The New Gnosticism: The Philosopher Eric Voegelin Finds an Old Christian Heresy To Be Very Much Alive

Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) was one of the greatest political philosophers of the twentieth century. He was a philosopher of history and a philosopher of religion. His chief contribution was the identification of what he called gnosticism as the fundamental spiritual disorder, or, as we should say in the world of doctrinal Christianity, the fundamental sin, of the modern age. His concept of gnosticism is crucial to an understanding of current affairs in the Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as the crisis of civilization in which we find ourselves.

Voegelin is frequently mentioned together with Leo Strauss (1899-1973), another great twentieth-century political philosopher. Both emigrated to America from Europe in 1938 to escape National Socialism. Both criticized political science as it for the most part is practiced in American universities. Both had a sizeable influence on American conservatism, although neither considered himself a conservative. Both praised Plato and Aristotle and disdained most of modern political thought.

But, whereas Strauss praised the ancients and disdained the moderns because classical thinkers thought virtue to be the proper aim of politics, Voegelin rated the two groups according to the quality of their spiritual experiences: he himself embraced the ancient “mystic philosophers,” especially Plato, in their experience of “transcendent reality,” or God, and he criticized the modems as rebels against the Almighty.

Of the two philosophers, Strauss had more short-term influence for several reasons. In a long and distinguished career at the University of Chicago, Strauss turned out many students who rose to high positions in American academic life, while Voegelin had little if any influence in the major Ph.D.-granting institutions of the country. Though Voegelin’s judgments were often interlaced with humor, they could sound extremely harsh, while Strauss seems to have had a more kindly image. Finally, Voegelin’s works, unlike Strauss’s, were dotted with Greek terms that put off many readers.

Voegelin taught himself Greek and Hebrew so as to be able to read Greek philosophy and the Bible in the original texts. He rejected the traditional sharp distinction between reason and revelation, arguing that the “noetic” spiritual experience of the Greek philosophers, in which man reaches up to God, and the “pneumatic” spiritual experience of the authors of the Bible, in which God reaches down to man, resemble each other to a large extent.

If there is a single theme underlying all his great works, it is that the quality of life in a society is determined by the degree of order in the souls of the politically and socially predominant persons in it. This insight originated with Plato, but Voegelin built on it. With Plato he believed that the soul, or psyche, which consists of rational, spirited, and appetitive elements, is ordered by attunement to transcendent reality. He called the soul the “sensorium” of transcendence. The alternative to a well-ordered soul is spiritual disorder.

Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany, but moved with his family to Vienna as a boy. He attended the University of Vienna, where he subsequently became a professor. While still a student, he spent the years 1924 to 1926 in America on a Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship, and this experience resulted in the German publication of his first book, entitled On the Form of the American Mind. Four books followed in the 1930s, all in German—two on European racial theory, one on the Austrian state, and one on The Political Religions, an early attempt to deal with totalitarian ideologies as substitutes for religion.

Voegelin’s ideas on race made him enemies in Berlin, so that when Austria was annexed by the Third Reich, he had to flee from the Gestapo. After teaching at several American colleges, he accepted a position at Louisiana State University in 1942. He remained there until 1958, when he returned to Europe to take up a professorship at the University of Munich. In 1969 he came back to America to become Henry Salvatori Distinguished Scholar at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, where he died.

During the 1940s he worked on a history of political ideas; though the work was never published as originally planned, parts of it appeared in article form and as From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975). The latter work examines the political thought of the French Enlightenment, Auguste Comte, Mikhail Bakunin, and Karl Marx. In it one can see developing the critique of modern political thought which Voegelin made in systematic form in his single most important book, The New Science of Politics (1952).

Other works include Anamnesis, a collection of articles and essays published in German (1966) and in English translation (1978); Science, Politics and Gnosticism (1968), an elaboration on his critique of modernity; and his five-volume magnum opus, Order and History, a philosophy of history consisting of the following parts: Israel and Revelation (1956), The World of the Polis (1957), Plato and Aristotle (1957), The Ecumenic Age (1974), and In Search of Order (1987).

After the Millennium

Before turning to Voegelin’s concept of gnosticism, we need to be clear in our minds about Christian eschatology. The place to begin is Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse. Here we read that Christ will come again to reign on earth for 1,000 years, during which the devil will be bound and confined to “the bottomless pit” so that there will be no evil in the world. The 1,000-year reign of Christ in the end time is referred to as the millennium. Though the expectation of a literal millennium is a powerful force in some fundamentalist denominations, it is not part of the orthodox eschatology of the Catholic Church.

