On the concept of Gnosticism in the 21st Century
Following sporadically insightful deployment over the past several years, recent clumsy attempts to polemically deploy the term Gnosticism has now pushed the term into the chasm of parody. As long as the term remained rarified, it held rhetorical value combining mystique and complexity. But with increased saturation, these elements became liabilities. Gnosticism transformed from a signifier suggesting rare occult expertise into a signifier of empty rhetoric, if not deliberate obscurantism.
The reduction of powerfully stigmatizing labels to worthlessness through hyperinflation is a theme of the age. Nonetheless the fact that a concept is being mishandled doesn’t mean that it must be discarded. Concepts illuminate also in their abuse. The issue relates to the question that Gnosticism is intended to answer and the genuine difficulty in articulating it.
The immediately theoretical reference point for recent contemporary invocations of gnosticism is émigré thinker Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics. Delivered initially a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951, the texts were published in hardback the following year, and achieved sufficient renown to earn a long review essay in Time magazine. Voegelin’s ideas were praised in the context of the new anti-totalitarianism, which had superseded the ideological anti-fascism of the Second World War as the totalitarian, anti-fascist USSR emerged as the West’s chief political rival.
In 1951 Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism sketched the development of twentieth century totalitarianism through the expansion of modern bureaucracy, European imperialism and antisemitism. A year later The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy by J. L. Talmon analyzed totalitarianism as a form of political messianism which he traced to Rousseau. Voegelin’s contribution was to diagnose totalitarianism as a spiritual malady or pneumapathology, relating to an inability to accept the division between material and transcendental realities.
Voegelin’s diagnosed this condition in the positivism of modern political thought. In rationalizing and objectifying human existence, modern thought has effectively mutilated human reality. Human consciousness is eliminated, or degraded to an epiphenomenon of positive laws in the form of behaviorism, Marxism, or National Socialist political zoology. Man loses touch with his soul. Understanding and the faculty of judgement fall away, and humans beings change into machines, controlled by stimulus/response.
The drama of Voegelin’s approach and the source of his commercial appeal consisted in connecting this problem to a grand recit of gnosticism originating in thirteenth century monk Joachim of Fiore’s heretical Trinitarian reading of history. Voegelin identified Joachim as “creating the aggregate of symbols which governs the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day.” Analogous Trinitarian structures re-emerge in the nineteenth century through Fichte and Hegel, and in Auguste Comte’s vision of progressive development from primitive magic, through religion, to science. Finally millenarian gnostic political movements take center stage as Bolshevism and National Socialism. But Liberalism is also incipiently gnostic insofar as it, too, makes historical salvational claims.
Every modern ideology is gnostic, and ideology is the chief intellectual and ethical enemy. “I would say that after the experience of Hitler and Stalin,” Voegelin remarked in 1980, “anybody who today is still an ideologist makes himself a silent accomplice in every atrocity committed in Auschwitz or in the Gulag Archipelago. Nobody has any business being an ideologist today after we know what it means.”
Via the concept of gnosticism Voegelin classified all his spiritual enemies on one side of the argument and dissolved the illusion of distinctions between them. Opposing modern gnostic ideology was classical thought and authentic religion, and Voegelin concludes his book by calling a spiritual revival. Yet his own rhetoric ultimately forms an obstacle. Voegelin deploys gnosticism as a polemical symbol under spiritual conditions in which, as he himself puts it, symbols have become opaque. It is possible to imagine a gnostic political movement promoting an anti-gnostic ideology, as with contemporary fascist anti-fascism.
The relationship between positivism and gnosticism also remains ambiguous. On the one hand Voegelin appears to argue that positivism, which does advance clear meta-epistemological claims, is itself a particular doctrine, or manifestation of gnosticism. At the same time, he suggests that gnosticism emerges like a paranoid delusion, in response to the positivist refusal to recognize spiritual truth.
The origin of the post-positivist spiritual wasteland, which in Voegelin’s account opens the door to gnosticism by engendering the “dedivinization of the world,” predates the scientific revolution. It is not Francis Bacon but Judaeo-Christian monotheism which begins the process of exiting the animist cosmos by affirming the absolute transcendence of God.
Hannah Arendt’s own judgement on Voegelin was that his thesis was interesting, but wrong. Voegelin himself seems to have taken the same view: his later work not only abandons the concept of Gnosticism, but jettisons the theoretical architecture it rested on.
In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin explicitly states that his theory of modern gnosticism has no clear connection to ancient gnostic ideas. In fact, the history of gnosticism, which dates from the earliest formulation of monotheistic ideas in Persia and Egypt and encompasses the whole range of exchanges between Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian and Persian spirituality following the conquests of Alexander the Great, through the zenith of Islam to the currents of Western esotericism, is too complex and subtle to be reduced to a weapon of modern ideological criticism.
The key witness here is Hans Jonas, one of a number of brilliant Jewish students of Heidegger forced into exile from Germany in 1933 before returning as a soldier in the British army. Jonas’ 1934 book Gnosis und spätantiker Geist was translated into English as The Gnostic Religion in 1958, in a new edition in which his Heideggerean terminology was mostly excised but the Heideggerean drift of his interpretation remained.
