Gnosticism from a Non-Voegelinian Perspective, Part I

The trend of politics in the Western nations since Eric Voegelin’s death in 1986 has made his work increasingly relevant to any philosophically rigorous conservatism or traditionalism. In particular, Voegelin’s argument that liberalism and its Leftwing metastases constitute an evangelical religious movement, mimicking and distorting Christianity, has gained currency. The pronounced irrational character of the “Global Warming” cult and the obvious messianism of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency have together sharpened the perception that contemporary Leftwing politics shares with history’s specimen-type doctrinally intransigent sects an absolute intolerance for dissent, even for discussion, along with a conviction of perfect certainty in all things. The sudden experience of Leftwing triumph attests that, indeed, utopian radicalism draws its strength from a deep well of resentment that puts it in conflict, not merely with those whom it regards as heterodox, but also with the inalterable structure of reality. Voegelin argued – in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and throughout Order and History (1957-65) – that the rebellion against reality was a recurrent affliction of civilized life; he pointed to the acute anticosmic sects of Late Antiquity as offering a paradigm of the phenomenon and expanded the scholarly designation of them as “Gnosticism” to cover insurgent ideological doctrines of the modern period, particularly Marxism and National Socialism.

Thus Lawrence Auster, creator and supervisor of the View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of his own conservatism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a recent Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?

The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Church Fathers; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it?


I. Let us begin with two writers from the period of Roman Imperial decline, a phase of Mediterranean history that one might justly describe as a factory – working on double-shift – of apocalyptic ideas and eclectic religious innovations. Both Plotinus (204-270) and Augustine (354-430), the former an adherent of the Platonic School of philosophy and the latter a Platonizing Christian who had belonged for ten years to the most organized of the Gnostic sects, commented extensively on the Gnostics. Plotinus’ treatise, Against the Gnostics, bears appositely on its object in that Gnostic writers like Valentinus (100-160) ransacked elements of the original Platonism in building their syncretic systems, while at the same time attacking basic tenets of the original, positive Platonism; it is likely that Plotinus had the Valentinians particularly in mind in making his discussion. The zenith of Valentinian Gnosticism, considered as an active movement, indeed coincides with Plotinus’ activity as a teacher in Rome. Augustine, a driven religious seeker, sojourned among the Manichaeans as an auditor during the decade from 374 to 384; but he later rejected Manichaeism on the basis of Platonic argument and eventually, Platonic logic being his way station, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

The texts of Plotinus and Augustine tell us that Gnosticism remained peculiarly and tenaciously implicated in the fabric of Late Antique society, against whose existing institutions and convictions the devotees of Gnosis (“Secret Knowledge”) nevertheless pitted themselves in an often fanatically gainsaying manner; and this was the case whatever forms their organization took or whatever the specific tenets of their sect. There is something noticeably parasitic about Gnosticism, which plagiarizes from what it condemns. Plotinus and Augustine also interest us as sources for Gnosticism because Plotinus, for his part, harbored intense suspicion about Christianity, in respect of which, like his contemporary Celsus, he reserved no friendliness or comity; therefore when the Plotinian judgment of Gnosticism parallels the Augustinian, after the Saint’s conversion, the similarity indicates an objective, a true, or let us say, at least, a plausible assessment of the thing at issue.

Remarkably, Plotinus associates Gnosticism with economic resentment, attributing to the sectarians the disposition that, “Wealth and poverty, and all the inequalities of that order are made ground of complaint.” Plotinus notes by way of sane counterargument that, “This is to ignore that the Sage demands no equality in such matters,” because “he cannot think that to own many things is to be richer or that the powerful have the better of the simple.” (Mackenna’s translation, as throughout) The Gnostics, in Plotinus’ description, ascribe to certain kinds of difference an evil character, interpreting those differences as signs that the maker of this world must have created it through an intention evil in itself, hence also supremely reprehensible and a fit object of rebellion. In condemning Creation, the Gnostics likewise condemn the Creator. Plotinus therefore refers to the Gnostics as “those… that censure the constitution of the Cosmos” and who “do not understand what they are doing or where this audacity leads them.”

Logically, seeing that they belong to the universe, if the Gnostics judged the universe wicked, the judgment would implicate them. But Gnostic thinking evades logic. The Gnostic sees in himself a radical self-legitimizing exception, a rare instance of positive difference tantamount to election.

Plotinus, like his revered Plato, understood the natural order as hierarchical. The cosmos for Plotinus is thus intelligible because it corresponds to an intelligent design, implying in turn an intelligent – hence also a morally benevolent – designer. Plotinus emphatically equates the intelligent, that is to say the articulate and self-consistent, with the good, and he insists on the unity of existence. In the Plotinian formula: “The Good, the Principle, is simplex, and, correspondingly, primal”; and “it is an integral Unity.” The cosmos being one and whole, it cannot be in a state of war with itself, or in a state of deficiency; and likewise the divine principle being one and whole, it cannot be in a state of war with itself, or in a state of deficiency. Nor can the cosmos, because it derives from the divine principle, be in a state of war with the divine principle. Once again in the formula: “When we speak of the One and when we speak of the Good we must recognize an identical nature.”

In making these assertions, Plotinus remains in consistency with the fundamental law of logic and ontology: Namely that a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be; and that a thing cannot simultaneously both be what it is and not be what it is.

