Is Libertarianism a Gnostic or Utopian Political Movement?

This post is excerpted and adapted from the concluding chapter of my dissertation, wherein I addressed two related objections to libertarianism in general and to my account of Aristotelian liberalism in particular: utopianism and gnosticism, the latter being sort of a theological version of the former. Does the theory of virtue ethics and natural rights described in my dissertation represent an impossibly high standard of ethical excellence? On a related note, is it foolishly impractical given the current shoddy state of the world? And is the ideal society suggested by my nonstatist conception of politics and severe critique of the state an impossible goal? Even if it is achieved, will it ring in a perfect world of peace, love, and happiness without violence, misfortune, and suffering? Naturally, my short answer to all of these questions is “No.”

First, I wish to answer the charge of gnosticism that might be leveled by followers of the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Voegelin is very popular in certain conservative and communitarian circles, particularly those averse to philosophical systems and principled, as opposed to practical or pragmatic or “realist,” politics.1 I should know; I studied political science and philosophy at Louisiana State University where Voegelin had been a prominent professor. Indeed, LSU is home to the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies. I was introduced to the work of Voegelin by Professor Ellis Sandoz, a student of Voegelin himself and the director of the institute.

Gnosticism, as Voegelin uses the term, essentially means a “type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. As a religious or quasi-religious movement, gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism).” Now, does that sound like it applies to libertarianism, much less Austro-libertarianism? Rather, it makes me think in particular of the constructivist rationalism, criticized incisively by Friedrich Hayek, that arose out of the Enlightenment and pervades various forms of modern statism.

In his political analysis, Voegelin uses the term to refer to a certain kind of mass movement, particularly mass political movements. As examples, he gives “progressivism, positivism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism, fascism, and national socialism.”2 In his view, the consequences wrought by these movements have been disastrous. With few and only partial qualifications, I do not disagree. What makes them gnostic are certain similar characteristics they share with the original Gnostic religious movement of antiquity. Before listing the main characteristics, it first bears pointing out that even the broad libertarian movement as a whole might not yet qualify as a mass movement. However, as Voegelin points out, “none of the movements cited began as a mass movement; all derived from intellectuals and small groups,”3 so contemporary libertarianism and Aristotelian liberalism are not off the hook yet! With regard to the following list, Voegelin cautions that the six characteristics, “taken together, reveal the nature of the gnostic attitude.”4

1) It must first be pointed out that the Gnostic is dissatisfied with his situation. This, in itself, is not especially surprising. We all have cause to be not completely satisfied with one aspect or another of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Despite Voegelin’s caveat it seems this characteristic does not carry much explanatory power. It would seem more relevant if the dissatisfaction manifests as a form of profound alienation from the world, from the society as a whole in which one lives, or from its government. Certainly liberals and libertarians must feel some alienation, but is it enough to really count significantly toward gnosticism?

2) Not quite so understanding is the second aspect of the gnostic attitude: the belief that the drawbacks of the situation can be attributed to the fact that the world is intrinsically poorly organized. For it is likewise possible to assume that the order of being as it is given to us men (wherever its origin is to be sought) is good and that it is we human beings who are inadequate. But gnostics are not inclined to discover that human beings in general and they themselves in particular are inadequate. If in a given situation something is not as it should be, then the fault is to be found in the wickedness of the world.

Voegelin comes dangerously close here to extreme pessimism and fatalism, and to absolving people of their responsibility for not behaving as well as they should and are able. On the other hand, it seems from his description of the gnostic that the gnostic too flirts with, even embraces, absolving people of responsibility: It is not their fault; they could not help it; all the blame rests with flawed institutions and/or deterministic socio-economic and historical forces.

Liberalism, particularly the version of liberalism (or libertarianism) presented in my dissertation, avoids both of these extremes. In order to approach and achieve our ideal, human nature need not be changed. What is necessary is education and a change of institutions. There is a reciprocal causal relationship between people and their institutions; people shape them and are influenced in turn. Institutions present definite behavioral incentives and disincentives. But responsibility for one’s behavior ultimately resides in the individual.

3) The third characteristic is the belief that salvation from the evil of the world is possible.

Salvation is certainly too strong a word for what we expect from our ideal society. It would bring greater material and spiritual prosperity, less injustice, i.e., less crime, exploitation, and war. But it will not bring heaven on earth or personal salvation. There will still be crime, some wealth and income inequality (for that is only natural), scarcity, unhappiness, and suffering. It will simply be much better than conditions are now. All the evils that exist in the world are created by human beings, and while these evils cannot all be eradicated entirely, they need not be as great and prevalent are they are and have been.

4) From this follows the belief that the order of being will have to be changed in an historical process. From a wretched world a good one must evolve historically. This assumption is not altogether self-evident, because the Christian solution might also be considered – namely, that the world throughout history will remain as it is and that man’s salvational fulfillment is brought about through grace in death.

Perhaps some contemporary classical liberals and libertarians believe there is an inexorable progressive historical process tending toward a final stage of history, but I do not think most do. Indeed, there is nothing guaranteed about achieving our ideal and even should it be achieved there is no guarantee that it will last forever. Human beings and human society being what they are, it is always possible for the necessary traditions and institutions to erode in the minds and hearts of men over the course of generations.

