Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Was Locke a Gnostic?

Has Gnosticism played a role in the decline of the West? I've just read an excellent article by Mark Shiffman (from 2009) which provides a good argument that the answer might be yes.

It's difficult to summarise the article adequately but I'll try. The traditional Christian view sees God's creation as a good thing:
The doctrine of creation presented in the Book of Genesis tells us that the world is good, that human beings receive this world as an undeserved gift, and that this makes them dependent upon their creator and bound in humility to acknowledge this gift with gratitude.

Gnostics, however, reject this outlook as suggesting limits and dependence and see the spirit or will as being "trapped" within such a created world.

Mark Shiffman argues persuasively that one of the fathers of liberal modernity, John Locke, was a gnostic in this sense. A gnostic outlook is assumed, first, in his economic theory:
In chapter five of his Second Treatise, Locke defends the individual right to property by arguing that the entire value of commodities derives from human labor. After reflecting a bit on the complexity of human economic activity, Locke ends up estimating that human labor contributes all but about 1/1000 of the value of things, whereas “Nature and the Earth furnished only the almost worthless materials.” The given world is essentially worthless, except as a source of the raw materials for human making...the attitude of Locke and Marx toward the given world can hardly be described as one exhibiting gratitude and reverence. It’s all what we make of it.

Second, Locke carried over this argument into his theory of the human person. Our own body and mind is worthless raw material until we labour on it through our will:
This is the sense in which Locke understands human beings as being their own individual property. All that they are that is of any value results from the labor they exercise upon themselves. Parents are, at best, the enablers of our self-creation, providing us with the material that is nearly worthless until improved by our own efforts.

In short, just as nature and the earth constitute the worthless world whose value lies in what humans can make of it, so too my body and mind are initially parts of that worthless world. It is when my will reshapes all this and turns it into some embodiment of itself that I lay claim to it. The world as given is essentially worthless, and the value things have results from our laboring to make the worthless material suitable to our wishes. It is the will that imparts value both by determining what will make something valuable and by causing that valuable something to be built up in it.

Pope Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote of Gnosticism that:
Human beings want to understand the discovered world only as material for their own creativity…. Gnosticism will not entrust itself to a world already created, but only to a world still to be created.

I've pointed out before that modern liberals reject most aspects of our created nature, but the one aspect they retain is that of the creative spirit. The argument put forward above helps to explain why liberals would have this focus.

24 comments:

  1. Are you familiar with the writings of Eric Voegelin? He is perhaps the greatest exponent of the idea that liberalism is essentially gnostic, and I feel that his arguments are quite compelling.

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    1. I've only read what others have written about him - he's on my to do list.

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  2. Gnosticism, unlike Modernism, postulates a world filled with inherent meaning and purpose, only that meaning and purpose are evil. It is a genuinely religious view. Modernism postulates a world that is just meaningless, purposeless stuff to be used by humans in whatever way they see fit, which is a rather different view. Locke was a modernist, and not a gnostic.

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    1. It's odd, though, Thursday the way that some liberal moderns gravitate toward Gnosticism - J.S. Mill and H.G. Wells spring to mind.

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    2. Mill was not a gnostic. He speculated about a demiurge-like God (similar to Hobbes' God in a lot of ways), but was largely positive or at least neutral towards him. Gnosticism by and large is hostile to the creator of this world.

      A few poetic souls, like Shelley and maybe Wells (I don't know enough about him), have tried to integrate an inherently meaningful cosmos with a modernist morality. That does indeed tend towards a collapse into gnosticism.

      But it would be inaccurate to characterize the main line of liberal thought (Locke, Bentham, Mill, Rawls etc.) as gnostic.

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    3. Thursday, you're right that Mill was not an orthodox gnostic of the classical variety. But he did use the word Manichean to describe his preferred theology in his letters and he saw this theology as being the one most compatible with his "religion of humanity". It was compatible because he did not see creation as wholly the product of God, but instead saw two principles in conflict (God vs intractable, material nature). Therefore, the liberal progress of humanity would aid God in His historical purpose of overcoming the evil of the intractable, material world.

      In Mill's world view there is no "natural law" - quite the opposite - the aim is for humanity to free itself as much as possible (through acts of autonomous will) from natural law, thereby becoming "exalted fellow labourers" with God.

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    4. I suppose if Mill was introducing the idea of a nature that had the tendency to go its own way, and he opposed the way it tended to go, that could be considered a kind of gnosticism.