Plotinus judges Gnostic discourse to be willfully pleonastic in its procedures – it multiplies principles unnecessarily so as to circumvent identity – and thus also to be an insuperable logical scandal. Yet Plotinus objects to Gnosticism just as much on esthetic grounds as on purely logical ones, the Gnostic systems appearing to him as grossly inelegant precisely because of their constant recourse to “superfluous distinctions.” These latter, the “superfluous distinctions,” belong to Gnostic censure of the cosmos in that they express the sectarian’s “grudge of any share with one’s fellows,” even where it concerns normative agreement about objective matters. It follows that the Gnostic is relentless in his “pursuit of advantage” over those who fault his premises or point out flaws in his reasoning. In this last observation Plotinus ascribes to Gnosticism the antinomian character remarked by all commentary subsequent to his own.

The illuminatus, in Plotinus’ words, “Carps at Providence and the Lord of Providence.” So too the illuminatus “scorns every law known to us,” while of “immemorial virtue and all restraint” he “makes… a laughing stock, lest any loveliness be seen on earth.” The doctrine of the illuminatus, making use of sarcasm and denunciation, “cuts at the root of all orderly living.” As Plotinus says of the illuminati, “They know nothing good here,” for to acknowledge goodness would be to disavow total moral superiority.

Plotinus notices that the Gnostics avoid giving definitions or explanations. Thus while the Gnostics claim moral superiority to other people, they disdain any discussion of virtue: “We are not told [by the illuminati] what virtue is or under what different kinds it appears; there is no word of all the numerous and noble reflections upon it that have come down to us from the ancients.” If anyone were to inquire directly of the Gnostics about these matters, the Gnostics would reply with their cryptic, “Look to God.” The Gnostic exclusion of the literary archive is particularly striking. In addition to being antinomian and anticosmic in their disposition, the Gnostics, as Plotinus describes them, are also anti-historical. The phrase, “Look to God,” irritates Plotinus because God, in his understanding, is rational and provides definitions and explanations, at least by indirection through his works. Plato’s dialogues are famous for Socrates’ insistence on defining terms precisely.


II. When Gnostics say, “Look to God,” they are invoking the knowledge-without-experience, the special knowledge, that the word Gnosis denotes. Such proprietary knowledge they specifically refuse to share with outsiders because possession of it – or the claim to possess it, for that is all that the outsider has – is what differentiates the illuminati from the vulgate. Thus by virtue (so to speak) of their special knowledge, the Gnostics consider themselves elect. They are an extreme in-group phenomenon. Under this conviction, they “proceed to assert that Providence cares for them alone.” When the Hidden God abolishes the corrupt world, only those whose being has been transfigured by secret knowledge will remain, and they, too, shall be as gods. Compared to those in whom the secret knowledge does not reside, and who are therefore not transfigured, the illuminati are already gods. They may thus mock and revile their ontological inferiors.

We have remarked that Plotinus discerns in the Gnostic disposition several types of resentment: Envy of standing and wealth in the social order, with a concomitant and hypocritical advantage seeking; jealously against the structure of existence, and disdain for the past and for its inheritance in the present. Correlated with “despising the world and all that is in it,” as Plotinus remarks, is the Gnostic orientation to a post-apocalyptic future in whose realization all attitudes contrary to the Gnostic attitude shall be humiliated and banished while the Gnostic antipathy to tradition will be justified in a triumph. Plotinus writes of the Gnostics that, “All they care for is something else [than the structure of existence in the present] to which they will at some future time apply themselves.”

It might surprise modern readers that Plotinus, a mystic of the Neo-Platonic school, should defend the goodness of the material world, but this surprise would stem from an unfortunate modern misconception about Plato and Platonism. For Plato, as for Plotinus, existence has distinguishable aspects – the sensible and the intelligible – but these aspects belong to a unitary whole. Platonism is not dualism, nor is it world-rejection, despite what Friedrich Nietzsche claims in The Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ.

Addressing the Gnostic loathing for physical reality, Plotinus poses rhetorically, “Who that truly perceives the harmony of the Intellectual Realm [the Ideas] could fail, if he has any bent towards music, to answer to the harmony in sensible sounds?” Likewise, Plotinus asks, “What geometrician or arithmetician could fail to take pleasure in the symmetries, correspondences, and principles of order observed in visible things?” Plotinus claims that the Gnostics harbor hatred even for the cosmetic beauty of comely individuals: “Now if the sight of beauty excellently reproduced upon a face hurries the mind to that other Sphere [the Intellectual Realm], surely no one seeing the loveliness lavish in the world of sense – this vast orderliness, the Form which the stars even in their remoteness display – no one could be so dull-witted, so immovable, as not to be carried by all this recollection, and gripped by reverent awe in the thought of all this, so great, sprung from that greatness.” Reviling beauty, which Plotinus ascribes to the Gnostics, would be consistent with their attitude of “censure.”

One remarks the elevation of the commonplace implicit in Plotinus’ words – even the ordinary participates in the cosmic order and therefore justifies the contemplation of it. A certain intellectual democracy is also implicit in the same words, for according to the gist of them non-philosophers, when they respond to cosmetic beauty or the sublimity of nature, respond indeed to the same supernal order as that studied in a more sophisticated way by the philosopher. The ground of philosophy consists in the average person’s openness to reality, his vulnerability to beauty: “The very experience out of which Love arises.” In spurning that experience, and that openness, the illuminati exhibit, as Plotinus puts it, “the perverse pride of despising what was once admired.”

According to Plotinus, Gnostics argue that, “They see no difference between beautiful and ugly forms of body.” It should strike no one, therefore, as unexpected that Gnostics also, in Plotinus’ words, “make no distinction between the ugly and the beautiful in conduct.” This remark communicates with the other, earlier remark in Plotinus’ treatise on Gnostic evasiveness about virtue. To deny beauty in one aspect of existence, the corporeal, is, in principle, to deny it in all other aspects of existence, as for instance in the moral aspect. To equivocate about quality and degree is, moreover, to attack the connection between hierarchy and order, while at the same time establishing a new, crude hierarchy. In this reactionary conception of hierarchy, one difference alone is paramount: The election of the minority elites, guaranteed by their special knowledge, over against the damnation of the majority-preterit. Plotinus need not be referring to the bearing of individuals, but merely to the doctrine in and of itself, when he invokes the word “arrogant” as a label appropriate to Gnosticism.

