There is a certain satisfaction, however idle, in finding the seeds and weak beginnings of social phenomena that affect the world at large. And in understanding the orientations and critical directions of the historical process we live in. Even if most of us remain helpless and impotent spectators of public calamities, or witness the vanity of conjecture and the inefficacy of predictions.
For if there is a history in all men’s lives, the which observed, a man may prophesy the main chance of things as yet not come to life (1) – though hidden in their weak beginnings – so it is with ideologies and social movements.
But there is also another distinctly personal reason for attempting to know the background for the prevailing (and sometimes imposed), collective thought and view of the world. In a silent dialog with themselves men sometimes search for, or meditate on, the reason for their past actions. In so doing some wonder, or may have wondered, if and how much the prevailing spirit of the times may have influenced, and sometimes guided their own actions.
For those intrigued by this type of reasoning, finding, discovering and meditating on how the perceived collective mode of thought has influenced their individual behavior at some time in their life, adds some extra, and sometimes surprising knowledge about themselves. After all “γνῶθι σεαυτόν” (know thyself) was one of three maxims inscribed on the forefront of Apollo’s temple at Delphi.
The theme has equally intrigued philosophers, writers and playwrights, literally for millennia, starting with Aeschilus, Plato and Socrates, linking them, in a long line, with the great classic Russian writers of the XIXth century, but not only.
Twelfth century French philosopher Peter Abelard wrote an entire book with that title. Benjamin Franklin, in his famous Almanack, remarked on the great difficulty of knowing one’s self, “There are three things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.”
In Vermont, Sri Lanka and Turkey universities have made of the injunction the motto of their institutions. Freud, a pervert who thought that all men were as much perverted as he was, turned the idea of self-knowledge into a powerful moneymaker. [As an aside and by the way, I read recently that the first director of the Freud archives, a Kurt Eissler, saw to it that many of Freud’s papers would remain sealed until the year 2113.]
Still, some will dismiss such interests as idle speculation. And with an air of worldly wisdom will attribute social disasters [As I write this I am thinking of the gratuitous degradation and destruction of much of downtown Portland and elsewhere] – they will attribute them to the inherent fallibility of man and the imperfectability of human nature. Which is as much as saying that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun. Nevertheless, platitudes aside, it is difficult to find a coherent connection linking some of the macro-phenomena of our time with the immediate or historical past.
However, it may have happened to some or many, when researching or thinking about a subject, to come across a book or a writer thanks to whom they find an explanation or at least a key to a historical enigma.
Mine was one such case and the writer is Eric Voegelin, who demonstrates how the mode of thought, the attitude, philosophy, orientation and the collective view of the world, affecting our current times, belong to the realm and reflect the tenets of ‘Gnosticism.’
The term Gnosticism is most commonly associated with its lexical negative, ‘agnosticism. ’ In turn, agnosticism is also defined by what it is not, namely atheism. An atheist denies the existence of God. An agnostic does not know what God is, or how to define divinity, but does not necessarily deny the Transcendent and the consequent and related ‘order of being’. Meaning, in the end, that things are not born or happen by themselves or randomly, and that there is a beginning of an unimaginably extended chain of causes and effects in the universe. For the agnostic this beginning is unknown and probably unknowable but he does not believe in infinite randomness and disordered nothingness.
For those familiar with, or who still remember the beginnings of calculus, the idea of a cosmic beginning somewhat partakes of the idea of the ‘limit’ of a function. Both assume a limit, one of time, the other of space. Intuitively there isn’t (a limit) but by assuming that there is one, a workable notion of the world, and a useful branch of mathematics are respectively possible.As an aside, critics of the current Catholic (or Protestant) ideological moment say that the theologians run the Church and that theology is a device to enable agnostics to remain within the Church. Whereas a ‘modernist,’ another variant in the Church of England, is code for ‘non-believer.’ Meaning that when an atheist clergyman stops believing in God he calls himself a ‘modernist’.
