Gnosticism from a Non-Voegelinian Perspective, Part I
Thus Lawrence Auster, creator and supervisor of the View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of his own conservatism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a recent Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?
The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Church Fathers; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it?
I. Let us begin with two writers from the period of Roman Imperial decline, a phase of Mediterranean history that one might justly describe as a factory – working on double-shift – of apocalyptic ideas and eclectic religious innovations. Both Plotinus (204-270) and Augustine (354-430), the former an adherent of the Platonic School of philosophy and the latter a Platonizing Christian who had belonged for ten years to the most organized of the Gnostic sects, commented extensively on the Gnostics. Plotinus’ treatise, Against the Gnostics, bears appositely on its object in that Gnostic writers like Valentinus (100-160) ransacked elements of the original Platonism in building their syncretic systems, while at the same time attacking basic tenets of the original, positive Platonism; it is likely that Plotinus had the Valentinians particularly in mind in making his discussion. The zenith of Valentinian Gnosticism, considered as an active movement, indeed coincides with Plotinus’ activity as a teacher in Rome. Augustine, a driven religious seeker, sojourned among the Manichaeans as an auditor during the decade from 374 to 384; but he later rejected Manichaeism on the basis of Platonic argument and eventually, Platonic logic being his way station, he converted to Roman Catholicism.
The texts of Plotinus and Augustine tell us that Gnosticism remained peculiarly and tenaciously implicated in the fabric of Late Antique society, against whose existing institutions and convictions the devotees of Gnosis (“Secret Knowledge”) nevertheless pitted themselves in an often fanatically gainsaying manner; and this was the case whatever forms their organization took or whatever the specific tenets of their sect. There is something noticeably parasitic about Gnosticism, which plagiarizes from what it condemns. Plotinus and Augustine also interest us as sources for Gnosticism because Plotinus, for his part, harbored intense suspicion about Christianity, in respect of which, like his contemporary Celsus, he reserved no friendliness or comity; therefore when the Plotinian judgment of Gnosticism parallels the Augustinian, after the Saint’s conversion, the similarity indicates an objective, a true, or let us say, at least, a plausible assessment of the thing at issue.
Remarkably, Plotinus associates Gnosticism with economic resentment, attributing to the sectarians the disposition that, “Wealth and poverty, and all the inequalities of that order are made ground of complaint.” Plotinus notes by way of sane counterargument that, “This is to ignore that the Sage demands no equality in such matters,” because “he cannot think that to own many things is to be richer or that the powerful have the better of the simple.” (Mackenna’s translation, as throughout) The Gnostics, in Plotinus’ description, ascribe to certain kinds of difference an evil character, interpreting those differences as signs that the maker of this world must have created it through an intention evil in itself, hence also supremely reprehensible and a fit object of rebellion. In condemning Creation, the Gnostics likewise condemn the Creator. Plotinus therefore refers to the Gnostics as “those… that censure the constitution of the Cosmos” and who “do not understand what they are doing or where this audacity leads them.”
Logically, seeing that they belong to the universe, if the Gnostics judged the universe wicked, the judgment would implicate them. But Gnostic thinking evades logic. The Gnostic sees in himself a radical self-legitimizing exception, a rare instance of positive difference tantamount to election.
Plotinus, like his revered Plato, understood the natural order as hierarchical. The cosmos for Plotinus is thus intelligible because it corresponds to an intelligent design, implying in turn an intelligent – hence also a morally benevolent – designer. Plotinus emphatically equates the intelligent, that is to say the articulate and self-consistent, with the good, and he insists on the unity of existence. In the Plotinian formula: “The Good, the Principle, is simplex, and, correspondingly, primal”; and “it is an integral Unity.” The cosmos being one and whole, it cannot be in a state of war with itself, or in a state of deficiency; and likewise the divine principle being one and whole, it cannot be in a state of war with itself, or in a state of deficiency. Nor can the cosmos, because it derives from the divine principle, be in a state of war with the divine principle. Once again in the formula: “When we speak of the One and when we speak of the Good we must recognize an identical nature.”
