Is Libertarianism a Gnostic or Utopian Political Movement?

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.1 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.”2 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,”3 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.”4

1) It must first be pointed out that the Gnostic is dissatisfied with his situation. This, in itself, is not especially surprising. We all have cause to be not completely satisfied with one aspect or another of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Despite Voegelin’s caveat it seems this characteristic does not carry much explanatory power. It would seem more relevant if the dissatisfaction manifests as a form of profound alienation from the world, from the society as a whole in which one lives, or from its government. Certainly liberals and libertarians must feel some alienation, but is it enough to really count significantly toward gnosticism?

2) Not quite so understanding is the second aspect of the gnostic attitude: the belief that the drawbacks of the situation can be attributed to the fact that the world is intrinsically poorly organized. For it is likewise possible to assume that the order of being as it is given to us men (wherever its origin is to be sought) is good and that it is we human beings who are inadequate. But gnostics are not inclined to discover that human beings in general and they themselves in particular are inadequate. If in a given situation something is not as it should be, then the fault is to be found in the wickedness of the world.

Voegelin comes dangerously close here to extreme pessimism and fatalism, and to absolving people of their responsibility for not behaving as well as they should and are able. On the other hand, it seems from his description of the gnostic that the gnostic too flirts with, even embraces, absolving people of responsibility: It is not their fault; they could not help it; all the blame rests with flawed institutions and/or deterministic socio-economic and historical forces.

Liberalism, particularly the version of liberalism (or libertarianism) presented in my dissertation, avoids both of these extremes. In order to approach and achieve our ideal, human nature need not be changed. What is necessary is education and a change of institutions. There is a reciprocal causal relationship between people and their institutions; people shape them and are influenced in turn. Institutions present definite behavioral incentives and disincentives. But responsibility for one’s behavior ultimately resides in the individual.

3) The third characteristic is the belief that salvation from the evil of the world is possible.

Salvation is certainly too strong a word for what we expect from our ideal society. It would bring greater material and spiritual prosperity, less injustice, i.e., less crime, exploitation, and war. But it will not bring heaven on earth or personal salvation. There will still be crime, some wealth and income inequality (for that is only natural), scarcity, unhappiness, and suffering. It will simply be much better than conditions are now. All the evils that exist in the world are created by human beings, and while these evils cannot all be eradicated entirely, they need not be as great and prevalent are they are and have been.

4) From this follows the belief that the order of being will have to be changed in an historical process. From a wretched world a good one must evolve historically. This assumption is not altogether self-evident, because the Christian solution might also be considered — namely, that the world throughout history will remain as it is and that man’s salvational fulfillment is brought about through grace in death.

Perhaps some contemporary classical liberals and libertarians believe there is an inexorable progressive historical process tending toward a final stage of history, but I do not think most do. Indeed, there is nothing guaranteed about achieving our ideal and even should it be achieved there is no guarantee that it will last forever. Human beings and human society being what they are, it is always possible for the necessary traditions and institutions to erode in the minds and hearts of men over the course of generations.

5) With this fifth point we come to the Gnostic trait in the narrower sense — the belief that a change in the order of being lies in the realm of human action, that this salvational act is possible through man’s own effort.5

Classical liberalism and libertarianism in general, and the account presented in my dissertation in particular, do not seek to change the entire order of being. Some things, like the laws of physics and of economics, just cannot be changed by man. The only changes that are sought lie within the realms of personal education and morality as well as social, economic, and political institutions. These are changes that are within the realm of human action. Unlike other political movements, however, the changes and goals of liberalism properly conceived cannot be achieved by aggression, top-down central planning, or sudden and violent cultural revolutions. Rather, they can only be achieved through persuasion, education, the building up of alternative institutions — in short, a far from inevitable process of social evolution driven by purposeful, but not centrally coordinated, human action, the results of which on the macro-level will not be of human design. It will take generations, but “anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.”6

6) If it is possible, however, so to work a structural change in the given order of being that we can be satisfied with it as a perfect one, then it becomes the task of the gnostic to seek out the prescriptions for such change. Knowledge — gnosis — of the method of altering being is the central concern of the gnostic. As the sixth feature of the gnostic attitude, therefore, we recognize the construction of a formula for self and world salvation, as well as the gnostic’s readiness to come forward as a prophet who will proclaim his knowledge about the salvation of mankind.7

