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Gnosis in EricVoegelin's Philosophy

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Fall, 2005 - Vol. 34, No. 1

The book certainly has an odd reception. Setting aside a fewpositivists, everybody seems to consider it very important, thoughnobody knows exactly why. Anyway, from my correspondence Isee that it is read widely; and apparently it does not sell badly.

Eric Voegelin on The New Science
of Politics,
11 November 19531

The present paper re-examines the role that terms such as""gnostic,"" ""gnosis"" and ""gnosticism"" played in Eric Voegelin'sthought and its development. Such a re-examination seems appropriatefor a number of reasons. First, as Murray Jardine observed,Eric Voegelin is still ""probably best known to the current generationof American political theorists from his unrelenting critique ofmodernity in The New Science of Politics […].""2 Voegelin's ""unrelentingcritique"" in what is, arguably, his most ""successful"" book wasbased on a twofold argument. He claimed (1) that ""the growth ofgnosticism"" was ""the essence of modernity"" and (2) that there was ahistorical continuity from ancient ""gnosis"" to its modern variants.3For the proper evaluation of Voegelin's work it appears essential,therefore, to locate the insights from The New Science of Politics(NSP)—and especially the insights concerning ""gnosticism""—withinthe context of the overall development of Voegelin's thought.Furthermore, and second, there is the question of the empiricalvalidity of Voegelin's analysis of the relationship between ""gnosticism""and modernity as presented in NSP. The two problems—theplace of NSP within Voegelin's life-work and the empirical validityof the book's contents—are analytically distinct. The analysis of""gnosticism"" might have been an important milestone in his workeven if it were factually incorrect. The value of the work does notexclusively depend on its empirical correctness. Indeed, before wecan draw any conclusions regarding the relationship between thetwo problems we will first need to establish in what ways, if at all,Voegelin uses ""gnosticism"" as an ""empirical concept.""

The paper is divided into four parts. In the first part we will tracethe evolution of Voegelin's treatment of ""gnosticism"" from NSP toIn Search of Order. Part 2 reconstructs Voegelin's self-understandingon the basis of his presentation of the ""meditative quest for truth""as we find it in Anamnesis and the later works. This reconstructionshould then allow us to locate the work on ""gnosis"" within his selfunderstanding.The question of the empirical validity of Voegelin'sanalysis of ""gnosticism"" is briefly taken up in Part 3. In the concludingPart 4 we will explore the implications of our analysis for ourunderstanding of Voegelin's philosophical quest as a whole.

1. Eric Voegelin on ""gnosticism""

Many authors tend to highlight the fact that Eric Voegelin, afteryears of reflection, came to re-consider his views on the ""corrosionof Western civilization through gnosticism.""4 Indeed, as we shall seebelow, Voegelin admitted that NSP had overemphasized the ""gnostic""contribution to the shaping of modernity. Other factors, such as the""miscarriage"" of Neo-Platonism during the Renaissance, had beenof equal importance. Commentators have also drawn attention toNSP's aggressive style, a style that appears very remote from the""meditative essays"" of his later work. Accordingly, it has beensuggested that NSP is little more than an example of ""Cold Warrhetorics.""5 On both accounts—those that emphasize flaws in itscontents as well as those that emphasize flaws in its style—NSP turnsout to be an exception or aberration in Voegelin's enterprise and isthus representative of only a fairly short episode in Voegelin's lifeand work.

These assessments, however, are problematic because theyconflict with Voegelin's understanding of this particular ""episode.""More than twenty years after the event, he still consideredthe work he did on the Walgreen Lectures a ""breakthrough.""6Arguably, it was this vision, the sudden recognition of a structuralequivalence between ancient ""gnosis"" and modern ideologies,that launched Voegelin's later work.7 If NSP was to be dismissedas an ""episode"" or aberration, the status of the late work might becalled into question as well.8 It seems important, therefore, tolook back at what Voegelin himself had to say on this matter andat how his views evolved in the aftermath of NSP.

1.1. Continuity

In the book proposal for NSP, at that time still entitled BeyondModernity, Voegelin explained that the second part of the proposedwork was to be ""devoted to modern society and the type of Gnostictruth which it represents."" Emphasizing the book's originality, headded that ""the idea that modern politics is essentially a Gnosticmovement is quite new. It is probably not known to anybody exceptone or two specialists like Hans Urs von Balthasar.""9 These linesreveal a genuine sense of discovery. While he was preparing thevolume, Voegelin must have felt that he was among the first tounearth an important truth concerning both the history and essenceof modernity. This sense of discovery was later qualified as hebecame aware that his work continued a tradition of scholarship thatincluded, in addition to von Balthasar, Ferdinand Christian Baur,Hans Jonas and Henri de Lubac. While this insight might haverelativized his own contribution, it also allowed him to draw on anestablished body of scholarship in defence of his own enterprise. Aslate as 1959, eight years after lecturing on modernity and ""gnosticism""in Chicago, Voegelin wrote in a letter to Carl J. Friedrich:

Then there is the question of Gnosis. You attribute to me the""readiness"" to identify all sorts of ideas as Gnostic—as if that weremy oddity. Well, if you attribute to me, as is frequently done, thegreat discovery of the problem of modern Gnosis and its continuitywith antiquity, I must decline the honor and humbly disavowthat stroke of genius. I ran across the problem for the first timein Balthasar's Prometheus of 1937. Then I ascertained that he wasright, through the study of Jonas's Gnosis of 1934, and through thereading of mountains of materials on medieval sectarianism. Forthe modern application, I found this view confirmed through theworks of Lubac. And then I took the precaution of discussing thequestion in detail with Puech, Quispel, and Bultmann, that is,with the foremost living authorities on Gnosis and Christianity.They all agreed that this was indeed the issue. To sum up:everybody who is somebody in questions of this kind shares theopinion. Of course, you are quite right when you state that thiscomes as a surprise to the ""profession."" But you know as well as Ido, that the ""profession"" consists to a notable percentage ofacademic racketeers who cash professors' salaries without theminimum effort of even reading the books written by otherpeople. And when you speak of the ""startling consequences"" withregard to the bracketing of contemporary figures, I can onlyassure you that they are not startling at all, but common-place, tothe scholars who know their business. Again, I am flabbergastedthat you of all people should take the side of the racketeers againstthe scholars—and what scholars—look again at the names givenabove.""10

