In my previous Brussels Journal essay on Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen, I used the analysis of modernity undertaken by Eric Voegelin (1901-1986) as my critical framework. These current remarks constitute an extended footnote to the Borges-Blixen essay, in which I want to return to the text of Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952), particularly to its analysis of the Gnostic mentality, as that makes itself manifest on the contemporary political scene, and even more particularly to the book’s treatment of the Gnostic “second reality” or “dream world” in its remarkable Chapter 6, entitled “The End of Modernity.” I believe Voegelin to be central to any understanding of our condition.
Voegelin’s use of the term Gnosticism generated controversy from the beginning because scholars could not immediately see any obvious connection between the modern world and a set of baroque theological positions associated, as was also Christianity, with the breakdown of Pagan religiosity in the period of Late Antiquity. Most especially the scholars could see no such immediate connection because Gnosticism seemed to them to have its peculiar context in a long-vanished historical society classifiable as a purely theological one, with God-emperors and so forth; whereas the modern West seemed to them to be a secular society par excellence that had come into being, starting in the Sixteenth Century, by systematically repudiating the dogmas of religious revelation. Antiquarians of religion like Franz Cumont (1868-1947) or Hans Jonas (1903-1993) might take a legitimate interest in Gnosticism, but what possible relevance could their erudite studies have for secular society, which, of course, “believes” in absolutely nothing, but rather places its confidence in natural science and technology?
Other writers than Voegelin had discerned in modernity, secularity, and even in science and technology themselves, qualities of a civic religion that substitutes for the discarded Biblical spirituality, but most of them, like Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) or Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) were eccentrics, or could be dismissed as such, whose analyses had no traction in the positivistic dispensation of the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Voegelin’s response to this pervasive skepticism – which sometimes sharpened itself into outright hostility – was patiently to describe the inner-structure or psycho-epistemology of the Gnostics, and to catalogue the varieties of their agitated behavior on the social scene. On such a basis he could demonstrate the psychic and behavioral identity of, say, the Second-Century Valentinians and Marcionites, and the Seventeenth-Century English Puritans. Voegelin also called on existing scholarship to demonstrate that actual continuity in concepts and practices that linked Late Antique Gnosis with medieval religious movements such as Paulicianism in Anatolia and the Balkans and Cathar Christianity in Southern France; and again the similar continuity that linked those irate doctrines with later ones right through to the Enlightenment and beyond.
An important part of Voegelin’s argument, which he took from writers like Cumont and Walter Bauer (1877-1960), was that the Gnostic attitude, like resentment, is always present in a society, and that the Gnostic religions were never anything like original but always took the form of parodies of the existing mainstream religion, whether it was Platonic Monotheism, Judaism, or Christianity. Gnosticism, for Voegelin, is essentially reactionary and parasitical: it is an intellectualizing form of resentment that obsessively opposes all norms.
By drawing on Hans Jonas, as I will do here, one can briefly sketch in the basic characteristics of ancient Gnosticism. The antique Gnosis represents, for Jonas, a thematic reversal of standing representations of existence. The pervasive civic theology of the Hellenized Roman Empire in late Antiquity centered on the idea of a cosmos, the visible universe in which humanity finds itself, understood as fundamentally good (the word kosmos implies beauty and harmoniousness) and as the deliberate creation of a good Demiurge or Creator-Deity. Qualities of the Creator-Deity, such as his logical mind and his approval of beauty, are reflected in the structures and laws that govern existence within the cosmos. The basic concepts of this view came from Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. Gnosticism, as Jonas shows in The Gnostic Religion (1958), systematically reverses the basic precepts of Greek cosmic monotheism.
When Plato and his followers say that the Creator-Deity is benign, then the Gnostics insist that he is evil, or even that he is not the real Creator, but a usurper who misappropriated creation and then criminally sabotaged or polluted it. When Plato and his followers say that one should love the Creator-Deity and attune himself carefully to the beauties of his creation, then the Gnostics insist that one should hate the Creator-Deity (who is anyway a usurper and a polluter) and revile the many debased phenomena of creation. When Plato and his followers say that it is good to have been born in a beautiful world, then the Gnostics insist that it is intolerable to have been born in a polluted world and that enlightened people will seek to be redeemed from the universal miasma or will dedicate themselves to detoxifying existence.
