Since the time of Plato and Aristotle the ‘question about the sense of being’ has ‘fallen into oblivion’ (BT, 1f.). ‘Oblivion’ is Vergessenheit , ‘forgottenness’, from vergessen , ‘to forget’.
—Martin Heidegger: The Question of Being
Many know my involvement in the study of ancient and modern forms of gnosis and Gnosticisms, but few realize that there is a dark and revolutionary impetus to this world view which harbors at its heart a violence against the human. For the Gnostics the enemy was the natural order the Greeks termed heimermene. The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus considered that “the cosmos is permeated and given life by the Pneuma, the same…makes a man a living, organic whole.” They considered *Pneuma* (Spirit) as an all-pervasive intelligent force that mixes with “shapeless and passive matter” and “imbues it with all its qualities.”1 The Stoics also referred to *heimarmene*, an orderly succession of cause and effect. To quote: “Heimarmene is the natural order of the Whole by which from eternity one thing follows another…[and] embodied in the definition of heimarmene follows its meaning as *Logos* (Eternal Reason), as the divine order and law, by which the cosmos is administered.” [Ibid, p. 58.]
Against this natural order the Gnostics would judge it as absolute evil. Most scholars of Gnosticism have identified the rebellion against the idea of cosmic order (Heimarmene) as its essential characteristic. The Gnostics do not deny to the world the attribute of order, but they interpret it as an abomination rather than a good. They do not say that the cosmos is disordered, but that it is governed by a rigid and hostile order, by a tyrannical and cruel law. Their God is not just outside and beyond the world, but against the world, and this is where they break away from Christianity. Moral rebellion reflects a metaphysical rebellion. Therefore, the Gnostic position leads to the obliteration of ethics, as refusal to respect being and to be faithful to objective norms. This refusal was the common root of two opposite attitudes, libertinism as desecration of reality and asceticism as its radical rejection.
Many have seen in Heidegger’s modern existentialist notions of the “forgetting of Being” the culmination of this line of attack and violence against the ancient Greek world view. As Augusto Del Noce tells us in The Crisis of Modernity that the Gnostic structure of thought as rejection of ethics is still with us, and why there are similarities, but also differences, between the attitudes of rejection. As he describes it “the desecrating libertine attitude is basically identical: we should just notice that today’s decadent libertinism is much more closely related to the Gnostic version than to the pre-Enlightenment form that originated from the Renaissance. The revolutionary attitude of creative violence has replaced the ascetic attitude of seeking liberation from the world. From a historicist perspective, what must be rejected is a specific historical reality, and the pessimistic disposition is replaced by an activist-voluntaristic one. To conclude, we have to say that we live at the time when the new gnosis is decomposing, and that the new attitude toward violence is the most visible expression of the reaffirmation of gnosis against both classical thought and Christian thought.” 2
The sense of a new barbarism arising not from the exterior, from the great migrations of populations of the Third World, but rather of an internal decomposition and revolution from within the very decadence and collapse of Western Civilization itself. As Luciano Pellicani in Revolutionary Apocalypse: Ideological Roots of Terrorism reminds us the professional revolutionary is an individual who embraces revolution as a Beruf, an individual who craves the absolute. His disenchantment with the world makes of him “an orphan of God,” dominated by a nostalgia for the totally other. Incapable of accepting reality, he aspires to build a completely new world in the light of a soteriological doctrine—dialectical gnosis—that he proclaims to be the “solved enigma of History.” At last everything will comply with desire, and God’s scepter will be in the hands of humanity. The professional revolutionary’s goal is the creation of an evangelical community, based on equality and planetary brotherhood. To do this, he is prepared to wage a war of destruction against those who have surrendered to mammon and allowed the domination of the law of universal trade that all-profanes and all-degrades. Hence, the destructive calling of gnostic revolution: not a single stone of the corrupt and corrupting world shall remain standing; hence, also, the inevitable destructive and self-destroying outcome of the revolutionary project to purify the existing through a policy of mass terror and annihilation.4