Against mounting criticism, Voegelin continued to pursue theresearch program unfolding from NSP's diagnosis of modernitythroughout the 1960s. In 1959, the problem of ""gnosticism"" was tobecome the central focus of the final volume of the Order andHistory series. The first part of the volume was to be entitled ""TheGnosis of Western society from Charlemagne to the outburst of theReformation,"" while the second part had the provisional title ""TheGnostic transformation of Western society.""11 And although theemphasis on ""gnosis"" had faded to some extent, a revised outline ofthe final volume of the series from 1963 still concludes with a sectionon ""The continuity of the Gnostic movement from antiquity to thepresent.""12 In 1961, as he was looking for external funding for hisnew institute for political science in Munich, Voegelin applied to theFritz-Thyssen-Stiftung with a proposal that included as one of itsimportant projects research on the ""entire complex of Gnosis,ancient and modern"" as well as on the ""system"" as the typically""gnostic"" form of thinking. When it turned out that the Thyssenfoundation would not fund entire institutions but only researchprojects, it was suggested that Voegelin should concentrate on theproject on ""gnosticism."" With a reformulated project on ""modernpolitical mass movements and their spiritual motivation throughvariants of gnosis"" Voegelin's application was eventually successful.The project was funded over three years between 1962 and 1965.13And in the preface written for the 1968 American edition of Science,Politics, and Gnosticism, Voegelin still asserted with confidence that""the more we come to know about the Gnosis of antiquity, the moreit becomes certain that modern movements of thought, such asprogressivism, positivism, Hegelianism, and Marxism, are variantsof Gnosticism.""14


These ideas remained a constant in Voegelin's work also throughoutthe 1970s and 1980s. ""The Eclipse of Reality"" compares Schiller'sinterpretation of Genesis to the ""ancient Gnostic inversion of theFall of man as a Promethean revolt against God,"" and speaks of the""Gnostic endowment of the homunculus,"" of the imaginary manwho, after embracing the ""Gnostic spirit"" as well as ""doxic reason,""eclipses both faith and philosophy.15 The analysis of ""gnosticism""continues in The Ecumenic Age, where we encounter the ""gnosticthinkers,"" ""both ancient and modern,"" as the ""great psychologists ofalienation, carriers of the Promethean revolt."" In fact, Voegelin linksthe emergence of ""gnosticism"" directly to the substance of TheEcumenic Age: ""…the Gnostic deformation of consciousness mustbe put into the pragmatic and spiritual context of the Ecumenic Agewhich is the subject-matter of the present volume."" And again we arereminded of the parallels between the ancient and modern variantsof the ""gnostic"" ""distortion of reality"": ""In the prototypical case ofmodern Gnosticism, in Hegel's system, the essential core is the sameas in the Valentinian speculations […]."" We learn that once""gnosticism,"" the ""dead end,"" had entered the universal field ofhistory, it was there to last:

""Since Gnosticism surrounds the libido dominandi in man witha halo of spiritualism or idealism, and can always nourish itsrighteousness by pointing to the evil in the world, no historicalend to the attraction is predictable once magic pneumatism hasentered history as a mode of existence.""16

The theme returns also in ""Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme:A Meditation,"" where Voegelin explains that the ""Gnostic-satanicmovements"" with their ""revolt against reality"" had become ""a forcein world history.""17

Finally, both Volumes 4 and 5 of Order and History feature thefamiliar distinction between ancient and modern ""gnosis."" Volume4 asserts that while the ""early [gnostic] movements attempt to escapefrom the metaxy by splitting its poles into the hypostases of this worldand the Beyond, the modern apocalyptic-Gnostic movements attemptto abolish the metaxy by transforming the Beyond into thisworld.""18 The formula is used also in Volume 5, where both ancientand modern ""gnosis"" amount to a ""revolt in consciousness"":

""At the extreme of the revolt in consciousness, ""reality"" and the""beyond"" become two separate entities, two ""things,"" to bemagically manipulated by suffering man for the purpose of eitherabolishing ""reality"" altogether and escaping into the ""beyond,"" orof forcing the order of the ""beyond"" into ""reality."" The first of themagic alternatives is preferred by the Gnostics of antiquity, thesecond one by the modern Gnostic thinkers.""19

Voegelin also does not in any way revoke the diagnosis of ""contemporaryWestern society"" which was first put forward in NSP. InSearch of Order presents the ""deformation of consciousness"" andthe ""confusion of language"" as syndromes of a disorder that hasgrown ""to the proportion of an established, in the sense of publiclyaccepted, state of unconsciousness.""20

It is thus fair to say that Voegelin never departed fundamentallyfrom the NSP vision of a structural equivalence between ancient andmodern ""gnosis."" Even if we admit that ""gnosticism"" did not againfeature as prominently as it did in NSP, the evidence still suggeststhat this was not because Voegelin abandoned the arguments firstmade in NSP but because he took them for granted and left thedetails to the specialists and to his students.

1.2. Adjustments

Although, as we saw, Voegelin never abandoned his ideas on""gnosticism"" entirely, he had many reasons for becoming morecautious in presenting them in his later work. After all, even theauthorities mentioned in his letter to Friedrich had openly expressedtheir disagreement. Bultmann, for example, found Voegelin'scharacterization of ""gnosis"" inappropriate. He spoke of a ""secularization""of the term and wondered whether this gesture was ""admissible.""And again, commenting on Wissenschaft, Politik und Gnosis,he disapproved of Voegelin's use of the label ""gnosis"" and ""gnostic.""21Voegelin's friend Alfred Schütz, too, expressed reservations.22 Asalways, however, the criticism that carried most weight and, therefore,was most painful to endure was the criticism that came fromexperts like Bultmann. In a letter to Gerhart Niemeyer, Voegelincomplained that

""[w]henever you suggest a general causal connection between aninstitutional state of order or disorder and a spiritual experienceand its symbolization, you run into the snag that a connoisseur ofhistory can give you an instantia contraria which invalidates thegeneral relation which you have assumed on the basis of yourlimited materials.""23

Voegelin responded to the criticisms not by giving up his claimsregarding the contemporary relevance of ""gnosticism"" but by refiningthem. In a lecture given at the Eric Voegelin-Symposium at theUniversity of Notre Dame during Spring 1971, held in honor of ""20years of The New Science of Politics,"" he noted that ""there is nothingabout The New Science of Politics, as I wrote it twenty years ago, thathas to be retracted. It fits, on the whole, still, but a lot has to beadded.""24 On this occasion, he lamented the ""dogmatization, whichsets in whenever a book is published."" In case of NSP, this dogmatizationwas

perhaps more dangerous than in the other situations,…becauseimmediately the problem of gnosis as characteristic of modernpolitical ideas—especially in the great speculative systems ofFichte, Hegel, of Marx and Comte, et al.—attracted attention andwas absolutized. And every day I get questions of the kind: ""Is theRussian government a Gnostic government?"" Of course, thingsare not that simple.