One can list several more features of ancient Gnosticism, again drawing on Jonas, that Voegelin “imports” into his own argument, although Voegelin’s main source in 1951 was Bauer (1934), not Jonas. When Plato and his followers argue for a universal humanity, then the Gnostics insist that humanity is not single, but dual; that there is a vast preterit of the unenlightened and unsalvageable who probably belong in the Hell where Fate has consigned them and that, set apart from those, there is an elect of the enlightened and salvageable, who, by spiritual exercises, can either escape from the Hellish world or transform it back into its pristine state before the usurper polluted it. In the second of those two possibilities emerges the theme of the Paradise-on-earth, as constructed by the vanguard. Finally, when Plato and his followers say that the world is at least contingently knowable, that it is, more or less, as our senses and our mental operations report it to be, then the Gnostics insist that phenomena are false, or worse yet deliberately falsified, and that the world is a lie concealing a hidden truth to which they alone have access.
It is important to remember that the Platonic cosmology largely passed into Orthodox Christian cosmology, so that where first the Gnostics were anti-Platonists, latterly they were anti-Christians. But no real change had occurred.
The actual Gnostics in Late Antiquity characteristically formed small in-groups of the disgruntled, who regarded themselves as pure and whose attitude towards the larger out-group was one of contempt and hostility. Augustine depicts the Manichaeans this way in his Confessions (397 or 398). As such in-groups proliferated, it fell out that the only people whom their members hated more than those in the larger out-group were the members of the other radical, self-isolating in-groups. Gustave Flaubert depicts this sectarian hostility in Anthony’s great sanguine vision of the religious riot in Alexandria in The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1848).
Against this historical and scholarly background, it is possible to understand what Voegelin means when he asserts that Gnosticism is, at one level, in any given society where it appears, a contest by an agitating minority to monopolize the representation of “immanent reality.” With the goal of transforming existence and of realizing their own Paradise-on-earth, Gnostics begin a campaign to discredit the standing representation of reality, insisting on a reversal of terms, as Jonas has described. Of course, reality is that which exists, as and what it is, despite anyone’s dissatisfaction over it or contrary description of it. Thus the Gnostic propaganda campaign is foredoomed to being endlessly ratcheted up in its level of vituperation against actual existence.
With the proviso that Voegelin thinks that Gnosticism failed to triumph in Late Antiquity but indeed triumphed in its disastrous manner in modernity, here is one of the precise formulations of these views from The New Science of Politics: “The truth of Gnosticism is vitiated… by the fallacious immanentization of the Christian eschaton. This fallacy is not simply a theoretical mistake concerning the meaning of the eschaton, committed by this or that thinker, perhaps an affair of the schools. On the basis of this fallacy, Gnostic thinkers, leaders, and their followers interpret a concrete society and its order as an eschaton; and, insofar as they apply their fallacious construction to concrete social problems, they misrepresent the structure of immanent reality.”
But what is the true representation of “immanent reality”?
Voegelin locates that representation in many places – in philosophy and religion, for example. Thus Christian theology shares with Pagan Monotheism (Plato’s and Aristotle’s) the insistence, founded in experience, that nothing is perfectible in this world, and that disappointment, resentment, unjust shares, bad luck, arguments with one’s wife, pain, debt, and all the rest belong ineradicably to the mortal realm. The most that a just political order can do is to ameliorate the worst cases of these woes.
Plato said that perfection existed, or was – or, putting it in the eternal present tense, is – only in the transcendental realm of the Ideas, whose fullness, as the philosopher saw things, the world below only inadequately reflected. Christian theology says that perfection will exist only at the End of Days, when, after the Last Judgment, the righteous will enjoy their translation into Paradise; but by the time of Augustine, Christianity had more or less reconciled itself to the non-occurrence in the foreseeable future of the End of Days, the Greek term for which in Revelations is the eschaton. Christianity declares that good people must make the best of mortal existence because the eschaton is indefinitely postponed; people must adhere to morality, love one another, and act as stewards over the earth, while reconciling themselves to fallibility and imperfection.
When Voegelin writes that impatience to immanentize the eschaton constitutes the essence of Gnosticism, he refers to the petulant dogma that one need not wait, without schedule, to be translated into Paradise, but that one can, by his own self-salvaging activity, realize Paradise in this world. The skeptical claim that such a work is impossible is more of a focus for the Gnostic than the Gnostic’s own claim that such a work is actualizable because the first, the standing, the intuitive and plausible claim is what blocks and scandalizes the Gnostic’s own project. From this mis-priority of arguments stems the desperate nastiness of the Gnostic towards those who criticize or disagree with him. What does it mean, however, when Voegelin asserts that, “on the basis of this fallacy, Gnostic thinkers, leaders, and their followers interpret a concrete society and its order as an eschaton; and, insofar as they apply their fallacious construction to concrete social problems, they misrepresent the structure of immanent reality”?
