Science, Politics and Gnosticism

This is an outline of Science, Politics and Gnosticism by Eric Voegelin, published in 1968, containing essays from 1959 and 1960.

Note a possible source of confusion: the title "Science, Politics and Gnosticism" is used in three ways: (1) as the title of this volume of two essays, (2) as the title of the first of those essays, and (3) as the title of a section within that essay.

Your comments and corrections are always welcome: please e-mail Bill McClain.

Return to the Eric Voegelin Study Page.

Science, Gnosticism and Politics


Use of the word "gnosticism" applied to modern political movements. German and French references. This knowledge and much else submerged during the reign of positivism in the last half of the 19th century. The revolutionary phase occurred at a low point in science and the conceptual tools needed to analyze the problems were no longer known. Various inadequate attempts to cope intellectually, including EV's own book on "political religions". Much recent development. References on gnosticism ancient and modern.

Origin of gnosticism. Traumas of the ecumenic empires caused a quest for the meaning of existence. Among the attempted solutions:

The central feature of gnosticism: the experience of the world as an alien place from which man must escape to his original world. "Gnosis", as related by Clement of Alexandria, is:

...the knowledge of who we were and what we became, or where we were and whereinto we have been flung, or whereto we are hastening and where from we are redeemed, of what birth is an what rebirth.

Same as Hegel's "alienated spirit" and Heidegger's "flungness".

Ancient gnosticism sought deliverance by faith in the "hidden" God as opposed to the evil God of this world. Modern gnosticism seeks deliverance by various means:

The gnostic's soul (psyche) belongs to the order of the world. His spirit (pneuma) impels him toward deliverance. The task, pursued in many different ways, is the destruction of the old world (which means dissolving the soul) and passage to the new world (which requires strengthening the powers of the spirit). The instrument of salvation is knowledge (gnosis) by which the soul is disentangled from the world.

Irenaeus on gnostics. Gnosticism does not alter reality, but rather increases the disorder of the world. The order of the ancient world was renewed by Christianity.

Science, Gnosticism and Politics


Political science was founded by Plato and Aristotle to discover or invent the true order of the soul and society.

An outline of Political Science:


The prohibition of questions: representative opinions. The means of overcoming spiritual disorder.
Karl Marx: the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" of 1844. Self-created man. Equivocations on "nature". Declares questions on origins impossible for socialist man. Similar situation in Comte.

Marx a self-conscious intellectual swindler. Why? Examine Nietzsche.

Nietzsche: the will to power accounts for intellectual deception:
  • the sudden erupting resolve for ignorance
  • the spirit wills to let itself be deceived
  • enjoyment in the deception of others

This is like Plato's movement of the soul, but cut off from the transcendent, man is in prison. Man wills unbelief in God in order to become God. Nietzsche as the sensitive man denied grace. The consciousness of demonic occlusion. Continuing masks and deceptions.

The intellectual swindle entails three levels of deception:

  • The surface act of deception, which could be "error", apart from intent.
  • The thinker is aware of the untruth but persists.
  • The revolt against God is revealed to be the motive of the swindle. Demonic mendacity.
Marx and the third level. Replacement of reality with a "second reality" (Robert Musil). The revolt against god as illustrated by Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. Marx misrepresents the passage "I hate all the gods", omitting the reply that this is madness. All three levels demonstrated.

Zosimos and new "philosophy" as a gnostic tool.

Hegel the greatest of the speculative gnostics. Subsuming philosophy under an idea of progress, he wanted to replace "love of knowledge" (= philosophy) with "actual knowledge" (= gnosis). Compare Socrates, who said that actual knowledge is confined to God and that a human thinker is at best philosophos and a lover of God. Hegel changes the meaning of the words.

Philosophy is man's endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it. Gnosis desires dominion over being and tries to get this by constructing systems, a gnostic form of reasoning. But being lies beyond human grasp. Hegel declares being to be both substance and subject and therefore within the grasp of the apprehending subject. He justifies the system circularly and does not permit questions.

The connection between will to power, the system, and the prohibition of questions. When system and reality clash, reality must give way. The gnostic thinker is the herald of the future, a role filled by Heidegger, who had Being itself, emptied of content, create a world through man.

Gnostic speculation is the symbolic expression of an anticipation of salvation in which the power of being replaces the power of God and the parousia ("presence") of being, the Parousia of Christ.

Parousianism: the expectation of deliverance from evil through the advent of immanent being. Contrasted with the previous chiliastic phase of the Middle Ages and Renaissance when the gnostic movements expressed themselves in terms of Judeo-Christian apocalypse. Gnosticism as the history of Western sectarianism.

The Murder of God

Creating a new world requires destruction of both the "givenness" of the order of being and of its transcendent origin. Divine being is explained as human invention. Examples from Nietzsche.

