Eric Voegelin on Gnosticism as the Source of Modernity

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Fryderyk Kwiatkowski:

"So, how should we understand Gnosticism according to Voegelin? In his view, it expresses a radical dissatisfaction with the organization of the world, which is considered evil and unjust, and aims to provide certainty and meaning to human’s life through the acquisition of Gnosis. In Voegelin’s interpretation, it is the inner knowledge of the self, its origins, and destiny. Unveiling the whole structure of reality, Gnosis not only reduces existential and spiritual insecurity but it also serves as an instrument of salvation.11 Contrastingly to Jonas, Voegelin argued that Gnosticism did not emerge as an independent movement but it arose within Christianity as one of its inner possibilities. Its key elements were historically transmitted through Medieval sects and Protestant groups, laying the theological foundations of modernity. According to Voegelin’s story, the expectations of the early Christian communities oscillated between the belief in the second coming, which would bring the kingdom of God, and the idea of the church understood as the apocalypse of Christ within temporal history.12 For some Christians, the persecutions and other terrible earthly experiences nourished their hopes in the realization of the heavenly realm within history. The idea of the millennial revolution ending with the governance of Christ on Earth, which was expressed in The Revelation of Saint John, transparently expressed such a vision of eschatology in The New Testament.13 Voegelin argued that its inclusion into the canon sparked fateful discussions on how to reconcile millenarian hopes with the idea of the church and its purpose.14 The orthodox church, eventually, followed the conception of Saint Augustine who in his City of God proclaimed that the New Jerusalem will come not until one thousand years shall pass and it will continue only in the realm beyond.

Voegelin posited that although early Gnostic thinkers were suppressed, their ideas were developed and transmitted through works of Dionysius Areopagita, Scotus Eriugena, and Joachim of Flora. Although in the primary Medieval sources, which Voegelin could use, one cannot find confirmation for the presence of ideas commonly linked with Gnosticism, it was the scholarly literature informed by heresiological discourse that led him to accept this assumption. In NSP, apart from recommending Adversus Haereses of Irenaeus of Lyon as the primary source of knowledge about ancient Gnosticism,15 Voegelin refers to Eugène de Faye and Simone Pétrement, but of special importance here are Henri-Charles Puech’s studies on Manichaeism and Hans Söderberg’s on Cathars. Both scholars claimed that there was a “continuity” of Gnostic ideas from antiquity into the Middle Ages.16 Being unable to give any historical proof to support this view, Voegelin resorts to the following evasive statement:

The economy of this lecture does not allow a description of the gnosis of antiquity or of the history of its transmission into the Western Middle Ages; enough to say that at the time gnosis was a living religious culture on which men could fall back.17

Therefore, his treatment of Gnosticism or, we should rather say, his creative use of the term, is based on the analysis of the High Middle Ages. Voegelin structures his narrative around Joachim of Flora (1135–1202), Christian theologian and mystic, founder of the monastic order of San Giovanni in Fiore.18 In his view, Joachim developed a progressive vision of history that provided the most important conceptual framework for the development of modern Gnosticism, vastly influencing the structure of its ideological manifestations up to the present day. From a historiographical perspective, Voegelin’s understanding of Joachim’s eschatology also diverged from what the original sources have to say, as he based his inquiry on secondary literature.19 Most of the editorial endeavors toward publishing Joachim’s main works have been initiated only after Voegelin died in 1985. Matthias Riedl notes that even now the situation is far from being satisfactory—not all of Joachim’s major works can be read in modern critical editions and none of them have been translated into English.20 Bearing this in mind, we can now discuss Voegelin’s reception of Joachim in greater detail.

