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.
Whether we are considering the Gnostic kernel-thought of cosmic revisionism; or the Marxist-Socialist doctrine of social rehabilitation; or the current global warming hysteria which aims for the restoration of a pre-industrial planet; or the mental sedatives known as the doctrines of “social justice” and “universal human rights” which, as Daniel Hannan elaborates in The New Road to Serfdom, have nothing to do with new rights but with institutional centralization and international organizations that “get to determine what our rights are”; or the Obamantra of “hope and change” and all that it implies of redistributive economics, what we are observing is the perpetual march of human folly. It will stop at nothing — neither dogmatic ignorance, nor cultivated nihilism, nor imaginary resolutions, nor planned upheaval, nor destructive violence — to construct a pristine simulacrum of the Gnostic hallucination as if it were a viable alternative to the world as it fundamentally is and always will be. To apply the words of Paul Auster in Moon Palace, “This was imagination in its purest form, the act…of persuading others to accept a world that was not really there.”
Absurd and ruinous as it may be, the Gnostic prepossession — to give it its due — absolves human beings of responsibility for primal evil, realizing the contradiction embedded in traditional theodicy: a God with absolute foreknowledge of the results of unpredictable human free will. To their credit, the Gnostics recognized that determinism and freedom cannot be reconciled — a “revelation” that appears to have escaped not only the general run of classical theologians but the purveyors of the historical dialectic for whom the goal of history is pre-scripted. This is one of the distinctions between the Gnostics and their seminal Leftist successors. The similarities, however, outweigh the differences.
At this juncture, it must be fairly admitted that there is a sense in which we are all garden-variety Gnostics, concerned with good design in the objects and services we rely on. As Donald Norman acknowledges in The Psychology of Everyday Things, “Proper design can make a difference in the quality of life,” and when the design of the things we use proves defective, we should “write to manufacturers” and “boycott unusable designs.” The Gnostics, of course, were preoccupied with everyday life, but on a far grander scale than the average consumer. Their theological treatises and discourses might be construed as forms of writing to the manufacturer and their pronouncements and activities as a way of boycotting an unusable or, at least, an unacceptable design implicit in the cosmos itself. It was not a teapot or window latch or door handle they wished to redesign, but the entire created universe. By thus exceeding their mandate (to use a current phrase), they inevitably succumbed to the self-defeating pitfall of hubris.
Nevertheless, before dismissing Gnosticism out of hand and in an effort to understand it better in order to track the danger it represents, we need to see that it is rooted in the perennial human desire for a better world, a nature no longer red in tooth and claw, a society of men in which all the necessities of life are provided equally to all, and an international arena in which nations regard themselves as peaceable members of the larger human family. This is the point of contact between Gnosticism and the Left. It is a noble fantasy in the abstract, but disastrous in its implementation. For the world doesn’t, never has, and never will work this way. Inequality is inevitable (even in a “classless” society), competition is incessant (even in a “worker’s paradise”), and violence is unavoidable (within or between nations). These are the “laws” of human nature that cannot be evaded. The only reasonable response to an interminably flawed human Creation is cautious and pragmatic, that is, the attempt to reduce ineliminable suffering by gradual, empirical methods. The road to a better future is both asymptotic and rutted, but it is preferable to a razed landscape.
The Gnostic epigones of the Left do not see it this way. In his recent Ameritopia, Mark Levin quotes Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom that the aim of such political utopians “is no less than to effect a complete redesigning of our traditional morals, law, and language, and on this basis to stamp out the older order and supposedly inexorable, unjustifiable conditions that prevent the institution of reason, fulfillment, true freedom, and justice.” Political utopianism, Levin comments, “is tyranny disguised as a desirable, workable, and even paradisiacal ideology.” Political utopianism is the way in which the Gnostic compulsion has been domesticated in the modern age.
For, rather than deal with the world in all its complexities and resistances, the Gnostic premise of a pre-existent plenitude that must be recovered morphs into the utopian conviction of an ideal civil and political substitute for things as they are. The means to achieve this vision, as millions have learned to their cost, is a species of top-down collectivism administered by a cabal of “experts,” theorists, intellectuals, technocrats and political strongmen for whom tradition, tested precedent, and moral standards are anathema. As author of Shakedown Socialism Oleg Atbashian points out, a corollary of this arrangement is that the blame for its inevitable miscarriage can be, like a society’s wealth, illicitly redistributed. “Collectivism provides us with a sufficiently analgesic illusion of fairness.” Responsibility for failure will fall on “those close to you, or on an unfair system, or even on the big wide (and deeply flawed) world.”
There can be little doubt that the suffering caused by the Gnostic disease is immeasurable, for the world is not amenable to radical transformation. Nature remains predatory and omnivorous — “this munching universe,” as Lawrence Durrell put it in his Gnostic fiction Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness. Human society is capable of slow ameliorative change through scientific advancements and wise political legislation respectful of human rights and freedoms, but it will never escape the orbit of imparity and dissension in which it moves. Nonetheless, the rational enterprise of gradual and empirical renovation within natural limits is not attractive to the neo-Leftist romantic idealist, mired as he is in a state of unmitigated hubris. His energy goes into the projection of a civil Shangri-La without contour and substance to be constructed upon the debris of the very liberal democracy and free market economy which have provided him with life, livelihood, and, in many instances, professional honor.
As Eric Voegelin writes in The New Science of Politics, a profound analysis of the ideological misconceptions that vitiate the political thought and practice of the contemporary West, the utopian answer to the Gnostic concept of an original evil is the chief hazard of our professional political and academic classes. These classes are plainly susceptible to the virus of “theoretical illiteracy,” which shows itself in “the form of various social idealisms” or an “axiological dream world.” In short, the Gnostic enthusiast wishes to replace the civil order with a civil theology. For this oddly hermetic temperament, says Voegelin, the “nonrecognition of reality is the first principle.” This is the best definition of the political Left one can hope to find.
To conclude. The psychology of the Left, despite certain asymmetries, is intrinsically a Gnostic one. The analogy is premonitory. For just as Gnosticism proved unsustainable as a resilient and effective theology, since it could not address the needs of the human spirit bound in time to an ineluctable world, so the theory of utopian socialism that animates the orphic community, in any of its manifold incarnations, can only distort the quest for human betterment. It can only reproduce — or worsen — the original flaw it seeks to transcend.