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IC's Top 25 Philosophical and Ideological Conservative Books
No. 23 - Eric Voegelin: Science, Politics and Gnosticism
by Dr. Enrico Peppe
2 November 2003

Voegelin's fascination with gnosticism can be seen in today's Traditionalists, Libertarians, the Evangelical Christian Right, and the Communitarians.


Voegelin, born in Germany in 1901, and educated at the University of Vienna, conntributed immensely to the American conservative revival of the 1950's and 1960's. Avoiding Hitler, he and his wife migrated to the United States in 1938, and both became citizens in 1944. He spent the preponderance of his career as a political science teacher and research professor at Lousiana State University, the University of Munich and at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

His work is currently being published (34 volumes so far) by the
University of Missouri Press. His "New Science of Politics," (NSP:1952) and his larger work, "Order and History" (1956-1987) are his most ambitious and well-known.

Voegelin's "Science, Politics and Gnosticism" (SPG) was his first
lecture at the University of Munich in 1958 (published by Regnery ten years later). In this lecture, in which two essays are extracted, we are treated to the interesting nub of his thoughts as these apply to the conservative critique of the Left.

Voegelin saw communism as only the latest of man's attempt to "shortcut" heaven and have it on earth. This Marxist ideology had ancient roots, stemming from the medieval heresy called gnosticism. Jeffrey Nelson, a traditionalist, and student of Russell Kirk,
thinks this notion of Voegelin as profound: "Voegelin argued that one of the defining marks of modernity was the increasingly popular view that politics was essentially about the pursuit of secular salvation. Transcendental objectives and standards...(did not)...define and guide political existence. Voegelin traced a
connection between gnosticism and political ideologies that claim to
have the key to history's laws and (so) promise happiness, peace and fulfillment on this side of eternity." (Note to the reader: Voegelin's use of the term, "transcendental" does not refer to the ideas of such as Emerson and Thoreau. I consider this New England palaver no more than immanency writ large).

Science, for Voegelin, stems directly from the gnostic heresy and
produces scientism, which has powerfully influenced the "ersatz"
religions of Marxism, Progressivism (of the John Dewey type), National Socialism, Hegelianism (the two valued dialectic),
Nietzchianism, Fruedian Psychoanalysis, and Heideggerism. Voegelin sees scientism as "a study of reality (which) could qualify as scientific only if it used the methods of the natural (and mathematical) sciences, that other problems were illusory...that
these problems...in the extreme...did not exist."

Michael Federici, an excellent Voegelian analyst, points out that the
age in which we live is dominated by scientism in that the dominant maxim is "What is true for you isn't necessarily true for me."
Federici knocks it out of the park here: "Truth (becomes) a purely relative matter of individual or cultural choice, and the concept of a universal reality known to all humans through participation in it has become increasingly alien to students, intellectuals, and the larger culture."

So, what is this beast, gnosticism? Voegelin traces its roots to the Medieval heretic Joachim of Flora. In opposition to the great Church Father, Augustine, who believed the current age of the world was the sixth and last, Joachim proposed three stages:
.. the Father: from the Creation to Christ's birth;
.. the Son: from Christ to 1260 (!)
.. the Holy Spirit: the period after.

For Joachim, this last stage was to be one of a coming fulfillment. Man would become truly human. Social problems would be solved. Man would be free and equal. Heaven would reside on earth.
Voegelin shows Joachim's influence on More's "Utopia" (who omits any such thing as Original Sin), Hobbes' "Leviathan" (who omits any such idea as the "summum bonum") and Hegel's historiography in which historical direction is a certainty, and God's Will is moot if it exists at all. To sum up: the gnostic is certain about the meaning of existence, knows about the future, and creates a basis of action.
Through action, man is complete.. full.. a superman.

