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Neognosticism as a Radical Critique of Modernity: Re-reading Eric Voegelin

PhD Project, Theology and Religious Studies & Arts, University of Groningen


The project undertakes a new reading of Eric Voegelin’s critique of modernity as ‘immanentized’ form of Gnosticism. The innovative analysis will bring to the table a combination of (cultural/religious) historical, political and philosophical strategies of analysis and contextualization. The aim of the project is (1) to gain better understanding of an important aspect of the revival of Gnosticism in the 20th century; (2) to gain with the case study of Voegelin’s revival of Gnosticism (exemplary) insights into the intellectual strategies employed in the appropriation of Gnosticism in the context of 20th-century (religious, political, historiographical, etc.) culture.

Theoretical background

Even though scholars have acknowledged the importance of Neognosticism in the work of important authors in the 20th century, a lot needs to be done to understand (1) the full scope of Neognosticism’s cultural importance as well as (2) the exact nature of the ‘revivalism’ that has been taking place.

Much extant work is content with noting obvious parallels, suggesting possible avenues of ‘influence’ in specific authors, as well as ‘measuring’ the extent to which they managed to represent a doctrinal core of the Gnosticism as it (supposedly) ‘really was’ (e.g. Waldstein 2000). This approach, however, is deeply flawed, not only for obvious methodological reasons (Skinner 1969; Jedan 2019, in press), but also because it presents as ‘monodirectional’ a cultural process that is far more multi-facetted. In short, extant approaches anachronistically ‘short-change’ the cultural dynamics taking place: Authors in the earlier 20th century were not only faced with an expanding set of rediscovered Gnostic materials, they also engaged with the material in an active, strategic way—highlighting certain aspects in the materials that they found important to address the cultural and political predicament of their own time (Roig Lanzillotta 2018; 2020). The rhetorical-performative aspect of history writing needs full attention (Peters 2016). In order to analyse this complex interaction of shifting horizons of knowledge on the one side and strategic appropriation in light of cultural context on the other, an interdisciplinary approach is needed: aware of the philological and cultural historical issues surrounding the ancient texts, aware of the modern cultural context, as well as aware of the political contexts (Wolffram and Gerrits 2005) and metahistorical issues.

The project proposed here focuses on the work of Eric Voegelin, one of the key political philosophers of the 20th century (e.g. Voegelin 1952, 1953, 1956-87, 1959, 2011). Born in Germany, Voegelin emigrated to the United States during the Nazi era. His work is still a point of reference in political theory, political science, histories of the (post)secular, and the history of 19th and 20th-century ideologies (e.g. Webb 2014; Embry & Hughes 2017). Voegelin argues that Gnosticism is a key driver behind secular modernity and especially the radical ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Marxism and National Socialism. In so doing, Voegelin affirms that Gnosticism’s search for gnosis intended to overcome the gulf between transcendence and immanence, which is the basis for the spiritual uncertainty of the Christian believer. By immanentizing the transcendent meaning of Christianity, Gnosticism re-divinized the world: “The attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt of bringing our knowledge of transcendence in to a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith will afford; and the Gnostic experiences offer this finner grip in so far as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man.” (Voegelin 1952, 124). The proposed project intends to revise Voegelin’s position, to understand his interpretation and appropriation of ancient Gnosticism and how he applies it in his explanation of modernity. In terms of his philosophy of history, Voegelin stands in a tradition of Vico and Hegel, and should be read against the background of contemporary debates on the ‘legitimacy of the modern age’ (e.g. Löwith [1939]1988, [1940]1983; Blumenberg 1966) as well as the emerging literature on Gnosticism at the time (e.g. Jonas ([1934-54]1964-66; see also Styfhals 2019).

Project initiators

Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta (ThRS), Christoph Jedan (ThRS), Dirk Jan Wolffram (Arts), Rik Peters (Arts)

Key words

(Neo)Gnosticism; revivalism; critiques of modernity; (post)secularism; metahistory; philosophy of history; political history, political theory


Blumenberg, H. (1966). Die Legitimität der Neuzeit. Suhrkamp.

Embry, C., & Hughes, G. (2017). The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness. University of Missouri Press.

Jedan, C. (in press). Turning the tables: The history of philosophy as a field of inquiry for religious studies. In P. Berger, M. Buitelaar, & K. Knibbe (eds.), Religion as relation: Studying religion in context (The Study of Religion in a Global Context). Equinox 2021.

Jedan, C. (2019). Antike Philosophie als Gegenstand religionswissenschaftlicher Analyse: Plädoyer für eine neue Historiographie. Journal of Ethics in Antiquity and Christianity (JEAC), 1(1), 55–69.

Jonas, H. ([1934-54]1964-66). Gnosis und spätantiker Geist. 2 vols. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Jonas, H. (1958). The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press.

Löwith, K. ([1939] 1988). Von Hegel zu Nietzsche. (Sämtliche Schriften 4.) Metzler.

Löwith, K. ([1940) 1983). Der europäische Nihilismus: Betrachtungen zur Vorgeschichte des europäischen Krieges. (Sämtliche Werke 2.) Metzler.

Peters, R.G.P. (2016). Calliope’s Ascent: Defragmenting Philosophy of History by Rhetoric. Rethinking History 20(2), 235-58.

Roig Lanzillotta, L. (2020). Ancient Gnosticism and the Origins of the Metaphysical Revolt: Albert Camus’s The Rebel and Modern Cinema. Gnosis 5(1), 45-70.

Roig Lanzillotta, L. (2018). Dialogue in the Library: Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Circular Ruins” and His Re-reading of Gnostic Myths. Gnosis 3(2), 201-224.

Skinner, Q. (1969). Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas. History and Theory 8, 3–53.

Styfhals, W. (2019). No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy. Cornell.

Voegelin, E. (2011). Autobiographical reflections, revised edition with glossary: Revised edition with glossary. Edited by E. Sandoz. University of Missouri Press.

Voegelin, E. (1959). Wissenschaft, Politik und Gnosis. Kösel.

Voegelin, E. (1956-87). Order and History, 5 Vols. Baton Rouge.

Voegelin, E. (1953). The Origins of Totalitarianism. The Review of Politics, 15(1), 68-76.

Voegelin, E. (1952). The New Science of Politics. An Introduction, Chicago.

Waldstein, M. (2000). Hans Jonas’ Construct ‘Gnosticism’: Analysis and Critique. Journal of Early Christian Studies 8, 341–72.

Webb, E. (2014). Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History. University of Washington Press.

Wolffram, D.J. and Gerrits, A.W.M. (2005) (eds.). Political Democracy and Ethnic Diversity in Modern European History. Stanford University Press.

Last modified:17 September 2021 3.39 p.m.