Voegelin and Gnosticism

There’s been some banter on a few sites — like here and here — about Nietzsche and Gnosticism. Since most of this interpretation of Nietzchean thought is distilled from the work of the relatively obscure “political philosopher” Eric Voegelin, his ideas bear further investigation. With this notion in mind I have decided to revisit a reading of Voegelin, conveniently lying in stasis in one of my arcane tomes (err…I mean “spiraled notebooks of doom”).

In Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (1968), Voegelin sets out to explore Gnosticism (i.e. the Gnostic tendencies) in the works of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Further, he seeks to understand Gnosticism’s general relationship with the political sphere.

Voegelin takes as given some very basic conceits, assumptions that make his entire use of the word “Gnostic” questionable. One of these being the supposed Gnostic quest for immanence to become transcendence — the desire to escape the material. I’m not a Gnostic scholar, mind you, but I know this generalization is deeply problematic. Less problematic is his assertion that the Gnostic “state”, if you will, is the condition of “flungness” in an alien world. (10) The conclusions derived from this point of reference are complex, however, and difficult to summarize.

It is this quality of imbalance combined with a certain cavalier approach that is so disconcerting in Voegelin. There’s limited logical harmony in his argument, and he’s been twisted up into Gordian knots by his attempts to make sense of Gnosticism. Some of his passages are inspiring (on, for example, “the labor of salvation”) but others are merely opaque. What on earth does “analysis is concerned with the therapy of order” mean? Please. I’m less scandalized by him calling Marx an “intellectual swindler” than I am by attempts to find the influence of Gnosticism in his work. When I think of classic texts like The Eighteenth of Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), “Gnostic” is hardly the first thing that comes to mind…

Voegelin goes on to talk of Hegel, philo-sophia and Gnosis, coming up with this brilliant quote: “Philosophy springs from the love of being: it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it. Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being the Gnostic constructs his system. The building of systems is a Gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one.” (42-3) I don’t know about you, but I think the buiding of systems is a fairly universal human form of reasoning. And as to Gnostic systems, I’m not aware there is one. But, as the saying goes, “if you build it, they will come.”

What really emerges is a picture of Gnosticism as applied political theory. Perhaps in this regard Voegelin is thinking of the Aristotelian sense of “politics”. And yet, underneath it all, what he really has in mind is a conservative Christian critique of certain aspects of political philosophy, which he wraps up in the (for him) heretical label of “Gnostic.” He speaks, for example, of the myth of the Golem and the murder of God (I guess this is where Nietzsche comes in…), issuing a warning that “in the process of self-idolization [brought about by a sense of mastery over nature] he (i.e. man) will become a demon willfully shutting himself off from God.” (60) Well, maybe, but there’s little in this that links to Gnosticism, properly understood. It is clear here that he is inspired by the totalistic qualities in Gnostic thought, seeing them as a root modernist mode comparable to fascism or totalitarianism. One can see here how the “occult roots of Nazism”, to borrow a phrase, haunt his historical conceptions. In allying Gnosticism with other totalistic systems of thought he has taken a short leap off the sheer cliff of speculation. If anything, I would argue, Gnosticism is fundamentally antithetical to hegemony in thought or action.

You can see Voegelin’s final departure from a clear definition of the idea beyond his own rhetoric when he starts talking about “Gnostic mass movements” and the growth of positivism. Again, I don’t know any Gnostic positivists, but maybe that’s just me. He comes to near histrionics when finally saying that “the will to power of the Gnostic who wants to rule the world has triumphed over…the humility of subordination to the constitution being.” (107)

All this to say that I’m less than convinced when Voegelin paints Nietzsche as a Gnostic. I think if Nietzsche was anything he was a vitalist, like his contemporary Henri Bergson in France. The two thinkers shared a lot of important commonalities. But that’s just a question of labels. As to the whole dualist/monist schism — it’s probably safe to say that these ontologies are not clearly resolvable, and that the burden of the “dynamic of dialectic” is an aspect of most creative thinkers in our era, Gnostic or not. That’s all that can be said about Voegelin in philsophical terms. The rest is just poor political science and mediocre history.


Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968).

7 Responses to “Voegelin and Gnosticism”

  1. madcap Says:

    Next topic….The Cause of Evil


  2. anon Says:

    Before that….what is evil?

  3. The Necromancer Says:

    I think I’ll leave it at that…

  4. Stiletto Says:

    I can’t believe I read through all of those links. And…I still have nothing to say.

    BTW, did you know that that crackpot sham of a psychic Sylvia Browne is into gnosticism? http://www.sylvia.org/home/gnosticchristians.cfm

    Turns me off to the idea.

  5. The Necromancer Says:

    Gnosticism is a highly malleable concept subject to myriad interpretations. Perhaps excessively so.

  6. Stiletto Says:

    Could the same be said of Christianity?

  7. The Necromancer Says:

    Your question suddenly made me think of Pascal’s wager…

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