Gnosticism is not a subject that engrosses the thought and discourse of men. There exists, however, a vast literature on the subject, its history and development in all its derivations.
One variant, occasionally referred-to indirectly, is Manichaeism, a religion founded in the third century AD by a Persian character called Mani. Mani thought of himself as the final prophet after all previous others.
The core of Manichean belief is that life, and the universe at large, represent a struggle between a spiritual world of light and good, and a material world of darkness and evil. Perhaps unbeknown to themselves, American politicians as a whole are Manicheans, for in their obstinate and resentful zeal, the countries they like are good, while those they don’t are evil.
Gnosticism, has its generally-accepted historical origin in the first century AD and considers material existence as evil. In the gnostic cosmogony there is a contrast and opposition between a supreme hidden God and a malevolent supernatural entity responsible for creating the material universe, of which mankind is part. For some Gnostics ‘salvation’ rests in mystical or esoteric insight, for others in discriminating between illusion and enlightenment.
With much simplification and gross approximation, Gnosticism became one of the ideologies bitterly and sometimes violently competing for an accurate definition and description of Christianity’s understanding of God, his Son and the Trinity.
It took four centuries to reach a kind of consensus among competing doctrines and speculations. In the meantime the faith of Christianity trembled at times on the edge of a precipice, where it was impossible to recede, dangerous to stand and dreadful to fall.
Still, just as for the Hellenic world the cosmos had a structure, instructive myths and consequent order – so for Christians God had created the world and therefore the world was good. Neither model appealed to the gnostic. He could not admire the intrinsic order of the cosmos. The world was a prison from which he wanted to escape.
Eventually Gnosticism was declared a heresy during the 4th century AD, but that was not the end of gnostic thought. And it may surprise some that modern movements of thought, including progressivism, positivism and even Marxism are variants of Gnosticism. Today, various strands of Gnosticism affect or dominate the spirit-of-the-times in America and Europe.
One of its best-known and relatively modern manifestations is the so-called “God is dead” movement, made popular by Nietzsche. It has also become a reference for some thinkers and theologians in the context of, or associated with, phenomena of urbanization, alienation, material and spiritual insecurity.
In another somewhat nebulous strand of Gnosticism, escape from this evil world occurs through a natural process, during which a ‘will of nature’ transforms man into superman. The process of salvation, while the gnostic gradually becomes superman, occurs differently in different sects and systems – e.g. magic practices, mystic ecstasies, libertinism, indifferentism, asceticism and others.
We saw examples of these ideas and practices in the recent historical past. Common to all is the destruction of the old world and the passage to a new. One most recent related embodiment and ‘innovation’ is the so-called ‘cancel culture’ – in fact the title is gnosticly perfect, more perhaps than realized by whoever came up with the title.
Implied in all of the above is self-salvation through some kind of knowledge acquired almost magically. But, as mentioned before, the structure of the ‘order of being’, the existence of the Transcendent does not disappear as a consequence of the defectiveness of the world.
The attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase its disorder. In contrast – for example – the order of the ancient world was renewed by a movement that, on one hand strove to revive through empathy Plato’s practice of ‘relaxed seriousness’ applied to life. On the other it was also the underlying principle of Christianity.
One manifestation of modern or current Gnosticism is a pugnacious rejection of the asking of questions, thus in opposition to order, and resisting the therapeutic activity of science. For the concept of science implies objectivity, observable facts, agreed upon methods of data collection and measurement, a constant and dialectic testing of hypotheses and verifications, and an overall, dispassionate interest in ascertaining the truth.
This definition, meaning and characterization of science has not changed. But in our current gnostic collective moment, a rather extraordinary phenomenon has occurred, especially in the West – for example evident in the unfolding of the Covid phenomenon, but not only.
We see and hear people who, fearing that their opinions may not stand up to analysis, make prohibiting the examination of their premises part of their dogma.
