Gnostic Wars

Bob Cheeks

Gnostic Wars: The Cold War in the Context of a History of Western Spirituality. Stefan Rossbach. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University press, 1992.


“One of the typical phenomena of the twentieth century,”  Eric Voegelin wrote, “is the event of spiritually energetic people breaking out of the dominant intellectual group in order to find the reality that has been lost.” 1 One example of these “spiritually energetic people” is University of Kent (UK), Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Dr. Stefan Rossbach, who has offered us authentic insights in his book where the author defines as his purpose Gnostic Wars: The Cold War in the Context of a History of Western Spirituality,“ . . . an investigation into the spiritual preconditions of the Cold War: I am concerned with a historical analysis of developments in the very self-understanding of human existence through which the continuous threat of nuclear annihilation could become accepted in the context of a defense of ideas on how we live.” 2

Rossbach adopts Voegelin’s recognition that consciousness, with its noetic and pneumatic structure, is the place where the human-divine reality becomes luminous, while avoiding the dogmatomachy (the fight over the authority of dogmas) and hypostatizing (giving a false reality to propositions) that are, unfortunately, all too common in contemporary thought and politics. Rossbach follows Voegelin in his introduction, where he explores the nature of “politics and spirituality” in such terms as: religio, parrhesia, liminality, and communitas.

The key to understanding Rossbach’s exegesis is his application of the concept of “lines-of-meaning,” which he says “. . . emerge from within history when thinkers, activists, or movements refer to each other in order to clarify their concerns to themselves and others.”3 The author gives as an example the linkage of Hegel and his Phenomenology to Jacob Boehme’s mysticism and to Pico della Mirandola’s ‘Christian Cabala.’ But these ‘lines-of-meaning’ emerge only after careful consideration of the materials, and in particular the experiential context of the event that are “sedimentations of a self-interpreting reality.” 4 The person doing the research, the author points out, is in effect participating in the same “self-interpretation of reality” as his source with the understanding that he is participating in the experiences of “concrete people acting within concrete situations…” All of this closely follows Voegelin’s technique of placing the critic as close as possible to the historical perspective of the creator of the historical text being examined.

But the self-interpretation of reality that establishes the ‘line-of-meaning’ is only the beginning, because once these interpretations are compared and analyzed the philosophical process of contemplation begins as the investigator seeks the “equivalence of experience.” Rossbach explains that a ‘line-of-meaning’ is a locus, a point that signals the opportunity to begin philosophical contemplation, rather than an ‘object’ of knowledge, because the researcher is a participant in an event that is the ‘drama of history,’ and history, regardless of modernity’s myths, is yet to be finalized.

The author constructs his ‘lines-of-meaning’ on the classical Greek concepts of the metaxy, periagoge, and metanoia; a close analysis of Hans Jonas; a discourse of the “origins” of Gnosticism and its relationship to classical culture; and the Gnostic movements found in Mani, Valentinus, and Marcion, although the primary investigation centers on Manichaeism and Marcionism. The first three chapters are utilized in preparing the reader philosophically, historically, and spiritually —in terms of orthodoxy and heterodoxy (gnosticism)— for the application of the concept of ‘lines-of-meaning’ found in the following chapters: (I) From Manichaeism to Neo-Manichaeism; (II) Boehm, Hegel, Marx; and (III) The Third Rome against the New World.

In these chapters Rossbach explores the sundry heresies and ascetical movements from Late Antiquity to the Cathars of the thirteenth century, the effects of the rise of monasticism, Neo-Platonism, mysticism, heresy, apocalypticism, Joachim of Fiore, Marsilio Ficino’s hermeticism, Pico della Mirandola’s Christian Cabala, the influence of Boehme in Russia ( which became “the Third Rome”), the New World, and prophetic events in American History.

Intersections: Renaissance Syncretism is a particularly important chapter because it is here that Rossbach integrates several elements, including the idea that Joachim of Fiore’s teachings, particularly his movement from a literal interpretation of Scripture to its inner spiritual meaning that leads to his “pneumatisation of humanity,” provided not only the means to access an individual’s ‘divine powers,’ but also could ‘easily be incorporated within more elaborate and systematic cosmologies.’ Rossbach notes Joachim’s interpretation of Scripture was not only intended for a spiritual awakening but also for the purpose of discovering the meaning of history, again following Voegelin in the latter’s The New Science of Politics and his later Science, Politics and Gnosticism.

