The Origins of Conservatism’s ‘Gnostic’ Meme (Joshua Tait, 4/12/24, The Bulwark)

His moment came in 1951, when Voegelin was invited to the University of Chicago to give a set of lectures under the auspices of a conservative program that had produced influential books by Leo Strauss, George F. Kennan, Daniel J. Boorstin and others. Voegelin’s lectures were gathered into a book, The New Science of Politics. It was through this book that American conservatives were introduced to the concept of Gnosticism in its political and ideological application.

VOEGELIN’S GRAND HISTORY begins with the priestly kings of antiquity who united the secular and spiritual order under their rule. Over time, the unity of their authority developed cracks, many of which resulted from the growth of Christian belief in an omnipotent God who is ontologically separate from His Creation. Society became more secular as the created world was de-divinized, but the spiritual energies were not scoured from the Western imagination—they were merely sublimated. This is where Gnosticism comes into play: For Voegelin, it names the true motivation of anyone who advocates any substantive change to the political order. It is the attempt to bring “our knowledge of transcendence”—our inchoate sense of the Kingdom of Heaven, the eschaton, the endpoint of history—into secular reality through politics.

Voegelin experienced the rise of both Nazism and Bolshevism, and he came to see Gnosticism at the motive core of both movements. “The totalitarianism of our time,” he wrote, “must be understood as journey’s end of the Gnostic search for a civil theology.” But Voegelin was interested in more than endpoints. He saw Gnosticism in a variety of dynamic and emerging ideologies including liberalism, progressivism, positivism, scientism, and still other outlooks and systems. Few could escape his novel, encompassing metaphysical critique.

If Gnosticism involves self-deception—no advocates of the ideological systems Voegelin targeted would accept it as a characterization of their true political motives—it also runs afoul of a self-defeating contradiction, Voegelin argued: Its gnosis, the special knowledge upon which these movements are based, is ultimately false. In his view, Gnostics see their program as an end state that they insist upon in defiance of reality. When Gnostics triumph politically, they only manage to build a dreamworld— fundamentally flawed social arrangements that create a “very complex pneumopathological state of mind”—which he elsewhere defines as the “condition of a thinker who, in his revolt against the world as it has been created by God, arbitrarily omits an element of reality in order to create the fantasy of a new world—among anyone unfortunate enough to live under them, including the Gnostics themselves.

The Summers of Theory (Peter E. Gordon, 4/09/24, Boston Review)

On the one hand, “theory” carried a hint of privilege, the cultivation of exquisite skills in reading and interpretation that were accessible only to an elite. On the other hand, it implied the hopeful idea of an emancipatory practice, since presumably anyone who wished to “do theory” did so because it promised, someday and somehow, to link up with the moral and political business of transforming the world.