This post is excerpted and adapted from the concluding chapter of my dissertation (so I suppose it might qualify as part of my college essays series), wherein I addressed two related objections to libertarianism in general and to my account of Aristotelian liberalism in particular: utopianism and gnosticism, the latter being sort of a theological version of the former. Does the theory of virtue ethics and natural rights described in my dissertation represent an impossibly high standard of ethical excellence? On a related note, is it foolishly impractical given the current shoddy state of the world? And is the ideal society suggested by my nonstatist conception of politics and severe critique of the state an impossible goal? Even if it is achieved, will it ring in a perfect world of peace, love, and happiness without violence, misfortune, and suffering? Naturally, my short answer to all of these questions is “No.”
First, I wish to answer the charge of gnosticism that might be leveled by followers of the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Voegelin is very popular in certain conservative and communitarian circles, particularly those averse to philosophical systems and principled, as opposed to practical or pragmatic or “realist,” politics. I should know; I studied political science and philosophy at Louisiana State University where Voegelin had been a prominent professor. Indeed, LSU is home to the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies. I was introduced to the work of Voegelin by Professor Ellis Sandoz, a student of Voegelin himself and the director of the institute.
Gnosticism, as Voegelin uses the term, essentially means a “type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. As a religious or quasi-religious movement, gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism).” Now, does that sound like it applies to libertarianism, much less Austro-libertarianism? Rather, it makes me think in particular of the constructivist rationalism, criticized incisively by Friedrich Hayek, that arose out of the Enlightenment and pervades various forms of modern statism.
In his political analysis, Voegelin uses the term to refer to a certain kind of mass movement, particularly mass political movements. As examples, he gives “progressivism, positivism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism, fascism, and national socialism.” In his view, the consequences wrought by these movements have been disastrous. With few and only partial qualifications, I do not disagree. What makes them gnostic are certain similar characteristics they share with the original Gnostic religious movement of antiquity. Before listing the main characteristics, it first bears pointing out that even the broad libertarian movement as a whole might not yet qualify as a mass movement. However, as Voegelin points out, “none of the movements cited began as a mass movement; all derived from intellectuals and small groups,” so contemporary libertarianism and Aristotelian liberalism are not off the hook yet! With regard to the following list, Voegelin cautions that the six characteristics, “taken together, reveal the nature of the gnostic attitude.”