Rorate Caeli

Eric Voegelin on Modern Gnosticism

Hans Jonas’ taxonomy of ancient gnosticism may seem to be little more than an intellectual curiosity, a description of an ancient heresy that has long since disappeared from sight. But old heresies never die; they simply metastasize. Jonas’ colleague, Eric Voegelin, has tracked the gnostic metastasis through twenty centuries. Better than anyone else, he has illuminated the gradual transformation of this ancient presumption into the motley, blood-soaked ideologies of the last century. His effort is beginning to be appreciated only now, as scholars plug away at organizing his massive output for publication by the University of Missouri Press. What follows is a wispy attempt to gather into a semi-coherent bundle a few of his leading ideas, taken mostly from a volume of essays entitled Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. Voegelin is a demanding read, but a very rewarding one; this volume is a good place to start.

In an essay entitled “Ersatz Religion”, Voegelin lists “six characteristics that, taken together, reveal the nature of the gnostic attitude”:

(1) It must first be pointed out that the gnostic is dissatisfied with his situation. This, in itself, is not especially surprising. We all have cause to be not completely satisfied with one aspect or another of the situation in which we find ourselves.

(2) Not quite so understandable is the second aspect of the gnostic attitude: the belief that the drawbacks of the situation can be attributed to the fact that the world is intrinsically poorly organized. For it is likewise possible to assume that the order of being as it is given to us men (wherever its origin is to be sought) is good and that it is we human beings who are inadequate. But gnostics are not inclined to discover that human beings in general and they themselves in particular are inadequate. If in a given situation something is not as it should be, then the fault is to be found in the wickedness of the world.

(3) The third characteristic is the belief that salvation from the evil of the world is possible.

(4) From this follows the belief that the order of being will have to be changed in an historical process. From a wretched world a good one must evolve historically. This assumption is not altogether self-evident, because the Christian solution might also be considered – namely, that the world throughout history will remain as it is and that man’s salvational fulfillment is brought about through grace in death.

(5) With this fifth point we come to the gnostic trait in the narrower sense – the belief that a change in the order of being lies in the realm of human action, that this salvational act is possible through man’s own action.

(6) If it is possible, however, so to work a structural change in the given order of being that we can be satisfied with it as a perfect one, then it becomes the task of the gnostic to seek out the prescription for such a change. Knowledge – gnosis – of the method of altering being is the central concern of the gnostic. As the sixth feature of the gnostic attitude, therefore, we recognize the construction of a formula for self and world salvation, as well as the gnostic’s readiness to come forward as a prophet who will proclaim his knowledge about the salvation of mankind.

If one goes back to Jonas’ summary, then reads Voegelin's right after, the nature of the gnostic metastasis begins to seep through. The principle difference, I would argue, is that, whereas the ancient gnostic sought to escape the tyranny of the cosmos, the modern gnostic seeks to transform it. The salvific knowledge of the ancient gnostic, that the dysfunctional cosmos of the Archons must be transcended, transforms into knowledge of “the method of altering being”. The hidden gnostic god, the unknowable god beyond the cosmos, has been quietly dispatched, a deific Jimmy Hoffa. The new god is man, and the new knowledge is that the world belongs to the powerful.

So easy – a nip here, a tuck there, and suddenly, the timid gnostic lost soul bestrides the world like a jackbooted colossus. The death of God is, Voegelin notes sardonically, “not an event, but the feat of a dialectician”. Still, as hoaxes go, it has been enormously effective. Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and their more literalist progeny, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, pass in review. One after another, the God-slayers rise and fall, and take many innocent lives, born and unborn, with them.