Recently this hatred for the world, the need for annihilation and the utter destruction of the world has emerged from the pages of a follower of Deleuze. Andrew Culp in Dark Deleuze would unwittingly espouse the very revolutionary violence and hatred of the world that we discover in the Gnostics:
We must then make up for Deleuze’s error and seek the dark underside of belief. The key to identifying what lies beneath begins with the path of belief, but only to pursue a different orientation. So start with a similar becoming-active that links up with the forces that autoproduce the real. But instead of simply appreciating the forces that produce the World, Dark Deleuze intervenes in them to destroy it. At one time, such an intervention would have been called the Death of God, or more recently, the Death of Man. What is called for today is the Death of this World, and to do so requires cultivating a hatred for it.3
And, again, as Culp emphasizes:
Deleuze was too often overtaken by a naive affirmation of joy, and as such, he was unable to give hatred its necessary form. His image for the future resembles too much of the present, and those who repeat it have come to sound like a parody: “rhizomatic gardens,” “cooperative self-production,” and “affirming the affirmative of life.” Against those maxims, the Dark Deleuze is reborn as a barbarian depicted in Rimbaud’s season in hell: “I’m of a distant race: my forefathers were Scandinavian; they slashed their sides and drank their own blood. I will make cuts all over; I’ll tattoo myself, I long to be as a hideous Mongol: you’ll see, I’ll scream in the streets. I want to be mad with rage. . . . I dreamt of crusades, of unrecorded voyages of discovery, of republics without history, wars of suppressed religion, moral revolutions, movements of races and continents” (A Season in Hell).(DD: KL 243)
For Culp and those like him it has become completely obvious that a revolution which is supposed to lead to a “totally other” humanity – freed from the slavery and dependency to which it has been subjected until now – cannot be carried out on the foundation of values that belonged to the stage of “human slavery” of which in their minds the capitalist civilization and world is a manifestation and end game? In this respect, the sentence that Engels wrote at the beginning of his pamphlet on Feuerbach is worth our consideration: “the thesis that reality is rational leads, according to the rules of Hegelian dialectics, to this other one: everything that exists deserves to die.” (CM: p. 43)
The great Scholastics would try to reconcile the ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian philosophies without success. In the aftermath of the struggle between nominalists and realists the two irreconcilable traditions of voluntaristic revolutionary thought and its opposite would trace their paths through the following centuries spawning and culminating in the dark worlds of the French Revolution. It would be in Immanuel Kant that these ancient and irreconcilable enemies would find both a home and an exile. In his work both the secular demystification and demythologization of the Christian world view would be reconciled with its age old enemy Reason in the compromise of ‘transcendental Idealism’. Out of Kant two paths of modernity would emerge, one that led from Descartes to Nietzsche, the other – according to the Italian Noce from Descartes to Antonio Rosimi. The one leads to an absolute nihilism from which nothing human will remain, an accelerating engine of death and the death of value that can only be overcome through a transvaluation of all values; or, as in our time, the utter annihilation of all values in the destruction of the world itself. The other path would seek to revitalize through a renovation (Renaissance) the ancient order of hiemarmene, a cosmos founded on the Greek conceptions of Being.
Whereas in Nietzsche we get a sense of “total revolution” implying a complete and utter destruction of the world of value, in Rosimi there is another term that qualifies his take on revolution: risorgimento. It conveys the idea that nations can rise again only by exploring more deeply their tradition, and by criticizing the historical order from the standpoint of an ideal order. If the first principle of the “total revolution” is the “future,” the ideal principle of the risorgimento (understood in this way) is the “Eternal.” (CM: p. 53) This restoration of an eternal order of Being to its rightful place, etc.