The first golem legend. Parallel to Marx's speculations. The tension between the first and second realities is the tension between the order of God and magic. First reality = truth, second reality = death.

The second golem legend. "God is truth" becomes "God is dead". The hubris of a human creator will turn him against God.

Analysis of Nietzsche's story "The Madman". Like the golem story but the moral is not accepted. The murder of God requires a new god: the superman. In reality, having cut themselves off from God, the gnostics begin murdering men.

Marx and the transition to revolutionary practice. God is a projection of man into a supernatural world. Man becomes superman by reabsorbing this projection. The critique seeks not to refute its enemies, but to annihilate them.

Hegel restricts being to knowledge of the immediate. His Phenomenology is one of the great magical performances. Selected passages. Alteration of Schiller's poem.

Notes on Hegel's "Philosophy of World History"

Hegel's program repeated for the philosophy of history.
  1. God is identified with reason which unfolds itself in speculation and history.
  2. The philosopher must attain complete comprehension of God.
  3. Presenting the treatise shows that the treatise is true. The system proves itself.

Ersatz Religion

"The Gnostic Mass Movements of our time".



Not all are political and not all were intended to be mass movements. An outline of Comteian positivism. Its influence on Mill, Weber, Cassirer, Husserl.

Altruism: the secular-immanent substitute for "love". The conception of brotherhood without a father.


Relation of these movements to gnosticism. The gnostic attitude:
  1. dissatisfaction
  2. belief that the world is poorly organized (as opposed to believing that the world is good but that human beings are inadequate).
  3. belief that salvation from the evil of the world is possible
  4. belief that therefore the order of being will have to be changed (as opposed to the Christian belief that the world will remain as is and salvation is in grace through death)
  5. belief that changing the order of being is within human ability
  6. belief that the task is to seek out the method of altering reality. The gnostic is the prophet proclaiming this knowledge.


A sampling of gnostic symbolisms. The first are modifications of the Christian idea of perfection. Its components (from Ernst Troltsch):
  1. teleological: movement toward a goal beyond life; the "sanctification of life"; the "pilgrim's progress"
  2. axiological: the goal of ultimate perfection

The gnostic derivations can immanentize either or both of these components. The variations:

  1. teleological: progressivism. Forward movement in the world to a goal that need not be very clear. Kant, Condorcet.
  2. axiological: achievement of a state of perfection in the world. Utopia or just the negation of some known evil. Vague on the means of achieving the goal.
  3. both components immanentized together: activist mysticism. Comte and Marx. Clarity of means and goals.


Another complex of symbols was created in the speculations on history by Joachim of Flora in the 12th century. Contrary to Augustine, who believed the current age of the world was the sixth and last, Joachim proposed three ages:
  1. the Father: from the Creation to the birth of Christ
  2. the Son: from Christ to 1260
  3. the Holy Spirit: the period after (in which we see the first suggestion of a post-Christian time).

The symbols of Joachitic speculation:

  1. The Third Realm: the last age of the world to be one of fulfillment:
    • the humanistic periodization of history into ancient, medieval and modern
    • Turgot and Comte: theological, metaphysical, positive science
    • Hegel: antiquity when only one was free, aristocratic times when few were free, modernity when all are free
    • Marx and Engels: primitive communism, bourgeois class society, communist classless society
    • Schelling on the phases of Christianity: Petrine, Pauline, Johannine

    This is a deeply embedded symbol. After centuries of waiting for the Third Realm it is not surprising that some turn to direct action to achieve it.

  2. The leader who appears at the beginning of the era and establishes it. Originally the god-possessed leaders, later the secular supermen.
  3. A prophet as precursor to the leader of each age. A new type: the intellectual who knows the formula for salvation and who can predict the future.
  4. The community of spiritually autonomous persons. Men without the support and mediation of institutions. Monks without the Church. The extinction of the state. Symbolism for communism and democracy.


Other gnostic symbolic complexes would include Averroism and nominalism, but the immanentization of Christian perfection is the most important. The others express the will to immanentization.

It is not possible to change reality, but the gnostic must make it appear so by leaving out some factor of reality. Examples:


The psychological motivations of gnostic thinkers. Will to power, but the triumph is a fantasy. The psychic gain:
  1. certainty about the meaning of existence
  2. knowledge of the future
  3. creation of a basis for action

Why do men feel uncertain about these matters? The derivations from the Christian idea of perfection indicate insecurity about it. All certainty of divine, transcendent being hangs on a very thin thread of faith. Not all men have the spiritual stamina to keep this faith. The greater the success of Christianity, the greater the number of men who will be susceptible to the immanentizing shortcut.

The temptation of certain untruth over uncertain truth. The demanding spiritual strain is characteristic of the border experiences of man's contact with transcendental being. Examples:

Return to the Eric Voegelin Study Page.
Bill McClain (