skip to Main Content

The Concept of Gnosticism and the Analysis of Spiritual Disorder

This article attempts to establish a rather simple point: Although Eric Voegelin’s analysis of spiritual disorder or “Gnosticism” stands as one of the greatest accomplishments of 20th century political science, the concept of Gnosticism itself has lost its theoretical viability. The undermining of the concept is, I shall argue, partly due to advancements in our understanding of the historical Gnostics, and partly due to late advancements in Voegelin’s own analytical approach. While this basic point is admittedly a simple one, it is not without importance. This is because the concept’s loss of viability— though not itself a matter of great import—prompts serious misunderstandings of Voegelin’s analysis and diminishes appreciation of the refinements and extensions of the analysis he debuted under this rubric in The New Science of Politics. Dispensing with the concept entails costs that must be acknowledged, since “Gnosticism” is surely the most widely known of all Voegelin’s many coinages. However, Voegelin himself consistently ascribed much greater weight to theoretical precision than to the public currency of terms or their acceptance within the academy. I believe theoretical precision demands that we (i.e., those who wish seriously to follow his lead) cut the concept adrift. I would be more comfortable if Voegelin had done this himself, but nevertheless the issue seems clear on its merits—even if it remains unclear why Voegelin did not make this move himself.

I will try to establish my point by showing that Voegelin’s understanding of spiritual disorder changed during the decades following The New Science of Politics in ways that call into question his usages of “Gnosticism” in that book. In essence, I want to argue that the philosophical developments that prompted the new mode of theorizing seen by 1974 in The Ecumenic Age have the effect— when fully appreciated—of showing that the usage of “Gnosticism” in The New Science is outmoded. As a preliminary caveat, I wish to stress that “outmoded” and “mistaken” are very different judgments, and that I am making the former here rather than the latter. At their core, the analyses of spiritual disorder and modernity in The New Science are not incorrect, and it was with good reason that Voegelin never renounced them. However, during the ensuing two decades, the fuller development of Voegelin’s theory of consciousness broadened in ways that strain the “Gnosticism” of 1952 to—and perhaps past—the breaking point. Moreover, these advancements in the theory of consciousness, as well as Voegelin’s discovery of historiogenesis, alter his understanding of historical epochs and the historical process in ways that seriously undermine some of The New Science‘s most striking theses regarding Gnosticism. To cite the most noteworthy case in point, the arresting chapter title, “Gnosticism: The Nature of Modernity” from 1952 looks quite problematic from the perspective of 1974, by which time Voegelin had come to question whether modernity has any specific, meaningful nature at all, and by which time he must employ the term “Gnosticism” in an overwhelmingly figurative manner, as the actual historical Gnostics have turned out to be exceedingly unlikely progenitors of what we call “modernity.”

We would do well to begin with a word about what Voegelin meant by “Gnosticism.” In the most general sense, Voegelin used the term to signify the belief that it is possible for human beings to escape or eliminate the evils and hardships that afflict our existence by means of the power conferred by a special knowledge (gnosis in ancient Greek). Although Gnosticism was a particular “heretical” faith from the ancient world, Voegelin found (and followed several earlier scholars in finding) a variety of beliefs in modern times that he regarded as comparable in structure. This structural comparability consisted for Voegelin largely in tendency of gnostics—whether ancient or modern—to exhibit a radical dissatisfaction with the human condition and an intense longing for enhanced certainty and power. On this basis, Voegelin launched a series of salvos against a wide range of modern figures. Although these figures typically regarded one another as enemies, Voegelin treated them as members of a class that exhibited cohesion in that all were ideologists and, on a deeper level, gnostic ones at that. When addressing the ideological systems of thought that spawned either intellectual movements (e.g., Hegelianism, psychologism, behavioralism and positivism) or political movements (e.g., fascism and Marxism), Voegelin sought to show that their dissimilar doctrines conceal a deeper commonality on the level of motivation and intellectual procedure. Despite their conflicting doctrines, all ideologies identify some aspect of the worldly realm as the key to existence (e.g., historical progress, productive relations, racial composition, scientific rationality). By contrast to the great philosophies and theologies of order, which located the ground of being outside the worldly realm, gnostic ideologies (mis)place the ground within the mundane realm so that human beings can decipher and manipulate it, thereby achieving the hubristic objectives of absolute power and perfect certainty.