Even non-gnostic movements have their leaders and their “prophets.” Knowledge is necessary for any human endeavor. This is another feature that does not really add much by itself. Features 2-5 seem to do the bulk of the explanatory work. Taking all six features into consideration together, it seems we can say conclusively that liberalism, particularly Aristotelian liberalism, does not qualify as a gnostic political movement. Aristotelian liberalism is about liberty and human flourishing; it is no more gnostic than Aristotle’s ethical and political philosophy.

In answering the hypothetical charge of gnosticism, the charge of utopianism has partially been met as well. The conception of human nature presented in my dissertation is, I think, a realistic one and the ideal society envisioned does not require human nature somehow to be miraculously changed in order for it to be brought about and maintained. The ideal society is not a perfect one in an otherworldly Platonic or Christian sense. It will not bring Heaven on Earth or usher in the End of History. We do not seek to immanentize the eschaton.

I take the moral case to have been made fairly strongly in my dissertation, although the case can always be strengthened by fleshing the arguments out more fully and presenting more than time or space allowed there or in a blogpost. What I did not spend much time addressing in my dissertation is the question of practicality, which raises objections that are variations on the theme “it will never work.” Addressing this question is largely beyond the scope of my dissertation and this blogpost. I must restrict myself to saying a few things.

The moral/practical dichotomy does not sit well within Aristotelian philosophy. As I have argued elsewhere, Aristotelian virtue ethics, unlike most modern ethics, does not recognize a natural tension between what is moral and what is in one’s rational or enlightened self-interest. Immorality is never practical or in one’s rational self-interest in this view, even though a Hobbes or a Machiavelli would counsel otherwise. Moreover, if a critic is not convinced of the practicality, that does not by itself obviate the moral case; arguments need to be presented against the latter as well. This is simply a point about proper argumentation and should not be taken as implying an embrace of a theory/practice dichotomy. It is sometimes said, “Well, it’s good in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.” But this is nonsense. If a theory is inapplicable to reality, then it is not a good theory.

The various theories of statism have been making a royal mess of things for centuries now. Perhaps it is time to try something radically different. Ronald Hamowy has observed that “For at least two hundred years [owing to the Scottish Enlightenment], social philosophers have known that association does not need government, that, indeed, government is destructive of association.”8 Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and Adam Smith as well as modern thinkers like Austrian economist F.A. Hayek have theorized about and described the emergence of society, culture, law, language, and markets as spontaneous orders. Austrian economists, libertarians, and others have built up a significant body of literature that demonstrates both theoretically and historically that legislative law and state-provided goods and services are inferior to other institutions in civil society: free markets and free enterprises, cultural norms, customary law and polycentric legal systems, and private organizations such as the family, churches, private schools, clubs, fraternal orders, and the like.9

[Cross-posted at The Libertarian Standard.]
  1. In Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Voegelin writes: “Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being the gnostic constructs his system. The building of systems is a gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one” (p. 32). It can never be an attempt to understand being at it is? I think Voegelin makes a spurious generalization here. When one reads further, it becomes apparent that he makes this mistake at least in part because he believes in a Christian Beyond that is not amenable to (human) reason. 

  2. Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1968 [2004]) p. 61. See also, Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1952 [1987]). 

  3. Ibid., p. 62 

  4. Ibid., p. 64; emphasis mine. 

  5. Ibid., pp. 64-65. 

  6. Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: Signet/Penguin Books, 1975; Revised Edition), p. viii. 

  7. Voegelin (1968 [2004]), p. 65. 

  8. Ronald Hamowy, The Political Sociology of Freedom: Adam Ferguson and F.A. Hayek (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005; New Thinking In Political Economy Series), pp. 236-237. 

  9. See the bibliography of my dissertation and a footnote in the concluding chapter for an extensive list of references. There are too many to convert for this blogpost. 

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Libertarian political philosopher, writer, editor, and web designer. He is the founder of the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association. His academic work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Greenville, NC.

Comments on this entry are closed.