More precisely, what does it mean to “interpret a concrete society and its order as an eschaton”?
Understanding the kernel of this sentence hinges on remembering that Voegelin now addresses, not ancient Gnosticism, which lost its contest with normative religion, and with common sense – with what Voegelin calls “the truth of the soul” – but rather modern Gnosticism, the triumphant “civic theology” of Post-Enlightenment history. Voegelin, following Plato and Augustine, notes that existence is open and uncertain, not closed and pre-decided. Men write history, the account of the past and its relation to the present, but there is no agency called History that, like a human actor, can do things; the stream of time is a great flux, buffeted by contingency, in which, precisely, nothing is permanent, but rather everything must, in due course, wither and perish.
In one sense, this truth can lead to pessimism: everything comes from dust and goes back to dust. In a better sense, the mortality of human works guarantees the openness of the future, which, unknowable, cannot be predetermined. Classical philosophy well understood this state of affairs, as did also theology, going back to Hesiod, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
Thus the condition of any given polity or society at any given moment is not a transcendental fact or Idea; but rather it is merely a passing state, bound to be altered by unpredictable and emergent factors. It would be a fallacy, therefore, for anyone to assert that the existing social conditions constitute a cosmic fact, part of the structure of existence in a metaphysical, unchangeable sense. For an example of this type of error, one might remember the pervasive fallacy in place before 1991, which held that the Soviet Union was an indissoluble element in the structure of reality, and that, declarations of its imminent demise like President Ronald Reagan’s or Pope John-Paul’s sprang from a delusion. This conviction held both inside and outside the Soviet Union, in different ways but with almost equal strength; it influenced even those people who deeply feared and loathed the Communist empire, but who inclined despondently to agree with the proposition. The claim, as history now shows, was utterly false.
Gnostics and revolutionaries, unlike the spurious agency called History, can do things: make a Puritan revolution, depose a king, commit regicide, order banks to make loans, fire legally appointed CEO’s, give away welfare-largesse, mobilize national industry to invent an atom bomb, establish Gulags, send astronauts to the moon, or bloodily put down the peasant-farmers in the Vendee or the Ukraine. Militant secularists, beginning in the Renaissance, marshaled the forces to bring about the modern, materially based civilization, either in its mild form in what eventually became the Western industrialized democracies or in its radical form in the one National Socialist and plural Communist countries. When a militant phalanx, either an effective minority or an enthusiastic and even more effective majority, brings about some few items of its ambitious schedule to remake existence, it can commit that exact formal error, as Voegelin argues, of interpreting itself as a necessary and permanent fact of the universal order, as a realization of the “eschaton,” and therefore, but also erroneously, as an actual rearrangement of reality.
Thus, again, the fallacy that, “Gnostic thinkers, leaders, and their followers interpret a concrete society and its order,” the one in which they exert effectiveness, “as an eschaton.” When they do so, they argue from a temporary arrangement as though it were a fixed axiom, but because their basic premises contradict reality, they swiftly find themselves, as Voegelin says, “vitiated.” Their Paradise stubbornly refuses to fulfill itself in its universality and permanence: “The eschatological interpretation of history results in a false picture of reality; and errors with regard to the structure of reality have practical consequences when the false conception is made the basis of political action.”
For a ready illustration, see the current economic crisis in the United States, where the magical spending of money that does not exist, in an exasperating scandal for the policy-makers, stubbornly fails to result in the rescue of an economy whose collapse stems, in the first place, from pathological, non-reality-related super-spending of money that did not, even then, exist. Voegelin writes: “Gnosticism, thus, has produced something like the counterprinciples to the principles of existence; and, insofar as these principles determine an image of reality for the masses of the faithful, it has created a dream world that itself is a social force of the first importance in motivating attitudes and actions of Gnostic masses their representatives.”
Voegelin has now broached the all-important topic of the “dream world” in and of itself, taking us to the heart of the Gnostic “pneumopathology,” or sickness of the soul.