Voegelin’s work on Gnosticism attracted considerable attention beginning with the publication of The New Science of Politics in 1952.1 The treatment of Gnosticism in the second half of this dense and powerful book was so striking that it triggered a feature story in Time magazine and gained wide admiration for Voegelin among intellectual and political conservatives.2 Although Voegelin had published many articles after emigrating to America from Austria, The New Science of Politics was his first book in English and was the first extended writing to appear after he abandoned a massive project on the history of political ideas (which was discontinued due to a major shift in methodology). Consequently, The New Science seemed to indicate both the method and the substance of the writings that would follow in this new phase of Voegelin’s work.

Major writings did indeed follow, and in short order, as Voegelin published Israel and Revelation, the first volume of Order and History, in 1956, with volumes II and III (The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle) appearing in 1957. Although there is no doubting the great importance of these books, those who were looking specifically for more writing on Gnosticism found little within their covers. Nevertheless, the plan for Order and History as a whole, briefly adumbrated in the Preface to Israel and Revelation, offered indications that a full analysis was soon to follow. The plan indicated that five “principal types of order, together with their self-expression in symbols, will be studied as they succeed one another in history.” The five types were:

  1. The imperial organizations of the Ancient Near East, and their existence in the form of the cosmological myth;
  2. the Chosen People, and its existence in historical form;
  3. the polis and its myth, and the development of philosophy as the symbolic form of order;
  4. the multicivilizational empires since Alexander, and the development of Christianity;
  5. the modern national states, and the development of Gnosis as the symbolic form of order.3

Since three volumes appeared in rapid succession to deal with the first three types of order in the plan, it seemed likely that Voegelin would soon provide an extended treatment of modern Gnosticism. However, 17 years were to pass before the publication of another volume of Order and History. The long delay preceding the release of volume IV had important consequences for the book’s reception.

In the interim between 1957 and the publication of The Ecumenic Age in 1974, Voegelin published only two books: Science, Politics and Gnosticism, a slim volume consisting predominantly of a previously published essay and the text of a lecture, and Anamnesis, which remained unavailable in English translation until 1978.4 Consequently, many scholars from the English-speaking world had not kept abreast of shifts in Voegelin’s thinking which became apparent only with the release of The Ecumenic Age. When the shifts finally did become apparent, they occasioned considerable surprise in some quarters, and more than a little distress.

Readers who approached The Ecumenic Age having read the Preface to volume I would have expected to find finished teachings on the fourth and fifth types of order identified in the Preface, and many would have looked in particular for treatments of Christianity and Gnosticism that would fulfill hopes which had been excited but held in suspension since the appearance of Voegelin’s striking comments in The New Science of Politics. For example, with regard to Christianity, Voegelin had written in The New Science of Politics of:

“. . . a civilizational cycle of world-historic proportions. There emerge the contours of a giant cycle, transcending the cycles of the single civilizations. The acme of this cycle would be marked by the appearance of Christ; the pre-Christian high civilizations would form its ascending branch; modern Gnostic civilization would form its descending branch.”5

However, when The Ecumenic Age finally appeared, many Christians were dismayed by the way Voegelin discussed and depicted Christianity, as James Rhodes has observed.6

Readers who came to The Ecumenic Age anticipating an extended treatment of Gnosticism along the lines of The New Science of Politics were also prone to disappointment. In that book Voegelin’s analysis had been, at once, specific, wide-ranging, and exhortatory. He specifically identified Gnosticism with modernity, entitling a chapter, “Gnosticism—The Nature of Modernity,” and admonished readers to “recognize the essence of modernity as the growth of Gnosticism.”7 He associated a wide range of thinkers and activists with spiritual disorder and Gnosticism,8 and closed the book with a call for “repressing Gnostic corruption and restoring the forces of civilization,” noting ominously that “at present the fate is in the balance.”9

In 1974, readers who opened The Ecumenic Age in search of a similarly stirring account of the development of gnosis as the symbolic form of modern national states, were to find something quite different. These differences were likely to displease some readers, especially those who may have heard a sort of pro-Christian, anti-modern rallying cry in Voegelin’s earlier writings on Gnosticism. Voegelin no longer seemed inclined to identify Gnosticism and modernity, or to limit it to any particular period in time, or to associate it with historical occurrences that could even keep it circumscribed within the West. The range of thinkers and activists associated with Gnosticism was expanded, but expanded in an unanticipated and perhaps unwelcome manner to include Christian figures and influences.10 Whereas The New Science spoke of an immediate crisis in which the forces of civilization are arrayed against a specific enemy that arose though a specific historical process and was marked by a pronounced “otherness,” The Ecumenic Age deprived would-be anti-gnostic combatants of their marching orders by stripping the conflict of much of its particularity in terms of time and place, and by making it much harder to distinguish friend from foe.