5) With this fifth point we come to the Gnostic trait in the narrower sense – the belief that a change in the order of being lies in the realm of human action, that this salvational act is possible through man’s own effort.5

Classical liberalism and libertarianism in general, and the account presented in my dissertation in particular, do not seek to change the entire order of being. Some things, like the laws of physics and of economics, just cannot be changed by man. The only changes that are sought lie within the realms of personal education and morality as well as social, economic, and political institutions. These are changes that are within the realm of human action. Unlike other political movements, however, the changes and goals of liberalism properly conceived cannot be achieved by aggression, top-down central planning, or sudden and violent cultural revolutions. Rather, they can only be achieved through persuasion, education, the building up of alternative institutions – in short, a far from inevitable process of social evolution driven by purposeful, but not centrally coordinated, human action, the results of which on the macro-level will not be of human design. It will take generations, but “anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.”6

6) If it is possible, however, so to work a structural change in the given order of being that we can be satisfied with it as a perfect one, then it becomes the task of the gnostic to seek out the prescriptions for such change. Knowledge – gnosis – of the method of altering being is the central concern of the gnostic. As the sixth feature of the gnostic attitude, therefore, we recognize the construction of a formula for self and world salvation, as well as the gnostic’s readiness to come forward as a prophet who will proclaim his knowledge about the salvation of mankind.7

Even non-gnostic movements have their leaders and their “prophets.” Knowledge is necessary for any human endeavor. This is another feature that does not really add much by itself. Features 2-5 seem to do the bulk of the explanatory work. Taking all six features into consideration together, it seems we can say conclusively that liberalism, particularly Aristotelian liberalism, does not qualify as a gnostic political movement. Aristotelian liberalism is about liberty and human flourishing; it is no more gnostic than Aristotle’s ethical and political philosophy.

In answering the hypothetical charge of gnosticism, the charge of utopianism has partially been met as well. The conception of human nature presented in my dissertation is, I think, a realistic one and the ideal society envisioned does not require human nature somehow to be miraculously changed in order for it to be brought about and maintained. The ideal society is not a perfect one in an otherworldly Platonic or Christian sense. It will not bring Heaven on Earth or usher in the End of History. We do not seek to immanentize the eschaton.

I take the moral case to have been made fairly strongly in my dissertation, although the case can always be strengthened by fleshing the arguments out more fully and presenting more than time or space allowed there or in a blogpost. What I did not spend much time addressing in my dissertation is the question of practicality, which raises objections that are variations on the theme “it will never work.” Addressing this question is largely beyond the scope of my dissertation and this blogpost. I must restrict myself to saying a few things.

The moral/practical dichotomy does not sit well within Aristotelian philosophy. As I have argued elsewhere, Aristotelian virtue ethics, unlike most modern ethics, does not recognize a natural tension between what is moral and what is in one’s rational or enlightened self-interest. Immorality is never practical or in one’s rational self-interest in this view, even though a Hobbes or a Machiavelli would counsel otherwise. Moreover, if a critic is not convinced of the practicality, that does not by itself obviate the moral case; arguments need to be presented against the latter as well. This is simply a point about proper argumentation and should not be taken as implying an embrace of a theory/practice dichotomy. It is sometimes said, “Well, it’s good in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.” But this is nonsense. If a theory is inapplicable to reality, then it is not a good theory.

The various theories of statism have been making a royal mess of things for centuries now. Perhaps it is time to try something radically different. Ronald Hamowy has observed that “For at least two hundred years [owing to the Scottish Enlightenment], social philosophers have known that association does not need government, that, indeed, government is destructive of association.”8 Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and Adam Smith as well as modern thinkers like Austrian economist F.A. Hayek have theorized about and described the emergence of society, culture, law, language, and markets as spontaneous orders. Austrian economists, libertarians, and others have built up a significant body of literature that demonstrates both theoretically and historically that legislative law and state-provided goods and services are inferior to other institutions in civil society: free markets and free enterprises, cultural norms, customary law and polycentric legal systems, and private organizations such as the family, churches, private schools, clubs, fraternal orders, and the like.9

[Cross-posted at Is-Ought GAP.]


  1. In Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Voegelin writes: “Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being the gnostic constructs his system. The building of systems is a gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one” (p. 32). It can never be an attempt to understand being at it is? I think Voegelin makes a spurious generalization here. When one reads further, it becomes apparent that he makes this mistake at least in part because he believes in a Christian Beyond that is not amenable to (human) reason. 

  2. Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1968 [2004]) p. 61. See also, Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1952 [1987]). 

  3. Ibid., p. 62 

  4. Ibid., p. 64; emphasis mine. 

  5. Ibid., pp. 64-65. 

  6. Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: Signet/Penguin Books, 1975; Revised Edition), p. viii. 

  7. Voegelin (1968 [2004]), p. 65. 

  8. Ronald Hamowy, The Political Sociology of Freedom: Adam Ferguson and F.A. Hayek (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005; New Thinking In Political Economy Series), pp. 236-237. 

  9. See the bibliography of my dissertation and a footnote in the concluding chapter for an extensive list of references. There are too many to convert for this blogpost. 