Regarding this “incorporation” of ideas the author observes: “Hermeticism and Cabalist mysticism provided fifteenth-century thinkers with precisely such a framework within which Joachims’ books obtained a new meaning. Renaissance concerns such as the expectation of an imminent ‘Golden Age,’ the celebration of the human beings as a terrestrial god, as a co-creator and magus who, through alchemy, magic and science, acts upon the world to shape it according to his liking, derived from the amalgamation of these three ingredients: Joachimism, Hermeticism and Cabalist mysticism. Their intersection marks the beginning of the modern epoch.” 5

Rossbach’s exegesis shows particular originality in Chapter 8, Parrhesia against Gnosis: George F. Kennan on the spiritual dimensions of the Cold War. In seeking to understand the Cold War in pneumatic terms Rossbach has selected three philosophers (St. Augustine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and George F. Kennan) who dealt with the pneumopathologies of their specific ages in terms that are closely related to the author’s project, thus providing the opportunity, in a noetic sense, to participate “in the temporal flow and become a constituent of history.” 6

The author points out that Augustine, as bishop of Hippo, rejected the Manichaean heresy that promulgated the idea that a ‘system,’ rigorously followed, proffered the perfectibility of man while making unnecessary the noetic/pneumatic quest for truth. Likewise he rejected the notion that man can ever be perfected in this life; that he can ever be ultimately ‘fulfilled’ due to a “solidarity of sin, a common humility (Original Sin)” that finds eschatological relief only in salvation through Jesus Christ.

Rossbach then proceeds to consider Niccolo Machiavelli’s search for a solution to the Italian problem, beginning with his often castigated ethics, which rested on two “implications:” first, that the morality of a ruler’s act was predicated on the consequences of his act, intended or otherwise, and, second, that ‘moral appropriateness’ of his act has some chance of success, not defined in a relative sense but rather in a utilitarian content, that reflects the idea of a service rendered for the common good. God, Machiavelli believed, was the only arbiter of the moral quality of an act observed in the context of its “comprehensive perspective on the whole of human history.” 7 Machiavelli, Rossbach writes, was searching for a God-inspired leader in the model of “Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus” to unite an Italy devastated by interminable internecine wars. To understand Machiavelli’s philosophy one must try to understand the milieu that motivated him.

When the author examines the American diplomat, George F. Kennan, he makes an original contribution to Voegelinian scholarship. Kennan acknowledged that the soul—as the center of man’s being—provides the venue for the individual’s engagement in self-awareness, self-contemplation, and consciousness of his own moral behavior. Accompanying the soul, Kennan believed, was the presence of a spirit of the Deity that as ‘a loving and caring companion’ participates with the soul in a ‘given’ existence that, while immanent, is at the same time transcendent. Consequently, while ‘the natural order’ of things exists with all the familiar vicissitudes of the mundane, the individual (with the Spirit as companion) is left to search for a way of living that allows the soul the opportunity to move within the tension of being and non being, knowing and ignorance, which for which state Voegelin, following Plato, used the term, “metaxy.” Kennan subscribed to the notion that it is not the possibility of success that should motivate the soul, but rather the ‘inherent worthiness of the struggle.’

The author goes on to explore Kennan’s appreciation for the limits of both Soviet Russian and American power. Kennan, Rossbach explains, was well aware of the origin of the expansionism of the then Soviet Union that lay in an earlier Russian ‘messianism,’ which in its turn began when, as Hegel wrote, ‘spirit necessarily appears in time.’ Russia was not a territorial entity; it engendered a certain fluidity of space that stopped where ‘the infidels began,’ its eidos kai morphe (ideas and form) were limitless and potential, its future was the world itself. This factor, the author argues, may have played and even greater role in ‘Soviet political psychology’ then Marxism.

