VFR on Gnosticism

Gnosticism is both a perennial human temptation and a key critical concept for understanding liberal and other ideological distortions of the world. In my writings on the subject, which expand upon Eric Voegelin’s seminal writings, I always try to show that notwithstanding the forbidding sound of the word and the inherent difficulty of the concept, Gnosticism is an idea that can be made intelligible to the ordinary intelligent reader.

As I wrote in the 2003 entry, “Gnosticism defined,” when I was first reading about Gnosticism many years ago, I came to the conclusion that, with its many possible meanings, it was too complex and difficult a concept for ordinary discourse. Then I came upon a passage of Voegelin’s where he identifies the core principle that is common to all forms of Gnosticism: the enlargement of the soul so as to place God within man and under man’s control, and thus eliminate the frustrating and uncomfortable experience, rife with uncertainty, with continual finding and losing, that God is outside and above man.

What prevents people from understanding Gnosticism is the commonly held notion that Gnosticism means secret knowledge, as suggested by the word itself; gnosis means knowing. And since the knowledge is secret, of course Gnosticism cannot be understood by ordinary intelligence. But secret knowledge is not the essence of Gnosticism. The essence of Gnosticism is the enlargement of the soul so as to place God within man and under man’s control. Once this is understood, Gnosticism, and all the seemingly confusing varieties of Gnosticism, can be understood.

Some of VFR’s entries on the subject (most of them posted in 2009-2010) are below. The collection so far is just a beginning and I will keep adding to it.

Gnosticism defined [Sept. 2003. Passage from Voegelin that provides cogent and understandable definition of Gnosticism.]

Continued thread on Randianism, reductionism, and more [In a comment, I relate ideological reductionism to Gnosticism. The gnostic or reductionist gets rid of transcendence, but still needs the transcendent, so he squeezes the transcendent into some reductionist, immanent value, such as equality, tolerance, sex, race, the economy, Randian “reason,” etc. I then connect that with Voegelin’s account of Gnosticism as (my words) “the enlargement of the soul so as to include God within man, and thus eliminate the frustrating and uncomfortable experience that God is outside and above man.”

The escape from uncertainty: a theory of liberalism [“To liberals, as to gnostics, the real world is variously senseless, meaningless, random, weird, off-putting, alienating, false, and malevolent. To end the alienation, they must take control of the world and reconstruct it into a new world of which they are the masters and gods, controlling all, knowing all. They end their alienation by becoming themselves the all-powerful embodiment of all truth—again, a classic gnostic operation.” Dec. 2009]

We are seeing liberalism morph into totalitarianism [The first of my pieces describing the Obama-Democratic revolution as gnostic. “The Democrats’ grab for total power—over the climate, over health care, over death, even over all future legislation, makes it clear that they are no longer ordinary liberal or progressive politicians. Rather, they are gnostic activists who seek to overcome the order of existence, which they see as false and alienating, and draw god-like power into themselves.” December 2009.]

How China wrecked the Copenhagen deal; and the anti-climate change movement as the route to the global state [“But the left always keeps looking for new pretexts for global government, problems so global that only global government can solve them, and this time it’s global warming. And to make people believe that a problem is so terrible that only global government can solve it, the left must convince mankind, especially the West, that it is hopelessly messed up, that societies can’t solve their own problems…. Leftism, which is the political form of evil, advances itself by destroying the good, by destroying men’s hope of the good in the ordinary world they inhabit, and so making men believe that only some Tower of Babel-like cosmic technocratic regime can solve human problems…. Gnosticism convinces men that the ordinary world is evil, so as to win them over to the construction of a gnostic dream world.” December 2009.]

The left’s agenda: to unite us in a worldwide brotherhood of equal ruin [December 2009.]

Are liberals mentally ill? And the leftist/gnostic view of the Tower of Babel [December 2009.]

The left’s latest weapon in its gnostic rebellion against the universe: tort law [How liberals are trying to treat carbon emissions as an actionable tort, based on the theory that carbon emissions are changing the climate. “They think that wealthy, oppressive white men are responsible for the misfortunes of the cosmos. They are suing energy companies for causing a hurricane…. The ancient, religious gnostics believed that the universe is the malign creation of the false, evil God of the Bible, whom they sought to overthrow and replace by the true, hidden god. Modern, political gnostics believe that the universe (and everything in it, such as hurricanes) is the malign creation of greedy capitalists, whom they will impoverish and overthrow by suing them in federal court, and replace by a global socialist state.” December 2009.]

The insane asylum that is the liberal West, cont. [A passage by Voegelin written in 1952 at the height of the Cold War, and probably directed at the West’s inadequate response to Communism, explains the West’s much more inadequate response to Islam today: “Gnostic societies and their leaders will recognize dangers to their existence when they develop, but such dangers will not be met by appropriate actions in the world of reality. They will rather be met by magic operations in the dream world, such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intentions, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind….” I continue: “It would be instructive to list the various ‘magical operations’ by which Western political leaders and intellectuals imagine they can make the Islam threat go away. For example, think of all those liberals and conservatives who say that the answer to the Islam threat is that Muslims in the West ‘must’ assimilate, or that Muslims in the Muslim lands ‘must’ adopt democracy.”]

Political correctness described—forty years before the term came into common use [quoting and discussing a passage from Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics about the prohibition of speech that challenges the gnostic orthodoxy.]

- end of initial entry -

Texanne V. writes

Your definition of Gnosticism this morning immediately brought to mind the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy in his Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Relying on this “legal” reasoning, it is easy to extrapolate: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of the meaning of the Constitution,” and even: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of the meaning of marriage, of man, of woman, of human.”

Justice Kennedy goes on to say: “Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.” In essence, these words have become the law of the land, under which the State now compels us to remove God back within our selves. The State now instructs and admonishes us to grow our souls and fill them with bliss—our own personal bliss—and we each follow it alone on our solitary path in all directions. This is no longer a nation of laws, or even a society. It is a mob of Gnostics, each going his own way.

LA replies:

This is a terrific comment. Your main idea here is indeed very much related to the definition of Gnosticism I gave at the beginning of the entry. Your last sentence is great.

However, I don’t understand Kennedy’s sentence, “Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”

Texanne replies (sent Nov. 27, 2011; posted January 13, 2012):

One should be careful interpreting Justice Kennedy’s words (though I guess it does lie at the heart of my liberty!), but I thought he was saying that since beliefs must spring solely from our own selves, any notion of personhood formed under the compulsion of the state could not be genuinely our own. Justice Kennedy seems so sweetly naive if he has no awareness of the fact that the way in which we think about everything is constantly being shaped, nudged and coerced by political, cultural and academic activists—and increasingly mandated and incentivized by the state itself. (What could be more blatant than appointing Cass Sunstein, Mr. Nudge himself, to a policy-making position in the administration?!)

LA replies:

I get it. Your answer works for me.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 17, 2011 03:49 PM | Send

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