Explaining gnosticism, again

Laura Wood, drawing on Eric Voegelin’s Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, explains gnosticism thus:

1. The gnostic is dissatisfied.
2. The cause of his dissatisfaction is “the wickedness of the world.’
3. He believes salvation from this wickedness is possible.
4. In order to achieve salvation, “the order of being will have to be changed in an historical process.”
5. This change is possible through human effort.
6. The gnostic possess a formula or knowledge as to how to bring about this salvation.

I sent her the following comment:

Your summation of the six characteristics of the gnostic is good. I am excited to see people picking up on the recent discussions and trying to bring gnosticism into ordinary usage as an accessible concept and analytical tool which can help us understand so many contemporary belief systems.

I find myself defining gnosticism over and over, because (1) I want it to be an understandable and usable idea and not something that seems esoteric or intimidating, and (2) I want to show that it means much more than “knowing” or “hidden knowing,” which is only one phase or aspect of gnosticism and not, in my view, the decisive aspect. As long as people think that gnosticism means “knowing hidden knowledge,” they will never understand it. We will always have to deal with the popular incomplete definition of the word, because, after all, “gnosticism” means to know. What is ideally needed is a replacement for “gnosticism,” a nice, simple, everyday word that readily conveys the idea, “radical dissatisfaction with and alienation from the world leading to the conviction that the world is evil, which leads to a desire for salvation from this evil world which is to be achieved by knowledge of its hidden structure and a practical program to change the order of being through human action in history.”

Hah! Obviously we’re stuck with the word “gnosticism,” which, after all, is what the early gnostics called themselves. And just as obviously, gnosticism is not a simple idea. It is a complex of ideas, and will always be difficult. But that doesn’t mean that it’s overwhelmingly difficult or too complex for ordinary discussion. It is understandable. But the trick is that in order to be understood, its several facets or phases must be presented together as a coherent unity, as you have done with your six point list. If gnosticism is only defined partially, it will remain a vague and not very useful concept.

- end of initial entry -

Rick Darby writes:

Yes, we need to find a replacement for the word “gnosticism” used in the sense that you and Voegelin do. Like all words with a long history, its meaning has been blurred and stretched. At its most basic, meaning a spiritual path involving inner knowledge rather than outer dogma or ritual, gnosticism is the seed and essence of religion. (I emphasize, though, I don’t mean gnosticism of the kind you refer to.)

Another problem with using the word as a contemporary philosophical-political term: Our present gnostics do not have a “radical dissatisfaction with and alienation from the world leading to the conviction that the world is evil, which leads to a desire for salvation from this evil world which is to be achieved by knowledge of its hidden structure and a practical program to change the order of being through human action in history.” They are decidedly unalienated from the world. They believe the material world is all there is. Therefore, it must be perfected by any means necessary. No one shall be permitted the hope and comfort of a spiritual reality: the immediate world must be destroyed and rebuilt as a kingdom of heaven on earth, even if the earthly paradise has no room for faith, liberty, freedom of thought and speech, and “irrational” local and national traditions.

LA replies:

Your point is similar to the point that often comes up about whether liberals are guilty or not. How can we say that liberals have liberal guilt, some commenters ask, when the liberals are so obviously in love with themselves? And the answer is that while liberals are in love with themselves, they feel that their society as a whole, the white race as a whole, is guilty. They love themselves because they personally are virtuous and do not participate in the general guilt. But the guilt is still the central focus of their relationship to their society.

In the same way, liberals are not alienated from their own world, the liberal world; they love that world. But the liberal world is part of a larger white world which is evil, and that larger world must be turned on its head and remade. So I think that my description of the etiology of gnosticism does apply to liberals.

Eric H. writes:

A comment on the effort to bring the idea of gnosticism into public discourse: how about calling it “utopian nihilism”? The gnostics are willing to, even want to, destroy what exists, in order to replace it with a Utopia which doesn’t (and can’t). I believe “utopian nihilism” captures both their idealistic motivation and their fundamental sin, disloyalty to reality.

LA replies:

That’s not bad. :-)

Edward writes:

Using the word Gnosticism simply confuses the reader. Stick with the word “liberalism” or liberals. this is easier for people because it is already part of our lexicon. Originally in the 19th century liberalism meant everything we now mean by democracy etc. It included both what is now called conservatives and the people who we now call liberals but who were called “radicals” at that time. Radicals is actually the preferred word in my opinion. It describes them in accordance with the historical meaning of the word and also equates them with the biological ” free radical” which within your body bring destruction to the health of the individual just as radicals politically create havoc in the social body politic and eventual death.