26 comments… add one

  • One of the main reasons I do not consider myself an anarcho-libertarian is because I think it is utopian. It is a utopia I consider quite attractive and desirable, but as unlikely as any other heaven on Earth.

    My pessimism is primarily based on my contension that in order to have true libertarianism, you need to have unanimous agreement that libertarianism is the only acceptable political philosophy. As long as you have people who do not accept libertarianism and prefer a different political philosophy, you will have individuals capable of grouping together to repress and dominate the libertarians.

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting, geoih.

      Actually, I gave a number of reasons for why an anarcho-capitalist society would not be a “heaven on earth.”

      As for the issue of practicality, I addressed that briefly in the last few paragraphs. There is a rather large literature on the subject.

      You make libertarians sound rather weak and ineffectual if nothing short of unanimity will ensure a libertarian society. That’s awfully pessimistic. And wouldn’t it apply equally well to a minarchist libertarian society as to an anarcho-capitalist one?

      Since you say the issue of practicality is what keeps you from considering yourself an anarcho-libertarian, does that mean you accept the moral case for it?

      Reply
      • I accept the moral case for anarcho-libertarianism, but that doesn’t change my position that it’s utopian. I like the idea of anti-gravity and anti-entropy, but that doesn’t mean I expect those to become reality.

        It isn’t so much that I think a libertarian society would be weak, but that if it is to be truly libertarian, then it has to limit itself to acting only after aggression has occurred. Also, a libertarian society would be an individualist society. People could join together for voluntary protection, but such voluntary associations will most likely be less powerful than coercive associations.

        All of history is full of examples where coercive associations (aristocracies, militaries, states, etc.) have dominated or destroyed voluntary associations. I don’t like that or think there is anything moral about it, but it is a fact.

        I will say that I probably overstated my position that you would need unanimous agreement on libertarianism for it to succeed. It could probably succeed with a super majority, but the less significant the majority, the less likely it will last.

        Of course, that’s simply my opinion.

        Reply
  • Geoffrey,
    Your efforts are exactly the kind of foundation-building that is scant among libertarians, most of whom fill the blogs with political-ethical disputes, when the issue is deeper than that.
    Voegelin was also a big deal at my alma mater, the University of Dallas, when Professor Frederick Wilhelmsen was there a generation ago. “Communitarian” is exactly the right term for thinkers of his ilk — who put forth so many bright leaves on the oak whose trunk question is: “What shall be the foundation of ethics?” Unfortunately it is a dead limb.
    You seem to invite geoih onto a another great limb which you know also to be dead: The response of utilitarianism that came largely from the Scottish Enlightenment.
    This tree that I illustrate is the Enlightenment Project that I refer to here:
    http://c4ss.org/content/3772
    But the real question is: What are the green branches that are to grow from this trunk question? You mention “virtue ethics” without citing Alasdair MacIntyre, but I think there is still promise there even after 30 years. You mention the success of Austrian praxeology without suggesting how it might relate to ethics (of course Austrians themselves abandon ethics to subjectivity — constructively, in their view). Also Sam Harris has made a very significant contribution here, which I first encountered in his debate “Is Good From God?”, which is in audio here:
    http://www.brianauten.com/Apologetics/debate-craig-harris.mp3
    There is no need to pigeonhole Harris for his flamboyant book _The End of Faith_. In fact his argument in “Is Good From God?” reminds me of H.H. Hoppe’s arguments that disputation is the axiomatic foundation of ethics: To deny it is to involve oneself in self-contradiction. Harris suggests that ethics do not need a non-human framework to guarantee their objectivity; our regard for everything that lives provides this objectivity.

    Reply
    • Hi Terry. Thanks for commenting.

      I’m not a utilitarian and do not advocate it. I’m with Roderick Long in holding that it is praxeologically unstable.

      My reference to the Scottish Enlightenment was not to their ethical ideas, but to their descriptive theoretical and factual work in economics and social evolution.

      I’m an Aristotelian-libertarian virtue ethicist. You mention MacIntyre, but I’m no fan. Rather, my influences are Aristotle himself, Ayn Rand, Roderick Long, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen,Murray Rothbard, and Chris Matthew Sciabarra.

      Austrian economists don’t all abandon ethics for subjectivity. I’m not sure why you think that. Even Mises was a sort of utilitarian. Rothbard and his followers are natural law adherents. Methodological subjectivism in economics does not entail ethical subjectivism, and Austrian economists do not always think and speak only as economists.

      As for how praxeology relates to ethics, I recommend Roderick Long’s monograph Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action and my dissertation. This post was only an excerpt from the conclusion.

      Reply
  • Geoffrey,

    >> “I’m not a utilitarian and do not advocate it.”
    I never suggested this.

    >> “My reference to the Scottish Enlightenment was not to their ethical ideas….”
    My reference to the Scottish Enlightenment was to point out their contribution to the dead end of utilitarianism.

    >> “I’m an Aristotelian-libertarian virtue ethicist. You mention MacIntyre, but I’m no fan.”
    MacIntyre is also a virtue ethicist. How is it that you have no admiration for him?

