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The Gnostic is Never Satisfied

Part I of an Analysis of Eric Voegelin's Six Gnostic Traits

Photo by Katherine Hanlon / Unsplash

Have you ever defecated in a holy water font?

It was “a thing” in the early 16th century, during the Protestant Reformation. The more radical branches of the Reformation smashed stained glass windows, beheaded saint statues, burned books and effigies.

And took dumps in holy water fonts.

Anger and the Radical Go Together Like Fuel and the Car

The radical exudes anger.

It’d be easy to fill this column with hundreds of examples. From the radical branches of the Protestant Reformation through the terror of the French Revolution through the Destructive Generation anger in the 1960s to “Black Lives Matter” riots that were often triggered by angry white Antifa members.

Radicals are discontents.

They’re unhappy with their lives. They’re unhappy with society. They’re unhappy with the system.

That’s why they want it all torn down.

"Mental health becomes the handmaiden of social stasis; madness, the provenance of would-be revolutionaries. . . . Burnout is a book about the psychic life of radical movements; it is also a book about defeat—because that is the primary psychic experience of the radical life. Losing, for revolutionaries, is more often the norm than the exception. As Marxists say, every generation of militants is doomed to fail, save the last. Thus, Proctor’s short chapters are dedicated to the negative affects that haunt the revolutionary endeavor: melancholia, nostalgia, depression, exhaustion, bitterness, and mourning, among others. In each, she relies on “secondary histories, memoirs, novels, films, as well as works by psychiatrists, psychologists and psychoanalysts” to illustrate how a sense of doom and disappointment has shaped the psychic lives of left-wing radicals from the Paris Commune to the Black freedom struggle to Italian ‘68ers, Guatemalan guerrillas, and the AIDS activists of ACT UP." Sam Adler-Bell (the hyphenated last name isn't a coincidence), writing for The Nation, trying to make sense of gnostic consciousness. He's reviewing Burnout: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat, which appear to be another book on the subject.

The Angry Person is a Field Prepped for Gnosticism

Discontent is the first trait of Eric Voegelin’s gnostic.

It must first be pointed out that the gnostic is dissatisfied with his situation. This, in itself, is not especially surprising. We all have cause to be not completely satisfied with one aspect or another of the situation in which we find ourselves.

This gnostic trait is kind of hard to address from Voegelin’s perspective because he didn’t really address it himself. Although his writings normally have a strongly empirical flavor,[1]they didn’t when it came to this.[2]

Prometheus Bound Provides a Clue

But we can find a few clues by returning to Prometheus Bound.

The entire play starts with a fundamental fact: Prometheus wasn’t happy.

You might respond, “No s***, Sherlock. He was chained over the Black Sea with an eagle eating his liver every day. Of course he wasn’t happy.”

The thing is, he wasn’t happy before that, either.

He had been discontented for years, a constant malcontent and a thorn in Zeus’ side.

If you recall, Prometheus was a Titan who switched sides when Zeus battled with Cronos. Prometheus’ assistance was important to Zeus’ eventual victory. Prometheus thought he deserved a lot respect from Zeus.

And Zeus obliged. He respected Prometheus. When Zeus, shortly after his victory over Cronos, planned on exterminating the human race altogether, Prometheus objected. Zeus listened and didn’t do it.

But Prometheus didn’t just want respect. He wanted deference. He wanted Zeus to defer to Prometheus’ ideas about how the human race should be handled.

Prometheus wanted to aid the humans and improve their situation. Zeus wasn’t so sure and wanted any such measures to proceed with caution.

Prometheus didn’t like that approach, so he kept aiding the human race, much to Zeus’ growing concerns and agitation. And then Prometheus gave them the gift of fire and Zeus snapped.

Prometheus next found himself with a great view of the Black Sea.

Pride Ruins All

Prometheus was a discontent: always complaining about Zeus. He was radical: violating and trying to change the very order of things laid down by Zeus. He was also the arch-gnostic (as explored here).

That’s all pretty apparent.

