A perhaps surprising relation exists between a branch of ancient Christian theology (or anti-theology) and a modern secular political movement, that is, between Gnosticism and Left-Liberal progressivism. In tracing this oddly creedal linkage, it will be helpful to begin with a brief and broad-stroke analysis of the Gnostic doctrine before appraising its application to the political sensibility of the Left. These two phenomena share a similar psychological matrix and both are fueled by the paradoxical theory of what we might call “pastoral insurgency.”
The term Gnosticism refers technically to various heretical sects of the first six Christian centuries that taught that knowledge (Greek: gnosis) rather than faith was the key to salvation. But such knowledge was, in effect, a putative and esoteric insight into the nature of the Creation which understood the existence of evil not as a product of man’s free will but as a flaw inherent in the very origin of the cosmos. Mankind has got things backwards. The fault lies with the Creator. The snake is our misprized benefactor who comes with knowledge of salvation, wisdom, and healing, as we now find its remedial emblem on the medical caduceus. Which is to say that mankind has been the victim of a diabolical stratagem, seduced by a devious “cosmocrator” into seeing what is evil as good and what is good as evil.
As I understand it, the essence of Gnosticism is this: the natural is regarded as unnatural. The laws of nature — aging, suffering, death, competition between individuals, groups, and species for resources and living space — are perceived as the consequence of a Divine mistake or a Demonic usurpation. Something went wrong at the moment of Creation, violating the immanent design latent in the “singularity.” The world is not as initially intended and is therefore repudiated as unnatural, an aberration.
According to Kurt Rudolph, one of the leading specialists of the subject and author of Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, we are treating of a “dualistic religion…which took up a definitely negative attitude towards the world and the society of the time, and proclaimed a deliverance of man precisely from the constraints of earthly existence into his essential relationship…with a supramundane realm of freedom.” This pre-flaw, supramundane realm could only be entered via an existential rejection of remarkable proportions, which Rudolph describes in his conclusion as “too hostile to the world.”
The remedies proposed to combat and counteract the flaw in the Creation were multifarious and not always in agreement with one another — there are several different flavors of Gnosticism. But the common denominator was the conviction, to quote from David Horowitz’s acute essay on the subject, that “redemption does not lie in the fulfillment of the moral covenants and adherence to the law, but in the abolition and ‘transcendence’ of both.” The world and all its customs, beliefs, norms, usages, and statutes was disavowed as a vast and perverse deception. The imperative was to restore a prior or potential, but shattered, harmony by whatever means necessary and thus to recreate the Creation.
The Gnostic vision was later taken up by the more familiar Lurianic Kabbalah with its injunction to repair the world — tikkun olam — so that the “shattering of the vessels” of Creation could be undone and the fragments retrieved from the abyss into which they had fallen, and finally annealed. But Kabbalah is a non-aggressive philosophy and may be characterized as Gnosticism-lite, as it were. For Kabbalah, the world can be redeemed through faith and right conduct, metaphorized as the gleaning of the broken shards of the universal frame; for Gnosticism, the world as we know it cannot be saved but must be reconstituted. It must be demolished and re-made from the ground up. It must, as Philip Gardiner writes in Gnosis, restore the embodied temple of “the perfected man.”
Enter the Left, which didn’t just spring up in the writings of Rousseau or Marx or in the French National Assembly of 1789, where members of the revolutionary Third Estate sat on the left side of the chamber. Its mindset has been with us at least since the advent of Gnosticism, a major locus of subsequent dissemination. Its influence on the history of thought is widespread and announces itself in different dimensions. Horowitz writes: “Just as religious gnosticism sees evil as a flaw in the cosmic creation, so secular gnosticism sees evil as a flaw in the social cosmos.” “In this revolutionary mysticism,” he continues, “the messianic liberator is imprisoned in capitalist darkness. … This mysticism is at the heart of every movement that seeks a revolutionary transformation of the world we know.” For the most part, today’s Western intellectuals and academics, governing elites, NGOs, and, generally speaking, our Left-oriented, official culture are the heirs of the Gnostic theologians of the early Christian era.
The ideology of the Left, then, may be described as an adaptive political expression of the Gnostic sensibility, a kind of retro revival. There are residual differences, of course. But all of the Left’s diverse manifestations, from radical communism to the more complaisant forms of soft-focus socialism, are actuated by the mystical lure of a harmonious society posited as the end-goal of History — a society in which the elements of conflict have been banished and sufficient wherewithal is assured for all its members. The Hegelian assumption — partially adopted by Marx — of the “end” toward which the forces of History are tending is the secular version of the Gnostic reverie of the benign blueprint that was somehow botched. The Leftist dream of ultimate “ends” mirrors the Gnostic illusion of first beginnings, of a pre-existent purpose. For this psychology, only the Ideal is Real, and the Real is recognized as something that is opposed to the actual, to what is presently the case.