Political correctness described—forty years before the term came into common use

In his 1952 book The New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin argued that modern progressive society is gnostic. What Voegelin meant by gnosticism is a belief system that denies and rejects the structure of reality, particularly the reality of human nature, and replaces it by an imaginary world constructed by gnostic intellectuals and controlled by gnostic activists. It is a world in which, for example, all people have the same abilities, and women are the same as men, and human inequalities and differences and disagreements are solely the result of unjust social institutions which must be or already have been supplanted by just institutions. And this is where political correctness comes in, though Voegelin doesn’t use the term. Because the gnostic belief system which is the foundation of the gnostic political order is unreal, the latter can only survive by prohibiting discussion of the facts of human nature, and prohibiting critical evaluation of existing institutions and practices based on whether they are in conformity or in conflict with human nature. Such banned discussion and criticism are what Voegelin means by “theory” in the below passage.

Since Gnosticism lives by the theoretical fallacies that were discussed in the preceding lecture, the taboo on theory in the classic sense is the ineluctable condition of its social expansion and survival. This has a serious consequence with regard to the possibility of public debate in societies where gnostic movements have achieved social influence sufficient to control the means of communication, educational institutions, etc. To the degree to which such control is effective, theoretical debate concerning issues that involve the truth of human existence is impossible in public because the use of theoretical argument is prohibited. However well the constitutional freedoms of speech and press may be protected, however well theoretical debate may flourish in small circles, and however well it may be carried on in the practically private publications of a handful of scholars, debate in the politically relevant public sphere will be in substance the game with loaded dice that it has become in contemporary progressive societies—to say nothing of the quality of debate in totalitarian empires. Theoretical debate can be protected by constitutional guaranties, but it can be established only by the willingness to use and accept theoretical argument. When this willingness does not exist, a society cannot rely for its functioning on argument and persuasion where the truth of human existence is involved; other means will have to be considered. [pp. 141-42.]

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Other recent entries on gnosticsm are linked at the end of this entry.

Kristor writes:

Lydia McGrew closes a circle in the analysis of Gnosticism:

She writes:

The sobering point of [Charles Williams’s] Descent Into Hell is that we all want things and, especially, people to be different from what they are, and we are all tempted—through self-isolation, rejecting friendship, shirking undesired interpersonal duties, scholarly dishonesty, and a host of other means—to try to make the facts different from what they are. Sin, then, is quintessentially a rejection of reality and an attempt to impose our own reality on the world, which is of course impossible. The soul on the way to damnation responds to this impossibility by retreating more and more from truth and from the real world into himself and a world of his own making. Damnation is imprisonment within the self, the final rejection of Fact, and a severing of the mind from contact with reality, which in the end is no longer voluntarily reversible.

The emphasis is mine. Lydia makes explicit a thought I have been ruminating about since before Christmas: that Gnosticism is endemic to the human condition, a hazard we all constantly skirt. For it is tantamount to a surrender to the temptation of sin, which afflicts us all.

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Jeff W. writes:

First I would like to thank you for the quotes from Eric Voegelin, a man who had a deep understanding of gnostics and Gnosticism. I think that any of your readers can benefit by studying Voegelin’s descriptions of gnostics.

That having been said, I disagree somewhat with Kristor’s comment statement that “Gnosticism is endemic to the human condition, a hazard we all constantly skirt. For it is tantamount to a surrender to the temptation of sin, which afflicts us all.”

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 1:21 and the verses following, describes what God does to those who do not glorify him or give him thanks: God hands them over to the power of sin, i.e., the devil, who enslaves them. In Romans 1, Paul lists many mental, spiritual and emotional diseases that befall those who are thus enslaved.

So rather than viewing gnostics as weak people who have surrendered to temptation, they should be viewed instead, from a Biblical perspective, as objects of God’s wrath who are now slaves to sin. In that condition, their thoughts have become insane, and their emotions and impulses rage out of control. As slaves to sin, moreover, they have no power to break free from bondage on their own.

It is sad and frightening that Americans are now ruled by such people. Romans 1:21-32 is well worth reading in connection with this topic.

