Remarks on Eric Voeglin’s Notion of Gnosticism: Yugoslavia as an example of Gnostic Neverland

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3 Responses

  1. Han Fei says:

    Intriguing as always, but I feel nonetheless compelled to offer some critical remarks. First of all there is this statement describing Gnosticism as a system, or method of interpretation. Do you mean a hermeneutics? I would strongly contend that this is not appropriate use of the term here. As far as my understanding goes, the term “gnosticism” is used as a very broad term to certain philosophical and esoteric traditions emerging from the spiritual vicissitude of late Antiquity.

    This is a troubling aspect because I don’t think that a system of meanings that Voegelin described and ideology are necessarily the same thing. An ideology is much more focused and concrete. It latches upon certain axioms accepted by the rational mind and then expands upon them to give credence to its propositions, such that they appear to be plausible. For example in the case of Marxism, no sane person can disagree that parasitism, irrationality and exploitation is inherent to the established economic order. To accept this doesn’t make one a Marxist however, and ideas we would deem socialist date far back before that – in fact the writings of the Church Fathers and even the Old Testament itself is chock full of the condemnation of the mercantile principle of social activity. However the ideological conclusions to which Marxist thought leads this chain of reasoning are very very much different. I won’t go into describing what they are, since such information is encyclopedic. I would only mention that, having suspended disbelief over the barrage of rational sounding statements this doctrine puts forth, people do not look with sufficient critical clarity at the conclusions which it claims to derive from them and thus become hoodwinked into accepting this kind of thinking as a lens through which to look at the world.

    This doesn’t seem to be the same thing as a hermeneutics or a method of interpretation to my understanding, largely because it is inevitable for us not to have one. Nobody looks at the world in a purely unconditional way. At the very least our local environs and hereditary circumstances shape our way of thinking about the passage of events. One can on the other hand either embrace Marxist thinking, or to see through its vestments. Also, not all ideology can be judged on an equal moral level. Thus the critique described here is at some moments rather vague sounding and can equally apply to legitimate common sentiments as if they were sinister signs of a spiritual sickness.

    The only common grounds that Big Pozz has with Gnosticism, however superficially this can be defined, is this hatred towards, first of all, established reality and second of all, and I must stress this as a matter of the highest importance, human beings. The latter was especially a defining feature of the tyrannical regimes of the previous century. And of course speaking in very general terms, the current predominating trend towards post-humanism extends this hatred towards baseline, unadulterated humanity in general that has not yet set forth to cast off its self limiting cloak of ontological identity.

    • Malić says:

      Certainly, the term ‘gnostic’ originally had quite a broad meaning – Clement of Alexandria, to name but one example, talks about Christian “gnostikos”, meaning “the one in the know”, but not necessarily in some esoteric way, rather as someone who is really acquainted with what he is talking about. On the other hand, any teaching about transcendence or salvation that puts stress on knowledge is sometimes termed as “gnostic”. If one would allow for this, then Voegelin himself could be called gnostic because, as far as I can read the man’s character from his writing, he was a philosopher’s philosopher – one religiously devoted to discovering the truth along the lines of platonic periagoge, yet not as religiously musical when it comes to organized religion.

      However, if we turn to historical Gnostics of Helenism and late Antiquity, this is something else. I think Voegelin is quite correct in drawing the line between them and modern, let’s call them: infraphysicians, with the caveat that ancient Gnostics still had an understanding of transcendence as beyond in the vertical sense. He himself makes this remark at the outset. Moderns, however, apply “immanentizing of the eschaton” or “shutting off the intellect from the divine ground of existence” by the practice Voegelin calls Fragenverbot or “prohibition of questioning” by which he means an artificial interruption of the natural process by which thinking man comes to realize that he has an origin and that this origin transcends him.

      Now, modern Gnostics are not primarily ideologues or creators of ideologies. Those are rather a natural fruit, or refuse, of their activity. They are people who suffer from the spiritual disturbance which makes them incapable of accepting the existence as it is on the metaphysical, not merely social or historical, level. In a word: they see being in general as a mistake and if this metaphysical contempt is hidden behind hatred towards the burgoise, capitalism or some unhappy race to be exterminated it matters little for their crucial impulse. The most interesting passages in Voegelin are his close reading analysis of the works of some of those thinkers, as a rule their early works, where, as he tries to show, they let their mask slip a tad.

