the Greek kingdoms of Central Asia so that it constitutes a kind of halfway point between Hellenism and Brahmanism. I wrote about all this once in an article at the now moribund Brussels Journal. I hope to migrate my Brussels Journal articles, in updated form, to The Gates of Vienna. I will keep The Orthosphere posted concerning this development.

      • In 631, the Emperor Taizong allowed Christians to propagate their religion and translate their sacred texts. During the Great Persecution of 845, Buddhism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism were all outlawed. Christianity and Zoroastrianism were pretty well destroyed in China, while Buddhism has never fully recovered.

  3. Pingback: Voegelin Gnosticism – A Revisitation | Reaction Times

  4. There is a term in the Chinese annals, “The Religion of Light.” No one knows for certain whether it refers to Manichaeism or some sect of Nestorian Christianity. As the scholars of the matter say, it probably refers to the indistinguishable character of the two creeds from the Sinic point of view.

    The Central Asian seat of Manichaeism in the centuries around 1000 AD was what today is the Uighur Province of China. The Uighur Province is still an irritant to the Kingdom at the Center of the World.

  5. I am surprised to find praise of the Renaissance in an article critical of gnosticism. So to oversimplify, in your (or Voegelin’s?) formulation, Savonarola is the anti-Christian gnostic and the Medici, with their cult of beauty, are the defenders of logos? or is it gnsotic vs. gnostic?

    I have long associated the Renaissance with the return of gnosticism due to the increased interest in Hebraism (especially Kabbalah, which lead to the creation of “Christian Kabbalah), Hermeticism, alchemy, the quest to discover the Enochian language and other ways for men to become masters of the cosmological order. Would you say that there is a “good Renaissance”and a “bad Renaissance,” or have I simply got the entire historiography of the period wrong?

    • If you’ll re-read the paragraph in question carefully, you’ll see that Voegelin’s point is that the Classical, Graeco-Roman achievement never vanished from the Western continuum but was always present, The Renaissance is not, then, as bad writers often characterize it, some sudden rediscovery of Pagan tradition, where before there had been only blank ignorance; there is simply a new emphasis. The interpretation of the Renaissance as a rebellious break with Tradition is, itself, a Gnostic construction. Of course, new vehicles of the Gnostic impulse appear in the Fourteenth Century, including the ones that you mention. Voegelin is aware of this – but you should remember that for Voegelin the decisive figure is Joachim di Fiore, who belongs in the Twelfth Century. The notion of a “Sane Renaissance” and a “Mentally Derailed Renaissance” is not at all illegitimate.

      • I personally think that “the Renaissance,” like “humanism,” is a word with so many definitions that it’s almost useless at this point. I’ve studied the early modern period pretty extensively and there is really no break with the Medieval period to be found in the artistic and literary movements that most people call “the Renaissance.” The real break occurred during the Reformation, which had little to do with the Renaissance, and the birth of modern science, and the accompanying scientism, in the following century.

      • If not gnostic, could the Renaissance then be described, to a degree, as a reversion of sorts, or a force for reversion, to a less differentiated sense of things insofar as Paganism — or at least that part of Renaissance Paganism that derives from Antiquity — comes before Christianity in the order of differentiation? Or have I got things mixed up?

  6. You’ve been on fire lately Dr. Bertonneau.

    I’ve always thought that Voeglin’s idea of modern political movements as gnostic religions in disguise was remarkably perceptive. The length of his works is often over-long, in my opinion, which often obscures the thrust of his arguments, and sometimes he stretches the parallels, but at the very least he correctly analyses the current state of the West as a primarily spiritual crisis that Man can’t solve himself. The new political religions are ultimately worship of the Power of this World.

    • With guys like Girard and Voegelin to give inspiration, even a mental slowpoke like me can pick up his pace! But – thanks. I appreciate the comment.

      Definitely – a spiritual crisis. To understand it as a secular crisis only is to yield to Modernity’s self-description. We need to extract ourselves from that narrow frame of reference.

  7. Mr. Prescott writes: “If not gnostic, could the Renaissance then be described, to a degree, as a reversion of sorts, or a force for reversion, to a less differentiated sense of things insofar as Paganism — or at least that part of Renaissance Paganism that derives from Antiquity — comes before Christianity in the order of differentiation? Or have I got things mixed up?”

    What I know about the Renaissance I know only as a generalist, after all – but it strikes me that the word indeed covers a great deal, from the sentimental neo-paganism of Botticelli to the magnificent Christian art of Buonarotti’s Sistine Chapel. These aspects communicate with one another, naturally. I see a definite Gnostic character in Pico della Mirandola’s “Dignity,” which inaugurates a good deal of quasi-magical “speculation.”


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