But why was he discontented?

That’s the real issue.

And the obvious answer is, pride.

It’s what C.S. Lewis called, “The Great Sin.”[3]All other sins, CSL observed, are “mere fleabites” in comparison.

“It was through Pride that the devil became the devil.”

And it was through Pride that Prometheus became Prometheus Bound.

Pride: The “C” Words

Pride is competitive, conquering, condescending, and covetous.

It soils everything it touches. The proud man pursues the woman because she’s beautiful, but also because he wants to conquer. The proud woman wants good things because she enjoys them but also because they show she’s better than her neighbor. A proud person isn’t content with knowledge: he must also dominate others with the knowledge by pushing his opinions.

Truth, beauty, goodness: all soiled in the hands of a proud person.

Pride is, foremost, self-centeredness. The proud person thinks of himself first. Heck, he thinks about himself all the time.

I’m not saying the proud person is incapable of love, but it’s hard for him. Love is closely related to humility. Humility is self-forgetfulness; love is attraction (affection, care for) something that isn’t oneself. The proud person’s natural disposition is anti-love: love of self.

Anything that isn’t himself is a source of discomfort: distrust, dislike, disdain.

Pride Never Stops

Shift back to Prometheus.

He was proud. He was strong and smart. He had picked the winning side. He was on top of the world.

Except he wasn’t on top of Zeus.

And that, I suspect, rankled. Even if he had been Zeus’ most trusted adviser and righthand man, it wouldn’t have been enough.

Zeus relented to Prometheus’ biggest request: don’t destroy the humans. It was a pretty big deal and quite the concession from Zeus.

But it wasn’t enough.

Prometheus then started to give humans various gifts. Even though Zeus didn’t like it, he let it go.

But it wasn’t enough for Prometheus.

Nothing would have ever been enough for Prometheus because pride never stops. It’s ultimately why, Milton tells us, Satan fell:

Better to Rule in Hell than Serve in Heaven. Paradise Loss

The gnostic is never happy because she always wants more, and if something thwarts that desire, then, to the gnostic, it must be removed, rebelled against, reformed: anything, just as long as it conforms to her desire.

And if reality dictates otherwise—if Zeus stops budging—then the gnostic revolts and gives mankind the gift of fire.

But I Don’t Know What Makes a Person Proud in the First Place

So it’s pride that makes the gnostic unhappy.

But that doesn’t answer the question: Why is the gnostic proud in the first place?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.

The most obvious answer is that the gnostic is proud because he has gifts that make him think he’s something special. He’s wealthy or smart or handsome or accomplished. He thinks highly of himself, pride sets in, he becomes discontented: pride is never sated. He eventually rebels against Zeus.

But there are a lot of wealthy, smart, handsome, or accomplished people out there who aren’t arrogant. There were plenty of handsome, strong, and smart gods who didn’t rebel against Zeus.

Why did Prometheus rebel and the other gods didn’t?

Why do some become proud and others don’t?

I’m afraid we’re getting into unanswerable areas. Real mystical stuff: childhood development, DNA, the workings of grace.

Fortunately, we don’t need to answer that question.

We just need to answer one question: What makes me proud in the first place?

Once you know the answer to that question, you can start yanking it out of your soul and stop behaving like an ass.

You still won’t know why the gnostic is so consumed by pride whereas you escaped that existential hangman’s noose.

But at least you’ll be able to identify the gnostic and give him a wide berth.

[1]Michael Franz, Eric Voegelin and the Politics of Spiritual Revolt (LSU, 1992), p. 22.

[2] He did not “search for the origins of pneumapathological consciousness.” Id.

[3] Mere Christianity, Bk. 4, Chp. 7.

The Clash and the Angry Left, Circa 1977
I’ve been getting into The Clash lately. Okay, okay: this probably isn’t the appropriate season for the music of an angry Socialist punk band (it ain’t Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” album), but I couldn’t help it. I got pulled in last week by this Spotify podcast, Stay Free: The Story