Kennan also details his disapproval of the American inclination to engage in foreign interventionism that began with the Philippine, Puerto Rican, Guam, and Hawaiian Islands annexation and continues to this day in ‘adolescent self-esteem,’ and its failure to ‘put its own house in order.’ In examining the decline of American culture, Rossbach quotes Kennan’s remarks from his book, Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal Political Philosophy:

“Democratic liberties are means, not ends. And the question of ends, of improvement, naturally involves spiritual aspects of human existence. The response to the ‘great social bewilderments of this age’ must lie predominantly in the ‘spiritual, moral, and intellectual shaping of the individual with a view to the development of his qualities of leadership, rather than on the prospects for unaided self-improvement on the part of the leaderless masses.’”

Kennan is pointing to the Aristotelian notion of the spoudaios aner, the spiritually mature man—ethical, rational, and intelligent—who is best suited for public service. Kennan also recognized the ideological distortions inherent in modern totalitarianism: the cessation of the quest for truth, the creation of a ‘second reality’ to thwart philosophical inquiry, the immanentization of existence that destroys the transcendent and establishes a perverse secularism designed to attune the individual to serve the needs of the state, and the end of man’s primordial quest for athanatizein, the process of immortalizing.

Kennan interpreted America’s primary derailment as an ‘externalization of evil’ that he saw as a failure of self-knowledge. Although this derailment was the primary criticism Kennan offered, it was buttressed by his life-long evaluation that Americans weren’t environmentally aware, lived a far too materialistic life style, and exhibited an ‘appalling shallowness of the religious, philosophic and political concepts’ that defines a society in the throes of decadence. The best illustration of this philosophic and moral failure was exhibited in the nuclear arms race where the ‘natural environment,’ the very foundation of our existence as a species, stood threatened with annihilation.

In his epilogue, Rossbach provides a clear concluding analysis. In the ordering forces of reality a dichotomy exists between man as either the zoon noun echon, the rational man seeking order and participating in the quest for communion with the Divine and the man who has abandoned his search for the ground of existence and chooses instead to assert his autonomy in revolt against God and his fellow man.

Finally, we offer Rossbach’s well thought-out description of gnosticism:

“Gnosis promotes the soul, in its self-understanding, to an absolute position high above the un-reality of cosmic ignorance and suffering. From this outpost, the world must indeed appear as a totality, a ‘system’. Through gnosis the actual experience of alienation is transformed into the ‘distance’ required to be able to observe the cosmos from outside. The moral significance of this transformation, however, lies in the absoluteness of the boundaries which it creates between human beings. For if gnosis elevates the soul above the cosmos, beyond Plato’s chorismos, the unbridgeable gap which the classical thinker perceived between the human and divine realms mutates into a gap between those with gnosis and those without. The common bond of mankind is effectively broken between these two groups as soon as both consider themselves in possession of absolute vision. The will then fight a war driven by gnosis, a ‘Gnostic War.” 7

Gnostic Wars can be said to offer us an accessible appreciation of modern gnosis, closely following Voegelin through much of the argument. In contemporary political theory and practice, the gnostic derailment can be observed as an inability to come to terms with the idea that the nature of man is found within the tension of man’s equality and inequality—where man is equal in his potential, but very much unequal in his actualization. The derailed political personality then seeks to construct a pseudo-just regime which, not incidentally, limits man’s opportunity to fully actualize his nature.


1. See  Eric Voegelin, “Why Philosophize? To Capture Reality,” Collected Works, Vol. 34, (Missouri, University of Missouri Press, 2006) 120.

2. Rossbach, Gnostic Wars, 1.

3. Ibid.,13.

4. Ibid., 104.

5. Ibid., 14-18.

6. Ibid., 193.

7. But see David Walsh, The Luminosity of Existence (New York, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Dr. Walsh argues that Hegel is pointing toward an experiential rather than an historical relationship with Christ. “Everything he says,” Walsh writes, “must be referred back to the relationship with God, for despite the impression he conveys of embracing a pseudo-Gnostic perspective in which evil is grasped as a divine moment, “as a wrath of God,” his direction remains radically anti-Gnostic.” 108.

8. See Eric Voegelin, What is Political Theory?”, in CW, Vol. 33, The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers,l 1939-1985. (Missouri: The University of Missouri Press), 62.

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Robert Cheeks is an independent writer and reviewer residing in Lisbon, Ohio.