Although Plotinus never directly remarks the aggressiveness of the illuminati, the existence of his treatise implies it. Plotinus ran a type of school or college, in whose precincts he lectured on the Platonic philosophy. In the Third Century, Platonism functioned in many ways like a religion or as a coherent ethical system, as did also Stoicism and (increasingly) Christianity. In Against the Gnostics, Plotinus is apparently responding formally to disputatious Gnostic infiltration of his lectures, with disruptive objections and derailing pseudo-inquiries during the question-and-answer.

We can understand such aggression as belonging to the inherent intolerance of Gnostic believers for any belief other than their own, an intolerance made worse by the lack of originality in Gnostic doctrine, which appropriates elements of established doctrine and crudely reverses them. By obliterating the model, the sectarian may better advertise his derivative as original.

Plotinus employs an elaborate metaphor to sum up the hypocrisy, as he sees it, of Gnostic anticosmic complaint. It is as though, he writes, “two people inhabit one stately house,” the house, of course, being the cosmos itself. One of these inhabitants, grumbling about the house, “declaims against its plan and against its Architect, but none the less retains his residence in it.” In doing so, “the malcontent imagines himself to be wiser” than his co-dweller; and he thinks of his inability “to bear with necessity” as a higher wisdom. Plotinus’ word, “necessity,” means the structure of existence, as it is given. The grumbler execrates “the soulless stone and timber” out of which the house is constructed. As for the co-dweller, he “makes no complaint,” but rather he “asserts the competency of the Architect.” Plotinus attributes to the disgruntled inhabitant a type of dissimulated envy, “a secret admiration for the beauty of those same ‘stones,’” whose supposed soullessness and degraded materiality he so volubly and inveterately deplores.


III. To move from Plotinus to Augustine entails the elision of complex chapters in the history of Mediterranean civilization. Repeated crises of civil war and cataclysms of the economy led to Diocletian’s drastic reform of the Empire. Diocletian (reigned 284-305) divided the Empire into a Latin western half and a Greek eastern half – which included Syria, Egypt, and Anatolia – each of which was ruled by its own “Augustus” or emperor. Diocletian greatly expanded the administrative bureaucracy and attempted a universal price-freeze to combat inflation of the currency. When new civil wars destroyed the viability of Diocletian’s arrangement, governance of the whole empire shifted to the East, a process accelerated when Constantine the Great (like Diocletian of Balkan origin) made himself sole emperor in 324. During this same politically turbulent period the movements of the German tribes began in earnest, requiring constant military operations along the Rhine and Danube and in Gaul.

During the lifetime of Plotinus, the public religiosity of the Roman upper classes West and East took the form of syncretism, as typified by the eclectic piety of the emperor Alexander Severus (reigned 222-235). Alexander maintained a private chapel in which he displayed – quoting from John Ferguson’s Religions of the Roman Empire (1970) – “a series of statues which included the defied emperors, revered spirits like Apollonius of Tyana, Christ, Abraham, Orpheus and all the others of that character.” According to Ferguson, Alexander “wanted to build a temple to Christ and enthrone him among the other gods.”

If syncretism, which Alexander’s chapel so paradigmatically bodied forth, were a seeming mélange, then the same syncretism in its generous plurality, its willingness to see divinity in all its many and differing guises, would also point to increasingly thematic monotheism, the other great trait of Late Antique religiosity. It is not so much a paradox as it appears to be. Even before the Christianizing reign of Constantine, who became on his deathbed the first (putatively) Christian Emperor, the Imperial Cult showed signs of constituting itself a type of pagan monotheism, with the one god being emblematized as a solar divinity, Sol Invictus. Personal religion meanwhile began to focus on the ideas of spiritual redemption and establishing a direct, I-Thou relation to the deity. The proliferating “Mystery Cults” and the singular salvation-cult of Christianity give main expression to this religious development during the period.

Augustine of Hippo, otherwise Saint Augustine, born in the North African city of Thagaste, came to maturity in an age of religious innovation amidst the dissolution of many old forms of spirituality and against the background of political and social turmoil in the West. Augustine would die, a victim of plague, during the Vandal siege of Hippo, North Africa, where he was Bishop, in 430. Augustine appears in his self-account, the Confessions, as a wastrel who gradually grew aware of his own degraded status and began to seek the redemption of his soul. He ignored the influence of his Catholic mother, the saintly Monica, and at first, in his early twenties, attached himself as a lay follower to the then dominant form of Gnostic dualism, the synthetic religion known as Manichaeism, after its Iranian founder Mani (216-276).

Manichaeism appealed to Augustine – as Valentinian Gnosis had appealed to intellectuals of the previous century – in part because of its doctrinal complexity. Baroque pseudo-veracity, offering itself as a system to be mastered, exercises attraction of the type on person who wants, as Augustine says of himself, “to be thought elegant and urbane.” Augustine remarks that his reading of Cicero’s Hortensius had awakened in him an interest in philosophical systems. Philosophy, Augustine reminds his readers, means the love of wisdom. Nevertheless many intellectually unformed people, in hoping to be taken for philosophers, mistake doctrine for wisdom. There are gurus (so to speak) who “seduce through philosophy… using it to color and adorn their own errors.” Such were the teachings of Mani to the young and ambitious student of rhetoric and law in Carthage. The Bible, known to Augustine through the influence of Monica, appeared to him at the time, in contrast to philosophical discourse, to be deficient in style, a mere “sort of aid to the growth of little ones.”