In Marx, the idea of revolution implies the idea of a meta-humanity; this means a reality that is totally other; hence, it implies a previous denial of the values that earlier had been regarded as supreme; stopping at such a denial is the definition of nihilism. Therefore, there is really nothing remarkable about the fact that nihilism follows revolutionary thought. It is the result of the revolution: of its success in demolishing the old values and of its failure to build new values. Not by chance, the same young intellectuals who earlier preached the revolution in the name of Marx have become reconciled with neo-capitalist society in the name of Nietzsche, making a perfectly smooth transition from their old position to the new. It is a reconciliation via a negative route, but still a reconciliation. (CM: p. 62)
It’s the death of God or ethics in Nietzsche that would sponsor an atheism irreconcilable with the Kant’s compromise. As Noce will ask,
Should we now conclude that the demise of ethics is irreversible? That it started with Plato and is now ending? That Christianity can hope to survive only on the condition of separating itself completely from “cosmocentric” Greek thought? My theses are the exact opposite of these too-common opinions. In a recent book, I tried to show that suicide is the philosophical destiny of the revolution, in the sense that it cannot go beyond the violent and nihilist stage of devaluing the values that previously were regarded as supreme. The political counterpart of this devaluation is totalitarianism, i.e., institutionalized revolutionary violence. Precisely the revolution’s failure to fulfill its claim of bringing liberation leads us to examine the revival of Gnosticism after Christianity. We are not talking about the survival of archaic forms of thought. Gnosticism resurfaced in the context of the attempt by German classical philosophy to resolve Christianity into philosophy. Such an attempt is inseparable from the interpretation of the history of philosophy that was developed in that period and is still common, and from the axiological meaning conferred on the term “modernity.” Here we meet again, in precise opposition, the thought of Antonio Rosmini, whose work probably should be interpreted as the liberation of the metaphysics of being from all residues of Gnostic thought. (CM: p. 25)
Who is Antonio Rosmini? We learn from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Antonio Rosmini (1797–1855), Italian priest, philosopher, theologian and patriot, and founder of a religious congregation, aimed principally in his philosophical work at re-addressing the balance between reason and religion which had largely been lost as a result of the Enlightenment.5 For Noce Rosmini’s work would underscore the thematic that Modernity per se is a Gnostic phenomenon: that its perpetual revolutionary violence of presentism, of a now without a past or future, of a growth and expansionism into an absolute time without precedent that creates the future through a process of idealist rejections of the world, self, and time. As Noce surmises what we are seeing in today’s historical situation should be described as the full revelation of the opposition between Christianity and Gnosticism, after the meaning of the latter became fully manifested in the wake of classical German philosophy and of its continuations.(CM: p. 31)
For many reactionary thought returns to those like de Maistre for whom counter-revolution was the opposite of revolution. The structure of reactionary thought is completely different, and again we have to fight a widespread opinion that says that thought becomes reactionary to the extent that progressive or revolutionary movements advance and pose a real threat of seizing power. Then, before giving up, conservatives supposedly stop being tolerant and become authoritarian. They finally end up accepting or running a police state, and thus become reactionary in the strict sense of the word. (CM: p. 55)
Whereas a conservative is reconciled with present reality, even if only in the sense of regarding it as the least bad possible, a reactionary is completely dissatisfied and regards the present as a state of decadence with respect to some past historical situation. Hence, he wants to go back in time, to an age when the seeds of such decadence and disintegration did not exist, or rather when they were hardly perceivable. Thus, the forms of utopia that take an archaeological form belong to reactionary thought. This form is destined to be “always” defeated by some revolutionary form of utopia. For instance, in Marxism we find all the themes of reactionary and counter-revolutionary thought of the first half of the nineteenth century, but transfigured by tension toward the future. According to Noce the mistake of reactionary thought is that it confuses the affirmation of supra-historical principles with the image of a realized historical situation, so that it ends up thinking that in order to affirm eternal principles one cannot admit “new problems,” problems that must be solved in relation to those principles but after having been recognized as “novel.” Otherwise, one is in mortal danger of thinking that the principles themselves are historical. Because of this mistake, it has been said that the formula sic vos non vobis applies to reactionary thought, meaning that it is destined to be a stage in the development of something else, i.e., in the transition from one phase of progressive thought to the next. (CM: pp. 55-56)
In this sense what defines in our time the ultimate categories of the struggle between opposing political positions are not “progress” and “reaction,” but rather “revolution” and “tradition.” This battle between the destruction of the world (revolution) and its preservation or renovation (tradition) is the key to debates surrounding the resurgence in authoritarian forms of reactionary politics in our time.
