Russia, America, and the Danger of Political Gnosticism
What Eric Voegelin can teach us about today’s international crisis
I have been teaching a seminar attended by a small number of seniors and graduate students titled “Critics of Modernity.” As we approach the halfway mark of the semester, we have thus far read selections from Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Eric Voegelin - all German-born philosophers who fled Nazi Germany, eventually settling in the United States. During their years of exile - the remainder of their lives - they became rightly renowned for their penetrating analyses on the deepest philosophic sources of the catastrophe of totalitarianism, and remain major intellectual influences in the pivotal field of political philosophy. It was pure serendipity that we were reading Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics in the opening days of the war in Ukraine. Arguably more than any of his contemporaries, Voegelin analysis remains stunningly relevant and even prophetic in this moment. He provides an instructive set of categories by which to understand the current global situation.
Voegelin’s thesis is rich, but fairly straightforward. For those who haven’t read him, here is a simplified summary.
There have been three political-theological “stages” or “chapters” in western history. The first was the age of Civil Religion: when the gods existed in the service of human cities, and human allegiance to the gods was equal to allegiance to the city. Thus, those who questioned the gods or suggested alternatives were subject to civic censoring, the most infamous instance being the prosecution, condemnation, and execution of Socrates for, among other things, “introducing new gods to the city.
The second stage was the age of Christendom. Christianity represented a “radical revolution” in the history of the world, teaching that humans were citizens of two cities - the City of God and the City of Man. Christians aspired to becoming full members of the City of God, and thus understood that their citizenship in any earthly city was temporary and conditional - we were better understood to be pilgrims than “love it or leave it” citizens. Voegelin called this the “de-divination” of the earthly cities: not that divinity ceased to exist, but God’s existence was ultimately beyond and outside any earthly city.
The third state developed as an outgrowth of the Christian revolution: immediately, along with what would become Augustinian Christianity, there arose a number of heresies, most importantly (in Voegelin’s view) Gnosticism. Gnosticism was the belief that the world was a fallen and imperfect place (true), but that humans equipped with a form of divine knowledge (gnosis) could transcend these imperfections, achieving through gnosis a perfected existence outside and beyond the fallen world. Voegelin argued that modern Gnosticism was an effort to “redivinize” the political world - not now by bringing the gods in to the service of the city, but by making the city into a heaven on earth. Voegelin saw the rise of totalitarianism as a potent form of fully political Gnosticism - or the belief in human perfectibility through politics - in the form of Fascism and Marxism, aligned against the still-extant forms of Christendom that he saw especially vital in the United States and Great Britain.
At several points in the latter part of The New Science of Politics Voegelin touches on the subject of Russia. Russia, he argues, arose as a particular form of Civil Religion - phase One of western history. In contrast to the Augustinian west - the Catholic world - he argued that the situation in the East was different. Even though Christian, it was a Christianity that retained the pagan, specifically Roman form of “civil religion.” Voegelin writes:
In the East developed the Byzantine form of Caesaropapism, in direct continuity with the position of the emperor in pagan Rome. Constantinople was the Second Rome…. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the idea of Moscow as the successor to the Orthodox empire gained ground in Russian circles.”
Voegelin quotes from a letter from Filofei of Pskov to Ivan the Great:
“Know you, O pious Tsar, that all empires of the orthodox Christians have converged into thine own. You are the sole autocrat of the universe, the only Tsar of all Christians…. According to the prophetic books all Christian empires have an end and will converge into one empire, that of our gossudar, that is, into the Empire of Russia. Two Romes have fallen, but the third will last, and there will not be a fourth one.”
