From Political Religions to Gnosticism: Critical Reflections on Eric Voegelin’s Critique of Modernity

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Of all the counter-Enlightenment narratives expounded since the eighteenth century, Eric Voegelin’s (1901-1985) is perhaps the most radical and pessimistic one. The Viennese scholar, who immigrated to the US in 1938, does not merely argue that there is a theological core to the conceptual inventory of the modern age which renders illusory the Enlightenment’s self-perception of a caesura between the Old and the New. More than that, he posits that modernity proceeds from evil, from a heresy that has accompanied Christianity as a shadow since its origins, namely Gnosticism. In Voegelin’s narrative, thus, the polarities of light and darkness are inverted: it is the modern age, not the Middle Ages, that can properly be described as an age of darkness, alienation, and disorientation. According to him, the modern mind, with its belief in science and progress, appears as product of the inability to cope with the fundamental tension of human existence – i.e. with the condition of being torn between this world and a divine, ultimately unknowable, beyond – that characterizes a long list of Gnostic culprits (Hegel, Comte, Marx, Nietzsche…). This
is interpreted as a disease of the spirit (pneumopathology) which typically manifests itself in an attempt to immanentize the beyond.
The paper has two main aims: on one hand, it seeks to contextualize Voegelin’s concept of Gnosticism, investigating its origins in the interpretation of totalitarian movements as political religions that the author developed when he was still in Europe, the appropriation of the concept from religious studies and its application to politics in post-WWII America, and the eager reception it enjoyed in the context of cold war anxieties; on the other hand, it will try to assess whether the concept possesses any heuristic value for analyzing present political phenomena.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages10
Publication statusUnpublished - 2019
MoE publication typeNot Eligible
EventAnalysing Darkness and Light: Dystopias and Beyond - Helsingin yliopisto, Helsinki, Finland
Duration: 16 Apr 201917 Apr 2019


ConferenceAnalysing Darkness and Light
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