What happened in the years between the publication of volumes III and IV to explain this altered approach to Gnosticism? An adequate answer must take note of two central factors, one on the theoretical side of Voegelin’s work, and another on the side of the source materials encountered in his researches between 1957 and the completion of The Ecumenic Age. On the theoretical side, Voegelin became increasingly immersed in the philosophy of consciousness, ultimately developing a largely original theory that was expressed most extensively in the German edition of Anamnesis. This theoretical development radicalized Voegelin’s break with the history of ideas approach which characterized his early writings and which was still present to a reduced degree in The New Science and the first three volumes of Order and History.

Although much has been written about how this change in theoretical direction affected Voegelin’s conception of the history of order,11 relatively little attention has been paid to its effect on Voegelin’s diagnosis of Gnosticism and spiritual disorder. It is not possible to summarize the change in Voegelin’s diagnosis without losing many important nuances, but the following formulation will perhaps not be misleading: the change involved a shift from viewing instances of gnostic thought and action as connected events in literary history to viewing them as independent but essentially equivalent events in consciousness.12

Before the change, Voegelin wrote as if later instances of gnostic thought resulted from influences from earlier writings. When considered in this way, it made sense to trace the Gnosticism of one such as, say, Marx, back to the ancient Gnostics by noting the intervening figures who served as transmitters; Marx was an admirer of Thomas Münzer, who was in turn a follower of Joachim of Flora, who was in turn acquainted with ancient Gnostic writings. Or, to use another example, the Puritan sectarians noted by Voegelin as exemplars of Gnosticism may be said to have acquired gnostic or quasi-gnostic patterns of thought from sects such as the Ortliebians, Paracletes, and Adamites, who may have been inspired by the Albigensians, who may have been influenced by the writings of Scotus Erigena, whose views were affected by the still-earlier writings of Pseudo- Dionysius.13 Following this approach to Gnosticism, it would make sense to speak of a gnostic “stream” in history that may swell at certain times while receding at others, or to refer to certain periods (such as the Renaissance or the mid-19th century) as periods marked by a “growth” of Gnosticism. However, if one follows the approach to Gnosticism that first became fully apparent in The Ecumenic Age, such notions no longer make sense.

By the time Voegelin completed work on The Ecumenic Age, his studies in the philosophy of consciousness had led him away from notions of literary transmission and into a perspective in which Gnosticism is viewed as a response not to the influence of earlier writings but to tensions that inhere in the human condition itself. In describing the human condition, Voegelin utilizes Plato’s symbol of the metaxy to suggest that humans exist in an “in-between” state of suspension between the merely human and the divine. Humans are tied to the immanent, mundane realm by virtue of their physical existence and the pragmatic necessities that flow therefrom, yet they also participate in the divine by virtue of more-or-less sustained and self-conscious spiritual activity of two fundamental types: searching for understanding of the divine in its dimension as the creative source of the cosmos, and/or responsiveness to the active and sustaining presence of the divine as it is experienced within reality but beyond the cosmos. To say that humans exist in the metaxy is to say that they are more than animals but less than gods. By dint of participation in the divine, in the forms of meditative contemplation, or prayerful beseeching, or responsive obedience, or worshipful love, they are more than animals; yet they are not themselves divine, as they experience the divine as a reality other than themselves, either in its dimension as the Beginning of the cosmos or in its dimension as a Beyond of the cosmos toward which they are drawn.