In making these assertions, Plotinus remains in consistency with the fundamental law of logic and ontology: Namely that a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be; and that a thing cannot simultaneously both be what it is and not be what it is.
Plotinus judges Gnostic discourse to be willfully pleonastic in its procedures – it multiplies principles unnecessarily so as to circumvent identity – and thus also to be an insuperable logical scandal. Yet Plotinus objects to Gnosticism just as much on esthetic grounds as on purely logical ones, the Gnostic systems appearing to him as grossly inelegant precisely because of their constant recourse to “superfluous distinctions.” These latter, the “superfluous distinctions,” belong to Gnostic censure of the cosmos in that they express the sectarian’s “grudge of any share with one’s fellows,” even where it concerns normative agreement about objective matters. It follows that the Gnostic is relentless in his “pursuit of advantage” over those who fault his premises or point out flaws in his reasoning. In this last observation Plotinus ascribes to Gnosticism the antinomian character remarked by all commentary subsequent to his own.
The illuminatus, in Plotinus’ words, “Carps at Providence and the Lord of Providence.” So too the illuminatus “scorns every law known to us,” while of “immemorial virtue and all restraint” he “makes… a laughing stock, lest any loveliness be seen on earth.” The doctrine of the illuminatus, making use of sarcasm and denunciation, “cuts at the root of all orderly living.” As Plotinus says of the illuminati, “They know nothing good here,” for to acknowledge goodness would be to disavow total moral superiority.
Plotinus notices that the Gnostics avoid giving definitions or explanations. Thus while the Gnostics claim moral superiority to other people, they disdain any discussion of virtue: “We are not told [by the illuminati] what virtue is or under what different kinds it appears; there is no word of all the numerous and noble reflections upon it that have come down to us from the ancients.” If anyone were to inquire directly of the Gnostics about these matters, the Gnostics would reply with their cryptic, “Look to God.” The Gnostic exclusion of the literary archive is particularly striking. In addition to being antinomian and anticosmic in their disposition, the Gnostics, as Plotinus describes them, are also anti-historical. The phrase, “Look to God,” irritates Plotinus because God, in his understanding, is rational and provides definitions and explanations, at least by indirection through his works. Plato’s dialogues are famous for Socrates’ insistence on defining terms precisely.
II. When Gnostics say, “Look to God,” they are invoking the knowledge-without-experience, the special knowledge, that the word Gnosis denotes. Such proprietary knowledge they specifically refuse to share with outsiders because possession of it – or the claim to possess it, for that is all that the outsider has – is what differentiates the illuminati from the vulgate. Thus by virtue (so to speak) of their special knowledge, the Gnostics consider themselves elect. They are an extreme in-group phenomenon. Under this conviction, they “proceed to assert that Providence cares for them alone.” When the Hidden God abolishes the corrupt world, only those whose being has been transfigured by secret knowledge will remain, and they, too, shall be as gods. Compared to those in whom the secret knowledge does not reside, and who are therefore not transfigured, the illuminati are already gods. They may thus mock and revile their ontological inferiors.
We have remarked that Plotinus discerns in the Gnostic disposition several types of resentment: Envy of standing and wealth in the social order, with a concomitant and hypocritical advantage seeking; jealously against the structure of existence, and disdain for the past and for its inheritance in the present. Correlated with “despising the world and all that is in it,” as Plotinus remarks, is the Gnostic orientation to a post-apocalyptic future in whose realization all attitudes contrary to the Gnostic attitude shall be humiliated and banished while the Gnostic antipathy to tradition will be justified in a triumph. Plotinus writes of the Gnostics that, “All they care for is something else [than the structure of existence in the present] to which they will at some future time apply themselves.”
It might surprise modern readers that Plotinus, a mystic of the Neo-Platonic school, should defend the goodness of the material world, but this surprise would stem from an unfortunate modern misconception about Plato and Platonism. For Plato, as for Plotinus, existence has distinguishable aspects – the sensible and the intelligible – but these aspects belong to a unitary whole. Platonism is not dualism, nor is it world-rejection, despite what Friedrich Nietzsche claims in The Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ.