    >> “Austrian economists don’t all abandon ethics for subjectivity. I’m not sure why you think that.”
    I think that because it is the case. You have a serious misreading on this subject. See:
    http://mises.org/austecon/chap4.asp

    Keeping the arboreal metaphor, aside from the above trees, the forest is this:
    What shall be the foundation of ethics?
    I don’t see a response to this question, nor to what I think is a valuable suggestion from Sam Harris.

    Thanks,
    Terry

    Reply
    • Terry,

      “I’m not a utilitarian and do not advocate it.”
      I never suggested this.

      I thought that you did. You wrote: “You seem to invite geoih onto a another great limb which you know also to be dead: The response of utilitarianism that came largely from the Scottish Enlightenment.” But perhaps I misread.

      “I’m an Aristotelian-libertarian virtue ethicist. You mention MacIntyre, but I’m no fan.”
      MacIntyre is also a virtue ethicist. How is it that you have no admiration for him?

      From what I have read, he struck me as a post-Marxist, left-leaning communitarian (despite any protestations to the contrary on the communitarianism), though if I remember correctly he was critical of the nation-state (which is good).

      As for his being a virtue ethicist, there are plenty of modern-day virtue ethicists but many of them are not so in any true (neo-)Aristotelian sense. They lack any solid philosophical foundation for their ethical theory and tend to be analytic and moral intuitionist types. MacIntyre, at least in his early writings, lacked any kind of solid philosophical foundation for his ethical theory and instead flirted with, if not actually embraced, cultural relativism in his primary emphasis on community traditions and practices. I understand he attempted to correct this in Dependent Rational Animals, but I’m not sure how successful he was. I also recall he had a rather silly and ineffectual argument against individual rights.

      “Austrian economists don’t all abandon ethics for subjectivity. I’m not sure why you think that.”
      I think that because it is the case. You have a serious misreading on this subject. See:
      http://mises.org/austecon/chap4.asp

      I have not misread. I think you have and have read too narrowly as well. Descriptive or methodological subjectivism in Austrian economics does not necessitate ethical subjectivism. Economics is a value-neutral science in that it studies the means we use to achieve our ends but does not itself tell us which ends we ought to pursue. Qua economist, an Austrian will make no ethical judgments or policy prescriptions; but Austrian economists are not limited to speaking qua economists. Mises was a utilitarian, to be sure, but Rothbard was a natural law proponent and so are his followers. An objective ethics is quite compatible with Austrian economics.

      What shall be the foundation of ethics?
      I don’t see a response to this question,

      You’re more than welcome to read my dissertation. I don’t think I need to regurgitate it all here. Now, my wife and I have to go to the hospital soon so that she can be induced and give birth to our second child.

      Reply
  • Geoffery mentions Ayn Rand and I think she has given the best answer to your question. The foundation of ethics is: Life. It is only for a living entity that ethics are meaningful. A code of ethics is at its base a set of priorities aimed at achiving a goal, and the most basic goal is staying alive. For humans, the bare minimum of existance is not enough, so Rand expands the goal to living as man qua man, which means living in a condition that is appropriate to a human being. It is from this basic question (how to live as man qua man) that we build up a rational set of ethical principles.

    Reply
  • “Taking all six features into consideration together, it seems we can say conclusively that liberalism, particularly Aristotelian liberalism, does not qualify as a gnostic political movement. ”

    What about Voegelin’s voluminous writings demonstrating (or seeking to do) that it is such a movement? Why have you dealt with a hypothetical charge when Voegelin, in fact, laid out an actual charge at great length?

    Reply
    • Gene,

      The subject of my dissertation was not Voegelin vs. libertarianism. I addressed Voegelin’s own stated criteria for gnosticism and explained how liberalism, particularly libertarianism and Aristotelian liberalism/libertarianism, is not a gnostic political movement. If you think he’s written something that might refute my arguments, please do present it to us. I don’t think he has.

      Reply
      • “I addressed Voegelin’s own stated criteria for gnosticism and explained how liberalism, particularly libertarianism and Aristotelian liberalism/libertarianism, is not a gnostic political movement.”

        You probably understood his criteria better than he did, because he spent many, many pages showing that’s precisely what liberalism was. (He considered classical liberalism to be “dead,” which is why I use “was.) You my start with his essay, “History and Liberalism.”

        Reply
        • This is rather nonresponsive, Gene. I addressed Voegelin’s own criteria for gnosticism, explaining how and why liberalism and libertarianism in general, and my own version in particular, are not gnostic. While I haven’t read all of Voegelin’s work, I did have to read a good bit of it. Telling me to start with a particular essay of his, as if I haven’t read it or any of his work, when I specifically asked you to provide us with arguments from Voegelin that you think will refute my arguments, is not very productive. Why don’t you share the particular arguments from Voegelin that you think refute particular arguments I’ve made? Do please drop the arguments from authority while you’re at it.

          And I really don’t care if Voegelin thought liberalism was dead. It plainly is not. It’s generally not wise to declare philosophies and political movements dead.

