Remarks on Eric Voeglin’s Notion of Gnosticism: Yugoslavia as an example of Gnostic Neverland
In this podcast we comment upon some remarkable passages from Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics explaining his understanding of what he calls Gnostic “dreamworld”, carried over from the Ancient world to modernity. In the first half, after providing some preliminary explanations of Voegelin’s terminology, we discuss the theoretical, or rather anti-theoretical, assumption that is a calling card of a Gnostic: a prohibition of questions; we talk about this strange attempt to constrain the intellect while simultaneously advocating for unbridled progress, especially in the paradigmatic example of Karl Marx and communist movement. Also, we point out the genuine anti-theist character of Gnostic intellectuals and the way how modern philosophy for the most part assimilated it. In the second part we talk about the very instructive, yet not so very well known, example of the one specific Gnostic neverland: Yugoslavia. We provide the main features of Yugoslav ideology, the mentality of its adherents, both past and present, and put the phenomenon in the context of our day and age. In conclusion we discuss the hypothesis of the prevalence of Gnostic ideologies in the global politics of today.
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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.
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”:
Voegelin on Nietzsche:
The quotes are from “Science, Politics and Gnosticism”
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.