As a follow-up to his previous essay, Thomas Bertonneau discusses the work of Eric Voegelin and its relevance to this Gnostic age of post-modernity.
Eric Voegelin on Gnostic Modernity
by Thomas F. Bertonneau
A previous essay to this one on José Ortega y Gasset began with the claim that the past speaks to the present more pertinently than the present speaks to itself, but that the present, in assessing itself as the culmination of human advancement, actively disdains the past and prefers to stuff its ears. The essence of the modern psyche — which Ortega explores in his Revolt of the Masses (1930) — is paradoxically to be at once emphatically assured of its knowledge and wisdom but, in Ortega’s phrase, conscientiously ignorant of anything outside its radically narrow field of expertise, which it mistakes for a totality. The modern mind cuts itself off from the stream of human experience, oblivious, in its conceit, to the necessity of temporality, memory, and history in the very constitution of consciousness. Ortega’s phenomenology of the arrogant, self-limiting, and abjectly self-unaware subject finds a counterpart in the first important work of a thinker belonging to the generation after the Spaniard — The New Science of Politics (1952) by Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), who left Austria after the Anschluss, came to the U.S.A., and eventually attained a fellowship in political science at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where he practiced from 1969 to 1985. In The New Science, Voegelin advanced his thesis, which he would elaborate in subsequent books and essays, that modernity is “Gnostic,” a term referring to a set of exotic theologies, parasitizing on Christianity, which troubled the religious landscape of Late Antiquity, particularly in period of the Second and Third Centuries, and reemerged in the Middle Ages.
Voegelin’s thesis will undoubtedly strike the newcomer as arcane or even bizarre, but its affinity with Ortega’s descriptions of self-denominating expertise and conscientious ignorance offers a path to understanding. In Voegelin’s analysis, “Gnosticism,” like Ortega’s expertise, erroneously assesses its limitation and partiality as fullness and wholeness and in doing so substitutes a hallucinatory “second reality” for the first or real reality comprising the actual human situation and the fact of the cosmos. Like Ortega’s expertise, Gnosticism, whether of the Late-Antique or modern varieties, recoils from external courts of appeal. Averse to questions, Gnosticism seeks reflexively to prohibit interrogation or critique. Rhetorically, Gnosticism reverses all terms; it sets the inherited representation of the world on its head and makes of that inversion an absolute dogma. Thus the original Gnostics of the Second Century qualified the composite God of the Old and New Testaments as a false god — the creator of this world, yes, but of a botched world in which the Gnostic, who enjoys non-experiential knowledge of the supposed real world, feels himself a stranger. Gnosticism rests foundationally on the presumption that this world partakes in wicked unreality; that this world springs from a conspiracy of malign forces, and that, by the pronunciation of magical formulas this world may be abolished and replaced by the authentic and perfected world. The label of fanatical delusion fits well the Gnostic attitude.
Voegelin, by the time he wrote The New Science, had concluded that the modern political ideologies — Marxism, Communism, Socialism, National Socialism, and lesser creeds such as Eugenics and Technocracy — corresponded at least analogically to the Gnostic doctrines of the Early Christian Era. Voegelin’s discovery of the phenomenological convergence of Second-Century heresy and Twentieth-Century ideology developed from an argument he made more than a decade before in a book entitled The Political Religions (1939). Totalitarian societies tend to organize themselves in cultic fashion, Voegelin argued, and to establish themselves as secular creeds, dissent from which constitutes apostasy and invites condign punishment. The agents of the totalitarian regime regard themselves as makers of a new world, and thus, collectively, as the functional equivalent of religion’s Creator God. At the same time, ideology universally rejects the concept of transcendence. What the symbols of theology put beyond immanence, transfigured humanity and a faultless society, ideology posits as achievable in history. For the ideologue, as Voegelin writes in Religions, “the end realm is no longer a transcendent community of the spirit but an earthly condition of perfected humanity.”
