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l to r: Eric  Voegelin, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl  Marx, Adolf  Hitler

Eric Voegelin was a political philosopher and a critic of modernity. He identified modernity with a "Gnostic" revolt against true order and intrinsic reality. His presentation of Gnosticism has been considered eccentric. In his writings, political themes overlap with theological concerns and his version of Platonism. He opposed philosophers of the modern Continental tradition, notably Hegel. His supporters claim him as one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century. The article below is critical.


1.     A   Problem  of  Exegesis

2.     Sufism,  Vedanta,  and  Buddhism  are  Marginalised

3.     The  Issue  of  Conflatory  Gnosticism

4.      Chinese  Ecumene  and  the  Mongol  Empire

5.     The  Cloud  of  Unknowing

6.      Alienation  Clause

7.      A  Neo-Thomist  Philosophy  of  History

8.      In  Search  of  Order

9.      Existential  Christian  Platonism

10.    Reflections  of  a  Commentator



1.   A  Problem  of  Exegesis

In the fourth volume of his magnum opus, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) admitted to a problem of exegesis. The project had "proved more complicated than I had anticipated" (Order and History Vol. 4, p. 2). Some readers had expected a history of Christianity as the logical outcome of the earlier volumes, but this was not to be.

Voegelin had grasped that a linear time scheme did not work. He conceded that too much was occurring during the first millenium BCE, from Greece to China. The Christian exponent had formerly assumed that pagans "could never rise above the conception of a cyclical time" (ibid:7). Now he was obliged to observe that methods of arranging materials (involving selection and omission) were the same in the Sumerian King List as in Hegel's philosophy of history (ibid).

Voegelin was also disquieted by the acknowledgment of New Testament scholars that the Gospel of John exhibited Gnostic influences or tendencies (ibid:18). He resisted any implication that John was a type of Gnostic. He had been reared to believe that Gnosticism meant the view of creation as an evil, which is so often a misplaced dogmatic criterion for establishing a Gnostic identity or affinity.

His hostile assessment of Gnosticism coloured much of Voegelin's general presentation, which extends to a critique of modernity. He also supplied the definition: "The knowledge, the Gnosis, of the psychodrama is the precondition for engaging successfully in the operation of liberating the pneuma [spirit] in man from its cosmic prison" (ibid:19). Yet he had made up his mind very decisively against the phenomenon. "I am stressing the magnitude of insensitivity required in the construction of a Gnostic system" (ibid:20). The basis for such deliberations is theological, if admixed with an "existentialist" orientation.

Voegelin does here acknowledge differences between Valentinian Gnosis and the Hegelian system, which he innovatively described as Gnosis in some of his writings. However, all he actually supplies is a distinction "between the essential core and the variable part of a Gnostic system" (ibid). For Voegelin, the output of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was a manifestation of modern Gnosticism. Hegel's teleological version of history was critically adapted by Karl Marx (1818-1883) into a materialist theory resulting in Communism. Marx also was regarded as a Gnostic by the Christian existentialist.

Voegelin defines the essential core of a Gnostic system in terms of "the enterprise of returning the pneuma in man from its state of alienation in the cosmos to the divine pneuma of the Beyond through action based on knowledge" (ibid). Surprisingly, he says that in Hegel's modern Gnosticism, "the essential core is the same as in the Valentinian speculations." (1) Voegelin evidently conceived of Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) as another modern Gnostic, even though such thinkers acknowledged the Gospel of John and not Valentinus or Basilides.

The innovative commentator tends to attribute early Christian Gnosticism to the disordering effect of imperial Roman expansion. The same materialist argument can be aimed at orthodox Christianity. A doctrinal accusation is that Gnostic symbolism of the Valentinian type "does not derive from one particular culture but indiscriminately employs Egyptian Ogdoads and Pythagorean Tetrads, Iranian, Babylonian, Israelite, and Christian symbols" (ibid:24). This syncretism is attributed to "a multicivilisational movement in an ecumenic empire" (ibid:27). There may be some truth in that conclusion, which does not, however, require a stigmatising approach.

A parallel is said to be afforded by the apocalyptic trend in Judaism, which assimilated "Oriental" symbols. "Probably an Iranian import" is the appearance of angels with names in Judaic texts, such as the angel Gabriel in the Book of Daniel, dated to circa 165 BCE (ibid:24). The syncretism is also seen by Voegelin in the Hymn of the Pearl found in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. Scholars like Hans Jonas found in this Hymn elements of a pre-Christian Iranian Gnosticism; in contrast, Gilles Quispel concluded that the same text represented the spirit of Encratistic Christianity in the Syrian sector and must be dated to the second century CE.

Voegelin lends support to the search for Gnostic origins in the Iranian "dualism." Influenced by Professor R. C. Zaehner's version of Iranian religion (since disputed), Voegelin was inclined to interpret Zoroastrianism of the imperial era as "the result of an existential contraction under the pressure of ecumenism" (ibid:25 note 2). The grounds for this affirmation lie in the view that "the 'dualism' is not originally Zoroastrian but already a syncretistic contraction in the process that can end in Gnosticism" (ibid). This reflection might converge with the theory that Zurvanism was the origin of Gnosticism, but is clearly loaded against the Iranian contribution.

"Gnosticism, whether ancient or modern, is a dead end," (ibid:27) asserts Voegelin in a rather dogmatic vein. Partisans of Gnosticism are described as addicts. The addiction is equated with the "libertarianism and asceticism" of antiquity and the modern coercive forms of "violence, concentration camps, and mass murder" (ibid:28). Voegelin was discernibly confusing Nazism and Adolf Hitler with various other events in different centuries. His early collision with Nazism merits sympathy, whereas his anti-Gnostic refrains invite critical analysis.

Despite his own acute form of ideational conflation, Voegelin resists the mood of syncretism that he sees in antique trends. He criticises Philo's allegorical interpretation of the Torah which transformed Moses into a philosopher (ibid:27ff). This leads to the insistence that a deformation of philosophical analysis occurred in "the transition from the Platonic-Aristotelian aloofness from Allegoresis to the Stoic acceptance of the method" (ibid: 36). Voegelin correctly points out that Plato had no use for an allegorical interpretation of Homer and Hesiod. Plato created his own myth and criticised aspects of expression used by the revered poets; he rejected Homeric and Hesiodic idioms because "the myth has been literalised into stories about gods who engage in such immoral actions as adultery, incest, war, and infliction of war upon men" (ibid:37).

Concluding the introduction, Voegelin says that in his new format, "the analysis had to move backward and forward and sideways" (ibid:57) rather than on a time line. There is again a poke at the conglomerate "modern Gnostic movements," especially the Hegelian; he quotes from Hegel's Wissenschaft der Logik. Voegelin refers to the Johannine phrase "in the beginning was the Word," adding the caricature of "in the beginning was Hegel with his Logik" (ibid).

These rather idiosyncratic comments illustrate the gulf between Voegelin and Hegel, conceivably reflecting differences between the former's partiality for Thomist exegesis and the latter's "Protestant immanentist direction" (a phrase used in Volume 2 of Order and History). Both of these professors were philosophers of history; whether they were correct in all their theories and preferences is another matter altogether.

Voegelin dodged diverse accusatory labels, made in his direction, such as Platonist and Thomist (if the critic is not a Christian, the term Platonist is not necessarily an accusation). He duly criticised the tendency of medieval Christianity to acquire secular power. The Protestant reformation accompanied the creation of new nation-states, which Voegelin viewed as devising mythologies to justify their rule. In reaction arose utopian and revolutionary ideologies, culminating in fascism and communism. In The New Science of Politics (1952), his most popular work, Voegelin described radical political revolutions in terms of a Gnostic orientation. The historical accuracy of such terminology was subsequently questioned, a factor which Voegelin acknowledged.

2.   Sufism,  Vedanta,  and  Buddhism  are  Marginalised

The fourth volume of Order and History is rather more varied in content than the earlier instalments. Voegelin here offers a "non-linear" coverage ranging from ancient computations of time to the Pauline theophany, "ecumenic imperialism," Chinese history, and the modern philosophy of history. A few pages are included on Muhammad, the Arabian prophet of Islam (Order and History Vol. 4, pp. 142-5). A militant complexion is conveyed for this figure, accompanied by a contention that Muhammad's "conception of spiritual history and its finality was on the whole the same as Mani's" (ibid:143). Voegelin was definitely not an admirer of Mani; the traditional Christian denigrations require reappraisal.

Voegelin was unable to come to grips with the gnostic dimension of Sufism, even in such sources as the relatively conservative Risala of Al-Qushayri (d.1072). This text says that when Allah inspires, the aspirant is made an arif, a word often translated as "gnostic," while the relevant state is called marifa ("gnosis"). "The degree of gnosis he [the aspirant] will reach is determined by the degree to which he is estranged from his self." (2) That qualification is sobering; the self or ego (nafs) here means the limiting personality. The gnosis of Sufi mysticism has nothing to do with Hegelian dialectic, nor the "Johannine" dialectic of Schelling. However, for Voegelin both of these European manifestations were components of "modern Gnosticism."

The few pages allocated to Hinduism and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are disappointing, especially in view of the fact that Voegelin had long been familiar with this text in translation. He compares the style of the Indian dialogue between Yajnavalkhya and Gargi to a Babylonian incantation against toothache conducted by a priest-physician. A minor achievement is implied by the argument: "Neither the Upanishadic differentiations nor their later elaborations in the Vedanta systems are experienced as a breakthrough that constitutes an epoch in history" (ibid:320). The underlying thrust of disapproval is theological. Voegelin insists: "There is no doctrine in Hinduism that attaches itself to an historic theophany like the Christian dogma to the epiphany of Christ" (ibid:320-1).

A basic argument is that the Upanishadic or Vedantic experience of reality was incomplete, not developing "the self-consciousness of the Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy as a noetic science" (ibid:321). One could interject that both of the orthodoxies mentioned here sustained undesirable components, meaning the brahmanical imposition of caste and Aristotle's aristocratic justification of slavery. Eurocentric arguments designed to support the Western academic tradition are not necessarily convincing.

The rather condescending judgments of Voegelin include, in relation to the Vedantic experience, the recognition of "an incipient breakthrough" (ibid). Yet this is "a breakthrough which, by noetic and pneumatic standards, does not reach its goal" (ibid). A grudging degree of latitude is extended to Shankara, though quickly curtailed by an ideocentric insistence: "The dominance of the cosmological fallacies seriously impairs the experience of reality and its exploration" (ibid). The non-appearance of historiography in Hindu socioculture is treated as a symptom of an impaired reality (ibid:322).

There are indeed drawbacks to events lacking historical records. The variant alternative in philosophy of history can easily amount to fiction or national pride, as in Hegel's elevation of the German Enlightenment over all else preceding.