Addressing the Gnostic loathing for physical reality, Plotinus poses rhetorically, “Who that truly perceives the harmony of the Intellectual Realm [the Ideas] could fail, if he has any bent towards music, to answer to the harmony in sensible sounds?” Likewise, Plotinus asks, “What geometrician or arithmetician could fail to take pleasure in the symmetries, correspondences, and principles of order observed in visible things?” Plotinus claims that the Gnostics harbor hatred even for the cosmetic beauty of comely individuals: “Now if the sight of beauty excellently reproduced upon a face hurries the mind to that other Sphere [the Intellectual Realm], surely no one seeing the loveliness lavish in the world of sense – this vast orderliness, the Form which the stars even in their remoteness display – no one could be so dull-witted, so immovable, as not to be carried by all this recollection, and gripped by reverent awe in the thought of all this, so great, sprung from that greatness.” Reviling beauty, which Plotinus ascribes to the Gnostics, would be consistent with their attitude of “censure.”
One remarks the elevation of the commonplace implicit in Plotinus’ words – even the ordinary participates in the cosmic order and therefore justifies the contemplation of it. A certain intellectual democracy is also implicit in the same words, for according to the gist of them non-philosophers, when they respond to cosmetic beauty or the sublimity of nature, respond indeed to the same supernal order as that studied in a more sophisticated way by the philosopher. The ground of philosophy consists in the average person’s openness to reality, his vulnerability to beauty: “The very experience out of which Love arises.” In spurning that experience, and that openness, the illuminati exhibit, as Plotinus puts it, “the perverse pride of despising what was once admired.”
According to Plotinus, Gnostics argue that, “They see no difference between beautiful and ugly forms of body.” It should strike no one, therefore, as unexpected that Gnostics also, in Plotinus’ words, “make no distinction between the ugly and the beautiful in conduct.” This remark communicates with the other, earlier remark in Plotinus’ treatise on Gnostic evasiveness about virtue. To deny beauty in one aspect of existence, the corporeal, is, in principle, to deny it in all other aspects of existence, as for instance in the moral aspect. To equivocate about quality and degree is, moreover, to attack the connection between hierarchy and order, while at the same time establishing a new, crude hierarchy. In this reactionary conception of hierarchy, one difference alone is paramount: The election of the minority elites, guaranteed by their special knowledge, over against the damnation of the majority-preterit. Plotinus need not be referring to the bearing of individuals, but merely to the doctrine in and of itself, when he invokes the word “arrogant” as a label appropriate to Gnosticism.
Although Plotinus never directly remarks the aggressiveness of the illuminati, the existence of his treatise implies it. Plotinus ran a type of school or college, in whose precincts he lectured on the Platonic philosophy. In the Third Century, Platonism functioned in many ways like a religion or as a coherent ethical system, as did also Stoicism and (increasingly) Christianity. In Against the Gnostics, Plotinus is apparently responding formally to disputatious Gnostic infiltration of his lectures, with disruptive objections and derailing pseudo-inquiries during the question-and-answer.
We can understand such aggression as belonging to the inherent intolerance of Gnostic believers for any belief other than their own, an intolerance made worse by the lack of originality in Gnostic doctrine, which appropriates elements of established doctrine and crudely reverses them. By obliterating the model, the sectarian may better advertise his derivative as original.
Plotinus employs an elaborate metaphor to sum up the hypocrisy, as he sees it, of Gnostic anticosmic complaint. It is as though, he writes, “two people inhabit one stately house,” the house, of course, being the cosmos itself. One of these inhabitants, grumbling about the house, “declaims against its plan and against its Architect, but none the less retains his residence in it.” In doing so, “the malcontent imagines himself to be wiser” than his co-dweller; and he thinks of his inability “to bear with necessity” as a higher wisdom. Plotinus’ word, “necessity,” means the structure of existence, as it is given. The grumbler execrates “the soulless stone and timber” out of which the house is constructed. As for the co-dweller, he “makes no complaint,” but rather he “asserts the competency of the Architect.” Plotinus attributes to the disgruntled inhabitant a type of dissimulated envy, “a secret admiration for the beauty of those same ‘stones,’” whose supposed soullessness and degraded materiality he so volubly and inveterately deplores.