      But that means reintroducing a form of essentialism and natural law that are at extreme odds with his official nominalism.

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    5. I think there is a connection between gnosticism and modernism. Modern nihilism = certain individuals have a secret knowledge and can understand, eventually, the entirety of existence. They have no love knowledge as understood by christians. Their hubris is promethean. They loathe and fear any divine authority.

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  3. If you're going to go down this road, you're going to go through at least some of Voegelin. The best place to begin is Science, Politics and Gnosticism. From there I would go to his New Science of Politics and then From Enlightenment to Revolution. I'll warn you, you won't be quite the same after reading Voegelin, but you will understand how the contempt for the given world that you describe in this post leads to the will to revolutionize every aspect of this world.

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    1. There are major problems with Voegelin's use of the term "gnosticism" to describe progressivism. Gnostic heretics, in so far as gnosticism was a coherent historical movement, have typically not been concerned with transformation of this world, which they ususally considered to be irredeemably botched, indeed fundamentally evil.

      As I mentioned above, a sort of libertine gnosticism has tagged along with progressivism, but it is certainly not the main impetus behind the idea of "making the world a better place."

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  4. Mark, a good place to start with Voegelin is Federici's excellent overview: http://www.amazon.com/Eric-Voegelin-Restoration-Library-Thinkers/dp/1882926757/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1409273191&sr=8-4&keywords=eric+voegelin

    Regards- Thucydides

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  5. There is a good grab bag of complaints about Voegelin's use of the term gnosticism here. Some are more on the mark than others, but it should be pretty apparent that Voegelin was playing fast and loose with the term.

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  6. Contrary to Thursday's comments I'd like to direct anyone who's interested to page 37 of Science, Politics and Gnosticism. Here Vogelin clearly states that he recognizes the difference between modern gnosticism, what he calls "parousia" and pre-modern or chiliastic gnosticism. His argument is very much concerned with this distinction.

    Reading so far the link above to the article I was struck by this statement: "As I said at the international conference convened in Summer 1994 by the Voegelin Centre of the University of Manchester, “If Voegelin is going to speak to the post-1989 world, which is torn less by universalist ideologies than by ethnic, religious, and nationalist particularisms, it will not be through his opposition to ideologies that have already lost most of their force but through his contributions to a positive conception of human universality.”32

    So the author is attempting to shoehorn Vogelin into multicultural zaniness. Correct? Convenient, since he's dead. This could explain the attack on Vogelin.

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    1. Yes, I noticed that part of the linked article as well.

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    2. I might do a post on it but Voegelin's description of Gnosticism, as summarised in the linked article, fits JS Mill very well.

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    3. IA:

      Then why use the term gnosticism in the first place if modern liberals are so different from the ancient gnostics? It just seems like a recipe for confusion. Voegelin seems to want to have it every which way he wants.

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  7. Science, Politics and Gnosticism, p. 7: "The loss of meaning that results in the breakdown of institutions, civilizations, and ETHNIC COHESION [my caps] evokes attempts to regain an understanding of the meaning of human existence . . . And in this sequence, as one of the most grandiose of the new formulations of the meaning of existence, belongs gnosticism."

    The author of the linked article is subverting Vogelin at a fundamental level.

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    1. You're trying to distract attention from the fact that there are such significant differences between ancient gnosticism and modern "gnosticism" that was at best pointless, and at worst highly misleading to use the same term for both.

      Again, ancient gnostic movements just weren't concerned with this worldly salvation.

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    2. Amazing how a purported scholar would claim to know Voegelin's thoughts about a state of affairs unknown to him, Voegelin, during his lifetime. Especially when V's writings indicate the opposite. If Thursday or anyone else can find something in Voegelin about universalism which I take to mean multiculturalism I'd be very interested in seeing it.

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    3. Again, you're trying to distract from the main point: there are such significant differences between ancient gnosticism and modern "gnosticism" that the use of the same term for both by Voegelin is really questionable.

      Distract, distract, distract. Deny, deny, deny.

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  8. The fact is that just about every system of thought shares some similarities with just about every some other system of thought. Voegelin lumps progressivism in with the ancient gnostics, Moldbug lumps it in with Christianity. There are certainly similarities between all of these things, so sure, why not? Let's make them all one giant tossed salad.

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    1. Its one thing to use or not use "gnosticism" to describe progressivism or modernism. But its something else to assert he really meant "universalism".

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    2. I cannot find an author's name on that linked article. Who is it?

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