The Christian commentator also manages to deflate the Buddhist contribution to the history of religion. "No more in Buddhist consciousness than in Upanishadic does the Question concerning the mystery of the process fully differentiate in India" (ibid:329). Voegelin interposes a dense array of "differentiated" verbalism that imparts a doctrinaire complexion to his worldview. Other analysts would prefer to negotiate the noetic superiority complex and investigate more closely, e.g., the missing dimensions in how Gautama Buddha reacted to the expansion of courtly and urban socioculture which disturbed order at the village and tribal level (cf. ibid:328); this is not a full statement of the situation encountered by Gautama. (3)

3.  The  Issue  of  Conflatory  Gnosticism

Voegelin refers to Plato in terms of the "existential philosopher," whom he contrasts with the "sophistic intellectual," a category who "express their opinions on problems involving the experience of transcendence with the usurped authority of the existential philosopher." (4) The distinction is well known, though not usually couched in the idiom of existentialism.

The question arises as to whether Voegelin's existentialism is really transcendental. He might be considered superior to Heidegger and other existentialists, though to what extent he escaped the "sophistic" tendency to circumscribe truth is a question that may be left open. There is no guarantee that his strong emphasis on the role of myth in Plato's thought is evidence of penetrating the depths of the antique Greek's vocation.

Voegelin urged that the theological (i.e., Christian) attempt to divide philosophy from revelation was ill-founded. (5) "Philosophy is the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order," (6) That emphasis was part of his unconventional attempt to recover the original meaning of a famous word as used by the early Greeks. He may be more profound than other branches of modern philosophy which have jettisoned all "theology." However, for Voegelin, knowledge of the divine remains circumscribed by mystery.

Voegelin's own assessment of his role was that of a "mystical philosopher." (7) Some comparison with Plotinus may be relevant; the "founder" of Neoplatonism has a mystical reputation. The Plotinian critique of Gnosticism has a different complexion to Voegelin's portrayal of that subject. Plotinus claimed a recurring experience of identity with the divine, while rejecting contemporary Gnostic trends in a third century Roman milieu.

Despite his Platonist accents, Voegelin's castigation of Gnosticism fits a pattern of theological bias that is tediously evident in many books by Christian writers. The bias seldom achieves a more extreme expression than in his philosophy of history. Voegelin tended to glorify Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who lived a thousand years after Plotinus, being part of the Dominican front against heresy. The Christian Aristotelianism of Aquinas was accompanied by his teaching that mature faith is animated from within by the love of God. This theme was regarded by Voegelin as a crucial ingredient of the Thomist systematic theology, described as "the medieval climax of the interpenetration of Christianity and Western civilisation." (8)

Existential Christian Platonism was the speciality of Voegelin, who was much less Aristotelian than Aquinas. The avant garde Christian theorist dismissed some Eastern religions as lacking in noetic credentials (section 2 above). However, the major focus of his disapproval were diverse Western exponents.

According to Voegelin, claims to absolute knowledge of ultimate reality destroy the reflective process of philosophy. Voegelin did not envisage any state of mind in which the human condition is transcended. He used the word gnosis as a blanket designation for dogmatism, a rigid equation accompanied by the claim of existential episteme to find order in history. The gnostic here amounts to the sophist who destroys the philosopher's work, achieving only the loss of reality.

An academic commentator has listed some of the "Gnostics" opposed by Voegelin. Here we find Joachim of Fiore, Siger of Brabant, Genghis Khan, Machiavelli, Tamerlane (Timur), Thomas More, Voltaire, Helvetius, D'Alembert, Turgot, Condorcet, Hegel, Comte, John Stuart Mill, De Maistre, Nietzsche, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Marx. (9) The list is quite sufficient to warrant the conclusion that Voegelin made an extensive conflation with regard to the word Gnostic, to the extent indeed that the term actually becomes meaningless, save in the context invented by existential Christian Platonism.

The author of Order and History was clearly employing the term Gnosticism to designate intellectual and political disorder. His idiom cannot be trusted to shed any light upon the history of pre-modern mystical and religious thought. His blanket designation discernibly originated from his aversion to Nazism and Fascism, which he early depicted as revivals of paganism in a German work published in 1938. (10) Voegelin subsequently tended to substitute the word Gnosticism for paganism. He discussed the substitute with specialist scholars like Hans Jonas (1903-93), whose existential interpretation of Gnosticism is now viewed critically by many scholars. A well known book of Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (1958), appeared before the Nag Hammadi discoveries had been widely assimilated. Jonas is associated with a form of nihilist existentialism via the concept of "acosmism" which he imposed upon "Gnosticism," a much theorised subject suffering from acute generalisation in the absence of factual data. (11)

In another direction, nineteenth century enthusiasm of the Theosophical Society for Gnosis complicated the popular ideological situation for many years. Twentieth century academic commentators, who assumed that Nietzsche and Heidegger were somehow related to antique Gnostic thought, were not on solid ground. The fashionable elevation of Jung, as a Gnostic exemplar, influenced some people into believing that ancient Gnostics taught the same doctrine of "archetypes and the unconscious." Mani has still not been fully restored from the antique disfigurement imposed by clerical Christian biases.

A generalised idea about "Gnosticism" reads: "It denigrated life in this world in favour of escape from it through some sort of secret teaching or gnosis." (12) This was heresy to a comfortably situated professor like Voegelin, who seems to have overlooked the fact that Jesus lived an ascetic life as an unmarried man, turning his back upon a salaried career even while dispensing parables that may have resembled a secret teaching to those with ears to hear.

However, Voegelin's major usage of the stigma (i.e., Gnosis) was in reference to "immanentist" manifestations relating to a purported transformation of the world. He opted to conflate the term Gnosis with magical traditions, alchemy, Renaissance Hermeticism, and apocalyptic or millenarian thinking. "The hermeticists, magicians, and alchemists sought a gnosis of the secrets of man and nature that would confer power over them." (13) This denominator is far removed from the original Eastern "Gnosticism," a Western label embellished by Jonas with existentialist nuances influencing Voegelin and many others.

The obscure early Gnostics in Rome were criticised by Plotinus, who considered their doctrine to be deficient. In more recent times, the "esoteric" associations of a famous word invited claims of prestige. The British occultist Aleister Crowley presumed to be a Gnostic for dubious reasons, while indulging in practices of "sexual magic" amounting to "do what thou wilt." (14) The word Gnostic is today fashionable in the West, a new age glamour term with little or no relevance to historical studies.

The stigmatised Joachim of Fiore "interpreted the flowering of the monastic life as the event that indicated a meaningful advance in the process of transfiguration." (15) In the late twelfth century, Joachim (c.1135-1202) founded the Abbey of Fiore in the mountains of Calabria, which became a new centre of the Cistercian Order. He boldly anticipated a phase in which all Christians would be inspired by the Holy Spirit to the extent that institutional authorities, either secular or ecclesiastical, would no longer be necessary. Even the infidels would unite with Christians. The Franciscan Spirituals regarded him as a saint and prophet.

The Joachite ideal was a crime in aristocratic circles, also in the elite clerical sector which Aquinas sought to bulwark against heretics, who varied from the Albigenses to Friar Roger Bacon. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas refuted the themes of Joachim, whose doctrine was declared a heresy in 1263. The utopian Joachite phenomenon requires fair reporting in the realistic context of feudal oppression by the upper classes (including the Papacy). The truth of this matter will not be found in the pages of Voegelin, no matter how many times he applies the derogatory terms of Gnostic and Gnosticism.

In various writings, Voegelin is noted for viewing Joachim's "immanentising" Christianity in terms of a loss of transcendence, a trend having a supposed modern counterpart in positivism. Marx, Lenin, and Hitler are here the end-product of the debacle. Voegelin is more credible in the insistence that transformation can occur only through philosophy and not via political action. He stressed the ideal of a correctly ordered soul, in which context philosophy is a resistance to disorder. An attendant theme is that philosophy has the capacity to transform political leadership. Due political and social order can only come about through the order achieved by individual souls, as in the case of Plato. In this argument, most individuals are not capable of ordering their souls and resisting disorder.

Voegelin discounted the possibility of a viable populist reform; this argument against communism and fascism warns that erring individuals are thereby severed from the experience of divine transcendence. However, still posing a question is exactly what the experience of transcendence amounts to in Voegelin's circumscribing rationale. Other factors also loom. For instance, he tended to mitigate the endorsement of slavery by Aristotle, a situation in which philosophy was surely not achieving a perfect social transformation.

The existential Christian Platonist (and neo-Thomist) dramatically extended his anti-Joachite reflections into Renaissance humanism, the European Enlightenment, Hegel's philosophy of history, Comte's theory of a new era of Positive Science, Marx's theory of a communist society, and "Hitler's dream of a New Order and Thousand-Year Reich." (16) The extreme conflations comprising this scenario of "Gnosticism" did not escape controversy during the author's lifetime. At a conference in 1978 (at Vanderbilt University), Voegelin stated by way of concession that he would probably not use the term Gnosticism if he were starting his career again. He nevertheless made clear his antipathy to both the ancient "transcendent" and modern "immanentist" forms of the conflated phenomenon. The antipathy is still liable to cause confusions. (17)

The commentary of Professor Eugene Webb supported Voegelin's awkward system of reference, stating that the term gnosticism "is not at all inappropriate, however, as long as one distinguishes between it and the ancient movement that bears its name." (18) The reason given for this qualified endorsement is that both types (i.e., the ancient Gnosticism and the more recent subjects like Hegel) "share the common feature of a claim to absolute knowledge in the form of gnosis and to power deriving from that knowledge." (19) In contrast, one may regard as ahistorical the doubtful equation of Comte, Marx, and Hitler with Mani, Valentinus, and diverse antique mystics. The desert, the isolated cell, the ruined hut, and other locations were perhaps desirable refuges from confusing sophists and slave-owners.

In the revisionist mood of Professor Webb, a new measure was designed to indicate the difference between ancient Gnosticism and the purported sequels; Webb capitalised the former and uncapitalised the latter. The uncapitalised "gnosticism" is proposed as a designation to "be used for all movements based on claims to gnosis of any sort." (20) That designation is meaningless, and also seriously distorting, when applied to traditions and figures as diverse as John Scottus Eriugena, the Albigensians, the Franciscan Spirituals, Boniface VIII, the Adamites, the Puritan sectarians, Comte, Marx, and Hitler. (21)

Some attempt was actually made by Voegelin himself to introduce basic distinctions in his usage of the blanket term. He referred to "the contemplative gnosis of Hegel or Schelling" as a "primarily intellectual" endeavour of "speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence." This was distinguished from the "primarily volitional" gnosis of revolutionary activists like Hitler. (22) Critics of this schema say that the conflation is still too pronounced.

Voegelin was concerned to expose what he considered to be dogmatism. His conflatory version of "Gnosticism" has nevertheless been considered a feat of blanket ascription, betraying an ignorance of subtleties discernible elsewhere.

