A nerd wrote a nerd book that resonated with the public.
It triggered a 1952 feature in Time magazine. The dryest of academic pursuits had soaked into the middlebrow readership of America.
Eric Voegelin followed The New Science of Politics with three massive volumes: Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, and Plato and Aristotle, all published in 1956-1957.
These weren't successful like NSP, but they were read. Voegelin and his writings about gnosticism had a solid fan base.
And then he said, "Ah, f' it."
Well, not really.
He just stopped publishing.
Those three massive volumes were supposed to be volumes I, II, and III of a five-part series, but after 1957, he stopped.
Until 1974, when he published the fourth volume.
By that time, things had shifted a lot. America had gone through the 1960s. No one was interested in what a nerd said in the 1950s.
The thing is, Voegelin didn't seem much interested in what he had said in the 1950s, either.
He didn't even seem that much interested in the intellectual history of gnosticism.
Now he seemed interested in gnosticism as an issue of consciousness: a spiritual disease that can afflict anyone, regardless of their era and condition. Although certain eras and conditions can trigger it more than others, it's part of the human condition, Voegelin had come to realize.
Gnosticism is a Perennial Phenomenon
Voegelin for years had been absorbed in trying to figure out how dastardly movements like Fascism and Marxism had come to western civilization.
He traced it back to the French Enlightenment and brought it forward. Then he went back even further, all the way back to the ancient gnostic movements that forcefully erupted at the time of Christ . . . and brought it forward.
He traced, documented, and cited.
Marx admired Thomas Munzer, who admired Joachim of Flora, who was acquainted with the ancient gnostic writings.
Puritans took their gnosticism from the Ortliegians, Paracletes, and Adamites, who may have been inspired by the Albigensians, who may have been influenced by Scotus Erigena, whose writings were affected by the Pseudo-Dionysius.
And so on.
And then, after decades of tracing, he stopped.
He suddenly seemed to realize that gnosticism isn't a historic stream of thought. It's a perennial phenomenon that continually recurs.
Waves of gnosticism. Or maybe occasional water spouts. Even a flood or two.
But not a stream.
He even seemed to realize that he shouldn't refer to it as "gnosticism."
"Gnosticism," after all, was a concrete religious movement, like Christianity or Islam. It never gained a unified following and was relegated to isolated movements and pseudo-prophets, but it was a historic religion.
Voegelin came to realize that gnosticism as he used the term isn't a historical sect any more than, say, "sin" or "love" is a historical sect.
Gnosticism is a concept that tries to explain a human affliction.
Specifically, it's a concept that describes what happens when a person snaps under the pressure of existing in the tension of the metaxy.
Gnosticism is an Experience of Consciousness
There's an old saying: "You can't tell someone something that he doesn't already know."
The later Voegelin would say, "You can't tell someone something that doesn't resonate with who he is already."
When someone says something that resonates with a lot of people, a movement arises.
The movement might be religious. It might be intellectual. It might be political.
And if it takes on certain traits, it becomes a gnostic movement: a gnostic religious movement like it was in ancient times; a gnostic intellectual movement like the one Hegel started; a gnostic political movement like Marxism or Fascism.
But I'm inclined to think that a person starts to take on characteristics of gnosticism if she has just three traits: (1) Existential discontentment . . . a feeling of unhappiness or anger, (2) Belief that the discontentment comes from an evil structure, and (3) Confidence that knowledge can change the structure by taking control and eliminating it or changing it.
If a person has those three traits, she's either already a gnostic or close enough to full-blown gnosticism that she's prime material to receive a gnostic leader's message.
If the message resonates with enough people, you get Hitler and Lenin.
The Desire for Certainty Drives the Gnostic, and the Left Hemisphere Has a Desperate Desire for Certainty.
It all starts in consciousness: The gnostic leader speaks; it resonates with others. A gnostic movement is born.
Now, consciousness can mean a lot of things and I'm not sure anyone agrees about what it is, but no matter what your definition, it certainly includes "cognition."
