1937: Eric Voegelin, on Gnosis (modernist interpretation)

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1937: Eric Voegelin, on Gnosis (modernist interpretation)

Post by billd89 »

Eric Voegelin on The New Science of Politics,11 November 1953.

Then there is the question of Gnosis. You attribute to me the "readiness" to identify all sorts of ideas as Gnostic, as if that were my oddity. Well, if you attribute to me, as is frequently done, the great discovery of the problem of modern Gnosis and its continuity with antiquity, I must decline the honor and humbly disavow that stroke of genius. I ran across the problem for the first time in Balthasar's 'Prometheus'* of 1937. Then I ascertained that he was right, through the study of Jonas' Gnosis of 1934, and through the reading of mountains of materials on medieval sectarianism. For the modern application, I found this view confirmed through the works of Lubac. And then I took the precaution of discussing the question in detail with Puech, Quispel, and Bultmann, that is, with the foremost living authorities on Gnosis and Christianity. They all agreed that this was indeed the issue. To sum up: everybody who is somebody in questions of this kind shares the opinion.

Voegelin's study (at Vienna?) of the work of Max Weber, Alfred Weber, and Eduard Meyer, was encouraged and influenced by the mystical Stefan George circle. Voegelin refers to this mystical dimension in his earlier work: Die politischen Religionen had just been published by Bermann-Fischer in Vienna March 1938, when the print-run was seized by the invading Nazis. (This is really 'modern Gnosticism' in the very loosest definition, I think.) Perhaps Voegelin chose to minimize the Stephan George connection in his autobiography, or he considered his own 'Gnostic' ideas of this period too immature? But there is fairly extensive discussion of various Gnostic heretics in The People of God (1941), a long essay. It looks like Voegelin had begun processing the nebulous thesis by 1938, though at least one scholar deems Voegelin's research superficial, and this 1941 work was primitive by comparison to his published 1953 book.

"Faith Seeking Understanding? A Response to Stefan Rossbach" Fred Lawrence (2007):
Rossbach makes a well‐researched case that the first volume‐‐Prometheus‐‐of Hans Urs von Balthasar's multi‐volume work on modern German literature and philosophy inspired the treatment of gnosticism in The New Science of Politics. He investigates the way the concept of gnosticism operated in Voegelin's ongoing resistance to social disorder. He discovers, however, that Voegelin did not base his conceptions either of gnosticism or of Christianity on sufficient study of the relevant material sources documenting the range of experiences and symbols that are at the heart of his interpretative modus operandi.

Later, Voegelin would elaborate a larger context for his gnostic framework:
The idea that one of the main currents of European, especially of German, thought is essentially gnostic sounds strange today, but this is not a recent discovery. Until about a hundred years ago the facts of the matter were well known. In 1835 appeared Ferdinand Christian Baur’s monumental work Die christliche Gnosis, oder die Religionsphilosophie in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung.

Under the heading “Ancient Gnosticism and Modern Philosophy of Religion,” the last part of this work discusses: (i) Bõhme’s theosophy, (2) Schilling’s philosophy of nature, (3) Schleiermacher’s doctrine of faith, and (4) Hegel’s philosophy of religion. The speculation of German idealism is correctly placed in its context in the gnostic movement since antiquity. Moreover, Baur’s work was not an isolated event: it concluded a hundred years of preoccupation with the history of heresy–a branch of scholarship that not without reason developed during the Enlightenment.

Since in its massiveness this new political phenomenon could not be disregarded, a number of stopgap notions were coined to cope with it. There was talk of neopagan movements, of new social and political myths, or of mystiques politiques. I, too, tried one of these ad hoc explanations in a little book on “political religions.” The research on ancient Gnosticism has a complex history of more than two hundred years. For this development one should consult the historical surveys in Wilhelm Bousset’s Die Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (1907) and Hans Jonas’s Gnosis und spätantiker Geist (1934; 1954). For the problems of Gnosticism itself, see both these works and Die Gnosis (1924; 4th edition, 1955) by Hans Leisegang. Gilles Quispel’s Gnosis als Weltreligion (1951) is a concise introduction by one of the foremost authorities.

Under the influence of a deepened understanding of Gnosticism and its connections with Judaism and Christianity, a new interpretation of European intellectual history and of modern politics has been developing. For example, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937), the first volume of which was reissued in 1947 under the title Prometheus, helps to clarify German history since the eighteenth century. The parallel work on French history is L’Homme révolté (1951) by Albert Camus.

Though cited many years after, Voegelin credits Hans Urs von Balthasar (later, named Cardinal and influential on Ratzinger The German Pope), who wrote on Promethean vs. Dionysian principles. See Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937) and Prometheus; Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Idealismus.