For Voegelin there is only one form of revelation, and this is an awakening of love for the true and the good, or for the 'divine ground'.... this is a search that must always take the form of reasonable enquiry. It is discursive not intuitive. (23)

Unversed readers could too easily get the impression that Hitler was using his intuition. The discursive enquiry may mean the endorsement of slavery via Aristotle, or the vengeful disposition of Aquinas and his colleagues, who disliked the Albigensian heretics, creating the prototype for Inquisition.

Strangely enough, Professor Webb asserts: "The gnostic thinker characteristically refuses to allow further questioning on the subject." (24) Does he mean Hitler, Voltaire, Hegel, Comte, or Condorcet? Apparently all of them, and probably some of the antique names also. One may conclude that theological dogmatists like Aquinas, and his Inquisition colleagues, were pedagogues who most closely match the existential catchphrase of revelation. There is only one form of revelation, they said; contrasting ideals had to be stigmatised and suppressed. Dissidents were smothered by lethal blanket classifications that sought to condemn forever. Extracting confessions under torture is not the most loving or reasonable activity.

Thomas Aquinas came from an aristocratic family; he joined the Dominican Order and completed his studies at the University of Paris. He was an enthusiastic commentator on Aristotle while opposing Latin Averroism, meaning the Averroistic interpretation of Aristotle associated with Siger of Brabant. The Dominicans were also pitched against the Albigensian heretics. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas asserted that heretics should be excommunicated and condemned to death.

Siger was eclipsed by his Dominican rivals. Averroism was condemned in 1270 by the church. Siger later fled into obscurity as a heretic. Averroism was detested by religious conservatives because Aristotle was here taught in a more original format lacking any reconciliation with Christian beliefs. The inspirer Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was much more of a purist than the Christian schoolmen.

Aquinas was canonised fifty years after his death, following an initial rebuff for neo-Aristotelian innovations. He was now a symbol of progress for the governing ecclesiastical regime. In the early fourteenth century, the Franciscan Spirituals were suppressed by the Papacy. Wishing to lead the simple life of Francis, without wealth and dogmatic learning, some of these harassed ascetics were delivered to the Inquisition. The intimidation did not work in all cases; four of them were burned in 1318. There were many more agonies at the pyre, and on the rack, over the generations that followed. The official Aristotle, installed by Aquinas, effectively became an auspice for slavery in some Eurocentric circles dominated by aristocratic and colonial tendencies.

The Inquisition commenced in Languedoc in 1184 to counter Catharism. A few decades later, the Dominicans were invested with the Inquisition role by the Papacy. That was before Aquinas joined the Dominican Order, so he was well aware of what activities were in process. The full details of what occurred thereafter are horrific, customarily abbreviated by apologists, and denounced by opponents.

A typical argument of the dogmatic mentality is that moral preparation is discounted in gnosis, here meaning the antique versions. This angle has been pressed by Voegelin and his followers, even employing Augustine's account in the Confessions. During his Manichaean phase, Augustine had relations with a concubine; he was not an ascetic Manichaean, but a lay "Hearer." Such details have been suspiciously inverted to imply that the Manichaeans were immoral, which may be discounted as a misleading interpretation. Many Manichaeans were staunch ascetics and moralists; they compare well with the urban pedagogue Augustine (later canonised). (25) Resort to a concubine was fairly common in the questionable society of the Late Roman Empire; this was not a Manichaean custom.

After the very lengthy period during which Christians despised and hated Gnostics, the due evaluation of Nag Hammadi documents has since produced a situation in which many Christians claim Gnosis as part of their heritage. Voegelin's antipathy was overtaken by scholarly research. That antipathy was convergent with the strong bias prevailing in earlier theological circles.

The Coptic codices found at Nag Hammadi are now thought to have been manufactured and read by Christian monks in Egypt during the fourth/fifth centuries CE. Gnostic Christianity was not the depraved movement depicted by orthodox Christian writers, but an alternative version of Jesus and his teachings that suffered suppression. According to a salient interpretation, the term Gnosticism tends to emerge as a misnomer created by modern scholars who assumed that exclusive communities of urban "Gnostics" were the yardstick for assessment. There have been difficulties in finding evidence for groupings answering to those modern ideas of "Gnostics." Idioms such as "a hatred of the world and the Creator" fit stereotypes of a recent origin rather than the ancient situation. Early Egyptian monasticism was more diverse than commonly believed, both in terms of organisation and doctrine. (26) Rediscovering history can be more significant than the assumptions about what formerly existed.

For Voegelin, religious faith was superior to gnosis. In relation to this point, he is said to have been consciously echoing Aquinas in his statement: "Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity." (27) Jesus, an obscured Jewish prophet or "gnostic," may well have disagreed as a consequence of his own certainty. Perhaps he would have concurred that faith is "the precise opposite of gnosis," (Webb 1981:213) and more reasonably suggested that one mode can lead to the other if the boundaries are duly crossed.

4.   Chinese  Ecumene  and  the  Mongol  Empire

In the fourth volume of Order and History, Voegelin altered course. He conceded that his previous idea of Christian progress was an error. Historical consciousness was demonstrated by the much earlier Sumerian King List. He now reflected that there can be no “progress in history.” Events of a spiritual or insightful nature do not form a linear pattern. Volume Four was originally planned to appear with the title: Empire and Christianity. In the hour of revision, the author instead chose: The Ecumenic Age.

The format extended to the Empires of ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome. Each of these Empires claimed to be the “ecumene” ideal. Those ambitious ventures occurred at the cost of an unprecedented destruction. At a different angle, the chronology was accompanied by a spiritual creativity creating major religions.

Voegelin extends the paradigm to China. The sages Confucius (551-479 BCE) and Mencius (372-289 BCE) gain mention alongside Plato and Aristotle, Paul the Apostle and Augustine. However, the commentator was parsimonious in relation to the Orient. He did not write about India or Japan. He concluded that the Chinese consciousness of order was different to Western versions. Voegelin mentioned that Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism became prominent in Chinese history, but did not provide any detailed survey of events.

In Voegelin’s work, there are only three extended excerpts where Voegelin writes about Asia. First, he devotes an entire chapter to the Chinese ecumene in Order and History IV: The Ecumenic Age (1974), where he argues that the structure of the Chinese consciousness of order is fundamentally different than the West. Second, his 1941 essay, The Mongol Orders of Submission to European Powers is his attempt to understand the political theology of the Mongols and Central Asia. Third and finally, he writes about Tamerlane as representative of political disorder in Anamnesis (1966) and History of Political ideas: Renaissance and Reformation (1940s-1950s). (Quote from Lee Trepanier 2020:1, online in Eric Voegelin and Asia)

In his 1941 essay, Voegelin investigates communications from Mongol Great Khans and generals to European powers, especially the Pope and the King of France. These documents date to the years 1245-55 CE. Genghis Khan (d.1227) claimed a divine mandate from Heaven (Tengri) in his creation of the Mongol Empire. His militant successors followed his example, believing they had the right to rule the whole world. Nations not submitting to Mongol rule were regarded as rebelling against a divinely inspired social order. This viewpoint regarded war against resisting nations as morally justified. Until the reign of Kublai Khan (1260-94), the tone of Mongol letters to foreign leaders was that of “an arrogant feudal lord to an insubordinate vassal” (Rachewiltz 1973). The unrelenting Mongol attitude explains the massacres of conquest, in which civilian populations were often annihilated. There are parallels in the tactic of Christian Crusader armies (ibid).

The Mongol documents were responding to Papal and French embassies, conveying “in clear and ruthless terms” a graphic picture of the supreme rulership exercised by the Great Khans. “The menace of Mongol penetration into Europe had caused the Popes and the King of France to send several missions to the Mongol court at Karakorum in order to induce the Great Khans to desist from further invading, destroying, and terrorising Christian nations” (Voegelin 1941:378). The first Mongol attack had penetrated Russia during the 1220s. The second attack of 1236-42 reached as far west as Silesia, Bohemia, and Austria, suddenly ending when news of the death of Ogodai Khan reached the army, causing Mongol princes to return home for the election of a successor.

The alarmed Europeans hoped to convert influential Mongols to Christianity. The Mongol leaders bluntly responded that they already ruled the entire world by a divine right inherited from their ancestor Genghis Khan; in this scenario, the Europeans were merely peripheral rebels who should immediately submit to Mongol rule. Pope Innocent IV offered to baptise Guyuk Khan, who responded that Heaven decreed otherwise; the Pope was told to recognise Mongol supremacy (Ratcliffe 2020:95).

Voegelin was on good form in this direction. He recovered history from obscure Latin materials. As a consequence, his 1941 essay is now regularly cited in studies of the Mongol Empire, a field well outside his domain of political science. That article originated from his early research of 1934 at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. While investigating French legal theory, he became aware of how the Mongol conquest had influenced conceptions of political order in Renaissance Europe. The warlord Timur (Tamerlane) also surfaced in this review. The friction between Timur and the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I was "observed by the humanists and entered into the conceptions in Machiavelli's Prince of the man who can rise to power by his own virtue" (Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections 2011:64).

Voegelin's article Das Timurbild der Humanisten (published 1937) outlined a research programme that “would help Voegelin market himself to universities as a political scientist plumbing the depths of political order through historical studies” (Myers 2020:122). This article has been described as a scholarly tour de force, involving “extensive use of manuscripts in French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish” (ibid). (28)

The Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur (1336-1405) conducted ferocious campaigns against the Delhi Sultanate, the Ottomans of Turkey, and the Mamluks of Egypt. He also planned the ambitious reconquest of China. Timur made Samarkand the capital of Central Asia while causing about seventeen million deaths. He smashed the cities of Baghdad, Damascus, and Aleppo. His wars became notorious for pyramids of skulls demonstrating the power of his army. His death occurred before he could invade Ming China.

In Voegelin’s subsequent theory of political ideology, Timur became one of the “Gnostic” problems in world history. The generalising description is out of context, although Voegelin’s negative meaning is clear enough.

5.  The  Cloud  of  Unknowing

The fourth volume of Order and History made reference to Pauline Christianity, (29) with no attempt to detail the Christian tradition in any branch or century. The content includes The Cloud of Unknowing, with Voegelin pronouncing an absence in that document of any intuition by which supreme perfection is grasped (Webb 1981:29).

The fourteenth century English mystical text actually says that God may be loved but not thought, which is not the same thing as denying intuition. What is being denied in that text is, rather, the discursive tendency to assume knowledge. The "cloud of unknowing" could mean, in effect, the relinquishment of Thomist and related forms of conceptualism, including the Aristotelian variety. The anonymous text is often described as Augustinian in emphasis. Sceptics dismiss this work as a monastic retreat from the world. There are complexities.

Closely acquainted with British Museum manuscripts, Evelyn Underhill doubted attribution of the Cloud to a Carthusian monk, and rejected a theory of Walter Hilton as the author. She concluded that the unknown author "took the framework of his philosophy from Dionysius the Areopagite, and of his psychology from Richard of St. Victor, yet is in no sense a mere imitator of these masters" (Underhill 1922:3).

