Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism

Gnosis 02The trend of politics in the Western nations since Eric Voegelin’s death in 1986 has made his work increasingly relevant to any philosophically rigorous Conservatism or Traditionalism. In particular, Voegelin’s argument that liberalism and its Leftwing metastases constitute an evangelical religious movement, mimicking and distorting Christianity, has gained currency. The pronounced irrational character of the “Global Warming” cult and the obvious messianism of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency have together sharpened the perception that contemporary Leftwing politics shares with history’s specimen-type doctrinally intransigent sects an absolute intolerance for dissent, even for discussion, along with a conviction of perfect certainty in all things. The sudden experience of Leftwing triumph attests that, indeed, utopian radicalism draws its strength from a deep well of resentment that puts it in conflict, not merely with those whom it regards as heterodox, but also with the unalterable structure of reality. Voegelin argued – in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and throughout Order and History (1957-65) – that the rebellion against reality was a recurrent affliction of civilized life; he pointed to the acute anticosmic sects of Late Antiquity as offering a paradigm of the phenomenon and expanded the scholarly designation of them as “Gnosticism” to cover insurgent ideological doctrines of the modern period, particularly Marxism and National Socialism.

Thus Lawrence Auster, the late creator and supervisor of the (now inactive) View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of Traditionalism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated “conservative” columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?

The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Christian Patres; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it? Continue reading

The Science of Science

Theology encompasses metaphysics the way that the necessary concrete actuality of God encompasses and outpasses the mere abstract intellectual conception of God as that than which nothing greater may be conceived. Anselm’s Argument is where abstract metaphysical ratiocination entails the Act of a Being whose actuality makes metaphysics possible, ergo necessary.

Only if God exists actually can metaphysics be possible conceptually. Or, ergo, mathematics, or its application in physics.

The Moderns who insist that metaphysics is dead or impossible or obsolescent all argue from the basis of a metaphysical presupposition – a prejudice, and no more – that there is no God. If there is no God, then they are right. But if there is no God, nor therefore any metaphysics, then neither is there anything else, either; including materialist metaphysics, that boasts to abjure metaphysics altogether.

You can’t get any of the beings that are less than the most real being if you don’t first have the most real being. Take a set of beings; one of them is most real, the others all relatively less real. If the most real being is not real at all, then all the less real beings are even less real than “not real at all.” And the only way to be less real than what is not real at all, is to be in the first place inconceivable.

Theology, then, is the science of all science, the science in virtue of which any other science can know anything. If God is not actual, nothing else can be; if God is not intelligible, and knowable (at least in part, and in principle), then nor can anything else be either knowable or intelligible.

Wonder suffuses the practice of all science – drudgery, too, of course, but the drudgery is motivated by the wonder, which is the engine at the base of the whole project. Appropriately, it is at the far sublime edge of theology that science reaches the limit and culmination of wonder: worship.

Necessity or Eternity

What is necessary is necessarily eternal, but the eternal is not necessarily necessary.

Time – which is to say, congeries of contingent events, that are causally related and that therefore, together, constitute worlds, extensive continua along time, space, and myriad other dimensions – occurs in eternity. It occurs eternally (and only then, and only in virtue of its eternal occurrence, temporally), but not necessarily. It occurs freely. So likewise also for God’s Act.

Eternal acts can be free. They are not necessarily necessary. Some may also be temporal, such as this moment in your life, or the Incarnation.

Necessities comprise what Whitehead called the Primordial Nature of God, and Plato the Realm of the Forms: the Nature in virtue of which there is such a thing as order in the first place, the order of all order. The free eternal Act of God, and all its derivates in his knowledge, comprise what Whitehead called the Consequent Nature of God. Both these Natures are eternal, and indeed coterminous, in that together they characterize a single Act; so that they are sections of a single Nature. But of the two, only the Primordial Nature is necessary.

NB: God’s omniscient knowledge does not continge upon creaturely acts, but vice versa. It is only in virtue of his logically prior knowledge of creaturely acts that creatures may act in the first place.

LaPlace iff Plato

Naturalistic explanations can work as descriptions of actual causal relations among reals only if nominalism is false, so that their terms – mass, extension, momentum, 2, h, valence, π, spin, c, equilibrium, homeostasis, system, organism, state, fitness, and so forth – truly refer. Otherwise, they are nothing but vain wind.

But the falsity of nominalism entails the reality of the Forms. It entails supernaturalism.

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Ontological Integrity & the Possibility of Actuality

If reality were not coherent through and through – if, that is to say, the Many things were not integral in some One – then there could be no world. There is a world, in which every one thing is completely coordinated to every other; so reality is coherent, and integral in and as some One.

Notice that finite creatures are incapable of the infinite calculation needed to achieve an integral coordination of things. The One in and as which things are integrated must then be itself infinite. It must furthermore be eternal; for, as constituting by itself the mundane forecondition and matrix of all the items that go to make up any worlds and their temporal orders, it must be prior to all such orders, and to their constituents. Such orders then, and all the Many, supervene upon that One.

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The Beauty of Being

Commenting on a recent post about Beauty, Shenpen suggested that I had got terribly mixed up about the difference between the map – our feelings of beauty – and what’s really out there, which we feel is more or less beautiful. He said two quite disparate things, at and to make quite different points in his argument:

… what can [it even] possibly mean that beauty is objectively real? That a pretty flower objectively has the same physical properties we think it has?