The first three chapters of The New Science outline the history of symbolization by means of which Western humanity has illuminated its own nature and has correlated that nature with the order that it perceives in the external world. In Voegelin’s telling, symbolization occurs as an event in consciousness, but at the same time symbolization fashions consciousness in a process that unfolds in time and therefore has a history. Voegelin however never argues for reality as solipsism. He assumes rather a verifiable world in which man acts and with which he both can and must come to terms on its basis. Voegelin assumes also that consciousness itself partakes in reality and that it exists in discernable states — for example, primitive or sophisticated, disordered or ordered, alienated or reconciled. A consciousness sophisticated, ordered, and reconciled has decided, moreover, that limitations apply to what it can know. The symbols of divinity, a trans-celestial realm, and a status beyond time establish those limitations and function as admonishments to epistemological hubris. The truth of these symbols reveals itself in the lesson of history. The number of societies and civilizations known to archaeology and historical research is high, but the majority of them no longer exist. As Voegelin writes, “every society reflects the type of men of whom it is composed.” By “type,” Voegelin refers to the prevailing condition of consciousness. A relapse into primitivism, a lapse into disorder, or an access of radical alienation threatens a society with death. Voegelin identifies the stages of Western symbolization, and therefore of the development of Western consciousness, with ancient Near-Eastern cosmic orientation, Greek philosophy, and Christian Revelation.
The attitude of the consciousness that benefits from the differentiation granted it by the Gospel towards what it cannot know takes the form, Voegelin argues, of faith. (Voegelin cites Hebrews 11:1-3.) In Voegelin’s paradox, faith, being ever so tenuous, makes a heavy demand on the consciousness that it has differentiated. The subject that cannot sustain such a demand will want to leap beyond faith, but as faith includes discerning how the order of being sets a limit beyond which one cannot possibly leap, the effort to surmount limitation will entail a rebellion against limitation — or rather against the discernment of limitation. This is Gnosticism, a disorderly consciousness that has turned against itself. Voegelin links his argument to Friedrich Schiller’s concept of de-divinization. By de-divinization, Voegelin means “the historical process in which the culture of polytheism died from experiential atrophy, and human existence in society became reordered… toward eternal life in a beatific vision.” If Gnosticism rebelliously plotted to re-divinize existence in society, which it does, it would nevertheless disbar itself as “a revival of polytheistic culture in the Greco-Roman sense,” because the polytheistic sensibility in its heyday stood reconciled to its world. Early Gnosticism, according to Voegelin, draws on Jewish Messianism, as inherent in the earliest manifestations of Christianity, and on a misprision of the Johannine Apocalypse. Whether or not modern Gnosticism absorbs the same influences directly, it exhibits the combination of impatience, fervency, and hysteria that animated the Messianists and Apocalyptics.
A typical Gnostic conceit of Late Antiquity asserts that the Gnostics themselves each possess a particle of the “True God,” and that they therefore constitute an elite class with the godlike capacity to reorder existence. They will recreate the Pleroma or “Fullness” in which they dwelt before the Biblical God, that false deity, sabotaged perfection and consigned humanity to the prison-house of his evil world. Gnosticism trades transcendence for immanence. It thinks to build Utopia. It also thinks that it knows the outcome of history, but history opens endlessly into the future, which offers no guarantee, and history therefore has no graspable totality or eidos. “The problem of the eidos in history,” Voegelin writes, “arises only when Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized,” or drawn down into this world. Furthermore, “The meaning of history,” which the ideologies purport to embody, “is an illusion; and this illusionary eidos is created by treating a symbol of faith [the eschaton] as if it were a proposition concerning an object of immanent experience.” At its highest modern pitch, Gnostic rebellion appears as “the active mysticism of a state of perfection, to be achieved through a revolutionary transfiguration of the nature of man, as in Marxism.” In a world — the actual world — that a healthily attuned subject can only apprehend as uncertain in its temporal unfolding, the Gnostic avoids anxiety by foisting on his own mind “a certainty about the meaning of history.”
Where Christian faith reduces itself to a definitional minimum, and then lives with the minimality, Gnosticism hungers for mind-blowing epiphany. “Gnosis,” writes Voegelin, “may be primarily intellectual”; or “it may be primarily emotional and assume the form of an indwelling divine substance in the soul”; or “it may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the revolutionary instance of activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler.” The Gnostic feels himself experientially cheated. The world disappoints him. According to Voegelin, the Gnostic compensates himself through the titillating fantasy that he can become “man transfigured into superman.” When Gnosticism reappears in the medieval heresies, which engender their modern counterparts, the superman theme has already come to the fore. Voegelin’s invocation of Comte, Marx, and Hitler indicates that modern Gnosticism far surpasses medieval Gnosticism in its intensity — hence the focus of The New Science on the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century varieties of the rebellious and derailed state of mind. Voegelin writes: “Feuerbach and Marx, for instance, interpreted the transcendent God as the projection of what is best in man into a hypostatic beyond; for them the great turning point in history… would come when man draws his projection back into himself, when he becomes conscious that he himself is God.” The Gnostic believes that his advent inaugurates the final age of the world — that once he has succeeded in his agenda, history will come to rest in a perfected and permanent social order, uncontaminated thereafter by change. Modern Gnosticism in action produced this static perfection in the run-down, rusted-out public amenities and broken infrastructures of the Communist societies east of the Iron Curtain, from the dilapidation of which recovery has come slowly.