Some commentators urge that the "cloud" is equivalent to the "divine dark" of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (identified as a Christian Neoplatonist favouring Proclean sources), meaning "that night of the intellect when a plane of spiritual experience is reached with which the intellect cannot deal." (30)

The unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing may have been the English translator of Pseudo-Dionysius, whose influence is discernible in The Cloud. The Cloud author has also been described as drawing upon very different traditions to support his concept of an abstract and transcendent God. The original English title of his work is A Book of Contemplation the which is called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the which a Soul is Oned with God.

With Voegelin is associated the theme of "gnostic or quasi-gnostic patterns of thought that entered the West by way of the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius." (31) However, Voegelin read The Cloud as being anti-gnostic or non-gnostic in the theme of "unknowing," believing that this theme denoted ultimate ignorance, (32) in a more Thomist sense. This interpretation may be questioned. The author of The Cloud distinguished between "the lower part of contemplative life" which comprised "goodly ghostly meditations," and "the higher part of contemplation" which involves "a loving stirring and a blind beholding unto the naked being of God Himself only." (33)

The Cloud of Unknowing appears to be a fairly radical English mystical composition which adds late medieval Roman Catholic flourishes to the Pseudo-Dionysian strain that became widely influential.

6.   Alienation  Clause

The ancient Gnosticism was regarded by Voegelin as being symptomatic of a mood of alienation. (34)  He discussed this theme in terms of "the transcendentalising form of derailment," much to the detriment of the subject, assuming that the target was inferior to his preferred metaxy (which supposedly represented Plato's version of human existence as a condition between higher and lower degrees of being). The underlying thrust of his neo-Thomist argument sought to prove that the derailment denied the "tension of existence" and therefore would "preclude the experiential knowledge of divine presence." (35) At all costs however, the divine presence must remain a mystery subordinate to faith.

The focus for related deliberations is the time span from Thomas Hobbes to figures like Hegel, Marx, Freud, Heidegger, Sartre, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Samuel Beckett. (36) Voegelin's critique of modernity and Continental philosophy is distinctive, though sometimes considered unduly derisive. In particular, the persistent associations of an antipathy to antique Gnosticism do not always enhance political analysis and the assessment of social action.

In an attempt to negotiate theological biases, I prefer to analyse from a different standpoint such themes as the "ascent" and "descent" known to a category provisionally described today as Sethian Gnostics, also reminiscent of Plotinus. Despite a conceptual familiarity with Plato's "return," Voegelin resisted experiential possibilities in certain avenues which he closed down. Such possibilities frequently become a subject of popular commercial fantasy, leaving ignorance as the major contemporary denominator.

7.   A  Neo-Thomist  Philosophy  of  History

The New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) is another subject of Voegelin's disapproval. Bultmann was a German theologian of Lutheran background, strongly influenced by Heidegger. Voegelin saw Bultmann as a modern representative of "gnostic existentialism" in which a "pronouncedly Gnostic character" (37) was afforded to the existentialism adapted from Heidegger. Existentialism and Gnostic doctrines are not the same subject, despite misunderstandings to the contrary.

Voegelin doubtless had some basis for accusing Bultmann of denying the relevance of the Old Testament and the history of Israel for Christian thought; this tendency was a consequence of Bultmann's belief expressed as: "The Christian faith is essentially a movement out of history that takes place in the believer's personal encounter with Christ in the present." (38)

Ascertaining history is important in the development of religious movements. Voegelin's philosophy of history was bold in the tangent from Husserlian phenomenology and the conventional history of political ideas. Recognition should be awarded to his (belated) realisation that "one's own cultural group attempts to interpret history as centering on it alone and thereby virtually denies humanity... to other peoples." (39) However, Voegelin's "history" of existential experiences and symbolic expressions does not satisfy all analysts that a reliable index is afforded.

In the conceptual sphere, his curtailment of an intuitive apprehension of reality, plus his assumption that such intuition is at loggerheads with critical reflection, arguably denies something vital to advanced human potential. Voegelin's preference for symbolic analogies was tied to his belief that "man is inevitably a limited knower," (40) leading to the assumption: "Instead of certainty, one may have, at the very most, the confidence which comes from faith." (41) This was not the belief of Plotinus. Nor would the neo-Thomist viewpoint appear to accurately depict Plato's state of mind.

Nevertheless, Voegelin is often at his best when he discusses the Greek philosophers. There is nevertheless room for disagreement on various points. "The existential meaning of Plato's vision is so badly obscured today that its knowledge can no longer be presupposed." (42) Discounting the existential factor, one might almost agree with this controversial contention, though with the reminder that other visions have also been obscured (e.g., the ancient Gnostic variant caricatured by Voegelin).

The existential Christian Platonist believed that Hegel's version of the Greek experience amounted to sophistry. Voegelin had the eccentric habit of referring to Hegel's philosophy of history as sorcery. (43) He justified this idiom with the observation that Hegel referred to his System der Wissenschaft as an attempt to find the zauberworte and the zauberkraft, the magic words and the magic force, factors that would determine the future course of history by raising consciousness to a state of perfection. (44) The new age is perennially elusive.

The avant garde Thomist included Karl Marx in the magical pursuit, in terms of having "understood the magic component in Hegel's System only too well, resumes from Goethe the alchemistic symbol of the Superman when he wants to characterise the change in the nature of man to be achieved by revolutionary action." (45)

Voegelin was able to report that Nietzsche used the same symbol, the latter being explicit about the force that would supposedly secure the advent of the Superman. A passage is quoted from Nietzsche's Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power): "The charm (zauber) that works for us, the Venus eye that fascinates even our foes and blinds them, is the magic of the extreme (die magie des Extrems)." (46) Voegelin notes with due concern the fact that Nietzsche denies the relevance of truth with regard to the charm. Nietzsche states that truth may be in his vision, but "we do not need it, we would come to power and victory even without truth." (47) More realistically, the will to power of Nietzsche tragically led to his insanity.

Voegelin refers to Hegel's system as intellectual magic, the Marxist variant as political magic, and the Nietzschean will to power as psychological magic. (48) The twentieth century successors had "revealed the Terror at the core of the magic dream," a conclusion in which may be detected the preoccupation of Voegelin with the Nazi phase. "The philosopher is confronted with the phenomenon of a diseased consciousness," meaning political attempts to change the world, amounting to the rejection of reason. (49)

8.  In  Search  of  Order

The fifth and final volume of Order and History was subtitled In Search of Order. The author's death curtailed any greater length than the 120 pages encompassed. Plotinus is again in very low profile by comparison with Plato, with only one index entry for the former and many for the latter. Aristotle and Aquinas both have two index entries, as does Nietzsche. Marx has four, while Hegel is altogether more prominent (though less so than Plato). Voegelin's distinctive Christianising form of Platonism continued.

Some further reflections on Hegel are offered, including his proposed "science of the experience of consciousness." Voegelin accuses the rival of relegating Plato's vision to a body of literary work, "to be understood in a fundamentalist manner as a set of propositions in the subject-object mode, with Hegel conveniently forgetting Plato's energetic declarations that anybody who understood him in this manner had not understood what he was doing." (50) However, the commentator adds that his reflections "should not be read as a critique of Hegel but, on the contrary, as an attempt to clarify and stress his achievement" (Order and History Vol. 5, p. 70).

Voegelin had sometimes implied that Hegel was his major rival in the philosophy of history. Hegel's "deformation of certain structures of consciousness" is apparently mitigated by "the fact that he acted in revolt against the even worse deformation of the same structures in the public unconscious that surrounded him socially" (ibid:69).

This invocation of "unconscious" theory can meet with an objection. The public cannot be blamed for the conceptual errors of the middle class pedagogues who staffed the universities and theological centres. The pedagogues moulded the public awareness, as did the military generals and the politicians. In the last analysis, the pedagogues taught the politicians, just as they still do today. None of them are unconscious of what they are doing.

Hegel is sometimes considered to have mystified the process of history by depicting his national culture as the most advanced to date in world events. Yet Voegelin made no reference to such matters. Instead he reflects more decorously on Hegel's attitude to the "language of the gods" in classical antiquity, affirming that Hegel deformed the Nous of Plato, to which the Protestant thinker opposed the "symbol" Geist. The accusation is made that Hegel eschewed Plato's "symbolization of noetic consciousness through the myth," deeming this to be "scientifically worthless" (ibid:61). (51)

Paradoxically, Hegel's achievement is also described in terms of a "rediscovery of the experiential source of symbolisation" (ibid:70). Voegelin nevertheless seems indignant that Hegel "declares the symbol 'God' to be a senseless sound" (ibid:66). The argument here seems to be an extension of the controversy surrounding Hegel in the 1820s, when he was accused by theologians of being an atheist while defending himself as being a staunch Lutheran.

One may doubt that Hegel's Protestant science of logic sufficiently comprehended the Greek philosophers, despite his admiration for the latter. Voegelin was much more resourceful in relation to Plato, though the context as a whole might still require supplement.

Voegelin did not blindly follow Jung's theme of the collective unconscious. He questioned the element of ambiguity in such language, (52) emerging with an alternative idea. "The existential consciousness that should be the formative force of public order has been replaced by a 'public unconscious' which energetically resists an analysis of its structure." (53) Though doubtless an improvement on the speculations of Jung, the substitute can still appear obscurantist.

Also unsatisfactory is Voegelin's reference to "certain structures of consciousness whose repression by the public unconscious is one of the causes of the contemporary disorder." (54) The lecture from which this statement came was given in 1980 at Louisiana State University, as part of the Edward Douglas White Lectures on Citizenship. By that time, the deformative influence of alternative therapy was ascendant in the New Age of America, as conducted by conscious agents like Dr. Stanislav Grof, a neo-Jungian hierophant who misled the public gullibility like so many other symbolists and pseudo-gnostics. The commercial programme of clinically untested therapy, incarnate in Grof Transpersonal Training Inc., was questionably endorsed by such organisations as the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the Scientific and Medical Network. The repression of sanity and due scruple now had noetic and "scientific" auspices. (55)

The devalued term noetic, one of Voegelin's favourite locutions, does not safeguard against pedagogic error. The term figures repeatedly in one of his eulogies concerning the disciple of Socrates.

Plato rather than any of the great figures in Egyptian, Persian, Hindu, or Chinese civilisations stands en arche of our present problems, because his Vision has revealed the noetic core of questing consciousness, and because his articulation of the Vision has created insights into the noetic core which have remained constant in the Western process of philosophising, even if they are honoured as frequently by deformative action as by noetic reenactment and elaboration. (56)

Jung was arguably a major deformative agent of the Platonic ideas, converting these into misleading archetypes which saturated new age commerce. Though Plato is certainly a pivotal figure in Western civilisation, the Western process of philosophising is not necessarily so relevant to the modern Egyptian, Persian, Indian, or Chinese civilisations, whose heritages can boast many figures scarcely known to the Western sector. Voegelin failed to register a large number of those entities. The adaptability of Plato to present problems depends very much upon the method of interpretation employed.

