Vogelin on Gnosticism

Science, Politics and Gnosticism comprises two essays by Eric Voegelin (1901-85), arguably one of the most provocative and influential political philosophers of the last century. In these essays, Voegelin contends that certain modern movements, including positivism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and the "God is dead" school, are variants of the gnostic tradition he identified in his classic work The New Science of Politics. Voegelin attempts to resolve the intellectual confusion that has resulted from the dominance of gnostic thought by clarifying the distinction between political gnosticism and the philosophy of politics.

Reviewed in the United States on July 26, 2016

Ten years ago I picked up this teeny book as part of my background reading for my doctoral thesis. It was a stretch to read then, but I sensed Voegelin was on to something. Now, ten years later, in the midst of a hot presidential campaign season, with loads of climactic social changes erupting in the country, and racial tensions flaring, I picked it up again and read it with a better appreciation for what the author was communicating. This 102 page paperback is a densely argued, heady work that revolves around two major essays penned by the author in 1959.

"Science, Politics, and Gnosticism" is a work that delves into modern political theory with the author standing in a specific position: one that is open to the divine other while scanning the horizon of modern mass ideological movements. Voegelin is convinced, and seeks to convince the reader, that these modern mass movements are, at the end of the day, Gnostic. The major premise is that these movements are following the trajectory of the lust for power. Since there is a prevailing feeling of alienation from creation because it is a hostile place, and because being is given, therefore these movements seek to take control of being by destroying the givenness of being; “the aim is destruction of the old world and passage to the new” (10). And it is believed that by crafting our brave, new world, the alienation will be, at long last, assuaged.

To reach for this salvation, reality (givenness of being, etc) must be destroyed: “But reality must be destroyed – this is the great concern of gnosis” (26).This destroying of reality is for the purpose of making space to fabricate a second reality so as to gain control of being, to make “being” whatever humankind wants to define it as and construct it into. For this undertaking, Voegelin has a jarring description: “And taking control of being requires that the transcendent origin of being be obliterated: it requires the decapitation of being – the murder of God” (40). The murdering of God then opens existence up to the gnostic re-creation of the order of being (41). The disposing of the transcendent now makes the order of being only immanent – that which is here-and-now is all there is. It is to shift from the uncertain truth of transcendent being to the constructed certain untruth of immanent being; “The nature of the order of being as it is given, together with man’s place in it, is obliterated: the being of world and ego is restricted to the knowledge of the immediate and existent…” (51).

The end result of this gnostic trick of destroying the old world to progress into the new-made eon will only result in greater alienation and frustration, for the “attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase the disorder in society” (10). And the murder of God can only bring about the termination of humankind; “The nature of a thing cannot be changed; whoever tries to “alter” its nature destroys the thing. Man cannot transform himself into superman: the attempt to create a superman is an attempt to murder man. Historically, the murder of God is not followed by the superman, but by the murder of man: the deicide of the gnostic theoreticians is followed by the homicide of the revolutionary practitioners” (47-8).

And there is the rub, “The nature of a thing cannot be changed; whoever tries to “alter” its nature destroys the thing.” As Divine Wisdom declares, “all who hate me love death” (Proverbs 8.36). In this era of renewed and heightened societal re-scripting of the nature of decency, marriage, the common good, Christianity, justice, and whatever else in the name of progress, is – according to Voegelin – a rejection of the givenness of being, a denial of the nature of our embodied existence, etc. The goal of this rejection and denial is to grasp for the reins and redesign reality for the purpose of concocting our own salvation, a social salvation. But in the end it will only intensify the alienation, and bring death.

"Science, Politics, and Gnosticism" is truly a thick read, thick in the sense that there is rich substance between the covers of this short book. It requires a slow reading to fathom what Voegelin is presenting, and the pay-off is that it provides a new way of hearing and discerning the mass movements on the right and the left. I warmly endorse this work!

Great guide to modern politics

Reviewed in the United States on August 15, 2006

Voegelin has done the public a great service by tracing a common thread of gnosticism amongst modern political philosophies. He goes to Marx's juwish roots in order to expose the theme of the golem that underlies Marxian thought as laid out in Marx's Political and Economic Manuscripts. The Kabbalistic underpinnings of socialistic philosophy forecasts these philosophies as gnostic philosophies.

Although Voegelin indulges in almost pure abstraction (characterisitic of his German education) it is quite accurate since it exposes the naked truth a la Jack Kerouac of these ideas.

The gnostic character of modern philosophies, such as Hegel, Comte, Marx, feminism and so on comes out in the theme of "alienation." Alienation from the rest of society is the result of some form of discord or disharmony. Recourse to a "secret knowledge" will reveal the solution to this problem of disharmony. Applying this secret knowledge will result in an "immanenitizing of the eschaton."

The last concept comes from Roman Catholic scholarship in defining the heresy of gnosticism. In article 676 of the Catholic catechism, it says that: "The AntiChrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism." Voegelin says that gnosticism tries to bring about a heaven on earth or "immanentize the eschaton." When Kabbalists such as Marx go to the tree of life to get enlightenment to solve problems here and now, zen buddhist like, he tries to be the divine savior of himself.

Thus, Marxism is gnostic since it teaches of alienation of the proletariat whose special knowledge of communism, as embodied in the communist manifesto, assists him in remedying this defect in the socio-economic structure, this disharmony, and the very possibility of this ability to heal his own problem is an immanentizing of the eschaton, of creating heaven on earth without God's help.

The feminist argues that there is discord in the social structure due to patriarchy. The special knowledge of the superiority of matriarchy will remedy this and bring an end to wars, domination and so on. Thus, female chauvanism is to replace male chauvanism (clearly reaching a hypocritical end).

This is just the icing on the cake. Voegelin goes through many ideas, but the aforementioned summary constitutes a common theme uniting all of his discussion in this terse yet dense book.