          Reply
          • Geoffrey, if you had read “a good bit” of Voegelin’s work, you wouldn’t have had to simply make up an argument for why liberalism is a species of Gnosticism to refute. You could have addressed Voegelin’s actual arguments. That you didn’t says either that you are unaware of them, or you were not honest enough to address the real argument, but preferred to make one up you could more easily refute. I prefer to think that the former is the case. At which point, I’m sorry, I am not going to type Voegelin’s seven-volume history of political thought and five-volume order and history into your comment boxes. Go engage the source material!

          • Wow, silly me, addressing Voegelin’s own criteria for gnosticism is “mak[ing] up an argument for why liberalism is a species of Gnosticism.” I had no idea I was a solipsist making up Veogelin’s own arguments since he is me!

            You could have addressed Voegelin’s actual arguments. That you didn’t says either that you are unaware of them, or you were not honest enough to address the real argument, but preferred to make one up you could more easily refute. I prefer to think that the former is the case. … Go engage the source material!

            What part of “I addressed Voegelin’s own criteria for gnosticism” and “the subject of my dissertation was not Veogelin vs. liberalism/libertarianism” did you not understand? Maybe if Voegelin hadn’t concisely spelled out his criteria and I was writing my dissertation specifically on this subject, I would have devoted several hundred pages to picking apart Voegelin’s tortured attempt to lump liberalism/libertarianism into the same category as totalitarian, mass murdering political movements on account of a confused notion of gnosticism and then dismiss them on that account. But alas, he was kind enough to concisely state just what makes a political movement gnostic and the purpose of my dissertation was to lay out my conception of a (neo-)Aristotelian form of liberalism/libertarianism. What a missed opportunity!

            Not only is it interesting that apparently Voegelin’s own criteria do not count as his “real argument” but I should have written my dissertation on a different subject merely because I dared to briefly address a charge one of my committee members (prominent Voegelinian Ellis Sandoz) was likely to make against the dissertation that I in fact had written.

            But think what you prefer. You speak of intellectual honesty and scholarship when you make it a habit to take others out of context, interpret them uncharitably, utter logical fallacy after logical fallacy, and make personal attacks against those you know little or nothing at all about, in pursuit of this strange, bitter vendetta you have against a political philosophy (and those who still believe it) to which you once adhered.

            At which point, I’m sorry, I am not going to type Voegelin’s seven-volume history of political thought and five-volume order and history into your comment boxes.

            Come now. This is a copout. It is not necessary to type up all of that in order to address particular arguments I’ve made. If you don’t have the time, that’s fine. I’m rather busy myself these days. But don’t pretend you’ve managed to refute my arguments by claiming I’m dishonest and telling me to read 12 volumes of his collected works. Is that about half or a third of the series, by the way? I forget what volume they’re up to now on the entire thing.

  • Mr. Pauche:

    As a side point, you make statements such as: “Gnosticism, as Voegelin uses the term,” and “in his political analysis, Voegelin uses the term,” etc. This implies that Voegelin was cognizant of the fact that he was employing the term in an idiosyncratic way.

    However, it is interesting to note that Voegelin himself did not believe that he was inventing an entirely new usage. Rather, he thought he was linking these movements to the real, historical Gnostics.

    In fact, though, he had no bloody idea what he was talking about. The way he defined the term was completely divorced from what the actual, historical Gnostics believed. For a supposed “scholar,” his patent ignorance in this regard is inexcusable. Consequently, anyone who has a rudimentary understanding of what Gnosticism is will find it extremely difficult to take Voegelin seriously after reading him babble for countless pages about the supposed evils of modern “Gnosticism.”

    Of course, none of this logically refutes Voegelin’s arguments, but it does call into serious question his credibility and competence as a scholar.

    The following summation (written by someone who actually understands what Gnosticism means) is apt:

    “One of the most confusing voices comes from the discipline of political science. In his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951, émigré scholar Eric Voegelin rose to the defense of what he called the “classic and Christian tradition” against what he perceived as the “growth of Gnosticism.” This opening salvo was followed by such books as The New Science of Politics, the multivolume Order and History, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. Voegelin became a prophet of a new theory of history, in which Gnosticism played a most nefarious role. All modern totalitarian ideologies were in some way spiritually related to Gnosticism, said Voegelin. Marxists, Nazis, and just about everybody else the good professor found reprehensible were in reality Gnostics, engaged in “immanentizing the eschaton” by reconstituting society into a heaven on earth. Since Gnostics did not accept the conventional Christian eschaton of heaven and hell, Voegelin concluded that they must be engaged in a millenarian revolutionizing of earthly existence. At the same time, Voegelin was bound to admit that the Gnostics regarded the earthly realm as generally hopeless and unredeemable. One wonders how the unredeemable earthly kingdom could be turned into the “immanentized eschaton” of an earthly utopia. That Voegelin’s new Gnostics had no knowledge of or sympathy with historical Gnosticism did not bother him either. Gnostics they were, and that was that.

    Voegelin’s confusion was made worse by a number of conservative political thinkers, mainly with Catholic connections. Thomas Molnar, Tilo Schabert, and Steven A. McKnight followed Voegelin’s theories despite their obvious inconsistencies. In Molnar’s view, Gnostics were not only responsible for all modern utopianism, but also for the inordinate attachment of modern people to science and technology. The scientific world view, said these folk, is in fact a Gnostic world view, and it is responsible for treating humans as machines and for making societies into machinelike collectives.