The mystic conceived of history in three stages—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—and imagined that with each transition mankind would acquire greater spiritual awareness. Viewing himself as a prophet, Joachim proclaimed that within his lifetime a great leader would come and establish the perfect era on earth, making a shift from the age of the Son to that of the Spirit.21 In contrast to the Augustinian conception that entailed eschatological uncertainty and looked toward the fulfillment in the transcendent realm, Joachim’s vision pertained to the speculation on the meaning of history. This, according to Voegelin, was the reason for its success. Ascribing meaning to the temporal dimension, Joachim offered an illusory hope for achieving existential stability within history. Voegelin concludes that his conception exemplifies the first attempt to immanentize the Christian eschaton.22 What does this phrase mean? The term “eschaton,” meaning “last,” derives from the Greek eschaton (neut. eschatos). It was coined in 1935 by the Protestant theologian Charles Harold Dodd (1884–1973). He defined it as “the divinely ordained climax of history.”23 In Dodd’s interpretation of the New Testament, the kingdom of God is not located in the sphere of expectation but it is already present in experience, though not fully disclosed.24 Voegelin perceived the Christian eschaton in a more orthodox way. Building on Saint Augustine’s City of God, he located the state of perfection, i.e., the eschaton, and fulfillment of humankind beyond nature and history.25 Thus, for Voegelin, the “immanentization of the eschaton” describes human endeavors at drawing transcendence into the frames of history.26 In his view, this aim underlies Gnosticism and defines modernity. It should be interpreted as an attempt to overcome existential tension engendered by the Christian faith. Because God does not participate in man’s everyday life and there is no guarantee whether he even exists, Voegelin argues, many individuals who have been brought into the Christian orbit and do not possess spiritual strength to endure such uncertainty seek reassurance in the intramundane world.27 Gnostics aim to achieve this by attributing transcendent meaning to temporality and this is precisely what Joachim did in his speculation.28

Voegelin hastens to add that his construction was still connected to Christianity, as it was imbued with its traditional symbols, particularly the idea of Parousia. On the other hand, it provided the aggregate of new concepts which modern thinkers secularized to express their desire for establishing a perfect world within history: the idea of the Third Realm as the perfect age, the prophet envisioning the course of history, the coming of a great leader, and the community of spiritually autonomous individuals. Progressively depriving these symbols of their original meanings, Medieval heretics, Puritan sectarians, and especially modern philosophers such as Schelling, Hegel, Comte, or Marx avowedly turned against Christianity and located the sphere of ultimate meaning in man. Believing in the inevitable success of their projects of worldly salvation, Gnostics attempted to redeem the world from its immanent evils by means of Gnosis. Asserting that this experiential knowledge underlies the expression of various Gnostic symbols, Voegelin assumed that there was a historical continuity from ancient Gnosis through the Medieval speculation of Joachim of Flora, to modern ideologies—exemplified by positivism or psychoanalysis—and political mass movements, such as nationalism, fascism or communism.29

Voegelin synthesized his argument by providing a list of six characteristics that aimed to grasp the transhistorical nature of the Gnostic attitude:30

(1) Gnostics are dissatisfied with their situation.

(2) They believe that the imperfections of the world result from its poor organization.

(3) Gnostics assume that salvation from the evil of the world is possible.

(4) They claim that from the corrupt world a better one must evolve in a historical process.

(5) Gnostics believe that this change can be achieved without assistance by transcendent powers.

(6) Seeing themselves as prophets who have superior knowledge, Gnostics try to create a program to save the world from evil.31

The first two components are in line with Jonas’s early work on Gnosticism which was available to Voegelin. Gnostics pictured by Jonas in Gnosis und spätantiker Geist had an utterly pessimistic view on the cosmos and believed that the world was created by an evil, lower being called the Demiurge. They rejected the material world completely, including moral laws and social norms, which in their view represented only a means of strengthening the power of the tyrannical ruler who keeps mankind imprisoned.32 The third and fourth features of Voegelin’s characteristics significantly deviate from what Jonas said about Gnosticism. For Jonas, the Gnostic revolution aims not at achieving immanent goals, but at escaping the cosmos into the transcendent sphere:

Gnosis is anything but revolutionary. Since it does not have the world as its goal and is neither directed against a social order of governance (soziale Herrschaftsordnung) nor concerned with it, it could even be called “reactionary”, insofar as it tries—through its pronounced desistance from the world—to persuade humans to abstain from changing and improving their situation.33

Building on the radical reinterpretation of Jonas’s work, Voegelin envisaged the Gnostic revolution as the key feature of modern ideological and political movements which aim at improving the condition of human beings through the reorganization of the world within the historical process.34 Consequently, Voegelin’s understanding of the Gnostic attitude excluded most typical characteristics of ancient Gnosticism—as it was understood by Jonas and other scholars of his time—such as indifference to worldly or social power and radical negation of matter. The fifth and sixth components in Voegelin’s model are easily derivable from the previous ones."