Voegelin on the prospects of defeating Gnosticism

In the final chapter, “The End of Modernity,” of his seminal 1952 book, The New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin weighed the prospects that Gnosticism, which he considered the dominant mindset of the modern age, might yet be defeated. The issues the world was facing then were very different from today. Indeed it could be said that while Soviet Communism, the main gnostic threat in the mid twentieth century, has disappeared, other and more virulent forms of Gnosticism have taken over the West from within, putting Western man in far worse spiritual shape than in 1952. There is the additional complicating factor, perhaps the fatal factor, of the growth of vast and largely unassimilable nonwhite populations in the West due to mass Third World immigration, a process that had barely started when Voegelin was writing. Yet notwithstanding the dramatic differences between then and now, the fundamental issue with which Voegelin was grappling has not changed. Can Western man recover enough of the Classical, Christian, and commonsense experience of reality to ward off gnostic unreality?

Voegelin writes:

Modern Gnosticism has by far not spent its drive. On the contrary, in the variant of Marxism it is expanding its area of influence prodigiously in Asia, while other variants of Gnosticism, such as progressivism, positivism, and scientism, are penetrating into other areas under the title of “Westernization” and development of backward countries And one may say that in Western society itself the drive is not spent but that our own “Westernization” is still on the increase. In the face of this worldwide expansion it is necessary to state the obvious: that human nature does not change. The closure of the soul in modern Gnosticism can repress the truth of the soul, as well as the experiences that manifest themselves in philosophy and Christianity, but it cannot remove the soul and its transcendence from the structure of reality. Hence the question imposes itself: How long can such a repression last? And what will happen when prolonged and severe repression will lead to an explosion? … It would not be legitimate … to indulge in speculations about the form that the explosion will assume, beyond the reasonable assumption that the reaction against Gnosticism will be as worldwide as its expansion. The number of complicating factors is so large that predictions seem futile. Even for our own Western society one can hardly do more than point to the fact that Gnosticism, in spite of its noisy ascendancy, does by far not have the field for itself; that the classic and Christian tradition of Western society is rather alive; that the building up of spiritual and intellectual resistance against Gnosticism in all its variants is a notable factor in our society; that the reconstruction of a science of man and society is one of the remarkable events of the last half-century and, in retrospect from the future vantage point, will perhaps appear as the most important event in our time. Still less can be said, for obvious reasons, about the probable reaction of a living Christian tradition against Gnosticism in the Soviet empire, and nothing at all about the manner in which Chinese, Hindu, Islamic, and primitive civilizations will react to a prolonged exposure to gnostic devastation and repression.

Most of The New Science of Politics can be read online in the Google Books version of Volume V of Voegelin’s collected works, Modernity without Restraint. The above quoted passage is at page 222 of that book.

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Kristor writes:

Whitehead said, “the instability of evil is the morality of the universe.” One cannot turn away from reality and live according to false pretenses forever. God is not mocked. Sooner or later, reality will feed back death to error. We have to remember that, as a religion based upon fundamental falsehoods, liberalism is inherently unstable, inherently vulnerable and weak. The whole thing will sooner or later collapse like a house of cards, in just exactly the same way that the Soviet empire collapsed.

Social chaos is not an inevitable sequela of such collapses, as we saw with the Russians. Underneath all the flim flam and magical operations, and supporting the liberal Potemkin village, there lies a solid foundation of honest folks doing their best to get along and do the right thing. The exigencies of daily life have for decades forced them to make hundreds of unprincipled exceptions, just to get along. The chthonic traditionalists among them have had to lie, and hide; the liberals have had to betray their philosophy for the sake of their children. When the liberal paradigm dissolves into air, they will continue to do their best. They will report to work the next morning, as usual. But they will be free; a whole people will be relieved of the immense weight of falsehood under which they now labor, and which the regime forces them to reiterate and reinforce in their public lives. That could make the aftermath an occasion of joy.

You can’t run an enterprise on lies forever. Truth will out. Who is the angel of the modern Gnostic age? Who its genius and apotheosis? Bernie Madoff. As he fell, so will it.

LA replies:

Why do you make Madoff the symbol of liberalism?

Anthony Damato writes:

The term you used, “gnostic unreality,” would make a great tee shirt: “Liberalism is Gnostic Unreality.”

I was thinking about Voegelin’s experience during his lifetime which included encounters with Nazi ideology in Germany, and with leftist activists in the academia in America.

As you mentioned, he did not directly see the liberal triumph of multiculturalism, though in his work he made it clear that it would be impossible to predict how gnostic activism would manifest.

I agree that liberals are gnostic activists, but how do we understand the tools of their trade, the army of third-world non-whites and Moslems? Clearly Moslems are not gnostics, clearly Third World immigrants are generally not liberals. But in every country on earth except for America there is the notion of exceptionality, national and cultural pride and so on. Not in America. Our pride is embodied in the slogan, “Diversity is our strength”—gnostic unreality in the face of an increasingly ungovernable nation.

Is it a clash of ideologies we are talking about? The utopia of the gnostic vs the brutality the barbarian? Put this way, it is clear who will win such a conflict.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 07, 2010 01:52 PM | Send

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