I offer a quotation at length, the necessity of which I hope my readers will perceive:
Gnosticism as a counterexistential dream world can perhaps be made intelligible as the extreme expression of an experience that is universally human, that is, of a horror of existence and a desire to escape from it. Specifically, the problem can be stated in the following terms: a society, when it exists, will interpret its order as part of the transcendent order of being. This self-interpretation of society as a mirror of cosmic order, however, is part of social reality itself. [But not of cosmic reality.] The ordered society, together with its self-understanding, remains a wave in the stream of being… an island in the sea of demonic disorder, precariously maintaining itself in existence. Only the order of an existing society is intelligible; its existence itself is unintelligible. The successful articulation of a society is a fact that has become possible under favorable circumstances; and this fact may be annulled by unfavorable circumstances… Especially when a society has a glorious history, its existence will be taken for granted as part of the order of things. It has [then] become impossible to imagine that the society could simply cease to exist.
This dense passage presents a few philosophical subtleties. The dominant one is Voegelin’s careful distinction between the one fact of “the order of an existing society” as being “intelligible” and the other fact of “the existence” of such a society as being “unintelligible.” One can gloss the distinction under an example. The Constitution of the United States articulates the order of the North American polity that it establishes; and the Constitution is explicable to educated people who speak English, think logically, and have some sense of history before the Constitutional Convention. However, as the current campaign to undo the Constitution makes clear, the “fact” of the Constitutional order is only a contingent one, a “wave in the stream of being.” All of this is “intelligible.” But that unaccountable factors and incalculable chances could so dispose themselves at a particular moment in the swirling temporal pattern of the late Eighteenth Century so as to give rise to the Constitutional order, is not “intelligible.”
Next in relevance and still quite important is Voegelin’s assertion that, when a society mistakes itself for a cosmic fact, “it has become impossible to imagine that the society could simply cease to exist.” To understand this proposition in its fullness, one must go back to the phenomenon, discussed earlier, of the Gnostic’s hatred of criticism. The Gnostic claims that he can build Paradise on earth and that, once built, this New Eden will last forever. Of course he cannot build Paradise and nothing that he can build will last forever, but because he lives in the “dream world” of magical, intention-related deeds, the Gnostic can never admit to ineffectiveness. He must suppress his own knowledge of his ineffectiveness and he must coerce potential critics not to remind him of it.
Of course, this last requirement means that the Gnostic must coerce potential critics not to remind him of reality. Gnosticism requires the mental obliteration of reality. “In every society,” Voegelin writes, “is present an inclination to extend the meaning of order to the fact of existence, but in predominantly Gnostic societies this extension is erected into a principle of self-interpretation.”
When the Gnostic project collides with reality and begins to falter, as it inevitably does, the Gnostic regime goes into panic-mode; it hardens into totalitarian rigidity exceeding even its “normal” Puritan intolerance. As Voegelin writes: “With radical immanentization the dream world has blended into the real world terminologically.” By manipulating language under various editorial codes and mandates, the Gnostic regime attempts to conceal failure under the language of success, inequality under the claim of equivalency, dispossession of personal or corporate wealth under the jargon of social justice, and so forth. “The obsession of replacing the world of reality with the transfigured dream world has become the obsession of the one world in which the dreamers adopt the vocabulary of reality, while changing its meaning, as if the dream were reality.”
The word Puritan has occurred several times in the discussion. Another controversial claim that Voegelin makes in The New Science of Politics (I am now leaving Chapter 6 for Chapter 5, “Gnostic Revolution”) is that the prototype of a Gnostic polity is offered by England under the Puritans. Voegelin had some precedent for the claim. Spengler had argued, in The Decline of the West, that English Puritanism bore almost no relation to Christianity, but represented something novel, a purely political religion, that merely borrowed its terms from the Gospel; Spengler also characterized the Puritan revolution as the rehearsal for the French Revolution. Much of what Spengler discusses in The Decline under the rubric of “Second Religiousness” is related to what Voegelin discusses under the rubric of Gnosticism.
Voegelin draws on the writings of Richard Hooker (1554-1600), an Anglican clergyman and theologian who, a liberal himself and “High Church,” married into a Puritanical family that inclined to radical Calvinism. Hooker used his in-law connections to observe and cogitate on the mentality and behavior of the Calvinist agitators who would soon create a political paroxysm, culminating in a regicide, in English society, before being deposed themselves in a restoration of monarchy.
Given that Puritanism, once having lost its power over the English polity, sought to create a New Eden in North America, and given again that the sitting American chief executive emerged into public life as a “community organizer” associated with the Afrocentric equivalent of a radically Puritan congregation, Voegelin’s appropriation of Hooker gains renewed contemporary interest.