The spiritual value of the book considerably exceeds Voegelin’s essay. “Out of the mist of the beginning of our era,” Jonas begins,“there looms a pageant of mythical figures whose vast, superhuman contours might people the walls and ceiling of another Sistine Chapel.” Whereas Voegelin sees the lodestar of modern gnosticism in a Christian heresy, Jonas identifies ancient gnosticism a metaphysical stratum closely linked to the basic forms of Western thought.
Jonas analysed the psychological origins of gnosticism in the political experience of imperial power and the destruction of sovereignty it effected. Alexander’s hegemony transformed previously independent Eastern kingdoms into Western colonies. Gnosticism emerges as a spiritualization of this humiliating political reality. This theme returns from a different angle in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Black Iron Prison’ as the perennial model of repressive imperial power.
Gnosticism emerges as a recurrent spiritual politics channeling anti-imperial forms of resistance. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” a senior advisor to George W. Bush claimed in 2004. For the gnostics, this position is relativized and subordinated to the superior power of a higher reality.
In the teeth of Leviathan, the gnostic is the one who knows the truth: that, for instance, the “science” that governments claim they are following is one of lies, or the historical memory that imperial forces are generating is a complete fabrication. The Gnostic also recognizes the difficulty in expressing the truth, because surrounded by enemy forces. The extreme political and spirituality subtlety of the gnostic thematic emerges from here. The pleroma of historical variations of gnosticism, descending from Sohrwardi’s luminous angelology down to eldritch white supremacisms recapitulates gnostic cosmology as spiritual thought.
Gnosticism can be more or less subtle, more or less violent or mystical, counseling either serene meditation, or revolutionary terror. Jonas was alert in particular to the extent to which Heidegger’s own terminology in Being and Time reiterates key gnostic terms. Heidegger’s concept of “thrownness” especially echoes gnostic visions while his argument that the pre-Socratic “unconcealedness” of Being has been buried underneath a Roman bastion likewise looks back to Alexandria, and anticipates Dick’s prison.
Heidegger, personally, in fact incarnates the whole problematic, ascending and descending the noetic ladder from the most refined metaphysics to the crudest zoology. This same instability haunts critical race theory: a theory repeatedly claimed as directed against conceptual whiteness, but which functions in practice as a warrant for violence against white individuals. There is an important lesson to learn here about the political structure of concepts: inevitability, it is the crudest version which triumphs.
The essence of gnosis is an expression of spiritual consciousness, developing from an anxiety to systematize the real and unreal. Ultimately it is not simply a question of a binary distinction, but the relative qualities of different existential dimensions, which either conform to a hierarchical order, as in the Kabbalah or the Chakras, or else conform to no order, and the world is entirely mindless, a tohu bohu of chaos.
What is required are basic metaphysical principles which returns the world to its structure. Everything depends on what these principles are: their universality, their subtlety, their beauty. This recognition forecloses on polemical anti-Gnosticism. The highest zone of reality cannot be a Gnostic and Anti-Gnostic division because Gnosticism cannot itself constitute an elementary cosmological power. This same point applies equally to all ideological dualisms. The highest reality cannot be a war between two ideological doctrines, because doctrines are subordinate derivations. Unfolding the hierarchy of metaphysical principles means grasping the true position of knowledge itself: hence Paul in Corinthians subordinates knowledge to love.
Recent theoretical articulations of the concept of Gnosticism have emerged as attempts to conceptualize the crypto-religious, ideological-psychological substrate of contemporary political movements. The significant point here is that the enemy is not merely political or ideological, but spiritual. We face spiritual problems, demanding spiritual answers, which also means something more than a purely theoretical vision.
Today the Black Iron Prison is a billion individual prisons. Gnosticism defines the reality of the vast virtual world which is now a force on the earth as an engine of repressive derangement. The theme predates the birth of computing, and the critique of technology: in Plato the power is the power of myth and opinion, and ultimately the reign of the sensible, in contrast to the intelligible. But modern technology has created new layers of epistemological hazard, and materialized them.
Already in the 1950s, Leo Strauss spoke of the new problem of a cave beneath the cave. Today the movie The Matrix is the global world metaphor. The plot of the film is explicitly gnostic: the film tells the story of anonymous office drone, Thomas Anderson (aka “Neo”), named after the Gospel of Thomas coming to learn that humanity is imprisoned by evil machines. But his own escape is ambiguous. The real world in the film is accessed by swallowing a pill which produces a messianic delusion. The protagonist is The One, taking part in a rebellious superhero insurgency. This hyperinflation of ego to the point of psychosis is now the state of millions of men and women across the world.
Did Thomas Anderson escape at all? The question points to a deadlock which is also our own, behind a maze of mirrored screens. Jonas ends his book by writing of a message “freed from the polemical reference to a deposed Demiurge.” This message “rings across the centuries.” Can you hear it?