9.   Existential  Christian  Platonism

Voegelin's interpretation of Plato's terminology is not universally agreed upon.

He elaborated a "tension of existence," meaning a fundamental experience of longing for transcendental fulfilment. The object of longing is here the Beyond, which is Voegelin's translation of the Greek word epekeina, representing the ultimate and indefinable (he also used the Latin term summum bonum, an equivalent of Plato's agathon or Good). A drawback in this version is that the Beyond becomes unattainable, being so transcendent that man must remain in the metaxy ("between") of human existence, or caught between the human and divine.

Voegelin also made much use of the "classical symbols" helkein and zetesis, which he interpreted as meaning a dual momentum at work in the "tension of existence." Helkein comprises the power of attraction exercised by the transcendental Beyond, while zetesis (or zetein) signifies a seeking or striving toward the Beyond.

The Greek word nous is employed by existential Christian Platonism to designate the capacity of seeking episteme or true knowledge (the opposite of doxa, mere opinion). The activity of nous is called noesis, the process by which episteme is developed; for Voegelin, that process comprises reflective understanding, extending to critical self-awareness. The term episteme is related to theoria, a significant word employed by Plato and Aristotle, translated as "contemplative wisdom." (57)

Voegelin applied a derogatory status to the word gnosis (originally a general term in Greek for knowledge). He made gnosis the virtual opposite of episteme, a format which can be considered arbitrary. His opposition to gnosis is stamped by a preference for the Thomist celebration of fides formata, a Latin phrase meaning orientation of the soul toward God through a due exercise of faith, involving love (caritas) as a vital principle. Elevating faith above gnosis, Voegelin believed that in eliminating any claim to certain knowledge, he had the antidote to dogmatism.

His analysis is more convincing in a disavowal of the conventional idea that Plato was a philosopher who developed "doctrines." Voegelin offered a sophisticated explanation of the intention behind the Parmenides, a work of Plato which has caused marked difficulties of exegesis amongst interpreters. Moderns suppose that a philosopher has to develop doctrines, says Voegelin, such as the Platonic "doctrine of Ideas," or the "doctrine of truth" associated with Heidegger. He cites the reflection of a well known translator that the Parmenides dialogue "seems to be a reductio ad absurdum of the Eleatic doctrines and methods, put into the mouth of the chief of the Eleatic school." Fowler noted the contradiction conveyed by the apparent negativity of the dialogue, as Plato elsewhere treats the "doctrine of ideas and the Eleatic doctrine of being" with profound respect.

Voegelin here suggests that Plato esteemed Parmenides "as a compeer in philosophising whose work is exposed to the same type of misconstruction as his own, and expresses his respect for the great thinker by making him the critic of 'Eleatics' who fracture the experienced vision of Being into doctrines about 'being' and 'not-being.' " (58) Thus, Voegelin believed that "on the level of luminosity, Plato can acknowledge the affinity of the Parmenidean vision with his own; on the level of intentionality, the Eleatic identifications suffer from the same defect as the constructions of Sophistic extremists." (59)

Plato was not a modern intellectual in his version of rationalism. His philosophical method, expressed in a dialogue format, has not always proved readily assimilable. Voegelin emphasised:

Plato's energetic declaration that anybody who derives teachable doctrines from his philosophising has not understood what he is doing, is simply ignored because it has become unintelligible in the dogmatomachic climate. (60)

Voegelin coined the term dogmatomachy to designate the conflict and limitation attendant upon opinions, in the sense of being motivated by philodoxy (Plato used the word philodoxos), the love of opinion. Voegelin depicted philodoxy in terms of the desire to cease questioning and thus to escape from the "tension of existence." In Voegelin's format, this theme converges with his negative view of gnosis. Readers have the option to continue further enquiry as to whether mystical gnosis is really such a dead-end on the same existential level as scientific materialism, Fascism, and other problems of modernity repudiated by Voegelin.

One may conclude that Voegelin effectively renders Plato's love of wisdom as being equivalent to the Thomist act of loving faith. The differentiations are not fully covered in existential Christian Platonism.

10.   Reflections  of  a  Commentator

In Voegelin, the subject of Gnosticism is diffuse to the point of caricature. A critical requirement is to bring the subject into perspective without the political connotations. The modern period does not fit ancient Gnosticism. Investigators of the ancient phenomenon are dealing with different groupings and doctrinal approaches.

His confrontation with Nazism during his early life, and one from which he had to flee, left Voegelin with a permanent antipathy to Fascist attitudes. That is quite understandable. However, modernity as a whole was not guilty of the malformation, and nor was ancient "Gnosticism." The political legacy of Marxism was similarly bloodstained, though Marx was nearer to the arguments of Hegel (a Protestant logician) than to anything Gnostic. Ancient "Gnosticism" was basically apolitical.

Voegelin's interpretation of Plato is often ingenious, but cannot be regarded as definitive. The mystical element in Plato has been debated, with attendant denials, uncertainties, and possibilities. Plato chose the literary format of dialogues for his expression. He is also traditionally credited with the authorship of thirteen extant letters, whose authenticity has been much in doubt, though varying between different epistles.

The Seventh Letter of Plato is the longest epistle, and the one most likely to be genuine. The attribution is not unassailable, being contested by some scholars. Whereas supporters of this document find in the content a confirmation that Plato had a political orientation in addition to his "metaphysical" output attested by the Dialogues. The Seventh Letter is also noted for a distinctive passage in which Plato emphasises that nothing of importance is committed to writing. In this passage, Plato states the impossibility that "any present or future writers who pretend to knowledge of the matters with which I concern myself" can have any understanding of those matters. The reason being that "no treatise by me concerning it [those matters] exists or ever will exist." (61)

In the same passage, Plato emphasises that this field of endeavour, meaning genuine philosophy, is not something which can be put into words like other branches of learning. "Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining." (62)

For obvious reasons made explicit, nobody may pretend to knowledge of such matters on Plato's behalf. One can merely remark that the description quoted is strikingly reminiscent of some mystical vocations. In the same passage, Plato further emphasises that the attempt to express these intrinsic matters of philosophy would not be to the advantage of the world at large, "except to those few who can find out the truth for themselves with a little guidance." (63) The rest of the audience, he adds, would merely be puffed up with "an unjustifiable and quite improper contempt for their fellows or with a lofty and vain expectation, based on the belief that they were in possession of some mighty secret." (64)

These disclosures might be regarded as testimony to an ancient recognition of the difference between proficient would-be intuitive philosophers and the greater proportion of "mystical" or cultist failures who are unprepared for the rigours of a major quest, demonstrating the less savoury characteristics associated with esoteric elites. If Plato was even half the calibre of Plotinus in terms of contemplation, then a suggestive label of gnostic (small g) could be justified in resistance to the "compactness of the Dionysiac soul" imposed by Voegelin. (65)

It is surely more relevant to locate Plotinus in the small g gnostic sector than entities like Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Hitler. Even the aristocratic Plato might more readily be dignified with the ascription, deriving from an ancient Greek word rather than the modern German lexicon.

In the Seventh Letter, Plato is very critical of persons who were not "genuinely lovers of wisdom, in whom philosophy is no more than a superficial veneer like the tan men get by exposing themselves to the sun." (66)

Plato is listed by A. K. Coomaraswamy and others as a key representative of the "perennial philosophy." What is so often (and so glibly) called the perennial philosophy amounts to a residual mould of minority repertory legacies assimilated to a dogmatic context, e.g., the Upanishads, the Pali Canon, the Mahayana Sutras. The Dialogues of Plato became part of a school format with circumscribing commentarial rules. (67)

Eric Voegelin is now officially regarded as a philosopher of history. He discussed a substantial number of writers who have been allocated to this category, including Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Augustine, Joachim of Fiore, Voltaire, Condorcet, Turgot, Hegel, Schelling, Jacob Burckhardt, Marx, Comte, Nietzsche, Collingwood, Spengler, Bergson, Jaspers, Bultmann, Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and Arnold Toynbee. (68) The philosophy of history is alarming when given Nietzschean accents, Eurocentric when adorned with Hegelian flourishes, potentially violent in the Marxist idiom, and debatable even in the form devised by Toynbee.

Voegelin might have imagined that Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was subject to a mood of Gnostic derailment and alienation in resorting to a lonely hut in Norway. (69) Wittgenstein was not a mystic or a gnostic, though he was evidently aware that the Vienna Circle had conceptual flaws. Voegelin regarded the Vienna Circle as extremist reductionists in the mood of logical positivism they influentially nurtured. Classification of Voegelin himself has varied from that of "a failed Socratic theologian" to a "mystic philosopher," here using his own words. (70)

Both Wittgenstein and Voegelin had a Roman Catholic mother, and both of them developed in a Viennese milieu (though Voegelin was not born in Vienna). The writings of Wittgenstein seem surprisingly narrow in range by comparison with Voegelin, whose philosophy of history assimilated so much more data than did contemporary language philosophy. To be effective, the philosophy of history requires a firm grounding not merely in the history of philosophy, but also in the history of religions.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

May 2011 (modified May 2021)



(1)     Eric Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 4: The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), p. 21. Another proposal for Hegelian gnosis has been made in a rather different context. See Laurence Dickey, "Hegel on Religion and Philosophy" (301-47) in F. L. Beiser, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 310, affirming: "Like many Christians before him, some of whom were fathers of the Church, Hegel aimed at making philosophy the agent for expanding Christian pistis into Christian gnosis." See also art. cit., p. 338 note 49, stating that the Alexandrian Fathers Clement and Origen are the key figures here. This theme should be distinguished from Voegelin's "essential core" argument. Professor Dickey disavows any implication that Hegel was a Spinozist, and resists the influential idea of Feuerbach that Hegel was a pantheist (ibid:339-40 note 73). He suggests that contentions about Hegel's supposed atheism should be revised in terms of "treating speculative philosophy as a legitimate tendency within the intellectual history of Protestantism" (ibid:315). One might agree that Hegel was a "gnostic" rather than an "atheist," but neither term would seem to be strictly relevant to Hegel's form of philosophical thought. See also Dickey, Hegel: Religion, Economics, and the Politics of Spirit, 1770-1807 (Cambridge University Press, 1987).

(2)      B. R. Von Schlegell, trans., Principles of Sufism by Al-Qushayri (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1990), p. 317.

(3)      See further Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995), pp. 723ff; Richard F. Gombrich, How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings (London: Athlone Press, 1996).

(4)      Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History (University of Washington Press, 1981), p. 183, citing Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 2, p. 294, which implicates Anaxagoras as a sophist. The latter was an Ionian philosopher whose fragments have given rise to different interpretations.

(5)      Webb 1981:184. On the commentator, see Eugene Webb.

(6)      Ibid:89, citing Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 1, p. ix, describing this as the most pregnant of Voegelin's definitions of philosophy, if likely to sound strange to the modern ear.

(7)      Webb 1981:181 note 14. See also Michael Franz, Eric Voegelin and the Politics of Spiritual Revolt: The Roots of Modern ideology (Louisiana State University Press, 1992). See also Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, ed. Ellis Sandoz (revised edn, University of Missouri Press, 2011).