The mature Voegelin of the 1970s speaks, therefore, of humans as existing in a tension toward the divine. His usage of “tension” in this formulation suggests two distinct features of the human condition that are important for understanding his revised analysis of Gnosticism. First, his usage of “tension” suggests that humans are naturally drawn or “pulled” toward the divine, whether in simple curiosity about their own origins, or a more intense longing for understanding of the ground of being, or a more specific love of the source of goodness in reality, or in some still more dramatic fashion as in a revelatory event. Second, his use of tension conveys the notion that the human condition is an uneasy one. If humans are more than animals but less than gods, they can understand themselves only by reference to beings which they are not, which is an important source of unease. Moreover, since they are drawn in these various modes of participation toward a divine reality that they can experience but not know in any certain way,14 the experienced reality to which humans owe their existence and toward which humans are drawn in the present will remain—forever—a Mystery. For Voegelin, the ineluctable mysteriousness of the divine further aggravates the fundamental human unease of which we are speaking because it spreads mysteriousness over humanity as well. He held that the human condition can only be understood within the comprehensive matrix of “God and man, world and society,”15 and that no single element in this matrix can be fully understood unless all of its elements are fully understood. The nature of the divine and the human must always remain mysterious at their core, and if Aristotle were correct when stating in the first line of the Metaphysics that all human beings by nature desire to know, then all human beings are bound to experience frustration of a fundamental desire.

Stated simply, spiritual revolt or “Gnosticism” in the categorical sense is an aggressive reaction to this frustration. As Voegelin analyses it in The Ecumenic Age, Gnosticism is a reaction to an experience in consciousness and not, as his earlier writings had suggested, a result of influence from a text. If the symbols of a gnostic text do, in fact, have the effect of stirring up an aggressive response on the part of a reader against the uncertain and contingent character of human life, then it is because the symbol created by the writer resonates with an experience of frustration and aggressive reaction which is already present in the consciousness of the reader. All who read gnostic texts do not fall prey to Gnosticism, and the reason is that all have not previously reacted rebelliously to the tension of existence.

Interestingly, for Voegelin it is the same with philosophy: not all are made philosophers by reading Platonic dialogues, and the reason is that all have not previously reacted with acceptance, faith, and loving openness to the tension of existence. In Voegelin’s theory of experience and symbolization, which informed works like The New Science of Politics but was not fully developed until at least a decade later, it is a basic principle that symbols do not have a life of their own, but are only vital if they spring from personal experience, and only effective if they are encountered by those with parallel personal experiences. Thus, Voegelin’s analysis of Gnosticism in The Ecumenic Age is novel in that it locates gnostic phenomena not in a stream of literary transmission but in consciousness. More specifically, Voegelin’s mature analysis locates Gnosticism in the consciousness of particular individuals who fail to bear up under the tensions of existence in the metaxy and who react aggressively against the uncertainties and limitations of creaturely existence by seeking to abolish them through gnosis.

Having shown how Voegelin’s analysis of Gnosticism was altered by his studies in the theory of consciousness, it should also be noted that changes were dictated by the historical materials that he encountered between 1957 and 1974. In the Introduction to The Ecumenic Age, Voegelin notes that as his:

“knowledge of materials increased, the original list of five types of order and symbolization turned out to be regrettably limited; and when the empirical basis on which the study had to rest was broadened so as to conform to the state of the historical sciences, the manuscript swelled to a size that easily would have filled six more volumes in print. That situation was awkward enough. What ultimately broke the project, however, was the impossibility of aligning the empirical types in any time sequence at all that would permit the structures actually found to emerge from a history conceived as a ‘course.’ . . . [T]he conception was untenable because it had not taken proper account of the important lines of meaning in history that did not run along lines of time.”16

Once Voegelin had taken proper account of the lines of meaning that did not run along lines of time, he rejected the conception of history as a course in favor of the view that history “is not a stream of human beings and their actions in time, but the process of man’s participation in a flux of divine presence that has eschatological direction” (EA, 6). These dramatic shifts in Voegelin’s conception of history as a whole carried similarly dramatic implications for conceiving the history of Gnosticism. If it no longer made sense to speak of a course when conceiving of history as a whole, it could no longer make sense to conceive of the history of Gnosticism as a “course” or a “stream” or an “unbroken continuum of movements”17 leading from the ancient writings through a series of medieval sectarian transmitters to the modern gnostics of the ideological movements. Moreover, if history was “definitely not a story of meaningful events to be arranged on a time line,” but rather a “movement through a web of meaning with a plurality of nodal points” requiring an analysis that “had to move backward and forward and sideways,”18 then it could hardly make sense to focus on blocks of time as the meaningful units in history.