    The politicized view of Gnosticism continues to have its adherents, but these are increasingly recruited from the lunatic fringe. Gnostics are still represented as dangerous subversives in pulp magazines and obscure conspiracy pamphlets “exposing” Freemasons, Satanists, and other pests. Meanwhile, respectable conservative thinkers have dropped the Gnostic issue. Some, like scholar and former U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa, have subjected Voegelin and his theories to severe criticism and ridicule.”

    –Stephan A. Hoeller

    Reply
    • Thank you for commenting, Elisha. I was not aware of Stephan A. Hoeller, but I did have my doubts about applying a concept that originated with a theistic movement to both it and non-theistic political movements. But I did carefully qualify my statements, as you pointed out, though I don’t think they necessarily imply he was aware of his idiosyncrasy — they do suggest that his usage may be idiosyncratic. I am not enough of a religious scholar, nor do I have enough of an interest in Voegelin, to put in the work debunking Voegelin’s theory of gnosticism on that level. I appreciate your bringing to my attention someone in a better position to have done so.

      It’s also noteworthy just how bizarre it is to include liberalism/libertarianism in a list of gnostic political movements with socialism, communism, fascism, Marxism, Nazism, and the like. One of these things is very much not like the others. Liberalism/libertarianism is fundamentally and vehemently opposed to this alleged characteristic of gnostic political movements: “it is responsible for treating humans as machines and for making societies into machinelike collectives.” The sheer ignorance and/or reality-distorting nature of a worldview behind lumping liberalism/libertarianism in with totalitarian political movements is breathtaking, which is ironic considering one of Voegelin’s schticks was criticizing worldviews that allegedly cut themselves off from essential aspects of reality (e.g., atheism from the divine ground of being, as if there can be no logical structure of reality without Voegelin’s God).

      Reply
    • “In fact, though, he had no bloody idea what he was talking about.”

      Elisha is again talking nonsense. Here is an actual scholarly paper:
      http://faculty.washington.edu/ewebb/EVgnost.pdf

      That makes it very clear that Voegelin was up with the scholarship that existed on Gnosticism at the time he was using the term. Elisha is calling into question Voegelin’s scholarship because *he could not foresee the future*! In fact, Voegelin himself stopped using the term, and by the 1970s was saying that he would then have chosen a different term. Hoeller, meanwhile, is a member of a modern gnostic church and the theosophical society, and hardly an objective source for what gnosticism means. Elisha just grabbed the first text off the Internet criticising Voegelin he could find and plopped it here. He has no clue whether Hoeller, Voegelin, or neither is correct here.

      “I did have my doubts about applying a concept that originated with a theistic movement to both it and non-theistic political movements.”

      You do know that Rothbard did the same thing in his analysis of Marxism, don’t you?

      Reply
      • “Elisha is again talking nonsense. Here is an actual scholarly paper:
        http://faculty.washington.edu/ewebb/EVgnost.pdf

        Gene,

        It’s amusing how you slyly (and falsely) suggest that I never read Voegelin. Here’s a question: did *you* bother to read the article that you just linked — which, incidentally, is reasonably critical in tone — to prove that I’m “babbling nonsense?” If you had, you surely would have noticed that the main gist of it was: “well, if Voegelin was alive today then he would seriously rethink what he said about Gnosticism, because it was obviously wrong, plus he kinda did rethink it in the 1970s anyway, so he corrected his mistake after all” (ed. note: even if it took him a couple decades to do s0) .

        Maybe so; maybe not. Either way, it’s hardly a devastating rebuttal to the substance of my post. But perhaps you thought it sufficient to post a link, hoping that no one would call your buff by clicking it.

        BTW, the Nag Hammadi was discovered well before Voegelin published on Gnosticism. So even if he may have recanted later on, that doesn’t change the fact that he was publishing abject nonsense for years with no good excuse. Honestly, this is getting desperate. If someone like Rothbard had made such an egregious error as this, I have serious doubts that you would ever let it go.

        Of course, it’s true that there’s nothing special about Hoeller, that he is a biased source (who isn’t?), and that I grabbed his article because it was convenient to do so; he is simply one of the many voices highlighting serious problems in Voegelin’s work. I do not feel the slightest need to cite world-class scholarly sources for the purpose of belaboring the obvious, noncontroversial and almost universally recognized point that Voegelin was clueless about historical gnosticism.

        Frankly, this is getting embarrassing. Just admit it: Voegelin had no clue what he was talking about re: Gnosticism. Now, it’s perfectly valid to argue that while he was ignorant of gnosticism, that doesn’t necessarily refute his arguments about political philosophy. And I grant that that is a perfectly logical point. But please, leave western hermeticism and esoterica to serious scholars like Gershom Scholem. This is not a subject for dilettantes and dabblers.

        Lastly, I am most understanding and sympathetic to the fact that, as this is not your blog, it must be extremely frustrating for you not to be able to censor and delete cogent critiques of your arguments, as you customarily do on Crash Landing. Nevertheless, I kindly request that you refrain from expressing that frustration in an ungentlemanly way by advancing false accusations and making false assumptions about me.