In Book 20 of The City of God, St. Augustine interpreted the millennium metaphorically, saying that it consists of the reign of Christ in His Church in the present era and that it will be followed, rather than being preceded, by the Second Coming. Then will occur the resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the living and the dead, and the receipt by the righteous and the unrighteous of their just rewards in heaven and hell, respectively. St. Augustine’s eschatology is the orthodox eschatology of the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches which are closest to it historically and theologically. It is the eschatology which the members of these churches affirm in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

It follows from orthodox eschatology and from the doctrine of original sin, or man’s innate propensity to do evil, that at no time will there be a state of bliss, moral perfection, and absence of evil on earth. These conditions are the conditions of heaven alone. This point brings us back to Voegelin. For in The New Science of Politics he described gnosticism as a fallacious attempt at “immanentization of the Christian eschaton”; that is, as an attempt, doomed to failure, to bring about millennium-like or heaven-like conditions on earth.

Let us be a bit more precise, however. In both The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin conceived of gnosticism as the belief, which takes many forms, that it is possible to eliminate evil from the world and to establish a state of earthly bliss by, in effect, re-creating man. Gnosticism in this sense is a modern phenomenon but it shares with the ancient cult of gnosticism, after which Voegelin named it, the belief that it has knowledge (Greek, gnosis) of the means whereby men can be saved from evil. For the ancient gnostic the knowledge took the form of an esoteric religious faith; for the modem gnostic it takes the form of one or another formula for establishing a state of moral perfection on earth.

Voegelin argued that gnosticism appeals to those who are anxious because they are uncertain about the impending course of history. It predicts the future and tells them what they can do to help bring about those predictions. Not only did Voegelin consider it to be illusory; he also thought it to be evil because it involves rebellion against the “order of being” and therefore against God as the transcendent origin of this order. Voegelin thus considered gnosticism to be sinful, although he avoided this term along with other language of doctrinal Christianity.

Voegelin’s formulation of the nature of gnostic revolt is not altogether satisfactory. If, as he seemed to believe, the “order of being” is good and has its origin in God, how are we to account for the evil which gnostics seek to eliminate in their rebellion against this order? Is the “order of being” not so good after all? And is God the author of evil? The answers are to be found in the Judeo-Christian account of Creation and Fall, which was not available to Voegelin because of his ban on religious doctrine. But even if we accept the biblical account of Creation and the Fall, we are still faced with the question of why gnosticism is evil, for that which it seeks to eliminate is, on this account, neither good nor created by God. Why, then, is the attempt to get rid of it evil?

The answer is that, because of original sin (another doctrine which Voegelin was reluctant to invoke), human nature is far from perfect. The only way for man to exist in the untarnished image of God would be for God to recreate man. When gnostics seek, in effect, to recreate man by making him perfect, they thus seek to displace God. They seek to perform a function which only God could perform and in so doing rebel against Him. They commit the sin of Prometheus, the sin of pride.

There is a passage in the preface to Israel and Revelation which is of some help in clarifying the situation. In it Voegelin wrote that ideology, in the sense of gnostic ideology, “is existence in rebellion against God and man.” He went on: “It is the violation of the First and Tenth Commandments, if we want to use the language of Israelite order; it is the nosos, the disease of the spirit, if we want to use the language of Aeschylus and Plato.” In Science, Politics and Gnosticism he emphasized the “pneumopathological” nature of gnostic revolt and said of the word nosos: “It means bodily or mental sickness. In the sense of a disease of the spirit it can mean hatred of the gods or simply being dominated by one’s passions.”

The only part of these quotations which needs explanation is the reference to the First and Tenth Commandments. Probably Voegelin believed gnosticism to violate the First Commandment because it involves the “self-idolization” of man, the attempt to turn himself into a god. As for the Tenth Commandment, gnosticism involves coveting what is not one’s own, in this instance power to remake human beings.

Democracy as Gnosticism?

Voegelin saw gnosticism all over the modern age. He even considered liberalism, constitutionalism, and “democratism” to be gnostic ideologies, and some of his students were extremely hard on John Locke, who had a sizeable influence on the American Founding.

It is sometimes argued that Voegelin spoke well of democracy in the last paragraph of The New Science of Politics, where he wrote that it is “the American and English democracies which most solidly in their institutions represent the truth of the soul.” But Voegelin was not saying here that democracy as such represents “the truth of the soul.” He was rather referring to all the American and English institutions, including perhaps especially those which antedate democracy, in whose functioning one can observe the principles of traditional, non-gnostic religion. This is not to say that Voegelin was antidemocratic. He refused, however, to make or endorse arguments for democracy for fear of lapsing into gnosticism.