A natural paradox occurs when people with equal or comparable qualifications and experience stand on significantly different sides of an important or critical issue. In these cases, one party may be stronger, not ‘scientifically’ but economically and politically. Unable to prohibit the presence of different scientific opinions, the stronger party simply prevents them from being tabled. Or rather, given that one unmentionable sect owns and controls all mainstream media and social outlets, scientific dissenters are effectively excluded from debate.
In the end, opinion arrogates to itself the name of science and prohibits science as a non-science. When this prohibition becomes socially effective, reason can no longer be a remedy for spiritual and material disorder.
One interesting case of prohibiting questions is found in the early writings of Karl Marx, who qualifies as a speculative gnostic. He construes the order of being as a process of nature complete in itself, rather than what eventually leads to admitting the Transcendent.
According to Marx, nature is in a state of evolution, and during its development it has brought forth man. “Man is directly a being of nature,” says Marx. A conclusion that, seemingly, many of us could reach even without specialized education. “But – Marx continues – in the development of nature a special role has devolved upon man. This being, which is in itself nature, also stands over and against nature and assists it in its development by human labor – which, in its highest form, is technology and industry based on the natural sciences.”
There is a hint, here, that nature may be at the same time an employer and a labor union. “Nature as it develops in human history… as it develops through industry… is true anthropological nature.” In the process of creating nature, however, man at the same time also creates himself to the fullness of his being; therefore, “all of so-called world history is nothing but the production of man by human labor.”
As a layman and not to be disrespectful, I would argue that if an elephant could set himself to write a world history he could argue that all world history is nothing but the production of elephants by pachyderm labor.
More to the point, the purpose of Marx’ speculation is to exclude the process of being from the Transcendent, from God, and have man create himself.
Making of man a self-generating hermaphrodite appears a somewhat tall order. But lexical equivocation helps in reaching the same conclusion without openly declaring it.
Nature, Marx says, is an “all-inclusive being”, which also stands opposed to man, while man is, at the same time, the essence of nature. The end result of the speculative train is that, “A being that does not have its nature outside of itself is not a natural being; it does not participate in the being of nature.”
I hope that my 25 readers will understand the immediately previous statement better than I have. Though even Marx must have had some doubts, because he tried to anticipate the questions that his followers may have.
“What objection may the particular individual have to the idea of spontaneous generation of nature and man?” – asks Marx. To this ‘particular man’ (with which Marx would seem to mean the rest of us,) the being-of-itself (Durchsichselbstein) of nature and man is inconceivable, because it contradicts all the tangible aspects of practical life. The individual man will, going back from generation to generation in search of his origin, raise the question of the creation of the first man. He will introduce the argument of infinite regress, which in Ionian philosophy led to the problem of the origin.” To such questions, prompted by the “tangible” experience that man does not exist of himself, Marx replies that they are “a product of abstraction.”
“When you inquire about the creation of nature and man, you abstract from nature and man.” In other words, nature and man are real only insofar as they correspond to Marx’ description.
His solution, at this point, is simple, “Do not think, do not question me.” And he concludes that “for socialist man, such a question (about the creation of nature and man) “becomes a practical impossibility.”
I will not be involved in the cobwebs of Marxist interpretations that occupied and still occupy the minds of millions. However the idea of defining as “a product of abstraction” what does not fit a particular theory, even if objectively reasonable and logical, finds its correspondent, for example, in the shutting off of qualified voices with different opinions on the current pandemic and its treatment.
An even more historical example involves Galileo, who, with the help of his home-made telescope discovered that Jupiter had satellites. Which equates to a Molotov cocktail thrown at the core of the geocentric theory of the universe. The Bishop of Pisa was concerned that awareness of Galileo’s discovery would alarm the timorous, mislead the simple, amuse the profane and justify in some the abandonment of the faith. Unable to think of a response to Galileo’s discovery, the Bishop issued a directive whereby it was sinful to look through a telescope because it showed objects that did not exist.