Voegelin concludes his discussion of Russia as the new, final form of Christianized “Civil Religion” with these sentences:
Transcendentally Russia was distinguished from all Western nations as the imperial representative of Christian truth; and through her social rearticulation, from which the czar emerged as the existential representative, she was radically cut off from the development of representative institutions in the sense of the Western national states. Napoleon, finally, recognized the Russian problem when, in 1802, he said that there were only two nations in the world: Russia and the Occident.” [pp. 114-116]
Later in the book, Voegelin returns to a discussion of Russia. Having noted that communism is a modern form of political gnosticism, he nevertheless discerns that the Communist mission of Russia was, in some fundamental respects, simply an overlay on the more foundational civil religion of ancient Russia. Take away the gnosticism of communism - which he thought was a possibility, and indeed, that the West should pursue victory against modern gnosticism - nevertheless, he argued, Russia would remain distinct from the Augustinian west for deeper theo-political reasons. Russia was still most foundationally a nation forged in the theology of the ancient form of Civil Religion.
That the Soviet Union is an expanding great power on the Continent has nothing to do with communism. The present extension of the Soviet empire over the satellite nations corresponds substantially to the program of a Slavic empire under Russian hegemony as it was submitted, for instance, by Bakunin to Nicolas I. It is quite conceivable that a non-Communist Russian hegemonic empire would today have the same expanse and be a greater danger because it would be better consolidated. [pp. 177; emphasis mine]
Perhaps for readers at the time, and even until just a few days ago, the import of Voegelin’s claims were not readily evident. He argues that, at that time, it was imperative for the Augustinian west to combat political gnosticism in the form of communism. However, even were Soviet communism defeated, the Russian roots in a more modern form of Civil Religion would remain. It would need to be combatted, but on a different footing and understanding.
Voegelin’s analysis doesn’t simply point to the totalitarian political utopias of the middle part of the 20th-century as the sole forms of political Gnosticism. He points as well to the presence of gnosticism in the liberal democracies of the west. In significant part, his book is a polemic not so much against totalitarian communism, but the tendencies of liberalism to develop its own potent forms of gnosticism. He sees this as inherent feature of modern liberalism to the extent that it is drawn to several commitments that tend toward gnosticism. Those features are not limited to, but centrally include, an affinity to theories of progress, particularly through the form of applied scientism. Voegelin wrote,
With the prodigious advancement of science since the seventeenth century, the new instrument of cognition would become, one is inclined to say inevitably, the symbolic vehicle of Gnostic truth. In the Gnostic speculation of scientism this particular variant replaced the era of Christ by the era of Comte. Scientism has remained to this day one of the strongest Gnostic movements in Western society; and the immanentist pride in science is so strong that even the special sciences have left a distinguishable sediment in the variants of salvation….” [p. 127]
Western liberal democracies were no less susceptible to the tendency toward gnosticism as their more radical counterparts in Germany and Russia; but, rather than making an appearance in a revolutionary form, the gnosticism was more likely to develop out of a “reformist,” what he called “right” gnosticism; - or, more clearly, the progressivist left. “Right” gnosticism (or, Leftism) would appear as reformist impulse within liberalism, but would gravitate in the direction of a more radical, “messianic” gnosticism over time. At the time that Voegelin was writing, he believed one found in the U.S. and Britain in particular, that there was a “balance” between the “social forces” of Augustinian Christianity and Political Gnosticism. However, he believed - or feared - that an internal tendency within liberalism tilted toward a more revolutionary form of Gnosticism. The left - which had the power of scientism and ideological progressivism behind it - held out the hope “that the ‘partial’ revolutions of the past will be followed by the ‘radical’ revolution [for the] establishment of the final realm,” a hope that “rests on the assumption that the traditions of Western society are now sufficiently ruined….” (176).