A “community organizer” is someone with a cause and causes lie at the heart of Puritanism seen under the genre of Gnosticism. “In order to start a movement moving,” writes Voegelin, “there must in the first place be someone who has a ‘cause.’” The word cause appears in quotation marks in Voegelin’s sentence because he quotes it from Hooker. So too in what follows:
In order to advance his “cause,” the man who has it will, “in the hearing of the multitude,” indulge in severe criticism of social evils and in particular of the conduct of the upper classes. Frequent repetition of the performance will induce the opinion among the hearers that the speakers must be men of singular integrity, zeal, and holiness, for only men who are singularly good can be so deeply offended by evil. The next step will be the concentration of ill will on the established government. The task can be psychologically performed by attributing all fault and corruption, as it exists in the world because of human frailty, to the action or the inaction of the government.
It would require considerable obtuseness – a type of Gnostic blindness to reality – not to recognize in the foregoing description the precise pattern of agitation and propaganda that delivered the American presidency to its current holder and that continues in campaign mode to incite the masses against evil, in the form of various scapegoats for national difficulties that have resulted, not from any action by the scapegoats, but rather from policies previously urged on the nation by the people now holding uncontested power and using it to calumniate their opposition.
Voegelin makes an ominous comment: “Once a social environment of this type is organized, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to break it up by persuasion.” Faced with appeals to evidence or good logical refutation, Gnostics have recourse to their pamphlets and encyclopedias. Voegelin adduces the works of Karl Marx in their service to Communist regimes as, in context, “the Koran of the faithful, supplemented by the patristic literature of Leninism-Stalinism.” For the segment of the existing Gnostic regime that makes environmentalism its “cause,” Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth provides this “Koran.” In respect of dissent, the regime can respond by “putting a taboo on the instruments of critique,” so that “a person who uses the tabooed instruments will be socially boycotted and, if possible, exposed to political defamation.” Indeed: “Since Gnosticism lives by… theoretical fallacies… the taboo on theory in the classical sense is the ineluctable condition of its social expansion and survival.”
Again, it is difficult not to see the phenomena that Voegelin here describes as being hyperactive in our current affairs. It was not Voegelin’s design, however, to induce in those sympathetic to his argument a state of cosmic pessimism. Because Gnosticism is a pneumopathology at war with reality that does its best to seal itself inside the bubble of its “dream world,” it cannot, over any long term, succeed. For one thing, when “the critical exploration of cause and effect in history is prohibited… the rational co-ordination of means and ends in politics is impossible.” When emergent factors pierce the bubble, or at least impinge on the membrane, Gnostic leaders vaguely acknowledge them, but respond irrationally “by magic operations in the dream world, such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declaration of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind, branding of enemies as aggressors, outlawing of war, propaganda for world peace, world government,” and so on.
One can predict, generally, that the radical spasm through which Europe and North America are now passing will eventually remit. De-creation can only be called creation for so long before the fraud becomes undeniable and the masses become disenchanted with their formerly charismatic leaders.
The trouble for all of us is that, in the meantime, in “the weird, ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum,” as Voegelin writes, the agitating elites can wreak enormous harm. In the USA, even if the electorate were to repudiate the Democrats at the next Congressional election and return the GOP to majority in one or both houses, terrific mayhem will already have been perpetrated. And it is fair to say that the GOP has disgraced itself in innumerable ways in the last decade, so much so that it would be foolish to pin any hopes on its reacquisition of the policy helm. At most a reassertion of the GOP would replace chaos with torpor. Torpor is perhaps preferable to chaos, but it is not the same as a healthy society.
Quite apart from election results, the extremism and intolerance of those currently in power polarizes the society increasingly, day by day, with no terminus of the process in sight; nor will their polarizing activities cease, should they lose their majority. Gnostic propaganda is nowadays organized as a colossal communications-network. Certainly American society is therefore in the rhetorical phase of a civil war, or perhaps in the policy phase, now that liberals have the votes to justify their schemes and do as they please. Even if the USA did not advance to some kind of actual civil war, the damage to civic institutions and to trust among people will have been, as it already is, profound and lasting.
One might agree with Voegelin, who was writing sixty years ago, that, “the end of the Gnostic dream is perhaps closer at hand than one ordinarily would assume.” But this need not mean that the aftermath will resemble the status quo ante, or be in any way familiar to those who, during the period of nightmare, held fast to the truth of the soul.