Yet oddly the names of Jesus Christ and the Paraclete figured prominently in the treatises of the Manichaeans, who promised to reveal the secret meanings of such figures to initiates. The Manichaeans claimed uniquely to possess “Truth, Truth,” as Augustine writes, “and were forever speaking the word to me.” Even more than did Valentinian Gnosis, Manichaeism borrowed profligately from already-existing systems – from Judaism and Christianity, to be sure, but also from Platonism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Buddhism, the various Mystery religions, and the old Babylonian theology. Mani, like Mohammed a few centuries later, claimed status as final prophet whose visions put all previous revelations in their proper, purely subordinate place. “Glowing fantasies,” “the fantasies of the Manichaeans,” and “tedious fables”: Augustine uses these terms in The Confessions to classify the contents of the “numerous and vast books” that constituted Manichaean scripture.

Plotinus discerned in the Valentinian Gnostics and their writings the traits of an anticosmic attitude as well as of an obsessive antinomianism; he also grasped that Gnosticism was unoriginal, borrowing from established schools while simultaneously denouncing the sources from which it borrowed. Augustine makes similar observations, using a rhetorical structure resembling Plotinus’ parable of the house with two dwellers. Augustine notes that the Manichaeans constantly addressed the Old Testament, not in admiration, but for the sake of condemning the Patriarchs. If a Patriarch had many wives, then the Manichaeans (who abhor procreation) would revile him; if another Patriarch were at first willing to offer human sacrifice, then the Manichaeans would revile him, even though he relented, as God commanded, and afterwards foreswore the practice. For the Manichaeans any goodness save their own is intolerable. Only the revelation of the final prophet can constitute a precedent.

Augustine writes: “It is as if a man in an armory, not knowing what piece goes on what part of the body, should put a grieve on his head and a helmet on his shin and complain because they did not fit. Or again, as if, in a house, he sees a servant handle something that the butler is not permitted to touch, or when something is done behind the stable that would be prohibited in a dining room, and then a person should be indignant that in one house and one family the same things are not allowed to every member of the household.”


IV. Augustine’s plausible representations of the Manichaeans in The Confessions indicate of those sectarians the same hatred of inherited custom and established social hierarchy that Plotinus attributed to his Gnostics, the Valentinians. The devotees of Valentinus regarded the material world as intrinsically and inalterably corrupt. They fervently desired that world’s abolition, after which the pure of heart would be reunited in a kingdom of supernal light known as the Pleroma, or “Fullness.” Augustine would like to see the world improved, but he knows that human behavior is stubborn and that it takes historical ages for a new moral order to take hold. Before he heard differently from God, for example, Abraham would have understood the offering of a child in sacrifice as ordinary religious practice, which it was in the Bronze Age almost everywhere. The Manichaeans, by contrast, exhibit hysteric impatience both with secular recalcitrance and with the crooked timber of humanity. There is one dispensation, theirs, and not holding to it can be charged against an individual even though he had the misfortune to live before the dispensation could be published. The Manichaeans agitated for apocalypse now, the fundamental transformation of a way of life, to coin a phrase.

In addition to describing Manichaean resentment against moral models from the pre-Manichaean past and Manichaean irritation over the refusal of existence to transform itself, immediatement, according to the sectarian program, Augustine also describes the emphatically hierarchical structure of the Manichaean church, with its laity, its lower elite, and its higher elite. Hierarchy is evil when it is someone else’s hierarchy, but good when it is one’s own. To the Manichaean laity, to the auditores among whom Augustine belonged, indeed fell the obligation to support the lower elite and the higher elite of perfecti or “saints.” The practice required the auditores, for example, to feed the lower and higher elites. Now belonging to the Manichaean anticosmic attitude were the tenets that this world is unsalvageable in its wickedness and that all human activity (not only procreation) is evil. Thus Manichaeism condemned the simple act of harvesting wheat or gathering fruit as intolerable violence. Yet the perfecti must eat. How then should they acquire their meals?

As he embraced further the Manichaean view of existence, making their eccentric custom his own, Augustine, as he writes, “was led on to such follies as to believe that a fig tree wept when it was plucked and that the sap of the mother tree was tears.” Augustine continues: “Notwithstanding this, if a fig was plucked, not by his own but by another man’s wickedness, some Manichaean saint might eat it, digest it in his stomach, and breath it out again in the form of angels. Indeed, in his prayers, he would assuredly groan and sigh forth particles of God, although these particles of the most high and true God would have remained bound in that fig unless they had been set free by the teeth and belly of some elect saint.”

Augustine famously argued a point that would become Catholic dogma, namely that evil is not a substance. Augustine formulated this principle in consequence of his sojourn as a Manichaean auditor, for according to Manichaeism matter as such is inherently and inalterably evil. This thesis, that evil is not a substance, stems from the Platonic (also the Biblical) conviction that existence, the creation of a divine Creator, is good. Since matter belongs to creation, matter is likewise good; and the body, material in its basis, is also good. For the Manichaeans, in common with other Gnostics, the material world is the false creation of an inferior usurper-god who sabotaged the perfect immaterial creation of the actual unseen God. When the sabotage occurred, some “particles” of light from the disrupted immaterial world became imprisoned in the false, material world.

Thus during his Manichaean phase Augustine thought of the God-man relation in this way: “I still supposed that thou, O Lord God, the Truth, wert a bright and vast body and that I was a particle of that body.” It was surprisingly through the study physics and astronomy that Augustine came to reject the Manichaean theory of matter: Science explained the character of the physical world better than theosophy did; science also proclaimed a beautiful order in the material realm, which one sensible of beauty could not but admire. On this basis, by a long chain of intermediate syllogisms, Augustine could at last reconcile himself with existence and repudiate the anticosmic attitude: As “whatsoever is, is good,” it follows that “evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.”