        Best,

        Elisha

        Reply
  • “It’s also noteworthy just how bizarre it is to include liberalism/libertarianism in a list of gnostic political movements with socialism, communism, fascism, Marxism, Nazism, and the like”

    Of course. It only makes sense when you realize that the Voegelin-ite objects to any conception of universal truth in ethics or politics. In this sense, libertarianism is indeed like communism: it is a systematic theory of social analysis. But any kind of “theory,” to the Voegelin-ite, is unacceptable; everything must be assessed on a “case-by-case” basis, because there is no universal truth. This is the essence of “wisdom.” (Unless, of course, the theory happens to be traditional, mainstream exoteric Christianity, in which case their dedication to so-called pragmatism / practical wisdom goes out the window).

    What is also notable is that Voegelin’s thesis was a supreme act of projection. Consider: he accuses the “gnostics” of living in a simplistic dream world of Good vs. Evil, unable to appreciate the subtle moral complexities of the real world. The Gnostic, to Voegelin, believes himself to be a crusader for Right, so everyone who is not with him must therefore be a minion of Darkness to be vanquished. But Voegelin himself was living in exactly such a dream world: the “gnostics” he was railing against existed entirely in his head! He failed to perceive any meaningful distinction between fascism, communism, and liberalism; all of these were (again, in his head) merely different incarnations of the same heresy — rationalist “gnosticism” — that must be vigorously opposed at every turn. Ultimately, Voegelin was projecting his own delusions onto his opponents.

    It is also quite obvious to everyone but the Voegelin-ite that his position — Christianity coupled with a rejection of systematic thought — is an extremely unstable one. But for his unquestioning faith in Christianity, the Voegelin-ite would almost certainly become a nihilist. Sooner or later, the cognitive dissonance of his incoherent worldview will lead him either to discard his attachment to Christianity, reject his ill-conceived antirationalism, or both.

    [Edited to include a correction by commenter.]

    Reply
    • Excellent points.

      I’m reminded of yet more ironies: one stems from the fact that a number of liberals/libertarians were and are explicitly critical of Enlightenment rationalism. Take Hayek, for example, who incisively criticized the constructivist rationalism of modernity. Aristotelian liberals, such as myself, reject the rationalist/empiricist dichotomy as one of many false dichotomies foisted upon us by modern philosophy.

      Another irony: someone enamored of Voegelin recently attempted to use a Hayek quote to argue, in effect, that liberals/libertarians are no different than statists, which he then followed up with an argument-from-authority-cum-non-sequitur invocation of the charge of Manichean gnosticism by means of a Voegelin quote. (Argument by quotation really should be an official variation on the argument from authority, applied to people who tend to “argue” by quoting assertions from people they consider wise authority figures while providing little or no supporting argument of their own or directly addressing counterarguments.)

      Reply
      • Elisha has just babbled utter nonsense about Voegelin for four paragraphs, and you call it “excellent points”! The idea that Voegelin rejected universal truth or systematic thought is stupid. It is utterly extraordinary to state “He failed to perceive any meaningful distinction between fascism, communism, and liberalism” when he spent a couple of volumes in his History of Political Thought analyzing their differences. My guess: Elisha has not read one word more of Voegelin than he has read on my web site.

        Reply
        • Gene,

          Utter nonsense? No. I think perhaps you do not understand Voegelin as well as you think and have a tendency to read others uncharitably.

          For example, maybe you and Elisha simply have different standards for what counts as a “meaningful distinction.” But to make such a big deal about gnosticism and reject liberalism on the same grounds as Marxism, fascism, communism, and the like is just bizarre, and shows misplaced priorities and a distorted view of the world, however you slice it.

          Even if it were true that liberalism is a gnostic political movement (is, Gene, sorry; it isn’t dead yet any more than socialism is), the other political movements listed should be rejected more on the grounds of their meaningful distinctions from liberalism than on their supposedly shared characteristic.

          But liberalism is not a monolithic political movement, as you should know. Even if it were true that some liberals/libertarians are or were gnostic, this is not true of all of them. I do not think it is true of the philosophy and movement in general.

          As for universal truth, I believe what Elisha wrote was “the Voegelin-ite objects to any conception of universal truth in ethics or politics,” not necessarily universal truth per se. Voegelin certainly opposed universal and objective principles in ethics and politics such as libertarian rights, did he not? I’m well aware of the importance of the divine ground of being in Voegelin’s thought when it comes to philosophical truth pe se but sadly this did not translate so well into his ethics and politics.

          (Ellis Sandoz mistakenly thinks that my atheism precludes me from recognizing and accepting any universal truths, despite my obvious libertarianism to the contrary, because he equates the logical structure of reality with the divine ground of being with the Christian God. That’s denial of reality if I’ve ever seen it.)

          And by “rejecting systematic thought” I think Elisha meant Voegelin’s opposition to philosophical systems. It is true that Voegelin opposed them. But perhaps I am misreading Elisha. I’ll note again though that Elisha specifically wrote that about the Voegelin-ite; but I wouldn’t be surprised if he imputes this back to Voegelin himself as well.