Many confuse the new reactionary world or Neoreaction with fascism which would be a mistake. Fascism’s true enemy was progress itself or modernity, this sense of development, expansion, and linear movement of history. Fascism reproduces, in reverse but with perfect symmetry, the characteristics of Communism at the stage when it reaches the heterogenesis of ends. It reflects the defeat of Marxism in its aspect of promising a revolution that could only take place worldwide (Stalinism, socialism in one country). Fascism is instead a reversion to the thought that de Maistre considered the mortal disease to which the counter-revolution is susceptible: ending up as a revolution in reverse. After all, this is also Ernst Jünger’s description, when he defines Nazism as a “revolution against the revolution.” (CM: p. 68)
In Nazism everything develops as if the criterion of truth were to replace each Communist category with its exact opposite, but still within the same materialistic perspective of Marxism. Thus, class is replaced by race, the bourgeois by the Jew. Hence, history is interpreted as a death struggle between the Aryan and the Jew, which has now reached the decisive stage when evil will be defeated or will triumph. It is not by chance that the anti-Semitic passages of Mein Kampf take a universalistic missionary tone – the same idea as the universal mission of the proletarian revolution – and that Hitler could feel that he was the world’s saviour. In opposition to Marxism’s emphasis on the future, Nazism emphasizes the past. In opposition to the secularized Marxist eschatology that places the perfect society at the end of times, Nazi mythology places it before history. The Nazi revolution, albeit in the form of revolution against the revolution, aimed at realizing a new man that would fulfill the Aryan type, which had never been realized before in pure form. This is why Nazism wished to call itself a revolution. Hatred for Bolshevism, which may seem reactionary, was accompanied by revolutionary hatred for the old world, as shown by the fact that no previous period of history was taken as a model. The antithesis between nature and anti-nature is essential to Nazism, on the basis that man is the only living being that tries to transgress the laws of nature. Thus, to Marxist historicism Nazism opposes the most radical naturalism. And this may be its most adequate description, capable of explaining the full meaning also of the opposition between class and race. (CM: pp. 68-69)
Against this fascist resurgence the Revolutionary Gnosticism we see in such Leftward writings of Andrew Culp and others (not to be compared to ancient forms) brings with it the thought of an absolute rebellion against Greek concept of Being, Fixity, and Stability (Order). With respect to the Greek world, it takes the form of anti-cosmism, with respect to the Christian world, of opposition to the creator God of the Book of Genesis. Redemption means redemption from creation, liberation from the world. (CM: p. 34) It’s in the writings of Walter Benjamin immediately after WWI that we discover (along with Hans Jonas) this resurgence of Gnostic violence at the heart of the revolutionary spirit (as cited by Noce): “If mythical violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythical violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates.” (CM: p. 35)
As Noce remarks it is apparent that the revolutionary idea implies the combination of two stages: a negative one in which the traditional order of values is devalued, and a positive one in which a “totally other” new order is established. The transition from the revolution to nihilism is mediated by what I have called elsewhere “the suicide of the revolution,” whose necessity I tried to demonstrate. 33 What happens is that nihilism, instead of being the preliminary stage of the revolution (the tearing away of the masks, the night of values, and so on), becomes its result. At that point, violence is no longer accepted as necessary, or revolutionary violence exalted as divine. Rather, it is accepted as normal because ethics comes to an end. (CM: p. 36)
According to Heidegger, in the metaphysical contemplations of the medieval and modern philosophers the meaning of Being was covered up, as they failed to recognize the important ontological difference between Being and thing-in-being. Instead of a contemplation of Being traditional metaphysics has initiated a study of the technical use and subjugation of the things-in-being. In other words, the great metaphysical tradition neglects the fundamental ontological difference between Being and the thing-in-being, between Being and entities. It is this failure that primarily resulted in a general forgetfulness of being. Heidegger maintains that this forgetfulness is responsible for the decline of western civilization and the crisis of man. He suggests a phenomenological ontology in order to overcome this forgetfulness.6
This sense of the annihilation and forgetfulness of Being (the World) is a modern form of the ancient Gnostic violence against the order of Heimarmene. Secularization means that the “totally other” reality (and it is hard not to give this formula, dear to so many contemporary theologians, a Gnostic interpretation), which for a Gnostic lay beyond the empirical world, for a modern revolutionary lies instead in the future. Such a future will be realized because of an intrinsic necessity of history, according to an immanentistic view in which necessity and freedom coincide. In this way, Gnostic dualism is dissolved into an immanent historical process, as a sequence of consecutive temporal eons. (CM: p. 40)
The freedom which is realized and manifested as dialectical or negating Action, is thereby essentially a creation [and here lies the difference from ancient gnosis]. For to negate the given without ending in nothingness is to produce something that did not yet exist; now, this is precisely what is called “creating.” [Gnosticism, which had been characterized since its beginning by negativity and by an anti-worldly God, therefore incorporates the idea of negativity]… Man does not change himself and transform the World for himself in order to realize a conformity to an “ideal” given to him (imposed by God, or simply “innate”). He creates and creates himself because he negates and negates himself “without a preconceived idea”: he becomes other solely because he no longer wants to be the same. (CM: p. 41)
What we’re seeing here is that the whole tradition of the negative (dialectic) is born of the fruit of Gnosticism (not in its ancient form, but as a tendency in thought itself that reemerges continuously). Yet, unlike the ancient Gnostics who sought a transcendence into another world (anti-cosmic) the new political form of revolutionary gnosis is immanent transcendence within the world, which means exalting man as activity that negates the given, but at the same time limiting his life to a transcendental historical world, immanent in nature. (CM: p. 42) In fact, speaking of Hegel’s gnostic tendencies Noce comments, saying, “Hegel’s Man is Nothingness which annihilates the given-Being that exists as world, and annihilates himself (as real historical time or History) in and through such annihilation of the given.” (CM: p. 43)
In this sense Marxism and Progressivism are one and the same. The Marxist revolution keeps the appearance of a religion because it requires a conversion, since it marks a transition to a higher reality and to a reality that is totally “other,” even if absolutely not transcendent or supernatural but rather immanent and natural. I think that in this sense the term secularization is more appropriate than many discussions about the messianic, prophetic, and millennialist aspects of Marxism, or about the subconscious presence of Jewish religious archetypes in Marx’s soul, which by now have ended up far away from a correct understanding. These messianic and prophetic aspects (Bloch, Benjamin, etc.) are present in Marx, but, it seems to me that they are just part of the context of the novelty of what we could call a secularization of religion.