Augustine’s skepticism concerning Manichaean doctrine began to develop halfway through his decade as an auditor. The break with the Manichaeans came when a renowned Manichaean perfect named Faustus made a visit to Carthage. Other auditores promised Augustine that Faustus would be able to put to rest the many questions that he had stored up over the years with respect to doctrine. We recall that Plotinus criticized the Gnostics for their evasiveness in response to specific questions about their creed, refusing to give explanations or definitions. What Augustine says about Faustus gains interest in connection with what Plotinus remarks. At first, Augustine took some pleasure in the eloquence of the speaker: “Yet it was a source of annoyance to me that, in his lecture room, I was not allowed to introduce and raise any of those questions that troubled me, in a familiar exchange of discussion with him.”

Augustine exposes the fraudulence of the lecturer in a charitable way, stating that personally he liked Faustus who “had a heart.” Faustus was not, after all, “ignorant of his own ignorance.” Faustus “modestly did not dare to undertake the task,” of answering Augustine’s questions, “for he was aware that he had no knowledge of these things and was not ashamed to confess it.” Augustine writes, “The zeal with which I had plunged into the Manichaean system was checked.”

The accounts of Gnosticism – in its Valentinian and Manichaean varieties – as given more than a century apart by Plotinus and Augustine show numerous similarities and are generally convergent. In both accounts, the Gnostics appear as radically alienated from existence, a mood or tone that expresses itself in anticosmic dogmas and revilement of norms. Both accounts represent the Gnostics as constituting an aggressive cultic in-group that defines itself through relentless denunciation of received custom and traditional belief. Both accounts mention the reluctance of the convicted to allow questions, even while the same illuminati demand that adherents of settled custom and traditional belief justify their positions. Both representations also call attention to the attitude of haughty superiority of the illuminati with respect to the out-group. In a subsequent essay I will examine the extent to which the Gnostic documents, themselves, confirm these characterizations.


[Additional Brussels Journal articles exploring the relation of Gnosticism and modernity by Thomas F. Bertonneau are these: Further Remarks on Voegelin and Gnosticism, Liberalism and the Search for the Ground, Literature and Ideology: Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance and Dick’s VALIS, and Literature and Ideology: Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen.]

Kappert's Book of Revelations

And Kappert said let there be light and Kappert was the light. And while some say the Sun never sets on Kappert Isle, others believe it is simply that round the clock observation requires a constant light source.

Kappert is there a 1-800-kappert number that accompanies your dazzling 'astrological' expertise so that we can get individual readings? Can you sing: "Do you know the way to Santa Fe?"

Santa Fé

The Capo is obviously speechless. Try next Christmas season a look to the sky, I'm sure you find the 'Eastern star' and the 'Three Kings'. Then you can switch on your fantasy and invent another Messiah story. By the way, only stars have always 'light', all other places in the universe know the difference between day and night.

Too Much Sun

Heat stroke victims are never easy to deal with, luckily in this case, brain damage is not a possibility. 


... and I thought such revelations would enlighten your brains ...

worship the Sun

Christianity is the continuity of heliocentric beliefs, going back the line of Sun Gods to the Egyptian Horus (3000BC), born Dec. 25th by the virgin Isis, accompanied by a star in the East, adorned by three kings, becoming a teacher at 12, baptised by Anubis at 30, gaining 12 disciples and performed miracles. Then crucified, dead for three days and resurrected. The story is copied by other Sun Gods throughout the millenniums: Attis in Greece (1200BC), Mithra in Persia (1200BC), Krishna in India (900BC), Dionysus in Greece (500BC), … there are more personalities with an identical story, the most famous Messiah-Sun-God of present times is Jesus of Nazareth (0).
The storyboard is nothing else than a astrological allegory leading to an astrotheological hybrid. On Dec. 25Th, the Sirius star lines up with the three Orion stars (3 Kings) pointing to winter solstice. Virgo, another star representing (Virgin) Maria, the house of bread, that's Bethlehem, a place in the stars and not on Earth. Three days on the cross derivates also from the Sun (Dec. 22.-24.). The precession of equinoxes, the Age (Aeon) of 2150 years, changed over the times from Taurus (destroyed by Moses 'slay every man') and Aries (the Jews still blow the shofar) to present Picsis. In the 22nd century we'll enter Aquarius. As to say with Thomas Paine: „The Christian Religion is a parody of solar worship, placing the figure of Christ instead of the Sun.“ The narratives of Jesus base on these astrological components, embedded in a fairytale of omnipotent God, always watching and loving you, condemning you eternally to hell if you trespass his laws. Christianity is nothing more than a Roman fairytale, fixed in 325 at Nicaea, providing power to religious myths – and the people believe it!

To the quasi-contemporary poster Mpresley

So a web journal's posting can question a fundamental premise of Christianity that God became Man two thousand years ago, and which might explain why Human history seems ridiculously consumed and pre-occuppied with your quasi-historical rabbi for the last two millenia, but it would be silly, or presumptuous for you to assume you could determine 'who' wrote the Gospels in the same posting?


Thank you, for clarifying. I agree with the underlining argument why bother with the scribblings of underlings  when one is taking out El numero Uno?


Maybe we should let Mpresley be the Decider?

I didn't get the same 'sense' from his post.

A good rule of thumb for understanding Christianity (historically, theologically, philosophically....) is to start where most good little Catholic boys and girls are taught to begin: J.M.J.

Three simple little letters, yes, but surely most people with a Ph.D. after their name  would not find such a notion offensive. Or, would they? 