The situation was ""not that simple,"" he explained, because ""gnosis""turned out to be but one element in the ""modern compound."" Therewere other elements, including apocalyptic and Neo-Platonic symbolisms.He concluded: ""Gnosis is not the panacea and the recipe fordealing with modernity. There are other problems besides Gnosis inmodern political science.""25

This broadening of the original vision is also discussed in theAutobiographical Reflections, dictated in 1973:

Since my first applications of Gnosticism to modern phenomenain The New Science of Politics and in 1959 in my study on Science,Politics, and Gnosticism, I have had to revise my position. Theapplication of the category of Gnosticism to modern ideology, ofcourse, stands. In a more complete analysis, however, there areother factors to be considered in addition. One of these factors isthe metastatic apocalypse deriving directly from the Israeliteprophets, via Paul, and forming a permanent strand in Christiansectarian movements right up to the Renaissance…. I found,furthermore, that neither the apocalyptic nor the Gnostic strandcompletely accounts for the process of immanentization. Thisfactor has independent origins in the revival of neo-Platonism inFlorence in the late fifteenth century.26

As always when he felt it necessary to revise his ""position,"" Voegelinexplained the revision as an adjustment made in response to newempirical material becoming available:

…over the years what I had seen in the 1940s and 1950s as aproblem had also been seen by others, and the historical explorationof such problems as Gnosticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, theNag Hammadi finds, the prehistory of Pseudo-Dionysius, therevival of neo-Platonism in the Renaissance and its developmentsup to Hegel, had made enormous progress, so that now I couldrefer to the studies of the sources conducted by a great numberof scholars—sources that had not been accessible to the public inthe 1940s and 1950s….""27

Thus, in 1973 Voegelin had plans to develop a ""philosophy ofhistory"" that would ""include the new picture of prehistory that isemerging following the revision of the C-14 dates after 1966, as wellas the entirely new picture of origins of modernity in the Renaissancewith special emphasis on hermetism, neo-Platonism, magic,apocalypse, and Gnosticism as compound strands in the structure ofthe modern West.""28 The extent to which Voegelin's horizon hadbroadened since the 1950s is nicely illustrated in a list of twelve""languages of order"" [Sprachen der Ordnung] to be found in a file""Notes and research material on Philosophy of History"" in theHoover Archives.29 The twelve ""languages of order"" are:

Myth, ancient-oriental [alt-orientalisch]
Myth, hellenic
Neo-Platonic systems
Philosophy of consciousness

The list indicates how, for Voegelin, the problem of ""gnosis"" hadbecome just one item in a cluster of fundamental problems relatedto the experience and expression of order. Indeed, the problem thatwas at the centre of the second part of NSP, the characterization ofmodernity, seems to have largely disappeared from the range ofproblems that Voegelin was exploring in his work. The problemfaded into background as it became clear that the periodization ofhistory into epochs or eras such as ""modernity"" resulted from ""theapplication of apocalyptic symbols to immanent history."" In theaddress given at Notre Dame in 1971, Voegelin noted that theproblem of historical epochs, ""the paroxism of successiveavantgardes,"" was one of the problems he had neglected in NSP.30It is perhaps not surprising, then, that later in his life he devotedmore time to the paleolithicum—he travelled to France, Ireland,Iran and Hawaii in order to see pre-historical cave paintings andmonuments—than to ""modernity.""

Accordingly, when invited by Richard Bishirjian in 1976 tocontribute to a book on ""Gnosticism and Modernity,"" Voegelindeclined, referring to ""all [his] other work"" that he was burdenedwith. But he offered important advice:

One comment I should make right now. Obviously the title""Gnosticism and Modernity"" is, at least partly, inspired by my ownwork in the field. But when I hit on this problem, that was 25 yearsago. In the meantime, science in this matter has advanced. Andtoday I would have to say that Gnosticism is one component in thehistorical structure of modernity but no more than one. Of equalimportance, it has turned out, are apocalyptic, neo-Platonism,hermeticism, alchemy, and magic. Your projected volume wouldhave to take account of this newer development in the historicalsciences—or there will be critics who will blame it for inadequacy.31

In his reply Bishirjian wondered whether ""these various movements[could] be considered species of the genus Gnosticism.""32 ButVoegelin disagreed:

The literature on magic, neo-Platonism, apocalyptic, Kabbalah,hermeticism, and alchemy is growing prodigiously and can beread by anybody who cares to read it. All of these factors arecomponents in the present intellectual disorder, just as is Gnosticism….I would be cautious about using ""Gnosticism"" as a genus,comprehending the other movements.33

There almost developed an aversion on Voegelin's part againstattempts at making him the representative of a ""position"" in thedebate on ""modernity."" He did not hide his impatience when he feltthat the insights of NSP were ""dogmatized"" beyond the empiricalanalysis from which, he claimed, they were derived. For example, ina letter to Dante Germino he writes:

Since you include some remarks on what I have said now almosttwenty years ago about the problem of modernity, I shouldperhaps express a little sorrow that you tend to dogmatize a resultof empirical analysis. During the last twenty years, the study ofGnosticism and its modern variants has advanced very much.Hence, what apparently you consider a ""position"" in the matter,has undergone considerable changes, which, in their turn, are nota ""position"" but an expression of the present state of science in thismatter…. In the meanwhile, we have learned about the connectionsbetween gnosis on the one side and sorcery and alchemy onthe other side through Festugière. It now looks as if the sorcerywhich emerges from Enlightenment rationalism were a sequel tomedieval alchemy.34

2. ""Gnosticism"" as a ""type-concept""