      I will quote two long passages as an illustration, because I think it’s best to let Voegelin explain this. The third, and the most interesting one, I won’t put here, because it is about Heidegger, and that will go in the more elaborate answer to your questions about him:

      Voegelin on Marx’s “intellectual swindle”:

      The prohibition of questions as it appears in some of the early writings of Karl Marx—the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” of 1844—can serve as the point of departure.
      Marx is a speculative gnostic. He construes the order of being as a process of nature complete in itself. Nature is in a state of becoming, and in the course of its development it has brought forth man: “Man is directly a being of nature.”9 Now, in the development of nature a special role has devolved upon man. This being, which is itself nature, also stands over against nature and assists it in its development by human labor—which in its highest form is technology and industry based on the natural sciences: “Nature as it develops in human history . . . as it develops through industry . . . is true anthropological nature.”10 In the process of creating nature, however, man at the same time also creates himself to the fullness of his being; therefore, “all of so-called world history is nothing but the production of man by human labor.”11 The purpose of this speculation is to shut off the process of being from transcendent being and have man create himself. This is accomplished by playing with equivocations in which “nature” is now all-inclusive being, now nature as opposed to man, and now the nature of man in the sense of essentia. This equivocal wordplay reaches its climax in a sentence that can easily be overlooked: “A being that does not have its nature outside of itself is not a natural being; it does not participate in the being of nature.”12

      In connection with this speculation Marx himself now brings up the question of what objection the “particular individual” would probably have to the idea of the spontaneous generation (“generatio aequivoca”) of nature and man: “The being-of-itself (Durchsichselbstsein) of nature and man is inconceivable to him, because it contradicts all the tangible aspects of practical life.” The individual man will, going back from generation to generation in search of his origin, raise the question of the creation of the first man. He will introduce the argument of infinite regress, which in Ionian philosophy led to the problem of the arche (origin). To such questions, prompted by the “tangible” experience that man does not exist of himself, Marx chooses to reply that they are “a product of abstraction.” “When you inquire about the creation of nature and man, you abstract from nature and man.” Nature and man are real only as Marx construes them in his speculation. Should his questioner pose the possibility of their non-existence, then Marx could not prove that they exist.13

      In reality, his construct would collapse with this question. And how does Marx get out of the predicament? He instructs his questioner, “Give up your abstraction and you will give up your question along with it.” If the questioner were consistent, says Marx, he would have to think of himself as not existing—even while, in the very act of questioning, he is. Hence, again the instruction: “Do not think, do not question me.”14 The “individual man,” however, is not obliged to be taken in by Marx’s syllogism and think of himself as not existing because he is aware of the fact that he does not exist of himself. Indeed, Marx concedes this very point—without, however, choosing to go into it. Instead, he breaks off the debate by declaring that “for socialist man”—that is, for the man who has accepted Marx’s construct of the process of being and history—such a question “becomes a practical impossibility.” The questions of the “individual man” are cut off by the ukase of the speculator who will not permit his construct to be disturbed. When “socialist man” speaks, man has to be silent.


      And now for the Marxian suppression of questions. It represents, as we shall see, a very complicated psychological phenomenon, and we must isolate each of its components in turn. First, the most “tangible”: here is a thinker who knows that his construct will collapse as soon as the basic philosophical question is asked. Does this knowledge induce him to abandon his untenable construct? Not in the least: it merely induces him to prohibit such questions. But his prohibition now induces us to ask, Was Marx an intellectual swindler? Such a question will perhaps give rise to objections. Can one seriously entertain the idea that the lifework of a thinker of considerable rank is based on an intellectual swindle? Could it have attracted a mass following and become a political world power if it rested on a swindle? But we today are inured to such scruples: we have seen too many improbable and incredible things that were nonetheless real. Therefore, we hesitate neither to ask the question that the evidence presses upon us, nor to answer, Yes, Marx was an intellectual swindler. This is certainly not the last word on Marx. We have already referred to the complexity of the psychological phenomenon behind the passages quoted. But it must unrelentingly be the first word if we do not want to obstruct our understanding of the prohibition of questions.
      When we establish that Marx was an intellectual swindler, the further question of why immediately arises. What can prompt a man to commit such a swindle? Is there not something pathological about this act? For an answer to this question let us turn to Nietzsche, who was also a speculative gnostic, but a more sensitive psychologist than Marx.”