… “beauty” is not even a property of things, but a property of sensations in our minds.

These two statements resonated together in my mind, after I had read and responded to his comment. Their conjunction got me started.

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The Great Metaphysical Heresies

The Great Christian Heresies crop up again and again, and the Church will probably have to deal with them all the way out to the eschaton. They tempt the mind because they are simply easier to take on board than many of the most difficult and mysterious Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement. Being easier to make sense of, they seem to make more sense. And they all start from, and partake of, some kernel of theological truth. This too increases their credibility. But they are all errors.

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The only way that our apprehensions of beauty might not be illusory is if they are possibly true – if, that is to say, the beauty we apprehend in things is objectively real, regardless of our apprehensions, so that our apprehensions of it can then be either accurate, or not. But as only finitely scient, creatures cannot establish what is objectively real. They can establish, rather, only what is real to them in their partiality and incomprehension. They can establish, to put it plainly, only what is subjectively real. So it is beyond our powers to establish objective truths of any sort, such as mathematical truths. At most, we can discover them (this incapacity of ours to establish objective truths is but a department of our incapacity to create objects of any sort – to bring things into actual existence from nothingness). So then likewise also with beauty. We don’t establish it, but only apprehend it – or, fail thereat.

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Ignorance, Responsibility, Forgiveness

Why does God forgive our sins? Why doesn’t he hold them against us? Why, indeed, has he paid for them himself?

Well, he’s omniscient. So he knows why we sin. Furthermore, he knows full well that we don’t know why we sin, or even (often) that we do sin. He said so from the very cross where he hung in the agony of his forgiving.*  Having shared in it, he knows our weakness.

The real question, then, is not why God in his infinite goodness and mercy, his boundless compassion and sympathy, his perfect comprehension of our predicaments, forgives us who are so confused even about the springs of our own acts (let alone his). How could it be otherwise, with such a being? No, the question is why we sin.   Continue reading

The Order of Memory is the Order of Being

This is the third in a sequence of three essays examining aspects of reality from a Traditionalist perspective. The two previous essays took as their topics education and its relation to faith; and, the other, revelation and its relation to reality. The present essay, “The Order of Being is the Order of Memory,” assumes the conclusions of the two preceding essays, which it rehearses briefly in the first paragraph.


In the Philosophical Fragments (1843) Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) explores the existential paradox that while men must live their lives forwards they can only understand their lives backwards. Kierkegaard’s observation is far from being an item of attention-grabbing rhetorical cleverness: It explains both the precariousness of cultural transmission across time and the difficulty of philosophical maturation in the individual; it also throws into brilliant clarity the absolute dependence of the individual on the line of cultural transmission. In his study of Order and History (1956 – 1986), Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985) carefully traces out and analyzes the historical process, which he calls “symbolization,” by which Western Civilization gradually and arduously constructed its adaptation to the absoluteness of reality, reaching an acme in Christian revelation only thereafter to embark on a long decline. In respect of Kierkegaard in the essay that I devoted to the Philosophical Fragments, I focused on education, arguing that modern education, which likes to teach to the test, is not truly education because education requires faith and modern educators have banished faith from the curricular horizon. (I referred not to any particular faith – but, as I wrote, to “the very structure of faith.”) In respect of Voegelin in the essay that I devoted to him, I focused on the modern rejection of revelation, arguing that phenomena are indistinguishable from apocalypse and that a rejection of revelation entails a rejection of reality. I characterized the modern rejection of reality, moreover, as a recrudescence of archaic cult-activity, complete with the scapegoat ceremony.

Voegelin’s “symbolization” is an activity, spiritual and intellectual, carried out “forwards,” but its beneficiaries only understand it “backwards.” In understanding the history of the symbols, indeed, the inheritor places himself thematically with respect to the endeavor; he acquires a relation to the past that transforms his notions both of himself and his social-temporal situation, enriching them and making them more real. In this way, readers may understand Kierkegaard and Voegelin as conducting complementary analyses. The former elucidates the way in which the individual subject, in opening himself to inherited experience, redefines himself; the latter elucidates the way in which the collective subject, opening itself to reality, creates cultural order and bequeaths it to posterity, so that later individuals might orient themselves with respect to that order. Both the individual and the collective forms of self-understanding concern memory, that function or organ of consciousness that permits the formation of identity and insures its continuity beyond a fleeting moment. The philosophical investigation of memory suggests furthermore that the Order of Being is the Order of Memory.

Ancient peoples regarded memory as divine or supernatural. Memory is thoroughly bound up in Antiquity with the Cult of the Dead, whose constituency cries out for commemoration. In ten-thousand-year-old Çatal Hüyük in Central Anatolia the dwellers lived in apartments built over the sepulchers of their ancestors. The past – in the form of the dead – was physically ever-present to those living people. At mealtimes, the dead ate around the hearth with the living, receiving blandishments of food and drink, as the documented custom elsewhere permits one to infer. For the archaic Greek poet Hesiod (Eighth Century BC), memory was not personal, but self-evidently transcendent and godlike. The Muses, who taught Hesiod about the generations and order of the gods, were the daughters of a personified Mnemosyne (“Memory”), their mother, and the chief Olympian deity Zeus, their father. In the Invocation of the Theogony, Hesiod, whose name translates as “the poet,” writes, “From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet.”

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