LA replies:

Roman’s 1 is unique in its compressed argument, the way it proceeds by rapid steps from rejection of God to utter self destruction in sin.

However, as to how we should see gnostics, as weak or as evil, I’m not sure. Also, as with any other belief system there is a wide range of gnostic phenomena from moderate to extreme. Voegelin himself, who is after all the top theorist of the subject, says that gnosticism is a general temptation, and he points to passages in the Bible, including in Paul’s Epistles, which he says indicate gnostic potentialities which must be resisted.

Paul Nachman writes:

When I saw this photo that was adjacent to a Martin Olasky column, without even looking at the caption I instantly thought “That’s one of the First Brats!” Maybe unfair, but my guess is that family is dominated by a massive feeling of entitlement coupled with complete ignorance of reality. Unappealing-looking kid, too.

President Barack Obama follows his daughter Sasha Obama
as she runs towards the White House in Washington, Monday,
as the Obamas returned to the White House after their vacation in Hawaii.

LA replies:

You’ve just described the First Family as a family of gnostics. More precisely, they are the Imperial Family of a Gnostic empire.

LA adds:

And speaking of entitlement, speaking of political correctness, notice how the AP caption, after mentioning “President Barack Obama,” identifies Sasha as “Sasha Obama,” as though it must be made clear that the president’s daughter is a full blown individual in her own right independent of her parents and cannot be referred to as just Sasha.

January 5

Kristor replies to Jeff W.:

Ah, but in Romans 1:18-20, Paul says:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

I.e., men in their wickedness turn their backs on the plain facts of concrete reality, and on what these facts univocally proclaim about the nature and character of their Creator. Whoever pays proper attention to things as they really are cannot but glorify God and give him thanks; so those who do not glorify God and give him thanks must first have suppressed their apprehension of reality. The only way to snub God, who makes himself felt in everything whatsoever, is to snub reality.

Paul and Lydia seem to be in perfect agreement. I can’t see how what I said conflicts with what either of them have said. If it does, then I must have expressed myself poorly, for I certainly mean to agree fully with them both.

What struck me, when I read the passage of Lydia that I quote above, was that it was a succinct description of what gnostics do: they reject the reality of this world, and of this world’s God, in favor of the imaginations of their own hearts, so that they are idolaters.

LA replies:

This is fine, but I’m not sure that you have replied directly to Jeff W.’s criticism, which was that you were mistakenly viewing gnostics as weak people who have surrendered to temptation, whereas in reality they should be viewed as objects of God’s wrath who are now slaves to sin.

Personally, I’m not sure that these are mutually exclusive points; they seem to be two points along the same spectrum. But Jeff was saying that they are mutually exclusive.

January 5

Kristor replies:

I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. What is the difference, really, between weak people who have surrendered to temptation, and objects of God’s wrath who are slaves to sin? Once surrender to temptation even a little, indeed even by so little as a nibble at an apple, and you are thenceforth enslaved, and must struggle with it thenceforth, interminably (exactly as alcoholics must struggle with their addiction), and but for the continuous grace of God you are doomed to eventual failure and utter damnation (which is why AA insists upon conversion toward and reliance upon the grace of God as a forecondition of sobriety). Indeed, all the sinner can do with his frantic well-meant attempts to make things better is make them worse, and push himself further down the slippery slope; for there is no way a creature can himself repair the damage his sin has done to the world, and a fortiori to himself (in physics, this is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics).

There is to be sure a difference between those who have wholly surrendered to sin, and those who continue the struggle with it. The former are quite thin on the ground, I think. Utter depravity of evil—e.g., Manson, Rasputin, Nero—is quite rare. Most gnostic liberals are, in my experience, nice, weak-minded people who mean well and are trying to do the right thing, whose lights are dimmed and crazed by a perverted notion of reality. Like me.

Jeff W. writes:

As is often the case, I wish that I had expressed myself better. While I agree that gnostics are weak people who have surrendered to temptation, that, to me, is a trivial point, a tautological point.