And, of course, can one really mention Paul without Peter, when one discusses the key figures in early Christianity? Snubbing Peter to praise Paul? Someone didn't say 'Simon Says.' Mpresley, back to the start.

to clarify:

Jesus was quasi-historical in the sense that we know nothing first hand about his existence. Our knowledge of him is affirmed by others. The question then, turns on an analysis of who wrote what, and when. In the popular view the Gospels were written by the direct contemporary desciples of Jesus, those present at the events. Whether this is the case, or whether other ideas better explain Gospel origins cannot very well be settled by me inside a combo-box post on a Web journal.

As far as the figure Paul goes, I believe he was by all accounts the chief proponent of the nascent Roman church. Obviously there was some debate over who had principal authority after Christ's death, and this can be explored by comparing the Acts with material presented in the Epistles. Certainly, by the end of the second century, Paul's authority had been firmly established and was not questioned. Indeed, Paul's "presence" and authority was so strong that both Marcionite and Catholic factions claimed him as a primary Apostle. According to Tertullian (AM 4:3), Galatians was "found" or first discovered by Marcion, and the former went to great lengths to discount the latter's theology which was deemed heretical. Later, however, the epistle, though sourced from the Marcionite church, wound up as canon.

Whatever one thinks, it is nevertheless established that prior to the consolidation of doctrine within the Catholic church, competing and conflicting ideas were present. There is no doubt about the existence of the division between a Jerusalem faction (Peter), and the more Roman group that looked upon Paul as principal. Gnostic-Marcionite elements within the early church had to be reconciled with Greek and Jewish messianic Christians, and this synthesis is what we now have, today.

Response to Capodistras: My

Response to Capodistras:

My sense of Mpresley’s posting was not that he was denying the historical reality of Jesus, although he mentions that some people do; he was emphasizing Paul’s role in organizing and establishing the Church. I believe that Jesus is mentioned in one of the Annals of Tacitus, a hardheaded chronicler of Roman politics in the First Century. But it strikes me that the Gospels are enough by themselves to attest the presence of a powerfully charismatic rabbinical teacher, whether one acknowledges him only as a man or as the Son of God. After all, no one doubts the historical reality of Apollonius of Tyana, and there is only one book about him (the hagiography by Philostratus). Of course, whether Apollonius “really” performed the thaumaturgical deed that his biographer attributes to him is irresolvable – a matter of faith. Again, if there were no real Jesus, why would the Gnostics try so hard in their counter-Gospels to appropriate his authority or change the definition of who he was? So the Gnostic counter-Gospels may also be taken as evidence of the historical reality of the Man from Galilee. An extraordinary difference between the religion codified by Paul, as articulated around the life and words of Jesus, and its Gnostic rival-contemporaries is faith. Gnosticism is about absolute certainty in everything and the Gospel religion is about faith, an ineradicable element of which is doubt. SteveP55419’s comment is also about doubt. Steve reminds us of Voegelin’s idea of the “metaxy,” the “middle place” where human beings dwell – and where a condition of their existence is that they cannot know everything with certainty, but must fumble their way using intuition and drawing on rare bits of inherited wisdom.

Best – TFB

Is the "establisher"...

the same as being the 'decider?'


I'm sorry Professor but Mpresley is most assuredly wrong about Paul and his comments on Jesus as 'a quasi-historical figure, if he existed at all...' are not only laughable from a conservative Catholic perspective, but fundamentally places him among those who base their grand ideas and profound thoughts on an intellectual act of Deicide.


A deeply serious and

A deeply serious and appreciable objection to my argument – which posits that it is not sufficiently radical – comes to me privately from a source whose anonymity I shall preserve.

“Nihilism was basically born with Marxism or at least achieved its most systematic expression and defense in Marxism. The Gnostics and other mystics did not dissemble criminal impulses under the pretext of religion. Theirs was a genuinely religiously motivated violence (and so was ancient Islam’s), and not a criminally motivated violence. In the Marxist war against all those who live, work and produce by the use of their minds (Spengler criticizes Marx on just this score, that Marx’s definition of labor in fact excludes all those who work), it is impossible not to conclude that a criminal, sadistic, psychopathic, terroristic impulse is being dissembled under the pretext of a political system, a political aim, a political intention and a political ideology. The Gnostics and other religious mystics would have had no truck with Marxism, the Cultural Revolution, Cambodia, the Red Army Faction or with the latest Marxist organization, Al Qaeda.”

My appreciable critic goes on to say that: “Conservatives who describe Marxism as a form of utopianism, Gnosticism, chiliasm, millennialism, secularized Christianity and so forth, run the real danger of becoming spokesmen, apologists, down players and PR men of Marxism. They way they describe Marxism is the just the manner in which the Marxists themselves want to be described. The Marxist war against all humanity is about Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and conscious evil and thrill killing, and has nothing whatever to do with politics in the truest, highest, noblest and best sense of that term. The description of Marxist inspired violence as political violence as opposed to criminal, psychopathic violence is immoral and obscene. It is high time indeed (long past time) that conservatives stopped describing leftist violence as being anything other than psychopathic violence.”

I certainly agree that Marxism “has nothing whatever to do with politics in the truest, highest, noblest and best sense of that term.”

