By Bradley J. Voegelin believed that the ancient heresy of Gnosticism pervaded the modern world, perverting our understanding not only of time and history, but also the very nature of the human person. The Gnostic, he believed, hates this world, seeing it as a trap, a means by which our soul becomes imprisoned and lost in the desires and limitations of flesh. As such, Gnosticism is inherently dualistic and anti-Incarnational.
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Schram Eric Voegelin was one of the greatest political philosophers of the twentieth century. He was a philosopher of history and a philosopher of religion. His chief contribution was the identification of what he called gnosticism as the fundamental spiritual disorder, or, as we should say in the world of doctrinal Christianity, the fundamental sin, of the modern age. His concept of gnosticism is crucial to an understanding of current affairs in the Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as the crisis of civilization in which we find ourselves.
Voegelin is frequently mentioned together with Leo Strauss , another great twentieth-century political philosopher. Both emigrated to America from Europe in to escape National Socialism. Both criticized political science as it for the most part is practiced in American universities. Both had a sizeable influence on American conservatism, although neither considered himself a conservative. Both praised Plato and Aristotle and disdained most of modern political thought.
Of the two philosophers, Strauss had more short-term influence for several reasons. In a long and distinguished career at the University of Chicago, Strauss turned out many students who rose to high positions in American academic life, while Voegelin had little if any influence in the major Ph. Voegelin taught himself Greek and Hebrew so as to be able to read Greek philosophy and the Bible in the original texts.
If there is a single theme underlying all his great works, it is that the quality of life in a society is determined by the degree of order in the souls of the politically and socially predominant persons in it.
This insight originated with Plato, but Voegelin built on it. With Plato he believed that the soul, or psyche, which consists of rational, spirited, and appetitive elements, is ordered by attunement to transcendent reality.
The alternative to a well-ordered soul is spiritual disorder. Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany, but moved with his family to Vienna as a boy. He attended the University of Vienna, where he subsequently became a professor. While still a student, he spent the years to in America on a Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship, and this experience resulted in the German publication of his first book, entitled On the Form of the American Mind.
Four books followed in the s, all in German—two on European racial theory, one on the Austrian state, and one on The Political Religions, an early attempt to deal with totalitarian ideologies as substitutes for religion. After teaching at several American colleges, he accepted a position at Louisiana State University in He remained there until , when he returned to Europe to take up a professorship at the University of Munich.
During the s he worked on a history of political ideas; though the work was never published as originally planned, parts of it appeared in article form and as From Enlightenment to Revolution In it one can see developing the critique of modern political thought which Voegelin made in systematic form in his single most important book, The New Science of Politics Other works include Anamnesis, a collection of articles and essays published in German and in English translation ; Science, Politics and Gnosticism , an elaboration on his critique of modernity; and his five-volume magnum opus, Order and History, a philosophy of history consisting of the following parts: Israel and Revelation , The World of the Polis , Plato and Aristotle , The Ecumenic Age , and In Search of Order The place to begin is Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse.
The 1,year reign of Christ in the end time is referred to as the millennium. Though the expectation of a literal millennium is a powerful force in some fundamentalist denominations, it is not part of the orthodox eschatology of the Catholic Church.
Augustine interpreted the millennium metaphorically, saying that it consists of the reign of Christ in His Church in the present era and that it will be followed, rather than being preceded, by the Second Coming. Then will occur the resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the living and the dead, and the receipt by the righteous and the unrighteous of their just rewards in heaven and hell, respectively.
These conditions are the conditions of heaven alone. This point brings us back to Voegelin. Let us be a bit more precise, however. In both The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin conceived of gnosticism as the belief, which takes many forms, that it is possible to eliminate evil from the world and to establish a state of earthly bliss by, in effect, re-creating man. Gnosticism in this sense is a modern phenomenon but it shares with the ancient cult of gnosticism, after which Voegelin named it, the belief that it has knowledge Greek, gnosis of the means whereby men can be saved from evil.
For the ancient gnostic the knowledge took the form of an esoteric religious faith; for the modem gnostic it takes the form of one or another formula for establishing a state of moral perfection on earth. Voegelin argued that gnosticism appeals to those who are anxious because they are uncertain about the impending course of history. It predicts the future and tells them what they can do to help bring about those predictions. Voegelin thus considered gnosticism to be sinful, although he avoided this term along with other language of doctrinal Christianity.
And is God the author of evil? The answers are to be found in the Judeo-Christian account of Creation and Fall, which was not available to Voegelin because of his ban on religious doctrine. But even if we accept the biblical account of Creation and the Fall, we are still faced with the question of why gnosticism is evil, for that which it seeks to eliminate is, on this account, neither good nor created by God.