The experience of the past several decades have only confirmed Voegelin’s fear and warning. What was once a “reformist left” is today a radicalized messianic party, advancing its gnostic vision amid the ruins of the Christian civilization that once balanced these forces. What we today call “woke” is merely a new articulation of the revolutionary dream that was once vested in Communism. The examples are legion: the wholesale transformation and even elimination of the “traditional” - i.e., natural - family. The effort to define sexuality according to human desire, aided by technological interventions. An understanding of crime solely as a function of the social order. The disdain toward those who work in non-gnostic areas of life - the working class. The effort to impose bio-political dominion over all of human life during the suddenly irrelevant “crisis” of the pandemic was but an extension of this deeply Gnostic impulse - the belief that the physical world was abhorrent, that we could through masking, distancing, and enforced medical intervention eliminate risk of disease and death. All the while these various mandates followed the trajectory of a raft of other economic and social policies that had led to the empowerment of a disembodied “laptop class” - or what N.S. Lyons has dubbed “the Virtuals” - at the expense of the working class, or the “Physicals.” The decades following America’s victory in the Cold War was a perfectly scripted expression of Gnostic belief and power - ironically, the pyhrric lap of a “classical and Christian” civilization that was enjoying the fruits of victory over its Gnostic foe.
America and Russia Today
Grasping Voegelin’s analysis, we can now ask, where in contemporary age do we witness the greatest dangers of utopian gnosticism? Where are its dynamics most on display as a new revolutionary ideology? At the time of the publication of Voegelin’s book, the threat of gnosticism appeared primarily to emanate from the Soviet Union. However, a careful reading of his book suggests that political gnosticism was never the essence of Russia, but a temporary trapping over its more fundamental form of Civil Religion. Rather, Voegelin’s argument pointed to the West itself - the formerly Augustinian Christian nations of Europe, England, and America - as particularly susceptible to the move from “reformist” gnosticism (the liberal left) to “messianic” political gnosticism.
Today it should be clear even to casual observers that Voegelin’s fears have come true. The progressive ruling class that populates and runs the main institutions of American and European society are now the most thoroughgoing and ideological exemplars of political gnosticism. Their relentless efforts to extirpate any remnant of the predecessor “classical and Christian” society is daily on display. As Voegelin observed, gnostics necessarily become the most vocal anti-Christians, rightly detecting that they are the greatest threat to the “re-divination” of the political order. Those who bear the stamp of that belief - in significant part, in deference to the limits and realities of the created order - become marked as domestic enemies.
A generation ago, Voegelin admired American and British opposition to the political gnosticism of the Soviet Union. Today we again see the U.S. and the West united in opposition to Russia. However, the dynamics have changed considerably, considering that it is today the West is dominantly led by the new political gnostics. The gnosticism of the elites blinds them to the actual dynamics of what is unfolding, as it blinded them previously to facts about Coronavirus and the underlying dynamics that gave rise to the Brexit and Donald Trump.
A feature of political gnosticism is its insistent denial of reality, history, and limits. As Voegelin described gnostics, they are marked by “disregard for the structure of reality, ignorance of facts, fallacious misconstruction and falsification of history, irresponsible opining on the basis of sincere conviction, philosophical illiteracy, spiritual dullness, and agnostic sophistication.” These features are on vivid display today as we witness the rise of moralistic and sentimental condemnation or sympathy (depending on which side they are cheering for or against), whether it’s against anyone who voted for Trump (racist), anyone who refused to wear a mask or get a booster (murderer), anyone who honked horns against the new biopolitical regime (again, racists, or maybe fascists), anyone who attempts a sober assessment of the causes of and cautions to be drawn from the war that don’t simply devolve into simplistic posturing (fascist). We see in the current reporting on Ukraine these qualities on full display as they were during the suddenly-irrelevant pandemic - the invention of approved narratives, the erasure of history, the denial of context, and the barring of considerations of complex and complicating factors.
For those who have been paying close attention, Ukraine - tragically - has been a pawn of American gnostic dynamics. Many sober voices warned that an expansion of NATO to Russia’s border would poke the Bear, leading to an inevitable war. As long ago as 1998, following the U.S. decision to expand NATO eastwards, George Kennan said the following to Thomas Friedman:
“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.
“We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.
The hubristic expansionism on display - heedless of history, geography, culture, and political realism - has become a hallmark of a liberal gnosticism, the feverish faith that nothing can nor should stand in the way of the End of History. All corners of the world must be remade in the image of liberal gnosticism, whether the globe, your classroom, your workplace, your church, or your very biology.