Laura Wood writes:

Justin writes at The Thinking Housewife:

I must object to the sloppy appropriation of the term gnostic. Gnosticism has a specific meaning in the history of religions. To broaden its meaning to include every social reform movement in the modern world is not helpful.

Why not simply use the well-understood terms “social reformer” or “social engineer”? A social engineer encompasses all six characteristics as you have listed them.

To be a gnostic had specific cultural, philosophical, and behavioral connotations in the ancient world. To color all modern liberal movements with those connotations is not an “analytical tool which can help us understand so many contemporary belief systems.” [cont.]

LA replies:

To Edward, I am not using gnostic as a substitute for liberalism. Liberalism is one of many ideologies that fit the gnostic pattern. There are specific ideas that can only be conveyed by the word gnostic, that would not be conveyed by the word liberal. So the word is needed. By the same token, of course, gnosticism cannot be a substitute for liberalism, since liberalism has specific meanings that cannot be conveyed by other words.

To Justin, whenever I discuss gnosticism I distinguish between the original, religious gnosticism and modern, political gnosticism. The idea of describing various modern ideologies as forms of gnosticism came, I believe, from Voegelin. It was his genius insight to see the fundamental analogy, and even the similarity of mood and psychology, between the two. In any case, the concept of political gnosticism is an important discovery in political science and it’s not going away.

The term social reformer would not be an adequate substitute, because the word gnosticism carries all kinds of specific meaning that the term social reformer does not, and also because social reformers are not necessarily gnostic.

Also, people who are uncomfortable with the term gnosticism (and I have indicated why such discomfort is understandable) need not worry that I’m going to treat it as an all purpose substitute for other terms. But I have been developing the idea lately for reasons I’ve explained and I think it’s been worthwhile to do so.

Here are some of my entries on gnosticism. All but the first were posted since late December.

Alex A. writes from England:

Here’s a few thoughts that might contribute to the discussion of Gnosticism at VFR.

The “original” Gnostic sects which flourished in the early centuries of Christianity, taught that human beings had a “divine seed” in them which they had failed to cultivate—preferring the attractions of a material world ruled by fate. But this divine principle in humanity could be reactivated through the possession of esoteric knowledge which enabled those who acquired it to be reunited with the transcendent realm of the spirit. In other words, possession of gnosis—i.e. secret knowledge of God and man’s destiny—is a necessary condition of redemption. The gnostics were denounced by the Church fathers as heretics.

Political doctrines that claim to reveal the “truth about man and history” are, by analogy, gnostic in their characteristics. For example the liberal cast of mind, illuminated by “necessary knowledge”, leads the way to a secular redemption. This is a political fantasy—or perhaps from a conservative point of view, a political heresy.

Charles T. writes:

LA wrote:

What is ideally needed is a replacement for “gnosticism,” a nice, simple, everyday word that readily conveys the idea, “radical dissatisfaction with and alienation from the world leading to the conviction that the world is evil, which leads to a desire for salvation from this evil world which is to be achieved by knowledge of its hidden structure and a practical program to change the order of being through human action in history.”

How about this as a replacement for “gnosticism”: ” The Anointed.” This term conveys, elitism, arrogance, social elevation, educational snobbery, access to special knowledge, financial elevation, etc.

This is a term from Thomas Sowell’s book The Vision of the Anointed.; which describes the mindset of liberals. “The Anointed,” of course, are the ones with the special vision of the world.

Speaking of the special vision “The Anointed” ones have, Sowell writes in the first chapter: “What a vision may offer, and what the prevailing vision of our time emphatically does offer, is a special state of grace for those who believe in it. Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane.”

The descriptor, “The Anointed,” conveys a special state of secular, moral, spiritual grace for those so designated. “The Anointed” have become our gods. They are the priests of the secular religion.

LA replies:

That’s good. A lot of the liberal gnostic psychology is conveyed by that word.