The previous discussion does not allow us to draw easy conclusions.As much as the question of ""modernity"" and ""epochs"" faded into thebackground of Voegelin's work, ""gnosticism"" gained in importanceas a perennial problem, as a temptation that was ""a constant force inthe millennial process of the quest for truth.""35 With the focus onmodernity gone, the analysis could move to the more general problemof ""the experiences that result in immanentist constructions.""36

""Gnosticism,"" as a theme, runs through Eric Voegelin's workfrom NSP to In Search of Order. To be sure, there were qualifications,revisions, and adjustments as indicated in the previous section.But Voegelin never surrendered his belief that behind thenotion of ""gnosis"" or ""gnosticism"" there was a very serious, perennial,spiritual problem that somehow, in the modern era, had risento the level of social and political mass phenomena. The image thatemerges from the quotations provided in the first part of thispaper is the image of a thinker who wrestles with the discovery ofa problem and who struggles with its articulation. Voegelin is notstruggling with ""solutions""; his problem is the articulation of theproblem. It is thus not surprising that Voegelin returned to theproblem again and again, wrestling with its meaning and itsimplications. His letters reveal that there were the occasionalmoments when he felt that he was finally able to fully articulate theproblem. In retrospective, a brief hint found in a 1962 letterappears almost comical:

The last week was somewhat hectic, as I finally had to solve theproblem of gnosis.37

As late as 1977, as we noted above, Voegelin was still working on therelationship between the various historical manifestations of ""gnosticism.""He announced that work on ""Wisdom and the Magic of theExtreme"" had finally allowed him to ""render more precise thedistinction between ancient and modern gnosis.""38 The fact thatVoegelin was never able to put the problem to rest suggests that itsfull articulation was never accomplished.

The criticism that his use of words such as ""gnostic"" and ""gnosis""provoked, of course, left its mark. At various times Voegelin consideredgiving up the label—""gnosticism""—but he remained loyal tothe problem. For example, in 1956 he wrote in a letter:

And I have solved at last the great methodological and terminologicalproblem for classifying ideas which operate with a changein the nature of the world. Their origin lies with the Prophets; andthe term found is metastasis. That ought to make everybodyhappy who balked at gnosis.—That is now a great relief, becauseI have the conceptual instruments to handle such phenomena asgnosis and Marcionism, and especially the modern ideas.39

The quotation is revealing. Voegelin could not ignore the expertcriticism, the ""balking,"" and yet he was unwilling to surrender theproblem as meaningless. It was now under the label of ""metastasis""that ancient ""gnosis"" and ""especially the modern ideas"" were subsumed.The ""solution"" was stable, however, only for a short time ashe was unable to avoid the notion of ""gnosticism"" altogether.Voegelin continued to look for alternative labels for the ""gnostic""spiritual problem and its various dimensions and manifestations.Among the other labels that he proposed in this context are:""egophany,"" ""egophanic revolt,"" ""pneumopathology,"" ""doxic reason,""""resistance to reality,"" ""deformation of existence,"" ""refusal toapperceive,"" ""schizophrenia."" At some point Voegelin was lookingfor similarities between clinical schizophrenia and the ""split consciousness""of the creators of ""systems.""40 There is also the notion of""second realities,"" which caught his attention while he was readingMusil and Doderer in 1956/7.41

We will be able to comprehend the meaning and the directionof the development of Voegelin's work only if we appreciate how hislanguage ""expanded."" For the terms listed above occur together, invarious permutations and combinations, emphasizing various aspectsof the one cluster of spiritual problems that was once subsumed—in a more compact ""concept""—under the label ""gnosticism.""As we noted above, the process whereby these terms wereintroduced never came to an end; and the new terms never fullyreplaced the earlier ones. None of the terms, taken on its own,seemed to capture the problems in its entirety. The terms workedtogether, as in a cluster, so that Voegelin's language in which heexplored the problem was enriched and thereby refined.

An important implication of this observation is that Voegelin'suse of the label ""gnosticism"" cannot be fully comprehended andevaluated in terms of its empirical validity. In the context of Voegelin'sdevelopment, ""gnosticism"" is a concept that corresponds to a particularphase in a research process that continued to look for moreeffective language tools for the articulation of its ""object."" Thisprocess was probably initiated with the work on NSP and continuedafter its publication; indeed, the process becomes thematic inAnamnesis. We must not forget that the quest that Voegelin exploresin Anamnesis and his post-NSP works is also a self-exegesis, theexegesis of a quest that Voegelin himself was pursuing.42 And itmight be instructive, therefore, to follow his lead in our interpretationof his endeavour.

Beginning with Anamnesis, Voegelin's work becomes increasinglyself-referential. A questioning movement is examined and,thereby, exemplified. In its course, various names are given to themovement. It finds its historical antecedent in the ""classical noesis""of Plato and Aristotle; it takes place in the divine-human in-between,in the metaxy, and is variously characterized as ""the quest for theground,"" ""noetic exegesis,"" ""participation,"" ""cognitive reflection,""""meditation,"" ""meditative process,"" ""reflective distance."" In thefollowing we will highlight those features of Voegelin's ""cognitivereflection"" that are of interest to us in the context of the presentpaper.


(i) The various names that the meditative process assigns toitself are not concepts or definitions referring to objects. Thisobservation is so important to Voegelin that he repeats it again andagain. Cognitive reflection, he explains in ""The Beginning and theBeyond,"" ""does not arise from the observation of an external objectbut within the process from acts of reflection that relate presentinsights to earlier ones."" Thus, ""reflection is not an external act ofcognition directed towards the process as its object, but part of aprocess that internally has cognitive structure."" Within the meditativeprocess, ""there is no such thing as a pre-existent language thatcan be applied to the movement of appeal-response; there is only thelanguage that arises from the metaxy of the process in its course.""43In his essay ""Was ist politische Realität?"" [""What is Political Reality?""],Voegelin introduces the notion of ""language indices"" of themeditative movement.44 The language symbols that emerge from theprocess do not denote objects or their properties but are language""indices"" arising from the metaxy in the event of its becomingluminous for itself and for the comprehensive reality. Indeed, ""thesymbols of noesis are linguistic indices of a movement of participation.Their primary function is to illuminate this movement itself,but they cannot illuminate it without simultaneously expressinginsights into the participating realities.""45 In other words, the symbolsare ""exegetic, not descriptive.""46 They are not to be understoodas a ""truth"" to be possessed as ""informative doctrine."" ""The truth ofthe symbols is not informative; it is evocative. The symbols do notrefer to structures in the external world but to the existentialmovement in the metaxy from which they mysteriously emerge asthe exegesis of the movement in intelligibly expressive language.""The ""reflective distance"" is the distance between the philosopher'sexistence ""as an event of participatory consciousness, and theexegesis of the event through the symbols he developed in hiswork.""47 Voegelin agrees with Bodin, who, in his ColloquiumHeptaplomeres, appears to suggest that ""symbolism is nothing morethan the last word of each historical religion; the reality of faiththrough conversio lies beyond the symbols.""48 Accordingly, thesymbols have to be understood as an ""index"" of the meditativemovement because they lose their meaning if taken out of thecontext of the movement that engendered them. If they areseparated from the engendering experience, the result will be a""hardening"" of the symbols into hypostases or doctrines. Thesedoctrines, as they enter history, then have an impact of their ownas they provoke ""alternative doctrines"" which are not motivatedby noetic experience. Voegelin dealt extensively with the resultingconfusion under titles such ""literalism,"" ""literalization,""""doctrinization.""49 In a letter to F.A. Wilhelmsen, focusing morespecifically on ""metaphysical symbols,"" Voegelin explained:

…metaphysical symbols…only make sense as the terminal pointsof the existential movement of participation in the divine. Itappears to me that, in this manner, one can more convincinglyexplain what is meant by doctrinization, i.e. by the separation of theterminal symbols from the movement that has engendered them.50

Voegelin later added this phenomenon of ""doctrinization"" to the listof factors which he considered components in ""the present intellectualdisorder"" next to ""gnosticism,"" magic, Neo-Platonism,apocalypticism, hermeticism etc.51

(ii) The various symbols that emerge from the meditative processmay occur together, as in a group or cluster. They may form whatVoegelin calls a ""complex"" or ""meditative complex."" A complex is a""symbolic framework,"" a unity, in which the symbols relate to andmutually illuminate each other. The two perhaps most importantexamples of such complexes are developed in In Search of Order:""consciousness–reality–language"" and ""intentionality–luminosity–reflective distance.""52 The Ecumenic Age mentions the complex""experience–question–answer,"" which only when taken as awhole can be considered a ""constant of consciousness.""53 Acomplex is usually the most appropriate form of symbolization forthe experience of a tension; the complex holds the various polesof the tension together as parts of the one reality that becomescognitively luminous in the experience, thereby preventing themfrom being misconstrued as separate entities.54 Thus, by callingthese configurations ""complexes,"" Voegelin implies that theircomponents are not to be separated; a complex is not meant to be""cut up into pieces or fragmentized."" For example, the ""tensiontowards the ground"" can evoke a complex of three symbols: adivine reality that inspires the soul's movement, a concrete humansoul that quests, and the in-between of the metaxy. To say that thiscomplex must not be fragmented means that the study of thedivine side (theology), or of the human side (anthropology), or thestudy of the in-between process (psychology) should not standseparately. ""The meditative investigation must not be deformedinto these three forms"" because ""the in-between is not a questionof psychology, theology or anthropology; it is always a matter ofthe response, of the movements and countermovements.""55 Thefragmentation of a complex is a derailment closely related to thephenomena of deformation and ""doctrinization.""

A meditative complex emerges and unfolds as the result of aprocess of differentiation. As the meditative process continues, anintegral set of new symbols (or old symbols with new meanings)replaces, or is added to, the symbols already in use. The new symbolsmanifest a refinement of the original insight into the experience thatengendered the earlier symbols. An enrichment of language mayreflect a refinement of ""vision"" and a differentiation of the consciousnessundergoing the meditative process. In the course of thisdifferentiation, the singularity of one ""compact"" symbol is replacedwith the complexity of a meditative complex. The complex itselfthereby becomes an index of the meditative process. Through thesecomplexes of symbols and their differentiation the process becomesluminous for itself.

(iii) Voegelin emphasizes that noesis ""arises, not independentlyof the conception of order of the surrounding society, but in a criticalargument with the latter. Wherever noesis appears, it stands in arelation of tension to society's self-interpretation.""56 ""The movementtowards truth always resists an untruth.""57

(iv) As they try to protect the noetic center of the metaxy againstthe ""deformative forces prevalent at the time,"" the meditationsobtain a ""historical dimension.""58 As noesis enters history, andconsciousness gains insights into its structure, all non-noetic experiencesand symbols are revealed as ""attempts to gain true insightsinto the existential tension towards the ground."" Noesis establishesa basic equivalence with other types of symbolisms and therebyevokes the ""universal field of history"" with itself as the standard of""rationality."" In other words, noesis ""indexes history as a field ofrational structure"" by identifying the degree of rationality of othertruths in relation to itself. A ranking or ""positioning"" takes place,which is expressed in ""type-concepts."" As examples of ""moderntype-concepts,"" Voegelin lists ""compact and differentiated experiences,""the ""primary cosmic experience,"" the ""noetic and revelatoryexperiences of transcendence,"" the ""parekbasis or derailment intodogmatism,"" the ""metastatic, apocalyptic, and Gnostic experiences,""""revolutionary experiences,"" ""and so on [usw].""59 The formation oftype-concepts reflects that noesis forces all other interpretations oforder into the role of ""objects"":

In this oppositional relation lies the starting point for a process ofdifferentiation, in which the noetic interpretation can become a""science"" relating to political reality as its ""object."" This oppositionalrelation is, furthermore, reciprocal in that the protagonistsof a given non-noetic interpretation are not helpless when theirnoetic critics attempt to objectify them. They do not let themselvesbe pushed into the role of an ""object of investigation""without resistance. Instead, they will in turn objectify their noeticopponents from the viewpoint of their own knowledge of order.60

These type-concepts, he elaborates further, are to be distinguished""from the indices of the exegesis, in which the noeticmovement of participation becomes linguistically transparent toitself and thereby communicable. Even though type-concepts canbe developed only in consequence of this exegesis, they do notinterpret the noetic experience itself but refer to phenomenabeyond its scope.""61 It is here, thus, where Voegelin helps us explainhis use of the term ""gnosticism"" as a ""type-concept.""

