Tuesday, September 6, 2011

We're All Gnostics Now

A Brief Review of The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin

I'm not quite sure why I insist on reading old books that leave me feeling like I've been flattened by a steamroller, but I do. It is becoming an addiction.

Does that make me a literary masochist?

This, to be blunt, is the book our age needs to read. Unfortunately, our age is probably not literate enough to understand it, myself included. So, I'll just share some thoughts on the bit I managed, and leave the rest to better readers.

Voegelin starts from a more general version of a premise that I myself have argued on several occasions -- namely, that modern inquiries seem to have an obsession for doing things 'scientifically,' even when science is not appropriate for addressing the question at hand. This, he says, is a specific version of a broader phenomenon -- the tendency to subordinate relevance to method. Historically, there have been many manifestations of this phenomenon. When a particular field has seen a great advance in a short time span, it is common for a sort of 'philosophical fad' to take over, such that almost every field of inquiry begins mimicking the approaches of the 'hot' field, whether this is appropriate or not.

In our case, this takes the form of positivism -- the application of the 'scientific method' to everything. Voegelin's main example is the work of Max Weber. Because science (supposedly) heavily values 'objectivity,' historians and political scientists find themselves limited by positivism into dealing only in 'value-free' theories and narratives. This has a tendency to turn what would otherwise be deep inquiries into the nature of human societies into massive catalogues of undigested data. According to Voegelin, Max Weber, for example, winds up producing as immense body of work that may be reduced, more or less, to statements of 'value set X produce system Y with practical outcome Z.' Marxism, liberalism, and Puritanism become separate movements merely to be described and catalogued like so many insects in a collection, rather than critically evaluated and placed into their proper contexts by a coherent philosophical theory.

This, Voegelin says, is something of a lunacy and a travesty of philosophy. It is something like answering a question of 'what is 2+2?' with 'the color purple.' Philosophers may not know exactly what the answers to every question are or ought to be, but at least they should know what possible answers should look like. It is this use of irrelevant method that produces logical absurdities, and Voegelin says that the solution is a restoration of coherent philosophical inquiry -- a "New Science of Politics." Voegelin rejects the assumptions of positivism, and appears to approach the problem from the point of view that all the legitimate tools of philosophy should be brought bear on the question of the nature of human social structure -- including the findings of the ancient metaphysicians and theologians.

Voegelin begins by addressing the issue of representation in government. Most people living in Western democracies associate 'representation' in the political sense with the process of voting and selecting political representatives itself. It is the method of representation of members of society in government. This Voegelin calls 'elemental representation' and it is actually not the most important in terms of understanding political science and the unfolding of history. The modern West seizes on it as almost the only form of 'representation' of any importance as a matter of having so thoroughly absorbed what Voegelin might call the 'civic religion' of democracy.

Representation operates on two other levels. The second he terms 'existential representation' -- how government represents the identity of society as a whole -- its 'constitution.' Modern Westerners tend to think of the documents called constitutions as purely legal documents, but they were supposed to express the 'essence' of the people they purported to bring together and bind under government. The picture Hobbes paints of societies as bodies of men joined by shared culture and identity to submit to norms and form the Leviathan is the basic idea of existential representation, with Leviathan as the representation of the people who came together to form it. Voegelin blames the neglect of this idea in modern Western conceptions of the order of society for many of its failures of foreign policy -- such as the rather arbitrary or 'political' drawing of boundaries in the wake of wars to produce 'nations' which include peoples incapable of being represented together existentially because they do not share an identity.

The third level of representation is probably the most important, but will appear bizarre to most modern minds. It is the idea of society as a representation of cosmic order, an 'Order of Heaven.' This is quite easy to see in ancient societies, such as in Egypt under the pharoahs, where Pharoah was taken to be a god, and society was to be ordered in a fitting manner. It is not so easy to see in modern times, so I will not belabor the point now and will arrive at an explanation at such time as it will make more sense, however, there is a hint of it in what I wrote about democracy being a civic religion.