Additionally, if blocks of time were not meaningful units, they could not be adequately described by reference to any single element, however prominent. Thus, from the perspective on history that informs The Ecumenic Age, it could no longer make sense to speak—as Voegelin had in The New Science of Politics—of Gnosticism as “the nature of modernity.” Indeed, once Voegelin began viewing instances of gnostic thought and activity through the lens of his philosophy of consciousness, he found that even when the instances were separated by many centuries and by widely varying civilizational circumstances, they exhibited remarkable parallels as aggressive reactions to a human condition which does not—in its essentials—vary over time. Consequently, the Voegelin who could, in 1952, admonish readers to “recognize the essence of modernity as the growth of Gnosticism” could later, after finding that modern ideologues were exemplars of a disordered consciousness also observed in the ancient world, ask the question in 1974: “what exactly was modern about modernity?”19 Thus we can see that Voegelin’s studies in the theory of consciousness and his transformed conception of the structure of history combined to produce a significant alteration of his analysis of Gnosticism. By comparison to the analysis of The New Science of Politics, his treatment in The Ecumenic Age is vastly more intricate and sophisticated.

Is the concept of Gnosticism still viable in this more intricate and sophisticated approach? Even when Voegelin began using it, the concept was badly overburdened, as it had to subsume not only the thought and activity of the ancient Gnostics, but also a vast collection of individuals who were members of no Gnostic sect, and indeed at some points he connects it to figures who lived prior to the historical appearance of the Gnostics themselves. Voegelin associates the term with a long list of highly variegated individuals and groups extending through the Middle Ages into our present, and when doing so, he frequently oscillates between using “Gnosticism” as a categorical concept and as a proper noun. This is no mere grammarian’s quibble but rather a source of real trouble, especially for one who, as Voegelin said of himself, is “a man who likes to keep his language clean.”20 For example, in The Ecumenic Age, when Voegelin uses the term “Gnosticism” as a capitalized noun, one might wonder whether he intends it as a proper noun to refer to the sects who are known to scholars of religion as the Gnostics or whether he intends it as a critical concept of his own making to be understood with the (continually shifting) accents and specifications he places upon it. Moreover, when he employs the term as an adjective, one wonders whether he means that a thinker has been influenced by the historical Gnostics, or whether he merely wishes to suggest that the individual under discussion thinks along analogous lines. He sometimes oscillates between usage patterns several times on a single page or in a brief section, as in the Introduction, where each of the four usages just described appears several times between pages 20 and 25. Consequently, readers must continually strain to discern who or what Voegelin means to designate by the term when they encounter it. Voegelin’s usage patterns in particular books and articles, taken singly, are not always inconsistent, but his use of terms and analogies regarding Gnosticism and spiritual disorder is often surprisingly indefinite as one moves from one writing to another. Concepts announced in one work fail to appear in the next,21 distinctions drawn at one point are not developed or applied at others,22 and terms that arise in differing contexts are often used interchangeably.23 Although I certainly do not subscribe to the view that readers should never be asked to strain to understand an author, I find that Voegelin’s usage of “Gnosticism” varies so widely in his writings that even a specialist can sometimes do little more than guess what he means.

Since Voegelin was a very careful writer, the problems that mark the terminology he used for his diagnosis of spiritual disorder— which is a major part of his work as a whole—are puzzling. My only hunch (and I hasten to emphasize that this is only a hunch) as to why we have been left with such a maddening welter of terms is that Voegelin was so intent upon driving each of his analyses closer to the essence of the phenomena under investigation that he felt compelled to neologize almost continually to keep his concepts in step with his ever more penetrating insights. He was well acquainted with thinkers like Hegel and Marx who had left wonderfully consistent conceptual systems, but seemed to regard this as an unscientific attempt by ideologists to paper over the complexity and mysteriousness of reality by achieving conceptual clarity within their systems. Once such a grand conceptual edifice is built, the orderliness of the passageways makes it is easy for epigones to take up residence and confer an ersatz immortality upon the system builder by means of their venerations. By contrast, Voegelin’s writings show little concern for the niceties of seamlessness and continuity. He seemed thoroughly unconcerned that his readers might not be able to keep up with him, and he did conspicuously little to tidy up his writings to facilitate easy consumption by any would-be disciples.