(v) Voegelin is right in distinguishing the ""type-concepts"" fromthe indices of the meditative movement. The concepts are notinterpretations of the noetic experience; moreover, they objectifythe aspects of reality they refer to while, as noted above, the symbolsand complexes do not refer to ""objects"" at all. Indeed, Voegelin's latework defines the distinction between symbols and concepts in termsof the distinction between luminosity and intentionality.62 While thisdefinition emphasizes the fundamental difference between symbolsand concepts, it also makes us realize their equivalence. Bothluminosity and intentionality are ""structural meanings"" of consciousness,and they both are part of the complex ""luminosity–intentionality–reflective distance,"" and hence they are, in a sense,complementary. In particular, the concepts, too, are indices of themeditative movement that engendered them through objectification.For the meditative process begins in existential unrest causedby the surrounding disorder; every movement towards truth alwaysresists an untruth. In this sense, the movement towards truth is""indexed"" by the untruth it resists. The type-concepts make thisresistance communicable.

(vi) We can push this analysis further by arguing that typeconcepts,too, can form a ""complex."" Just as the meditative processleads to a refinement of meditative symbols and complexes, the typeconcepts,too, can be elaborated by adding more concepts which, intheir relationship to the concepts already in use, lead to a refinementof ""vision."" In ""Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,"" Voegelinspeaks of two correlative complexes, the meditative complex of""(divine) appeal–(human) response–metaxy"" and a ""deformationcomplex,"" to be derived from the former through fragmentation.63Furthermore, there is the possibility of ""deformation complexes""undergoing ""differentiating advances"" in parallel with the meditativecomplex. This possibility is acknowledged in In Search of Order:

If, however, one does not stop thinking, the recall [of various casesof ""disturbances of existential consciousness""] will read as a""story"" of deformative symbols [sic] engendered parallel with theformative differentiation of the Beyond in the Near Easternethnic cultures of the cosmological empires and the ChosenPeople. The recall, far from being a plain account of indifferentlyequal cases coming under a general head, tells a story of increasinglyconscious resistance to beginnings that come to an endwithout reaching the End, culminating in the phantasy of abeginning that will make an end of the Beginning. In the contextof the story, therefore, the cases partake of the diversification thatcharacterizes the quest for truth. Parallel with the diversifiedhistory of truth and of attunement to its order, and closely relatedto its substance, there appears to run a diversified history ofuntruth and disorder.64

(vii) The notions of ""parallelism,"" ""opposition"" or ""correlation,""however, do not adequately capture the complicated, multi-layeredrelationship between the two stories/complexes. The two stories areintertwined; there is a sense, in fact, in which they mutuallyconstitute each other. The forces of imagination that bring forthluminous symbols are the very same forces that bring forth objectifyingconcepts. The history of the quest for truth is involved in thehistory of the resistance to truth, the history of untruth, and viceversa. History ""turns out to be a process not only of truth becomingluminous, but also of truth becoming deformed and lost by the veryforces of imagination and language which let the truth break forthinto image and word."" Even more, ""the differentiating advances oftruth can become the source of new types of untruth, when visionsare misused to obscure areas of reality outside their more immediatefield, or when visionary symbols are subjected to the deformativeprocesses of doctrinization and literalization.""65 But the meditativequest is not simply passively subjected to deformation; it activelycontributes to the deformative process by objectifying its competitors.Through language symbols the process becomes luminous foritself and the participating realities; through type-concepts theprocess structures the universal field of history in which it findsitself. Its competitors in the struggle for truth are objectified andranked according to their degree of rationality. The situation of thestruggle induces ""a ‘language of the struggle,'…burdening theformulation with the double meaning of truth and opposition tountruth; and through the oppositional component of meaningsomething of the untruth opposed creeps into the symbolization oftruth.""66 At the same time, the meditative process finds itselfobjectified by its competitors in the struggle for truth. Historically,therefore, the struggle is bound to adopt the form of ""verbalmimesis.""

(viii) Voegelin analyses the dynamics of the ""verbal mimesis"" inhis discussion of the role of the ""fool"" in Anselm of Canterbury'sexchange with Gaunilo, following the Proslogion.67 In the context ofAnselm's text, Gaunilo acts ""the role of the fool, of the insipiens, whosays ‘There is no God' and assumes that the explorer of faith[Anselm] is engaged in a ‘proof' for the assertion that God exists."" Aswe noted above, it is the encounter with untruth, with the fool, thatprovokes the noetic response. The noetic response, of course, is nota ""proof"" in the sense of a logical demonstration, ""but only in thesense of an epideixis, of a pointing to an area of reality that theconstructor of the negative propositions has chosen to overlook, orto ignore, or refuses to perceive. One cannot prove reality by asyllogism; one can only point to it and invite the doubter to look.""

This ""pointing to reality"" may lead noesis to counter the fool's""negative propositions"" with ""positive propositions"" of its own.""Reality"" then becomes a ""this"" or ""that"" rather than a mystery in theprocess of revelation. The encounter with the fool, thus, affects thenoetic reflection in that the latter, confronting the negative assertionthat God does not exist, acquires the ""character of an affirmativeposition."" Hence, ""the symbolism of the noetic quest threatens toderail into a quarrel about proof and non-proof of a propositionwhen the fool enters the discussion."" This quarrel between the""positive"" and ""negative"" response to the divine appeal is an exampleof ""verbal mimesis"":

As a consequence, the two types of theology together representthe verbal mimesis of the human tension between the potentialitiesof response or non-response to divine presence in personal,social, and historical existence.68

(ix) Thus, truth and untruth, meditation and deformation,meditative complex and deformation complex are not simply""opposed"" to each other. Voegelin, as we saw, acknowledged that""something of the untruth opposed creeps into the symbolizationof truth""; and at least indirectly he also acknowledged the reverseeffect, that something of the truth denied and resisted creeps intothe symbolization of untruth.69 We also noted that the meditativeprocess is a real player in the mimetic game of objectification; itentails the seed, we may say, for its own deformation. But thereis also a sense in which, vice versa, the process of deformation cancontribute to the formative quest:

…a movement of resistance [against truth], if it achieves clarityabout its experiential motivations and elaborates the story of itsdeformative quest, can contribute substantially to the understandingof the paradox in the formative structure it resists, whilethe defenders of the truth may fall into the various traps preparedby their own self-assertive resistance and thus contribute substantiallyto an understanding of the forces of deformation.70

Therefore, Voegelin concluded, ""in the depth of the quest,formative truth and deformative untruth are more closely relatedthan the language of ‘truth' and ‘resistance' would suggest.""71

