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Gnosticism in Modernity, or Why History Refuses to End

Isaac Ariail Reed and Michael Weinman at The Hedgehog Review

SVG trace of an image of the Abraxas Stone or Gem from The Gnostics and their remains by Charles W. King, 1887

If history ever indeed ended, it certainly became clear by 2016 that the end was over. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president were only the most emphatic instances of increasingly standard deviations from the conduct of establishment politics in the liberal democracies after the end of the Cold War. Formulating responses to this seismic shift, scholars and assorted members of the commentariat offered various interpretations—some appearing in these pages—of how and why the center could not hold, the unraveling of the Enlightenment project, the emergence of postsecularism and re-enchantment, and the insecurity of the liberal international order in the face of localism and particularist resistance. These accounts all shared the intuition that the exercise of basic rights, the commitment to free and fair elections, and the maintenance of vibrant civic cultures were politically precarious.

A touchstone for these analyses was, and still is, Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay “The End of History?” Published in The National Interest in 1989 and expanded into his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man (with the question mark conspicuously dropped and a reference to Nietzsche added), this statement on the triumph of the liberal-democratic-capitalist West is now widely viewed as representative of a certain improvidence in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Although Fukuyama expressed “the most ambivalent feelings” about the “centuries of boredom” that would come with the end of history—an intuition that received fuller exploration in the book’s concluding chapter on the “last man”—the essay displayed a clear enthusiasm for liberal-democratic modernity and capitalism.1 That affirmation came through in Fukuyama’s careful attack on materialist determinism (refusing to reduce mankind to selfish impulses) and his manifest satisfaction at the demise of fascist and communist ideals worldwide.

The attack on materialist determinism made easy fodder for Marx-inflected critics who were unsurprised that Fukuyama underestimated the potential for human destruction bound up with the profit motive. Of more interest, though, was the emergent tendency to mark this essay as overconfident, and perhaps embarrassingly so. What does this adjective mean? And how should we think about this negative judgment of Fukuyama’s essay (and its influence) today?

If there is overconfidence in the essay itself, it can be found in the author’s brief consideration and relatively casual dismissal of the threats to liberal internationalism posed by religion and nationalism. Positing an ideological vacuum opened up by the end of history, Fukuyama asked if attachments to God and nations could fill it. Could these attachments serve as extensive and intensive orienting devices for political and military conflict? His answer was negative: Fukuyama rejected religion and nationalism as world-historical forces no longer relevant to our own age.

That this dismissal has not been vindicated is clear enough. The more difficult question is why. Can we come to terms, intellectually, with the human tendencies to communal identification, desire for recognition, and manifestations of pride that apparently sustain the continuing relevance of religious commitments, national narratives, and the intermixing of the two? Terms like recognition and pride may indeed refer to human universals, but their psychological interpretation is insufficient to an understanding of how they move history. What is the deeper cultural story—a story about recognition, dignity, and the striving in human life for significance as well as well-being—that makes Fukuyama’s claims in his famous essay overconfident? Here, it is useful to look a bit more closely at Fukuyama’s Hegelianism.

A crucial part of “The End of History?” is its defense of “Hegel’s radical idealist perspective.” Fukuyama writes that Hegel persuasively exposes “the problematic nature of many materialist explanations we often take for granted.”2 However succinctly Fukuyama demonstrates the insufficiency of historical-materialist explanations, his engagement with Hegel (and particularly with Hegel’s twentieth-century acolyte, the somewhat gnomic Russo-Gallic philosopher Alexandre Kojève) only lightly touches on another crucial axis of the connection between Hegel and Marx, namely, the embeddedness of their philosophies of human action in arguments about the historical trajectory of Christian Europe. And it is precisely Fukuyama’s neglect of this angle that leads him to underestimate the persistence of forces such as religion and nationalism in his account of the end of history. For, in the trajectory of the Occident, certain cultural formations emerged to meet thymotic needs—the human needs to be recognized as worthy, consequential, and significant—and then became sources of energy and motivation, movers of history with lives of their own.

Downplaying these deep cultural formations prevented Fukuyama from recognizing, much less reckoning with, a deeper current or impulse running through political culture, one that was consequential for the emergence of fascism and communism as alternatives to liberal democracy in the short twentieth century, and which confronts us again today, manifested in ethnonationalism, end-of-the-world thinking, wild utopias, sanctifications of political violence, and the increasing political relevance of conspiracy theories. Precisely insofar as the very conditions for politics are being set by what several commentators have identified as battles over myth and the struggle over the ultimate significance of or “ground” for political action, we can trace the failure of history to end, in part, to the persistence of Gnosticism.

Apocalypticism and Gnosis

Gnosticism, or “the Gnostic impulse,” is a central feature of what the controversial but brilliant sociologist of religion Jacob Taubes (1923–87) called “occidental eschatology,” and if one wants to follow a Hegelian radical idealism to its deepest reaches, one has to give Gnosticism consideration. Taubes, in fact, identified modern “dialectics” as a manifestation of “apocalypticism and Gnosis,” which, he claimed, connected Marx’s texts to ancient “Iranian and Jewish apocalypticism,” and which also appeared in the young Hegel’s The Positivity of the Christian Religion and The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate, and thence in his Logic and The Phenomenology of Spirit.3 Fukuyama’s adroit use of Hegel to correct Marx, then, raises an issue that is not preeminent for him: How should one interpret this Gnostic legacy? Is it even possible that Hegel and Marx should be interpreted as—to a certain degree—embodying it?

What do we mean by Gnosticism? Scholars concerned with Gnosticism as both a textual tradition in early Christianity (the second and third centuries) and a paradigm for political action in the modern world have identified what cultural historian Yotam Hotam called “the structure of Gnostic thought.” This structure may be summarized in terms of five core principles:

  1. A radical dualism between “a good transcendent God and an evil world,” which is to say, a dualism of transcendence and immanence as the fundamental binary for making sense of experience.
  2. The estrangement of the transcendent God from the world, a God crucially understood not only as “hidden and concealed” but also “not the creator of this world.” This world is the creation of a lesser and evil Godlike power that is “always at odds with the one true transcendental Godly power”—the result being an immanent world of materiality and embodiment, with earthly systems of moral judgment and status attainment that are inherently corrupt, profane, and unredeemable.
  3. Human existence understood as “torn between worldly existence and divine and hidden inner essence,” the latter being not just alienated from the social structures and physical laws of the given world, but radically alienated from them, to the point that even felt moral sentiments and obligations are understood as deriving from the immanent, profane world as well.
  4. The conviction that Gnosis, the secret knowledge possessed by the select few who have seen the evil-made world for what it is, enables them to connect with the true, the good, and the transcendent by means of a radical rejection and violent overthrow of what is in front of them.
  5. That as a spur to action and thought in this (demonic) world, Gnosis provides guidance for bringing about the end of this world and the beginning of the new—or as the German émigré intellectual and political philosopher Eric Voegelin put it (at least in the wording popularized by his followers), for immanentizing the eschaton.4

When it comes to Gnosticism and the forces of religion and nationalism in the modern world, Fukuyama was not idealist enough. His intense focus on ideological systems easily identifiable as politico-economic, and thus on the ideational basis of regimes, led him to miss—at least explicitly—a wider and deeper set of cultural sources of political energy, and, in particular, to miss the Gnostic impulse as an animating spirit of politics and (counter)morality.

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