III. To move from Plotinus to Augustine entails the elision of complex chapters in the history of Mediterranean civilization. Repeated crises of civil war and cataclysms of the economy led to Diocletian’s drastic reform of the Empire. Diocletian (reigned 284-305) divided the Empire into a Latin western half and a Greek eastern half – which included Syria, Egypt, and Anatolia – each of which was ruled by its own “Augustus” or emperor. Diocletian greatly expanded the administrative bureaucracy and attempted a universal price-freeze to combat inflation of the currency. When new civil wars destroyed the viability of Diocletian’s arrangement, governance of the whole empire shifted to the East, a process accelerated when Constantine the Great (like Diocletian of Balkan origin) made himself sole emperor in 324. During this same politically turbulent period the movements of the German tribes began in earnest, requiring constant military operations along the Rhine and Danube and in Gaul.
During the lifetime of Plotinus, the public religiosity of the Roman upper classes West and East took the form of syncretism, as typified by the eclectic piety of the emperor Alexander Severus (reigned 222-235). Alexander maintained a private chapel in which he displayed – quoting from John Ferguson’s Religions of the Roman Empire (1970) – “a series of statues which included the defied emperors, revered spirits like Apollonius of Tyana, Christ, Abraham, Orpheus and all the others of that character.” According to Ferguson, Alexander “wanted to build a temple to Christ and enthrone him among the other gods.”
If syncretism, which Alexander’s chapel so paradigmatically bodied forth, were a seeming mélange, then the same syncretism in its generous plurality, its willingness to see divinity in all its many and differing guises, would also point to increasingly thematic monotheism, the other great trait of Late Antique religiosity. It is not so much a paradox as it appears to be. Even before the Christianizing reign of Constantine, who became on his deathbed the first (putatively) Christian Emperor, the Imperial Cult showed signs of constituting itself a type of pagan monotheism, with the one god being emblematized as a solar divinity, Sol Invictus. Personal religion meanwhile began to focus on the ideas of spiritual redemption and establishing a direct, I-Thou relation to the deity. The proliferating “Mystery Cults” and the singular salvation-cult of Christianity give main expression to this religious development during the period.
Augustine of Hippo, otherwise Saint Augustine, born in the North African city of Thagaste, came to maturity in an age of religious innovation amidst the dissolution of many old forms of spirituality and against the background of political and social turmoil in the West. Augustine would die, a victim of plague, during the Vandal siege of Hippo, North Africa, where he was Bishop, in 430. Augustine appears in his self-account, the Confessions, as a wastrel who gradually grew aware of his own degraded status and began to seek the redemption of his soul. He ignored the influence of his Catholic mother, the saintly Monica, and at first, in his early twenties, attached himself as a lay follower to the then dominant form of Gnostic dualism, the synthetic religion known as Manichaeism, after its Iranian founder Mani (216-276).
Manichaeism appealed to Augustine – as Valentinian Gnosis had appealed to intellectuals of the previous century – in part because of its doctrinal complexity. Baroque pseudo-veracity, offering itself as a system to be mastered, exercises attraction of the type on person who wants, as Augustine says of himself, “to be thought elegant and urbane.” Augustine remarks that his reading of Cicero’s Hortensius had awakened in him an interest in philosophical systems. Philosophy, Augustine reminds his readers, means the love of wisdom. Nevertheless many intellectually unformed people, in hoping to be taken for philosophers, mistake doctrine for wisdom. There are gurus (so to speak) who “seduce through philosophy… using it to color and adorn their own errors.” Such were the teachings of Mani to the young and ambitious student of rhetoric and law in Carthage. The Bible, known to Augustine through the influence of Monica, appeared to him at the time, in contrast to philosophical discourse, to be deficient in style, a mere “sort of aid to the growth of little ones.”