The idea that the term secularization should be applied first of all to Marxism includes also what is valid in the interpretation of Marxism as a new Gnosticism. The neo-Gnostic interpretation of Marxism is well known; it was introduced by the political philosopher Voegelin16 and then re-proposed by Pellicani (who I’ve cited before), who discussed it in this lecture series. The appearance of a new Gnosticism at the end of classical German philosophy marks the reopening in the nineteenth century – and from the nineteenth century to the present – of the conflict between Christian and Gnostic religiosity. One has to be cautious in this Gnostic interpretation of Marxism, because it is a new Gnosticism, irreducible to the old one. Nevertheless, it is a fact that in the Gnostic texts we find the idea of two worlds, each with its own God, and the idea that the true God is the God of the new world, of a world to come, totally opposite to the present world in which man lives as a stranger. The future of the revolutionaries sounds like a modern translation of the Gnostics’ true God. Here we have to stress the adjective “modern” in order to explain why one can correctly speak of a post-Christian gnosis in reference to revolutionary thought. It is a gnosis that has been refashioned after the Christian affirmation of humanity’s transcendence over nature, and therefore transformed from a cosmological view, proper to the old gnosis, to an anthropological one.
Even our current investment in catastrophe politics, with its new notions of the Anthropocene and climacteric catastrophe, the Sixth Extinction event, and the politics surrounding debt, austerity, shame, guilt, and the massive droughts in India, Africa, and other parts of the world that are part of this envelope and fold of dark presentiments is stirring the religious and political fervor of the masses. Lenin in his What is to be done? remains a figure of the new gnosis. For Lenin the true philosophy is present in the working class only in a virtual and confused way, if only because it cannot be immune to contamination by the bourgeois thought that dominates the culture. What is needed in order to turn this philosophy into action is the action of intellectuals who, however, cannot be ordinary intellectuals, because ordinary intellectuals cannot see beyond the horizon of the bourgeoisie. What is needed, instead, are intellectuals with a superior knowledge that enables them to grasp the historical movement in its entirety. Here the figure of the New Gnostics comes in: the New Gnostics who, in modern time, have taken on the appearance of professional revolutionaries, reflecting the transition from a cosmological to an anthropological vision. In this case, Lenin simply develops Marx’s thought, and the alternative he proposes: either a revolution made possible only by bringing class consciousness to the proletariat from the outside, or a reformist approach that gives up for good on the idea of revolution. (CM: p. 81)
Noce sums up, telling us that when secularization turns into nihilism it coincides, therefore, with the crisis of the idea of modernity, due to the fact that reality no longer corresponds to the axiological meaning implicit in this idea. This crisis is expressed by the decomposition of Marxism, which takes place without the possibility of sublation into a superior form. This impossibility is attested both by the secular forms of philosophy and by the Modernist forms of theology which, precisely while they are under the delusion of attaining a higher viewpoint, nevertheless remain within the horizon of such decomposition. (CM: p. 84)
I think we’ll leave off here…
- S. Sambursky, PHYSICS OF THE STOICS, MacMillan Company, 1959, p. 18
- Noce, Augusto Del. The Crisis of Modernity (pp. 24-25). MQUP. Kindle Edition. CM
- Culp, Andrew. Dark Deleuze (Forerunners: Ideas First) (Kindle Locations 166-171). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
- Pellicani, Luciano. Revolutionary Apocalypse: Ideological Roots of Terrorism. Praeger (December 30, 2003)
- Cleary, Denis, “Antonio Rosmini”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Aspects of Western Philosophy: Dr. Sreekumar Nellickappilly, IIT Madras: Martin Heidegger: The Question of Being