In what has unfolded during the past week, the war over Ukraine continues to serve the Gnostic ambitions of America’s political classes. One can and must lament the tragedies befalling the people of Ukraine - and ordinary Russians. We can and ought to call out the aggression by Russia. We can do so without averting our eyes from the deeper and longer set of historical, philosophical, and theological forces at play that have set this course of events into motion - and which call for prudence and humility, rather than Gnostic certainty.
The Gnostic left - revolutionary gnosticism - rightly sees Russia as a theo-political competitor. It is the opposite form of divination: an echo of the Roman empire formed in the image and likeness of a pre-Christian Roman civil religion. It is confronted by an aggressive opponent, the political gnosticism of imperial liberalism. The fervency of the left opposition to Russia’s invasion is driven by a religious zeal, because Russia is a civilizational opponent to Gnostic universalism. The lust to destroy existing Russia - to engage in “regime change” or even wager that a victory is possible in a nuclear war - reflects a deeply Gnostic dream of remaking the world in the image of a universalized heaven on earth.
The war fervency of the conservative ruling class burns no less intensely. Their muscle-memory tells them that American opposition to Russia takes the same form described by Voegelin - the Augustinian Christian opposition to Soviet political gnosticism. Yet, today the old and new “neo-cons” are the newest incarnation of “right gnostics,” right liberals who are comfortable with a slower liberal revolution, yet always listing leftward in their accommodation to the “blessings of liberty.” They are the pawns of the “messianic gnostics,” no less so than Ukraine has been the pawn of the whole rotten ruling class.
The response of both the “left” and “right” Gnostics to those who warn of the imprudence of actions that would trigger a World War III fought with nuclear weapons, and who call for recognition of the role that the West has played in this current crisis (and thus, which bears responsibility not to exacerbate it) is, characteristically, to accuse their opponents of sympathizing with Putin or outright fascism. Here again, Voegelin captured this feature of the gnostic mentality:
The interpretations of moral insanity as morality, and of the virtues of sophia and prudentia as immorality, is a confusion difficult to unravel. And the task is not facilitated by the readiness of the dreamers to stigmatize the attempt at critical clarification as an immoral enterprise. As a matter of fact, every great political thinker who recognized the structure of reality, from Machiavelli to the present, has been branded an immoralist by Gnostic intellectuals - to say nothing of the parlor game, so much beloved among liberals, of panning Plato and Aristotle as fascists….
Caught between the political gnostics and the modern nationalist Civil Religions is the remnant of the Augustinian Christians. Once significant enough, in Voegelin’s view, to “balance” the gnostics in the West, today they have been all but routed - as Voegelin feared, “the traditions of Western society are now sufficiently ruined.” In the main, they oppose the reckless course being urged on by the ruling class, to assert American hegemony over a part of the world that has a complex history and which we do not adequately understand. While this opposition to war with Russia is interpreted merely as displaying an underlying sympathy toward Putin and his vision of an authoritarian Russia, such critics are incapable of understanding the foundational differences between Catholic Christianity and any “national conservatism” premised on a civil religion. It’s not sympathy with Russia that motivates this opposition - though it is a call to more self-reflection - but rather, a deeper concern for the fate of the West.
If our countrymen and children will be asked by the laptop class to fight and die mostly for them, we rightly ask - for what are they to die? Is it the “classical and Christian” civilization that fought and defeated fascism and communism? Or is it on behalf of a “successor” philosophy, a toxic liberalism that today drapes itself in Ukrainian flags, but will tomorrow denounce the very idea of the nation, particular cultures, and Christianity, discarding Ukraine’s blue and yellow for a rainbow flag, and turning on the Ukrainian churches in whose crypts its people are sheltering?
Whether we have the sobriety to avoid what is becoming the deafening drums of war, and the ability to recognize that gnostic dreams must always confront reality - too often brutally, the deeper the denial becomes - hinges on whether there is enough of a remnant of the Augustinian civilization that Voegelin once believed was sufficient to balance our gnostic illusions, and instead to recognize the signs of the time.
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