Voegelin closes by explicating the gnostic attitude (IC readers contend with this daily):
.. dissatisfaction with most things;
.. a belief that things are bad;
.. salvation from the evil of the world is possible (this in
contradistinction to the attitude of most conservatives that the world
is good, but human beings are inadequate);
.. a belief that the world must be changed;
.. a belief that this change is within human ability;
.. that certain people (leaders) have the task of seeking out the method of altering the world for the better;
.. the method of altering the world is subject to change, since new
truths emerge, as new discoveries of science emerge.

(Voeglin says much more, but the gist is here. Further gnostic attitudes can be discerned on the Barbra Streisand website).

I find that Voegelin links in with four segments of the conservative
movement: the Traditionalists, the Libertarians, the Evangelical Christian Right, and the Communitarians.

.. The Traditionalist link: Voegelin is part of the group of metaphysical conservatives consisting of such as Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Thomas Molnar, Leo Strauss, Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. All these great conservative theorists reject relativism, secularism, and politics based solely on ideology since this triad comes from the immanentist mind. Transcendental truth from God is rejected. The Left embodies mass-movement ideology as Truth. The metaphysical conservative knows that Truth is not necessarily rational - that it must be learned by logic and faith. For theorists like Strauss and company, human beings attempt to lead moral lives based on sanctions and by the awe created from a study of Judeo-Christian symbols.

.. The Libertarian link: Joseph Stromberg, the Distinguished Professor at the Mises Institute, feels that Voegelin's ideas support the Paleo case against the Neo's love of war since Voegelin pinpoints the gnosticism inherent in "pietist" theology, especially that part of the belief system that concentrates on Dispensationalism. The pietist mission to translate Christ's second coming onto a favored nation leads to the notion of a U.S. mission -- the fervor of which is seen in the American Revolution ( a combination of puritan gnosticism with federalism), the Civil War, and the 2003 War in Iraq (honest, I'm not making this up)! Stromberg says that all millenial thinking points in the direction of war. He quotes Voegelin: "Gnostic politics is self-defeating in so far as its disregard for the structure of reality leads to continuous warfare. This system of chain wars can end only in two ways: either it will result in horrible physical destructions and concomitant revolutionary changes of social order beyond reasonable guesses; or, with the natural change of generations, it will lead to the abandoning of Gnostic dreaming before the worst has happened." Stromberg is convinced that Post-millenialism led to Comte(ism), which led to Hegelianism, then to Darwinism, to pragmatism, and to ex-Trotskyism. This reviewer wonders if Paul Wolfowitz knows he's a gnostic!

.. The Evangelical Christian Right link:
Two very Popular books selling mostly in the Christian books stores are "Mind Siege" by Tim LaHaye and Donald Noebel and "True for You, But Not For Me" by Paul Copan. These books take on the transcendental-Biblical case against the "isms" Voegelin inveighed against. Whether or not these authors directly used Voegelin while writing, I cannot read the above works without construing his SPG as a prime inspiration.

.. The Communitarian link: An excellent use of Voegelin's ideas is to be found in the work of Jack Elliott and his Radical Preservation group (www.radicalpreservation.com). Elliott bases his work on the
anthropological assumptions in SPG. For Elliott, " ...reality...(has been reduced) to empirical 'facts' which has consequently reduced human existence to material phenomena and blind random forces...the achievements associated with the modern mind and
with modern science have been vast. Yet there have been losses due to the narrowing perspective on reality...it has methodologically excluded 'value judgments' as though the world could be viewed from a detached perspective." Elliott's communitarian notion of melding the scientific with the religious, the seen with the unseen, and the historical with the mythical, is noteworthy since it reinforces and expands the conservative notion that goodness and justice stem from total human consciousness as evidenced by the study of the locality in which humans operate. I commend to the IC reader Elliott's fine essay, "Archaeology and its Public" (http://www.radicalpreservation.com/archaeology_public.htm).

Eric Voegelin's SPG, without question, deserves a spot on the IC "Best of..." list due to the tremendous influence it had on the conservative mind, especially during the movement's nascency. It is difficult to go through magazines, periodicals and books dealing with conservative issues in the third quarter of the last century without spotting Voegelian thought.