Some other Gnostic movements, apart from Marx, are progressivism, positivism, psychoanalysis, communism, fascism, national-socialism and, most recently, cultural marxism. Some may more accurately be described as intellectual movements, for example positivism, psychoanalysis and even cultural marxism. However, mass movements are not an autonomous phenomenon, and the difference between masses and intellectual elites is not as great as it is generally assumed. Or rather, especially today, with a specific sect having complete monopoly on mass media and academia there is little difference if any. That is, the convergence of monopoly of media and power renders the masses a pliable and malleable tool of the elites. Hence the two types merge.
In fact, none of the movements mentioned began as a mass movement. All derived from intellectual and small groups. Some were intended to grow into political movements but didn’t. Others, for example psychoanalysis, were meant to be intellectual movements, but had a success equal to that of political mass movements. The same has occurred with cultural marxism. Psychoanalytical theories and jargon have affected and shaped the thinking of millions, especially in the Western world. And when psychoanalysis began to wane cultural marxism took over.
Positivism, on the other hand, was born in the XIXth century with Saint Simon and Comte. That too was intended to become a mass movement but didn’t. According to its spiritual founder Auguste Comte (1797-1857), mankind would become a great fellowship of the positivist congregation, spiritually led by its founder. A globalist before globalism, Comte attempted to enroll into his scheme Czar Nicholas I, the Jesuit General and the Grand Vizier. His idea was to incorporate Russian Orthodoxy, the Catholic Church and Islam into one all-encompassing creed. From this point of view Pope Bergoglio has gone even further, with the Judaeization of the Catholic Church, and the introduction of the Pachamama idols of the Amazon natives into the churches of Rome during a recent congress.
Comte’s plan didn’t succeed, though meaningful traces have remained. For example, Brazil has on its flag Comte’s motto “Order and Progress.” And the Western world owes to Comte the introduction of the world “altruism” – the secular substitute for “love,” which is associated with Christianity and Platonism. Altruism describes or refers to the brotherhood of man without a father. In the end positivism shows how intellectual and mass movements can or could have converged.
Gathering the scattered and thoroughly incomplete strands of gnostic thought, we could say that, having found the world disappointing, the gnostic intellectual gives up on the humiliation of subordination and wants to rule the world. To this end he drafts a program and believes he can implement it. Of course he can’t, but in the interim he can satisfy his fantasy.
No one, for example, has asked the ‘cancel-culturists’ how would America be ameliorated by demolishing all the statues that help remember her history. Nor the ‘gender-cancelists’ have explained how much the world would improve if all humans changed sex.
Equally, I think, the same gnostic intellectual would not reflect on the definition and meaning that Thomas Aquinas attributed to the idea of faith. Namely that faith is the substance of things hoped for as well as the proof of things unseen. For in the end, proof lies in nothing but faith itself.
Finally and returning to our own times… ‘crisis’ is a term that newscasters and pundits use generally and generously to stimulate the dormant attention of viewers and listeners. But the combination of the Covid phenomenon, the recent and fraudulent US presidential elections, the undeniable prelude and symptoms of the ‘Great Reset’, the all-but-undeclared war against European civilization, the cancel culture (to name but a few contributors), justify in properly defining the present as a time of crisis and massive magmatic nonsense.
In the circumstances attempting to make historical sense of nonsense is perhaps one remaining method for mentally detaching ourselves from the outer madness, and from being expected to believe anything, provided it is quite incredible.
To conclude with a classical reference – at the end of the play ‘King Lear,’ the evil Edgar captures and imprisons the king along with his faithful daughter Cordelia, the only one who did not abandon him. It’s not a good time for both of them, but King Lear, recognizing his errors, has now overcome his gnostic view of the world. And he finds, if not satisfaction, at least a more rational way of seeing and interpreting the world. He says to Cordelia,
“… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon us the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of ‘great’ ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.” (2)
1) ‘Gilded butterflies’ are things or people who look nice but are actually rubbish.
2) The inverted commas around ‘great’ are mine.
*** (1) King Henry IV p2
*** (2) King Lear