(8)      Webb 1981:189. Voegelin regarded Luther's doctrine of justification through faith alone as the first deliberate attack on the Thomist doctrine of amicitia, meaning the mutual love between God and man. He stigmatised this attack as "a major step in the spiritual disintegration of Christian culture" (ibid:190). That feature of exegesis tends to underline the very strong Thomist bias of Voegelin, in reaction to his Lutheran background. Aquinas apparently believed that God had little love for heathens and heretics, which is perhaps why his doctrine was so compatible with the Inquisition.

(9)      Ibid:198. Professor Webb's appraisal of this blanket treatment of "Gnosticism" is very muted. He does acknowledge that Voegelin's version "makes for problems, both philosophical and historical" (ibid), and correctly observes that ancient Gnosticism "strongly tended toward apoliticism" (ibid:199). A Professor of comparative religion perhaps ought to have been more stringent with Voegelin's usage of the term Gnosticism in an insidiously political context.

(10)     Webb 1981:199, referring to Voegelin's Die Politischen Religionen (Vienna, 1938). Webb comments that Voegelin's "steadfast opposition to gnostic thinking in all of its manifestions derives from his own experience of the threat of death and the reality of exile at the hands of the Hitlerian corruption of the gnostic, apocalyptic, and magical streams that have flowed into our own century out of antiquity and the Middle Ages" (ibid:224). Notice the word corruption here, which is surely more relevant than a continual misuse of the word Gnostic.

(11)     See Michael Waldstein, "Hans Jonas' Construct 'Gnosticism': Analysis and Critique," Journal of Early Christian Studies (2000) 8(3):341-372, observing that the Jonas construct of "Gnosticism" was derived from "highly problematic roots," meaning Oswald Spengler and Heidegger. "The principal defect of Jonas' construct is that it tends to misrepresent the actual history suggested by the Nag Hammadi texts" (ibid:341). The early work of Jonas entitled Gnosis und spatantiker Geist (third edn, 1964) was less restrained than the sequel. Cf. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (first edn, 1958; second edn, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 320ff, who is misleading in such remarks as: "The extended discourse with ancient nihilism proved - to me at least - a help in discerning and placing the meaning of modern nihilism" (ibid:320). Professor Jonas started his career as a student of Heidegger, being strongly influenced by existentialist thinking. He states that "the 'existentialist' reading of Gnosticism" was "so well vindicated by its hermeneutic success" (ibid:321). The confusion between Gnosticism and existentialism was pervasive, and the misunderstandings still linger. The comparison made by Jonas between Heidegger and Valentinus is superficial. However, he did point out some dissimilarities, e.g., that existentialism is "a dualism without metaphysics" (ibid:338-40). Even a scholar like Richard Smith has written: "Hans Jonas presents a compelling argument, and the similarities between ancient Gnosticism and modern existentialism do seem at least 'analogical.' " See the Afterword in J. M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (third edn, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), p. 545. Smith was obliged to observe, however, that the existentialist Albert Camus repudiated Gnosticism in his book The Rebel, recognising that this was a metaphysical system at odds with existentialism. The existential analogy has no more intrinsic validity than the pseudo-Gnostic situation in which the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg celebrated their bohemian ideas. Kerouac is said to have expressed Gnostic themes in his novel Doctor Sax (1959), while Ginsberg topically invoked the archons in his Plutonian Ode of 1978 (after reading the Hans Jonas book on Gnosticism). Perhaps those two idiosyncratic writers can be loosely associated with the decadent form of Gnosticism described in the Panarion. In contrast, Hans Jonas repudiated Heidegger for an affiliation with Nazism, and subsequently spotlighted social and ethical problems created by technology. He wrote in German the commendable work now known as The Imperative of Responsibility (1979, English translation Chicago University Press, 1984). The ecological orientation discernible here is credited as a strong influence upon the ecology movement in Germany. See further Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese, eds., The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life (Leiden: Brill, 2008). See also Jonathan Cahana, "A Gnostic Critic of Modernity: Hans Jonas from Existentialism to Science," Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2018) 86(1):158-180, for the argument that Jonas exposed the nihilism in Heidegger's Being and Time, while also employing Gnosticism in his later years to criticise contemporary scientific realism. See also Lewis Coyne, Hans Jonas: Life, Technology and the Horizons of Responsibility (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).

(12)     Webb 1981:199, extending the proof that ancient Gnosticism was not politically oriented.

(13)     Ibid.

(14)     See Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (2004), pp. 18ff; idem, Pointed Observations (2005), pp. 30ff, 133ff.

(15)     Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 4, p. 268. See also Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 110ff. Cf. Warwick Gould and Marjorie Reeves, Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Oxford University Press, 1987; second edn, 2001).

(16)     Webb 1981:200, referring the reader to Voegelin's From Enlightenment to Revolution, ed. J. H. Hallowell (Duke University Press, 1975).

(17)     Cf. Webb 1981:200-1, reporting Voegelin's disapproving view of two ways to escape the "tension of existence" (metaxy) that he enjoined. One way is to escape from the world into the Beyond, like the ancient Gnostics, and the other way "is to draw the Beyond in some manner into the world." Thus all the "Gnosticism" was a vain endeavour to escape the existential tension, which was presumably incarnate in Voegelin's academic role. See also Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Chicago: Regnery, 1968). A criticism of such books was expressed by Richard Smith in his Afterword to Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (third edn, Leiden 1988), pp. 542-3. The critic says that "modern Gnosticism" is Voegelin's predominant theme, observing that the latter identified "the essence of modernity as the growth of Gnosticism." Smith describes Voegelin as a political philosopher, but also likens him to "some unhinged biblical prophet." The critic further observes that Voegelin advocated "repressing Gnostic corruption and restoring the forces of civilisation," which is indeed a problematic issue in the context under discussion. Voegelin described Comte as "the first high priest of a new religion," meaning positivism; the indications are that sociology as a whole would not fare well in the envisaged repression. Communism was labelled "left-wing Gnosticism," while the National Socialism of Nazism was the right wing variant. Somewhere in between was "scientism and the immanentist pride in the variants of salvation through physics, economics, sociology, biology, and psychology." Smith concluded: "Voegelin's writings could be regarded as silly were it not for their strong impact within and beyond his own field of political science." The critic further reported that academics from various disciplines had gathered at conferences like the one entitled "Gnosticism and Modernity" (held at Vanderbilt University in 1978, an objective being to discuss Voegelin's major theme). The participants discussed such innovative topics as "The Gnosticism of Lincoln's Political Rhetoric." Yet further, a literary critic (Cleanth Brooks) who had absorbed Voegelin's ideas, described Walker Percy's novel Lancelot as "modern Gnosticism." That novel has nothing to do with the Arthurian legend; the hero burns down his home in order to revenge himself upon the occupants, who include his wife and daughter. There is surely cause for wonder at how the misuse of antique words is furthered within academic and literary circles. The matter may even be of some sociological consequence.

(18)   Webb 1981:201. There can be strong disagreeement on this issue, in that for instance, the modern "immanentist Gnosticism" frequently amounts to forms of apocalypticism not found in the authentic Gnosticism of ancient texts.

(19)    Ibid. Hegel's approach to Christianity and Platonism was not the same as Voegelin's, though he was similarly far more of a professorial logician than a Gnostic.

(20)    Ibid. Eugene Webb was a Professor of comparative religion and comparative literature at the University of Washington. He adopted a surprisingly loose approach to the Voegelinist theme of "gnosis of any sort." Can thinkers like Thomas More, Condorcet, and Comte be fairly equated with Hitler? Not in anthropography, which is a citizen pursuit concerned to make due distinctions or differentiations. See further Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos: Anthropography as an interdisciplinary science of culture (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1991).

(21)    Webb 1981:201. In the book Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, I proffered another version of Gnosticism and gnosticism, capitalised and uncapitalised. That version has radically different accents to Voegelin and Webb, whom I had not read at the time. The anthropographic gnosticism (small g) applies only to disciplined minorities of mystics like those associated with Sufism, and does not extend to the configurations of thought associated with Western political agendas, positivist science, and idealist theory. The anthropographic Gnosticism (capital G) applies only to the conventionally recognised phase of ancient Gnostic thought represented in archaeological documents. See further Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995), pp. 307ff.

(22)     Webb 1981:202-3, citing The New Science of Politics (1952), p. 124. A critique of Voegelin's most well known work was Hans Kelsen, A New Science of Politics, ed. E. Arnold (Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag, 2004). Kelsen says: "What he [Voegelin] suggests is in principle nothing but a return to the metaphysical and theological speculation of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas" (p. 14). This accusation is made in reference to Voegelin's intended "restoration of the social science, destroyed by positivism" (ibid).

(23)     Webb 1981:204.

(24)     Ibid. This type of generalisation is not convincing, however convenient for the theories concerned.

(25)     Cf. ibid:206, who raised no objections to the biased nature of Voegelin's assessment of the Manichaeans. One of the more accessible books on Augustine divulges an important factor in a single paragraph. A large number of "Elect" Manichaeans were drawn from the lower classes, and were an equivalent of the ascetics among the Egyptian fellahin who became known as Desert Fathers. The standards in those Manichaean ranks were very high. "Many of these simple followers were exceptionally austere." See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber, 1967), p. 55. In contrast, Augustine was a Latin-speaking intellectual who taught literature at Thagaste, moving amongst upper class Africans and Romans. His context was African Manichaeism, according to his understanding of a religion far removed from the original Iranian and Near Eastern context. Cf. the "ecumenic" version of Mani in Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 4, pp. 138ff. Cf. Iain Gardner and Samuel N. C. Lieu, eds., Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2004), here employing a description of Mani as a Syrian of Judaeo-Christian background who lived in Persian Mesopotamia. See also Jason David BeDuhn, ed., New Light on Manichaeism (Leiden: Brill, 2009); Iain Gardner, The Founder of Manichaeism: Rethinking the Life of Mani (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

(26)   See further Hugo Lundhaug and Lance Jenott, The Monastic Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015). The authors state: "We build upon the approaches set forth by Goehring and Scholten, taking seriously the possibility that whoever read these texts [codices] could have reconciled them with Egyptian Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries, including monasticism and Alexandrian orthodoxy. We avoid the category of Gnosticism altogether, because we do not find it helpful in clarifying the origins of the [Nag Hammadi] codices. In fact, as we reviewed the scholarly literature on the question, it struck us time and again how the very idea of Gnosticism continues to breed confusion.... We maintain that the monks who owned the Nag Hammadi Codices need not be regarded as Gnostics" (ibid:7). The assumption that the Codices exhibit a "Gnostic" hatred for the Creator is now revealed as a misleading generalisation. "The majority [of Codices] do not in fact explicitly state, nor even implicitly assume, that the world was created by an evil god" (ibid:85). Of the fifty or so Codices, "less than half give a markedly negative depiction of the Creator; about ten of the texts express an extremely positive view toward the Creator" (ibid). In contrast, a pervasive modern belief formerly held that a Gnostic text expresses disdain for the world as an evil creation. On the basis of this alleged content, some scholars opined that Christian monks would not have read the Codices for edification. See also Michael A. Williams, Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton University Press, 1996), refuting generalisations of asceticism, libertinism, protest, hatred of body, and other themes. "It is best to avoid imagining something called 'the Gnostic religion' or even 'gnosticism' " (ibid:5).