But, though I am not (heaven forfend)! a PostModernist, I must
deconstruct somewhat:

1. Voegelin did not propund God-given truth as the antidote to
gnosticism, as the only reality upon which to build political action.
The great conservative theoretician, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen criticized Voegelin (and rightly so I think) for writing that the ultimate truth about God is not answerable. Wilhelmsen says:
" ...the entire question of the 'historicity' of Christ and His
Resurrection annoys Voegelin; he finds it vulgar...(Voegelin) is very
cranky about the Resurrection but unless it happened his entire
speculation about history is worthless..." Craig Schiller adds:
"Voegelin may be compared to a master quarterback, who, having marched his team triumphantly down the field, fumbles the ball away with first and goal to go from the one. (His) treatment of the truthfulness of Judeo-Christian teachings ...must rank as the most significant philosphical fumble that the conservative team has had to endure in a long time."

2. Voegelin's "gnosticism" is ubiquitous. Tinder, in the periodical, "First Things," states that..."Voegelin applies the concept of gnosticism so broadly that it seems to take in everything...This tells us nothing at all. Puritanism, positivism, progressivism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism and fascism were all, in his eyes, gnostic, or seriously infected with gnosticism...He even suggested that liberalism (of the classical type) and totalitarianism...were fundamentally forms of gnosticism. Did his all-inclusive categories obscure vital differences?...There is a greatness to Voegelin, but also a singularity that makes him difficult to comprehend."

3. Contrary to many conservative movement historians (Most notably, Nisbet), Voegelin was not a Burkean. He said on occasion that tradition did not embody much in the area of human wisdom.

4. Though the conservatives of the 1950's and the 1960's (particularly the National Review staffers) created through Voegelin a cult-like adoration of the transcendental eschaton, the Voegelinian God who would judge human matters was the "ground of being."
Voegelin was clearly influenced by the radical branch of utheranism
typified by the theologies of Tillich, Bultmann, and Bonhoefer. In the early 60's Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson synthesized the ideas of the three in what became the forerunner of the "Death of God" books. Robinson's work, "Honest to God" became famous and controversial and in my eyes could have easily been subtitled,
"A Gnostic Primer."

5. During the 1970's and up to his death in 1985, Voegelin had pretty much broadened his analysis of modern man. In his Hoover Institution files were found twelve "languages or order." In addition to the language of gnosis, he listed other problems of the system of thought ("culprits" if you will): ancient-oriental myth, Hellenic myth,
Revelation, Philosophy, Metaphysics, Theology, Apocalypticism,
Neo-Platonic systems, mysticism, ideology, and the philosophy of
consciousness. At a Philadelphia Society retrospective of Voegelin's
work, which took place in 1975, Voegelin said: "Gnosis is one element in the modern compound, bu there are other elements of which we can talk later, for instance the apocalyptic traditions and Neoplatonic experiences and symbolizations. So gnosis is not some panacea for dealing with modernity." To be fair to Voegelin, the use of gnosticism to explain the modern Leftist experience had become so commonplace that the argument had become compromised and
weakened. I think Voegelin saw this and recoiled.

The early Voegelin (especially his "Science, Politics and Gnosticism") was of great worth to the conservative movement. The later Voegelin became a victim of his own analysis. He no longer saw the meaning in history.

Dr. Eric Voegelin succumbed to the gnawing gambit of gnosticity.

This is the third of 25 books Dr. Peppe will be reviewing as part of the top 25 conservative books on political philosophy and ideology. Seminal books such as "The Federalist Papers" and "The Wealth of Nations" are not included in this list because they are already on most lists of the top books. Click here for the rest of IC's top 25 books.

Dr. Enrico Peppe is a retired educator who runs the website The Third Way. A widower with too much time on his hands, he spends most of his time reading and thinking about the conservative movement, studying Catholic theology, working on his "Third Way" website, listening to Sinatra and Miles Davis, and admiring Ann Coulter.

Email Enrico Peppe

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