      Voegelin on Nietzsche:

      Nietzsche introduces the will to power, the will to dominion, the libido dominandi, as the passion that accounts for the will to intellectual deception. Let us examine the via dolorosa along which this passion drives the gnostic thinker from one station to the next.
      In Jenseits von Gut und Böse, Aphorism 230, Nietzsche speaks of a “fundamental will of the spirit” which wants to feel itself master. The spirit’s will to mastery is served in the first place by “a suddenly erupting resolve for ignorance, for arbitrary occlusion . . . a kind of defensive stand against much that is knowable.” Moreover, the spirit wills to let itself be deceived on occasion, “perhaps with a mischievous suspicion that things are not thus and so, but rather only allowed to pass as such . . . a satisfaction in the arbitrariness of all these manifestations of power.” Finally, there belongs here “that not unscrupulous readiness of the spirit to deceive other spirits and to dissemble before them,” the enjoyment of “cunning and a variety of masks.”18
      The libido dominandi, however, has a violence and cruelty that go beyond the delight in masquerade and in the deception of others. It turns on the thinker himself and unmasks his thought as a cunning will to power. “A kind of cruelty of the intellectual conscience,” “an extravagant honesty,” clears up the deception; however—and this is the decisive point—not in order to advance to the truth beyond the deception, but only to set up a new one in place of the old. The game of masks continues; and those who allow themselves to be deceived remain deceived. In this “cruelty of the intellectual conscience” can be seen the movement of the spirit that in Nietzsche’s gnosis corresponds functionally to the Platonic periagoge, the turning-around and opening of the soul. But in the gnostic movement man remains shut off from transcendent being. The will to power strikes against the wall of being, which has become a prison. It forces the spirit into the rhythm of deception and self-laceration.19
      The compulsion to deceive must now be examined further. Does the spirit really strike against the wall of being? Or does it not perhaps will to stop there? The remoter depths of the will to power are revealed through the following aphorism: “To rule, and to be no longer a servant of a god: this means was left behind to ennoble man.” To rule means to be God; in order to be God gnostic man takes upon himself the torments of deception and self-laceration. 20
      But the spirit’s action is not yet at an end. The question of whether the thinker really wants to be God takes us still further; perhaps the affirmation of this desire is just another deception. In the “Night Song” in Zarathustra this question is answered in a revealing confession:
      It is night: only now awaken all the songs of the lovers…. A craving for love is in me. . . . [But] light am I: oh, that I were night! . . . This is my loneliness, that I am begirt with light… . I do not know the happiness of those who receive…. This is my poverty, that my hand never rests from giving…. You only, you dark ones, you of the night, extract your warmth from what shines…. Ice is around me; my hand is burnt up with iciness. . . . It is night: alas, that I must be light.

      In this confession the voice of a spiritually sensitive man seems to be speaking, who is suffering in the consciousness of his demonic occlusion. Mystic night is denied him. He is imprisoned in the icy light of his existence. And from this prison rises the protestation—half lament, half prayer, and still not free of the defiance of the rebel—“And my soul, too, is the song of a lover.”21
      No one will hear this lament of a man to whom humility before God was not given without being moved. Beyond the psychology of the will to power, we are confronted with the inscrutable fact that grace is granted or denied.
      Yet emotion should not prevent our seeing the dubiousness of this confession. We introduced it by asking whether the gnostic thinker really wants to be God, or whether the affirmation of his will is not just another deception. The “Night Song” appears to admit the deception: it is not that he wants to be God; he has to be God—for inscrutable reasons. But this latter conclusion, which nullifies the former one, immediately prompts us to ask if we have to accept it. Must we now consider the game of deceptions ended? I do not think so. Let us continue with the game and ask if the “Night Song” is not yet another mask. Bearing in mind that Nietzsche confesses that he knows his occlusion and suffers in it, let us turn his confession against him and ask, Does a man really have to make a virtue out of the misery of his condition, which he perceives to be the graceless disorder of the soul, and set it up as a superhuman ideal? Does his deficiency
      entitle him to perform Dionysian dances with masks? Let us, with the brutality that the times compel if we are not to fall victim to them, ask if he is not rather obliged to be silent. And if his lament were more than a mask, if it were genuine, if he suffered from his condition, would he not then be speechless? But Nietzsche is not in the least speechless; and his eloquence is convincing proof that the lament is only an act of sympathetic understanding, that it has not been allowed to touch the core of his existence in rebellion against God, and therefore that it is not genuine, but a mask. Just as Marx will not permit his game of equivocations to be disturbed, so Nietzsche refuses to break off his game of masks.
      The phenomenon of the prohibition of questions is becoming clearer in its outlines. The gnostic thinker really does commit an intellectual swindle, and he knows it. One can distinguish three stages in the action of his spirit. On the surface lies the deception itself. It could be self-deception; and very often it is, when the speculation of a creative thinker has culturally degenerated and become the dogma of a mass movement. But when the phenomenon is apprehended at its point of origin, as in Marx or Nietzsche, deeper than the deception itself will be found the awareness of it. The thinker does not lose control of himself: the libido dominandi turns on its own work and wishes to master the deception as well. This gnostic turning back on itself corresponds spiritually, as we have said, to the philosophic conversion, the periagoge in the Platonic sense. However, the gnostic movement of the spirit does not lead to the erotic opening of the soul, but rather to the deepest reach of persistence in the deception, where revolt against God is revealed to be its motive and purpose.
      With the three stages in the spirit’s action it is now possible also to differentiate more precisely the corresponding levels of deception:
      1) For the surface act it will be convenient to retain the term Nietzsche used, “deception.” But in content this action does not necessarily differ from a wrong judgment arising from another motive than the gnostic. It could also be an “error.” It becomes a deception only because of the psychological context.
      2) In the second stage the thinker becomes aware of the untruth of his assertion or speculation, but persists in it in spite of this knowledge. Only because of his awareness of the untruth does the action become a deception. And because of the persistence in the communication of what are recognized to be false arguments, it also becomes an “intellectual swindle.”
      3) In the third stage the revolt against God is revealed and recognized to be the motive of the swindle. With the continuation of the intellectual swindle in full knowledge of the motive of revolt the deception further becomes “demonic mendacity.””