(27)   Webb 1981: 212, citing a provocative passage in The New Science of Politics, p. 122. Webb follows up with the statement of Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae that "imperfect knowledge belongs to the very notion of faith."

(28)    See further Lee Trepanier, ed., Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington, 2020); Voegelin, “The Mongol Orders of Submission to European Powers, 1245-1255,” Byzantion (1940-41) 15:378-413; Igor de Rachewiltz, “Some Remarks on the Ideological Foundations of Chingis Khan’s Empire,” Papers on Far Eastern History (1973) 7:21-36; Todd Myers, “Pyramids of Skulls: Unacceptable Violence, Transcendence, and the Image of Timur in the Thought of Eric Voegelin and Contemporary Scholarship” (119-142) in Trepanier 2020; Jonathan Ratcliffe, “Masters of Political Theology: Eric Voegelin and the Mongols” (95-118) in Trepanier 2020.

(29)  See Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 4 (1974), pp. 134ff, 239ff, where the author's Christian orientation is evident, even though he considered that Plato had a superior critical consciousness to St. Paul. However, Voegelin awarded a "superior degree of differentiation" to the Pauline version of Christian doctrine. He is unusual for his assertion that "the noetic core" was the same in both classical Greek philosophy and the Gospel movement. See Webb 1981:186, citing Voegelin, "The Gospel and Culture" (59-101) in D. G. Miller and D. Y. Hadidian, eds., Jesus and Man's Hope Vol. 2 (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1971), p. 80. In that same article, Voegelin cites a Pauline passage in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (8:1-3), in which the word gnosis is used in contradistinction to agape (love). Voegelin interprets that the Corinthian community have gnosis as a "doctrine and unwisely apply it as a rule of conduct" (art. cit., p. 79, cited by Webb, p. 185). His implication is that of people who imagine that they know. The context of the Pauline anti-gnosis passage cited by Voegelin is that of eating food consecrated to pagan deities in a pagan temple. The indications are that knowledge (gnosis) of the one God involved the cognisance that the pagan gods were not real. Paul evidently deemed this factor a liability for weak believers who might chance to observe the fraternising with pagans at their temples in order to obtain food. Cf. The New English Bible (second edn, Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 216. The text does not detail any doctrine of Gnosis, so the modern reader has to laboriously search for clues as to the meaning Paul applied to the problematic word. The First Epistle to the Corinthians has been the subject of scholarly speculation and disagreement with regard to the "Gnostic" element proposed. Cf. Simone Pétrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism, trans. C. Harrison (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1991 ), pp. 7-8, 218-19, 247ff, 483, who believes that what is opposed in the Corinthian epistles is the first attested indication of a tendency to Gnosticism, not a Gnosticism already formed. However, some validity is afforded to the claim that the Fourth Gospel is already Gnostic or semi-Gnostic. In both the Corinthian epistles, Paul frequently uses the word gnosis, apparently because that word was favoured in the Corinthian branch of Christianity. The influence of Hellenistic Jewish thought has been strongly suggested for the Corinthian milieu, an influence emanating from Alexandria and not Palestine. Dual tendencies to antinomianism and asceticism have been seen in the Corinthian epistles; the issue has been debated. Paul complains of having heard reports of sexual immorality amongst the Corinthians. Voegelin's stigma of gnosis was applied without knowing the precise historical context of the Corinthian situation. The First Epistle was written in Greek at Ephesus circa 53-57 CE. 

(30)    Frederick C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), p. 276. See also Evelyn Underhill, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing (second edn, London: Watkins, 1922). Cf. A. C. Spearing, trans., The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works (London: Penguin Classics, 2001). Cf. Carmen A. Butcher, trans., Cloud of Unknowing (Boulder: Shambhala, 2009). The Corpus Areopagiticum comprises four treatises and ten epistles. See further C. Luibheid and P. Rorem, trans., Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (London: SPCK, 1987). The context is debated. "Written in an idiosyncratic, almost incantatory style filled with neologisms, they [the Ps. Dionysian texts] are difficult to grasp and controversial." Quotation from Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (London: SCM, 1992) p. 158. The same commentator says: "The issues surrounding the meaning of agnosia should not blind us to the fact that it is not unknowing as such but union (henosis) that is the goal of Dionysian anagogy" (ibid:177). See also Vladimir Kharlamov, The Authorship of the Pseudo-Dionysian Corpus: A Deliberate Forgery or Clever Ploy? (New York: Routledge, 2020).

(31)    Webb 1981:202, reviewing a basic theme in The New Science of Politics, in which Voegelin was keen to urge that the English Puritans of the seventeenth century ultimately derived their elitist claims from ancient Gnosticism.

(32)    This, at least, is what Eugene Webb specifies on page 29 of Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, reporting that in conversations with him, Voegelin referred frequently to both The Cloud of Unknowing and the Upanishads.

(33)    Happold 1963:281, using the edition of Evelyn Underhill, The Cloud of Unknowing (London: John M. Watkins, 1912). Underhill made available a British Museum manuscript which has the significant title A Book of Contemplation the which is called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the which a soul is oned with God. Commentators like Voegelin demonstrate an acute tendency to curtail the dimensions of being "oned with God."

(34)     According to Webb 1981:239, Voegelin traces the pattern of experience associated with the Gnostic movement as far back as the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian history, the motivating factor allegedly being a mood of alienation. However, the article of Voegelin which bears upon this issue is rather more complex in tone. See Voegelin, "Immortality: Experience and Symbol," Harvard Theological Review (1967) 60 (3): 235-79. This includes reference to the Egyptian text known as Dispute of a Man, Who contemplates Suicide, with his Soul, dating to circa 2000 BCE. The contents of that text include evidence of despair at the troubles of a disordered age. Voegelin finds alienation in this text, while adding that "neither the argument of the Dispute nor the philosophising of Plato has anything to do with Gnosis" (ibid:270). He says that the polemic of Clement of Alexandria against Marcion and other Gnostics furnishes a "body of alienation symbols that can serve in three experiential contexts, differing as widely as Pagan philosophy, Gnosis, and Christianity" (ibid:271). Voegelin's conclusion here is that the appearance of alienation themes does not prove any historical variant to be Gnostic, "even though in the Gnostic context they are remarkably elaborate" (ibid:271). Voegelin was being very cynical of historicist method in his remark concerning the Dispute: "I would not be surprised if sooner or later it were used to extrapolate the history of Gnosis beyond Iran to its true beginning in Egypt" (ibid:270). He viewed "the critical methods of existential analysis" as a superior alternative to to "the older historicist methods" (ibid:269-70), believing that the latter conceived of "symbols" as doctrine and divorced these from experiential context. Existential analysis denied the relevance of the Gnostic experiential context. The historical method of locating due contextual features might still be preferable. Voegelin appears to rely upon the conventional historicist view that Gnosis and early Christianity "were conditioned by the expansion of empire and the destruction of traditional community order" (ibid:269). Significantly perhaps, he attributed the "alienation" of the PreSocratics and Plato to the situation engendered by the waning power of the poleis and the continuous warfare amongst those factions, combined with the influence of Sophistic thinkers. Modern alienation is attributed to the pressure induced by "the decline of Christianity into dogmatic belief, the wave of enlightenment, the dissolution of traditional economic and social forms through the rise of industrial society, and the global wars" (ibid). Voegelin was blind to the fact that Christianity was exhibiting dogmatic beliefs in the direct milieu of Aquinas; he also deformed the "symbols" of Gnosticism by conflating these with "modern alienation" and political disruption. Laments about the gulf between modernity and traditionalism must be more objective.

(35)    Webb 1981;239-41, who is categorical that "this is true whether the denial operates in a transcendentalising or an immanentising manner" (ibid:241). Even more dogmatically: "The result is that the tension which could be experienced as a joyful movement of theophany becomes either a state of anxiety, in which one fears inevitable frustration, or of ennui" (ibid). Thus, all that Gnosis can achieve at best is anxiety, according to this neo-Thomist version of philosophy. That is the impression created by Professor Webb, and is not offset by the quotation on the same page from Voegelin's Anamnesis, which states that the anxiety was introduced by the Stoics of the pre-Christian era in their use of the adjective ptoiodes ("fearful"). Voegelin jumps from Cicero to the "fear of death" associated with Thomas Hobbes, followed by the angst of Heidegger.

(36)   Webb 1981:241-2, who adds: "Probably only Samuel Beckett would closely fit the pattern of Gnosticism represented by the Valentinians, Sethians, Manichaeans, and other groups in late antiquity" (p. 242). This sweeping assertion is qualified by a reflection that Beckett's negative depiction of human existence is the counterpart here, not any "affirmation of a transcendental realm of true being." In that case, there is no fair comparison with ancient Gnosticism, which should be left out of such literary discussions. Cf. E. Webb, Samuel Beckett: A Study of his Novels (University of Washington Press, 1970); idem, The Plays of Samuel Beckett (University of Washington Press, 1972).

(37)    Webb 1981:242.

(38)    Ibid:243. If the issue of Gnosticism were limited to a consideration of the much-discussed anti-Judaism, then it would be very easy to dismiss Gnostic thought as mere religious or cultic bias. Matters are not that simple, however; the subject has to be seen in due historical perspective. For instance, the Manichaeans did not share that notorious bias. Anti-Judaism was a tendency developing in in early Christian trends, perhaps in much the same way that anti-Hinduism was a tendency in early Buddhist texts. However, some Gnostic texts do not exhibit "anti-Jewish" features. A headache for conservative interpretations of Gnosticism arose when Gershom Scholem postulated the essentially Gnostic character of the Merkavah texts of Judaism, even describing his theme in terms of "a truly rabbinic Gnosis." See G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1960), p. 10. Cf. the assessment in P. S. Alexander, "Comparing Merkavah Mysticism and Gnosticism: An Essay in Method," Journal of Jewish Studies (1984) 35:1-18, who argues that "Merkavah mysticism" is as artificial a construct as "Gnosticism," the latter being a modern term "imposed by scholars on a set of diverse phenomena which are perceived to have some sort of family likeness" (art. cit., p. 3). Despite being Greek in linguistic formation, the earliest use of the term Gnosticism, via the Oxford English Dictionary, is the mid-seventeenth century. If Merkavah texts indicate a literary rather than a mystical movement, the implication still looms that "Gnosticism" encompassed a wide variety of sects which may have included a pre-Christian Jewish precedent. Scholem favoured the view that Christian Gnosticism in Babylonia was apparently preceded by a form of Jewish Gnosticism which assimilated Iranian elements. Moreover, "the commonly accepted explanation, following Scholem's view, is that the Jews of antiquity accepted Gnostic notions and preserved them for a millenium or more in closed circles, the Kabbalists only gradually disclosing them afterward." Quotation from Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (Yale University Press, 1988), p. 116.