Yet oddly the names of Jesus Christ and the Paraclete figured prominently in the treatises of the Manichaeans, who promised to reveal the secret meanings of such figures to initiates. The Manichaeans claimed uniquely to possess “Truth, Truth,” as Augustine writes, “and were forever speaking the word to me.” Even more than did Valentinian Gnosis, Manichaeism borrowed profligately from already-existing systems – from Judaism and Christianity, to be sure, but also from Platonism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Buddhism, the various Mystery religions, and the old Babylonian theology. Mani, like Mohammed a few centuries later, claimed status as final prophet whose visions put all previous revelations in their proper, purely subordinate place. “Glowing fantasies,” “the fantasies of the Manichaeans,” and “tedious fables”: Augustine uses these terms in The Confessions to classify the contents of the “numerous and vast books” that constituted Manichaean scripture.
Plotinus discerned in the Valentinian Gnostics and their writings the traits of an anticosmic attitude as well as of an obsessive antinomianism; he also grasped that Gnosticism was unoriginal, borrowing from established schools while simultaneously denouncing the sources from which it borrowed. Augustine makes similar observations, using a rhetorical structure resembling Plotinus’ parable of the house with two dwellers. Augustine notes that the Manichaeans constantly addressed the Old Testament, not in admiration, but for the sake of condemning the Patriarchs. If a Patriarch had many wives, then the Manichaeans (who abhor procreation) would revile him; if another Patriarch were at first willing to offer human sacrifice, then the Manichaeans would revile him, even though he relented, as God commanded, and afterwards foreswore the practice. For the Manichaeans any goodness save their own is intolerable. Only the revelation of the final prophet can constitute a precedent.
Augustine writes: “It is as if a man in an armory, not knowing what piece goes on what part of the body, should put a grieve on his head and a helmet on his shin and complain because they did not fit. Or again, as if, in a house, he sees a servant handle something that the butler is not permitted to touch, or when something is done behind the stable that would be prohibited in a dining room, and then a person should be indignant that in one house and one family the same things are not allowed to every member of the household.”
IV. Augustine’s plausible representations of the Manichaeans in The Confessions indicate of those sectarians the same hatred of inherited custom and established social hierarchy that Plotinus attributed to his Gnostics, the Valentinians. The devotees of Valentinus regarded the material world as intrinsically and inalterably corrupt. They fervently desired that world’s abolition, after which the pure of heart would be reunited in a kingdom of supernal light known as the Pleroma, or “Fullness.” Augustine would like to see the world improved, but he knows that human behavior is stubborn and that it takes historical ages for a new moral order to take hold. Before he heard differently from God, for example, Abraham would have understood the offering of a child in sacrifice as ordinary religious practice, which it was in the Bronze Age almost everywhere. The Manichaeans, by contrast, exhibit hysteric impatience both with secular recalcitrance and with the crooked timber of humanity. There is one dispensation, theirs, and not holding to it can be charged against an individual even though he had the misfortune to live before the dispensation could be published. The Manichaeans agitated for apocalypse now, the fundamental transformation of a way of life, to coin a phrase.
In addition to describing Manichaean resentment against moral models from the pre-Manichaean past and Manichaean irritation over the refusal of existence to transform itself, immediatement, according to the sectarian program, Augustine also describes the emphatically hierarchical structure of the Manichaean church, with its laity, its lower elite, and its higher elite. Hierarchy is evil when it is someone else’s hierarchy, but good when it is one’s own. To the Manichaean laity, to the auditores among whom Augustine belonged, indeed fell the obligation to support the lower elite and the higher elite of perfecti or “saints.” The practice required the auditores, for example, to feed the lower and higher elites. Now belonging to the Manichaean anticosmic attitude were the tenets that this world is unsalvageable in its wickedness and that all human activity (not only procreation) is evil. Thus Manichaeism condemned the simple act of harvesting wheat or gathering fruit as intolerable violence. Yet the perfecti must eat. How then should they acquire their meals?