The gnostic's cognitive existence craves certainty. It's what drives him. He finds existence in the metaxy and its mystery frustrating and unacceptable.
The gnostic's driving goals are absolute power and perfect certainty.
You know what else desires power and certainty?
The left hemisphere of the brain.
The left hemisphere is meant to deal with the exigencies of everyday life. It needs to approach its tasks with purposeful preciseness. It's not a bad thing. It's a good thing. The left hemisphere isn't wrong for approaching its tasks like this any more than a dog is wrong for fiercely protecting his master's daughter from a snake.
But the approach requires the left hemisphere to have power and certainty. It needs to know "that snake is bad and Sally is good and that snake must now die." It has neither time nor use for moral vagaries, and it sure as hell shuns "paralysis by analysis." It is certain about the situation (that snake wants to bite Sally) and desires power to address it (to kill the snake).
The left hemisphere's desire for certainty and power are its most salient traits. McGilchrist puts the left hemisphere's craving for certainty in no uncertain terms. The left hemisphere, he says, has a "desperate need for certainty."
It even wants certainty more than it wants truth. It will, McGilchrist shows, "make stuff up, if it needs to, in order to maintain its point of view." According to a team of University of California brain scientists:
The left hemisphere appears to detest uncertainty; it creates explanations and fills in gaps of information in order to build a cohesive story and extinguish doubt.
A person dominated by the left hemisphere is going to crave certainty, often because she is dissatisfied: is discontented, suffers anxiety, and is in general unhappy. She is fodder for the gnostic. She just needs to believe that certainty and happiness can be found at the end of a gun barrel: through power. She then becomes a gnostic or, at a minimum, she finds herself well along the gnostic spectrum and material ready to receive the gnostic leader.
It's why so many Americans today think Communism is worth another try, despite hundreds of millions of murders perpetrated at its hands. It's why so many Europeans bought into an absurd philosophy like Descartes'.
They all craved certainty at any cost, even at the cost of life, logic, history, and truth.
Gnosticism is the Result of a Rogue Left Hemisphere
Modernity is the era of the left hemisphere's usurpation of the right hemisphere's rightful role as master. That's the continuing theme and importance of McGilchrist's work.
"Gnosticism is the essence of modernity." That's one of Voegelin's central and abiding points about gnosticism.
McGilchrist's and Voegelin's insights can be combined:
Gnosticism is the essence of modernity. Modernity is the era of the left hemisphere's usurpation. Gnosticism and a rogue left hemisphere are the partners that created modernity.
Put another way:
The unruly left hemisphere is the experience of consciousness that Voegelin emphasized in his later writings about gnosticism.
A rogue left hemisphere breeds gnosticism like a swamp does mosquitoes.
Modernity is a Breeding Ground for Gnosticism Because the Left Hemisphere Values What the Gnostic Promises
Modernity is the rejection of the Tao and its connection to transcendence. I call it "The Great Rejection."
People who are inculcated to deny the transcendent pole of reality are never stretched in the metaxy. Young people arrive at rational adulthood with both feet on the ground of certainty and power.
On the bright side, they feel pretty comfortable right away. They're not inclined to embrace gnostic messianic ideas that are aimed to (in a Voegelin phrase often used to chuckle about his difficult prose) "immanentize the eschaton." They're born into an immanentized rationality that denies any sort of eschaton or ultimate reality.
On the dark side, they are metaphysically adrift. They're told they are free and in power and can control their destiny, but they're not. They think they're on solid ground but they're wallowing in deep waters of existence and feel like they're drowning.
They feel anxious. Unhappy. Discontented.
They arrive, in other words, at adulthood, already ensconced in the first trait of gnosticism: existential anxiety. They also have no sense of the Tao and the ultimate mystery of reality. Finally, they have a left-hemispheric worldview that gives them overwhelming confidence in human intelligence and knowledge.
A gnostic leader just needs to pile those things together and light the match.