(x) The spectacular drama of the struggle for truth in historyshould not overshadow the fact that the struggle is fought also""within"" the consciousness engaged in the meditative quest. ""Thefool cannot be dismissed lightly,"" Voegelin explains, because ""thefolly of responding to the divine appeal by denial or evasion is justas much a human possibility as the positive response. As apotentiality it is present in every man, including the believer; andin certain historical situations its actualization can become amassive social force.""72 Therefore, ""the thinker engaged in theformative quest is a human being plagued by the forces of selfassertiveresistance in his soul just as much as his counterpart, theresister to the paradoxic structure of consciousness-reality, isplagued by the truth of reality.""73 For it is from within the questthat both luminous symbols and objectifying type-concepts unfold.At any cross-section of history, therefore, it is only itsreflective distance that distinguishes the formative quest from theother players in the mimetic game of objectification. By reflectivelydistancing itself from the symbols and concepts currently inuse, the meditative process reminds itself that both symbols andconcepts are but indices of its differentiating advance; they neverfully exhaust the process itself. Referring specifically to Plato'sexample, Voegelin observes that

Plato's positive ""type of theology"" derived its validity from thedefense of truth against the negative type of the Sophists, but thetruth defended was not to be found in the propositional ""type""itself; even the positive type would have been empty without itsbackground in the truth of experience.74

(xi) The insight into the truth which is beyond the symbols usedin its defence explains Voegelin's interest in mysticism. According to""What is Political Reality?,"" classical noesis and mysticism are thetwo ""pre-dogmatic realities of knowledge"" in which the logos ofconsciousness was optimally differentiated. In modern times, Voegelinexplains, mysticism has twice become the source of attempts tofind the way back from dogmatism to the rationality of thought: onceby Bodin in the 16th century, ""in the situation of theologicaldogmatomachy""; the second time by Bergson in the 20th century,""in the situation of ideological dogmatomachy."" The mysticism ofBodin avoids the derailment into ""literalist dogma"" by maintainingthe balance between the knowledge of symbols and theknowledge of what lies beyond them. This balance between therealms of silence and of expression characterizes the nature of""tolerance.""75

Voegelin's interest in mysticism pre-dates NSP. In a letter toFriedrich von Engel-Janosi, Voegelin noted in 1943 that the""philosophical process begins, not with the categories of being,but with the rationalization of the encounter with the divine[Rationalisierung des Gotteserlebnisses] through the mysticismof the via negativa.""76 At the end of 1944 Voegelin explained thathe had interpreted Nietzsche, for the study on Nietzsche andPascal, from the perspective of the ""theologia negativa,"" and thisfor the following reason:

What collapses is a historical stage of concretisation and thecorresponding institutions; for the individual today, as much asfor the individual in the 5th and 15th century, there remains thesocially indestructible position of the theologia negativa; for theindividual undergoes a crisis only if he insists on finding hisabsolute coordinates in his nation, as a Marxist, as a Liberal etc.77

This is a revealing quote in that it draws our attention to theexperiential context of Voegelin's pursuit of the via negativa. In atime of ""collapse,"" the individual avoids being drawn into thesurrounding disorder by adopting the ""socially indestructible position""of the ""theologia negativa.""

We are now in a position to characterize Voegelin's use of""gnosticism"" as a concept. As we saw, Voegelin's noetic quest arisesin the form of a resistance against the surrounding disorder; thequest for truth always resists an untruth. In Voegelin's case, this""untruth"" was at some point subsumed under the label ""gnosticism,""a type-concept derived from the noetic indexation of history. Inorder to appreciate the significance of the label for Voegelin'sanalysis, we need to remind ourselves again that both the meditativesymbols as well as the objectifying type-concepts are achievementsof the consciousness engaged in the meditative quest. The indexationof history is at the same time a self-indexation of the meditation;it is indexed by the untruth that it resists. Accordingly, Voegelin'swork is indexed by its meditative symbols as much as by its typeconcepts.However, in the course of the meditative process, boththe meditative symbols and the type-concepts undergo a differentiatingadvance whereby the more compact language symbols andconcepts are replaced or qualified by newer, more refined symbolsand concepts. According to the self-understanding of Voegelin'squest, this process is to be expected; it signifies a ""refinement of,""rather than a ""departure from,"" earlier assumptions.

The close relationship in Voegelin's analysis between symbolsand concepts, between the meditative complex and the ""deformationcomplex,"" will allow us, in the concluding Part 4 of this paper,to characterize the ""philosophical type"" that Voegelin's philosophyrepresents. Before we can turn to this conclusion, however, we needto briefly examine the question of the empirical validity of Voegelin'sanalysis of ""gnosticism.""


3. Voegelin's ""errors""

The previous observations are not meant to be ""apologetic""; we arenot attempting to ""rescue"" Voegelin's work on ""gnosticism"" fromattacks by zealous critics. On the contrary, if ""gnosis"" and ""gnosticism""in Voegelin are understood as empirical concepts then wemust agree with the critics that his work is full of problems. Twoobservations deserve to be highlighted in this context. First, his useof ""gnosticism"" violated the most elementary methodological principlesthat he had defined for himself long before and, in fact, in (!)NSP. Let us briefly review these principles. In On the Form of theAmerican Mind, Voegelin had explained that his analysis was notmeant to impose an interpretation ""from the outside"" onto thematerial; instead it represented an ""attempt at extracting the instrumentsof interpretation as well as the meaning from the materialitself.""78 In NSP Voegelin was able to articulate his methodologicalprinciples with greater clarity by distinguishing between ""the languagesymbols that are produced as an integral part of the socialcosmion in the process of its self-illumination and the languagesymbols in political science."" The relationship between the two setsof symbols is such that the latter should always derive from theformer:

Both are related with each other in so far as the second set isdeveloped out of the first one through the process that provisionallywas called critical clarification. In the course of this processsome of the symbols that occur in reality will be dropped becausethey cannot be put to any use in the economy of science, whilenew symbols will be developed in theory for the critically adequatedescription of symbols that are part of reality.79

