Eric Voegelin on Gnostic Politics

The work of Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) is extensive and often challenging. Therefore a general acquaintance with his theories is sufficient for most readers, such as one finds in the second half of The New Science of Politics. (Michael Federici’s book Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order is also a helpful and readable secondary reference.) According to Voegelin, the modern political Gnostic assumes a “form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler.”

Some have criticized the use of the word “Gnostic” as a label for secular ideologies. Strictly speaking Gnosticism refers to beliefs held by ancient esoteric sects whose aims were otherworldly. Believing all material creation to be evil they seemed hardly focused on political ambitions. Yet Voegelin’s usage is not as inconsistent it might seem. At root, Gnosticism can be defined as a belief in “salvation through knowledge” by a select and superior group of people, as opposed to the classical religious belief that man is saved through obedience to God’s will and right moral conduct. In this case it is possible to see how “post-Christian” theories could posit gnosis in the form of the collective salvation of the race, nation or revolutionary party.

Even in the case of religious Gnosticism, man is not an angelic being. All his choices, no matter how lofty, have some impact on the physical realm. One sees this in the case of the fanatical Cathars (or Albigensians) of southern France who emerged as a major political and military force in the 13th century. The point is that ancient Gnosticism (often with latent utopian pretensions) gave rise to psychological expectations that were transformed into overtly militant political creeds in the secularized culture of post-Reformation Europe.

While Voegelin’s outlook undoubtedly diverges from a strictly Christian worldview, there are two advantages to be gained from his famed “metapolitical” treatment of history. First, it helps us to see continuity in human events. Outbreaks of political mania are not isolated phenomena, but reflect recurring tendencies rooted in (unchanging) human nature. Second, it frees us from philosophical clichés. The problem with contemporary definitions of ideology is that they are themselves superficial byproducts of ideological bias. Until recently it was typical to see totalitarianism defined solely in terms of the “far-right,” or lumped with conservatism, overlooking the obvious connections between fascism and Nazism with Marxism and the revolutionary faiths of the left.

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