In his classic The New Science of Politics, the inimitable German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin traced the mystical and millenarian traditions of Western Civilization, arguing quite convincingly that the post-Christian West is, in truth, a Gnostic culture. That is to say, that it, more than any civilization in human history, is dominated by the tension between those who believe in a Godly realm to be realized in an afterlife and those – the Gnostics – who believe that they possess a unique and powerful set of ideas that will allow them to perfect the temporal order and thus to bring about a sort of heaven on earth. Contemporary Gnosticism, Voegelin argues, not only represents a sort of postmodern adaptation of pre-modern heretical fanaticism, but has also become a “civil religion” in much of the West and, as such, the driving force behind much of contemporary politics.
“Gnosis” Voegelin writes, “was an accompaniment of Christianity from its very beginnings. Indeed, gnostic heresy was the great opponent of Christianity in the early centuries.” However, as the early Christians more fully appropriated the binary nature of the ancient Greek cosmology, and as orthodox Christianity consolidated its power and its following, the Gnostics were largely dispelled, leaving the preponderance of human activity divided into two spheres, the temporal and the spiritual, the first being of this world and the second of the afterlife.
This division of the world into separate realms, what Voegelin called the “de-divinization of the temporal realm” proceeded largely unimpeded for centuries, into the high Middle Ages, when the urge to “re-divinize” the temporal realm emerged, leading to a “revolutionary eruption of the Gnostic movements,” both in the traditional Christian-religious sense and, in time, in the secular quasi-religious sense.
We see here a pattern of moral inversion, one which we noted as well in our previous discussions of Alasdair MacIntyre and the collapse of the traditional moral order. By the time that the modern era began – be it with the Reformation or the Enlightenment – it was clear that the civilizational order had, as Voegelin put it, become “saturated” in lay administration and secularized governance, and yet the problems that plagued man still persisted. And that led, in turn, to the overwhelming urge to re-divinize the temporal order, even outside of a strictly religious sense. The old order was cast aside in favor of new ideas, of reason alone, of rationalism, and the disparagement of both traditional moral calculations and the traditional distinctions between the realms. What this produced in the modern West was moral chaos and, more to the point, the forces of secularized re-divinization, those seeking what Voegelin famously called the “immanentization of the Christian eschaton.”
In practice, the quasi-religious Gnosticism of the West, which has become a prevailing political force over the last two centuries, inflicts its damage on the societal fabric by inciting in the ruling class a fantastical view of the world, a belief that human actions can and should be more amenable to temporal perfection. The ruling classes – or at least a significant portion of them – operate in a world in which certain actions are taken and made in contravention of objective reality, leading inevitably to political violence. Voegelin calls this the Gnostic “dream world” and describes it as follows:
In the Gnostic dream world . . . nonrecognition of reality is the first principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intended an entirely different effect. The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should behave according to the dream conception of cause and effect. The interpretation of moral insanity as morality, and of the virtues of sophia and prudentia as immorality, is a confusion difficult to unravel.
In contemporary American politics, what this dream world project has spawned is an atmosphere in which the President’s biographer can state, openly and unashamedly, that “the world seems to disappoint [Obama] . . . Republicans disappoint him, Bashar al-Assad disappoints him, Putin as well;” in which the Secretary of State can stomp his feet and declare black to be white, good to be evil, and right to be wrong, all because the Israelis and the Palestinians will not conform to his timetable for peace, despite their more than six decades of war; and in which a State Department “peace” negotiator can brazenly declare that “I guess we need another intifada to create the circumstances that would allow progress.”
Contemporary Western secular mythology has it that the Enlightenment and its elevation of reason over faith was an indisputable progressive triumph. What we see in present-day moral culture, though, is that this “victory” has instead fostered little more than moral confusion and the re-divinizaton of the temporal realm, all of which is manifested in death, destruction, and violence on a scale heretofore unimagined.