Why, then, is the attempt to get rid of it evil? The answer is that, because of original sin another doctrine which Voegelin was reluctant to invoke , human nature is far from perfect. The only way for man to exist in the untarnished image of God would be for God to recreate man. When gnostics seek, in effect, to recreate man by making him perfect, they thus seek to displace God.
They seek to perform a function which only God could perform and in so doing rebel against Him. They commit the sin of Prometheus, the sin of pride. There is a passage in the preface to Israel and Revelation which is of some help in clarifying the situation. Democracy as Gnosticism? Voegelin saw gnosticism all over the modern age. This is not to say that Voegelin was antidemocratic. He refused, however, to make or endorse arguments for democracy for fear of lapsing into gnosticism. It is amusing to note that, although Voegelin believed the origins of virtually the whole of modern civilization to have lain in sinful rebellion, he had no problem with making use of the fruits of this civilization.
He reportedly smoked a cigar and played the pinball machine every evening at the Baton Rouge bus depot when he went there to pick up a copy of the New York Times; he was among the first members of the Louisiana State faculty to have air-conditioning; and he lived in an ultramodern house in California.
Even before the fourth volume of Order and History, The Ecumenic Age, came out in , it was clear that Voegelin was not a Christian in anything like the usual sense of the term. The volume was devoted, not to the present age of ecumenism in the relations between churches, but to the age of the ecumenical, or multicivilizational, empires of antiquity.
The problem with doctrine, he thought, is that it fails to convey adequately the religious experience which engendered it and thus gives rise to doubt and unbelief. He is best described, not as a doctrinaire Christian, but as a Platonist who identified with such Christian mystics as Jean Bodin one of the few modern political thinkers whom he admired , and who, on his own account, tried to follow the Christian ethic in his personal relations. Although some gnosticism is extreme and other gnosticism is mild, he considered all gnostic ideologists to be brothers under the skin.
Nobody has any business being an ideologist today after we know what it means. The danger of its rising again in our midst is real as long as gnosticism is in the air. Under the circumstances, there is little room for complacency about the extent to which gnosticism infuses our civilization. The extent is enormous. Some of these ideologies emphasize movement toward a goal rather than the nature of the goal pursued, progressivism being the best example, but they are still gnostic.
There has, moreover, been a development in the last 25 years about which Voegelin remained silent even though it began already during his lifetime, namely, the emergence of gnosticism on a grand scale in the Christian Churches in the form of liberation theology and much of the peace-and-justice and liturgical-reform movements. Fortunately, as an alternative to new gnostic upheavals, we see some signs of a renaissance of traditional, non-gnostic religion among the agents of cultural formation in our society—teachers, people in the mass media, governmental officials, and clergymen.
In the instance of the Christian churches, traditional, non-gnostic religion is the religion of the ecumenical creeds, replete with orthodox eschatology. Voegelin would be pleased with this. Of course, there ought to be abundant room for other faiths as well, and everything recent Christian political theory has to teach about the value of religious toleration and respect for natural rights should be made part of the culture.
The work of Jacques Maritain in particular proves that one can espouse toleration, natural rights, and democracy without being a gnostic, and with common sense and good will, men of all religious persuasions or of none should be able to work together to defeat the new gnosticism.
At the time this article was published, Glenn N. Schram lived in Hammond, Indiana, where he studied and wrote political philosophy. Subscribe to Crisis.
Science, Politics, and Gnosticism
Biography[ edit ] Although he was born in Cologne on January 3, , his parents moved to Vienna in , and Eric Voegelin eventually studied at the University of Vienna. The advisers on his dissertation were Hans Kelsen and Othmar Spann. After his habilitation there in he taught political theory and sociology. Narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo, and after a brief stay in Switzerland, he arrived in the United States. He was a member of the Philadelphia Society.
Eric Voegelin’s Gnosticism
Schram Eric Voegelin was one of the greatest political philosophers of the twentieth century. He was a philosopher of history and a philosopher of religion. His chief contribution was the identification of what he called gnosticism as the fundamental spiritual disorder, or, as we should say in the world of doctrinal Christianity, the fundamental sin, of the modern age. His concept of gnosticism is crucial to an understanding of current affairs in the Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as the crisis of civilization in which we find ourselves. Voegelin is frequently mentioned together with Leo Strauss , another great twentieth-century political philosopher. Both emigrated to America from Europe in to escape National Socialism. Both criticized political science as it for the most part is practiced in American universities.
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