          Reply
          • I was about to reply to Gene’s second post about me, but I think you just said everything that I wanted to say in a way better (and far kinder) than I could have said it myself.

          • Oh, and just to clarify: no, you did not misread me at all. When I use a particular word (e.g., Voegelin vs. Voegelin-ite) I usually do so for a good reason. Would that others aspire to your level of discernment. ;)

      • So Callahan has apparently replied to my comment above on his own blog. He seems a bit miffed that I didn’t link to his earlier blogpost that I referenced here and haven’t always linked to his posts to which he thinks I’m responding. Oh dear.

        “Someone”? To Plauche, I am apparently he-who-must-not-be-named: he periodically references something I have just written without naming me or linking to my post.

        He then proceeds to quote me out of context and, as seems to be his wont, give it just about the most uncharitable interpretation possible — all the better to set that straw man on fire, I suppose. Ironically, in the process he fails to link to the post in which I address his in more detail. Tit-for-tat? Or perhaps he was pressed for time or simply forgot or didn’t want to cause embarrassment (no, that’s not it) or wants to make a broader point without getting mired in an inevitably uncivil “debate” that would accomplish nothing productive (no, that’s not it either).

        This is a favorite netwit tactic: When someone makes a comparison between A and B, the netwit comes back with: “So, you think A is the same as B!” …

        What in [my post] could even remotely be taken to read “libertarians are no different than statists”? …

        Humans and flies can both fail to notice danger in their environment, but does pointing that out mean that I think humans are “no different than” flies? Anyone who would suggest that it does is either an idiot or intellectually dishonest… and Plauche is no idiot.

        Well, at least Callahan respects my intelligence… Too bad it’s only to make a characteristically uncivil and spurious smear of my character.

        In Callahan’s original post, he claims Hayek’s insight in the referenced quote not only applies to statists but also to libertarians (i.e., libertarians are no different than statists in this regard; hence, the title of my blogpost to which I was alluding here). If Callahan had read my post, or put any effort at all in attempting to read my above comment charitably, he wouldn’t characterize my argument as being that he claimed there are no differences between libertarians and statists at all.

        What the post claims is that there is a certain error, which Hayek called “constructivist rationalism,” which one may commit, regardless of whether one is a libertarian, a liberal, a socialist, a conservative, or whatever.

        This is precisely what I disagreed with in the post Callahan seems to have overlooked: “Are Libertarians No Different Than Statists?” Follow the link to see my argument against Callahan’s claim that libertarians are also (in danger of being) constructivist rationalists in their attempts to “force” free trade and unregulated labor markets on “society.”

        To my observation that he has a bad habit of tossing around brief quotations, in lieu of an actual argument, as if they were devastating criticisms of libertarianism, he responds:

        Apparently, Plauche’s world is all arguments all the time, so anything you post is an argument.

        Uh, yeah, that’s the most likely implication of my observation. Suuuure…

        Sometimes… no, most often… I post things just because I find them interesting.

        Uh huh, sure, that’s the only reason. I don’t buy it. Go back and read the sorts of Callahan posts to which I am referring (they saturate his blog) and see for yourself if it does or doesn’t look like Callahan takes the quotes he posts to encapsulate devastating criticisms of libertarianism.

        They aren’t an “argument” for anything at all. Now, the quote itself my be part of an argument found in its source… but if you want to engage that argument, dig up the source!

        Well, good that he recognizes that simply quoting unsupported claims doesn’t constitute an argument, but this is compatible with my observation above. That he wants us to dig up the sources and contend with the allegedly wonderful arguments therein suggests he doesn’t post the quotes just because he finds them interesting. But since he’s the one posting the quotes to bring these supposedly brilliant criticisms to our attention (else why post them publicly on the internet?), perhaps instead of hurling potshots toward random, unspecified libertarians, he should dig up the source himself and provide a little more context and support for those isolated quotes. The burden is on him.

        But how much nicer for your cause if you can cast someone who posts an interesting quotation now and then as an idiot who doesn’t know what an argument is!

        This strikes me as a classic case of projection, given that Callahan takes great offense at the slightest of perceived slights, goes out of his way to quote his interlocutors out of context, interpret them as uncharitably as possible, and make unprovoked personal attacks.

        Reply
  • “But to make such a big deal about gnosticism and reject liberalism on the same grounds as Marxism, fascism, communism, and the like is just bizarre…”

    Voegelin accurately traced the source of all of these movements to the Enlightenment project and the search for secular salvation. If he is “bizarre” in this sense, then so is John Gray, and Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor, and every Pope who has ever written on social issues, and… you get the idea.

    The fact that these movements have the same historical source certainly does NOT mean that there are no important distinctions between them. Voegelin far preferred liberalism to communism and fascism… as do I. Liberalism had halted at a far earlier point on the road to civilizational destruction than had the latter pair.

    Voegelin certainly did think there was universal truth in ethics and politics. (Parts of) this truth had been discovered by the classical and Christian thinkers. He rejected libertarian rights because they are based on a denial of those universal truths (and are not “objective” either).

    Because some people continue carrying around his corpse does not mean the patient is not dead.

    But… atheism. I get it now. “One cannot deny God and retain reason.”

    Reply

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