If my hunch has merit, we will have found our explanation for Voegelin’s terminological inconsistencies not in shortcomings that marked the man but in his possession of the virtue of scientific relentlessness and also, perhaps, something akin to magnanimity as described by Aristotle.24 Nevertheless, this does not diminish the specific problems caused by his decision to retain the concept of Gnosticism for use once his thinking had taken the new turns manifested in The Ecumenic Age. By the 1970s, Voegelin indicated that he “would probably not use [the term Gnosticism] if here were starting over again,”25 and I believe that he should indeed have made a clean break with it, as his attempts to patch up or augment it proved unsuccessful. The most notable of these was Voegelin’s statement in 1973 that:

“Since my first applications of Gnosticism to modern phenomena in The New Science of Politics and in 1959 in my study on Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, I have had to revise my position. Theapplication of the category of Gnosticism to modern ideology, of course, stands. In a more complete analysis, however, there are other factors to be considered in addition. One of these factors is the metastatic apocalypse deriving directly from the Israelite prophets, via Paul, and forming a permanent strand in Christian sectarian movements right up to the Renaissance…. I found, furthermore, that neither the apocalyptic nor the Gnostic strand completely accounts for the process of immanentization. This factor has independent origins in the revival of neo-Platonism in Florence in the late fifteenth century.”26

Here Voegelin is attempting to deal with a problem that became apparent in the years immediately following publication of The New Science of Politics, namely, that archaeological finds (dating principally from 1952) and scholarly research have shown that ancient Gnosticism strongly tended toward apoliticism, since it denigrated life in this world in favor of escape from it through some sort of secret teaching or gnosis. Voegelin’s own interest in The New Science was in the forms that a claim to gnosis could take when there was an interest in drawing on the power of such knowledge for the transformation of the present world.27 It was to account for the worldtransforming strand in medieval and modern disorders that Voegelin began speaking of hermeticism, alchemy and magic as bearing an importance comparable to Gnosticism. Thus, in a 1978 publication, he argues that, “. . . the contemporary disorder will appear in a rather new light when we leave the ‘climate of opinion’ and, adopting the perspective of the historical sciences, acknowledge the problems of ‘modernity’ to be caused by the predominance of Gnostic, Hermetic, and alchemistic conceits, as well as by the magic of violence as the means for transforming reality.”28 This looks to me like backsliding. That is, Voegelin seems to be reverting here from his more developed analytical approach to one still cast in the mold of the history of ideas. More specifically, it looks like a reversion from the view that, a) we can identify an essential equivalence between ancient and modern symbolisms of revolts occasioned by essentially equivalent engendering experiences to the view that, b) we can show by historical analysis that modern problems are “caused” by residues of gnostic, hermetic, alchemistic and magic lingering from premodern sources.

This is not to say that there are no commonalities running between modern ideologists, medieval millenarians, ancient Gnostics and, indeed, pre-Gnostic individuals who anticipate or seek to initiate a fundamental transformation of the conditions of human existence. Such commonalities do indeed exist, in my view, but they cannot be established in a satisfactory way by suggesting chains of literary influence.29 One of the most important events in Voegelin’s development as a thinker was his recognition that ideas are but epiphenomenal manifestations of the experiences that engender them, and if one accepts this as a premise, then it follows that any commonalities among seemingly disparate figures must be established on the level of experience. I have tried elsewhere to show that this can indeed be accomplished by reference to a common pattern of revolt in reaction to four fundamental experiences of the human condition: uncertainty, contingency, imperfection, and mortality.30 Regardless of the success or failure of this effort, it is clear that chains of literary influence must be regarded as outmoded remnants of Voegelin’s early studies in the history of ideas, and that any analysis of commonalities must take full account of Voegelin’s late work in the theory of consciousness.

