Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Perfect Illusion

Below we have two clips from a short essay by Bertonneau on classical Gnosticism. What makes this particularly interesting is that we find obvious parallels between it and today's Left, as Voegelin would point out in a different way. Bertonneau moves from Voegelin to the main source for some clearer background than one finds in Voegelin, a big help to those who come to Voegelin from Archaeology of Religion. Or, to be a bit clearer myself, we see in these clips that Gnosticism has its own history, which Voegelin is happy to work from. The current lot in political power in Washington, "brilliant" as they are, likely have no ideas about any of this, being too smart to care about the ideas and insights of Dead White Men. For the rest of us, this is pretty interesting.

Thomas F. Bertonneau, "Gnosticism from a Non-Voegelinian Perspective, Part I," Brussels Journal. 27 May 2010.

II. When Gnostics say, “Look to God,” they are invoking the knowledge-without-experience, the special knowledge, that the word Gnosis denotes. Such proprietary knowledge they specifically refuse to share with outsiders because possession of it – or the claim to possess it, for that is all that the outsider has – is what differentiates the illuminati from the vulgate. Thus by virtue (so to speak) of their special knowledge, the Gnostics consider themselves elect. They are an extreme in-group phenomenon. Under this conviction, they “proceed to assert that Providence cares for them alone.” When the Hidden God abolishes the corrupt world, only those whose being has been transfigured by secret knowledge will remain, and they, too, shall be as gods. Compared to those in whom the secret knowledge does not reside, and who are therefore not transfigured, the illuminati are already gods. They may thus mock and revile their ontological inferiors.


IV. Augustine’s plausible representations of the Manichaeans in The Confessions indicate of those sectarians the same hatred of inherited custom and established social hierarchy that Plotinus attributed to his Gnostics, the Valentinians. The devotees of Valentinus regarded the material world as intrinsically and inalterably corrupt. They fervently desired that world’s abolition, after which the pure of heart would be reunited in a kingdom of supernal light known as the Pleroma, or “Fullness.” Augustine would like to see the world improved, but he knows that human behavior is stubborn and that it takes historical ages for a new moral order to take hold. Before he heard differently from God, for example, Abraham would have understood the offering of a child in sacrifice as ordinary religious practice, which it was in the Bronze Age almost everywhere. The Manichaeans, by contrast, exhibit hysteric impatience both with secular recalcitrance and with the crooked timber of humanity. There is one dispensation, theirs, and not holding to it can be charged against an individual even though he had the misfortune to live before the dispensation could be published. The Manichaeans agitated for apocalypse now, the fundamental transformation of a way of life, to coin a phrase.

These excerpts cover a lot of ground in a short space. Well worth the few minutes it will take to look at the full essay linked above.

I'm getting ahead of myself here writing this bit about Czeslaw Milosz's epigram of “An old Jew of Galicia” in his book The Captive Mind, but it seems appropriate in light of the Bertonneau essay here. The beauty of Gnosticism is that the gnostic is not only right, he is perfectly right all the time about everything; and those who don't agree with him fully are totally wrong all the time about all things. Being right in this sense means one has a monopoly on the meaning of life, and one can sneer at those fools who don't share the secret. Everyone else's life is meaningless and wrong and pointless and despicable. What armour. No criticism of oneself can ever penetrate. That is perfection for the man who is terrified of existence and its cosmic loneliness. All of ones terrors can fit into a bag one can fling away, and from then on, one is free to be the fool he is without fear of himself and his knowledge of his foolishness. One can even be proud. Everything is permitted. That's got to be attractive to many. Complete control of life and the universe.
When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.


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