Anyone reading this knows that a leftist spouting off about fascism can always be safely ignored. The same has become true with conservatives in their use of Gnosticism. The term is perfection for the modern conservative: A pseudo-Christian term used by pseudo-intellectuals to bash pseudonymous posters online. It instantly outs its user as a mediocrity, and one who does not value his own beliefs (insofar that he has any) or the pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself.
Let’s start at the beginning: Gnosis simply means knowledge. Gnosis is good. It is through knowledge that we understand our place in the world and understand our relationship to God. The pursuit and use of knowledge – what to call it but Gnosticism? – is therefore a commendable thing and absolutely necessary for the Christian pursuit of Truth and Wisdom, which are venerated throughout the Old and New Testaments.
How is it, then, that this term “Gnosticism” has become a source of opprobrium? Some insights from Bruno Berard’s A Metaphysics of the Christian Mystery: An Introduction to the Work of Jean Borella:
- Christian antiquity is unaware of any term Gnosticism designating a vast yet poorly defined religious movement; St. Irenaeus, for example, denounces “gnosis with a false name,” not gnosis itself.
- Likewise, “Gnosticism” identified as a single school of thought is unknown to the entirety of the medieval doctors and theologians.
- The word Gnosticism does not appear in any pejorative sense until the 17th Century, when it was used by Platonist Cambridge professor Henry More; it does not appear in French until 1842.
- There are no self-avowed Gnostics, nor any Gnostic school of thought marked by a clearly defined doctrinal corpus.
- No texts exist in the entire Catholic magisterium recording any condemnation of a heresy named gnosis or Gnosticism.
Gnosticism as a slur is a definitively modern thing. It was the creation of nineteenth century German academics and, as is true of so much Prussian jargon of the time, tends to confuse rather than illuminate the matters being investigated. Gnosticism served as a catch-all term for a variety of heresies that existed in the early Church, none of which individually or as a whole had anything to do with gnosis per se. Put simply, the term was nothing but a conjuring of the German intelligentsia. It speaks not to any extant group or creed in the early Church, but rather the German intelligentsia’s slide into heterodoxy and intellectual vacuity.
Early Christians inveighed not against gnosis itself, but against false gnosis, which is simply another name for heresy. So much is clear to anyone who actually reads Irenaeus’ Contra Haereses, or who takes orthodox Christianity seriously. Gnosticism cannot be bad per se any more than knowledge of God can be bad per se; it is only false knowledge that perverts the mind and deforms the soul. As such, the charge of Gnosticism cannot appeal to any serious Christian, because Christianity requires gnosis of God from its believers. Far from being an enemy of Gnosticism, Christianity is itself a Gnostic religion.
It isn’t difficult to imagine we might be free of this bogus term if not for conservative political scientist Eric Voegelin, who made Gnosticism central to his political critiques. At best Voegelin’s definition is hazy, at worst incoherent. Modern Voegelin scholars provide us with the following definition, one that roughly track’s with Voegelin’s own in Politics, Science, and Gnosticism:
For Voegelin, Gnosticism was primary a mind-set characterized that 1) man was not responsible for the evil he finds in himself, 2) he has a right to blame someone or something else, and 3) his salvation depends upon his own efforts to correct the flaws in reality. Dissatisfied with present reality, the modern Gnostic can confidently hope that with increased knowledge he will be able to transform the world into his own image.
Note that there is nothing here that could not be said about the orthodox Christian. The Christian too finds himself amongst evils he did not cause, evils that are blamable on his first ancestor and unseen armies of darkness, and his salvation depends on his efforts to correct the flaws of reality, namely through baptism and the practice of the Faith. If by Voegelin’s own terms even the orthodox Christian is an enemy gnostic, then clearly the term is useless as an intellectual category, let alone one of opprobrium.
The more one is wrapped up in the knots of his analysis, the more one realizes that “Gnosticism” is simply any philosophy Voegelin doesn’t like. The subjects of his disdain are Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger. From a Christian perspective, there is much to criticize in all these thinkers. But such criticism demands precision, for many of their trenchant complaints about modernity are felt and seen by the Christian as well. These men recognized that the “Western world lives in a period of nonessential existence.” Yet instead of pursuing the roots of this feeling, Voegelin writes it off as another stage of Gnostic advance. The very fatuity of his Gnosticism prevents Voegelin from investigating the roots of this alienation.
So why use this empty and false term? And why its popularity among milquetoast conservatives? One explanation lies at the very heart of the conservative project and its relationship to the Enlightenment. Burke’s conservativism was always an unsteady thing, because it accepted very many Enlightenment premises while inveighing against their necessary conclusions. Thus he could accept and laud the treasonous principles of 1688, but not those of 1789; he could pardon Locke while damning Rousseau.
The man decrying Gnosticism adheres to a nebulous Christianity, but not to orthodoxy (if he were orthodox, he would have no use for the term). He decries modern esoteric teaching and ideology, yet is curiously blind that modern esotericism is a product of the Enlightenment, not some trend that hearkens back to antiquity. It was, after all, Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes who posited that we cannot know the world without the use of instruments, models, and ultimately ideology. It was they who founded the creed of Scientism: What cannot be measured cannot be known. This was a great blight on the human race, one that placed the stewardship of humanity in the hands of experts and ideologues. But it has nothing to do with any ancient Gnostic heresy. If their gripe is esoteric knowledge, then certainly their gripe is not with ancient heresiarchs, but modern experts.
But more realistically, Gnosticism has stuck as a slur because it manages to be both pretentious and anti-intellectual, and therefore perfect for the temperament of the oily conservative. The term itself is impotent and meaningless — just think, of all the oily conservatives you have seen use the term, how many have made even the least attempt to define it?
What is funny is that Gnosticism is leveled against weightlifters and practitioners of “bro science,” as if the axiom “find out what’s good for your body and do it” is a form of esoteric knowledge and practice. The exact opposite is true: Discovering for oneself the benefits of a diet or workout regimen is basic empiricism as has been practiced through the ages. Such practices are only esoteric if weighed against the full mass of technocratic life, and considered against the phony orthodoxy created through modern propaganda channels. The fat gormless conservative looks about and says, “I don’t see the government or news media promoting physical health; therefore it must be esoteric.”
All this speaks to the servility and stupidity of modern conservatives. However much they may decry the effects of expert rule and ideological propaganda, they still accept as legitimate their ability to set the tenor and tone of our discourse. When conservatives call someone a Gnostic, they are accusing that person of deviating from expert rule and, as such, from respectability. The slur has no intellectual content. One is tempted to say that they themselves are the true Gnostics: convinced as they are that the tenets of mid-century conservatism and multiculturalism will somehow result in civil peace — but again, the term is bunk and shouldn’t be used at all.
There is only one appropriate response to the term: derogatory laughter. Whatever insights can be gained by the use of the term are obscured by its fatal incoherence. If you want to critique the modern world against ancient heresies, use an actual heresy. Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Albigensianism: all real and well-defined creeds that help explain the present age. The difference is that these heresies were real, not made up ex post facto like Gnosticism.
And reliance on Gnosticism can only be stultifying. Voegelin’s intellectual blinders made him dismissive of the insights of men like Heidegger and Nietzsche, when in fact he should have appreciated the ways in which they were allies against the modern world. Rightists must return to the roots of things, not get trapped in a phony reality created by people who aren’t even really on the right at all.