In conclusion, I should emphasize that while I regard the concept of Gnosticism as having become a millstone in the effort to understand the role of spiritual disorder in modernity, the effort itself is one of great importance, and the problems caused by the concept are dwarfed by the magnitude of Voegelin’s accomplishments in this area. Moreover, the extent of the damage caused by conceptual problems is rather superficial, rarely penetrating to the theoretical core of what Voegelin wishes to emphasize in particular writings. Nevertheless, the relatively superficial damage caused by conceptual problems is hardly trivial in importance, since many of Voegelin’s formulations will prove seriously misleading to those who are not steeped in his late writings. Thus, for example, I would argue that Voegelin’s famous assertion from The New Science of Politics that, “Gnosticism is the essence of modernity” is correct at its core, in the sense that what people generally call “modernity” was born of a series of personal, spiritual revolts against the limitations and imperfections of human existence. We can see that pre-modern writings that hubristically celebrate human capacities were occasionally admired by modern ideologists in the course of their own revolts, and that this genre includes Gnostic texts as well as Hermetic writings, speculations on alchemy, magic, apocalypticism, messianism, and so forth. However, though we can legitimately take one further step to find in hubristic pre-modern writings a pattern of personal revolt that is analogous to modern revolts, these pre-modern writings do not “cause” modern instances of spiritual revolt in any meaningful sense. Voegelin’s late work suggests that if there is such a “cause,” it is the complex of tensions that inhere in the human condition itself, in the metaxy. It is the tension itself—not early symbolizations of the tension—that prompts the various revolts, whether ancient or modern. The earlier ones do not “cause” or even influence the later ones in any substantial way.31 From this perspective, it is almost completely meaningless in a literal sense to say that “Gnosticism is the essence of modernity.” Historical Gnosticism has nothing substantial to do with the revolts of individuals like Hegel and Marx and Comte (or their various epigones and functionaries), and as Voegelin’s late work on historiogenesis demonstrates, there is nothing essentially “modern” about these revolts.32 Thus, due to the problematic character of the concept of Gnosticism, we can see that a proposition such as “Gnosticism is the essence of modernity” can be—at once—virtual nonsense on its face but also a profound discovery at its core.



1. Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).

2. “Journalism and Joachim’s Children,” Time 61 (1953), 10ff. On Voegelin’s reputation among conservatives, see Ted V. McAlister, Revolt against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and theSearch for a Postliberal Order (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995).

3. Voegelin, Israel and Revelation,(vol. 1 of Order and History) (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956).

4. Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968);Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik(Munich: Piper, 1966).

5. The New Science of Politics, 164. All references to this book are to the original publication from University of Chicago Press.

6. See also Rhodes’ more extended discussion of Christian reactions in “Voegelin and Christian Faith,” Center Journal (2:3, Summer 1983).

6. The New Science of Politics, 107, 126.

7. These include Bakunin, Comte, Condorcet, D’Alembert, Diderot, Engels, Feuerbach, Hegel, Hitler, Hobbes, Joachim of Flora, Marx, J. S. Mill, and Nietzsche.

8. Ibid., 189.

9. To quote but one example: “Considering the history of Gnosticism, with the great bulk of its manifestations belonging to, or deriving from, the Christian orbit, I am inclined to recognize in the epiphany of Christ the great catalyst that made eschatological consciousness an historical force both in forming and deforming humanity” The Ecumenic Age, 20. All references to this book are to the original publication from Louisiana State University Press.

10. See, for example, Bruce Douglass, “The Break in Voegelin’s Program,” Political Science Reviewer 7 (1977), 1–22; Gerhart Niemeyer, “Eric Voegelin’s Philosophy and the Drama of Mankind,” Modern Age 20 (1976), 28–39.

11. Two caveats should be noted here. First, I describe the change that became apparent in The Ecumenic Age as a shift because one can find passages in writings prior to the book (including passages in The New Science of Politics) in which Voegelin seems to lean toward treating Gnosticism as an event in consciousness. It would be an overstatement to suggest that the change is a simple, before-and-after affair, with The Ecumenic Age lying between the before and the after. Second, the proposition that independently arising gnostic phenomena such as, say, Joachitic millennialism and Marxian speculation on the imminent rise of communism are “essentially equivalent” is controversial and extremely complicated. I have pursued the issue at considerable length in Eric Voegelinand the Politics of Spiritual Revolt.

12. On these connections see Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin:Philosopher of History, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981) 199–204.

13. In Voegelin’s view, philosophical activity does not yield a set of facts but a set of illuminating experiences of participation in a process of being which reveals itself as mysterious, as a great Question. Thus Voegelin writes, “The Questions as a structure in experience is part of, and pertains to the In-Between stratum of reality, the Metaxy. There is no answer to the Question other than the Mystery as it becomes luminous in the acts of questioning” TheEcumenic Age, 330.

14. Israel and Revelation, 1.

15. The Ecumenic Age, 2.

16. See Israel and Revelation, 454.

17. The Ecumenic Age, 57.

18. The Ecumenic Age, 7, see also p. 68.

19. Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, (Ellis Sandoz, ed.) (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989) 47.