Humbly, TFB

A response to

A response to Mpresley:

Mpresley is right that Paul, not Jesus, was the establisher of Christianity and that Paul was a latecomer to the faith; insofar as my correspondent implies that there is something suspiciously Gnostic about Paul – there is something in the suspicion. In Paul, after all, we have a claimant who nominates himself the leader of the sect and sets about correcting error. But one or two elements of Paul’s story need to be added to deliberation. One is that before Paul was the advocate of a Christian sect, he was a vehement advocate of persecuting the Christians who had been present at one lethal persecution at least. Paul’s conversion – on the famous Road to Damascus – entailed a voice that asked the upholder of strict Pharisaical orthodoxy, “Why are you persecuting me?” The sudden sense of guilt is identical with the event of the conversion. An implication of that conversion is that doctrinal differences are not so important as to justify torturing or killing those who differ. Another important element of Paul’s story is that a central strand in his corrective addresses to the various churches is, in itself, anti-Gnostic. Paul was concerned that idiosyncratic revelation, the “speaking in tongues,” posed the danger of fragmenting and dissolving the meaning of the Gospel. He says in one of his letters – to the Corinthians, I believe – that he would rather speak five words in reason than five hundred words in tongues. For a long, long time I regarded Paul as the arch-prig of Christian Fathers (and he was, in many ways, priggish), but the facts about his mission that I have just adduced are chastening of the radical view.

In respect of Abraham Lincoln, I agree with Mpresley. In Lincoln’s private, almost solipsistic religiosity (which was certainly not any kind of normative Christianity), and in his weird locutions, and in his control-freak behavior during the war that he launched: in all this and more he tantalizingly nominates himself as, perhaps, our first (but by no means our last) Gnostic chief executive.

My thanks go to Mpresley for commenting on the article.

Fellow Peacekeeper wrote:

Fellow Peacekeeper wrote: “Fascinating if a bit arcane. The correlations to observable leftist conduct are obvious, I wonder then can this also be traced in founding works of the new left ... the Frankfurt school in particular? They were aware of it, for instance, Fromm’s scriblings on Christianity touch extensively on the Gnosticism. Is there evidence that Marcuse was cognisant (or inspired) of this history and the logical implications flowing thereof when he cast forth the utopian hook in Eros and Civilization?”

The subject of Gnosticism is undeniably arcane, as FP writes. In a second article I hope to examine the Gnostic texts themselves, a task that will involve interested parties even further in the Arcana of the ancient esoteric systems. Yet the Tri-Partite Tractate or The Gospel of Truth is no more arcane stylistically than, say, De la grammatologie by the late Monsieur Derrida, the reading of which (let us avoid saying, “the understanding of which”) distinguished the elect from the preterit when I attended graduate school in Comparative Literature in the 1980s. In the sense that they write prose meant only for a few initiates, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Wiesengrund-Adorno and Max Horkheimer may all be said to have adopted a “Gnostic” attitude.

Recent developments in American politics take on renewed significance in light of the Modernity-Gnosticism hypothesis. President Obama’s so-called health-care bill ran to two thousand pages at least of impenetrable socialist claptrap and deliberately evasive legalese. It was so unwieldy that Speaker of the House Pelosi actually claimed that passing the bill was necessary in order that people should understand it. The public was being urged to take on trust that legislators understood the bill even though hardly any of them had read it. Then again, President Obama and Attorney General Holder say in public that they have not read the Arizona illegal-immigration law, but that they understand it anyway.

Perhaps it would be an understatement to say that the existing American regime is pervaded by “knowledge” derived from something other than “experience.”

Voegelin discusses the Gnostic character of foundational modernistic discourse – in which he includes, for example, Hegel’s Phenomenology and Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit – in a number of works, the titles of which I mention at the beginning of the present article. One of Adorno’s books, The Jargon of Authenticity, is an attack on Heidegger and Jaspers for the obscurity of their language. It is written, naturally, in language only slightly less obscure than that usually employed by Adorno.

I will address these issues in more detail on another occasion. I appreciate the effort made by all the readers who have so far at least made a try at my essay.

Thank You

I studied Augustine in college but entirely missed the context you provide. Thank you.

It seems to me that Voegelin's diagnosis of the current crisis is not entirely dependent on the link between modern and ancient Gnosticism. But you support this link and I think that it is important in at least one respect: To the extent that the modern gnostic isms can be understood to directly inherit from the ancient gnostic form, then it is easier to make the argument that Gnosticism is the focus of evil in the world in part because its existence spans such a large portion of history.

Regarding resentment, it seems to me that the kind of discourse that happens in this forum and others is really an admirable attempt on the part of fallen men to develop a concept of innocence (a state devoid of resentment) and it is ironic that, to the extent that one could succeed in actually becoming innocent, the ideas, both good and bad, that get batted around here become irrelevant. The uneducated person who is pure of heart can sum up the perfect expression of what we are seeking with a simple expression of faith. The grateful Guatamalan immigrant who comes in to empty your waste basket at the end of the day may very well be further along in her understanding of what lies at the heart of things than any one of us.

On gnostic hatred of reality, I just learned that a friend's lesbian daughter has made herself artificially pregnant. It would be easy, with a wink and a nod, to ridicule her act but her history illustrates the tremendous weight that acceptance of Voegelinian metaxis places on the individual: her lesbianism and the support that she receives from her mom and dad stem from a determined suicide attempt (she slashed both wrists and was unconsious and well on her way to bleeding to death when her college roommate found her). Given the same cirumstance, would I support my daughter's revolt against reality if I believed it would save her? I think I would. Its easy to understand the concept of metaxis and its role in civilized order but quite another thing when the burden of reality is heavy and pressing down on a loved one. The struggle to restore order in the Voegelinian sense is necessary but those who struggle for it need to be humble because we are asking a lot of some people.

Non-Voegelinian Gnosticism or Unnecessary Semantics?

I agree with Eugene Webb's criticism of Voegelin.  Bertonneau, expanding upon Voegelin, is attempting to corral liberalism, egalitarianism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism into one category: Gnosticism.  But what is the real object? 