It is amusing to note that, although Voegelin believed the origins of virtually the whole of modern civilization to have lain in sinful rebellion, he had no problem with making use of the fruits of this civilization. He reportedly smoked a cigar and played the pinball machine every evening at the Baton Rouge bus depot when he went there to pick up a copy of the New York Times; he was among the first members of the Louisiana State faculty to have air-conditioning; and he lived in an ultramodern house in California.

Even before the fourth volume of Order and History, The Ecumenic Age, came out in 1974, it was clear that Voegelin was not a Christian in anything like the usual sense of the term. (The volume was devoted, not to the present age of ecumenism in the relations between churches, but to the age of the ecumenical, or multicivilizational, empires of antiquity.)

The 1974 volume contained a chapter on “The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected” in which Voegelin made it clear that he did not accept Christ as his personal savior and that he blamed St. Paul for laying the groundwork for gnosticism through his teaching that “we shall all be changed” at the Second Coming (I Corinthians 15:51-52). “As far as Paul is concerned,” Voegelin wrote, “the vision of the Resurrected assured him that the transfiguration of reality had actually begun and would soon be completed by the Second Coming.”

In fact, Voegelin is known to have said in private that there are two great evils, gnosticism and theology in the sense of the elucidation of religious doctrine. The problem with doctrine, he thought, is that it fails to convey adequately the religious experience which engendered it and thus gives rise to doubt and unbelief. He is best described, not as a doctrinaire Christian, but as a Platonist who identified with such Christian mystics as Jean Bodin (one of the few modern political thinkers whom he admired), and who, on his own account, tried to follow the Christian ethic in his personal relations.

The shadow of Hitler and Stalin hangs over all Voegelin’s great works, and his adamant opposition to gnosticism was due to the fact that National Socialism and Communism are extreme gnostic ideologies. His criticism of liberalism, constitutionalism, and “democratism” is traceable in part to the fact that, historically, they were steps on the road to twentieth-century totalitarianism. Although some gnosticism is extreme and other gnosticism is mild, he considered all gnostic ideologists to be brothers under the skin.

In a little book entitled Conversations with Eric Voegelin, published by the Thomas More Institute in Montreal in 1980, Voegelin says of ideology, in the sense of gnostic ideology: “I would say that after the experience of Hitler and Stalin, anybody who today is still an ideologist makes himself a silent accomplice in every atrocity committed in Auschwitz or in the Gulag Archipelago. Nobody has any business being an ideologist today after we know what it means.”

It follows from Voegelin’s teaching that despite the defeat of Nazi Germany and the bottling up of Soviet aggression we in the West have by no means exorcised the demon of totalitarianism. The danger of its rising again in our midst is real as long as gnosticism is in the air. Under the circumstances, there is little room for complacency about the extent to which gnosticism infuses our civilization.

The extent is enormous. Voegelin never provided a complete catalogue, but one may say that among the gnostic ideologies with which we are faced every day are: progressivism, positivism, egalitarianism, Freudianism, Marxist and non-Marxist socialism, scientism, that civil libertarianism which follows in the footsteps of John Stuart Mill’s progressivism, that conservatism which seeks to “freeze” history at a particular point in time, feminism, pacifism, and idealism (as opposed to realism) in international politics. Some of these ideologies emphasize movement toward a goal rather than the nature of the goal pursued, progressivism being the best example, but they are still gnostic.

There has, moreover, been a development in the last 25 years about which Voegelin remained silent even though it began already during his lifetime, namely, the emergence of gnosticism on a grand scale in the Christian Churches in the form of liberation theology and much of the peace-and-justice and liturgical-reform movements. That liturgical reformism should be mentioned in this connection may seem particularly surprising, but the movement is gnostic insofar as it de-emphasizes sin and redemption and tries to make people “feel good about themselves” in the vain hope of creating a blissful, guilt-free community of believers in a diluted faith.

Fortunately, as an alternative to new gnostic upheavals, we see some signs of a renaissance of traditional, non-gnostic religion among the agents of cultural formation in our society—teachers, people in the mass media, governmental officials, and clergymen. In the instance of the Christian churches, traditional, non-gnostic religion is the religion of the ecumenical creeds, replete with orthodox eschatology. Voegelin would be pleased with this. Of course, there ought to be abundant room for other faiths as well, and everything recent Christian political theory has to teach about the value of religious toleration and respect for natural rights should be made part of the culture. The work of Jacques Maritain in particular proves that one can espouse toleration, natural rights, and democracy without being a gnostic, and with common sense and good will, men of all religious persuasions or of none should be able to work together to defeat the new gnosticism.


  • Glenn N. Schram

    At the time this article was published, Glenn N. Schram lived in Hammond, Indiana, where he studied and wrote political philosophy.

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