As he embraced further the Manichaean view of existence, making their eccentric custom his own, Augustine, as he writes, “was led on to such follies as to believe that a fig tree wept when it was plucked and that the sap of the mother tree was tears.” Augustine continues: “Notwithstanding this, if a fig was plucked, not by his own but by another man’s wickedness, some Manichaean saint might eat it, digest it in his stomach, and breath it out again in the form of angels. Indeed, in his prayers, he would assuredly groan and sigh forth particles of God, although these particles of the most high and true God would have remained bound in that fig unless they had been set free by the teeth and belly of some elect saint.”
Augustine famously argued a point that would become Catholic dogma, namely that evil is not a substance. Augustine formulated this principle in consequence of his sojourn as a Manichaean auditor, for according to Manichaeism matter as such is inherently and inalterably evil. This thesis, that evil is not a substance, stems from the Platonic (also the Biblical) conviction that existence, the creation of a divine Creator, is good. Since matter belongs to creation, matter is likewise good; and the body, material in its basis, is also good. For the Manichaeans, in common with other Gnostics, the material world is the false creation of an inferior usurper-god who sabotaged the perfect immaterial creation of the actual unseen God. When the sabotage occurred, some “particles” of light from the disrupted immaterial world became imprisoned in the false, material world.
Thus during his Manichaean phase Augustine thought of the God-man relation in this way: “I still supposed that thou, O Lord God, the Truth, wert a bright and vast body and that I was a particle of that body.” It was surprisingly through the study physics and astronomy that Augustine came to reject the Manichaean theory of matter: Science explained the character of the physical world better than theosophy did; science also proclaimed a beautiful order in the material realm, which one sensible of beauty could not but admire. On this basis, by a long chain of intermediate syllogisms, Augustine could at last reconcile himself with existence and repudiate the anticosmic attitude: As “whatsoever is, is good,” it follows that “evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.”
Augustine’s skepticism concerning Manichaean doctrine began to develop halfway through his decade as an auditor. The break with the Manichaeans came when a renowned Manichaean perfect named Faustus made a visit to Carthage. Other auditores promised Augustine that Faustus would be able to put to rest the many questions that he had stored up over the years with respect to doctrine. We recall that Plotinus criticized the Gnostics for their evasiveness in response to specific questions about their creed, refusing to give explanations or definitions. What Augustine says about Faustus gains interest in connection with what Plotinus remarks. At first, Augustine took some pleasure in the eloquence of the speaker: “Yet it was a source of annoyance to me that, in his lecture room, I was not allowed to introduce and raise any of those questions that troubled me, in a familiar exchange of discussion with him.”
Augustine exposes the fraudulence of the lecturer in a charitable way, stating that personally he liked Faustus who “had a heart.” Faustus was not, after all, “ignorant of his own ignorance.” Faustus “modestly did not dare to undertake the task,” of answering Augustine’s questions, “for he was aware that he had no knowledge of these things and was not ashamed to confess it.” Augustine writes, “The zeal with which I had plunged into the Manichaean system was checked.”
The accounts of Gnosticism – in its Valentinian and Manichaean varieties – as given more than a century apart by Plotinus and Augustine show numerous similarities and are generally convergent. In both accounts, the Gnostics appear as radically alienated from existence, a mood or tone that expresses itself in anticosmic dogmas and revilement of norms. Both accounts represent the Gnostics as constituting an aggressive cultic in-group that defines itself through relentless denunciation of received custom and traditional belief. Both accounts mention the reluctance of the convicted to allow questions, even while the same illuminati demand that adherents of settled custom and traditional belief justify their positions. Both representations also call attention to the attitude of haughty superiority of the illuminati with respect to the out-group. In a subsequent essay I will examine the extent to which the Gnostic documents, themselves, confirm these characterizations.
[Additional Brussels Journal articles exploring the relation of Gnosticism and modernity by Thomas F. Bertonneau are these: Further Remarks on Voegelin and Gnosticism, Liberalism and the Search for the Ground, Literature and Ideology: Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance and Dick’s VALIS, and Literature and Ideology: Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen.]