I believe that all human beings are weak. No one is strong enough on his own to overcome temptation and sin. After having accepted this fact of human weakness, then, to say that some people are weak and surrender to the temptation of sin is merely to state the obvious. This is what is happens all around us all the time.

The key is to look at God’s role in this matter. Does he protect us? Or does he, in his wrath, because we have rejected him, hand us over to the power of sin so that we will be enslaved, driven insane, battered about and ultimately destroyed by uncontrollable evil impulses?

Without God’s protection, we are lost. That is the point I am trying to make, and the point Paul makes in Romans 1.

LA writes:

I just have to throw this in. Gnostics themselves do what they variously and falsely accuse the God of the Bible, nature, and society of doing: they construct a false universe and make everyone live inside it.

Claiming that the true world is really a false world, gnostics construct their own “true” world which is really false.

The ironic upshot is that critics of gnosticism living inside a gnostic-ruled society such as ours inevitably sound somewhat like gnostics themselves, trying to penetrate to the core of the false constructed reality that envelops them and get back to reality.

Kristor writes:

Jeff asks, “Does [God] protect us [when we sin]? Or does he, in his wrath, because we have rejected him, hand us over to the power of sin so that we will be enslaved, driven insane, battered about and ultimately destroyed by uncontrollable evil impulses?” Yes. Both. These are two ways of saying the same thing. To the sinner, the love and protection of God feel like the wrath of God. That’s why we can’t yet look upon his face without being blasted to smithereens. Thus God need not say to himself, “I am going to rise up and destroy this sinner, because I am really really mad at him for having transgressed my law.” No; the sin itself takes care of the unrepentant sinner’s destruction. The wages of sin just is death; this is a metaphysical truth. For how could a being reject the very source of his being—which is what sin involves—without ipso facto rejecting his own existence?

LA writes:

It’s been suggested in this exchange that gnosticism is to be equated with sin. I don’t agree with that.

Sin in the Christian sense can be defined very simply: it is doing that which separates us from God. We’re all sinning all the time. Sin is the ordinary and normal human condition.

But of course there is a great variety of degrees of sin, ranging from the major sins to the most mild state of sin, the state of being preoccupied with our ordinary but not otherwise sinful activities and not living toward God.

Evil is different from sin. Evil is when a sinning human consciously embraces and approves sin and opposes the good.

Gnosticism, while it involves both sin and evil, is something distinct. It is a rebellion against the divine and natural order, which it considers illusory and evil, and a program to replace it with one’s own, manmade order in which one will be as a god.

And, again, there are degrees of sin, degrees of evil, and degrees of gnosticism.

Kristor replies:

I didn’t mean to equate sin with Gnosticism. God forbid I should stoop to such rank reductionism! But I’m still trying to figure out the true relation between sin and Gnosticism. It strikes me that, like gluttony and lust, Gnosticism is a species of sin. Gnosticism could be called intellectual pride, making it a type of the sin of pride; or perhaps intellectual hubris would be better. [LA replies: I wasn’t thinking that you had equated sin with gnosticism, I was thinking of Jeff W.]

The interesting thing is that all species of sin share the form of rejection of reality, of its proper order, and ipso facto of the God who is the source of reality and order. Or vice versa; it amounts to the same thing.

I see what you are getting at with your definition of evil. I don’t think it quite works, though, if only because evil is not a factor solely of human life. Theologians distinguish between human evil and natural evil, between Hitler and Katrina. Natural evil is a much more difficult problem for theodicy than human evil. Supernatural evil is even harder. So the way it is traditionally parsed is:

Evil in general is any derogation of the perfection of goodness. It includes transmundane evil (e.g., Satan), Natural Evil (Hurricane Katrina, animal predation), Human Evil (Hitler, Eve, and all the various human sins, gluttony, sloth, pride, etc.) and also all the unintentional tragedies and painful accidents that beset our lives (Oedipus, tripping and falling downstairs).

Sin begins when a choice is met with a refusal, however picayune, to reckon honestly the facts of the situation: the world as it really is, the Good as it really is, God as he really is.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 04, 2010 06:04 PM | Send

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