(39)    Webb 1981:258, commenting upon Voegelin's "chastening realisation" by the time he wrote the fourth volume of Order and History. This embarassment related to the fallacy of a "straight line of time" approach. History, Voegelin had discovered, was not so amenable to the imposition of a pattern in which meaningful events could be arranged in a conveniently linear fashion. Critics take the view that Voegelin's subsequent attempts to chart the increased complexity were inadequate and confusing, a factor aggravated by existential phraseology.

(40)    Webb 1981:269.

(41)    Webb 1981:270.

(42)    Voegelin, "Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation," The Southern Review (1981) n.s. 17: 235-287, p. 264. The overall reason given for this deficiency is that Plato's language had been transformed "into terms of propositional metaphysics ever since Hellenistic antiquity" (ibid).

(43)   See Voegelin, "On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery" (418-451) in J. T. Fraser et al, eds., The Study of Time (Heidelberg, 1972). For another extreme description, see Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 2, pp. 17-19, describing Hegel's output as "this monumental work of modern Gnosis." Voegelin credits his Christian predecessor with a "genius for discerning the characteristics of each level of intellectual and spiritual order" in his discussions of history. Voegelin seems almost apologetic in his observation that Hegel's genius was subject to the limitations of empirical knowledge existing in his time, e.g., Herodotus was then still the principal source for Egyptian history, and the critical study of the Old Testament was a future event. It was not Hegel's analysis of ancient civilisations to which Voegelin objected. Instead, the defect in Hegel's project is said to have been his "attempt to reduce the Logos of revelation to the logos of philosophy, and the logos of philosophy to the dialectics of consciousness" (ibid:17). The Hegelian phrase wirkliches Wissen was translated by Voegelin as Gnosis, surely an arbitrary procedure.

(44)   Voegelin, "Wisdom and Magic of the Extreme," p. 243.

(45)    Ibid.

(46)    Ibid.

(47)    Ibid.

(48)    Ibid.

(49)    Ibid.

(50)    Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 5: In Search of Order (1987), p. 59.

(51)    This theme was enlarged upon in "Wisdom and Magic of the Extreme," p. 257, where Voegelin makes the accusation that Hegel's Philosophie der Geschichte characterises Plato's philosophy "as an ineffectual first attempt at establishing Philosophy as a systematic science of the Geist." The implication of Hegel is that Plato was "intellectually not yet sufficiently mature to penetrate reality by conceptual analysis," his time and milieu not being ready for "genuinely scientific work." The proof of Plato's immaturity is construed as the tendency to introduce a myth when the power of conceptual analysis failed. The Hegelian message is: myth figured in the childhood of mankind, when thought had not yet gained freedom to express itself. Voegelin's understanding of Plato was certainly far superior to that of the "adult" Hegel, whose conceptual analysis may be faulted.

(52)     Order and History Vol. 5, p. 60, referring to the studies of C. G. Jung and Karl Kerényi in Einfuehrung in das Wesen der Mythologie (1942), extending to the mysteries of Eleusis. Voegelin expresses astonishment that the two analysts had classified the symbols they explored as "unconscious." He observes some of the implications that can be drawn if this theme is taken literally, e.g., the participants in the Eleusinian mysteries did not know why they assembled, or why they wanted to be initiated. He asks whether these initiates were unconscious of the "mystery of immortality" revealed to them. Yet further, "had the members of the mystery cult really to wait for Jung and Kerényi to discover what they were unconsciously conscious of?" Voegelin preferred to say that modern symbolisers are "consciously unconscious." Symbolists like Jung were really "unconscious," but were trying to recover "consciousness" through the study of myths that offered richer insights into consciousness than the "intellectual babble of his time" (ibid). That may be regarded as a distinct improvement upon Jung's formulations.

(53)    Voegelin, "Wisdom and Magic of the Extreme," p. 267.

(54)    Ibid:287.

(55)    See further Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (2004), pp. 39-40, referring to the conference programme Beyond the Brain: New Avenues in Consciousness Research, August 24-27, 1995, St. John's College, Cambridge, England. Dr. Grof is there listed as a speaker and described as the co-developer (with his wife) of Holotropic BreathworkTM, with the additional endorsement that "he lectures and conducts professional trainings all over the world." Those trainings were in the field of Holotropic BreathworkTM. The programme was promoted by the Scientific and Medical Network and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, together with the Fetzner Institute and the Lifebridge Foundation. These organisations had no conscience about what was happening to the public guinea pigs, who were charged high fees by "professional trainings," decoding to Grof Transpersonal Training Inc. See also Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), Appendix 5 (pp. 945ff.). The Scottish Charities Office had more scruple than the Cambridge conference, having earlier recommended against resort to Holotropic BreathworkTM (ibid:181 note 89), the reason being a cautionary report from Edinburgh University. See further Letter of Complaint to David Lorimer and Criticism of Holotropic Breathwork. See also Against Grof Transpersonal Training.

(56)     Voegelin, "Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme," p. 268.

(57)     Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, p. 288.

(58)   "Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme," p. 269, citing H. N. Fowler's introduction to his translation of the Parmenides (repr. Loeb Classical Library, 1953).

(59)     Ibid: 270.

(60)     Ibid:269.

(61)     Plato, Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters, trans. Walter Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 136.

(62)     E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato including the Letters (1961; repr. Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 1589. A conventional view of Plato is reflected in the statement of Huntingdon Cairns that Plato's objective was to advance a logical "insight into the ultimate necessity of Reason" (ibid:xv). A mystical aspect to the logician is denied. This view belittles the mysticism of Plotinus, asserting that mystical beliefs amount to "a series of apprehensions, flashes, based on feeling, denying the rational order" (ibid). In contrast to Reason, mystical experiences are "subjective and emotional" (ibid:xvi). Like Voegelin, this view discounts intuition, though in a different context.

(63)     Walter Hamilton trans., Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters, p. 136.

(64)     Ibid. Amongst significant supporters of the Seventh Letter is Pierre Hadot in his What is Ancient Philosophy? (2002), pp. 58-9, 66, 71, 213. One of the contrasting critical assessments can be found in Ludwig Edelstein, Plato's Seventh Letter (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1966). Another denial of authenticity is Myles Burnyeat and Michael Frede, The Pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter, ed. Dominic Scott (Oxford University Press, 2015). For a critical review, see Charles H. Kahn, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2015).

(65)    Cf. Voegelin, Order and History Vol. 3, p. 62, stating that "Plato's philosophising remains bound by the compactness of the Dionysiac soul." This contention accompanied an assertion that the Platonic experience of the psyche could not have equated with "a mystical union with God, nor any other neo-Platonic or Christian developments" (ibid). The Christian Platonist assumed a knowledge of what Plato meant by the subject of mania (ibid:137), the "madness" often associated with Dionysian lore. One may argue that Voegelin did not penetrate this matter, despite his significant inference that "we immerse ourselves in mania in the Agathon and, reversely, in mania the Agathon fills the soul" (ibid). One may also believe that he did not understand the full dimensions of the Heraclitus paradox (B60): "The way up and the way down is one and the same" (ibid:60). This theme, mirrored in Plato's Republic, reappeared in a Gnostic text of the so-called Sethians: "The way of ascent is the way of descent" (J. M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, third edn, p. 401). The Voegelinian theme of "compactness" is misleading, being too convergent with Hegelian notions of progress through time.

(66)    Walter Hamilton, trans., Seventh Letter, p. 135, observing the obscurity of Plato's reference to those writers on philosophy who "are ignorant even of themselves" (ibid:136). Hamilton comments that this may be a "reference to the importance of self-knowledge as a necessary basis for any advance in philosophy and to the Delphic maxim 'Know thyself" (ibid:136 note 1).

(67)    For my early version of this subject, see Shepherd, The Resurrection of Philosophy (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1989), chapter nine. Cf. Shepherd, Pointed Observations (2005), pp. 74ff.

(68)    This list is given in Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, p. 237 note 2.

(69)    Ibid:80ff; Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford University Press, 1958; repr. 1980), pp. 6,10,11. Wittgenstein built himself a hut near Skjolden just before the First World War. He later worked as a gardener's assistant with the monks at Hutteldorf, near Vienna. He was elevated in a context of logic by the Vienna Circle, whose leader Moritz Schlick established a personal connection with Wittgenstein during the 1920s. Schlick and his colleagues were logical positivists who considered metaphysical statements useless; they were active in Vienna during the 1920s and 1930s, exercising a strong influence in British and American philosophy, and contributing to scientific materialism. Wittgenstein felt that the positivists misunderstood his expressions in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), a book whose theory he later modified. He is said to have believed that language had limits that should not intrude upon ultimate realities, which existed in silence. The nature of his psychological orientation is not a straightforward matter to define. According to Professor Georg H. Von Wright, Wittgenstein "did not have a Christian faith; but neither was his view of life un-Christian, pagan, as was Goethe's" (Malcolm, op. cit., p. 19, from the biographical sketch by Wright).

(70)     See Terry Barker and Lawrence Schmidt, " 'Voegelin Not Mysterious': A Response to Zdravko Planinc's 'The Significance of Plato's Timaeus and Critias in Eric Voegelin's Philosophy' " (376-409) in Glenn Hughes, Stephen McKnight, Geoffrey Price, eds., Politics, Order and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001). The argument here disputes Professor Planinc's version of Voegelin as "a failed Socratic theologian," instead favouring the subject's own classification of himself as a "mystic philosopher," a description he asserted in correspondence. Voegelin wrote to one contact: "This will shock you, but I am a mystic philosopher." Planinc argued that Voegelin was a deficient Platonist because of a Christian bias. See Planinc, "The Significance of Plato's Timaeus and Critias in Eric Voegelin's Philosophy" (327-375) in Politics, Order and History. The basic grievance here relates to Voegelin's explicit relegation of Plato in favour of the Christian dispensation. "Voegelin frequently defends a clichéd understanding of Plato's philosophy" (p. 330). In Order and History Vol. 4, Plato is still a pagan deprived of revelation. In this respect, Voegelin wrote to a correspondent: "Plato is clear and outspoken about the revelatory component in his noetic enterprise, about the 'vision' (opsis) as he calls it... [But] I have carefully elaborated the superiority of the Johannine and Pauline vision in my Ecumenic Age" (Planinc 2001:369). The theological preference is pointed, remaining in evidence despite Voegelin's recognition during the 1940s (while writing his History of Political Ideas) of the inadequacy of nineteenth century "philosophies of history." The rather varying assessments of Voegelin do not negate my own description in terms of "existential Christian Platonist," which has the advantage of combining all three of Voegelin's major interests, and in a such a manner as to imply the primacy he awarded to Christian elements.