The investigator who wishes to look into the nature of human society therefore arrives at a dilemma. Society itself already has a 'truth' in the way that its members understand their order to represent the cosmic order. Society, as Voegelin says, is a cosmoid illuminated from within by its own understanding of itself. The political scientist must place himself in a position of criticizing this truth, creating for himself a separate, 'theoretical truth.' Voegelin turns to Plato and Aristotle and their notions of the 'opening of the soul' to accept spiritual truths in the formulation of theoretical truths external to what is understood by society's truth. They thought that such a person must be of unusual mental and spiritual maturity to be capable of undertaking such an inquiry, and even those who might otherwise have been capable of doing so often do not, simply because they have no inclination. A true philosopher of this type is exceedingly rare.

Voegelin thought that history tended to produce these thinkers rather sporadically through a process of specific personal experiences -- usually crises. He notes that through most of history, 'political scientists' tend mostly to simply describe the system to which they belong and apologize for its order, rather than actually delve into the fundamental truths of social order and the meaning of human existence. Typically, it takes a fantastic crisis for thinkers to begin to ask such questions and open their minds to such matters. There have been few such crises in the course of Western history. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle arose in the generation of Athenians who witnessed the destruction of their city by the Persians. St. Augustine was produced by the fall of Rome. Other than these junctures in history, there have been a few other such crises, generally less severe, but not so many thinkers.

There are a few other 'truths' worth mentioning in this part of Voegelin's exposition before moving on. Plato articulated the 'anthropological truth,' which I did not completely understand, but has to do with existential representation and 'man as the measure' of the social order. There is also the 'soteriological truth,' which I completely did not understand but know was contributed by Christian theology. (I did not say that this would be a good or a thorough book review...)

Voegelin thought that even after the emergence of the first set of 'mystic philosophers,' which included not only Plato and Aristotle, but also other Westerners, as well as Laozi, Confucius and Bhudda in the East who were very nearly contemporaries with these, Rome did not really appreciate their contribution to political ideas. They were treated as a sort of 'icing on the cake' the cake being the cult of the Roman state -- Roman identity, religion, and the ideology of the empire. Philosophy was nice, but mostly for show. It was not taken seriously. As Christianity displaced the Roman religion as the civic religion, it presented an unsettling force acting on the Roman sense of existential and cosmic representations. There was a long period of 'religious experimentation' in which the rulers tried to patch together a workable cult of the state that would create a stable social order. It failed.

Voegelin compares Rome at that time to Japan of his day -- an island of archaism in a world that had grasped new and larger sets of truths. The crisis of the fall of Rome and the philosophies of Augustine helped to drag it into the philosophical 'big leagues.' However, as Christianity became the dominant religion, it presented a dilemma to the old notions of social order -- especially in terms of 'cosmic truth.' The trinitarianism and transcendental natures of God were impossible to reproduce in a rulership of the social order. So, eventually, they weren't. What emerged was the Medieval system -- according to Voegelin a 'de-divinization' of the political sphere. This sounds strange to modern ears, but he describes it in terms that sound like a separation of church and state. The two operated as separate -- if intertwined -- systems in a manner very different from what had come before. A modern might think of the Pope as 'God's representative on Earth' in the medieval world, but certainly it stands to reason that this was not in the same sense that Pharoah would have stood as an actual god.

The de-divinization of politics had a massively stabilizing and pacifying effect. Unfortunately, this was eventually overturned by a particular quality of the Christian civic religion. Because Christianity holds that God is transcendental, he is seen as 'far away,' not as accessible in the way that the pagan gods had been. Christianity asks faith in things unseen, and takes a rather passive view of history in that the world is a transitory thing which Christians must pass through, but the search for real meaning must always be focused on eternity. 'The end' -- the eschaton -- is something to be awaited passively.