      The quotes are from “Science, Politics and Gnosticism”

  2. Han Fei says:

    The key feature of the contemporary society that I find myself stranded in, is that absolutely monstrous things are being advanced, and even morally lauded as a matter of societal progress. For example the other day I came across an article in the mainstream press, signifying this very sort of anti-thinking prevalent in my current society, at least on the official level. This article how the legal notion of equality before the law was not enough – what is needed is the plenary imposition of equity (and it’s always plenary with these people whenever they invoke the word “we”) or the equality of outcomes for all persons involved in social activities.

    How can you argue against this sort of lunacy? The way this word is being thrown around these days, in a typically flippant pseudo-intellectual manner, is absolutely bestial in itself – equity is an financial term referring to one’s holding in a firm’s asset. Hence it follows that human beings are relegated to the category of “equity”, economic assets held in trust by…someone. But equality of outcomes can only exist for items that are fundamentally non-differentiable from one another, in other words a standardized product. In a social context , such an equality can only exist in a slave plantation or factory farm where the individual life of persons are deemed worthless for the purposes of the facility’s outcome. Let’s be honest – using words like “property” or “cattle” would have been too obvious – so they settled on the nice sounding equity instead. Behind this humanist sounding claptrap you are seeing the grounds for a quite devious exploitation of humanity.

    The very language and context in which ideas proliferate have already been hijacked so as to yield conclusions favorable to the predominant ideological regime. Akin to 1984’s Newspeak, the corruption of language makes crimethought virtually inarticulate. This is why any sort of modern conservatism, or moderate reaction so to speak is doomed to fail – there is no earlier “system restore point” to which the current state of society can be rolled back. Anyone who is white, conservative, male and Christian or any combination of thereof obviously does not fall into this ideological substrate of equity, which like all neologisms of the liberals is nothing but a scientific sounding label attached to an object produced by their deluded consciousness. This kind of thing can only be viewed in light of as you rather aptly put it, spiritual sickness, a disease of unreason affecting otherwise healthy people.

    I first came across the notion of maximalist political ideologies having their roots in very ancient, for lack of a better word, “traditions” in Edward Feser’s blog. This is a very interesting subject that needs to be given very careful consideration. I still contend that their link with Gnosticism is spurious, (except perhaps very loosely on an elite level, given to how much credence one may give to the influence of organizations such as the OTO, and other pseudo religious cults deeply ingrained in the structure of the liberal establishment in the West) not because I want to defend it in any least way, but because I believe it obscures the otherwise justified points made with respect to their meta-historical foundations.

    Quite the contrary it appears to me that a revival of Gnostic elements can be found in the neo-reactionary movement by their own admission, particularly within a segment of the dissident right that seeks to appropriate the concept of Catholicity (i.e. the union of the white race) while at the same time rejecting the Christian Tradition. But this is a story for another day.

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