A. Zarkov writes:

The author of The Empathic Civilization is Jeremy Rifkin.This leftist has been writing nonsense for more than 30 years. He once wrote a book called Entropy: A New World View where he demonstrated he doesn’t understand entropy, although he has plenty of company including many scientists. He also wrote a book called The Hydrogen Economy showing he doesn’t understand that either. Rifkin seems to forget that hydrogen is not an energy source; it’s one way of storing energy. You have to generate the energy first. Hydrogen also has the nasty habit of leaking through metal because the molecule is so small. The practical problems associated with the hydrogen make it a real deal killer. The common error these leftists make is to ignore capital costs. To them capital is almost free. You just get the government to print money and hand it out.

This guy is a complete crackpot. Why anyone takes him seriously is beyond me.

Posted January 15, 1:30 a.m.

Laura Wood writes:

Thanks for the comment. Though gnosticism suffers from its association with “knowing,” there are many people who have no idea what it means. I think this offers great opportunity to use it as a fresh term for phenomena that are various but connected. I am excited about the possibility of it becoming more common because it gets at the different layers of liberalism and offers a chance for a break from the limitations of speaking of liberals and conservatives, terms which also have their own histories and different meanings for different people.

LA replies:

Very good points. As you say, what’s exciting about the concept of gnosticism is that it explains things in a deeper and more holistic way than the usual liberal/conservative divide.

I also note that gnosticism complements my definition of liberalism. Gnosticism is a rebellion against the order of being. Ok, and what does liberalism do? It rejects the “vertical dimension” (relations of better and worse, lower and higher), and the “horizontal dimension” (relations of difference/similarity between individuals, the two sexes, different countries, different cultures, etc.). The moral / cultural / spiritual / biological universe in which man lives is constituted of the vertical and horizontal dimensions. This is not a fancy philosophical idea; it’s an articulation of an experience common to all human beings; we experience the vertical and the horizontal dimensions every day of our lives. But liberalism denies the vertical and horizontal dimensions and says that if that you believe in them you are evil. So liberalism is a distinct sub-type of gnosticism, which is alienated from the order of being and which seeks to construct a new order of being without a vertical and horizontal dimension.

Also, there’s no point worrying about the inadequacies of the word gnosticism. That’s the word, and there’s no substitute for it (for example there is no other word that comprehends ancient and modern gnosticism), just as “conservatism” is inadequate, but it’s the word, and there’s no substitute for it. It’s a matter of our putting a better meaning into it.

Kristor writes:

Well, even though I used it myself, I think “the Anointed” is even more problematic than “gnostic.” In the first place, it refers only to the priestly class. The doctrines that the priests espouse—gnostic, Christian, Jewish?—is not connoted by the term. Second, “Christian” means, literally, “of the Anointed One.” And Christians are anointed as priests as part of the Rite of Baptism. Technically, Baptism, the washing away of sins and ritual uncleanness in preparation for entry into the Temple, is only the prelude to the anointing. Christians are anointed as priests. And Kings / Queens. And prophets. It’s the washing away of sins in Baptism that makes us fit to be anointed priests and kings.

All these terms have drawbacks. What doesn’t? Drawbacks go along with concrete existence (for every entity, other than God). “Gnostic” suffers from the fact that it applies both to the Gnostics of the early centuries AD and to the various modern versions of gnosticism we have been discussing. But it had this same problem in the early centuries AD, when for centuries it had been in (wholly non-controversial) use as a way of referring to spiritual adepts, and to the wise. The Magi, for example, could well and accurately have been called gnostics at the first feast of the Epiphany. In fact, magi and priests, prophets and Temple mystics were referred to as gnostics, back then (albeit that some of them—the 2nd Temple Deuteronomists—abhorred the others—the Magi, Temple mystics, and Desert Prophets). The much abhorred, heretical Gnostics (Marcionites, Valentinians, and so forth) of the early centuries AD probably appropriated the term in order to bolster their spiritual credentials.

All that said, I think “gnostic” has a lot to recommend it as a way of referring to the complex of properties we have been talking about: hatred and rejection of messy concrete reality in favor of a pure ideal, to which the gnostic would conform the world, and of which he is especially knowledgeable. There is an element of pride, and of vanity, in the liberal that echoes the same tone in the Gnostics proper. And—another similarity—both the ancient Gnostics and the modern liberal gnostics view history as the work of an evil conspiracy, which they would overthrow.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 14, 2010 07:26 AM | Send

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