Gnostic Scholars Network:
This is esp. interesting to me, tracking one particular scholar whose 1938 work overlaps Voegelin's somewhat AND who studied at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität 1921-5. Notably, colleague Hans Jonas studied there w/ the same Professors (Eduard Spranger, Ernst Sellin, and Eduard Meyer) during the same years; Balthasar attended in 1926/7. Another Berlin colleague Hans Lewy was studying under Werner Jäger, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf, and Eduard Norden at the same time. Also, Schlomo Pines, Thomas Mann, Prof. Hans Heinrich Schaeder were all working on Gnostic projects in 1925/6. The 'Gnostic' Zeitgeist had exploded.

Gershom Scholem (in 1945) strongly suggested the mystical-gnostical orientation of some of these young Classicists was inspired by Stephan George. Of Hans Lewy, he said:

George the poet and seer had enormous influence in the circles of young Zionists, especially during the critical years when Lewy’s character was formed, in the early 1920s. Much of the special atmosphere of the circle around George penetrated into youth movements that admired George. … As a result of his psychological bent, and his aesthetic and poetic sensibilities, Lewy should have been one of those who turned in the direction of imagination. However, his penetrating critical eye suspected the demonic forces hidden there. Lewy was loyal to George’s lyrical poetry, but turned his back on the ideology of the George school. He “looked into” the profundities of the aristocratic symbolic world, and decided against it.

Lewy “looked” and withdrew. He detested the supposed syntheses of those who possessed the modern holy spirit, and instead elected a life of intensive work and tireless analysis. With a clear mind, he chose the most demanding methods of research championed by the sage Eduard Norden, who remained au-dessus de la mêlée, above the polemic of the different schools83. However, the fear of the seduction of the intuitive science that he had rejected remained engraved in Lewy’s heart. As a result, he always carefully investigated the claims of intuition, both his and that of others, and considered them suspect. Accordingly, he matured before his time. Eighteen years ago (i.e. in 1927), when I met him for the first time, he already knew the direction his life would take, and his academic character was set no less than his personal character.

And yet, for Lewy, the sun never set on the world of intuition. I believe that it was not an accident that Lewy chose to study topics connected with the world of intuition. Religious literature and questions concerning the history of religion in late antiquity drew his attention and occupied him all his years. This literature demands great devotion, preparation, and exact analysis if one wants to reach firm conclusions concerning the questions it raises. Hellenistic religious mysticism, from Philo of Alexandria to the last of the Neo-Platonists, Proclus in particular, was at the heart of Lewy’s work all the years I knew him. This was a place for a fruitful combination between Lewy’s most unusual abilities and the deepest academic issues with far-reaching consequences… This research demanded exacting and profound ability at analysis, not only in order to appreciate the significance of religious ideas and symbols, but also to grasp the connections – often hidden from the eye – that open the path to a true understanding of ideas. Questions such as the path that leads from Wisdom, as in Proverbs, to Eastern-Greek gnosis aroused Lewy’s interest to the highest degree. The philologist in him found the thread of Ariadne that runs through the labyrinth of syncretistic Hellenism in the history of terms and terminology. He knew well that the history of religion depends even more than the history of philosophy on the history of words and images.

'Hellenistic religious mysticism' is basically Gnosticism, as Scholem and peers typically conflated Hermeticism, proto-Gnostic Jewish mysticism and even the Kaballah under the 'Gnostic' rubric without much distinction or precise debate in the 1940s and '50s. It's curious that many of these 'Gnostic' scholars (G.Scholem, S.Pines, H.Lewy, H.Jonas, E.Voegelin, Paul Kraus, Leo Strauss, etc.) had orbited the Stephan George network during the mid-1920s. But Voegelin fully developed his own Gnostic trajectory more than two decades after colleagues' did their initial research, so a relative latecomer to the debate.

By the early 1950s, Vogelin's
thesis was the argument that the political culture developed in the West since the period of the high middle ages was marked by a disordering phenomenon, modern gnosticism, that, by reason of the claim of its more or less self-aware devotees to a form of salvational knowledge capable of delivering mankind from the otherwise knowable constraints of political existence, bore a marked affinity and stood to some degree in historical continuity with the world-denying heresies condemned by the Church fathers and such Neo-Platonists as Plotinus as Gnosticism. This was a theme to which Voegelin was to return in later writings, notably his inaugural lecture "Science, Politics and Gnosticism",delivered in Munich in November 1958, and the article "Ersatz Religion" ...

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