There emerges a desire for 'immanent' meaning. Voegelin believes that this manifests itself in the spread of Christian heresies, and that these heretical forces eventually produced what he calls 'Gnostic movements,' which are attempts to re-divinize society in search of temporal meaning. One of the earliest events in this eruption was the 'speculation' of Joachim of Flora, who attempted to find an order to the unfolding of history in trinitarian terms. It is from this 'speculation' that modern historians and the gnostic philosophers got the idea of history being divided into three periods -- the ancient, the medieval, and the modern. Most gnostic movements take the modern period as a sort of symbol, and are centered on the belief of the eschaton arriving at the end of the modern period. They seek a re-organization of the social order to produce the final, eternal order which will reflect the order of heaven and usher in paradise. Although this is taken to contradict Christian theology, nevertheless, wave upon wave of these movements are continually produced, some considering themselves representations of the 'true faith,' and some rejecting Christianity altogether.

As an example, he points to the founding of the Russian Orthodox church. When Rome fell, many Christians took Constantinople to be the new center of orthodox Christendom -- the 'New Rome.' By the same token, when Constantinople fell to the Turks in the 16th century, a certain monk in Moscow took this as a symbol that the torch had been passed to Ivan IV. The idea caught on, and in a century a narrative had taken hold that Moscow had become the 'Third Rome,' again neatly dividing history into three epochs with the society in question at the helm in modern times. Russian Orthodoxy was taken to be the new 'Order of Heaven,' with appropriate emphasis on the meaning and importance of the historical actions of Russia in the final destination of history. Russians became instilled with the belief that they had an important role to play in bringing about the final kingdom of God and peace and freedom to all people. Russia began an aggressive period of expansion, which did not end or much change in the conversion to communism. Even with the fall of communism, to this day I'm told by a friend of mine who is married to a Ukranian, that there is a deep belief among Russians that they have an important, but as yet unknown role to play in 'saving the world.'

Most modern ideologies follow along similar lines, regardless of whether they claim be religious or secular. It seems that to Voegelin's mind, they are all religious. He characterizes Gnostic movements as conforming to a general pattern. They tend to begin with some 'reformer' who has found something terribly wrong with the present order such that it needs to be torn down. The movement produces a 'koran' -- a book of doctrine considered to be the inarguable core of the movement's belief. He identified several of these as examples -- Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, and the writings of Karl Marx. Intellectual leaders of these movements may consult with older writings and engage in serious theology themselves, but generally they try to limit their followers to the movement's koran and create taboos against other sources, especially older ones. They tend to suppress theoretical argument -- the seeking of the theoretical 'truth of the soul' of Plato and Aristotle. They tend to resort to governmental authority for a reassertion of the cosmic order and their own civil theology. This civil religion serves as a sort of articulation of a 'dream world,' asserting laws of cause and effect that do not have any bearing on the real world because they are rooted in falsehoods. The failure of action to produce the desired result, rather than leading to a questioning of the premises of the gnostic movement itself, is blamed on enemies, or insufficient zeal, or other such sources as the ideal of the dream wold is defended.

Over time these movements have become increasingly radicalized. To Voegelin, they represent regressions in the state of philosophy as they are less coherent than the original Christian order against which they rebelled, and especially with the onset of positivism, they have become increasingly irrational, refusing to submit themselves to philosophical scrutiny as they consider the methods of philosophy invalid. He considers Marxism and other such movements to be religiously of a lower order than even the very ancient Greek paganism because of this inherent irrationality. Ultimately, he considers the logic of the progression of gnosticism to end in totalitarianism.

There is a great deal of example and discussion in the last few chapters which are well worth reading, but I thought that I would finish with one that is of particular interest -- the apparent contradiction of progress and decline in the modern world at the same time. Voegelin attributes the material progress with a sort of immanentist apocalyptic zeal -- the 'Protestant' work ethic, the space race, and other gnostic rivalries vying for the triumph of their own worldview come to mind-- as well as a place of significance for individuals in history. By bringing God into the temporal and ascribing eternal meaning to the unfolding of history, fame and recognition of achievement in the eyes of gnostic referees becomes a matter of the assessment of individual existential value. The same immanentization that eventuates in the totalitarianism also motivates the frantic drive for 'progress.'

So much for that.  And now, if you'll excuse me, my brain hurts. I need a break.

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