20. For example, “modern Prometheanism,” from The NewScience of Politics, 254; “social Satanism,” from From Enlightenmentto Revolution (John H. Hallowell, ed.)(Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 71, 195.

21. For example, those between teleological, axiological, and activist immanentization, and intellectual, emotional, and volitional gnosticism from The New Science of Politics, 124, 175, which do not reappear in any subsequent work.

22. For example, the following terms are among those used as apparent synonyms for either “ideology” or “gnosticism” at various points in Voegelin’s writings: pneumapathology, activist dreaming, egophanic revolt, metastatic faith, activist mysticism, demonic mendacity, Prometheanism, parousiasm, political religion, social Satanism, magic pneumatism, eristics.

23. See Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1123b25–1125a15.

24. See Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, 200.

25. Autobiographical Reflections, 66–67.

26. See Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, 199.

27. See, e.g., “Response to Professor Altizer’s ‘A New History and a New but Ancient God?’” in Published Essays, 1966–1985CW, Volume 12, 298.

28. It simply will not suffice to suggest, for example, that Marx can be regarded as a gnostic because he was an admirer of Thomas Münzer, who was in turn an admirer of Joachim. Neither Marx nor Engels (who, of the two, had the greater interest in Münzer)considered themselves followers of Münzer—much less Joachim, and to suggest that Marx is a gnostic on this basis runs afoul of the principles underlying Voegelin’s late work. In AutobiographicalReflections, Voegelin notes, “the principle that lies at the basis of all my later work: the reality of experience is self-interpretive” (p. 80; emphasis in original). Marx was no gnostic in his self-interpretation, and though it is indeed possible to demonstrate that he was an exemplar of a pattern of spiritual disorder that Voegelin has referred to analogically as “gnosticism,” Voegelin’s principle indicates that such a demonstration must be based upon painstaking experiential analysis conducted on Marx’s own writings.

29. The fourth experience in this series actually requires a somewhat more elaborate description as the experience of mortality in a world in which all things pass away, but beyond which there is a perceived but mysterious lastingness or an eternity beyond the world of things. See my, “Brothers Under the Skin: Voegelin on the Common Experiential Wellsprings of Spiritual Order and Disorder,” in The Politics of the Soul: Voegelin and Religious Experience, 139–161; Voegelin’s Analysis of Marx, Eric Voegelin Archive Occasional Papers, University of Munich, 2000; and “Gnosticism and Spiritual Disorder in The Ecumenic Age,” The Political ScienceReviewer 27 (1998), 17–43.

30. Does this mean that historical work is insignificant in this problem area? Absolutely not, though we should recognize that the real importance of historical work regarding spiritual disorder is that, by establishing the perennial appearance of spiritual revolts that are equivalent at the level of spiritual experience, we can show that modern revolts are not simply caused by modern circumstances (the rise of capitalism or the decline of the Church or the French Revolution, etc.) but rather by the same perennial tensions that gave rise to ancient revolts.

31. On the importance of historiogenesis in this context, see TheEcumenic Age, 68, where Voegelin asks, “what is modern about themodern mind, one may ask, if Hegel, Comte or Marx, in order to create an image of history that will support their ideological imperialism, still use the same techniques for distorting the reality of history as their Sumerian predecessors?” See also p. 7, where he asks, “what exactly was modern about modernity, if the great struggle among the historiogenetic constructions, among enlightened Progressivism, Comtism, Hegelianism, Marxism, had to be understood as a dogmatomachy among imperialist speculators in the best cosmological style?” In both passages, the emphasis is added. Regarding Voegelin’s self-understanding of the importance of the discovery of historiogenesis, see the letter of Voegelin to Donald Ellegood of July 21, 1960 (in Eric Voegelin Papers, Hoover Institution Library, Stanford University, box 23, folder 28), where Voegelin notes, “I have hit on something like a theory of relativity for the field of symbolic forms….” See also Thomas Hollweck and Paul Caringella, “Editor’s Introduction” to What is History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings, volume 28 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, xii–xv.


This was originally published with the same title in the Fall 2005 issue of The Political Science Reviewer.

Michael Franz

Michael Franz is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. He is author of Eric Voegelin and the Politics of Spiritual Revolt (Louisiana State University, 1992), and editor of Eric Voegelin's The Ecumenic Age, Vol .17 in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2000) as well as Commentaries on Eric Voegelin’s Late Essays and Meditations (forthcoming).

Back To Top