Ortega’s Revolt carries out, among its other tasks, a critique of scientism, that devolution of science into a parody of method and a series of absolute pronouncements that defy the precept of tentativity in hypothesis. Voegelin too discusses scientism, which he classifies as essentially Gnostic: “With the prodigious advancement of science since the seventeenth century, the new instrument of cognition would become… the symbolic vehicle of Gnostic truth. In the Gnostic speculation of scientism this particular variant reached its extreme when the positivist perfector of science replaced the era of Christ with the era of Comte.” It is the case, Voegelin writes, that “scientism has remained to this day one of the strongest Gnostic movements in Western society, and the immanentist pride in science is so strong that even the special sciences have each left a distinguishable sediment in the variants of salvation through physics, economics, sociology, biology, and psychology.” The “Global Warming” claim, with its associated “Green Movement,” well illustrates the Voegelinian take on scientism as Gnosticism. It establishes an eschaton: Namely, that human wickedness, in the form of the fossil-fuel economy, will render the world uninhabitable. When trends undermine the prediction, the timetable changes, but disaster still looms in the near term. The Warmists portray themselves as saviors of humanity, placing themselves in the Christic role. Warmists behave like Puritans, fervently condemning all those who display the temerity to disagree with or simply to question them, while lavishly praising all who conform.
The anti-Christian strain in Gnosticism bodies itself forth in the production of what might be called counterscripture, pamphlets and books that codify the perfervid convictions of the true believers and provide slogans for agitation and propaganda in the streets. Voegelin instances the Puritan movement in England in the Sixteenth Century, drawing on Thomas Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594). The Puritans were radicals who, because of their social context, found it necessary to square their radicalism with the prevailing interpretation of the New Testament. Puritan journalists penned innumerable tracts and declarations. “For the designation of this genus of gnostic literature,” Voegelin writes, “a technical term is needed.” Voegelin settles on “the Arabic term koran.” The Institutes (1541) of Calvin qualify, in Voegelin’s judgment, as “the first deliberately created gnostic koran” — because they prescribe how a subject should interpret scripture. If the Institutes were the first they were by no means the last: “In later Western history, in the period of secularization, new korans were produced with every wave of the movement.” Thus, “in the eighteenth century, Diderot and D’Alembert claimed koranic function for the Encyclopédie.” The usual notion of an encyclopedia sees it as operating on an inclusionary principle. In fact, the original encyclopedia organized itself on an exclusionary principle. It exemplified the scientistic prejudice of then and now. In the Twentieth Century, as Voegelin reminds his readers, “the works of Karl Marx have become the koran of the faithful, supplemented by the patristic literature of Leninism-Stalinism.”
In the annos singulos of Voegelin’s death, 1985, I finished the first of my six years of graduate studies in Comparative Literature at UCLA. I had been out of school for some time, working in dead-end jobs, and returned to campus incognizant of the change in atmosphere since the early 1970s, when a spirit of insouciant hippiedom had prevailed. The current atmosphere, I duly discovered, could not have differed more greatly from the previous one, and it made me nostalgic for insouciant hippiedom. Under this new, grim ethos even the free-spirited professors whom I had known previously struck me as nervous and quiescent. They seemed to have retreated into their offices. A high somberness smothered any attempt at humor; scorn for everything normative had emplaced itself; and adherence to the academic korans of the day — the obligatory volumes by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard — had shrunk the intellectual horizon to the narrowness of the human skull. As Voegelin might have said, the second reality had descended, cutting off the sectarians from any annoying contact with the actual reality. Against the mood of the times, I managed to earn my doctorate and to make something like a career for myself, if by fits and starts, as a college teacher, but year by year, decade by decade, the Gnostic temperament of the academy thickened until stepping on campus was like stepping into the Matrix.
I am about to take my retirement, which I shall celebrate as a very real liberation from the dour, drab, prohibitionist, regulation-spewing, policy-regurgitating, reality-denying, and self-regarding faculties and administrations. My experience inclines me to grant validity to Voegelin’s claim: Not only is the essence of modernity Gnostic, but Gnostic modernity amounts to nothing less than the active destruction of the civilized order.
Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books,Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website. For his previous essays, see the Thomas Bertonneau Archives.