Eric Voegelin’s critique of modernity claims that liberalism, the creed of the Enlightenment, is “Gnostic.” Voegelin (1901-1985) drew the term “Gnosticism” from a strain of Late Antique religiosity. The term “Gnostic” refers to that array of sects and cults the adherents of which thought of 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 (as the previous installments in this series will have shown) 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 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 or crusade, 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 “ism.” 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 exemplum 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.”
I. The magisterial analysis of “pneumopathology” that Voegelin undertakes at the end of his life in the text of In Search of Order solicits further contemplation, which we shall attempt in due course. But as that analysis consummates many decades of 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. The 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 practice open hostility to traditional creeds and churches.
Yet, in looking past the claims, in looking to the organization and behavior of the “movements,” one does begin to see the outward signs of the sectarian religiosity. Among these signs is fanatical enmity towards any competing spiritual authority reminiscent of postures that we associate with Late Antiquity on the one hand and the period of the European religious wars on the other.
The 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 fundamental apperceptions that can be attested universally. As Voegelin writes, “man experiences himself as being natural [kreatürlich] and, therefore, questionable,” where the final adjective means amenable to investigation or analysis. All healthy order begins with man’s sense, 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. 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. 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.”
The historical cumulus 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 measure of anxious emotion, 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 the 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 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 pure 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, we encounter 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 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 make pilgrimage.
In The Political Religions, 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? But 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, 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. 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, preaches a higher power, humanism preaches the autonomy and supremacy of man. The majority will tend to vote for the second over the first (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.”
II. The 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. 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.
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.
It is once more a case 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. All of these indictments 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.” Modernity, of course, once established, ought to be eternally in place.
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. A vast occasion for offense obviously offered itself in Voegelin’s prose to everyone from the Trotskyites to the Mayflower Society. 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.”
Now to quote these particular remarks is to put the cart somewhat ahead of the horse, but they do have the value of pointing toward one of Voegelin’s essential insights about Gnosticism as the essence of modernity. 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.
What drove the atavistic program of “re-divinization,” by the dubious symbolism of which Joachim and his successors, as Voegelin writes, “achieved certainty about the meaning of history”? In the previous “de-divinized” symbolism, history resisted its own dogmatization as a definition or “eidos.” Bluntly, “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.
Voegelin denies that High Medieval Humanism and the Renaissance correspond to new espousal of paganism. On the other hand, “Gnosis… had accompanied Christianity from its very beginnings” and remained available in Scotus Erigena, Dionysius Areopagita, and similar traditions.
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 us 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 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.” Calvin’s Institutes are such a “Koran” in its mildest variety whereas the proliferating pamphlet-literature of Puritanism waxes swiftly fanatic. “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.”
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. In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin, drawing both on Hooker and on the Puritan pamphlets themselves, 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 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.”
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.”
In Part II of this series, examining the Gnostic documents of the Second Century, I noted that discursively they represented a resurgence of sacrificial thinking: The abolition of the world means the justified holocaust of all save the elect. 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 Puritan-Gnostic 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.”
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 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 prevent the advent of the superman become obsessive targets of coercive correction. 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.
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 questions. 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.”
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.”
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 purgation of Jewish faculty members begun by his precursor. This contemptible cleansing action included 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.
IV. In Science Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin repeatedly acknowledges that declaring secular modernity a sectarian religious triumph flouts the touchy self-understanding of secular modernity. He 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 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 they are? Is the cosmos not simply what we want it 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.
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. That is to say, anti-Western and anti-normative. The Left then gleefully welcomes whatever or whoever helps it in its program of annihilating Western (Judeo-Christian) norms. The Left indeed seems to share Islam’s contemporary religious excitation (nothing is 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 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 inalterable 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 truth that reveals reality.” 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 the 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.
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 “is a creative partner in the movement of reality toward its truth,” who must exercise patience and faith. 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.” In the last clause, we find 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.”
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.”
The self-deceiver who initiates this 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 do enormous civic and material destruction before it perishes ignominiously from its own spiritual rottenness.
[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.]