The objective is to distinguish the ideology of neoconservatism.  As with every "ism" before it, neoconservative's adherents try to trace it to the earliest intellectual traditions in order to give it a pedigree.  However, they also try to argue its superiority.  Neoconservatism becomes the oldest, most modern, purest and superior.  Part and parcel of this is dismissing right-wing extremism as left-wing and maligning the word "liberal", even as neoconservatism adopts liberalism's economic (e.g. capitalism) and certain social positions.  This is not to say that socialists have also cannibalized liberalism, as both the right and left have come up the center to win elections.  What's scary is that the Republicans in the US and "New" Labour alike in the UK believe their own bullshit. 


And comparative literature leads us to the conclusion that neoconservatism stands alone?  Talk about gnosis!  In actuality, neoconservatives resemble disgruntled classical liberals.  There I said it.  Well, Kristol did say that there were four truths.  Unfortunately, the right has as many "children" as the left, even if capitalism is the right way.



IIRC, Prof. Bertonneau invests rather more energy in berating "neoconservative" positions than "traditionalist" ones. Anyway, it seems to me that doubt over Voegelin's wide applicability of "Gnosticism" misses the point. Why wouldn't there be widely recurring religious dispositions if we assume a universal anthropology? The question then is whether one can imagine a (patient, non-Messianic, non-apocalyptic) leftist position that could assimilate and sustain the Voegelinian critique. I think one can, if the left is somewhat less interested in "immanentizing the eschaton" as renewing an originary human imperative - equality. A left that could help reconcile equality and freedom in a sustainable, open-ended, fashion, would be such a Voegelinian "left".

The criticism that the Gnostic is at war with reality I find to be generally true. Nonetheless, one must keep in mind that it may be a war that begins with a kernel of real anthropological insight, i.e. some understanding that human behaviour, in order to be meaningful, in order to serve its anthropological purpose, necessarily puts an emphasis on "correct" methods, performance, means (or even magic) and not simply on a "reality" that is transparent to human reason. In other words, the Gnostic has some understanding of the need for a shared faith as a fundamental aspect of human reality. But there are faiths that mythologize (in not fully good faith with the "masses") and only a rare few who realize the Judeo-Christian imperative to de-mythologize our shared mimetically-constructed reality, and purpose (surviving ourselves). I would say that Voegelin's critique is no more widely applied than that of any major insight you can pull from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Good versus evil, matter versus energy

It's interesting that Augustine came to his conclusions through science at that early stage.
I am convinced that matter is just a form of energy and obeys as such to the same laws, coming from the same Source and Origin. Science will tell us in a couple of centuries.
As for good and evil, good wouldn't have any meaning if evil didn't exist. There wouldn't be any sense of personal accomplishment nor any incentive to do anything at all if evil didn't exist. The philosophical discourse about good versus evil is the base of human intellectual development. I consider it the biggest achievement of the Creator that we have this duality programmed in any normal human being. Philosophical authors like Voegelin and Bertonneau, whom I cannot thank enough for his clear and to the point essays about those subjects, are trying to distill and refine the knowledge about human behavior, reactions and development through history and make some sense out of it with their conclusions of the path to follow to enlightenment.
I think the essays of Dr. Bertonneau are perfect tools for this job.

past and present gnosticism

The general idea of gnosticism in religious thought is quite understandable inasmuch as the foundation of any religion must be based upon the thinking and direction of a leader, and a religious leader's formulation or interpretation of doctrine is always something uncanny. We often do not consider the evolutionary permutation of our established belief, and where faith is concerned reason is secondary. We want to believe that our faith in religious tradition is more or less based upon permanency, but is it really so?

Much of the history of the early church is necessarily speculation, and the chief proponent of Christianity was not Jesus (a quasi-historical figure who, if he existed, never wrote, or if he did his writings are lost to the ages), but Paul. Indeed, divorced from what we have been told, when reading the New Testament one can easily wonder whether Paul was even familiar with the historical Jesus described in the Gospels. And within nascent Christianity we cannot forget its own schisms and heresies, such as those of the followers of Marcion, not usually considered a gnostic, but whose ideas certainly related to what would become Manichaean doctrine. Some, such as the German scholar Hermann Detering (allied with the so-called school of Dutch Radical Criticism) hold that our received tradition is mostly falsified, anyway, a result of official interpolation and redactions over the years. One may cite Detering's textual analysis of Paul's Galatian epistle (available on-line in PDF form) as an example when he argues that its current form was likely derived from a Marcionite text. Be that as it may, for us, today, gnosticism is most important as a political, but not religious phenomenon.

The Gnostic sees in himself a radical self-legitimizing exception, a rare instance of positive difference tantamount to election.

One important example: Voegelin's descriptions of gnosticism within political thinking has been particularly influential in attempts at a revaluation of Lincoln, as shown by the work of the late M.E. Bradford.  In a series of papers challanging Harry Jaffa's views (Jaffa was a student of Leo Strauss, the latter having engaged in a long series of correspondence with Voegelin, each showing mutual respect for the other, but never explicitly discussing Voegelin's idea of gnosticism, as far as I have found), Bradford argued that the 16th president's actions, along with his sense of self, were completely in line with the gnostic outlook discussed by Voegelin, and now outlined by Mr.Bertonneau.

I look forward to part II of this essay and, as always, thank Professor Bertonneau for his efforts to educate us.

Fascinating if a bit

Fascinating if a bit arcane.

The correlations to observable leftist conduct are obvious, I wonder then can this also be traced in founding works of the new left ... the Frankfurt school in particular? They were aware of it, for instance, Fromm's scriblings on Christianity touch extensively on the Gnosticism. Is there evidence that Marcuse was cognisant (or inspired) of this history and the logical implications flowing thereof when he cast forth the utopian hook in Eros and Civilization?