In NSP, the symbols of political science are referred to as ""concepts.""Voegelin thereby introduced for the first time a distinctionbetween ""symbols"" and ""concepts""—long before the two termsbecame attached to the distinction between luminosity and intentionality.At the time of NSP the meaning of the two terms is fairlystraightforward. ""Symbols"" emerge from the self-interpretation ofthe social cosmion, while theoretical ""concepts"" are the result of the""critical clarification"" of the symbols. Political science begins withthe symbols, with the self-interpretation of the cosmion, and advancestowards concepts. Voegelin noted that there were manysymbols that could not be clarified to the point that they were of ""anycognitive use in science"":

More than once in a discussion of a political topic it has happenedthat a student—and for that matter not always a student—wouldask me how I defined fascism, or socialism, or some other ism ofthat order. And more than once I had to surprise the questioner—who apparently as part of a college education had picked up theidea that science was a warehouse of dictionary definitions—bymy assurance that I did not feel obliged to indulge in suchdefinitions, because movements of the suggested type, togetherwith their symbolisms, were part of reality, that only conceptscould be defined but not reality, and that it was highly doubtfulwhether the language symbols in question could be criticallyclarified to such a point that they were of any cognitive use inscience.80

If Voegelin had applied these principles—which he finds inAristotle—to the analysis of ""gnosticism,"" he could not have writtenThe New Science of Politics. The term ""gnosticism"" did not arisefrom the self-interpretation of a social cosmion, nor can it beconsidered the result of a process of ""critical clarification"" on the partof political scientists. In fact, the term ""gnosticism"" emerged in18th century France; applying it to religious movements in lateantiquity is an anachronism. While Greek words like Christianos,Christianikos, Christianismos began to appear in ancient texts afew generations after Jesus, no such words existed for ""gnosticism""or a ""gnostic religion."" Some Christian heresiologistsreported that the members of at least some groups which latercame to be called ""gnostic"" referred to themselves as gnostikos. Asthe heresiologists then began to compile catalogues of heresies,they were unable to resist the temptation to generalize suchsporadic self-designations into one single category. There areinstances in Irenaeus, for example, in which the term ""gnostics""is used as a generalising label for all heretics. For a long time themain sources available on ""gnostic"" sects and movements werethe treatises of Christian heresiologists writing explicitly againstthe heretics. When the ""ism"" was created in the 18th century, theterm ""gnosticism"" still had a pejorative connotation. Thus, ""gnosticism""is not a symbol as understood in NSP; the large majorityof groups designated as ""gnostic"" did not interpret themselves inthese terms. But, in Voegelin's usage of the term, ""gnosticism"" isnot a ""concept"" either because he does not provide a ""criticalclarification"" of (i) the self-understanding of religious movementsof late antiquity, or of (ii) the heresiologists who categorized themor of (iii) the French thinkers who introduced this particular ""ism""in the 18th century. On the contrary, NSP contributed to theinflationary use of the term which makes today's students of earlyChristianity and religions of the Greco-Roman world wonder howthey could have learned ""from very authoritative interpreters ofGnosis"" that ""science is Gnostic and superstition is Gnostic;power, counter-power, and lack of power are Gnostic; left isGnostic and right is Gnostic; Hegel is Gnostic and Marx isGnostic; Freud is Gnostic and Jung is Gnostic; all things and theiropposites are equally Gnostic.""81 The confusion is largely due tothe fact that ""gnosticism"" cannot be defined as a category of ideasor ""ideal type"" that exists outside history. Attempts to delineate itsmargins through lists of characteristic features and symbols—such as the six defining features listed in Voegelin's ""ErsatzReligion: The Gnostic Mass Movements of our Time""82—againstwhich concrete historical manifestations are ""checked"" have beenshown to encompass either too much or too little.83

Moreover, the alleged historical continuity linking ancient andmodern manifestations of ""gnosticism"" is deeply problematic. InChapter 54 of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the RomanEmpire, Edward Gibbon had already established a direct line ofcontinuity beginning with the Paulicians in seventh century Syriaand Armenia, to their resettlement in the Balkans, their ramificationinto the Bogomils, the migration of both Bogomils and Pauliciansinto Northern Italy, and the emergence of the Cathars in SouthernFrance in the eleventh century. From the Cathars Gibbon saw linksto the Waldenses and Spiritual Franciscans and the later sectarianmovements, which spread all over Europe with climaxes in theLollard movement in England and the Hussite movement in Bohemiain the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the time of theReformation, these protest movements had grown into mass movementswith manifestations in the Peasant Wars in Germany and theAnabaptist movement, which continued to diffuse into the Netherlandsand Moravia. Gibbon considered the Paulicians as ""non-Manichaean Gnostics."" For him, as for many Protestant writers, thePaulicians were the ancestors of the Protestant churches and hencehad to be absolved from ""heretic"" Manichaean influences. Accordingly,Gibbon does not attempt to establish the Paulicians"" roots inlate Antiquity. However, many scholars assume that the Paulicianheresy (in its dualist version) originated in late Antiquity with director indirect links to Manichaeism, Marcionism, and possibly ""other""""gnostic"" groups, and hence make the Paulicians a crucial link in acontinuity of ""dualist"" teaching from Antiquity to the late MiddleAges. But the evidence they refer to in defence of this continuity ispartly circumstantial and partly anachronistic. There is evidence thatManichaean groups were present in Armenia in the late sixthcentury, some fifty years before Armenia became the geographiccentre of the Paulician movement.84 Moreover, we have Peter ofSicily's report on the Paulicians, which he wrote from his visit toTephrice, the capital of the by then powerful Paulician organization,in 869. After his nine-month visit, Peter characterized the Pauliciansas offshoots of the Manichaeans, and all subsequent Byzantinehistorians and theologians considered them direct descendants ofthe Manichaeans; the two groups were in fact considered the sameheresy. Considering the conventions of the time—""Manichaeism""was often used as a generic label for all ""dualist"" heresies—andconsidering the context of Peter's visit—as an ambassador of theByzantine Empire, his task was to negotiate peace and arrange anexchange of prisoners in what was effectively a state of war—hisaccount must be treated with caution. In any case, we know of aManichaean presence in Armenia prior to the arrival of the Paulicians,and Peter's evidence comes from the ninth century; but we do nothave any contemporary corroboration of direct contacts betweenManichaeans and Paulicians from the crucial sixth and seventhcenturies.85

Interestingly, these problems do not affect Voegelin's analysis inNSP as much as we might fear because, although it treats ""gnosticism""as an ancient religious movement that ""accompanied Christianityfrom its very beginnings,"" NSP does